I might be the only reader of this book who bought 'Highcastle' without having ever read anything by Lem before.
Sure, I heard wonders about 'Solaris'...moreI might be the only reader of this book who bought 'Highcastle' without having ever read anything by Lem before.
Sure, I heard wonders about 'Solaris' and 'The Cyberiad', written by the undisputed Polish master of sci-fi, but never had the chance to get them. To be honest then, the chief reason why I bought the (Italian) translation of 'Highcastle' is that I was interested in its setting, the former Polish and now Ukrainian city of Lviv / Lwòw.
As the story goes, a few years ago, my girlfriend and I were supposed to visit Lviv. A friend of mine living there had already confirmed me that she would have been happy to host us and show us around. In fact, we had already booked two return tickets to reach the city from Krakow by bus.
Unfortunately, we were right in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. The temperatures plummeted down to -25° between Poland and Ukraine so that the railway lines leading us to Krakow got frozen, local coaches got stuck in the icy snow and we were eventually forced to cancel our weekend trip. Which was just a pity.
Even though I didn't visit Lviv at that time, my interest for that place never ceased. Lviv is that sort of once multicultural and multilingual place that was badly treaten by history due to wars, destructions, people displacement, dictatorship and, in recent times, inequality. Suffice is to say that while most of the Jewish population of the town formerly known as Lwòw got deported and killed, thousands of Poles living there were forced to move to Wroclaw (once a German town named Breslau) after WWII when the renamed city of Lviv was annexed to the Soviet Union.
In this respect, Stanisław Lem childhood memoirs are interesting but not fully satisfying. Lem was born and raised in Lwòw and lived there til 1945, when his family had to be relocated to Krakow. He survived the war thanks to false papers and playing a part in the local underground resistance, but you won't find anything about that period in 'Highcastle'.
What Lem does through the pages of this book is narrating episodes of his early and young adult years before the conflict by focusing on objects rather than people. Those who love Proust, might find plenty of exquisite madeleine here, those who find the lack of a plot unbearable, are likely to get bored. I'm somewhat inbetween.
As much as I enjoyed the bits and pieces regarding young Stanisław tyrannizing his parents, destroying carillons and avidly perousing through the illustrations of his father's medical books, I found several pages redundant and repetitive. Lem is not partial to himself, but admits more than once (actually more than necessary) that he was spoiled and lonesome, a dreamy vicious kid without any close friends.
The few lines about life in Lwòw in the late 1930s popping up here and there are excellent and portray a town of great beauty with its hills, its trams, its majestic theatre, its petty bourgeois inhabitants collecting expensive trinkets and sending their sons to study Latin at the Gymnasium. Now, I like this stuff because it reminds me of a lovely bygone age where a Middle European life of that sort could be found as far as contemporary Lithuania (see Miłosz memoirs), Bulgaria (see Canetti's) and Romania (see von Rezzori's).
But Lem is well aware of not being Miłosz, Canetti or von Rezzori thus he doesn't even try to dig deeper into this old world of his ultimately leaving me disappointed. 'Highcastle' is a thin book with some frankly superfluos pages of clumsy introspection and gives you the impression of not having been finished and certainly not developed as much as it deserved.
While the first and the final 'chapters' here are very good, I must confess that I resisted to the temptation of skipping a few pages in the central part of the book; doing that would have not been fair to Stanisław Lem who never pretended to fly higher than he could here. And yet from an author who was that creative and innovative in writing science-fiction making up wonderful stories I would have expected much more in telling us about the day to day reality which influenced him. (less)
I'm ambivalent towards graphic novels. On the one hand, they're at the same time a quick and a deep reading/visual experience depending on how much yo...moreI'm ambivalent towards graphic novels. On the one hand, they're at the same time a quick and a deep reading/visual experience depending on how much you want to focus on details. On the other hand, these books are bound to be extremely subjective as the author not only writes but draws what they saw and felt and thought.
This means that I'm likely to be picky in choosing a graphic novel and rather fussy in reviewing it. As I cannot draw anything real (and struggle with abstractism too), my delight or my disappointment in leafing through a graphic novel are those of a strong reader and a lazy journalist.
All that said, the name of Guy Delisle was not unknown to me and it was in fact a long time I wished to give him a chance. So, did I like 'Pyongyang'? Yes and no. Let's call it a draw.
What I've certainly appreciated here is that the book taught me something. I didn't know that the animation industry of the Western world relied on outsourcing as much as, say, the automotive and the textile sectors. The fact that 90% of the people involved in the production of a French cartoon actually are North Koreans working in North Korea and supervised by a Western 'chief animator' was a revelation.
Guy Delisle was that supervisor. And here he doesn't pretend not to be aware of his role thus wearing a coat of white male superiority that might either irritate or amuse the reader. In the two months Delisle spent in the North Korea he barely left his secluded exclusive hotel spending most of his spare time partying and dining with other foreigners. Nevertheless, the author observes, criticises and often pokes fun at the few North Koreans he's allowed to meet. This superiority business is particularly irritating as it dismisses local culture as silly and uncouth when compared to the excellent music and literary tastes Delisle boasts to have sporting his Orwell, Aphex Twin and Daft Punk. True, all North Koreans are brainwashed to a level and to such an extent that they cannot even choose what's good and what's bad, what rocks and what sucks. But they have other priorities such as surviving in a totalitarian regime, gathering food and avoiding purges.
Well, Guy Delisle doesn't seem to care that much about all this here. And yet, I believe that he does care and does know about North Korea and North Koreans more that he writes and draws in 'Pyongyang'. To me, Delisle chose not to focus on the bleak part of the country (with a few exceptions) as he was well aware that the two months he spent in the North Korean capital closely surveilled by the local authorities would have never made him an expert on a whole country; thus, his lighthearted style.
If you want to read (and learn) about North Korea, Pyongyang and the North Korean regime go and take the excellent 'Nothing to Envy' by Barbara Demick. But if you're interested in the musings of a Canadian cartoonist wondering and wandering around the most inaccessible - to this day - country in the world, than this is the book to get. There are plenty of funny and well chiselled moments in 'Pyongyang' and it's always a pleasure discovering things through a clever smile. (less)
Despite of my high expectations, this one turned out to be the less interesting book by Timothy Garton Ash I read so far.
Clever title and well researc...moreDespite of my high expectations, this one turned out to be the less interesting book by Timothy Garton Ash I read so far.
Clever title and well researched accounts all right, but dry journalism/essayism with very little captivating insight on Poland and Hungary. Garton Ash does know much about the rise of Solidarnosc and yet he didn't manage to engage me about that in 'The Magic Lantern'.
On a side note, I've found it odd and cheeky that the author emphasizes the role he himself had in the '89 process either addressing miners in Poland or coining a slogan for the Velvet Revolution in Prague. Is that true? Is that necessary to know? Is that the kind of political involvement a historian might look for? And did TGA speak such flawless Polish, Czech, German and Hungarian to become an opinion leader? I would be surprised if he did.
The chapters about East Germany and the former Czechoslovakia are the shortest ones here, but I liked them more than the rest of the book. Garton Ash and Vaclav Havel were drinking buddies and it shows.
If you look back at the umpteen articles, pieces and features listing the best books of 2013 on pretty much any given newspaper, magazine and literary...moreIf you look back at the umpteen articles, pieces and features listing the best books of 2013 on pretty much any given newspaper, magazine and literary review around you might notice one thing. And it's this: 'Tenth of December' by George Saunders is all over the place.
Actually, I challenge you to find one of such end of the year lists not naming and praising this book at some point. Please do.
George Saunders, sure! That same George Saunders who wrote…
Hey, wait a moment. George who? Saunders who? I wandered and rummaged through the shaky bookshelves of my mind palace (which is actually more of a garret) but nothing. Not a clue. Not a title. Not a mention. Not a recommendation. The truth is that I had never heard of this guy before.
Now, if you're American and/or a strong reader of short stories you might find my ignorance on Saunders outrageous. After all, Mr Saunders has been publishing fiction as well as essays for eighteen years and brought home a nice tray of literary prizes in the meantime including four National Magazine Awards, a World Fantasy Award and a PEN/Malamud Award. Well, that's it: as far as literary critics are concerned, this author is a prodigy. A quick browsing of the Net taught me that Mr Saunders studied literature with Tobias Wolff (good!), was a friend of David Foster Wallace (mmmh) and that his work has been compared to the one by Kurt Vonnegut (excellent!).
Ok, then. I bought the first paperback edition of 'Tenth of December', the latest collection of short stories by George Saunders and prepared myself to get at once mesmerized, awestruck and blown away. But you know what? Even though no less than Jon McGregor (Jon who?) claimed that 'these stories are so good that they make me want to punch myself in the face with delight', I read my way all through this book ending up without a single bruise. And if self-inflicting a volley of jabs at my face would have been a debatable way to express my enthusiasm for the literary gifts of Mr Saunders, I could have at least pinched my cheeks once or twice in disbelief for having found Kurt Vonnegut's legitimate heir.
Unfortunately, no cheeks were pinched and Kurt left no scion. If 'Tenth of December' didn't make it to my own and humble best books of 2013 list it's because I read it too late, but I can already say that the chances this short stories collection will rank among my favourite readings on 2014 are minimal.
Understand, George Saunders could be such a brilliant writer. And sometimes he really is. In fact, three of the ten stories you'll find in 'Tenth of December' are no less than spectacular. Still 3 out of 10, doesn't make a great percentage. Had this book included only 'Victory Lap', 'Escape from Spiderhead' and 'The Semplica Girl Diaries' I would consider it a masterpiece of creative, imaginative and truly original short story writing. But had Mr Saunders left out the other seven short stories published within this collection (including the one entitling it), the book would have counted a mere 120 pages.
I'm not sure I quite understand all the hype around Saunders. And I definitely don't get that odd comparison with Kurt Vonnegut. What I can say is that I've found more than a similarity between George Saunders and John Jeremiah Sullivan, the author of 'Pulphead', another book that made it into many a best of 2012/2013 lists. True, whereas Sullivan wrote essays, Saunders here deals with fiction. And yet, it's interesting how most of Sullivan's acrobatic gonzo features look more like pieces of fiction to me than many short stories by Saunders.
This is actually where George Saunders does shine more than once. He deftly crafts short stories where every single tile seems to fit in the picture, but then a single out of place tessera does show you that the whole thing was a clever puzzle of verisimilitude. I believe that 'The Semplica Girl Diaries' is by far the best example of this technique and I'm not surprised it took its author years to finish those 60 pages. To be fair with Saunders he's also extremely good in putting himself not only in the shoes but in the thoughts of a vast array of characters sounding totally convincing and believable whenever he does that and especially in 'Victory Lap'.
What a pity, then, that a few short stories here - such as 'My Chivalric Fiasco' and 'Exhortation' - are absolutely forgettable while others ('Sticks', 'Puppy') didn't get me hooked as they could. As for the finale of 'Tenth of December', the tenth installment of this collection and the jewel of the crown here according to plenty of reviewers, my impression is that there has been much ado about nothing that special.(less)
It is with the uttermost pleasure that I read through the diary of Mr Charles Pooter of Holloway, London. Mark my words, this gentleman was certainly...moreIt is with the uttermost pleasure that I read through the diary of Mr Charles Pooter of Holloway, London. Mark my words, this gentleman was certainly not a Nobody.
I am aware that the excellent Mrs Pooter and the author's own son, Mr Lupin Pooter, didn't value the diary much. Nonetheless, it is my strong belief that they are both mistaken in this respect.
By Jove! This distinguished gentleman - which is to say Mr Charles Pooter - not only mastered his business in the City but knew very well how to draw the most exquisite portrait of a suburban life. A life that you might think of as quintessentially dull, but it shines as actually quite amusing, refreshing and dignified in this most valued diary. It is suffice to say that I am utterly delighted to discover that a man of such moral stature and of supremely noble behaviour such as Mr Pooter left his mark in the history of British literature.
To tell you the truth, I value Mr Charles Pooter over the whole lot of the most accomplished humourists that England has had the privilege to breed. You might object that Jerome and Wodehouse did rather well in the same literary department and that this Nobody does not deserve to share their fame. To which objection I reply in this way; true, good old John Klapka Jerome and P.G. Wodehouse might have been particularly good when it came to depict funny vignettes and unforgettable characters, but what Charles Pooter gave to the Anglo-Saxon readers is much more: and it is style. In fact, I am proud to state that all of its undeniable mastery the work of both authors pale by comparison to the one of Mr Pooter of Holloway.
By the by, shall we forget to mention Mr Pooter's uproarius word jokes? No, we shall better not. For Mr Charles Pooter was first and foremost a diarist and a chronicler of his times (in this respect quite capable to look at a master like Samuel Pepys eye to eye), but also one of the wittiest men around.
How regretful to think that a gentleman of such intellectual stature didn't have the chance to meet with his peers! For even though this diary covers a span of only a few months in the life and opinions of Charles Pooter, it is quite clear that his sharp wit was not recognized by his family, friends and acquaintances.
And this Pooterish knowledge is excruciatingly painful to bear. Hail to the brilliant Mr George Grossmith for making Mr Charles Pooter's literary legacy known to the readers of today! (less)
As a non native English speaker, I discovered the adjective 'poignant' only six years ago thanks to a Canadian friend (thanks, Vicky). She chose it to...more As a non native English speaker, I discovered the adjective 'poignant' only six years ago thanks to a Canadian friend (thanks, Vicky). She chose it to comment a photo I took involving a bowler hat hanging from a chair while an out of focus blonde girl in the background stood on her toes to take off a branch of autumn leaves from the frame of a mirror over a washbasin. To be honest with you, the photo was nothing special. Perhaps my friend was ironic. Or maybe not.
What I know is that from that day on I have been struggling to find the right contest to use the same word. The thing is that poignancy doesn't seem to apply to many things I see around me. Besides, the word 'poignant' doesn't come up very easily in conversation. 'Touching' and 'moving' are my natural choices.
Now my quest is over. For 'The Man Who Fell to Earth is a poignant novel'. I wouldn't call it in any other way. It's certainly a sad story, but there is a delicate almost intimate feeling around it and within it that makes poignancy at home. I've never watched the movie adaptation taken from this book and starring David Bowie, but I am somewhat sceptical on the ability of the Hollywood industry to create and deliver the same atmosphere of the book.
Walter Tevis was not your typical sci-fi writer and 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' is not your typical work of science fiction either. No surprise that Tevis himself referred at his so labelled 'sci-fi novels' (this one and Mockingbird are his most famous works) as 'speculative fiction' rather than science fiction.
Given all that, you might not be surprised to find plenty of introspection here as well as recurring and symbolic references to paintings by Klee, Bruegel, Manet, and Van Gogh. Which is not the standard cup of tea for a sci-fi novelist. At the same time, the 1980s and 1990s imagined by the author in 1963 are not that technologically advanced to leave you flabbergasted. No flying machines. No smell-o-vision cinemas. No androids dreaming of electring sheep. In fact, what happens is quite the opposite: there is no hint that humankind ever made it to the Moon (as it did only six years after this book got published) as well as that any significant leap forward took place either in mass production of goods or scientific research.
This is not a coincidence. The author wants the readers to focus on the main character. And the main character might look like a man, but - as it happens - doesn't belong to the human race but comes from planet Anthea. That he 'fell' to Earth and brought with himself enough blueprints and chemical formulas to give humankind progress and make himself a billionaire in the process is all a part of a masterplan. Now the problem for the Anthean visitor is that he starts feeling overtired and lonely. If he were a man, he would soon discover that money can't buy health, love and happiness. But he comes from Anthea, accumulates cash for a purpose and doesn't seek for disillusion thus going straight into alcoholism.
Walter Tevis was an expert on this. And I'm sure there's much of him in Mr Newton, the Anthean visitor. It's true that the author indulges way too much on what each character drinks, if they drink it straight, bitter or on the rocks and whether they stir their drink and,if so, for how long. As a matter of fact, all the three main characters in the novel had, have or will have problem with the booze to the point that they often wish to get drunk. I cannot deny that this subplot is somehow simplistic: after all there's nothing new in alcohol seen as a painkiller, a nectar of wishful forgetting and - at the same time - a weapon of self destruction.
And yet Tevis' writing made me forgive him for all that first hand insistence on alcohol. What ultimately wins here is a powerful story that is beautifully told and is still topical today. The uneasiness of Mr Newton, the Man who Fell to Earth, first in dealing with Earthlings and then with himself is non extraterrestrial, but very much a human feeling. (less)
I had never read a single feature written by John Jeremiah Sullivan before buying 'Pulphead'. To be completely honest with you, despite Mr Sullivan be...moreI had never read a single feature written by John Jeremiah Sullivan before buying 'Pulphead'. To be completely honest with you, despite Mr Sullivan being a regular contributor of excellent papers such as 'The Paris Review' and 'The New York Times' for a number of years, his name was unknown to me til a few months ago. My apologies for that, John Jeremiah.
It took a score of praising reviews for 'Pulphead' I spotted here (thank you, Kinga) and there (thank you, Guardian and Independent) to make me aware of Mr Sullvan's existence as well as to convince me to purchase this book. Contrary to my recent habits of scouring second hand bookstalls, car boot sales, and charity shops, I've even purchased a brand new paperback copy of 'Pulphead'.
I had expectations, mind you. Now, did I fulfil them? Absolutely.
This collection of essays written by Mr Sullivan over the last years does include amazing stuff. And yet, I expected something different from 'Pulphead'.
Before starting to leaf through the very first essay ('Upon This Rock'), I thought that John Jeremiah would have taken his reporting much more seriously than he actually did. Not that I was ready to stumble upon an emulator of David Remnick or Barbara Demick but - hey - after all we're talking about an American journalist in his 30s not of some dadaist essayist.
Well, 'Upon This Rock' with its semi self-hatred style, its sharp sarcasm and its apparently casual - but actually quite straight to the point - observations opened my eyes. Here I had a heir of gonzo journalism writing in first person narrative and telling me the story of a not successful reporting from a proudly subjective point of view. The problem is that I cannot stand the father of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. I tried to like 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', but eventually found it dull, lazy and messy.
Was Mr Sullivan going to take me along the same road Mr Thompson pointed at? Luckily not.
For the following essays of 'Pulphead' kept their first person narrative and dealt quite a lot with their author personal experiences and point of view, but always managed to focus on something or someone in a quite effective -if particular - way. Must have been due to John Jeremiah not taking drugs or getting drunk during the writing process. Dunno.
In fact, something quite unexpected suddenly happened. And it's this: David Sedaris passed by and said hello.
Let me clarify this. I might be the only reader of 'Pulphead' experiencing this epiphany, but Sullivan's writing gradually reminded me of Sedaris'. Now the question is: can an essay on, say, Michael Jackson or AXL Rose resembles a short story about a bisexual neighbour wearing wigs and stalking grannies in a leafy American neighborhood? Yes, it can.
I mean, we're talking about Michael Jackson and AXL Rose. If you think about that they both belong(ed) - each in his own way - to the same Americana pop culture that Mr Sedaris is so fascinated about. Hadn't they become that successful in the music business, what else could Michael and AXL have done to earn their living? They could have worked as Santa's elves humming Xmas carols in a shopping mall somewhere between California and the Bible Belt from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve wearing coloured hosies to make their ends meet. (even though I reckon how Jacko would have preferred impersonating Santa himself for obvious reasons).
John Jeremiah Sullivan understood all that. And that's why he managed to bring Michael and AXL back to the neighborhood they belong(ed) to writing about seemingly minor episodes of their lives which - believe it or not - capture the essence of both guys, are entertaining and reveal something new on them that is in itself a major accomplishment. Sullivan never met Jacko or AXL Rose in person but that doesn't matter. He grew up listening to them, watching them on stage and reading gossip about them. He grew up playing the chords of 'Patience' and dancing to the smooth sexy riff of 'Billie Jean'. He treasured those trivial moments and they made the difference when he had to write about Michael and AXL.
I know there are fifteen essays in 'Pulphead' and I only mentioned three so far. But it's when he writes about music and pop culture that Sullivan excels so I don't think I need to dig deeper into this book to convince you that it's worth reading it.
Let me just say that 'Upon This Rock', 'Michael' and 'The Final Comeback of AXL Rose' aside, there are at least a half dozen other amazing pieces of writing here with the uproarious 'Peyton's Place' taking the crown. 'Pulphead' might not be a five stars collection in its entirety, but it's a jolly good read nonetheless.(less)
Reading 'Beatles' was another long walk I took down Memory Lane. Bless Lars Saabye Christensen for setting another novel in that specific area of Oslo...moreReading 'Beatles' was another long walk I took down Memory Lane. Bless Lars Saabye Christensen for setting another novel in that specific area of Oslo I remember so fondly!
The English edition I owe boasts that 'Beatles' is 'The International Bestseller' and in fact this is the book that made Mr Christensen famous in Norway and abroad. Not to mention that a few months ago I spotted a hoodie eagerly leafing through this same book at a bus stop in the sleepy English town of Hereford (just don't ask me how I ended up there!). Actually this single readerspotting would be enough to confirm that 'Beatles' did indeed become a bestseller. I guess the title helped, though.
Published in 1984, when its author was only 33, this novel has been translated into 16 languages, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and - surprise surprise! - is going to become a major Norwegian movie that will have its premiere on February 2014. Apparently the chief reason why it took so long to bring 'Beatles' onto the big screen is that the prerequisite to have the movie made was to ensure that the Fab Four songs would have been in it. And it tooks ages (and money) to get that.
Putting its International Bestseller reputation aside, as I wrote above, 'Beatles' is one of those books having a very personal meaning to me. Just like it happened with 'The Half Brother' - the first novel by Christensen that I read - most of the action here is set in a two mile radius from Majorstua, one of the main intersections in West Oslo. Call me weird, but spotting toponyms such as Blindern, Bygdøy Allé, Solli Plass, Slemdalsveien, Chateau Neuf and Uranienborg Park made me actually happier than the countless references to The Beatles themselves.
With a plot taking place between 1965 and 1972 and with every chapter titled after a Beatles' song (plus a couple of McCartney and Lennon solo career singles), Christensen wrote a wistful and clever novel. The four protagonists - Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola - idolize the Fab Four to the point they identify themselves with them thus becoming Paul, John, George and Ringo. Even though their own dream of making a band called The Snafus is perpetually postponed due to the lack of music instruments, the four Oslo kids grow up listening in almost religious awe to each and every Beatles LP and EP. As it happens, their tastes in music do evolve over the course of the years leading them to 'discover' Bob Dylan, The Doors, The Mothers of Invention, and the blues. But the Beatles stay untouchable and every rumour implying that the Fab Four are on their way to split up is returned to sender by the boys in disbelief.
Aged only 14 at the beginning of the novel, Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola are 21 at its end. As you might wonder, not only their favourite records have changed but also their passions and interests switching from football, skiing and fishing to girls, alcohol, drugs and politics. That's why topics such as the Vietnam War, marijuana planting, the involvement in the ranks of the Young Socialists and the Norwegian European Communities membership referendum in 1972 take the floor.
Gradually what had begun as the story of four easy and semi-idyllic childhoods turn into a gloomy and disillusioned tale with the odd funny moment. One by one all of the four boys fail at some stage of their young lives. Some of them fall deep into an abyss of either drug addiction, alcoholic stupour or nervous breakdown but somehow manage to come up for air, at least for a while. Just like The Beatles themselves, if you like.
And it's with this bleak atmosphere that the novel ends up. I know that Christensen wrote two sequels but it looks like they have not yet been translated into English. All in all I'm not entirely sure I'd like to read the sequels. On the one hand I prefer to leave Kim, Gunnar, Seb and Ola where they are, at the young age of 21. On the other hand I remember too well the disappointment I felt when reading 'The Closed Circle' by Jonathan Coe whose excellent 'The Rotters' Club' bears many a similitude with 'Beatles' (four teenagers, the 1960s turning into the 1970s, music, politics, petting).
If these translations see the light, I hope that a better translator than Don Bartlett will be given the job. Nothing personal, Don, but it's the second time that your work doesn't convince me at all after what you did to 'Child Wonder' by Roy Jacobsen. Tacky mistakes aside (in the English edition Kim comes back to Iceland and tells his crosswords maniac dad he was in a 'cold place, six letters' as the seven lettered 'Iceland' is spelled 'Island' - six letters - in Norwegian), Mr Bartlett here seems to enjoy leaving the reader in the dark. The examples of this sadistic pleasure of the translator are countless, but I will mention a couple which give you a general idea of what I mean.
Page 503. The years is 1972. Kim gets a university loan. Don meekly translates: 'Four Ibsens and the basic grant'. Any idea of what that means? You need to Google 'Ibsen banknote 1970' to find out. Which is four 1,000 Norwegian crowns (kroner) banknotes with the face of Henrik Ibsen on them. Page 493. Kim is in Iceland visiting a former girlfriend of his. First-person narrative. All in a sudden in the middle of a dialogue, Don switches to the third-person narrative ('she told him').
And then there is the issue with Norwegian addresses and cultural references. To translate them or not to translate them? - Mr Bartlett might have pondered. The problem is that he didn't make his mind up. So it happens that the magazine 'Nå' ('Now') and the newspaper 'Aftenposten' ('The Evening Post') keep their Norwegian names while the leftist newspaper 'Klassekampen' becomes 'Class Conflict' and the public television NRK becomes the 'Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation'. I wonder why. Another problem comes up with the translation of nouns. Now Norwegian (both Bokmål and Nynorsk) adds up suffixes so that, say, 'Storting' (the National Parliament) becomes 'det Stortinget'. But the name of the Parliament is Storting and not Storting-et. Now, go and tell this to Don Bartlett for whom it's 'the Stortinget'.
I am sorry, I am really sorry to spoil my review by taking the piss out of the translator but I believe that 'Beatles' would have deserved a better treatment. (less)
Frank Westerman is a Dutch agronomist who became a journalist and a foreign correspondent writing a bunch of non-fiction books on a wide range of subj...moreFrank Westerman is a Dutch agronomist who became a journalist and a foreign correspondent writing a bunch of non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects.
From the Soviet novelists' deeds to the massacres of the ex Yugoslavian conflict; from the chronicle of his ascent to the biblical Mount Ararat to an investigation on a natural disaster in Cameroon. Passing through a children book he wrote with his daughter.
'Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse' is the - quite convoluted - English title of 'Dier, Bovendier', which literally translates into 'Animal Above Animal'. Pardon my Dutch.
So what is this animal above animal(s)? Man, you'd say. Aye, but not only: please add horse.
But not each and every horse you'd find around deserves to stand at the top of the animal hyerarchy. In fact, it's men themselves who took the right to make their own perfect horse, the king among horses, the proud and elegant steed you don't only ride on but that you actually dance with. This Superhorse is the Lipizzaner, a thoroughbred created over centuries of careful and painstaking crossbreeding financed and wanted by the Hapsburg Empire.
And flicking through the carefully preserved genealogical trees of these full-blooded steeds as well as visiting the riding stables among modern Austria, Slovenia, and Bosnia that Westerman wrote his book. Now, this accomplishiment might sound rather boring to all those who don't really care about horses or have always been too scared to ride one. Well, fear not.
Mr Westerman found the key to make even horse crossbreeding an interesting process and is well documented and knowledgeable enough to put the saga of the Lipizzaners into a historical and a scientific frame. These steeds were one of the dearest treasures of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire and - as such - became a valuable war chest more than once in the last century.
The author here finds out where did these horses come from and where did they end up embarking on a very interesting - if slightly long winded - journey. It's mixing up the fortunes and misfortunes of the Lipizzaners with the ones of their creators, stableboys, looters and saviors that makes this story worth to be told even though Frank Westerman does take some detours which could have been left out.
The beautiful white and silver horses you can now see performing their peculiar steps, jumps and pirouettes in the Spanische Hofreiteschule in Vienna are the heirs of broodmares who survived many twists and turns in history and this book will let you appreciate all that.(less)
There once was a writer I ranked among the best ones I've ever read. That author bore the surname of Singer and won a Nobel Prize in Literature back i...moreThere once was a writer I ranked among the best ones I've ever read. That author bore the surname of Singer and won a Nobel Prize in Literature back in 1978.
Even though he was born in Poland and spent most of his life in the US, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in Yiddish, his mother tongue. He died at the impressive age of 88 and gained all the honours and the fame he deserved. For I.B. Singer wrote in a truly magnificent way.
Now, our Isaac Bashevis had an elder brother - Israel Joshua - who was himself a writer. This I.J. Singer died of heart attack when he was only 50 year old in 1944 and his ouevre stood largely forgotten for five or six decades. I didn't know anything about the eldest Singer before reading the following line at the opening of 'The Family Moskat', my favourite novel by I.B. Singer:
In memory of my late brother I.J. Singer, author of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi'.
For a number of years I thought that Israel Joshua could have merely been a source of inspiration for the younger and - so I assumed - more gifted Isaac Bashevis whose novels and short stories I kept on buying, reading and revering. I therefore regarded this mysterious I.J. Singer as an old fashioned and not that successful Yiddish novelist who helped his younger brother to sharpen up his own style and - perhaps - played a part in introducing him to the literary circles of first Warsaw and then New York.
Out of mere curiosity, I tried to look for Israel Joshua Singer's books in either the Italian or the English translation, but I was never able to find any of them in bookshops, libraries and second hand bookstalls.
Due to this reason, I believed that the famous I.B. rather than the forgotten I.J. was the one who modernised the Yiddish literature by elevating it to a cosmopolitan status and by letting it get an international appeal. After all, the literary standards set by I.B. Singer were so high that my assumption was reasonable enough. Well, I was wrong.
For now that I managed to put my hands and to stick my eyes on 'The Brothers Ashkenazi' I can tell you that this is it. And I mean it.
This is the novel that surpasses everything that Isaac Bashevis Singer has ever written and - what's more - it does it fourteen years earlier than I.B's masterpiece entitled 'The Family Moskat', a book that I love to the bone.
So how exactly did Israel Joshua Singer make it? Well, first and foremost by being more modern and less tied to the traditional Jewish canons and models than his younger brother. In fact, whereas I.B. Singer's writing his masterfully chiselled and engrossing but somehow reluctant to delve into topics such as politics and economics, I.J. Singer knew how to deal with that and therefore was a much more modern novelist than his younger brother.
The Nobel laureate Singer was truly mesmerizing in putting onto writing stories, myths, legends and jokes coming straight from an endless oral heritage. And yet, for all this ability or because of it, I.J. Singer is tightly bound to the past. Which is nothing bad and actually fantastic given the great stuff the younger Singer delivered. But still, there's something missing in what Isaac Bashevis left us: insight. Which stands for the capacity to pinpoint and - to some extent - foresee some of the causes leading to the effects he wrote about. The dilemmas faced by I.B. Singer's characters - who are often torn between faith and secularism, superstition and progress, Europe and the US - are all too clear but, in a way, bred in their bones not influenced by the times and the society they live in.
At the contrary, Israel Joshua Singer (formerly a journalist) was very aware of the importance of politics and economics - intertwined with history and religion - in shaping the mentality of his characters. The elder Singer dealt less with religion and traditions and more with a modern and sophisticated Jewish society caught at the zenith of its social, political and economical power before a resurgence in Russian pogroms and the Nazis persecution wiped it out from Europe. I don't think it's a coincidence that I.B. Singer's first published novel ('Satan in Goray') is set in 17th century Poland and revolves around religion while I.J. Singer's debut ('Steel and Iron') is set in 20th century Russia and very political.
And it's interesting to read how Isaac Bashevis' writing career flourished only after his elder brother's death as if he eventually realised that Israel Joshua was no longer a literary model that he couldn't match. Thus, it happened that I.B's writer's block disappeared and he found his own voice or maybe the courage to put it on paper.
Anyway. The beauty of 'The Brothers Ashkenazi' lies in its ambitious purpose. I.J. Singer here draws an excellent and ever-detailed picture of Lodz between the end of the 19th century and the end of World War I. Among the forces at work in town to shape it as an industrial Sodom and Gomorrah there is a thriving Jewish community and a prosperous German enclave.
I've never been to Lodz but I knew something about its sudden growth largely due to a now bygone textile industry. Well, believe me when I say that this excellent novel is for Lodz what 'The Tin Drum' is for Danzig-Gdansk or 'Buddenbrooks' is for Lubeck.
'The Brothers Ashkenazi' is a masterpiece and it took me weeks to attempt writing a review which could do any justice to the genius he wrote it. As you can see, I utterly failed. For all of my blabberings, I haven't been able to tell you much about the novel. But I can tell you one thing: it will grab you.
Ignore the graphic-novel style Will Eisneresque cover of the Other Press edition (portrayed) and get into this treasure. It's 432 pages and you will beg for more.(less)