A friend left this behind on our bookshelves after staying with us. It's a collection of short stories all about the collapse of families and communitA friend left this behind on our bookshelves after staying with us. It's a collection of short stories all about the collapse of families and communities with the Greek economic crisis. The first thing to be said is that the writing is beautiful. It is poetic and rhythmic, with striking images, and with most of the stories told in the first person, has this urgency about it, these incantations against illness and death and small hopes for the future. I earmarked a passage where a narrator is observing a friend: 'the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes look like prints left by small birds on wet earth, so many tiny wrinkles, like carved likes, like the prints of birds that took fright at something and rose up into the air.'
I mean, wow. He makes an unusual simile, infusing the earthiness of age and wet earth into this character, and then twists the simile to add anxiety and flight.
And yet the stories seem like extended poems, all on the same themes. They are people in trauma, losing their jobs or having lost their jobs, surrounded by urban violence and poverty, in the midst of struggles or injustices. The narrators change from young to old, from male to female, from pensioner to laid-off factory worker, but I found the sameness of tone oppressive. And in fact, I couldn't make it past two-thirds through. I never used to leave books unfinished. It could be a sign of my shortened attention span, honed in the last years towards short, journalistic articles and addictive TV shows; or a lack of empathy: I found myself turning away rather than towards these narrators' misery.
A final note: it's been a while since I've held in my hands a book that is such a beautiful object. A tactile, textured cover, high quality paper, an unusual shape and format. It just felt good to hold it. ...more
There was a phase in gay fiction where authors (or their fictional stand-ins) seemed to be lauded for writing about their encounters with poor, roughThere was a phase in gay fiction where authors (or their fictional stand-ins) seemed to be lauded for writing about their encounters with poor, rough sex workers. The books were always 'brave' and 'edgy' yet never seemed to really explore questions of power and who gets to speak. Sure, the narrators felt confused and sometimes guilty, but we never really got to hear the other side. One voice that promised authenticity turned out to be the literary scandal JT LeRoy.
So, I was a little worried about delving into this much-lauded novel, about an American teacher in Sofia and his encounters with the hustler Mitko. The good news is that my fears were unfounded. I didn't find this to be the clichéd hustler story. The setting, Sofia, is foreign to me, so I found that interesting. The relationship is singular, rather than a narrator going through various hustlers. The narrator felt honest in his description of a complex relationship.
Originally, the story was a novella, or short story, and so was expanded. I think the second part brings needed depth and richness to the first. And yet, I didn't click with all the praise and hype. I like Greenwell's writing style enough, and was engaged by the story, but not a lot happened. I wanted either a deeper and fuller history, or else for the prose to excite me as much as it seemed to for other reviewers. I felt at the end somewhat unsatisfied. ...more
I received a very charming book in the mail the other day.
Punctuation..? is a short, handsome book from User Design, a typesetting and illustration buI received a very charming book in the mail the other day.
Punctuation..? is a short, handsome book from User Design, a typesetting and illustration business based in Leicester, United Kingdom.
With 21 explanations of punctuation marks, all accompanied by fun illustrations, the book would make a nice stocking stuffer or Happy Day Surprise with the word geek in your life (e.g. editor, writer, young human with an interest in words)...
Su Tong is the author of Raise the Red Lantern, which was made into a rather famous movie, which I have to admit I never saw. However, I have come acrSu Tong is the author of Raise the Red Lantern, which was made into a rather famous movie, which I have to admit I never saw. However, I have come across a translation of his first collection of first stories, Madwoman on the Bridge, and an interesting artefact it is. Expertly translated by Josh Stenberg, the stories have the quality of fable, though with ambiguous moral lessons. They tend to end abruptly, and may offer a framing device where the story is being told in the setting of another story.
Most fascinating to me were simple, throw-away lines that described a culture unfamiliar to me, without need to go into detail: hints of the social standing of those under communism, a parent’s whim that it was good for children to socialise with ‘the proletariats’, a society that was changing through migration, commerce and evolving politics. On the other hand, some of the characters felt crude and simple. Two different characters become obsessed with a material object (a dress in one, a toy train in another). Nearly every story has a character that suffers a dark, gothic fate: death in a car accident, locked in a mental asylum, a hand maimed by a parent.
And like fairy tales, the details don’t always make sense. A truck driver witnesses an accident that happens in an instant in the pouring rain and drives off; but he describes the man killed and situation in close detail, granted a literary omniscience. In any case, it really is an interesting collection. ...more
I've been meaning to read something by Modiano since he won the Nobel prize. I finally decided, as I've just arrived back in Paris, to start with PariI've been meaning to read something by Modiano since he won the Nobel prize. I finally decided, as I've just arrived back in Paris, to start with Paris Nocturnes. It was a surprise though that after only one session of reading, I noticed I was more than halfway through. So, this short, compact book took me no time at all to read.
Modiano reminded me of many years ago, when I was exploring new writers, and came across Milan Kundera at the same time as Umberto Eco's 'If on a Winter's Night, a Traveller'. Though the voices are not the same, I was reminded by the male protagonists, and the short declarative and philosophical sentences. I mean, you know some North American writers have extremely wordy and descriptive styles.
But the book didn't feel slight; instead, it was dream-like, filled with repetition and memory and grasping and not quite grasping, uncovering a mystery and doling out, sparingly, details about the narrator's life and background. It is also, in its precise description of locations in Paris, a literary map: one could construct a day of exploring based on the addresses within.
While I enjoyed the book, I don't feel I've read enough of Modiano yet, or have a strong enough sense of him. Which one should I read next to get that better picture?...more
I've got a long history with Margaret (or Peg as her friends call her). I think I even wrote a university essay on her first book, 'Surfacing', and I'I've got a long history with Margaret (or Peg as her friends call her). I think I even wrote a university essay on her first book, 'Surfacing', and I've read her books over the last almost-three decades at various important times in my life. So, I think I'm objective when I say that I didn't much like this latest novel.
Yes, I think the theme is interesting: prisons, imprisonment, the rampant greed that controls our society (and covers up crime and tragedy). Another main theme of jealousy and betrayal I feel she's treated in a much more interesting way in her books about friendship, say 'The Robber's Bride'. And I admit that part of the problem may have been that I read the short excerpts of this book a year or two when they were first published, so neither the theme nor story felt new, because I'd been introduced to them already.
The main problem for me lies in the protagonists. Atwood has created many amazing heroes in her books. They are often subversive and witty, sarcastic but humane. There often is a real heroes' journey as well: to uncover a mystery, to understand the past or why a friendship or relationship has been lost, to find freedom, to survive. I was blown away by both the narrators and the stories in her last two novels, 'Oryx and Crake' and 'Maddadam'.
But in this book, Atwood's created (purposely, obviously) a somewhat dimwitted couple. She allows Charmaine to think in metaphors like 'she would have melted like a microwaved Popsicle at his smallest touch'. Charmaine constantly remembers advice from her cheery grandparents, though says 'Sometimes she wishes Grandma Win would bug off out of her head.' Mostly though, she's a Pollyanna, a foil to the more cynical Stan who is maybe 'ungrateful by nature' and has some insight that his desires are 'plain bone-ass dumb' but still, whose compulsion is for Charmaine to be dirtier and more enthusiastic in sex, or to find a woman who is dirtier and more enthusiastic than Charmaine is. Some heroes' journey. He also has a tendency in his head to wish violence upon women (possibly men too), which I found distasteful. Jian Ghomeshi anyone?
The other drive of the story – a controlled environment or society, a resistance movement, people who can help free trapped people – well, that just seemed a lesser version of Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale'.
Still, what I've always loved about Atwood is her readability and though this was a miss for me, I'm not sorry to have read it, partly because so many of my friends are fans of hers and we'll be able to share with each other what we thought of it. ...more
I really had some rather high hopes for this book, being a copy editor. It started with great promise, and Norris showed some fantastic and colourfulI really had some rather high hopes for this book, being a copy editor. It started with great promise, and Norris showed some fantastic and colourful recollection. But after hinting about getting some great gossip about working behind the scenes of the New Yorker and working with various authors, the chapters felt a bit scattered, a more complicated version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves with diversions into types of pencils and the bequest of a surprisingly wealthy copy editor. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. I'm probably disappointed that they previews and reviews had me peg my expectations higher than were met. ...more
A deeply emotional, beautifully written novel: full, complex and harrowing. It speaks with depth about our relationships of friend*Non-spoiler review*
A deeply emotional, beautifully written novel: full, complex and harrowing. It speaks with depth about our relationships of friendship and love, and also our relationship with life itself, told across such a substantial time period that gives an affecting weight to this novel about a character who I fell in love with, but cannot love himself.
*Review with spoilers (really, this is written for others who have read the book)*
I forgive you, Hanya, really I do: for putting me through the wringer like the last season of Six Feet Under, for making me cry aloud with a reading experience I don’t recall having gone through, for revealing or inflicting so much pain on your protagonist that I wondered if it would be worth it. But of course it was, though in a way too deep and complex to describe in a book review. To get some idea of that, someone would have to read the book themselves, and then all of us would have our own individual responses and reactions, but I’m pretty sure that yes, we would all forgive you.
I downloaded Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life to read on holidays because I wanted something substantial to read; I’d read about the book’s awards; I like her name (c’mon, admit it; it’s a cool name); and I was intrigued by what little I’d heard about the book: about four friends, some of them gay, in and around New York City. While I was trying to avoid reading any substantial reviews (and thus influence my reading), I did read a line about her cruelty to her characters, and a pal on Facebook mentioned he found it too hard to read or finish.
So, my experience of the book was interesting in light of this. I was first interested in her storytelling. The last major novel I’d read, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, was so wordy, with huge long sections and chapters, without break, I found it a relief that Yanagihara’s storytelling seems straightforward and clear, moving back and forth between focusing on different characters, and expertly and unusually moving into the second-person at times (with one character addressing another). There is a clear focus on a particular time period in the character’s lives, with stories from the past slowly and expertly revealed, and the breadth of time portrayed, taking the characters from late teens to late middle-age, gives such a feeling of substance: of complex lives lived, and of the not inconsiderable genius to capture them in such an ambitious novel. I also found her writing addictive, and because I was so interested in her characters and stories, I found the book hard to put down.
After the initial impression that her writing was straightforward, I was then more and more impressed with how beautiful it is. It’s not showy but occasionally moves into unusual metaphor and lovely poetic qualities, though what’s most impressive is how she employs it: she is interested in describing emotional lives, and friendships, the ways we become closer and move away from each other, as well as memory and the passage of time. After I read the book, I read an interview where she spoke of her specific intentions to write about the inability of men to communicate with each other, a lack of an emotional vocabulary, and I definitely felt this through the whole book without being able to actually say what was happening. So masterful.
And the story! My god. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional and intense, and build and build. I found myself with physical reactions, cringing and revulsed, nearly cried out to stop one character from doing something and, yes, I was crying or near tears many times (although flying does make me a bit emotional).
It is an incredible and powerful story, not one I’ve come across or read about before. In fact, about three-quarters into the book, I did start to wonder whether the author was being too cruel to her protagonist: how much pain and misfortune can one person take? Not one, two, or three trials, but I'd count five. FIVE.
It was then that I felt a contradiction: because the emotions feel so real and authentic, the intelligence so lively and grounded in an understanding of how people move around us, I found myself questioning the shape of the story, the incredible tragedy of the main character, revealed and compounded, and even his friends: ridiculously successful in their chosen careers. In the end, it allowed me to appreciate the novel more by thinking of it as a fable, a novel, a fairy tale of sorts, so the exaggeration is more myth than melodrama.
A final comment is about the multiracial cast of characters of various sexualities. I came of age reading gay literature, written by gay men, as well as writing by those of us from different ethnic backgrounds exploring (and celebrating) our cultural backgrounds. So, a Japanese-American woman writer crossing genders to write about men, with characters who are naturally from a diversity of cultural backgrounds, and all expressing complex sexualities seems to represent a brand, new world for me.
I detected not a false note, and to have created a protagonist (as I discovered, this book involves a group of four friends, but the story really belongs to one of them) whose sexuality is a result of circumstance and emotional connection (not from a gene or orientation) also feels particularly contemporary, even moreso because the writing and themes aren’t forced with a political imperative, but come from a literary imperative to create a powerful story.
I’m still a bit stunned by this book. Some books I love because I admire them, or the writing, or I like the themes and stories. This book surprised me, drew me in and has left me emotionally exhausted. Phew.