A collection of four longish short stories from Spain, the only dull BTBA book I've read so far. Going by his subjects, I'd guess the author has an up...moreA collection of four longish short stories from Spain, the only dull BTBA book I've read so far. Going by his subjects, I'd guess the author has an upper-class background; unfortunately he lacks the wit associated with posh British writers.
The stories concentrate on the characters' relationships and current events are only mentioned in passing, although the settings stretch from the days of Franco, through his fall, to the twenty-first century.
We Were Surrounded by Palm Trees Two well-off couples, one Spanish, one German, are on holiday on a rarely-visited island in the Indian Ocean. Their landlord and a local chieftain have sinister overtones, in a mild, unengaging, psychological horror that explicitly references Heart of Darkness. It was difficult to care about any of the characters here, and I thought about how participating in luxury tourism to a developing country must make it impossible to engage with local people as equals. Bits of the story didn't quite fit together: the visitors are going way off the beaten track, yet they were as blasé about the location and culture as people in the same major resort for the tenth time. And there's no satisfactory explanation for the chieftain's interest in them other than a storytelling device. They're just random westerners, not politicians, researchers or reporters. Also had a phrase worthy of a Bad Sex Award: "For a moment the bottom of her shirt was pulled taut, exposing the darkness of her sex sheltered between her thighs like a sea urchin among rocks." I'm laughing again typing it out.
Captives The story of a jetsetting upper-class Spanish marriage from the 1980s to now is told by the woman's younger male cousin, who, surprise surprise, is a novelist. Mostly meh, gets interesting and darker towards the end, but still bogged down by an unartistic writing style.
Joanna Narrated by a man looking back on a memorable summer romance with the titular Joanna, during his teens in the early 1970s. I really liked this one. The protagonist is a day-boy at a boarding school, living in genteel poverty with his strict grandmother at El Escorial; Joanna is a troubled girl from a high society family there on holiday. The teenagers bond in escaping the homes they dislike (at times I imagined the magical scenes of the two boys having feasts and adventures in the middle of Truffaut's The 400 Blows) but Joanna's family pull her back in by inviting the boy to their house. At the time he finds the family curious and interesting, although he's always able to perceive that being near them is a cause of great stress to Joanna, and accepts this. Retrospectively, with adult knowledge he perceives worrying dynamics at work amongst them, and talks of what he learned of Joanna and her people in later years.
The Last Cold Front This narrator is ten years younger than the previous one. A teenage boy in early eighties Madrid, he relates events in his relationship with his divorced parents - his organised mother, father a Peter Pan type with plans to get back into publishing - and his mother's new boyfriend, an alcoholic professor of Latin American literature. I was more sympathetic to the book after reading 'Joanna' - but this final piece is the sort of thing that, whilst it would have been interesting as part of a friend's life story, I found little point in as fiction.
I'm not keen on 3/4 of this book, and won't be in a hurry to read another translation by Katherine Silver either - not that I read much Spanish fiction*. There are several odd vocab choices, the sort of thing you'd expect of a goodish non-native speaker armed with a thesaurus. And I've never seen such overuse of qualifiers outside my own drafts - the style is too frequently (there I go again) suited to the office more than to art. Another fault I share, one which makes writing less than exciting, is boring use of excess words, plenty of which could be pruned without changing the meaning of sentences (e.g. “rewarding or punishing them according to criteria determined only by the narcissistic fluctuations of his mood.”) The End of Love could be at least a couple of thousand words shorter and all the sharper for it... It needed better editing.
* Understatement: this is the first Spanish fiction I've read since Don Quixote about twenty years ago.(less)
This book seems to be getting unfairly panned by indignant fans of Sendak's original, but it's really not bad at all as a standalone. The three stars...moreThis book seems to be getting unfairly panned by indignant fans of Sendak's original, but it's really not bad at all as a standalone. The three stars are only because the plot isn't my kind of thing. As a child I preferred escape to be into a historico-mystical-time travel scenario, and from an adult perspective I would have been fascinated to hear a case history following the family therapy referral Max's household desperately need.
Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are made no particular impression on me as a kid, so I bought this simply as someone who loved A Heartbreaking Work and You Shall Know Our Velocity. Whilst The Wild Things reads very fast, as most kids' books do, it didn't have the sparkling style and perspective-shifting metaphors and word choices that Eggers showed in those novels - so it was a bit of a disappointment to me in that way. It is, nonetheless, a well-written book.
I'm not quite sure who this novel is aimed at. When I was a kid, some of us found it a bit demeaning to read books about younger children as these made us feel "babyish". The writing style here would be fine for brighter 9-12 year olds, and some would probably not be bothered by Max's age (8) - but an average kid wouldn't be up to reading this novel until secondary school age, when the character is unlikely to be of interest. Also the lack of illustrations among the text - even at the beginnings of the very short chapters - would make it seem hard work: I recall "books without pictures" being a big transition, and not always a fun one, in the last few years of primary school.
Perhaps it is really meant for adults. He writes in a children's book style to make them think from a child's perspective, and - in line with the blurb on the back of the British edition - then draws their attention to problems of modern childhood and the way these make some kids act out. We see ludicrous overprotectiveness, a shortage of sports activities even for kids who enjoy them, the way boisterousness - especially in boys - is treated as abnormal, and all this is compounded by parents who are too preoccupied by divorce, new relationships and demanding bosses to be able to help their kids learn to manage their emotions and the day-to-day ups and downs of life.
There are currently a couple of reviews on the first page speculating that Max has ADHD and / or bipolar... such irony given that the author is evidently setting out to show (rather bluntly IMO) that Max's bad behaviour is rooted in the current social environment and the lack of the right sort of attention in his mildly dysfunctional family. I guess those responses help to make Eggers' point about how deep rooted such pathologising has become in current American ways of thinking about badly behaved children.(less)
Remember those intoxicated days of the the early 2000's financial boom? Positive thinking? Anything was possible? There would always be more money rou...moreRemember those intoxicated days of the the early 2000's financial boom? Positive thinking? Anything was possible? There would always be more money round the corner? Somehow you'd always get by?
Or perhaps you weren't quite feeling it, and scoffed at this stuff like Billy Bragg dismissing a decade of glorious synthpop and silly clothes in one anti-Thatcher tirade. Though, on the basis of cosmic ordering infomercials featuring Noel Edmonds, and Kirsty and Phil's Pickfords porn, who could blame you?
You Shall Know Our Velocity isn't a tale of taking out a 120% mortgage to set up a personal shopping business with your very own branded Smart car, but it's nonetheless possessed by the spirit of that time, as Will and his mate Hand go on a short unplanned world tour to give away $40,000 he earned for unintentionally being featured in an advert.
Random nights out with insalubrious Russians, taping dollars to African donkeys, and other such madcap antics, interspersed with raw ponderings on the death of a friend and the aftermath of trauma almost can't help but sound when described in summary in 2012, like the InstaHipstaMatic polaroid cliche that launched a thousand blogs.
But actually, it's amazing because of the ten-years-ago-or-more unknowing innocence and because no-one can describe dark elated adventure quite like Eggers. There are good writers who can capture the feeling of a time and place in aspic. But Eggers does it in technicolour 3D hypervirtual reality and then adds a weird, yet brilliantly accurate metaphor that, as when the optician finds the perfect lens, makes you see it all differently again.(less)