Tagbooks in brief

Reading round-up: early December

Catching up on some of the books I’ve been reading lately…

FerranteElena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2012)
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the first of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym; the author’s true identity remains unrevealed), chronicling the lives of two friends: Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo. My Brilliant Friend follows the two girls through to their mid-teens in the 1950s; it captures the complexity and uncertainty of childhood friendships. Elena (the narrator) is by turns drawn to Lila and intimidated by her. Lila (whose viewpoint we never witness) remains a mysterious figure, moving towards Elena, then away, taking unexpected paths in life and love. The girls’ story is played out against the background of Naples at a point of change, and with the desire to escape their poor neighbourhood, ready or not. It’s an intriguing start to Ferrante’s series.

My Brilliant Friend is published by Europa Editions.

Tore Renberg, See You Tomorrow (2013)
Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella (2014)

This hefty (550-page) novel chronicles three days in the lives of a varied cast of characters, including Pål, a civil servant mired in debt; his daughters; some of their friends and acquaintances; and the gangsters whom Pål has turned to in the hope of resolving his situation. Renberg creates a web of almost a dozen viewpoint characters, many with secrets to guard. See You Tomorrow feels to me a little too long for the story it’s telling; but it’s testament to Renberg’s skill that he manages such a large cast of characters and keeps up no small amount of momentum.

See You Tomorrow is published by Arcadia Books.

Schalansky

Judith Schalansky, The Giraffe’s Neck (2011)
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside (2014)

In a school in the former East Germany, Inge Lohmark surveys her new class. She thinks she has the measure of them; indeed, she thinks she has the measure of most things. Lohmark’s worldview is informed by the biology that she teaches, and can come across as cold (she has little time for her colleague’s more informal, friendly approach to teaching, for example). But what The Giraffe’s Neck reveals is a character trying to hang on to what she has as the world changes around her. By novel’s end, we start to see through Lohmark’s façade, as she realises that perhaps even she must evolve.

The Giraffe’s Neck is published by Bloomsbury Books.

Andreas Maier, The Room (2010)
Translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle (2014)

The Room is a fictionalised study of Andreas Maier’s Uncle J. Exactly what might be fictional, and what real, becomes something of a moot point in the face of such a larger-than-life character as J – he’s smelly, prose to outbursts of temper, forever tinkering away at the machines in his room. Maier’s portrait of Uncle J can hardly be called sympathetic; but perhaps there is ultimately some light in this tale of a man and his place in a small community.

The Room is published by Frisch & Co.

Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor (1999)

This was a book group choice, and my first Palahniuk novel. Over the past year-and-a-bit, the book group has given me my first experience of Dave Eggers and A.M. Homes, neither of which I particularly enjoyed. Reading Palahniuk was better, but still left me feeling frustrated. Survivor concerns one Tender Branson, whom we first meet as he’s recording his story into the black box of a crashing aeroplane. Branson is the last survivor of a death cult, which led him to become quite the media concern. I appreciate how Palahniuk underlines the superficiality of the celebrity machine (fifteen years on, it feels right on the money in many ways). But I got annoyed that this ostensibly spoken text was peppered with repeated phrases that felt more like self-consciously ‘literary’ writing. I suspect I’m becoming more attentive to the prose of what I read, and reactions like this may be the price to pay for that.

Survivor is published by Vintage Books.

Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

Reading round-up: early March

Rebecca Hunt, Everland (2014)

EverlandThe author of 2010’s Mr Chartwell returns with a tale of polar exploration. In March 1913, three men embark on an expedition to an uncharted Antarctic island which is being dubbed ‘Everland’ – a journey that we know won’t end well, as we’ve already seen others of their ship’s crew go after the men a month later, and find only one alive. In 2012, the men’s expedition has become famous, and three researchers set out from their base on their own trek to Everland. Over time, the two expeditions start to parallel each other – subtly at first, then more overtly, in terms of both events and the frictions that develop within each group. Hunt places her characters in a situation where they’re trapped by their environment, then uses the parallels between the two groups to underline just how much they are trapped.

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (2014)
Translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe

Born in 1937, Tamara Astafieva became a television editor for the Soviet press agency, Novosti. This book is a collection of autobiographical essays (and the occasional poem) sent by Astafieva a few years ago to an old acquaintance, British TV director Michael Darlow (who also provides linking commentary throughout). Born in Siberia illuminates a time and place in history that I personally didn’t know about; and Astafieva comes across as a bright, charismatic personality who is a pleasure to meet through the pages of her book.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

This was my book group’s latest choice: the tale of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist working in Indochina, and the idealistic American Alden Pyle, who believes that the  war can be ended with a ‘third force’. Reading The Quiet American was an unusual experience for me, as I saw the film back in 2002, but don’t remember much about it; so the book kept snagging on shadowy memories. I often find it difficult to get into books written in the 1950s and earlier (I don’t know why; a cultural distance that’s hard for me to cross, perhaps); and this was true for Greene’s novel to an extent – though I appreciated its nuanced exploration of morality; and the ending could still shock me, even though I knew what was coming.

Carlos Busqued, Under This Terrible Sun (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

I said to myself that I would only buy an e-reader if I felt that I were truly missing out on ebooks that I wanted to read. I finally reached that point when I started hearing about publishers like Frisch & Co., a Berlin-based who specialise in digital works in translations; and my first electronic title is one of theirs.

Under This Terrible Sun (the first novel by Argentinian writer Busqued) begins as Javier Cetarti – who does little more than lounge around his apartment watching documentaries – learns that his mother’s lover has killed her, and Cetarti’s brother. The bearer of this news, Duarte, has an idea to cash in on a life insurance policy, and Cetarti is happy to play along. But Duarte has darker motivations than Cerarti realises. Busqued’s novel works almost by stealth: the characters will drift along for a while; then something sinister or violent will intrude – unbidden at first, then with growing tension, until… ah, but that would be telling.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (2013)

Flamethrowers

In 1977, Reno (not her real name, but it’s as much as we’ll get) heads east on her motorcycle to New York, where she becomes involved in the art scene. A relationship with an Italian artist leads her to Milan, where a more political revolution is taking shape. The Flamethrowers is a long novel, dense with incident; yet in some ways Reno’s narrative voice remains detached from it all. Kushner‘s novel reflects on performance, and finds it in all the worlds through which Reno moves – and not always to the good. The ending manages to be poignant, chilling and optimistic all at once.

Emma J. Lannie, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis (2014)

Mantle Lane Press is a new small publisher focusing on short volumes by writers with an East Midlands connection. This, Mantle Lane’s second book, is a set of eight short stories by Derby-resident Emma J. Lannie. Lannie’s stories are snapshots of characters at key emotional moments, and are shot through with flashes of myth or fairytale. So, for example, ‘Rapunzelled’ sees a girl caught in the shadow of her photographer sister as they go on a shoot in an abandoned tower; while the narrator of ‘Not Gretel’ wanders through the forest, leaving her old life behind, in search of… something. This book is an intriguing start to Lannie’s career, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Reading round-up: late October

Here are some notes on what I’ve been reading lately…

Bernardine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (2013)

Hearing Bernardine Evaristo read from this novel was one of my highlights from this year’s Penguin General Bloggers’ Evening, so naturally I was interested to read Mr Loverman. Our narrator is the charming Barrington Walker: 74 years of age, not quite as happily married to Carmel as he once was, and sixty years into a secret relationship with his old friend Maurice. Now is the time for Barry decide what he really wants in life; his story on its own would be fine, but Evaristo broadens out her portrait to show other characters’ analogous difficulties. The occasional chapters told from Carmel’s viewpoint (in a prose-poetry style that’s a little less immediate than Barry’s narration, and so distances us slightly from her, just as she is from him) show how her delight at marrying Barry back in 1960s Antigua has paled in the decades since. The Walkers’ daughters are also finding that their lives may not necessarily have turned out as they or their parents imagined, adding another layer to a satisfying read.

Ian Sales, The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself (2013)

Ian Sales continues his Apollo Quartet of novellas set in futures where the history of space exploration went differently; as with Adrift on the Sea of Rains, the second volume proves an interesting character study. We join Bradley Elliott at two points in his career: in 1979, when he was about to become the first (and only) human to set foot on Mars; and twenty years later, as he goes on a mission to a far more distant world. What’s so striking about this novella is the air of resignation and melancholy that Sales creates: Elliott may be the only person capable of undertaking his 1999 mission, but there is also the strong sense that this is the only thing that Elliott can do with his life.

Maryam Sachs, The Passenger (2013)
Translated by Gael Schmidt-Cléach

In this intriguing short novel, a German woman arrives in Paris for her son’s birthday. She’s taken the journey from Charles de Gaulle many times; but this one becomes very different when the woman strikes up a conversation with her taxi driver, a Romanian who once lived in Japan. The pair’s conversation ranges far and wide, taking in their personal histories, their thoughts on art and moving between cultures. But this journey is not just a geographic one, as the woman starts to realise she is something of a passenger in her own life, and that it may now be time for her to take the wheel.

Tom Cheshire, The Explorer Gene (2013)

Technology journalist Tom Cheshire tells the story of Auguste, Jacques and Bertrand Piccard: three generations of the same family who became respectively the first person to enter the stratosphere; the person who travelled deeper into the ocean than anyone else ever has; and the first to circle the globe non-stop in a balloon. The Piccards’ story is extraordinary, and Cheshire brings it vividly to life, from the opening scene of Auguste struggling to deal with the leaking cabin of his experimental balloon, right through to Bertrand’s current plans for a solar-powered aircraft.

Jorn Lier Horst, Closed for Winter (2011)
Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce, 2013

A dead body is found in the summer cottage of a television presenter, sparking a new investigation for Chief Inspector William Wisting. Retreating from her relationship, Wisting’s daughter Line, an investigative journalist, settles into the family cottage to write a novel – and finds another body on the nearby beach. These two threads spiral together into a tense narrative, with an added undercurrent examining social change and the forces that may drive people to commit crime.

Books in brief: early September

Here’s another round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately.

Christopher Priest, The Adjacent (2013)

If there’s one thing you can be sure of with a Christopher Priest novel (and that’s quite an ‘if’), it is that the spaces between what is told will be at least as important as the tale itself. That was certainly true of 2011’s The Islanders, whose gazetteer-like structure left readers with a set of pieces from which multiple narratives could be constructed.

The Adjacent begins with photographer Tibor Tarent returning to what is now the Islamic Republic of Great Britain from a war zone where his partner Melanie, a doctor, was caught in the blast from an adjacency weapon, a device which annihilates everything within its triangular field.  He has been summoned by the government, who are keen to learn what he knows of one Thijs Rietveld, the Dutch scientist who invented adjacency technology; Tarent insists he’s never heard of the man – though that assertion would seem to be contradicted by a later chapter. It transpires that an adjacency weapon has wiped out a large area of West London; so much for Rietveld’s certainty that his technology could never been used in aggression.

The novel returns to Tarent periodically, but also takes in the First and Second World Wars, and Priest’s own fictional world of the Dream Archipelago; in these times and places, we meet individuals who may be analogues of Tarent and Melanie (and perhaps other characters besides). We learn that adjacency technology works by shifting matter into an adjacent quantum universe – though it evidently does a lot more than that.

The characters of The Adjacent do not always feel fully rounded, which in turn has a detrimental effect on the power of the novel’s love story. But there is still much to enjoy here, in how Priest paints with realities that bleed into each other and fray at the edges. There’s a wonderful recurring image of flight as freedom, the Spitfire used not to make war, but to transcend it. This gives rise to a sequence towards novel’s end which is one of the most affecting passages of imaginative writing I have read in a long time. Priest casts the fantastic into shapes that no one else does, and The Adjacent is a fine demonstration.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, Quesadillas (2012)
Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, 2013

And Other Stories return to where they started with a second title from Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of the superb Down the Rabbit Hole. Quesadillas shares the earlier book’s wry wit and cutting absurdity. We meet Orestes, one of seven children (all named after characters from Greek mythology) living in the family home on a remote Mexican hill. Orestes would dearly love to escape, but his siblings seem to have better luck on that front than he does.

What makes the novel work so well for me is how the wider political and economic upheavals in the background are filtered through Orestes’ home life – so the quesadillas that his mother makes become more or less substantial as fortune allows; his household comes under pressure from the rich family who build a big house next door; and so on. As the pages turn, reality stretches further, until the family are literally defending their home. Add to this some sharp lines (‘Basically, all the rebels did was shout “Long live Christ the king!” and pray for time to go back to the beginning of the twentieth century’, p. 22) and you have a book that’s very much worth reading.

John Williams, Stoner (1965)

The Vintage Classics edition of this novel really seems to have taken off in the UK these last few months; I wasn’t too surprised to see that it was the next choice for one of my book groups. It chronicles the life of one William Stoner, who is born into a Missouri farming family, but ends up a professor of literature. After his death, Stoner is not much remembered, let alone celebrated; John Williams then explores the quiet dramas that make up such an ‘ordinary’ life.

I feel ambivalent towards Stoner, and think Scott Pack has it about right. The novel has some very good aspects: I especially like Williams’s evocation of the grit and graft of the farm; and the running theme of domestic and professional spaces being used as the battlegrounds for control in Stoner’s life. But Williams gives his female characters short shrift (to put it mildly); and, for me, there’s too little sense of friction – Stoner lets life sweep him along to such a degree that I find it working against the emotion and drama. There are a few times when Stoner’s strength of conviction does come to the fore, and they are some of the book’s most compelling moments; but I wish they weren’t so few and far between.

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven (2012)

This was my other book group’s latest choice; I liked it better than Stoner, but still have my reservations. I didn’t know much about A.M. Homes’s work beforehand, but I was anticipating a darkly humorous twist on the Great American Novel, which is pretty much what I got. What I’m unsure about is whether May We Be Forgiven subverts the archetype enough for my liking.

At the start of the novel. George Silver causes a fatal road crash and later smashes a beside lamp over his wife Jane’s head, killing her. He’s then sent away to a psychiatric institution, which leaves his brother Harry having to move in to look after George’s and Jane’s children. Harry’s wife Claire leaves him because he was having an affair with Jane – and so Harry’s run of misfortune continues, to a sometimes-absurd degree. There are certainly parts of May We Be Forgiven which I found amusing, such as the late of blooming of Harry’s ninety-year-old mother, who suddenly gets into dancing and all kinds of other activities. It often seems as though Harry is surrounded by people who are in command of the stories of their own lives, and the novel reveals how he tries to take control of his.

Looking back, I can’t quite put my finger on the reason I didn’t enjoy May We Be Forgiven More. I do know that the book group discussion made me feel like reading it again, to see what I’d missed. Maybe the time will be right, another day.

Peter Mattei, The Deep Whatsis (2013)

The spine of this novel reads: ‘The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is the bastard love-child of Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Eric Nye is a character you’ll either love or hate. Probably hate.” Well, I feel somewhere in between the two extremes towards him, so there.

Eric Nye is an ad agency’s ‘Chief Idea Officer’, who takes delight in his job of weeding out people to be fired; seemingly can’t look at a woman without objectifying her; and is about to find out that the pretty young intern with whom he’s just had a one night stand is not going away any time soon. So far, so unpleasant; and Nye stays that way for much of the book – but there is a relentless rhythm to his narration that keeps one going.

The novel’s satire of advertising and corporate culture feels a little too over-familiar truly to bite; but, further in, Nye’s subjectivity is challenged – there are hints that he may have done things he cannot remember – and this is what really captured my interest. Nye’s view of the world is all to him, so when its integrity is called into question, that hits him more than talk of morals or ethics ever could. Nye doesn’t quite become a reformed character, but he does start to change his mind; and his narration becomes a little less self-assured as a result. He’s not quite likeable, but we do start to see the person he could be. I’m struck by Mattei’s skilled control of language in The Deep Whatsis, and I’d certainly look forward to reading more of his work.

My holiday reading

I’ve been on holiday recently, and managed to get through most of the books I took with me. I thought I’d do a brief round-up of what I read.

Rodrigo de Souza Leão, All Dogs are Blue (2008/10)
Translated from the Portugese by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler, 2013

If there’s one thing I have come to expect from And Other Stories’ books, it’s that they will be intensely engaged with language. And so it is with this short novel, narrated by an inmate of a Rio asylum. The narrator is lucid about the tenuousness of his grasp n reality; he loops back and forth between his present, his past travels, his childhood, and his eventual release – but the question of what precisely is and is not ‘real’ remains open. I read All Dogs are Blue on the train down to my holiday; it was short enough to fit in the time, and is probably best experienced in a single sitting, when it can really pull you into its world.

Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012)

Bernadette Fox was once a hot-shot architect; now she mostly hides away in her family’s Seattle home, outsourcing most of her interaction with the word to a virtual PA in India. Gathering together myriad documents, Bernadette’s daughter Bee chronicles her mother’s turbulent relationship with her family and the other school moms, and her attempts to find Bernadette after she disappears.

I’ve heard so much about Semple’s book, and it mostly lives up to the praise. It’s wickedly funny, with few characters escaping some sort of satire; and very well constructed, as the differences between viewpoints gradually reveal hidden truths – truths which give the novel its dark undercurrent. I have a sense that Semple lets her characters off the hook for some of their flaws a little too easily, but otherwise this book is highly enjoyable.

Robin Sloan, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012)

When Clay Jameson takes a job doing the night-shift for a mysterious bookstore, he doesn’t realise that he is about to enter the world of a secret society who are scouring certain volumes for clues that will unlock… well, who knows? But Kat Potente, the pretty Googler who walks into the store one day, might just have the means to find out.

The principle flaw in Sloan’s debut is its treatment of gender –for example, Kat is the most prominent female character, and she falls into the stereotype of ‘hot geek girl who’s super-competent, but still needs a male character to ultimately save the day’. Aside from that, it’s all rather jolly, but also reflects seriously on the relationship of books and new technology. Sloan steers a middle course which I found thought-provoking.

Matt Delito, Confessions of a Police Constable (2013)

This is one in a series of (generally pseudonymous) books from the Friday Project (including Confessions of a GP and Confessions of a New York Taxi Driver). The author is a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, and the book is based on his blog of stories from his career. I’ve read a few of the books in this series now, and always find them interesting, and good to read when I feel like a change or a rest from my more usual fare. So I finished it off on the train home.

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