Always lovely to be able to push a book along. Buy it, wherever you are on the planet, and let me know if it lingers with you, too!
I've had a busy February, and thought I'd share some of the spoils:
My review of Find Me by Laura van den Berg is up at the Guardian US. Laura's debut about a dystopian future marked by an 'epidemic of forgetting' is an elegiac meditation on loss and memory.
The lovely people at Brooklyn Quarterly decided to publish my essay on loving a little nun on their blog. After floating around on the interwebs for a while, it's wonderful to have found it a home.
The Washington Post gave me my first print appearance with my review of Blood-Drenched Beard, by Brazilian novelist Daniel Galera. Galera is a rising star in the Portuguese speaking world and was included in Granta's list of Best of Young Brazilian Novelists 2012.
In the Beginning was the Sea is the first novel by Colombian author Tomas Gonzalez to be translated into English, although it was written over 30 years ago. My review of it is over at Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal.
I also reviewed I am Radar, US novelist Reif Larsen's follow up to his highly inventive debut, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Chameleonic, awe-inspiring, imaginative and completely bonkers, you can read more about it at the Boston Globe.
More to come!
Hi folks, my review for Viennese Romance by David Vogel is now available on the Readings website, or below:
In 2012, poet and novelist David Vogel posthumously set the Israeli literary world alight with his unpublished manuscript, Viennese Romance. Scribed on 15 large sheets of paper in tiny writing, it was uncovered during a search for Vogel’s 1934 novella, Facing the Sea. Most likely written in the 1920s, it is the latest of his works to be translated for the English-speaking world.
The protagonist of Viennese Romance is 18-year-old Michael Rost, a Russian-Polish Jew who arrives in Vienna with no money or direction. In the smoke-filled cafes and bars, he soon finds himself in the company of aristocrats, artisans and actors, all of whom have Woody Allen-style obsessions with philosophy, despite Rost’s own disengagements. ‘In my opinion most men of action invest themselves in activity itself, in order to save themselves from the boredom and emptiness of doing nothing, and the goal incidental … How do you intend to live?’ asks the man who later becomes Rost’s patron.
The novel is also an account of Vogel’s sexual awakening. In Vienna, Vogel himself had an affair with his landlady and his landlady’s daughter. Here the women are fictionalised as Gertrude, a woman whose loneliness and near-obsession with Rost is born out of ‘existing in a state of constant thirst, forever unsatisfied’, and her 16-year-old daughter Erna, who although initially wary of Rost’s involvement with her mother, later only wishes to ‘hide her hand in [Rost’s] forever; to be buried inside him, reduced to a tiny, distant dot at the core of his being’. Each woman is acutely drawn, and in this arena Vogel’s observations are deeply felt.
Vogel later died in Auschwitz. Viennese Romance is a seminal addition to the secular Hebrew canon, providing vital insight into the history of the Jewish diaspora. Along with its author, it must not be forgotten.
Review here or below:
For his ninth book, humorist David Sedaris has pooled together stories as diverse and obscure as the collection’s title: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls.
In his signature conversational style, Sedaris meanders quite literally all over the place – from dentists’ rooms in France (where he lived for several years before moving to West Sussex) to Hawaii, where serendipity causes him to lose his passport and thus his UK immigration status. Several essays written for luminaries such asThe New Yorker and The Guardian are published again here, with no loss of their original appeal. Sedaris’s reflections about the relevance of family while watching a kookaburra eat in 'Laugh, Kookaburra', and his revulsion of the offal he encounters in China in ‘#2 to Go’, stir the digestive and emotional juices in all the right places.
An amusing addition is a series of short essays known as ‘Forensics’. A short note at the front of the book explains that they are short monologues, written by high school students, to be recited at competitions. The majority of these pieces, penned by Sedaris, are from the point of view of a person blinkered to their own world-view: an anti-Obama racist, a whining housewife. Dropped in and around his other essays, they jar tonally, but despite this I found them amusing, especially ‘I Break For Traditional Marriage’, from the perspective of a redneck against gay marriage.
Sedaris won’t change your life, but he will make you snigger, especially as a school girl obsessed with Jesus and ruling the world.
In the first few pages of Katerina Cosgrove’s Bone Ash Sky, Anoush Pakradounian, an Armenian-Turkish American journalist, arrives in Beirut to report on a tribunal. Her father, a member of the Christian Phalangist militia, is being tried in absentia for the massacre of thousands of Palestinian Shia refugees in the Lebanese civil war. It is this inquiry and the quest for the details surrounding her father’s death that propel Anoush through four generations of her family history across Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Armenia.
From Beirut, the plot moves quickly into early-twentieth-century Syria, where Lilit, Anoush’s Armenian Christian grandmother, is bought as a slave by a Muslim Turk, and Lilit’s brother, Minas, runs from a death camp in Der ez Zor. Concurrent to these stories are those of Anoush’s father and his affair with Sanaya, a Palestinian Muslim. Cosgrove offers yet another cross-cultural relationship in Anoush’s present-day partner, the Israeli Jew, Chaim. She displays finesse with structure – as the novel moves towards its inevitable conclusion, the revelations come so quick and fast that, by the time I put the book down, I barely registered that 200 pages had so swiftly passed.
It’s interesting that Cosgrove, a writer of Greek and Irish-Australian parentage, chose the Christian–Muslim tensions of the Middle East to anchor her story. At times, she writes so adamantly it’s hard not to feel hit over the head with righteousness. Ambitious in its aims, Bone Ash Sky can be clumsy with exposition and character development, excessive in its descriptions and unashamed about its political agenda. But it is also a deeply humane novel, full of passion and prayer – a true call for forgiveness and for the deliverance of a more compassionate world.
In a piece for The Paris Review, the interviewer comments that in Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan, the lead character Peter Aaron not only bears Auster’s initials, but is also married to a woman whose name is that of Auster’s wife’s spelt backwards. Additionally, his memoirs The Invention of Solitude and Hand to Mouthdetail his life as a struggling writer.
Through poetry, plays, screenplays, criticism and translation, Auster has examined the notion of self and identity again and again. It is in his latest memoir Winter Journal however, where Auster is allowed to excavate what he does best.
The memoir is written directly to ‘you’, that pesky second person point of view that often comes across as confronting or, at the very least, irritating. But by its very nature, Auster’s ‘you’ is gripping – talking purely, often times authoritatively (and no less romantically), to the many versions of his younger self. Much of the early book is dedicated to the women he’s loved – including second wife and novelist Siri Hustvedt – but Auster is also lucid about his experiences, turning a careful eye over his actions. Nowhere else has an autobiographer been so critical – and in doing so, Auster’s words implicate the reader in a powerful and compelling way.
Each paragraph is a discrete episode – in the same interview with The Paris Review, Auster talks about how the paragraph is his ‘natural unit of composition … at least for me’ – and in this memoir it is clearly his strongest suit. Events do not necessarily lead to one another; instead, they traipse along in a non-linear fashion, stopping off to paint a scene and then just as nonchalantly moving on again, as if the events were unfolding in real life itself.
The result is both delightful and jolting. In one section of the book Auster moves swiftly from the thoughts of a five-year-old admiring his body in the bath to a 55-year-old in the car accident that nearly cost not only his own life, but also those of his wife and daughter. Later, a single paragraph will describe both the absurdity and the horror of his father’s death. It is a rare writer who can move from curiosity to pathos in a few mere lines; Auster, when at speed, gallops through them all.
Towards the end of the book, Auster describes an epiphanic moment when watching a group of dancers in rehearsal leaping and twisting through the air. This event, he states, eventually leads him to write his first prose poem, 'White Spaces', after a long period of insecurity and self-doubt. It is also the moment when on the opposite side of the city, unbeknownst to him, his father is dying. One could infer from such an event that Auster’s life is filled with unfortunate coincidences – the sudden death of his 14-year-old friend in a field, struck by lightning, being another – but it is only in his hands that such events are turned into wondrous things, filled with deep sorrow, but also hope.
Review for Home, by Toni Morrison below, or at Readings online (how I love that woman!):
Toni Morrison’s tenth novel, Home, is a quiet revelation of masculinity and patriotism. In the opening image, Korean War veteran Frank observes the stance of horses as he hides with his sister Cee. ‘They rose up like men. We saw them. Like men they stood,’ he says to an unnamed narrator. What is a man, and indeed, what is he in relation to war? asks the novel in return.
Home begins with Frank’s return to America. For reasons he does not know he has been institutionalised in a mental hospital. A letter from a mysterious woman suggests that his sister might be dying. Spurred on, he escapes and begins his journey home. At the same time, Cee, previously coddled and protected by Frank, applies for a job for a white doctor who, unknown to Cee, is a pioneer of eugenics. This sets up some compelling and complex questions for the remaining narrative to answer: America circa 1950s is a racist country, and on his journey Frank struggles with many demons, both internal and external.
Where the novel falls short is in its brevity. The characters are archetypes and are boldly drawn – the brooding, angry soldier, and the down-trod, unwanted girl – however at less than 150 pages, the exploration afforded to them is lightly drawn. The revelations at the end are surprising but skipped over, and both Frank’s redemption and Cee’s recovery are considerably reduced. Although Morrison writes economically and with poetic power, as a result it feels at times as if the spaces between images are too unexplored.
At 81, Toni Morrison is a literary legend, having recently been awarded the Presidential Award of Freedom by US president Barack Obama. Although not as complex as her best novels, Home is still a formidable addition to her body of work. It is also sign that she has not finished yet.