Monday, November 8, 2010

Reading is sexy XLI

{image: painting by Tamara de Lempicka}
30. Solo by Rana Dasgupta I selected this book because it won the Commonwealth Writers' prize and likely because of the rave review by Salman Rushdie. I don't really see why it received these. It is well-written, and yet not marvelous, not different, and it feels like the author keeps his readers at arm's length. The are in fact some interesting characters, and sporadically compelling situations, but I never entirely cared about any of them. It was a bit of 'wandering characters in search of a plot'. He started with interesting ingredients; a Bulgarian centenarian, Ulrich, reviews his life and its worth, trains, blindness, chemistry (but, despite the reviews on the back, and one glorious scene where Ulrich makes an analog, burning flame frequency analyzer of music, there is little real love of science here - anyone can allude to Einstein now and again, particularly if they don't really tie the science to anything), crossroads, war, failed marriage, Communism and oppression, youth rebellion, death and isolation, and yet, I not sure why I should care. The second half of the book, the blind Ulrich invents three more characters, so we get three more lives to follow: Boris, the orphaned violinist trained by gypsies, with endless creativity, like the son Ulrich lost or the self he might have been, and the siblings Khatuna, the Georgian gangster moll, determined never to be poor and needy and helpless like her mother, and Irakli, poet, iconoclast yet unhappy and insecure. These people are interesting, though scenes feel clichéd. We move from the former soviet bloc to New York city. The Georgian dancing, or Bulgarian music never really felt real to me. It feel like self-conscious exoticism. Perhaps a meditation on failure isn't supposed to make me care about its characters. Perhaps I expected too much. Probably. The ingredients of this novel are excellent; I just failed to care.

31. Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez. García Márquez started his life as a reporter and in Clandestine in Chile he is acting somewhere between novelist and reporter, closer to reporter. Based on 14 hours of interviews with exiled Chilean film maker Miguel Littín, who risked his life in 1985 to return in disguise to General Pinochet's Chile to make a documentary about life in the dictatorship. The story is written in the first person, which makes the reportage feel more novelistic. It's fascinating to read how Littín struggled with his disguise as Uruguayan business, his self rejecting the foreign persona and rebelling to be true to himself, despite the perceived danger. We read how he felt when he could pass friends or family members on the street without being recognized. With the help of the underground, he employed three film crews from three different nations, each pretending to be shooting something else (a nature documentary, a commercial, a documentary about the architect of the presidential palace) to gather a "105,000-foot donkey's tail of film" to pin on Pinochet. The story of his experience, twelve years prior, of Pinochet's coup, and his arbitrary escape, because he happened to meet a soldier who was a film enthusiast who recognized him, was harrowing. The story of his clandestine time making his film was a bit more peculiar - the danger is never clear, that late in the game - but compelling. I was particularly fond of the upper class grandmother whom he works with, who discovered that actually, her talents had been wasted in her staid and conservative life, and that she should have been a spy and a revolutionary. The idiosyncratic introduction by Francisco Goldman, putting the author, subject and larger politics into perspective was interesting, though it almost skewered the lot of them. A very intriguing book.

32. 500 Handmade Books - Inspiring Interpretations of a Timeless Form If you love books like I do, you should buy this one. The introduction and discussion of the selection process is food for thought. What makes a book? What 'rules' can be broken, which ones cannot? The collection, and the information about the books is very well curated. You can see the thinking behind it; comparisons and contrasts, without a lot of wordy justifications. They let the photos (and captions) speak for themselves. The publisher, Lark Books, does not list an author, but I think that the credit lies with Steve Miller, a bookbinder who juried the collection.

33. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Really, you must all start reading David Mitchell if you are not yet doing so. His writing makes me think about what it is to be a person. Black Swan Green is the story of a 13-year-old clandestine poet, Jason Taylor, growing up in a sleepy village in Worcestershire in Thatcher's England, in 1982. Jason has a stutter, which he personifies to himself as Hangman, which he strives to hide from schoolyard bullies. The voice inside his head, which is needling and self-critical, voicing the pressure to conform with his peers, is the Unborn Twin. He is clever enough to hide his intelligence, his writing, and his speech impediment from his peers. The society of adolescents in which he lives is so very real - the complex social ranking, the bullying, the way in which they hoodwink adults. It places the reader right back in that world. His parents' marriage is unraveling. His older sister calls him 'Thing'. The people around him are caught up in the Falklands, or local strife about Gypsies camping. A certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck ties the novel subtly to Cloud Atlas. The novel is beautiful, compelling and real.

34. How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers. This collection of short stories is compelling and inventive, as one would expect. Some stories are strange, some simple slices of reality, some seem straightforward and yet are not. I feel that he takes on voices well: stories narrated by women, and even one narrated by a dog, are believable. This is a good collection.

As a Canadian, I was annoyed by the offhand comment that faced with genocide in Rwanda the UN sends in "15 Belgians" because General Roméo Dallaire, Commander of the UN forces there, is the sort of person who makes me proud to be Canadian. Though, I think I should learn not to be irked by offhand comments which are really examples of hyperbole in fiction, for heaven's sake.

35. The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. It seems that Chabon found a book called Say It in Yiddish, published in the 1950s and wrote a controversial, ironic essay 'Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts'. He could not envision a place where Yiddish would be the lingua franca, post-WWII, but he did not realize that in the 50s, despite the fact that Israel selected Hebrew and moved away from Yiddish, as official language, that it remained so common that the guidebook was both useful and popular. He alluded to a little known suggestion in 1940, that European Jewish refugees could be moved to Alaska, and imagined briefly what it would be like to have a Yiddish speaking 'country' of the Frozen Chosen. He received a fair amount of flack for his article, so he decided to take it one step further and wrote a novel. On the surface, the novel is an alternate history: what if the state of Israel had not succeeded, and millions of Jewish refugees had in fact been living in the Yiddish-speaking Federal District of Sitka for sixty years. The District is scheduled to revert to Alaskan control. The setting is marvelous - the combination of Jewish and Alaskan Native culture, the Yiddish language, the Pacific Northwest landscape, the sense of impending doom. In this setting walks Meyer Landsman, a star detective down on his luck - his life and marriage have fallen apart and his whole world is ending. He wakes up one morning at his rooming-house style hotel to find one of his fellow tenants, a one-time chess prodigy and possible former 'black hat' Orthodox, has been murdered in his bed. He cannot ignore this case, in his own home, so to speak, so despite the order to start closing down cases prior to Reversion, he becomes embroiled. The hardboiled detective story is rife with full characters, from his partner and cousin, half-Native 'yid' Berko, an outsider to both communities, his ex-wife Bina, the newly installed police chief, a good cop with uncontrollable curly red hair who carries her life in one giant, leather tote, down to minor characters like the Fillipino donut-man/informer. This is a story of life, death, the reality of relationships, love, the tragedy of families, land, Messiah and magic, refugees, religion and politics. It's great.

Also, the design of my paperback, put out by Harper's Perennial, in black, red, white and turquoise, combining Native imagery, Jewish symbols, chess and stylized cityscapes and guns, is excellent.

36. White Noise by Don Delillo. I've just started my 25th-Anniversary Edition, and it's hard to put down.

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXV, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XL}

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