Hook, line and…sinker

The Fishermen had much to say and ended by saying very little.

The FishermenThe Fishermen · Chigozie Obioma
Back Bay Books, 2016 · 295 pages, paperback

Akure, Nigeria. The Harmattan winds die out. Dust motes sift lazily to the ground. One brother stabs another, and the madman still limps around town, despised and yet hearkened. This freshly swept town, sere and cracked by the Nigerian sun’s whitewash glare, exposes little more than the unholy. Continue reading

Tarred and feathered

Buckley puffs out the talking points of both sides in the tobacco wars, and the result is ludicrous and delightfully incorrect in this day of safe spaces – thank YOU for daring, Mr. Buckley.

Thank You for SmokingThank You for Smoking · Christopher Buckley · 1994
Random House, 2006 · 272 pages, paperback

Nick Naylor is the PR guy for Big Tobacco in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, a laugh-out-loud satire that’s funny because it’s true.

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Magic more formidable than ships made of rain

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell feels like the best of British literature, combining  Sherlock Holmes eccentricity with the warm/cool, fast/slow, fun/grim adventure of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and then dropping in a bit of Wilkie Collins’ gothic ambiguity. In short, Susanna Clarke’s novel is a fantasy that has in it a lot more than a wonderful story.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell · Susanna Clarke · 2004
Bloomsbury, 2017 · 1006 pages, paperback

Magic has gone out of England. Magicians as they are now are just ordinary men with their noses in books and whose tongues form words of speculation instead of incantation. Magic isn’t something that is done – oh no, not anymore – magic is something to be theorized, opined about, written down in lines of rhetoric…magic in this age, the Age of Napoleon, is only an armchair philosophy. Enter stuffy Mr. Norrel, recluse of Hurtfew Abbey, practical magician.

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“Remember me!”

Though it lacks the celerity of its titular continental train, Graham Greene’s novel Orient Express still bears the fervid desires of fleeting travel.

Orient ExpressOrient Express · Graham Greene · 1933
Penguin, 2004 · 197 pages, paperback

Greene’s novel feels, to borrow a line from its prose, “as if all the floors of a house fell and left the walls standing.” With Orient Express Greene puts our perceptions of the temporary to great effect. He doesn’t exhort us to seize the day! as seems most common for stories that trade in the temporal. Instead, he promotes its unreal and delaying nature, the idea that this, too, shall pass and that, by extension, its affairs don’t actually exist.

Moreover, Greene uses the more common aspect (i.e. making use of a moment) to etch more deeply this feeling of unreality: the rare instances in the novel where his characters do act on impulse are immediately subverted by their juxtaposition with the mere thoughts, the unfulfilled wonderment, of what going all the way might entail.

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John Steinbeck, The Long Valley

The stories in The Long Valley are sly. Their coloring may be Steinbeck through and through, but their tone is surprising. Sure, the men get down on their haunches and do some figgerin’ while the sun scars the black earth, but damnit! there’s humor in these stories! There’s suspense in these stories!

Steinback, Long ValleyThe Long Valley · John Steinbeck · 1936-‘38
Library of America, 1996 (The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings) · 205 pages, hardcover

Many of the stories in The Long Valley, namely “The White Quail” and “The Snake,” coax us to expect a certain ending, and yet, lurking on the last page or in the final paragraph, is a (usually very violent) surprise or a subtle turn of phrase that drops the floor of your stomach real quick.

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Twentieth century elegy

The End of DaysThe End of Days · Jenny Erpenbeck · 2012
Susan Bernofsky translation · Portobello, 2014 · 238 pages, hardcover

The End of Days is a gray novel, and Jenny Erpenbeck’s writing is a dirge for the people of 20th century Central Europe. She gave the Galician woman at the center of her novel five lives (or rather, she gave her one life with five possibilities for her death, asking after each death what would have come of her had she lived a little longer).

The 20th century contained in it both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and such a distinct thing as reunified Germany. And of course, there was everything in between. Each grave dug is dug from a life fashioned by this same Europe. Continue reading

Ménage à trois: Hemingway’s Garden of Eden

Hemingway’s novel dives in and out of androgyny like its two newlywed swimmers who bathe in the salted sea and grow ever darker on its pale and silted beaches. David and Catherine take their honeymoon in the off season. They do everything a little differently.

Garden of EdenThe Garden of Eden · Ernest Hemingway · 1946-‘61
Scribner, 2003 · 247 pages, paperback

David and Catherine Bourne are three months married and vacationing on the Côte d’Azur. The Garden of Eden, though, is a study of division just as much as it is one of marriage: what is yours, what is mine, what is ours. The Garden of Eden has the happiness of marriage. It has its dissolution and it has its estrangement. Continue reading

Seedy side of town

If you didn’t count the ‘dead’ moods he was sane enough. In fact, he was probably too sane, too normal. If only he was a little more erratic, if only he had a little fire, a little originality or audacity, it might have been a different story. A different story with Netta and all along the line. 

Hangover Square 2Hangover Square · Patrick Hamilton · 1941
Europa, 2006 · 334 pages, paperback

George Harvey Bone is in love with Netta Longdon. He’s infatuated with her, taken in by her beauty. Netta can offer nothing else: she’s an idler, a failed actress who leads men on til she’s emptied their wallets. But George (no, not George, George in his dead moods) knows he must kill her; it’s the only sensible thing to do. This George doesn’t know who Netta is, but yes, it’s a sorry fact that he must kill her. Continue reading

Roberto Bolaño: 2666

It’s a verbal labyrinth; it’s a zoetrope of rape and murder and prison violence; it’s a deep sea fish that crawls, impossibly, through the Sonora desert; it’s a world in which the Virgin winks and the whores are cross-eyed.

2666 22666 · Roberto Bolaño · 2004
Natasha Wimmer translation · Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008 · 893 pages, hardcover

There is no summary for this book. 2666 is Roberto Bolaño’s final opus, published posthumously one year after his death in 2003. Its five parts are incongruous but have a tip-of-the-tongue commonality that sucks them toward one point: Santa Teresa, Sonora, Mexico. Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor, writes in an addendum to the FSG edition that the novel’s title references a passage from one of Bolaño’s previous novels, Amulet, which he had published five years before 2666:

Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or in 1968, or in 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.

And 2666 really is a cemetery of sorts and one that inters all the creepiness of something crawling beneath the eyelid of its many corpses.

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Empty nest

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney did everything exactly as it should be done for her novel The Nest, and the result is an amateur first novel that is more eager than earnest.

Sweeney, The Nest
The Nest · 
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Harper Collins, 2016 · 353 pages, paperback

The Nest is about the four bickering, entitled, petulant Plumb siblings promised a modest inheritance ($50,000 each – the “Nest”), which grew through (someone else’s) good management into $500,000 each. And yet they whine about possibly getting only $50,000 (the original – and intentioned – sum) at the end of it. Continue reading