Monthly Archives: April 2015

Review: The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov

I received an advanced review copy of this title from publisher through NetGalley.  The original book was written and published in Russian in 2007 and this English version has been published by Pushkin Press.

My Review:
The LibrarianI recently read an article in The New York Review of Books by Ian Frazier in which he describes Russian satire and humor and the ways in which it differs from the rest of Europe and the United States.  Frazier writes, “Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.”  Elizarov’s The Librarian is a perfect literary example of  Frazier’s description of Russian humor.

The book opens with a description of a fictional Soviet-era writer named Gormov whose books were mass-produced but were of such poor quality that they were relegated to the bargain bin in used bookstores almost immediately.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, Gormov’s books are rediscovered and are also found to have magical effects on their readers.  The Book of Joy, for instance, puts readers into a temporary state of euphoria that is reminiscent of a drug high.  There are seven such magical books in the Gormov collection.  As groups acquire copies of these powerful books, they are called “Libraries.”  These libraries then engage in ridiculous, epic battles to fight for ownership of Gormov’s books.

The most absurd “library” of the bunch is a group of frail and senile old women living in a nursing home to whom the Book of Endurance is read.  All of a sudden their newly acquired strength turns these geriatrics into a fierce and bizarre army of warrior-like Amazons who kill people by the hundreds in order to protect their precious library.  There is an excessive amount of stabbing with knitting needles and pounding heads with hammers which ridiculous and droll scenes present us with the “slapstick” humor that Frazer describes but where characters “actually die.”

The main character of the book is a meek young man named Alexei whose only concern in life is to be an actor.  Of course, his acting career has never taken off so he finds himself divorced and living at home with his parents.  When his uncle dies he is asked to put his things in order and sell his uncle’s apartment.  The contents of the apartment contain one of Gormov’s books so naturally Alexei is drawn into the world of the libraries.  His lack of reaction as people are stabbed and killed around him in order to protect the book is ridiculous and comical.  He eventually dons his own armour, which consists of old truck tires, and launches himself headlong into the bloody fray.

The problems with Alexei’s own library and its inevitable clash with other libraries is the topic of the second half of the book.  There are many battle scenes where the rival libraries have more and more comical battles in which the clash of these book warriors resemble video games.  In the end, Alexei is saved by the brigade of geriatric warriors who lock him up and want to use him as their guinea pig to test out the effects of reading all seven books at once.  The ending has a more serious tone then the rest of the book and provides and interesting commentary on worshipping and overvaluing objects, blindly following leaders without questioning their motives and the sacrificing of one person for the safety of the whole community.  For a sampling of Russian humor and satire THE LIBRARIAN is a perfect choice, but I will warn you to be prepared for a wild ride.

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Filed under Humor, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Review: The Edith Wharton Dover Reader

Dover publications has a fantastic list of books that are anthologies of famous authors.  I love this series because it allows us to get the various works of an author all in one, cost-friendly volume.  This particular book of Edith Wharton’s writings contains short stories, poems, two novels and a work of non-fiction.  Since it is poetry month I have decided to review and comment on the poems that are contained in the collection.

My Review:
Edith WhartonThe first aspect of Edith Wharton’s poetry that I noticed are the vivid descriptions of natural phenomenon.  Nine of her poems are included in this anthology.  One of her most famous and recognizable, “An Autumn Sunset” is a commentary on the yearly cycle of nature but she also extends the metaphor and applies it to all life.  As the sun sets on the outposts of the earth, she questions whether or not she, too, will be carried to some distance shore where all things, good and bad, in life are forgotten.

The second poem in the collection, entitled “Life” picks up on this idea of the soul being carried to another world that is reminiscent of the Underworld in Greek and Roman mythology.  She seems to be standing on the banks of the river Lethe, the river of “forgetfulness, from which souls drink before they come back to life.  Life if breathed back into her in the form of music and she is transported across a vibrant world of birds, insects, meadows and storms.

One of the poems that surprised me the most is the poem about marriage.  Edith Wharton was trapped in what seemed like a loveless marriage with her husband Teddy Wharton.  When she finally dissolved the marriage it was due to his philandering and extramarital activities.  Yet, Edith Wharton did have high hopes and high praise for the institution of marriage in the poem included in this collection.  “The Last Giustiniani” was written in 1889, three years after her marriage to Teddy, so perhaps she still was still happy in her own domestic situation.  In the poem, a soon-to-be-ordained monk is summoned by the abbot to tell him that he is the last of the House of Giustiniani so he cannot take a vow of chastity, but instead must be married so that he can extend his family lineage.  The former monk’s sense of freedom at this news is unbridled euphoria.  He takes his new vows of marriage very seriously and is proud and blissful as he is standing at the altar with his bride.  The poems ends on a lovely and hopeful note:

Without a prayer to keep our
Lips apart
I turned about and kissed
You where you stood,
And gathering all the
gladness of my life
Into a new-found word, I
Called you “wife!”

The Edith Wharton Dover reader is wonderful collection of her best works.  I hope you enjoyed learning about some of her poetry.  If you pick up this book you will also be treated to her well-known novels Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence.  There is a work of non-fiction she wrote about how to decorate a home which I found fascinating.  Thanks to Dover Publications for bringing us another great collection of classics at a very affordable price.

About The Author:

Edith Newbold Jones was born into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family’s return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith’s creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, (as well as witty reviews of it) and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.

After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Wharton’s novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Wharton’s first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable literary success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton’s reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend, Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.

In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.

The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 — the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman. Wharton traveled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.
– Barnesandnoble.com

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Filed under Classics, Literature/Fiction, Poetry, Short Stories

Review: Dancing in the Dark-My Struggle Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I received an advanced review copy of this book from Archipelago Books through NetGalley. It was published in the original Norwegian in 2009 and has been translated for this English edition by Don Bartlet.  Knausgaard has published his autobiographical novel in six parts and this is the fourth installment that has been translated into English.  You do not have to read the other books in the series first as this book stands on its own.  But after you do read Book 4 you will be clamoring to pick up the first three.

My Review:
My Struggle 4Music. Sex. Drinking.  These are the three main topics on eighteen-year old Karl Ove’s mind at any given time.  He has just graduated from high school, or gymnas as it is called in Norway, and has accepted a temporary teaching position at a school in a remote fishing village in the northern part of Norway.  Karl Ove wants to get as far away from his hometown as possible and he also wants the opportunity to write since this is what he forsees as his future career.

The first third of the book deals with Karl Ove’s settling into his new home in Norway and trying to teach a variety of subjects to middle school students.  He feels a certain sense of freedom while he is living by himself and earning his own way for the first time in his life.  A lot of music is mentioned in the book as it is one of his main areas of interest.  Karl Ove writes music reviews for a local paper and begins to appear on a radio program that discusses music. If you are nostalgic for pop and rock music from the mid to late 1980’s you will appreciate the discussion of Karl Ove’s collection of albums.

A large part of the book is a flashback to Karl Ove’s last two years in high school where he slowly begins to distance himself from life as a child, an existence that is constantly reliant on his parents.  A large part of his growing up has to do with the separation of his parent’s and the dissolution of their marriage.  Karl Ove’s father is a distant, cold and harsh man who beat and scared his children when they were younger.  Now that he father has moved out of their home, Karl Ove attempts to get beyond the issues he had with his father in the past and become his own independent man.

One incident in the book, in particular, that demonstrate Karl Ove’s struggles as he is coming of age is his attempt to keep in touch with his father.  One day when he has gotten out of school and has nothing to do he pays a surprise visit to his father.  When he arrives, his father is cold and distant and scolds Karl Ove for not calling first.  As a sixteen-year-old high school student, Karl Ove still craves a relationship with his father, despite their dysfunctional past.  Reading about his father’s reject of him in such a heartless way is distressing but this incident does not deter Karl Ove from still trying to forge a relationship with this undeserving and cruel man.

One of the things that surprised me is the amount of autonomy he has throughout the book.  His mother works full-time as a teaching nurse so he comes and goes as he pleases.  He only visits his father, who has developed a rather severe drinking problem and has gotten remarried, once in a while. Karl Ove starts to smoke and drink in excess, to the point where he blacks out and loses large chunks of time.  His mother finally catches on to how serious his problem has become and she throws him out of their home.  This has the opposite effect she intended and instead causes him to go on a drinking and hash binge for days on end.   Throughout the book I worried for him, I was concerned that no one keeps a better eye on this sixteen-year-old who is really still a boy and I felt his constant, underlying sadness and loneliness

Karl Ove also wants, more than anything, to be in some sort of a relationship with a girl but the situations involving his romantic life never quite work out.  He is desperately in love with a girl named Hanne who pays Karl Ove quite a bit of attention to the point of leading him on, but she never actually intends to start a relationship with him.  It seems that all of his friends have girlfriends, or are at least having sex, and Karl Ove is very self-conscious of the fact the he is still a virgin.  Time and again in the book he has an opportunity to be with a girl, but he has a severe case of premature ejaculation.  It is tragic that he is too young and immature to understand that patience and the right woman would solve all of his problems.

The style of the book is very unusual and does not read like a traditional novel.  The experience of feels more like perusing the very detailed diary of a teenage boy; there are minute descriptions of what he eats, where he goes, and his daily activities. I did not find this boring or mundane, but instead it helped to vividly set the scene of his life for me.  The only completely developed character in the novel is Karl Ove himself.  He has interactions with countless people but what he describes is his own reactions to them and their effect on him; we never get to know other characters that show up in his life in any depth.

What I enjoyed, and even admired the most about this autobiographical novel is that the author’s experiences are raw, unfiltered and completely honest.  Knausgaard could have censored some of his feelings and most embarrassing moments.  I think that by laying it all out there for the world to see is brave and makes MY STRUGGLE BOOK 4 an absorbing and emotional read.

About The Author:
Karl OveKarl Ove Knausgaard was nominated to the 2004 Nordic Council’s Literature Prize & awarded the 2004 Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He made his literary debut in 1998 with the widely acclaimed novel OUT OF THE WORLD, which was a great critical and commercial success and won him, as the first debut novel ever, The Norwegian Critics’ Prize. He has since received several literary prizes for his books.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

Review: Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

This is a collection of stories first published by And Other Stories in the U.K. and later published by Bloomsbury in the U.S.

My Review:
Black VodkaThe stories in this collection are full of outcasts, lonely people who linger on the fringes of society: a hunchback, an orphan, a mentally ill drunk and refugees.  The characters, despite the fact that they occupy a small space in these brief narratives, demand an emotional and empathetic reaction from the reader.

The first page of the title story, “Black Vodka”, poignantly captures the feelings of someone who is bullied, made to feel like an outsider and a misfit for his entire life.  The narrator, who has a hump on his back between his shoulder blades says, “I was instructed in the act of Not Belonging from a very tender age. Deformed. Different. Strange.”  He is now a successful ad executive working on a campaign for Black Vodka.  We cheer him on when a woman named Lisa, an archaeologist by trade, takes a keen interest in him and wants to “excavate” the eccentricities of his body in a way that does not degrade or humiliate him.

“Cave Girl” is an interesting commentary on personal identity and the fact that many people desire to be someone else, literally to be in someone else’s body.  Cass declares to her brother that she wants a sex change.  But she does not want to become a male, she wants to stay as a female but wants to become a different type of female.  Cass wants to be “light-hearted” and “airy” and she also wants to change her physical features so that she has blue eyes.  When Cass shows up looking and acting like a completely different person.  Her brother and all of the males in the neighborhood fall over themselves to give her attention and shower her with gifts.  But is Cass really better off as this seemly happy, yet shallow and “airy” new person who is always smiling but never has any real opinions?

It is amazing that so many issues, which as human beings we are forced to encounter every day, are raised in BLACK VODKA: relationship struggles, identity crises, loneliness, and isolation are all explored; I highly recommend this small yet thought-provoking book.

About The Author:
D LevyDeborah Levy trained at Dartington College of Arts leaving in 1981 to write a number of plays, highly acclaimed for their “intellectual rigour, poetic fantasy and visual imagination”, including PAX, HERESIES for the Royal Shakespeare Company, CLAM, CALL BLUE JANE, SHINY NYLON, HONEY BABY MIDDLE ENGLAND, PUSHING THE PRINCE INTO DENMARK and MACBETH-FALSE MEMORIES, some of which are published in LEVY: PLAYS 1 (Methuen)

Deborah wrote and published her first novel BEAUTIFUL MUTANTS (Vintage), when she was 27 years old. The experience of not having to give her words to a director, actors and designer to interpret, was so exhilarating, she wrote a few more. These include, SWALLOWING GEOGRAPHY, THE UNLOVED (Vintage) and BILLY and GIRL (Bloomsbury). She has always written across a number of art forms (see Bookworks and Collaborations with visual artists) and was Fellow in Creative Arts at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1989-1991.

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Filed under Short Stories

Review: Ending Up by Kingsley Amis

I received an advanced review copy from The New York Review of books. Please visit their website for the full collection of their classics series: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/.

My Review:
Ending UpIn this comedy about old age, Amis provides us with a geriatric cast of characters living under the same roof who are basically trying to stay as comfortable and happy as possible before they die.  There are five septuagenarians in total, three men and two women.  Although they want nothing put peace in their final years, they manage to annoy each other and bicker to the point where peace is the last thing that any one of them is going find.

Adela is the one who holds the whole operation together by paying the bills, doing all of the cooking and shopping and generally trying to make peace among her roommates.  She is not the most attractive woman and she has never been married but she is the caretaker to everyone in the house to the point that she ignores her own health issues.

Adela’s brother Bernand, the most cantankerous one of the bunch, is also the most amusing.  He has a bad leg which seems to be better or worse, depending on whether or not he is asked to do physical labor.  He provokes the others into arguments during conversation for his own amusement and he is very fond of attempting practical jokes.  His favorite weapons are stink bombs, feces, a squirt gun and urine.

A happy drunk named Shorty is also one of the residents of the cottage.  Shorty loves alcohol and he thinks he is fooling everyone about his habit by hiding bottles all over the house.  He is also the servant of the group and is always cleaning up and serving tea.  Shorty and Bernard are actually ex-lovers, which fact produces a few bawdy jokes throughout the book.

The other woman in the group is a flighty woman named Marigold.  Marigold loves to write letters, spend time with her grandchildren and do everything she can to avoid Bernard.  When Marigold starts losing her memory, she is desperate to keep this secret from Bernard whom she is sure will use this information against her.

The last member of the household is George, a former brother-in-law of Bernard.  George is a kindly old professor who has had a stroke and cannot get around on his own.  The group has taken him in because he has no where else to go and Bernard is not happy about this situation.

ENDING UP is a funny novel about the inevitability of growing old and dealing with the vast array of issues that come along with this mortal condition.  It is ironic and funny that each of these septuagenarians are responsible for his or her own demise at the end of the book.  Thanks again to the New York Review of Books for reviving another great classics.

About The Author:
AmisSir Kingsley William Amis, CBE was an English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher. He wrote more than twenty novels, three collections of poetry, short stories, radio and television scripts, and books of social and literary criticism. He fathered the English novelist Martin Amis.

Kingsley Amis was born in Clapham, Wandsworth, Couty of London (now South London), England, the son of William Robert Amis, a mustard manufacturer’s clerk. He began his education at the City of London School, and went up to St. John’s College, Oxford April 1941 to read English; it was there that he met Philip Larkin, with whom he formed the most important friendship of his life. After only a year, he was called up for Army service in July 1942. After serving in the Royal Corps of Signals in the Second World War, Amis returned to Oxford in October 1945 to complete his degree. Although he worked hard and got a first in English in 1947, he had by then decided to give much of his time to writing.

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Filed under Classics, Humor, Literary Fiction, New York Review of Books