Tag Archives: Literary Fiction

An Insatiable Craving for Books

“One unquenchable longing has the mastery of me, which hitherto I neither would nor could repress; ’tis an insatiable craving for books, although, perhaps I have more than I ought.” —Francesco Petrarch

I had the chance today to visit one of my favorite bookstores in New England.  Located in a small, shoreline community, it actually has five different locations spread throughout the town.  I only managed to visit two of the five locations today and even that took me a few hours.  The main store is a large, old farmhouse with a series of barns on the property, all filled from floor to ceiling with books.  None of the barns are heated so it was a bit rough going on this cold, wet day.  But, in the end, (even though I was cold and drenched and looked like a wet poodle) it was totally worth the trip.  Here is my haul:

Poetry:

I’ve become quite fond of collecting the Library of America editions—they look rather handsome on one’s shelves. I have been making a concerted effort to read more American authors, so this LOA edition of 17th and 18th century poetry was a great find. I was also pleased to add more Michael Hamburger, Marianne Moore and C.P. Cavafy to my poetry collection. The “Diaries of Exile,” translated from the Modern Greek and published by Archipelago Books, was also a pleasant find.

Essays:

I was so thrilled to find another George Steiner collection of essays that I don’t own, as well as another volume of Joseph Epstein essays.  The J.M. Coetzee essays look intriguing—topics include Cees Nooteboom, Translating Kafka, Robert Musil’s Diaries, Dostoevsky and the essays of Joseph Brodsky, just to name a few.  I already owned the paperback version of Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, and I was excited to upgrade to this hard copy edition that is in perfect condition.  Lord’s The Singer of Tales is a nice addition to my classics library as it deals with the orality of Homeric poetry.  And finally, the Hamburger and Colin Wilson essays will be a nice additions (or editions)  to my shelves.

Autobiography and Letters:

I am especially excited about this stack.  I’ve already started reading John Cowper Powys’s novels and I upgraded to this hard copy edition of his Autobiography.  My Powys reading project will take me into 2019.  I am also planning an Anthony Powell reading project for the new year and was exited to find this first volume of his autobiography.  I own a copy of the first volume of Flaubert Letters which is in tatters, so not only did I get a copy in perfect condition but I also found a copy of the second volume.  Finally, I found a wonderful early, hard copy edition (Yale Press, 1933, collected by Thomas J. Wise) of Robert Browning’s Letters.

Fiction:

Finally, I did manage to buy some fiction as well.  I want to read Anita Brookner in the new year.  I already have one of her books sitting on my shelves so these two will be nice additions.

Bonus: Today’s Book Mail

I’ve also become captivated by Andre Gide’s writing and these two gems arrived today in the mail.  (I thought my family was going to have a fit when I arrived home with all of these books and there were also more books waiting for me in the post!)  I am planning to explore Gide in the new year and I am also awaiting a copy of his Journals which I have already sampled and am eager to dive into.

As Petrarch says, perhaps I have more than I ought?

It doesn’t matter, I will still collect books and read them anyway.

(For what it’s worth I did cull three large bags of books from my shelves today so, overall, I broke even.)

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Filed under American Literature, Autobiography, British Literature, Classics, Essay, Letters, Literary Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

Review: Enigma Variations by André Aciman

My Review:
enigma-variationsGiovanni, Maud, Manfred, Chloe and Heidi.  There are the people whom Paul has loved or lusted after throughout the course of his adult life and each one has left an indelible mark on his character and on his soul.  Aciman is a master at capturing the different stages of a love affair by devoting a chapter to each of Paul’s partners who all contribute varying degrees of love, lust, passion and commitment to the story of his life.

The first two chapters of the book are the most compelling and showcase Aciman’s ability to describe and capture emotions that are oftentimes too private to share.  Paul, the narrator, arrives on a small Italian that was his family’s summer home and reflects back on the last season his family spent there when he was an adolescent.   Paul remembers that as a twelve-year-old boy he experienced his first sexual awakening and because his was physically drawn to another man he is confused and ashamed.  Paul’s mother wanted to have an old desk, a family heirloom restored, so she invited the local cabinetmaker over to their home to examine the desk.  Giovanni, an attractive, strong man with attractive hands and a mellifluous voice immediately drew young, adolescent Paul’s attention:

That morning in our house, because he stood so very close to me, something undefined in his face left me as shaken and flustered as when I was asked once to recite a poem in front of the entire school, teachers, parents, distant relatives, friends of the family, visiting dignitaries, the world.  I couldn’t even look at him.  I needed to look away.  His eyes were too clear.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch them or swim in them.

Aciman is a master at describing the innocent and naïve feelings that come with a first crush.  Paul begins showing up at Giovanni’s shop and helps him refurbish his parents’ desk.  The desk has a secret compartment that was not discovered by anyone in the family until Giovanni inspects it.  The hidden box within the desk that remains unknown to the family is a fitting image and parallel for the secret feelings that Paul has for the young and handsome cabinetmaker.  As Paul is visiting the island for the first time in ten years, all of his memories and desires for Giovanni come flooding back to him.  Paul is also there to inspect his family’s home which was burned down by the locals for some mysterious reason.  Aciman provides a compelling plot as the mystery of solving this crime is slowly unraveled throughout the first chapter.

The second chapter is devoted to Manfred, a man Paul meets at the Central Park tennis court in New York.  Paul is now in his late-twenties, has some sort of a career in writing and publishing and is living in New York City with a woman named Maud.  Aciman builds a complex character through Paul to make the point that love, passion and sexuality are never easy or well-defined.  Paul is equally attracted to and sexually stimulated by men and women.  Even though he lives with Maud and has a great physical and emotional relationship with her, he cannot stop thinking about Manfred whom he sees every morning at the tennis court.  It takes Paul two years to work up the courage to speak to Manfred.  When Manfred pays him the slightest attention with a look, a nod or a remark, Paul is elated.  Once again, Aciman is so adept at capturing the various stages of a person who has a romantic crush on someone and can only love from afar.  Paul has a private, inner dialogue with his longed for Manfred:

Every morning I watch you walk to your court, I watch you play, and I watch you leave an hour and a half later.  Always the same, never brooding, just silent.  Occasionally, you’ll say “Excuse me” when I happen to stand in your way, and “Thank you’ when your ball drifts into my court and I hurl it back to you.  With these few words, I find comfort in false hope and hope in false starts.  I’ll coddle anything instead of nothing.  Even thinking that nothing can come of nothing gives me a leg to stand on, something to consider when I wake up in the middle of the night and can see nothing, not the blackout in my life, not the screen, not the cellar, not even hope and false comforts—just the joy of your imagined limb touching mine.  I prefer the illusion of perpetual fasting to the certainty of famine.  I have, I think, what’s called a broken heart.

Anyone who has ever loved someone from afar can identify with the pain and torture of Paul’s words.  Finally after two years of this hidden, inner torment, Paul and Manfred go out for a drink and lay all of their feelings out for one another.  We are led to believe that Paul has finally found the right person for him, that a man like Manfred can satisfy him in a way that could never be by a woman.  But, this is only the half-way point of Paul’s story and it is far from over.

The last three chapters all deal with women that Paul is further drawn to.  Chloe, who Paul has known since college, has an especially profound effect on his emotions.  They keep running into each other at social gatherings about every four years and every time these accidental meetings take place their sexual passion is intense.  But they can never commit to one another so their relationship is nothing but a series of false beginnings that never go anywhere.  In the last three chapters, Paul’s self-doubts and emotional confusion don’t fade away with time or age.  Whenever he finds himself in a committed relationship, he is always looking for or thinking about someone else.  I found his story at this point a bit tedious because even in middle age he has not found what can make him happy.

Always looking, always doubting, never happy, Paul becomes a depressing, cliche of a dissatisfied middle-aged man.  Perhaps this is meant to reflect Paul’s continuing struggle with his sexuality;  Aciman’s language and plot in the first part of the story is much more interesting than the ending of the novel.  But overall, it is still worth the read.  This book has many of the same themes and subjects he explores in his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name.  This story also reminded me of Bae Suah’s exploration of the complexities of human sexuality in her novel A Greater Music.

About the Author:
Andre AcimanAndré Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays. Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, has taught at Princeton and Bard and is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center.

Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published three other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008) and Eight White Nights (2010).

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Review: O Fallen Angel by Kate Zambreno

fallen-angelAnna K. Yoder, who interviewed Kate Zambreno in 2010 about her first novel, describes O Fallen Angel: “Zambreno’s first novel reads like the bastard offspring of an orgy between John Waters’s Polyester, Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.”  Similar to these other cutting edge artists, Zambreno experiments with structure, language, and setting to present a novel that is disturbing and bizarre.

Zambreno’s triptych story is written from the point-of-view of three very different characters: Mommy, Malachi and Maggie.  The background of the book is the American Midwest, somewhere in suburbia where everyone has a white picket fence, two or three children and a respectable job.  The catholic, white, middle class, suburban family portrayed in the book appears happy and idyllic on the surface.  But just like the Francis Bacon triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from which Zambreno takes her inspiration for the novel, the family is in reality dysfunctional, monstrous and grotesque.

When Mommy speaks, the text is child-like, simple and monotonous.  Mommy adheres to strict, Catholic rules of morality and expects the same from her children, Mikey Junior and Maggie.  Mommy’s daily life is ordered—cooking, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, walking the dog.  Mikey is her favorite child because he did what was expected of him, he married a nice woman, not too pretty, who has already given him two children.  It is her daughter, Maggie, that is considered  Mommy’s Fallen Angel because she has not gotten married and had babies, but instead has run off to the big, bad city.  Maggie is the “bad egg,” the one that Mommy tries to pretend doesn’t exist anymore.  Unlike her brother, Maggie has not conformed to Mommy’s expectations of what a good, Catholic girl’s life should look like.  The guilt, emotional blackmail and suppression of feelings don’t work on Maggie like they do on her brother.

Maggie’s point-of-view is focused on her body—raw, corporeal, sexual.  She has sex with lots of men and confuses physical contact with love.  She goes to college as far away as she can to get out from under the expectations of her parents who don’t approve of her chosen major of psychology.  And when she drops out of college and takes a job as a waitress they try not to think about their “bad apple” and insist that any failure of Maggie’s is no fault of theirs.  Every time we encounter Maggie’s voice she seems to be losing more control of her life.  She sleeps with men to get things she needs, consumes a concoction of different substances and loses her job.  Maggie’s body, bloated and laden with genital warts and drugs is an outward reflection of the mess that her mind has become.

Malachi is the most bizarre voice of the three presented in the book.  Like his Biblical namesake, his appears to be a prophet of doom, a Cassandra like figure, as he wanders about the streets of the suburbs and observes middle-class people going about their daily routines. Zambreno also uses Malachi’s speech as a type of chorus to make political commentaries throughout her text. He reads one of his messages:

A great fireball will erupt from the sky

one cannot reason anymore with the President

one life for the life of
thousands

lies lies lies
airplanes

warlords
profits
false idols
prophet

Finally, an additional note on structure which reflects Zambreno’s nod to the Oresteia.  The House of Atreus from which Agamemnon is a descendant  is one of the most morally reprehensible and fucked up families in all of Greek myth; they violate almost every social taboo imaginable.  Zambreno could not have chosen a more appropriate model on which to base her dysfunctional, Midwestern family.  In the style of Ancient Greek tragedy, she inserts choruses within her text that foreshadow the themes and the disturbing outcome towards which her narrative is moving.  The book opens with this chorus:

There is a corpse in the center of this story
There is a corpse and it is ignored
No one looks at the corpse
Everyone no-looks at the corpse

There is a gaper’s block, it is blocking up traffic
It is in broad daylight, this dead body

There are other corpses that are ignored:
corpses far away in another country
enemy corpses

living corpses
walking corpses
working corpses

But when a mere mortal dies we do not see it
We look we gape but we do not see it
We do not mourn the ordinary

It is nothing like the death of a celebrity
To lose them, these constant images
is to remind ourselves that we will die
We will die, too, yet no one will care

Our deaths will not be televised
Then who will watch it?

As someone who grew up in a very conservative family and who was sent to an all girls Catholic high school, I found this book extremely difficult to read at times.  I always felt as if I were being crushed under the weight of the strict rules, guilt, and suppression of feelings that were engendered at school and at home.  I didn’t find my true identity until I was able to break free of that tradition and that religion being forced upon me.  My life, of course, did not take the same destructive path as Maggie’s does  in the book, but I can certainly understand why her life under her parent’s influence brought on such extreme behavior.

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Review: Country Life by Ken Edwards

My Review:
countrylifeOne of my favorite things about reading books from small presses are the literary gems that I discover from their quiet and brave authors.  Country Life, the latest novel from Ken Edwards, is one such piece of fiction released by Unthank Books.  It is not surprising that Edwards is also a poet,  has published several volumes of poetry and is also a musician.  The text of Country Life oftentimes reads more like a poem or a song than the prose of fiction.  This is very fitting for Edwards’s main characters who are musicians that like to do interesting experiments with their craft.

The main protagonist of Country Life is twenty-one-year old Dennis Chaikowsky, an unemployed musician who is house-sitting for his vacationing parents.  Dennis lives out in the country, on the coast of a peninsula, in a quiet neighborhood that is overshadowed by a nuclear power station.  The peaceful sounds of the sea and wildlife are disturbed by the lights and noises of the power station.  Dennis is recording all of the sounds of the peninsula and mixing them with his computer to compose what he calls “World Music” in 25 parts.  The landscape and the sounds emanating from it become an integral part of Edward’s deeply poetic text:

The town lay silent and all the little birds.  And from it, we may follow the railway line, venturing over rust and rubble.  And the light from the coast.  Information sent along the pathway to the superior colliculus, responsible for controlling and initiating eye movements, producing visual awareness.  Travail and trouble.  The lorries on the road.  We may suppose you call it territorial behavior.  With auditions, something seemingly miraculous occurs.  The sense of mystery, of a real danger to be faced, of an overwhelming spiritual gain to be won, were of the essential nature of the tale.

Dennis’s closest friend is a neo-Marxist named Tarquin who lives in the city and is a freelance writer for a business magazine.  Even though they appear to be close friends, their arguments about philosophy cause them to be constantly annoyed with one another. One Sunday night when Dennis and Tarquin are roaming around the peninsula and arguing about philosophy, they encounter an old woman who is lost and confused.  The men are very kind to her, especially Tarquin, and they figure out that she has dementia and they take her back to her home in a nearby housing complex.  There is a chilling argument between Dennis and Tarquin about helpless and lonely people like this old woman and what value they have to society.  Dennis has very dark thoughts about harming the woman and says that someone like her, who is making no contributions to society and is a drain on society, is expendable.  But Tarquin believes, in the Marxist tradition, that we are all collectively responsible for one another regardless of what we contribute to society.

While they are taking the old woman home they encounter a musician named Severin and his wife Alison.  There is a sinister aura that surrounds the couple and there are hints that Severin is addicted to drugs and abusive to his wife.  Severin travels for long periods of time with his band, so this allows Dennis and Alison to spend quite a bit of time together and to have a sexual encounter.  Alison seems lonely and for her the sex is an isolated incident, never to be repeated.  But Dennis becomes deeply attached to Alison and wants a long-term relationship with Alison. The best way to describe the plot of this book is a tragicomedy.  Because Dennis is naïve, young, and inexperienced he gets himself into ridiculous situations that have an underlying tone of humor.  But we know from the beginning, from his encounter with Alison, that things are not going to work out for them very happily in the end.  Edwards foreshadows with his poetic prose, “Here the hero sets out on a journey with no clear idea of the task before him.”

I received a review copy of this interesting book from Ben Winston who has started the website called Vibrant Margins.  The site is dedicated to bringing readers the best and most interesting books from small presses.   Readers can order subscriptions of books in various amounts.  I highlighted Ben’s site when I did my post about small presses and how to support them with subscription plans.  I am going to review one more book in the inaugural lineup of Vibrant Margins, so stay tuned for another post which also features a generous book giveaway from Ben.

About the Author:
Ken Edwards was born in Gibraltar in 1950, went to King’s College London in 1968, where he studied under the late Eric Mottram, and lived in London until 2004, when he moved with his wife Elaine to Hastings.

Since 1993, he has run Reality Street, which was formed through the amalgamation of his own Reality Studios imprint with Wendy Mulford’s Street Editions.

Ken has also been involved in composing and performing music since the early 1990s. Currently he plays bass guitar and sings with The Moors and Afrit Nebula, bands he co-founded with Elaine Edwards.

His publications include eight + six (Reality Street), Good Science (Roof Books, New York) Bird Migration in the 21st Century (Spectacular Diseases, Peterborough), and a first novel Futures (Reality Street). Other recent publications are: Nostalgia for Unknown Cities (Reality Street, 2007) and Bardo (Knives Forks & Spoons Press, 2011). A collection of short fictions, Down With Beauty, appeared in 2013, and, as of 2016, he was working on a new novel, The Grey Area.

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Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction

Review: The Gloaming by Melanie Finn

I received a review copy of this title from Two Dollar Radio via Edelweiss.

My Review:
the-gloamingThe country of Tanzania has one of the highest rates of albinism in the world, but it is also one of the most dangerous places for albinos to live.  They are shunned by their communities because they are viewed as ghosts who dwell on earth and never die.  They also live in constant fear of violence because body parts from albinos are sought out to be used in potions made by African witch doctors.  When Pilgrim Jones, the female protagonist in Melanie Finn’s latest novel, finds herself in dusty, decrepit and remote towns of Tanzania, she encounters firsthand the superstition and violence that plagues albinos living in East Africa.

Each of the characters in this novel, which has been described as a  literary thriller,  are dealing with grief and loss in different ways.  Pilgrim, whose point of view takes up more than half of the narrative, has fled to Tanzania because of a double tragedy that she suffered while living in Switzerland.  Pilgrim’s story alternates back and forth between her time spent in Switzerland and in East Africa.  Pilgrim was married to a human rights lawyer named Tom who suddenly abandons her for another woman with whom he is having a child.    Pilgrim married Tom while very young and has put off her own career aspirations in order to follow him around the world while he prosecutes people who are guilty of the most heinous human rights violations.  Pilgrim is numb and floating around in a world  in which she doesn’t know how to live without Tom as her husband.  The only reason she was living in a small town in Switzerland was due to the fact that this was the last place to which Tom had led her.

The narrative shifts back and forth abruptly and Pilgrim suddenly finds herself in the hospital with very little memory of the tragic car accident in which she was involved.  Finn draws our attention to cruel fate and the series of coincidences which add up to a tragedy that has far-reaching and devastating effects.  Pilgrim can’t help but think that if Tom hadn’t abandoned her then she would not have been in the car that rainy, sad day.  She tries to escape the haunting memories of her failed marriage and the car accident that caused so much grief and sorrow by choosing one of the most remote places on earth to hide; she knows that in Tanzania no one will know anything about her or her past.  But what she fails to realize is that as a white, American woman, which is an anomaly in East Africa, she attracts a great deal of interest.

Finn describes Tanzania in a poetic language that brings us to the dark continent that is simultaneously beautiful and ugly.  Pilgrim rents a cottage in Tanzania that overlooks a bay.  A stout, Midwestern woman named Gloria, who has fled the U.S. in order to escape her own misery,  rents her the cottage:

We stand in the gloaming. The late evening light, soft and translucent, has made the world benign.  The house is white and round and sheltered by red-blooming tulip trees.  A hundred yards from the door, a low sandy cliff dips to the sea and a swarm of mangroves.  White egrets flock to roost.  The sun slips behind the mangroves, creating spangles and diamonds through the leaves.  The air vibrates with the wild looping song of Bulbul birds.

But the beauty of this place is tainted by albino body parts left in the box, orphans who are abandoned because they have AIDS, and pregnant women who die because there is no proper health care available.    The second part of the novel is told through the eyes of characters with whom Pilgrim has come in contact and who are fighting back against grief that, at times, feels all-consuming.  Dorothea, for instance,  is a doctor at a clinic in Magulu where basic supplies like antibiotics and bandages are scarce.  Dorothea’s husband was Kenyan and he disappeared one night over the border into his native country with their two young sons.  Magulu is as close to Kenya that she can possibly be so Dorothea takes a job at this pathetic, wretched clinic.  Her boyfriend is the town policeman who has seen people inflict the most awful atrocities on one another.  Magulu feels like a desolate place where no one really wants to go but people end up there because of an awful twist of fate.

The book ends with the point of view of Detective Inspector Paul Strebel who was the lead investigator on Pilgrim’s car accident in Switzerland.  Strebel is a sad man who is going through the motions of his life, especially where his marriage is concerned.  But when he meets Pilgrim, a lonely and vulnerable woman who has been abandoned by the rest of the world,  he experiences lust and a sexual awakening.  He knows this is unethical and wrong but he can’t help himself:

But now he felt the urge to touch this young woman, to hold her and comfort her—and he could not pretend the urge was simply protective.  He as appalled.  And in equal measure, he was stunned by the small hollow at the base of her throat, by the upturn of flesh where her upper lip bowed.  It was as if she’d suddenly come into focus; she was clear, so brilliantly, perfectly clear and distinct against the grey, oaty ass of his life. He felt a surge of happiness—of being alive.

Strebel sees people at the worst moments of their lives, when they have lost loved ones and suffered unspeakable tragedies.  He sees in Pilgrim an escape, even if only temporary, from his  “grey” and oftentimes black existence.

Melanie Finn has demonstrated in this book that she is a master of lyrical prose which at times has a staccato feel due to her penchant for short and abrupt sentences; yet each word flows, one into the next and they fit together into one beautiful and descriptive narrative.  I highly recommend The Gloaming not only as a literary thriller but also as a book which enlightens us about the contradictory nature of the beautiful content of Africa and as a story that has a timeless message about the cruel nature of fate.

About the Author:
m-finn Melanie Finn has worked as a screenwriter and a journalist, and is the founder and director of the Natron Health Project, which brings healthcare to Maasai communities in Northern Tanzania. Her first novel, Away From You, was published to great critical acclaim in 2004, and was longlisted for the ORANGE and IMPAC PRIZEs.

 

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