A Book, Read – #62/2016 – Ormsby, Mike – Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania

 

It should be noted that this book was provided to me by the author.

There’s a certain cheerful arrogance to a writer who puts, on the front cover of his book, that one should ‘close your guidebook and meet the people’, and that the way to do it is through this text and not another.  I say arrogance because, well, it presumes that one individual’s experience is sufficiently deep and broad to overturn a Lonely Plant guide or what have you, and cheerful because it’s clear the author is poking fun.

And it’s an interesting tactic to have this kind of mix on the front cover, before a proper word of the text has been read.

Ormsby’s book is split into 60 or so sections across 300 or so pages.  It’s tight, and short, and the through-lines are Romania and Mike himself.  Characters repeat, sure, but this is about an observer wryly observing, and about a country that wants to be modern, sleek, effective, technological, European, while remaining corrupt, self-involved, ridiculous, expensive, cheap, European.

And what is Romania, exactly?  I have the good fortune to have read a reasonable number of Romanian writers, and to consider at least one a friend.  Which is to say, I know of Romania through literature and informative emails, but I’ve never been.  I have an image in my mind, and I don’t truly know how accurate it is.  I imagine a place divided by its desire to properly enter into the EU fold, while still resenting/remembering the Ceaușescu period, and wondering exactly where the country fits.  Is it truly European?  Is it something else?  Is it a mix?  And will it ever work?

And who is Mike Ormsby?  He is a writer, a journalist, a man who makes his living from his pen, and who has chosen, at least for now, to live in Romania. It’s cheap, except when it isn’t.  Things work, except when they don’t.  People look out for themselves, or their organisation, and the broader community, or the understanding of common sense, suffers.  It’s all told very well, not overly descriptive, not overly coloured with thoughts and feelings.  He writes it down as it is, and leaves it up to us to appreciate the absurdity.

Now, at the end of the book, I want to go to Romania. Why?  Well, I like the idea of place that crumbles, advances, shocks and smiles all at once.  I wouldn’t say it’s chaos, and I wouldn’t say it’s surreal, but there’s a certain quality of – the ridiculous.  It’s all a joke that everyone is in on, even those who don’t laugh.  Everyone knows there’s a punchline, and they know, also, that they may not yet know what that punchline is.  And they may never know, but someone else will, and they’ll laugh.  Romania.

To reiterate – it should be noted that this book was provided to me by the author.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #61/2016 – Pynchon, Thomas – Bleeding Edge

Now now now.  I have long admired Thomas Pynchon’s work.  Perhaps it was foolish of me, but when I was very young (22?) I read Gravity’s Rainbow.  It was challenging, and a lot of it went over my head, but it, along with a few other books I read that year, were seminal in showing me that literature could be something other than pure description of action and relaying of words and thoughts.  There was another way.

Gravity’s Rainbow worked for me in part, I think, because the grounding of its setting is so well known, and carries with it more weight than perhaps any other.  I speak, of course, of World War II.  I didn’t need to know about Pynchon’s herero’s or how far his conspiracy theories went, but I knew Hitler and D Day and Churchill.  Everyone does.  I always had a hook upon which to hang my hat.

And then I read Mason & Dixon, V, and Vineland.  They didn’t have the same level of grounding, and at times I was lost beyond that which I would like.  I persevered, but Gravity’s Rainbow remained important to me, while the others works were merely excellent.  I could see the genius, but it didn’t affect me as greatly.

Enter Bleeding Edge.  This novel is set immediately before, and immediately after, the September 11 attacks in 2001 in New York.  The characters are, more or less, connected to technology and the internet, and they are young and geeky.  So, commensurate with my own good self at that time.  I was 19 then, and many of the characters are in their early twenties.  All of this means that the references, the lingo, the slang – it’s all mine.  I recognise everything.  I understand everything (well…).

And what does that mean?

I’m not sure.  To be honest, I didn’t like reading references to Final Fantasy or Pokemon or Metal Gear Solid or – etc.  I’m not entirely sure why, either.  It was too close to the fluff of the life that I know, the purely entertainment side of that time period.  But is that so different to his other books?  Probably not, but those time periods are not mine, so to me they seem both exotic and interesting.  But when it is mine I just find them a touch – problematic.

And yet, I think that in thirty years time when I am in my sixties and nostalgic for my twenties, Bleeding Edge will probably be a much stronger book.  I’m too close, and was too connected, to the lingo and pop culture of Bleeding Edge, and thus I have failed the book.  It hasn’t failed me.

Otherwise, of course, it’s Pynchon, which at this stage of his career means you know what you are getting in for.  I’m not here to critically analyse the book (clearly), so let me instead say that it is on the level with, say, Against the Day or Vineland.  Very good, but not critically important Pynchon the way Gravity’s Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 49 is.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #15/2016 – Rey Rosa, Rodrigo – Severina

I loved this book.

Let me get that out of the way quickly.  I loved it, I read it in one sitting in about an hour, and I can’t wait to read it again.

I bought the book from Folio Books in Brisbane, which is for my money the best bookstore in Brisbane.  I bought it in 2014, and then – I didn’t read it.  I remember quite well the day I bought Severina.  I caught the red Free Bus which loops endlessly around the city centre and looked out the window while I held the book in my hand.  I had intended to read it on the way home, perhaps, or later that night.  I didn’t.  I don’t know why.  I remember buying the book, but I don’t remember what made me put it aside.

At any rate, nearly two years later, I decided to give it a go.  The edition I have has on the front cover a photograph of a young woman facing away from the camera, facing bookshelves filled with books.  Of course it appealed (From a distance the sound of a car horn).

Severina‘s plot is concerned with a young woman named Severina who regularly comes into a small book store and steals books.  Sometimes one, sometimes more.  The perspective of the novella is that of a young man working at the book store.  Naturally he is intrigued.  He starts to record which titles she is stealing in an effort to determine who she is and what she wants.  Is she a poor student?  Is she selling (laughter) the books she steals?  Is she taking them home to read (there is a sound of applause in the distance).  Whatever it is, he’s curious.  And it doesn’t hurt that she is attractive.

And enigmatic.  Oh, yes.  They start to talk, she is happy to visit his home, to be with him.  She tells him stories of her home life, with her grandfather.  Or is it lover?  It’s unclear.  Is she with the book store employee now, or with the grandfather/lover?  He tracks down her home, visits them.  The novella fractures, becomes dreamlike (nightmarelike), and it’s unclear what is happening or why.

Severina works because Rodrigo Rey Rosa takes the time (in an 86-page novella, no less) to anchor the work concretely to a place, two people, a theme.  And then he can disrupt it.  If the novella had become too vague too quickly it would have felt too gaseous, an insubstantial nothing serving to show off a prose writer’s dreams of writing bad poetry.  But this does not occur.  The two main characters have time enough to converse, interact, develop a relationship, and then it’s shattered – or isn’t shattered – or might be shattered.

We are left at the end confused about the woman and her life, but attracted to her mystery and what she seems to represent.  And, tangentially, to the mystery of books and literature.

So – the perfect book for me?  (gales of laughter and then, silence)

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #14/2016 – Amado, Jorge – The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray

 

Sometimes when I read a book, particularly a short one, I come to the rapid realisation that what the author is trying to achieve is not something I am interested in reading about.  Small books have a certain responsibility to make their intentions known early, or at the very least, they possess a measure of focus which ensures that their critical aspect (be it plot, style, theme, metaphor, philosophy, etc) comes to the fore and burns away other, less necessary fripperies that might exist in a 300+ page novel.

For me, Jorge Amado’s The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray is the kind of novel where, by twenty pages in (of 70) it became abundantly clear to me that I was not the intended audience, or more accurately, that there was nothing here for me.  The first death is a real, physical, actual death, the second death is the death of the created man, that is, different facets of Quincas’ life converge and reflect and realise that they know not the whole but the part of a man.  And that’s fine.  It’s a reasonable idea.  It’s played out in a jungly, poor area, which isn’t aesthetically to my taste, but it’s also an idea which, in truth, has probably been well described in the sentences above.  For me, I don’t then need the book that examines the idea – the summary is enough.

But I am not everyone, and books are for more people than solely me.  And that’s more than fine.  I considered abandoning this book, but really, at 70 pages that seemed churlish.  Instead I finished it on a bus ride home, put it away, and admitted to myself that the two other novels of Amado that I own would like shift lower down my to-read pile.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #13/2016 – Lerner, Ben – Leaving the Atocha Station

 

Though I finished this book on April 2, I began the book on the 31st of March, which is my birthday.  That weekend, my wife and I went to the Coast to relax, enjoy the sun, have a nice wine or two, and read and read and read.  The Saturday was the 2nd, which is when I read the bulk of the book.

Unfortunately I spent a good chunk of Saturday morning in hospital, which is a story for (perhaps) another day.

At any rate, that afternoon, bruised and battered from falling on to some rocks on the beach, I read almost the entire book with a glass of wine in hand.  I could hear waves from outside the bedroom, and if I glanced up I could see far-off cargo ships slowly making their way from port to port.  At times a seagull landed on a nearby power pole.  It was a peaceful afternoon.

Lerner’s book engendered within me a strong sense of nostalgia for Spain and Madrid, a country and city I spent six glorious weeks in during the July-August months of 2012.  I didn’t drench myself in sex or drugs the way Lerner’s character does (My wife was here in Australia, and drugs aren’t really for me), but I felt a strong kinship with the sense of freedom and of being untethered to reality that another country can provide, particularly when that country speaks a different language to your own, and when you admire the culture and literary history of the place.

The protagonist of Leaving the Atocha Station is a loner and a dreamer, and is a bit lost in his life, but he isn’t lonely or melancholy, which is a nice change.  Too often these kinds of books see their main characters learning or – worse – growing as a result of their experience somewhere exotic and far away.  Not in this case.  The character changes, things happen, realisations are made, but really – epiphanies are for bad movies and worse books.  Instead, disappearing into another country allows one the opportunity to examine who they are and who they wish to be, and to help develop a framework for becoming their best self when they return to reality.  It is possible in situations such as these to extricate yourself from the mundanity of ordinary life (because you are not living your ordinary life in these times), and explore different potential versions of yourself.

I connected very well with this book.  I have missed Spain since I left it, and I found a lot of myself in the protagonist.  I made a birthday vow to return to Spain, which I still hope will happen.  This time with my wife, who was asleep beside me for most of the time, her own book, a Jodi Picoult, I think, opened and folded page-side-down, her own glass of wine half-finished, and rapidly warming in the afternoon sun.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #12/2016 – Ríos, Julián – The House of Ulysses

 

Where to begin?

I could start by saying that I first read James Joyce’s Ulysses in late June and July of 2004.  I devoured it, or it devoured me, for a 7-day period in which I did nothing but read it and go to work.

I could start by saying that I have read James Joyce’s Ulysses a few more times since, but never with the same intensity.  Each time I read it I am a better reader, and I gain more from it.  I appreciate the technical mastery of the work, as well as the Catholic and Irish history and colour.  I think, each time, that many of the sections are pages too long, and that the reader is capable of understanding the technique or purpose long before Joyce stops proudly showing us.

I could start by saying that it is a book I have abandoned, at least three times, partially due to length, partially due to reading it, these days, very slowly.  Whenever I read it now, I like to read 10 pages per day until it’s done, because I find it all a bit too exhausting.

I could start by saying that Julián Ríos’ novel, The House of Ulysses, is related to Ulysses in a manner similar to my paragraphs above.  His work is a lot more clever than my brief paragraphs, and far, far better integrated with the structure and techniques of Ulysses.  Ríos echoes the chapter layout of Ulysses, and on top of that, and separate to Ulysses, it’s very cleverly laid out with screenshots from works in progress on a computer, broken-up text which jumps about the novel and its themes, and so on.  It’s fun, it works, but, for me, the cleverness of it was understood within the first 50 pages, and then it went on for another 215.  I didn’t abandon it, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone else does, either, as the variations are interesting, funny, and very, very smart.  But it is a one trick book, and your interest will be determined by how effective or interesting you find the trick.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #11/2016 – Eliot, T. S. – Murder in the Cathedral

 

There was a brief time in my life where I thought I wanted to be a playwright.  I was reading Stoppard and Pinter heavily, and I thought they were showing me a way that I hadn’t ever considered and which seemed, back then in 2009, to resonate strongly within me.

Since then, I’ve read a variety of playwrights and plays, and while my desire to write plays has softened, my appreciation and respect for this facet of literature remains intense.  I consider plays a pure, distilled, positively constrained part of literature, and I hope to expand my awareness of the art form.  I remain woefully ignorant of foreign-language playwrights, and English-language plays, too.

Now, Eliot I like.  I have read quite a number of his poems.  I am honestly not a poetry man, but I like his work.

But what I do not like is historical fiction.

Why?  I don’t know.  I’ve thought about it, and I don’t know.  If a book was written in 1650 and is set in ‘the present day’ of 1650, then I am happy.  But a book written 200 years later that is set then?  For some reason I can’t stomach it.  I really don’t understand it.  Perhaps because I find it an excuse to use an historical time as a metaphor instead of some aspect of the writing itself?

But then I like Gravity’s Rainbow, which is set during World War II and was written in the 1970s.  I like War and Peace, which was written seventy years after Napoleon’s intrusion into Russia.  So I am a liar.  But perhaps it is the distance?  I struggled with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  And I struggled with Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

It’s set in the twelfth century.  I understand, of course, that the heart of a human doesn’t really change, just the external trappings, but for the reasons listed above I couldn’t really enjoy it.  I couldn’t bring myself to engage with the struggle of Thomas Becket.  I’m also not religious, but that shouldn’t matter too strongly.

And so I don’t have much to say about this.  I powered through it, because it was short, and because I like Eliot.  I admit that I did not give it the attention it deserved, and should perhaps have avoided it altogether, in appreciation of my own limitations.  But I did not.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Abandoned – #3/2016 – Simmons, Dan – Muse of Fire

What does it mean to be an abandoned book?  Or, at least, a book abandoned by me?  Not a lot.  I have two real criteria I use to evaluate whether I am ‘allowed’ to abandon a book.

The first is that I need to have read 15% or more of the book.  Any less and it’s probably not fair to the book to make such a judgement.  Of course, there are books I know I will never read even 1 page from, but that’s different to considering a book worth reading at all.

The second is that the book needs to have been identified by me as being a work that is either true to my sensibilities, or isn’t.  That is, I know I don’t really like Naturalism in literature, but that doesn’t stop me from liking some Zola.  It just means I allow myself the permission to abandon something of his earlier than, say, an existentialist work.

Science fiction is tricky.  It’s a genre I want to like, so I think I allow it more of my brain space than another type of literature that I dislike (say: Romantic literature).  So, every now and again I try yet another science fiction book, and almost always I am disappointed.  I don’t like space operas, and I generally dislike the ideas part of an idea-driven science fiction work.  Honestly this doesn’t leave me much room to manoeuvre and that is, without a doubt, my problem and my fault.

All this leads me to say that when I opened Dan Simmons’ novella, Muse of Fire, and discovered that it was very much an ideas science fiction work I was, well.  I was stuck.  It wasn’t very long (90 – 120 pages?  I don’t have it to hand), so I could easily hit 15%.  But that didn’t seem fair.  In the end I read 25 pages, and most of the time I knew – I knew – I knew – it wasn’t for me.  I felt it in my bones.  That isn’t a particularly intellectual reason to drop a book, but when a work resonates with me my heart quickens, my mind engages, and I participate in the work as fully as possible.  And when it doesn’t resonate, nothing happens.  I am bored, I put the book away, I browse YouTube or something.  And to do that at 25 pages says a lot.

About me.

So I can’t fairly say much about Muse of Fire.  I’m sure it’s a fine novella for someone who isn’t me.  And I don’t write that to be slighting.  But I also can’t honestly provide a critique of it at all.  I read 25 pages.  It didn’t feel like my kind of book.  And so I dropped it.

Sorry, Dan.  But I haven’t judged you and will try something else one day.  It just didn’t work for me.  That’s my fault.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Abandoned – #2/2016 – Erikson, Steven – House of Chains

 

Another abandoned book.  Is this a habit?  What will be the similarities between these books?  The differences?

Well.

The previous book I abandoned in 2016 was Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery.  Eco’s writing is always erudite, clever, humorous and engaged with history and politics.  And yet it never quite clicks with me.

Erikson, on the other hand, is a throw-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink fantasy writer who likes to build up to ‘epic’ moments which show characters doing things that aren’t supposed to be done, and that’s really it.

Imagine.  For 400 pages of a 900 page book, you are told, from various view points and by multiple characters, that a certain type of sword has been forged to fight the gods that used the ‘heart power’ of a character and has only ever been made between 2 and 3 feet in length (which is enormous).  A character comes along and using his ‘heart power’ he creates a 6 foot sword and then kills some gods.  Everyone gasps.

That’s Erikson.

I have the strong impression, when reading Erikson, that he spends a good amount of time (ie hundreds of pages) throwing whatever he feels like on to the page, and then he brings it all together by a character suddenly doing something ‘awesome’ and then the book climaxes and either ends or carries or until another ‘awesome’ thing occurs.  It’s kind of exhausting, because you never know what or who is important until suddenly they do an ‘awesome’ thing and are identified as a major player.  Until then it’s just characters wandering around being cynical and violent.

I despise cynical and violent.  Levity is an important part of art, as is humour, as is love, as is friendship, as is charity, as is disappointment, as is melancholy, as is regret.  But being cynical about chopping off someone’s head, or feeling ‘regret’ because you didn’t assassinate someone when you had the chance?  Well – that’s nothing.  It’s a bunch of metal toy soldiers being rammed into one another by a cranky toddler.  It’s meaningless.

Sometimes I really love the cheesy escapism of fantasy.  And the sometimes I read a writer like Erikson.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.

A Book, Read – #10/2016 – Bester, Alfred – The Demolished Man

 

I don’t read a lot of science fiction.  It’s something I try to rectify every 6 or 12 months, usually with quite a bit of failure attached to my attempt.  And that’s ok.

For this go around, I decided to give a science fiction classic a try.  This particular book was published in 1953, and has the honour of being the first Hugo Award winner.

In The Demolished Man society is split into different categories of telepathic ability. Most people have little or no powers in this area, some people have a reasonable amount, and some have a lot.  There’s a fine line between duty and service, and wealth generation, which means that the very, very best of the telepathic citizens are treated well by the government but expected to serve.  Others, with some ability, can use it to manipulate people and become rich.

Murder, apparently, does not exist.  You can’t hold the thought of murder in your head unnoticed by telepathic police.

Or can you?

And that’s the book.  A character believes he can, there’s a lot of futuristic decadence, some of the terminology is a bit on the nose, the slang is a little silly, but the book is fine.  It’s a police procedural tucked into a science fiction book, which is probably why it works.  But it isn’t as interesting as it thinks it is, and so much of it seems dated, now.

I don’t know.  What do we do with a book that has been surpassed by other works, but blazed a trail?  Shakespeare and Cervantes are unsurpassed, but the methods, techniques, characters and styles they showed us are infinitely expandable.  To expect the same of Bester is ridiculous, of course, but it perhaps speaks to the historian of science fiction.  I can’t see a benefit to reading this book now, because better writers have written better books exploring more nuanced versions of the same idea.

But – but – but – sure, it’s fine.  I didn’t feel like I wasted my time reading the book.  I enjoyed the experimentation with text layout.  The book came together fine.  But, like I said, I don’t know what the benefit is to reading this story.  So much of it is clumsy in a way that more confident science fiction writers in the following decades were not.

The Books, Read page contains a list of all of the books I have read over the years.