Monday, November 30, 2015

Exercises in StyleExercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
My rating: 1 of 5 stars


At least a part of my acute disappointment with Raymond Queneau's famous Exercises in Style (1947) makes little sense. Despite the title that clearly refers to style and restricts the scope of the work, I had expected something like Kurosawa's Rashomon, where different accounts of the same event are provided by several people, from different points of view, thus yielding contradictory yet somehow complementary stories. Mr. Queneau obviously delivers on his promise and the book illustrates how a simple story can be told using different styles (manners) of writing.

A passenger on a Parisian bus describes how he noticed a fellow commuter, conspicuous by his long neck, having a slight altercation with yet another passenger. Later in the day, the narrator sees the same long-necked man talking to another man and being told that he needs another button in his overcoat. This is it! This is the entire story that Mr. Queneau tells 99 (yes, ninety-nine) times, using different writing styles.

While some retellings read well - for instance, the story told as a dream (#7), as a blurb (#24), the Tactile telling (#56), and, perhaps most impressively, the Opera English style (#83) - and some others are clever and funny - like the retelling entitled Awkward (#50), which indeed reminds me of my own lame writing, or the Parts of Speech (#74) list, where the author offers a buffet of words for the reader to construct the story DYI style - many are just plain graceless and devoid of any charm or humor - for instance the "styles" that omit the beginnings of words, their mid-parts, or endings. It is because of the weak, forced retellings that the whole book has - to me - a belabored, artificial feeling. I hesitate to say this, but the quantity by far dominates the quality.

One needs to praise the translator, Barbara Wright, for superbly handling the job that must have been really difficult. Alas - at least in my slow-witted and simpleminded view - the book itself is an inconsequential literary trifle.

One and a half stars.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The FollyThe Folly by Ivan Vladislavić
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Practice makes perfect, and Malgas was something of a perfectionist. He practised seeing the new house until it came out of his ears. He popped open its rooms as if they were Chinese lanterns and stretched out entire wings like concertinas. He telescoped columns and slotted them into moist sockets on balconies. He unrolled floors and stacked up stairs. He rollercoastered reams of tiles over the rafters.
Then, in the wink of an eye, he did all of these things again in reverse.

I could consider Ivan Vladislavić's The Folly (1993) the second enigmatic book in a row that I have read this week, after Nicolas Freeling's This Is the Castle. Yet books can be considered enigmatic only if one looks for some meaning hidden under layers of prose, some messages that can be filtered out from the text. I believe that the prose in a book can stand on its own, without needing a crutch of some deeper truths to be gleaned from it. I think this is the case in Mr. Vladislavić's hilarious novel: it does not need interpretation and should be taken as is. The author seems to have had fun writing the book, and I certainly have had a fun time reading it.

Mr. Nieuwenhuizen (which, of course, means "new house", and which - for sake of brevity - I will abbreviate to N.) arrives to take possession of his property - an empty plot of land, overrun by weeds and covered with trash - and sets a camp there. When visited by Mr. Malgas, a curious neighbor (whose wife calls him Mr while he calls her Mrs), N. claims that he intends to build a house on the (p)lot. Mr - who runs a hardware store and is quite bored with his uneventful life with Mrs - is intrigued with his new neighbor's plan and tries to help him by procuring various potentially useful objects. Gradually, he seems to be gaining N.'s confidence and is allowed to help in the activities. When they finish clearing the lot, N. begins preparations to design a plan of the house. Pretty soon, while Mr gets more and more involved in the project, the reader begins to understand that N. does not have any intention to build anything. Still, the building plan is created, in the form of a tangle of strings held by huge nails hammered into the ground (N. sometimes resorts to using his forehead to accomplish the task). The crucial moment comes when Mr discovers an ability to visualize, at will, the building as if it were a real object. From there things go quickly to their logical conclusion.

Not only does the author seems to be having immense fun constructing the delightfully surreal plot but also he constantly plays with the language: in fact, I have had more fun with the quirky prose than with the bizarre plot. For instance, take the snippet "She switched off the set, belatedly, and the image died down into two coals under her eyelids. Remember, embers, mbrs, mrs, s." Wonderful! Take the lists of words that begin with a 'c'! Take N.'s peculiar way of moving around, reminiscent of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. Not to forget the overall hilarity of situations and dialogues between Mr and Mrs, who is more grounded in the so-called reality and less than impressed with the ongoing "construction activities".

There are a few items that probably go deeper than the pure surrealism and language play, but I am unable to quite grasp the author's intent (if indeed he had any). The most intriguing are the references to small-scale models of actual houses: the house-shaped mailbox as well as the models of houses, which N. conjures and juggles with like a magician. Is it a sort of literary mise en abyme? Also, the author - more than once - writes about how Mr's fingers either fit or don't fit into the ear of a mug. Curiouser and curiouser!

To sum up: while The Folly is a fascinating read that I have fully enjoyed, I still prefer books which - in addition to masterly form - resonate with me on deeper levels.

Three and a half stars.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

This Is the CastleThis Is the Castle by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] it was like asking "What is a novel?" Characters, a catastrophe, said Mauriac laconically; how right he was. One dealt in characters and one tried to understand the catastrophes."

Mauriac's laconic definition of a novel, as cited by Nicolas Freeling in This Is the Castle (1968) gives us a possible hint about how to interpret this enigmatic entry in the author's literary output. So while I do not claim to "really" understand the book, I suspect that Mr. Freeling - at least to some extent - is playing a game with the readers, teasing them with metafictional tricks. Let's begin with an outline of the plot.

Monsieur Dutheil is a popular French novelist whose books - although far from top-rated by the literary critics - sell so well that he lives "in a manor house with a formal garden, and an estate with vines and everything, and a view of the Alps as well as the Jura". He lives in this opulent house - which is the castle from the title of the novel - with his family and a great number of Spanish servants. His publisher accompanied by a literary journalist from New York are coming from Paris to visit the author. The plot leisurely - extremely leisurely! - follows the everyday events in the castle as well as the two travelers' progress. They arrive in the evening, in time for a formal dinner, but before it begins an altercation occurs between Dutheil and his almost grown-up daughter. The night falls, and then - an impatient reader would say "Finally!" - a dramatic event occurs. Or does it?

Until quite close to the end of the novel nothing much happens: we can just admire masterly drawn characters. And then Boom, we have a catastrophe, in full affirmation of Mauriac's definition of a novel! But did it in fact occur? The reader cannot be sure whether the events really happen (where "really" means within the world of the novel) or perhaps Mr. Freeling is inviting the reader to a meta-novel, in which he writes about a novel about the novelist? Even though I deal with recursion on an everyday basis, I am too obtuse for that level of metafictional discourse.

As usual, Mr. Freeling dazzles the reader with superlative prose, thus showing that there is no need for an enthralling plot to make a book worth reading. Let me just mention the three wonderful fragments: the account of Dutheil's first experience of physical love, the stunning two-page "knickers passage" - a sort of stream of consciousness, coming from Nora, Dutheil's personal secretary, about that particular item of women's clothing, and a clever allusion to Julien Sorel from Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir.

Is there then any deeper "meaning" to This is the castle? I do not know. It is a good read, though, certainly not a waste of time.

Two and a half stars.

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Saturday, November 21, 2015

One Foot in the GraveOne Foot in the Grave by Peter Dickinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"He slithered his feet over the edge of the bed and pushed himself slowly up till he was sitting.
So far so good, but to stand he would have to make a single effort - there could be no halfway resting stage without her arm round his shoulders to steady him. He took two long breaths, clutched the iron bedhead with both hands and heaved, willing grip and arm muscles to remain taut through the blackness. It came and went with the familiar faint roaring [...]

A disappointment. I had high hopes for Peter Dickinson's One Foot in the Grave (1979) because almost 40 years ago I read his outstanding A Pride of Heroes (U.S. title: The Old English Peep-Show), which I would rate with at least four stars. Alas, this book is not even close to that level: it fails as a mystery/crime novel, and the writing - although accomplished - is not as superbly memorable as in the other novel.

Retired Detective Superintendent James Pibble (a recurring character in several crime novels by Mr. Dickinson's) is convalescing in a luxury nursing home, after suffering a major stroke. Not only is he physically frail but also his mental functions are impaired: he suffers blackouts and periods of diminished consciousness. We meet him when he performs a valiant effort to get up from his bed - see the epigraph - then he manages to dress, leaves his room, and proceeds with utmost difficulty to a water tower that belongs to the nursing home complex. In the tower - after crawling up the stairs - he finds a dead body. This is not the only death in the novel, and Mr. Pibble, blessed with improving lucidity, will be helping the police in their investigations.

While the book does not deliver as a crime drama, it is somewhat redeemed by sharp psychological observations of Mr. Pibble's mental frailty - the blackouts and periods of marginal consciousness are portrayed with great insight as are all the "paraphernalia of sickness and the obscenities of age." I also like the romantic thread: yes, the 64-year old Pibble, physically and mentally infirm, and a female nurse in her late twenties like each other a lot, and there is even some talk about marriage. One should also note the author's cleverness in not divulging the purpose of Mr. Pibble's escapade to the water tower, which to me would be the only interesting mystery in the novel; unfortunately, a reviewer spoils it on the back cover of my edition. What I do not like, with quite some vehemence, is the thread about settling the old scores between the villains whom Pibble dealt with in the past, the bent police inspectors, and criminals who have since acquired a status of legitimate citizens.

Finally, like Mr. Pibble, I am 64, so allow me a personal comment: it is quite sobering to realize that one is just a CVA away from a vegetative and minimally conscious state.

Two and a half stars.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Dresden GreenThe Dresden Green by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"He had not wanted Louis never to know what hit him. He enjoyed waiting for knowledge to dawn, and that was why he smiled. If the man had not had this revolting instinct of sadism it would all have gone perfectly smoothly, but Louis had a reaction that belonged, properly, to a Louis who had been dead for twenty years [...], the Dresden days as he called them, that he hated, dreaded."

The Dresden Green (1966) is Nicolas Freeling's seventh book, another non-series entry (yay!), and the thirty-fourth work of his that I am reviewing here. It is a straightforward psychological crime/suspense novel, with a somewhat unusual twist - an alternative history component. Mr. Freeling uses a twist of this kind also in his Double-Barrel , where I do not think the fictionalization quite works; here it does not hinder the plausibility of the story.

The setup of the novel is quite audaciously unusual. Louis Schweitzer, born in Alsace, the land that separates and links France and Germany, works as a simultaneous translator, specializing in Russian, for the European parliament. One weekend, when hiking in suburban woods, he finds a fatally wounded man, who tells him - in Russian - that an extremely valuable object is hidden nearby. And so Mr. Schweitzer finds the famous Dresden Green Diamond, acquired in the early 1700s for the Dresden collection by Augustus II, the Elector of Saxony and the King of Poland. Mr. Freeling suggests that at end of the Second World War, during the "liberation" of Dresden by the Soviet army, the soldiers looted the diamond. (While the Green Diamond indeed exists and is exhibited in Dresden, its disappearance belongs to the alternative history.)

The further part of the novel reads as a tense and well-plotted suspense story. While Mr. Schweitzer appears to be a rather meek and gentle person, he in fact has a dramatic military past. He served in the French resistance in the early years of World War II and - when captured by Germans - he was forced to serve in their army on the Russian front. His young wife and little child were killed during the massive bombing of Dresden by American and British forces in February of 1945. This other Dresden connection and Mr. Schweitzer bitter war memories drive the plot.

There is an unexpectedly touching and captivating romantic thread in the novel: Mr. Shweitzer falls in love with Madame Wisniewska, a Polish translator also working for the European parliament. But - perhaps most of all - I love the ambiguous ending where Mr. Freeling performs a neat meta-literary trick.

A very good read and a top-shelf suspense story.

Three and a half stars.

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Life of Hunger The Life of Hunger by Amélie Nothomb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I was too exhausted to do anything. Dragging myself to the bar was a huge effort: only the prospect of whisky made me capable of it. I drank to forget that I was thirteen."

Yet another charmer from Amélie Nothomb. I loved reading this little book after having to endure the vapid vile vomit from Mr. Palahniuk. While The Life of Hunger (2004) is definitely not in the class of Ms. Nothomb's masterpiece Loving Sabotage and does not reach the allure of her The Character of Rain or Hygiene and the Assassin , it is an eminently readable book - sweet, delightful, funny, and often quite deep.

Ms. Nothomb, a daughter of a Belgian diplomat, describes her childhood and youth spent in various countries, where her father was posted in his foreign office jobs. She remembers her first conscious years spent in Japan, her beloved nanny Nishio-san, and writes about her Japanese kindergarten, yȏchien. At the age of five, the family moves to Peking (Beijing), which - in the early Seventies, the time of fierce Maoism - was not a particularly pleasant place to live (Ms. Nothomb fictionalized some of her childhood experiences from that time in the extraordinary Loving Sabotage). She loves her stay in New York, where her father was serving at the United Nations. The family then moves to Bangladesh, a country of poverty and hunger (as she writes, dying was "the chief occupation in Bangladesh"), and Burma and Laos come next. Finally, at seventeen she begins her studies at the Free University in Brussels.

Ms. Nothomb frames her charming memoir as the story of hunger: not just hunger for food (although the descriptions of her appetite for sweets - and alcohol - are hilarious), but the "generalized hunger", the "[...] terrible lack within the whole being, the gnawing void, the aspiration not so much to a utopian plenitude as to simple reality [...]", which in her case took the form of hunger for love and for books. To me, the hunger metaphor does not quite work, but this delightful childhood memoir - not altogether devoid of serious notes - is rewarding even without it. And the beginning passages about Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides), an Oceanian archipelago, the land of permanent plenitude, the land that has never known hunger, provide a rewarding bonus.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fight ClubFight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

From an online dictionary:
1) sophomoric, adjective, pretentious or juvenile.
2) pretentious, adjective, attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.
3) juvenile, adjective, of, for, or relating to young people

"Sophomoric", "pretentious", and "juvenile" would be the three most fitting characterizations to appear on the back cover of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996). It is a great book for adolescent boys, which category also includes allegedly grown-up men who have matured only in the sense of their numerical age. Adolescent boys crave one thing the most: being perceived as adults. They love talking about death - of which they have no concept whatsoever - because it is such a grown-up thing which allows them to pretend that they are mature and Know About Life. They are fascinated with guns, fighting, explosions, devastation, physical pain, spilled blood, rivers of blood, pools of blood... these are so grown-up! So mature!

The novel is an embodiment of pretentiousness not only in its topic: the author has chosen a histrionic writing style, full of exaggerations, text formatting affectations, and stupefyingly boring repetitions. The mantra "The first rule about fight club is you don't talk about fight club" appears about one hundred times. The novel is Mr. Palahniuk's desperate cry to the world: "I am writing Something Very Interesting! I am writing about Death! I am writing about GUNS!!! I am writing about Cancer! I am writing about Pain! I am a real writer!"

For non-adolescent adults Fight Club is a worthless piece of junk. Of the roughly 400 books that I have reviewed here it is close to sharing this rare distinction with Jerzy Kosinski's Steps. I wasted several hours of my life, hours that I will never get back, to finish reading these two books in hope that maybe I will find an iota of some redeeming value. And while I had eventually found one moving passage in Kosinski's atrocity, I did not have any such luck here. Up to the very end I hoped that I would find at least one sentence to indicate that this is a big joke, a hoax to amuse the readers. But no, Mr. Palahniuk remains serious to the very end and thus ensures that his work is complete carp (with dyslexic apologies to the fish).

(The edition that I have read contains an Afterword. I have been unable to stop giggling reading Mr. Palahniuk's self-important and pompous proclamations about how great his book is. I burst out laughing when at some point he mentioned Citizen Kane.)

Zero stars.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

The Underground ManThe Underground Man by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...]Ross Macdonald, a mystery novelist who didn't so much transcend the genre as elevate it, showing again (like Hammett, Faulkner, Collins, Dickens, Greene, and many others since Poe) how the crime story can at any time become art." Tom Nolan, in Ross Macdonald: A Biography

Indeed, Ross Macdonald's prose can reach the level of high literary art. The first chapter of The Underground Man (1971) is magnificently written - pure, classic Macdonald: sparse, minimalistic, economical prose. On just six pages the author - through dialog and laconic observations - establishes the characters of four people and sets the serious and somber tone of the novel. I do not think Raymond Chandler had ever been able to match that level of literary brilliance. Not that the entire novel is a masterpiece, but the first six pages are truly extraordinary and should be used in creative writing classes.

Lew Archer (Macdonald's Philip Marlowe) is a private eye in the 1960s Los Angeles. A woman hires him to find her little son taken away by her husband, Stanley, who has been seen with a teenage girl. Stanley is obsessively looking for his father who left his mother 15 years earlier and whose whereabouts are unknown. We meet the mother, a rich and rigid woman, and the parents of the girl seen with Stanley as well as the parents of another young man, deeply embroiled in the happenings. There are two murders and Archer finds out that Stanley's disappearance has roots in events that occurred 15 years ago, in which all these parents have been involved in one way or another. The plot is much more complex than my clumsy summary of the setup is able to convey, but the events unfold logically and plausibly.

The novel's plot is set against the backdrop of a raging Southern California wildfire, and this setting resonates with me deeply. I remember the first time I read the novel - a little over 40 years ago in my native Poland - when the scenes of the forest fire made a very strong impression on me. At that time, I found them as exotic as, say, stories about Papua New Guinea or steppes in Mongolia, yet now I live in the area and have been almost as close to several California wildfires as the characters in the novel.

Mr. Macdonald (in private life Kenneth Millar) uses his favorite motif - one that dominates most of his novels (I have read all 18 of them, but this is the first one that I am reviewing here) - how the deeds of the previous generation affect the current one, how we pay for the sins of our fathers and mothers. I prefer to reframe that central theme as a rather sobering thought that when we hurt people close to us, we may be bringing doom to our children.

The title is masterfully chosen: a man's body is twice buried and twice dug out, and it all makes perfect sense in the plot. Mr. Macdonald's writing - so accomplished in some passages - suffers a little form overuse of annoying similes, for example: "Armistead sounded resentful and betrayed, like a sailor who had come to the edge of a flat world" and (on the same page) "He glanced around the harbor restlessly like a sailor who had gone to sea in his youth and never moved back ashore." Still, very few books in the genre are written this well.

Four stars.

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Friday, November 6, 2015

Fear and Loathing in Las VegasFear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"[...] every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."

The epigraph is a fragment of the famous "wave speech" in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream" (1971). Alas, the "wave speech", a passage about one-and-a-half-page long, is the only thing in the novel that rises above mediocrity. About 15 years ago I watched Terry Gilliam's failure of a movie based on this book and since then I have wanted to read the original work, thinking that Mr. Gilliam - one of my favorite directors - botched the screen adaptation. Well, now I know: Mr. Gilliam did a better job than Mr. Thompson.

The plot is well known, so just a brief summary: Raoul Duke, a sports magazine writer, and his attorney and sidekick, Dr. Gonzo, travel to Las Vegas to report on an off-road race for motorcycles and dune buggies, and later to write about the District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. However, Mr. Duke, a self-proclaimed Doctor of Journalism, is unable to fulfill his professional duties as both he and Dr. Gonzo are permanently and massively high (so high that in real life they would end up in an ICU) on an impressive array of drugs: mescaline, LSD, cocaine, uppers, downers, raw ether, amyls, and of course gallons of tequila, rum, and beer. Oh, I forgot the pineal gland extract from a live human being. They hallucinate around the clock and use more drugs and alcohol attempting to interrupt the delirium.

Clearly, Mr. Thompson wanted to write a definitive novel about the demise of the Great Dream of the Sixties and the decay of hippie culture. Yet one beautifully written passage (the above-mentioned "wave speech") does not redeem the whole text, whose only impact - as far as I can ascertain - is shocking and tantalizing the readers with descriptions of intense drug use and detailed depictions of hallucinations. Towards the end, there is another serious fragment in the novel, where the author probes the history and politics of the youth movement in the Sixties, until the "orgy of violence at Altamont" (December 1969) effectively ended the movement. The seriousness and depth of this passage is totally incongruous with the rest of the book. The ending is also strong and resonant, but all the good fragments add up to maybe five pages out of 200.

One and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Well-Known SecretA Well-Known Secret by Jim Fusilli
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] I knew that whatever tolerance I'd developed for this fetid game, this depravity, this charade of life, had been exceeded. And now I was sick of everything: sick of taxis, of midtown, of the small whitecaps on the gray Hudson, of the scavenger seagulls; sick of stumbling across death while life continued for the corrupt who readily corrupt, and, having done so, thrive."

Jim Fusilli's A Well-Known Secret (2002) is a continuation of his Closing Time . In fact, I feel like I have never stopped reading the first book and this is its second part. While the crime plot is different, almost all leading characters are the same, and they have not changed much. I have hoped for more substantial changes in the second installment of the Terry Orr's series, but the author went for replicating the success of Closing Time.

Terry Orr, an ex-writer, now a P.I. in New York, is asked by his housekeeper to find her friend's daughter, Sonia, who disappeared after being released from prison. She had served a very long sentence on a Murder One conviction for a brutal slaying of a diamond dealer. Terry begins the search, but when another murder happens it becomes clear that the roots of Sonia's disappearance are buried deep in the past, and Terry has to solve a 30-year-old case, working against some members of the police force, but with the help of his friends in the DA's office.

When reading A Well-Known Secret one has a feeling that the crime thread is incidental to the two main stories: the story of Terry and his precocious 14-year-old daughter, Bella, who are trying to overcome the extreme trauma of losing Terry's wife and son at the hands of a madman a few years earlier. The other thread that feels more important than the "crime plot" is the story of the post-9/11 New York. The novel conveys, with chilling accuracy, the sense of the place and the pain of the deep wounds in the city's collective psyche.

Even though the novel is for all practical reasons a rehash of Closing Time, I enjoyed it because it is well written. I can forgive authors a lot if they write well. I am even willing to forgive them writing the same book all over again.

Three stars.

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