Saturday, 18 October 2014

Memories Of The Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Currently reading...

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll

Wait, how DO you row across a wooden sea?
Jonathan Carroll poses two problems to me, as a book reviewer. The first is not the usual one with which I’m faced when contemplating a favourite author, but rather one of device, trope, hook – in short, a theme for the review. Carroll’s works are large in scope even when centred in small, parochial settings. They are not easily pigeon-holed, despite the complacent person’s tendency to bung them into the fantasy genre (indeed, I have an aged Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks version of The Land of Laughs), and are as spiritual as they are fantastical. They have an ease of language that often belies some hard-edged writing, and pretty much anyone in any given book could die or is already dead, even and sometimes especially the ubiquitous bullet-headed English Bull Terriers. So, what then, should I do to properly frame this review and subsequent Carroll critiques (for there will be more, with at least The Ghost in Love and A Child Across The Sky waiting in the wings)?
Perhaps theme-less-ness is as good a context as any. Indeed, with other contemporaneous contexts encompassing Neil Himself, and further out, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, maybe Carroll occupies natural lacunae between other genres, and thus he forces his own niche in the publishing world. In The Wooden Sea Carroll has a rebellious teen turned respectable, confronted by his youthful self (and his aged sexagenarian self too), embroiled in a super- and supra-natural mystery, with time travel, death, disappearances, and, yup, aliens. Plus, there’s the dog. All told from the first person perspective of present-day Frannie McCabe, it unfolds quickly, from the first appearance of the three-legged pooch and precipitated by its almost instantaneous death. There’s feathers, a bizarre Dutchman, a friend high up on the autism spectrum, a wife and former lover, magical tattoos, coffee, angels / aliens, wholesale reality warping, as mentioned time travel, and more death. In all, it’s an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining novel, with moments of poignancy, slap-stick comedy, ok, there’s some fantasy too, and a whole lot of beautiful things to consider. I’d previously said that Carroll sees things in a different way to me, and frankly I’m glad, as he acutely de-familiarises things in a way which is a delight to behold and does pose a question or two for the reader. I’m not surprised that Neil Himself likes him so much. So without further plot spoilers, it only leaves me to say this book is marvellous, in a best-book-I’ve-read-by-this-author kind of way. I burned straight through it, and it’s one that’s going to live in the little cracks of my mind for quite some time.
Incidentally, the second problem, sadly, reflects a slightly embarrassing personal issue I have, as an armchair advocate for the footballing fraternity that is Liverpool Football Club, with ex-LFC footballers by the name of Carroll… But I shan’t bore you with that one.

Monday, 13 October 2014

The Explorer by James Smythe

Stephen King in space?
I suspect that James Smythe has seen his fair share of science fiction movies. There are definite echoes here of Solaris (the original 1972 film) and even Dark Star, John Carpenter's rather off-beat long-short-film, from which the idea was formed for the now remaining Scott sibling's Alien (at least the bit about something scrabbling around loose in the spaceship). I suspect he's read a few sci-fi novels and short stories too. I pick up Ray Bradbury, and maybe Vernor Vinge, in the vastness of space and all the cold, hard, emptyness of the universe. And there's Robert Reed too, Marrow, things unknown and unknowable, exploration without end. 

But it's all well and good doing a literature review, putting this compact novel into context. What's more difficult to do is to review this novel without too much reference to the plot, which is tight and unfolds quickly, satisfyingly, once the red herring is out of the way. The red herring you ask? Yeah, sorry, spoiler. I can't tell you. 

Instead, by way of a quick and, hopefully, tasteful introduction, what we have is a narrator aboard a spaceship, a herald of the vanguard of a new era of space exploration. He's a journalist, Cormac Easton, and was chosen from thousands to document the first true deep space mission, years after the last failed attempt to get to the moon again. His crew members are all handsome, diverse, TV friendly types, also hand-picked and seemingly perfect for the job. All goes well until they wake from stasis into which they're put to survive the G-forces of take-off.... 

Starting out, I had an inkling where this was going. Deep space missions, exploration; it's been a while since the first episode of Star Trek back in 1966 where the ship went off on a five year mission, from which they returned safely, eventually. Things have changed, audiences are less enamoured with the closed narrative loop (heh heh! a joke for those who've read this already!) and by the 90s, even The Next Generation crew were stranded on the wrong side of the galaxy rather than bombing about locally, galactically speaking. Now, when people head off into space you expect them not to come back, to blow up - Gravity notwithstanding* - or get detached from the ship, suits rupturing, heads-a-popping**, and spinning out into the blackness, all alone. Still not a spoiler, I promise!

What James Smythe does is set you up for a fall. He shows a monster early, in full colour, and you think, shit, is that it, is that what the horror is? He's played his hand too soon. How is he going to fill up the other 80% of this book and keep me interested? What I appreciate in an author is when he can slide up behind you and yank up the waistband of your underwear over your head and you're none the wiser until you're hanging from the gatepost by your tighty whiteys. It's all hinted at, throughout, very simply but in such a fashion that you think, nah, the tech guys are just dumbing down for the cameras, for the journo fellow, the one who's along for the ride and frankly couldn't understand what they meant if they told him anyway. I will say it is a tiny weeny bit of a sic-fi cop-out, but that really doesn't matter. Given the amount of reading he's probably done it was all but inevitable. There usually has to be an explanation - a sentient telekinetic ocean planet for example, or an ancient race of long-dead explorers and builders, or naughty alien oblongs. If it worked for Kubrick then what's not to love? In conclusion, then, I really rather liked this book, and the progression from his first, The Testimony, shows that he is developing significantly as a writer; he just may be a British*** sci-fi novelist to watch!


*Although they did kill off quite a few of the crew before - wait! I'm not here to spoil that film for you either!
**People don't actually decompress violently in the vacuum - that's a space-myth so I'm told.
***Welsh!

Monday, 22 September 2014

In-House Weddings by Bohumil Hrabal

"Two days on a bender and
the cash gone..."
There’s a term in Czech, coined to encapsulate Bohumil Hrabal’s particular headlong rush through sentences and ideas, skipping over syntax and playing with somewhat surreal juxtaposed ideas and images. In and of itself it is a beautiful word – Hrabalovština. According to Adam Thirlwell*, Hrabal preferred the term ‘palavering’ – talking unnecessarily and at length, or prolonged and tedious fuss or discussion. I suspect that’s just Hrabal’s way of dismissing his own work with typical wry modesty. In another of his books, Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age, this palavering style is taken to the extreme, the author using digression and repetition to basically write one novel-length sentence. Playful is my preferred description, and in In-House Weddings, volume one of three fictionalised biographies** of the writer, you come across multiple digressive compound conjunctions where you’d expect some stronger punctuation and the words simply tumble over each other, clause after clause raining down on you like water over a weir, and you find yourself a little swept up in the flow, interesting given the Doctor’s fascination with water – a little taste perhaps:
He ran down the steps again to the river and scooped handfuls of water and lashed them into his face, but even that didn’t do, he tugged off his shirt with his wet hands and splashed his chest all over with water, and when he came back up, he held the wet shirt in his wet hands and let water run down his waist and splatter and wet his pants.
The pedant in me is screaming, but the breathlessness of the sentences is addictive. They swoop through emotions, Eliška smiling one second, dizzy and nauseous the next, as when she goes to visit the Doctor at his paper recycling operation and meets his colleague who describes the horrors of animal transport because as a writer the Doctor needed to hear these things, the horrors. When they walk along the rivers, she takes in the sweep up and down of the landscape, amazed by the beauty of the things she never took the time to notice, snapped back to the present by the Doctor rushing ahead, or skipping down to the waters’ edge to splash himself, and cross that she decided to go with him, only for the water in his eyelashes to bring her back to happiness. She delights in the Doctor’s nostalgia for the places of his youth but is disgusted by the ruinous present, seeming very upset by visiting the brewery in which he worked but at which he could only see things as they were when he was there. She empathises with a beautiful woman at the gate of his family home who sadly congratulates them on their up-coming wedding, happy that she can cause such sadness in another woman but recognising the sadness in herself, a melancholy that almost drove her to suicide before she met the Doctor in his run-down courtyard. The constant danger of death-by-falling-plaster which crashes down into the courtyard from the crumbling walls is a comfort, a reminder of her new-found happiness. The characters are typical European archetypes, although drawn from real life and some real literary figures in places, and could be seen in the films of Jiří Menzel and Emir Kusturica, especially the wise fool, into which type Hrabal casts himself. Comedy and tragedy, gentle fun and genocide are constant companions, and the London Review of Books say as much in the review quoted on NU Press’ website
Hrabal's comedy, then, is complexly paradoxical. Holding in balance limitless desire and limited satisfaction, it is both rebellious and fatalistic, restless and wise...  It is a comedy of blockage, of displacement, entrapment, cancellation... Hrabal, in Freud's terms, is a great humorist.  And a great writer.
In terms of his available works in English, I still much prefer Too Loud A Solitude, and Closely Observed Trains but in this really rather delightful novel are all of the seeds of the narratives from both, clearly plucked from his own life experiences. I can’t think of another writer whose books I enjoy on as many levels, and if only he’d travelled past his Bohemian horizons, I’d be willing to bet his works would be as ubiquitous as those of his more widely distributed European contemporaries.

*Miss Herbert, Vintage, 2009
**The others being Gaps and Vita Nuova, both available from Northwestern University Press, for now at least

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly finished off whilst the wife and child slept on the ferry, and whilst I also put an end to a very tasty if over-priced bottle of Bordeaux. 


Of course, family holidays being what they are, I was really only ever free to enjoy a book when everyone else was asleep, lending to my general state of sleep deprivation - a risky stratagem given I was driving the van - and to the selection of mainly shorter works through which I could motor and feel faintly satisfied to have made progress - which is as important to this consumer of novels as allowing the gentle hand of Fate to guide that which is selected to follow. So courtesy of my recent flirtation with South American and Spanish speaking novelists, the first short work was that of Jorge Luis Borges, which was followed quickly by three The Friday Project books I'd downloaded one after the other and which were the next three listed on the device's menu.

It feels somewhat sacrilegious to lump Borges into an in-betweener post, considering the fluff that normally collects in them, and the high regard in which most serious novelists hold him. Conversely I blame the executor of his estate, who worked hard to control publishing rights to his works in English, and from which this was the only work (that I could afford) that was available as a download; and as I was intent on filling the Borges-shaped lacuna in my education as quickly as possible, it therefore was the first I read, and potentially the one I would recall the least. Thankfully, I read two Darren Craske novellas straight afterwards which, like a mental sorbet, cleansed my memory meaning I could recall the umami of Borges' prose without effort. Oh, no offence to Craske intended, but frankly his slightly odd Victorian-era mystery stories, hung around the improbable frame of Cornelius Quaint, illusionist and cad, were but a short amuse-bouche. Not that Kaufman was the main course. In fact, this analogous metaphor has gone stale.

Still, Borges was a surprise. With the weight of post-modern fiction on the shelves pulling the plaster from my walls and the pervasion of his influence in the writers I read* I should not have been. The story which most stands out for me in this collection, cropped from various other works, is the story of the writer who re-wrote Cervantes' masterpiece in an attempt to ascertain if he could, independently and through his own process, come up with exactly the same words, in the same order and with the same sense (although with added depth, richness and renewed literary vigour!) as Cervantes himself, albeit it three and a half centuries later. What a concept. And what execution. Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is a 'fake' review of a non-existent author, completed with audacity and tongue firmly in cheek. I had not expected to laugh at Borges, and therein lies a great pain. These short examples of his are crafted meticulously, densely layered and quite brilliant, but also accessible and enjoyable. Rather churlishly, I had expected enigma, deep mystery and unfathomable beauty; I had expected not to understand a word. I had pre-judged a book by the cover (and title) and am duly ashamed. Having now read a little of Borges' background, I have found criticisms, probably justified on this inspection, that Borges lacked substance, that his works are experiments in the art of writing - he was described as a 'doctor of technique' in an elliptical criticism by a leftist Argentinian magazine of the time - and his legacy of magical realism affronted those existentialists in search of reality and direct experiential truth instead of less tangible universal truths. I guess that's why his output is restricted to essays and short stories - two formats uniquely suited to the exploration of the seeds of ideas that might not survive propagation. I don't care, and plan to go directly to some sort of book-selling outlet to purchase both Fictions and Labyrinths post-haste. I can see why so many people cite him in so many works, claim his influence on what they do and how they think. In that respect, I'm with Oscar Guardiola-Rivera when he asserted that Cervantes and Borges marked the start of the first and second revolutions in Spanish-language literature.

By contrast, what I can recall of Darren Craske is probably not worth writing down (but I'll try). He has garnered some acclaim as a visual artist, and certainly his characters in these bawdy knockabouts bear no closer scrutiny than would a cartoon character in a daily comic strip. They amused, briefly, much as a dog on the TV might if doing something cute or saying "sausages". But, they were both made available for free by his publishers, so in that spirit of generosity I am happy to admit that having finished the first I did quickly begin the second. It's just possible I might pick up one of his novels proper and read it before sending it off though BookCrossing to await further readers on the shelves of a coffee shop.

And so on to 'Not The Main Course' Andrew Kaufman. To begin with, I harboured vague mistrust of the author based on the similarity of his name and that other famous Kaufman. Considering the conceit is absurd, that everyone in a bank heist is affected by a strange curse bestowed by the unconventional perpetrator of the crime and that one woman's particular problem is one of rapid shrinking, hence the title, this vague prejudice might appear apposite. In fact, although only short (gadzooks - a pun!) and definitely absurd in its premise, it turned out to be a poignant and interesting read. Running alongside the narrators tale of the shrinkage of his wife and of her travails is a tale of domestic disharmony and parental failure - the problems of the marriage souring the happy existence of their only child. This only becomes apparent later once the absurdity has had time to sink in an and also provides some grounding and realism. In retrospect I can't remember what it is about Andy Kaufman that I didn't like - probably his role as Latka Gravas alongside Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch in Taxi - and which coloured my thinking in this instance, but whatever it was isn't any longer. I would gladly take a punt on Andrew Kaufman's next book, and would recommend The Tiny Wife if you've got half an hour spare.



*It should be pointed out that I have a general and non-specific antipathy for writers of so-called Magical Realism which likely dates to my time as a bookseller when the educated but mentally untaxed and lazy liberal 50-somethings of Cardiff would amble up gently demanding the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and sniffing loudly when finding it on the shelves under G or M, whichever mis-filing ill-suited their particular strain of malaise at the time but which allowed them the opportunity to 'write a letter' to complain about something on which they held 'an opinion'. 




The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn

Deep hanging out in Greece
and the Med.
I enjoyed The Colour Of A Dog Running Away, Richard Gwyn's first published novel. This was partly because the city in which sections of it are set, Barcelona, is one of my favourite cities in the world - an outsider city, forging its own path despite a murky and unsavoury history, full of life and energy, invigorated by the Olympics but gradually settling back into its grime and soot under which one can glimpse flashes of coloured tiles and murals with enigmatic messages in Catalan, plus home to my favourite and now sadly deceased captive albino primate - and partly because I felt I owned a little bit of the novel, having arranged its launch event on behalf of a chain bookstore with his publishers Parthian Books. In fact, this event is mentioned in the pages of this meandering memoir as an example of his state of derangement due to his illness (some of the writing is collected from pieces written as he was waiting for a liver transplant, in a mental fog from the various accompanying disorders), an episode in which his phone goes off mid-reading and he struggles to understand that it belongs to him. His second novel, Deep Hanging Out,was read out of a degree of lingering loyalty and anticipation, but I did enjoy it in parts, and a foray into his poetry via Sad Giraffe Café was curtailed when I gave it to my wife as a present, but not before reading two curious prose poems (as they all are if memory serves) about kings and earth - one where a man finds a king's head in the earth in his basement which comes to life the next day at breakfast, and one where a monarch goes missing only to be found buried, by himself, in the ground.

There were preliminary echoes of Orwell and W.H. Davies in the title, and a wine glass on the cover, and it was published by a Welsh publisher*. For these reasons, and others**, I was ambivalent about reading this his latest book, more so when I found out it was a biography***.

But read it I did, and whilst on holiday no less. Having met Richard a few times in the past, pre- and post-transplant, it was easy to imagine his calm, languorous tone reading aloud from the pages. The prose doesn't jolt, bolt or otherwise upset the reader by doing anything unexpected, and the twin narrative, mixing memories of his illness and anxieties over the impending operation to transplant a new liver, and stories from his past from which he attempts, ostensibly, sometimes listlessly, to pinpoint the moment when he may have contracted the virus that left him with a cirrhosed organ, despite some of the content, is comforting, like listening to an avuncular elder wandering about his nostalgia, half chuffed with himself for having had a life well-lived yet trying to tell a cautionary tale for his audience. And failing.

For all of the rather dismaying stories, of insomnia, mania, befuddlement, sickness and symptoms of dementia, the rather more numerous and often repetitive stories of the time he spent impoverished and inebriated on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean have an air of smug satisfaction about them. He seems proud to have drank and smoked and fucked his way through nine years of his life, parts blanked out by chemical abuse, others filled with hallucinations of strange shamans (or should that be shamen?) and frankly, I would have to believe that he must have the most marvellously tolerant and supportive wife and family at home, because if I wrote this about my past, despite her amazing qualities, my wife would in all probability push my new liver out of my mouth through the anus with a 2X4 wrapped in barbed wire. To be fair, at least he went out and did something which was not expected, had a life worth telling someone about. Someone once told me the best way to write was from experience, and that if I had to describe someone being punched in the face I should get into a bar fight****. He was right in that respect, although I prefer less damaging inspiration. I am quietly impressed that the person whom I had met on several occasions and who told me about writers like Roberto Bolaño was the man from these tales. I'm less surprised at the tone of the telling...

For all my prejudices and ambivalence, I did certainly enjoy reading it, at the same time as drinking several litres of strong, malty beer (which later caused some night-time unpleasantness and an unscheduled shower) and making notes in my own fashion on the nature of memory and story-telling. Good books tend to inspire in me the desire to launch my own literary career, and by that criterion alone I can only judge this book to be a good one. 

*Nothing against Welsh publishers, but it sometimes smacks of the peculiar parochialism of Wales that either the author, editor or agent thinks the appeal will be localised so will sell it to local publishers and then the depressed circle is complete. 

**It would be tiresome to relate, again, the anxieties aroused by reading and then feeling pressures to review books by people I know, even vicariously, so I won't.

***I was curious about his formative experiences but often feel that a record of a life with living left to go is a judgement without hearing all the evidence.

****Friends and acquaintances may be expecting my drunken 'Fight Club' story in this footnote, the one where I was drunk and homeward bound with the assistance of two young, female friends, when the tall, blonde, moronic fella from Dirty Sanchez yelled something offensive at us outside the Student Union bar on Park Place, and I told my friends I'd seen Fight Club and knew what to do in a situation like this, only to sashay over, call him a cunt, and then proceed to run about trying to avoid capture before one of his friends punched me in the mouth and I escaped, giggling, to the awed embrace of both ladies, but of course I wouldn't want to stoop to that sort of self-aggrandising nonsense.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

The dog signifies nothing...
Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.

Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own introduction that modesty drives him to frame the three stories as mere entertainments, and that if the reader draws anything further from them then that’s the reader’s fault and no blame should be laid at his door. I hope you’ll afford me the same spirit of generosity and forgiveness.

So, Our Ancestors is a trilogy of (very) loosely themed stories, narrated by a third-party witness to events, and if enjoyment is the sole purpose, then in my opinion and for my taste, there is a definite hierarchy – at the top is The Non-existent Knight, then follows The Cloven Viscount, and propping up the others is the much longer The Baron In The Trees. In the first, a suit of armour is inhabited by the sheer will power of someone who doesn’t exist, whose only purpose is truth, and was, as Jules Verne said of Phineas Fogg, exactitude personified. His path across the battlefields of France is intersected by an amorous young knight, a mournful and bitter orphan-knight, and a love-hungry warrior maiden who wants only the man she can’t have (and who we later learn, [spoiler coming up – look away now] is the narrator of the story from her cell in a local convent and whose self-referential passages are pretty dull in comparison). A coincidental, comical convergence causes crisis for the non-existent knight and he sets out, with idiot squire in tow, on a quest to prove his title and therefore his non-existent existence is true, and, time and space be damned, crosses France, England, the Atlantic Ocean, North Africa and France again to return to the court of the aging and tired Charlemagne with his evidence, all of which is rebuffed, falsely it seems, and he ceases his non-existence, or rather, more so than before, in fact completely. There are some beautifully crafted characters herein, and the landscape is replete with those peasants and armour-fillers whose casual acceptance of the situation adds a surreal gloss to events. The Knights of the Holy Grail are thoroughly lampooned, and Charlemagne himself, at the end of his long campaign, the origins of which no-one seems able to recall, is toying with senility. All in all, a very lovely literary farce, a satire full of people chasing people, seducers being outwitted, young lust frustrated and a village idiot knocking over furniture and washing up in fishermen’s nets.

Um... Berto?
The Cloven Viscount is equally far-fetched, given it follows the life of a young nobleman blown into two halves by a Turkish cannon whilst on his first crusade, the two halves representing the twin sides of a single personality and who both manage to go on living despite the obvious challenges. Somewhat repetitive in parts, but with equally biting satire, the evil viscount wreaks misery on his populace, annoying the exiled Huguenots who are too afraid of persecution to be properly pious except in only the most vague terms, chopping plants and animals in half – to make them better appreciate the duality of existence perhaps – and trying to bed a young farm hand who gently ducks his attentions, causing her parents to suffer his perverse attempts at blackmail. That is, until the ‘good’ half of the viscount arrives, at first being a beacon of hope to the inhabitants with acts of charity and healing, but then by his very goodness attracting the attention of his evil half to those that he helps, thus becoming a curse in his own right, and who also falls for the plump young maid, causing [spoiler coming up – time to avert your gaze momentarily] the two halves to unite after their comically ineffectual duelling results in the removal of their sutures at rapier point allowing the two halves to be reunited at the divide. The one irritant is the narrator, ostensibly a young relative free from parental supervision and able to be at the side of every interested participant in the tale – a necessary device given the format, but irksome and calling into doubt an already improbable story by his intrusions. In a context where this tale appeared, for example a tale in Chaucer’s pilgrims’ progress, as part of a collection of storytelling it would probably sit less uncomfortably – although maybe that’s what this collection tries to be. Meh.

They could have chosen different poses...
Lastly, comes The Baron In The Trees, where a family slight sends the heir to the duchy into an oak tree from which he is never to climb down and from which he conducts the business of being a noble man, an intellectual, a philosopher, a villain, a military strategist, a lover, and a great storyteller. A simple and interesting premise you might think, but as the tale spans his entire, lengthy, life, related to the reader by his younger sibling, is in parts repetitive and dull. Many stories could have been trimmed, albeit at the cost of the great scope of the satire, to make it more enjoyable, and perhaps this is where the author’s own defence of the triptych falls a little flat, as enjoyability comes second to whatever it is Calvino is trying to say. I freely admit I skimmed some passages in order to advance before my 40th birthday*.

Phew. So at the end of this lengthy review which touches on plot but very little on what one might draw from levels below the facile, what have we learned? This is enjoyable for the most part, and even the bits that drag have merit, and like in his re-telling of 200 Italian Folktales, his voice and style is warm and distinct, rendering the surreal endearing and human. Plus, he doesn’t have a beard – that’s right, yes?

*Thankfully** more than a couple of years hence…

**I hasten to add that I have nothing against anyone over the age of 40