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Books of Note

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Not surprisingly, like a lot of John Darnielle’s music, particularly those songs on the album The Sunset Tree (Pale Green Things springs to mind and is very much worth listening to), his writing only slowly reveals itself and its narrative direction. Not in any turgid or tedious fashion, but rather in an unhurried, gentler and more thoughtful way. Universal Harvester rolls gently along its path with only a few disconcerting and probably deliberate hiccups. It starts in Iowa in the 1990s with a young man, still living at home with his father but unable to leave because of the weight of his mother’s death, years before, in a car crash. The trauma tethers Jeremy and his father together like the gravitational pull of a dead star in a comfortable and predictable but numb orbit, but it’s never something that either of them can discuss openly.
Jeremy works at a VHS rental store, so we’re assuredly early-Worldwide Web era. His job is simple, repetitive, and keeps him and his father in entertai…

The Map and The Territory by Michel Houellebecq


Meh.
I wonder about books that gain notoriety or fame in their own country (i.e. in the country of the language in which it was first written) and which then make their way into English and are seized upon by the literati as the next [insert country / continental adjective here] masterpiece. A good example in my opinion is Alone in Berlin by “rediscovered” German war-time author Hans Fallada. There was a big fuss, lots of column inches and booksellers going a bit funny over this one, whereas when I was asked to read it for a review at the time, ignorant of its origins I found it childishly written and lacking both in pace and believable characterisation. Was this due to translation? Was it actually really chuffin' good in German? Were us Brits only going by what they were telling us?


I was concerned at the time that it was the subject of a cycle of hype that might eventually spin out of orbit with the introduction of a genuinely critical review from someone high up in the literary strata, but none was forthcoming. My own highly critical review was rejected and I was asked to return with something focused more on its many perceived virtues and its similarities to other successful war-time fiction, so that an open-minded and accepting audience might be inclined to view it with sympathy and then feel a collective ownership and thus protectiveness towards it and the many other “rediscovered” novels of Fallada soon to litter the shelves above Sebastian Faulks. The letter F had never made me more displeased.

Are people really that incapable of judging the worth of a novel, I thought, that they would put dubious critical acclaim from the book’s own publishers (who may or may not just be churning out the spoon-fed reviews from his German publishers) and those people whose livelihoods are at stake if it fails to succeed above an experienced reader’s honest and objective views? (Those of you, who at this point might be expecting a self-deprecating remark, leave now.) Is it fear of being seen to be different or just symptomatic of the book-consumer mentality at large, blithely unaware of the merits of a book as long as someone tells them they will like it?

Wow.
Houellebecq, I feared, might be another such author whose brilliance was lost in translation. Of course, The Map and The Territory shit all over that theory. What a marvellous book, full of brilliance, ideas, and so vividly expressed! If one were to believe his own assertion that France hates him (as he playfully inserts as a concept in the book), then perhaps my theory does hold water. Then again, he did win the Prix Goncort. When ma belle-mère sent my wife a copy in the original French, I was enthusiastic and she was suitably amused. The book itself kept her busy for a few days of concentrated reading, during which she made numerous comments on its enlightening portrayal of modern France, a country in which she had not lived for something like 11 years, and so I asked for an English version when one became available - it arrived for Christmas 2011. 


For such a depressing and joyless subject (the subject is a man's own lack of understanding of pretty much anything that isn't precision engineered, including his relationships with father, stunning girlfriend[s], and his collaboration with the author himself playing himself) the book made me happy and filled me with joy. Houellebecq's own highly entertaining cameo role, as the novelist whose painting by the protagonist is his last offering in paint to the art world, could be considered alarmingly bleak, but then he is mercilessly disposed of in a highly visceral manner part way through the book, a point which marks the beginning of a different strand of narrative, for a little while, before the artist, Jed Martin (who incidentally made his own name with an exhibition of photographs of Michelin road maps) returns to casually solve the crime and embark on his own private artistic denouement. All along the way, Houellebecq's astounding observations on everything from digital cameras to French politics are layered on top of a narrative style so cunningly simple-seeming that you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. The plot wends lazily through to the inevitable ending (it is a story of a man after all) with periodic bursts of activity, but never labours, or races ahead, and is so damned fine that I can't put words together to describe it.


I am incalculably glad that this book both received rave reviews and is an excellent read. It is a rare jewel indeed in translated fiction (up there with The Book of Chameleons and The Discovery of Heaven) but sadly, reminds me that Hans Fallada is still selling, and selling well. Look at me, all graceless and curmudgeonly. 


Next week - I take a pop at Garcia Marquez.

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What Readers Are Reading

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

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 i…

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:
Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin …