Thursday 16 December 2010

2010 - A review of my year

Well I started this year with the aim to read more translated fiction and more titles from independent publishers and I'm pretty pleased with how that turned out, exposing myself to books I would never normally have come across and still making room for some of the big titles too. In a year when new books from Franzen, Amis and Roth have gathered headlines and Howard Jacobson finally landed the Booker Prize my fondest memories have been books that haven't had anything like that kind of blanket coverage and may have struggled to get mentioned in the mainstream media at all. You don't need me to confirm the worth of Booker nods to David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Tom McCarthy's C or Damon Galgut's In A Strange Room. They're all worth a read. It's just not possible for me to pick a single book of the year, or even a top three so here is a selection of the best.


Easy Reads

Tony and Susan - Austin Wright

You may notice that this title is missing from the picture above and that's because I lent it to someone at work who then passed it on to someone else and it still hasn't come back yet. I think we can call that a word-of-mouth success and that's exactly what this book needed. Originally published in 1993 when the author was 70 years-old the book garnered positive reviews but never really took off. Wright died ten years later leaving behind a body of work but Atlantic Books reissued this literary thriller earlier in the year to more positive reviews and hopefully many more readers. A novel within a novel that plays on the very act of reading it combines the guilty pleasure of a pulpy thriller with something far more high-minded.
(original review here)

Nourishment - Gerard Woodward

Another book which has proved popular at work, Woodward's follow up to his impressive trilogy about the Jones family is easily the oddest book of the year and one of the funniest too. During the Second World War, a time of rationing and 'make do and mend', we follow Tory Pace as she deals with living with her mother again, her husband's internment as a POW and his request for dirty letters. The theme of nourishment is expressed in many ways and I'll eat my hat if you can find a more enjoyable novel that combines cannibalism, starvation, self-immolation and public conveniences.
(original review here)


The World Of Yesterday - Stefan Zweig

It may not have been to all tastes but I loved reading this memoir from an author who crops up time and again on this blog. A must read for any fans of Zweig and indeed anyone who wants an insight into the passing of a golden age in Europe. Zweig's intelligence, political acuity and deep connection to the cultural life around him make him a fascinating guide through inter-war Europe and the poignancy of the ending, given that we know he was to take his own life shortly afterwards, unavoidable.
(original review here)

Footnotes In Gaza - Joe Sacco

If anyone wanted to make the case for comics being taken seriously they should move away from the serious sounding 'graphic novels' and take a look at the reportage of artists like Joe Sacco. His previous books on Palestine and the war in Bosnia helped me to understand those complicated conflicts in a way that no serious article or news item ever had. Using personal testimony to tap into the human stories behind the fighting he helps us to understand that large scale conflicts are often about very personal feelings and a sense of grievance passed down through generations. Nowhere was this more obvious than in his latest work which brought to life two historical massacres that have everything to do with the tensions that still exist in Gaza and showed that Sacco essential reading.
(original review here)

The Lost Gem

The New Perspective - K Arnold Price

Discovering a book that hardly anyone knows about and yet which deserves praise and a wider readership is one of the many ways I get a major kick from reading and blogging. I have Colm Toibin to thank for this slim debut novel which was written when the author was 84 years-old. It is a perfectly distilled portrait of marriage that had it been written by a new writer today would surely be being hailed as a masterpiece and nominated for awards all over the place. Subtle, intelligent, sensitive and painfully honest it is a novel that took a lifetime's experience to write and yet takes just a small portion of your day to read. It's finding a copy that's the tricky bit.
(original review here)

The Wildcard

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Only just reviewed and making it onto the list purely because it's too bonkers to leave it off is the 700 page, self-published leviathan that channels the spirit of Pynchon, Melville, Gaddis and Price; combines boxing, both sides of the law and even the laws of physics into a vast, sprawling, digressive monster that probably scared off any editors who looked at it but deserves to be read by far more than the handful who can have made it through to the final page. If you fancy a challenge then I dare you. I double dare you...
(original review here)

Looking Back, Looking Forward, Looking You Right in the Eye

Stoner - John Williams

NYRB Classics have done a quite incredible job of resurrecting classic books that might have remained in obscurity if it weren't for their endeavour. This book has received ecstatic praise from bloggers, reviewers and even A-list celebrities and if you don't believe any of them then please believe me when I tell you that it is a masterpiece. The kind of novel that if you were forced to pitch it today would probably be considered un-marketable, it is quite simply the life of a man called Stoner. Everything you need to know about a man's life within the pages of book. That is a gift. I feel under no compulsion to say any more. You really should read this book at some point in your life, it's fine if it isn't right now, it will be ready for you when you are.
(original review here)

The Canal - Lee Rourke

One of the few novels I've read recently that feels as though it's talking about the world I live in right now, Lee Rourke's debut has won the Rising Stars award on Amazon and was also joint-winner of the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize, taking some pretty hefty flak along the way. It won't be to all tastes but who cares about that? A novel about a man who embraces his boredom that is never boring is something to cherish and the fact that it has lots to say about how we live, connect, and deal with everyday terrors makes it a vital read, filled with an energy that a novel about ennui aught not really to possess.
(original review here)

Beside The Sea - Veronique Olmi

I've read some amazing books this year, books that haven't even made it onto this list for a mention, but if I was to pick one that knocked me about more than any other it would have to be this one. Pound for pound this is easily the hardest hitting piece of fiction I have encountered in the last twelve months. There are so many reasons why we should be championing it. Peirene Press is a new indy publisher bringing literature in translation to an English-reading audience in handy novella-sized portions, and have already made themselves essential reading with just their first three titles. The first of these is still the best for me, containing the kind of ambiguity that makes fiction as a medium such an exciting place to be. In only 120 pages Olmi manages to make the reader complicit in the judgement of what they read and whilst dealing with similar themes to the much vaunted and Booker-nominated Room, she manages to knock that novel into a cocked-hat without resort to sensation, gimmicks or whimsy. If you can think of a decent excuse as to why you shouldn't go out (or online) and buy a copy right now I'd like to hear it...
(original review here)

Not Book Of The Year

Room - Emma Donoghue

You know why.


BiRd-BrAiNs - tUnE-yArDs

Two close runners for album of the year were The National for High Violet and Deerhunter for Halcyon Digest. What do these artists and albums have in common apart from being excellent? They all come from the same label: 4AD. This is no fix and it's not really a matter of taste; these albums aren't particularly similar. Their only common attribute is excellence. Oh, and excitement. So before I get into the specifics let me first heap huge amounts of praise on a label that produces consistently amazing work of a wide and varying nature and that got behind an album that might have remained an obscurity without them. tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus who has a past as a puppeteer but used a digital voice-recorder and shareware mixing software to entirely self-produce this album. Defiantly lo-fi this is an album for those who are bored by polished performance, style over substance and the general sheen that comes with a lot of modern music. By concentrating on lyrics, original instrumentation and a genuine need to express through music you get an album whose very flaws are its strengths. A word I find myself using again and again to describe works of art that I admire is 'genuine'. It is worrying that it is a word that you can't use more often to describe the artistic output that we consume but I guess the 'c' word is the important one there. In an age of easily consumed and forgotten art it is refreshing to hear an album that doesn't sound like another, doesn't want to seem like another and stands or falls by its own standards. All of which is far to poncey a way of describing one of the most enjoyable albums you're likely to hear.
(original review here)

Not Album Of The Year

20Ten - Prince 

It was given away free in the Daily Mirror.
(original review here)


Ok, so this year the LoveFilm subscription was cancelled as there just wasn't the time to meet even the minimum requirements. Therefore I haven't had the chance to watch many films at all this year but what I have seen has been great. Three films played in different ways with the notion of cinematic truth. Duncan Jones made a striking debut with Moon, a film that put British sci-fi back on the map, Christopher Nolan cashed in on the success of his Batman reboot by making a good-looking, intelligent cinema experience in the form of Inception and from the left-field came the intriguing Certified Copy which still has me confused today about what the real truth might have been.

One film still haunts me though and that is why I will raise it above the others.


Lars Von Trier is not an easy man to like and I had some great debate with friends about his previous work after watching his latest. I have no doubt after Antichrist that the man is an artist and a serious one at that. Dark, difficult, disturbing and very adult (in the mature sense of the word rather than the sensational reaction to the pumping penis on display here) it is a film difficult to watch in many places but which challenges you to watch it again. Beautifully filmed and acted, if you think you're up to the challenge then I really recommend it (and would welcome the opportunity to discuss afterwards).
(original review here)

Not Film Of The Year

The Da Vinci Code

I'm not even sure of the weakened mental state that placed me in front of the TV watching this one but it was nothing compared to the vegetative state the film itself reduced me to. I haven't read the book but the film was so stupid in its need to explain everything and leave the audience nothing to do that I could feel myself getting stupider by the minute. Every actor in it was appalling and looked uncomfortable, the script was laughable and I can't think of a less thrilling thriller. Give me the X-Factor over this any day.

So, there's a quick look back at some of my 2010. How was yours?


Tuesday 14 December 2010

'People do not always notice miracles'

The Topless Tower
by Silvina Ocampo

Hesperus Worldwide is a new imprint from the independent publisher that reflects more accurately than ever their motto Et Remotissima Prope" or "bringing near what is far." Of their initial titles I was intrigued by this slim novella, in no small part because of Ocampo's relationship with Adolfo Bioy Casares who wrote one of my reading finds (thanks to Trevor) since starting this blog - The Invention of Morel. The thirty-year-old Ocampo caused something of a scandal amongst the Argentinian literati when she took Casares as her lover when he was only 19. They were later married and she even adopted Casares' lovechild, the couple remaining together until Ocampo's death at the age of 90 (followed tragically three weeks later by the death of that daughter in a car accident). Ocampo was a writer of both poetry and stories famed more for her children's work (and association with Borges) but translator James Womack in his introduction is keen to point out that 'Ocampo never really drew a distinction between writing for children and for adults.' The best children's writing has always had something for the adult reader, long before the concept of crossover fiction was coined and marketed. This novella has a child narrator and recalls writers like Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak but didn't strike me as really being aimed at children. Those who enjoy the nonsense of Lear, absurdity of Carroll, or magical realism of much South American writing will find themselves in familiar territory (which is itself an absurd way of describing the completely fantastical premise of the book)

A long time ago, or else not so very long ago, I couldn't say, summer held out its green leaves, its mirrors of sky-blue water, the fruits in the trees. The days were not long enough: I could never finish swimming, or rowing, or eating chocolate, or painting with the watercolours from my black paintbox. I'd got prizes from school, but I am disobedient. I imitate people, like monkeys do. I even imitate the way people write. Like some famous writers, I use the first and third persons simultaneously. My parents have a lot of books. Sometimes I can't understand what I write, it's so well written, but I can always guess what I wanted to say. I'll underline the words I don't understand. Someone once said to me, and I suspect it was the Devil, 'The great writers are those who don't understand what they write; the others are worthless.'

And so begins the story of nine-year-old Leandro, a precocious youngster who one day laughs at the wrong man, a wealthy-looking chap selling paintings (the aforementioned Devil?), and finds himself instantly transported into the tower that features in one of them, a prisoner. In one of the rooms of this tower he finds an easel set up with a canvas and a table of paints, brushes, paper and more canvas. He begins to paint picture after picture, trying to imagine a landscape that is denied him by this windowless room, and is amazed at one stage when he finds that a branch he has painted not only looks real, but is real. With new hope he paints more and more pictures, confident that they too will become real but he has little control over what he ends up painting. First a spider, then a snake cause terror by moving from the canvas to his room, thankfully shut on the other side of the door eventually. Like any lost boy what he wants to paint most of all is his mother but it never seems to be her that appears on the canvas. A bird and a monkey called Bamboo and Iris, a wizard with a hyena's face that might be the Devil, even a double of himself will all come and go, each brief encounter bringing a small excitement in creation and a little loss when they depart.

This fantastical set up acts as a metaphor for any act of artistic creation. There is fear before he puts brush to canvas; lack of control over what he might paint; there is the almost dreamlike state of creating so that what he often sees is the confusing end result, pictures he has no memory of painting; and with a clear aim of what he wants to paint - a portrait of his mother as he last remembers her, knitting underneath a tree - the confusion about how to realise it.

There was no one to tell him what he wanted to know: whether it was practice which led to pictures being like their subjects, and if the look in his mother's eyes would appear into the drawing as an untimely gift which he himself would not be able to explain. What he did understand, as surely as if someone had told him straight out, was that he would eventually manage to draw the exact expression in her eyes, and as he drew the delicate line in her eyelids he felt what great artists feel, the inexplicable happiness that comes from drawing the line that you have hunted for so long and which is only just recognisable as you draw it.

His concentrated attempts actually result in the portrait of a young girl who comes to join Leandro and with whom he falls instantly in love. When he eventually loses her too then his first letter to her hints at the frustration of trying to recreate artistic success and the new fear that comes with it.

Dear Ifigenia,
I've thought about you so much that I can't imagine anything apart from your face. I draw it desperately, but instead of your eyes I draw other eyes, and I am scared that you will come out of the painting transformed into a different person.

I mentioned Sendak at the beginning so you may have an idea what the conclusion might be, no boy goes on a journey like that without learning something, and this adult fairytale may help the reader learn something too as well as having a particular resonance for those with any kind of artistic bent.


Tuesday 7 December 2010

'without remorse or restraint'

A Naked Singularity
by Sergio De La Pava

A 700-page self-published novel. I can't think of anything I'm less likely to read apart from maybe anything by Dan Brown. Or Jeffrey Archer. Or Mills and Boon. Actually scratch those, why on earth would I bother to buy a novel that couldn't get a single publisher to take it on, and a long one at that? Because some reviews are tempting, and I'm up for a challenge, and something about it lit a fuse within me. A review that alludes to Pynchon, Gaddis, Melville, Dostoevsky and Rabelais might just as easily send you running for cover as rushing to see what's within the covers but it does at least give an indication of the ambition and scope of this leviathan. This book certainly won't be to all tastes but if you like any of the writers above and might be goaded into action by a book that says, 'Go on, I dare you' then I dare you too.

A Naked Singularity is one of those books so large, so ambitious and so bonkers that it makes the task of writing a review almost impossible. You either write something as bloated as the book itself in an attempt to include all of its maddening variety or you end up paralysed and providing little more than a pithy summary and some hyperbole. Let's see if we can find a compromise but I make no promises. The book does at least have a single, central character. Casi ('kind of like Lassie but not really') is a public defender in New York. We never learn more than his first name but learn its interesting origin from his mother at a gathering of his Colombian family.

'I almost died during the delivery Dios mio. The next day they asked me if I had a name yet. I said casi because we were getting close to deciding, I kept waiting for them to ask me again but that's the name they put down.'

In a fabulous opening we are thrown into his daily existence as a lawyer representing those that far from being presumed innocent are usually regarded as guilty, that fact having very little to do with whether they can be got off or not. In fact Casi is quick to correct one client who thinks his lawyer needs to believe in his innocence.

"You're wrong I don't, I just don't. It's not going to make me work harder on your case like in some stupid movie and it's certainly not going to make it any more likely that you walk. In fact, if you really are innocent then it's probably going to hurt you and your case more than anything because, for one thing, I would probably be so distracted by the novelty of the situation I'd be rendered ineffective..."

It is a great opening for two reasons the first of those being De La Pava's ease with the technicalities of law enforcement, legal process and the underbelly of New York. There's jargon flying about all over the place, a feeling familiar to anyone who has watched The Wire, something that I find pleasingly intoxicating and it isn't long before you feel you're starting to get a handle on how it all works. With so many crimes and misdemeanours Casi's perspective is that the police have 'the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished, so widespread was wrongdoing' this decision often based on 'the relevant officers' need for overtime'. So we quickly meet his caseload and this is where the second strength immediately comes into play. The snappy dialogue of these early interviews is brilliant, idiomatic and well-observed. In fact it's in stark contrast to most of the dialogue in the book which can be florid, digressive, erudite, verbose, sometimes all at once - oh, and I mean that in a positive sense. Casi has warned us early on after all that he 'can wander a bit whilst storytelling' but some friends and colleagues also have a tendency to hold forth (with, for example, the 'mind numbing, intentionally yawn-inducing detail meant to replicate the utter inanity of such societal questions' as one character puts it later)

One in particular is a fellow lawyer called Dane who drives what you might call the plot. Dane has theories about many things but one of his obsessions is the pursuit of perfection. How on earth can we achieve perfection in such an imperfect world? Following on from his interest in perfect numbers (those numbers that are the sum of their divisors, excluding the number itself e.g. 6 (1+2+3=6) and 28 (1+2+4+7+14=28)) Dane determined to offer the perfect defence to one of his clients (number 6 on his caseload naturally). What is a perfect defence? Not just an acquittal but the most rigorous preparation for trial ever mustered so that acquittal is guaranteed. His research extended from an in depth knowledge of the case and even the possible judges, with a little manoeuvre to make sure that they would be assigned the one most favourable to their case, to a similar familiarity with his client. It may surprise you to know that the pursuit of perfection means a crash course in crack smoking so as to be able to empathise and understand one's client all the more effectively. That kind of commitment combined with another of Dane's obsessions, the human desire to leave a legacy, leads him to propose something equally shocking to Casi when their discussions lead them around to the allure of the heist.

"But then you need the will Casi. The will to execute it the one chance you get. This is where the adrenaline comes from and this is the universal attraction. This is why people love crime, the singularity of the will involved. And don't tell me people don't love crime to the point of near obsession. Just look at the newspapers, the visual news, and all other forms of popular entertainment, crime is their favourite process. The only question is whether crime is inherently a perversion, meaning error is necessarily built into it, or whether some degree of perfection can be achieved in that area."
"Meaning the commission of a truly perfect crime."
"Guess anything's possible Dane."
"And everything."
"So get cracking on it, could be your legacy."
Casi will live to regret giving Dane any encouragement in that direction, but I don't want to spoil anything by saying any more about the plan to commit the perfect crime itself. What is just as important as the thriller-like plan is what it means to each man. Casi's relationship to the plan is 'dysfunctional', for all his involvement in its formation he has his eye firmly on a hasty exit and yet something keeps him involved, something to do with the visceral connection this gives him to underbelly he is used to representing and the ability to impose his moral imperative at the same time (If reality is sometimes so intense and bizarre that it feels like bad, unpersuasive fiction, then this was fiction so powerful it outrealized reality.). Dane needs Casi for the plan's fruition, he knows instinctively that two heads are better than one and that Casi's own natural tendencies towards caution and disbelief will be the perfect partner to his own total conviction.

"You're as capable of perfection as I am. Join me in this and learn what it means to truly exhaust a potentiality."

I couldn't help but be reminded of the verbal sparring and jockeying of Tyler Durden and the Narrator in Fight Club. This mismatched pair have a lot to offer each other and the extraordinary conversations between the two of them and the thrust of the plot itself might be enough for some writers but De La Pava has much more in his sights. The novel is like a compendium. We have already encountered themes like justice, perfection and legacy; dialogue that ranges from the pithy to the polemic; characters that manage to attach themselves to your reading consciousness whether they are granted several chapters or a single paragraph. But there are also thought experiments in which another tenant in Casi's building aims to watch a TV series in its entirety, without commercial interruption, from start to finish, in order to prove his hypothesis that it will make the main character contained within as real or manifest as anyone else in his life. There is a satirical look at our reality obsessed Television (that word always significantly capitalised) and the public bands armed with cameras, known as the Video Vigilantes, who provide news outlets with footage of the gruesome crime-de-jour (a child abduction and murder that will have UK readers thinking of Jamie Bulger), and even the sanctity of the church confessional is in danger of being invaded by video cameras and our leering gaze for a new TV series ('It's not TV, it's HBO' - shouts the priest as comfort).

Significant sections of the novel are given over to the history of boxing involving one fighter in particular: Wilfred Benitez. I have no real interest in boxing but there was something fascinating about such a comprehensive examination of one man's career, particularly someone I had never heard of and yet who to this day holds the record as the youngest World Champion (he was just 17 when he won the light welterweight title in 1976). Benitez was famed for his defensive skills, seeming to hold an almost telepathic ability to evade blows, leading one opponent, Sugar Ray Leonard, to comment, 'It was though I was looking into the mirror...I mean no one can make me miss punches like that.' Like the best sports writing it makes you want to watch footage of it immediately, possible with ease thanks to YouTube, and that in turn makes you realise how good the prose description is, the detail of movement it contains like watching slow-motion footage with expert commentary. What is the purpose of these boxing sections amidst the plot of a crime thriller? That theme of legacy is one connection, a boxer's career defined by three numbers, the most vital of statistics, that measure wins, draws and losses (with KO's in brackets), that are often all that's left behind by those like Benitez who find themselves close to penniless at the end of their career and even their own memories destroyed by the degenerative brain disease that is the true legacy of those punishing blows in the ring. Boxing also picks up on the decisive moment, the need to face one's fear and not run away. There comes that moment in a fight when you get hit, hard, and then there's a decision to make. Do you go into a defensive shell, lose on points, sure, but 'avoid embarrassment and avoid needless pain'? Or do you step into the danger area and fight, make sure that if the other guy wants victory he will have to wrest it from you? That same choice is faced by Casi and Dane as they stand on the cusp of action in a moment typical of this novel's audacity. Invoking the theodicy of Leibniz and the modal realism of David Lewis, Dane uses his belief in all possible worlds to argue for what he sees as their only course of action.

"And I have nothing but contempt for these people, if you can call them that, who will turn around at this point," he said. "And when I think that one of them looks just like me and has the audacity to go around calling himself Dane it makes me want to draw blood from the anger. Remember that because right now it is certainly at least possible that you and I will go get that money, that means at least two of our counterparts will in fact get it. Don't we need to be those two? Of course we do, it absolutely must be us. I don't care what it entails. You have total power and control here. You just have to decide who you want to be and that's who'll you become."

Melville was mentioned earlier and there are many comparisons to be made with Moby-Dick, comparisons invited by De La Pava by his naming the novel's giant, almost non-human nemesis Baleena (balena being Spanish for whale). Melville's masterpiece received a mixed and often baffled response on its publication but now stands as one of the cornerstones of American literature. It's not possible to know what fate has in store for this leviathan, although we can say that in at least one possible world it is a bestseller, but De La Pava is well aware of what is at stake. After working tirelessly on an appeal document Casi is brought face to face with another possibility.

"I hate to say it but you may have poured your very soul, as you obviously did, into the creation of this work and it may never be read by anyone, it may never so much as influence a single person's actions. I just came to that realization, how awful."

It's tempting to say it would be a crime if that turned out to be the case, but the awfulness of the pun aside it's already inaccurate. More positive responses from readers and reviewers are certain to follow and if there is a publisher (and editor) with enough balls out there then there's no reason why this world shouldn't be the best of all those possible for De La Pava.

Oh, and I haven't yet explained what a naked singularity is. Here goes: The gravitational force around a black hole is so strong that light emitted from beyond that singularity's 'event horizon' cannot reach the observer. This means that the singularity cannot be directly observed. A naked singularity is a (so far) theoretical singularity with no event horizon and therefore observable from the outside. I'm not going to tell you how that fits into all of the above and you'll have to read until the very last page if you want to find out. Go on, I dare you.


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