30.12.13

2013: Around the Year in Twenty Books

I read sixty books this year.
One less than last year. Five less than my goal.
I must say I left at least a half dozen books unfinished. It does happen sometimes.

It matters not. As philosophers might say: it's not the quantity but the quality.
And there was much quality in what I leafed through on 2013 even though I didn't manage to review everything that I read including 5 books which made it into my top list. Apologies.

Anyway, let's cut it short. Hereby you can find the twenty books that meant something to me in this ending soon year.
By clicking on each title, you can read a review. The bold links lead to my reviews, the other five, to better reviews than the ones I could have written if I had been less lazy. Read some!

01. Kurt Vonnegut - Mother Night
Forget 'Slaughterhouse Five' and 'Cat's Cradle': this is the best novel by Vonnegut you will find. Humorous, witty, melancholy, thought-provoking. In two words: pitch perfect. 

02. Israel Joshua Singer - The Brothers Ashkenazi
An epic tale on the rise and fall of a Jewish captain of industry in the rambling city of Lodz between the end of the 19th century and the dawn of World War II. Masterful stuff. 

03. Stefan Zweig - Chess (also known as The Royal Game)
It takes the author only 96 pages to deliver the greatest novella on the game of chess and one of the most powerful and topical stories on Holocaust ever written.

04. Don Carpenter - Hard Rain Falling
An underrated novel handling hard topics such as urban violence, gambling, homosexuality and social division with a sharp and yet emotional touch. A literary equivalent of The Shawshank Redemption.  

05. John Williams - Stoner
How the only child of poor Missouri farmers can become an English Literature professor fail into the pursuit of love, happiness, career and yet pass away serene. Belated bestseller, but for a reason. 

06. Gregor von Rezzori - The Snows of Yesteryear
Chronicles from a vanished Central European world where multiculturalism was a matter of fact. Von Rezzori drew an exquisite family portrait with a richful historical background. 

07. Elias Canetti - The Tongue Set Free
Canetti portrays an engrossing account of his childhood and young adult years wandering with his family from Bulgaria to Manchester, Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt in the early 20th century. 

08. Olga Grushin - The Dream Life of Sukhanov
An interesting novel on art in contemporary Russia beautified by a flourishing language. Reading about Sukhanov's intellectual struggle is like staring at an abstract painting getting its actual meaning.

09. Antal Szerb - The Pendragon Legend
A hidden jewel by a Hungarian intellectual who loved Britain to bits. A carefully-chiselled pastiche celebrating Gothic literature, British humour and poking fun at occultism in a sophisticated way.

10. Walter Tevis - The Man Who Fell to Earth
A shining and probably unique piece of introspective science fiction. How a humanoid alien visiting Earth to save us from nuclear wars is relentlessly shattered into pieces by solitude and alcoholism. 

11. Graham Greene - The Comedians
Nobody understood what was going on and what was bound to happen in Haiti as much as Greene did.   And he managed to write a suspenseful thriller as well with Papa Doc and Duvalier in the background.     

12. Anne Applebaum - Between East and West
An engaging travelogue through Eastern Europe in the early 1990s when the Iron Curtain got rusty. Applebaum takes you from Kaliningrad to Odessa jotting down notes with the keen eye of a reporter.

13. John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead
Gems of pure Americanah pop and underground culture delivered by one of the most humorous pens west of the Atlantic Ocean. Where gonzo journalism meets David Sedaris. 

14. John Wyndham - The Day of The Triffids
Gargantuan walking plants stinging to death men and woman to banquet on their flesh thus driving humanity on the verge of extinction. All fueled by mass blindness and set in puritan England. Very funny indeed.

15. Isaac Bashevis Singer - Enemies
A love quadrangle set between Coney Island and the Bronx involving a sexy Holocaust survivor, a meek Polish peasant, and a resurrected wife torn a man apart. Polygamy is a tiring business. 

16. Ma Jian - Red Dust
A Chinese artist leaves Beijing behind to escape from a purge in the early 1980s. He will travel for 5 years discovering the sweet and sour sides of his homecountry and rediscover himself in the process.

17. Antal Szerb - Journey by Moonlight
Szerb strikes again with something completely different. At this time a newly-wed Hungarian groom has a personality crisis during his Italian honeymoon. Funny and profound at the same time.

18. Patrick Hamilton - Hangover Square
Hamilton puts himself in the shoes of a loser and good for nothing pining for a bitchy alcoholic woman. Love and hate walk hand in hand through the dark alleyways and public houses of pre-war London. 

19. Edmund de Waal - The Hare with the Amber Eyes
World famous ceramist turns into novelist to narrate the story of the Jewish branch of his family displaced by wars and misfortunes. On the wake of Canetti and von Rezzori but with a modern twist.

20. Julian Maclaren Ross - Of Love and Hunger
What do we know about the door-to-door vacum cleaner seller's feelings? Maclaren Ross filled that gap by telling the story of a suburban love affair in earlier times of job insecurity. Every little helped.

26.12.13

Walter Tevis - The Man Who Fell to Earth

Rating 7.6

As a non native English speaker, I discovered the adjective 'poignant' only six years ago thanks to a Canadian friend (thanks, Vicky).
She chose it to comment a photo I took involving a bowler hat hanging from a chair while an out of focus blonde girl in the background stood on her toes to take off a branch of autumn leaves from the frame of a mirror over a washbasin.
To be honest with you, the photo was nothing special. Perhaps my friend was ironic. Or maybe not.

What I know is that from that day on I have been struggling to find the right contest to use the same word.
The thing is that poignancy doesn't seem to apply to many things I see around me. Besides, the word 'poignant' doesn't come up very easily in conversation. 'Touching' and 'moving' are my natural choices.

Now my quest is over.
For The Man Who Fell to Earth is a poignant novel.  I wouldn't call it in any other way.

It's certainly a sad story, but there is a delicate almost intimate feeling around it and within it that makes poignancy at home. I've never watched the movie adaptation taken from this book and starring David Bowie, but I am somewhat sceptical on the ability of the Hollywood industry to create and deliver the same atmosphere of the book.

Walter Tevis was not your typical sci-fi writer and The Man Who Fell to Earth is not your typical work of science fiction either. No surprise that Tevis himself referred at his so labelled 'sci-fi novels' (this one and Mockingbird are his most famous works) as 'speculative fiction' rather than science fiction.

Given all that, you might not be surprised to find plenty of introspection here as well as recurring and symbolic references to paintings by Klee, Bruegel, Manet, and Van Gogh. Which is not the standard cup of tea for a sci-fi novelist.
At the same time, the 1980s and 1990s imagined by the author in 1963 are not that technologically advanced to leave you flabbergasted. No flying machines. No smell-o-vision cinemas. No androids dreaming of electring sheep. In fact, what happens is quite the opposite: there is no hint that humankind ever made it to the Moon (as it did only six years after this book got published) as well as that any significant leap forward took place either in mass production of goods or scientific research.

This is not a coincidence. The author wants the reader to focus on the main character.
And the main character might look like a man, but - as it happens - doesn't belong to the human race but comes from planet Anthea. That he 'fell' to Earth and brought with himself enough blueprints and chemical formulas to give humankind progress and make himself a billionaire in the process is all a part of a masterplan.
Now the problem for the Anthean visitor is that he starts feeling overtired and lonely. If he were a man, he would soon discover that money can't buy health, love and happiness. But he comes from Anthea, accumulates cash for a purpose and doesn't seek for disillusion thus going straight into alcoholism.

Walter Tevis was an expert on this. And I'm sure there's much of him in Mr Newton, the Anthean visitor. It's true that the author indulges way too much on what each character drinks, if they drink it straight, bitter or on the rocks and whether they stir their drink and,if so, for how long.
As a matter of fact, all the three main characters in the novel had, have or will have problem with the booze to the point that they often wish to get drunk. I cannot deny that this subplot is somehow simplistic: after all there's nothing new in alcohol seen as a painkiller, a nectar of wishful forgetting and - at the same time - a weapon of self destruction.

And yet Tevis' writing made me forgive him for all that first hand insistence on alcohol.
What ultimately wins here is a powerful story that is beautifully told and is still topical today. The uneasiness of Mr Newton, the Man who Fell to Earth, first in dealing with Earthlings and then with himself is non extraterrestrial, but very much a human feeling.

16.12.13

Frank Westerman - Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse

Rating 7.3

Frank Westerman is a Dutch agronomist who became a journalist and a foreign correspondent writing a bunch of non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects.

From the Soviet novelists' deeds to the massacres of the ex Yugoslavian conflict; from the chronicle of his ascent to the biblical Mount Ararat to an investigation on a natural disaster in Cameroon.
Passing through a children book he wrote with his daughter.

Brother Mendel's Perfect Horse is the - quite convoluted - English title of Dier, Bovendier, which literally translates into 'Animal Above Animal'. Pardon my Dutch.

So what is this animal above animal(s)?
Man, you'd say.
Aye, but not only: please add horse.

But not each and every horse you'd find around deserves to stand at the top of the animal hyerarchy. In fact, it's men themselves who took the right to make their own perfect horse, the king among horses, the  proud and elegant steed you don't only ride on but that you actually dance with.
This Superhorse is the Lipizzaner, a thoroughbred created over centuries of careful and painstaking crossbreeding financed and wanted by the Hapsburg Empire.



And flicking through the carefully preserved genealogical trees of these full-blooded steeds as well as visiting the riding stables among modern Austria, Slovenia, and Bosnia that Westerman wrote his book.
Now, this accomplishiment might sound rather boring to all those who don't really care about horses or have always been too scared to ride one. Well, fear not.

Mr Westerman found the key to make even horse crossbreeding an interesting process and is well documented and knowledgeable enough to put the saga of the Lipizzaners into a historical and a scientific frame. These steeds were one of the dearest treasures of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire and - as such - became a valuable war chest more than once in the last century.


The author here finds out where did these horses come from and where did they end up embarking on a very interesting - if slightly long winded - journey. It's mixing up the fortunes and misfortunes of the Lipizzaners with the ones of their creators, stableboys, looters and saviors that makes this story worth to be told even though Frank Westerman does take some detours which could have been left out.

The beautiful white and silver horses you can now see performing their peculiar steps, jumps and pirouettes in the Spanische Hofreiteschule in Vienna are the heirs of broodmares who survived many twists and turns in history and this book will let you appreciate all that.


4.12.13

John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead

Rating 7.6

I had never read a single feature written by John Jeremiah Sullivan before buying Pulphead.

To be completely honest with you, despite Mr Sullivan being a regular contributor of excellent papers such as The Paris Review and The New York Times for a number of years, his name was unknown to me til a few months ago. My apologies for that, John Jeremiah.

It took a score of praising reviews for Pulphead I spotted here (thank you, Kinga) and there (thank you, Guardian and Independent) to make me aware of Mr Sullvan's existence as well as to convince me to purchase this book.
Contrary to my recent habits of scouring second hand bookstalls, car boot sales, and charity shops, I've even purchased a brand new paperback copy of Pulphead.

I had expectations, mind you.
Now, did I fulfil them?
Absolutely.

This collection of essays written by Mr Sullivan over the last years does include amazing stuff.
And yet, I expected something different from Pulphead.
Before starting to leaf through the very first essay (Upon This Rock about a weird Christian rock festival called Creation), I thought that John Jeremiah would have taken his reporting much more seriously than he actually did. Not that I was ready to stumble upon an emulator of David Remnick or Barbara Demick but - hey - after all we're talking about an American journalist in his 30s not of some dadaist essayist.

Well, Upon This Rock with its semi self-hatred style, its sharp sarcasm and its apparently casual - but actually quite straight to the point - observations opened my eyes. Here I had a heir of gonzo journalism writing in first person narrative and telling me the story of a not successful reporting from a proudly subjective point of view.
The problem is that I cannot stand the father of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. I tried to like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but eventually found it dull, lazy and messy.

Was Mr Sullivan going to take me along the same road Mr Thompson pointed at? Luckily not.

For the following essays of Pulphead kept their first person narrative and dealt quite a lot with their author personal experiences and point of view, but always managed to focus on something or someone in a quite effective -if particular - way. Must have been due to John Jeremiah not taking drugs or getting drunk during the writing process. Dunno.

In fact, something quite unexpected suddenly happened.
And it's this: David Sedaris passed by and said hello.

Let me clarify what I saw. I might be the only reader of Pulphead who experienced this epiphany, but Sullivan's writing gradually reminded me of Sedaris'.
Now the question is: can an essay on Michael Jackson or Axl Rose resembles a short story about, say, a bisexual neighbour wearing wigs and stalking grannies in a leafy American neighborhood? Yes, it can.

I mean, we're talking about Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. If you think about that they both belong(ed) - each in his own way - to the same Americana pop culture that Mr Sedaris is so fascinated about. Hadn't they become that successful in the music business, what else could Michael and Axl have done to earn their living? They could have worked as Santa's elves humming Xmas carols in a shopping mall somewhere between California and the Bible Belt from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve wearing coloured hosies to make their ends meet. (even though I reckon how Jacko would have preferred impersonating Santa himself for obvious reasons).

















John Jeremiah Sullivan understood all that.
And that's why he managed to bring Michael and Axl back to the neighborhood they belong(ed) to writing about seemingly minor episodes of their lives which - believe it or not - capture the essence of both guys, are entertaining and reveal something new on them that is in itself a major accomplishment.
Sullivan never met Jacko or Axl Rose in person but that doesn't matter.
He grew up listening to them, watching them on stage and reading gossip about them. He grew up playing the chords of 'Patience' and dancing to the smooth sexy riff of 'Billie Jean'. He treasured those trivial moments and they made the difference when he had to write about Michael and the Guns 'n Roses frontman.

I know there are fifteen essays in Pulphead and I only mentioned three so far. But it's when he writes about music and pop culture that Sullivan excels so I don't think I need to dig deeper into this book to convince you that it's worth reading it.

Let me just say that Upon This Rock, Michael and The Final Comeback of Axl Rose aside, there are at least a half dozen other amazing pieces of writing here with the uproarious Peyton's Place taking the crown. Pulphead might not be a five stars collection in its entirety, but it's a jolly good read nonetheless.

By the way, it turned out that you can read pretty much all of the Pulphead essays online: the one below is my top five, enjoy:

Peyton's Place
The Final Comeback of Axl Rose
American Grotesque
Hey, Mickey
Michael