Book Reviews In the Wild

20170415_174812-e1492299406699.jpgSo far, 2017 has been a good reading year. I’m even a few books ahead on my Goodreads Reading Challenge.

I wanted to post links to some reviews I’ve written for other sites in the past few months (in case you all missed me).

Cockroaches, written by Scholastique Mukasonga and translated by Jordan Stump, is a memoir from of a survivor of the Rwandan genocides.  What makes her account so moving is that Mukasonga was living in France when the majority of her family was massacred, and so her story is as much about surviving having your loved ones violently taken from you as it is about the years leading up to and surrounding  the horrific event.  You can read my review of Cockroaches at The Quarterly Conversation.

I wasn’t that impressed with South Korean writer Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale (translated by Janet Hong), but I have a pretty low tolerance for performative, avant garde literature.  The story which superficially is about abuse and violence in children devolves in the second half of the book into a meta-fictional hodge-podge. Such Small Hands by Spanish writer Andrés Barba (translated by Lisa Dillman) is a more powerful, and less pretentious, novel that deals with similar themes. You can read my review of The Impossible Fairy Tale at The Rumpus.

I’ve also been writing fairly regularly over at Book Riot about translations – mostly lists of book recommendations organized by themes, though there are some essays in the mix. There you’ll find recommendations of Japanese novels, French feminist writers, micropresses or – if you’re feeling political – an essay about hearing Masha Gessen give the Arthur Miller Lecture at the 2017 PEN Festival in New York which shaped my reflections on the current U.S. president’s lack of literary background and inability to articulate clear thoughts.  I’ve been writing at Book Riot for a few months now and am trying to keep my Clippings Page (see the menu above) updated with links.

Hopefully I’ll have more to share soon.

 

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy, tr. Howard Curtis

Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author:   Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator:   Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8

The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is  just one of  the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record.  Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.

Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a  historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI.  The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.

What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.

“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”

“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”

Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford.  Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters.  This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction.  But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama.  Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.

The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.

Cue the sinister music.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.

Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, tr. Adriana Hunter

Title:  The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author:  Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator:  Adriana Hunter
Publisher:  Other Press
ISBN:  978 159051707 9

The Travels of Daniel AscherThe Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer.  According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies.  The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words:  the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.

Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris.  He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène.  Her relationship to Daniel is complicated.  Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish.    Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her.  At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels.  And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.

Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her  own devices.

That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background  of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.

Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel.  The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish.  A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable.  Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted.  Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history.  With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin.  Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning.  This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.

As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous.  My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.

The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition.  Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting.  Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher.  Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”.  Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.

20150710_202012-1

 

The Red Notebook In a Rose-Colored World

Title:  The Red Notebook

Author:  Antoine Laurain

Translator:  Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2015)

ISBN:  978 19083 1 3867

TheRedNotebookAntoine Laurain writes perfectly pleasant novels. And his latest, The Red Notebook, sticks to that amiable formula which seems to have brought him some success in the past. The President’s Hat was the story of a man who mistakenly switches hats with French President François Mitterrand. It changes his life. And then he, too, loses the hat. The books is structured around his frantic search to find it again.  The hat passes through a string of characters – changing all their lives for the better during the period they posses it – before eventually, serendipitously, finding its way back to Mitterand.  None of the characters are in any way disagreeable, though one is interestingly curmudgeonly.  Even Mitterand is portrayed as genial and sympathetic, appearing like a benevolent fairy godfather in the final chapters.

The Red Notebook takes its name from another lost object.  A woman is mugged and her purse left behind by the assailant on top of a trash bin. Laurent Letellier, a divorced middle-aged bookseller, finds the bag and goes through the contents looking for information that will help him to return it to the proper owner. Instead he discovers a red notebook and very little else. He becomes intrigued by the women who recorded her thoughts on the pages (obsession would be too powerful an emotion for a Laurain character).  He sets out to find her.  In the place of Mitterand, the French poet Modiano steps in to provide a cameo appearance.  Modiano is remarkably accommodating when Laurent approaches him in the park, having discovered a link between the poet and the notebook’s owner.

Antoine Laurain writes characters well. The protagonist, Lettelier, is attractively disheveled.  His teen daughter spoiled, but wonderfully vibrant. The heroine a brooding version of Juliette Binoche.  Even the employees at Lettelier’s bookshop are convincingly realized. And I desperately would like to believe that Modiano is exactly as Laurain portrays him – engaging, wise and utterly, delightfully pleasant.

At their best Laurain’s books and characters remind me of a sitcom. Because everyone likes sitcoms. I could also compare The Red Notebook to a Rom-Com starring Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks.  Or a less successful version of Laurence Cossé ‘s A Novel Bookstore.  Or even one of Alexander McCall Smith’s many, many books – without the mystery and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

Therein lies the rub.

The Red Notebook (and The President’s Hat, for that matter) relies heavily on character and formula, without injecting any real conflict or originality into the narrative.  It reminds me of too many other things: other books, films, television shows.  But I can’t imagine three months from now saying  – this (story or thing) reminds me of an Antoine Laurain novel. They, the books, lack the qualities which make a story memorable. Which is the problem that comes with pleasant.

 

What Do Margaret Wise Brown & Georges Perec Have In Common?

At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Title:  An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris

Author:  Georges Perec

Translator:  Marc Lowenthal

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2010)

ISBN:  978 0 9841155 2 5

 

WakefieldExhausting4At what age do we as readers start requiring linear narratives? And demand that all books tell us stories?

Margaret Wise Brown’s iconic Goodnight Moon has been a bedtime staple for decades.  If you didn’t have it read to you as a child then you have almost certainly read it as an adult to a child in your life.  I’ve yet to attend a baby shower where there wasn’t at least one copy – if not multiples – unwrapped.  Adults discovering or rediscovering Goodnight Moon often express surprise at the sophistication of this little book.  The rhythm of the prose, the way the room in the illustrations grows darker as the pages are turned, and the insertion of “Goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” (a surreal moment if there ever was one) – these things speak of an author who was interested in non-linear narrative and experimental literature.

For this all to make sense it’s important to understand that there’s more to Margaret Wise Brown and her books than meets the eye.  She was a product of the modernist period in art and literature.*  In the early 1930’s she worked as a teacher at the Bank Street Experimental School in New York City.  At that time this cutting edge school’s focus was on early childhood education & development. She studied how children used rhymes to develop language. Sometimes, as in the case of her “Noisy Book” series, she would use the children as a kind of focus group and adjust some of the words based on their reactions & suggestions.  Toddlers would be shown picture book illustrations and teachers would time how long the pictures held their attention.  The Bank Street School was the epicenter of what became known as the golden age of children’s literature. And most of the ideas in Margaret Wise Brown’s books can be traced back to what she learned there.

 Goodnight Moon tells no story, per se.  There are no character arcs.  No morals explained. No dialogue. At the most basic level Goodnight Moon is a catalog of the items in a single room. And, yet, lovers of the book are as  familiar with the contents of that room as they are of any room in their own home.

What no one ever really discusses (and why should they? This is a children’s book we’re talking about) is the quiet, haunting quality of Brown’s writing.  There is none of the joyful silliness or made up rhymes you find in Dr. Seuss.  Or the reassuring sentimentalism found in many stories written for the very young. Goodnight Moon is poetry – childish, simplistic, naive – but poetry nonetheless.

…goodnight to the old lady

whispering “hush”

Goodnight stars

Goodnight air

Goodnight noises everywhere

 

In words a small child can understand Brown describes the line between consciousness and sleep.  The gradual loss of consciousness.  Eyes open in the dark, even after the moon disappears behind the clouds, you can still see the stars. Close your eyes and listen to the sound of your breathing. Then sleep and then silence. This sixty-one page children’s book has been many a child’s first experience with a concrete representation of the forward passage of time, even if the passage spans only 15 minutes.

The charms of Georges Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris are not so far removed from Goodnight Moon as one would think. It is a catalog of the things that the author sees and hears while sitting in place Saint-Sulpice. People and dogs passing, flocks of pigeons, the sound of church bells, changing of streetlights and the endless waves of city buses. It should be boring. There’s no story to speak of. No sense of narrative progression. No dialogue or ideas.  None of the things we are told make literature. And yet, somehow, Perec’s writing moves beyond a catalog of people, animals and things to capture the rhythms of life and time.  When he recognizes the writer Jean-Paul Aron (translated to John-Paul, which seems a bit over-zealous) walking by and then, later, walking by again, you perk up.  Because a name has been assigned to one of the many pedestrians passing by your window.  The buses begin to lose their anonymity – they become the 96, the 87 and the 63 – their appearance jumping out from the text.  And as the day draws to an end the sun sets and the lights in the buildings grow brighter.

The light is beginning to fade, even if this is still barely noticeable; the red of the stoplights is increasingly visible.

Lights come on in the cafe.

Two buses, Cityrama and Paris-VIsion, are unable to get by each other. The Cityrama eventually takes rue Bonaparte, the Paris-Vision would like to take rue du Vieux-Colombier. Policeman no. 5976 (“Michel Lonsdale”), at first confused, eventually grabs his whistle and intervenes – effectively, in fact.

A man walks by with his nose in the air, followed by another man who is looking at the ground.

A man with a can of Ribolin goes by.

people people cars

An old lady with a very beautiful Sherlock Holmes-style waterproof fitted coat

The crowd is dense, almost no more lulls

A woman with two baguettes under her arm

It is four thirty

 

As I said: there is no story in An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. In place of narrative Perec offers experience. Evokes a sense of place. We inhabit his senses – a brief possession. A windy, rainy day. Fading light. The world waking up on Sunday morning. As I write these things down I can’t help wondering how accurately he described what he saw. How much editing and revising happened afterwards.  Or whether accuracy even matters. Perec accomplished a far more difficult task than simply cataloging a place in Paris. On these pages he captured the relentless, forward progression of time and transformed it into poetry.

 

*In 1936 Méret Oppenheim’s Fur Covered Tea Cup was a part of the “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  Brown’s book, Little Fur Family was published ten years later.  The first edition was covered in real rabbit fur.