“I could live under a table reading Borges.” – Roberto Bolaño

The covers of the Pearls are minimalist & gorgeous. The orange color block is embossed, as is all the text. And, like every other New Directions book I’ve seen, it’s numbered. Imagine a complete set lined up on a bookshelf… stunning!

Everything and Nothing is a collection of Jorge Luis Borges’ writings, released in a New Directions Pearl edition.  I’m a huge fan of the Pearls – they’re throwbacks to a time when paperbacks came in 4-1/2″ x 7″ format and fit handily inside your jacket pocket.  Ficciones holds a special place in my heart.  But this particular collection is beautiful, compact and contains some of the author’s best work.  If you already know & love Borges, it is the perfect vehicle to become reacquainted.  If you’ve yet to have the pleasure of reading Borges’ sublime (truly!) prose, Everything and Nothing is a powerful introduction to the best of the short stories, lectures and essays.

Borges is one of the few writers I’ll read over and over again.  His prose style is clean, succinct.  It nicely balances out against the complexity and cerebral quality of his subject matter.  The Lottery in Babylon is a story about a society ruled entirely by chance.  At first it seems ridiculous, – a city in which all decisions are made through lottery.  But as the story progresses, the plot inverts and life in Babylon becomes eerily familiar.  The Garden of Forking Paths is spy vs. spy, a labyrinthine espionage tale with a twist at the end you’ll never see coming.  Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is supposedly about the internet… but I, personally, don’t see it.  For me it’s a much more straightforward narrative on the manipulation of reality and history by a small group of individuals.  My absolute favorite of the collection, Blindness, is a lecture Borges gave in the 1970’s.  If I am ever stranded on a desert island I want it with me.

For me to live without hate is easy, for I have never felt hate.  To live without love I think is impossible, happily impossible for each one of us.  But the first part – “I want to live with myself, / I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven” – if we accept that in the good of heaven there can also be darkness, then who lives more with themselves?  Who can explore themselves more?  Who can know more of themselves?  According to the Socratic phrase, who can know himself more than the blind man?

A writer lives.  The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule.  No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six.  Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry.  I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him.  Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds – the strangest world of art – is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him.  For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune.  It may be an instrument.

Four separate translators worked on the stories and essays that make up Everything and Nothing.  Donald A. Yates, who also wrote the introduction; James E. Irby; John M. Fein and Eliot Weinberger.  This is worth mentioning because Borges voice remains consistent from piece to piece, regardless of who is translating.

I don’t speak or read Spanish.  But in the past I’ve read multiple works of a single author, each interpreted by a different translators.  The substitution of one translator for another can be glaringly obvious.  After reading a book translated by Lucia Graves  I went looking for more novels by its Spanish author.  The next book I picked up was (unfortunately) done by a different translator in whose hands the characters became flat and two-dimensional.  I never bothered with that author again.  To the point: With great power comes great responsibility.  The credit for the smooth flow of this collection is a testament to the skill of the translators.  And while I know it must be so, how could the original Spanish possibly be any better?

Please forgive the poor metaphor, but I find reading Borges’ soothing. Comparable to watching words float by on a stream.  Every so often you fish out an idea like so much flotsam.  Sometimes to keep, sometime to throw back.  You can spend hours doing this.  Days.  Possibly weeks.  And be perfectly content the entire time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me?  It’s time to crawl back under my table.

Publisher:  A New Directions Pearl, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1883 2

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt… & A Special Giveaway!

Read 5 pages into The Sisters Brothers and you begin comparing it to Charles Portis’ (or, for that matter, the Cohen brothers’) True Grit. Both are Westerns, obviously. Neither narrator uses contractions or slang and – despite one being a man & the other a girl – they speak in almost identical voices. Which was an intelligent choice on the author’s part when you think about it.  Patrick deWitt has built his story on a foundation of prose, linking to the classic book through phrasing.  Because of Portis’ book we automatically associate this bare bones style with Westerns.  And having deftly established his book as a Western in this way, deWitt is left with more room to zero in on his characters & plot. The Sisters Brothers is a rare  homage. One that never risks becoming derivative.

The brothers of the title are Charlie & Eli Sisters, gunslingers working for a man known only as the Commodore. Their current job is to hunt and kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a California prospector. Along the way they encounter a motley assortment of characters and adventures, all described to us by Eli. Despite his profession he is ridiculously likeable (and likeable-y ridiculous). An honorable man who, like all good Western heroes, makes no excuses for  his brother or himself. But as he tells his story it becomes clear that he no longer has the heart for killing, if indeed he ever did. Charlie chose their profession.  Eli continues out of loyalty to his brother and little else. Certainly not for the money, which he gives away freely to every underdog that crosses their path.  Charlie, though, is a different matter entirely.  And it’s the relationship between these two brothers that is at the heart of this book.

“We had many adventures together, Charlie and I, and we saw things most men do not get to see.”

The Sisters Brothers has enough gunfights, whores, horses, gamblers, hired guns, outlaws, and prospectors to satisfy even Louis L’Amour.  It’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. One encounter in particular, when Eli & Charlie stumble onto a boy who becomes intent on joining them – whose “head invited violence” –  is so funny that I read it twice.  And the dynamic between Eli and his horse Tubb is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.  Which is what struck me hardest about this novel. DeWitt carefully balances comedy and tragedy, never allowing the story to weigh too heavy on either side. And isn’t that why we love Westerns? Because they blur  the lines? Good and bad, right and wrong, hero and villain – in a Western who you are is determined by the choices you make, not necessarily the consequences of those choices. Yet, ultimately, those consequences remain.

Patrick deWitt has joined the ranks of my favorite kind of author: those who are exploring genre fiction and taking it to the next level.  The Sisters Brothers is a grand adventure not to be missed.

Publisher:  Ecco HarperCollins, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 0 06 204126 5


I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but that’s what initially drew me to The Sisters Brothers.  Designed by Dan Stiles, the cover art has a wonderful graphic quality that made me want to hang it on the wall.  The Ecco team at HarperCollins must have felt the same way. They’ve ordered a limited edition run of 12″ x 18″ art quality prints, each signed and numbered by the artist.  Seriously, they are FABULOUS!  And when they offered me one for my readers, I couldn’t say no.

So, here are the rules:

  • One winner, open to residents of the U.S.A. only.
  • The contest will run for 2 weeks.
  • Leave a comment below naming your favorite Western. Books, movies and television shows will all be accepted.
  • Make sure you also leave your email or twitter handle (remember to follow me!) so I can get your address if you win.
  • In addition to the poster, I’ll be giving away a used galley of the book to a second winner (Patrick deWitt is also popular with American Bulldog puppies – so there is some slight scratching to the cover).

And that’s it! I’ll announce the winner on Friday, June 10th.  Good luck everyone!

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In Search of Steampunk

Top 10 Unanswered Questions after reading The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes:

  1. Who is Barabbas?  What is his past history with Edward Moon ?  Why is he chosen by Love, Love & Love?
  2. Who is the Somnambulist? Where did he come from?  Why doesn’t he talk and what’s with the milk? What is he? Who was his predecessor? What the hell happens to him at the end?
  3. What happened in the case Moon failed to solve that is repeatedly referenced but never explained?
  4. Who would procreate with Skimpole?
  5. Who or what exactly are The Prefects?
  6. Why Coleridge? And what was the purpose of b******* h** b*** t* l***?  (That’ll make more sense if you read the book).
  7. Are we really expected to believe the unlikely reason we are given by the criminal mastermind (I use that term lightly) for his whole evil plan?
  8. Dedlock & Skimpole – what exactly was the point?
  9. What is the Directorate’s purpose and why is it secret?
  10. What was the reason for the strain between Moon & his sister, Charlotte?

You may have noticed that’s more the 10.

My intention was to give this book a bad review. That changed somewhere along the way. It’s really not surprising. The Somnambulist may not be a particularly good book, but sometimes bad books happen to good writers. Jonathan Barnes is, in fact, a good writer who unfortunately made a mess of his first book. Or did he? As I reread my initial draft of this review I realized that what Monty Python was to Arthurian Lit is what Barnes may be to the Victorian Detective Novel.

The Somnambulist is fun in an absolutely ridiculous way.  The author definitely did his research and the result is a novel that pays homage to the genre. Arthur Conan Doyle, Lovecraft & Dickens all have a stake in the story… among others. (For the full list read the Praise for the Somnambulist found on the first page of the paperback edition).  That may be exactly why the book disappoints.  Barnes took on authors who first and foremost are storytellers, which only highlights the fact that he isn’t.

The main character, despite the title, is Edward Moon – a part time investigator and conjurer in Victorian England who has fallen to B-list celebrity status for reasons never fully explained.  Moon and his sidekick, the Somnambulist, are pulled into a strange murder mystery of seemingly Lovecraftian persuasion.  We are led from there through a labyrinth of situations, events, and settings peopled by characters which are familiar to fans of the genre – in admittedly twisted versions.   All of this is strung along by the flimsiest plot I’ve ever come across and told by an unreliable narrator who is generous enough to warn us of his status in the opening paragraph.

“Be warned. (See?!) This book has no literary merit whatsoever.  It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre.  Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it…one final warning: in the spirit of fair play, I ought to admit that I shall have reason to tell you more than one direct lie.”

If an unreliable narrator informs you that he is unreliable, doesn’t that make him reliably unreliable? Hence he is no longer an unreliable narrator?  Why Barnes felt he had to let that cat out of the bag so early on is beyond me, other than for stylistic effect.  There is a lot of that throughout the book: stylistic devices and effects.  Often it feels as if the author has a list of plot elements and literary devices he’s checking off while providing a bare bones narrative structure to hold it all together.  Think of it as Steampunk (Google it if you don’t know the word) porn.  The story is only there as an excuse to get you to the good parts.

The good parts of The Somnambulist are the eccentric and wonderful characters.  Not least of which is the book’s namesake: a milk guzzling, mute giant who can be repeatedly pierced by swords as if he were made of sawdust. It’s a testament to Barnes’ imagination that the Somnambulist probably won’t be your favorite.  For example there are The Prefects, two adult psychotic killers that dress and talk like British Public School boys.  They leave a trail of carnage through the second half of the book.  Or Dedlock, the middle aged British civil servant and head of the Directorate, who seems almost banally stereotypical until you realize that no one in this novel is typical.  Or that questionably unreliable narrator who has a love / hate relationship with Moon that is oddly engaging. Again, Barnes isn’t a bad writer. If his novel fails, it fails because he is so busy running us to the next character and setting that we never really have the opportunity to explore and enjoy the one we are currently at.  He doesn’t give them, or the story, a chance to become something.  The characters’ motivations are flimsy at best, and other than appearing at the right time they do nothing to further the plot.  And the plot does nothing to develop who they are.

My verdict is that The Somnambulist could be a better book than it is,  despite being clever on many levels.  (There’s an interesting connection to explore between the title, Coleridge, and a Coleridge bio by John Charpentier entitled Coleridge: The Sublime Somnambulist).   At the end I was left feeling frustrated that only a very small portion of the story has been told, and superficially at that.

So, is it Booksexy?  It does have a certain something… like a guy with a great line but no substance.  Perfect for bars, in the art house lobby before the film starts & anyplace where you’re going to see and be seen.  Get caught reading it when the eye candy you asked out with no intention of going on a second date shows up.  It’ll make great  small talk while you decide whether or not you’ll be…  umm… reading in bed tonight.

Vive le Genre!

Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:

Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars.  His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction.  Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended.  In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel.   Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon.  While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative.  He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining.  If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves.  It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.

H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect.  His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors.  I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS!  Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror!  Read him, you’ll understand.  They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have.  You doubt me?  Google the Necronomicon.  A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination.  Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.

Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!