Big Changes

Dear Readers,

In 2009 I thought BookSexy Review would be a great name for a blog. Before the year was out I decided I hated it.  But couldn’t think of anything better.

It was a bad choice for any number of reasons:

  1. It sounds like a blog that reviews romance novels which, as you know, I do not.
  2. It provides no useful information about the site. Like what kinds of books are featured here.
  3. And it’s terribly cheesy.

But, for strictly practical reasons, BookSexy Review’s biggest failure as a name is that most employers put blocks on sites with words like “sexy”. Which means potential readers can’t browse during their breaks, or at the end of the workday before heading home. Even publishers have problems viewing the site – this issue was first mentioned to me by a Harper Collins publicist years ago. At the time I was too new to blogging to understand the import of what she was trying to tell me.

Skip forward 8 years (god i am old). My goals and interests have changed… as happens.  The site has evolved from a general book review blog to one devoted to books in translations. I’ve begun thinking about how and why I write these reviews.  And along the way I’ve become obsessed with journalism – both the “establishment” book reviewers and the current generation of online bloggers/journalists who supposedly threaten them.  Though, for the record, I remain fairly neutral on the subject of which is better.  Six months ago I decided it was time to rethink how and why I talk about books (a post for another day) and began contributing to other review outlets as part of my quest to become a better writer and reviewer.

Which leaves less content for here.  I realized that if I was going to continue the blog it would have to change.  Over the next month you’ll begin seeing some of these changes, the first being the name. I’ll keep the BookSexy Review url active for another year, but when you type in that name it will (if I don’t screw things up) redirect to a new url.  All of my old content, going back to the ugly beginnings, will become part of the new site. I was pleasantly surprised how easy WordPress makes this.  I’m going to try to do everything gradually, feeling my way as I go, so what you’ll experience will be more of an evolution into the new blog versus an abrupt shift.

The reason I’ve continued this blog for all these years is because of the incredible books in translation community of readers and bloggers who I’ve connected with (I hope you know who you are) from all over the world. Thank you so much for your generosity and passion and support. Thank you for sharing your opinions and reviews and for seeing something here that you thought was worth coming back for. I hope you’ll continue to stick with me through the upcoming changes.

And as for that new name (remember I mentioned my current obsession with journalists?):  a stringer is a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to the same news outlets, but on a piece-by-piece basis. They’re also sometimes referred to as reporters at large. While I may not be a professional reporter, I definitely consider myself a professional reader. Which seems like a good place to start over.

Reader@Large-HEADER

Waiting for Martel: The Absurdity of Beatrice and Virgil (Advance Review Copy)

Clever dust jacket design! Look carefully & you'll notice that the orange striped background is actually a striped shirt. Credit goes to Greg Mollica & Andy Bridge.

The protagonist of Yann Martel’s new novel is Henry, a writer whose literary path closely resembles Martel’s own.  Like Life of Pi, Henry’s first book is a fable with animals cast as the main characters.  It has been extremely successful.  Not surprisingly,  his next book follows the same formula – another fable with animals.  This time about the Holocaust.

Beatrice and Virgil begins at a luncheon set up by Henry’s publisher to discuss his new book. The other attendees are extremely critical and, disheartened, Henry stops writing. He moves with his wife to an unnamed city and takes on a series of jobs that have nothing to do with his former life – working at a coffee shop and performing with an amateur theater company.  His days are punctuated by a steady stream of letters from fans of his first novel, all of which he answers personally.  He seems content, even happy.  Until one day Henry receives an envelope containing a short story by Flaubert and a strange letter asking for his help. It leads him to a taxidermy shop in the city where he lives. The shop’s owner, also named Henry, is writing a play about a howler monkey named Virgil and a donkey named Beatrice.  Henry-the-Author, along with the reader, spends the rest of the book attempting to decipher the puzzle of the taxidermist and his play.

And that’s where things get sticky.

Yann Martel is a writer who possesses the rare talent of being able to make characters and settings leap off a page and into the imagination. Beatrice and Virgil contains a particularly well done passage where Virgil describes a pear. It’s good.  (In fact, it’s so good that I strongly recommend finding the book and turning immediately to page 44).  These kinds of meaty descriptions combined with anthropomorphized animals have become Martel’s stock in trade.  As a result Beatrice and Virgil is a compulsively readable book.  Getting from start to finish is a relatively simple task and few would argue Martel’s skill as a writer. But once the reader moves past Martel’s obvious talent, she is left facing a seriously disjointed narrative and an incoherent plot.

As far as I can tell, Yann Martel has thrown every idea he’s ever had about the Holocaust into Beatrice and Virgil.  The book contains (in no particular order): a play styled after Beckett’s Waiting for Godot;  a theoretical flip book about the Holocaust – one side of which is a fable, the other a non-fiction essay; a parallel drawn between the genocide of the Jews and the slaughter of animals; a metaphor involving rabid house pets attacking each other; an invented “game” which poses a series of moral dilemmas to the players; scenes of graphic torture; and an episode at a lake that reminded me of the infamous chase across the ice flows in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (admittedly, I’m probably alone in that last connection).  Martel has also included the more familiar appurtenances of the Holocaust: a striped shirt, anti-Semitic posters, the Hitler salute (a primate version thereof) and a Nazi sympathizer so two-dimensional he’s a cardboard cutout.  And then there’s the Sewing Kit.  This seems to be a symbol, and/or a metaphor, which acts as a container for more symbols, and/or more metaphors – most of which are too obscure for Martel to bother explaining  to his characters, let alone to the reader.   Combine all this stuff with interminable conversations between characters on meanings and intentions, without any true plot momentum taking place… well, I can probably stop there.

Martel self-consciously references the problems within Beatrice and Virgil by attributing his book’s flaws to Henry-the-Author’s unpublished work and Henry-the-Taxidermist’s unfinished play.     This is what alternately confuses and maddens;  if Martel is aware of the issues why not correct them?  Take this first quote:  Henry-the-Author’s critique on Henry-the-Taxidermist’s play.

“Let me ask you a simple question: what’s your play about?”

If Henry hadn’t seen it earlier, he was starting to see now where the problem lay with the taxidermist’s play, why he needed help. There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked with Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction. But inaction wasn’t working for the author of A 20th-Century Shirt.

The next section is from the ill-fated dinner where Henry-the-Author’s manuscript is dissected by an assortment of editors, historians and critics.

“I get all that,” the historian said with a trace of impatience. “But once again, what is your book about?”

To that third iteration of the question, Henry had no answer. Perhaps he didn’t know what his book was about. Perhaps that was the problem with it. His chest rose as he breathed in heavily and sighed. He stared at the white table cloth. Red-faced and at a loss for words.

An editor broke the awkward silence. “Dave has a point,” he said. “There needs to be a tighter focus in both the novel and the essay. This book you’ve written is tremendously powerful, a remarkable achievement, we all agree on that, but as it stands now, the novel lacks drive and the essay lacks unity.”

As I said, Martel is consistent in his critiques – the absence of  a unified plot, the lack of action, the endless dialogue. The question is:  why? Is Beatrice and Virgil nothing but an exercise in the absurd?  Or is Yann Martel simply stating that the genocide of over 5 million people is wrong,  and that everything else (the books, symbols, plays, films) is so much clutter obscuring that single, important and inescapable truth?  Has he unwittingly created his own version of the clutter?  Is the book a misguided writing experiment?

In the end I have absolutely no idea…  which is why Beatrice and Virgil fails.  When an author’s message is this unclear his reader is left with no choice but to make assumptions about his intentions.  And assumptions ultimately are more about the person who is making them than what they are being made about.  If after two hundred and thirteen pages all the reader is left with is her own assumptions, what has been accomplished?

Spain

Publisher:  Spiegel & Grau, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 4000 6926 2

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Mad About Moers! – A Review of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers

Summer is over, but no one says we need to back away from the escapist fiction!  There’s no shame in losing yourself between the covers of a good book.  Just don’t confuse this kind of escape with the chick lit, mysteries and thrillers you were reading on the beach.    Save those for next year’s daiquiri.  Instead, we advise walking proudly into the Sci-Fi / Fantasy aisle of your local bookshop.  Shove past the pallid guy with the stack of Forgotten Realms paperbacks and the teenage girls with dark circles under their eyes surrounding the Twilight feature table.  Hold your head high!  We’re about to let you in on a little secret.  You see,  there are fantasy novels and then there are Fantasy novels.

In the latter category are Alice in Wonderland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter, Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  Books so cleverly conceived and brilliantly written that they can be enjoyed by both adults and children alike.  Their authors don’t tell stories, they create worlds.  Worlds that are intriguing, exciting, and a little bit frightening.  Unfortunately, everyone has read those stories (or should have).  You’re looking for something a little more BookSexy, a little more cutting edge – a book that hasn’t gone viral…at least not yet.

Moers.Statue

Enter Walter Moers’ Zamonia novels, published by The Overlook Press.  Moers is a German author and cartoonist who has had five books translated into English (four of which are set in Zamonia).  The most recent being The Alchemaster’s Apprentice.  These books can be read in any order, so don’t worry about starting with the newest book first.  What Moers has done is set about exploring Zamonia – so while characters may make cameos in eachothers’ stories, this is not a chronologically told tale.  You will not be following the continuing saga of one single character or event through a series of books.  Instead, with each story the reader is allowed to pop in and out of different sections and cities of Zamonia.  You learn about Wolpertings and Crats, Lindworms and Blue Bears, Shark Grubs and more.  You’ll visit Bookholm, the Netherworld and, in this newest adventure, Malaisea.

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia!  A little town with winding streets and crooked houses, and looming over it a creepy-looking castle perched on a black crag.  A town afflicted by the rarest bacteria and the oddest diseases: cerebral whooping cough, hepatic migraine, gastric mumps, intestinal acne, digital tinnitus, renal measles, mini-influenza, to which only persons less than one metre tall are susceptible, witching-hour headaches that develop on the stroke of midnight and disappear at one a.m. precisely on the first Thursday of every month, phantom toothaches experienced only by persons wearing a full set of dentures.

Picture a town where there are more apothecaries and herbalists, quacks and tooth-pullers, crutch manufacturers and bandage weavers than anywhere else on the Zamonian continent.  Where ‘Ouch!’ is the conventional form of greeting and ‘Get well soon!’ takes the place of ‘Goodbye’.  Where the air smells of ether and pus, cod-liver oil and emetics, iodine and putrefaction.  Where people vegetate and wheeze instead of living and breathing.  Where nobody laughs, just moans and groans.

And the cause of all this sickness is Ghoolion the Terrible, the Alchemaster of the book’s title and resident of the creepy-looking castle.

Echo, a Crat (looks like a cat, but can speak any language and has two livers), is our hero.  After his mistress’ death he  is left to starve on the streets of Malaisea.  Ghoolion finds Echo and offers him a Faustian bargain.  Until the full moon he will feed Echo the most delicious foods the Crat has ever eaten and teach Echo all his alchemical secrets.  Then, at month’s end, Ghoolion will render Echo down for his fat to use in experiments (Crat fat being extremely rare).  Seeing no other option other than starvation, Echo agrees.

Moers is not only an inventive writer, he is also a very funny one.  As the story progresses, Ghoolion (not without a certain charisma) and Echo form a demented odd couple.  The Alchemaster more than keeps to his part of the bargain – and the two main characters seem to develop a mutual respect which borders on friendship.  Their interactions, evenMoers.Story moreso than Echo’s quest to break his contract, really propel the plot forward.  (In fact, if it wasn’t for the whole killing the Crat for his fat and torturing the citizens of Malaisea with fear and disease – we’d be rooting for team Ghoolian).

The subtitle of The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is A Culinary Tale from Zamonia – and the Zamonian delicacies Ghoolion prepares for Echo are an important (as well as entertaining)  element of the story.

My dear Echo,

I regret my inability to offer you a particularly lavish breakfast this morning, as I will be engaged on a research project all day.  However, the honey on the bread is very special.  It’s made by the Demonic Bees of Honey Valley.

Don’t worry about the dead bees in it, they’ve had their stings removed and they make the honey nice and crunchy.  But be sure to chew with care.  It sometimes happens, though very rarely, that one of the bees has not had its sting removed.  Although a prick in the gum or tongue wouldn’t kill you, it would certainly give you an unpleasant time.  The risk factor is said to be part of the enjoyment one derives from eating a slice of bee-bread.

Bon Apetit!

Succubius Ghoolion

‘Well, well,’ Echo thought sleepily, ‘Demonic Bees from Honey Valley.  Whatever.  After last  night I’d eat a grilled Sewer Dragon, with or without it’s knilch.’ He hurriedly devoured a few morsels and took a swig of milk.  The milk tasted odd – soapy, somehow – so he wolfed another piece of bee-bread to take the taste away – and instantly felt a stabbing pain in his tongue.

‘Ouch!’  he said, but that was as far as he got.  The room began to revolve, alternately bathed in light and darkness, and he went plummeting down a black-and-white shaft that spiraled into the depths, losing consciousness on the way.

When Echo came to, he seemed to be looking into a shattered mirror that reflected many little fragments of the world around him…

(What comes next is one of the funniest scenes in the book, but we won’t ruin it for you).

Moers.5The Alchemaster’s Apprentice is a story that you lose yourself in – the very definition of escapist literature.  It has a cast of supporting characters and settings – all examples of Zamonian flora and fauna – that will fascinate and enchant you.  And when you finish, we promise you’ll want to get the rest of the series:  Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures; The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Blue Bear, and The City of Dreaming Books.  You can pass them on to your friends or just wait for them to discover the books themselves.  “Oh… Moers?  Sweetie, I was reading him back in 2009. The movie just isn’t as good…”

Suggestions:  The Zamonia novels are perfect to share with the little people in your life.  Whether as a bedtime story that won’t put you to sleep,  or just to give you something to talk about on the car trip to the grandparents (nothing like discussing Leathermice philosophy with your favorite tween) – there’s something here for everyone.    Including illustrations.

*R.I.P. IV Challenge