Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul, translated from the Danish

Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Okay…there’s the unreliable narrator. Annoying but usually enlightening. But what about a protagonist who is an unlikeable narrator? One that has you, more than once, considering tossing the book across the room? Well, meet Bess. She’s awful. Ghastly. A terrible woman in so many ways I can’t even list them all.

She’s married to Halland, who is murdered immediately as the book begins. It’s a shock, because the brief time he’s mentioned makes him seem like a decent guy. And yet, there’s the sense that we, the reader, may be grieving more than Bess. She’s a cold fish, and the first big question is, is she really just a brat or is this grief overwhelming her? She’s left her child for this man…but she worries about what her search engine may contain. She kisses her neighbor before Halland’s body is cold. She’s appalling, and yet:

"I loved reading and had always thought of it as a refuge. I even read the labels on bottles, if only to keep myself occupied on trains or in restaurants. I read in bed at night. If I lay awake for more than two minutes after switching off the light, I switched it on again to avoid lapsing into thought. To avoid thinking."

Wait. That’s exactly what I do. Can it be that I have more in common with Bess than I’d like to think? As the story unfolds, author Juul makes us ask this question over and over again. Subtly, of course. Because no one wants to admit who they are, deep inside, not even to the character in a novel. That’s what makes Bess so compelling. She’s unlikeable, but then again, so is virtually everyone in her little world. She seems to have no real connection with another human…did she even have one with Halland? While she has lovely flashbacks of him, how tainted are they by grief and how real are they? Was he as messed up as everyone else she deals with? There’s a hint that he was seriously ill…but little to tell us how long she’d been caring for him. Was she at all?

She gets many visitors, all who seem to point her to her own failures. Her ex-husband, her daughter, neighbors…all seem to show up and make her look bad. Who is the mirror and who is the reality? Why are all the reflections so skewed? Why does she say that she “experienced the world with provisos”? What holds her back? And, then again, lest it be forgotten, who killed Halland?

Pia Juul’s writing is never dull…she also throws in quotes from everyone from Eugene Ionesco to Charles Dickens to Hans Christian Anderson. The pithy little quotes fuel a mood for the chapter that they precede, and yet…are they steering the reader in the correct direction? It’s significant that she also has a quote from Agatha Christie, who would have winked at the way nearly every character mentioned could have been the killer. And is that Bess flirting with the detective again?

At one point, Bess craves the simplicity of a television crime, not real life.

"All I needed for happiness was a detective series….Simplicity was a virtue. First a murder, nothing too bestial. Then a police inspector. Insights into his or her personal problems, perhaps. Details about the victim. Puzzles and anomalies. Lines of investigations. Clues. Detours. Breakthrough. Case solved. Nothing like real life.

The puzzle attracted me—the solution left me cold. Nothing like real life."

There it is again…that perplexing bit of humanity (who hasn’t been soothed by a rerun of Law & Order or Inspector Frost??) that makes Bess almost likeable again.

Peirene Press has produced yet another startlingly sharp novel. It’s the first of theirs that I wanted to throw, that had me arguing out loud over a character's bad decisions and pouting at their lack of response, but one that immediately pulled me back in.  Who killed Halland is only one question that will arise....

Special thanks to Meike for the Review Copy.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Short stories from Aleksandar Hemon and Vladimir Nabokov

Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon

Nabokov’s Dozen by Vladimir Nabokov

I purchased Love and Obstacles after seeing a bit of an interview of Hemon a few months ago. One of the blurbs inside from the Washington Post stated, “Reviewers find it difficult to resist comparing Aleksandar Hemon to Nabokov, since both men [have a] preternatural facility in their second, acquired language….” Frankly, I didn’t catch what they were referring to, completely missing the point on “acquired language”. Immediately, I ordered the Nabokov short story collection too, just to read both and see how they related. The fact that Hemon is terribly handsome never influenced my purchasing decision. It was his voice.

Reading Hemon’s book first, I found myself constantly checking to see the genre, that little word on the back, again and again. Was this really fiction? It felt so autobiographical, because several parallels exist between some of the protagonist’s in the varying stories. Links to Sarajevo, the immigrant experience for a Bosnian in the US, and the writer’s experience all felt like direct references to Hemon himself. His writing is humorous, uncanny in the showing the little details as they relate to the whole, and almost eerie in how the violence of the past leaves a person intact and moving forward, even when it seems like it’s all destructive.

By far, my favorite story is “American Commando”. In it, he combines several elements: a teacher attempting to teach English to a classroom of Bosnian boys by using the tune “Catch a Falling Star”, Stallone’s Rambo archetype, playground warfare by nine-year-old boys, an obsessive film student, and a boy swimming far past the view of his parents, out into the deep sea. It all comes together in what can only be called stunning. The theme of it is a film student wanting to chronicle his escape from Bosnia to the US:

“I told her the stories of my life, embellishing here, flatly making things up there, for I frankly wanted to help her write a good script and get the funding for her project. I even meekly nudged her toward a short film in which I could play myself in various situations from my life—one of those brainy postmodern setups everybody likes so well because it has something to do with identity—but she gently rejected the idea. I flirted with her too, for, as everybody knows, the job of the writer is to seduce his readers.”

So, for her, he talks. And talks. He tells of the “Garden War” that he and his buddies vehemently engaged in, which perplexes her as she sees the focus of the ‘real’ war, one that killed many of those boys later, as more relevant. The war was fought over a patch of playground and later over the rightness of the “Workers” to build a utility shed. The boys called themselves “The Insurgents” and stopped at nothing—but being just nine and ten, the soldiers didn’t get far. Yet their urgency never waned:

“...for us, the war was elating, the freedom inherent in erasure, the absolute righteousness of our cause—we loved it all….And the life of stealth and deception, the feeling that we knew far more than the people around us.”

The story winds through present and past, and even this “writer” who knew so much on the playground is still surprised by details of his own family that the film student had gleaned. Important things that never occurred to him while in battle. And that other battle, the one that left the real Sarajevo in shreds, comes into play too.

Other stories in his collection have a similar feel, and “The Noble Truths of Suffering” also nudges heavily towards what I imagine is Hemon’s real life. In it, he meets a famous American author at a Bosnian dinner party and tries to figure out what is behind the famous name. Ultimately, he asks the author if he’s read his story, “Love and Obstacles”, when it was in the New Yorker. (It actually was: returning to back flap, is this really fiction???)

The author is more complicated than our narrator expects, one claiming to be Buddhist while writing war stories. He even comes over for lunch. And while this author never becomes pals with that author, he still looks for clues in his work, to see if his story is ever hinted at in the work of the other. The contrast of an aging (washed up?) author with smart-ass Bosnian author is well-crafted. It made me keep reading it in wonderment of what Hemon was getting at about writing, books, and literature in general. Is it disguising his personal fears at becoming successful without substance? Quantity without quality? (IMHO, not a chance).

But back to that blurb…the one that mentioned Hemon with Nabokov. Still, I was clueless what that meant, until I went to write about Hemon’s book and found no note of a translator. Surely, English couldn’t be his second language…could it? And what did that have to do with Nabokov, the Russian great? I threw a question out online and got several responses that stated Nabokov also wrote in English, not Russian. For both, English was a second language and makes both of their works that much more stunning. Their grasp is not amateur but surpasses most any English writer I can name.

Reading Nabokov’s Dozen was in many ways, then, similar to Hemon’s. Subject matter, time periods, style, and voice all felt different (Hemon is snarky and fun, Nabokov a teensy bit arrogant and above the masses), and yet they are united by stunning word usages and pictures of humanity, both the humor and the suffering.

Nabokov’s Dozen features two that are considered autobiographical, “O Mademoiselle” and “First Love”; the rest are pictures of rather simple events made complicated and deeper by the ideas Nabokov hints at. In “Spring in Fialta”, his main character meets up occasionally with an old lover. But far beyond any character studies is just how he describes things:

Regarding a train trip: “…with that reckless gusto peculiar to trains in mountainous country, [doing] its thundering best to collect throughout the night as many tunnels as possible.” Later he talks about the “elbows” of the train tiring, humanizing the transportation that appears so frequently in his works. True, he could have said “connecting rods” but where’s the art in that? Train travel in his stories is elegant, life-changing, and ultimately, far more than just a way to cover distance. Much of what happens in the story set in just a day in Fialta isn’t directly said: he alludes to it and lets you connect the dots. And when you do, it’s with a sharp blow to the chest.

In “Signs and Symbols”, he uncovers the complete irrelevancy of much of what makes the human exist: “Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.” He only infers how useless all that trembling worry became. Throughout this story, the images can be read different ways…in fact it’s the basis of an entire anthology (http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=165822&SearchType=Basic) that I am coveting from Continuum Books.

I loaned the Nabokov book to someone who felt understanding the “simple” stories was too much work—too complicated to read for pleasure. (Groan.) He’s not spare, but at the same time, it’s not like he’s being paid by the word. His usage is detailed but perfectly so, each word adding depth to what only appears simple.

“First Love” is sweet, with its image of Biarritz and the vacation of a wealthy family. Of course the boy will fall in love with the little French girl, and in his mind, the “gold coin that I assumed would pay for our elopement” would take them far away from her bourgeois parents to someplace more in keeping with his family’s wealth. But despite expecting that, knowing that it will come to an end, the story is still fresh. Retelling it, he bemoans his inability to remember the name of the little girl’s dog, and that failure of memory troubles him. Somehow, that simple loss changes his explanation of the whole affair, and when he can remember it, the ending naturally can be put to rest.

Reading these, I was reminded of the enjoyment of short stories, the way you can be transported, albeit briefly, into another place. I hadn’t felt this enthused since reading some of Tim Winton’s short stories that have a more earthy yet still compelling glance at humanity.

Friday, July 13, 2012

San Francisco and the Bay Area, Photography by Dick Evans

The Haight-Ashbury Edition

Foreword and Introduction Commentary by Ben Fong-Torres

"GG Bridge
      Not the usual angles"

This comment by photographer Dick Evans serves as a theme for exploring his book, San Francisco and the Bay Area-The Haight-Ashbury Edition, because his focus is not on the expected and typical presentations of this gorgeous city by the bay. San Francisco has an image in pop culture that focuses on the Golden Gate Bridge, the hippie scene from the 60s in the Haight, and occasionally the Victorian “Painted Ladies” that often serve as a backdrop for commercials and movies. How accurate is that image versus the reality?

The beauty is undeniable in either case, and Evans does have a few shots of those iconic places. But more than that, he explores the lesser-known images that ultimately have a deeper connection to the viewer simply because they are more unusual. Instead of distancing himself and shooting those cityscape skylines (where you could move a few buildings and have virtually any city), he is up close and partaking in the action instead of simply observing. He gets street-level, with shots of everyone from tourists to bums, and shows them in a variety of lights: sometimes ironic, sometimes silly, but always magnetic. It’s less clinical, and more personal, like discovering an old box of photos you suddenly find of distant family.

Ben Fong-Torres writes in the Foreword, “What you get is a strong sense of the neighborhood’s roots; its unending interest in artistic expression as part of the streetscape.” This is another factor that makes the photographs unique: they serve to document the artistic interaction that the city itself has with the art community, priding itself on promoting street art rather than eradicating it. Thus, Banksy can be found over Broadway, and nearly every surface has an element of art included. It makes for a strange juxtaposition: one trendy mom pushes a designer stroller up a street while gothic and frightening faces peer out from Howl. What does that baby see, while mom is chatting about the grocery list for Whole Foods? Images from nightmares? Or simply images of the neighborhood? Because over and over it seems that these shots reveal how multi-dimensional the city as a whole is, as well as each neighborhood, such as the Haight. It’s sort of a circle back to the individuals who participate in the daily life here.

Some photographs feature the same neighborhood at differing times of day, which is a simple trick to give a place a greater sense of depth. Yet, Evans use of light and shadow seems to reveal more than just a different image, but almost a different mood. They show variations between quiet and melancholic to blustery and loud, with moments of panic and goofiness thrown in as well. That one place can have all those feelings gives it an organic feel with an almost discernible pulse.

My favorite is CAL SURPLUS, a chalky storefront that is boarded up with bright cyan paint. The mind immediately registers surplus as excess, yet the closed store doesn’t follow through—there is nothing to purchase or see. What is the surplus here? Or is Evans gently hinting at California in general, with vast attributes but often operating at a bare minimum? The irony of the street scene is implicit.

Another  great shot is EVOLUTION AND THE KHARMANN GHIA, featuring the iconic car in pale yellow, classic and curvy, parked in front of a large wall mural featuring abstract art in the colors of jewels. They don’t fit together—the car looks almost bashful while the art intimidates it from up above, yet it tells a story of time and change. The scene simply wouldn’t work with any other car or any other mural.

The biggest surprise is the picture entitled WHERE BEAT WAS BORN, showing the Beat Museum on Broadway. It looks implausibly banal and institutional compared to the street art that surrounds it, more like a Planet Hollywood than the location of a historical literary site. Evans seems to capture a point where a viewer has to ask, whose art? How does one decide which artistic vision gets exposure in the Haight? Is it enough to make the attempt at some sort of intriguing image, or is there a standard somehow required? Because as the photos show, you just sort of know, intuitively, what fits and what doesn’t. How does that work in real-time? How much involvement does the city and neighborhood have in keeping the Haight-Ashbury from descending into theme-park placidity?

Enjoyable as an art book, I can’t help but think it would also be useful to those involved with city planning to see, demonstrated and documented herein, what goes right when art is freed from traditional venues and is allowed to interact with the community. The only disappointment was the cover, which is of a mural featuring musicians Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrex, and Jim Morrison.  The likeness of each isn't so great, and something about it initially put me off.  Yet, the key is remembering that the point of the photograph is the mural's placement, showing neighborhood history right on the street, with the iconic faces likely an everyday view for residents.  Getting past that, one can appreciate that these are no ordinary streets.
Side note: I also found a new neighborhood for my dream home, Belvedere Cove, which is clearly out of my budget but still tops my current wish list! I could seriously drink some coffee watching that view! Stunning.

Special thanks to Rare Bird Lit for the Review Copy.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Pure by Andrew Miller

Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a modern man, well-versed in Voltaire and ready to leave his peasant upbringing behind. Eager to display his engineering talents, he meets the minister at Versailles to receive his first significant appointment. Confident, composed, although a bit cocky, he really can’t foresee any challenge his enlightened education can’t overcome.

But, all his plans of illustrious success are somewhat hampered by the assignment he receives, one that is couched in a veiled threat. His job will be to demolish a dangerously aged Medieval church as well as removing the entire cemetery attached to it, on the Rue de Les Innocents. The minister explains,

It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.

Yes, my lord.

It is to be removed.


Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.

Given such a grotesque assignment, he quickly realizes that the challenge lies in more than just removing bodies. The task itself is monumental, given the crowded city and the few who wish to work on such a gory task. Baratte hesitates to begin, and as he settles in to his new job, he finds avoidance is his first impulse. What better  time to buy a new suit and get drunk? A fashionable pistachio green suit that is purchased by trading in his father’s dark classic suit is a symbolic gesture that sets the scene for his new undertaking, and his new pal Armand, organ player at the Church, shows him exactly what and how to drink in order to forget the dead he’ll soon be faced with.

Thus, the novel begins, with Baratte and Armand and several other characters dealing with the sentimental and awkward removal of a beloved church. Each character is fully developed, and fascinating in the way they interact. Besides the intriguing plot, just seeing the ensemble of unlikely individuals become close-knit among grave circumstances makes the narrative surprisingly enjoyable. Virtually everyone changes in some way, and none more than Baratte.

But are his ambitions what they were? Are they, for example, less ambitious? And if so, what has replaced them? Nothing heroic, it seems. Nothing to brag of. A desire to start again, more honestly. To test each idea in the light of experience. To stand as firmly as he can in the world’s fabulous dirt; live among uncertainty, mess, beauty. Live bravely if possible. Bravery will be necessary, he has no doubt of that. The courage to act. The courage to refuse.

Given his thoughts above, you may imagine the fate of the pistachio suit.

The story is unique and clever, and astonishingly fast-paced. I’m not normally a fan of the historical fiction genre, and I’m completely unfamiliar with this period in French history, but I was completely absorbed. However, I have to mention, in hopes of assisting others, that some reviews of the book (most notably the New York Times) seem to imply a supernatural element, of vampires and some sort of wolf-spirit. I didn’t get that at all. One strong wind was described as howling like a wolf, but that’s it. Two well-preserved bodies are inexplicably uncovered in the removal, but no indication or allusion is made to them of being vampires. So, while there is madness and community resistance to Baratte’s assignment, there’s nothing that feels otherworldly about the story.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Advance Review Copy.