If I can use one term to describe All the Birds in the Sky it would be “uneven”: uneven in tone – sometimes terse, sometimes gaspingly emotional; uneven in language use – careless, even jocular, in places, verbose or poetic in others; uneven in characterization – sometimes complex, sometimes flat, and uneven in the settings – like a mashup of the villages of Midsummer Murders, “Hogwarts” in Harry Potter and the house of the “Pied Piper” team in the TV series Silicon Valley. This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. In preparation for attending the event I am working through the shortlisted works to rank them. So this was No. 2. Continue reading
The reboot of the TV series Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return premiered on the 21st of May, to a huge response from fans. What was interesting is how they responded, criticizing the producers if any of the characters deviated from their previous incarnations by so much as a word or gesture. They were commenting as if the people of “Twin Peaks”, “Detective Dale Cooper”, “The Log Lady”, “Laura Palmer”, etc., were real. What interests me, is why we identify with fictional characters and think they are real – or want to believe they are real. There has to be a psychological or neurological basis for this. In the linked pages of this post I discuss one reason at a time, from our ability to fantasize to the way our brains work. Continue reading
This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. I hope to be amongst the attendees at the conference, which is the oldest and biggest in the world for Science Fiction (SF). In preparation for that I am working through the shortlisted works in the categories of novels, novelettes, novellas and short stories. Reading the nominated novels has been an adventure so far since I do not know any of the authors, other than China Miéville. The first novel I tackled, A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, has been like a breath of fresh air. It seemed different from the established and well-regarded types of classical SF writing. It did one thing I have never experienced when reading a SF novel: it brought a lump to my throat. I almost cried. I actually, for once, felt for the characters. That is quite an achievement, considering that the characters are all AI machines, re-engineered humans or species of non-human sapient life forms. Continue reading
In the previous post I discussed Ūgh and Bõögâr, the creations of Berlin-based Icelandic artist Egill Sæbjörnsson. The two trolls are huge, ugly, temperamental, artistic, and very fond of Egill, coffee, and eating tourists. They are also smelly. At 36 metres tall, they need a lot of deodorant and perfume. In the interests of cleaning up the trolls before they stink out all the tourists whom they haven’t eaten at the Venice Biennale 2017, the trolls are getting their own perfume called Noise. Continue reading
Sometimes artists use themes or characters from Mythology, and currently, two artists have done this in Venice, Italy, in exhibitions running concurrently. In one case, Iceland-born artist Egill Sæbjörnsson has created two enormous and ugly trolls, which are a staple of Nordic Mythology, and in another, British artist Damien Hirst has created sculptures that depict many well-known Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Nautical myths. In this post I take a look at the references in the exhibitions of both artists and hazard a guess at what they may be trying to say. Opposing arguments are to be expected at important art exhibitions but these two have caused a particularly high level of puzzlement and publicity. In the case of the trolls – the hullabaloo is, well…because they are trolls. And in the case of the classical myths, it is because it is a huge exhibition by a very famous artist. Continue reading
It is very hard to make two different languages rhyme. This struck me again when I was researching the phonetic symbol for a “J” with two lines through its stem, for the review of Howard Jacobson’s novel J. Some sounds and letters exist only in certain phonetic alphabets. The guttural uvular fricative “g” (for instance /χ/ /χut/ as in “goed”), which is a frequent sound in Afrikaans, does not occur in English. The closest is the “ch” sound like in the Scottish Gaelic word “loch”. But it does occur in a handful of other languages including Spanish, Dutch (of course), Persian and Kurdish. (But having said that, below is one of my poems, in English and Afrikaans, about my Grandma. It features this particular uvular fricative “g”.) I have recently been listening to the band Orange Blossom, particularly the song Ommaty from their 2014 album Under the Shade of Violets. The lyrics are sung in Arabic and I must say I find the repetitive /χ/ very pleasant to listen to even though I only have a vague idea what the words mean. Continue reading
Sometimes a novel just flummoxes me. I have tried my best to get to grips with “J” by Howard Jacobson, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but the novel made me feel vaguely worried and confused while I was reading it. That was probably the author’s intention, since those sort of feelings drove him to write it. It is set in a Britain of the near future, at a time after a calamitous global event. This event is called “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” or “Twitternacht” (with reference to “Kristallnacht” and Twitter.) As a result of this event, many people got killed, or were forced to move to other countries or back where they came from; everybody got given random, different names (oddly spelled), social media was banned and art was reduced to inoffensive, pleasing aesthetics so as not to arouse any extreme emotions ever again. The protagonists are “Kevern”, a carver of Welsh love spoons, and his lover, “Ailinn”. Continue reading
With reference to the title of her new biography, Sheila Nevins does not look her age, which is 78 years. When I saw her interview with Charlie Rose last Friday on PBS, I was struck by how beautiful she is, in the same class of timeless good looks as Elon Musk’s mother, Maye Musk (69), and Carmen Dell’Orefice (85) who are both (still) models. She was also funny, self-deprecating, and sharp as a blade, so I immediately ordered her new book, You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales, published two days ago. It is a very short, slight production and, contrary to Nevins’ stated intent, reveals only the well-disguised, carefully curated thoughts and back-stories that Nevins, who has spent her career behind the scenes as a producer of documentaries for HBO, wants to reveal. Continue reading
(Above: Spot the possum details on these re-imagined book covers. Graphics by M. Bijman)
I wondered what would happen if I added the random sentence, “But one day they found themselves on a possum wool farm in New Zealand” – to the most famous opening lines ever written. The Poke, a website that gathers in one place all the foolishness on the internet, recently reposted a thread that said: If you’re looking for a new way to improve classic works of literature, then the internet is here to help – all you need to do is add “and then the murders began” as the second sentence. The idea, by Science Fiction and horror writer Marc Laidlaw, caught on, and I was hugely entertained by the examples from readers. Continue reading
Dum-dah-dah…Another one bites the dust…♬ (Sorry, Queen.)
A few months ago I announced that my reviews will be published in the South African women’s magazine, FairLady. The relationship did not last as long as the previous four-year stint. After having had three reviews published, I was informed that as of May 2017, the “Books” section of the magazine will be used for publicity for a local bookseller, The Book Lounge. The Books section of the April issue of FairLady was the last featuring write-ups by individual reviewers, whose opinions were published with their bylines. So, it’s ¡Adiós, FairLady, from me. Why? Let me explain. The argument is long but the story is bigger than me and my obsession with reviewing books. Continue reading
I imagine a woman must’ve sat Kevin Wilson down and explained to him in excruciating detail what pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding and the mothering instinct feel like – the pain, the physical sensations, the associations, memories and convoluted reasoning. These descriptions in his latest novel, Perfect Little World, are not the descriptions you’d read in a medical handbook. They seem to be intensely personal and individualistic, even a bit voyeuristic. Reading how “Isabel (Izzy) Poole”, the main character, feels during those moments is like feeling it yourself, and it is really not pleasant. However, Perfect Little World is a near-perfect depiction of what happens to people when they have children, the good and the bad. Continue reading
Sometimes you have to admit you don’t know enough to give an opinion. For Appetites – A Cookbook, I asked food and wine critic, Andreas Rompel, for his review. In the past I’ve judged Anthony Bourdain’s memoirs from a literary point of view, no problem, and I’ve admired and enjoyed his writing, “…a poetic, stream-of-consciousness food-rap.” But this time, it’s about food and recipes – about which I know just about enough to not ruin scrambled eggs completely. It’s Bourdain’s first cookbook in ten years, and it’s a demonstration of his expertise. The man knows food – no doubt about that. Continue reading
I did not like Backman’s previous novel, A Man Called Ove, but was spurred on to buy book no.3, Britt-Marie Was Here, by a very insistent salesperson in the Chapters bookstore, who had been so entranced by it that she was practically hugging her own copy. I bought it against my better judgment and I was underwhelmed all over again, despite trying my best to be objective. When Backman writes, he repeats certain words and phrases over and over, and makes each chapter and paragraph follow the same basic pattern, so that it sounds almost like a children’s rhyme, a medieval poem, or a traditional fairytale. The novel is nice but light-weight, like a pretty balloon. Because I do not agree with people categorizing a frothy piece of writing like this one as a literary masterpiece, I will, below, debunk the myth. In any case, when I see the words “international bestseller”, particularly “New York Times International Bestseller”, on a book’s cover I am immediately suspicious. Continue reading
This is the first English translation, published in January 2017, of the famous Dutch novel. It is a novel about boredom – tedium – monotony – ennui. You’d think that with such a subject the book would be, well, boring. It isn’t. Remember the TV series Seinfeld? Pretty much nothing happened in each episode, yet, it was entertaining. Seinfeld is often described as being “a show about nothing”, since many of the episodes written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are about the minutiae, the small humdrum matters, of daily life. It’s same in this book. As author Tom McCarthy explains in an article about his favourite books in which nothing happens, the lack of an exciting plot, “creates the perfect blind spot in which a hundred events can take place, and everything can be said.” Continue reading
This morning, with snow swirling and dropping like a thick veil onto ground that is already piled high with snow from last night, I remember a book I used to love when I was a little girl, living in South Africa: The Long Winter, part of the Little House series, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is set in southeastern Dakota Territory in America during the severe winter of 1880 to 1881. I read the books in the series with not much understanding of log cabins, huge woods, green, waving prairie grasslands, or snow. It all seemed quite exotic. The wagons, oxen and farming I could deal with, since my grandparents were from a long line of farming stock. But where we lived it was semi-arid and hot, and we didn’t have any woodlands, prairies…or snow. Snow was a thing found only in books. Continue reading
Ben H. Winters wrote the acclaimed, award-winning Science Fiction series, The Last Policeman. I called the hero of the series, “Detective Hank Palace”, “the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet” – and the detective in his latest novel Underground Airlines is another yummy crumpet. Like No. 3 in The Last Policeman trilogy, World of Trouble, Underground Airlines was also shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category, amongst other kudos. So one can safely say he knows how to write a hit and create really appealing, admirable protagonists. I was expecting something good, and was not disappointed; a polished, refined, sharp piece of alternative history writing which, due to its premise, is also a bugle call for the defence of democracy, freedom and the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading
Madam, I’m afraid he’s come down with a bad case of Trolls
If you’ve never imagined that trolls are an actual “thing” to people in Scandinavian countries, read this. Honest to Pete, you will come to believe this troll is as real as your dog or, more disconcertingly, your husband or wife. It is haunting, marvellous, and really refreshingly different, and confronts the reader with questions about the nature of love and alienation. It is no fairy-tale, nor is it a fantasy, though it is about a troll. A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, classified somewhere between a smart animal and a cave-dwelling humanoid. Despite today’s globalized world of connected technologies and electronic media, there are ancient folkloric beliefs that are alive and well in Iceland, for instance. Surveys show that more than half the nation believes in elves and “hidden people”, elf-like “Huldufólk” who live amongst the lava rocks, or at least don’t deny their existence since it is considered bad luck to do so.
Similarly, there are people in Finland who believe that trolls are real – or just want to believe trolls are real. Every country in the world has its mythical beings, and so long as people have story-telling and imagination, that will continue, helped along by mass communication and imaging methods. The Finns, in particular, have trolls. Continue reading
Here is the last part in a series of four posts on the subject of fan fiction versus copyright rules. Now it’s the turn of the famous children’s book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which is still copyrighted but has nevertheless been a frequent subject for fan fiction, adaptations, sequels and parodies. Argentine poet Alejandro Roemmers has written a fan fiction sequel to it, called The Return of the Young Prince, which will be published in English in hard cover later this year. I suggest you think of it as Roemmers’ gift to the world, say thank you kindly, and leave it at that. If you want to know how it compares to the original, read on. Continue reading
On the subject of fan fiction versus copyright rules, I am discussing examples of three cases of what seems to be copyright infringement of famous books, starting with the case of the two “Alephs” – Jorge Luis Borges vs. Pablo Katchadjian. Now it is the turn of Tintin and Alph-Art, a Tintin comic book which was incomplete at the time of author and artist Hergé’s death, and which was completed and recreated by Canadian Yves Rodier in an impressive feat of fan fiction. Continue reading
To continue the discussion on fan fiction versus copyright, here follows the case of the two “Alephs”, one by Jorge Luis Borges and the other by Pablo Katchadjian. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, writer Pablo Katchadjian is currently being sued for plagiarism, or the re-use without permission of copyrighted work, because he “fattened”, padded, added to or otherwise re-used the novel The Aleph, written in 1945, by the famous Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Katchadjian says, in his defence, that his version of the novel, called The Fattened Aleph, is a “lengthened” version of Borges’s short story and is not plagiarism because it is “an experiment” and “open about its source”. An open-and-shut case this is not. Continue reading
The Era of the Reboot and Sequel
Whenever an author adds a new book on to a successful novel or series of novels, comparisons are inevitable and fans are not always kind – like with To Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s final and second only novel after To Kill a Mockingbird. Comparisons can get particularly odious when another author takes over a book “franchise” or a particular novel’s subjects, characters or writing style. It takes enormous skill to write a follow-up or sequel to a successful novel or film, especially if you are not the original author. There is a very thin line between copying the original writer’s style and writing it in your own style while maintaining the “magic” or success factor of the original work. Apart from skill, it is also about copyright. And copyright is complicated. Continue reading
Comic artist and illustrator Lucas Levitan’s particular talent is to superimpose his bulbous-nosed cartoon figures onto actual photos he has found, mostly on Instagram. I think his illustrations and videos are charming and playful, but occasionally one might cause me to wonder “What was THAT?! Ooooh yuck”. In this video he explains convincingly why he prefers printed books to electronic format books and why he needs funding to collect his illustrations in a book. I agree with Levitan. I still prefer to buy books made of paper, even if I order them online. My reasons: 1) You can read all day without being tied to a cable for charging the battery. 2) You can weigh it in your hand to get an idea of how far you still have to go to the end. 3) You can read it in the rain, in the cold, outside, upside down, etc. 4) You can use it for other things – to sit on, or throw at someone, for instance. And, lastly, like Hong Kong artist Movana Chen has done, you can KNIT something from a shredded book once you’re done with it.
Everyone, on this Friday the 13th, relieve your superstitious blues with Levitan’s delightful video. The book, called Photo Invasion, was published in 2015.
Other illustrators I like:
This is a stylized, studied novel, about a stylish gentleman, written in elegant style. It has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, of events passing and times moving on, and of the struggle to adapt to changes or stay in the previous era. Towles conjures up a romantic and fascinatingly intricate pre-WWII-era hotel in Moscow, the “Metropol Hotel”, in which the main character, “Count Alexander Rostov”, lives. The Count is a surprising character – he is a gentleman and a gentle man, yet he can handle a gun and is not afraid to use it (which is a hugely enjoyable moment!), nor is he afraid to pull strings and do a bit of theft and smuggling on the side. He is as intriguing and multi-faceted as the rest of the gallery of charming rogues working in the hotel. Readers will find this novel very entertaining and suspenseful – and the best bit, I can assure you, is the ending, and in order to understand it, you will have to remember what you read right at the start of the novel. Continue reading
This is the report of my year on GoodReads.com, where I repost short versions of my reviews. Goodreads still has the “star” system of ratings which I’m not crazy about, simply because it lacks subtlety. You can “not like” a book while having found it excellent. It might have been masterfully written but left a bad aftertaste – or recurring nightmares. Or you can say you “really liked it” but have to confess that you don’t know why, or that you didn’t understand it, or that it is forgettable. It’s a flawed system, but nou ja, as we say with a shrug in Afrikaans, it is what it is. I note with interest that Science Fiction, as a genre, is simply not as popular as any other, and that Paul Auster, though brilliant, is still an acquired taste, especially his latest novel. It reminds me that I gave Sjón a rare five-star-rating – Icelandic authors was a delightful discovery in 2016. Unsurprisingly, the very-hot-right-now Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien has been highly rated on GoodReads. Most people I’ve spoken to say it was hard to read, and even harder to make sense of, but they nevertheless were moved and thought it was worthwhile. Funny that – it’s almost on the edge of being unreadable. But there is a thin line between genius and madness, and a thin line between daringly brilliant and plain old confused, isn’t there. And this one teeters on the tightrope. Continue reading
Another year has passed on the Seven Circumstances book blog. Here are the site stats, courtesy of WordPress’s StatsMonkeys who did the calculations. Last year they sent me a pretty report. This year they didn’t so I did my own, in the video below. The numbers are small, but that’s not what I’m after. Considering I do barely anything with this stuff, it is amazing that anyone ever visits the site.
So, a nod to to all the lovers of literature who follow, read and like my reviews and share my love of books. (It has to be said that many of them are self-published novelists and poets who may be hoping to redirect visitors back to their own book sites to read their writing online and boost their numbers. Well, without readers you don’t have a book. So I get why they do it.) Non-commercial review sites, written, like this one, by just one person, are not very common. Here is a well-written site, called The Whole Brevity Thing, that has intelligent critique on films, television, games and such. “The Dude” who writes it, explains himself like this:
“I love film and television. Love it. So much so that I put a lot of years and a silly amount of money into studying it. My main area of interest was screenwriting, and I studied and practiced and I learnt a lot, but it wasn’t paying the bills. So I put it to one side. This website is me refocusing my energies back on to the things I love. It is for me. If people visit the site, and like what they read, then great, join in the conversation, we’ll have a lot to talk about. But if no one reads a word, well, that’s fine. It’s just something I’ve got to do.”
Amen. Ditto. Same here. Well, Dude, as you like to be called, I enjoy reading your stuff. You really nailed the whole Harry Potter phenomenon in a recent post.
Here’s to another year of good books. Prost!
This important novel about two families of brilliant musicians in China during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), the “Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, will have you crying buckets, get into a deep funk, and nurse an aching heart for days afterwards. Reading it creates a feeling of “both joy and sorrow”, which Thien, in the novel, calls “kǔ lé” (or “bitterness in the music”, or “joy in sorrow”). The story is not entirely dark, but rather bitter-sweet, and amidst the tragedies there are happy moments and hopeful glimpses of a better future. But while I read it I often wondered in exasperation: Just how could people put up with this relentless repression? How could they put up with such massive insults to their dignity, how can they have such cowed acceptance of the bullying and betrayal by their own neighbours, peers, friends, and colleagues? How could they stand the mindless repetition of idiotic slogans? The novel illuminates the darkest, and most censored, years of the 20th century in China, and after I read it, I felt relief that I had the dodged the bullet of being born Chinese in those times. Continue reading
Some magazines don’t publish negative reviews because they want to review books that people will buy. The problem with that argument is that sometimes badly written books sell well, Fifty Shades of Grey, for example. An example of this is a “popular” book, 300 Days of Sun, which has glowing blurbs all over its covers, and was on the “best sellers” table at my local book shop. Frankly, I was bored out of my tree with it. I’m sorry I didn’t like it and cannot praise it, but not every book is loved by every reader, and authors, putting themselves out there, should know that. It’s just the way we are all wired differently. So the reason you should read this review is so you know why it isn’t very bad, but why it isn’t very good either. It’s not so simple as just being about sales or media hype. Continue reading
To give some background on this peculiar novella, The Last Days of New Paris, consider this: No adult, dedicated Science Fiction (SF) novel has ever won the Man Booker prize for literature. It has been vehemently debated that the Man Booker Prize judges, like the judges of other high-profile, establishment literary awards, shy away from submissions from SF writers, because, firstly, SF is viewed as “low-brow” youth culture writing, being frequently confused with Fantasy writing. Secondly, SF is seen as too obscure or leading-edge, and thirdly, they presuppose that in order to understand SF, readers have to have read a lot of it or have specialized knowledge of technology or science, limiting its appeal. Practically speaking, SF is often hard to read and appreciate because of futuristic subjects and the introduction of new concepts that authors have to create new words or languages for. (For instance Klingon and Na’vi.) Both authors and readers need tremendous powers of imagination. China Miéville has invented new words and languages for many of his mind-boggling SF works, and in The Last Days of New Paris, he does it again. Reading it made me realize that I simply do not know enough about the SF genre. It was impossible for me to judge it one way or another. A thumbs up or down was out of the question. Why? Because, apart from producing a doozy of an SF adventure, he turns many SF conventions on their heads in this book. It isn’t a Man Booker contender, for the reasons listed above, but is sure is a candidate for every SF literature award out there. Continue reading
Julian Barnes is a writer who does not waste words. While his subjects are often difficult and his novels contain references to specialized subjects, his writing is accessible to all readers through his clear ideas, deep understanding, and well-considered use of language. He has a very, very fine turn of phrase, no doubt about that. While always approaching his novels with a sense of trepidation, hoping I could “get” them, I now think of them as treasure boxes – foreboding when closed but glorious once unlocked. That is what The Noise of Time is like. For me, it was a completely serendipitous discovery of the marvel that is Dmitri Shostakovich, and his music. Continue reading
As of this month, I’m going to be contributing book reviews to Fairlady magazine. For those who don’t know, it’s an English language South African women’s monthly magazine, started in 1965, with a readership of about 695,000. This is largely because, through luck or persistence, I got to write about 75 book reviews for them from 2008 to 2011. And now I’ll be doing it again. Why did I want to go back to the magazine? I couldn’t quite put my finger on a reason, until now, and it was quite an epiphany! Continue reading
This novel, first published 1991, won Ben Okri the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. You might wonder what relevance a 1991 novel has today. Being a Booker Prize winner, it is still important, but is it still good? Does it still have meaning in today’s world, and, moreover, will there still be any connection with today’s readers? The answer is yes. Why? Because it is still so different that it is not possible to pigeonhole it into a genre, and because its subject is both depressing and relevant; desperately poor Nigerians living in a slum, with a spirit-being as a child. It is both astoundingly creative and deeply sobering. Continue reading
The Heart Goes Last held no surprises for me. Dystopia set somewhere in the future? Check. All doomed to implode due to typical human weaknesses? Check. Clever advertising references and initially interesting, futuristic products? Check. Ordinary people up against the machines, that brings out the worst in them? Ditto. People stuck in a type of bubble or petri dish situation, every move recorded by Big Brother? Ditto again. Atwood’s latest vision of the future has been overtaken somewhat by developments in technology and many individual aspects have already been depicted in earlier novels and films. However, all the combined features of the dystopian world she has created make for an entertaining creation. I can definitely see this book being filmed, scene by scene. Atwood introduces the gated community, “Consilience”, and the associated prison, “Positron”, which are combined into a massive social experiment and into which a down-and-out couple wins access. This man-made, ostensibly pastoral “enclosed world” brings to mind WestWorld (the 1973 film and 2016 HBO series), and The Truman Show (1998). It’s definitely been done, and with more panache, but there are a few clever ideas in the novel too, like those creepy, blue, knitted teddy-bears. Other familiar sci-fi “tropes” in the novel include:
Paul Auster has been one of my favourite authors for many years, but not one whose name would come directly to mind if I were asked to name an author whose books I “liked”. “Liking” is not an emotion that I associate with Auster’s books. It is too friendly and mild a term. Bafflement and fascination, as well as irritation and great admiration, would come closer to the mark. I suspect he is something of an acquired taste and once you have gotten into Paul Auster, you are as devoted as a slavering but somewhat puzzled dog. Whatever his motivation for producing Report from the interior, a very strange bit of self-analysis, I would not recommend it unless you are an absolute Auster fan. Read everything else he has written, yes, do! Absolutely! But this one – I do not know whether I am crazy about it or hated it. It is an oddity that you cannot easily fit into a genre, but it is also an impressive demonstration that humans are, sadly, “on one level, no more than meat; and on the other, no more than fiction.” Continue reading
This is the Information Age and the Social Age. Whether on a tablet, PC, ipad or smart phone, people wade through masses of information every day. The better you can read, faster and with more comprehension, the better you will cope with the information deluge and the constant social connectedness. So, how do you, as a parent, “grow a reader”? You read, and you read to your children. I still remember the words from some of the books I read as a child. Today there was a man being interviewed on TV, Tony Blinken by name, and into my head popped an old children’s poem, Wynken, Blynken and Nod, by Eugene Field. It was written in 1889 (!!) and my parents gave it to me in a gorgeously illustrated book, Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Poetry (Collins, 1968). I never knew who wrote it, I just knew the words. And like an actor’s lines, they would sneak into my head in the moments before I drifted off to sleep. And of course, I would hear my mother’s voice as she read it to me. Here is the first verse: Continue reading
Sjón: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Reader of Sjón. Her current mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Reader has gone before. Apologies to the writers of Star Trek, in this, its 50th anniversary year, but this is what reading the novels of Icelandic author Sjón is like. The first American edition of Sjón’s novel Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, was published earlier this year. While I read it, I often wondered just how it is possible for someone to express so precisely, in such visually compelling language, such foreignness, not only to readers not from Iceland, but also probably for readers from Iceland. It is in English, capably and truthfully translated by Victoria Cribb, but at the same time it is a journey into places, minds, characters, mores and subjects that I had never before encountered in a novel.
There is a lot of tango-ing in this novel, The Gods of Tango, as well as an eyebrow-raising amount of erotica. I bought it because I had enjoyed the sweeping family drama of De Robertis’s previous novel, The Invisible Mountain. I have learned to do the Argentine Tango, so I expected a novel about the dance. What I did not expect in this novel was the theme of drag artists in the history of the tango. Yet, despite the shock to the reader’s system, De Robertis succeeds in this novel by stimulating the reader’s mind though her descriptions of the development of the tango as an art form, the dancers and performers of the tango, the history of drag artists’ involvement in the tango, and the history of Buenos Aires. And she reaches the reader’s emotions though her impassioned descriptions of music, loneliness, courage, desire, lust and love. Music as a lover, dancing as lovemaking, the tango as the immemorial representation of tragic love? Oh, yes, De Robertis does it with aplomb, all 860-plus ebook pages of it. Continue reading
While I was reading The High Mountains of Portugal, which I reviewed in my previous post, I was also re-reading The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin, which, like The High Mountains of Portugal, paints a harrowing picture of slavery in the Portuguese and Brazilian colonies in Africa. The Viceroy of Ouidah is probably the most unforgettable depiction of white men losing their minds when trying to deal with “Darkest Africa”, centuries ago, that has ever been written. Let’s just say, Africa wins out. Think Apocalyse Now’s jungles, despair and death, Africa-style. The Viceroy of Ouidah, published in 1980, tells the story of a Brazilian who tries to run an outpost for slave trading in 1812 in Dahomey, what is now Benin, on the west coast of Africa. It is more contentious than many others in the same genre, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, for its negative depiction of African culture. But then, Chatwin, who died in 1989, aged 48, also depicted Brazil, the slave traders, the European colonizers in Dahomey and the Viceroy of Ouidah himself as pretty horrible. Continue reading
Let’s just get one thing out of the way: the title of the book and the setting: First, there are mountains in Portugal, but they’re not that high. I’m sure Yann Martel’s novel The High Mountains of Portugal has by now caused the northern parts of Portugal to be overrun with readers clutching copies of his book, desperately searching not for Pokémon but for a little village and a little church with an odd altarpiece in the far northern mountain ranges, such as they are. But Portugal is pretty flat compared to, let’s say, Spain, its neighbour in southern Europe. The highest mountain peak is on an island in the Azores, southeast of mainland Portugal, called Mount Pico, at 2,351 metres. The actual highest mountain on Portuguese soil is Serra da Estrela (the Estrella or Star Mountains) at Mount Torre. But Serra da Estrela is in the north-centre part of the country, and is not a distinct mountain summit, but rather the highest point in a mountain range, and it’s only 1,993 m high. And while it has rocky outcrops, snow, even cliffs, Serra da Estrala certainly has none of the icy Alpine peaks and ravines of Europe. So, if you are looking for a high mountain range in northern Portugal, to where the luckless character in the first story in this book drives in his Peugeot in 1904, the most likely spot would be the Montesinho Natural Park, in northeastern Portugal. Continue reading
Not worth the effort, frankly
This is part two of the essay about “readability” that I published yesterday. This time I’m taking a hard look at a novel by the famous Salman Rushdie, called Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights. Dared I say what I really think? Yep, I did.…
The essay is on novels that are hard to read and to finish because of one thing or another. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – which eventually turned out to be excellent despite the fact that it is written in a mix of English and Spanish. The other is Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights – a title that feels as long as it takes to get through the book. This novel is typical Rushdie, a modernization of the fairytales of One Thousand and One Nights which was told by Scheherazade /ʃəˌhɛrəˈzɑːdᵊ/, or Shahrazad (Persian: شهرازاد Šahrāzād), a legendary queen and storyteller. The impediment here is not the language but that it is an incomprehensible muddle of elements and ideas – very elegantly portrayed – which nonetheless makes it both pedantic and boring. It is not a direct modernization of the fairytales. You are not going to get Sinbad in there, or Aladdin or Ali Baba. You are going to get male (jinn) and female (jinnia), and good and evil jinns (or djinns or genies), sex (a lot of it – did you know jinns have high libidos?), magic, a lamp holding a genie, wishes coming true, good battling evil forces, global warfare, regicide, and parallel worlds. Continue reading
Hard to read but worthwhile reading
Some books are hard to read and hard to finish. It could be because of obscure references, bad editing, bad translation, weird printing, etc. But I’ve recently got through two novels that were hard to read and to finish because of the style in which they were written. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which it is literally the language that is the problem – it might as well have been partially written in Klingon for all I understood of it when I read it the first time. Another problem was the subject – it is about immigrants and the persistence of their culture even in their new life, like invisible hands pulling them back to their homeland. The specifics, that of the Dominican Republic, were completely foreign to me until I read this. However, by the time I got it, three, four readings later, the poetry of Junot Díaz’s English/Spanish had completely infused my mind.
Tomorrow’s review: the flipside of this argument; Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. Watch this space. Continue reading
The Piano Maker could have been so much less, and in that way, been so much more. I thought that the author, who has written five novels before this one, would have been experienced enough to have realized the benefits of a simple structure focused on a primary theme. But in stead, there are too many themes that do not seem properly integrated, resulting in a melodramatic tone. The title, The Piano Maker, seems to be an afterthought rather than a sustained theme, while in actual fact, the history of pianos and their makers is fascinating – as I found out when I researched the provenance of my own piano. There are parallel themes of art theft and smuggling, war, workplace safety, even palaeontology, French Indochina, France at the end of the 19th century, the French in Africa, and quite a lot of religion (religious music, liturgy, priesthood, etc.) The main idea is probably “survival” or “closure” or the redeeming value of confession, and the fact that I cannot pinpoint exactly what the point is, is the problem. Continue reading
I have found that truly memorable books have something in common: they make you think. As Science Fiction author Neil Gaiman says of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, it does “what important books do: it remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave”. The Buried Giant is not only memorable, it is also about memory – a quite stunning depiction of memory, love and loss, very precisely observed, and I recommend it highly. It really makes you think; If you cannot remember anything other than the current moment in your relationship, is your love real? If peace is based on collective amnesia, can it last? Is it right for governments to wipe out history, to remove memories of the past, or to repress unpleasant parts of history in order to preserve peace and stability? The important questions that Ishiguro raises in this novel makes it worth analysing and considering at length. Continue reading
Like it says on the title page, this novella is mystery fiction. I could not figure out, even though I have read it three or four times already, where it is set or when. On first reading it is short and simple, but somehow seems obscure, and trying to clarify it simply creates more questions. However, I thought it was strangely charming and very, very good. Not his best, since it is on a smaller scale than his previous books, but still, pretty darn amazing. To think that such a short book can bring up so many questions. Miéville is a Poet of Sci-Fi. But unlike all the other novels in which he has created secondary worlds that are completely coherent and minutely detailed, from the through-the-looking-glass London in Un Lun Dun, to New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, to Besźel and Ul Qoma in The City & The City, this is an indeterminate, nameless setting. Continue reading
Today I had some good news – I was approved as an Active Member of the Federation of Canadian Artists. This was tricky for a couple of reasons. 1) It is juried. You have to present your work. You can get turned down if you aren’t good enough, I suppose. (I wonder if people ever do get turned down…) The submission form referred to the jurors looking for “works which contain a working understanding of the use of line, color, composition, perspective, shape, light, proportion and positive and negative space.” Negative space – that expression worried me a bit.
2) You have to have a “body of work”. This is tough for “weekend painters” like me, especially since I only started painting again a couple of years back, so I was glad to make the grade.
3) It is the biggest association of artists in Canada, and the oldest. So hooray! for me. I am an amateur but earnest painter amongst the professional and very impressive artists who are members of the “FCA” (which I’m not allowed to call it because people get it mixed up with being a Certified Accountant).
Part of the submission process was to have a “professional artist’s website” displaying your work. After many toings and froings with trying to get images of my paintings to display properly on this website (ultimately, I still don’t like the way it looks – this website template is designed for lots of text, not image displays), I tried out a local (Vancouver) initiative called beheld.me, which was a not-for-profit website for artists. This eventually became the monetized site, direct2artist, which has a lot more functionality and is international rather than Canadian. My paintings can now be seen on this website, here: https://portfolio.direct2artist.com/the-poetry-of-canada/exhibits.
I read Jenny Lawson’s first autobiography Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, with a sense of having made a happy discovery, and that, I thought, was that. Of course, that wasn’t that at all. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was the first friendly, funny introduction to a dark subject. Lawson gently pulled us into her world, and allowed us to talk and laugh about it. In Furiously Happy, she is pulls us into her world again, but this time with little claws and a grin like a crazy raccoon. She pins us to a wall and pokes us in the eye with the truth, saying hey you, this isn’t all fun you know. The theme of Furiously Happy is that she will survive and be happy, even if it is furiously, determinedly, maniacally so. Lawson gets very serious here (not all the time, but enough to make her point) about the fact that she has health problems and depression and mental illness, but that knowing that others have the same problems makes it easier for her. Her friends, online and in real life, and those who eventually meet her in person, help her to keep going. I thought that was rather sweet – kind of a love letter to weirdos like me.
The Spoon theory and Internet Friends
Murder on an imaginary mountain
I wondered, when I read this, how Cecilia Ekbäck came to know Blackåsen Mountain in Sweden’s Lapland so well. But when I searched maps, I saw that there is no Blackåsen Mountain in Lappland (as the Swedes would spell it) in Northern Sweden. Ekbäck nevertheless describes the mountain and the surrounding villages and homesteads as if she had been there, walked every path, skirted every lake, sat on every ridge and viewed every view a hundred times. She has a prodigious imagination and an outstanding talent for descriptions that transport the reader into a very different time and place – Lapland in 1717. The atmosphere in the novel is gloomy, but riveting. Ekbäck combines a good mystery with some pastoralism and a fair dose of magic realism. The facts are pretty accurate for this particular period in Sweden’s history – the setting is well researched. But it is Ekbäck’s obvious affinity with the landscape that sets this novel apart from others in the genre of Cold Climate Mysteries. Her depictions of the snow melting in the spring, for instance, are well observed, beautiful and threatening at the same time: Continue reading
Today I added the 153rd author to my list of reviewed authors. Only a few stand out, and here is one: Edmund de Waal.
Edmund de Waal is a famous British artist and maker of porcelain. To understand his latest book, you have to know the basics about porcelain. It is actually an amazing story, and, all things considering, appropriately told. Every quirk of grammar, format and metaphor has a purpose, which becomes clear once you have taken it all in.
Although porcelain is a type of ceramic, the reverse is not true. Just like all wood is not oak, not all ceramic is porcelain. Ceramics includes earthenware, bone ware, pottery and porcelain – any “user object” made from clay. “User objects” include tableware, construction elements (like toilets) engineering parts, car parts and computer parts. Porcelain is the specific sub-category of user objects or ceramics made out of clay that results in a hard, fire-proof, water-proof, rust-proof and bacteria-proof white ceramic material. Porcelain is made from a very specific combination of clay and other substances that is baked in a kiln to temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 °C (2,200 and 2,600 °F). This porcelain, due to its qualities, has been used for tableware for thousands of years, as early as the Shang Dynasty in China (1600–1046 BC). Like tulip bulbs and silk, people would connive and conspire for the secret of porcelain from the Far East. Continue reading
Two days ago, 19 February 2016, both Umberto Eco and Harper Lee died. Both their names were probably in the deadpools of various publications for some years since they were both in their eighties; Eco, aged 84, and Lee, an advanced 89. When I refer to a “deadpool”, I do not mean Tim Miller’s latest film, Deadpool, starring Ryan Reynolds, in which he plays a super-mercenary who kills off people with delight. I mean the advance-written obituaries that newspapers keep on file in expectation of the deaths of famous people. Who is on the lists is often proprietary information. (Heck, who wants to know that you are about to die or worse, have already died, when you haven’t?) The Obituary Section of the New York Times has its own confidential deadpool from which obits are pulled that are “true gems: fine writing by great writers.”As to the reasons for both Eco and Lee being in deadpools for famous people, comparisons of the quality of their writing would be impossible, and neither would it be feasible to compare their relative celebrities. What they have in common is their legacies. Both will be remembered, Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, more so than for Go Set a Watchman (though time will tell) and Eco undoubtedly for Il nome della rosa (1980; English translation: The Name of the Rose, 1983). And their obituaries serve to remind us why they became famous in the first place, and why we read their works and remember them. Continue reading