Sunday, January 31, 2010

January's Reading in Review

The Nature Guide to the New Zealand ForestJanuary: one novel, two short story collections, and many forays into books on NZ plants and birds.
It's hard to review the latter, but here's a summary of the rest....

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton in 100 words:

The RehearsalIt’s easy to envy Catton's early success before reading The Rehearsal, and hard to begrudge her afterwards.

The plot tends to chase its own tail, but there is beauty in the chase: sentences that flail for the trapeze and make it, great chunks of decanted observation about high school, sex, drama and fiction.

Echoes throughout of Muriel Spark -- that ruthless puppeteer -- but Catton eschews Spark's slender means for a series of doubles: high school/drama school, Victoria&Saladin/Isolde&Stanley, straight/gay…

The ending is flat (it’s all rehearsal) but the book’s a fine opening salvo.

She speaks like a magician or a ringmaster.
“We learned that everything in the world divides in tow: good and evil, male and female, truth and falsehood, child and adult, pleasure and pain. We learned that the counsellor possessed a map, a map that would make everything make sense. A key. Like in a theatre programme where you have the actors’ names on one side and the list of the characters on the other—some neat division that divides the illusive from the real. We learned that there is a distinction—that there is always a distinction—between the performance and the performer, the reality and the lie. We learned that there is no middle ground.” [p.309]

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower in 100 words:

Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedThis debut short story collection got reviewed by the New York Times, twice. Any S.S. collection that can make such a splash deserves a look, and this book certainly rewards the effort.

The first four stories feature middle-aged near-loser protagonists, all successful in their own ways, the language sparkling at the right frequency. The stories then veer into wider waters, often sounding like George Saunders (‘Leopard’, ‘Wild America’, ‘Everything Ravaged…’), but they don’t quite kick like Saunders.

Tower is clearly a writer who understand the form, and isn’t afraid to take a risk. I look forward to what comes next.

“… I’d hunt. Chop wood. Work with my hands. Reconcile the mind-body split, you know? I’m just fucking tired, Matty. I’ve been pushing for twenty years, and what have I got? I filled out this dating thing on the computer a few weeks ago. One thing they ask you is, ‘If you were an animal, what would you be?’ I wrote, ‘A bumblebee trying to fuck a marble.’ It’s true. Just grinding away at this goddamned thing that never gives back. Pointless.”
[from ‘Retreat’]

Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon in 100 words:

Love and ObstaclesA collection of short stories sharing the same narrator, a Sarajevan who spends the war in Chicago. He’s a bookish sixteen-year-old to open, a fully fledged writer by the close.

There’s clearly some autobiography going on, but the lives of the narrator, his family and passers-through are rendered so richly, one soon leaves distinctions like fiction and autobiography behind.

The collection properly takes off at story three (‘Conductor’), which happens to be the first that directly deals with “the war”, and apart from a technical (point of view) gripe in ‘Smurza’s Room’, I was rapt the rest of the way.

“So how do you like Sarajevo?”
“Haven’t seen much of it yet, but it reminds me of Beirut.”
But what about the Gazi Husrevbegova fountain, whose water tastes like no other in the world? What about all the minarets lighting up simultaneously at sunset on a Ramadan day? And the snow falling slowly, each flake coming down patiently, separately, as if abseiling down an obscure silky thread? What about the morning clatter of wooden shuters in Baščaršija, when all the old stores are opening at the same time and the streets smell of thick-foamed coffee?
[from ‘The Noble Truths of Suffering’]


Laura said...

I just finished the Bone People, and loved it. Have you read it? What did you think?

Craig Cliff said...

I tried to read it once, maybe I should take another look.