Tuesday, March 24, 2015

My Struggle Volume II by Karl Ove Knausgaard

We are almost finished with Volume Two of Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir before we learn what Knausgaard is about with this huge, unwieldy thing he calls a novel.
"Over recent year I had increasingly lost faith in literature…Fictional writing has no value, documentary narrative has no value. The only genres I saw value in, which still conferred meaning, were diaries and essays, the types of literature did not deal with narrative, that were not about anything, but just consisted of a voice, the voice of your own personality, a life, a face, a gaze you could meet. What is a work of art if not the gaze of another person?"
Does that not mean that art is subjective, and in the eyes of the beholder only? Knausgaard is still asking questions rather than answering them in this staggeringly discursive but surprisingly readable set of books about his life: "I wanted to get as close to life as possible." We sit like Geir, his best friend and sounding board, hearing his explanations, and bringing our own understanding to his novel/memoir/quest. The writer Karl Ove places some observations about Karl Ove the narrator in the mouth of Geir:
"You’re an arch-protestant…If you have some success, generally something others would have died for, you just cross it off in the ledger. You’re not happy about anything. When you’re at one with yourself, which you are almost all of the time, you’re much more disciplined than me…Your ideal is the innocent, innocence…what you lust for is innocence and this is an impossible equation. Lust and innocence can never be compatible."

Since reading Min Kamp Volume One, I watched a number of interviews of Knausgaard. Knausgaard tells us in Volume Two he cannot stop himself from accepting invitations to speak about himself and his book, despite his terror and despite the oftentimes mediocre write-ups. His sense of worthlessness and feelings of intimidation (he says these feelings are rooted in Norwegian culture and his own upbringing) are clear from what he says, writes, and does because, he says, he has revealed the darkest, most shameful things about himself and his family and friends. One might understand, therefore, his reluctance to be in public answering questions about his motivations were it not for the vast number of critics coming down on the side of celebration and awe upon the publication of the linked books. This praise he “crosses off” the income side of the ledger, leaving him desperate and despondent, feeling "like a whore." Well, okay, if that’s how you want to play it. I can heap criticism on his head, too. A little bit of whip-play, eh?

We must ask ourselves why we care. How much of this is fiction and does it matter? Are we as close to life as possible—a little reality show for the bookish set, the novel-minded?

The author Karl Ove tells us this book is about love, and readers might agree. Love in its imperfections, in the imperfections of the lovers, in the circumstances, in the choices one makes, and in the choices one doesn’t. Love between parents and children and children and parents and between the parents and between friends; Love that is not blind, but alternately tender and vengeful, accepting and unyielding. There is a love of writing here, too, of the lost-in-the-dream flow of writing, of the can’t-wait-to-get-back-to-it addictiveness of creating something unique. Which is how we know it probably is fiction. Karl Ove is creating, not just recording. He "finally gets to tell the story" and it is his story. Not objective, but subjective. Fictive, at least in part. We learn the tiniest detail of his child’s outdoor clothing and how to cook a meal of potatoes, steak and broccoli, but we will never hear the voice of his father except through Karl Ove the narrator. What difference does it make? None. Memoirs and fiction often trade places.

Regarding the larger question of whether or not it is literature, I sidestep: that will answer itself over time. The books have their amusements and instruction, for we read so deeply about others’ decisions, successes and downfalls, hidden secrets and cracks in the façade, as well as about Scandinavia, lest anyone think I forgot the cultural context. But were I pressed, I would guess I am reading something resembling an old-fashioned "confession" perhaps like St Augustine’s Confessions written when he was in his early 40s, considered by some to be the first autobiography in the western world, and in which Augustine regrets his sinful life. Confessions ran to thirteen volumes and was meant to be read aloud. In at least one interview, Karl Ove tells us he read his book aloud to an unnamed friend.

St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Karl Ove references, had a long standing disagreement about how best to understand the divine. Confused, sinful, ascetic (rejecting the world) Karl Ove (Augustine?) talks repeatedly and deeply with organized, controlled, disciplined Geir (Aquinas?) who embraces the world, even to the point of travelling to witness the war in Iraq. We listen; we wonder.

All this is to say nothing of Hitler, who is mentioned twice I think in this book, and once in Volume One. Perhaps in Volume Three we will have three references? Of that, stay tuned.



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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I don't usually review books I don't like here, but I made an exception for this one--just for the controversy and to give you all a chance to comment. This year so far (and it is only March!) has been my annus horribilis so I found my braindead exhausted self listening to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her time on the Pacific Crest Trail at the recommendation of a friend. I’d had no inclination to read this book before, not being taken in by the book blurbs, but I am capable of being led at this point.

Strayed’s success should buoy her. She has found her audience. Elsewhere.

What made me most annoyed, perhaps, was that by the penultimate disc in the audio recording we still had not had any breakthroughs of note. She had to tell us she “tested in the highest percentile” at school and that she should have gone to Harvard. She was mad at her mother for not suggesting it. Look how smart I am, she seemed to be saying, and what a waste I’ve made of my life. Heh, heh. Join the club.

Strayed was 26 years old when she went walking. She’s 46 years old now. She had TWENTY YEARS to distill that experience and tell us what she learned. And what did we get? Perhaps the most off-putting description of sex with honey (at the beach!) that I’ve ever stumbled upon, and blame for her mother who died at 45. Cripes, cut the lady a break. You’ve learned nothing.

Yes, Starved Strayed persisted and managed to walk (what? 1100 miles?) a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s good. Great, in fact. But I was bouncing off the confines of her head by the end of it. One reviewer said this book is saved because Strayed can write. Maybe. Writing well is more than stringing words together, even stringing a life together. In my mind, a well written story simply has more thinking going on, by the teller and by the listener.

Two stars for finishing the trail.


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Monday, March 9, 2015

My Struggle, Volume I by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I hadn’t really thought to read this despite it being “the” book of 2012, but I read the article he wrote for the March 1, 2015 NYT Sunday magazine, Part I(!) It was the funniest thing I’d ever read. Here is an author whose linked novel/memoirs has taken the literary world by storm and he is showing his utter unpreparedness for that world and the interactions it requires. I wanted to see if that tongue-in-cheek droll self-awareness was his constant subject.

As it turns out, Volume One of his six-volume memoir cum fiction is much more than that. It has a vibrancy, truth-telling honesty, and relevance far beyond anything I expected. And the writing…well, the writing was involving and exacting…and addictive. For a man who doesn’t like to talk to strangers, he does an awful lot of talking to strangers.

My Struggle Volume I begins with a discussion about death and how the dead have been removed from our purview, we lucky ones in the Western world who do not experience street conflict. This is precisely the thing I have been mulling over lately, so he drew me in with his talk of death rather than put me off. Without even a pause or a section break from our dip into death’s icy waters in the first pages, Knausgaard relates a news event in his childhood he watched on television, in which some newscasters showed the waters of a fjord, explaining that some Nordic fishermen were lost on a ship that sunk without a trace. His parents had laughed at his eight-years-old imagination that he had seen a face in the waves on the newscaster’s film shot. He returns to that humiliation again and again as he grows older, for the sense of having seen something and the shame of having been laughed at never leave him.

There is a circular momentum to his narrative (a circling-the-drain quality, all facetiousness aside), for he returns to the death of his father in the second half of Volume One. But first we learn his age (39 years), and learn of his marriage, his children, his attempt to create something important, circling back to begin at the beginning, his birth and childhood. Knausgaard as a teen is not to be missed. The second half of the book is consumed with his father’s death, which occurred just before he turned thirty. When viewing his father's corpse he writes: "The idea that I could scrutinize this face unhindered for the first time was almost unbearable." Unhindered? What a remarkable thing to say. But, he goes on to say, "I was no longer looking at a person but something that resembled a person." His father, with all his personality, strengths and failures, was gone.

The very ordinariness of his days, and of his detail about those days makes the novel/memoir something extraordinary. Knausgaard says in a Paris Review interview that he was trying to get the detail "as close to life as possible," so we shouldn’t feel surprised to experience a palpable peristalsis of boredom followed by intense interest and inescapable need. The interminable house cleaning and grass mowing…we feel those details in our exhaustion, repugnance, and need to escape. The accretion of detail, the structure, the language…all of it add up to something impossible to put down and impossible to forget.
"But as anyone with the least knowledge of literature and writing—maybe art in general—will know, concealing what is shameful to you will never lead to anything of value."--Paris Review interview

Karl Ove, the narrator, shows us how he is his father’s son. He claimed to hate his father, but he loved him, too, and was more like him in his reserve than he dares mention. But we see it. We never get a clear or complete picture of his father--his father as son, his father as husband, as teacher, as neighbor--but the moments of his tenderness and of his decline flash from the book like beacons.
"But still, there is much more to a relationship than what you can say. You just take one more step back into yourself. I’ve never understood psychoanalysis. Mentioning things doesn’t change anything, doesn’t help anything, it’s just words. There is something much more deep and profound to a relationship than that. Revealing stories and quarrels—that’s just words. Love, that’s something else."--Paris Review interview

Observing Knausgaard’s intense reluctance to self-reveal in ordinary day-to-day interactions and conversation, one has to ask why Knausgaard wrote a book like this. The answer comes in a thousand ways, but it revolves around the breaking of accepted patterns, of standing outside so as to observe and understand more deeply, of the spaces between things, like language…what it doesn’t describe, what it can’t catch. "Writing is more about destroying than creating." He seeks to make an experience, rather than just describe one. Well, he’s done something provocative here, and it is absolutely an experience reading this book.


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Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet Dead: A Novel Everything about the concept of this debut novel intrigued me: a disgraced and demoted second-generation Canadian Muslim police investigator, Khattuck, finds himself investigating the suspicious death of a man who turns out to be the Bosnian Serb war criminal, Dražen Krstić. Krstić had changed his name to Christopher Drayton and had settled into a life of comfort in Toronto. The NYT had just such a story leading their (3.1.15) Sunday edition last week, so we know it is entirely plausible that Bosnian war criminals have settled into new, lucrative lives in the U.S. and Canada, lost in the shuffle of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

The author, Ausma Zehanat Khan, is a British-born Canadian with a Ph.D. in international human rights law, specializing in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. Khan has an undeniable street cred when detailing the conflict in Yugoslavia and its aftermath. Therefore it pains me to say that The Unquiet Dead does not really work as a novel (or at least a good novel). This will not stop anyone interested in the topic from having a look at this, but it may prepare you for a difficult fiction-reading experience.

All the ingredients for a long-lived policier are there: an interesting and troubled minority investigator and his unlikely sidekick, a twenty-something white woman called Rachel. Her background has the requisite complexities: childhood of poverty, abusive father, estranged brother, crazy mother. But somehow the whole doesn’t hang straight. Characters lack verisimilitude and dimension; conversation has an invented quality. For instance, what twenty-something police investigator earning a good wage would continue to live with mad parents on the off-chance a brother who had left seven years before could only contact her at her childhood home? I heard Khan’s explanation but it doesn’t work. If the boy had wits enough to survive seven years in the wilds of the world, he should be able to trace her whereabouts in her home town of Toronto.

Quotes of statements from reports, letters, tribunals, witnesses, the Qur’an head the chapters and are interspersed throughout the parallel story of the investigation and are given fuller explanation in her Notes at the back of the book. Some chapters feature long seemingly remembered but, I suspect, invented passages that bear witness to the events in the torn Yugoslavia. The horror of the events there are undeniable. I found it difficult to keep my skittering eyes on the page. Since we have heard something of these events, reference to them alone strikes one with terror and fear. Since fiction is suspect in what it reveals, perhaps this information would be better presented elsewhere.

Perhaps Khan thought we wouldn’t be interested if she published a separate book of nonfiction about the events at Srbrenica. She raises some very relevant and thought-provoking issues: was the international arms embargo to the Bosnian territorial units responsible for the horrific intensification of violence because one side had an inability to defend themselves against the side that had the former Yugoslav army matériel? One might make an opposite argument: that supplying weapons to one side or the other could intensify the violence of the fighting. Another issue she touches upon is the inability of Immigration departments in the West to locate and bring to justice known war criminals and fugitives from justice. These are worthy subjects of study and discussion. They can fit in a fiction, but everything else has to work as well.

The successful writing of fiction is a difficult enterprise. What surprised me was not that Khan did not succeed, but that she came so close to managing it. The ingredients for a brilliant policier are there, including an important and relevant subject of investigation. She just needed the example of a few more classics of the genre, to get help with conversation and depth of character development, and to trust her readers to have a sense of discomfiture when the word "Bosnia" is mentioned. We’ll get the real details of the events in Srbrenica elsewhere if she mentions them tangentially rather than head-on.

I have long mused on the difficulty of bringing real-life events by known scholars to the world of fiction. One wonders why the authors make the switch. If it is because they want to inform us mostly, I think they might run into difficulty. If it is because they really want to write fiction—important, relevant fiction—the endeavor will take all they have and more. I love important, relevant fiction, so I am going to encourage them. Brava, Khan!


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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Giveaway for Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of LES MISÉRABLES



This is a completely new translation of Victor Hugo's classic tale--the first in forty years for Penguin Classics. It is being widely hailed as an exquisite and contemporary translation by Christine Donougher of Hugo's sometimes chatty/sometimes outraged voice so that it seems like a commentary on the state of today's "Occupy" nation of haves and have-nots. I can't wait to have a look at it. Though the size of translations of Hugo's work are daunting to contemplate, this edition should lead you into the riches of this classic tale.

The cover art shown above is by the widely admired illustrator Jillian Tamaki, whose work you may have seen in the NYT Book Review. If you would like to share in the exciting experience of (re)discovering Victor Hugo's classic, Penguin has agreed to send a Deluxe Edition of this book to one U.S. resident. Please sign up on the secure form below. And in the meantime, take a look at some of the buzz about this book that has just hit bookstores.

(Penguin Classics; On Sale: February 24, 2015; $23.00; ISBN: 978-0-14-310756-9)
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Hugo’s epic tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly threatened—by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert and by his own conscience. The stakes are high for Valjean, who has promised to protect the daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty. And as his freedom is threatened, revolution breaks out in Paris, with far-reaching consequences for Valjean, his loved ones, and Hugo’s expansive cast of misérables.

In his introduction to LES MISÉRABLES, Robert Tombs praises the “literary power, intellectual sophistication, and subtlety of observation” of Hugo’s revolutionary masterpiece. Featuring a beautiful cover by acclaimed illustrator Jillian Tamaki and clear, illuminating notes by Donougher, this new edition invites readers to discover—or rediscover—the timeless narrative force and startling relevance of one of the world’s great novels.

About the Author

Victor Hugo was born in Besançon, France in 1802. In 1822, he published his first collection of poetry, and in 1831 he published his most famous youthful novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. A royalist and conservative as a young man, Hugo later became a committed social democrat and was exiled from Paris as a result of his political activities. After his death in 1885, his body lay in state under the Arc de Triomphe before being buried in the Panthéon.

Christine Donougher is a freelance translator and editor. She has translated numerous books from French and Italian, and won the 1992 Scott Moncrieff Translation Prize for her translation of Sylvie Germain’s The Book of Nights.

Robert Tombs is Professor of History at St. John’s College, Cambridge. His most recent book is That Sweet Enemy: The French and British from the Sun King to the Present, co-written with Isabelle Tombs.

Jillian Tamaki is an illustrator and cartoonist. She currently teaches in the illustration Department of the School of Visual Arts, and is the co-creator of the graphic novels Skim and This One Summer, with Mariko Tamaki.

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“No adaptation can convey the addictive pleasure afforded by Victor Hugo’s narrative voice: by turns chatty, crotchety, buoyant and savagely ironical, it’s made to seem so contemporary and fresh in Donougher’s rendering that the book has all the resonance of the most topical state-of-the-nation novel.” — Telegraph

“Donougher’s translation is a magnificent achievement. It reads easily, sometimes racily, and Hugo’s narrative power is never let down...[an] almost flawless translation, which brings the full flavour of one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century to new readers in the twenty-first.”— Times Literary Supplement

“Christine Donougher’s seamless and very modern translation of Les Misérables has an astonishing effect in that it reminds readers that Hugo was going further than any Dickensian lament about social conditions ... [Les Mis] touches the soul.”—Herald Scotland



Winner chosen 3/10/15. Thanks everyone!


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Monday, March 2, 2015

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine


Just before I began this book I learned that Rabih is a man’s name, a Middle-Eastern man’s name. It means, alternatively, “spring,” or “winner.” I wondered what kind of Middle Eastern man felt he could write a book about the internal life of an aging widow. And now I know. It would be a man who reads.

This is a book about loneliness and connection. Aaliya, a name meaning “the exalted one,” is a translator. That is, she spends her time translating into Arabic books written in English or French. Some of the books she translates are translations of translations. Her entire life since her early divorce from an impotent husband has been consumed with this endeavor, one book a year, sharing the work of literature’s greats. She stacks her translations in cartons in the reading room of her apartment in Beirut. She is seventy-two years old.

Not long into listening to the voice from the head of this old woman I began to feel this was the indispensable book: a book I needed to read again and again, to study, to enjoy as refreshment, as instruction, as revelation, sentences changing shade and emphasis depending on the angle of the sun, on the time of year, on the colors in the room in which I sat. Too many sentences needed remarking upon, too many references needed thorough investigation to let it go with only one reading. This was the woman, who by dint of translating the “greats,” had honed her instinct for the critical moment, the real thing, the human condition.

This book about a desperate woman living alone, growing old and infirm in a city riven by dissention and war, is ultimately redemptive, optimistic. It feels like a blessing, a balm. It feels like the sun on a cool day, or a cool breeze when the temperature rockets. It is literature.
”There are two types of people in this world: people who want to be desired, and people who want to be desired so much that they pretend they don’t.”

I want to read everything by Rabih Alameddine.

Rabin Alameddine is interviewed by Dwyer Murphy in Guernica.



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Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Competition by Marcia Clark

Author Marcia Clark, TV correspondent and former prosecutor, manages to distinguish her crime series by the strength of her writing and by her intelligent presentation of the material: she gives her readers an undeniably authentic inside look at the search for criminals, sharing along the way terminology and methods, points of law and methods of prosecution. She leavens the work by including the taunt-slinging humor that a hard-working, hard-living law enforcement team shares while investigating major crimes.

Clark’s Rachel Knight series features a prosecutor from the office of L.A. Special Trials. In her earlier (and shorter) novels, Knight was investigating interesting crimes that plague cities. This book takes on the important subject of the psychopathy behind mass shootings, whether at schools, stores, or the cinema. Clark relies heavily on the David Cullen’s nonfiction treatment of the Columbine shooting, Columbine, so that we can see clearly the resemblances in the copycat incident she relates, but she also looks closely at the other examples we’ve endured in the recent past and shares psychologists’ view of the phenomenon.

Clark’s story has many false leads and misdirection, but what I liked best was the palpable sense of not knowing enough: though the investigators worked hard at finding clues, there was so much they simply did not know. Clark manages to make us understand the real difficulties in pursuing an investigation in cases like these, and why it takes so long to make headway (hint: it is not simply because of the fabled traffic jams in L.A.). The smog fog of confusion felt very real to me. When, towards the end of the book, Knight and her partner on this case, Detective Bailey Keller, finally get a lead that connects tiny shreds of information learned from disparate sources early in the investigations, Bailey sits back in her chair and says "Well, what do you know. An actual bona fide lead. So that’s what it feels like." And we feel that sense of discovery, awe, and relief, too.

Clark exhibits her control in a story of this size and scope. She covers a lot of ground by looking at so many major examples of mass shootings and still keeping the story alive with interactions between her characters. If I had any criticism, it would be that there were too many words, but I am not going to quibble. This is an excellent example of its genre which also serves to highlight important questions about our society and justice system.

In my review of an earlier book in the series, Guilt by Degrees, I commented that Rachel Knight seemed to have expensive tastes when it comes to eating and drinking. She still does, but I can see more clearly in this novel that Knight has time to eat only rarely and when she finally does, often late at night, she deserves every bite of those exotic meals. Hers is the kind of job that doesn’t slow or stop for normal people’s needs.
The first book in the Rachel Knight series, Guilt by Association, was a wonderful debut. Take a look if you are beginning the series for the first time.


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