Sunday, February 26, 2017

All That Man IsAll That Man Is by David Szalay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Daunted once again by the skills of a young author, David Szalay, Canadian by birth and one of Granta's Top Novelists under Forty or whatever category they chose in 2013. All That Man Is at first is disconcerting because it is nine separate stories, largely unconnected, of dissatisfied men ages 17 to 73 at various stages in their lives, living in European countries such as Italy, Cyprus, England, Hungary, Croatia, Belgium, and contemplating their futures through an episode of failed relationships or financial doubt. Most of the tales contain "a maelstrom of despair" as bad luck. hopeless sex and missed opportunities take their toll yet I couldn't stop reading, even knowing I would leave this particular character at the end of the chapter. The men look in the mirror. often hungover, to see "a dead-eyed flaccidity...a flushed indifference" in contemplating their future and current crisis. "Let us love what is eternal and not what is transient" reads a description in a Ravenna abbey in the last chapter as the protagonist contemplates the final mysteries. [Note to sister who spurns bleak stories, you can skip this book.] Its structure grew on me as I too contemplate the greater schemes of life and what it is left after seven decades. Time passing is the author's answer, the only eternal thing.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Fever DreamFever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I chose this book because the author was one of Granta's "Best Spanish Speaking Writers Under 22" and I intend to read others. From Argentina, this is her first novel although she has published short stories and won prizes. The story of two mothers whose children are poisoned by some unnamed ecological disaster, the tale is dystopian in the extreme. I had to look up the definition of dystopian: "The utopia and its derivative, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. ... Dystopian (or dystopic) fiction (sometimes combined with, but distinct from apocalyptic literature) is the opposite: the portrayal of a setting that completely disagrees with the author's ethos."
The story is a fast-paced nightmare which I read in a short evening but couldn't quite finish its disturbing conclusion just before retiring and waited until the next day. The translation is smooth. I had trouble delineating between the two speakers but it didn't seem to matter since they were relating common stories. It brought me back to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go which was similarly troubling. The author's command of her characters is impressive, her descriptions vivid and rhythm fast. I don't know the author's "ethos" but would be curious to read her stories if I can handle it.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Independent PeopleIndependent People by Halldór Laxness
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our book group chose Independent People for rainy February's title and I tried several times to get into it without success. After about 150 pages, I was ready to concede defeat but persevered and finally started to cotton to this long, dense tale of an irascible Icelandic sheep farmer who buries two wives and numerous children and animals in his single-minded ambition to be an independent man beholden to none. Great swathes of text describe the unremitting misery of the climate and the lives of sheep and men, living and dead, as they struggle to survive.
"Great is the tyranny of mankind," says Laxness, and great is the tyranny of the Classics reading list which brought this book to my attention. Yet, I admit that I liked it! The author can be wry and funny and poetic in spite of the hackneyed poetry salted throughout, the husbandry and the grim weather: "And the ceaseless rain of this inclement summer poured down upon the three little unprotected workmen of the moors...turning their headgear into a shapeless, sodden mass and running down their necks and faces in rivulets stained with the colour from their hats." Yet there is youth and beauty and love: "she was leading two spirited young thoroughbreds whose coats glistened with good feeding, glossy as silk. The sunshine and the breeze played in her golden hair, in its waves and its curls; her young bosom rose cupped above her slender waist, her arms were naked to the shoulder, her eyebrows curved in a high care-free bow. Her keen eyes reminded him both of the sky and of its hawks; her skin, radiant with the fresh bloom of youth, colour incomparable, make him think of wholesome new milk in May." (402) Bjartur, the key figure, relentlessly pursues his dream of independence realized in Summerhouses, his bought-and-paid-for plot of land after eighteen years of servitude, as his family dies or abandons him and his sheep fail with disease. And the book by a Nobel Laureate hones to the definition of a classic as it tackles the human condition and our universal responses. My response would have been to abandon the sheep and retire with the coffee and a book while the snows blow around the croft, but these were hardier souls who needed the sheep to go on, to sell, to eat, to be independent people.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017


I can remember when I had a total book collection of two shelves in the Magnolia bedroom which I shared with my younger sister. How I loved to fondle and look at my titles until I had to cover all of the books with wrapping paper to disguise a few which my mother disapproved of. My mom had strong feelings about appropriate reading matter. No Nancy Drew or romance. No D. H. Lawrence. No Nabokov, or at least not Lolita. No Peyton Place which was downstairs in my dad's office hidden behind his botanical texts. Once all the books were wrapped, only I knew which titles were which and I could relax and read Chocolates for Breakfast, actually a well-written but sexy novel, or J. D. Salinger whose reputation for smut was known. Now after years of bookselling, I have around seven thousand titles, shelves bulging and books cascading all over the place. Sometimes I just roam the shelves, looking at all of the things I've yet to read, those that I want to reread but never will, and those that, alas, I will never read and should pull. It is an addiction. Books do furnish a room but they can also clutter and drown the hopeful reader. Sometimes in my more fatalistic moods, I divide the number of books by the longevity figures on how many years I have left, then divide by weeks to see how many I would need to read each week to dent the surface. With luck and twenty or twenty-five years, it's only 240 books a year or just two books each week. Who couldn't handle that? Me at 90? Of course, some of them are reference such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, art books or cookbooks and not really a required cover-to-cover exploration. I just have to give up television and socializing and hope for good eyes and health. Toward this end, I have a book club which only meets once a year and which is devoted to each member reading up to six titles that have been on their shelves for twenty years or more, published prior to 1992. This has been most edifying. I've discovered treasures like Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, Moritz Thomsen's The Saddest Pleasure: a journey on two rivers, and Mabel Dodge Luhan's The Edge of Taos Desert plus the inspiration of Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write. 

Abibliophobia, the fear of being without books, will not happen here but I must take care when I travel.