Category Archives: review

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

I am back from two weeks in Colombia, which were not exactly two weeks of rest and relaxation. But I have my new laptop, finally! I also had lots of time to catch up on reading – I’ve finally caught up with my “reading goal” (SNORT) after being behind it for most of the year. Oh wait, I just checked and I’m still one book behind. Not that it matters. Not that anything matters, amirite? Haha, maybe I’m just feeling the effects of the novel I just finished, or I’m still stupefied from jetlag/general travel exhaustion. I thought I’d beat the jetlag, but I think what’s really made me tired was all the transfers that my v. cheap tickets involved. That or the two teens sitting behind me on one flight playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire on the in-seat console for nine straight hours, poking and prodding the back of my seat with their over-enthusiastic fingers. Or the heatwave, which seems to have finally ended. Anyway.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (Ottessa Moshfegh)

If I were an annoying, pretentious book reviewer (which I clearly am, OBVIOUSLY!), I would call this A MILLENIAL CLASSIC. Or maybe A CLASSIC OF THE MILLENIAL ERA sounds better? But seriously, I found something so deliciously liberating and relatable and ANTI CAPITALIST in this novel about a woman who decides to sleep her life away, in an attempt to achieve a metamorphosis of some sorts. An emergence from a cocoon, etc.

I initially thought this book was only going to take place in her apartment (man, that would have been a challenge! A novel where a character never leaves the room and never interacts with anyone? Could it work? I guess it would be very “experimental”), so I was pleasantly surprised to see her interacting regularly with her best friend, her shitty ex-boyfriend, and even venturing outwards from time to time, as the result of an extremely powerful sleeping pill that causes her to sleepwalk, sleep-shop, sleep-club, etc.

I really loved the narrator in this – it’s truly her voice that makes the book, i.e. her complete lack of interest in anything other than sleeping. I kept laughing at how callous she was towards her best friend.

Some of the most powerful passages come near the end, when the narrator is in a museum looking at art (she studied art history, worked in a museum before deciding to hibernate, and tellingly wonders early on in the book if she should have been an artist, had she had the talent). It’s a long passage, but I’m going to type up the whole thing, because I like it (especially the description of painting as a ‘distraction’). Looking at the paintings, she wonders about the artists:

Did they want more? Could they have painted better, more generously, more clearly? Could they have dropped more fruit from their windows? Did they know that glory was mundane? Did they wish they’d crushed those withered grapes between their fingers and spent their days walking through fields of grass or being in love or confessing their delusions to a priest or starving like the hungry souls they were, begging for alms in the city square with some honesty for once? Maybe they’d lived wrongly. Their greatness might have poisoned them. Did they wonder about things like that? Maybe they couldn’t sleep at night. Were they plagued by nightmares? Maybe they understood, in fact, that beauty and meaning had nothing to do with one another. Maybe they lived as real artists knowing all along that there were no pearly gates. Neither creation nor sacrifice could lead a person to heaven. Or maybe not. Maybe, in the morning, they were aloof and happy to distract themselves with their brushes and oils, to mix their colors and smoke their pipes and go back to their fresh still lifes without having to swat away any more flies.” (286)

People will be writing dissertations about this book, I think, and what it says about “modern life” and “women in fiction,” etc.

Other quotes I liked:

“Since adolescence, I’d vacillated between wanting to look like the spoiled WASP that I was and the bum that I felt I was and should have been if I’d had any courage… I thought if I did normal things – held down a job, for example – I could starve off the part of me that hated everything. If I had been a man, I may have turned to a life of crime. But I looked like an off-duty model.” (35)

“Having a trash chute was one of my favorite things about my building. It made me feel important, like I was participating in the world. My trash mixed with the trash of others. The things I touched touched things other people had touched. I was contributing. I was connecting.” (115)

“I could think of feeling, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even locate where my emotions came from. My brain? It made no sense. Irritation was what I knew best.” (137)

Leave a comment

Filed under books, consciousness, review, women writers

More Horror

Such Small Hands (Andrés Barba); Devil’s Day (Andrew Michael Hurley); Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enríquez)

My horror obsession has returned… is it a hangover from four years of reading/writing/thinking about Bolaño? Or maybe because my life in England feels very quiet and small most of the time. Routine-filled. I spend a lot of time by myself, or with the cat. I am working a lot on a writing project and rarely leave the house. I do try to see a friend at least once a week, and I take a trip to Glasgow. I mark student work and submit it. I begin the couch to 10k training routine, again. Sometimes my knee hurts, deep stabbing sharp pains, ancient remnants of an injury from playing high school basketball. I go to the library close to my house and pick up Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba and Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (I return both late, and am fined).

The Barba novel, I’ve wanted to read for some time now. I’ve heard it described as “short” and “intensely creepy”, and it is decidedly both these things. It’s also a wonderful example of a novel narrated (partly) from the “we” perspective, a style I find deeply fascinating. What are other books that do this? The Virgin Suicides? The Buddha in the Attic? To be fair, in Such Small Hands the narration switches back and forth from the “we” perspective and the POV of Marina, a child whose parents are killed in a pretty brutally-described car accident in the opening chapter (this was probably the most memorable part of the book for me, in terms of graphic bodily violence).

Marina is taken to an orphanage (the girls already living there are the “we” voice in the book). They tear her doll apart limb from limb and bury it the yard. So Marina invents another game for them to play, in which the girls take turns pretending to be dolls themselves. None of this is really a spoiler. It’s all pretty unsettling.

I found this book very effective and scary (I also LOVE short novels), but I’m left uncertain as to what it all “means,” not that it matters. Is this basically about the evil of childhood? The afterword by Edmund White makes reference to an incident in a Brazilian orphanage that took place in the 1960’s, on which the book is apparently based. I won’t spoil it (you can find out by googling) but it’s deeply distressing. In this interview the author says he was inspired by a Clarice Lispector short story. His discussion of the purpose of fear in fiction, and of Henry James’ manner of writing about ghosts “as if he were speaking of tables or pencils“, is also pretty memorable.

Andrew Michael Hurley is another author I met via my job, when he came to the university last year to give a talk. I hope if we ever meet again, he doesn’t remember how I almost made him late because I didn’t have my keycard with me and we were couldn’t make it past the locked doors to the elevators, so we had to go down the stairs D: In my defense, I was a BRAND NEW staff member and didn’t know that the doors were going to lock!

Oh, what a good read this was. So immersive. Another book I read in a single sitting, sitting on my boyfriend’s couch while he slept in late in the next room. There are parts of this book that are still so scary for me to remember I can barely stand it. UGH, SO SCARY! Hurley is a master at using the understated and the unexplained when it comes to horror. Basically, anything that ever has to do with dead animals… or references to mysterious satanic rituals undertaken by rich university students… or when someone sees or hears something that someone else doesn’t… that’s it for me. UGH, I can barely even think about some of those scenes even now!

The moral ambiguity of the narrator here is also a really interesting component of the book. In a way, he “wins” – he gets what we wants. But is it really a victory?

Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell) is probably THE best book I’ve read this year so far, after Station Eleven. Holy cow, it’s probably one of the best collections I’ve ever read, no joke. Again, I think this mainly is due to its use of FEAR in the stories. FEAR FEAR FEAR – so much of our lives is defined by fear, isn’t it? I think I respond to strong emotions in writing, and what is a stronger emotion than fear, amirite. Anyway, this collection is full of it, with plenty Shirley Jackson-esque darkness to boot. It’s so fun to discover a new author I instantly know I’m going to be obsessed with. I’ll have to hunt down her untranslated books. For me, highlights  of Things We Lost in the Fire include the following:

  • “Under the Black Water” – one of the collection’s strongest pieces. I haven’t read HP Lovecraft but I would definitely call this Lovecraftian. What with its emphasis on monsters emerging out of the dark water, deformed children, headless pigs in churches, and Satanic rituals… man!! I liked how the horror was linked to destroying the environment, and Argentina’s history.
  • “The Neighbour’s Courtyard” – Ok. So this one of the MOST FUCKED UP THINGS I have ever read. NO JOKE! I told my boyfriend the plot of this story in a bar and I traumatized him and ruined our date D: I LOVE the open, unresolved ending. So brutal. SPOILER WARNING: This is really brutal to read if you’re a cat lover. I think this story is an amazing example of horror fiction, in terms of how deliciously effective the slow reveal of creepy secrets can be.
  • “Spiderweb” – You can read this online via the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20…). What an ending!! I love the theme of disappearances, and how that ties in with Argentinene history in an unexpected and unique way. In a general sense, I also love stories about couples going on vacations. There’s nothing like a holiday to bring out the worst in people! This holiday story is particularly deliciously brutal in terms of how much the narrator hates her husband. Not sure if he (or anyone) deserves his final fate, though… it’s ambiguous but I have some theories about what happens to him…
  • “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt” – This one might be my favorite! I believe it’s the only piece narrated by a male. The ending said SO much to me about violence against women, and what is and isn’t monstrous. The main character is a tour guide, who runs a murder tour in Buenos Aires. He begins seeing the ghost of a famous serial killer. Sounds twee, but believe me… it goes to unexpected places.
  • “The Intoxicated Years” – I love this story! You can read it online in Granta (https://granta.com/intoxicated-years/). It follows a group of female friends over the post-dictatorship years, and their transformation into witchy beings that are either powerful or disturbing. Either way, they’re definitely capable of anything. This story makes me want to cry in parts (nostalgia? Sentimentality?), but I’m not sure why.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, review, short stories

Nutcase

  Nutcase (Tony Williams)

Tony Williams is an English author who (like Jon McGregor) came to give a talk at the university where I work. His novel, Nutcase, is deeply intriguing, not just because it’s an adaptation of Icelandic sagas (I wish I knew more about them; his talk definitely made me want to know more!), but because of its style. Williams discussed how what made him interested in Icelandic sagas was their lack of interiority, in the sense that reading them is akin to this happened, then this happened, then this happened. A focus on the litany, rather than the emotional. So he decided to write a novel in contemporary Sheffield, written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas. It’s a fascinating experiment – in terms of both reading and writing. It made me think a lot about how so many novels (at least the ones I’m familiar with) are based on interiority, in terms of “showing” us the inside of a character’s consciousness.

Another interesting aspect of Tony’s talk was his path to getting published – no agent, and communicating directly with the publisher (good old Salt! Gotta love their anthologies ;)). It was a good message for the students to hear, I think. And it’s also good to witness how genuinely good art (like Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation) isn’t always coming from the biggest, flashiest sources.

Tony and I and the rest of the staff got dinner after the talk (I always order the exact same thing, a medium rare hamburger, as it’s one of the cheapest things on the menu, but I am thinking of switching to the halloumi salad just for a change). I talked for a bit with Tony’s friend, who he had gone to school with. Apparently (if I’m remembering correctly) one of the parties they hosted (attended?) as youth made its way into the book – I wonder if it was the basis for one of my favorite scenes in the novel, in which a fire is started due to someone burning U2 CDs in a biscuit tin.

Reading this book reminded me of what a deeply exotic and strange country England is to me, still. There are so many little corners and worlds that I just don’t know about, never will know, though this is probably true of every single place I have ever lived (and indeed, maybe feeling not at home is what makes me feel most at home). Whenever I ask anyone where they’re from in England, I rarely know their answer (but maybe English people would have the same reaction? Part of me thinks… no). There’s so much about England I still don’t know, even though I’ve lived here for six years.

I read Nutcase in a single sitting, on my train ride home. Definitely check it out – support independent publishers!

Leave a comment

Filed under books, contemporary, review

Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 (Jon Mc Gregor)

I assigned this book to my students to read and it seems like they all enjoyed it very much. Quite few of them were from the area where it’s set, so it was especially interesting to hear that they found it absorbing and realistic (and I’m sure it would be validating for Mr. McGregor).

I definitely think this should have won the Man Booker prize instead of George Saunders, in terms of being a book that’s “pushing the boundaries of the form,” etc. I suppose one criticism of it (that I heard from my students) is that it gets a bit boring at times, and it becomes hard to tell all the characters apart. BUT… I would argue that as in Knausgaard, there is a reason for this effect. If the book becomes boring, it’s because LIFE is boring.The everyday is boring. You know? Cyclical, repetitive. Everything decays and fades away, crumbles into nothing. And if people seem interchangeable, it’s because we all are, in a way. And it also seems to be an important point that the “big” moments of the book are narrated in such a defused way, alongside descriptions of badgers mating and birds building nests and sheep wandering away and the weather, so that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss them.

I went to a talk Jon McGregor gave about the writing process of this book and it was one of the most fascinating talks about writing I’ve heard in years. Basically, long story short, he wrote the book by keeping two folders: one filled with descriptions of nature, the other of people. And then he tried to mash them all together. It was one of those talks that make you feel reassured about writing. And it was also just deeply interesting to hear someone talk about their process in such a detailed way – especially in terms of how dependent it is on restriction of form, like those crazy Oulipo writers who wrote whole books without using the letter ‘E’. And in terms of how much of the ‘writing’ turned into organizing – trying to figure out the structure.

I highly recommend reading this in one sitting – don’t walk away from it for a long time and then pick it back up again.

Most of all, I liked how this book tried to focus on what it means to be a person – what it means to be alive in a quiet everyday sort of way.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, British, nature, review

Now and At the Hour of Our Death

Now and At the Hour of Our Death (Susana Moreira Marques; translated by Julia Sanches)

Death begins long before we fall ill, with neither suffering, nor drama, nor a single memorable occurrence. (23)

Another book about death. Is this my theme for the year?! I read this in the waiting room of a medical clinic (don’t worry, I’m fine) – maybe not the best place for this sort of reading :/ Considering the topic, it’s delicately, sensitively written.

The book is divided into two sections: the first very poetic and abstract, the second more akin to testimony. I enjoyed both very much and would probably choose the first one as my favorite – I really admire fragmented works in this style, a lá Barbara Comyns’ Sisters by a River. Part One follows the author as she accompanies a palliative care team, as they work in extremely rural Portuguese villages, the kind with a chapel, communal oven, eight lived-in houses, and no café, grocery, post office, town hall, or bus stop.

And yet, the surest metaphor for death is war: a person struggling in bed for years and years until their breathing is finally mistaken for moaning. (25)

In this section the author meets with various families, with various family members in varying stages of death. The section is narrated in fragments, breaking off abruptly, sometimes never longer than a sentence or two:

In the cemetery: a photograph and at times no more than a name. Names may survive, but they were never what made us unique. (33)

It becomes quite affecting, especially when the author notes that “death is chiefly a physical process” – beds, diapers, morphine, gauze, tubes, needles. “There is little that is literary about death.” How, then, to reconcile “literary” stories about death like the famous Ivan Ilych? How to write about death when there are no dramatic moments, just the sick suffering until they have no strength left? Her response seems to have been via the form of this book, via these poetic reflections and then the next section, which is built primarily on testimonies. I found the married couple who’d lived in Angola as farmers the most interesting. And then you have a daughter agonizing over her father: “What was going through his head? What does someone who’s dying think about? Does he believe he’s going to die? Does he belive it all the time? Is it a constant thought? Isn’t it? Does he try to kid himself? Does he try picturing what everyone else’s life will be like? Does he think about what he’s going to lose?” (107) Super fuerte … you really feel for her.

Overall, this was an intense read. It made me want to get in touch with my Portuguese heritage.

 

1 Comment

Filed under books, death, non-fiction, review, translation

Dying: A Memoir

Gosh. What a painfully simple yet intense book. Death. UGH. Written when the author was in the advanced stages of melanoma cancer, Dying is a memoir divided into three parts. The first is arguably lo más fuerte, with her reflections on the questions she most often gets re: dying (does she have a bucket list? Has she considered suicide? Has she discovered religion? Does she have regrets?). The first part examines her parents’ lives, and deaths. And the third focuses on the earliest memories of her childhood. At 150-odd pages, it is not very long, yet does a lot.

I wanted to read this book as… a sort of self-help manual, maybe? Does that make sense? Does thinking about dying help us figure out how to live? It meant a lot to read that she found writing to be so valuable. As Cat Marnell said recently on le Twitter, your (creative) work is the only thing you have any control over! Yay for work!

I also liked the parts where she quoted T.S. Eliot, and mused about the strangeness of time, of how life can be simultaneous, in the sense that she could be both a young girl and a dying woman at the same time (reminding me of this Mary Ruefle poem).

Oh, it’s so hard to live meaningfully and attentively, isn’t it? The days I feel I’ve frittered away! Fritter, fritter, fritter. Hours and minutes wasted away like corn fritters, zucchini fritters… IDK what other kind of fritters there are for this senseless metaphor. What does a time fritter taste like? Can you hold time in your mouth? What does it feel like? Is it ever too late for any of us?

Basically, this book made me feel sad but also moved. A necessary and powerful read.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, death, non-fiction, review

The Wonder Spot

I can’t believe I’ve never written about The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, one of my all-time faves! I usually re-read it once a year, when I go to my parents’ place for Christmas. It’s definitely one of those books for me that I can pick up at any time – never-fail comfort food.

I think what really makes this book for me is the humor. So many great one-liners! My current favorite is: I sat there and tried to get my personality back. (98) Along with Lorrie Moore and Sheila Heti, I think Melissa Bank ranks waaay up there, in terms of funny female American novelists. Now that I’ve (finally, at long last) read John Cheever, I can’t help but see his influence in here too, what with the whole East Coasters drinking in the city / making margaritas in the New Jersey summer house thing. God, East Coast life – so exotic to me! I’m still not exactly sure what or where the Hampton’s is…

Oh, and then there’s also all those killer observations about relationships:

  • I felt I needed to pretend to be a better person than I was so he’d keep loving me. This was hard because it made me hate him. (113)
  • I knew I was supposed to say I was sorry, but I’d already used up my I’m sorry allowance for the day. (130)
  • I sometimes said ‘I love you’ to Josh because I was afraid I didn’t; toward the end, I hardly said it at all, and when I did it meant, ‘I wish I loved you.’ (173)

The other thing that makes this book for me is its theme of being a young woman, trying to figure out your place in the world, trying to figure out who and what you want to be. It captures that “lost,” searching feeling beautifully. Or as my hippie dippie Jungian self-help book calls it, The Wanderer in the Cocoon  years. There are definitely QUITE a few passages underlined in this copy that wincingly remind me of the wild wastelands that are one’s early twenties (and yah, early thirties too!):

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that my grades and test scores over the years were anything more than individual humiliations; I hadn’t realized that one day all of them would add up and count against me… I’d already figured out that not understanding my failings was another one of my failings. (67) [UFF!]

One thing I noticed re-reading this, this time around, was the theme of female friendships. I can’t believe I’d never really noticed that before, how there’s three chapters (out of eight) that are focused mainly on Sophie’s relationship with a girlfriend rather than a man. I also found the parallel between Sophie and her older brother really interesting – the way they could never quite settle on a career (or person) that they love and are committed to, but how they both ultimately ended up being okay with that. It’s the open possibility of the “night in shining armor” that she finally embraces at the end.

I’ll also always love the structure of this book – how it’s basically a short story collection. Man, those sneaky publishers! I found it fascinating this time around how in some chapters (specifically the next to last one, “The One After You”) we get these drawn-out, explicit explanations of events that occurred earlier in the book, as though the chapter is a stand-alone story, meant to be read in isolation. So crazy! It definitely helps to create the sense that each chapter is its own stand-alone little universe. It also helps that some MAJOR life events (the death of her father and ex-fiancee, specifically) are completely glossed over. I remember reading in an interview online that Bank did this because she found it so hard to write “about” those events, so she just didn’t, thus creating a sense that Sophie’s life is bigger than what the book permits us to see; there are things going on offscreen that we don’t get access to

Man, I love this book. Almost thirteen years since it came out, though… I wonder if she’s working on another one?

Leave a comment

Filed under books, review, women writers

Station Eleven

Could this be one of my favorite books of the year? It’s definitely a strong start!

First off, I need to say I was in tears at the end of this. Now that NEVER happens. Even though I am a pretty sensitive person, when I read I am an ICE QUEEN. So if a book I’m reading makes me crack a smile, or tear up, let alone WEEP HELPLESSLY – that definitely means something. Maybe the global events of 2017 have left me a shattered emotional wreck, but I’d prefer to give the book credit for such an effect on me!

I found the themes of memory and forgetting in this book so powerful. The character who keeps a museum of now useless objects (iphones, high heels, debit cards) was probably my favorite, and the one I most related to. The concept and themes here! When the absolute “worst” happens… when everything collapses and everything you love is lost, gone forever… what do you take with you? What do you leave behind? What is valuable? What role does art play in this kind of world? One character has a phrase from Star Trek tattooed on her arm: Survival is insufficient. It becomes a mantra, of sorts, for the book itself, which overall does a really lovely job of mixing high art with so-called “low” art (comic books with Shakespeare, most notably).

The plot and structure of the book is fascinating – I definitely spent a few hours googling interviews with the author to read comments from her, about how she did it. The structure, for me, seemed incredibly complex (apparently she relied a lot on Excel in terms of keeping the timeline organized). There’s a LOT of characters, a lot of jumping around in the chronology, and a lot of things (in terms of “events” in the plot) going on. And yet it all ties together, beautifully so. You might not think that focusing on a famous actor’s love life would tie in with a post-apocalyptic Shakespearean troupe’s struggle to survive… but it does.

I imagine this is a book that some apocalyptic literature fans would read, and feel disappointed, mainly due to the lack of focus on the “collapse” part. But that’s what I found so rich and intriguing – the focus on life afterwards.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m obsessed with it!

Leave a comment

Filed under apocalypse, books, review

Returning to Life

Well Internet… not gonna lie… it’s been a rough couple of months. Good things have happened! Things have been good! But also – hard. REAL TALK! I’ve been sick, the cat’s been sick… I went to Colombia, I came back to England, I turned in my PhD, I got sick with a flu which I still have, I saw Tori Amos perform twice, I went to Manchester, I went to London (several times), I went to Charleston (near Brighton), I went to Cheltenham, I went to Sheffield, my job started up again, I trained for a half-marathon, I hurt my ankle, I moved house, I threw a house party, the cat had a manky eye, the cat kept eating her food too quickly and vomiting it up constantly (a symptom of a bigger problem?), the cat let other neighborhood cats wander in through the cat door and blinked indifferently at them as they ate all her food, (though I suppose this was better than her fighting with them)! The cat door has since been blocked with the cardboard box filled with my great-grandmother’s china; plans to purchase a chipped cat door are underway. I put my books on my new bookshelves, alongside all the books from my grandmother’s now empty house. Books in Afrikaans from my mother’s South African childhood, giants atlases of birds and plants and insects, my grandfather’s hymn books, so many orange and white Penguin paperbacks. The past and present is all jumbled together on these shelves, and maybe that’s the way I like it; maybe that’s the way it should be.

In September I only read one book: Return to Howliday Innpart of the Bunnicula seriesa childhood favorite. Vampire rabbits and cheesy puns–that was about all I could handle. I had the dreaded BRAIN FOG. Not as bad as in 2010, fortunately. But everything felt very hazy and muddled and far away. I felt very tired; my body ached. I wept in offices, often. But I think… maybe? Could they be? Are things… better? The cat still needs be taken in this afternoon for an antibiotic shot (there’s blood in her urine… :( poor puss, please keep your fingers crossed for her). But maybe… things are okay? Is that possible? Is that something we can tentatively, daringly say? Like we’re poking up our heads from underneath a manhole cover?

There are two books in particular (maybe three, depending on how long my energy for typing stays up) that I can vaguely wave at and say, You are responsible for this – for pulling me up and onwards. For returning me to life.

Return to the Dark Valley and Night Prayers (Santiago Gamboa)

It’s good to write in the middle of the storm, although that may not sound very sympathetic to the country in which I live. It may even be immoral, despicable, but it’s genuine. Literature is also written when the streets and running with blood, when the last hero is about to fall, riddled by a hail of bullets, or a child smashes its little head on the asphalt. What is good for writing doesn’t always benefit the defenseless population around it. (“Return to the Dark Valley,” loc 107 in my Kindle)

Now these two books, Return to the Dark Valley and Night Prayers–THESE are what you call NOVELS. I’ve been meaning to read Santiago Gamboa for a while, but as always, my access to untranslated books here in England is complicated (i.e. expensive and impossible). But! He’s had three books come out in translation in quick succession (are there more in the way? I hope so!). He’s from Bogotá, studied in Spain and Paris, has been publishing since 1995.

As I read these books (one in Colombia, one in England), I slowly felt life return to my body and brain. Bolaño is quoted in the epigraph of Dark Valley, and his influence is all over both books, particularly in regards to the highly readable translation. Sweaty sex … grime … drugs … violence … revenge … murder… poets … monologues by crazy Argentinian Nazis and paramilitary priests … Rimbaud… terrorists … a globe-trotting narrative, ranging from Thailand to India to Ethiopia … the question of home … the question of how you forgive and begin again … the question of how Colombia moves forward post peace process… I don’t want to get into the plots too much, because I don’t want to spoil them. Basically, these books were Christmas present for my withered, broken soul. They were exactly what I needed.

At one point in Dark Valley, a character comments that a story sounds like “one of those stories whose aim is to forge beauty out of the ugliest and dirtiest things in life,” (loc 253) which feels like a good description of Santiago Gamboa’s style. I love how fearless he is in terms of playing with genre – REVENGE. CRIME. DRUGS. I ate it up. And yet these books are so strange! They are definitely not commercial. Return to the Dark Valley in particular is very clever in the way it draws you in via its monologue format: characters narrate, stories are told, but you are not sure who they are, or who they are talking to, or for what reason. The way those answers are revealed is one of the biggest pleasures of the book. What would an essay about Rimbaud’s life have to do with a monologue by a conservative paramilitary priest, or a mentally ill Argentinean Nazi claiming to be the son of a Pope, or a young female poet from Cali who is the victim of the most terrible crime a poet can imagine? You’ll have to read this book to find out.

Kafka, who wrote the best literature in the twentieth century, was an obedient citizen. Any life can lead to literature, by the most convoluted and unexpected paths. “Literature is the sad path that takes us everywhere,” wrote Breton. And not only that: in addition, it welcomes everyone, without an entrance test or letters of recommendation. Only what each person carries in his folder. (Loc 3253)

There’s a kind of dignity in continuing to do things that nobody is interested in and nobody celebrates. (Loc 3539)

Oh, young Arthur, what did you expect? Every poet dreams of being acclaimed, which is why the first book is a terrifying moment: to give it over, not to patient and charitable friends, but to the eyes of strangers; a specific and very fragile order of words that has to give way, alone, to… To what? The young man wants his voice to be heard, wants someone to understand him. That is the sublime ambition of anyone who publishes a book and huddles in fear to await a reaction. The anonymous reader is cruel and unfair because that is how literature is; only he who is prepared to take the blows can enter it. (Loc 4637)

Stopping writing is possible, but stopping reading? That is more difficult. On this subject there are, as far as I know, no precedents. Readers who abandon reading? Someone who has read and loved book is like someone who has tried the coolness of water or the pleasures of sex or good food. He may stop cooking, but not eating. (Loc 5235)

Night Prayers in particular took me a couple of tries to get into (see: BRAIN FOG), but once I got through the first chapters, what a read! My favorite thing about this book was its depiction of the years in which President Uribe assumes power, a time I remember very well, and thus it was very enjoyable for me to read. The contrast between the far-left daughter and her more conservative parents was particularly interesting for me. I love the Bolaño-esque style of Gamboa’s sentences (long, rambling, building). I loved the international settings (Delhi, Bangkok, Tokyo, Bogotá, Tehran), and the way time zones made it difficult to communicate, and how living in a certain country can be like living in the future. I loved the sister’s friendship with the old French academic, and their discussions on Colombia as a violent country (“don’t forget,” he tells her, “in the capture of Berlin by the Russian troops, which only lasted a few weeks, more people died than in a whole century of conflict in Colombia, so get the idea out of your head that this is a particularly violent country, because it isn’t.”) (221)

I did not understand the psychedelically narrated chapters entitled “Inter-Neta’s Monologues” – was this the voice of the Internet? I thought it was the sister at first, but at the end it also seems to be the brother? Very mysterious. But it was nice to see this book do something so uncommercial and weird, even if I didn’t understand it.

What was also very powerful about Night Prayers was its depiction of the sibling relationship – how weird is it that we don’t often see this in literature? The love between siblings?

I highly recommend Santiago Gamboa for those interested in Latin American literature and stories about international violence.

Why do you like this country so much? I asked, and he said, well, because it’s mine, why else do you think? I love this fucking country, or rather, if you cut one of my veins what would come out is… Colombia! no more, no less, isn’t it the same with you? and I said, no, what comes out of me is blood.” (255)

For many, to be a Colombian seemed to oblige us to deal with those themes in a particular way, which was why my generation and the ones after us were trying to escape all that, just trying to be a writer, and I added that in our part of the world, being a writer was a highly uncertain and probably unhappy existence because of the helpless state, the neglect and poverty in which most of writers grew old and died.” (168)

You realize you’re a writer when the things that swirl or echo in your head won’t let you concentrate on anything else: neither reading nor watching a movie nor listening to what other people are saying, not even your teacher or your best friend… If you are a writer, the worst thing is not to write. The bad news, given the times we live in, is that you can also tell yourself you’re really fucked.” (98)

The other book that I very quickly want to recommend is the brilliantly titled An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass. Full disclosure: I met Jessie at an event and you couldn’t fathom a more humble, intelligent person (her family members very kindly gave me medicine for my illness, without which I would have been in a LOT of trouble – I was so congested I could only breath through my mouth!). You HAVE to read her book. It is such a strange, sad collection of stories. Lonely people dreaming of other places, encountering the dead, working dead-end jobs, animals dying and suffering. In a work less than 30,000 words, it’ll be clear to you that you’ve never read anything like this (it reminded me most closely of Anna Metcalfe’s stories). They’re more like philosophical meditations, or essays, or even prayers. The short story, too, can heal.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, colombia, review

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Talk about post-apocalyptic. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and deserves to be highlighted in this blogspace. Apocalyptic and terrifying. Like Rachel Cusk, Bolaño, and the very worst visions of Philip K. Dick thrown together into one nighmarish blender.

I love the oral history format of this book – it’s such a haunting, affecting style. The book is basically a collection of monologues, spoken by people connected to the Chernobyl disasters. The monologues were collected and arranged by the author, who is a Belorussian journalist. I did find myself wondering if the monologues had been transcribed verbatim, or if they’d been rearranged/reinterpreted by the reporter. The speakers of the monologues include children, wives, firefighters, members of the clean-up team. The anecdotes involving abandoned pets were particularly upsetting.

The deaths of loved ones are described in gruesome detail: tumors growing all over the body, eyes pointing in different directions, noses engorged. Resettled children from Chernobyl are teased by others, said to “glow” and nicknamed “shiny”; instead of playing School or Store they play Hospital. Entire villages are buried underground, smashed down by cranes; radioactive earth is buried in earth. Looted houses, abandoned villages, herds of cats and dogs and boars. As the radioactive cloud rises, people stand in the streets in skirts and sandals, selling pies and ice creams and pastries, unaware of what’s happening. People choose to stay, refuse to leave, buy expensive salami, hoping that it would be made of good meat; “then we found out that it was the expensive salami that they mixed contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.” (182) “The frightening things in life happen quietly and naturally,” one voice observes, and that theme is what I found most affecting in this book.

A must-read for the 21st-century. I underlined SO MUCH of this; far too many quotes to choose from to include here. So instead I’ll include a link to an excerpt.

Leave a comment

Filed under apocalypse, non-fiction, review