Tag Archives: IFFP

IFFP Round-Up: Look Who’s Back, Tiger Milk, While the Gods Were Sleeping, Bloodlines

Here are some exclamatory sentences:

I was temporarily homeless but have now officially found a new, cat-friendly place to live!

The IFFP Shadow Winner announcement posts are coming soon!!

The official IFFP award is handed out on May 27th!!!

I get to go to the ceremony and meet at least one other IFFP shadow panelist in the flesh!!!! This will be one of those rare and cool incidents in which the Internet coincides with Real Life!!!!!

In honor of these upcoming events, here are the rest of my reviews of the IFFP longlist. I didn’t get to read them all (I ended up not reading three: Boyhood Island, The Giraffe’s Neckand The Investigation, and I’m still have to finish the Shadow Shortlisted Zone–I’m veryveryclose!) but it was without a doubt a highly positive experience. I definitely read a lot of books I’d have otherwise never heard of, and participated in plenty of engaging and thought-provoking discussions with fellow book lovers. This is one of the benefits of reading translated fiction: it exposes you to worlds, regions and opinions you might otherwise never encounter.

Onto the remaining reviews!

Look Who’s Back (Timur Vermes)

This is an amusing book to summarize, as you can maybe guess from the cover. It’s the 21st-century, and Hitler is back, teleported straight from his 1940’s bunker. He still has his mustache, uniform, and unswerving belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, but what he doesn’t have is any kind of understanding of how to deal with the Turkish-filled, YouTube-loving modern Germany. So what does our “hero” end up doing? He becomes a TV star, of course! It’s a brave and risky concept, so kudos to the author for pulling it off.

I found this book to be a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s a zany comedy, I guess, so at a certain point you just have to sort of accept that nobody ever really questions why Hitler stays “in character” all the time. The constant suspension of disbelief the novel asks you to maintain eventually “got” to me, which is the same thing that happens when I watch zany comedies on airplanes. The NY Times review also brings up some interesting points, particularly in regards to how at some point the book falls into a specific danger, in the sense that at a certain point Hitler must, well, become Hitler. It become a bit tedious staying so close to his POV, but again, that’s what makes this book so daring and unique. You are IN HITLER’S HEAD the entire time–unrelentingly, unbearably so.

Ultimately, I can’t help but feel that it’s not fair of me to review this. If I knew more about contemporary/historical Germany I would have probably enjoyed this more and have understood more of the satire. The translator and editors deserve enormous credit for what they’ve done, especially for the extremely helpful appendix. Still, a lot of the time while reading this book I felt confused and bored. I sure thought it was funny when he played Minesweeper, though. Yeah. I am not a huge fan of comic novels so I feel like I am not really the target audience for this…. that’s cool that it’s been popular in Germany, though. I’m sure it says lots of scathingly relevant things; I just didn’t really understand the references most of the time…!

Overall this was probably one of the more mainstream books on the longlist (in the sense that it’s been a German bestseller), but ultimately it wasn’t for me.

Tiger Milk (Stefanie de Velasco)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot even though it wasn’t popular among our shadow panel at ALL. Why did I like it?? As time passed it hasn’t stuck in my memory much, but at the time when I read it I enjoyed the energy and momentum of the young narrator’s voice. I also tend to be drawn towards books with young female narrators–I guess I’ve never truly left my Judy Blume fandom days behind.

Tiger Milk follows two 14-year-old friends, Nini and Jameelah, in modern-day Berlin. Jameelah is an Iraq refugee facing deportation and is DEEPLY TROUBLED to say the least. BOY would these girls make the pair in the movie Thirteen seem like Girl Scouts. Nuns, even.

The book’s title refers to the disgusting nasty drink they make out of brandy, milk and passion fruit juice, hidden in milk cartons, and that’s BY FAR the most innocent thing they do together in this book. If my thirteen-year-old self were to run into these two, they would eat me alive, vomit me up and then eat me again for breakfast, lunch AND dinner.

Reading this book reminded me of the young people I used to spend time with back in the States during my “social work” days, and I wonder if this explains my affection for it. How much does personal experience + interests prevent us from making detached, objective judgements about a work of art? I’m not sure. But I don’t know how to get rid of ‘me’ when I read–my history, my past, my personal biases & preferences. My gut instinct. This is why I don’t think I’d ever be a good book reviewer, in terms of being a professional, coldly-detached critic in a top-ranked publication. No, I think that I will always read as a “reader” than as a critic, with my own inevitable, inexplicably personal likes and dislikes (if that makes any sense).

Anyway, in this book I could have honestly done without the murder plot, and have just followed these girls around Berlin, witnessing their every-day lives. But I guess the point of the murder was to add a traditional plot, which was like okay, fine. The translation was sort of nuts–I think with all the German youth slang, this must have been pretty tough to do. For example, of saying “gross” the characters would say “cross” which made me wonder if this was an error on my kindle or if it was supposed to be slang. Also, apparently “losing your chandor” is the translation for an expression that means “losing your mind,” which is pretty interesting.

Overall, this was a dark read that made me glad not to be a 14-year-old in Berlin. SO. GLAD. Like the similarly powerful but troubling UK film The Fallingthis book is not perfect, but I respect what it sets out to do. I found the unrelentingly too-mature, dark and dirty events engrossing, but this is definitely not for everybody.

While The Gods Were Sleeping (Erwin Mortier)

This is a book that would have benefited from me NOT reading it when I was feeling incredibly rushed for time (I had to read it right before leaving on a trip). It is a book with long sentences, dramatic language, and heavily-layered imagery that did not benefit from being read in a single day.

The main struggle I had while reading this was I found the narrator of this book unbearable. I HATE saying that because normally I am filled with utter disdain and contempt for those who profess that they need to “like” a character in order to enjoy a book. AND NOW I HAVE BECOME ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE, OH THE HORROR AND SHAME. I still wholeheartedly agree with Claire Messud’s proclamation that the question shouldn’t be whether you want to be friends with a character, but whether you think the character is alive.

Did I think the narrator of this book was alive? Yes… and yet, and yet. I still did not like spending time with her, and this made the experience of reading this book very difficult for me. The main reason I did not like her is that anybody who self-knowingly describes themselves as a a poetess is someone I automatically find very suspicious. This is a book that in which the narrator is very self-aware of her own poetic, dramatic, self-reflective style, and reminds you of how much of a poet she is again…. and again…. and again. It was not really my thing, I’m afraid, and even less so when I had to read it in a hurry.

That being said, this book IS very poetically written, and I’m not surprised at all that it ended up on the official IFFP shortlist. It has basically no plot, which will forever be a cool and brave thing to do, especially in this day and age of bullshit superhero stories. There are also lots of good scenes: when she first makes out with her future husband during the shelling, for example, and the bats fly around their heads, or when the little girl is killed by shrapnel in the field, or anything that had to do with the maid early on. I thought the gay older brother was a fascinating character (the fact that she cuts him out so ruthlessly during their old age was something I found quite harsh!). I also thought the fact that she hated her daughter was really interesting, and something I would have liked the novel to have spent a little more time on, as opposed to breathlessly summarizing it at the end–it felt like a missed opportunity. I also loved the last four pages narrated from the perspective of the caretaker–this was definitely my favorite part. What a moving and powerful way to go out with a bang.

I don’t know. I get that there’s this whole theme set up in this book about the in/ability of words and images to capture the horrors of reality (the husband is a photographer, which further adds to the theme). I did end up underlining a lot of sentences that I thought were really beautiful and well written. The translator definitely did an excellent job. Dense poetic writing is fine (I’m a huge Faulkner and Woolf fan), but if the character irritates me due to my own personally subjective, petty reasons, then it’s going be hard for me to stick with it. C’est la vie. But as far as World War I novels go this was an interesting approach–I liked how the war was depicted as this opportunity for freedom for the narrator, as opposed to a more typical approach focusing on the Doom and Gloom and Horror.

Overall this book is very beautifully written even though it ended up not being my cup of tea for purely subjective, highly biased reasons. If I weren’t reading this for the IFFP list, I don’t know I could have finished it. This was the most interesting effect for me in terms of reading books from the IFFP list–normally if I don’t like a book, I just stop reading it. On the Shadow Panel, though, I kept plodding on out of a sense of ‘pride’ and ‘duty’ to read all of the books I could. Will this affect the way that I read books I don’t immediately enjoy in the future? Only time will tell.

Here’s one of the aforementioned passages from this book that I enjoyed:

Books should band together like feral dogs on street corners. They should have to sleep in piles in shop doorways under cardboard covers, beggars without much hope of alms. They should get soaked through with rain on park benches, or be scattered on the floor of the tram, in order to beguile or bore whoever picks them up, leave them indifferent or irritate them so much that they want to write a reply, which would then blow through the world just as namelessly.

Bloodlines (Marcello Fois)

One of the six Shadow Panel-shortlisted books, I ended up enjoying this book far more than I initially thought I would. A cruel, trite and unfair way of summarizing this novel would be that almost everybody in this family DIES AND SUFFERS in a variety of ways. That’s where the “bloodlines” of the title comes from, I suppose–the family line is cursed with blood, pain, madness, bad luck, etc. A better way of summarizing the book would say that in a vague One Hundred Years of Solitude style, it follows a single family in Sardinia through three generations of trials and troubles, beginning in the 19th century and ending during the Second World War. The book is apparently structured in the reverse order of Dante’s The Divine Comedy: we begin with Paradise, continue with Hell and end with Purgatory (quite tellingly, Hell is the biggest section of the book, and Paradise and Purgatory are all too brief).

In the author’s own words, overall the novel is an attempt to “tell an ordinary story in an extraordinary way.” That being said, there is nothing that remarkable, unique or distinctive about the Chironi family other than the fact that the novel focuses on them, and that the fates of many family member’s lives are intertwined with the history of the region.  This was my favorite thing about this novel: the way the national history of Italy (or of Sardinia, rather) was balanced with the history of the family. I especially liked the sections about the town, described as “an intimate world of courtyards and dry-stone walls, which modernity will transform into public life. Like when a gust of wind lifts a young woman’s skirt in the street.” These sections have almost a Faulkneresque, “A Rose for Emily” quality, related to us via an omniscient, all-seeing, all-knowing narrator.

I also liked the way the novel doubled back on itself, referring to an anecdote or incident in passing only to return to it many pages later. It gave the book a looping or circular quality that made me want to keep reading, as I gradually came to look forward to its unexpected twists and surprises. As the book itself says, in a self-aware reflection of its own style, “History can move backwards and forwards, and sometimes in a spiral fashion, or in a circle or in more than one direction, but it never, ever proceeds in a direct line, whistling straight like an arrow…. No, History slithers like a water snake, starting at a certain point, then disappearing as if under a mirror, and there is never any knowing where it will reappear. All we can see are coils ruffling the calm surface of the pond. That is how we become aware of History: from signs.” 

You can maaaaybe tell from that brief excerpt above that the narration throughout this book is quite distant. According to John Gardener’s rules of psychic distance, we spend most of the novel hovering between levels 1 and 2. That is to say, as a reader the psychological distance you have from the characters is quite strong; for the most part you have little access to their interiority, and what interiority you do see tends to be summarized and explained rather than lived and experienced via their immediate consciousness. One of the effects this had on me is that I felt removed from all the characters, and none of them ever quite emerged as interesting or psychologically distinct individuals. Instead they’re more like ‘types’ that are fulfilling a specific role in the story, cogs turning in the machine. In a way, this distant tone makes sense, since one of the main points of the book is about the way history turns individuals into helpless cogs who still need to go on living their everyday lives, irregardless. Despite the distant tone, I still felt involved and invested while reading this book, though not to the same level as when I read Elena Ferrante (books in which you have a LOT of access to character’s inner thoughts and emotions). For the most part I enjoyed reading Bloodlines (except for the melodramatically narrated italicized sections–I could have definitely done without most of these), and despite the psychological distance I still felt emotionally impacted by the upsetting things that consistently happened to the characters.

In the end, though, I don’t quite get what point this book was trying to make. There is nothing that unique or distinctive about the Chironi family that makes them stand out as much as the Buendías in Solitude. What is this book trying to say? That most people’s lives are suffering? But in the end you can, like, endure? There were a lot of blacksmith and metalwork metaphors at the end I probably should have read more carefully–I don’t know. At one point a character claims that the the main problem of the Chironi family has been “living without rules. Without rules you can have no sense of duty and without a sense of duty there can be no spirit of sacrifice.” OK… except I don’t really understand when the Chironis showed themselves to be “living without rules”… Maybe it’s a reference to how the patriarch got super wealthy through his blacksmith profession? But how is this living without rules? Wondering about this makes me feel thick and stupid, like the book was trying to convey a Dramatic Point about the family that I couldn’t quite get.

In terms of the plot, though, it was interesting to me that the book ends abruptly on a very positive note. It’s a risky, dramatic move that I applaud: by being so unconventional and out of the blue, the ending avoids being syrupy or sentimental, and it also enables the book to NOT end on a note of complete and utter despair.

In the end I’m glad I read this, even though it’s not a book I was crazy about–I know absolutely nothing about Sardinia, so it was interesting to read a book focusing on the region. I think I’d even be willing to read another book about the Chironi family, were it to be written/released. Why the heck not?

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IFFP Reviews: F, The Last Lover, By Night the Mountain Burns, The Ravens

I am back from Lisbon! The half-marathon was good–it was hot and I am slow, but most importantly I had lots of fun and there was even ice cream at the end (as an extra bonus it was lemon flavor, my fave). Overall I got in touch with my Portuguese ancestry, ate lots of fish, had a dessert at almost every meal, went hiking at the westernmost point of Europe and visited an abandoned 16th-century monastery. Maybe I will upload photos later if I can figure out how to connect my iphone to the computer… but don’t count on it. Anyway, so that’s where I’ve been physically; in terms of reading I’ve visited Germany, a nameless Kafka-esque country, an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea and rural Sweden. WOOHOO.

(Daniel Kehlmann)

No wonder there is a blurb by Ian McEwan on the front cover; this is certainly a dark and odd little book (dare I even say… vaguely reminiscent of McEwan’s early work?). It is hard for me to figure out how to talk about this novel–I guess I’ll start by saying that I enjoyed it and think it is an impressive achievement. In terms of a naked, bare-bones summary, this is a story about three brothers: Martin and the twins Ivan and Eric. The novel begins with an event that becomes key for each brother’s future, with an opening sentence highly reminiscent of One Hundred Years of Solitude: Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.” I won’t spoil what happens with the hypnotist, but after this opening sequence we then get a chapter narrated from the first-person perspective of each brother. Martin is a priest who doesn’t believe in God and is far more interested in his Rubik’s cube and food addiction (the scene where he’s eating chocolate in the confessional box is particularly amusing). Ivan is an art dealer who secretly forges paintings (i.e. by painting them himself) of a famous artist who is also his lover/boyfriend. Eric works in high-finance and reminded me of what Gary’s chapter in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections would sound like if Gary were severely mentally ill, bordering on schizophrenic. We also get a short story written by their father Arthur about their family history (one of the novel’s most memorable moments), and we close with a chapter that is primarily narrated from the third-person perspective of Eric’s daughter Maria.

So… that’s the bare bones summary. Now on to the more important question: why do I find this book so mysterious? Why does it ultimately feel sort of murky to me? Not that it’s a problem, but ultimately I don’t really understand what this book is about, what it’s trying to say–is it about family? Fate? God? Belief? This last theme feels particularly important to me, considering all three characters have “shadow selves” that they project to the world: the priest who is really a non-believer, the financier whose investments are all Ponzi schemes, the art dealer who is secretly an forger. Similarly to Christian Bale’s riff in the American Hustle trailer, Ivan has a similar moment of reflection about “real” art vs. forgeries:

“When I was young, vain and lacking all experience, I thought the art world was corrupt. Today I know that’s not true… It is art itself as a sacred principle that unfortunately doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist any more than God does, or the End of Days, or eternity, or the Heavenly Host. All that exists are works, different in style, in form and in essence, and the whispered hurricane of opinions about them.” (188)

Just like Christian Bale, Ivan reflects that if the forger can recreate the master’s techniques so perfectly that they are indistinguishable, then what makes the paintings by the so-called master superior? (I guess it could maybe be what Walter Benjamin would call its “aura,” but who knows.) At what point does semblance replace reality? Does it matter if something is real or do we just need to think that something is real? Is it important to know who your “real” self is or is the projection you give to society all that counts?

This is all reminding me of this class discussion I once witnessed at the summer school that I work at, about Inception and whether you would want to live in a dream world without knowing it was a dream. Would a life in an Inception-style dream world still be “real” or would it be fake, even though you died without knowing it? OMG Heavy Duty Stuff. Here’s what another priest tells Martin:

“And what does ‘believe’ mean anyway? The concept is logically hazy, Martin. When you’re sure of a proposition, then you know it. When you think that something might be so, then you call that belief. It’s a speculation about probability. Belief means assuming that something is probable, although it might be otherwise. Lack of belief means assuming that something probably isn’t so, even when it absolutely could be so. Is the difference really that big? It’s all a matter of nuance.” (90)

This is all making the book sound quite heavy-handed and philosophical, but really it’s not–it’s easy to read and flows well. But damn, I’ve only just realized how neatly this theme of belief ties in with the hypnotist, someone whose job is all about suggestion and persuasion… I’m starting to feel that there is a lot in this book to unpack if I were to give it more time and thought, which is a very clear sign that a book is working on a higher level for me.

In terms of constructive critcisim, there were parts in this book where the satire felt a little too heavy-handed (particularly in Eric’s chapter) but it was never bad enough to irritate me or make me want to stop reading. There’s also another central event that ties the brothers’ three stories together, one that I ultimately found unconvincing, too much off a tidy coincidence. Still, I understand why it needs to exist because a) otherwise the brothers’ stories may have felt too unconnected and b) it provides a resolution to at least two of the brothers’ ultimate fates.

Along with Erpenbeck’s The End of Days this is the second German novel on the IFFP list that I’ve been impressed with. I am definitely interested in reading more of Daniel Kehlmann’s work, for sure. This is writing that is very resistant to convention and commercialization–it doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out or lay all the cards out on the table, and it tries to grapple with Big Themes in fairly subtle ways. And ambition and subtlety are two tendencies in good writing that I will always respect. With that, let’s end with another thought from Ivan the artist:

I often think about the artists of the Middle Ages. They didn’t sign things, they were craftsmen who belonged to guilds, they were spared the disease that we call ambition. Can it still be done that way, can you still do the work without taking yourself seriously–can you still paint without being ‘a painter’? Anonymity is no help, it’s merely a clever hiding place, another form of vanity. But painting in the  name of someone else is a possibility; it works. And what amazes me all over again every day is: it makes me happy. (190)

The Last Lover (Can Xue)

Okay. So this is seriously without exaggeration one of the weirdest books I have ever read in my life. Only the avant-garde poetry that I read in my (appropriately titled) Avant-Garden Fiction class back in college can maybe compare. I did not like this book and I cannot recommend it, but at the same time I have to acknowledge that what it is doing is Damn Different and this deserves respect. If it were truly a terrible book, then I wouldn’t have finished it, but I was able to read it until the very end–that has to count for something, right?

More than anything else, this book made me think about how novels have to “teach” us how to read them, in the sense that a novel has to create its own expectations for how it should be judged/assessed. I can’t criticize this book for having no plot and no interesting characters, because it is a book that is blatantly uncommitted to achieving either of those things. I’ve read some of Can Xue’s short stories before and “enjoyed” them (i.e. thought they were totally mental), but none of them really prepared me for this–I guess the length of a novel vs. that of a short story might have a lot to do with it.

The main reason this book is weird is because basically ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN AT ANY POINT. Dreams are a big theme–it is basically impossible to tell when a character is dreaming or when it is “real life” (not that it matters). It reminded me a lot of the Circe chapter in Ulysses–in that chapter, though, the surreal things that happened still made sense because they were ultimately tied to the psychology of characters that we’d come to care very deeply about. In The Last Lover, though, everything feels random–maybe there is deep intentionality behind each event, but I am not smart enough to figure out what it is. Even in David Lynch movies things at least FEEL vaguely connected, like you want to try to figure them out, but this book is just like… whatever. Ultimately it feels like a bad acid trip, a series of randomly typed visions. I would read five pages and then realize that I had literally NO idea what was happening. But then I’d realize I wasn’t supposed to, so I would just plod dutifully on.

Ugh do I even want to bother summarizing this. Okay so you have a bunch of couples: Joe and Maria, Reagan and Ida, Vincent and Lisa (I am copying this from the book jacket because even though I finished this two days ago I’ve already forgotten their names). They live in a nameless Kafka-esque nation where Joe and Reagan have two highly symbolic jobs, as the sales manager of a clothing company and rubber plantation owner respectively. Maria weaves tapestries, her son Daniel is dating this Vietnamese girl, the other characters I don’t even remember, omg none of this really matters because all of a sudden someone is riding a snow leopard across a field, there’s an earthquake, there’s a landslide, Ida’s living in a bar, Lisa is dead but maybe not, who knows, who cares. There are tons of animals in this book: wild cats, turtles without shells, mice, wasps, snakes, crows, insects. That’s probably important. People visit places like “the East” or “the gambling city” and there’s references to workers drowning due to Joe’s ill-made clothes. That’s probably important too. I think this book is maybe, like, commenting on exile? Or maybe, like, the dissolving boundaries of the nation state? And the evils of capitalism? And like modernity in general? IDK, man. I don’t care.

This is a novel that is maybe more akin to modern dance or performance art. Neither of those two things are my cup of tea. Neither is this book. But c’est la vie.

By Night the Mountain Burns (Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel)

This is a book I ended up enjoying a lot despite having no expectations. The publisher has also produced Down the Rabbit Hole and All Dogs Are Bluetwo novels I really enjoyed, so I’ll have to be sure to seek out more of their books in the future.

My favorite things about this book were the sense of humor and the utter lack of self-pity. “If this story becomes known,” the narrator declares matter-of-factly near the end, “it will be because of some white people.” This kind of down-to-earth, upfront attitude is something I really enjoyed about the narrator’s voice. This book “shows” us the characters’ poverty rather than “telling” us–it isn’t demanding or showy or trying to draw a lot of attention to it, shouting at the top of its lungs LOOK AT HOW POOR WE ARE, PLEASE FEEL SORRY FOR US. Instead it is very natural and matter-of-fact, like when the narrator discusses the mattress that is rotting due to the ferocity of his older brothers’ bed-wetting habit, or the grandmother’s skill at keeping the oil lamp on all night since there are no matches in the house.

I also liked the way I was slowly but surely immersed in this unfamiliar universe, that of an unnamed island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. Rather than a straightforward plot, the narrator instead takes us through a series of anecdotes that often repeat or build upon each other, similar to the way someone telling a story orally will backtrack and add extra details. I liked the way the narrator kept us intrigued by dropping hints about the grandfather, for example (I’m surprised he just kind of disappeared from the story though). This is a book with no plot that is still extremely satisfying, and thus deserves praise for its effective unconventionality.

The other thing worth commenting on is that even though the novel is narrated in first person singular, it easily feels like it could be in third person plural. I found the parts talking about the community’s collective responsibility in face of a horrifically violent event against an individual some of the most interesting in the book.

In the end, this novel didn’t rock my world or revolutionise my life but the depiction of the small island community is quite an achievement. Like The Dead Lakethis book does an excellent job of depicting a way of life that is often ignored in mainstream literature. I would recommend this book to people and if it ends up on the top-six shortlist for the IFFP I definitely wouldn’t complain (though I still have quite a few books left to read…!).

The Ravens (Tomas Bannerhed)

I liked this book but didn’t love it. Set in rural Sweden in the 1970’s, it is a coming-of-age story about Klas, a bed-wetting teen with a suicidal father who expects him to eventually take over the family farm. Klas is obsessed with bird-watching, sending letters to the local newspaper, a hole on the ceiling above his bed that he thinks is watching him, and solving prodigy-level math problems in his head. Like The Dead Lake and By Night the Mountain Burns, it is depiction of a specific world and lifestyle I know very little about, and it definitely made me want to read more Scandinavian literature in the future (AAAH, so many books!! How will we ever get to them all?).

Ultimately, the main reason I didn’t love this book is because I wasn’t that invested in the father as a character, and given that the majority of the book asks you to be wrenchingly concerned about his fate, this became sort of an issue. Why didn’t I care about him as a character? Who knows–why do we care about the characters that we do? Maybe if I’d seen more of him in the beginning as a not-insane man, it would have helped. Instead, the book immediately demanded from the very beginning that I be invested in him and the question of his insanity, and that was not an investment I was willing to make right away, especially not with the book’s melodramatic language which I initially found alienating and off-putting. I will be very upfront in expressing my own personal biases, in the sense that I tend to not be super into very lyrically-written books. Here’s the opening passage so that you can decide for yourself:

There’s Father, I thought. In his eternal cloud.
Bouncing along in Grandfather’s old Ferguson with his body belt drawn tight and his hair growing greyer, and later he’ll come home smelling of earth–because he has no choice. Because this spot is ours, this plot of soil, these acres of farmland. The lake, drained and turned into fields and banks. The marsh, Raven Fen, smoking like ashes and tinder as soon as the dry season sets in, the peat bog that can suddenly catch fire, smouldering and gasping in its depths, burning without a flame, glowing unseen, consuming everything from below until you dig trenches to cut it off.
This is our patch. We have no other.

This soil, observed by the sun and the ravens.
This plot beneath a sky criss-crossed by jet planes.

IDK–right off the bat this does not sound like the consciousness of a teenage boy to me, even a painfully precocious one. The prose is very nice and poetic and beautiful, but in the end it had a distancing effect on me. While reading this book I was always aware that I was reading a “lyrical” novel about growing up–I never felt like I was “seeing” the world through the lens of Klas; I was seeing the world through the lens of a poetic novel (Maureen Duffy’s Love Child is an example of another book that had a similar effect on me). On the level of lyrical language and precise description the book is excellent. In the end though, I guess I personally prefer books that “get” to me in a deeply personal way, and the way that happens for me is when I personally connect with an individual character’s consciousness, and not on the level of beautiful-sounding language.

It sounds like I am complaining a lot, but this is a good book! There are lots of good scenes–I liked all the moments with Klas’ friends (especially the scene with the cow; oh man!). The scene where Klas and his little manic pixie dream girl crush encounter a rare bird in the lake is one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read and easily the pinnacle of the book. There are also really lovely subtle details, like the moment when Klas realizes that his mother has packed the same lunch for both him and his father (what a way to “show” Klas growing up rather than tell us!). I’m glad I read this book and I would recommend it to people who are interested in being introduced to Scandinavian literature, but it is a book that I read somewhat dispassionately and dutifully, rather than feeling absorbed and obsessed.

So that’s eight books down on the IFFP list… seven to go! Ohooo man… good thing it’s still Easter break for me :D


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In the Beginning Was the Sea

An enjoyably dark, deliciously Herzogian and bitingly humorous story about J. and Elena, a yuppie-ish Medellín couple who move to the Caribbean coast of Colombia in order to get away from it all. At first we think it’s just for tourism (even with Elena bringing her sewing machine), but we slowly learn that they are in fact planning to settle down, start a “finca” (the Spanish word for farm), begin a new life for themselves amongst the crab stew, the sand flies and aguardiente-swilling locals.

My favorite thing about this book was the dark, dark humor. Oh, how it made me snort, and believe me I am the kind of reader who barely cracks a smile. I love the Sebaldian parrot that shows up early on in one of the houses they stay at, prowling on its perch and “racing from one side to the other in what seemed like panic.” Smart parrot–this is the most appropriate reaction we get from pretty much anybody in the entire novel. I love the sense of failure hovering over this book, the gradual descent into desperation as the cattle die, the hired help sullenly skulk and the cook’s baby never stops wailing. Elena’s mad attempt to build a wire fence around the property was probably my favorite hysterical subplot. And then there’s the similes! The language! The noonday sun bursting into the room “like an explosion.” The two cot beds next to an enormous brand-new mattress, “like flimsy sailboats next to a transatlantic liner.” A fried egg on top of a mountain of rice, “glittering like a star.” The “mummified” hand of an old rich man, with “badly sunburnt thighs thickly smeared with milk of magnesia.”

What I also relished about this book is the slow, sneaky way it drops hints throughout the narrative–not just of the darkness surrounding the characters’ past, but of what is to come. We get a throwaway reference to Elena’s brother “in his prison cell,” a brief mention of their former Medellín partying days filled with cocaine and alcohol. And then on pg 34 (in my kindle edition) we get this bombshell: “The other bedroom, where they would later open up the shop and where, later still, the corpse would be bathed…” WHAT. Talk about getting your reader’s attention! This kind of moment happens again and again as the book progresses, but never reaches the point of being heavy-handed. Rather, it creates a deeply unsettling experience as a reader: you realize the narrator knows more than you, but is deliberately not telling. And you realize that time in this book is not unfolding in the typical way you expect it to when you read (as in one thing happens, then the next, then the next). Everything in this book is being narrated from a retrospective, inevitable perspective, which in the end casts an aura of melancholy around everything that ultimately happens.

There is a lot of social commentary going on in this book, a lot to unpack here in terms of Colombian social history: the relationship between locals and landlords, the city and the country, rich vs. poor, intellectuals vs. farmers. You could easily see the final moment of violence at the end as a sad parable for the country’s long bloody history–an inevitable consequence that comes from the refusal (inability?) to understand another so different from you, the complete and utter failure to communicate. As characters, J. and Elena are consistently dislikable yet compelling–we understand better than them why they act like they do, and despite all their flaws we can’t help but sympathize.

My one problem with this book was the ending–it had been built up so much, I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed/underwhelmed in the way that it unfolded. I feel absolutely terrible writing that, especially having just read online that apparently this novel is based on something that actually happened to the author’s brother (I’m not going to provide a link because I don’t want to directly give away spoilers; if you’re deeply curious, you can ask Google yourself). Still, even with the knowledge that this is based on a factual event, as a reader of fiction I still don’t know if I actually needed to “see” it happen–for me, just seeing the aftermath would have been enough. I liked the feeling of being intrigued, of wondering and being curious throughout this novel, and I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what finally ended up happening–as though it couldn’t possibly live up to what I had imagined. It’s tricky–in a way, the mystery you imagine is always more satisfying than the final concrete answer. I’ve never seen the TV series Lost, but I’ve heard that this is something a lot of people found frustrating about it. But on the other hand, I can see other readers being annoyed about not finding out “exactly” what happened. Again, it’s tricky ground, and I seriously might change my mind about it in just a few weeks… but for now, it is what it is.

Nevertheless, I still highly recommend this book. I want to read more of this author and DEFINITELY more of him should be translated into English. ¡Viva la literatura colombiana!!!


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The Dead Lake

The Dead Lake (Hamid Ismailov)

What an intensely strange book. This is a totally nuts, modern-day fairy tale set in rural Kazakhstan where atomic bombs are frequently set off for Soviet tests. This is a brutal, brutal world, where donkeys choke on the “foamy mush” of chewy cabbage stalks, pet baby fox cubs are mauled to death and your grandmother will scratch your anus, itching with little squirming worms, before hitting you across the face with the fingers she just used. In this world we meet Yerzhan, a violin prodigy obsessed with American singer/actor/communist Dean Reed (whom I’d never heard of before reading this book). One day in order to impress a girl he is in love with, he wades into the radioactive dead lake of the title. For the rest of the book he is stuck in the body of a 12-year-old boy, even as everyone else around him grows older–a modern day atomic Peter Pan. This is how the 1st-person narrator of our story meets him (yes, the book is a layered narrative, Heart of Darkness-style): in a train station selling yogurt, claiming to be a twenty-seven year old man even though he still only looks twelve.

I enjoyed reading this book very much even though it didn’t change my life. I felt immersed and intrigued while reading and didn’t want to put it down. For me, it was a fascinating entry into a world that I know absolutely nothing about, a world where dombras are played, trains rattle by, wind whistles across the steppe, horses and camels are ridden everywhere, grandmothers insist on visiting local healers to cure their rheumatism and wordless women work all day in the background preparing dishes that require vast quantities of sour milk. There’s a clear theme of modernity vs. tradition throughout the book, via the characters of the grandparents and their love of epic poetry vs. the uncles and their obsession with “catching up with the Americans.” What I liked most about this book is the way it invokes (to quote from it directly) “the fear that something could happen at any moment.” Violence and danger can happen at any instance in this world, ranging from wolves, jackals and venomous spiders chasing you across the steppe, to the music teacher who is rumored to be a pedophile, to the effects of radiation sickness. I really appreciate how this book focuses on people who are typically seen as living on the margins, outside of modern society. People like Yerzhan and his family–the so-called periphery, despite consisting of vast populations–are usually ignored in literature and the international media. They don’t deserve to be.

What is also good about this book is that it is so short–more of a novella (I believe that is how it’s been marketed). The prose is easy to read and straightforward, no murky lyricism here, yet still possess a strong poetic beauty. “That was him,” Yerzhan thinks at one point about himself,“a straw broken off short, hollow on the inside, with his whistling soul driven into a thin, fragile little body.” I recommend this book if you want a quick, fast read that will immerse you in a fascinating, eerie world that warrants more attention. It highlights a society and culture that deserves more than just cutesy references to the Borat movie.


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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

What an enjoyable read! Such a tightly plotted, expertly crafted book. It sounds so cliché and redundant to even say this at this point, but Murakami is truly a fiction master. From a writer’s perspective, this is the kind of book that makes you shake your head and silently mouth the words Damn. He makes it look SO easy… but it is so not.

This book draws you in a with a simple mystery that in typical Murakami style gets more and more layered and complex as the book progresses. We meet our titular hero, Tsukuru Tazaki, during a time in his life when he is experiencing profound melancholy, almost to the point of suicidal depression (this was a part of the book I really enjoyed–it’s strange that I can’t think of more examples in fiction where authors try to depict melancholy… I guess because it’s very difficult to capture… so static and numbing). We then jump into the future, when he’s on a date with a woman, and via his conversations with her we learn that this intense period of melancholy was due to him being abruptly cut off by his four best friends from high school. These four friends each had different names that mean different colors in Japanese: red, blue, white, black (colors that are all opposite from each other–this theme of balance & contrast comes up repeatedly throughout the book). Tsukuru’s name means “builder,” or “he who makes things” (something like that; I’m too lazy to flip through the novel and check right now). This is where the “Colorless Tsukuru” of the title comes from–not only does his name lack color, but he is constantly questioning his lack of color as a person… seeing himself as uninteresting and empty, a vessel who is constantly abandoned.

Anyway, so that’s one of the first things to respect about this novel: how the plot is kicked into high-gear in a classic, verging on detective fiction style. We have a mystery (why did Tsukuru’s friends cut him off?) and a motivation (the woman Tsukuru is on a date with tells him he needs to find out what happened, or else she won’t be able to date him since she senses there is a part of him that is closed-off and emotionless due to this incident). This is such a great way to make the reader want to keep reading–you want to find out the answer. I loved how I felt consistently surprised while reading this book, as though Murakami himself was discovering the story as he went along, as opposed to being heavy-handed about it.

The other thing I really respect about this book is the subplot that occurs early on, right before Tsukuru begins his quest to track down his four friends in their current day lives. I can see how some people might read this subplot and go WTF, but it reminded me of that part in Fargo when Frances McDormand goes out with that old friend of hers, who turns out to be a compulsive liar. It may initially seem to be a TOTALLY random divergence, like it has nothing to do with the main thread of the story, but then it actually provides essential knowledge and experience for the main character later on.

The seemingly random sub-plot I’m referring to deals with a friendship that Tsukuru forms with another guy, shortly after his friends abandon him. I can’t speak highly enough about the way this friendship is handled, and the way it foreshadows and hints at what becomes the biggest, most important question in the book (I won’t give away any spoilers, but the question has to do with one of the four friends in the group, in terms of her motivation and her ultimate fate). We aren’t given many definitive answers in this novel, but I definitely feel like Murakami gave me enough information to be able to draw my own (supernaturally-influenced) conclusions. It also helped that I was reminded of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and its theme of people’s subconscious emotional selves being projected as actual physical beings, running around and doing crazy-ass things (and now I really will say no more!).

The final chapter of this book dragged a little for me, as if Murakami couldn’t figure out how to end it. There are only so many pages of Tsukuru reflecting about his father in the train station that I was willing to read at that point. But on the whole I felt extremely satisfied but this novel, and really enjoyed reading it. I haven’t even gotten into the theme of balance that keeps popping up (the five friends are frequently compared to the five fingers on a hand, which is interesting since a lot of them end up in jobs that involve working with their hands–as a potter and pianist respectively). The theme of creation, or making things, was one I found really interesting. In a way this book reminded me most of Murakami’s running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I also love how mysteries are left unanswered (what’s with the theme polydactylism, or people with six fingers?! What was in the jar on top of the piano?!).

I highly recommend this book. A lot more enjoyable for me than 1Q84, which was respectably ambitious but if I’m honest I can barely remember anything about it now.


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