Hi, all. After my foray into the world of cooking, I have to return to the realm of comfort, aka where I’m reading from.* This month has included some wide-ranging efforts from around the globe to tide me through the end of an incredibly mild yet still attritional North Carolina winter. In the order read:
Portuguese Irregular Verbs
Alexander McCall Smith
I’ve never read anything else by McCall Smith, who’s better known for his #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, so I’m not sure whether his hilarity translates (though I can’t imagine it would be easy to keep under wraps). I read this book aloud and in good company and, though I have no other frame of reference, I’d wager that’s the way it’s meant to be read. There are some totally hilarious lines –chapters– in here that fully come into their own only when spoken, acted out. Philologist Professor Dr. Mortiz-Maria von Igelfeld and his gang of other philologists are the stars of a show that, while bizarrely far-fetched, is moored in the recognizable insularity of high academics. If you’ve ever had a pompous, oblivious, self-obsessed professor (or even if you happen to be one), Igelfeld’s antics will ring uproariously familiar.
I had high hopes for this one. The Toughest Indian in the World is one of my favorite short story collections of all time, and Alexie’s children’s and young adult books reveal a high degree of artistic versatility. But the same elements that make Alexie a masterful short story teller – studied and purposeful withholding of information about his characters, clever one-liners – strain under the weight of a 320-page effort. Twins Chess and Checkers, Indian girls from a neighboring reservation, join Thomas, Junior, and Victor, Spokane Indians, in a bluesy-rock-and-roll band, trying to make it big and escape the poverty of their homes on neighboring reservations. Any sort of narrative potential in this situation is squandered through bland characters, disjointed attempts at symbolism, and a lack of urgency in the prose that caused me to quit this book with about 50 pages left. I haven’t written Alexie off; he’s a brilliant storyteller and usually deft about entwining the traditional and the modern in a poignant but recognizable world. However, I can’t recommend this effort in good conscience.
My most frequent thought while reading this dense novel (winner of the 2015 Man-Booker International Prize) was: David Foster Wallace had to have read this. The awkward truth re: that theory is that Satantango wasn’t in English translation until 2013. However, this is by far the most form-expandingly ambitious novel I’ve read since my DFW days. Mindexplosion. (The main difference here is the lack of footnotes, and a generally more concise approach). If you’re at all obsessed with the structural, macroscopic, mind-fucking potential of the novel as a form – arguably its most unique and powerful feature – you’ll love Krasznahorkai. This one has everything: memorable characters, political commentary, hilarious internal dialogues, the potential for a callback from 200+ pages ago and the authorial faith that a reader who’s paying attention will catch it, reread a few pages a few times, and engage totally with the brilliant narrative. You’ll be rewarded for your perseverance by a writer who’s clearly put the work required to make his fictional dystopic hamlet the most interesting thing going on in your life right now. Novels like this make clear the possibilities inherent to the form, and invalidate the ever-persistent Is the Novel Dead articles that somehow won’t go away. Genius.
At the risk of spending too much time and energy on a poor review, I’ll begin by voicing a nagging suspicion that this book’s nomination for the Booker Prize must have had a little too much to do with the Brits’ fondness for their own works (a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for Booker winners confirms this – though it’s worth noting the restriction of the prize to the UK, Irish, & South African literary scene until 2014). But before I realized all this, the nomination alone had much to do with my interest in this book, the plot summary of which pulled me in: a young girl, who majored in anthropology (!) travels to Greece with her chronically ill mother. Having similarly pursued this dying field in the modern age, I found Sofia’s character relatable from the outset. This identification persisted for about the first twenty pages or so, through Sofia’s descriptions of abandoning her PhD (you go, girl) and subsequently working in (and living above) a coffee shop in London. (Modern global capitalism at work!)
The slightly surreal feeling achieved through voyeuristic inserts is one of the more creative elements to this work, as well as its understated handling of Sofia’s ambiguous sexuality. But for nearly all the characters, it seems as if something is missing; no one is there. Beyond the superficial pleasures of an exotic setting and whatever misplaced friend-vibes I felt towards the main character, this book contained few redeeming qualities. The mother’s seemingly intriguing illness, with its potential to address the interplay between learned helplessness and hypochondria as a mindset versus physical malady as a reality, served no such purpose, save for some low-hanging-fruit-type sentences in which Sofia seems (barely, fleetingly) to contemplate the significance of the inconsistencies in her mother’s incapacitation. An underdeveloped side plot re: Sofia’s estranged father pushed this title far into the Realm of the Quickly Forgotten for me.
The vague mental category satisfied by reading A Walk in the Woods and Afloat was feeling unsated – you know what I’m talking about. It’s the craving to read about other people’s adventures, adventures I’m either too poor or too out of shape / untalented to replicate (usually all of the above). Krakauer, now popularly famous for Into the Wild, his investigation of the life and death of Chris McCandless, first released Eiger Dreams in 1990. A collection of essays and Krakauer’s first book, it inadvertently covers his obsession with mountaineering from the time of his first hike up to the date of publication. Whether you’re most interested in Alaskan bush pilots, the French Alps, Yvon Chouinard, or just the dirtbag experience in general, Krakauer will make you feel like an insider – as he more or less was in most of these scenarios. The book is a bit of a white-knuckled experience sometimes, especially considering the ill-fated Everest expedition that inspired his later work Into Thin Air. One gets the feeling that Krakauer has been incredibly lucky, until realizing his consistent downplaying of his own abilities (and knowing when to back down from an expedition) probably contribute to that assessment. The stakes are high – but if you’re into that sort of thing, Eiger Dreams is both an adrenaline boost and a wakeup call to reconsider what, in the course of our modern lives, truly scares us.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
There’s probably more to be said about this book as symbolic object, in this day and age. That’s not a compliment to this set of stories, a decidedly, respectably, average effort from from the Pulitzer-winning author of The Sympathizer. Characters function as interchangeable vehicles from which Nguyen projects what seem like thinly veiled true experiences. Of course, a glimpse into the challenges and cultural nuances of the transplanted Vietnamese community has much to show us; it’s just that these stories seem a little too conscious of that, and not fixated enough on the human element, the stakes, the feeling that should be coursing through any short story.
That’s not to say there weren’t exceptions. What was to be the title story, “I’d Love You to Want Me,” feels the most human, forgetting its constraints for a moment and leaving us with the sickening feeling that, whatever we thought “love” was before (or didn’t), our conception is probably wrong. The stories are not bad; they’re simply unmemorable in a way that may very well come down to personal taste. For me, there were moments, here and there, scattered throughout the other stories, that hinted at a larger power; and, not having read The Sympathizer, I’m ill-equipped to comment on Nguyen’s writing abilities given a freer range. But after this effort, I suspect it may be a while before I get around to reading more.
David Foster Wallace
You just can never go wrong with this guy. For this collection, it might help if you, like me, also played tennis in high school, or are simply a rabid fan of Roger Federer. If not, don’t worry. DFW’s legendarily maximalist style and footnotes are (at the risk of sounding cliché), most accessible through his essays, and this collection gathers some of his most famous pieces together. Wallace is, as ever, both self-deprecating and arrogant, hilarious and moody, your-average-eyes-on-the-street and a certifiable genius. He is one of the few writers I read without apprehension, turning back to his works for reassurance as if to a childhood friend.
Reading these all at once did have the annoying effect of highlighting where Wallace has “borrowed” or blatantly plagiarized (admittedly great) phrases or descriptions of the game from his own previous publications. The “like a powerful engine in very low gear” line makes a couple of appearances w/r/t pros on tour. But for DFW, I can deal with a couple of repeated lines. Calling Wallace “the best tennis writer of his generation” (as Sullivan does in his introduction) is like calling Jordan “the best dribbler of his generation” – comically beside the point for an immortal talent.
That’s it for this month. Look out for February’s picks: a questionable dip into the realm of addiction; an insider’s tale of polygamy; and essays from the early aughts. Peace & solidarity, all.
* Yes, Carver, and apparently some guy named Tim Parks