27 June 2012

George Gaylord Simpson, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, 1996

Simpson was the most famous paleontologist in the world with a specialisation in the early period of when dinosaurs and mammals co-existed, so with the posthumous publication of Magruder he surprised everyone with what is essentially a short but very competent science fiction novel in which a 22nd century time experiment throws a chronologist back to the Cretaceous Period. It was probably written for Simpson’s own amusement in the 1970s, given that that decade is bracketed by a 1970 theory on the possibility of warm-blooded dinosaurs (something that Simpson disagreed with) and the lack of any mention of the ‘asteroid impact’ cause of their demise, a theory which first surfaced in 1980. Magruder is very much in the reliable H.G. Wells Time Machine tradition, and the novel comes with an introduction from Arthur C. Clarke that puts the novel in its science fictional context and an afterword from Stephen Jay Gould that does the same for it paleontologically, and Gould also demonstrates why there’s far more going on in the novel than you thought. An unexpected find, and a good, quick read.  PY


26 June 2012

Hikaru Okuizumi, The Stones Cry Out, 1993

Tsuyoshi Manase is a haunted World War Two veteran who received his first lesson in geology from a dying Japanese soldier in a cave in the Philippines. After the war ends he indulges his passion for collecting stones, runs a small bookstore, marries unhappily and fathers two sons, but how he struggles with his memories of the war ends up shaping the present and the tragic destiny of his family. This was Okuizumi’s first novel to be translated into English. It’s delicate and sorrowful with elements of strangeness, particularly in how Manase’s memories, dreams and reality all blur in such a way that he never quite gets a grip on his life as his family falls apart. Okuizumi writes elegantly and he’s clearly meditated on the story he’s telling, although he requires a bit of patience from the reader as he ties up Manase’s inner story with his family life and the world beyond. A quietly powerful book.  PY

  The Stones Cry Out won Japan’s Akutagawa Prize in 1994.


25 June 2012

Anne Zouroudi, The Messenger of Athens, 2007

Set on the fictional Greek island of Thiminos, after just thirty pages this present-day murder mystery involving an illicit love affair becomes quietly compelling, probably because Zouroudi’s attention to the detail of the landscape is what gives this book its delicate atmosphere. Then there are the people, with their everyday Greek tragedies in which superstition and gender roles are entrenched and emotionally suffocating. Zouroudi’s characterisation is also good, particularly in the clear depiction of the mannerisms of the investigator Hermes Diaktoros and how they contrast with his mysterious and unexplained background (he is in fact the book’s biggest mystery), always hinting at a ‘higher power’, which may account for the way he gets people to just open up to him with the truth. At times it feels like this debut novel may be heading into Paulo Coelho territory, but it’s reassuringly far more down to Earth than that. Recommended.  PY


24 June 2012

Atiq Rahimi, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, 2002

Rahimi’s first novel Earth and Ashes was impressive enough to actually alter the course of my reading and look much more at fiction from the point of view of those affected by war. Now with A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear Rahimi revisits the same period – the 1970s Russian invasion of Afghanistan – but the result is far less direct or, for that matter, clear. Farhad, a Kabul student, has been badly beaten by occupying Soviet soldiers, and he is taken in by an unknown Afghan woman and her son, who strangely refers to him as ‘father’. But her act of kindness subjects both of them, and their families, to rules of honour as rigid and unbreakable as the curfew imposed by the communist invaders. For his second outing Rahimi has chosen to write in a prose that is often as deliberately obfuscating as it is endlessly digressive – the narrative jumps back and forth in time, mostly while the narrator spends a great deal of effort trying to understand (or failing that, imagine) the circumstances of those around him, as if his own situation wasn’t bad enough and his appetite for personal disaster has been left unsated. His own survival seems less important than it ought to be for a man in his position, and this is the most unconvincing aspect of the story. The half-awake disorientation that fills the first fifty pages could have been condensed into twenty, there is a most excellently written chapter at a pivotal moment halfway through, but the closing pages feel like the threads of a once-strong rope unravelling. The after-effect is that of a clearly imagined story blurred by too many layers of meaning added after possibly too many rewrites; Rahimi clearly knows what he means to say, but this over-reliance on overcooked prose means his story falls too far short of what may once have been a worthwhile and much better communicated idea.  PY


17 June 2012

Don DeLillo, The Body Artist, 2001

Lauren Hartke is a performance artist whose husband, a film director, dies unexpectedly in the company of his first wife. Then at the New England summer house they were renting, a mentally disturbed man appears who has little ability with language but who is somehow channeling her late husband. What is she to make of this? DeLillo extracts extraordinary depth from this simple situation, his post-modern style seeming well-suited to a novel replete with half-finished thoughts and sentences, casual grammatical slips and odd rhythms of speech, culminating in a language that blurs the edges between Hartke and the unknown man. It’s haunting and clever, and DeLillo makes creative use of the in-built flexibility of English that, while being entirely self-conscious, seems to be the right technique to portray a woman who is detached and remote from herself. Recommended as a rather challenging read.  PY


Susanna Tamaro, Answer Me, 2001

A worthwhile collection of stories that explores that heavily populated border between Catholicism and atheism. There is something precarious about all the characters in these three novelettes, raised on religion yet finding themselves in long-term situations where religious faith does not help: in ‘Hell Does Not Exist’, easily the best story, an abused wife attempts to protect her young son from his violent father, and yet as a teenager the son becomes the cause of personal devastation. In ‘Answer Me’ an orphaned girl with a troubled past searches for signs that she is loved while cultivating an inner hardness that allows her to carry on, and in ‘The Burning Forest’ a widower gives an account of the unravelling of his marriage while seeking the forgiveness of his estranged daughter. I was rather taken with these stories, or rather the Stygian voice with which Tamaro relates them. They were certainly not comfortable reads – I expect for people with faith they would be even less so – and their quiet power is both startling and a little disturbing. This is fiction that doesn’t shout its atheism, just quietly points out how Christianity can indeed be either an unhelpful distraction when dealing with some life’s major problems, or even the cause of them. A dark book, and necessarily so.  PY


15 June 2012

Tony Parsons, Departures, 2011

In August 2011 Tony Parsons became writer-in-residence at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, and these seven interlinked short stories are the result of that fruitful week. Having been connected with Heathrow for most of my professional life I thought this collection might be a bit of an unrewarding ‘busman’s holiday’, but it’s the details of the working lives of other Heathrow mavens that really caught my eye, and for readers unconnected with Heathrow other than when just passing through these stories will probably be even more eye-opening: the mysterious green plane near the perimeter, the bird-scarers, the relentless attempts of small-time criminals to evade border control, the stressful lives of travelling animals, the remote coolness of the air traffic controllers, the pull of the sky and the amazement that can come from thinking too much about modern aviation. I had a problem with the feasability of the first story in this small collection but in truth that’s a minor cavil; Parsons’s characterisation is good (particularly the seen-it-all humanity of his Border Agency immigration officer Jaswinder Smith) and this successful collection is going on my shelf for keeps. Nice one, Tony.  PY


5 June 2012

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust, 1975

The 1975 Booker Prize winner that was also made into a Merchant Ivory film. I enjoyed this closely examined interaction of cultures and eras, in which a 1970s British woman goes to India in search of the truth about her 1920s step-grandmother, the naïve wife of a dull British diplomat, who forms a brief romance with a minor Indian prince. A small scandal and not especially dramatic, though what impresses are the well-drawn characters, the portrayal of the condescending paternalism of the British as India’s colonial masters, and an atmospheric rendering of the all-pervading, oppressive Indian climate. Recommended.  PY


4 June 2012

Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth, 2008

This is a combined edition of two previously released Spanish collections. These insightful stories are all anecdotal and semi-autobiographical but also mostly told in the third person, which inevitably engenders a small aura of mystery about Bolaño himself in the mind of the reader. Bolaño’s subject matter is, as usual, mostly literary: obscure South American poets, Chilean political exiles, Mexican or Spanish settings, reminiscences of lost friends, and left wing writers who like the narrator himself are all living at the far margins of the arts. Bolaño also speaks with consistency: he always writes as if relating the story by voice rather than written words and his story structure is such that you never know quite where he will end up, but wherever it is it’s usually on the cusp of what would be another story, and the endings are often abrupt. It’s impossible to pin down a favourite; they somehow blur together but are all equally very well told. A completely enchanting collection.  PY


3 June 2012

Tew Bunnag, Fragile Days, 2001

Nine stories that work well together as a cross-section of lives lived in Bangkok, from the poorest to the richest. These are less tales of status and stasis than stories of the different social strata intermixing and encountering each other, such as in ‘The Flower Girl’ in which a street orphan is adopted by a rich widow, or ‘Jeed Finds Her Brother’ in which a country girl finds out the truth about her missing brother’s life in Bangkok. These encounters inevitably leave the characters changed, yet somehow everyone at some point is a victim of the city itself, the Big Mango, for the better as often as for the worse. It’s hard to pick any story that stands out above the rest, although for characterisation the final story ‘Love Heals Tammy’ is the one that puts across best how Thais are prepared to look to the positive and be transformed by it. Bunnag also caps off the stories with a non-fiction epilogue titled ‘An Ode to the City’ in which he spells out his feelings on the ugliness of Bangkok itself, while declaring an undying admiration for the people who would dare to live in such a place. This is a lovely collection.  PY


2 June 2012

Roberto Bolaño, Antwerp, 2002

Antwerp is a difficult novel to summarise, given that it’s a formative work in Bolaño’s oeuvre and one that possibly bears more relation to his poetry than his later fiction. These are fifty-six vignettes that function in part like snatches of half-remembered films, concerning a possible murder on a campsite in Spain. But just who has been murdered, and is the killer perhaps a reflection of the author himself? This is not the familiar Bolaño of the long, discursive sentences that became a style he settled into and made his own; instead Antwerp possesses a different form of intensity, perhaps showing the uncertainty of a writer in the act of setting things down in order to first find his own voice to make it stand out, or at least aside, from the influences of those he was reading at the time (among them, Norman Spinrad and James Tiptree, Jr.). Having said that, Bolaño once proclaimed this is the only novel he was not embarrassed about, which hints more at the integrity of the prosaic form he chose to use than the lack of clarity given to a reader: in 1980 it was written without any expectation of publication, but today it gives us a compact insight into the set of themes that Bolaño continued to use throughout his life. Disconnected sentences shoot past you like bullets, and the reader has to almost rearrange, Burroughs-like, what he or she is told and make of it what he or she can. Antwerp is still a self-conscious book for all its merits, but in this brief work it’s easy to discern the writer Bolaño would become in the years ahead: still manically driven at the fringes of literature, but also a far more relaxed and eloquent performer in the act of getting his message across.  PY


1 June 2012

Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star, 1988

This was, after not much internal debate, easily my best read of 2009. It concerns the life and elusive identity of a dashing Chilean Air Force pilot, skywriter and poet, twisted lothario and secret hitman for the Pinochet regime. The story will be familiar to readers of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas which featured as its final chapter a telescoped version of what was to become this novel. The straightforward structure is that of an attempt by a former acquaintance to identify him as the unlikely man responsible for the murders of some opposition sympathisers; the detective work quickly gets bogged down in endless possible leads that go nowhere as the pilot disappears and then very likely reappears in different guises as a guerilla and underground poet, hiding out elsewhere in Latin America as well as France and Spain. This is the literary territory Bolaño has claimed as his own, but he touches on areas I didn’t expect: American cult literature, fanzines and Philip K. Dick to name three. In political exile in Spain, this is probably not a book Bolaño could have written while in Chile: he is too specific about certain identifiable people, places and events such that Distant Star would not have received much widespread credibility there, perhaps before being accepted as a legitimate work by people who would be less inclined to discredit Bolaño’s believable journalistic style and instead embrace his invention. It’s a complex text, often by turns chilling and bizarrely funny, with a translation by Chris Andrews that once again preserves Bolaño’s infectious energy. Highly recommended.  PY


31 May 2012

Tew Bunnag, After the Wave, 2005

Tew Bunnag is a relatively new author on the Thai scene, and this collection of six stories are all centred around the 2004 tsunami which devastated Thailand’s west coast. As mostly stories of ordinary people whose lives are disrupted by that extraordinary event, this being Thailand it’s perhaps inevitable that ghosts also make an appearance as a thread that Bunnag uses to subtly link several of the stories: this was the side to his writing that I found the most enjoyable – how the tsunami somehow also became intertwined with the lives of Thailand’s ghosts; also his frequent references to the sea-gypsies known as the Moken whom Bunnag clearly knows quite well. A good collection that’s impossible to find in bookstores outside Thailand but is available from the small press Mettavisions.  PY


30 May 2012

Kurt Vonnegut, Look at the Birdie, 2009

Fourteen previously unpublished short stories, all enjoyable at the very least, although it would have been useful to know from what stages of Vonnegut’s career each of them were written – were they all recent, or do some perhaps date back decades? Then there’s the genre question: there’s roughly a 50/50 genre/mainstream split, with the more imaginative and fantastical stories not necessarily being the best, although the opening story ‘Confido’ sets a superior quality mark that those following don’t always match. The collection is prefaced with Vonnegut’s 1951 letter to Miller Harris, in which he states his creative position as a writer since quitting his job at General Electric in 1951; it’s an odd way to open a collection such as this as the stories, with a few exceptions, rarely stand out as boldly imaginative. And Vonnegut’s satirical purpose is not always present either, with stories such as ‘The Honor of a Newsboy’, ‘Ed Luby’s Key Club’ and the charmingly sweet ‘A Song for Selma’ being as sentimental about ‘the ordinary little guy’ as Vonnegut probably ever got. For a sharper tone of storytelling the best here is probably ‘Little Drops of Water’ about a spurned lover’s attempts to get back her man, and the most satirical is the clever ‘The Petrified Ants’, which takes a jaundiced view of the Soviet approach to making an amazing scientific discovery. It provides the best laugh-out-loud moment and this collection, admirable as it is, could probably have done with a few more of those.  PY


22 May 2012

Lavie Tidhar, Cloud Permutations, 2010

I can't resist something as unusual as science fiction that’s rooted in the cultures and language of the Pacific Islands – I don’t believe Bislama appears anywhere else on my bookshelves. Lavie Tidhar’s premise for Cloud Permutations is interesting too: on a colony world that has its cultural boundaries defined by clouds, Kal, a boy who want to fly, finds himself pulled onto a quest to find out the truth about his planet Heven and the colonists’ lost history. The novel comes in three parts all of which are interesting in different ways from the set-up to the sensawunda resolution, however it’s the second part that somehow feels the weakest because it seems to aspire to being nothing above and beyond a simple young-adult adventure, yet the first and third parts achieve much more so admirably. Tidhar has also crammed many familiar SF themes into this work; the end result is very good but it still left me wishing he had somehow gone deeper and explored Kal’s understanding of what he is discovering, something that seems to be consciously left out in order to preserve the novel’s central mystery. Certainly this is a highly original science fiction novella, but it’s also one that left me needing a little more than I was given.  PY