Books

No Rest for the Writer

the-day-after-1895

weary reader rest
not for too long when you pick
your head up rejoice

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In celebration of National Poetry Month and in response to Time For Poetry, a haiku by this tired writer and reader who is trying to muster up some stamina for two book reviews that are due to editors soon (books I still haven’t finished reading) and trying to look at my own manuscript with its final 10,000-20,000 words being narrowed in on. I can’t help but feel like this perfect Edvard Munch painting.

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

the transcriptionist

The Transcriptionist was not what I expected and I mean this in the best of ways. It is a New York City novel, but resides in unknown places and lives that have yet to be portrayed in fiction.* Lena is a transcriptionist at the New York Record–a position that seems a relic in our digital age. In 2003, the city is living in a time that seems both close and faraway to the present day reader. Post 9/11 concerns are red hot (the staff of the Record  are absurdly given “escape hoods” in case of further mass emergency) and the daily news cycles whirl around Lena as she sits alone on the eleventh floor transcribing recorded interviews and reports from abroad.

She lives in this shadow state, always reading the news she knows over the news that makes it into print, and not just reading the shadows, but also living in them, somewhere between waiting and searching. This is what chills her…

Lena lives alone in a room she rents where the sink is also in her room. She keeps to herself and even the one person, Russell, who speaks to her socially at work thinks her name is Carol (a mistake she leaves uncorrected). Lena is filled with words and language so much that her conversational skills are composed mostly of quotations.

But then everything changes. A news report on page 3 of the Record catches her eye. A woman is mauled to death by the lions at the Bronx Zoo one night. The death is a suspected suicide. Lena sees the woman’s photo and identifies her as the blind woman who spoke to her three days prior on the city bus. With a migraine, Lena didn’t pay the woman full attention, but now in death Lena is rapt.

The parallels that Lena finds between herself and the dead blind woman, begin to make her move out of the shadows. Words and language compose her life, but as she attempts to find more information over the death, she quietly begins to unravel the mundane life she had been living and the contradictions at the Record and the world around her.

In Lena, debut novelist Amy Rowland has constructed a character that is able to see beneath what has become everyday life. As a former transcriptionist herself, Rowland provides wonderful information and details on the goings-on of a major newspaper. She portrays a liminal space where technology and the human touch are still needed. The Recording Room where Lena works is still made up of audio tape, telephones, and people. Dictations are important and the accuracy of a person’s ear is paramount to correct copy. Lena is part of the Record‘s “institutional memory.”

Lena finds in the blind woman a person who can see more than anyone else. Before reading the short news report, Lena would have continued on in her mundane, liminal space of the shadows until she faded away and was forgotten. Instead, she wanted to learn things and in doing so, shook herself from the trappings of her solitary and almost obsolete life (and employment).

The Transcriptionist is a novel that finds its energy in the forgotten and unknowable. It is not the glamour of New York City that entices the reader, but the monotony of a single person’s everyday life and the subsequent search to find comfort and meaning. Lena finds her solutions in language. She is able to finally see other people’s failings in their use of language and reactions to it. We have our memories, but when we, too, are gone, it is language that is left to carry us away from being forgotten.

This novel will be released in the US on May 13, 2014 by Algonquin Books.


*Although, completely different NYC stories, part of me had a similar indulgent feeling when I read The Rules of Civility.

 

The Bureaucrat’s Recommended Reading List

The unending and illogical madness of government bureaucracy didn’t truly hit me until I worked for the government. For one year, the term kafkaesque permeated my life and my unfortunately battered psyche. Sure, I had read plenty of Kafka’s works up to that time, but they didn’t resonate in the same way until I found myself running in circles only to ram head first into a wall of slow policies and paperwork covered in absurdity resulting in bad handwriting and 4:30 martinis. But this sort of insanity can be found in other works by other authors as well.

Bureaucrat's Reading List

According to Merriam-Webster, Kafkaesque is defined as :  of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially :  having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality <Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays>

***

Catch-22. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” One of the great American novels of the 20th Century, Joseph Heller’s World War II-set narrative finds bombardier Yossarian caught in an illogical roundabout that exams the insanity, idiocy, and other problematic facets of war.

Metropole. When a linguist boards the wrong plane in Budapest, he arrives in an unknown city where he can’t seem to understand anything anyone is saying. There is excessive queuing and official information is constantly changing from one day to the next.

The Passion According to G.H. A claustrophobic, ecstatic stream of consciousness begins when the maid quits, leading G.H. to go into the former employee’s room to find it spotless save for a cockroach that she goes on to kill. Language, memories, and philosophies are tangled around the lifeless vermin for inspection.

Invitation to a Beheading. I’ve always maintained that if you covered up Vladimir Nabokov’s name on the front cover and gave it to a new reader, they would immediately assume it was written by Kafka based on the style, tone, and premise. In an unnamed country, Cincinnatus C. is sentenced to death by beheading for being found guilty of “gnostical turpitude,” an undefined crime.

The Joke. This is Milan Kundera’s first novel and written during the brewing Prague Spring. Ludvik is sentenced to hard labor after sending a friend a joke written on a postcard that pokes fun at the communist regime. He is turned in and his trial is nothing more than a kangaroo court. 

The Garden Party.  The young Hugo is sent by his father to a garden party to meet a local bureaucrat who his father is certain will employ Hugo. The party-goers mistake him for a seasoned employee and soon Hugo is put in charge of liquidating the liquidation office. He fools them all by quickly mutating his language to that of the bureaucracy.

The Castle. This list wouldn’t be complete without Kafka, right? There are so many to choose from, but The Trial and The Castle are always cited as the most “kafkaesque” of them all. K. is a land surveyor who has been summoned to an unnamed town. He keeps trying to get into the castle to speak with a mysterious and unseen official. Paperwork and the unknowable are just two blockades to his pursuits.

These are just a few selections. Do you have any further recommendations?

Selected dialogue from The Garden Party,

The Garden Party

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

all the birds, singing

Isolation, buried secrets, and what lurks in the shadows are the unquestionable foundations upon which this novel is built. Jake Whyte lives on a remote British island, tending to her sheep on a farm she purchased three years prior. She keeps to herself except for the occasional visit from Don, the previous shepherd who owned her farm, and who doesn’t leave a chance to remind her that she really should ingratiate herself into the rest of the rural community, instead of staying alone at her farm.

Jake seems content with her solitary life, but then a recent spate of worrying days have befallen her. She has woken up to the unpleasant fact that her sheep are being killed at night. Not only are they killed, but they are gutted and sliced open, giving the reality of it being a fox too much doubt. Everyone in the town seems happy to agree that it’s just a wild animal, but Jake can’t get past the brutality of the killings.

Once the reader becomes sufficiently comfortable even in this most sinister of circumstances, author Evie Wyld pulls the narrative back in time to Jake living in her native Australia. She is a drifter working as a hired hand on a sheep farm with other unattached youth. Wyld goes back and forth with alternating chapters between the present day of the English farm to scenes from Jake’s past. An interesting facet of the background chapters is that they unfold in reverse. This was reminiscent of the 2002 French film, Irréversible, which was told backwards with the horrifying event having already taken place, leading the characters and the viewers to do the painful yet necessary task of looking at everything that had already been. Wyld employs the same technique, resulting in Jake’s adolescent years to be reverted back to an earlier, more naive state — or is she really that naive, could be another question.

The present day story took a while to build in tension. Even with the gruesome sheep slayings, no real threat enters until a mysterious stranger named Lloyd arrives on Jake’s property. He clearly has his own secrets, which he is happy to hide and with this man’s new presence, the shadowy threat becomes more prominent to Jake, who might see the killer around corners or off in the dark distance.

Utilizing a non-linear narrative for the alternating chapters was an intriguing choice. It pushed the secret of Jake’s past and how she ended up where she now is in a way that, perhaps, would have fallen flat. Part of this second narrative was toeing the line, however, with being tired and played out. I won’t reveal elements of this plot, but All the Birds, Singing could have been easily placed with all of the other recent media and entertainment that finds its plots in the sexual abuse or exploitation of young women. An author can write whatever they desire, but there is such an overload of this plot nowadays, that it made the novel feel like just another one of these. It wasn’t particularly original in this aspect, nor, in its execution.

The more engrossing part of the novel was in the present day. The threat is unknowable and not quite corporeal. Mysterious strangers with their own pasts is too good, but like the threat, the ending to this storyline is never fully formed. Recently, I find myself drawn to literature and movies that leave me with less than concrete answers and conclusions. With that said, however, this path can only be a success when other notions and ideas are a part of the narrative. Wyld didn’t build a world where I was capable of inserting my own philosophies and form unspoken possibilities. There were no connections to be made…unfortunately.

This was a difficult one in that my excitement was letdown. The writing is crisp and solid, and Wyld does an adequate job of making Jake’s sheep farm eerie.

“This is a wild place, there could be all sorts of animals you don’t know about–”

Both plots in the novel are wild places, yet, they don’t make up for that fact that something was missing. Nothing was ever quite realized. The fact that the book had an interesting premise and was populated with instances of intrigue and unknowing didn’t make up for the large portion that was tired and stale in the contemporary conscience. This uneveness left something to be desired.

This novel will be released in the US by Pantheon Books on April 15, 2014.

 


**I’m curious to know others people’s opinions on the overload of plots in movies,  television, and books in regards to the aforementioned sexual exploitation components. Of course, this has always been around in our entertainment (re: Law & Order: SVU), but lately I think we’ve just been inundated with this. To me, it almost feels cliché and an easy path for a creator to take to add gravitas or horror to their work. With that said, I love Twin Peaks and the recent True Detective, so perhaps I am just spouting hypocrisy.

 

Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill

I first heard about this book last year when I read it was being adapted for film (photo above showing the main character portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe). The novel’s premise seemed right up my alley. It is a blend of the fantastic, horror, absurd, and revenge, which novelist Joe Hill pulls off so very, very well.

Ig Perrish wakes up after a night of drunken debauchery to find that horns have sprouted out of his head. While still in the fog from the night before, the reality of these horns can, of course, be questioned because “it wouldn’t be the first time he’d confused fantasy with reality, and he knew from experience that he was especially prone to unlikely religious delusions.” However, Ig and the reader soon realize that his world is no longer normal. Are the people he encounters seeing the horns or are they oddly invisible to others? Everyone starts to tell Ig the unfiltered truth, even divulging deep, dark secrets and feelings.

But what is said to Ig while he is adorned with these new horns is usually filled with disgust and vitriol, because the year before, he was accused of raping and murdering his girlfriend, Merrin. The power of the horns are even more useful as Ig tries to uncover what really happened to her.

The novel is filled with dark premises and reprehensible secrets, but Hill’s writing takes the despicable and winds absurd humor around it that is delightfully indulgent.

Lee and Ig had been friends in another life, but all that was behind Ig now, had died with Merrin. It was difficult to maintain close friendships when you were under suspicion of being a sex murderer.

As the novel goes on, Ig continues to metamorphose both with the powers the horns give him and through the author’s language, choosing to even further equate Ig’s new anatomy with that of a devil. He is the dark confessor for all of those who lent a hand in condemning him during the investigation into his girlfriend’s murder. I also think it’s an interesting idea from the writer’s perspective to introduce a conceit that allows for the unrestrained revealing of information. Joe Hill writes, “It was, perhaps, the devil’s oldest precept, that sin could always be trusted to reveal what was most human in a person, as often for good as for ill.”

Horns plays a lot with the idea of Church (big C), and the dichotomies between good and evil and what is godly and what is damnation. Ig is an anti-hero, both marked as one by the horns and the difficulties arising when archetypes are ripped apart and redesigned. This is an entirely absorbing novel and the ending (which I shan’t give away!), had whiffs of a plot point in Twin Peaks. Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know, but I enjoyed the possibility.

I am curious to see the film adaptation. Does anyone know further information about release dates?


 

*Top images from Wikipedia and IMDb.

 

The Lyric Inspired Kurt Cobain Reading List

This past weekend marks the 20th year since Kurt Cobain’s untimely and unfortunate death. Nirvana is a band that I have always loved and I’m disappointed that I can’t just jet set to Paris to see the current exhibition of Cobain’s final photo shoot. So, for the moment, you’ll have to put up with my Nirvana inspired post today (but it has to do with books, I swear!). Sure, Cobain had shrieking lyrics and mumbled lines, but that doesn’t stop Nirvana from being wicked awesome.

kurt cobain

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman I’m so tired I can’t sleep/I’m a liar and a thief (Pennyroyal Tea)
  • The Double by José Saramago - I’m not the only one, Aaah/I’m not the only one, Aaah (Rape Me) 
  • The Myth of Icarus In the sun, in the sun I feel as one/In the sun (All Apologies) -
  •  The Crucible by Arthur MillerIf she floats then she is not/A witch like we had thought/A down payment on another one (Serve the Servants)
  • The Children of Men by P.D. James With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us (Smells Like Teen Spirit)
  • The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling - Underneath the bridge/Tap has sprung a leak/And the animals I’ve trapped/All become my pets (Something in the Way)
  • The Lottery by Shirley Jackson - Take your time, hurry up/The choice is yours, don’t be late (Come As You Are)
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk -  I’m so happy/’Cause today I found my friends/They’re in my head (Lithium)
  • Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell Is there another reason for your stain?/Could you believe who we knew stress or strain?/Here is another word that rhymes with shame (Blew)

B SIDE: Because Cobain was such a fan of the Pixies and influenced by them, they shall be included on this list as well.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia PlathYour head’ll collapse/If there’s nothing in it/And then you’ll ask yourself/Where is my mind? (Where Is My Mind)
  • The Lover by Marguerite DurasYou’re looking like/You’ve got some sun/Your blistered lips/Have got a kiss (Bone Machine)

**Top images from Wikipedia.

 

National Poetry Month – To Roanoke With Johnny Cash by Bob Hicok

April is National Poetry Month in the US, which is meant to illuminate the importance of poetry in our culture. Below is my selection to add to this month of poem appreciation: “To Roanoke with Johnny Cash” by Bob Hicok. I am particularly taken with the odd rhythm produced by the enjambment and the final line, even though left unpunctuated, is a stark punctuation to the entire poem. Are there any poems that are your favorites? For a few more selections, check out what other poems have been posted here in the past.

Johnny-Cash_1972

 

To Roanoke with Johnny Cash

Mist became rain became fog was mist
reborn every few miles on a road
made of s and z, of switchback

and falling into mountains of night
would have been easy and who
would have been known until flames

and nobody, even then. I played his life
over and over, not so  much song
as moan of a needle and the bite,

the hole it eats through the arm
and drove faster to the murmur
of this dead and crow-dressed man,

voice of prison and heroin and the bible
as turned by murdering hands.
And the road was the color of him


**Top photo from Wikipedia.

 

100 Years of Bohumil Hrabal

hrabal duo

Okay, maybe I am a few days late, but let’s blame my oversight of celebrating Bohumil Hrabal’s 100th Birthday on some recent jet lag that I’ve been experiencing. March 28 marked the 100th birthday of great 20th Century Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. He is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, Closely Watched Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky). He has numerous books and short stories, but for some reason, this one has always stuck with me. I’ve read it several times, penned a grad school paper on it, and have enjoyed the 1966 film adaptation that went on to win an Academy Award.

There is something that draws me to Czech writers. I was lovingly teased for it in my student days, but their affinity for portraying the absurd and humor in even detrimental circumstances is what attracts me. For example, in Closely Watched Trains, the main character is a young train station guard in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. As Nazis come through by way of the station and resistance fighters target the trains, young Milos is completely preoccupied with getting laid and when he can’t perform, he attempts suicide. I know, a little dark, but funny. The reader sees the threats that surround Milos and his country, but he’s too busy flirting with the ladies and worrying about his sexual dysfunction.You must read this book and when you’re done, watch the movie which is available in the Criterion Collection, for Hulu+ subscribers, and in two-parts on Dailymotion: 1 | 2.

Hrabal is so cool that a bust of him resides on the wall of U Zlatého Tygra (At the Golden Tiger), his favorite bar in Prague, where he even took President Clinton and Madeleine Albright to for some pilsnerplease pardon my crummy photo; it was dark that day

U Zlatého Tygra

He’s considered by many to be one of the greatest Czech writers of all time. Even with my limited reading selection of that country, I shall be so bold as to agree. I am terribly delighted to have recently received a galley of a new English translation of one of his books to review (unfortunately for this blog, I will be writing for another publication, but maybe I’ll put a quick write-up here next month).

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you a wee bit. Although, Hrabal needs no convincing from me. I mean, when the man had his 80th birthday, the whole city came out. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty put up a handful of photos from over the years. Take a look here, which includes the photo below from the film set of Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovak Press Agency).

closely watched trains

 


**The top images are from Wikipedia.org.

Distractions : Which Beat Generation Writer Are You?

I usually loathe all things Buzzfeed, but I was totally suckered into their Which Beat Generation Writer Are You? quiz. Perfect for a Friday distraction. Which writer did you get? My result is: Charles Bukowski.

beat writer

The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy

The Devil I Know

“Everyone thinks you’re dead, son, I may as well tell you now.”

No, that’s the other Tristram St. Lawrence.

Kinship to Tristram Shandy is hard to avoid in Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, a deliberate satire of the Irish housing boom from not so long ago. In both real life and the world of the novel, financial bloat and lack of responsibility lead to devastating ruin. However, the novel itself is more concerned with the lead up. It’s conceit is that it is told in the year 2016 during a mysterious deposition of Tristram St. Lawrence, a recovering alcoholic and broken noble who most assumed dead for one reason or another and the lynchpin to some airy real estate scheme in his hometown.

Much like Sterne’s eponymous character, St. Lawrence is unable to easily explain his situation and instead tells a convoluted tale about his business dealings with a childhood friend, Desmond Hickey, and the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, whose identity becomes quite obvious as the narrative goes forward and onto its final pages.

St. Lawrence begins his story with his airplane being diverted to Dublin and, much to his dismay, he is now stuck in Ireland. He hasn’t returned to his home for years, even missing his own mother’s funeral, letting his ancestral home and his elderly father fall apart. A recovering alcoholic, it’s Kismet when he meets up with an old school peer in a bar and what proceeds is an ever-growing scheme to build, build, build.

The Devil I Know does that wonderful thing where it has the ability of leaving the reader in a narrative purgatory (pardon the pun). You’re never quite sure what’s happening to Tristram St. Lawrence. Everyone in his hometown, including Desmond Hickey, keep repeating the fact that they all thought he was dead, which gave my readerly brain slight tingles thinking about Flann O’Brien. St. Lawrence keeps insisting that that was the other Tristram St. Lawrence. Also, the absent M. Deauville, whose page time is mostly conducted over a phone call with the narrator is in a word intriguing even as his identity becomes both clear and more difficult by the novel’s end.

St. Lawrence is a classic unreliable narrator. His deposition can easily be picked apart and nothing that St. Lawrence actually says is concrete. Here, however, is where the novel feels thin. Clearly, a deal with the devil is occurring; one that the narrator can never escape. Kilroy is lampooning Ireland’s financial bust through this idea, one that I think is clever in general and also poignant for a country filled with folklore.

Yet, the Faustian plot was pulled for too long. Sometimes, as I was reading, the narrative suffered from not having any sort of tension. You would think such a pact would elicit more salacious doings and undoings. Yes, St. Lawrence is secretive and his flamboyant testimony hides the real deeds underneath, but not enough of it poked out.

Kilroy’s satire and tongue-in-cheek were an interesting route to present Ireland’s bust, but it wasn’t enough to carry the whole novel. This was a tricky one. I enjoyed much of it and the teetering concept of real and imagined was an exciting element, yet, these factors, perhaps, were not enough to keep the novel on sturdy legs.