Saturday, 18 January 2020

BOOKS @ VOLUME #161 (18.1.20)

Read out latest newsletter and find out about some excellent summer reading and literary events. 
Your Duck is My Duck is our Book of the Week this week. Each of Deborah Eisenberg's perfectly poised, preternaturally aware, precisely composed  and enjoyable stories carries the heft and resonance of novels (and take her about as long to write). 


The Toll ('Arc of Sythe' #3) by Neal Shusterman      {Reviewed by STELLA}
The 'Arc of a Scythe' series is now concluded with the third instalment, The Toll. Greyson Tolliver has been claimed by the Tonists, Citra and Rowan have disappeared, presumed drowned (or devoured by flesh-eating fish) when the floating island of Endura was destroyed, Scythe Goddard is all-powerful and set on world domination, and the Thunderhead is silent. For those who haven’t read the previous books (Scythe and Thunderhead) in this intense young-adult series, here’s a quick breakdown: Earth is no longer ruled by elected representatives or despots, nor heading towards oblivion due to climate crisis, overpopulation and lack of resources. The Thunderhead, an AI, all-seeing and all-knowing, keeps the planet in equilibrium in a practical, emotional and intellectual sense. The world population is kept in balance with available resources and, while humans can age and die naturally, many choose to reset (put the clock back) and live another life. To give humans some sense of chance, there is the Scythedom — a group of special ‘cullers’ — ethical and trained to impart death without pain and with consideration. Each Scythe has a yearly quota which they may not exceed and a code of honour which must be upheld. New apprentices are taken on every few years and here’s where the story begins. Citra and Rowan — two teenagers are chosen, much to their abhorrence, to be Scythe apprentices (no one likes the Scythes — they are the bogeymen who come a-knocking), and, strangely, their teacher, Scythe Faraday has chosen two but only one can succeed. Citra and Rowan are pitted against each other and the backdrop is a Scythedom on the edge of turmoil. Different factions are at loggerheads about the rules. Some, like Goddard, want more autonomy — their egos are huge and their desire to kill outweighs their responsibility to the Scythe purpose — to keep the population in check. In the first book, we follow the trials and tribulations of Citra and Rowan — the passions, power and loyalties that drive them and send them into fields of ethical dilemma. In the second book, Thunderhead, we are introduced in greater detail to the Thunderhead (especially through the flawed character of Greyson Tolliver), the larger world and machinations of the Scythedom, Nimbus agents (like the FBI), the Tonists (a religious cult), and the Unsavouries (those whom the Thunderhead has deemed unworthy and cut communication with). Driving through this is Goddard’s increasing influence and power, culminating in a dramatic moment for the Scythedom and devastation for Citra and Rowan. It’s a cliffhanger book 2! So The Toll has been highly anticipated by fans. Greyson Tolliver plays a larger role in this book as the Toll — the only human left with open contact to the Thunderhead. Everyone else has been rendered 'unsavoury' and is no longer able to make direct contact with the AI. This is shocking for the human population who have had the Thunderhead (all-hearing, all-seeing) with them since birth — always there, always caring, and always knowing what was best. We are also introduced a new cast of characters. Jericho, a gender-fluid Madagascan captain on a salvage ship; Loriana, a Nimbus agent who comes into her own; and Scythes from the southern Americas and African sub-continent. Further developed is the archivist and librarian Munira, and Scythe Faraday is back in the mix. As the tension builds with the further rise of Goddard the plot picks up to a rip-roaring pace. Fear and power are his tools and while some resist, they are easily cut down as Goddard’s influence increases. Yet The Toll has a quiet power and The Thunderhead is using all its capacities to make the world better again. There are some excellent reflective moments in The Toll with the Thunderhead becoming a more conscious being — moving from perfection to doubt to improvement (possibly). Shusterman keeps the pace going but does not shy from moments of quiet and solitude — time for his characters to figure out who they are and what they desire. The 'Arc of a Scythe' series is more than an action-packed dystopia, it lays out a question for us to consider — what kind of future world do we desire and can this be a hopeful one?  


Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.” Always hinting at experience just beyond the reach of language, Bennett's remarkable book is impelled by the rigours of noticing. Encounters with persons and with the infraordinary are treated with equivalence: acute, highly acute, overly acute, observations immediately plunge the narrator’s awareness into the depths of her response (“My head is turned by imagined elsewheres and hardly at all by present circumstances.”), far from the surface at which outward contact may be made, or may be being made, a process that is both deeply isolating, terrifying and protective. Bennett’s unsparingly acute observations of the usually unacknowledged or unacknowledgeable motivations, urges and responses that underlie human interaction and quotidian existence seem here induced by an acceptance or a resignation that is enabled by despair, or is indistinguishable from despair, both a resignation and a panic, perhaps, a panic on the edge of self-dissolution which is perhaps our last resistance to self-dissolution and therefore fundamental to individual existence: the anxiety which all human activity is designed to conceal. Bennett’s is a very individual voice (click here to hear her read a sample), resonating at times with other works of irredeemably isolated interiority, such David Markson’s superb  Wittgenstein’s Mistress or the suppressed hysteria of Thomas Bernhard’s narrators, but tracking entirely her own patterns of thought (I have perhaps made an error here of conflating the author with the narrator, but, if this is an error, it is one hard to avoid in the book in which style and content are inseparable) with an immediacy that precludes the artificially patterning, pseudo-assimilable explanation of a ‘story’. In one excellent section, ‘Control Knobs’, the narrator describes the gradual disintegration of the three knobs that control her cooker and speculates a coming time when the last interchangeable knob breaks and the cooker will become unusable. This reminds her of the counted matches in Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (another novel of irredeemably isolated interiority), which mark the time to the point at which that narrator will no longer be able to light a fire to cook and warm herself. Following a discussion of Bennett’s narrator’s reading and misreading of that book, she returns to an account of the ultimate hopelessness of her attempts to procure new knobs for her cooker. “I feel at a loss for about ten minutes and it’s a sensation, I realise, not dissimilar to indifference. So, naturally, I handle it rather well.”

Friday, 17 January 2020

Some Trick: Thirteen stories by Helen DeWitt           $32
How is it possible to live a life of the mind in a world that opposes even the slightest possibility of such a thing occurring? Is DeWitt the modern-day Gogol or Calvino? 
"DeWitt's style is brilliantly heartless, and cork-dry; original herself, she is a witty examiner of human and cultural eccentricity. She can take a recognisable social situation or fact and steadily twist it into a surrealist skein." —James Wood, The New Yorker
"Brilliant and inimitable Helen DeWitt: patron saint of anyone in the world who has to deal with the crap of those in power who do a terrible job with their power, and who make those who are under their power utterly miserable. Certain stories have something in common with dreams: they’re expressions of the creator’s wish-fulfillment. Helen DeWitt’s wishes are distinct in American literature — in world literature, as far as I know." —Sheila Heti
>>Helen DeWitt has your number
Arboretum by David Byrne          $45
In a wonderful series of eccentric annotated drawings — each in the form of a tree! — Byrne presents his thoughts about just about every human foible, habit and concept with the same gusto, irony and individual flair that he brings to both his music and his writing. 
>>Stop making sense
At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies' Pond by 
Ava Wong Davies, Margaret Drabble, Esther Freud, Nell Frizzell, Eli Goldstone, Amy Key, Jessica J. Lee, Sophie Mackintosh, So Mayer, Deborah Moggach, Nina Mingya Powles, Leanne Shapton, Lou Stoppard and Sharlene Teo       $25
Esther Freud describes the life-affirming sensation of swimming through the seasons; Lou Stoppard pays tribute to the winter swimmers who break the ice; Margaret Drabble reflects on the golden Hampstead days of her youth; Sharlene Teo visits for the first time; and Nell Frizzell shares the view from her yellow lifeguard’s canoe.
>>Three writers dive in. 
>>Read Esther Freud's piece
>>The best place in the world
Self-Portrait by Celia Paul        $55
"I'm not a portrait painter. If I'm anything, I have always been an autobiographer." From her move to the Slade School of Fine Art at sixteen, through a profound and intense affair with the older and better-known artist Lucian Freud, to the practices of her present-day studio, Paul meticulously assembles the surprising, beautiful, haunting scenes of a life. Paul brings to her prose the same qualities that she brings to her art: a brutal honesty, a delicate but powerful intensity, and an acute eye for visual detail.
"I had to make this story my own."

2040 AD (McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #58) edited by Claire Boyle       $55
A special issue wholly focused on climate change with original speculative fiction from twelve noted contributors in collaboration with twelve scientists. Global in scope, each story is focused on one part of the dire warnings issued by the 2018 Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change. Featuring Tommy Orange, Elif Shafak, Luis Alberto Urrea, Asja Bakic, Rachel Heng, and more.
>>"Given the dire news surrounding climate change, are you hopeful for the future?"
How the Brain Lost its Mind: Sex, hysteria and the riddle of mental illness by Allan Ropper and B.D. Burrell         $33
In 1882, Jean-Martin Charcot was the premiere physician in Paris, having just established a neurology clinic at the infamous Salpetriere Hospital, a place that was called a 'grand asylum of human misery'. Assessing the dismal conditions, he quickly set up to upgrade the facilities, and in doing so, revolutionised the treatment of mental illness. Many of Carcot's patients had neurosyphilis (the advanced form of syphilis), a disease of mad poets, novelists, painters, and musicians, and a driving force behind the overflow of patients in Europe's asylums. The trend of neurology at the time, though, led towards hypnosis and the treatment of the mind and away from medicine and the treatment of the brain. Does the relationship between psychology and neurology mirror that between the mind and the body? 
Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese science fiction translated and edited by Ken Liu             $23
The anthology features works of hard science fiction, cyberpunk, science fantasy, and space opera, as well as genres with deeper ties to Chinese culture: alternate Chinese history, chuanyue time travel, satire with historical and contemporary allusions. Stories include: "Goodnight, Melancholy" by Xia Jia, "The Snow of Jinyang" by Zhang Ran, "Broken Stars" by Tang Fei, "Submarines" by Han Song, "Salinger and the Koreans" by Han Song, "Under a Dangling Sky" by Cheng Jingbo, "What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear" by Baoshu, "The New Year Train" by Hao Jingfang, "The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales" by Fei Dao, "Moonlight" by Liu Cixin, "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge" by Anna Wu, "The First Emperor's Games" by Ma Boyong, "Reflection" by Gu Shi, "The Brain Box" by Regina Kanyu Wang, "Coming of the Light" by Chen Qiufan, "A History of Future Illnesses" by Chen Qiufan. Essays: "A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction and Fandom," by Regina Kanyu Wang,
"A New Continent for China Scholars: Chinese Science Fiction Studies" by Mingwei Song, "Science Fiction: Embarrassing No More" by Fei Dao.
Nam June Paik by Sook-Kyung Lee and Rudolf Frieling        $55
An early adopter of digital technologies and new media, Nam June Paik (1932-2006) was in many ways the founder of video art. His cutting-edge, innovative, yet playfully entertaining work continues to be a major influence on art and culture.This ground-breaking publication focuses on Paik's role in the cross-germination of radical aesthetics and experimental practices.
>>Charlotte Moorman performs Nam June Paik's 'TV Cello' (1976). 
The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow         $38
It is a sad fact of life that if a young woman is unlucky enough to come into the world without expectations, she had better do all she can to ensure she is born beautiful. To be handsome and poor is misfortune enough; but to be both plain and penniless is a hard fate indeed. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mary is the middle of the five Bennet girls and the plainest of them all, so what hope does she have? Prim and pious, with no redeeming features, she is unloved and seemingly unlovable. The Other Bennet Sister, though, shows another side to Mary. An introvert in a family of extroverts; a constant disappointment to her mother who values beauty above all else; fearful of her father's sharp tongue; with little in common with her siblings - is it any wonder she turns to books for both company and guidance?
Immersive and engaging." —Guardian
Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco         $23
At the Almayer Inn, a remote shoreline hotel, an artist dips his brush in a cup of ocean water to paint a portrait of the sea. A scientist pens love letters to a woman he has yet to meet. An adulteress searches for relief from her proclivity to fall in love. And a sixteen-year-old girl seeks a cure from a mysterious condition which science has failed to remedy. When these people meet, their fates begin to interact.
The Existentialist's Survival Guide: How to live authentically in an inauthentic age by Gordon Marino        $37
What can Kierkegaard and the philosophers who came after him tell us about how to live now? 
"Brilliant. Gives existentialism a 21st-century presence that is gripping, nuanced and convincing. The prose is electric, illustrating that existentialism is also literary." —The Los Angeles Review of Books
A Political History of the World: Three thousand years of war and peace by Jonathan Holslag        $26
In three thousand years of history, China has spent at least eleven centuries at war. The Roman Empire was in conflict during at least 50 per cent of its lifetime. Since 1776, the United States has spent over one hundred years at war. The dream of peace has been universal in the history of humanity. So why have we so rarely been able to achieve it?

The Science of Being Human: Why we behave, think and feel the way we do by Marty Jopson          $27
Starting with evolutionary biology and what it physically means to be a human being, this book moves on to include a wide range of topics such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and how we are evolving as we interact with new technology. 

10 Voyages through the Human Mind edited by Catherine de Lange       $30
Undoubtedly the most complex material in the universe, the human brain makes us who we are, but how it works and why has long been a mystery. Through this series of fascinating lectures at The Royal Institution, spanning over a hundred years, experts in the fields of psychology, neurology and biology examine the workings of our most important organ, revealing a hidden and complex world.
Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor     $23
First published in 1938, this novel told in letters between a Jew in America and his German friend demonstrates the way in which society is poisoned at all levels by fascism. 
Nightmareland: Travels at the borders of sleep, dreams, and wakefulness by Lex Lonehood Nover       $37
Encompassing accepted medical phenomena such as sleep paralysis, parasomnias, and Ambien "zombies," and the true-crime casebook of those who kill while sleepwalking, to supernatural elements such as the incubus, alien abduction, and psychic attacks, Nover brings readers on an extraordinary journey through history, folklore, and science, to help us understand what happens when we sleep.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

BOOKS @ VOLUME #160 (11.1.20)

Read our latest NEWSLETTER!


The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern      {Reviewed by STELLA}
Anticipation is a dangerous thing. Erin Morgenstern had a bestseller — a phenomenon — with her debut, The Night Circus. The book is about a mystical black and white circus, star-crossed lovers, competitive magicians and a cast of acts fantastic in all their endeavours, as well the circus devotees in all their guises. Some readers watched for that circus to pop up unexpectedly in their neighbourhood. It’s been eight years between books, and this one will thrill some, but not everyone. More magical, more fantastical and more complex, The Starless Sea isn’t for the fainthearted. It has stories within stories, books hidden in libraries, doors that appear to chosen individuals only to lead them into the caverns and winding underworld pathways of misinformation, discovery and confusion; dead ends, surprises, beauty and words, stories forever and ever. It’s whimsical as well as captivating, full of symbolism, borrowings (fantasy tropes) and myth. Opening with an imprisoned pirate telling tales to a woman who will rescue him, only for that rescue to be thwarted elsewhere in the book, we flip to completely different stories in the next few chapters. The first part of this novel feels disjointed, but bear with it: as part of the charm of these stories is that they reappear, develop and intertwine throughout the book alongside the main characters' discoveries in the world beyond the mysterious doors. Zachery Ezra Rawlins — a senior university student — is spending his term break reading his way through the library. When he comes across a book out of place he goes to check it out to find that it isn’t recorded in the library’s catalogue. A manual entry is made and Zachery heads home with it only to discover that this strange book is telling his own story — part of it. The tale is of a boy who discovers a painted door on a wall, an image so realistic that it seems like you could reach out, turn the handle, open the door and step through. The boy hesitates and walks on. The next day the door is gone. This childhood memory is revived, and Zachery, understandably, is disconcerted. His fascination with this book leads to some detective work on his part and he takes himself off to New York to a masked ball — a fundraiser for the Trust connected to the mysterious book. Here Zachery meets the stunning and enigmatic Mirabel (a woman from the world beyond the doors) as well as the attractive Damian who sets him a task — one which will plunge him into the labyrinthine world of the Starless Sea. Part of the enjoyment of this novel is piecing the bits of the puzzle together. What is the Starless Sea? Why do some want to preserve it while others wish to destroy it? There are nods to many other fables and myths, as well as to contemporary literary fantasy worlds, and while this is sometimes distracting it is also part of the cosmos Morgenstern has built. Stories within stories within books, and books pulled apart and thrown to the wind — pages folded into origami stars and floated upon the strange sea, others cast off on ribbons — their words mingling and changing. In The Night Circus Morgenstern created vivid imagery, and here she again plays with descriptive metaphor and symbols, adding to the mix a heady scent — the forest comes alive with the smell of trees, humus and needles, the charred remains of a room a lingering reminder of things gone wrong, the sweet cloying smell of honey — close and insular but overwhelming. Will Zachery find his fate? Will Mirabel change hers? And will the young lovers find each other in the pages of a book or be consumed by the Starless Sea — a thing of beauty and threat?   


Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Nothing drives an obsession to unsustainable extremes more than the unnameable terror that a more moderate degree of love would be overwhelmed by its complementary revulsion. Our so-called cultural artefacts and so-called social institutions are, likewise, mechanisms for privileging one pole of an ambivalence, mechanisms for giving a (usually) positive cast to what we think of as our individual or communal selves. For some individuals, including, seemingly, Leonid Tsypkin and, especially, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (the ostensible subject of Tsypkin’s novel), whatever it is that separates the existential extremes is either exceptionally rigid and brittle or unusually permeable when unattended or in some way unreliable or, possibly, sporadically assailable, which enables, for those individuals, transports both of remarkable insight and of psychological risk. In Tsypkin’s novel, the narrator Tsypkin (or ‘Tsypkin’) is travelling by train from Moscow to Petersburg to visit the Dostoyevsky museum. As he travels, he reads the diary of Dostoyevsky’s young second wife Anna concerning their time spent in Europe, mainly staying in various German towns and suffering, often, from the financial consequences of Fyodor’s gambling addiction (which he had written about in The Gambler and practiced thereafter). Tsypkin’s astounding book, in which each paragraph is a single virtuoso sentence building, often, to hysterical length, dissolves the distinctions between the author (or ‘author’) and his subject, slipping, unnoticed and often within a few clauses, over a century in time and deep into the inner life of Dostoyevsky, revealing the sufferings, tensions and passions that both caused hardship for Dostoyevsky and his wife and enabled Dostoyevsky to write novels of such psychological penetration. The uncommon access that the past has to the present and to cause harm there, what we might call memory, repeatedly damages Dostoyevsky — for instance the humiliations visited upon him during his imprisonment lead him to repeatedly set himself up for humiliations that replay that he had received at the hands of the commandant — but also provide him and us with an intimacy with aspects of human experience that might otherwise be inaccessible. Dostoyevsky’s cycles of enthusiasm and despair are described with great sympathy, both for him and for Anna, and Tsypkin’s unsparing portrayal of the faults of his literary hero produce a suitably ambivalent effect, often within a single sentence, moving at once towards both ridicule and sympathy (readers of Thomas Bernhard will appreciate the mastery here). How is it possible to love another (as Tsypkin loves Dostoyevsky, as Anna loves Fyodor) despite their faults, despite, even, their unforgivable faults? “Why was I so strongly attracted and enticed by the life of this man?” asks Tsypkin, who, like many other Jews, has found that Dostoyevksy and his novels possess a “special attraction” despite Dostoyevsky’s antisemitism. “It strikes me as strange to the point of implausibility that a man so sensitive in his novels to the sufferings of others, this jealous defender of the insulted and the injured … despised me and my kind.” While keeping strictly to biographical fact, Tsypkin has written a novel that provides the sort of psychological insight that is only available through fiction.    

The essays in Lydia Davis's book Essays, our Book of the Week this week, contain some of the sharpest writing about writing and about the reading of writing you are likely to read. 
>>Read Thomas's review. 
>>"There's no such thing as no style."
>>On balance and coherence. 
>>"A few words well chosen."
>>"Language is character."
>>A writer's writer's writer. 
>>Advice to the young
>>The art of fiction
>>"Honour the syntax."
>>"My style is a reaction to Proust's long sentences." 
>>"Did the idea of having your language corrected have a repressive effect on your talking?"
>>Davis's short — and often very short — stories are exemplars of the form, and her translations are outstanding

Friday, 10 January 2020

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter        $28
In 1934, the Austrian painter Christiane Ritter travelled to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen to spend a year with her husband, an explorer and researcher. They lived in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement. At first, Christiane is horrified by the freezing cold, the bleak landscape the lack of equipment and supplies, but as time passes, and after encounters with bears and seals, long treks over the ice and months on end of perpetual night, she finds herself falling in love with the Arctic's harsh, otherworldly beauty, gaining a sense of inner peace and a new appreciation for the sanctity of life. A rediscovered classic. 
Vertigo & Ghost by Fiona Benson         $30
Benson says that the terrifying sequence of Zeus poems that form the first half of Vertigo & Ghost emerged from ‘a long buried experience, and then a sudden pouring-in of words, that I can only explain as coming out of the woods’. The sequence makes palpable the sexualised violence latent in Greek mythology, with Zeus as abuser-in-chief, abetted and feared. It is followed by an exploration of the complex and ambivalent terrain of early motherhood.
Winner of the 2019 Forward Prize.
>>In conversation with Daisy Johnson.  
A Māori Phrase a Day: 365 phrases to kickstart your reo by Hemi Kelly         $30
Really good. See also A Maori Word a Day
Gypsies by Josef Koudelka          $50
109 photographs taken between 1962 and 1971 in what was Czechoslovakia (Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia), Romania, Hungary, France and Spain. A unique record of a vanished world.
Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bowmann        $28
A lonely psychiatrist in 1948 is preparing fro retirement when he is drawn to a seemingly fragile woman who comes to him as a patient.
"A shrewd, skilful tale of loneliness, the search for meaning and a place in the world, and the problems of truly relating to another human being.” —Independent

The Summer Isles: A voyage of the imagination by Philip Marsden       $45

The Summer Isles are a sporadically inhabited archipelago off the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. Marsden reached them by sailing along the exposed western coasts of Ireland and Scotland. It is a course that has been followed for centuries by explorers and adventurers, fishermen and monks, all drawn to the western seas and their distant horizons. Combining travel writing, memoir and cultural history, this is a book about the search for real places, for imagined places, and for places that might always exist somewhere in between. Beautifully written. 
Imagine Moscow: Architecture, propaganda, revolution by  Ezster Steierhoffer, Richard Anderson and Deyan Sudjic       $35
A record of how a future Moscow was envisioned by a bold generation of architects in the 1920s and early 1930s. Through a wealth of rarely seen material, this book provides a window into an idealistic fantasy of the Soviet capital that was never realised and has since been largely forgotten. Focusing on six unbuilt architectural landmarks, Imagine Moscow explores how these projects reflected changes in everyday life and society following the Revolution.
Galileo's Error: A new science of consciousness by Philip Goff      $40
“The material universe and consciousness are made out of the same stuff.” —Ernst Schrödinger
Is consciousness one of the fundamental properties of all matter? How would our understanding of our universe be altered if we took this to be the case? 
"An illuminating introduction to the topic of consciousness. It addresses the real issue — unlike almost all recent popular books on this subject. It stands a good chance of delivering the extremely large intellectual jolt that many people will need if they are to get into (or anywhere near) the right ballpark for thinking about consciousness. This is a great thing." —Galen Strawson, Guardian
The Breeze Block Book by Sam Marshall et al       $95
Breeze block is back. This surge of interest in the material, though, is more than a nostalgic yearning for the golden years of modernism. Contemporary designers are not only rediscovering the forgotten qualities that made it such an appealing medium for mid-century architects, but finding new ways to enhance and exploit them.

The Marquise of O— by Heinrich von Kleist            $28
A crisp new translation by Nicholas Jacob of Kleist's comic novel of the clash between sexuality and respectability, set in northern Italy during the Napoleonic Wars.
Hundred: What you learn in a lifetime by  Heike Faller and Valerio Vidali        $48
How does our perception of the world change in the course of a lifetime? When Heike Faller's niece was born she began to wonder what we learn in life, and how we can talk about what we have learnt with those we love. And so she began to ask everyone she met, what did you learn in life? Out of the answers of children's writers and refugees, teenagers and artists, mothers and friends, came 99 'lessons' — each here delightfully illustrated by Valerio Vidali. 
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris         $20
A hilarious collection of essays from "the premier observer of our world and its weirdnesses." —Adam Kay
Ready, Set, Draw! by Hervé Tullet        $30
 Showcasing Hervé's signature bold colours and minimalist shapes and lines, this wildly graphic and highly intuitive card game will unlock every young (and old) artist's creative potential. Select WHAT to draw from one deck and HOW to draw it from the other; then flick the colourful spinner wheel to randomise the options. From "draw a tree with your eyes closed" to "draw a friend... upside down!", the combinations are endless — and endlessly fun!

Saturday, 4 January 2020

BOOKS @ VOLUME #159 (4.1.20)

Our first newsletter of the decade!


The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy      {Reviewed by STELLA}
Deborah Levy’s books are not what you expect and are better for it. A simple story-line, not predictable but understandable, is usually where she opens — but where she ends is a place of surprise and delight. And always with elegance and tenacity. Levy’s last three novels, including this one, The Man Who Saw Everything, have been long-listed for the Booker Prize. In The Man Who Saw Everything, Saul Adler is a young historian fooling around with his art student girlfriend Jennifer Moreau and readying himself to visit East Germany as part of his research. It’s 1988, just a few years before The Wall comes down. Adler is good-looking and idealistic, somewhat perplexed by his girlfriend, haunted by his mother’s death (he was twelve when she died in an accident) and tormented by his bullying father and brother. When we meet Saul has just been knocked down by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Bruised and a bit bloody he gets himself sorted and limps on to Jennifer's flat. Jennifer Moreau — photographer. Favourite subject of her final year exhibition — Saul Adler and his body. Or so he thinks:
“It’s like this Saul Adler: the main subject is not always you.
It’s like this Jennifer Moreau: you have made me the main subject.”

In this situation, Levy turns the artist's-muse-as-role in on itself, reversing the gender stereotypes. In her work later, Jennifer Moreau is recognised for her observing eye — her ability to see a body in all its fragments through the lens. Saul is banned from saying anything about Moreau’s ‘beauty’ and must be content with the role of the observed rather than the observer. A day like any other — sex with Jennifer in the afternoon — turns out to be the last day of their relationship. Jennifer Moreau is off to America, and when Saul proposes she sends him packing. In East Germany, he meets Walter Müller and his sister Luna. He falls in love with Walter, sleeps with both Walter and Luna, and proceeds to make a hash of his time in East Germany by putting them both under suspicion with the local Stasi. Or so he thinks. There are some clues in this part of the novel to the state of Saul Alder’s mind — he is somewhat paranoid — often questioning people’s behaviour towards him, and the black telephone he sees in Mrs Stechler’s flat in London and in Walter’s mother’s flat are too similar to be ignored, especially when starts tapping the wall, looking for something, but what he is not sure. Levy is playing with her reader, but in the most humorous of ways, as she unpacks Saul for us. And when we arrive in 2016 — Saul is knocked down for a second time on the same crossing — we sense that some cogs have become undone. This time there is no brushing himself off and limping to Jennifer Moreau’s place. He's in hospital and Jennifer is there, as is Rainer the East German informer, and his brother, Matt. As this section of the novel unfolds, you are cast into confusion — not helped by our narrator’s concussion. Memory and time are flipping over each other and Saul Adler is no longer a reliable narrator, but he is our only guide — so read the prompts carefully. It will be rewarding. Excellent writing from Levy reminds me why I return to her work and am always impressed just a little bit more by her concepts of the self, of identity, memory and the impact that human action (and inaction) has on the other and oneself. In The Man Who Saw Everything, she reminds us that the truth is within our grasp but easily clouded by our own disillusion and self-importance.


Exposition by Nathalie Léger    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
What is the relation between an atemporal — or, rather, idiotemporal — work and the temporality — or evanescence — both of its creation and of its reading? In photography, as in literature, as in any of the so-called arts — and here we turn back before proposing a ‘useful’ definition of ‘art’ — it is the relationship between passing and unpassing time that forms the unterlayer of our understanding of the work, and of what, if anything, we can see beyond it, if it can be said to have a beyond, and, as with all relationships, whether in the arts or in society, the first question must always be one of power. Who or what is affected by who or what at the instigation of who or what? Which forces are here promulgated and which forces are resisted? What is revealed and what is — perhaps by that revelation — concealed? And, more interestingly, what is concealed and what is — perhaps by that concealment — revealed? The ostensible subject, so to call it, in any work of art is of relative insignificance to these considerations, and to the mechanisms of representation to which they give rise. Ostensibly concerning a four-decades-long series of photographs taken of the Countess Virginia Oldoini Castiglione by the Parisian society photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson from the 1850s to the 1890s, Exposition reveals Léger's thinking on exposure, concealment and over-exposure, on representation and self-representation, on the politics of the gaze especially when concerning the power or otherwise of women, on the limited and limiting truths of photography, on time and history, and also, half-reluctantly but therefore crucially, on uncomfortable aspects of her own family history (for instance, on a childhood photograph of Léger that shows her face peering through some bushes was taken by her father’s lover, who was aware that Léger was gazing at their dalliance when thinking herself unseen). “They contemplated her beauty the way people enjoyed freak shows,” says Léger of Castiglione. From her youth, through her time as mistress of Napoleon III in Second Empire France, through to her declining years, Castiglione was obsessed with the way in which she was seen and conscious always of controlling her self-representation, directing Pierson in a stupefying series of lavishly staged and costumed photographs, some recreating — faking — key moments in her life. This project, with its vapid and cloying results, is the work of a woman determined at all costs to keep a gaze upon her but to reveal nothing of herself. She appears “at once defiant and imploring,” both monstrous and needy. Her self-representation is not that of Cindy Sherman for the first gaze in Sherman’s photographs is Sherman’s own, whereas for Castiglione the first gaze is that of the passive, male, invisible photographer. There is a tyranny in her command of the gaze of others but also a desperation, an existential insecurity, a sense that the subject is lost to herself and — impossibly — seeks assurance in the response of others to the fake self she presents (and long before instagram, too). Photography, “her only mask”, is what makes her both visible and impossible to be seen. There is nothing to Castiglione below the surface — or at least not as far as we can tell — she has made herself into an object, her so-called “beauty” is a characterlessness, a blandness; she is an object that demands no sympathies other than admiration, if admiration can be considered a sympathy. Léger is, rightly, not interested in Castiglione beyond her photographic project, but she is interested in the spaces, the absences, in which the ungraspable could exist if it did exist (“Like death, and one or two other little things the subject is simply the name for what cannot be spoken.”). If ellipses are a means of removing content from a sentence without altering its meaning, how much content is the greatest amount that can be removed while preserving enough meaning to at least simulate coherence? At what point does the process of ellipsis itself become the meaning?
(>>Read my review of Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden here)