Friday 24 April 2020

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BOOKS @ VOLUME #175 (24.4.20)

Guestbook by Leanne Shapton    {Reviewed by STELLA}
Guestbook is the best thing I have read in lock-down so far — and there have been some great books in the pile — I'm so pleased I saved it until now. It’s a project, as much as a book. My first Leanne Shapton experience was Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris — a novel about a relationship break-up in the form of an auction catalogue. Then Swimming Studies — a memoir of sorts with essays, photographs and illustrations (which I’m very pleased to own a hardback copy of — now out of print (and if you are keen on Guestbook, I recommend this very handsome hardback edition while it is still available)) and also her collaborative work with Sheila Heti and Heidi Julavits, Women in Clothes, which is just brilliant and endlessly browseable. But I think Guestbook might top all these. It’s an experience, an art project, a rumination on memory and story-telling, with its collected images and texts and wonderfully strange, clever juxtapositions. These collected pieces are various and endlessly fascinating. In 'Eqalussuaq', a series of black-and-white photographs worthy of old nature magazines of the Greenland shark is captioned with snippets from newspaper items as well as a monologue of culinary requests to the possible chef for a private party sailing trip. 'At the Foot of the Bed', a series of photographs, some from magazine advertising, of empty beds have an eerie presence on the page — disturbing by their silence and strange wanting for someone or something to happen. There’s the story of a traumatised tennis player, Billy Byron, and his imaginary companion who drives him to the brink — a pinprick look at highly driven competitive personalities. It’s no coincidence that this book is subtitled Ghost Stories. There are ghostly apparitions, tales of odd happenings, old houses with haunting fables. Shapton is delving into and creating the unexplained, using memorabilia, found objects (photos and images), reminiscences, resonances and mis-tellings to make us look twice and then make us look again — think again. Her artworks from various projects are interspersed throughout, watercolours, drawings, sculptural and photographic work, and the overall black-and-white printing gives a feeling of timelessness or 'timetrappedness'. In 'The Iceberg as Viewed by Eyewitnesses', she matches drawings (falsely attributed to eyewitnesses of the Titanic sinking) with the incident book from an upmarket restaurant and bar — the complaints and how the staff dealt with the issues, alongside recommendations for more appropriate actions next time. Humour underscores many of the vignettes. What is true and what is real are not considerations in this Guestbook, but the emotions, the philosophical musings, and Shapton’s role as witness of events and medium of ghostly apparitions will delight anyone who likes to look sideways at the world with one eye squinting and a mind wide open to intrigues and play.   


Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah      {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“Does the weather come before the news or after?” asks a character, or someone, in Bae Suah’s novel Untold Night and Day. That this should be a question, that the familiar should be sufficiently unfamiliar for this question to be asked, not to mention that a reader, for some reason, should find this question worth noting down on a piece of paper, presumably the question appears near the end of the book, perhaps at the point, or at least not before the point, at which the reader decided, assuming that the reader did decide, that they would write what might pass for a review of Untold Night and Day, strikes to the heart, ouch, of Suah’s assault, ouch again, metaphors are bad and lazy, especially these ones, on the problematics of time in the theatre, so to call it, of the quotidian. What justification have we to claim that time ‘flows’, that a moment and all it contains is swept forward, or leaps forward, until it becomes another moment and all that that moment contains? Flows how and in relation to what? Sweeps or leaps forward how and in relation to what? There seems to be, the reader notes, at least the reader who noted down the quote with which this paragraph begins notes, no way of thinking about time without a metaphor, no way of thinking about time without thinking about it in terms of something else, something that it is not. If there is no way of thinking about something except in terms of something that it is not, the reader thinks, we must be thinking wrongly, or lazily, or without sufficient reason to think of it in this way even if our thinking is not completely wrong or lazy. With what could we replace a way of thinking that is either wrong or lazy, the reader wonders, thinking that, immersed as the reader is entirely in language, if that itself is not a metaphor, the reader is not sure, with what could we replace wrong or lazy thinking if not with grammar, the people’s friend? All problems are grammatical problems, it occurs to the reader, all problems, from the problem of time, so to call it, to the problem of the relationship between the mind and the brain, so to call them, can be resolved with grammar, all problems are grammatical problems and can be fixed with a bit of editing. A noun seems certain but is never certain, a noun is arbitrary, contestable, ostensible at best but imprecisely bordered, the reader thinks, a noun may be a useful tool but a noun is never more than a tool, the reader thinks, and, the reader thinks, this especially applies to the so-called proper nouns, a noun is imposed upon reality, so to call it, if there is something that we can call reality, but a noun is never real, not in the way that a verb is real, not in the way that a verb is incontestable, the reader thinks, a verb is never uncertain or ostensible, verbs are really all there is, or all there are, the reader thinks, there are only verbs, everything else we have is just a set of tools to help us think about verbs. The problem of time is a problem with nouns, the reader thinks, all metaphors are illnesses of nouns. Nouns occur, recur, or persist, they perhaps transform or are transformed, instantaneously or slowly, though we are suspicious of this, and rightly so, for change calls all nouns into doubt. Nouns can be replaced or exchanged, though, the reader thinks, without changing much but themselves. There is no great importance to nouns. One of the pleasures of Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day, and one of the pleasures of Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl, to which Bae Suah frequently refers in her novel, the reader thinks, is the way in which a limited number of elements, a limited number of identities, properties, descriptions and phrases, are combined and recombined to disconcerting effect, blurring the characters and events, each entity reaching for its opposite, or for its undoing, if its opposite and its undoing are not the same thing, each entity sharing the qualities by which we recognise it with some other entity, which thereby is perhaps the same entity since entities are only knots of qualities, arbitrary, ostensible and so forth, we’ve been there, the reader thinks. In Suah’s case we cannot know if the main character is a young actress losing her job at an audio theatre for the blind, or a middle-aged poet and translator of German, like Suah herself, though Suah isn’t a poet, as far as the reader knows, whether there is a temporal relationship between these possibilities, there is evidence both for and against this, one in the eye for the concept of time, whether the legs described as knotty, with too-small feet and shoes well-polished but nevertheless seeming castoff, a description repeated many times but which the reader cannot now find in the book, belong to the actress or the poet or the actress's or the poet’s mother standing outside the closed audio theatre, whether the figure in the white hambok is a blind girl visiting the theatre, or the actress when her other clothes are wet or the actress when she once acted in a film or the poet or someone else, the elements occur and recur, they both attach and detach themselves from entities, they both describe and undermine, they are evidence both for and against any attempt we may make, that we perhaps cannot help making, to resolve character, plot, or any of the other novelistic presumptions we may bring to the book through training or out of habit or convention, we are bad detectives, or, really, inverse detectives, thinks the reader, if there can be such a thing. Wolfi, the German writer who has come to Seoul to finish his detective novel is both absolutely right and absolutely wrong, at least about this book, and certainly simplistic and uninteresting compared with what else could be said, when he says, “the murder is a doppelgänger incident. Readers later realise that the female protagonist is the ghost of the woman who has been murdered many years ago.” Without character or plot, the reader thinks, with neither stasis nor development, with these disconcerting shifts of perspective, entity and tense, there must be some other force that knots the elements, that unknots and reknots them, but what might that be, the reader wonders, if not trauma, trauma unspecified, memory unacknowledged, unfaceable, not present, not mentioned, but pressing upon all that is present and mentioned, memory without the presumption of time. The elements of the book wear themselves out through repetition, the reader thinks, they erase themselves through reiteration. Blindness sucks at the novel, sight is lost, forgetting is a relief, the reader thinks, forgetting is as good as death but without death’s messy aspects, the reader thinks, or the reader thinks that he thinks, he’s not quite sure, at least as far as the novel goes, or forgetting is what makes death unneeded. Everything in Untold Night and Day, this title does not refer to a 24-hour convenience store but the reader wishes he had not thought of a 24-hour convenience store but he cannot stop thinking about it in relation to the title now that he has thought of it, is, as Suah or Suah’s character says, “a symptom of disintegration”, a symptom, why had he not used the word symptom above, in so many places, he wondered, of its own effacement, of the application of combinatorial rigour in the undoing of the effects of memory, in the erasure of unspecified, unspecifiable, trauma, a symptom of the loss of sight. In Untold Night and Day the loss of sight is privileged above all other losses, the reader thinks. All poets are shabby and old, and the oldest and shabbiest and best of the poets is almost blind: “Those milky eyes were the oldest of the body’s constituent parts. Hesitating as though they still did not believe in their own ability to perceive the world, those eyes blinked ceaselessly and irregularly. At each spasmodic movement, the eyeballs themselves aged yet more rapidly.” 
Book of the Week. In his moving and beautifully written novel Patience, Toby Litt projects himself into the mind of a narrator who is prodigiously capable of taking in but tragically incapable of giving out. Elliott is confined to a wheelchair and cannot express his verbally rich inner life, but, in the course of the book, he manages to take a small but significant initiative. 
>>Read Thomas's review
>>Read an extract
>>Writer, writing
>>Litt reads from the book
>>All novels should have a play-list!
>>An interview with Toby Litt
>>"A yearning to connect."
>>Short-listed for the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize
>>Which is more important — style or voice? 
>>Published by the 'small but mighty' Galley Beggar Press
>>Your copy will be delivered to your door
>>Consider Wrestliana

Friday 17 April 2020

BOOKS @ VOLUME #174 (17.4.20)

Read this week's newsletter. 


A Mistake by Carl Shuker    {Reviewed by STELLA}
Medical misadventure is the stuff of shouty headlines and third-hand anecdote: told, embellished and finger-pointing. We all know mistakes happen in all professions but when it comes to medicine we are quick to blame and sharply condemn. Accountability is fine, but where is the line between personal responsibility and institutional culpability? In Carl Shuker’s A Mistake, his latest novel, we are in crisis mode from the opening pages. A young woman with severe abdominal pain is in A&E — immediate surgery necessary. Elizabeth Taylor, perfectionist, surgeon, 27 hrs on her feet, is in charge and the theatre is ready — the stage set. We know that this is just the beginning of a disaster, and just as we, the reader, are shunted into the midst of this medical freneticism, the author calls cut and the clapper board comes down and we are taken back to 1986 — to the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. The tension is the same, the anticipation and our watchfulness as the audience just as intense. From the small confines of the theatre and looking down through Elizabeth’s eyes at her patient (well, her patient’s body — her awareness of the woman sometimes seems absent), we are suddenly surrounded by the hype and immensity of space science and we are looking up at the sky in wonder — waiting and on tenterhooks as the countdown begins. Shuker cleverly moves between these two situations building an energetic forcefield — and what some readers will feel is a distraction is anything but: technical language — medical in our hospital theatre and astrophysical at NASA mission control, blow-by-blow action — as the surgeons operate and as the NASA team relay information (the as-it-happens variety), the power hierarchy — who’s in charge in each scenario, and the realisation of the error (too late to save anyone). It all piles up around us — the chaos growing. Yet it is what happens next that will reveal more: the consequences for the medical team and for the engineers. Shuker’s Elizabeth Taylor is not the easiest character to slide along with — she’s a perfectionist, dedicated, frustrating, sometimes a lousy friend, brash, dismissive of fools, and is described variously as a brilliant surgeon and a ‘fucking psychopath’. Yet she's loyal, takes the rap for the mistake and, unlike the bureaucratic nightmare she has to work under, she’s not looking for the ‘good’ PR story even when there is wriggle room for her to distance herself from the crisis. But it’s hard to tell whether she has been altered by the mistake or is ultimately only concerned for her own record. Ego, power and success are themes that you expect in this story, and with these comes the flip side: young doctor burnout and suicide, overwork, failed relationships, doubt, recklessness and the unrelenting pressure to be right always. Shuker’s new novel is a departure in style from his previous work. The Method Actors, his first novel, which I read back in 2005, was a big, brilliant, complex book. A Mistake is sharp, scalpel-fine. Shuker has pared this novel back to bone and gristle, letting the reader feel, by being stabbed repeatedly with attack language, reckless behaviour, fleeting insights and snide dialogue, the intensity of this life and this error. The ending is as abrupt as the start and you will be wounded — but intrigued by that scalpel cut. Long after you read this novel you will have a scar to remember it by.

A Mistake is short-listed for the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book awards. >>See which other books have been listed. 

There had been a strong wind in the night, he said, and the leaves of  the banana tree, no, he corrected himself, the fronds of the banana palm, no, he re-corrected himself, nothing seemed right, the leaves of the banana plant, a more general term is always safer when unsure, the leaves of the banana plant he could see from the bathroom window were shredded and were this morning little more than a fringe of fibres tossing from each stem, or spine, perhaps, looking like those things that American cheerleaders wave about, whatever they are called, he didn’t know, not having taken an interest in American cheerleaders, are those things waved by American cheerleaders on sticks, though, he wondered, perhaps he should stop making similes with things he knew nothing about, perhaps he should stop making similes altogether, a simile is lazy, after all, in any case the leaves, whatever they looked like, looked silly, if silly can be a property of nature, silly enough to be used by an American cheerleader, or possibly a Morris dancer, he wondered, no, they’re either handkerchiefs or sticks, but the leaves of the banana plant were each a switch fringed with ribbons, silly, perhaps, a jester’s baton perhaps, but undoubtedly an evolutionary exemplar, everything in nature is an evolutionary exemplar, he thought, with the possible exception of human beings, or of myself at any rate, he thought, everything is an exemplar of the ineluctable operations of nature, why else would a banana leaf, or frond, whatever, unfurl itself pre-perforated like a seagull’s quill, bad simile, we won’t go there, if not to be torn apart along those perforations by the wind, when the wind is strong enough, shredding itself into ribbons rather than snapping, if not to protect its functions at the expense of looking silly, that is certainly the way the way of nature, he thought, I could certainly learn something from that. He was having trouble concentrating, he said, he was having trouble thinking really at all, lock-down has delivered all this extra mental space, or mental time, mental space and mental time being the same thing even more obviously than physical space and physical time, so to call it, this extra mental space-time is, more than anything, a big internal vacuum, a big empty space (or time) for thoughts to reveal their clinamen unimpeded by practicalities, a tendency usually recognised as dissipation, but also, at least in theory, the circumstances in which thoughts might unexpectedly swerve towards each other, collide and make new thoughts. No sign of that, at least for me, he thought. I have sat down to write my weekly review, time is running out, and here I am, thinking about banana leaves, or banana fronds, not that I even have any strong feelings towards banana leaves or banana fronds, though I do, I suppose, hold banana fruit in a positive light even though the banana fruit is undoubtedly also silly, here I go again, and I am not even sure which book I will review. I have read many books this week, he declared, I have read many books and I have put many books aside half-read, or read in some proportions either greater or less than a half, I have read more and finished less, he said, even than usual, I have immersed myself in sentences, paragraphs and chapters but emerged quite dry, I do not know what to review, he said, perhaps, he thought, I will call my piece Why I Have Not Read Any of My Books, an explanatory text, perhaps, to Why I Have Not Reviewed Any of My Books, though it is not true that I have not been reading, he protested, I have been reading many books, far too many, he said, I have this pile here, by the bed, and here are books by Rachel Cusk, Virginia Woolf, Yoko Ogawa, Julio Cortázar, Osamu Dazai, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Albert Camus, Nell Zink and others, all of which I have been reading this week and enjoying but all of which I have stopped reading and moved on to reading something else, I have not finished a single book this week, he admitted, with the exception of All My Cats by Bohumil Hrabal, a book of which he had read something a little over half some weeks ago and had put aside unfinished, perhaps there is hope for the rest, he thought, perhaps I will come back to these books by Rachel Cusk, Virginia Woolf, Yoko Ogawa, Julio Cortázar, Osamu Dazai, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Albert Camus, Nell Zink and others, or at least to some of them, finish them off and write reviews, as if, he thought with passing irritation, the purpose of my reading was to write reviews, I promised myself I would never read for that reason, and I must remind myself not to finish reading a book for any reason than the reading itself, whatever that means, he thought, there is little sense in that statement. “What are we going to do with all those cats?” Hrabal’s wife asks throughout Hrabal’s book, All My Cats, for there are, over the years, a varying but large number of cats at the Hrabals’ country cottage in Kersko, near Prague, some of whom just arrive and start living there but most of whom are the offspring of other cats already living there, as desexing cats does not seem to have occurred to Hrabal or to Hrabal’s wife, or perhaps was not common practice in Czechoslovakia in the period about which the book was written. Hrabal’s love for the cats is immense and respectful, he is a perceptive and sensitive companion for the cats, he seems to feel greater affinity for the cats than for humans, especially than for his neighbours, but Hrabal is a man who is easily overwhelmed, a man also constantly resisting the urge to hang himself from the willow tree beside the stream, as the fortune teller had told him he would, and he succeeds in this, he died falling from a hospital window after he had written this book, obviously. The greater Hrabal’s love for all his cats, the greater Hrabal’s feelings of guilt about those times when he has taken certain of his cats and killed them in the old mail sack in the shed, killed them for there being too many of them, for their demands being too great for Hrabal, both practically and emotionally, and Hrabal’s capacity to love ensures that his guilt will never be assuaged, his guilt grows more intense over the years, so much so that he even buys a brown car. How lucky you are, say Hrabal’s friends and acquaintances, to have this cottage at Kersko, bought with the income from your literary success, this cottage at Kersko to which you can go and write, to which you can go and enjoy the mental space and the mental time, the same thing, in which thoughts reveal their clinamen and collide with other thoughts to make that writing happen, but for Hrabal the mental space and the mental time spent in his cottage in Kersko are entirely filled with his cats, with his love for his cats and his guilt about killing his cats, and his time and his space are a torment, Hrabal could have made a torment of anything, the cats are central and everything else, from his accident in his brown car to his attempts to rescue a swan frozen into the river, gain their meaning for Hrabal from their relationship to the love-guilt axis he has with his cats. All of Hrabal’s writing is an elaboration on this love-guilt axis, or on the love-guilt axis of the characters in his books, a love-guilt axis that draws its authenticity from the love-guilt axis of their author. Hrabal shows, he thought as he wondered if he would be able to write a review of Hrabal’s book, whether he had enough mental space and mental time to write such a review, Hrabal shows how the mental space and mental time required for writing is also the mental space and mental time that runs what could be termed a constant existential risk, why else would we construct our normal lives, so to call them, our cultural and social and practical lives, so carefully to minimise our mental space and our mental time, if not to avoid the realisation of an underlying existential void, if not to avoid what he called, offhandedly, a Kierkegaardian moment of enlightenment, an intolerable recognition of the meaningless, purposelessness and ennui that assail us from all sides and at every moment but which we avoid thinking about by deceiving ourselves. Thank goodness for love and guilt, he thought, do I have enough of either? He had not finished reading his books and he had not written his review, but then he had not done any of the many other things he had also intended to do during the week, he had not changed the washers in the dripping taps or sorted out his clothes draw, he had not dealt with the borer in the bathroom, he was not quite sure what he had done, other than think about banana leaves, thoughts he wished now that he had not thought, or written about at least. So much for mental time and mental space, he thought. 
Cookbooks are the only books that it seems appropriate to shelve in the kitchen, but, even so, the shelves above our fridge are warping under the weight of them. One of our favourites, and always within reach, is Ostro by Julia Busuttil Nishimura. We have chosen this book as our Book of the Week this week because the book is both beautifully presented and contains approachable recipes for beautiful food. 
>>Read Stella's review
>>The Ostro food blog
>>"I did that. I made them happy with my food.
>>Eggplant parmigiana
>>Julia's instagram page
>>On teaching children to grow and prepare food. 
>>"What is done in love, is done well."
>>Busuttil Nishimura's rituals
>>Your copy can be delivered during Level 3
>>Order Julia Busuttil Nishimura's A Year of Simple Family Food now (the book will be released later this year). 

Friday 10 April 2020

BOOKS @ VOLUME #173 (10.4.20)

Our third lock-down newsletter!


'Tales of the Otori' by Lian Hearn    {Reviewed by STELLA}
My obsession this week has been the 'Tales of the Otori' series. Initially published from 2002, these books have lived on the shelf at home for several years (Founders Book Fair finds). The week began with Across the Nightingale Floor and ended with Brilliance of the Moon (and now I’m on to the sequel - Harsh Cry of the Heron.) Set in feudal Japan, a young boy has a carefree life in the hillside village of Mino until it is attacked by the Tohan forces. He is one of the Hidden, a non-violent and insular group who do not adhere to the beliefs or principles of the warring factions that surround them. Tomaso (soon to be renamed Takeo) is the only survivor and escapes into the hills with two warriors on his tail. Just as the men gain on him, he is grabbed on the path by a man in travelling clothes. This man becomes his protector and purpose. Lord Shigeru, the legitimate heir of the Otori clan, takes Takeo into his home, adopts him and begins instructing him the way of the warrior and, through Kenji (a Muto tribe leader), in the ways of the mysterious and dangerous Tribe — the expert spies and assassins. Takeo is descended from the Kikitu family who have superior and fascinating abilities — exceptional hearing, second self and ‘invisibility’. The Tribe expect complete obedience (something that the young man Takeo finds counter to his upbringing) and Lord Shigeru also has plans for him in his endeavours to retain his rightful inheritance as the head of the Otori clan. Yet this is not only the tale of Takeo. While some lords play at war and military might, others seek and gain power through alliances, marriage and the taking of hostages. One such hostage is the young and beautiful Lady Kaede, the eldest daughter, from the Shirakawa family. Given as a hostage and guarantee of obedience as a young girl to a minor and contemptible warlord, Kaede has spent half of her fifteen years in captivity at his castle. As she matures, her beauty and reputation precede her, and Kaede becomes a pawn in the games between the warring clans. A marriage is arranged between Lady Kaede Shirakawa and Lord Shigeru Otori at the insistence of the powerful leader of the Tohan, Iida Sadumu — a marriage which Kaede fears and which is a trap for Shigeru. Pull in Shigeru’s lover, Lady Maruyama Naomi, and a blossoming attraction between Takeo and Kaede, along with intrigue, secrets and danger, and the scene is set for a dramatic and drastic outcome. In the first book, both Kaede and Takeo must find the inner strengths and utilise all their intellect and physical advantages to overcome powerful leaders, often working blind in a situation where they do not know the rules or the plans of these overlords, and the deadly lengths they will go to retain or gain power. As you can imagine, both Taeko and Kaede make it through the first book, but their woes will continue, and greater trials and danger ensue in Grass for His Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon. Now Takeo has a prophecy: five battles — four to win and one to lose, and his death will come at the hands of his son. Does he believe in this prophecy or is it mere superstition? And where does he stand in the world when his lineage is split across three paths — Tribe, Otori and Hidden? This is an excellent series — gripping and intriguing; a story of suspense, love, loyalty, double-crossing, mystery and revenge. So good that I'm going back to Book 4 immediately so I can be immersed in the world of the Otori. 


Species of Spaces by Georges Perec    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The page. The bed. The bedroom. The apartment. The building. The street. The neighbourhood. The town. The mind moves out from its location, its centre, towards the universe, towards 'outer space', through a series of conceptual concentric 'spaces', and whatever is beyond the mind presses in upon it, from these and through these concentric spaces towards their conceptual centre, the mind of whoever conceives of spaces, towards, ultimately, the page. Georges Perec, amiable company for a mind out for some local exercise, is ever aware of the peculiar relationship between objects and language (could we conceive of one without the other?), ever aware of the freighting of objects both with memories and with preconceptions. He treats the objects on his desk or the contents of his street as would an archaeologist, carefully recording both their objective qualities and the associations and memories that adhere to them. What is an object divested of memory, association, meaning, preconception? We cannot see clearly because we have become habituated to what we find familiar, we have become blind to precisely what is essential about our situations, we notice only the exotic and not the endotic, we crave the extraordinary and no longer see the ordinary other than an absence of the extraordinary, we do not look within the ordinary to discern the infraordinary particulars that are the true texture of our lives. Why should only the abnormal be significant? “(In spite of yourself, you’re only noticing the untoward, the peculiar, the wretched exceptions; the opposite is what you should be doing.)” Perec strives in writing for “true realism: to rely on a description of reality divested of all presumptions.” He instructs us to “get rid of all preconceived ideas. Stop thinking in ready-made terms. Force yourself to see flatly. Carry on until the scene becomes improbable, until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town, or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements…” The truths revealed by this observatory rigour are not profound but banal (there are no profound truths), never unfamiliar but often surprising. In only this way can text become evidence of what it is like to exist, clutchings of moments and particulars in the face of forces of erasure. Evidence persists where memory fails to suffice, or fails to suffice without it. The penultimate section in Species of Spaces reproduces a letter from an SS officer at Auschwitz detailing the trees required to provide Nos 1 and 2 crematorium ovens with “a green border”. This letter has particular if unstated relevance for Perec, whose mother was consumed in one of Auschwitz’s crematoria when he was a child (his father had already been killed). The final sequence intimates the desperate poignancy that underlies all of Perec’s writing, even his most linguistically playful: “I would like there to exist places that are stable, unmoving, intangible, untouched and almost untouchable, unchanging, deep-rooted; places that might be points of reference, of origin: my birthplace, the cradle of my family, the house where I may have been born, the tree I may have seen grow (that my father may have planted the day I was born), the attic of my childhood filled with memories. Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. My spaces are fragile: time is going to wear them away, to destroy them. Nothing will any longer resemble what was, my memories will betray me, oblivion will infiltrate my memory.” For Perec there was only one possible response: “To write: to try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.”
This week's Book of the Week has just been short-listed for the 2020 Booker International Prize. The Discomfort of Evening by the Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (translated by Michele Hutchison) tells of the impact of a tragic accident on the the world-view of a ten-year-old growing up in a religious family on a rural dairy farm. The book is shot through with memorable images, unsettling moments, and passages of remarkable linguistic power. 
>>"It's difficult for my parents to understand that I'm not the girl they raised."
>>"My stories all come back to the loss of my brother"
>>An interview with the translator, Michele Hutchison
>>The dairy farmer who wrote a best-seller
>>'Grief Eaters'.
>>If you read Dutch
>>Your copy will be delivered to your doorstep as soon as the lock-down has been lifted
>>See the other books on the Booker International Prize short list

Friday 3 April 2020

BOOKS @ VOLUME #172 (3.4.20)

Our second lock-down newsletter!

STELLA>> Read all Stella's reviews.


The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel  {Reviewed by STELLA} 
Hilary Mantel’s timing couldn’t have been better. Waiting eight years for the final instalment of her Cromwell trilogy has been worth it and it is the perfect lock-down read. (I'm wondering how many people are reading this world-wide at this moment!) So we know about Thomas Cromwell and the machinations of the court. Mantel does not deviate from the history but breathes life into these long-dead players with such vigour, cleverness and expert writing that you will be completely immersed for days, if not weeks. The opens where Bring Up the Bodies left off, with Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Cromwell has rid his prince of the marriage he no longer wanted and is now even further ensconced in the royal’s favour. Yet this is a favour held with great difficulty. Henry is temperamental, fixated on producing a male heir and increasing England’s wealth and influence — alliances and enemies abound, not helped by the rejection of Rome. Thomas Cromwell, now a wealthy and influential man, once a blacksmith's son (as some often remind him) is envied and openly despised by many of the aristocratic families and between these families are both alliance and divisions, petty grievances and bloody back-stabbing. It’s a rich and colourful tapestry which Mantel stitches with perfection. As with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the author’s ability to get under the skin of these historical figures enables the reader to walk the halls of the Court, to sense the tension and anticipate the danger that awaits players in an ever-changing game, and to be an observer in Cromwell’s house, heart and mind. As Cromwell rises in esteem with Henry, his jeopardy also increases, and what comes after can only be a fall. There is so much happening in this massive tome (800+ pages) that it is hard to describe all the ins and outs — suffice to say that the pages turn out a larger and greater world than its mere 882 pages. Split into six parts with a very helpful family tree for the royals and a list of characters and their relationships to each other (indispensable — I constantly referred back to this to keep track of everyone), it is easy to navigate your way through the book as it focuses our attention on particular aspects and issues affecting Cromwell’s life. There are also excellent philosophical conjectures on religion, power, and how your past will haunt your future (eg. Cromwell and the Cardinal). It lays open the hypocrisy of the church and the state, and the ability to hold sway and keep influence in a time where a false step, a fickle mood, or doing nothing when more is expected (or just bad luck) may just take your head off. The Mirror and The Light shines brightly and brilliantly. 
THOMAS >> Read all Thomas's reviews. 

Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Just how many lawnmowers, how many compressors, chainsaws, air-brooms, skill-saws, mulchers, belt-sanders and water-blasters can you fit into one valley, he wondered. Who could have suspected the amount of equipment crammed into the valley, crammed into sheds, garages and houses, or kept under tarpaulins, until this unexpected month of Sundays, this sudden horrible month of stored-up home improvements, stored-up garden improvements and general therapeutic machine-use. All machine-use is primarily therapeutic, he thought, no matter what else it might achieve, all machine-use is primarily a therapy for anxiety, especially now, especially in this national or global anxiety, he thought. He must try to be generous towards the residents of the valley whose anxiety is being discharged by this therapeutic machine-use, he thought, for without this therapeutic machine-use how else could the anxiety in the valley be discharged, quite understandable levels of anxiety, probably undischargeabale without therapeutic machine-use, or dischargeable only in unfortunate ways. All machines are therapy machines, worst luck, he thought. Soon, though, he thought, all the lawns in the valley will be mown away, all the trees will be cut down and mulched, all the paint will be removed from the houses, all the windowsills will be sanded completely away, all the timber will be cut into offcuts and all the offcuts cut into finger-lengths, tossed away and abandoned. I will be patient, he thought, I will be patient, then we’ll have silence, then I will be able to write my review of the book for which I must have a review written by Friday. He had been reading, re-reading in fact, a book that he particularly liked, Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue self-Portrait, from Les Fugitives, a publisher that he also particularly liked, largely because they published books that he particularly liked, such as this one. It would not be true to say that he had not been experiencing anxiety himself on account of the pandemic which, for all he knew, already had its finger upon him and he had chosen to read, when he was thinking of what to read in the lock-down, first of all Blue Self-Portrait, which he remembered as being wonderfully well-written and translated, funny and painful and claustrophobic, all the qualities he wanted in a book, and, he thought, if my survival is uncertain, it would be a pity to read anything other than what I most would like to read, even if I have already read it and written a review of it also. That was a while ago, he thought, perhaps not a long while but a while long enough for me to re-use my review without anyone noticing that I have re-used my review, not that anyone reads my reviews anyway, he thought, if they don’t read them the won’t notice that I have re-used my review. It made little sense, he thought, to think that if his survival is uncertain he should therefore fill such time as he has with good literature as opposed to less-good literature, it is hard to see what difference this would make, but to do the opposite would make even less sense, and it is impossible not to consider what to read without reference to what must therefore be his anxiety about survival. He had not realised he was so attached to his survival. Some days previously someone had remarked to him that we were living through interesting times and he had replied that yes, we were, but not interesting times that he had particularly wanted to live through. No, he had corrected himself, I do quite want to live through them. He did want to live, which was something, he supposed, and he had chosen to read, in the lock-down, first of all, Blue Self-Portrait. It had been many decades, he thought, since the precarity of survival had imparted such meaning to everyday life, and to all the tiny decisions that comprise it, at least for us who live in the West, who live on our reserves and on the reserves of others. Elsewhere, and in the past, and for others depending on their circumstances, and now everywhere, it is the proximity of death that gives life, and all the tiny choices that comprise it, meaning, or at least what passes for meaning, whatever that may be, he wasn’t sure. He had been reading, or re-reading, if he needs to make a distinction, Blue Self-Portrait on the verandah at home. The trees, the clouds, the autumn sun, even he could not say that the day was not beautiful, but the fact that what is beautiful is so beautiful, he thought, only makes what is horrible more horrible. The beautiful is part of the horrible, the part of the horrible that makes the horrible most horrible, the worst part. If it wasn’t for the virus, he thought, this forced isolation would be ideal. It was easier for him, he thought, to spend four weeks in forced isolation than to spend four weeks in forced socialisation, his usual life in other words, easier but less healthy. I know, he thought, that to return to forced socialisation, my usual life, open-ended forced socialisation at that, when this period of forced isolation, however long, comes to an end, as it will eventually come to an end, will not be easy for me. Socialisation, or my commitment to socialisation, or at least my commitment to an effort towards socialisation, will be hard to regrasp once I have relinquished as I have in this period, however long, of forced isolation, he thought. Isolation is my natural state, he thought, my natural state but not a healthy state, at least not for me, the natural is not always healthy, whatever they say, but to resist a natural state, to strive always for the opposite of my inclinations, to commit myself to the forced socialisation that I call my normal life, he thought, that is not a healthy state either, that is an unhealthy state but at least a sustainable unhealthy state, which I’m not sure can be said of my natural inclinations. My natural state is a self-destructive state, he thought. He found himself, he found himself thinking, in the words of Lefebvre’s narrator in Blue Self-Portrait, in other words of Lefebvre herself, “choosing not extinction but exit, saying yes to say no and not no for no, no for yes but not yes for yes, the extinguisher is no for no the exit yes for no.” Lefebvre could write sentences that he wished that he had written himself, which, for someone who prized a good sentence above all other prizes, earned her his devotion as a reader and perhaps as a writer as well. If a sentence was well enough written, he thought, he could read about anything, but he had less and less time for sentences that were less than excellent, if excellent was the right word, no matter what other qualities they might have, if there are other qualities worth having or qualities to have. All is vacuity, he declared, all is vacuity but the way that vacuity is structured gives meaning. Meaning exists only in grammar if meaning exists at all, he thought, now there’s an aphorism for a calendar. Beyond the sentences there was a musical patterning to the book Blue Self-Portrait, he thought, he recognised a musical grammar of repetitions and variations and motifs probably related to the serialism of Arnold Schoenberg, not something he knew enough about to enlarge upon though probably the case since Schoenberg, both the music of Schoenberg and the painting of Schoenberg, is mentioned often in the book, Schoenberg being the painter of the ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ of the title and the book recognisably musically structured, as opposed to employing the range of mundane structural conventions usually forced upon a novel. In any case, he thought, I shall re-use my review for the book I have re-read, there is nothing wrong with that, because the afternoon has worn on, it is growing cool, there is dinner to be made, there are mosquitoes about, I am boring myself. The world will not be worse off for not having a new review from me this week, the world will be better off. Better off without my blather. When all I can write is an aphorism for a calendar it is better not to write, he thought. If anyone wants a review of what I have been reading they can read my old review, the book hasn’t changed. I have changed and my reading has changed, he supposed, but no-one should care about that, if they want a review let them read my old review, but it would be much better if they just read the book, they don’t need me for that. 
Christiane Ritter's 1934 account of a year spent on the arctic island of Spitsbergen, A Woman in the Polar Night, is this week's Book of the Week. Initially horrified by the extreme conditions, Ritter found herself falling in love with the bleak landscape, which allowed her the mental space to find peace, resourcefulness and creativity. 
>>Lucy Jones on why this forgotten feminist nature writer deserves to be celebrated
>>Lucy Jones on Losing Eden: Why our minds need the wild (due soon)
>>A woman in the polar museum
>>Visit Svalbard
>>We will get your copy to you and soon as the lock-down has been lifted