Tag Archives: Literature

Niki: The Story of a Dog by Tibor Déry

I visited Budapest last April, and I came back with several works of Hungarian fiction in my luggage. The first author I tried from my pile was the great Tibor Déry, who lived and died in the nation’s capital.

You would be absolutely right to classify his book Niki: The Story of a Dog as both a fable and a satire. The qualities at the core of each of those genres are easily discernable to the reader as being at the core of this novel too. And even though I agree with this assessment, I can’t help but flinch upon hearing it. Not because the assessment is incorrect- but because to label the novel as both a fable and a satire seems to negate its identity as a “proper novel”. A fable has connotations of fairy tales, folklore, or grandmotherish bedtime stories based on instilling moral virtues. A satire seems to imply an agenda of sorts- more often than not political in nature- whose importance overshadows that of the novel’s other qualities. And by other qualities I mean the sensuous literary aesthetics that are characteristic of novels. A novel, as a genre, is very much its own beast. And all I’m trying to say is that Niki’s “sensuous literary aesthetics” are not insignificant. This isn’t just a satirical fable wearing the skin of a novel; it is a proper novel in its own right. But why is that worth pointing out? Because I think that if the cashier in Írók Boltja had referred to Niki as a fable or a satire, I would have had second thoughts about buying it. They’re labels that- one way or the other- color the reader’s preconceptions of the book. I may have doubted the depth of the novel’s character development or the pleasure to be had in its plot. But upon reading it I am pleased to say that the book is indeed very readable and enjoyable. It’s emotive. It’s full of wit and charm and heartache. It is a fable. It is a satire. But it’s also, in a very straightforward way, simply the story of a dog.

And this, in my opinion, is the book’s greatest strength. There is true genius in creating a work of art that can be experienced on different levels. Niki is equally effective as both a political satire and a story. In short, the book is about an unwanted pup that falls into the hands of Mr and Mrs Ancsa, an old couple still mourning the loss of their son in WW2. The setting is Budapest, Hungary, in the years after the war. At first things look promising; Mr Ancsa accepts a new job in the capital and is enthusiastic at the idea of playing his part in creating a better society. He’s a firm believer in Communism and a longtime member of the party. But after he is detained by the Communist Party for seemingly no reason, the initial hope that came with Hungary’s Soviet liberation fast becomes a nightmare. The gradual erosion of the family’s optimistic idealism is reflective of the wider population as the Soviet stranglehold tightens. The process is slow and quiet, and as the country’s would-be saviors are revealed to be nothing more than new Nazis, lofty utopian concepts are extinguished. The novel does an excellent job of illustrating how the hollowness of these utopian ideals results in a kind of societal degradation. Budapest becomes a toxic environment. Neighbors are suspicious and cold. I love how the novel focuses on the minutiae of everyday life. It explores the subtler effects of Soviet oppression, examining not the imprisoned or the persecuted, but those left behind. As the public grows more and more desperate, alienated, and paranoid, their worst qualities emerge. People are isolated and miserable. And through all of this- with her husband missing and her community abandoning her- Mrs Ancsa finds strength in her canine companion.

At its heart the novel is about the story of Niki and how she and the old woman depend on each other. It really is quite moving in some passages. I felt extremely invested in this old woman and her dog. I got emotional reading it- even volatile. The book keeps insisting that it is purely the story of a dog and nothing more. Obviously this isn’t true, and it’s amusing how the book never goes too in-depth into its political commentary. Every time it touches on politics, the narration yanks things back to focus on the dog. This is intentional; the novel is layered, but as I said above, it is genuinely the story of a dog. The behavior of the dog is captured in exquisite, very intricate scientific detail. There were so many times during my reading of the novel that Niki reminded me of the little collie that I dog-sit when I’m living in Houston, TX. I’ve written a couple blog posts about my roommate’s Border Collie mix Adelaide, and the fictional fox terrier Niki bears a striking resemblance to her. Everything about Déry’s descriptions of the pup rings true to me. The novel presents so many fascinating ways of looking at a dog’s behavior. Every scene brought back memories of my time with Adelaide. What struck me most were the beautiful passages that recount Niki’s tendency to jump up at people in joyous greeting. That’s exactly like my Adelaide. It felt like Déry was describing my roommate’s dog. I treasured those poetic extracts that so perfectly tied the dog’s spirit to her springy back-legs. Here’s my favorite quote: “It was as if her muscular, quivering little body were constantly being launched and relaunched in the air on the springs of gaiety. She would bound like a ball on to any object she coveted, her muscles regulated like the parts of some finely adjusted mechanism and her heart full of a tigerish boldness.”

In conclusion, Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog was a fantastic introduction into the rich world of Hungarian Literature. I am so glad I picked it up while I was in Budapest, and I will definitely continue my foray into this nation’s great body of books. I thoroughly recommend this book to all my friends and subscribers. If you prefer thrillers, then perhaps this isn’t for you. It’s not a fast-paced book. But if you have an interest in dogs or European history, then this is most assuredly the novel for you. And it will satisfy you no matter which angle you are coming from; it’s philosophically incisive, but not without good-humored, big-hearted warmth.

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No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Between my job, my novel, my travels, and this here blog, it’s been a chaotic and frustrating year for my reading. As I have stated in some of my recent posts, 2018 has so far been a year in which I’ve felt a little stressed and a little anxious. I’m awful at balancing multiple targets, at tending to each with equal effectiveness so that no one target stagnates. It’s all self-inflicted of course, and I’m going to spend the second half of 2018 trying to improve my lifestyle. Anyhow, I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, having started it a few months ago. One thing I noticed is that my pace picked up massively after the first 100 pages. I think this is for two reasons though; the first being that those initial 100 pages were read in March-April during which I had just started work at the warehouse. After my trip to Hungary I didn’t touch the novel for almost two months, before returning to it again in June. Since my rediscovery of my love for reading in 2017, I’ve been on a hot streak with books and haven’t given up on a single one. So I picked up where I left off with McCarthy, determined not to break my streak of finishing every book I’ve started since January 2017. And it’s not like I wasn’t enjoying the book. Which brings us to the second reason: although I liked the first 100 pages or so, I wouldn’t say I was hooked. However the next 200 pages of the novel I consumed with a feverish hunger. I really started to get invested in the characters and their struggles once I got to the hotel shootout where Moss first encounters Chigurgh.

I had seen the film version of No Country for Old Men years ago, but I didn’t quite remember everything about it when I started reading. I received my copy of the book as a Christmas present last year, and figured it would make an interesting contrast to my last read- The Center of Everything. When I finished the book a couple weeks ago, I re-watched the Coen Brothers’ movie adaptation. Right off the bat I knew that I could never love the movie the way I had before I read the novel. And I used to love that movie. I’m not at all one of those pretentious bibliophile cum-rags that insist the book is always better than the movie. I can think of loads of examples where the movies outdo the original source material: The Last of the Mohicans, The Godfather, There Will Be Blood. But No Country for Old Men certainly isn’t one of them. The Coen Brothers are good at making films, but Cormac McCarthy is a living genius. The Coen Brothers adapted McCarthy’s novel as well as it can be adapted, but having read it I don’t see any way in which a movie could have anywhere near as much depth and complexity. And as I stated earlier, that’s not because books are inherently superior. Each art form has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the kind of story you want to tell and the effect you want it to have. And the advantage a novel has is how far you can go into the souls of its characters.

Once I re-watched the movie, having read the book, I felt a pang of disappointment as I realized that all I was watching was a watered-down version of the same narrative, with nothing particularly outstanding in it that didn’t come originally from McCarthy’s mind. Even the dialogue was lifted straight from the text. For obvious reasons it’s abridged, but the way it’s been cut and pasted into the script means that it lacks the flow of the scenes in the book. It’s not as punchy and powerful.

The character of Chigurgh feels similarly hollow compared to his counterpart in the novel. The film makes him out to be more of a bogeyman or an alien, whereas in the book he is strikingly articulate. The passages where he gives us an insight into his strange worldview and twisted morality are some of the most fascinating in the book. When I was reading those passages, I didn’t interpret him as just some crazed lunatic- and that didn’t make him any less menacing either.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the relationship between Sheriff Bell and Chigurgh. They never meet or have a conversation, but they’re connected. Bell is obsessed not just with catching Chigurgh, but with understanding him. He becomes the personification of a heartlessness that chills Bell to his very core. And Bell always interprets Chigurgh as being the symptom of something larger- a new breed of killers toting a violent, remorseless philosophy that he feels incapable of dealing with. In the novel you really get a sense of how invested the sheriff is in the case, and why, at the end, it consumes him. But in the film we are given very little of Bell’s motivations, so that he seems hardly bothered with what’s going on. The Bell of the novel seems much more agitated and much more desperate to solve the case.

I think the moment I went from simply enjoying the book to falling in love with it occurred in the lengthy denouement. And this is where my criticism of the movie does feel a little unfair. There is no way a standard, feature-length movie could replicate such an ending without killing the pacing. But in the context of a novel, the pacing of the last 50 pages is perfect. It’s a beautifully subtle and understated conclusion to such a bloody narrative. Bell tries his best to track down Chigurgh but he slips through his fingers once again. He is, as Bell says, a “ghost”.

You really get a sense of how deeply the murder of Carla Jean affects the sheriff. And it’s the catalyst for Bell’s unravelling in those final 50 pages or so. Bell confesses that, his whole life, he has been haunted by an experience in World War 2 in which he abandoned his men in order to save his own skin. He survived, his buddies were murdered by the Nazis, and the army gives him a medal for bravery. What I found most interesting about his confession was his idea that since then, he has been living “a stolen life”. He believes that he ought to have died in that field with his fellow soldiers, and this echoes Chigurgh’s fatalistic philosophy. Chigurgh tells Carla Jean, before he shoots her, how every little event, non-event, decision, and decision-not-taken, in her life led to her death at his hands. All roads lead to the same place. Bell feels like he cheated death- or better yet- that he avoided his destiny. Having sworn a duty upon entering the armed forces, his path was set for him, and he reneged on his oath instead of seeing it through.

I can’t stop thinking about his “stolen life” remark though. It implies that he was never meant to return to Texas, marry his wife, serve as sheriff. To him it feels fake, that he is living someone else’s life. It was someone else that was meant to marry Loretta and hunt down Chigurgh. These thoughts send Bell into a depression. We realize that it was his shame and his feelings of inadequacy that drove him to running all over Texas trying to solve a case that was far beyond his jurisdiction. Moss is a member of the community he swore to protect, and in trying to save him Bell is really looking for a second chance to save his wounded men from the Nazis. Bell is driven by a sense of failure, and for me he is the most fascinating character in the book. It was his journey that affected me the most.

Not every Cormac McCarthy book is a page-turner. They’re all brilliant in their own way, but if I’m going to the beach I’m probably not packing Suttree– for the same reason I wouldn’t pack Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. But I would pack No Country for Old Men. It’s layered and intelligent but it’s also a hardboiled thriller. The language is so crisp and succinct. There are echoes of Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain in the dialogue that made me think McCarthy was having a lot of fun writing his own stylish noir.

In conclusion, this was an awesome read! However I’m going to change it up and read something more sentimental next.

Five Guys Read Hemingway: My Reading Experiment

I’ve discussed my relationship with reading many times on this blog. It’s the skill I’m most eager to improve day-in, day-out. It’s something that’s absolutely fundamental to the way I live, for the simple reason that healthy reading has a ripple effect that improves every other aspect of my life. My improved mental well-being, productivity, creativity, and my growing appetite for vivid experiences, all started with my renewed commitment to reading. It was the first block, and the foundation upon which all others were built. This blog, my novel, my increased sense of happiness, would not exist without my initial commitment to regular reading. In many ways it’s like exercise- something that I make time for, that changes every aspect of my life for the better. All I can say is how this process has worked for me, and I’m aware that reading means different things to different people.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a little reading experiment aimed at exploring how other people read and what reading means to different people of the same generation as me. The fact that we were all born into an increasingly digital world is an important point, and is why I decided to focus the attention of my study on young folks. I gathered five willing volunteers, who would each read one of my favorite short stories, and whom I would then interview about the experience. I wasn’t sure if this research would yield anything of any worth, but the results have proved more interesting than I could have ever hoped.

Even though I love books, I’m not necessarily a brilliant reader. People tend to associate books with intelligence, and as someone that enjoys reading, I’ve found that non-readers often think of me as being hardwired differently. But the truth is, as this research shows, that we actually have more in common than we realized. Reading is very much a craft that one can improve through time and dedication. Like anything in life, there are those naturally suited to it, but that doesn’t mean that the joy of reading is or should be exclusive to them. I don’t consider myself such a natural at all; if anything I’m a just a keen reader. I’m a very slow reader, I’m an anxious reader, and haven’t always been this keen. I assured my volunteers that this little experiment was not a measure of their intelligence, but rather a study of the medium of reading. I was quick to point out that each of them consumed various forms of media, and stressed that the only difference between me and the non-reader is a preference of mediums.

My five volunteers are all from the North Somerset area of England, are male, and between the ages of 23-26. They are each talented and quirky in their own way, representing a range of interests and abilities. Some are scientifically inclined, some are more philosophical, and others still are intrigued by everything from fitness to technology. For the purposes of this experiment, their names will remain private. I figured calling them “Test Subject A” or “Test Subject B”, while amusing, would make it hard for you to distinguish a particular candidate. So I’ve gone ahead and given them nicknames. Here are the interviews:

 


Q1: HOW OFTEN DO YOU READ?

HUNTER: Books? Never. I used to read textbooks…

FROSTY: Never.

COWBOY: I don’t read books, but I consume newspapers often.

SPACEMAN: I listen to audiobooks almost every day, both fiction and non-fiction. As far as printed books go, I’d say I read at least one novel per year.

WISEGUY: I read fiction books daily, perhaps 30 minutes a day.

 

Q2: DID YOU ENJOY READING AT SCHOOL?

HUNTER: Not overly. We read Old Man and the Sea…that was alright I suppose.

FROSTY: No.

COWBOY: No.

SPACEMAN: It wasn’t my favorite activity, but I didn’t mind it. It was okay.

WISEGUY: Not at all.

 

Q3: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BOOK?

HUNTER: The Railway Cat – Arkle Phyllis

FROSTY: The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

COWBOY: A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket

SPACEMAN: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

WISEGUY: Supernatural: Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – Graham Hancock

 

Q4: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU READ A SHORT STORY?

HUNTER: About four months ago actually. Remember that collection we had to read in school called Opening Worlds: Short Stories from Different Cultures by OCR? I found it and started reading.

FROSTY: I love reading Creepypastas online actually. A while back I read one about a sleep deprivation experiment.

COWBOY: I’m not sure to be honest.

SPACEMAN: One of yours actually. Remember that story about the automated wind farm on an alien planet that you asked me to proof for you last year?

WISEGUY: You know, this might be the first one.

 

Q5: DID YOU ENJOY TEN INDIANS?

HUNTER: Yeah it was alright, that. It was uneventful and it wasn’t clear what the meaning was, but that’s not a bad thing.

FROSTY: Nope. I found it a struggle to take in. I think I’m much more visually-oriented. I was reading the words but I couldn’t digest them.

COWBOY: No. There was nothing engaging about it. Maybe if it was longer, and more stuff happened in it, I might have enjoyed it. It was brief and boring.

SPACEMAN: Yes. I liked trying to figure out the meaning, which isn’t really revealed until the end.

WISEGUY: Well, it didn’t blow me away. It was OK, but it felt like a chapter of a longer story.

 

Q6: DID IT MAKE YOU WANT TO READ MORE HEMINGWAY?

HUNTER: No.

FROSTY: Probably not. I hated Old Man and the Sea at school.

COWBOY: Not particularly.

SPACEMAN: Yes, absolutely.

WISEGUY: Not especially. I’m into different genres of fiction, mate.

 

Q7: IN A GENERAL SENSE, DO YOU WANT TO READ MORE?

HUNTER: Nah.

FROSTY: Yes. Even though I find reading a struggle, I have a copy of Stephen King’s It upstairs, and it makes me want to improve my reading ability.

COWBOY: Yes- but not because of this story.

SPACEMAN: Yes.

WISEGUY: Yes. A lot more.

 

Q8: WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HEMINGWAY’S WRITING STYLE?

HUNTER: Yeah mate, it was alright. However I didn’t get the tone of some sentences- probably because it was written in a strange dialect.

FROSTY: Well, I dunno about the style, but I did like print. The font was pretty friendly. There were a few regional words I didn’t recognize, like “squaw”.

COWBOY: No. Me- I like a definitive beginning, middle, and end. I just wasn’t sure where this story was going. It’s like it wasn’t long enough to hook me.

SPACEMAN: Oh yes. I liked the ending in particular.

WISEGUY: Yeah. His straightforward style made the story accessible and friendly to me as a reader.

 

Q9: DID YOU READ IT ALL IN ONE GO?

HUNTER: Yeah.

FROSTY: Yeah.

COWBOY: Yeah.

SPACEMAN: Yeah.

WISEGUY: Yeah.

 

Q10: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU?

HUNTER: 17 minutes.

FROSTY: 10 minutes.

COWBOY: 10 minutes.

SPACEMAN: 7 minutes. After I was done, I went back and re-read some sections near the beginning to gain a better understanding of the story as a whole.

WISEGUY: 25 minutes.

 

Q11: WHERE DID YOU READ IT?

HUNTER: In a computer chair at my desk.

FROSTY: On a couch in a quiet room.

COWBOY: On a couch in a room shared with three guys quietly playing Minecraft.

SPACEMAN: In a leather armchair. The TV was on, but I muted it.

WISEGUY: On a couch in a café with noisy, annoying distractions. Make sure you include that detail.

 

Q12: WERE YOU IMMERSED IN THE WORLD OF THE STORY, OR DID YOUR MIND WANDER?

HUNTER: Mostly I was immersed. My focus shifted a few times and I had to go back and concentrate again.

FROSTY: Oh, it wandered alright. I had to re-read a few lines I wasn’t sure about. Overall it was just very hard to process the events and meaning of the story for me.

COWBOY: Immersed makes it sound like I was enjoying it. I wasn’t. I read it the way I read the news. Not fun, but no real effort either.

SPACEMAN: It took a while to get into at first, probably because I knew I was taking part in an experiment instead of reading normally.

WISEGUY: Remember, I was very distracted by external noises. However I want to say that I liked the subtlety of his story. I think that kind of subtlety suits the concise medium of short fiction.

 

Q13: IN A WORD, WHAT DO YOU THINK THE STORY WAS ABOUT?

HUNTER: Heartbreak.

FROSTY: Racism.

COWBOY: A Journey.

SPACEMAN: Love. Specifically “first love”. The line that stood out to me was that he was “hollow but happy”. I quite liked that I did.

WISEGUY: Heartbreak.

 

Q14: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR BIGGEST REASON FOR NOT READING IN YOUR LIFE?

HUNTER: Can’t be arsed. It seems like an effort.

FROSTY: Because it’s boring. It seems like a task instead of a pastime. This experiment felt like homework. However I’m hopeful. Perhaps I just haven’t found my genre of fiction yet. I didn’t like this story, but I guess it’s like the movies- there’s so much choice that there has to be one for everyone.

COWBOY: I’d say my answer is probably true for a lot of people of our generation, so think of this as not just my reason, but mine and so many others. Alternative forms of media. Things like video games and TV are so much more accessible. But the biggest one reason, in my opinion, is my phone. I take my phone to bed and the time I spend on it before going to sleep is probably the time I would otherwise be spending reading, if I were into books.

SPACEMAN: I just consume other forms of media so much. The big three for me are video games, Netflix, and Youtube.

WISEGUY: I get put off reading. Because I’m so slow, reading seems like this big task, and I end up procrastinating and not reading as much as I would like.

 

Q15: DO YOU TEND TO READ NON-FICTION FASTER?

HUNTER: I haven’t noticed a discernable difference.

FROSTY: O yes.

COWBOY: Absolutely. For me, the dialogue present in fiction breaks up my flow. I definitely read articles and news columns faster.

SPACEMAN: Yeah actually, I do read it faster.

WISEGUY: No. I read works of fiction faster. With non-fiction, I feel the pressure to remember facts.

 


As you can see from their answers, each of my volunteers has a completely different relationship with books. There are aspects of each person’s experience that hold true for me as well. What COWBOY and SPACEMAN said about the accessibility of digital media was very interesting to me, and I think it’s something that probably holds true for a lot of Millenials, whether they are readers or non-readers. I know the big reading slumps I have had in the past had a lot to do with my pouring hours into addictive games like The Witcher 3 or Bioshock Infinite. Games, movies, and binge-worthy TV shows all tell fascinating stories, only they are passive activities as opposed to sitting down and reading a novel, which is active. We’re all interested in storytelling and we always will be. It’s the medium that is changing- with increasingly sophisticated technology designed to be as comfortable and accessible as possible. You have to remember, just 100 years ago, sitting down to read just one more chapter of Great Expectations was the equivalent of hitting the “Continue watching” button after your third straight episode of Mindhunter. In 1841 American fans of Charles Dickens were so desperate to find out if Nell had survived in The Old Curiosity Shop, that they caused a riot and stormed the harbor in New York where a ship was bringing in the latest chapter of the book.

So are novels disappearing as a storytelling medium? No, I don’t think so. But they might become more of a niche interest. And it must be remembered that the volunteers I selected represented a pretty homogenous demographic. It would be interesting to carry out this experiment with strictly female volunteers, or volunteers from America instead of the U.K. What do you think of my results? Should I carry out more of these experiments? Can you relate to any of the answers my wonderful volunteers gave? Please let me know in the comments!

The Top 5 Books I Have Read This Year!

2017 has been a great year for my reading. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that this was the year I rediscovered reading- certainly in terms of reading for pleasure. Now it’s a part of my lifestyle instead of some nagging regret, an attitude which I am sure only served to make reading seem like a chore and not something enjoyable and fun. My dream is to one day be able to read a novel a week, but I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t compare myself to faster readers- the same way I shouldn’t let comparisons of myself to folks who can so easily execute a windmill dunk affect my love for playing basketball. It’s been my best year for reading ever, and aside from finally eschewing my slump, I’ve also had a great time with authors and genres I did not expect myself to be reading. So here it is: my top 5 novels I’ve read this year and what makes them so special to me. This will be the first in a series of festive, end-of-the-year posts, and I already can’t wait to write my top 5 for 2018 a year from now. So here’s to new traditions!

 

#5 Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

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Author: Anne Tyler

Published: 1982

Opening Line: “While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.”

Premise: Put simply, this novel chronicles the life of a mother and her three children after her salesman husband leaves her without explanation. It’s about the long-lasting consequences of that one act and how it shapes all of their lives thereafter.

Why I Loved This Book: Reading Tyler’s magnum opus was like looking into a mirror that revealed everything I knew about myself on a subconscious, instinctual level, but had never before expressed. It seemed to show my place as it existed in the continuum of human experience. I loved this book because it highlighted so well the minutiae of ordinary, domestic life, and I feel like the book acts very much as a reflection of everything we thought or felt about family and urban life.

 

#4 Orchard

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Author: Larry Watson

Published: 2003

Opening Line: “Henry House stayed out of the orchard’s open aisles and instead kept close to the apple trees as he tried to work his way unnoticed down the hill.”

Premise: Sonja is a Norwegian immigrant, come to the USA to start a new life. She settles in Wisconsin and finds herself reduced to her roles as a wife and a mother. She then becomes the obsession of a local artist and finds herself torn between his and her husband’s desires to possess her, all the while trying to maintain her own independent sense of self.

Why I Loved This Book: I was drawn to this book because it was set in Wisconsin’s Door County- and truly and I can’t think of a better setting for a novel. The book does a wonderful job of capturing the charm of what I can confirm is absolutely one of the most quaint and beautiful places in the USA. But what I really liked best about the novel was its unflinching portrait of marriage, sex, motherhood, domestic life, and its exploration of independent, female sexuality.

 

#3 The Folded Leaf

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Author: William Maxwell

Published: 1945

Opening Line: “The blue lines down the floor of the swimming pool wavered and shivered incessantly, and something about the shape of the place- the fact that it was long and narrow, perhaps, and lined with tile to the ceiling- made their voices ring.”

Premise: The Folded Leaf is a beautiful, atmospheric coming-of-age story written by one of America’s most underrated authors. It’s set in the Midwest in the 1920s and it’s all about the friendship of two boys and what they mean to each other, as they graduate from high school and move on to college, only to fall in love with the same girl!

Why I Loved This Book: I adored this book because I felt such a strong connection to the characters. It touches on themes that really resonate with me- such as social awkwardness, neuroticism, insecurity, jealousy, and love. There are so many books written about romances, but far less written about friendship- and this is one of the best and most touching out there. I love the way it explores how we make heroes out of people and how we need them to be heroes.

 

#2 The Husband’s Secret

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Author: Liane Moriarty

Published: 2013

Opening Line: “It was all because of the Berlin Wall.”

Premise: Three women’s lives converge and their worlds’ turned upside-down when happily-married, mother of three Cecilia discovers a letter in her husband’s writing hidden in the attic that reads “to be opened only in the event of my death”.

Why I Loved This Book: This is easily the most addictive book I’ve read all year. At the time I was working as a volunteer in a solar analysis survey and as I walked the streets of Friendswood, Texas in the blazing midsummer sun, I held this novel in front of me and mastered the art of reading as I walked. What I liked best about the book was the way small events- mistakes or coincidences- would come to have such earth-shattering consequences. It’s all about the butterfly effect and thoughts of what might have happened if things had gone differently.

 

#1 Martian Time-Slip

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Author: Philip K. Dick

Published: 1964

Opening Line: “From the depths of phenobarbital slumber, Silvia Bohlen heard something that called.”

Premise: In short, this book tells the story of a tyrannical boss of a Water Works Union on colonial Mars, and how his attempts to consolidate his power by exploiting a mute autistic child with visions of the future affects everyone around him.

Why I Loved This Book: I adore this novel because not only is it so intelligent, but it’s such a warm, riveting, and thoroughly enjoyable page-turner. I breezed through this book and have fond memories of staying up late in bed to read just one more chapter. Martian Time-Slip is my favorite book of the year because it was just so intensely pleasurable, and represented to me my ideal, perfect reading experience. How I felt when reading this book is what I hope for with every book, but which seldom happens.

A Sad Affair by Wolfgang Koeppen

Last night I finished reading Wolfgang Koeppen’s 1934 novel Eine unglückliche Liebe (A Sad Affair). This year I’ve resolved to read more fiction from non-English language writers. This one is actually a book that’s been sat on my shelf for so many years that I can’t even remember how I got it. I know I didn’t buy it. I’m pretty sure that it was given to me as a gift by my mom when I was going through my artsy fartsy Bohemian phase. It certainly seems at home when placed in the company of the books I was reading at the time; Quiet Days in Clichy, On the Road, and Women to name a few. All of these books had something in common- they were fictionalized memoirs that focused on a particular time or place, they covered universal aspects of the human condition such as poverty and sex, and they all spoke to a kind of masculine sensitivity- an anguish even. They were all slow-paced and introspective, with philosophical ambitions. They weren’t written as page-turners and they rejected the accepted forms of how a plot ought to be structured.

In addition to committing to reading more non-English language writers, I’m also ticking off so many old books. Why not read Koeppen? The book itself is only 172 pages. Before I started reading, I did something I’ve been trying to do more recently- I checked out the introduction. It was actually super-interesting and it definitely enhanced my reading experience. I can see the appeal in wanting to go in fresh and not know anything about the author’s life, but in this instance it increased my interest in the novel. The introduction is written by the book’s translator- Michael Hofmann. In it he discusses how, despite being regarded by German critics as a quintessentially German book, the book is in many ways remarkably “un-German”. You would expect a book written in Germany in the mid-1930s to reflect in some way life under Nazi rule, but this book is completely apolitical. There’s no mention of world events at all (in fact, I don’t think the words “Germany” or “German” are used at all), and in some way that’s what makes it so interesting- how out of time it is. The focus of the book is entirely on the narrator’s sexual obsession with an actress named Sibylle.

Now I’ve read several books that deal with sexual obsession in my time, but this one is by far the most desperate. And the fact that it all happened (which I learned in the introduction) made the book all the more fascinating. Every moment of pain, anguish and heartache that the narrator goes through is authentic. Koeppen is completely forthcoming and lays himself bare. The object of his desire, Sibylle, is based on the real-life actress Sibylle Schloss- and it’s one of her nude photographs that appear on the front cover. The Sibylle of the novel is portrayed as extremely promiscuous, but also fiercely independent. She is someone that has complete ownership over her sexuality. She is described as falling into bed with almost any man on the street- but it has to be her idea; she has to be the one in control. And therein lies the tragedy for the narrator, who is utterly devoted to her. He worships the very ground she walks on, and witnesses Sibylle give herself to men so easily, and yet despite his infatuation (or rather, because of it) she does not permit him the slightest physical contact. He obsesses over what her lips feel like. He believes wholeheartedly that she is his “destiny”. Sibylle, on the other hand, gets angry at the very idea of them so much as kissing, let alone becoming lovers.

What I liked about this book was that there were several funny lines where the narrator’s observations, neuroticisms, and anxieties felt so relatable. It’s somehow comforting to think that people were awkward back then too. The real strength of the novel, however, is found in its memorable stream-of-consciousness passages. Lines such as “Her lips seemed to him the font of life, the source of all joys, the world offered no drink to set beside the kiss of her lips and never, never once, had he been allowed to breathe on them, to feel them, their redness, their flesh, their moist gleam that shone to his faint spirit, a craving, a signal, a finishing line in a gauntlet race through an infernal landscape, to the scornful laughter of the happy, the contented, the sated, the living; he was without anyone to pity him, the compassion of the world denied itself to him with these same lips” remind me of the lyrical, poetic writing of Koeppen’s contemporary Modernists such as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, as well as the later works of the Beat Generation. The protagonist may be pitiful and unheroic, but there’s something so human about him. He wants to be a good person. He has so much love to give, but he is so desperately lonely. Sibylle is unwilling to give him what he wants, but she also seems like the only person that even knows he is alive. Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know I’ve fallen into the trap a few times down the years of idealizing a girl I’m attracted to, and I just think it’s such a quintessential flaw in the male psyche. That’s why I’m sympathetic to the protagonist. I think a lot of young men have similarly ascribed higher qualities to the women of their desire that those women cannot possibly live up to. To the narrator, Sibylle is an angel, and no man is worthy of her.

Some readers consider the book to be a self-deprecating satire, because the narrator’s obsession reaches almost absurd limits. There are darker passages in the book that I found interesting (albeit in a morbidly-curious way) such as the scene where they are walking on the harbor in Zurich and the protagonist suddenly starts thinking about pushing her off the edge. I’ve always been interested in why people do terrible things, so the idea that a seemingly normal person might just snap and do something awful on an impulse is quite compelling to me.

This was a good read- and an excellent translation by Hofmann. In many ways, it was a return to the kind of books I read a lot of during my collegiate years.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

Like the novel with which it will be discussing, this review-come-journal entry will be apportioned into three distinct parts. In the first, I shall discuss how Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus ended up on my reading river, in the second I’ll give a spoiler-free profile of the book and what to expect, and in the third I will be offering some analysis and interpretation of the content therein. That way, I feel like I can write something that is inclusive to both those who have read the book and those I hope to tempt to pick it up on their next bookstore and fro-yo run.

Why Wolfe?

I got my copy of the book in a little store called Fopp in Bristol, England- which is near to where I currently live. It was December of 2016 and I had just that afternoon gone to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the local movie theater with my kid brother. We had a few minutes before our ride home would be ready to meet us, and so we decided to hit up this small indie store that sells DVDs, CDs and such for a discounted price. There is a small section of books and I went over to check them out as we enjoyed the warmth the store offered us from the frigid outdoors. By the time our ride had come I was leaving Fopp with three books under my arm. They each cost five pounds- which is pretty damn good for a book these days. My purchases were as follows: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martian Time Slip by Philip K. Dick, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. Back in the day I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I considered it my primary genre and would now and then dip into the classics of literary fiction for the purposes of gaining some knowledge of what I then considered to be the “essence” of something timeless; the craft and structural engineering of writing about the human condition. I read books like Dune by Frank Herbert and I wrote what my grandma called “space stories”. But then around the age of 18 or so, I abandoned science fiction altogether. I shed myself of it like a rotting carapace and never looked back. I focused exclusively on non-genre fiction and developed a particular worship for the works of Literary Realism. Why this sudden metamorphosis occurred I don’t really know, but perhaps no book was more influential on me- and more indicative of my new literary appetite- than Henry Miller’s outrageously debauched (and horrifically mistitled) novella Quiet Days in Clichy. It’s a fictionalized memoir of the author’s days as a struggling writer in Paris- and I won’t go too much into it here- but my days spent reading it on the bus I took to college marked the event horizon so to speak, of my abandonment of science fiction. Several years later and it is Christmastime 2017. There is a change in the winds. In recent months I have been craving some science fiction. I bought this book and Martian Time Slip in December but I didn’t start reading them right away. No, my return to reading science fiction actually came in the audio book version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones– which I decided was a better use of my insomnia than watching endless videos of Shaqtin’ a Fool and Zero Punctuation on Youtube. I have taken a much more disciplined approach to reading recently (a subject that, perhaps, deserves its own blog post). In short, I found that being in a constant and continuous state of reading helps to keep me fulfilled and to keep the gnawing mongrels of anxiety at bay. The most effective and enjoyable way of achieving this, I discovered, was to share my reading adventures and keep myself accountable to an online blog. And that is the long version of how I ended up reading Gene Wolfe last week!

Six-limbed lobotomites, cannibalistic aborigines, & those robobrain things from Fallout. What’s not to like?

I took the time, before reading, to look over the introduction and the little bio they have for the author. What struck me straight away was that Gene Wolfe was an industrial engineer by trade. In fact, during the 1960s he developed the machine that cooks Pringles and ensures their hyperbolic paraboloid curvature. So I wondered for a minute if I might be in for one of those heavily scientific, hardboiled science fiction novels. But this was not so. I encountered much more scientific theory in Heinlein’s Starman Jones– in which every action was preceded by a paragraph of explanation. The descriptions of space travel- however dated they may seem to modern readers- I remember were very intricate. The Fifth Head of Cerberus felt like the opposite approach. Robot prison guards passed by without any exposition- and I liked it. There was something fleeting about Wolfe’s insights into the world he created, and there was no assumption on the part of the text that we wanted even the slightest clue into the more superficial details of its inner workings. Starcrossers are repeatedly referred to as being the primary mode of interplanetary transport, but since the specifics of their engines are a vestigial element to the story, Wolfe doesn’t waste our time going on about them. This brings me to what, in a nutshell, The Fifth Head of Cerberus is about. Well for starters, it’s actually three stories that coalesce thematically. When I first got it, I expected it to be a singular plot with three overlapping perspectives. I then learned, after finishing the first novella, from which the book derives its title, that it had been published a year or so earlier in Orbit 10, an anthology edited by one of SF’s legendary grandfathers- Damon Knight. After being advised to expand upon this novella, Wolfe then added the two other stories that make up the book. It is true that each story is a tight, self-contained narrative and that each stands up on its own. However, having now finished the book, it is clear that it can be read very much as a cohesive whole. While there may not be any long passages pertaining to quantum physics and futuristic mechanics, this is not by any means a casual or an easy read. It’s a book of absolutely exorbitant depth and boundless complexity. Many people who enjoy Wolfe confess to having read the book several times. Online there exist forums in which readers debate the subtext and the mysteries within. I think the best adjective to describe the book is “layered” . There’s a plethora of subtle repetitions and motifs that contribute to the creation of mysteries that will occupy the reader’s thoughts long after he or she has put the book down. And that’s what made reading this novel such a rewarding experience for me. Although it may be slow in some parts- and for sure it is not a “page turner”- the payoff at the end is very fulfilling. I could spend hours going over the little details hidden away in this book, or reading through the analyses of others in internet forums. I enjoyed this book. It was a sinister, disturbing narrative of two French-inflected human colony planets that orbit each other. It’s crazy imaginative and just plain crazy.

The Fifth Head of Bookworm

I will assume at this point that those reading this section are Wolfe fans and those who, like me, are interested in getting the interpretations of other readers upon completing the book. It’s definitely one of those layered stories- like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury– that the instant you finish it you start mashing your thumbs into the Google search bar of your phone just to see if you “read it right”. I wanted to know what I was missing- since there is no way, as a first time reader of Wolfe, having read the book only the once, and having to power through some of the less thrilling sections, that I was going to pick up every little nuance of this absolute behemoth of creativity. And of course, there’s the fact that the mystery of the fate of the aboriginal Annese and the true identity of the John Marsch character are never explicitly revealed at the end. This is a novel in which the answers are given to you piecemeal throughout in little clues and hints. It is a novel which punishes the lazy reader. The completion of the novel requires a very active role on the part of the reader, insofar that the inferences made by the reader are a crucial element of the story. Therein lies the genius of Wolfe, and this, I think, is why I have seen his fans refer to him with such adoration as to liken him to the Michael Jordan of his field. To Wolfe fans, he is the GOAT, and I have seen no shortage of superlatives attached to his name. I’m not gonna go that far, but I will agree that you’d be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel that outmatches it in literary ambition. We marvel at the artful structure of the book and rightly so. The piece of evidence I have seen most fans draw attention to as proof of Marsch’s being an “abo” is the wound he sustains in “V.R.T” by the feral cat, which every time the narrator brings it up seems more and more like an excuse for his shabby handwriting- a trait firmly established earlier in the story being the natives’ poor grasp of hand tools. Of course there’s a mountain of other clues that reinforce this, such as the long gap in the Doctor’s journal after the boy supposedly dies. However this whole discussion is rendered somewhat obsolete by Gene Wolfe’s confirmation in an interview that a “Shadowchild” had replaced John Marsch. I think- at least based on my own reading of the text- that the version wherein the Annese are NOT extinct and where the real John Marsch died in that gorge in the outback is the only real conclusion we are encouraged to reach, as opposed to the more psychological interpretation that examines the events as a kind of hallucinatory parable. The doubt, I believe, is meant to reflect the uncertainty of the characters within the book. In my opinion (let me know if you agree!) the narrator in the closing stages of the book is not certain himself that he is either John Marsch or the beggar’s son.  I have seen other readers mention the way several passages at the end seem to mesh together, dreamlike, and it becomes hard to determine whose head we are in. Although I believe that the beggar’s boy has replaced John Marsch, I don’t think he is knowingly deceiving those around him. I think he believes that he is Marsch, and that we see him struggle with his sense of identity during the latter stages of his solitary confinement in the Citadel. The novel had likened the Annese to being kind of half-animal in the second novella, and later in “V.R.T” the narrator even describes himself as such when he pens his legal defense. Therefore, my interpretation of the boy’s shapeshifting process is that it is an instinctive, natural one, rather than some cunning scheme. Maybe I’m wrong. The real mystery that persists, I believe, is whether the beggar’s son murdered John Marsch in that gorge or whether the death was an accident. I have to admit that the boy’s earlier declaration that he would love to be an anthropologist (and the Doctor’s informing him of the many years of work it would take) does offer some hint of premeditation. What do you think?

 

Verdict

I don’t know if it is so easy to give a numerical score to something as nuanced as a novel, but just for fun I’ll go ahead and give it a rating. On a scale of one to ten, one being 50 Shades of Puke and ten being Faulknerian perfection, I’d give it an 8.7! Definitely worth your time if you like unconventional science fiction mysteries!