Readings: Álvaro Enrigue

Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is one of the strangest and best books I’ve ever read. It is a book from which I need to recover. The urge to go on vacation just so I can digest is quite strong.

The book takes place during a single tennis game. It’s not even, strictly speaking, tennis, but pallacorda, the original tennis, as it were. It is only somewhat similar to the tennis we know now. Don’t worry, you will find out more if you read the book (and you might find yourself on the internets way past your bedtime looking up things like jeu à dedans court design even if you care not at all about tennis or its origins).

suddendeathThis might sound boring, except you get so caught up in Enrigue’s masterful blow-by-blow commentary that you are sucked into the book before you know it. Besides, consider that the tennis game in question is the game between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. They are also doing it with a ball made with Anne Boleyn’s hair (shorn off her head before she lost it to the sword). But how did they come to possess such a thing and why are they playing at all? They both seem to be dreadfully hungover and not at all in the mood.

To tell you this, Enrigue takes you on a dizzying tour of what seems like an impossible array of subjects: history of tennis and art, succession of Popes and cardinals, colonization of the Americas, to name just a few. At times it turns meta and breaks the fourth wall in a manner that should feel jarring, yet you go with it. The book is a mad mix of breathtaking game scenes, history bits, quotes, some well-done smut, and even a film script. At times, it made my head spin as it switched from the game court to Central America to Spain to Rome and back to the court. It made me want to learn, to create, to finally learn Spanish for the first time in my life (amazingly, I never expressed any interest in doing so and mostly stuck to languages nobody speaks). It is possibly the most alive and physical book I have ever read.

At one point, the book refers to the scene in Don Quixote where Altisidora has a vision of devils playing with rackets of fire, using bad books as balls. Sudden Death is definitely one of the books that is never going to be subjected to such treatment in the devils’ tennis court.

Sundry weekend reading: Eco, historical fiction, realism snobbery

I used to have no weekends. I had two days off, one weekday and one weekend day, and I loved it. There wasn’t enough time to get away from it all, I could visit almost entirely empty museums, and it was easier to come back to work after just a day. Now that I have a weekend, I both sort of enjoy having two days off to myself and hate the fact that I am once again part of the masses who resent Sunday night and don’t want to go to work on Monday.

foucaultThis week has been annoying to say the least, and now Umberto Eco died, so it is not ending on a high note either. What I would really like to do is to spend an entire day tomorrow re-reading Foucault’s Pendulum, the book with which I used to obsessed at one point in my life. Yet for some indescribable reason, I no longer have a copy, so I am going to settle for another example of strange historical fiction, John Wray’s Lost Time Accidents.

To continue with the historical novel theme, here’s a great interview with Alexander Chee about his new novel, The Queen of the Night, and about how historical novels are still seen as lower-class fiction. You can replace ‘historical’ with any other genre fiction descriptor and it would still apply. The interesting thing mentioned therein is that realism fiction is seen as superior, but only if it’s produced by Northern American writers (so see, Eco was not in this category and thus got a pass to write whatever the hell he wanted). Read it, it’s a very good interview. And read The Queen as well, especially if you, like me, love your novels long, vivid, and detailed.

Speaking of historical scribblings, where would one submit historical weird horror? Asking for a friend.

My very brief love letter to Stoner by John Williams

Now that my best of 2015 list is out, it is time to tell what my non-2015 favorite book of the year was.

FTGF9510Stoner by John Williams was for years a shameful hole in my reading list. It is no more. And that is truly the best book I’ve read this year. It is a quiet book. It seems so plain and unassuming that it should be boring, and yet it’s not. It is beautiful and thoughtful. It is a great book for anyone regardless of reading taste.

I am not going to say that I wish I had read it sooner. I read Stoner in one day, lounging in an unexpected 68-degree December weather in the park. It was the best day. Maybe I’ve been waiting for that day so I could have this perfect reading experience.

Readings: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry

First of all, something I’ve been waiting for years now has happened – LibraryThing has an app now. There goes my evening. You can take a look at my currently catalogued books here (I used to have a different account there, but had to switch due to separation and library division, and so I am quite behind on book scanning. C’est la vie.). What I like about LibraryThing is the overwhelming amount of tagging and classifying one can do. It’s so nerdy.
VKBB9317.jpgBut let’s move on to recent reads. My affair with strange and weird is in full swing, and Beatlebone is so strange and weird, it’s in its own category. First of all, Kevin Barry is a wizard and I want to eat his words with a spoon. Let’s look at few examples:

A street gang of sheep appear — like teddy boys bedraggled in rain, dequiffed in mist…

Or how about this one:

He’s been coming loose of himself.

And finally this:

… and he saw at once an island in his mind.

Windfucked, seabeaten.

WINDFUCKED. Yes. I’ve been to one part of the world described in this book, and it is windfucked indeed. One gets the feeling that Barry is on his own language planet, but he can communicate with us in a way that tricks us into thinking we speak his language. The City of Bohane is even more of a mindbender in this way. Try it if you’re brave.

Second, this is historical fiction about John Lennon. How many novels with John fucking Lennon as a main character do you know? And such perfect ones, where he is so alive and so, well, John. I’m sorry, my Beatles fan roots are showing, but this book just fills me with nostalgic glee. Barry hits so many right, um, notes.

There is an odd interlude in the midst of it, and it tells the story of Barry’s own researches into Lennon buying a small island off the coast of Ireland and going there via Achill Island. I’ve seen some people complain how this interlude ruins the pacing, but for me it was just an amazing bit of geeking out on Barry’s part.

And so in short, it is brilliant, but much like The City of Bohane, it is a hard sell. It’s largely stream-of-consciousness, there is no particular plot (the entire plot is that Lennon bought this tiny island in the 60s and is now trying to get to it in 1978 without a retinue of paparazzi), everything is windfucked and cold and kind of bleak and at times just plain psychotic. Have I sold you on it yet? You see my problem.

But the language, the language. I just can’t get over it. That alone is worth the price of admission. And if you’re familiar with Beatles/Lennon lyrics, you will find some delightful bits inside.


Readings: Gold Fame Citrus and A Cure For Suicide

I finished Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins this morning, and as much as it pains me to say this, I did not particularly enjoy it. Oh, Watkins is an amazing stylist, and her sentences are very finely wrought (see me gushing as I was just starting to read it), but as a whole it did not work for me. I mentioned that I had originally thought of this book as a sister book to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Water Knife, but what it really should be compared to is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Yet where Watkins’s writing is much more beautiful on the micro-, sentence-level, St. John Mandel is just better at gestalt, at bringing it all together in a much more harmonious way.

As it got to the second part, Gold Fame Citrus got too disjointed, too weird but not weird enough. At one point I got a certain Canticle for Leibowitz vibe from it and was overjoyed, but somehow that did not go where I was hoping it would go. At another point, I thought this book would make a fine reread because occasionally it just refused to get into my head but left me with a hope of maybe giving it a second go. As I got closer to the end, however, I realized that I will probably never pick this book up again and finally, I started to think that maybe Claire Vaye Watkins is just better at shorter fiction. Well, I will always have Battleborn.

cure for suicideWith the second book I finished this past weekend, we have a case of perhaps too weird. Jesse Ball’s A Cure For Suicide is brilliant, but it did not surpass his Silence Once Begun for me. It had a good chance, though, because at one point his sentences seemed to come from my own internal monologue:

… I have never been the person I want to be. Even as a child, I was someone else. Every morning, for a lifetime — a lifetime! I have woken up in this body that I feel should not be my own in a situation not my own. Why should I not end this life.

A woman called the examiner comes to a village to meet a man called the claimant. The claimant was on the verge of death and is now supposed to recover under the guidance of the examiner. The claimant learns what a chair is for, how to dress himself, how to draw, how to interact with people. Eventually he is given a name.

A Cure For Suicide is a book about a life with no surprises (‘events are just events’), book about feelings told in an almost unfeeling, clinical tone. It’s about introverted avoidance, and yet also about empathy. At times it’s almost like a Socratic dialogue within a novel, philosophy within a fictional narrative. It doesn’t seem like it should be readable, but it is. In fact, the other day I was listening to So Many Damn Books podcast, and they were talking about how Jesse Ball’s books are perhaps best read in a single sitting. I didn’t quite manage one sitting, but I did it in two. I think the part with no paragraphs tripped me up. I know it sounds silly, but it jolted me and knocked me out of the book’s rhythm. I never regained it and sort of slogged through the last part of it.

I still say that Jesse Ball and Claire Vaye Watkins are among my favorite authors. I will still read the next thing they both write. It just didn’t work out this time.