historical fiction

Readings: Lavie Tidhar

manliesI could tell you that A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar is a pulpy and visceral alternate history noir revenge fantasy, but no blurb can adequately describe what this book is. You can’t talk about it without spoilers, and I pity the person who had to do the blurb on the inside cover. It is vague and it’s vague on purpose. A bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, Germany is taken over by Communists, and Nazis are fleeing to England. In another world and time, a man in Auschwitz is dreaming of the world where a bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, and Nazis are fleeing to England. With me so far? The man dreaming happens to be a former writer of shund, which in prewar Yiddish theatre was considered to be cheap melodrama, trashy and vulgar. And so the world he dreams of is narrated in the manner of shund, with all the viscerality and vulgarity that it implies.

Perhaps A Man Lies Dreaming can best be described in its own words:

But to answer your question, to write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet, Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.

This pulpy quality might trick the reader into thinking that this is merely a noir/alternate history one reads in an afternoon and forgets the next day. This particular illusion is dispelled quickly as one gets deeper into the novel and sees layers and layers of symbolism within. It is worth reading the historical note at the end to get the full picture of how well-researched and intricate this novel is.

I find it both difficult and easy to recommend it. It is difficult because A Man Lies Dreaming is not a light book. It has plenty of R- and X-rated stuff inside. It is easy because it’s one of the most intense books I’ve read (at one point I told my friend that if I didn’t finish it in two days, my head would probably explode), and it will stay with me for a long time.

It’s been a solid week of amazing historical genre-bending fiction so far, which makes the task of choosing my next book victim quite difficult. The bar is really high.

 

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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.

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.

 

‘Cabs leave at midnight’: Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

Blogging hiatuses (hiatii?) are not good for anyone. Including myself. I apparently go quite insane if I don’t scribble down my thoughts about things literary and sundry. I did try my hand at fiction again, with some success: found the ending of one story and the beginning of another. ‘Found’, by the way, is a great way to describe how fiction happens. Here’s a quote from Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra that captures this process very well:

stories are not only constructed but formed, found. They emerge through an alchemical process that requires significant concentration, samadhi. The writer experiences these stories as events happening within himself.

But that’s fiction. Blogging is a different thing. One reason this hiatus happened is that I simply had nothing in particular to say about things I was reading at the time. I read more Vlad Taltos books, and some non-fiction titles (Geek Sublime being one). I started rereading Fables for no other reason than to have something continuous I can come back to without much time commitment (and plus, Fables is great). I have two or three short story collections going. It’s hard to write about short stories, for how do you write just enough to not give anything important away, yet give the story a proper review?

18764828I have finally finished something that I want to write about, and that is The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine. I pointed out a few months ago that I really don’t like fairy tale retellings. If nobody told me The Girls was a retelling, I would have happily picked it up right away instead of letting it collect dust in my book pile. I probably wouldn’t have even noticed it was a retelling, because I either never knew the original Twelve Dancing Princesses story, or I forgot it completely. To me, The Girls really seemed more of a historical novel that takes place during the prohibition era. Twelve girls are kept from the outside world by their wealthy father, and so, without his knowledge, they run away every night to dance at speakeasies. They dance all night, they survive police raids, and most of all, they try to survive in the world that is entirely hostile to them. You could say that this novel is really all about women’s rights. The girls have no freedom, no way of making their living, and they rebel the only way they can. Most men in the book are either not particularly nice (the father being the least nice), or simply privileged, entitled, and not given to much reflection about how they treat women, especially young pretty ones (‘A Hamilton girl should never take a man at his word’).

The girls were wild for dancing, and nothing else. No hearts beat underneath those thin, bright dresses. They laughed like glass.

It seems like it would be hard to juggle twelve heroines, but somehow they all emerge with their distinct personalities. The older ones are a bit more fleshed out, but even supporting characters are quite vivid, and become more important as the story goes on. Jo is the lead (‘she was their general‘), and at first glance she seems harsh, cold, almost sociopathic (did the jailed become the jailer for her sisters?). She is by no means a delicate flower. None of them are, really, but Jo is the toughest, and that paradoxically also makes her the most vulnerable. She is prepared to sacrifice herself, and her burden is the heaviest.

Sometimes, once you start being brave, it’s easier just to go on that way.

Valentine’s writing style is poignant, which goes well with both the setting and the plot. Like a good fairy tale, the story always carries a feeling of premonition, with heroines hovering on the edge of the abyss (will they be discovered? will they be arrested?). Perhaps the pacing became a little bit stuttered in the last part, with too many small pieces to handle, but it never really fell apart, at least for me.

Reading update: non-genre/non-fiction edition

I don’t read just genre. I suspect a lot of genre readers are the same (though I’m curious about reading habits, so comment away). I also work in a book store where the customer base is mostly the new general fiction/non-fiction crowd. This means I kinda need to know what I’m selling. I read the NYT Book Review and occasional frontlist* titles for this reason (well, aside from the fact that there is some good stuff in the mainstream too).

In any case, even my ‘new and popular’ reading is skewed. My latest new find was Strange Bodies, and let’s be honest, it’s genre.  That aside, here’s some stuff I’ve been reading that is either non-fiction or non-genre.

0315141051This books is heartbreaking and amazing. It examines the early years of the AIDS epidemic through the lives of two gay men. From the introduction: ‘The experience of the AIDS epidemic was in critical ways dissimilar for the white gay community and the black gay one, and that distinction is one of the major themes of this book.’ Hold Tight Gently, through its historical look at the epidemic, also aims to show why AIDS and AIDS activism should remain top priorities for the gay community.

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Ah, The Luminaries. Will I ever get through it? Stay tuned, we’ll find out.

Siege 13 is an interesting short story collection by a Hungarian writer Tamas Dobozy. Budapest at the end of WWII.

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I’m reading this book with a specific question in mind, the question being ‘should I send this to my mother?’

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Science! Brain! Psychopaths!

Other random things I’ve adopted over the past few days:

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Geoff Dyer is published in the neat ‘two-sided’ format. Mental Biology is once again about brain (there is a method to my reading madness), and The Word Exchange is, oddly enough, a novel about memes (read: probably genre).

On the more familiar genre front, I am making my speedy way through Kameron Hurley’s God’s War (so far so awesome) and eyeing a re-read of Sanderson’s Way of Kings, followed by Words of Radiance.

* from the freedictionary, Frontlist: a publisher’s sales list of newly or recently published books, esp. those of popular appeal.

Reading update

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All I have to say is that I would really like to have a few uninterrupted days just to sit and read this. I’m about 1/3 of the way through. It’s not a fast read, but there is something about it that makes me want to shut myself in some remote cave and simply read and read and read. It’s also kicking my ass in terms of history knowledge — I know very little about 7th century Britain, as it turns out.