Books I Love

The Flamethrowers July 17 2014, 0 Comments

The critic James Wood in his review for the New Yorker pin-points it perfectly:

"Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers” (Scribner), is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story. It is nominally a historical novel (it’s set in the mid-seventies), and, I suppose, also a realist one (it works within the traditional grammar of verisimilitude). But it manifests itself as a pure explosion of now: it catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading."

Alive. Rippling with stories. Historical. Realistic. A pure explosion of now.

What a vibrant, electric ride this was. A novel as wild as it is elegant, zooming in and out of scenes so perfectly brought to life that they will shimmer in your memory for a long time. A doe-eyed, inhabited, wonderful female character who hungers for experience at every turn of the page and steals your heart in one swift move with her innocence and willingness to take it all in.

Because this is what this gorgeous novel does, it takes it all in. It brings to life (visceral, complicated, ever-shifting life) every single theme and locale it touches upon: the New York art scene in the 70's, the grittiness and primal energy of the Bowery of those years, the coming of age tale that never resolves itself, the radical left-wing groups that terrorized Italy at the same period, the beauty of motorcycles and the intoxication of speed throughout history, from World War I to salt flats races in Nevada.

This is writing at its best. It will swallow you up in one big gulp and spit you back out on the curb, leaving you breathless and wondering what just happened to you.

A Field Guide To Getting Lost July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Say you're a coin.
You're resting quietly in somebody's palm.
Someone says "heads" or "tails" and suddenly you are thrown high up in the air, as high as you can go.
As you twirl, you meet Walter Benjamin and his illuminations, you meet Daniel Boone and his adventures in the wilderness, you meet Robert Hass and Simone Weil, you meet the color blue and all its meanings, you meet Cabeza de Vaca, Eunice Williams, Mary Jemison and Cynthia Ann Parker, you meet the Clash and Isak Dinesen, you meet Alfred Hitchcock and his vertigo, you meet Yves Klein and the blue of distance, you meet the desert and rattlesnakes, you meet lovers and friends and houses and maps and cartographers.
And then you land flat on the ground.
Is it heads? Is it tails?
It doesn't matter. You've had a glimpse of the world.
One of the most elegant and arresting intellectual digressions that I have ever read.
I could have lived inside Rebecca Solnit's head forever, following the trails of thoughts that spread and separated and merged like weeds at the edges of a river.
Historian, poet, philosopher, thinker, this woman can write about anything and writes looking up at the stars, her feet firmly rooted in the dirt.

Levels of Life July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Oh wow...

I need to strike while the iron is hot with this one.

Don't be fooled by the apparent anecdotal aloofness of the first two sections of this recollection of grief. They deal with balloons and height and stories of Englishmen and Frenchmen, famous and less famous. They deal with Sarah Bernhardt and Nadar and officers and life lived "on the level" (I will let you discover exactly what that means). The third section's more personal narrative could not have been written without them. Their context is what underlines every single word that follows.

Here, even in mourning, Julian Barnes is Julian Barnes. A writer obsessed with leitmotifs, patterns, stories as they are told to us and learned in books, historical anecdotes as they serve to illuminate our own lives, animating them like shadow-theatre. A writer obsessed with metaphors. A writer obsessed with connecting and interweaving past events with our trembling, seeking present.

Julian Barnes writes about love and life and grief through the most delicate exploration of the "levels of life", from intoxicating heights to unbearable lows, with the radical intelligence and beating heart that inhabit all his books.

This is simply one of the most beautiful declarations of love that I have ever read.

So Long, See You Tomorrow July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Speechless... That was extraordinary.

(24 hours later)

I knew I was in for something special when I heard Richard Ford saying that this was one of his all-time favourite books but I didn't expect this level of amazement and mastery as I zipped through these 150 pages on a rainy October Sunday. How did someone manage to pack so much humanity in such a tiny work of art? The last time I felt such mind blowing concision was when I read "The Great Gatsby" for the first time. Every single sentence contains an entire world of thought and imagery and sensory detail that burns into your mind like a red-hot iron. The entire story is eerily seamless, moving like water from point of view to point of view, gathering speed like a storm about to burst. Rarely have I felt such emotional rawness and truths expressed in so few words. This is a true feat of the heart and mind.

I was also lucky enough to read this masterpiece with a most luminous and intelligent introduction by Ann Patchett. Obviously enamoured with this piece of work, she writes the following:

""So Long, See You Tomorrow" is structured not like a novel, but like the inner workings of the human brain. There are no surprises, only a constant circling of facts, the question of how things might have gone differently, the familiar retreat into personal experience. The narrator puts himself into characters he has no connection to, imagines their days, imagines the dog, without apology or explanation. Why has he stepped into someone else's life? Because this is how we try to make sense of the things we cannot possibly understand. It is an exercise in compassion."

Ann Patchett chose this novel as one to pass on to future generations. So would I.

Middlemarch July 17 2014, 1 Comment

Oh, the slow burn of genius.

I always tread lightly when it comes to using the word "genius" but there is no way around it here.

It took me a good 200 pages to fully get into the novel and its ornate 19th-century turn of phrase but very quickly, I was so completely spellbound by its intelligence and wisdom that I couldn't put it down.

George Eliot's astonishing authorial voice is something to behold. It takes the (mis)adventures of a handful of characters and peels their layers one by one with so much subtlety that you often have to reread a sentence several times to fully grasp the keenness of its observations.

The entire novel feels like a giant lens zooming in and out of human follies with such gusto and empathy that you cannot help but feel privileged to witness the inner workings of people's thoughts and (re)actions.

Not only does "Middlemarch" make you ponder many aspects of our motivations, desires, aspirations, limitations, ideals, dreams, behavior and inclinations but it keeps you on the edge of your seat like a ferocious psychological thriller.

The end will leave you teetering on the brink, revisiting all of your personal, deep-seated assumptions about people, what is a successful life, what is a good marriage, how you measure goodness and your impact on others' lives.

A work of vertiginous beauty.

Canada July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Asked about character development in an interview with the Paris Review, Richard Ford says: "Today I think of characters—actual and literary characters— as being rather unfixed. I think of them as changeable, provisional, unpredictable, decidedly unwhole. Partly this owes to the act of writing characters and of succeeding somewhat in making them seem believable and morally provoking. As I write them they are provisional, changeable, and so forth, right on through and beyond the process of being made. I can change them at will, and do."

That is exactly how this novel - which I took too long to finally get to, being a fierce and slightly obsessive fan of Richard Ford - feels. While it doesn't seem like much is happening plot-wise (he gives most of it away in the first sentence), this novel is an extraordinary slow burn, where lives unravel, changeable, provisional and unpredictable as hell. Its emotional impact doesn't hit you in the gut until the very last chapter, which feels like the most profound gathering of an existential hunting spree.

It took me a while to feel the immense undercurrents at work in this book. The cumulative power of this novel's astonishingly beautiful prose (no other writer in my book writes sentences like Ford, you can almost feel them sizzle on your tongue and tremble in your ear) is something to behold. What does it mean to "build" a life? How does landscape and environment shape who we are? How much do other people's actions have an effect on our own lives? Can you become your own person in the midst of circumstances completely outside of your control?

A haunting novel by one of the greatest American writers writing today.

Stoner July 17 2014, 0 Comments

I knew I had to come to this book some day, after reading somewhere that the French novelist Anna Gavalda had decided to take it upon herself to translate it into French. She had loved it that much. It was that good.

And good it certainly was. It feels like a classic in the best sense of the word. The writing is superb, strong and evocative. The main character is heartbroken and heartbreaking.

Yet, it was a harrowing reading experience. I cannot say that I looked forward to getting back to it. Perhaps I felt its melancholy a little too vividly, its inherent bleakness was literally crawling up my skin.

I almost shouted with joy in the middle of the book when a ray of light finally pierced through the cracks. It was like rising to the surface after a long underwater swim. Until it was gone again.

Definitely a book that everyone should experience.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America July 17 2014, 0 Comments

A superb piece of journalism.

Packer writes like a dream and those who know him from his articles in The New Yorker will find more of his astute eye and ability to conjure character in a handful of details in this thrilling series of portraits of Americans over the past four decades.

Through the trajectories of this century's new brand of evangelists (Oprah Winfrey, Jay-Z, Colin Powell, Peter Thiel) and the unsung lives of ordinary people like Dean Price, Tammy Thomas and Jeff Connaughton, Packer manages to create a dizzying picture of everything that is inherently wrong in American society today.

While Packer never passes judgement (though you can feel his left-to-center allegiance throughout) and doesn't offer solutions to counter the devastating erosion of the middle class, his moving and vivid descriptions of individuals are an essential indictment in themselves.

The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote that we were never born equal. We are born unequal, and it is mainly the role of society to equalize our chances and give us the ability to actualize our potential.
If those structures fail to do that (public vs private schools, access to education, access to healthcare, access to financing that is not fraudulent, access to housing), then equality doesn't stand a chance and the social contract evaporates.

While the book's raison d'être is dark and depressing, what seemed to shine through at every turn was the inherent grittiness and deep stubbornness of Americans. If my head was spinning with a sense of despair and helplessness at the end of the book, it was also rejoicing in the fact that there was a fiery desire in all of the characters to push through and find ways to change.

A stunning piece of writing which fuses Bruce Springsteen's blue-collar narratives with Ken Burns' eloquence.

Every Man Dies Alone July 17 2014, 0 Comments

Some books make you work for it. They're not easy, they're difficult, they're sprawling and slow and undecided. Until they're not. Until you feel the gigantic heart beating at its nervous center, its unabashed humanity and intelligence.

It took me 250 pages to fully get into this one, and suddenly it took a turn and I was hooked like never before by its vital urgency. The characters were full-fleshed, fully realized, flawed and magnificent at the same time. The novel rushed towards its inevitable conclusion with grace, the characters rushed towards their inescapable fate with a lucidity that leaves us in awe and teaches us a thing or two about the meaning of courage.

The author wrote this novel in 24 days and never lived to see its publication. According to the amazing bonus documents at the end of the paperback edition, Hans Fallada based his novel on a true story and was wondering whether the real acts of resistance of Otto and Elise Hampel had had any meaning. Their lives, the ordinariness, the smallness, the awkwardness of their resistance have more meaning than they will ever know.

Because it is absolutely essential for us, for all the generations that come after World War Two, to know that there was decency and good in some Germans in the face of evil.

An unforgettable book.

A Death in the Family (My Struggle Book 1) July 16 2014, 0 Comments

My first impression of Karl Ove Knausgaard came from a black and white photograph published with a review of his book "A Time For Everything" in The New York Review of Books.

He is seen smoking against the rugged Norwegian landscape, hair disheveled, wearing an old, battered tee-shirt, lost in thought. Completely and unabashedly himself, yet ill at ease. Entirely present, feet deeply rooted in the present moment, yet his mind is clearly in flight, flickering at the surface of his gaze.

The striking portrait somehow encompasses all of the qualities of his writing: intense, raw, physical, elusive, inquisitive and elemental.

What Knausgaard achieves in "My Struggle", his mad yet mesmerizing 6-volume autobiographical enterprise, is simply the most "real" depiction of the movements of the mind that I have ever read. A life told in its most boring minutiae and its most elemental highs and lows, as it moves from the most mundane to the most transcendent.

Knausgaard plays alongside Proust or Virginia Woolf in his desire to encapsulate all of his experience as a human being, a teenager, a son, a friend, a lover, a father but most of all: a writer. But he does it with even more urgency, more radicality, more anger and more modernity. An Everyman of the 21st century with a 17th century temperament.

The second volume of this autobiography, which tackles the fire and vagaries of love as well as the deep ambivalences that lie at the heart of domestic life and parenthood, is utterly engrossing.

Read him, and listen to him below speak about Book 1, which deals with his youth and the death of his father, and he might very well change the way you look at the world around you and your own reaction to events.

Americanah July 16 2014, 0 Comments

"But beyond race, the book is about the immigrant’s quest: self-invention, which is the American subject. “Americanah” is unique among the booming canon of immigrant literature of the last generation (including writers Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gary Shteyngart, Chang-rae Lee, Dinaw Mengestu and Susan Choi). Its ultimate concern isn’t the challenge of becoming American or the hyphenation that requires, but the challenge of going back home."

Emily Raboteau in the Washington Post

I could not say it better than that.

The unflinching and refreshing honesty of an outsider's take on American politics, racial tensions, relations between men and women, between women themselves, education, immigration. The all-encompassing empathy of an artist for all human plights, for our idiosyncrasies and failures of the imagination, for our grit and stubbornness in the face of injustice. The sublime sense of humor of a writer in the face of incomprehensible behavior, deep-seated prejudice and warped logic.

There was so much to feel and learn and think about in this dazzling novel that I'm having a hard time gathering my thoughts into one cohesive whole. And maybe that's exactly the point. There is nothing cohesive about life depicted here. The characters are all fleeting constructions of their own imaginations, their own desire for survival, their own need for validation. They are constantly evolving, changing, reassessing, adapting, morphing into the people that they become, always a little short of the people they aspire to be. The world, in all its cruelty and randomness, is constantly forcing them to bend and bend and bend until some break in two and others rebound even more forcefully.

Zadie Smith said that she wanted to write the first Black existential novel with "NW" but I think Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie may have written a much more devastating and illuminating one with "Americanah". If "NW" was existential in its stylistic experimentations, "Americanah" is existential in its very essence.

In the end, it could very well be that love, true passionate love between two people, is the only constant force flowing through the chaos.