29 January 2013

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself (Ludmilla Petrushevskaya)

This second Anna Summers-translated collection of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's stories is subtitled "Love Stories" (as the first, 2009's There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby, further explained itself as "Scary Fairy Tales"). Of course, as one can tell from that gloriously macabre mouthful of a title*, these tales of romantic and maternal love rarely end well, and never less than ambiguously.

It seems wrong, somehow, to even try to discuss Petrushevskaya's writing in depth, because her style is so spare, with meaning and emotion rattling around within the spaces between words. She has an amazing gift for economy, and for chronicling the everyday bleaknesses and indignities of Soviet and post-Soviet life, as well as the persistent black humor that I've found throughout my (admittedly sporadic) reading of centuries of Russian fiction. Pair this volume with roses past their prime and 90% cocoa dark chocolate for your unsentimental Valentine. (Or your bitterly single self.)

*(The professional bookseller in me cannot wait to impress customers by correctly identifying the book from their garbled memories of the title. This is only somewhat sarcastic.)

27 January 2013

Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks)

Engrossed in Birdsong, and Sebastian Faulks' vivid recreation of the British trenches at the Somme--and the network of tunnels beneath no man's land--I wondered, not for the first time, why it is I'm so fascinated with the Great War. I've burned through accounts fictional, critical, historical, biographical, autobiographical, poetic, illustrated, from both sides of the conflict. And yet I keep reading more, even though I know what to expect, i.e. rats, mud, bombardments, despair.

I think it's this: World War I caused human experiences that had never occurred before. Millions of men--millions of minds--were under the constant threat of death, in a constant state of fear, for days and weeks and months at a time. The scale of it, the accumulation of all that terror, the human psyche being subjected to strains it had never faced, seems from my near-century distance a breach in reality, a catastrophe that in some ways will never be overcome. It's something I can't possibly understand, and so I substitute secondhand facts and stories.

Birdsong, while the bulk of its pages are devoted to Englishman Stephen Wraysford's war service, it begins with a love story. At 20, Stephen visited Amiens to learn about the textile business there, and fell consumingly in love with his host's wife, Isabelle, and she with him. Their affair is linked to the horrors of battle by Faulks' visceral prose, grounded in the body, as sure and evocative writing about pleasure as pain. (One passage describes Stephen's tongue as "turning like a key in the split lock of her flesh," which is the best erotic image I've ever read.)

Less compelling for me are interspersed chapters that take place sixty years later, concerning Stephen and Isabelle's granddaughter, Elizabeth. She's largely ignorant about the war, its impact having been forgotten and blunted over the decades, but decides on a whim to learn more about her grandfather and the conflict that shaped him. She is dumbfounded by what she discovers--standing at an enormous monument for the British soldiers lost in a single battle, "[s]he looked at the vault above her head and then around in panic at the endless writing, as though the surface of the sky had been papered in footnotes. . . . 'Nobody told me. . . . My God, nobody told me.'" But beyond her role as learner, I just didn't find her that interesting. (And I always want to shake modern characters with married boyfriends.) Still, the prose is just as beautiful, and these sections are much shorter, so they hardly affected my overall love of the book. Highly recommended.

23 January 2013

Anna and the French Kiss (Stephanie Perkins)

Oh my gosh. Guys. I loved Stephanie Perkins' Paris-set YA romance Anna and the French Kiss. I loved it so much that I am going to violate my most cardinal rule, the one about not talking about books as if they are romantic partners, because I've noticed a lot of lady bloggers do that and I think it is gross . . . but.

I kind of wanna marry this book.

I mean, I waited two full days before I started reading something else, and I usually put my next book in my purse when I'm 30 or so pages from the end of something so I don't have to spend even one minute not reading. I was so melancholy when it was over, not cause it doesn't end happily AT LONG LAST GEEZ, but because I wasn't reading it anymore. Really, I haven't been so captivated by a book in a while. (Maybe NW was the last one? Ha. I'll lay euros to eclairs I'm the only reviewer to compare Perkins to Zadie Smith.)

Obviously, my experience with YA is different from that of a for-realsies young adult, for whom I imagine this would read as aspiration--for me it's nostalgia, and a sort of sweet contentment with where I've ended up. (I was trying to find a single word for the latter feeling, cause I'm sure some language has it, but instead I'm going to quote Eudora Welty: "Content like a little white kitty in a basket.")

Our heroine, Anna (such a good name for a heroine, right? And she's dyed a blond streak in her hair, which I totally did at her age), is packed off to the School of America in Paris for her senior year by her hilariously Nick-Sparksian father, author of books with one-word titles where people fall in love and then contract terminal diseases. She's furious, and scared, and she doesn't even speak French. Luckily, her next-door neighbor, Meredith, is sweet and welcoming, with a ready-made group of friends for Anna to fall into . . . including half-French, half-American, London-raised √Čtienne St. Clair, who's funny and smart and impossibly gorgeous. The only problem is his longtime girlfriend, in college across town.

This may be the best book I've ever read about falling in love. There's wild attraction, of course--and it's YA, so it's allllllll tension, all unspoken longings and impassioned glances and OMG his leg is touching mine in the movie theater is that on purpose? and . . . excuse me, I'll be on Holodeck Four.

BUT. Attraction is easy, and easy to write about. What amazes me about Anna is that it's just as much about the process of falling in love with a person, a whole one, an individual. So we learn with Anna not just that St. Clair is the hottest thing on four wheels, but that he's short, and scared of heights, and hates his father, and afraid of change. And Perkins doesn't rely overmuch on the "we talked for hours" narrative dodge--no, they talk and talk, and their dialogue is natural and funny and awesome. Though it's not all sweetness and light, either--they hurt and are hurt, and yell and bicker, and carry around stresses of their own. It's a real relationship, and it's a joy to read about.

Now I'm getting melancholy again, as this post comes to an end, because it's another step away from the book. But I know I'll have scenes and characters replaying in my head for a long time. I snapped up her follow-up, Lola and the Boy Next Door, right away, hardcover schmardcover, and I'm SO MAD I'll have left NYC by September when the last of the trio, Isla and the Happily Ever After, comes out, because I won't be able to squee about it in person with the co-worker who'd been after me to read Anna for like a year. We'll just be monopolizing each other's Twitter feeds, I suspect.

And to my husband, who is no doubt faux-belligerent over me saying I want to marry something else: it's because, sweetie, it reminds me of falling in love with you. Which I still do, every day.

13 January 2013

The Illuminatus! Trilogy (Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson)

So the (anachronistic) elevator pitch for The Illuminatus! Trilogy is "Foucault's Pendulum on acid." It's a kaleidoscopic, kitchen-sink, semi-sci-fi conspiracy novel whose 30,000-year-old intrigues encompass (but are certainly not limited to): the lost continent of Atlantis, the 1968 Democratic convention, Atlas Shrugged, H.P. Lovecraft's Elder Gods, talking dolphins, John Dillinger, the number 23, the goddess Eris, and an undead army of Nazis. And the Illuminati, of course--though the history and mission of the organization goes through many different permutations and layers of deception. I'm pretty sure I still don't get it, but then, I don't think I'm supposed to. It's not really that kind of book, much more a ride than a destination.

Its flaws I attribute almost entirely to the era in which it was written--1969-71, though it wasn't published in the omnibus form I read until 1984. It's awash in hallucinogen-as-spiritual-practice nonsense, and its female characters are almost entirely sexually generous to an eye-rolling degree. (I.e., there are a LOT of impromptu blowjobs in this book.) There's also the authors' uncomfortable tendency to refer to black characters' race nearly every time they're mentioned. Whether these faults are minor or major I leave up to the individual reader. But it's largely great fun, and its cult status is well earned. The couple I borrowed it from has a copy each.

12 January 2013

Parnassus on Wheels (Christopher Morley)

I missed 2013's inaugural WORD Classics Book Club this afternoon, due to dumb stupid bronchitis. I've been sick this whole year so far, wheeeee! But this year's theme (after Russians and NYRB Brits) is novellas, and Christopher Morley's 1917 paean to the bookselling life, Parnassus on Wheels, started us off in most delightful fashion.

It's the story of Miss Helen McGill, long-suffering sister to Andrew, a best-selling author of Thoreau-ish meditations on the joys of rural life. While he taps away at his typewriter maintaining his reputation as the "Sage of Redfield," she's stuck running the farm, and has drifted into plump middle age without much incident. This all changes with the arrival of red-bearded Roger Mifflin and his traveling Parnassus--a robin's-egg blue wagon cleverly outfitted with bookshelves on both sides, laden with everything from classics to cookbooks, which its proprietor has driven for years around the country, bringing books, and the worlds within them, to the rural masses. Mr. Mifflin intends to sell the whole shebang--including horse Pegasus and terrier Bock--to Andrew, for he plans to move back to Brooklyn and write a book of his own, on "Literature Among the Farmers." Helen, sure that the acquisition of more books will simply make her brother more insufferable, makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy it herself, and have some adventures of her own.

Obviously, as a bookmonger myself, I am very much a choir being preached to here, but I think even those who have never experienced the joys of a great handsell (that is, matching just the right book with just the right customer) would find Parnassus adorable. And oh so quotable! See Mifflin's assertion that "when you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue--you sell him a whole new life." Or his love of his home borough: "New York is Babylon; Brooklyn is the true Holy City. New York is the city of envy, office work, and hustle; Brooklyn is the region of home and happiness. It is extraordinary: poor, harassed New Yorkers presume to look down on low-lying, home-loving Brooklyn, when as a matter of fact it is the jewel their souls are thirsting for and they never know it." And though I wouldn't call it "feminist" quite, it's always nice to read a (SPOILER ALERT) romantic comedy with a leading lady pushing forty--and forty was older in those days, too! All in all, quite worth an afternoon. And come December, while I won't be in Brooklyn to discuss it (having retreated to my low-lying, home-loving hometown), I shall for sure be reading Morley's sequel, The Haunted Bookshop.

04 January 2013

The Purple Cloud (M.P. Shiel)

Written in 1901, The Purple Cloud is a grand, grotesque vision of near-future catastrophe--perhaps too floridly written for a general modern audience (Shiel never met an adjective he didn't like), but great fun for those with practice picking through the page-long sentences and piled-up dependent clauses of nineteenth-century fiction. I mean, there's a scene where the protagonist watched London burn by his hand whilst playing "Ride of the Valkyries," which image alone is worth the price of admission. (N.B. Said price for a public domain ebook is nil, though Penguin Classics recently came out with the charming edition at left.)

The story begins with a race to the North Pole, the richest man in the world having left his fortune to whoever first sets foot on the top of the world; via subterfuge and murder (this latter the work of his Lucrezia Borgia-emulating fiancée, the Countess Clodagh), physician Adam Jeffson joins a party of Englishmen bound for the Arctic wastes. A couple more shootings later, Adam reaches the much-sought goal--and is immediately sorry, being overcome with a Lovecraft-anticipating vision of "the Sanctity of Sanctities, the old eternal inner secret of the Life of this Earth, which is was a most burning shame for a man to see." Fleeing in terror, after some months he finds the expedition's ice-cutting ship . . . and all its crew stone dead.

Moving south, death is all he encounters: polar bears, mounds of birds, and humans of every race and country, all, he discovers, running in vain from the title violet vapor, whose cyanogenic, peach-blossom-smelling drift has cast a noxious swath across the earth--and left him the only living man on the planet.

And what does he do with his isolation? Well, as alluded to above, for a good chunk of the book he just sails around RAZING GREAT CITIES TO THE M*F*ING GROUND, moping be darned. Paris, Peking, Constantinople! He also builds himself a palace out of gold! I love it! Refreshing and weird to have a last man on earth who's kind of a jerk, right? It's Adam's unapologetic reign of destruction that lets me gloss over the rather clunkish allegory of the last fourth of the book (HINT HIS NAME IS ADAM) and just enjoy the madness.

03 January 2013

The Slynx (Tatyana Tolstaya)

By happenstance, I followed up We with a modern, but still very Russian, dystopia: Tatyana Tolstaya's The Slynx: a fun, freewheeling take on post-nuclear apocalypse. Because what's more fun than that, amirite?

The Slynx is set 200 years after what's become known as the Blast, in the ruins of what was once Moscow--now known as Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, namesake of the Greatest Murza, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe, inventor of the wheel and the yoke, prolific author of the works Benedikt and his fellow scribes copy out onto bark in the Work Izba. Of course, these atavistic amanuenses (ha, I shouldn't love that phrasing as much as I do, but I DO I DO) don't know that Fyodor Kuzmich is merely taking credit for the accumulated poetry and prose of the Russian canon . . . but the ageless, nearly immortal Oldeners who lived through their world's end do, and bemoan the loss and corruption of their dead culture.

The society of The Slynx is a Frankenstein's monster of present and past, the latter forgotten or mutated like those born post-Blast, who suffer grotesque Consequences, claws and cockscombs and extra appendages. But lingering, stubborn notions of how things used to be still govern them, despite their irrelevance; like Benedikt and co-worker Varvara Lukinishna wondering what the oft-copied term "steed" might be and concluding it must be a mouse (though a big one), the people garble their heritage like in a game of Telephone, with results as often sad as they are always hilarious. For while Tolstaya's created future owes a debt to the derangement of society under the Soviets, and the storied history of Russian letters (especially Pushkin, as usual), I found the narrative itself most reminiscent of Gogol, giddy, snarky, and wild, tearing off on tangents, tossing in a fable or two, but always affectionate, even as it shakes its head at these silly creatures.
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