November 2009


Pinocchio Army
Photo by photonooner used under a Creative Commons license.

Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio (NYRB, 2008).
You may think you know the story of Pinocchio, but likely what you know is Walt Disney’s 1940 film adaptation. This is a Geoffrey Brock’s new translation of the original book, with a brief introduction by Umberto Eco and a longer afterword by Rebecca West. As translated by Brock, Collodi’s original is very different from the 1940 Walt Disney film — it is more complex and it lacks the sentimentality, but it races along nicely.  I would say it’s darker than the Disney film, but West’s afterword points out that all but twelve minutes of the film take place at night or in the dark.  Suffice it to say that Collodi’s story is no cartoon.

Google Books lets you take a look. NPR has an excerpt from the first chapter. Here is Wikipedia’s page on Carlo Collodi, the pen name (after the Tuscan town) of Carlo Lorenzini. Wikipedia’s page about the book is worthwhile. Here is Brock’s bio. Tim Parks’ long review in The New York Review of Books is worth reading.  He says Brock conveys Collodi’s zany spirit of Tuscan humor, a Pincchio who swings alarmingly between lies and candor, generosity and cruel mockery, good intentions and zero staying power. You can also listen to an interview with Parks. The NYRB Classics Editor, Edwin Frank, calls it a brilliant evocation of the promise and precariousness of childhood, when the world is both new and immemorial and everything is possible and yet, because one is a child, nothing is. John Powers says the book’s reality reflects the harshness of life in Collodi’s Tuscany, a place driven by hunger, brutality, greed, and social injustice. Chelsea Bauch (Boldtype) says Brock revives Collodi’s sardonic wit and pitch-black humor. Cathleen Medwick (O) calls it a tale of gumption and greed. Elizabeth was disappointed initially, and surprised that that her expectations did not match what she was reading. Jennifer says it’s both an adventure story and a moralistic tale. Bob Rini has some neat links. Here is a 1927 translation (by an unidentified translator) with illustrations by Frederick Richardson. Here is the original trailer for the Disney movie. If you’re in Tuscany, you can visit Parco di Pinocchio di Collodi.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Classic and modern
Photo of Buenos Aires by lrargerich used under a Creative Commons license.

César Aira, Ghosts (New Directions, 2009).
A short novel about a Chilean family living on the roof of an upscale apartment building under construction in Buenos Aires on New Year’s Eve. The day starts with arrival of future tenants who want to inspect the builders’ progress. The crew of laborers works a half-day and then breaks for a lunch where much wine is drunk. They depart, leaving the Chilean night watchman to nao and his wife to prepare to host a New Year’s party that evening. As the day passes, the focus shifts to the watchman’s teenage daughter. Oh, yes — the building is also inhabited by naked, floating, dusty ghosts, who will have their own party. Aira is a prolific Argentina author, but little of his work has been translated into English. This book made me want to read more of his work.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Aira. Google Books lets you read a little. Scott Bryan Wilson (The Quarterly Conversation) says it is ultimately about the mechanics within families and the ways in which they create expectations for our lives. The Complete Review, which has a helpful collection of links (some of which are below), says it makes for an unusual and haunting coming-of-age novel. Jesse Tangen-Mills (Bookslut) sees fugues of free association combined with the ordinary banality of everyday life. Natasha Wimmer (The New York Times) says Aira is one of the most provocative and idiosyncratic novelists working in Spanish today, and should not be missed. Thomas McGonigle (Los Angeles Times) warns that the novel’s opening is shy in revealing the greatness withinThe New Yorker‘s anonymous reviewer says Aira conjures a languorous, surreal atmosphere of baking heat and quietly menacing shadows that puts one in mind of a painting by de Chirico. Megan Doll (San Francisco Chronicle) says Aira makes the strange seem banal, and calls it absurd and pedantic. Chad W. Post (Three Percent) says it’s an incredibly enjoyable book that can be read during an afternoon. Josef Braun (VUE Weekly) calls it a kind of jazzy essay, combining vividly detailed people and places with unfettered, often dazzling abstraction. Andrew Seal posts some favorite passages. Another (unidentified) blogger calls it one of the most uniquely, genuinely odd books you’re likely to stumble across. Mookse says Aira’s imagination and intelligence are for real. Douglas Messerli says Aira’s short novels seem like much longer fictions. David Auerbach doesn’t like Aira’s bad writing — he thinks Aira hasn’t spent enough time thinking things through. Melissa Tuckman says it’s a phantom-novel, airy and gestural, and that’s what makes it so terrifying. Carlos Amantea says it’s a story grounded in reality, but also a ghost story. Robert Birnbaum reads it as an allegory of class consciousness. Will Ashon feels no pressure to make sense of it. Francis Reynolds says Aira creates a strange and unsettling atmosphere.  Kathleen Brazie says it is driven by finding what lies in the space between real and unreal. María Moreno interviewed Aira for Bomb. Marcelo Ballvé wrote about “the ultra-experimental, madly prolific Argentine novelist César Aira” in The Quarterly Conversation. Scott Bryan Wilson interviewed the translator, Chris Andrews, also in The Quarterly Conversation.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Gila National Forest Canyon
Photo of the Gila National Forest by Dolor Ipsum used under a Creative Commons license.

Sharman Apt Russell, Songs of the Fluteplayer (Bison Books, 2002).
Writing for Salon’s Literary Guide to the World about southern New Mexico, Philip Connors says that

for a vision of contemporary life in this part of the world, one could scarcely do better than to pick up Sharman Apt Russell’s “Songs of the Fluteplayer” (1991), a collection of personal essays that range from the clash between environmentalists and cattle ranchers to the moral quandaries involved in hiring illegal laborers. At its best, it explores human-imposed boundaries — say, between public land and private, or between America and Mexico — with clarity, grace and a subtlety that subverts simple-minded moralizing.

When she wrote the book, Russell taught writing at Western New Mexico University in Silver City, where she has been since 1981, and lived in the Mimbres Valley, also in the southwest part of the state. I haven’t read this one, but I enjoyed Russell’s Kill the Cowboy.

Here is Russell’s bio at WNMU. This brief bio links to several of her articles. Her Wikipedia entry isn’t much longer. Google Books lets you take a look. Janet Schoberg says it captures the charm and challenge of the American Southwest. Susan J. Tweit interviewed Russell for Story Circle Book Reviews.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Gaudi
Photo of La Pedrera – Casa Milà by Paco CT used under a Creative Commons license.

Robert Hughes, Barcelona: The Great Enchantress (National Geographic, 2004).
Hughes, an Australian expat who was Time‘s art critic for years, has long made Barcelona his home away from home, and wrote a longer and more celebrated book (confusingly titled Barcelona) on the city seventeen years ago. National Geographic must have decided that this made him the right person to write about the city for their Directions series, for which well-known authors write short books about places. The result sometimes feels like a writing assignment rather than an organic book, but it works as a handy introduction to the city. Hughes follows a chronological approach in describing how the built environment of Barcelona came to be, and what is unique about Barcelona’s culture pours out around the edges.

Here’s Wikipedia’s page on Hughes. Hughes wrote an homage to Barcelona in Time in 1992. Here are two paragraphs from the book on Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló (with a picture of the facade). Miquel O’Dochartaigh posts some favorite passages. Ian or Linda Kaplan calls it a readable overview of Barcelona, its architecture and Catalan culture; he likes it more than Hughes’ other book, but not as much as Colm Tóibín’s Homage to Barcelona. Sarah says it brings the city alive like no other, and she lived there. George V. Reilly gave it 3.5 stars (out of 5) and calls it well-written and opinionated, if overly selective. John Novick found it helpful. Paul Symonds says it’s at once a personal account and a travel documentary; he recommends nine other Barcelona books, too. Nancy Todd calls it a fascinating painting of the Catalan capital; she, too, has other recommendations. Natalie Perrin calls it schizophrenic. Adam D. Roberts used Hughes as a guide. Reuben is inspired by Barcelona’s architecture. Tyson Williams picked it up before he went to Barcelona, where he took photos.And Jennifer Schuessler reports on Barcelona bookstores.

Buy it at Amazon.com.