August 2011

of Dorset by Tom Heller used under a Creative Commons license.

Geoffrey Household, Rogue Male (NYRB, 2007).
A thriller, originally published in 1939.  The unnamed protagonist stalks a European dictator (plainly Hitler, I should say) as if to shoot him, but is caught before he can pull the trigger.  He manages to escape, and makes his way back to England, but then realizes that the hunter has become the hunted now, and eventually is driven underground (in the rural Dorset downs) in the most literal way.  To relate more of the plot would be to say too much.  While Household doesn’t say specifically where his protagonist hides, I read somewhere (can’t recall where now) that someone has located the precise hillside in Dorset.

In addition to providing this bio of Household, Wikipedia lists several adaptations for the radio and screen. Here is Household’s obituary (New York Times). Google Books lets you take a look. Orin Judd calls it somewhat dated but curiously timeless. Bill Pronzini says it’s a nightmarish novel, filled with breathless chases, fascinating detail-work, and images that will haunt you. According to Bookride, it inspired Rambo. Seana (who picks books the way I do) says it’s a classic cat-and-mouse tale, a vivid and gripping read. Shane Richmond (26 Books) calls it a thoroughly satisfying read with amusing observations about the English class system. Nancy O says Household sets the tension level high to start, and then ratchets it up. Charles Taylor (The Boston Phoenix) says Household and his protagonist display a sensitivity to the English countryside, a sense that it will provide shelter and food and also spiritual ease. Curious Presbyterian calls it the best “man on the run” thriller ever written. David (Permission to Kill) would put it alongside any modern thriller for pure and simple brutal thrills (I believe that’s meant as praise). Sarah Weinman says the philosophical meditations are subtle but forceful. The Spy Project has spoilers and analysis that might be best read after the novel. Nick Jones says the hero is most compelling when he’s in his burrow. J.D. Tuccile sees lessons about the dangers of government powers. Mitch Edgeworth saw a good bit of dry wit sprinkled throughout, but not the tension that other reviewers see. Simon Lewis, who calls it brilliant, intense and a bit weird, says the protagonist hides in a wood near Lyme Regis. A Usenet poster, johngoldfine, is more precise: he says the hero hides in the country between Lyme Regis, Beaminster and Dorchester.

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Photo by Trey Ratcliff used under a Creative Commons license.

Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (Vintage Books (London), 2009).
Helmer van Wonderen, the narrator of this novel, is the surviving half of twins, now in his late fifties and living in a farmhouse in north Holland, near the IJsselmeer, with his father, who is slowly dying. Helmer has been a prisoner of events decades earlier, particularly the death of his brother Henk.  Then Henk’s fiancée returns, asking Helmer if her disenchanted teen-age son, also named Henk, can come and live with him.  Both are trapped in unhappiness, but is there the possibility of change?

Here are Wikipedia’s pages on the author and the book, which won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. NPR offers an excerpt. The Complete Review says little happens, and even major events seem almost incidental, but it is an absolutely fascinating read. Catherine Taylor (The Guardian) says loneliness and the beauty of the landscape create an atmosphere of inchoate yearning. Nicola Barr (The Guardian) calls it a novel of lost chances, of lost lives, of sadness and regret. Paul Binding (The Independent) says it’s a novel of great brilliance and subtlety. Susan Salter Reynolds (Los Angeles Times) says Bakker’s writing is so fabulously clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake. If you can access their archive, Tim Parks reviewed it in The New York Review of Books. The NLPVF says it’s ostensibly a book about the countryside, seen through the eyes of a farmer. Gavin (Page 247) saw themes and characters which were mythic in scope by completely rooted in the reality of daily work and a brilliantly realized sense of place. Anne Posten (The Quarterly Conversation) says it cannot be said to be innovative, yet is unique and surprising for the depth it finds in a quiet tale of pastoral realism. Kevin thinks very few books explore interpersonal relationships as well. Trevor knew he’d return to it. Chad W. Post (Three Percent) found Bakker’s prose mesmerizing, lyrical and understated. Danny Yee appreciates the strong sense of time and place in the seasonal and daily rhythms of a small farm near the IJsselmeer. Lisa Hill calls it deceptively simple. Randy Boyagoda (The Globe and Mail) calls it unapologetically slow-paced, patient in its revelations. Sue Magee was reminded of Coetzee or a more structured Ondaatje. Jeremy Nussbaum compares Bakker to Chekhov. Douglas Messerli describes the plot in detail (n.b. – spoilers). Jeannette Cooperman says it is a book you feel in your bones, and one that blooms where least expected. Emily had fun reading it as a piece of Gothic fiction. Plume of Words calls it a perfectly paced, insightful novel whose rhythms lull you into something like wonder, and says that it makes possible the sense of strangeness, of traveling into a different cultural mindset. Elinor Teele (California Literary Review) says there is something so peculiarly Northern European about it that one has a hard time trying to describe it without quoting half the book. Winstonsdad says the descriptions of the platteland scenery impart isolation and strangeness. William Rycroft says the descriptions of rural life and the Dutch countryside have a poetic beauty without obvious poetic flourishes. 3GoodRats calls it a novel of intense loss and suppressed rage. Carlos Amantea says Bakker has solved the problem of making a dull life interesting. Tommy Wallach (The Arts Fuse) says it renders static solitude dynamic and readable. Keep cool, Wendy. Amos Lassen was deeply touched. Tim enjoyed reading and contemplating. Amy found an unexpected surprise at the end. And Renate, Simone and Jilles, the fiction buyers at the American Book Center stores in Amsterdam and The Hague, explain why they stock it and other Dutch authors in English translation; they call The Twin an ode to the flat and bleak Dutch countryside, with its ditches and its cows and its endless grey skies.  Watch Bakker tell you a little something about the novel. Stephen finds Bakker being interviewed by Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times. Ramona Koval interviewed Bakker for Australian radio.

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Photo of the Hotel Chelsea by Christopher Macsurak used under a Creative Commons license.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010).
In 1967, at the age of 21, Smith left her family’s home in rural New Jersey and moved to New York City to find a new life.  She found herself hungry, lonely, jobless and poor, but she also found a friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two were soon living together in Brooklyn, eking out a living as artists – if not quite starving, then not far from it.  Their lives and careers slowly progressed, and they moved to Manhattan (first to the Hotel Chelsea) and ran in circles with the likes of William Burroughs and Sam Shepherd and Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsburg, and the world was still young. Eventually they become known as Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, but this memoir is about those days before they were famous, and it captures New York at an epic moment four decades now past.  Above all, it is a elegy for Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.

Here is Smith’s site. Here is Wikipedia’s page about her. Smith talked about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air. It won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Spinner has an excerpt. Gerry posts some as well. And here is an excerpt accompanied by a mariachi band. Janet Maslin (New York Times) says it captures a moment when Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown. Edmund White (The Guardian) says it brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s. Laura Miller (Salon) says it’s utterly lacking in irony or sophisticated cynicism. Elizabeth Hand (Washington Post) says Smith evokes Manhattan’s last great bohemian age so precisely that one can smell the Nescafé boiling on a hot plate. Tom Carson (New York Times) calls it the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that any alumnus has committed to print. Gina Myers (Frontier Psychiatrist) says its New York is one where everyone seems to be somebody. Carmela Ciuraru (San Francisco Chronicle) calls it one of the best memoirs of recent years: inspiring, sad, wise and beautifully written. Kate Neary (The Thrill of the Chaise) finished it in tears. Crystal was in tears before the first chapter. Christian Williams (The A.V. Club) says it’s rife with snapshots of ‘70s New York cool at its grittiest and most seductive. Roy Edroso (The Village Voice) says it pulls you in, like with Smith’s clarinet experiments, not so much because the thing is well-played but by the force of devotional fervor. Spacebeer says it will melt even the coldest of hearts. Luigi Scacciante recommends it to those interested in art or love or the human condition. Emily Temple (Flavorwire) says Smith is incredibly successful at immersing the reader in a New York where Allen Ginsburg buys you sandwiches and you move to sit in Andy Warhol’s still-warm chair. Nick Kent (The Sunday Times) says Smith tells her story with honesty and elegance. rundangerously calls it one of the best memoirs he has read. Greg Milner (Bookforum) says it’s a vivid portrayal of a bygone New York that could support a countercultural artistic firmament. Michael Horovitz (The Telegraph) calls it a refreshingly clear-eyed chronicle of a counterculture often over-mythologised. But teadevotee says it’s not so much a story as Smith’s contribution to her own myth.  Elizabeth Periale (xoxoxoe) notes that Smith has a real sense of New York history. Luke Storms collected the artists mentioned by Smith. Jude Rogers (New Statesman) says it’s essentially a love story. Beth Fish calls it surprisingly tender and moving. Erin Lee Carr gleaned some things. Lee Wind felt more enlightened after reading it, but wasn’t sure how. Mac is still catching up to Smith. Kat says it offers a sneak peek into the inaccessible, narcissistic, pretentious and closed world of popular art, music and words. Adrian McKinty says Smith’s prose is spare and beautiful and her narrative is full of compassion, wonderful details, and humour. Steve A. calls it pure poetry. Tracy Seeley read it on a bus and walked all the way home. Akshay Kapur couldn’t relate to her hardship. John Francisconi calls it a work of alchemy. Stuart Weibel can’t recall a finer testament to love and devotion. Bill regretted misunderstanding what was going on at CBGB’s. Maria Hatling doesn’t want it to end. Nataliejill then heard her music for the first time. Olivia Antsis created a companion blog to the book, and gives (e.g.) context for some of the places mentioned. You can see Smith read from the book here and here. John Siddique posts Smith’s interview on KRCW’s Bookworm show. Here she is on PBS Newshour and interviewed by Charlie Rose. David Ward interviewed her at the National Portrait Gallery in December, 2010. David Pescovitz (Boing Boing) found video of Smith performing in 1976. Angela Carone talked to DJ Claire, who created a sort of soundtrack for the book. Laura Bradley (AnOther) reports that the Hotel Chelsea has been sold and will be closed for a year. Rolling Stone says Smith is writing a sequel.

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Photo by sizumaru used under a Creative Commons license.

Kate T. Williamson, A Year in Japan (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).
During a year in Kyoto, Williamson kept a sort of artist’s journal, which she has turned into this book.  Her watercolors are full of details that grabbed her attention. Williamson has a designer’s eye for the telling detail, be it food, clothing or anything else.  (N.B. — The above is not one of her drawings.)

Williamson’s site will give you a sense of her work. And here’s a slideshow of some of her illustrations. Mark Flanagan ( calls Williamson’s watercolors simple and playful, and infused with a keen attention to light and color. Heather says it has the intimate feeling of a diary. Vanessa Raney (guttergeek) thought the illustrations were skillful but the descriptions weak. Charlie Dickinson ( says it sumptuously illustrates what’s compellingly different about Japan. Max Nikoolkan says its last focus become the uniqueness and brevity of everyday Japanese life. Julia Rothman says it tells you all the little, more important things you could never learn in a travel guide. Mary Ann Moore says it’s a reminder to appreciate what is unique and precious about what’s in front of us. Jill (I’m feeling formal) says it’s a beautiful memory of Williamson’s time in Japan, an introduction to aspects of Japanese life, and just fun to look at. JoAnn, who shares some of the illustrations, says: Who knew there was such a thing as an electric rug? Leah Hoelscher was inspired. Miss Lynsey has some favorite illustrations. Rebecca calls it a splendid record of Japan. Rosecrans Baldwin, who suggests the book is as though the love child of Maira Kalman and Kenneth Koch went abroad, interviewed Williamson upon the publication of a subsequent book.

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Photo by Anke L used under a Creative Commons license.

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation (New Directions, 2010).
Using a lakeside house in Brandenburg, in eastern Germany near Berlin, Erpenbeck’s novel follows twentieth-century history from Weimar Germany through the rise of the Nazis, the Soviet occupation, the German Democratic Republic, and re-unification.  After a prologue, Erpenbeck weaves the stories of the house’s owners and inhabitants, all caught in the century’s brutal events.  Erpenbeck’s prose, as translated by Susan Bernofsky, is poetic and spare, and rewards attention.  The story is set by the Scharmützelsee (or Märkisches Meer – the “Brandenburg Sea”), a glacially-formed lake southeast of Berlin, once the country and now a suburb.  The US publisher says the house once belonged to Erpenbeck’s grandparents (something that was not obvious to this reader). After I put it down, this book continued to gnaw at me.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Erpenbeck. M.A. Orthofer (The Complete Review) says the novel’s sense of place contrasts with the dispossession and flight experienced by many of its characters. Michel Faber (The Guardian) says it allows us to feel that we’ve known real individuals, experienced the slow unfolding of history, and bonded unconditionally with a place. Alfred Hickling (The Guardian) calls it ambitious, but says it rattles through human history with a confusing swiftness. Damian Van Denburgh (Critical Mob) says Erpenbeck repeats images and phrases to effect, illustrating the history of a place. Clare Colvin (Daily Mail) says it distils a century of German strife into one house in Brandenburg. CJ Schuler (Financial Times) compares its epic trajectory to Buddenbrooks, though it is only 150 pages long. Rebecca K Morrison (The Independent) appreciates a restrained, never indulgent, tapestry of individual stories laced with folklore. Christian House (The Independent) says that by focusing on a patch of land next to a Brandenburg lake, Erpenbeck layers story upon story to construct a haunting edifice. Jennifer Lipman (The Jewish Chronicle) says Erpenbeck muses on life and death and how the impact of experiences changes over time. Lizzy Siddal occasionally was left disoriented. Trevor calls it impressionistic but cohesive. Natasha Tripney (The Observer) says it encompasses both the domestic and the horrific. Ron Slate says Erpenbeck makes the reader care deeply about characters met in passing, in brief episodes. Christopher M. Ohge says much of what seems odd at first eventually becomes clear. Annie Janusch (The Quarterly Conversation) says the house become a vessel for the histories of its inhabitants. Phillip Witte (Three Percent) lauds shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition. J.C. Gabel (Time Out Chicago) was lured into a terrifying world of love, loss and regret. Fran Bigman (Words Without Borders) calls Erpenbeck a master of concealment and delay. Kevin says it’s distinguished by the flat, almost hypnotic tone of the prose. Nancy O calls it challenging but rewarding. Chris Wolak was excited and exhausted. Richard Prouty says the stories are told in a mesmerizing style. Monica Carter calls it disjointed but impressive. Jefferson Chase read a collection of two-dimensional morality plays. Judith found it haunting and spell-binding. Graham calls it brief but powerful. Chazz W calls it inventive and compelling as literature, riveting as history. Richard Saturday says the hero is the house. William Rycroft said it felt like a longer book than it is. Emmett Stinson says it’s not quite a collection of short stories but not quite a novel. Jackie found no motivation to turn the pages. Caitlin Fehir says each word feels important. Jennifer Cameron-Smith found it profoundly moving. Megan O’Grady interviewed Erpenbeck for Vogue. kjd interviewed Susan Bernofsky, the translator. And Pietari Posti designed the US cover.

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Photos of Tokyo by spDuchamp used under a Creative Commons license.

David Mura, Turning Japanese (Anchor Books, 1992).
A memoir of a year in Tokyo, from the perspective of a third-generation Japanese-American writer.  Mura, who grew up in Chicago, was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Japan with his wife, a white American doctor.  Though Mura perhaps starts with the thought that the trip is a homecoming of sorts, it would be more appropriate to say that sometimes one needs to leave a place to discover one’s relationship with it.  Mura’s transitional status in Japan often makes him a more acute observer than many other foreigners.  Many of his observations are introspective, but there is much of Tokyo here as well.

Here is the author’s site, and here is the Wikipedia page about him. Karl Taro Greenfield (Los Angeles Times) says Mura’s wide-eyed gawk at Tokyo captures some subtle nuances of the Japanese-American experience in Japan. Here is a recent interviewby E. Ethelbert Miller. FWIW, Stephanie Wössner was not satisfied. The author’s site has a short excerpt from Chapter 1. Tadaaki Hiruki collected favorite quotations.

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