fiction



Photo
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.

Buy it at Half.com.

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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.

Buy it at Half.com.


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.

Buy it now at Half.com.


Photo of Mexico City by Matthew Tichenor used under a Creative Commons license.

Javier Marías, Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico (New Directions, 2010).
On a short break from filming in Acapulco, The King and a few of his entourage take his private plane for a night on the town in Mexico City, where they run into trouble with a host of “whitewashed gangsters.” The narrator of this short novella is Elvis’ narrator, a Spaniard. To be honest, there’s not a lot of Mexico here, but if you like Marías you will like this, and if you don’t you should.

Here is Marías’ site. Here are profiles of him in the Guardian, The New Yorker and The Nation. M.A. Orthofer says it’s a nicely rounded little thriller, as well as an amusing piece of Marías’ larger and often interconnected œuvre. Eli S. Evans calls it a distillation of Marías’ personal literary universe. 1streading calls it a gem of a story. Wythe Marschall describes it as a work of alternating gravid humor and steak-thick terror. Owen Roberts says Marías apparently is obsessed with Elvis. Charles R. Larson (Counterpunch) sees quite a flight of the imagination. ElvisNews.com calls it well researched. Rise calls it a bad bad book, in the wild west sense. Lincoln Michel calls it a dark and humorous tale.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of the Tate Gallery by Rob Brink used under a Creative Commons license.

John Lanchester, Mr. Phillips (Penguin, 2001).
After a respectably long and undistinguished career in accountancy, Mr. Phillips is told that he has been made redundant; his services are no longer needed.  Unable to quite come to grips with what has happened to him, he leaves his home as if on his way to the office but instead spends the day meandering through London, from Battersea Park to Trafalgar Square and on.  Early in that Monday, neither Mr. Phillips nor Mr. Phillips were working for me, either, but things turned around through the afternoon and the evening brought some measure of redemption.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Lanchester. Here is Chapter One. Merrick posted a favorite excerpt. Gabrielle Annan (NYRB) says Mr. Phillips drifts through a London so vividly and wittily evoked that it would make an engaging guide book to the places on his route. Tom Shone (Salon) says it is virtually plotless. Roz Shea calls it often funny and sometimes touching. Alex Good says it evokes cultural malaise. Jennifer Schuessler (The New York Times) calls it witty but disappointing. Nicholas Lezard (The Guardian) did not find it as hilarious as other critics. To rjk, it describes a progress through London that arguably resembles Mrs Dalloway’s. Shannon was enthralled. Philip Hensher (The Guardian) calls it always engaging and interesting. More Coffee Please doesn’t hate meetings. Daisy thought it was quite cool. Christina Patterson interviewed Lanchester for The Independent. Lanchester wrote in the Guardian about his inspiration for the book.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of Frank Chu and Prince Charles by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

Jen Wang, Koko Be Good (First Second, 2010).
A graphic novel and a sort of three-legged bildungsroman about young San Franciscans Koko, Jon, and Faron. When Jon meets Koko, he is planning to move to Peru to do charity work, a plan that seems like a good idea, but her outlook on life causes him to question himself. Koko, on the other hand, could use a little more structure and long-term planning, but instead she has Jon and Faron, who driftlessly works in his family’s restaurant. Wang’s characters are more complicated than they first appear; nonetheless, the dialogue sometimes evokes overly earnest late-night dormroom conversations. Even so, the terrific artwork more than makes up for it.

Here is the author’s site. Wang has posted a shorter, earlier (2004) work by the same name; here is the backstory. Here’s a quick and effective preview. Take a longer look on Google Books. Or take a look at the excerpt offered by the distributor. Cory Doctorow calls it a complex story engagingly told with ingenious layouts and lovely art. Eric Adelstein came away with a craving for more. Greg McElhatton says it defies easy categorization. Comicsgirl says Wang’s San Francisco is a place where people actually live and work. Xaviar Xerexes calls it a thought-provoking story with lively characters and a tone that mixes seriousness with fun. Sterg Botzakis calls it beautifully illustrated. Kristin Fletcher-Spear calls the artwork wonderfully unique and the characters truly realized. Erin Jameson says the combination of text and art is sublime. Cathlin Goulding likes the illustration of San Francisco neighborhoods. Zack Davisson loved the artwork, but not the characters or story. Holly agrees with Davisson. So does Ray Garraty. Johnny Bacardi gives it mixed praise. Jonathan says the characters are by turns funny and serious, but always real. DeBT appreciates Wang’s departures from conventions. Ralph Mathieu calls it delightful twice. Andrew Wheeler says the characters are realistically verbose and pompous. Wang talked to the Wall Street Journal about her inspirations. Kris Bather interviewed her. Here is another interview with Shaun Manning of CBR. Here’s one with John Hogan of GraphicNovelReporter. Here’s one with J. Caleb Mozzocco of Newsarama.com. And here’s one with Alex Dueben at Suicide Girls. MTV Geek! toured her studio. See more of Wang’s art here.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of Singapore by William Cho used under a Creative Commons license.

Claire Tham, The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories (Times Editions, 2003).
A collection of six stories, not exactly short but shorter than novellas, so let’s call them short stories, from a Singaporean author, five of which are set at least in partly in Singapore.  Tham’s characters come from all walks of life, but many of them have a self-destructive bent, and all collide with the confines of social mores.

Xinying Hong wrote this bio of Tham. Here’s an excerpt. Neil Murphy calls the collection very well crafted and engaging. Sign up for a free trial and you can read Peter Nazareth’s review (or this free trial) (and you can tell me what it says). Lars Eckstein (English literatures across the globe: a companion) praises Tham’s acute perception of the idiosyncracies of Singaporean culture. The book was shortlisted for the 2004 Singapore Literature Prize. In her other life, Tham is a partner at a Singapore law firm.

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