Wondering what 2014 releases I’ve missed out on reading so far

October 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m going to be adding to my 2014 Releases/Reviews post this weekend, as I hope to get over 90% of the listed books reviewed (and 100% read) by Christmas, so I can have a good year-end Best of 2014 series of commentaries on the best of these books.  But doubtless I’ve missed whole swathes of literary genres, many of which almost certainly have produced some excellent books.

Care to suggest works that might be considered among the year’s best that I do not have listed in my post?  I do plan on buying some more books next month after I finish catching up on bill payments related to my recent time off work due to a lower back injury.

A few quotes from books I’ve been browsing through recently

October 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Interesting how a few of them can be connected thematically:

It is not that religion is delusional by nature, nor that the individual, beyond present-day religion, rediscovers his most suspect psychological origins.  But religious delusion is a function of the secularization of culture:  religion may be the object of delusional belief insofar as the culture of a group no longer permits the assimilation of religious or mystical beliefs in the present context of experience.

– Michel Foucault (1962), Mental Illness and Psychology, p. 81, used as an epigraph for Religion and culture, edited by Jeremy R. Carrette

Once inside the house again I remembered to try not to listen to the sound of the machines so long as all those others so I would be smarter when I got older and less hurt inside for certain whiles about the way things went on without me in the daily organism, though as that went on too I began to feel too I wasn’t changing and anyway the effect of our inbred-from-Adam-and-Eve origins were beginning more and more to make effect in all of us.  Some days inside the house the days inside the house went on so long and still the digits on the machines’ clocks would not blink; I could feel inside me, as the time stayed like that sometimes for some great lengths, the old National Anthem squirting through my organs into the surrounding furniture and glass, sucked out of my teeth and face in all its daily iterations of ads and silent thinking and holy money, into the house where then the house would chew it up; soon each time the house would kill the Anthem into a silence longer than all my cells lined up one after another in a queue inside my wanting and that silence was the new Anthem and that was warm.

– Blake Butler, 300,000,000 (pp. 10-11)

Life became severe for Marius; eating his clothes and his watch was nothing, but he also went through that indescribable course which is called “chewing the cud.”  This is a horrible thing which contains days without bread, nights without sleep, evenings without candle, a house without fire, weeks without work, a future without hope, a threadbare coat, an old hat at which the girls laugh, the door which you find locked at night because you have not paid your rent, the insolence of the porter and the eating-house keeper, the grins of neighbors, humiliations, dignity trampled under foot, any work taken, disgust, bitterness, and desperation.  Marius learned how all this is devoured, and how it is often the only thing which a man has to eat.  At that moment of life when a man requires pride because he requires love, he felt himself derided because he was meanly dressed, and ridiculous because he was poor.  At the age when youth swells the heart with an imperial pride, he looked down more than once at his worn-out boots, and knew the unjust shame and the burning blushes of wretchedness.  It is an admirable and terrible trial, from which the weak come forth infamous and the strong sublime.  It is the crucible into which destiny throws a man whenever it wishes to have a scoundrel or a demi-god.

– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Part III, Book V, Chapter I

My grandmother tells us
it’s the way of the South.  Colored folks used to stay
where they were told that they belonged.  But
times are changing.
And people are itching to go where they want.

This evening, though,
I am happy to belong
to Nicholtown.

– From “at the end of the day,” Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (p. 54)

Richard Flanagan wins 2014 Man Booker Prize, I rank the Booker finalists, and the National Book Awards shortlists

October 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

Lots of literary news over the past 24 hours to cover briefly.  Yesterday afternoon, Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  It is a very good novel, one that is well-deserving of this honor, but having read 11/13 of the longlist (still have The Dog and Us to read; the latter hasn’t yet been released in the US) and 6/6 of the shortlist, it wasn’t my personal favorite.  This is not to say that I didn’t like it quite a bit, because I did, but there were some other outstanding books on those lists that appealed to me just a tiny bit more.  So for those of you who like lists and rankings, if I had to file a preferential voting system ballot for the Booker Prize shortlist, it would have gone like this:

1.  Ali Smith, How to be Both 

2.  Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North 

3.  Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 

4.  Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others

5.  Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

6.  Howard Jacobson, J 

If I were to employ star/number rating systems, the difference between the Smith and the Jacobson would be somewhere between .5 and 1, as I do consider the Jacobson to be well above the average, if not quite outstanding or excellent.  All in all, while I would have considered several other books instead of/in addition to these, this was an enjoyable shortlist (and by extension, longlist) to read.

Earlier today, the National Book Awards released their five book shortlists for Young People’s Literature, Poetry, Non-Fiction, and Fiction.  I own/have reviewed some of the YPL, Poetry, and Fiction finalists and will try to review as many of these over the next month as possible.

Young People’s Literature:

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (currently reading; excellent so far)

John Corey Whaley, Noggin

Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50

Deborah Wiles, Revolution

Eliot Schrefer, Threatened


Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night 

Fred Moten, The Feel Trio

Fanny Howe, Second Childhood

Maureen N. McClane, This Blue


Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition:  Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China

Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence 

Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living:  America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes

John Lahr, Tennessee Williams:  Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh


Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See 

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman 

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Phil Klay, Redeployment 

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Howard Jacobson, J

October 14, 2014 § 2 Comments

Before chancing his nose outside his cottage in the morning, Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen turned up the volume on the loop-television, poured tea – taking care to place the cup carelessly on the hall table – and checked twice to be certain that his utility phone was on and flashing.  A facility for making and receiving local telephone calls only – all other forms of electronic communication having been shut down after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, to the rapid spread of whose violence social media were thought to have contributed – the utility phone flashed a malarial yellow until someone rang, and then it glowed vermilion.  But it rarely rang.  This, too, he left on the hall table.  Then he rumpled the silk Chinese hallway runner – a precious heirloom – with his shoe. (pp. 5-6)

2010 Booker Prize winner and current finalist Howard Jacobson has been known for comic novels that explore the darker elements of English Jewish society.  In his latest novel, J (actually with two marks through the letter), however, Jacobson eschews even the trappings of comic satire for a tale that might be considered dystopic not so much for the outer trappings of a society after some social upheaval, but for how his characters are developed in relation to an event that is so profound that they refer to it as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.”  While the mysteries of that and why Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen puts two fingers to his mouth when pronouncing certain words that begin with “J” might appeal to readers, it is Jacobson’s probing of how we try to communicate through the silences that we enforce through perfunctory social niceties that make J a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read.

There are a couple of main subplots that dovetail toward the end.  Kevern’s half-stifled “J” talk, which is semi-abandoned through his arc in favor of slightly more direct talk of what has actually transpired over the decades leading up to Kevern’s tale,  is but one small segment of a whole spectrum of social self-silencing that has taken place in Britain after some awful events decades before.  There are no email accounts, no social media, television is strictly regulated, even the language of social discourse has been altered – there is a sense of a great, horrific story lurking behind the stony silences of the newly-altered language itself.  Kevern’s own surname, Cohen, is a clue, but not necessarily the blatant one some might suspect.  Related to this is the seemingly weird behavior of a young adult orphan, Alinn, and how she sees her future and Kevern’s intertwined.  This second subplot, however, is not as well-fleshed as the former, and there are places where their interactions feel forced, at least until the latter part of the novel, where more effort is made to connect the two.

I referenced dystopic fiction above not because it is an easy catch-all term for describing a near-future society that would make for an uneasy dwelling experience for contemporary readers, but because J does something interesting here:  there is not a focus so much on the material aspects of this culture, but instead on how the characters are altered by this new societal order.  Take for instance the half-stifled “j” words said, words like “jazz” or “Jesus” or “joke.”  These are words that have become here “j” words, just as we have today the “N word” and the “C word” to denote words that we know what they mean but we durst not utilize them due to their offensive natures.  We speak around them, half-allude to them, knowing what we want to imply, but not daring to voice directly those darkly talismanic words lest they evoke hatred and contempt.  Therefore, it is interesting to see a similar effect caused by these “j” words through the narrative.  What does it mean to have these seemingly-disconnected words being smothered by their erstwhile speakers?

This I suspect is the main thrust of Jacobson’s book.  There is indeed another “j” word, one that is never really even half-uttered, that does come to dominate the others.  It is the reason behind “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” and how the reader chooses to react to this ultimate “j” word might determine how she comprehends the final parts of the novel.  That “j” word, which I shall not utter here for purposes related to exploring Jacobson’s themes, has led to wholesale surname changes.  It has led to a polite relabeling of urban areas, all in an effort to efface a calamity of violence that unfolded decades before.  It is a cause, if not necessarily the main one, behind the peculiar semantic shifts certain words have taken in the interim.  In not talking about it, the characters are constantly reacting to IT.  The effects this has on Kevern and Alinn’s self-identities, along with certain others, is chilling not because of what is said or done, but because of what is implied and suspected.

J, however, is not a perfect novel.  There are times where the subplots bow down and threaten to collapse under the weight of its narrative pretense.  Alinn’s story in particular does not feel well-developed and more could have been done to develop her conflicted relationship with Kevern.  Even the particulars behind the “j” words and the ominous “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” are a bit heavy-handed when more direct allusions are made to them.  This results in a conclusion that feels at times a bit forced, a bit too strident in places and yet strangely empty and devoid of impetus in others.  While this does detract from the power of the setting and its implications, on the whole J is Jacobson’s darkest, most unsettling novel and perhaps his best vehicle for articulating some of his socio-cultural concerns.  It is a worthy finalist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but I cannot help but think if it had gone just a bit further, developed its themes of identity and societal self-silencing just a bit more, that it could have become not just a very good novel but a great one.

Things I’m supposedly going to be working on this month

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

My second bout with kidney stones this weekend set me back quite a bit.  Not only did I miss the final two days of the 2014 Southern Festival of Books due to sometimes intense kidney/abdominal pain, but I didn’t get any reviews written this weekend.  So it seems I’m going to have to be write virtually a review a day for the rest of the year in order to achieve my review goals, or at least to cover the books covered on this list

I do know that late tonight/Tuesday morning I will have a review of Howard Jacobson’s Booker-shortlisted J up in advance of tomorrow’s award announcement.  I also might try to write a review of one of the 2014 Prix Médicis finalists before I go to bed.  Then I would like to tackle this week at least two other Prix Médicis finalists that I’ve read before covering the 2014 Premio Strega longlisted/shortlisted titles that I’ve read but haven’t yet reviewed.  It takes longer to write shorter-length reviews of works read in my fourth and fifth-best languages (French and Italian), so I might end up spreading those out.

After that, I think I’ll try to review 1-2 of the bolded titles (the ones I’ve already read) on the list linked to above.  Certainly will cover the 2014 National Book Award-longlisted titles listed (by the way, their shortlists should be announced later this week, if memory serves) and then certain high-profile releases, like the Murakami, then will be reviewed at last.  I hope by the end of November to have my to-review list down to fewer than twenty titles, but it’ll be a challenge, since I undoubtedly will be adding books to that list in the coming weeks.

Whenever I do catch up, that list should make for a comprehensive review of 2014 literature, with the possible exception of SF/F, of which I have read relatively little this year.  Now to see how quickly these plans fall apart.

Inaugural Kirkus Prize shortlist for Fiction

October 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Another new lit award I forgot to blog about, the Kirkus Prize for Fiction will be awarded on October 23.  Here are the six finalists:

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Lily King, Euphoria

Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names

Brian Morton, Florence Gordon

Bill Roorbach, The Remedy for Love

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests

Not a bad shortlist; the three I’ve already read/reviewed are all good novels.

2014 Southern Festival of Books book purchases

October 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, I attended the first day of the 2014 Southern Festival of Books (I didn’t go today, due to a recurrence of kidney pain; might go tomorrow, but uncertain).  I first stopped by the McKay’s booth, where I was pleasantly surprised to see three leatherbound Franklin Library editions on sale for $12 each.  So I bought the Styron, Theroux, and Bellow books pictured above.  Only thing bad about it was that some damnable fool put ex libris glue-on stickers on the moire interiors and it was difficult to remove them.

Two 2014 National Book Award-longlisted titles here, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (alas, no signed copy, as I missed today’s session) and Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (if I feel better, I’ll attend her 1-2 PM session).

Here are two books that I did get signed:  David James Poissant’s The Heaven of Animals (already reviewed months ago when I bought the e-book edition; liked it enough to buy a hardcover edition in order to get it signed) and Antonya Nelson’s Funny Once.  So far, so good with her collection, as it has some wickedly sharp humor mixed in with some serious themes.  Will review it in the near future.

Now if I feel better, I’ll go in the afternoon and get the Woodson signed, along with the three Lev Grossman novels from his Magicians trilogy that I’ve already read/reviewed.

2014 Goldsmiths Prize

October 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

Forgot to blog about this the other day, but the second Goldsmiths Prize for literature just announced their shortlist.  Here they are:

Rachel Cusk, Outline

Will Eaves, The Absent Therapist

Howard Jacobson, J

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake 

Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know

Ali Smith, How to be Both 

The winner will be announced November 12th.

Prix Médicis shortlist, 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature announced

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Two bits of literary news to share, both of which deal with French writers:

It was announced this morning that French writer Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.  He is the first Prix Goncourt (France’s most prestigious literary prize) winner to be selected as a Nobel laureate.

Also, the Prix Médicis, another French literary award that’s been around for over 50 years and is intended to recognize writers whose talent outstrips their fame, has released their short list.  Out of the eight titles, I’ve read/am reading four, and I hope to have reviews of most, if not all, of them posted by early November, when the winner is announced:

  • Véronique Bizot, Ame qui vive (Actes Sud)
  • Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (Grasset)
  • Hedwige Jeanmart, Blanès (Gallimard)
  • Frank Maubert, Visible la nuit (Fayard)
  • Laurent Mauvignier, Autour du monde (Minuit)
  • Eric Reinhardt, L’amour et les forêts (Gallimard)
  • Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux (Seuil)
  • Valérie Zenatti, Jacob Jacob (L’Olivier)

And now the Prix Médicis shortlist for translated fiction:

  • Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (Robert Laffont), traduit de l’anglais (Canada) par Patrick Dusoulier.
  • Lily Brett, Lola Bensky (La grande ourse), traduit de l’anglais (Australie) par Bernard Cohen.
  • Anthony Marra, Une constellation de phénomènes vitaux (J.C. Lattès), traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Dominique Defert.
  • Antonio Moresco, La petite lumière (Verdier), traduit de l’italien par Laurent Lombard.
  • James Salter, Et rien d’autre (L’Olivier), traduit de l’anglais (Etats-Unis) par Marc Amfreville.
  • Taiye Selasi, Le ravissement des innocents (Gallimard), traduit de l’anglais (Royaume Uni) par Sylvie Schneiter.
  • Evie Wyld, Tous les oiseaux du ciel (Actes Sud), traduit de l’anglais (Australie) par Mireille Vignol.

Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds)

October 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

Je ne sais pas ce qui s’est dit.  Je sais seulement que ce fut mon tour.  La question était:  Est-ce que les livres nous regardent?  Je savais que les tableaux, eux, oui, les tableaux que nous voyons nous voient du fond de leur éclat lointain – même quand ils sont proches.  Mais pas les livres.  Je ne me suis jamais sentie regardée par Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Roberto Bolaño, ni par Li Bai, Du Fu ou Emily D.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux.  Ils sont aveugles.  Ils ne nous jugent pas du fond d’une tombe comme si nous étions Caïn; ils ne nous observent pas du haut d’un plafond telles des caméras de surveillance.  Au contraire, ils nous montrent leur dos, tournés ailleurs, vers le secret.  Nos lumières ne les attirent pas, ils émettent la leur, radioactive, qui éclaire jusqu’au mal dont nous sommes pétris et que nous leur avons confié.  Ils sont profonds.  Des puits.  Ils sont l’asile de nos douleurs, de nos blessures.  De nos pires folies.  De nos déraisons.  De nos voix les plus sombres.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux, ils ont des voix.  Il arrive que ces voix sortent de leur bouche d’ombre, nous parlent, oui, et ça, je l’expérimentais sans cesse.  Souvent les livres me parlent, et parfois d’une voix argentine, d’une légèreté enfantine, comme exhalée d’un caveau.  Mais de tout cela je n’ai rien pu dire, j’ai seulement répondu non, les livres ne nous regardent pas; et je répétais, n’arrivant plus à passer à autre chose, j’en étais ridicule, c’était impressionnant, je répétais non, les livres ne nous regardent pas, tout en me sentant expédiée en pleine catastrophe, ailleurs, butée, serrée, bloquée, dans mon blouson magique, lequel avait sans doute pour moi d’autres impénétrables desseins.  Et ensuite je suis restée muette comme une attardée mentale.  Jusqu’à la fin. (p. 19, iPad iBooks e-edition)

In Claudie Hunzinger’s 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted novel, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds in English), language, that of literature and of life, of nature and humanity, plays a central role in the narrative.  It is the medium through which we express ourselves, giving voice to those myriad emotions and thoughts that daily flow through, out, and over us.  Language is also meditation, through which we manage to filter our experiences, leaving us with manageable impressions.  In La langue des oiseaux, these elements, particularly in regard to literature and the understanding of other cultures and languages, are explored to great effect.

The plot is relatively simple:  a writer, Zsa Zsa, crushed by several literary rejections, decides on one autumn day to flee Paris with only a few books and other belongings.  She goes to live in a secluded wooded area, a hermitage almost, where she reflects on the literature of her life and her triumphs and failures so far.  Yet Zsa Zsa is not completely cut off from civilization; she has internet access and she stumbles across a Japanese immigrant, Sayo, who runs an online boutique of sorts, selling boys’ clothes for women.  Their exchanges spark a reaction from Zsa Zsa, leading her to delve further into the “language of birds,” that secret idiom through which so many mysteries withheld from more mundane tongues are at least partially revealed.  It is here, in these musings on language and thought, that Hunzinger’s narrative is at its strongest.

Well-read readers will recognize several writers who influence Zsa Zsa (and presumably, Hunzinger, since this does have some autobiographical elements, if I understand this tale correctly).  Of particular account is the American poet Emily Dickinson, to whom Zsa Zsa refers several times over the course of the story.  There certainly are traces of her and other writers (including those described above in the excerpted quote) in the narrative, particularly in the way Zsa Zsa views the surrounding nature and its denizens.  Hunzinger, however, does not dwell over long on these reminisces; Zsa Zsa is not a mouthpiece for literary appreciation.  Instead, these literary allusions serve to deepen the tale, making it more than just a chance encounter along the road of solitude.  There is an universal quality to Zsa Zsa’s meditations and her later friendship with Sayo.  In their talks about language and meaning, several comments are made that easily could take place between people that we all know.  Like those rare mythological heroes and heroines who can understand the languages of birds and wildlife, we too find ourselves learning new “languages” everyday in order to comprehend better the word around us.

Hunzinger’s prose is evocative, as the above quote reveals.  It freely moves between allusion and direct discourse, usually with a good balance between the two.  Voices and shadows.  Books possessing not eyes, but instead voices.  The narrative structure by itself is not terribly inventive, but the way that Hunzinger describes Zsa Zsa and her worldview, how she interacts with Sayo, those enrich the story greatly, adding enough layers for there to be the sense of something profound unfolding, yet not so much that the story feels bogged down by the weight of its own artifices.  La langue des oiseaux is a charming tale that manages to say more in less than 200 print pages than what most “deep” novels manage to express in 400.  Curious to see tomorrow if it’ll make the Prix Medicis shortlist.  It certainly is a powerful novel that hopefully will be translated into English in the near future.

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