Sunday, August 23, 2015

László Krasznahorkai, Satantango (1985)

As Hungarian writers go, Krasznahorkai is actually pretty well-represented in English translation; most of his novels are either available or listed by wikipedia as being in process of translation (for whatever that's worth). This, his first, is probably his best-known (VERY relatively speaking, of course), mainly due to having been adapted by Béla Tarr into a seven-hour film, which I haven't seen but would certainly like to. It's surely been more widely-seen in the Anglophone world than the book has been read, seeing as the latter was only translated in 2012. If nothing else, you have to admit that that's one badass title. It looks even better with the diacritical marks of which the English translation has been shorn: Sátántangó.
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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman (1967)

It sounds crazy, but somehow, At Swim-Two-Birds failed to prepare me for just how astonishing O'Brien's second novel is. And I use that term advisedly: it's certainly correlated with literary quality, but it's not at all the same thing. Barchester Towers is a fine novel that isn't at all astonishing. But BOY HOWDY, rarely has a book astonished me as much as The Third Policeman, which blithely transgresses the bounds of logic and convention in a way you don't see every day. The thing about ASTB is that, yes, the structure is deliriously warped, but within the terms of that structure, the characters and their actions are basically logical, in a very stylized way.
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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

It's really anybody's guess why it's taken me so long to read O'Brien (one of several pen-names of one Brian O'Nolan, who wrote in both English and Irish). It's not like I was unaware of his existence, and that his books would probably be the kind of thing I'd dig, but somehow he remained in the background of my awareness. What a goof I am!
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Saturday, August 08, 2015

China Mieville, Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories (2015)

Well, I'll say this: it's the China Mievilliest book that China Mieville's ever China Mievilled, for better and for worse. There are a LOT of stories here that do the “here's a weird thing that's happening, look at the weird thing” routine, to varying effects. This is intermittently effective, as in “Keep,” which has what kind of sounds like the dumbest premise ever— people are contracting this condition where deep trenches appear around them—and make it into an apocalyptic scenario that really cooks, reminiscent of the seeming end-of-the-world situations in Perdido Street Station and Embassytown. “The Dowager of Bees,” about mysterious ultra-rare playing cards, is also neat. But then you have something like “After the Festival,” which seems to be just weird and gross for no reason (there may or may not be a message about the morality of meat-eating there, but it did not redeem the story in my eyes). Or something like “The Bastard Prompt,” which is about standardized patients—actors who simulate symptoms so medical students can practice diagnosing them. Some of these SP's, seemingly in a fugue state, start describing symptoms of bizarre, fantastical disease, and then these diseases start to manifest in the real world, and you think, okay, great. That's kind of clever, I guess. But, really now, so what?
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Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Will Wiles, The Way Inn (2014)

Chain hotels are so sort of blank and anonymous that nobody really thinks very much about them, but there's no reason why that blankness and anonymity shouldn't be explored. Said blankness and anonymity, after all, doesn't just happen; it comes of companies carefully trying to synthesize an approximation of lived human life into this aggressively controlled, artificial environment, only it doesn't come out like that, does it? Instead, what we get is this shiny, blank simulacrum, as typified by the clip art of smiling, well-dressed men and women checking in, socializing, sitting at conference tables, &c. There's certainly something faintly sinister implied by all this, and here comes ol' Will Wiles to quite effectively explore it.
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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum (1988)

Right, so here's an interesting thing: I came across the phrase “the crew makes the welkin ring with its hurrahs,” so I highlighted the word “welkin” to make a definition come up, as you can do. And in the definition, I get this: “ make the welkin ring make a very loud sound: the crew made the welkin ring with its hurrahs.” Yes! The sample sentence appears to have been taken from the very part of the very book where I just saw it! That's not something that happens every day.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980)

You know, I don't think we—humans—tend to be all that good at conceptualizing the past. Hell, I have a great deal of difficulty imagining a world without ubiquitous internet access, and it's been half my life or less since that's been a thing. And if you go farther back, well: I remember looking out over a massive Mayan ruin in Guatemala and thinking: these people were people, like me and everyone else, and yet I cannot even begin to imagine what their lives were like, on any level. They might as well be from a distant solar system. So in this context, a book that shoves us as forcefully into the fourteenth century as The Name of the Rose does—not the same as the Mesoamerican example, of course, but similarly mysterious—is nothing to be scoffed at. Eco uses his erudition as a medievalist to great effect.
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