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The guardian have a great collection of authors’ annotations on hard copies of some of their books, revealing roads not taken, regrets, and the motivations behind some creative choices. Here are the Irish writers:

2005 John Banville The SeaSeamus Heaney on Death of a Naturalist

John Banville on The Sea

Sebastian Barry on A Long Way Home

Anne Enright on The Gathering

Colm Tóibín on The Heather Blazing

And one foreign writer who’s apparently taken to life in Leitrim:

DBC Pierre on Vernon God Little

And J.K. Rowling, who’s just awesome:

J.K. Rowling on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack (US cover: Soho Press, 2013)

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is a fantastic and unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it. On the surface, the story is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.

Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley  — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel.  We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.

The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.

The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.

JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.

Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?

Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.

Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?

An interview with Mike McCormack

This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.

The PEN World Voices Festival is one of those New York literary events that look so enticing to those of us who live in places that don’t see many A-list authors come through town. Every year I check out the line-up, briefly daydream about taking a few days to go up and attend some events, and end up doing nothing about it. This year, circumstances came together to allow my better half & I to take a trip to NYC in May. Happily,  it coincided with Christopher Hitchens delivering the Fifth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. As if that wasn’t cool enough, following the lecture Hitchens & Rushdie were to lead a public conversation about worldwide censorship & freedom of expression.

As fate would have it, the night before the event was the failed bombing attempt in Times Square. Hitchens began his remarks by commenting that the festival organizers had noted that attendance seemed to have been down at that day’s events, and if true, that would be a sad reminder that it can be easy to get people to give up the benefits of freedom of speech or assembly out of fear. Indeed, the turnout to hear these two famous writers was smaller than I had expected, so perhaps there was some validity to the organizers’ observation.

Hitchens’ lecture (which I won’t recount in detail, watch the video instead) focused on the latest prominent cases of censorship worldwide. Principally, the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the sad fact that neither American newspapers nor the academic press who published a book on the events would actually show the cartoons. Rushdie, joining Hitchens on stage, observed that we’re seen a reinvention of the idea of respect in recent years. It used to be that respect meant you took people and their views seriously. But, now respect seems to mean politely agreeing w/ someone. It’s become politically incorrect to disagree or debate something when there are cultural differences involved, and this has essentially become an excuse for cowardice, creating a seemingly valid excuse not to speak up when freedoms are threatened.

But that’s already more summary than I intended. In an effort to <sarcasm> minimize the simplifying and deadening attributes of blog culture that people have written several books and articles about recently </sarcasm>, I’ll encourage you to watch the lecture and discussion following, rather than read any inadequate précis I could offer.

The Q&A with Hitchens and Rushdie starts at 24:25.

Sarah Hall’s Booker-nominee How to Paint a Dead Man is brilliant, there’s really no other word for it. It’s also idiosyncratic like only great art can be, and is likely to be something of a love it or hate it novel.

htpdmThe novel intertwines the stories of four artists: Giorgio, a reclusive still life artist in 1960’s Italy; Peter, an iconoclastic landscape painter who was obsessed by Giorgio’s work in his youth; Susan, Peter’s daughter, a budding photographer; and, Annette, once a talented student of Giorgio’s, now struck blind at a young age.  Hall skillfully employs a different narrative style for each story. Giorgio’s story unfolds in the first person through the translation of a journal kept during his final years. Annette and Peter’s stories are told through traditional third-person narration. Susan’s chapters provide the most-impressive stylistic pyrotechnics, as she is the surviving member of a set of twins, and consequently her story is told in the second person. The tone is of one who has been carrying on a conversation for years, and suddenly finds herself alone, but can’t stop holding up her side of the dialogue:

“You aren’t feeling like yourself. You haven’t been feeling like yourself for a while now, not since the accident. More accurately, not since the moment you heard about it. That morning, that minute, holding the phone to your ear and hearing your father say those horrific words; it was then you felt the change, then when you were knocked out of kilter.”

The connecting themes of the narrative stands is how to live as an artist, how to combine your passion and move in the contemporary world, how to combine your inner vision with the often hostile or opposing realities of the outside world. For the non-artist reader, this is of course a metaphor for the oldest theme in literature: how to be, how to move through the world. Giorgio has lived through the fascist years, has seen art twisted to meet the demands of the state and nonconformists punished and killed. His reaction was to reject society and live simply in order to learn to see things as they truly are and, through repetition and practice, capture this on canvas. His subject matter over the decades was a series of still-lives of blue bottles and other household objects.  Critics have come to be as interested in his privacy as in his seemingly simple art. Giorgio, however, is not a stereotypical recluse, rejecting or overwhelmed by the modern world; instead, he has always been interested in and aware of the changing tides of politics, art and fashion. However, to him they are secondary to the development of his sight, his perspective, his artistic vision:

“Often I tell visitors, who come and who sit uncomfortably in their city garments, to be heedless of the train timetables. I invite them to remain past the hour of their appointment, to take some wine and sit outside and relax. Take your hand from your wrist, I tell them. Listen to this greater pulse, to the lowing of cattle and the beating of wings against the winds.”

Naturally, his wisdom and truth is rarely theirs, and few truly understand what he’s attempting to say.

One who would have understood, had they ever met, is Peter. As an idealistic young artist in the 1960s, Peter writes to Giorgio about his art, and Giorgio recognizes a kindred spirit. Peter walks the path of any self-conscious artist of the time, living the hippie experience to the full, traveling, experimenting with drugs, before settling down in a loving marriage, moving to a remote part of the north of England and devoting himself to landscape painting. Like Giorgio, Peter rejects the pre-packaged comforts of the consumer society in order to expand his own vision, his personal understanding of the world through art.

Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

To me, Peter and Giorgio are interesting, wise and very appealing characters, but both somewhat archetypal: the artist as reclusive visionary – and that’s how I think Sarah Hall intends them to be seen. The most interesting characters and storylines are in the paths taken by the offspring of these artists: Peter’s children Susan and Danny, and Giorgio’s student Annette.

Danny and Susan grow up in very permissive surroundings; there are no boundaries, no rules and no polite lies for the sake of social conformity. To Danny, this is heaven. He is the life and soul of the party, an incredibly open, trusting and indulgent personality. For him, the question is, having seen how his parents have combined art and life so openly, honestly and successfully, how can he ever leave the fold and go out into the world? Ultimately, he cannot; he is a child who never grows up. Though he becomes a “found” artist, making sculptures out of scrap metal and the detritus of life, his real talent is for living, for friendship. When a road accident takes his life at a young age, hundreds come to his funeral. In the most basic sense, his way of life is his art. It can be argued, or course, that his art is never very deep or meaningful because he doesn’t go through any process of coming to understand what he’s trying to achieve, he doesn’t struggle with the question of what he wants to be, of why he’s an artist. He simply copies the aspects of his father’s unconventional lifestyle that appeal to him and has fun.

The question of reconciling life and art is a very real one for me – and probably for anyone likely to be drawn to this novel. Danny reminds me strongly of my own brother, a musician and artist who has chosen to live simply on his own terms in order to pursue his projects. He may not be famous, but I think he’s very successful in terms of what he sets out to do. In contrast, though I studied writing and film-making, I was far less single-minded. Ultimately I put my faith in something other than art.

Susan is much more worldly than Danny, although, like him, she doesn’t have a strong concept of her art. She’s a competent photographer, but conscious that she gets attention as much for being her famous father’s daughter as for her work’s merit. She’s dully aware of this, but it doesn’t become an issue until her brother dies, and all her certainties and complacent attitudes towards life die with him.  She embarks on a self-destructive affair as a means of distraction from the pain of separation. Fundamentally, she has nobody to talk to, because Danny was always the one who knew her best, the one whose approval she sought. Her faith wasn’t in the power of art to get her through life, it was in the certainty of Danny’s presence and approval, and she’s utterly unmoored when he dies.

Back in the 1960s, Annette is a high-school student whose talent Giorgio thinks highly of before she loses her eyesight. Afterwards, her horizons narrow to the confines of her mother’s fearful Catholicism and the familiar geography of her family’s house and the market where she works. Her mother is another recluse, a fearful woman convinced the devil, which she calls the Bestia, is out to destroy her, and consequently never leaves the house. Annette’s challenge is whether to internalize her mother’s fear and accept a constrained life after she goes blind, or embrace life, continue living in hope and working in the market despite the chance that people might take advantage of her lack of sight.

I find it interesting that some reviewers have omitted Annette from the company of artists struggling to build a life in this novel, or simply skipped over her story in their reviews. She’s a naïve teenager, struggling to reconcile a rather negative religious view of the world with her innate optimism, and the sense of joy, hope and redemption she finds in Christianity. The implicit parallels Hall appears to draw between artistic expression (the faith that a commitment to art as a way of life will see you through) and religious faith (the process of determining the balance point between one’s faith and one’s life) are subtle and not often raised. Should Annette become a nun, as her mother suggests, because the world is too dangerous for a young, blind woman? Should she find a way to live as normal a life as she can, trusting in a just and protective god, or stay at home fearing the ill intentions of the Bestia? [*Blogger KevinfromCanada makes the interesting point that Annette’s artistic endeavor is literally developing her inner vision.]

Annette greets life on her terms, in that sense her story parallels Danny’s, who greets life openly and “follows his bliss.” His choice of found art reflects this laissez-faire attitude, and contrasts with Peter and Giorgio, who go through years of searching and questioning before arriving at their respective understanding of their art.

Ultimately, it’s Susan’s story that opens and closes the book. The question is what can she find to replace Danny as the rock upon which she rebuilds her life? Like her father and Giorgio, she must come to terms with life and art, where one ends and the other begins. What sacrifices will she make to follow her path? The resolution may disappoint some readers because a) it’s something that happens to her, rather than something she chooses consciously, and b) it’s slightly ambiguous. I found it completely believable and very fitting. Again, this is probably due to the circumstances of my life and my choices; I fell in love and got married young (at least by the standards of my peers). So, in a sense, I placed my trust in love, not art. Across time, and without ever being aware of them, Susan comes to trust Giorgio’s words of wisdom, offered decades earlier: “If everything seems lost, I tell them, trust the heart.” I completely understood Susan’s feelings and the ending felt natural and justified. One could interpret the conclusion in terms of the parallels between art and religion explored in Annette’s story, but I can’t really go there without giving too much away.

HTPAintSuffice to say, How to Paint a Dead Man is a beautiful, heartfelt novel. Sarah Hall displays a technical virtuosity and narrative skill that wows you with her words, while her deft weaving of the various stories allows the bigger picture meditation on the difficulties of where to draw the line between art and life – more simply between work and home – to unfold naturally. Each storyline exists at its own time and place, but each episode subtly enriches the events of the last and highlights different choices, different priorities, and different outcomes.  It all boils down to a rich and perceptive meditation on the choices, accommodations and decisions we make in shaping a life, and is a joyful celebration of the pursuit of art, in whatever form one may choose.


Sarah Hall on How to Paint a Dead Man

Participate in the roundtable on How to Paint a Dead Man at Ed Champion’s Reluctant Habits blog

Natalie Sandison’s review in The London Times

One of the many websites of my brother, Stephen Rennicks, conceptual artist.

I had a double dose of geeky literary excitement yesterday. Not only did I find out that one of my favorite Indian novelists, Amit Chaudhuri, has a new novel, The Immortals, coming out any moment (in the US — it’s been available in the UK for a while), but he’s now a musician, too.

You can check out some of his songs and instrumental pieces at his MySpace page.

I know what I’m reading next.

man booker logoThe Booker Prize is my favorite literary award. My annual goal is always to read the whole of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. I never achieve that goal, but then the purpose of goals like that is aspiration. Why do I have this reverence for the Booker when I don’t attach any special significance to any other book award? The answer is that the Booker is inextricably tied up with my personal ‘Golden Age’ of reading, the time I woke up to the joys of reading for more than simple distraction.

As background, you should know that in secondary school in Ireland I devoured every book about WWII and Vietnam I could find, dipped into the usual science-fiction & fantasy classics (2001, The Lord of the Rings, etc.) and regurgitated the accepted interpretations of The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea for my final exams. I wasn’t a particularly good English student, but I enjoyed stories. After graduation, lacking any clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life and scratching the itch to travel, I moved to the north of England for college.

What I lacked in the way of intellectual stimulation from my classes (business and computers – it was the end of the 1980s, greed was good and computers were the thing to study) I found in the twin forces of the local WHSmith and The Late Show. Before you snigger too much, consider that I came from a small town without a bookstore. Discovering writers like Pynchon — then in the news with his ‘comeback’ novel Vineland — Eco and Rushdie, seemed to take the tropes of my escapist teenage reading and transform them into the social commentary of “real” literature.

bkofevidenceMy problem was that although I loved to read, I didn’t know a thing about “real” literature. I needed guidance and initially found it at WHSmith. I was an undiscriminating reader, devouring my share of Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz novels, but the merchandising decisions of my local WHSmith – the only bookstore in town – introduced me to many new authors and impressed the importance of the Booker Prize on my mind. Cardboard displays of the shortlist (the first year I remember saw Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day pitted against Banville’s Book of Evidence and Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, among others) looked terribly cool to my young self.

Having had the name ‘Booker Prize’ impressed on my mind, I then heard and saw it everywhere. Articles on the shortlist in the Sunday papers, editorial cartoon’s lamenting the “difficulty” of reading the Booker contenders and interviews with authors on The Late Show.

times arrowAt the time, the BBC was renowned for great arts programming, and I loved The Late Show, then hosted by future bestselling author Sarah Dunant (The Birth of Venus, Sacred Hearts) and future leader of Canada’s Liberal Party Michael Ignatieff (who later authored a Booker-nominee, Scar Tissue). The Late Show made me aware of the contemporary arts scene, giving authors and poets the cultural cachet of the indie rock stars with whom they shared the stage. Mainly, I think it was all the Booker hoopla that caught my imagination: the betting, the breathless marketing copy, the front-of-store displays and the entertaining reviews in the papers. Amis’ Time’s Arrow, a book I read because of a fabulously rancorous debate over its merits on some arts show, blew me away (but I haven’t dared go back to see if it still does). Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was required reading for anyone interested in the arts, and debating the fatwa, whether you’d read The Satanic Verses or not, was a never-ending conversation among politically awakening students of for a time.

qmWith the controversies (Was James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, an unreadable book? Was The Unconsoled a worthy follow-up to Remains of the Day?), the clever marketing and the consistently high quality of the books, the Booker was simply the most entertaining of literary prizes, and it still is. I’ll be online refreshing the Man Booker website to learn the shortlist on September 8, and I’m currently working my way through some of the long list (I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, but Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man is my favorite thus far.  Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze is beautifully observed and written, but I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.).

Although I can no longer watch the BBC arts shows dissect the nominees, the blogosphere provides plenty of discussion and commentary. Below are some links to blogs where readers are also working their way through the longlist and some especially interesting interviews with the nominated authors.


The 2009 Longlist

Interview with Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man

Farm Lane Books Blog — reading her way through the longlist

@Suejustbooks – a bookseller who doesn’t blog, but tweets her impressions

Both Eyes Book Blog – has reviewed several of the contenders

Review of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn from the LA Times

[Note, this article originally appeared in the spring issue of the Malaprop’s bookstore quarterly newsletter. It is being posted here because that publication is not online.]

Like many booksellers, I frequently find myself torn between the desire to read all of the newest releases and the impulse to dive down the rabbit hole following one of my obscure topics of interest. I often resist out of a perceived need to stay current so I can discuss the hottest books with my customers, but sometimes I just have to indulge my literary passions — they are, after all, what lead me to become a bookseller. Last year, a chance encounter set me on just such a path.

My Family DVDOne idle Sunday night, too tired to read, I turned on PBS and found Masterpiece Theatre just starting. The title of the film, My Family and Other Animals, was vaguely familiar, so I settled down to be passively entertained. I hardly stopped laughing for the next hour and a half. The film is based, I later discovered, on Gerald Durrell’s classic memoir about growing up on the island of Corfu in the mid-1930s. At the time Gerald was twelve, and My Family and Other Animals details the adventures of his eccentric family: temperamental avant-garde writer Lawrence, hardy outdoors’ man Leslie, vain sister Margot and their long-suffering mother. Gerald spent the years on the island in a semi-feral state, exploring the countryside and learning a great deal about the animal world, which shaped the course of his life as he went on to become a noted naturalist. Like his more-famous brother, Gerald is a superb writer, and quite acid-tongued, which makes his family history all the more entertaining.

My Family BookAfter reading My Family, I was hooked; I quickly read Gerald’s other Corfu memoir, Birds, Beasts & Relatives, before moving onto his brother Lawrence. I had read some of Lawrence Durrell’s fiction years ago, but never knew his real strength was as a travel writer. After the Durrell family were forced to leave Corfu by the start of WWII, Lawrence moved to Egypt where he worked for British Intelligence during the war. Lawrence’s take on the Corfu years can be found in his poetic memoir Prospero’s Cell. It is illuminating to compare the two brother’s different perspectives on the same events. Gerald delights in the minutia of the insect world, and treats his family’s interactions with the same naturalist’s eye. Lawrence obsesses about Greek history, considers the island’s connection with Homer and details the colorful life of the ex-patriot community, all rendered in the most beautiful prose and shot through with a sense of melancholy from his knowledge of the impending war that ended so many of the old customs and shattered the island idyll forever.

Bitter LemonsAfter the war, Lawrence moved to Cyprus, still working for the British government, just in time to live through the war between Greece & Turkey for the island. He turned his experiences during this now-largely forgotten period into the masterpiece Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, which is both a lovingly rendered depiction of the traditions and life of the pre-modern Mediterranean, and a first-hand account of the then-embryonic clash of religions that consumes the world today. Lawrence’s writing is evocative, immediate and sensuous. His poet’s eye captures the sights, sounds and smells of the island in a way that transported this reader from the gray skies of wintertime Asheville to the sun-drenched olive groves of the Greek islands.

Until lately, Lawrence’s nonfiction was totally out of print in the US, so I scoured Malaprop’s sister store, Downtown Books & News and Asheville’s many other used bookstores, and found not just the travel narratives, but Lawrence’s obscure early novels, The Black Book (recently re-released in the US) and The Dark Labyrinth, written during the Corfu sojourn. (While The Black Book belongs to that genre of youthful novels written to shock the bourgeois — along with works like Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer – and thus should not be read by anyone past the age of 25, I strongly recommend The Dark Labyrinth.)

Dark LabyrinthAfter that, I was well and truly launched on my quest to read as much of the Durrells as I could. Both brothers were prolific writers, and though most of their books are out of print in the US, many are still available overseas. Lawrence’s poetry, for example, I ordered from the UK, and the same for his epic fiction masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet. Happily, Malaprop’s has a relationship with a British book distributor, so I was able to order the books directly through them, without the steep shipping charges usually involved in ordering internationally. Lawrence’s fiction is ambitious, but perhaps doesn’t age as well as his marvelous nonfiction. Some of his poetry suffers from its being composed at a time when one could assume the readers had a firm grasp of Latin, Greek, the classics and the Bible; but, there are still gems to be found in his Selected Poems. For example, “Alexandria,” his beautiful elegy for the youthful hopes and dreams he and his friends shared and the war destroyed. Lawrence paints the artist at his work, “upon the Alps of night,” memorializing his friends, both living and dead:

“the lucky now who have lovers or friends

who move to their own sweet undiscovered ends.”

In the face of so much destruction and pain, the poet considers that the most important, most courageous thing may simply be to remember them, to preserve those hopes and dreams despite of the worst the world can throw at one:

“…so in furnished rooms revise
The index of our lovers and our friends….

and in this quiet rehearsal of their acts
We dream of them and cherish them as facts.”

In his own less self-conscious way, Gerald also celebrates his family and their experiences through his books. Between the two of them, they provide a vivid and unparalleled portrait of the ex-patriot life in the Greek Islands in the years before and after WWII — memorializing and documenting a colonial way of life now utterly gone.

axiosHappily for other readers, Lawrence Durrell’s marvelous travel writing has recently been republished in the US by Axios Press. Prospero’s Cell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus and Reflections of a Marine Venus, his memoir of his time living on Rhodes, are on Malaprop’s shelves now.  Sicilian Carousel will join them in September 2009. Many of Gerald Durrell’s memoirs and volumes of nature writing are available through Penguin Books, and a wonderful new Gerald Durrell collection, Fillets of Plaice, was recently published by Nonpareil Books (my review can be found here). Malaprop’s  sister store, Downtown Books & News can help to track down either Durrell brother’s out-of-print books, and in case you didn’t realize it, Malaprop’s can also order many DVDs, including the fabulous Masterpiece Theatre production of My Family & Other Animals.


The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

International Lawrence Durrell Society

I loved Lalia Lalami’s first book, Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits. It’s either a novel or a collection of linked short stories — I’ve seen it called both — about four young Moroccans’ individual attempts to flee their homeland for the opportunities of Europe. It’s a fascinating book, full of vivid details about Moroccan life, and you feel like you know exactly why those characters make the decisions they do. Secret Son, Lalami’s new novel, focuses on one young man living in the slums of Casablanca who thinks his dreams are coming true when he discovers his biological father is a wealthy businessman. However, his changed circumstances strain his relations with his family and friends, and bring him unwelcome attention from a local Islamic group.

Lalami again surrounds us with the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco, but goes deeper into the circumstances of her protagonist’s life, and the political realities of Morocco at the present time. Youssef el-Mekki believes his father dead. He grows up poor, but with an unassailable sense of his place in the world stemming from the family history his mother teaches him. Everything comes crumbling down when he discovers his father is not only alive, but a wealthy industrialist. Despite his success in winning a place at college, Youssef has to scratch the itch of where he really comes from, and he contrives to meet him.

Nabil Amrani, Youssef’s father, harbors a secret pain: he has no sons, only a daughter away at college in the US. Initially Youssef is a blessing, the answer to his secret prayers. But, when his family learn of the son, conflict arises over the questions of inheritance and position others thought settled. Youssef must choose which parts of his impoverished, but rooted existence, to hold on to (if any) and how much he is prepared to risk chasing the dream of the opportunities and family life his distant father might provide.

The narrative drive of Secret Son is more ambitious than the relatively straightforward storytelling of Hope & Other Dangerous Pursuits, and the ending has a twist that feels perfectly real yet isn’t obvious from early on. All in all, Secret Son is a captivating story, told with fierce passion and acute understanding, which provides a vivid and eye-opening look inside contemporary Morocco.

Be sure to check out Lalia Lalami’s great blog. She recommends some fabulous books there.

Watch the book trailer for Secret Son

Lalia Lalami reads from Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits

Colm Tóibín‘s new novel, Brooklyn, is a deceptively simple story of one young woman packed off to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Eilis Lacey is a younger daughter with no firm prospects for either work or marriage in a small town in Ireland during the early 1950s. Her spinster sister and widowed mother arrange a new life in Brooklyn for her through a visiting Irish priest. When she arrives in the strange land, Eilis finds a job, a room at a boarding house, and church duties all waiting for her, but she feels bereft of the generations-old social network that surrounded her at home. Much to her surprise, she makes a place for herself in Brooklyn, and even strikes up a relationship with a well-intentioned Italian man.  However, despite the material success, she can’t fully commit to her new life in Brooklyn because her heart is still in Ireland.

When tragedy brings her back home, she discovers her time away has made her appear exotic and interesting to the men of her town, and her American experience makes her more attractive to employers. Of course, along with the good there’s a newfound appreciation for the bad, as she has a new understanding of small-town spitefulness. Finally she has to decide between assuming the role others would choose for her, and the life she could choose for herself.

The most striking thing about Tóibín’s Brooklyn, besides the beautiful prose and atmospheric evocation of both communities, is the terribly unfashionable lack of irony. Despite the hardships and unfamiliarity, the possibilities represented by emigration are painted in a positive light. Eilis may dwell on the differences and mourn her easy friendships and almost unconscious understanding of the least aspects of social life in Ireland, but despite herself she is thrilled by the differences: the amenities of a big city, the mix of nationalities and the opportunity for interesting work. She lives in a boarding house with a group of women representing the range of accommodations immigrants make to a new culture: stubborn denial through total capitulation. Despite the opportunity to attach herself to this ex-patriot community, Eilis seeks out new experiences and company. Tóibín cleverly underlines that even these seemingly daring choices are easy when in a completely new community. It’s when Eilis goes home, ostensibly just for a month’s holiday, that she must choose whether or not to make her decisions in the full light of her family and her community, or deny her life in Brooklyn like a summer fling, and take her place in the unchanging routine of small town life. The decision is a hard one, and one that most novels about emigration either never broach or telegraph on the first page through an ironic tone and level of condescension to the old. It’s a tribute to Colm Tóibín that his even-handed treatment of both communities allows the reader to feel the full weight of Eilis’ decision.


Author’s website (a little out of date)

Very frank interview with Colm Tóibín at The Manchester Review

With the awesome news that the wonderful Kelley Eskridge (author of the novel Solitaire) has a novella nominated for the Nebula Award, I dug through the hard drive to find a short review I wrote about her excellent collection of short stories, Dangerous Space, a year ago — the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted it in the header graphic above. It turned out to be very short, so I picked up the book, reread the brilliant “Dangerous Space,” and wrote a longer review.

The opening line that I wrote last year is still true: this is the best collection of short stories I’ve read in forever. Cutting edge in every sense, Eskridge mines the raw edges of emotion — love, lust, and fear — and places her characters in settings just a little bit different to our own — the near future, the recent past, or the slightly fantastical. It’s odd that I respond to a collection of short stories, because I usually find the form disappointing: just when I’m getting to like a character or understand their world the story is over. But the fault lies with me, not short story writers: I guess I’m simply a story fan, and shorts generally don’t have enough story to keep me happy.

This isn’t the problem in Kelley Eskridge’s fiction. It’s quickly apparent that she knows the minutia of each milieu she depicts in incredible detail. After reading stories like “Strings” and “Dangerous Space” I am impressed by her knowledge of music, both the specialized vocabulary of the aficionado, but also the technical knowledge of a professional sound engineer. Eskridge may be neither of those things, but she completely convinces the reader that her characters are, and makes the world they inhabit fully real and vivid. Like her partner Nicola Griffith, Eskridge understands violence at a bone-deep level, the casual, understated violence of conversation, the accepted institutional violence of office politics, as well as the thin line between pleasure and pain often present in physical violence.

Nebula–nominated “Dangerous Space” concerns the romantic entanglement of Mars, an in-demand sound engineer and music producer making her way in the sexist music business. [Edit: it turns out the question of Mars’ gender is entirely up for grabs – see comments. You can make a case for the character being male or female, which makes the story all the more amazing. I’m sticking with my initial, gender-biased response because the comments would make no sense if I changed it;-)] Mars is highly competent and very successful, able to pick and choose the bands she produces. She agrees to work with Noir, an up-and-coming rock band fronted by a charismatic lead singer. While Mars isn’t willing to be another notch on his bedpost, she feels that the process of making music with him is as intimate as anything they might get up to in the sack. The sexual tension in the story is stretched tighter than guitar strings and the narrative arc is not your conventional opposites-attract love story. Eskridge plays with gender boundaries by introducing F-tech, a new technology that allows an individual to experience everything another individual does. Developed initially for the medical field, the adult entertainment industry quickly exploits it. Mars feels she has no need of it, because she knows “how the best sex feels. It feels like music.” “Dangerous Space” is a brave and convincing meditation on love, on sexuality and the possibility of truly connecting with another human being. (But don’t take my word for it, the whole story is available online. Go read it.)

Another story that explores the tortured path to sexual and emotional fulfillment is “Eye of the Storm,” a tale about a group of mercenaries perfecting their fighting techniques and seeking stable employment. One soldier is conflicted about his guilty secret: he’s turned on by the violence. Starved of physical comfort or affection as a child, he grows to manhood knowing the touch of others only through the use of force.  The small group of mercenaries, male and female, he bonds with come to understand his enjoyment, and must decide whether they can accommodate it. This is probably the story in the collection that most screams out to be expanded into a novel, as it features a rich cast of characters and wrestles with taboo themes.

Published by the tiny feminist publishing house Aqueduct Press in Seattle, Dangerous Space is a book you’d be hard pressed to find in a chain bookstore, and is just the combination of high-quality storytelling and unorthodox perspective that independent bookstores should be promoting in order to set themselves apart. There isn’t a bad story in the whole book, and all reward rereading. If you (or your customers) like the work of Kelly Link, Nicola Griffith or Neil Gaiman, you’ll love Kelley Eskridge’s Dangerous Space.


Kelley’s blog

Interview with Kelley Eskridge about Dangerous Space.

Aqueduct Press

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