Author Smith says NW is about language, and I agree. Language is central to our understanding of the characters, and language defines their lives in many ways. I had the good fortune to listen to the audio of this title, brilliantly read by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet. Having access to a paper copy at the same time, I feel confident that the spoken version is an aid to clarity and understanding, and there was true enjoyment in hearing the range of vocal virtuosity by both readers. I did end up listening to it twice.
A clear example of how language can define one is the incident of a boneheaded young man with the posh accent, Tom, selling an old MG to the young man Felix, who had made great strides towards self-realization despite the tug of his background and the brake of his language. Any observer of that scene would immediately suspect Felix of putting the fix on when objectively that would be far from the case. And Keisha, or Natalie as she began calling herself, managed to change most things about her world when she changed her language. She became a barrister and even forgot what it was like to be poor.
But this novel is also about the process of becoming. To my way of thinking, there are only two central characters in the novel, Leah and Natalie. Both resist adulthood, but the choice is not really theirs to make. They become adults despite their attempts to hold back the process, and end up making decisions that demonstrate authorial control over their own lives, and stopping their ears to very loud protestations from their inner selves. Therefore they land in adulthood awkwardly, splay-legged and wrong-footed, and must find a way to right themselves again before acknowledging they are older, wiser, and already there.
Several other minor characters, e.g., Annie and Nathan, manage to avoid true adulthood altogether by burying their options beneath addictions. Felix was the one that was most consciously “becoming.” He strove daily to be a better man--for his woman, for himself, for his future family. He made himself happy doing it. He got clean, “was conscious,” and made himself and his family proud. But demons chased him down. Maybe you can’t really ever get free.
In the last third of the book, a 50-something female barrister “role model” dressed in a gold satin shirt beneath the expected blazer, and a diamante trim to de rigueur black court shoes tells Natalie: '“Turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.” She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”'
Of course I’d heard of Zadie Smith, but I’d never read her early work. She was so popular when she first came into print that I decided to wait to form my own opinion when the clamour died down. Sometimes it is so noisy out there when a new, talented author is heralded that I can’t hear myself think.
I never had the feeling while reading this novel that Smith was haphazard in her choice of images or language. The novel is constructed and in the end one looks up to see graffiti covering a wall with violent scribbles of bright color. Overlaid, a couple words traced in black paint stand out over the rest: SEX RACE CLASS
This incredible work of creative nonfiction will undoubtedly catch many Asia-watchers with surprise. Facts about North Korea are thin on the ground here in America, but this book blasts open a personal history of Kim Jong-Il with a canny, fluent, and wise commentary that seems far beyond what anyone else has been able to manage. It is an enormous feat of research, but more than that, it is so completely and compulsively readable that we are held captive.
It begins detailing the history of two individuals who were instrumental in the South Korean film industry in the 1940s and 50s. Before you ask how relevant that information is to us today, just remember that the author is a film producer who claims these early films have a cult following now, perhaps because of the Gangnam rage that has spread worldwide, and has opened a glimpse into a world never before considered worthy of serious study. We couldn’t have a better introduction to film in South Korea nor have we ever had a more detailed look at the North Korean film fanatic Kim Jong-Il, who kidnapped the two leading lights in the South Korean film industry to bolster his own propaganda machine.
The beautiful and talented South Korean film star Choi Eun-Hee was kidnapped first. Fischer compares her favorably to Marilyn Monroe in terms of star quality and stage presence. Her former husband, the film director and producer Shin Sang-Ok, was taken later, though because he’d tried to escape he was imprisoned for a number of years. Eventually they were reunited in Pyongyang and began producing films for Kim Jong-Il’s ailing film industry. This book is partially based on their memoir of their time in captivity and their successful escape to the West.
Perhaps more importantly, we learn a huge amount about the Kim regimes. This material may be out there somewhere, in a hundred escape memoirs, spy reports, or academic papers but I have never seen so much information about Kim Jong-Il and North Korea in one place before. Besides all this great new information, the writing is absolutely first-rate, the story completely stupefying, and the immersion into film so well-informed that it seems like a trick.
Who is Paul Fischer and how does he know so much about North Korea? The Introduction and Afterward discuss sources, and mostly my concerns about veracity of content were allayed. It may just be possible that no one ever bothered before to gather together the dispersed information in just this way before. I just don’t know. Frankly, it is Fischer’s skill that is simply stunning, besides the vast trove of collected information about the Kim regime and North Korea. The writing is rich and fluent in a way writers only dream of, and the sections pass easily into one another while we readers are led deeper into the intricacies of film lore and the strange and frightening propaganda machine of Kim Jong-Il.
I have no idea whether or not Shin Sang-Ok and his wife Choi Eun-Hee were abducted or if they defected to North Korea. In my mind it is regrettable either way but not particularly relevant now. It is not what I focused on. I have heard some of the details of kidnapping, of prisons, of life in North Korea, but nothing like this detailed look north of the 38th parallel. This book has everything: grandeur, mystery, terror, and a fluency that makes this tremendous storytelling no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on.
This book absolutely has to be labelled creative nonfiction because of the conversations recounted verbatim and the reconstructions of scenes so completely you would think Fischer created them. I don’t care. If one-fourth of the information in this is book is true we have made great headway in understanding and demystifying a completely obscure regime. You will recall the splash Truman Capote made with his fictional recreation of the nonfiction event he wrote about in In Cold Blood. Let’s call this in the same vein until we can verify, but remember this man Paul Fischer. He has burst on the literary scene with a truly fantastic and important offering. If he can make films the way he can write we are in for a real treat.
I listened to the Random House Audio production of this book, read beautifully by Stephen Park. I have ordered the print edition to look it over more carefully. As I say, books like this don’t come along very often. To think this was a debut is completely unbelievable.
This book begins with the assertion of evil. It made me uneasy. I prefer to hear the facts and draw my own conclusions. But I felt far less willing to grant King Leopold’s side another instant of attention after realizing that the facts had been obscured for a century or more by repression of documents relating to the case in Belgian state archives. Better that we finally uncover the ugly truth and take its lesson: unbridled greed may be the ugliest, most unforgivable, most unnecessary sin of all.
How can we not have known this horrible history? It happened only a hundred years ago. Though I am embarrassed I did not know the anguished history and perpetuation of evil in the Congo, I stand in good company. Hochschild tells us of a Belgian diplomat serving in the 1970’s Congo who learned of the atrocities by a chance remark from a chieftain recalling “the first time” of rubber collection. This diplomat-turned-historian, Jules Marchal, spent decades after his retirement from civil service investigating and documenting King Leopold’s personal fiefdom in the Congo and its long list of crimes there at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
What does become amply clear from Hochschild’s account is how it is possible to mount a resistance to a great evil. Resistance requires exceptional people willing to bear witness, but also organization and persistence. Edmund Dene Morel, the shipping clerk who recognized in the 1890’s what was happening in the Congo, immediately called out the injustices he saw there and never hesitated in his mission to publicize it in the years that followed. Fortunately, he was an articulate man with a convincing speaking style and he had enormous drive. He managed to gather like-minded folk to himself to voice a larger protest.
The life of Irishman Roger Casement, the gay man knighted by the Queen for his work as a diplomat and later hanged by Britain as a traitor to the crown for his work as an Irish patriot, stands as an example of the strange dissociation countries in power display when someone challenges their economic and political interests. I fell in love with him a little, Sir Roger Chapman, as a man of great courage and vision: he saw what men are and did not despair, though one might say that, in the end, he died of it. Black Americans who spent their adult lives speaking out against the horror happening in Africa, the Reverend William Henry Sheppard and George Washington Williams, have finally found their way back into history. Many Christian missionaries, though notably, not Catholic missionaries, did their part in publicizing crimes in pursuit of endless demand for rubber.
What I liked most about the book was the way Hochschild brought us past the period of the Congo revelations to the present day, telling us how we could have been ignorant of the time and the period. He followed the lives of Morel and Chapman to their ends, and introduced us to Ambassador Marchal of Belgium. He follows the Congo after Leopold through its Belgian colony status to the demand for self-rule and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first legally-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He tells us of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Congolese President who continued crimes against his country that Leopold had begun, this time with American support.
I began to realize that some of the surviving chiefs of Leopold’s crimes were sometimes collaborators. Their behaviors have been perpetuated over the generations until there is nothing but misery left in that place. Now I understand better how a country so rich in natural resources could be so socially impoverished. The crimes continue to the present. What can be the solution to this kind of moral destitution?
I hardly know where to begin reviewing this massive opus. But I know I am not alone because most of the people who have read the thing just rate it with stars to indicate how well they liked it and leave it at that. I don’t even think the star rating system works well when considering this novel. 2666 might almost be thought of as fictional nonfiction in that it reads like remembered thought, something like a memoir, though it is broken into “books” and many people are central rather than a single narrator. It crosses several continents, and takes in pieces of people’s lives that we later discover intersect. Or, more precisely perhaps, their paths cross paths, like meteors leaving trace. This is ‘Life’ writ large: the work is so bulky one can barely see from one end of it to another, one loses one’s way. One makes connections but too late or too slowly sometimes and even then what does it matter? What control did we really have? Could we have made a difference, a difference to us or to everyone else? Ach!
The work is comprised of five Books which Ignacio Echevarría, Bolaño’s literary executor, tells us were meant to be published separately. Echevarría decided, however, that the parts were better off coming together because of their linked quality, which is not apparent until Book Five. Bolaño was first a poet but he thought he’d make more money in novels (publishers and writers will no doubt laugh at this, though this author was probably right in his own case) and there were many times during this opus that I thought he’d have done better to stick to poetry. I was not being facetious. He throws in the kitchen sink, gathering like a vacuum factoids and sidelines from people’s lives that don’t really seem to fit or be at all relevant.
However, in the end, if you can get to the end (and again, I am not being facetious—this takes stamina and stomach) there is something here which is difficult to articulate. It is sorrow, it is appetite, it is fullness, it is all, including the bad bits. At the end we can say we’ve seen it all, experienced it all. If you cling to life in old age or sickness with the idea that somehow tomorrow will be better, put that aside for Life is not especially kind. It has good bits but there is plenty of bad, too, and you can’t have one without the other.
Book One begins with academics following the work of an obscure German writer. They admire his style and tout it successfully enough that the man is mentioned in the same breath as The Nobel Prize. They are curious about his life and where he lives and how he writes. The second book, “The Part about Amalfitano” is about a Chilean transplant to Mexico and appears to be Bolaño’s musings about life, death, love, art, sexuality, and reality. He ranges from “this shithole has no future” to “ Poetry is the only thing that isn’t contaminated…only poetry…isn’t shit.” This section may well contain explanations to the rest of the novel—why Bolaño wrote it, how he felt when he began, and what he intended.
Book Three, The Book about Fate, is a linking book, connecting forgotten and overlooked people whose lives, like threads, nevertheless intersect and overlap others in the ball of string that is life, and move us unfathomably in a direction that appears to be no direction at all. We, each of us, could write a section like this about our lives when we stepped off into the unknowingness of the wider world and played an infinitesimal part in events that occur in the future without our knowledge or consent. This book links directly to Book Four, though we don’t understand the link until Book Five.
Book Four, The Part about the Crimes, is one of the most horrific litanies of rape, murder and torture that I have ever heard, for I listened on audio and the narrator’s deadpan voice did not inflect no matter the nature of the material he recited. A spate (how trivial a word to describe a tidal wave of such proportions) of murders of women was taking place across a section of Mexico. By the end I had concluded that one man couldn’t possibly have done this if he worked full-time at killing, so it was a crime that spawned crime, and crime done with similar hatred and method. I looked in the paper copy of the book to see if the deaths were listed, like they sounded on audio (1,2,3…). But no, Bolaño writes in paragraphs: one’s eyes skim the size and shape of the words on the page and the horror is not revealed until it is spoken or read aloud in an endless, truly agonizing Reading of the Names.
In Book Five, we learn of one killer at least. And we see that elusive author from Book One, Archimboldi, again. It finishes with Bolaño writing to his publishers, friends and readers” “And that’s it, friends. I’ve done it all, I’ve lived it all. If I had the strength, I’d cry. I bid you goodbye.” Bolaño died a matter of months after he finished the book. One senses he knew what he was leaving behind, both in terms of life and in terms of legacy. It is a very difficult work, and one doesn’t need it to live. One cannot help but be awed, though, by the workings of one man’s mind, and enriched by his big, binocular vision of this world and its inhabitants.
The Farrar, Strauss & Giroux hardcover edition has a few really nice touches, besides being beautifully printed. The flyleaf has black and white etchings of sea flora, possibly from Animals and Plants of the European Coastal Region. The cover copy has a single sentence of introduction quoted here in full:Three academics on the trail of a reclusive German author; a New York reporter on his first Mexican assignment, a widowed philosopher; a police detective in love with an elusive older woman--these are among the searchers drawn to the border city of Santa Teresa, where over the course of a decade hundreds of women have disappeared."And a single sentence review from a NY Review of Books critic in the place where the author photo usually is: "An often shockingly raunchy and violent tour de force (though the phrase seems hardly adequate to describe the novel's narrative velocity, polyphonic range, inventiveness, and bravery) based in part on the still unsolved murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez, in the Sonora Desert of Mexico." This is not praise, but has the exhaustive bluntness of belief. The literary world will be divided between those who read and those who did not read this book. This book was recommended to me by Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies, from an interview he gave to Jill Owens of Powell's on his book tour.
It’s been years since this book came out. It made such a big splash on its debut I feared it may be popular fiction of a type that doesn’t interest me. I waited a little, had a peek, retreated. A big book in the vernacular of adolescent boys: a wave of exhaustion overcame me. Gradually I began to notice that many people whose reviews I follow were finding it an exceptional read. I took another look. No. Still couldn’t ever seem to find the time to wade through the (what I am embarrassed to say I thought at the time) triviality of the thoughts of fourteen-year-olds.
The voice I had in my head as I read was inadequate to this opus. Out of frustration for my lack of understanding the significance of what others were enjoying, I bought the audio of this, performed with great brio, skill, and cognizance by Nicola Barber, Fred Berman, Clodagh Bowyer, Terry Donnelly, Sean Gormley, Khristine Hvam, John Keating, Lawrence Lowry, Graeme Malcolm, Paul Nugent, produced by Audible, Inc. Suddenly I experienced what I had been missing. This has to be one of the very best audiobook performances I have ever heard.
The book is a symphony in four parts, but in the voices of these performers, it is a four-part spoken opera. It is broken into three parts in print and in audio, but make no mistake: This is music. It is Murray’s attempt to reach those of us in alternate universes:
“There is a certain amount of evidence that music of various kinds is audible in the higher dimensions—“(Ruprecht, p. 590)
This is also a classic of literature, worthy of all the kudos heaped upon it, and many more besides. If I could place it next to another book of comparable stature, it would be Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger’s was slim and this is comparatively huge. But Murray makes his words count.
The four parts are named after video games. Hopeland (? Skippy's father mentions it, asking him why he wasn't "done" with it yet, implying it was easy. Perhaps it is the Last Hope videogame: (An evil empire from another galaxy is heading towards Earth). Heartland (The Heartland has fallen under the rule of the ruthless tyrant Midan and his minions...). Ghostland (The blood elves applied the scorched earth policy to these woodlands...). Afterland (a traveling carnival of magical misfits in the afterlife).
Every review I have seen mentions its size as a stumbling block. Pity. It takes days, weeks even, to get to it all, but after having lived with the boys and teachers of Seabrook College for some time now, I am convinced this tragicomic masterpiece is one of the great books of the new century. Funny, tragic, sad, true, and painfully revealing, it addresses major themes of our times and reminds us, with lacerating humor, just how it is to be young today.
The ferociously hormonal boys central to the drama are engaged in the epic battle we all face but prefer to forget: how best does one grow up, today, in a world of global warming? To a fourteen-year-old, the gloom this question casts is rarely acknowledged but manages to shadow thoughts of the future. Murray captures the idiocy of youth, how they are so unsure of themselves, yet feel immortal at the same time.
The cast of characters is positively Dickensonian. Murray peoples an embattled Catholic boarding school with an administration loathe to lose paying students to competitors yet fully aware and conspiratorially silent about the school’s deficiencies; teachers involved in personal dramas struggle to inspire the teens in their charge while warily watching and abetting the administration in their deceptions.
But he is funny, really funny at the same time he is tearing your heart out with the stories of the boys trying to make their way in such a world.
A favorable review in The New York Times said Jess Walter’s new book is like a film script, but to my way of thinking it is more like Walter as a one-man performance artist, who suddenly pulls all kinds of horns, drums, bells and other props out of his bottomless pockets to illustrate a point, to make us laugh, to break into our attention and to declare: “are we entirely mad?” His work is brilliantly interpreted and performed by Edoardo Ballerini on audio, and to hear the thick and heavy tones of Richard Burton declaiming in a small outboard floating off the coast of Italy is to feel a stab of remembered joy.
Fifteen years from conception to production, this is Walter at his crazy, mad, funny, piercing best, for he skewers us and our lives by reflecting popular culture back at ourselves, but showers us with tender mercies at the end. The novel covers a time frame from the early sixties through at least the last decade, and covers at least as many personalities as years. But what a wild and happy party it is, with all the usual suspects: love, greed, envy, pride, lust, infidelity…and, I’ll say it again, finally love. “It’s a love story,” we hear as Hollywood producer Michael Deane pitches his latest to the studio executives at the end of the book. And I guess it always is, in the end, for that is all that really matters.
Take this trip, and if you have eschewed listening on audio for whatever reason, throw aside your inhibitions and do yourself a favor. This is performance art, and may be listened to with great effect. We have a nubile Hollywood actress with a bit part in an Elizabeth Taylor film, a Hollywood producer, a small Italian coastal village, a young man pitching a story…you get the idea. There is lots going on but it always with the greatest clarity that we can see that life ”isn’t always easy” and that we usually find our hapless ways despite, or perhaps because of, our questionable choices.
A rounded, complete mystery set in Scotland, with tentacles in Italy. A little far-fetched, perhaps, with two mysteries coinciding and intertwining, but told well, and read well by Eilidh Fraser. The head of the Cold Case Unit, Karen Pirie, investigates the reopened case of the kidnapping of the son of an important capitalist, but discovers it is connected to the disappearance of a union miner.
The characters and the settings are richly described and the mystery progresses with clarit...moreA rounded, complete mystery set in Scotland, with tentacles in Italy. A little far-fetched, perhaps, with two mysteries coinciding and intertwining, but told well, and read well by Eilidh Fraser. The head of the Cold Case Unit, Karen Pirie, investigates the reopened case of the kidnapping of the son of an important capitalist, but discovers it is connected to the disappearance of a union miner.
The characters and the settings are richly described and the mystery progresses with clarity and increasing depth. The tension between journalist, capitalist, striking union, and police is nicely defined. Family and office internecine conflicts feel agonizingly real and punitive and all are on display.
Craig Johnson's books, read by George Guidall, have something of the wise old dad about them. No matter that Walt Longmire, sheriff of Wyoming's Absaroka County, is not so old he doesn't lust after his deputy, the apple-assed Vic Moretti. That just makes him more of a man. And man he is. Bearing all manner of physical insult, he comes out on top once again, chasing his quarry through an 18" snowstorm high in the hills surrounding Red Lodge, Montana.
The ridiculous nature of the events that set off a chain of murders can only be based in truth because no novelist would create such stories for fear his tribe of readers would leave him for dead. In interviews Johnson tells us that he gets the basis for his outrageous stories from his friends in the police, so the one about the man cleaning the chimney in the middle of the winter with a rag soaked in kerosene, and tied with a rope to the bumper of a Durango, has got to be true. Hard as it is to believe. But it is the home-smoked flavor of these great western stories that make this series so...home grown.
This is a series I allow myself to savor like a fine cigar. I pace myself, withholding the pleasure of beginning a new story until I feel I have earned a special treat. They are soothing to the soul, funny to the bone, candy for the brain, and oh-so-reassuring for those among us who fear wisdom eludes our public servants.
The whole of America is wrapped in these pages--a close, funny, irreverent look at "the way we live now." Funny and tragic at the same time, Freedom is a comedy of manners that can enter the literary canon as a marker for America early in the 21st century, just as the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton gave us the motivations and beliefs of Americans in the early 20th. We're not really being adult about things, the author is telling us. Even our children are older and older before they leave the security of home, if they ever do. But maybe we're all acting like spoiled children because we can. No one political party comes off looking attractive after Franzen lays waste to their point of view, showing the absurdity of the rhetoric spewing from all sides. But the author clearly believes we have a responsibility to do the moral thing--a thing we already know but "choose" not to do. It is a human failing, but in this book, it has a particularly American flavor.
I felt much impatience with the long discussion of Patty's college years, even though I can attest to the kind of naivete Patty exhibited in high school with her neighbor boy and in college with her stalker girl. The narrative and my sense of involvement changed, however, when Richard was introduced. The scene where Patty changes her interest from Walter to Richard felt all too real. Which one of us has not experienced the pain and humiliation of a potential lover lusting after our best friend? From whichever angle--the foolish luster, the cool lustee, or the poorly-done-by loser, it is an oft-played, excrutiatingly painful memory, and when Franzen brought us there, he got my attention. From that point on, we regularly and ruefully see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, our families struggling to gain control of our lives, make decisions, and then overcome the results of poor decisions. With all the freedom we have to choose any direction, we often choose a wrong direction, the author is telling us.
I'd have to put this firmly in the popular fiction category, but I wouldn't call it celebrity fiction, though that's what it is about. Lauren Weisberger treats us to a husband and wife team who actually achieve their highest aspirations financially and professionally, and suffer personally for it. So it has something for everyone...those who hope they succeed, and those who hope they fail. What kept me listening initially was the girlfriend talk in the beginning. It's always amazing to me that two people so different become such lasting friends. This is fiction, granted, but Weisberger seems to have a firm grip on the public pulse. In fact, she looks/writes like the pretty, popular girl at school. If you ever wondered what they were thinking while talking, here you might look behind the curtain.
Weinbeger talks about a different way of life from my own, and while I do not add reading celebrity gossip sheets to my list of guilty secrets, I do wonder about what it must be like to have one's privacy ravaged daily in supermarket tabloids. I actually admire those able to keep steady under such fearsome scrutiny. At her best, Weinberger reminds me of British novelist and screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who introduces us to a world beyond our imaginings in the upper reaches of British royalty. She is a bright, understanding, and seemingly balanced observer of human foibles as practiced by those we sometimes treat as super-human, when in fact they are only beautiful, famous, or rich, or all three.
I did grow somewhat tired of the stiff resistance to success as practiced by the wholesome main character, but it gave me moments to think what I might have done in such circumstances, and to wonder if I would have been so circumspect if I was 28 or 30 years old. But the ending was pure fiction of the old feel-good variety. I wasn't expecting it--things never turn out that way. But it was so delicious, that I listened to it twice.
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