Crash by J.G. Ballard

Posted August 9, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

Crash by J.G. BallardTitle: Crash (Goodreads)
Author: J.G. Ballard
Published: Harper Perennial, 1973
Pages: 185
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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I have always enjoyed transgressive fiction, not because it is controversial and it breaks free from the expectations of society, but because of its satirical nature. When exploring the darker side of humanity, you are always going to get some attention and let’s face it, controversy sells. I am drawn to transgressive fiction because it defies conventional literature. Where else do you get to explore addiction and antisocial behaviours in a safe environment? It is a philosophy in its self, a way to strip away everything and look at the act itself. In the essay “Preface to Transgression”, Michel Foucault described it as a place where, “…God is absent, and where all of our actions are addressed to his absence in a profanation which at once identifies it, dissipates it, exhausts itself in it, and restores it to the empty purity of its transgression.” To me, it sums it up more intelligently than I could, it is a place where morality and laws are stripped away, allowing us to explore the nature of the transgressive in detail.

The nature of transgressive fiction did mean that these novels got a lot of attention and many were banned or the subject of obscenity trials. Yet some of the classics in this genre helped explore the ideas found in psychoanalysis (a psychological theory dedicated to treating mental disorders by investigating the interaction of the unconscious and conscious mind) and psychosexual development (psychoanalytical field dedicated to sexual behaviour, in particular the Freudian theory of the five stages of sexual development). Behind all the controversy, I think of the underlying themes to be found in transgressive fiction is one of self-discovery in an unaccepting world. The term ‘counterculture’ comes to mind when thinking about transgressive fiction, but even before that term was penned, we had D.H. Lawrence exploring a love affair between two different classes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Georges Bataille taking an unconventional look at his relationship with his father in Story of the Eye.

When thinking about J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, I was having a difficult time working out how it fit into the genre. When thinking of it in relation to psychosexual development, Crash does explore symphorophilia (coined in 1984 to refer to a paraphilia in which sexual arousal involves staging and watching tragedies like car accidents), autassassinophilia (a paraphilia where an individual derives sexual arousal by the thought and/or risk of dying), and/or car crash fetishism. It is certainly controversial, one publisher famously said, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” about Crash, but what did this novel have to say about society? Just to give you some background about this novel, it originally was a short story in the 1970 book The Atrocity Exhibition. Written shortly after his wife’s sudden death, the book is a series of interconnecting stories that explores the idea of how mass media inadvertently invades and splinters the mind of an individual. Suffering a mental breakdown, the protagonist (a doctor in a psychiatric hospital) surrenders to the world of psychosis.

Knowing this, I was beginning to understand what J.G. Ballard was trying to explore in Crash. If you look at cinema and the impact the Hays Code had on movies you might better understand the drastic change to films in the 1970s. In 1968, the code was officially replaced with the MPAA film rating system, which lead to an influx of controversial movies full of sex and violence. I think some of the darkest and grittiest movies come from this era. So does that mean Ballard is exploring mass media sensationalising sex and violence?

The automobile has become a huge part of our lives, we rely and depend on it to get us around but the amount of car accidents that lead to death is extremely high. According to the Association for Safe International Travel (ASIRT), nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day, while an additional 20-50 million people suffer injuries from car accidents. Globally, a car crash is the 9th leading cause of death, but in the 1970s this statistic would be much worse. This means, a car accident will be one of the most devastating experiences in some people’s lives. So what is Ballard trying to say when he explores this idea of sexual pleasure from a crash? That, I will leave to the reader.

Another thing that stood out to me in Crash was the narrator was named James Ballard. Naming the protagonist after himself means that the reader has to ask some very confronting questions, because we cannot rely on the author to give us the answers. I think it was a brilliant move by J.G. Ballard, automatically we might think that this is a fetish of the author but this allows him to explore the “empty purity of [this] transgression”. We are confronted we a completely different perspective and in the words of Ballard about this novel “[he] wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit. I wanted to force it to look in the mirror.”

In the end, like all good transgressive novels, Crash did leave me with plenty to think about. I had a lot of issues with this novel, I think the repetitive nature really hindered my enjoyment. I am not going to write off J.G. Ballard completely, but I am unsure which novel to try next; I was thinking High Rise. I love when a book leaves me thinking, and even writing this essay, I think I have gained a great appreciation of this controversial novel. Maybe I will return to it in the distant future and see what I think.

 


No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel

Posted July 28, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 4 Comments

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise FrenkelTitle: No Place to Lay One's Head (Goodreads)
Author: Françoise Frenkel
Translator: Stephanie Smee
Published: Vintage, 1945
Pages: 286
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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I have seen a lot of comparisons between Françoise Frenkel’s memoir and Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. They both depict the struggles of living in Nazi occupied France for a Jewish woman and both were works that were found by chance and published. I am yet to read Suite Française, although it sits on my shelf quietly waiting, so I am unable to speak to any more similarities. No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien où poser sa tête) was originally published in 1945 with a limited run by the now defunct publishing house Verlag Jehebe. Thirty years later it was rediscovered in an attic in the south of France and republished in 2015. Thanks to the efforts of Australian translator Stephanie Smee, an English translation of this book was released this year.

This memoir gives an account of part of her life, from opening Berlin’s first specialist French bookstore in 1921 to her experience with the rise of the Nazi party. Françoise Frenkel, like many other Jewish people, suffered greatly, but what fascinated me about No Place to Lay One’s Head is what she left out of the book. There is no mention of her husband in Rien où poser sa tête at all. The only reason I know about his existence is because of the timeline in the back of the book.

Grief is a powerful emotion and people find their own ways to deal with the pain. Looking at this timeline I know that Frenkel and her husband Simon Raichenstein opened Maison du Livre français (which means House of the French Books) together. He was deported (due to the fact he was a Belarusian) and lived in France from 1933, until he was arrested in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Françoise Frenkel ran the bookstore alone until she escaped Germany in 1939. I do not know if the two spent reunited in France, but I suspect that they may have. My suspicions are based on this idea of grief; Frenkel started writing No Place to Lay One’s Head in 1943 after she was able to so escape to Switzerland, and I get the feeling that the anger and sadness that comes through in the book might have been related to the one person she cannot bare to talk about.

I picked up this book in the hopes to explore the life of a specialist book seller in a rapidly changing political climate but I got something different. I would have loved more chapters on her time learning the trade in a second hand bookstore in the Rue Gay-Lussac. Or even exploring the idea of opening a specialist French bookshop in Germany and the impact it had. Maybe even something that compared the idea to Sylvia Beach opening Shakespeare and Company (a specialty book store dedicated to English language books) in France two years earlier. I love books about books and thought these would be some interesting topics to explore. However I got something completely different; something so devastating and yet full of beauty.

I am partial to a book that is able to deliver cruelty and shock in such an elegant way and I think No Place to Lay One’s Head was able to do just that. It is a weird feeling to go into a book hoping for one thing but finding something unexpected. This memoir is heartbreaking and to try and understand everything she was not saying, just made this book even more affecting. In the back of the book there is one picture of a dedication she wrote to a priest. “…I would be so grateful for your prayers – I seek inner peace; I am grieving for so many and know not where my family have been laid to rest.” I think that sums up the feeling Françoise Frenkel must have had when writing No Place to Lay One’s Head.


The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Posted July 27, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 6 Comments

The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoTitle: The Savage Detectives (Goodreads)
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Translator: Natasha Wimmer
Published: Picador, 2007
Pages: 577
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Chilean author Roberto Bolaño may have only gained traction in the English-speaking world shortly after his death in 2003 but he quickly cemented his legacy as a great South American author. In fact, Chris Andrews’ translation of By Night in Chile was the first English translation of Bolaño and it was released in December 2003. Between Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer, all but two of his novels were translated into English, not to mention his short story collections, poetry and essays. That is twelve novels translated in which two Roberto Bolaño novels get the most attention, The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The first Roberto Bolaño novel I read was By Night in Chile, a novella that managed to make a big impression on me. The book saw Jesuit priest Father Urrutia reflect on his life while in a feverish daze and open with the brilliant line “I am dying now, but I still have many things to say”. The fever seems to allow Bolaño to explore an idea of the reliability of memory because you could help wondering if it was an unreliable narrator or he just lived an unorthodox life. By Night in Chile is a novel that I still think about and even though I feel like I read it recently, I am keen to return to it.

Because of this novella, I was keen to pick up more Roberto Bolaño and I recently joined in with a group of people to read The Savage Detectives. My experience was different than what I initially expected. First, it is difficult to compare The Savage Detectives with By Night in Chile, they are very different in style and themes. Also, out of the eight-people reading this, five of them never finished, while I think I was the only one that really enjoyed it. At times it was struggle to read, but I think getting to the end gave me a real sense of accomplishment and the novel will stick in my head for a very long time.

To get an idea of what Roberto Bolaño is trying to achieve in this novel you really need to understand a little about his life. He was born in Chile but his family moved to Mexico while he was a teenager. He never finished school because he dropped out to work as a journalist. He left Mexico to return to Chile to help the socialist regime of Salvador Allende but was thrown in prison after Augusto Pinochet’s coup. On his return to Mexico, he started living as a bohemian poet and saw himself as an enfant terrible of literature, his own editor Jorge Herralde recalls him saying that he was “a professional provocateur feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody”. He was a young ambitious poet, what was he to do? Naturally he tried to start a literary movement which was called Infrarrealismo.

What makes The Savage Detectives so interesting is that it is a parody of Roberto Bolaño’s own life. His alter ego is one of the principal characters, and every other character is based off someone in his life. While By Night in Chile reflects on life from the deathbed, The Savage Detectives takes a similar but drastically different approach. It was like Bolaño wanted to reflect on his ambitious ideals and just how cocky he was. It felt like he was never afraid to poke fun of himself and I think if I knew more about his life, I would have gotten a lot more out of this novel.

I do not know enough of Mexican literature (especially the poetry) but I found The Savage Detectives to be a very approachable novel. You get a sense right away that the Visceral Realist are a parody, the name itself conjures up an image of trying hard and failing. I was so glad I finally got to this novel and I know that I will have to pick up more Roberto Bolaño in the future. In fact, I think he is an author that deserves to be read completely (well everything translated into English at least). I will admit that my knowledge in South American authors is lacking but the more I read, the more I appreciate their style. Next up… Jorge Luis Borges.


A Half Yearly Reflection

Posted July 12, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 8 Comments

I have been going through an extended period of self-reflection lately, mainly relating to my role in the world of literature. I love books and I constantly want to talk about them. However, I have struggled to find the motivation to do so. I went into the year with the goal of writing an essay a month; this was meant to push me to become a better writer and a better communicator of literature. I was able to produce a few essays and I am happy with them but I have not being able to push myself into producing more content. I really love my blog and I often see it as a place to store my writing, and normally I am unconcerned if I am not producing content but I went into this year with the goal to become a better writer.

I am not writing this as a way to get compliments; I can see that my writing has improved since beginning this blog, I am just reflecting on my situation. For me, I feel like there is much further I need to go before I am happy with my writing, although by the time I get there I might feel different. I never see this as a problem, I think it drives me to be better. One of my biggest challenges is writing momentum. I can sit down to write an essay with plenty of ideas in my head and they come flooding out, but I tend to get to about a thousand words and I have lost all steam. I would love to write longer pieces but it is a challenge. This is an issue I have had for a while and the situation is improving. When I first started blogging I struggled to get further than five hundred words. Most of my writing comes from a single typing frenzy but I still need to edit and clean up my work. I am trying to work on a way to allow myself to continue on a topic and write over multiple sessions but the beauty in writing essays is that I can practise my craft in short sessions.

I have so many ideas that I would like to get down on paper (or in my case on my blog). I would love to start writing my bibliomemoir, which I am still unsure if I should share with the world yet, but I feel like my reading journey is interesting and maybe writing it down would be beneficial for myself. It does not matter what comes of it but I think a project like this could be a good way to practise editing my own work. I have not talked much about my process but I know where my weaknesses are and that is in the editing/revising.

I also have not been writing many book reviews lately either. Not because I did not read anything, but because I want to step further away from them. I think reviews have become the backbone of my blog and while I know I should do more of them, my new focus is on personal essays. I have a list of books I would like to review at some point but I have shifted away from the need to review everything I read. I want to talk about literature, however I want to do it in a way that is less like a review. It may be that I feel restricted by the review format and I just need to approach them differently. If I call it an essay instead of a book review, I might feel like I have more freedom to write about the literature I have been reading.

Since I have been reflecting on my writing goal, I might as well do the same with my reading goals. In a previous post I mentioned that I wanted to push the percentage of books in translation to 50%. I am currently sitting at 53% books in translation (from 24 different countries) after completing 55 books so far. My other major reading goals included reading the five-book collection of Franz Kafka I have from Oxford World’s Classics; so far I have only progressed as far as re-reading The Trial. I also set out a list of books I would like to complete by the end of the year, which I have been making progress on, I just noticed that I have a tendency to be distracted by other books.

Statistics and goals help guide my reading and help me be focused but I have been beginning to wonder if it is more of a hindrance than a guide. Having re-read The Year of Reading Dangerously, I started to change the way I pick my books, I thought it might be better if I have a list of books to read next. I tried this with the book on my nightstand and it seemed to work until I got distracted by my local library, I think I need to return to this format. The idea was to have a collection of ten book on my nightstand and focus on reading those books. So that I am not being distracted by new books, or books on my shelves, instead just picking a small pile of books that I am interested in getting to soon and focus on those books. I know I am always distracted by other books, I just need discipline as well. My hope is to be able to plan my reading a little better.

Another part of me wants to abandon all reading plans and just read what I want to read. After the pleasure I got from re-reading The Trial, I have been picking up other books to re-read. I recently re-read The Sense of an Ending after watching the movie adaptation. The Bell Jar is sitting next to me as we speak waiting for me to pick up again. There are so many books I want to revisit and maybe if I had no goals, I could drift from book to book, just enjoying where my mood takes me, Project 5000 be damned.

This half of the year has been a great time to discover literature; I fell in love with Marguerite Duras, Muriel Spark, existentialism and books like Back to Moscow. I have had complicated feeling toward Toni Morrison after finally reading one of her books and I cannot stop thinking about a book that mostly bored me. I read some interesting non-fiction, including Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and I disagreed with the winner of the Man Booker International Prize. These are the joys of reading, you can have differing opinions or find joy in reading about unlikely subjects, like people drinking.

Moving into the next half of 2017, I am unsure where my writing or reading will take me. In fact this essay did not help me, it has left me with more questions than answers. In fact I did not even touch on my complex feelings towards booktube. Nevertheless, I hope there will be more content on my blog and more musings about literature in the future. I will leave you with my top five books of the first half of the year.

  1. The Lover by Marguerite Duras (translated by Barbara Bray)
  2. The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
  3. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  4. Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades
  5. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Posted May 22, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick HamiltonTitle: The Slaves of Solitude (Goodreads)
Author: Patrick Hamilton
Published: Constable & Robinson, 1947
Pages: 327
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Patrick Hamilton is one of those authors I kept hearing about but no one had actually read him. An author that is often compared to Graham Greene (and sometimes Charles Dickens) and yet I could not tell you anything about his books. Well, until recently when I picked up his 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude. Doris Lessing (who wrote the introduction to my edition called Patrick Hamilton “a marvellous novelist who’s grossly neglected”1. What a delight it was to find a novelist like Hamilton, there was something quite thrilling about reading a novel that is underappreciated, like I was in on a literary secret but I just cannot keep quiet.

Patrick Hamilton was born to writer parents but due to his father’s alcoholism the family lived in boarding houses. He became a novelist and published his first novel Monday Morning (1925) in his twenties. His first major success was the play Rope (1929) which was later turned into a movie of the same name directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Another of his plays, Gas Light (1938) gave rise to the psychological term ‘gaslighting’ which is commonly used today. His writing is often associated with an acerbic humour but later in his life he started to write in a more misanthropic voice. His own alcoholism and disillusions towards capitalism are often the driving force in his novels believing that violence and fascism would mark the end of capitalism. The Slaves of Solitude is the only one of his works to deal with the Second World War directly.

The Slaves of Solitude explores the lives of the residents living in a boarding house of the small fictional town Thames Lockden during the Second World War. While largely focusing on the experiences of Miss Roach, who moved to the suburban town to escape the overwhelming terrors and rigor of a city. Hoping for a dull and uncomplicated life, Miss Roach soon finds that living in close proximity to others, the added pressure brought on by war, and then the appearance of Vicki Kugelmann makes things anything by simple.

This is a quiet novel exploring the life of Mary Roach, a spinster type character who is just looking for some solitude. The cast of characters living in the Rosamund Tea Rooms do not make life easy. There is Mr Thwaites, who is often described as the ‘President in Hell’; Miss Steele and Miss Barrett, two aging gossiping spinsters; a retired comedian and also her so-called friend Vicki Kugelman. The novel follows Miss Roach and Vicki as tensions between them rise, as they become rivals in love. The Slaves of Solitude turns into an exploration into the emotional struggle between the two and their love triangle in exquisite detail.

I often hate the term love triangle and far too often feels so fake and unrealistic. However in The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton is able to explore this trope the right way. This is a highly emotional novel, as a reader you get to experience all the anger and jealousy that Miss Roach is feeling. Hamilton is able to construct this complex web of emotions, not just because of the love triangle but also drawing on the emotions caused by war and living together. What impressed me most was just how much raw emotion was being explored with all its nuances.

Even when exploring different stages of sobriety, Patrick Hamilton has this unique ability to capture the changes in emotions, manners and personality. I do not think I have ever read a book that can capture this as well as The Slaves of Solitude. There is something so satisfying about being taken on an emotional journey and know that the author has the skills to master every unique feeling that might come up along the way.

This is not a plot heavy book, but the character development is well worth reading. Make yourself a Gin and French (Miss Roach’s drink of choice) and give The Slaves of Solitude a go. I know I will be heading back into the writing of Patrick Hamilton very soon. This novel was hilarious and witty but was still able to capture the raw emotions of the characters. A balance that seems impossible to pull off but Patrick Hamilton seems to do it with ease. I cannot recommend The Slaves of Solitude more, and I hope that more people will be reading it in the future.


A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

Posted April 10, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David GrossmanTitle: A Horse Walks into a Bar (Goodreads)
Author: David Grossman
Translator: Jessica Cohen
Published: Jonathan Cape, 2016
Pages: 208
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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When the Man Booker International longlist was announced for the year, I logged into my library and searched to see which books I could reserve. Sadly they only had five of the longlist, which included one I had already read, War and Turpentine. David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar was one of the books available. Having now read this novel, I do not think any book has left me as emotionally perplexed as Horse Walks into a Bar.

The novel is set in a small Israeli town comedy club where the audience gather for a night of laughter. Instead they witness a comedian coming apart on stage. This is such an emotionally charged novel and one that must have been difficult to write. I went into the book interested in the techniques used to write a stand up show into a novel and I wanted to see how Grossman would handle this meltdown. Humour is so subjective and I felt myself groaning at the attempts made by this comedian. Obviously this is not the type of comedian I would go see perform.

I do wish I knew more about Israeli culture than I do, because I think there was so much I could have gotten from the novel and I feel like some of it just went over my head. There was so much to be gained and having never read David Grossman before I do not think this was the right starting point. The breakdown was such a tough piece of writing to pull off and I often felt like it was not being handled correctly. Having said that, writing a novel around one stand-up performance would have given the novel many restrictions.

This was such a difficult book to read, mainly because I felt so emotionally drained from reading it. I could not read more than twenty or thirty pages before I need a break from the experience. I think David Grossman is a brilliant writer even if this is not a book for me. I am curious to read more Grossman, I have often heard great things but never sure where to start. While I did not enjoy the experience of reading A Horse Walks into a Bar, I cannot stop thinking about it. This is the type of novel that would make for a great stage performance.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Posted April 6, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Magical Realism / 0 Comments

Exit West by Mohsin HamidTitle: Exit West (Goodreads)
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Published: Hamish Hamilton, 2017
Pages: 240
Genres: Magical Realism
My Copy: Hardcover

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Every so often a book comes along that gets you thinking about an important social issue in a whole new light. These are the books I actively seek out, I am always looking for literature that is going to challenge my thinking or even teach me something new. Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West was a recent example of a book doing this with the topic of refugees. This is such an important issue and Hamid got me thinking about it in a different way with the simple introduction of magical doors.

The premise of Exit West is straightforward following the budding relationship between Saeed and Nadia in an unnamed country. As the novel tracks their developing relationship, it soon becomes apparent that they will need to escape. As the city they grew up in becomes increasingly unsafe, they are soon planning to leave everything behind. Through a door and into another country.

While the concept of these doors might be inspired by Nanina, Mohsin Hamid has stated he used this idea as a way to not get bogged down with the refugee journey. He wanted to explore the story as the events that lead these characters to flee and how it felt to be a refugee in Western culture. While I understand his reasoning, the idea seemed to work differently for me as the reader. The magical journey to another country gave off this idea that Western media do not care about the journey they only care about asylum seekers in their country. It worked to symbolise that missing piece that is often left out of the news when reporting on the refugee crisis.

In an interview with the author, he said the doors also where a symbol of globalisation. In today’s world we are able to talk to someone on the other side of the world face to face with video calling programs like Skype. The world seems smaller thanks to the advances of technology and while the idea of walking through a door into another country sound wonderful, it works as a motif for the complex issue of border control. Some doors are heavily guarded and other doors, like the one to their home country, are left accessible as if to invite them to ‘go back to where they came from’.

What I think Mohsin Hamid did really well in this novel was use the character focus to challenge the perceptions people might have of the refugee stereotype. Nadia wore an all concealing black robe in public not for religious reasons but to make her feel safe. Nadia is not religious and lives alone, she had to lie and said she was a widow to get her apartment. Nadia’s story is one of protecting herself from judgement while trying to explore her own sexuality. She longs for the freedom and individuality of the Western world. While Saeed is not overly religious he is the one that wants to wait to they are married. When fleeing the country he wishes to be part of the community of fellow countrymen, he does not want to give up on his traditions.

The two different points of view allows the reader to explore the idea of refugees from their perspective. Rather than focusing on the journey and the conflict with the Western world. Exit West focuses on their personal identity, as the characters try to understand their place in the world. For Nadia this is a chance for a new beginning, to reinvent herself but for Saeed this is the story of missing what he left, the nostalgic idea he had of his homeland.

Mohsin Hamid intentionally left the country and city unnamed because this could be the story of anyone. He did model it after a city in Pakistan but worried that mentioning any names might have been viewed as a political statement rather than the story he wanted to tell. I am so glad that I picked up Exit West and I know I will be dipping into more of Hamid’s works. This novel was so accessible, I feel like everyone should pick it up, in the hopes that it will get more people thinking about refugees.


An Ode to Books about Books

Posted April 4, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 2 Comments

As a passionate book lover, I am constantly thinking about books and finding ways to share my love with the world. When it comes to social media, Goodreads serves as a preferable substitution for Facebook and I have my blog as a platform to talk more about literature persistently. I even created a BookTube channel as another way to share my passion and meet like-minded people. While creating videos is not my preferred method of communication, it has been a beneficial tool in my personal development. I have even dabbled with the idea of creating a podcast. Suffice to say, I am passionate about literature and I am always looking for other ways to feed this addiction.

Other bibliophiles might also share my love for books about books. There is something so satisfying about reading a book about reading books. I first discovered this joy with The Shadow of the Wind, a wildly popular piece of translated fiction that had me wanting to adopt my own book. Not to mention the desire to gain access to something like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. A positive for reading popular books is that it allows us the joys of finding other fans with ease but there is something deliciously delightful with finding a piece of literature that friends do not know about. For me, one of the biggest compliments I receive on my blog or BookTube channel is ‘I have never heard of this book before’. While it can be a source of frustration, it is thrilling to know I may have introduced someone to a new book. My frustration comes from those occasions when someone has not heard of a book that I would consider classics but that is a different essay topic.

Take, for example, the wildly entertaining satire, Books by Charlie Hill. The premise is based around a best-selling author whose book is so mediocre that when you read it your brain stops working. A neurologist recruits a grumpy indie bookseller to help her solve the mystery in this Dan Brown-esque dig at popular fiction. This hilarious book sadly never got any real attention, with under a hundred ratings on Goodreads. This is a little sad, especially since it described my idea of a perfect bookstore; “A bookshop full of long-forgotten noir fiction, modernist classics, chapbooks, transgressive experimentation, translated erotica, minimalism, short stories, satires, samizdat, surrealist poetry and smut.”

My love for books about books is not rooted in fiction, I am always on the lookout for a bibliomemoir – a memoir about someone’s reading life. I find the reading journey to be a captivating topic and exploring the way other people approach their own reading is like peeking into their personal book journals. I have read about all the books being read by journalist and politicians. I have read about people setting outlandish reading challenges and others that just challenge themselves to be better people. I am particularly fond of the unknown person (like a struggling author or blogger) who decides that their reading journey is interesting enough to get published.

Ramona Koval’s By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life was one of my first tastes into the bibliomemoir, and it was a charming account of growing up with books. It served as a literary account of her childhood, in which she shared memories like borrowing Franz Kafka from a library at a very young age and asking her mother to buy her a copy of the Kama Sutra. I keep a spreadsheet of all the books I have read but this does not hold the memories of the books. I have been writing essays about my reading life and literature as a way to preserve those memories. Not to mention I harbor a desire to write like Anne Fadiman; her bibliomemoir/collection of essays has been a constant source of inspiration.

The best bibliomemoirs are the ones that have a theme and that also cover books that interest the reader. I thought The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman would become a favourite of mine but it lacked the personal touch. While the book did cover Batuman’s life and interest in Russian literature, it was missing something. There are two sides of the bibliomemoir scale, a personal reading journey or literary criticism. I like both styles but if a book is lacking one or the other, I find it difficult to enjoy.

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller is an example of a bibliomemoir that really hit the mark. In this memoir, Miller sets himself a challenge; to read all the books he had lied about reading. He created a list, The List of Betterment, which consisted of books he has once lied about reading or felt he should read. The book documents the rekindling of his former reading passion and hits both key factors I look for in a bibliomemoir, the personal journey and criticism. Andy Miller has since gone on to co-host a wonderful bookish podcast, Backlisted which I am currently obsessed with. I have even contemplated the idea of trying to read every book they have covered on the show, but first I should really re-read Andy Miller’s memoir.

I try to read as many bibliomemoirs as I can get my hands on because I often entertain the idea of writing my own. I think I have had an interesting journey and would love to share it with the world. I read the bibliomemoirs to find elements that work, so I can avoid the common slip-ups. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is a popular bibliomemoir but the idea of reading a book a day sounds dreadful. Quality over quantity is always a good rule to live by and I can pick the exact moment when I gave up on that book. It was when she refused to read her son’s favourite book, Watership Down because it was almost 500 pages.

The bibliomemoir does not have to follow the same format to be enjoyable, Alberto Manguel wrote a collection of essays about building a personal library called The Library at Night, which I adore. Susan Hill spent an entire book talking about the random books on her bookshelves in Howards End is on the Landing. I mentioned Anne Fadiman before but her collection of essays in Ex Libris is my definition of the perfect bibliomemoir. It gives glimpses into her life of reading but also talks about those common reader issues. Like the time her and her husband decided, after a few years of marriage, it was time to merge their books. Of course, I object to the idea of only keeping one copy of a book but the essay was enchanting. I am not saying keep all the pretty covers but a book contains memories, not to mention the different introductions or translations.

My most recent bibliomemoir was Books for Living by Will Schwalbe, which I am not particularly fond of but I did like that he dedicated each chapter to a book. For example, the chapter on What I Talk about When I Talk about Running was on the topic of napping. If you have read Haruki Murakami’s running memoir you would know that he shares his fondness for napping as well. When I read Murakiami’s memoir I did it to explore his passion but a passion for napping is something I can get behind. I will continue to dive into the world of the bookish memoir and hope to share some new favourites in the future. I would love to have some recommendations. One day I may have my own bibliomemoir; but in the meantime, I will practice my craft with more essays. Although my wife did suggest I should write a book about books about books, because that would be wonderfully meta.


The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Posted March 20, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Lover by Marguerite DurasTitle: The Lover (Goodreads)
Author: Marguerite Duras
Translator: Barbara Bray
Published: Pantheon, 1984
Pages: 117
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Marguerite Duras is best known for her novel L’Amant (The Lover), which was published in 1984 and won the Prix Goncourt for that year. Set in the colony of French Indochina (now known as Vietnam) during the 1920s, the novel explores the salacious love affair between a fifteen-and-a-half year-old French girl and a wealthy Chinese man. What makes this a literary masterpiece is the exploration into desire (and colonialism) and the experimental style that Duras adopted for this novel.

The narrative devices adopted in L’Amant allows Marguerite Duras to tell an autobiographical story while offering a form of self-reflection and way to analyse her own feelings. To do this Duras often switches perspective from first person to third person as well as switching from a current point in the story to a flashback. For me the effects of these literary devices offered an ideal contemplation into the emotions Marguerite must have been going through and also providing a meditation into the art of writing.

The Lover was published when Marguerite Duras was seventy, fifty-five years after she met Léo while traveling by ferry across the Mekong Delta from her home in the town of Sa Đéc, to her boarding school in Saigon. The depiction of love was so masterfully done in the novel, I knew exactly how Duras was feeling. The whole idea of a first love and then reflecting back on it many years later only to find that what you thought was a great love was merely an infatuation. I think this was what brought The Lover together and what stuck with me the most.

Since it is a love affair between a young French girl and an older Chinese man in Saigon, I think we need to talk about colonialism when reflecting on L’Amant. You can see the disapproving opinions playing out from her widowed mother but it was the wealthy father who had the biggest impact on the Chinese businessman’s relationship. I had thought that class struggle and colonialism would have played a bigger part in a book like this but I feel that Marguerite Duras handled the idea well with just how the characters interacted with each other.

I was thrilled by The Lover and the passionate love affair in this novel. Though I have to say it was Marguerite Duras skilful use of narrative devices that really made this a new favourite. I want to dip in and out of this book and I have only just finished it. I was even tempted to carry this novel around, just so I can read a passage or two while I had a spare moment. You may notice that I have been reading a decent amount of French literature lately and it is because of novels like this that I am currently obsessed. I hope to one day have the necessary skills to read L’Amant in French; I have been practising the language just for novels like this.


War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Posted March 18, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

War and Turpentine by Stefan HertmansTitle: War and Turpentine (Goodreads)
Author: Stefan Hertmans
Translator: David McKay
Published: Text, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Before he did, Stefan Hertmans’s grandfather gave him two notebooks which make up his life. Stefan held on to these notebooks for a while before he read them. Expecting the story of war he found a more detailed account of his grandfather’s life, from growing up in poverty, meeting his great love, war and a passion for art. Providing a more modern voice, War and Turpentine is a stylised account of what was in these notebooks. To call it a biography or memoir is a stretch but this literary hybrid is masterfully told.

Born in 1891, the author’s grandfather lived until 1981. While the key focus of the novel is the life of one person, I was particularly drawn to how it represented a whole country. This was a very turbulent time for Belgium. During The Great War, the occupation by German forces was so harsh that it is often referred to as the ‘Rape of Belgium’, which economically crippled the country and lead to a high unemployment rate. World War II was not as devastating but the country once again capitulated to the Germans.

There is a large section that focuses on the devastating nature of war to the people involved and the country. Despite the gritty nature, there is real beauty to be found. Like the title, War and Turpentine this is a novel of polar opposites; from gritty depictions from the trenches to almost dreamlike descriptions of the German zeppelins floating overhead.

Putting the depictions of war aside War and Turpentine also explores family, love, marriage and art, which allows a contrast from devastation to beauty. There is a real tenderness in the approach that Stefan Hertmans took in writing his grandfather’s story. I wonder what this story might have been if Hertmans produced it when he first received his grandfather’s notebooks. I think the 40 years between receiving the notebooks and writing this book gave him enough time to develop his craft and live his life. This I believe was necessary to come up with something so stunning and beautiful.

I love the title War and Turpentine simply because it accurately covers the balance found in the book. From destruction in war to the creation and beauty of art. This is a powerful piece of storytelling, masterfully executed. I am not sure where I found out about this book, I went into it not knowing much about it at all. The writing alone was enough to make War and Turpentine wonderful, which is a huge credit to David McKay’s translation. Everything about this book just resulted in the perfect balance of the dramatic and absolute beauty.