Month: July 2018

The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa

Posted July 30, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas LlosaTitle: The Neighborhood (Goodreads)
Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Translator: Edith Grossman
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Pages: 256
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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I have been reading a lot of authors lately that I have been meaning to try for a long time, which leads me to pick up The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa. The novel follows two wealthy couples that find themselves embroiled in a salacious scandal, starting with a politically motivated blackmail that lead to photos being published in a gossip magazine. While the actions of one man, this scandal affects not only his own wife but also his lawyer and his wife.

Set in 1990s Lima, The Neighborhood explores the not only the effects of one person’s actions but also the seedy underbelly of Peruvian privilege. Most people are aware of my love for political turmoil in my literature, so this was a book I knew I would need to read. However it was not the political elements that ended up interesting me but the personal affects a scandal had on the people around him. While Enrique is navigating through the blackmail and threats of exposure, his wife is in the midst of a passionate love affair with his lawyer’s wife.

This brings me to the major problem with the novel, sex. I am beginning to wonder why male writers even attempt to write sex scenes because they far too often come across as cringe worthy. The lesbian affair was one of the most interesting aspects of the story but whenever Mario Vargas Llosa started writing about sex, the novel becomes unreadable. This is probably some of the worst sex scenes I have read, and I mean they are worse than people like Haruki Murakami and I think he has won the Bad Sex in Fiction award. (Note: Murakami has not won the award but has been nominated numerous times. Also it is interesting to note the ratio of Men to Women who have won the award; 22 to 2).

Mario Vargas Llosa has this great ability to demonstrate just what is going on in at the time politically. I wanted to learn more about the corruption and politics of 1990s Peru. I think he has a unique ability to blend the political landscape into a personal story. Exploring not just the effects of the country but how it personally affects an individual. Judging by the book, I could not tell you what political views has, but if I had to guess, I would say he was in the centre of the spectrum with a slight lean to the left.

There is so much to really enjoy about The Neighborhood, it is just a shame a vital part of the novel lets the entire book down. Rather than Vargas Llosa writing out his lustful fantasies about lesbians, he could have talked more about the world. Alberto Fujimori was the president at the times and there is a lot there that would be worth mentioning. I would rather explore that to descriptions of armpit licking. Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat.” To be fair, this was done to perfection. If there were not any sex scenes I would confidently pick up more Mario Vargas Llosa novels, but at the moment, I am too worried.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Posted July 24, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel VásquezTitle: The Sound of Things Falling (Goodreads)
Author: Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Translator: Anne McLean
Published: Bloomsbury, 2011
Pages: 298
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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I have been meaning to try some Juan Gabriel Vásquez for some times now, he seemed like the type of author I like. The Sound of Things Falling has been the one that was repeatedly recommended to me so it seemed like the perfect place to start. The novel is narrated by law professor Antonio Yammara, who explores the past and present state of Colombia and the effects Pablo Escobar and the drug trade has had on the country. However this is more of a personal journey as well, looking at how it has affected his life, from the loss of friends, the injuries received from being shot, and a broken marriage.

What really stuck out to me is the way Vásquez uses memory as a method of developing the character as well as examining the state of Colombia. The memories play a key role in this novel, as it is closely tied to Antonio Yammara’s own post-traumatic stress disorder. This was so well executed that auditory memory is worked into the narrative so effortlessly. It is hard to find examples where auditory memory is written so well, I find it often comes off as clunky and really breaks up the narrative. In The Sound of Things Falling the relationship between memory and trauma is masterfully done.

I cannot say I knew much about the history of Colombia. Pablo Escobar is such a notorious figure, but the impact on the country was all new to me. I have not seen Narcos, but after reading this novel I feel like I should. I appreciate the way Juan Gabriel Vásquez took elements of Colombian history that outsiders are aware of and then used the personal approach to examine the lasting effects. I have to wonder how much of this novel was auto-biographical. I know Vásquez studied law, but do not know much else about him.

Interesting enough while Juan Gabriel Vásquez does consider Gabriel García Márquez an influence on his writing, The Sound of Things Falling has no magical realism in it at all. I like to compare it more to the style of Roberto Bolaño as it is more hyperrealism, although with a disproportionate focus on the violence of Colombian history. I know this comparison does not quite work as Bolaño has used elements of magical realism more than this novel but I am thinking more in the style and feel of The Savage Detectives.

I have spent a lot of time reading Latin American literature this year and I must say, this may be a new obsession for me. I like the gritty nature, mixed with the historical turmoil. It reminds me of Russian literature but with more of a darker style. Reading fiction that looks at the effects of political mismanagement is something that I am interested in and I like the style of Latin American writing, it reminds me more of the pulp writing of 1920s North America. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s latest book to be translated into English, The Shape of the Ruins is waiting for me at the library so I shall see if I have discovered a new favourite author.

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli

Posted July 21, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria LuiselliTitle: Faces in the Crowd (Goodreads)
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Translator: Christina MacSweeney
Published: Coffee House Press, 2011
Pages: 146
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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

Faces in the Crowd is the story of a young mother living in contemporary Mexico City who is trying to write a novel. She recounts her time living in New York as a translator. Her novel is based on the bohemian life of Mexican poet Gilberto Owen, mainly focusing on his time in Harlem. Valeria Luiselli’s first novel to be published into English, Faces in the Crowd is a spectacular novel dealing with multiple perspectives and a shifting reality.

I have already recorded and released a podcast about this novel, with Lia from Hyde and Seek but I felt that I needed to put in a short review as well. If you are interested, most of my thoughts about this book are better discussed on that episode. Needless to say, I loved this book. Faces in the Crowd is the second Luiselli novel I have read. Having read The Story of My Teeth last year but this one stood out more. This is the novel that turned me into a fan and made me determined to read everything she has written, assuming it has been translated into English.

“…a horizontal novel told vertically”

The different perspectives made for a unique reading experience, one that made me slow down and take my time trying to understand what was going on. This really is a horizontal novel told vertically in the sense that you read down the page but there are so many layers of which you need to keep track. First you have her life as a married woman with a child in modern Mexico. Then you have her time as a translator in New York. The third thread is around Gilberto Owen’s life. However the narrative fractures and reality shifts, and the narrative threads get complicated, leaving the reader to try and decide between reality and fiction, the fiction that this unnamed woman is writing.

I knew I loved this novel from the start because it felt like a real approach to translated literature. “I worked as a reader and translator in a small publishing house dedicated to rescuing ‘foreign gems.’ Nobody bought them, though, because in such an insular culture translation is treated as suspicion. But I liked my work and I believed that for a time I did it well.” This statement happened on page one, and I felt like Valeria Luiselli had captured something real. I often feel that people treat translations as suspicious or something inaccessible.

I treated this novel as a peek into the world of translations and I felt like it captured it well. I think there was so much more going on that helped me fall in love with Faces in the Crowd and I hope that more people pick it up. Like I said earlier, check out the Lost in Translations episode on this book. I do not want to put too many details into my review because I legit want people to listen to the podcast. I have Sidewalks on my shelf, which is also translated by Christina MacSweeney, so I will probably pick that up soon.

August by Romina Paula

Posted July 19, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

August by Romina PaulaTitle: August (Goodreads)
Author: Romina Paula
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Published: Feminist Press, 2009
Pages: 224
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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Twenty-one- year old Emilia travels home to rural Patagonia to scatter the ashes of her friend Andrea. Her death was a surreal experience from her new home in Buenos Aires. However returning home five years later is a confronting experience. Once back home Emilia finds herself face to face with her adolescence, as she immerses herself with her memories. August is a blend of the grief narrative mixed with a coming of age story.

What really stuck me with this novel is the way Romania Paula was able to capture that feeling of nostalgia, with the raw emotions of her grief. Blending the constant references to music and pop culture helped drive my own feeling of nostalgia. The angst of being home reminded me of my own younger days. Then there is that feeling of grief, a feeling I have not experienced with such intensity but felt real with a raw intensity. The combination of all these elements really brought this novel together perfectly.

It was a profoundly real experience and the combination of Romania Paula’s writing style and the translation by Jennifer Croft really helped to drive the reading experience. I have been impressed with the work being done by Croft, having recently translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk from the Polish, which won this year’s Man Booker International Prize. It is at a point where I will pick up anything she translates in the future. Both Flights and August have been both great reading experiences for me, yet the styles are completely different.

It is hard to review a book like August. It is one of those books you need to experience. The novel was published by Feminist Press whose mission statement is to “advance women’s rights and amplify feminist perspectives”. My experience with Feminist Press has been a very positive experience and so much of their catalogue sounds great. With more of a focus on reading women in translations, I know that Feminist Press will provide some raw and gritty experiences. I do not want to say more about August, I just hope I have said enough to convince people to read it.

The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

Posted July 17, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 3 Comments

The Seven Madmen by Roberto ArltTitle: The Seven Madmen (Goodreads)
Author: Roberto Arlt
Translator: Nick Caistor
Published: Serpent's Tail, 1929
Pages: 323
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Remo Erdosain is a typical middle-class man; that is until he finds himself going down the rabbit hole of conspiracies. The mysteries surrounding The Astrologer finds Erdosain going from a recently unemployed accounting clerk to a follower of a political fanatic. Under the charismatic sway of The Astrologer, The Seven Madmen follows the downwards spiral of Remo Erdosain, a path that could be fatal for the people of Buenos Aires.

One thing that really stuck out with this novel is the way Roberto Arlt wrote the character of The Astrologer. He could be a fanatic religious leader, a socialist revolutionary or just a fascist. No matter how you view this character, his vile thoughts are harmful to both Remo Erdosain and others. This opens the book to explore extremist behaviour without making a political stand. The political turmoil that has rocked Argentina during this time, lead to dangerous ideas from multiply parties or factions and I thought The Seven Madmen brilliantly explores the destructive nature without picking a side.

Written as an existential novel, The Seven Madmen is a realistic depiction of the social issues facing Argentina during the early twentieth century. While this is an early example of magical realism, using fantastical elements to explore myth and reality, the novel became a prophetic depiction of the cycle of violence that would plague the country for the rest of the twentieth century. The novel remains a modern classic today because of its ability to depict the political turmoil but also because it still remains relevant today. If this is not enough to convince you, this is probably one of the best apocalyptic novels I have read in a long time.

However The Seven Madmen is not a full novel, it is only the beginning. Still waiting for the second half of the story The Flamethrowers to be published into English. Fortunately The Seven Madmen does stand on its own. There is so much to explore in this book, and I will probably re-read it again before reading The Flamethrowers. There is so much to explore and with a little more knowledge about Argentinian history, this book just continues to open up. I love the political and economic turmoil in the novel and thankfully the afterword by Roberto Bolaño helped to understand so much more (seriously more publishers need to switch to an afterword instead of an introduction). Roberto Arlt has that 1920s style of written that reminds me of the great pulp writers like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, which only served to add to my enjoyment of this book. Seriously, this is a must read.

The Impostor by Javier Cercas

Posted July 10, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 4 Comments

The Impostor by Javier CercasTitle: The Impostor (Goodreads)
Author: Javier Cercas
Translator: Frank Wynne
Published: MacLehose Press, 2014
Pages: 430
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: eBook

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

Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2018

One of the problems I faced with reading the entire Man Booker International longlist is that the judges tended to pick similar types of books. This year there was a real focus on novels that blurred the line between fiction and memoir. This means that some of the picks felt too similar. Take for example, The Imposter by Javier Cercas (translated by Frank Wynne), which I read right after reading Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina which was translated by Camilo A. Ramirez. Both books seem to be a hybrid that deal with real historical events as well as the author’s life.

The Imposter is centred on Enric Marco, a man who claimed he was a prisoner in Nazi German concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenbürg during World War II. He was awarded the Creu de Sant Jordi (one of the highest civil distinction awards) by the Catalan government, as well as writing a book about his experience. He even became the president of Spain’s leading Holocaust survivor movement. However, it was a lie, in which he responded by saying “I am an impostor, but not a fraud”. A decade later Javier Cercas is investigating Spanish history and then looks into the impact Enric Marco had on the world.

This is a look into human nature and self-deception, while a fascinating concept, this just fell flat for me. This was one of the books I was looking forward to reading on the longlist. The idea of digging yourself into such a lie fascinated me. I truly think I picked this one at the wrong time. It became a struggle to read and I am unable to tell if it was the book itself or the timing. Both The Imposter and Like a Fading Shadow just blended together completely.

I am really unsure if I will re-read this book at a future date, but it has made me rethink reading the Man Booker International longlist in the future. Ideally, I would have read a few of the books on the long list before it is announced. I am getting more and more into books in translations and I hope in 2019 when the longlist is announced I will already have some of the books crossed off. Have you had this experience before? For those who have read this one, is it just a case of bad timing? I am curious to know from others.

Distracted by Other Books

Posted July 4, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 0 Comments

My Thoughts and Reading in June 2018

Being able to reflect on my reading month is one of the reasons I do these wrap ups. It is surprising how much my perception on my month is different to the reality. Like last month, I thought I had a slow reading month, but completing eight books is amazing. I have been trying to slow down my reading to focus on the reading I am doing and I am sure I am doing just that. However, the fact that I finished so many books makes me thing otherwise. We have been housesitting for the past few months and this affected my reading drastically but in reality, not so much.

I started of this month with August by Romina Paula. I originally wanted to read this book because I have been into Argentinian literature at the moment but since it was also translated by Jennifer Croft, it had to be read. As you know, Jennifer Croft translated Flights from the Polish which went on to win the Man Booker International Prize. August was a vastly different novel and while I enjoyed it, it was not the experience I expected. This combination of grief and nostalgia made for an interesting narrative. One I hope to explore in a review soon. Longlisted for the BTBA award, I was interested in trying something from this prize that is a relatively new discovery for me. Also, there is something about all the books being published by Feminist Press the appeal to me. It seems to be a lot of women writing dark and gritty literature that deal with femininity and the treatment of women in their own countries.

I seem to be dedicating some time to crime novels lately, this month it included In the Darkness by Karin Fossum and The Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette. I found In the Darkness pretty generic and I am still struggling to find some Scandinavian crime that I enjoy. I love noir style novels so I thought Nordic noir would be the perfect choice. I am very particular about crime novels and turns out that Jean-Patrick Manchette fits my taste perfectly. While The Gunman was not amazing, I was able to test out his writing style and discovered it was a perfect fit for me. I read The Gunman because it was the only Manchette in my library, now I plan to pick up some of his better known novels. The Gunman has been adapted into a movie starring Sean Penn, but I do not think I will watch it, it feels very B-grade.

I also managed to do some re-reading this month. Picking up both The Possessed by Elif Batuman and The Shadow of the Wind. I was not a fan of The Possessed originally but I could not remember why. It seemed like a book that would suit me perfectly, as it is a book about Russian literature. While I did enjoy it a little more the second time around, it turns out that I felt this way because I never really understood her literary criticism and she never took any time to explain it. For example, I do not know how Batuman connected Anna Karenina to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it feels like a stretch because it never was explained. I had the opposite reaction to The Shadow of the Wind where I loved it the first time but not so much this re-read. I have grown so much as a reader and have found what I love and hate in literature, so re-reading this novel, I discovered it lacked the depth that I crave. I will re-read the other books in the series and eventually finish off the series but I am in no rush.

I do not want to talk too much about Soviet Milk because I still feel like I am piecing together my thoughts. It was a great read, but work was so busy at the time, I found myself lacking focus. I could only read a few pages at a time before I needed to put it down. I want to re-read the novel because I think there is so much to gain from this book, so maybe I will just reserve my judgement until I have read it again. Also, I am unsure how I feel about The Order of Time, it think a lot of the science was well over my head. Carlo Rovelli has given me a lot to think about and he has challenged the how I think about time, so maybe the book has had its intended effect.

June was the month of first for me, my first time reading Manchette, but also my first time reading the great authors Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The Sound of Things Falling was a great novel and I loved Vásquez’s writing style. This is the type of novels I love to read and it reminded me a little of the style of Bolano. While Llosa had a great writing style with his novel The Neighborhood, I felt conflicted about my feelings. So much so, that I have not been able to finish the book yet. Firstly, the sex scenes in this book are so cringe worthy I struggled to get through them, but also his treatment of LGBTQIA characters felt creepy. The lesbian relationship was such an interesting part of the plot, but it often felt more like the author fantasising about them having sex rather than focusing on the relationship. There is so much political intrigue going on in the background, it was a shame that all this was ruined when it came to the sex, which unfortunately was a huge part of the plot and therefore happening all the time.

I am very pleased with the way this month turned out, as stated in last month months wrap-up, I was housesitting which meant I was not distracted by other books. I only had access to the books I had with me. I will be finishing up The Neighborhood this month as well as Purge by Sofi Oksanen. I have no idea what I will be reading next, probably La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, They Know Not What They Do by Jussi Valtonen and The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson but you never know, I could be distracted by the other books on my shelves. Also, I plan in participating in Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month this month and then Women in Translation month in August. I hope this will motivate me to blog more. I have so many books I want to review, and I want to get back into a habit of writing more frequently. So, fingers crossed that July is the month that gets me writing again.

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