Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Wait, Blink by Gunnhild Øyehaug

Posted October 15, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

Wait, Blink by Gunnhild ØyehaugTitle: Wait, Blink (Goodreads)
Author: Gunnhild Øyehaug
Translator: Kari Dickson
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
Pages: 256
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Hardcover

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Longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature 2018

After reading Love by Hanne Ørstavik, it felt rather strange to go to Wait, Blink by Gunnhild Øyehaug. Not because they are both by Norwegian authors but because they both take a small slice of the everyday and explore it. Although that is pretty much the end of the similarities. Wait, Blink reads very differently, it is contemporary look into the life, mainly three woman at different stages of their lives.

Wait, Blink is riddled with pop-culture references, mainly looking at the connection between art and love. While it also feels like Gunnhild Øyehaug is trying to understand this obsession western films have with women in oversized men’s shirts. The novel makes references to film scenes where a women is in an oversized men’s shirt and how it is often a symbol used to represent sex. One of the key example talked about was Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation starring Scarlett Johansson. Interestingly enough Yngvild Sve Flikke adapted this novel in 2015 and called it Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts (Kvinner i for store herreskjorter).

This novel had a very contemporary feel to it which made it a very quick read. The film as well as other pop-culture references worked for a geek like myself. At the heart of the novel it felt like a poetic look into the lives of three different women. The way they navigated through their own lives and romantic situations were very different. Although I have to disagree with the subtitle of this book; “A Perfect Picture of Inner Life”.

While this is a novel that explores the inner lives of these women, it felt more like a snapshot into their worlds. We have three different women at different stages of their lives but because they are different people, it is hard to get a perfect picture of inner life. This is small glimpses into the lives of three women and while I would love to follow them further (especially Sigrid the young literary student) we only see a fragment and nothing more. From the National Book Award longlist for Translated Literature, Wait, Blink is one of my favourites and I am pleased it is getting some attention.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani

Posted August 17, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 2 Comments

Lullaby by Leïla SlimaniTitle: Lullaby (Goodreads)
Author: Leïla Slimani
Translator: Sam Taylor
Published: Faber & Faber, 2016
Pages: 224
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

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At the beginning of the year Lullaby by Leïla Slimani (The Perfect Nanny in North America) was getting a lot of attention. It tells the story of Myriam, a French-Moroccan lawyer who is anxious to get back to work after giving birth to her second child. Before doing so, they must find the perfect nanny to take care of their children. Louise is a polite and quiet woman who goes above and beyond looking after the two children but is she really the perfect nanny?

Leïla Slimani is a French-Moroccan journalist who lives in Paris with her two young children. My interpretation of this novel is that Leïla Slimani let all her insecurities about leaving her children with a nanny play out on the page. There is a constant feeling of fear and jealousy that it explored inside Myriam’s mind. It is this realism that makes Lullaby a novel worth reading.

Lullaby won the Prix Goncourt in 2016 which is one of France’s most prestigious literary awards. Winners of this prize include Marcel Proust for In Search of Lost Time, Simone de Beauvoir (The Mandarins), and Marguerite Duras with her amazing novel The Lover. With this type of prestige behind the prize, it is not surprising that Leïla Slimani’s Chanson douce was translated so quickly.

The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.

This is a dark glimpse into the mind of motherhood, something I would pair with Die, My Love. It must have been very therapeutic for Leïla Slimani to write out this novel and explore the feeling of returning to the work force. I do not know if this is autobiographical in any way, I just base my assumption on the similarities of Myriam and Leïla. I understand why North America called this novel The Perfect Nanny but honestly the French title Chanson douce translates to soft song. Sam Taylor is the translator for both, I am just a little wary about the accuracy of the text when the title is vastly different from the original. Lullaby is a quick and thrilling read that will make you feel uncomfortable. This is not for everyone but for fans of dark fiction, it is worth checking out.

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 Possessed by Elif Batuman

Posted January 6, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

The Possessed by Elif BatumanTitle: The Possessed (Goodreads)
Author: Elif Batuman
, 2010
Pages: 296
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Taken from the articles found in journals like n+1, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and the London Review of Books, Elif Batuman combines them into this memoir. The Possessed may be a collection journal articles, but combined together it forms more of a memoir of Batuman’s academic life. Starting with a conference she was involved with at Stanford University about Isaac Babel in the first article “Babel in California”.

I mention the first article “Babel in California” because I think it represented everything I did not like about this book. On the surface this book sounds right up my alley. The misleading subtitle for this book is “Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” and that is the expectation I had when going into this book. However going by the first article about one conference, I got a very padded book with no real structure. It seems like Elif Batuman has edited her articles in a way to fit into a book, but she turned articles into sixty page chapters that are so drawn out that it is boring.

There is some interesting sections within this book but I feel the major problem is this book has no structure. If this was a collection of essays, I would expect a theme. If this was a memoir, I would expect more focus on her life. The Possessed sits somewhere in the middle, each chapter is very different; about a conference, her travels, her studies or just reading Russian lit. Each chapter does not seem to connect to the previous chapter, which just made it too clunky.

I wanted a book about Russian literature, but The Possessed did not give me that. In fact any literary criticism was never explained properly, so made it hard to understand how she draw her conclusions. I am looking for a good book about Russian literature, like a literary exploration or a journey into these books. If you know of a book like this that you would recommend, please let me know.

Why I Read by Wendy Lesser

Posted December 10, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 2 Comments

Why I Read by Wendy LesserTitle: Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Goodreads)
Author: Wendy Lesser
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Pages: 240
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Wendy Lesser is the founding editor for the American literary magazine The Threepenny Review; she is lucky enough to spend her days with books. She is a bibliophile with a lifetime of reading experience to offer as well as an eclectic taste. Why I Read is a collection of essays that explores Lesser’s thoughts and ideas on literature in through the lens of different topics like character and plot.

This sounds like the type of book I should love and it ticked all the right boxes for what I look for in a book about books; eclectic taste, part memoir and offering some literary criticism. However I felt a huge disconnection with this book and I spend a lot of time just trying to pin-point what wasn’t working. Clearly Wendy Lesser is passionate about books and is well read, though I felt like that passion didn’t translation into her writing. This felt more like academic writing, so all emotion felt removed from Why I Read, but this is the type of book that needs that emotion and passion.

I enjoyed the fact that Wendy Lesser jumped from Henry James or Fyodor Dostoevsky, to Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald, Patricia Highsmith and other crime novelists. It was fascinating to see crime novels used as examples in literary criticism, I was happy to see examples of science fiction, and fantasy also included rather than sticking to just literary fiction or classics. It is a real shame that the writing was so flat; the concepts and ideas were great and with some polishing this could have made for a wonderful book.

I am disappointed that this book never grabbed me and the writing held the book back. There are plenty of interesting ideas and literary criticism worth exploring but the dull nature really made that difficult. I sounds like Wendy Lesser is passionate about books and would have a lot ideas worth listening to if only that passion was visible in the writing.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Posted December 9, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Horror, Science Fiction / 5 Comments

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeerTitle: Annihilation (Goodreads)
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Series: Southern Reach Trilogy #1
Published: FSG Originals, 2014
Pages: 195
Genres: Horror, Science Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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A section of America has been cut off from the rest of the continent; this has been dubbed Area X. While no one has been too sure what caused Area X to be cut off, a clandestine government agency called the Southern Reach keeps sending expeditions to this new ecosystem, to study the last vestiges of an untouched environment. Eleven expeditions have gone to this abandoned and unspoilt stretch of US coastline, eleven catastrophic failures. Four women known only by their disciplines: surveyor, anthropologist, psychologist and biologist are preparing for the twelfth expedition; will they find the answers to explain Area X, this enigmatic and frightening ecosystem?

Annihilation is the first book in the much talked about Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer; a short 200 page novel that packs a huge punch. The reader is thrown into this world and soon finds themselves with many questions; however the answers will only lead to more questions and so you will find yourself in a spiral of tension and excitement. Think Cormac McCarthy meets James Smythe; you have this thrilling and complex novel that sees four women and their impending doom.

I am hesitant in talking about this book too much because everything is shrouded in mystery and deception. I don’t want to give too much away but I can say that Annihilation, on the surface, is a thrilling science-fiction novel. However as you dive deeper into the plot you will soon discover that this is full metafictional and psychoanalytical allegory that leads to a whole new type of exploration for those interested in critical reading. This is so annoying because I want to talk about this book but I don’t want to give anything away.

I have had similar issues reviewing The Explorer by James Smythe, I want to say so much more about this book but I want people to discover it for themselves. I am desperate to read Authority, followed by Acceptance but I know that reviewing them is going to be even more difficult (much like The Echo). Do yourself a favour, go out and pick up a copy of Annihilation if you haven’t done so already, but trust me when I say you will need the other two books in the Southern Reach Trilogy.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Posted December 5, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Poetry / 0 Comments

Ariel by Sylvia PlathTitle: Ariel (Goodreads)
Author: Sylvia Plath
Published: Faber & Faber, 1965
Pages: 81
Genres: Poetry
My Copy: Library Book

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It feels like Sylvia Plath’s life overshadowed her literary value; her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was like a confessional and people tend to read it for all the juicy bits. Ariel is a collection of poems published posthumously, just a few years after her suicide. It is true that we have Plath to think for advancing the confessional poetry form and exploring topics previously taboo like suicide, mental illness and domestic abuse.

I would like to thank Meg Wolitzer’s book Belzhar for pushing me into reading more of Sylvia Plath. The book explores a struggling student that was sent to a private school that put her in a special English class. This class spent the semester journaling and reading Plath, most importantly The Bell Jar but also Ariel. That book made me want to re-read The Bell Jar which I loved but instead decided it was time to give her poetry a go.

However I am very aware that I don’t know how to review poetry let alone a whole collection, so this is more about my experience with this book. I feel like I am becoming a better reader but if you ask me to read out loud I am going to struggle. So I decided this is an issue I needed to work on and I read Ariel to my wife (she read some of it to me as well). This may seem like a romantic and intimate thing to do with your partner but Plath has a way of killing any sexy moods.

I loved the experience but I am struck with a sense that Sylvia Plath might have been a poor choice to begin with. She has a very strong sense of imagery and plays a lot with metaphors; some of which I picked up on but there was some stuff that went over my head. Poetry is meant to be read out aloud and I thought this would help with my understanding as well as develop my skills. However I found it extremely difficult to work out punctuation in these poems. Some sentences span over a few stanzas but my natural impulse was to pause after ever line.

Having said that, this was a wonderful experience and while the poems are often dark and depressing I am glad I shared this moment with my wife. Ariel kind of reminds me of those people on the internet that overshare about their lives and you can’t help but be glued to what they write even if it annoys you. Sometimes I think, that is too much information but Sylvia Plath seems to get to the heart of that raw emotion.

Sylvia Plath was an incredibly intelligent and complex woman; I can’t help being fascinated by her. I want to learn more about her life, and understand the emotion behind her writing. Take for example her poem “Daddy”; there is this anger toward her father as well as some holocaust imagery that I just want to understand. I am going to have to find a biography on Plath’s life because I think this places a big part in her writing. Can anyone recommend me a good biography?

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

Posted November 19, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne FadimanTitle: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (Goodreads)
Author: Anne Fadiman
Narrator: Suzanne Toren
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998
Pages: 162
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

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Anne Fadiman has often stated that she learned about sex from her father’s copy of Fanny Hill (correct title for this book is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) by John Cleland. Ex Libris (which is Latin for ‘from books’) is a collection of essays that recounts her life and her love affair with books. This collection of personal essays documents her life and those small problems only a fellow book lover would truly understand. Like when Anne and her husband finally decided to merge libraries five years into their marriage in the essay “Marrying Libraries”.

I have to admit, I love Anne Fadiman; she is the embodiment of everything I want to be as a reader. She is smart, witty, a little wry and can talk about books with great passion and intelligence. She does come across as pretentious and throws in some quotes in French just to show off, however her writing is so beautiful and she talks about books, not just as a personal experience but also includes some literary criticism.

This collection recounts a lifelong love affair she had with books; exploring the joys and passion that comes with being a book lover. I love how she talks about books in the form of personal essays; it gives me a whole new concept about writing. I obviously knew about personal essays in the past but something about this book just opened my eyes and made me think “I should be doing this”. The way she talks about her reading journey in a collection of connecting essays is wonderful; it turns the book not into a linear progression but rather focuses each essay on an experience or book.

You might have noticed that when I review books I tend to put a bit of my personal life and journey into the blog post. The style suits me and because I want to think of my book blog as a personal journal into my reading life, I feel it fits that theme. Anne Fadiman has a similar idea but in the form of essays and she puts my writing to shame; I now aspire to write as elegantly as she does with wit and beauty within each essay. I am nowhere near where I want to be but practise makes perfect; right?

This is the kind of collection I plan to read over and over again. I obviously love books and Anne Fadiman has obviously set the bar high for future books. I started reading memoirs from bibliophiles because I wanted to learn different ways to talk about books. Ex Libris has taught me so much more about books and just reminds me how much I love books about books. I have a whole heap of other memoirs to read and to be honest reading about people’s reading life has given me an appreciation for memoirs in general. I want to read more styles; not just readers but writers and then progress to other types of creativity. I remember starting the year struggling through non-fiction but it looks like I am ending this year with a completely new attitude towards them.

Difficult Men by Brett Martin

Posted October 14, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

Difficult Men by Brett MartinTitle: Difficult Men (Goodreads)
Author: Brett Martin
Published: Faber & Faber, 2013
Pages: 320
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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In the Third Golden Age of television (as Brett Martin calls it) things have changed drastically. With the rise of cable television, channels like HBO, Showtime and so on, are able to push the boundaries not afforded to network TV. Shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men allowed the writers to offer something more complex or unpredictable. This saw the rise of the difficult men, characters like Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Don Draper (Mad Men) offered a character study never seen before by viewers.

Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men looks at the stories behind some of the greatest shows of our time, mainly focusing on The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire and Mad Men. This is a deeper look into the evolution of modern story telling. The male protagonist within the Third Golden Age tends to be an enigma; complex, impulsive and so much more real. The type of characters that frustrates you with their mistakes but you can’t help but continuously watching.

The problem with this book is that it makes me want to watch all these shows. I have only gotten through half of The Sopranos and I haven’t found the time to try The Wire or Treme. All these shows look really great but finding time to binge watch them has become a real problem. I love reading about pop-culture and how it changes over the years and Difficult Men gave me everything I wanted. I enjoyed the insider information and the stories behind the stories. I can only hope that this evolution will start to extend toward better female leads. I would like to see the same treatment the Third Golden Age of television has give  to men offered to woman as well.

What I enjoy about these types of shows is not that the men are difficult but the way they tackle real issues and treat the protagonist as a real and flawed human being. They can explore ideas of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race and violence and the protagonist often struggles or makes mistakes. They often evolve as characters but it doesn’t mean they grow, there are times when I think Don Draper (Mad Men) or Hank Moody (Californication) have finally grown as a person but there is often slip ups or a spanner thrown into the mix, this makes for compelling television but also feels more real.

A huge section of Difficult Men is devoted to The Sopranos and James Gandolfini which is worth checking out. Gandolfini, in his own right, wasn’t a stereotypical leading man and there was a big exploration into his mental state. Playing the role of Tony Soprano was a very taxing role and what made James Gandolfini great at the job is how he didn’t act the role, he became the character. This ended taking a huge toll on his psychological wellbeing and this raises some interesting thoughts about the effect a role has on the actor.

Fans of television, pop culture or these shows in general will enjoy this book but I think a look into the psychological effect on the people involved will make this something to sit up and take notice. Hollywood is a complex industry and the effects can be damaging; all you have to do is walk down Hollywood Boulevard to see how it effects people. I am a big fan of the ground breaking changes these shows made towards the television industry but I didn’t realise the side effects. Brett Martin did a good job going behind the scenes and getting the back story.

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry

Posted May 4, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian BarryTitle: The Temporary Gentleman (Goodreads)
Author: Sebastian Barry
Published: Faber & Faber, 2014
Pages: 270
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Sebastian Barry is often credited for the way he captures the quintessential Irish life, especially with the McNulty family. The Temporary Gentleman tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irish engineer that gets commissioned into the British Army in the Second World War. I will admit that this is my first Sebastian Barry novel but I had a fair idea on what I was getting myself into. The title alone gave me an idea of the type of man this is following, only temporarily a refined gentleman. It was also the idea that Jack wanted to be a gentleman but thought his social-economical background prohibited that.

The Temporary Gentleman serves are a retrospective of Jack’s life as he reflects on the choices he made along the way. But unlike similar stories like this, Jack wasn’t a nice person; in fact he was a real bastard. A drunk and a degenerate gambler, he not only ruined he own life but that of his wife, Mai. He joined the army to escape, not a honourable thing to do but I get a sense that Jack may of felt like this was the only time he was a gentleman.  Leaving Africa would mean he would have to return to his past, but is this what makes he such a bastard?

I will admit that I went into The Temporary Gentleman with the idea that this was a post-colonial novel; I expected it to explore the effects of empiricism of Kenya as they were working toward their independence. I only guess that from the synopsis and I guess you can say there was some glimpses of this, the way the Kenyans treated Jack as an ex Major. In hindsight, if I was to look at this novel as post-colonial, I should have been focusing on the imperial effects England had over Ireland. Considering this took place after the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923).

However I decided to look at this novel through the lens of psychoanalytical theory. I’m no expert at literary theories but I do try and this was a very in-depth and psychological look at Jack McNulty and the way he sees himself. A look at his mistakes and narcissism and how damaging his choose are for him and the people close to him. The Temporary Gentleman almost serves as a psychological profile and if I knew more about psychology I would try to analyse it.

I have to except that my literary criticism skills are still very lacking, I might have been able to handle this novel through the lens of post-colonialism but it was too focused on Jake McNulty to get much out of it. Psychoanalytical theory is something I’m very interested in and possibly my next focus in the world of literary criticism. All I can really say is that Barry makes it impossible to sympathise with Jack at all.

Sebastian Barry appears to know his craft; his approach to the novel was expertly executed. The prose in The Temporary Gentleman makes the whole experience bearable; you can help but enjoy the writing while grinding your teeth at Jack McNulty. I don’t feel like I can truly recommend this novel, there are plenty of unlikeable characters that are more thrilling to read about but I will be returning Sebastian Barry in the future.