Television

Television by Jean Philippe Toussaint
Television by Jean Philippe Toussaint

A slightly grandiose academic takes a sabbatical in Berlin to compile his research into a book about Titian. He has nothing to do but sit down and write. However, despite his scorn for popular culture and the best intentions to give up the addictive medium altogether, an extended (and often self-congratulatory) rationalization leads to very little writing, but quite a lot of television.

Don’t laugh; it could happen to you.

This is one of my favorite reads in the past five years. I snickered and chortled the whole way through. I thought it was rollicking and Chaplinesque. Many of my friends did not find it quite as  funny, but I felt Toussaint accurately described the tiny traps of vanity  that often befall people who “know” things. People such as myself! Probably not a flattering thing to admit…

Many thanks to the Dalkey Archive Press who brought this novel back into print in the United States.

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Owls Do Cry

Owls do Cry by Janet Frame

The silent force of flowing water. Beautiful objects viewed behind glass. Intimations of joy and pain from an artist’s soul.

This stunningly beautiful first novel gently turns over the extraordinary hours and days of a less-than-ordinary family from a small town in New Zealand. Marred by a childhood tragedy, the stories of the lives of four siblings unfold around the fraught journey of the middle sister, Daphne – diagnosed schizophrenic, creative, emotional – through mental institutions and treatment into adulthood.

Told in gorgeous stream of consciousness with hallucinatory lyricism, the book draws from Frame’s own difficult family situation as a child, and from her experiences of eight years spent as an adolescent and young adult in New Zealand’s asylums.

Film Biography directed by Jane Campion

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The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

My first read by Pamuk. No, that’s not true. I tried to read Snow a few years ago and never got off the ground despite raves from friends.
This novel, however, gripped me like a weird, powerful dream you might have while napping on a lazy clear summer day. You wake up in a daze, disoriented and sweating, but luxuriating in the vivid details and marveling at the intricate folds and turns – the mysterious corners and magical twists of the mind.

Coming to the novel after my failed first attempt – for which I did not blame Pamuk at all – I was still somewhat wary as a result of rumors of the author’s callousness and arrogance. When I then picked up the book and began to read, I was, initially, even more put off by the obvious signatures of Borges and Calvino on the whole affair: my fears were confirmed. Not that I don’t love the gods of postmodernism, but so many energetic, intellectual tributes read more like seed catalogs or weird detective novels. Although sometimes compelling, for me, especially as a man in my forties, I find that novels of ideas must be tempered by human warmth. Philosophy and intellectualism are exciting, but only if there is red blood flowing through that veiny plot.

Not to fear, Pamuk transcended my fears and prejudices and won me over with story. I haven’t been so excited in a long time! I loved it. Read The White Castle.

[youtube:http://youtube.com/watch?v=olRQCQXo6So&w=240&h=180]

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When I Was Mortal

When I Was Mortal
Javier Marías

Within the first few sentences of this dazzling collection of short stories by the acclaimed Spanish writer Javier Marías, you realize, with a thrilling sense of recognition, that you are in the hands of a master storyteller of Jamesian or Borgesian stature.

Intelligent and inventive, Marías carefully pieces together incident, motive and character into tightly constructed, ornate fabrications that never wholly obscure the black, restive heart that lies at their center.

These are complicated, precise and satisfying stories.

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Andorra

Andorra by Peter Cameron
Peter Cameron
I really love Cameron’s writing. His sentences are often exquisitely evocative, although you sometimes feel like you’re somehow stuck inside a DeBeers diamond commercial.

Crisp, clear, descriptive, and dryly golden-ripe: finely hollowed out, albeit in a real way.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really move along very organically, and the meta-crap enveloping the tale is clumsy and doesn’t hold together in any interesting way. (Full disclosure: I love good meta-crap.)

Please note that I only give the book such a harsh review here because there is so much potential. I’d love to read a rewritten version of the same book in which the characters possess just the tiniest bit more blood in their veins — the “peppery smell of her skin” doesn’t count — and in which the last 75 pages feel less like a rock rolling back down the hill after it’s been carried up for the first 200.

I do want to read more by this author.

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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Marisha Pessl
Marisha Pessl
Another high school adventure a la Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Very well written, and whip-smart. 500 pages of fun.

The main character (who reads far too many books) reminded me of how I read when I was young. Do you remember when you thought the secrets of life were contained in each and every book you pulled off the library shelf? The higher the shelf and the dustier the tome, the more likely the book was to reveal the mysteries of the the universe!

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A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance
Rohinton Mistry
With extraordinarily deft storytelling and clear, cool compassion for its characters, this novel charts the enormous changes in Indian society through the the experiences and eyes of the four main characters whose lives intertwine in the 1970’s.

Mistry is an astonishingly talented writer and artist. Often, with a single, delicately crafted sentence, the truth and clarity of his vision will pierce your heart. And the unforgettable characters Dina, Ishvar, Om, and Maneck have stayed with me since I first read this book in 1999.

Though darker than Mahfouz, Mistry is no less deserving of Nobel recognition.

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Close to the Knives

Close to the Knives
David Wojnarowicz
Earlier this week, as I walked to the subway in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I was flagged down in front of the CVS by a skinny and exuberant twenty-something (if that) boy holding an HRC binder, “Can you spare a few minutes to talk about gay marriage?”

It makes me think of this book.

If you want to understand the path from being an outcast (danger, fear, edge) to living in the suburbs on Wisteria Lane, it starts here.

How did we get from the queer eighties – AIDS, life on the street, violence – to the New York Times wedding announcements section and to the corporatized political processes of today?

Sometimes it takes the fire of anger to throw light on the truth. Wojnarowicz’s honest and frank memoir has, by illuminating a painful and tragically shortened life in an uncaring time and place, made our world today that much less dark.

Read and remember.

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Number Sense

Number Sense by Stanislas Dehaene
Stanislas Dehaene
Through his investigation into how the human (and animal) brain creates mathematics, Stanislas Dehaene provides an indispensable and comprehensive survey of the latest and best thought on the subject. Marching steadily forward with simple explanations of complex topics, the author somehow even manages to make a discussion of the various brain imaging techniques and how they work riveting. Bringing together psychology, evolution, neuroscience and mathematics education with copious illustrations, this book will have more than your occipital temporal lobe buzzing.

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Quicksand

Quicksand
Junichiro Tanizaki

A deepening obsession (quicksand) by an attractive and sophisticated lady Sonoko for the seductive and beautiful, but heartless female art student Mitsoko lies at the center of this tale of love, deceit and manipulation.

The unique tone captured by translator Howard Hibbett captivates from the very first word, and carries you on a journey you can hardly believe – it seems so sensible from one step to the next, and yet entirely beyond the pale at the same time.

Note that you may also have to loosen your bodice at certain parts, if not rip the whole damn thing off.

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