October 11, 2011

The Bolaño Reading Challenge
(and Other Obsessive Reading Lists)

It seems that for the last year I have been unwittingly participating in the 2011 Roberto Bolaño Reading Challenge. Participants in the reading challenge, which started in January, have the fairly straightforward goal of reading a bunch of Bolaño's books, in any format or language, throughout the year.

the reading challenge badge

The participants are also assigned "levels" according to their accomplishments. In my case, for example, since I've read 6 books so far I would be considered a "Poet", which places me above a "Vagabond" (5 books) but below a "Detective" (7 books). There are also levels for rereading books and for reading books published in 2011 (two were published in recent months, two more are expected in November).

Bolaño books I've read

To place matters in perspective, Bolaño is hardly the first writer whose entire oeuvre was placed on my reading list. Kafka, Beckett, Camus, Borges, Pinter, Coetzee, and Nabokov were all there ahead of him. Frisch and Hemingway are also nudging me, "come on," I can hear them say, "you've already read so much of our work, just two or three more books and you'll be able to say you've read it all!" (though I'm not sure I can forgive Hemingway for the terrible triumvirate of To Have and Have Not, Across the River and Into the Trees, and The Torrents of Spring).

Bolaño is probably not even my most-read writer of the year (well, maybe in terms of word count, but certainly not in number of works read); that distinction goes to Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin (16 plays read this year, along with some prose, poetry, sketches...), which I have been reading a lot of in the last couple of weeks as I was finishing up my own play (my first!).

Bolaño books I haven't read

The Savage Detectives was my first encounter with Bolaño, it was a real discovery and remains my favorite. I've enjoyed all the others as well, some more (Distant Star), some less (Monsieur Pain), but I have to admit that in spite of all the breathless praise that's been piled upon him for the last few years, I don't consider him to be a literary genius, nor an heir to Borges. The excesses, surreal touches, and unflinching portraits of darkness, along with his outsider status, his intimate knowledge and profound love of literature, and his mashing together of literary and popular culture all work together to create the image of the romantic vagabond author. Thus, it's quite tempting to declare him the first international literary genius of the 21st century, a literary Che Guevara, perhaps, simultaneously an underdog and a bestseller as only a mostly posthumously published writer can be.

Of all the writers I've placed on my "must read everything" list I think Bolaño is most like Philip K. Dick. With both writers there is a certain familiarity among all the works, perhaps because both worked on the outskirts of certain genres (Sci-Fi for Dick, Hard-Boiled detective fiction with literary namedropping for Bolaño) never quite conforming to them but always aware of their rules. With Dick, after reading a slew of books in 2001-2002 a certain exhaustion set in, and now I only read about a book or two a year. I can almost feel it happening with Bolaño too, though 2666 is still waiting on my shelf and I'm looking forward to tackling it, I feel like I'm starting to see through him a little - the incessantly unsolved, perhaps unsolvable, mysteries, the repetition in certain character traits, certain moods. But I still enjoy it, and perhaps all I need to do is switch to his poetry or essays for for a while so my faith and passion may be restored

In the end, however, it's never really up to me; there will always be someone like Beckett saying, "Wait a minute, you still haven't read my letters!" or Faulkner teasing, "Only two novels? I've so much more to offer!" or even an indignant Andre Breton giving me harsh looks from the bookstore shelf since I've never read any of his works.

September 18, 2011

Israel's Charing Cross
Finding English Books in Tel Aviv

Last weekend my girlfriend and I visited every bookshop on Tel Aviv's Allenby Street for an article she wrote (in Hebrew) about this small, local version of London's Charing Cross Road. One of my constant gripes about Tel Aviv is that it's very difficult to find decent English books at a decent price, and this little tour served as a great example of this problem.

Steimatzky, lower level

There are 12 bookstores on this stretch of less than one Kilometer (a little more than half a mile), including three Russian bookstores (two new, one used), one Spanish bookstore, one store that specializes in music and chord books. There's also one independent store, Lotus Books (Allenby 101), that has a well-curated collection of new and used Hebrew books, and one chain store - Steimatzky (Allenby 107) which has a relatively large selection of English books on the lower level. Four more used book kiosks have mostly Hebrew books, with a few English paperbacks, usually in miserable condition.

Halper's Books

The main store on this street that caters to readers of English is Halper's Books (Allenby 87), which probably has the biggest selection of used English books in the city. I used to come here quite often when I was an undergrad at Tel Aviv University, but after living in New York City for almost 4 years, I guess my constant trips to the Strand have made me a bit spoiled. I try to avoid mass market paperbacks, especially used ones, and hardly ever purchase a book with markings inside. Halper's, unfortunately, has plenty of both. Granted, the really miserable looking books are usually very cheap, but I think every used bookstore should have some minimal standard for the books it sells, and heavily marked, crumbling, or torn books do not only make for a miserable shopping experience, but also reflect badly on the books around them.

Lev Hasefer (Heart of the Book), Allenby 97

The selection offered by Halper's, though broader than most other bookstores in Tel Aviv, is still fairly limited. I don't know whether they imported books at any point in the past, but it's certain that they have not done so in several years. You may find bestsellers from recent years, but don't expect to find any recent literary gems. This is also true of Israel's two bookstore chains - Steimatzky and Tzomet Sfarim (The Books Junction) - both have one or two flagship stores that contain a larger selection of English books (Steimatzky, aside from the Allenby branch, has another store at Dizengoff 109; Tzomet Sfarim has the "Library" branch at the Dizengoff shopping Center and the "Prose" bookstore at Dizengoff 163) but their selection is fairly hit or miss. You can find the "big" books of recent years - the best sellers, the prize winners, and so on - plus a selection of classics, some big name authors, some sci-fi / fantasy, lots of Grisham, Coban, etc. But don't come looking for anything too obscure or specific because you're bound to be disappointed, especially if you're looking for anything translated into English (other than books by Israeli authors).

An abandoned building right next to Bialik House
(current museum and former home of Israel's national poet);
what better place for a fiercely independent bookstore?

I've been dreaming of opening an independent English bookstore for years, but I realize this would be a significant investment in something that's probably not going to make a lot of money, and as a starving artist of sorts I can't really afford to do that. I envision this store as a sort of public service to fellow anglophile - bibliophiles, a place where they could also attend readings and other cultural events, so if there are any generous book-loving millionaires out there willing to invest, I'm open to all offers (as for a suggested location - see photo above).

July 9, 2011

What I've Been Reading (a lot)

It's been a while since I posted anything on this blog so I'll try to ease my way back into it by using the crutch of my recent readings. I've been reading about two books a week for the last couple of months, partially because I bought so many books on my recent trip to New York (over 30) that the proportion of unread books in my library started making me feel a little guilty. In addition, my insanely optimistic New Year's resolution to read 100 books this year seemed very far from being fulfilled (see table at right). Still, if I keep up this pace I might be able to get to 80, which is still over the annual average of about 50.

Some Short Novels

Nabokov's Mary, his first novel, very reminiscent of his early short stories, takes place in the Russian émigré community in Berlin and features a selection of mostly pathetic characters and situations, but not much of a plot. James M. Cain's Double Indemnity is as well written and tightly plotted as his earlier novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, though the characters seemed to me a little less alive and palpable, perhaps lacking that bit of existential angst which made Frank Chambers such a compelling character.

Mario Bellatin's Beauty Salon is an interesting take on the "mysterious plague" genre (from Camus's The Plague to every zombie fiction ever) focusing on a gay hairdresser who turns his beauty salon into a home for the dying. The plain language used to describe everything from the narrator's fish collection to his transvestite outings and the strange plague sweeping over the land (a metaphor for AIDS?) works remarkably well to ground the whole narrative in some sort of reality and, short as the work is, it makes a lasting impression. At the other end of the "mythical events interfering in humdrum reality" spectrum is David Garnett's Lady into Fox, where a British gentleman tries to deal, practically and calmly, with the fact that his dear wife had suddenly turned into a fox. Though this was a pleasant enough read, I kept waiting for something a little more interesting to occur, but aside from the initial transformation the whole narrative progressed quite sedately and sensibly towards its somewhat pat conclusion.

And Some Longer Novels

Steve Erickson's Tours of the Black Clock, #98 on Larry McCaffrey's list of the Twentieth Century's 100 greatest works of fiction, is an odd and sprawling narrative mixing alternative history, erotic fantasy, hard-boiled literary clichés, and melodrama, with a consistent but unconvincing underlying romantic/fantastic sensibility. There are at least three separate narratives here, all of them going on for far too long and connecting to each other very clumsily in terms of the overall narrative.

Francine Prose's Blue Angel presents itself (or its author and blurbs present it) as a biting satire of Creative Writing workshops, teachers, and attendees, but after a promising set up the story very quickly dissolves into a typical narrative of an older professor enamored with a mysterious young student who turns out to be, quite predictably, his undoing. The setting is a typical small New England college, the characters are pedestrian (the formerly successful writer turned professor, the supportive wife, the alienated daughter, the "not-as-innocent-as-she-seems" student, the man hating Über-feminist female literature professor, the gay deconstructionist who loathes books and writers, the moronic students and their terrible writing... believe me, I could go on), the writing is thankfully straightforward, which makes this a relatively quick read, though the dénouement is cringingly predictable. Throughout the novel seems more concerned with the challenges of teaching in the era of political correctness (though published in 2001 it feels very mid 90's, post Lewinsky scandal) than the actual personalities and motivations of the characters that inhabit it.

You don't need me to tell you that James Dickey's Deliverance is worth reading. Though at times it feels like Dickey is pushing the dramatic tension a bit too much, and I'd be hard pressed to find proof of its true literary merit, it's a gripping read nonetheless.

And Some Graphic Novels
This field is still relatively new to me and I'm still trying to figure out what's worth reading and what my personal preferences are. As for superhero comics it seems I'm far less tolerant of collected comics than one-shot narratives. the storylines in Doom Patrol's The Painting that Ate Paris, for example, were brought up and resolved far too quickly and easily for my taste, which is a shame since there were some pretty interesting ideas there (e.g. the villain who only has super-powers as long as they are unimagined by others, or the brotherhood of Dada which seeks to make the world more ludicrous).

That said, The Dark Knight Strikes Again proved an even bigger disappointment, a mostly uninteresting and incomprehensible sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Both of these later Batman stories pale in comparison to Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory, the first is a well-constructed detective story which draws heavily (and successfully) on The Godfather film series and the latter, though heavily dependent on the former and almost imitative of its structure, is nonetheless a good read which, unlike The Dark Knight Strikes Again, does not require intimate knowledge of the DC universe in order to be enjoyed or understood.
Finally there's Dino Buzzati's 1969 Poem Strip, a beautiful and spare retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice through surreal and erotic drawings (recently republished in English as part of the NYRB classics list, of which I can't get enough).

February 16, 2011

The Great Gatsby - The Video Game

You might have already heard about the new(ish) "hidden object" Great Gatsby video game, but did you know there is also an NES video game? You can play the game, allegedly found at a garage sale, online at GreatGatsbyGame.Com. Most people suspect this is not an authentic NES game but something made up by some Nintendo fans with too much time on their hands (actually, the website's contact page admits it's a fake created by Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith). At any rate, it's an enjoyable  time-waster, with appropriately ridiculous touches such as a gold hat as the equivalent of Mario's mushrooms and Dr. Eckleburg's giant laser-shooting spectacles.
I haven't played the game through (those giant laser-shooting eyes are tricky, and I'm no gamer) so I don't know how it turns out for Nick, or who else he has to fight later on (Dutch ghosts, apparently). Now let's wait for the brave and bored fan who'll make Ulysses: The Game.

January 10, 2011

Minor Annoyances

So every quasi-literary person I know seems to be in an uproar over the attempt to bowdlerize Huck Finn by replacing every instance of the word "Nigger" with the word "Slave." I almost feel sorry for the guy for this public and collective flogging he's receiving, though admittedly it's a pretty dumb thing to do. But in fact I think the backlash says far more about the current literary culture than the initial event - SO many people are SO outraged and spend SO much time debating something SO stupid. If it hadn't been brought to such broad public attention, who would have even heard of this person, or seen this version of the book? But by now the public outcry has been so vocal it even reached the Israeli news.

I haven't heard a single voice defending this edit, even if they do express some understanding of the logic behind it. I'm not surprised everyone's flocking to criticize him, as Jean-Baptiste Clamence says in Albert Camus's The Fall, there's nothing sweeter than attacking someone whose guilt is verified and agreed upon:
The essential thing, after all, is being able to get angry with someone who has no right to talk back.

There was certainly no such uproar when Joseph Conrad's 1897 novella was published as The N-word of the Narcissus in 2009 (and yes, all occurrences of the word inside the book were also changed to N-word). Why? Because no one heard about the publication.

Personally, I'm more annoyed at Peter Sís, whose dreadful illustrations fill my edition of Borges's The Book of Imaginary Beings. Seriously, who exactly decided that the great writer's compendium of fantastic creatures deserved such amateurish and childish illustrations as these:
The Leveler
Just think how much better it would have looked illustrated in the style of Albertus Seba's Cabinet of Natural Curiosities or Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts:
Dürer's Rhinoceros, woodcut, 1515.
Well, I'll be sure to hire a worthy illustrator when I finally have enough entries in Cycloped to fill a book (rather than rely on my own weak illustration / photo shopping / pilfering skills).