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Friday, Jun 4, 2010

Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Self-Portrait Abroad is made up of short reminiscences on travel by the book’s narrator, a Belgian writer like himself. Its emotional and comic precision makes for one of his more accessible books, deriving power from its elegant slightness.

The narrator is most often traveling for literary business – a writer’s conference in Vietnam, a speech at the French Institute in Tunisia – and Toussaint uses these trips to explore the disorientations of modern globe trotting. He delights in the absurdities that result in complicated layers of nationalities and languages. At a boules contest in Corsica, the narrator’s friend Christian and his Japanese girlfriend Noriko speak to each other in Spanish since it’s “the only language they both understood” and the comic momentum of the story is punctuated by her cries of ¡santo cielo!.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In Lavinia, Ursula Le Guin draws out an entire novel from a few lines of Virgil’s epic the Aeneid. Virgil had only hinted at the character of Lavinia, the hero Aeneas’ second wife, in his poem and Le Guin masterfully uses this opening to portray a beautiful and spiritual world before Rome was settled.

For the first half of Lavinia, the author describes the wild landscape of southern Italy. The gods are an everyday presence, but not in the classical forms we’ve grown to know as part of Ancient Rome. Households have their own gods, housed in trees or sacred springs or in urns on the hearth. Lavinia and her father, the local king, appreciate the importance of listening to oracles and signs and feel comfortable in sacred spaces.

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Friday, Apr 30, 2010
Twilit zones: suburban malcontents and post-modern autodidacts roam, ponder, fret, and mull.

Taking its title, The Hospital for Bad Poets, from Nietzsche, this ambitious collection of short stories comes half from the exurbs, half from the innards. J.C. Hallman’s first book of fiction emerges as prickly and testy, as unsettling voices gasp out warped fables from the phantasmagorical tract homes of our dismal America. In his unsparing prose Hallman forces his reader to gaze at darkness and illusion.

I had admired his earlier nonfiction books The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe and The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World’s Oldest Game. The first applied William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience to Hallman’s travels among practitioners of new religions invented during the past century. The second took him from seedy New York City chess clubs to Central Asia’s Kalmykia to federal prisons in a quest to understand the hold of the game upon its masters. Hallman’s stories expand these intellectual interests. Where popular culture blurs into social critique, as in “Ethan: A Love Story,” he makes himself at home.

These stories will disturb more than comfort. The first’s title, “The Epiphenomenon,” shows the level at which Hallman sets his tone. Ironically, it’s about an ordinary man, but one prodded and probed by a Kafkaesque Statistician and his Maestro. The narrator notes how “the soft charge of social routine conducted with strangers is the most rewarding form of intimacy the average man knows.”

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Friday, Apr 23, 2010
John Banville's alter ego resurrects Quirke in another 1950s Dublin noir adventure.

Family ties, as a verb, here. Fog shrouds Dublin, secrets haunt their keepers, and, under John Banville’s pen, intimacy once more curdles into revenge, hatred, and murder.

Christine Falls I much preferred for its characters and mood rather than its mundane, if convoluted, plot. I favored The Silver Swan for its more exotic touches, and its elaborate focus on Quirke’s battle with the bottle. (In this and in the evocation of portside Irish cities, it reminds me of Ken Bruen’s Galway noir Jack Taylor series, on the other side of the island in our globalizing, gentrifying decade, nearly unrecognizable as sharing territory with Quirke’s domain. Still, the decay continues.)

John Banville writing as Benjamin Black enriches this third installment with meditations on mortality, night terrors, dreams gone wrong, and always the fog creeping in, staying inside after it sneaks in a door so a wisp stays like an “ectoplasm.” The tug of families and their indiscretions, the public face hiding the private sin, as in so many Irish stories, blankets this mystery.

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Tuesday, Apr 20, 2010
New York City is all about having a dream -- even if you're aren't quite certain what it is.

I’ve never lived in or even ever really wanted to visit New York City, but My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City made me wonder if I was missing something. Edited by David Haskell and Adam Moss of New York Magazine, this book features a variety of musings supplied by actors, artists, athletes, chefs, writers, and even a porn star. Each reflects back on his or her first moments in New York City.

Beginning with David Dinkins, former NYC mayor who came to NYC in 1933, and ending with aspiring actress Jenny Joslin, who arrived in NYC in 2009, the book includes the famous, the not so famous, and even the somewhat infamous. Yogi Berra’s “essay” simply states “New York? It was big”; other essays, including those by Liz Smith, Dan Rather, and Nora Ephron, span several pages.

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