urban literary-knot

Jeunesse dorée September 1, 2009

Gilded Youth

 

Kate Cambor’s first book opens in 1914, the year France lurched from the opulence of the Gilded Age into the clamor of the modern world. Gone were the days when debutantes danced until dawn at mountainside resorts and literary giants like Victor Hugo and Alphonse Daudet presided over exclusive Paris salons. Ushered in was an era of war and disorientation. “The new generation of writers and politicians . . . were engaged in a battle of epic and Oedipal proportions,” Cambor writes. “At stake was nothing less than the heart and soul of Mother France.”

This new age is seen through the eyes of three young Parisians: Léon Daudet was the son of novelist Alphonse Daudet, Jeanne Hugo the granddaughter of Victor Hugo, and Jean-Baptiste Charcot the son of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Each was born at the height of Third Republic society, “poised, more than most, to take advantage of the promises of the dawning century.” Instead, the three friends fell victim to a string of personal and political crises. As Cambor notes, the problem was primarily one of momentum — the “faith in science and progress” that defined the Gilded Age was eroded by the arrival of mechanized combat, psychoanalytic theory and a dizzying rush of experimental art. Born to one era, Charcot, Daudet and Hugo struggled, and failed, to adjust to the mores of the next.

Matthew Shaer

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Breeeeeathe… August 1, 2009

Lydia Peelle

Lydia Peelle has given us a collection of stories so artfully constructed and deeply imagined they read like classics. It marks the beginning of what will surely be a long and beautiful career.  —Ann Patchett

 

Congolese Barfly— ‘Buzzzzz!’ May 13, 2009

Broken Glass

 

Although its cultural and intertextual musings could fuel innumerable doctorates, the real meat of Broken Glass is its comic brio, and Mabanckou’s jokes work the whole spectrum of humour. Take these lines, which could have come from one of Alan Coren’s 1970s Idi Amin dispatches: “The Prime Minister promised in the next reshuffle the Minister for Agriculture would be given the portfolio for Culture, all you had to do was cross out the first four letters of ‘agriculture’.” There is a pissing-contest that Rabelais would be proud of (and a stream of scatological schtick). There are also a number of characters who criss-cross the frontier between tragedy and comedy: the Printer, for example, who boasts “I did France”, having married a white woman and enjoyed a comfortable managerial position at the printing works that produced Paris-Match. Washed-up and penniless, he now sits in the Credit Gone Away relating to any ear that will listen how his wife had an affair with his son and foisting copies of Paris-Match on his interlocutors as if he were the founding editor and owner.

The themes of self-delusion and self-awareness are central, and Mabanckou invites us to ponder whether the narrator is peddling an alternative history, just as other customers of the bar seem to be. There comes a point when an unreliable narrator is so reliably unreliable that you can question whether he’s really unreliable.

Much of the writing from Africa (or at least most of the stuff we get to see) is of an earnest or grim character, and it makes a pleasant change to encounter a writer who isn’t afraid of a laugh – even if his work is destined for the syllabuses of post-colonial literature courses.

-Tibor Fischer

 

A Short Story Not To Be Under-Appreciated April 4, 2009

 

In Other Rooms Other Wonders

 

I’m still going back over this collection of short stories and was captivated vividly by Mr Mueenuddin’s ability to bring me in and keep there– within the ‘other rooms’.   

For debut work  In Other Rooms, Other Wonders  has truly broken the idea that the short-story form cannot keep the reader’s attention, and Mr Mueenuddin has definitely done just that– I’m looking forward to reading more.

 

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“Pakistani writers are addressing change and what’s happening today in the world. There is something completely contemporary in this writing.”

But introducing a debut collection is never easy… Mr. Mueenuddin’s eight linked stories, which take place in Pakistan in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, offer readers a look inside a culture that is in the headlines. It is the voice of Pakistan from within Pakistan, a fresh perspective … Mr. Mueenuddin doesn’t “research” his books. Rather, he says, they are mostly based on personal experience.

Each story is grounded in simple needs. In “A Spoiled Man,” a lonely old man lives in a portable cubicle and briefly finds happiness with a woman of limited intelligence. In the title piece, a young woman is willingly seduced by a wealthy landowner while allowing herself to imagine that she might be accepted by society. In “Lily,” a bride convinces herself that she’ll enjoy life on a Pakistani farm, only to discover she’s not the woman she thought.

These days, Mr. Mueenuddin is at work on a novel, although he’s convinced that the short story as a form is under-appreciated.

“A novel is a baggy thing with pieces hanging off,” he says. “It can have lots of extraneous bits, and it won’t destroy the form. But with a short story you only have a reader for a moment, and you need a beginning, middle and end that will be seen almost simultaneously. If you remove one line it falls apart.”

-Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg – WSJ

 

De Minnaar Van China March 1, 2009

The China Lover

 

“By the end of the three different memoirs that make up The China Lover, Shirley Yamaguchi, aka Li Xianglan, aka Ri Koran, appears to be unknowable after all — and that is just right. Our heroine is far less interesting as a person than as a personification. She is, as one of her admirers describes her, “a typical portable shrine”; and revealing how it is made has never been the point of a portable shrine. In a rare departure from his books and critical essays on film, politics, culture and current events, Buruma, a distinguished journalist-scholar and Japanophile, has crafted in The China Lover a fascinating fictional biography — not only of an iconic film star, but of film as an expression of a nation’s culture and psyche. How fitting that he has put into practice at least two of the techniques of Japanese movie-making he mentions: “keeping a distance even in scenes of great emotion” and leaving things “open-ended, like life.”     -The Washington Post

 

SantaLand… December 1, 2008

The Santa Land Diaries

“SantaLand Diaries” collects six of David Sedaris’s most profound Christmas stories into one slender volume perfect for use as a last-minute coaster or ice-scraper. This drinking man’s companion can be enjoyed by the warmth of a raging fire, the glow of a brilliantly decorated tree, or even in the back seat of a police car. It should be read with your eyes, felt with your heart, and heard only when spoken to. It should, in short, behave much like a book. And oh, what a book it is! “Acidly camp, bitchily kitsch and slickly satirical packages of out-there humour…very funny” – Sunday Times

 

It’s almost over… November 1, 2008

 

 

… and we’ve all been feeling the pain for far too long:

“George W. Bush isn’t just a nuisance, he’s a problem that afflicts nearly three out of four Americans. So if you or someone you love has a Bush problem, know this: You don’t have to face it alone. Help is within reach. With The 12-Step Bush Recovery Program, you can share in the promise of a better you, a better America, a better world, and a better solar system.”

Make sure you get your butts out there next week and vote- dammit!