Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Annabel, a book of contrasts

Full title: Annabel

Author: Kathleen Winter
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2011)
Genre: Fiction, historical
Attributes: 480 pages, hard cover

On the scale of Zero to One: Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Annabel is a very rich book, where readers are likely to lose themselves in reverie and in contemplation, and where not a single paragraph is dull. There are surprises waiting at every turn of the page. Kathleen Winter is an excellent manipulator of metaphors. She has the talent of a prestidigitator, who wields words with force and conviction.
The novel (shortlisted for Canada Reads this year) follows the growth into maturity of a “boy lost in woman,” as the author describes the protagonist. Wayne, born hermaphrodite, knows nothing about the secret buried inside his body until his adolescence makes it impossible for the secret to be preserved any longer. He finds about his androgyny via medical intervention, when he is surprised to hear that he had impregnated himself.
Because the protagonist is a person of such biological complexity, the novel as a whole opens itself to a number of other, similarly powerful, complexities. What stands out is the contrast between the winter landscapes of Labrador, where everything is white and human-less, and the urban atmosphere of the Canadian town of St. John’s, where things are coloured, boxed, entirely human. Characters in the novel experience both these sides: the white, as well as the colourful; the near, as well as the distant; the male, as well as the female.

Croydon Harbor, the fictional Labradorian village where Wayne was born,
could be very easily imagined to look like this: pristine Canadian landscape.
Source: TripAdvisor
Annabel is not a lachrymose account of the crash between genders, and neither is it a critical appraisal of the binary oppositions between biological categories. On the contrary, the author has chosen a path of quiet appreciation of the complexity existent inside the body of a single person. There are moments of tension, of course; a hermaphrodite cannot go smoothly through life. Society is not nonexistent; in fact, it kicks hard, and where it hurts. But the general feeling is that the main characters are too wise to answer with violence to any form of injustice done to them. They seem to live in a stratosphere beyond society, as some Platonic ideas that exist independent of the viciousness of human beings.
Wayne defines himself by reflecting on what he sees. And what he sees is often extremely evocative, as when he moves to St. John's and perceives for the first time the sexual division of life:
"You define a tree and you do not see what it is; it becomes its name. It is the same with woman and man. Everywhere Wayne looked there was the one or the other, male or female, abandoned by the other. The loneliness of this cracked the street in half."
All characters in Annabel are capable of such cognitive finesse. They are thoughtful: creatures made up of thoughts and words, who move through existence with firm convictions but without a strong will to leave a mark behind. They are either subjects of nature, or victims of man. This is a duplicity that summarizes everything that can be said about Annabel: that it is a book of complexities, a novel of contradictions, a text of oppositions.

Monday, 10 March 2014

What Amazon editors recommend for Spring 2014

This time I'm not exactly reviewing anything myself. I have come across this video featuring Amazon editors reviewing their favourites from the mass of new productions of Spring 2014, and I thought hey, if it doesn't cost a dime, it's right up my alley! Talking about the video, of course. For the books, unfortunately (for readers) money will be requested.

There is a lot of debut in the list: authors who publish for the first time (and what a publicity they're getting!) or authors who change the course of their usual genres.
For convenience, here's the list of books they're talking about:

Recommended by
Junot Diaz and
Glen Duncan
(Out on May 6)
Recommended by
Publishers Weekly
(out on May 6)
Recommended by
Kiera Parrott
and Carolyn Phelan
(Out on March 18)
Recommended by
John Green and
Scott Westerfeld
(Out on May 13)
Recommended by
Maria Semple and
Adriana Trigiani
(Out on May 29)

Recommended by
Anthony Bourdain and
Gary Shteyngart
(Out on April 3)
Recommended by
Jodi Picoult and
Stephen King
(Out on March 13)
Recommended by
Mari Malcolm
(Out on March 13)
Recommended by
Financial Times
(Out on July 4)

Most of these books are out between March and May this year (with the exception of The Detainee, strategically planned to be launched on 4th of July), so there's still time to think if they're worth purchasing. But some of the reviews in the clip are passionate enough to give one a tingle in the cerebellum. For those who have been persuaded, pre-orders are available, of course.
Note: the last four books in my cover list are not provided with Amazon links, so they won't feature in my 'Find Books on Amazon' list on the right hand side of this blog.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Death all over


Full title: The 6th of November
Author: Pablo Solares-Acebal
Publisher: Amazon Digital (2014)
Genre: Fiction, historical
Attributes: 134 pages, e-book

On the scale of zero to oneZERO (i.e. advance reading copy)

As I am uploading this review, the short book I am looking at is hours away from being released in the UK and Australia, in English translations, after having been publish in Spain in 2011. I am building my discussion from an advance copy received from the author himself, Pablo Solares-Acebal.
I don’t want to talk about characters or plot in this novella. They are issues easily noticeable, with their pluses and minuses. The story is situated between 1935 and 1939, during the so-called Second Spanish Republic and Spain’s Civil War, and this is enough groundwork to establish the setting and the cause of the entire narrative.
I want to talk instead about the central element in the book: Death. Death is immensely present in The 6th of November. People die and are threatened with death, they cheat death and plan the death of others, they look death in the face, they return from death to haunt the living, they are executed, tortured, martyrized, punished; they meet the dead and talk to them in ways that seem odd only in hindsight. There is a psychic who converses with the Otherworld, and there is Gloria too, a young woman the victim of a grave misunderstanding never fully resolved, who also perceives death from the perspective of an in-between. Death is so present it becomes a never-ending hallucination. So much so that Gloria, who at some point declares “I don’t understand life,” wonders what the physical form of pain may be. She finds it to be “an incandescent, fiery stone, which never loses its heat.” It’s this permanence of death that makes it central to the entire book. Through it, death becomes historical and fictional at the same time. It acquires the palpability of the everyday but at the same time works like a concept – like a myth.

The Civil War, which marked the end of the Second Spanish Republic,
provided plenty of opportunities for death to surface
Source: The Guardian & The Observer
A narrative device that must be pointed out because it comes in line with this omnipresence of death is the use of an omniscient narrator who appears in the first person but operates in the third, in other words – from outside himself. This is Don Paco, the priest in the village of Requejado. He has had access to most of the events. He can provide an objective perspective, yet he judges every event subjectively. Like all the other in-betweens in the novel, he too is an intermediary. He tries to keep events on a right track when everything seems to be crumbling around the world he and the others live in. He speaks to the major characters and knows their secrets, but he also has his own death to account for. Yet the most important thing about him is this capacity to move about, linking the actions of the other characters: his omniscience, in other words. The omniscience and omnipresence of death replicated in the omniscience and omnipresence of a character who swings invisibly between first and third person.

Monday, 3 March 2014

On self-publishing in rapid fires

Full title: Write & Sell Your Damn Book
Author: Paul Jarvis
Publisher: Paul Jarvis (2014)
Genre: Non fiction, motivational
Attributes: 55 pages (930Kb), e-book

On the scale of zero to oneZERO PLUS (i.e. bought from Amazon.com, $0.89)

To get going, one needs to get rid of certain fears and anxieties traditionally associated with publishing. This is, it appears to me, the central message of this text, half-motivational speech, half do-it-yourself philosophy.
Forget about book length, writing tools, endorsements, contracts. Forget about audience, promotion, platforms, printing, pricing, finding the right cover or the right font type. Forget about all this at least initially. At least while you proceed with the creation of the book you are going to sell. Jarvis’s advice is to make a list of all the obstacles you might foresee (and there will be many, as we know), and then simply do away with every point on that list. Because what matters is to have something to worry about rather than worrying about something you don’t have.

Traditional publishing may very well be the cause of a lot of procrastination
when it comes to writing the damn book. Penguin steps and all.
Source: The Telegraph

What Jarvis brings to the fore is a type of energy that can only reside in words. Reading the book you get to realize that every single problem has a language that can speak it. And that, to anyone who thinks about starting a venture (writerly or otherwise), is the nudge in the ribcage that gets the mechanism rolling. Everything that keeps the writer from writing is a damned handicap; and that includes overactive brains that think only in terms of worries and fears. To put it in Paul Jarvis’s words,
“If you start thinking about making your writing great or selling lots of copies, tell your brain to screw off. Any time spent not thinking about what you’re currently writing is time you’ve just wasted.”
Yes, swear if you want, along with the author. By spitting these words out you make room for others to come and inhabit your vocabulary. In doing so, you also find the way words leave – so that you can use that avenue later, when they become too much to bear and you need, indeed, to spit them out.
It comes in circles, doesn’t it?
To sum up, Jarvis’s text is short, punctilious, aphoristic, with a lot of bullet points to shoot the page for easy memorization. This is a booklet you finish in under an hour (thinking included), but which leaves you energized and, possibly, pumped up for the next writing spree. If you want to learn economy of words, this is one of the places you might want to try. The book has been designed as a series of short lessons, each lesson under five pages in length, organized for maximum gain and minimum waste of time.
“Save the flowery language for your next poetry slam, you hippie,”
the authors yells. And that means making efficiency your religion, since
“most people have almost no attention span”
and spending too much time trying to persuade them means wasting hours of your creative life.

And now I’m feeling very worried about all the extra words I’ve put in this review.