Tenth of December by George Saunders – A Review

Tenth of December
George Saunders
Random House, 2013, pg 251

It has been some time since I’ve read a book of short stories from an American writer and enjoyed them. For some reason I’ve had some back luck-that and I’m tired of reading about middle class problems, or, at least, the ones that I find when I read short stories. Which is not to say Sanders avoids these themes but Tenth of December takes some more interesting approaches to the avoids the easy outs and self satisfying conclusions and takes his narratives in different directions. He, too, uses a good dose of humor and the fantastical to flip what otherwise might be conventional into something perceptive.

The first in that line is the opening story, Victory Lap, which uses a multiple points of view to describe an attempted abduction. What makes the story worth reading is the different voices he uses, especially the boy who has been so smothered as he has grown up that he doesn’t have any idea how to make a decision of his own. When he finally decides to save the young girl who is about to be raped he can’t avoid thinking about his parent’s rules:

Then he was running. Across the lawn. Oh God! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating! Running in the yard (bad for the sod);

And they go on that for sometime in a humorously panicked tone that at once makes fun of the parents and turns a story of heroism into a critique of it. The humor, the sharp edge that can descend easily into disrespect, is handled well in Tenth of December. And while the stories always have a knowing wink from Saunders, as if he knows this is all just a bit ridiculous, it doesn’t ruin them.

He is at his most successful when he keeps closest to the little defeats and accidents of everyday life, pulling from those the absurdity that is masked behind the common place. In the The Semplica Girl Diaries he creates a family that is trying to keep up with its neighbors, spending all its money on appearances. While it sounds familiar, there is something obscure, just off page, that is swirling around the family. The statues that they have bought, just like the ones everyone else has, have disappeared and now the family is at risk of arrest. Using the fantastical, the statues are more than stone ad to have let one escape is dangerous. It is in this play between the desire to keep up with your neighbors, the purchase of what ostensibly are tacky garden decorations, and the sentient statutes, that makes the story resonate with the absurdities and traumas of the lower middle class. Certainly, there is a lightness to the story, no dirty realism here, but that is what makes it refreshing.

The lightness comes at the expense of knowing the characters. Saunders is not necessarily a character driven writer but most of the stories in the collection revolve around their inner lives. Al Roosten is the best at looking inside the desperation of a man who doesn’t quite have it together, but is holding on as best he can. It is an internal monolog full of the desperate tropes that people use to convince themselves everything will turn out alright. Of course, for Roosten it probably won’t. Yet the story has a charm that keeps it from the looserus americanus style of writing. Roosten is human, his decisions are not fiat-acomplie, but the uncertain steps of a man who doesn’t know where he is going.

The sense that the characters don’t know exactly know where they are going gives Saunders a touch, not of hope, but an openness that evades the frivolous that is always wanting to enter his stories. He keeps that at bay by holding his characters close and giving them a life that resonates still, despite the absurdities that happen. I would like a little more complexity in his work, a deeper play amongst his character’s thoughts, but what he has on display here is still significantly interesting.



Jorge Volpi Has a New Book

The Mexican author Jorge Volpi has a new novel, Memorial del engaño (The Memorial of a Fraud). It is a political-economic novel with various narrative games, including the use of an alternate J. Volpi as narrator.

Así, la novela no la escribe él, sino un tal J. Volpi, nacido en Nueva York en 1953 y no en México, en 1968; y no es un reconocido escritor, sino el fundador y director general de JV Capital Management, en paradero desconocido y prófugo de la justicia tras defraudar 15.000 millones de dólares en 2008. El estafador ha entregado una especie de memorias a su agente literario A. W., seguro el temible Andrew Wylie (exagente real del Volpi escritor), que ha dado pie a este trepidante relato, con traducción de un tal Gustavo Izquierdo y precedido por entusiastas críticas de supuestos grandes expertos internacionales que se reflejan en la contraportada y en las solapas del volumen.


La génesis de Memorial del engaño es triple, lo que se refleja en otras tantas líneas del relato, construido con estructura de ópera. Por un lado, la crisis de 2008 que se inició con la caída de Lehman Brothers: “No sabía que no iba a golpear a México, pero como he vivido ya tantas crisis, quería entender qué pasaba; luego ya la viví en directo en Madrid entre 2011 y 2012”. El segundo incentivo fue conocer la historia de Harry Dexter White, creador del Fondo Monetario Internacional, pero que fue llevado ante el Comité de Actividades Antinorteamericanas acusado de espiar para la Unión Soviética.

La tercera pata es la más literaria: “Me interesan los engaños familiares y la relación padres-hijos”, dice el Volpi escritor, marcado por “el carácter poderoso pero a la vez frágil” de su progenitor. Por ello hace que su Volpi financiero vague por la obra buscando a su padre, en una estructura que recuerda la del mítico Pedro Páramo de Juan Rulfo: la madre que cuenta al hijo sobre el padre y este sale en su búsqueda. “Mi Volpi engaña toda la vida, pero al final él es el engañado”, resume.

I’m always a little doubtful about his political novels but, still, it sounds interesting. The more I see his canon I think he is the heir of Fuentes.

April Words Without Borders: Writing from South Korea Out Now

The April Words Without Borders: Writing from South Korea is out now:

This month we’re spotlighting South Korea. Although the country is among the ten largest book markets in the world, relatively few of its writers have been translated into English, and many emerging writers were largely unknown outside South Korea. Kyung-sook Shin’s Man Asian Prize sparked new interest and contributed to the increased visibility of the country’s thriving literary culture. The writers here, ranging from the perennial Nobel nominee Ko Un to the precocious Ae-ran Kim, demonstrate the depth and variety of contemporary South Korean literature. Kyung-sook Shin follows a lovesick young soldier. Ae-ran Kim’s disaffected teen tries to escape her battling parents, as Kim Young-ha goes in search of an absent father. Han Kang’s enigmatic wife gives up meat and sex. Han Yujoo mourns a death and battles writer’s block. Park Min-gyu and Yi Mun-yol find their workplaces transformed. In a poem from his multivolume epic Ten Thousand Lives, Ko Un depicts the human side of history. In other poetry, Shim Bo-seon yearns for magic, Kim Sa-in reminisces, Kim Soo-Bok reflects on fertility and the sea, and Jeong Ho-seung books a trip to hell. We thank the Literature Translation Institute of Korea for its generous support, and our advisors Martin Alexander and Sora Kim-Russell.

Elsewhere, we present poetry by two exiled writers, Iraqi Manal Al-Sheikh and Palestinian Mazen Maarouf, as well as the sixth and final installment of Sakumi Tayama’s tale of an accidental medium.

Going to the Emerald City Comic Con

I read comics as a kid, mostly war. As an adult I read graphic novels from authors like Joe Sacco. Sure, I know who most of the big name super heroes are and I’ve seen more than my share of Star Trek, but superheros, sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming are not really my thing. Superheroes have always bored me: they always seem to be defeating an arch villain while spouting angst ridden thought bubbles wondering if they are strong enough, good enough, and not too much of a freak. I don’t mind a few who do this, Spider Man I’m looking at you, but every time I turn the page of a super hero comic I’m bored. So that I would go to the Emerald City Comic Con might seem a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always been curious and supposedly as someone who makes a living from programming I’m bombarded by my supposed interest in all things geek.

The first thing that struck me was at 10 AM the crowd of people to get in was enormous. I’ve been to big events before but I’d never seen that many people stuffed into a convention center. I was always bumping against people or close to, especially in the exhibition hall. The hall, as in most conferences, was the hub of everything and for someone who doesn’t buy much of what is on display at a comic con it was like going to a mall and not wanting to buy anything. The reality is I spent half of my time window shopping. Fortunately comics are books and I do like to flip through them, especially the different graphic novels, many of which were more geared towards fantasy and heroic, but interesting nonetheless. Of course, I paid a visit to Fantagraphic Books the local Seattle publisher of graphic novels and whose editions I own, and added to there. Perhaps the most interesting of it all were all the comic shop stores with their wares. Yet as much as I leafed through the books looking at issues of Sgt. Rock or GI Combat I’d read (yes, I still could recognize some) and those I had not, I didn’t know what I’d do with any of them if I were to buy them. It was a pleasant entertainment to  browse through them, nostalgic, almost.

What fascinated me the most, though, and what makes the fandom that goes to a comic con so interesting is the loyalty mixed with commerce. For $40 dollars average you could get an autograph of a star, the same for a photo with said star, and for around $20 a sketch or a drawing from one of your favorite artists. That same loyalty is found in the celebrity panels when the audience would come up and ask questions. You could see that many of them didn’t want just an inside story from behind the scenes they wanted to continue their immersive experience where what they love can expand the limits of its genre, whether it be the page or a 45 minute episode, and become larger than just a product, but a living thing that they too have interacted with physically. If you can buy that drawing, which to my mind was the best of the celebrity deals, you, the artist, the work, and you are just that much closer. As a prose writer I’m actually a little envious this. Sure I have signed books but there seems to be a more intense devotion here, or better said, a more wide spread devotion.

They did have enough panels I went to fit my. One on publishing contracts, on on Fantagraphic Books, and the requisite Star Trek actor appearance from John de Lance, Q. His was funny and had the perfect mix of insider information for the fan and enough distance to make fun of the fandom in a way that the fans enjoyed.

In all I found the experience fun and surprisingly entertaining enough to keep me going for the day. Three days? Perhaps not, but it was definitely worth the experience.

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War – A Review

The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War
Peter Englund

Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War is the history of World War I told from the perspective of 20 average participants. Combing the diaries, letters, and published memoirs of soldiers and civilians alike, he eschews a military history that focuses on generals, or even those in command  and lets these usually unheard voices speak. For good and for bad, this is not exactly an oral history, but history focused on the participants. I was actually a little disappointed by the lack of quotes. Englund will take short quotes from the participants, but he prefers to summarize the participant’s experience and place it within the larger context of the battle or event they were participating in. It makes for a very readable history, but looses some of the character that might have come if he’d given us larger quotes. This is especially true with the lives of the soldiers on the eastern front who are seldom heard from. In his defense, I once read the journal of Dr. Harvey Cushing (From A Surgeon’s Journal) one of the participants he follows and it was a little dull in parts. That said, The Beauty and the Sorrow offers a different, and much need, way to look at the experience of World War I. Englund is adept at blending the big picture with the personal narratives of the participants. What is paramount in any history in this style is if the writer can capture some of the motivations of the participants. In this he has succeed quite well. The motivations are often quite conflicted. The young Dane Andersen who is conscripted by the Germans is not really interested in the war and would like to miss the whole thing. Whereas the young sailor in the German navy is completely frustrated by the lack of action and the great class divide between the officers and the men. What might strike one is that only there of these participants die, but more to the point, few fight in the famous battles of any of the fronts. Perhaps it’s because not as many survived or they did not present enough of a rounded account. Englund’s focus is the breadth of the war, from France to Italy to Russia to Africa to the Ottoman Empire he wants to show that it is more than a war of the trenches. Ultimately, a reader will come away not with the full horror of the war, but an understanding of the personal costs, in both life, property, and most importantly, optimism, that they paid. No one leaves the war untouched, even the Venezuelan adventure seeker who witnesses the anti-christian killing in Turkey nor the British Victory Cross winner who Englund paints as someone who actually likes the war. I wouldn’t recommend this as a first look at the war, but it is certainly a solid addendum to other histories, especially if they only focus on strategy and the trenches.

The Future of the Novel: Spanish Language Writers Interviewed

El Pais has an article that asks Spanish Writers what the future of the Novel is:

Uno de los escritores que hace seis años señaló al horizonte fue el mexicano Jorge Volpi. Él empieza a despejar ese territorio al decir que “hoy los escritores de América Latina ya no parecen obligados a tocar ciertos temas (o a usar ciertos recursos formales). No hay una deontología crítica que indique sobre qué escribir o sobre qué no escribir. De allí una variedad inusitada de temas y estilos”. Pero antes de cualquier otra cosa, el agente literario Guillermo Schavelzon recomienda que “en algún momento habrá que dejar de hablar de los autores latinoamericanos como si fueran un conjunto o tuvieran una identidad común. Comparten —con variantes— la lengua, pero su voz y su mundo es muy diferente”.

Javier Cercas no se considera un escritor español sino en español. Para él la narrativa latinoamericana también es su narrativa, y su tradición, cuenta, “se ha enriquecido extraordinariamente en el último medio siglo, porque lo que ha ocurrido en ese lapso en Latinoamérica es lo mejor que le ha ocurrido a la narrativa en español desde Cervantes”.

Luego vino ese florecer de la literatura española de los ochenta que permite a José-Carlos Mainer, crítico, escritor y catedrático español, asegurar que “después del gran giro narrativo internacional de los años ochenta, los escenarios son urbanos y los protagonistas, perplejos, complicados y un poco culpables. Y, muy a menudo, tratan de indagar en el pasado cercano que creó un presente tan incómodo. O buscan implícitamente el diálogo y la confrontación con las generaciones precedentes por la vía del reproche, de la aceptación o del redescubrimiento de la verdad”.

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front – A Review

A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 Tragedy and Triumph on the Western Front
Winston Groom

I never imagined I would read a book by the author of Forest Gump, let alone liking it, but Winston Groom’s history of the Ypres Salient in World War I is a good readable account of the battles in Flanders. I’m not going to spend much time detailing the history, but briefly, the Ypres Salient was a battle field in Flanders, Belgium near the Flemish city of Ypres, now called Iper. There were three battles there of the course of the war, the third and most famous also known as Passchendaele. The second battle gave us the first use of poison gas in battle, a lamentable first. It is also where Adolph Hitler served. As a reader of military history I’m not particularly interested in tactics and evaluations of strategy. Yes, that is part of military history and I’m aware of the importance, but it is the experience of the soldiers and what it was really like that interests me most. In this regard, Groom does an excellent job in describing what it was like there. I think his novelist’s eye helps him as he describes in great detail the mud, the battle conditions, especially how the dead and parts of the dead, were left everywhere. How the constant shelling made for several hundred casualties per day. This is during the calm times. His descriptions of the warfare that happened amongst the tunneling squads that were digging under the German lines to lay mines is particularly horrific. There were whole companies below ground digging huge tunnels all the while the Germans were listening for them, hoping to find them, breakthrough the tunnel and start fighting. The mines that were laid at Ypres were perhaps the most emblematic of the war and had the greatest success in immobilizing the German lines. Putting a million pounds of explosives under the German lines is an impressive and terrifying feat. When it comes to describing the generalship, he is definitely impressed with Plummer and not Haig. Since I find Haig wanting, I don’t have much to quibble with here, and as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t an area I’m particularly interested in. While the book is very good at describing the overall shape of the battles and the experience of the soldiers, he does leave the battle to occasionally give context. While these aren’t bad digressions, I’m not sure he really needed to to that. My only other real issue is the lack of end notes. However, since this isn’t aiming to be a scholarly work, I’m not going to hold it against him.

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