New To Our Shelves

Here’s a handy roundup of some of the new Spring titles adorning our shelves, featuring two works in translation from Wakefield Press, a brand-new installment for all you Struggle fans, and an audacious reinvention of a classic tale.

New Books 01

“The Pig is the Sun….” So begins Oskar Panizza’s outrageously heretical and massively erudite essay on the pig, originally published in 1900 in his journal Zurich Discussions. Moving from the Rig Veda to the Edda to Ovid, from the story of Tristan and Isolde to Nordic celebrations of Christmas, from Grimms’ fairytales to Swedish folklore to Judeo-Egyptian dietary restrictions, the author contends, through painstakingly philological argumentation, that the miraculous swine occupies a central, celestial position as the life-giving force animating the entire universe, usurping the place of God as the beginning and end of all things.

This fierce fable of childbirth by German Surrealist Unica Zürn was written after she had already given birth to two children and undergone the self-induced abortion of another in Berlin in the 1950s. Beginning in the relatively straightforward, if disturbing, narrative of a young woman in a tower (with a bat in her hair and ravens for company) engaged in a psychic war with the parasitic son in her belly, The Trumpets of Jericho dissolves into a beautiful nightmare of hypnotic obsession and mythical language, stitched together with anagrams and private ruminations. Arguably Zürn’s most extreme experiment in prose, and never before translated into English, this novella dramatizes the frontiers of the body–its defensive walls as well as its cavities and thresholds–animating a harrowing and painfully honest depiction of motherhood as a breakdown in the distinction between self and other, transposed into the language of darkest fairy tales.

New Books 02

The much-anticipated fifth book of Knausgaard’s powerful My Struggle series is written with tremendous force and sincerity. As a nineteen-year-old, Karl Ove moves to Bergen and invests all of himself in his writing. But his efforts get the opposite effect—he wants it so much that he gets writer’s block. We raved about the first book in this series, and can’t wait to read this penultimate volume.

  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; a work by Fiona Banner, with photographs by Paolo Pellegrin

For the latest in the Four Corners Familiars series, artist Fiona Banner recasts Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness as a luxury magazine with new photographs by Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin. First published in 1899, Heart of Darkness is a story of trade and corruption that proceeds from a boat moored on the banks of the Thames into the heart of the Congo. For her new edition, Banner commissioned Pellegrin, a conflict photographer who has worked extensively in the Congo, to photograph London’s financial center, its streets and trading floors, its costumes and strip clubs―the City of London as seen by a veteran war photographer. The collaboration between Banner and Pellegrin emerged from an initial invitation from Peer, London, to work with the collection of the Archive of Modern Conflict; a selection of Pellegrin’s images are now part of the Archive, filed under “Heart of Darkness, 2014.”

Tuesday Tidbits

Here’s a little link love for y’all on this hot and humid Tuesday:

  • Big BrotherLionel Shriver’s new novel, Big Brother, is getting mixed reviews. The book is a fictionalized account of Shriver’s struggle to “rescue” her obese brother, who died of a heart attack in 2009 (just days after Shriver published this article about their relationship). It sounds like a… tricky subject for a novel, and reactions to the book have been decidedly mixed. While the Telegraph’Elena Seymenliyska gives Big Brother high marks for originality and sensitivity, John Crace of the Guardian takes great delight in skewering it in six-hundred acerbic words, and Zoe Williams calls it “more an exorcism of guilt than a functioning novel.” Meanwhile, the Independent’s Carole Angier declares that while Shriver is “wonderful at the things she is always wonderful at,” like pace and plot, the novel’s unreliable narrator is ultimately “annoying” and self-defeating. As always, such conflicting reviews make me extra keen to read the novel myself and pick a side. (BTW, this review in the Age wins the Best Title award.)
  • In an essay in the Guardian, Kathryn Heyman asks why there are so few women in the London Review of Books and is told by the Review’s editors that… it’s complicated. Hardly, she retorts:

By publishing a literary journal with about 70% male contributors in every edition, the implicit message is that male writing is better than female writing. If you believe this to be the case, have the courage of your convictions and admit it, so that we can acknowledge what the argument really is. If however, you believe that women writers are equal to male writers, then try harder. It isn’t complicated. It’s simple.

  • Want to save yourself the price of a movie ticket? Avoid Sofia Coppola’s latest deep-as-an-eyeshadow-pan music video movie, The Bling Ring, and instead check out Nancy Jo Sales’ “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” the Vanity Fair essay on which the movie is based. (Fun fact: the burglarizing brats had to break into Paris Hilton’s house five times before she noticed anything was missing.)
  • KanyeKanye West uttered some sublime nonsense in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago; this slideshow reminds us he has been full of (genius) wind for a long, long time. As the Man himself says, “Damn Ye, it’d be stupid to diss you / Even your superficial raps is super-official.”
  • In the Philadelphia Review of Books, esteemed Malvern pal Lee Klein has published a thoughtful review of the second volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle series. I’m halfway through the book and finding it every bit as riveting and astounding as its predecessor.

Assorted Astonishments

Here we have a grab bag of artsy bits and bobs for your mid-week delectation. First up, if you live in New York, you should hurry along to the loveliest space in the city, Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, to check out this galloping wonder:

Dancing, noise-making horses in Vanderbilt Hall! Artist Nick Cave (this guy, not this one) creates soundsuits, full-body costumes that make music when you wriggle about. His first soundsuits were made out of twigs:


And then he moved on to space costumes and furry friends:

Soundsuits-Space Soundsuits-Hair

Here’s Cave talking about how the soundsuits came to be:

These look so joyous and silly, and are quite possibly the best thing you could encounter on your lunch-break stroll through Grand Central. Be sure to take a friend, or befriend a stranger, so you can trade secrets (or proposals) at the whispering gallery in front of the Oyster Bar.

Next up: the Northern Lights. Karl Ove Knausgaard has written a short and lovely essay to accompany Simon Norfolk’s photo series, “The Magical Realism of Norwegian Nights”:

Northern LightsOh, that Arctic light, how concisely it delineates the world, with what unprecedented clarity: the sharp, rugged mountains against the clear blue sky, the green of the slopes, the small boats chugging in or out of the harbor, and onboard, the huge codfish from the depths, with their grayish-white skin and yellow eyes staring vacantly, or on the drying racks, where they hung by the thousands, slowly shriveling for later shipment to the southern lands. Everything was as sharp as a knife.

We love Knausgaard, and Simon Norfolk is well worth checking out, too. He’s best known for his eerie photographs of war zones and supercomputers: in this interview, he describes war photography as documenting “the military sublime.”

simon norfolk

And finally, from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (a book my father has read six times, and can quote from at length, which is what makes Christmas dinner such a special occasion in our household), a few words on the astonishing atom:

Atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so anatomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis.)

It Beats For As Long As It Can

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is an embarrassing book to read on the train—I kept expecting an elderly woman in a fur coat to hiss “Nazi filth!” at me—but it’s well worth the potential commuting debacle. Here are the first few lines:

My StruggleFor the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body’s lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin, as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain.

It’s good to head into the weekend with a cheery reminder that death is imminent, no? And that’s what My Struggle is, really: reading this 430-page autobiography is like sticking a giant post-it note to your fridge with YOU WILL DIE scrawled on it in night-black sharpie. (If you’re headed to a baby shower tomorrow, it would make an excellent gift.)

Here’s the plot summary, booming movie trailer style: Ten years ago, novelist Karl Knausgaard’s father drank himself to death… now watch as our hero struggles to avoid his father’s fate! Can he put down the bottle and pick up a pen? Will he ever find peace of mind? (Cue shot of thirty-something man slouched at desk, eyes darting furiously between Jack Daniel’s in left hand and ballpoint in right hand.)

Knausgaard is Norwegian, and handsome in that tedious “beardy literary bloke who listens to Bach while chopping wood and thinking mean thoughts about his third wife” kind of way. In Norway he is apparently very famous and much gossiped about, and this book is a source of controversy because the various people mentioned in it are real and identifiable and perhaps not so thrilled with their roles. But, happily, we get to read his autobiography in translation, out of pop-cultural context, and can avoid having to think too hard about whether or not Knausgaard has been fair or decent. He’s just been excellent.

He eschews irony. He’s both weepy and unflinching. You know the old deathbed cliché of one’s life flashing before one’s eyes? That’s what My Struggle feels like: an entire life recalled at the moment of death, a flickering moment that somehow lasts forever and encompasses everything: the big deals—despair; heartbreak—and the tiniest details—the smell of your mother’s dressing gown and those rippling bands of shadow on your childhood ceiling and all that other maudlin minutiae that reduces you to tears in an instant.

But if I’m making it sound like kind of… a drag, it’s not. It’s a page turner to rival the very best Ruth Rendell, and for much the same reason: death is coming. There’s page after page of teenage ephemera—cigarettes and guitars and hanging around in the fields at night—and countless glimpses of a distant, terrifying father, a father encountered briefly in the hallway, or spotted through a window, and it all goes on for an eternity and yet somehow it’s the most thrilling thing I’ve read in ages because death is lurking in every syllable. You know you are galloping towards a shit-smeared couch, a filthy house of empty bottles, a body on a slab. As James Wood writes in his New Yorker review, “even when I was bored, I was interested.”

It’s a mad, Proustian project, and one that spans six volumes, so after you put down Book One and have a good weep and add draw up will and skydiving lessons? to your To Do list and write YOLO! on your Facebook wall, you can commence getting on with your life, safe in the knowledge that by the time you’ve restored your complacency and filled your days to bursting with arguments about whose turn it is to do the laundry, Karl Knausgaard will be back to remind you YOU WILL DIE.