Women’s magazine quiz…

Is The Conversions by Harry Mathews the book for you? Answer the questions below to find out!

Would you relish stopping in the middle to unravel a page of code?

Can you read French?

Are you sure you don’t suffer from a psychologically unfounded abhorrence to all things Scottish?

Are you such a fan of Oulipo that you want to read a book that even subjects its characters to a constant barrage of Oulipian constraints that they need to overcome?

Do you get a sick pleasure out of reading lists (and does that mean I’m turning you on right now)?

Do you want to know what ‘recrudescence’ means?

Do you enjoy Latin wordplay?

Does metafiction make you sigh with subverted pleasure like a Victorian heroine?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all of these questions, you can borrow my copy, as long as you promise not to get upset about the scrawled “WTF”s that I have all over the margins.

(BTW, Google Books has a preview if you want to sample a chapter.)



Cover of Tirza

Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Netherlands; Open Letter Books)

Although I read Tirza (Arnon Grunberg) a few months ago, it still sits on my nightstand. It’s such a beautiful physical object, as all Open Letter Books are, that I am hesitant to move it. I appreciate that their graphic design has a timeless quality because there are some books on my shelf that definitely show their vintage. In some ways, this novel is a psychological thriller, but the artwork is not the titillating or grim imagery of a thriller. Instead it is an elegant plane, representing the plane trip that separates the two distinct portions of the novel.

The first portion concerns a party, a going-away party for the titular Tirza, daughter of Jörgen Hofmeester. Jorgen lives for his daughter; she is the center of his life, his “sun queen”. And she is leaving him, going away to travel across Africa with a boyfriend that Jorgen has never even met. Jorgen wants this party to be perfect for her. This is his last chance to attempt to be the perfect father. He deals with every setback as it comes: his estranged wife returning and behaving maudlinly, Tirza’s professor catching him half-dressed, a classmate who refuses to participate in the dancing. Meanwhile, we are in his head, watching his ego crumble under each further challenge and humiliation.

This was hard for me to get through, this being in Jorgen’s head. I become emotionally worn down by books with unpleasant characters. The only Open Letter book that I didn’t enjoy, Rupert: A Confession, had this problem. But this book was different. Jorgen always managed to pull me back in when I was slipping out of the narrative. He just tries so hard, tries, as he reiterates throughout the novel, to be a better person. This is not just 400 pages spent in an unpleasant location. It’s not watching Sisyphus give it one more go. Instead, the narration is dynamic. It constantly shifted my perspective of Jorgen and of Tirza. New elements of their relationship were constantly being revealed. I wanted to hang in there, to give Jorgen one more chance.

The latter half of the novel occurs after Tirza has left her home for her trip. This portion is more fast-paced, although I notice that some reviewers here on Goodreads disagree. Less time is spent in Jorgen’s head; instead he finally begins to reach outside of himself, to make contact with others. Much of this portion is him verbally trying to explain what happened in the first half. We finally see how he rationalizes his behavior and his thoughts. Although the portions seem radically different, they fit together snugly to give us a more complete analysis of Jorgen.

If you’re curious about if you’d enjoy this work, you can always dive right in. There’s an excerpt found on the publisher’s site.

Paprika: the rapey novel, not the spice

TLDR; conceptually interesting, but those concepts are not realized until the second half. Also, major trigger warning.

Paprika, a novel by prolific Japanese sci-fi author Yasutaka Tsutsui, is about the invention of a device to access others’ dreams. The protagonists and villains are doctors who work on psychological disorders at a cutting-edge clinic. Using the new device, they can watch a patient’s dreams and help diagnose and cure the patient’s neuroses. Of course, someone quickly realizes the power that one could wield with such a tool, as well as the fun sexual uses it could be put to, and thus conflict is introduced.

The book begins when workers at the clinic who had access to the device begin to suddenly go mad. The cause of the madness seems like it is intended to be a mystery, but the writing quickly ruins any suspense. Within a few pages a certain doctor Osanai is behaving so shadily that the reader instantly knows he is responsible for the attacks. The protagonists, meanwhile, wonder about it for another 100 pages or so while the reader has ceased to care. All potential points of interest are dismissed in this fashion. Why is this other fellow acting so villainous? No use wondering for long, because soon someone remembers his entire backstory in one quick paragraph, tidily handing him a motive. When a powerful, new version of the device, the DC Mini, goes missing and the characters urgently need to find it, they muse about where it is but don’t actively search for it. No need; when the time is right one of them just finds it in a pocket where they had placed it and forgotten it.

It’s a shame that a book about the amazing ability to enter another person’s dreams spends over half of its text with mysteries that never have a chance to be mysterious and boring anxieties about who is offending whom in the Japanese workplace. The second half finally indulges in the possibilities the technology offers. Part 2 opens with the history of a strange European sex cult and then launches into a long series of chases through nightmares, with all of the fantasy and physics-defiance that the reader had long been waiting for. The writing is still shoddy, but there is enough distracting action to make it delightful nonetheless.

There is one aspect to the book that I know some would describe as being independent of its literary merits, but which has a significant impact on whether or not I am able to enjoy a book. I know that I am not the only one in this. This aspect is rape. Rape here, rape there, rape everywhere. The rape in this book is unique in that the violence is not the horrifying aspect; rather, it is written such that the main female character, Dr. Atsuko/Paprika, more often than not semi-consents to the rape, as paradoxical as that sounds. In one instance, she even insists that she needs to be raped to save her life. Discussing this with others, we could not decide if literally asking for rape even qualified as rape anymore, but that’s how it is described within the novel. The book devolves into hentai on more occasions than the narrative requires and if I wasn’t reading it for review I would have stopped at the first disgusting ecchi-fanboy moment. And that’s not even getting into the other questionable decisions the author made in regards to how he portrays Dr. Atsuko, such as the fact that despite being a Nobel-nominated scientist, all people care about is her vagina and how she looks.

Despite my reservations about this novel, I know there are several people out there who would enjoy it, like people who read Palhaunik for his edginess. The chase scenes are fun, the science is fantastic, but the book is horribly, horribly flawed.

Tejis part 1

This is part of a series in which I attempt to eat all of the vegetarian items on the Teji’s menu.

I will try to restrain myself from making extraneous comments about their slow service and how their waiters are snippy and refuse to just write down the item number and how I’ve had to wait an hour for an appeti–oh, I forgot. No comments about the slow service.

Egg Curry — This is suspiciously listed as a meat entree. I am hoping that is because the owners have a more realistic definition of vegetarian than most Americans and not because there is some sneaky meaty in there. I don’t want to have to delete this blog post in shame when I discover that my favorite item is actually my favorite because it was murdered.

The egg curry is three slightly overboiled eggs in a red curry sauce. It’s supposedly the “standard” curry sauce, but if you get their mixed vegetable curry (which is not actually on the menu! WHY?!!) you will see that that curry is a much lighter color. Again, that makes me suspicious about what hidden ingredients comprise this tasty, tasty sauce. It is rich and creamy and slightly spicy.

Dal Makhni — This one is also delicious but slightly suspicious. It is listed as vegan but is described as “buttery”. I am not sure if it includes actual butter, but the description is apt. If this is vegan, it surely must be the least healthy vegan lentil dish on the planet. There is no way something can taste so rich and creamy and be good for you.

Navrattan Korma — Oh, korma. Textbook korma, made with a nutty, often vegan sauce, is my favorite Indian dish. Clay Pit’s korma seems to be made with heavy cream, however, which is an abomination. Teji’s korma is not an abomination, not even a travesty. At most I would call it “misstep.” The primary flavoring and thickener seems to be butter. It’s even the color of butter, which follows the trend of suspicious food items, because the lamb korma appears to be a completely different color.

Bainghan Bharta — This eggplant dish is flavorful but difficult to eat. Imagine roasted eggplant roughly mashed with typical Indian spices. Delicious, right? Now imagine trying to eat it with a fork.

Malai Kofta — This dish uses the tikka masala base, which is tasty but is probably 50% cream. Into that base go fried potato-cheese balls. This will be the cause of death listed in your obituary, but damn is it delicious.

Samosa — Their samosas are typical, yummy, and reasonably priced. Definitely the best appetizer choice on the Guadalupe menu.

Bonda Potato Ball — Imagine a less spicy, more awkwardly shaped samosa. Imagine trying to fit an item the size of a tennis ball into a chutney cup the diameter of a quarter.

Pappadam — This has been the biggest let down so far. The pappadam at their Round Rock location are flavored with fennel seeds and are complimentary with every meal. The ones at the Guadalupe location are flavored with grease and took 20 minutes to be delivered to my table. (Sorry, I forgot again!)

Naan — Teji’s has the best naan in Austin. The serving size is equivalent to a small pizza, and is beautifully charred and pillowy. The regular naan is my favorite; don’t succumb to the siren song of the other fancy flavors.

Garlic Naan — See naan, above. Teji’s naan is amazing, but the garlic naan reminded me too much of American garlic bread.

Onion Kulcha — A.K.A. onion naan. The onions split apart the dough, making it harder to tear off a piece that is adequate for scooping up curry.

Paratha — A thicker wheat bread. Imagine a thick tortilla. I am usually a fan of paratha, but I found this one a bit less flavorful than the paratha I personally make a home. The masala potato stuffing is either not noticeable or non-existent.

The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers is the story of “Reno” (not her real name) as she tries to go from small town western gal to big city artist. She moves to New York City after graduation from her small art program and lives on her own, imagining all of the excitement that she will have once she finds a crowd and fits in. Eventually she does find that crowd, a crowd that is coincidentally perfect for her. It just so happens that she loves motorcycles and Italian and wants to create land art. She is “discovered” by Sandro Valera, accomplished artist and Italian heir to a motorcycle mogul. Oh, and he has an interest in land art. And an interest in beautiful younger women. He sweeps her into the 70s New York art scene, and later, accidentally into the radical elements of Italy during the country’s Years of Lead. Think the Red Brigade and molotov cocktails that utilize espresso makers.

The plot is at times thrilling, at other times simply heady as you get to peep behind the curtains at late 70s evenings at the Chelsea Hotel, at the kind of games that drunk artsy people play. There are also moving scenes of the American west and a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Italy. If there’s one thing this novel has it’s enjoyable, if dark, escapist fun.

What I didn’t enjoy, initially, was the narration. The book is mostly told from the first person point of view of Reno, except for a few exceptional chapters primarily told from the point of view of Sandro’s father. Reno’s point of view was full of pithy M.F.A. aphorisms that were far too clever. I only have the experience of my own mind to pull from, but in my experience, my running narration is more like, “Wow, I’m bored. I wonder what’s for dinner. I kind of need to pee. No, I’ll wait until this episode of the West Wing is over.” Beautiful, deep-sounding interior dialogue from characters is one of my pet peeves and this book was strong in that area. Let’s just say I think that next year, this will be a primary candidate for the Tournament of Books.

I got over my problem with the narration as I got deeper into the plot. As she entered Sandro’s alternate universe, she became an observer, giving up herself to simply try to absorb whatever magic these artists had that allowed them to just be so cool. She began relaying more of their dialogue, more physical observations, and I was able to sink in. I began to remember similar good times in my life, I began to let my pet peeves go . But this is when my deeper problem with the narration became evident. I knew everything the narrator thought about everything and I knew the things she loved, but I didn’t know her. I didn’t even know her name. I didn’t know how people thought of her, I didn’t know how she reacts in social situations. She says what the other characters tell her but she does not give response. Is she rude? Talkative? Shy? She presents herself as an emotional blank slate. Usually this is a writerly technique to allow the reader to imprint themselves upon the character and deepen their sympathies. Except it doesn’t work in this case. Reno is so strongly defined by her hobbies and her background. Even her moniker derives directly from one of the elements that makes her unique. It’s hard to slip myself into her leather jacket.

So what we get is a book about political action where the heroine appears to have no political feeling. And maybe she doesn’t and that’s the point. A point I miss because I can only ever see her actions obliquely, so I have to imprint my personality on her, and I could never ever be apathetic. Apathy is a prerequisite in her art crowd. She implies that she is only feigning it, but it is hard to tell because she’s gotten so good.

Despite my complaints herein, I still give the book 4 stars. There is absurdity and humor and warmth. And violence. The moments of violence punctuating the novel are beautifully written and make the diffidence of the narration seem more purposeful. The characters don’t care for the world, but the world keeps asking them to care. With muggings and rape and attack dogs. This dissonance is what makes the novel powerful.