Two Bibliovores Review the Year’s Obsessions

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John Brisker and I are standing in a small, one-room library. The room is filled with all the books the two of us have read in 2017, along with a beautiful coffee barista standing in the corner next to an espresso machine whose curling steam makes her look like a genie. An array of fragile chinoiserie lines the walls. I feel struck by a sense of vertigo and grab Brisker by the shoulder. “Is this really happening?” I ask. “Yeah man,” he replies coolly, “we’re just doing this for your website. What’s wrong with you?” I look around the room, spotting all the familiar book spines. “John, I think you and I have a problem,” I say, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” “Speak for yourself,” Brisker replies, “I keep telling you I don’t drink coffee.” I laugh and begin to survey the shelves. I go to reach for one of Brisker’s Don Winslow titles when I almost trip over something at my feet. Looking down, I see a glowing, semi-transparent stack of books on the floor. “Hey, it’s that weird Thomas Pynchon book I only read the first couple pages of!” The more we look at them the faster the stacks seem to multiply infinitely. “These are all the books we meant to read, wanted to read, or started to read but never finished,” Brisker says. They glare at me like accusations. “Hmm, this is making me feel guilty and unfulfilled,” I sigh. “I really WAS going to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie over the summer.” Brisker looks at the barista conspiratorially and rolls his eyes. “Look, we came here to talk about the books we DID read,” he says. “What’s up with this Calvino you’ve been talking about?”

Julian’s Book #1

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino

The absolute best way I can describe If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is storytelling on acid (in the most laudable way possible). It’s not so much that Calvino wrote a story consisting of stories within stories, or even the fact that the premise of a biblio-conspiracy leading to falsified texts is dizzyingly impressive…it’s the sense you get that the writer, cloistered within his illusions, has somehow tapped into the collective mineral-stream of storytelling itself, unbound by personal limitations.

Every aborted story is beyond good; they are stories that may as well have existed for eons, impeccable in formula and execution. All of them are broken off at a key climax in the plot, a cruel flourish that finds its facsimile in Escher’s winding staircases interrupted in mid-air. The miracle is that Calvino has built a palace from these structures, and what a beautiful palace it is! Who am I, a mere library tourist, to critique such otherworldly architecture?

I like this idea that all great writers through time are truly one writer, and if that’s the case it’s fair to say that Calvino is some kind of literary bodhisattva. He’s calculatingly cerebral like Borges and uses language as a paintbrush like Nabokov. His craft, unlike other laborers in letters such as Updike, presents itself as effortless. Technique and imagination have in no other writer I’ve read been so felicitously wedded.

Brisker’s Book #1

Dom kommer drunkna i sina mödrars tårar by Johannes Anyuru

 So yeah, I would go Doom’s The Missing Notebooks Rhymes, then A Tribe Called Qu…oh that’s right, we are ranking books.  Then my first pick is a book that came out in the beginning of 2017 by Johannes Anyuru; a translation of it is supposedly ongoing and will come out under the title The Rabbit Yard, named after a housing project/concentration camp in the book.
The original title in direct translation to English would be They Will Drown In Their Mothers’ Tears. It centers around a terrorist attack that takes place in Sweden. One of the protagonists survives and gets admitted to a psychiatric ward where she requests to come into contact with a Muslim author she knows about. This author has an uncanny resemblance to the author of the book, who through extremely skillful writing manages to insert himself in the fictional story and at the same time assures the reader that it can’t be him.
The patient tells the author that she actually comes from the future, a very dark dystopian future where religious minorities are forced to sign contracts promising to live by the norms and morals of the country (read: white minority’s definition of norms and morals) and those that don’t comply get subjected to 1982-like torture in concentration camps in order to fall in line.
With Islamophobia being a current topic that needs to be understood for what it is, this book will be very important for people living in the West who have to deal with this question. The book is winning awards left and right as the year comes to a close and it’s one that I will definitely also read in English as soon as it comes out.
Julian’s Book #2

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The NBA has a lot of amazing basketball players, but it only has a handful of truly great players. The more you watch these players, the more you realize their greatness affords them a sort of impunity against the standard rules. If anyone else took as many steps as Lebron just did, it’s a traveling violation. But Lebron? Nope. The whistles are more silent than American streets during Easter mass.

Murakami treats the standard rules and mores of plot the same way Lebron interprets NBA laws for dribbling a basketball. Put simply, he’s too great to be bothered with trivialities. Plot is wet clay in Murakami’s paws. When you’re writing a 600-page Japanese episde of The Twilight Zone, does it really matter?

Wind-Up Bird is without question the weirdest novel I’ve ever read, but the Murakami curse ensures that the story is equally addicting. I dare you to stop reading after 100 pages. And when I say weird, I’m talking Eyes-Wide-Shut-meets-Inception-in-Tokyo kind of weird. The book requires a trip-sitter. Lost cats, lost wives, clairvoyant prostitutes, harrowing war stories, a sociopathic media darling, transdimensional sex, deep wells and casual tripsinto the astral plane–that’s right, everything you know means nothing.

Can the same be said for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? It really depends on you. Personally I think it helps if you see Toru’s burlesque journey as a kind of hero’s initiation. Or maybe you’re being initiated into a form of plot previously unknown to readers everywhere. WHO KNOWS.

Brisker’s Book #2

Bilal by Fabrizio Gatti

So definitely Jordan 1s first, then…wait, what? Books? Ok! (The barista flips a palm up in frank disbelief.) Then my second pick has to be Bilal, which for some reason I can’t find in English translation even though it has been translated to several European languages. Originally written in Italian, the book deals with the very current topic of migration as well as the very recently exposed North African slave trade. For people familiar with this book, the recent ”discoveries” in Libya did not come as a shock. This has been public knowledge for years, people just seem too lazy to open up a book. As always though, visuals have a great impact and change the public discourse.

The Italian journalist sets of from Dakar in Senegal and wants to make it back to his native Italy by way of the Saharan dessert, using the same route and means as African refugees. He makes friends and enemies along the way and lets you come along on this mesmerizing journey.

He even disguises himself and jumps in the Mediterranean to see what will happen when the Italian authorities scoop him up and treat him an immigrant. The picture he paints is not pretty and also a wake-up call for those of us in the West who believe that modern-day slavery is confined to the third world.

I suggest you take this trip with Gatti if you want to widen your scope and get a reality check.

 Julian’s Book #3

The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

“Mythology is psychology misread as biography,” Joseph Campbell informs us. I would add, however, that the statement doesn’t do the breadth of Hero With A Thousand Faces justice. Despite his overtures to Freud and Jung, Campbell is closer to Manly P. Hall, mercifully sans the snobbery of James George Frazier (one of those skillful anthropologists who disguises his ethnocentrism as comparative religion). Campbell manages to encompass the monomyth in a warm narrative style that is almost Tolkienesque.

Perhaps mythology is perennial philosophy misread as historical fact…

…or maybe psychology and age-old spiritual doctrine aren’t famous opponents, after all. Maybe the diffuse subconscious dramas that manifest as dream symbols elusive and opaque, or as bizarre behavior acted out in the light of day, indicate that greatest of spiritual and mythical battles, the final suppression of the ego. Psychology could be a department of myth as much as myth is a department of psychology. (“Makes sense,” the barista mutters sarcastically).

Whatever the truth is, the universality of the hero’s story is without question. In traditions as diverse as the Vedanta and Celtic legend, we can trace the same epic adventure of an individual conquering the underworld of the self in all its attendant forms. But you know what? This might not even be Joseph Campbell’s greatest accomplishment. He also wrote a “Skeleton Key” for Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which is pretty much the equivalent of translating cuneiform.

Brisker’s Book #3

American War by Omar El Akkad 

Picking Top 3 anything is so hard when it comes to whatever you are passionate about, and usually you end up feeling unfair to all those left out which have an equally as good case to make the cut. One way I judge which books are the ”best” is by how long I keep thinking about them after I’m done reading. And all three of these books stuck with me for a long time and still assuredly resurface in my mind constantly.

American War deals with the American civil war…in the 2070’s. This is as close I will come to science fiction, which is usually a genre that doesn’t interest me. So I was pleasantly surprised when my mind was blown by this book (tasteless pun warning!).

Florida doesn’t exist because it’s underwater and other southern states are rapidly shrinking. Many of the southwestern states are now controlled by Mexico, but one person from the Free Southern State is determined to change the course of history.

My interpretation of the book is that the author wants to enlighten us about the nature of warfare. We often look at war as something that is happening “over there” instead of “here”, so the actions committed by people involved in the conflict become impossible for us to comprehend. But what if it did take place where we are instead of where they are? How would you and I react if our siblings were killed, loved ones raped and we were imprisoned in Guantanamo-like prisons?

The elements consisting of people switching sides, traitors and international players getting involved to preserve their self interest is also a motif that the author infuses into the story in order to make it part of the plot and a teaching tool for those of us who are open to understanding the madness that comes with warfare in its most brutal forms.

“Nice man, very nice.” Brisker returns the book to its shelf and gives the wall a final sweeping glance. “Alright Julian, are we done here? I have things to do, more books to read. It’s boring to be in a library of books you’ve already read.” “True. Yeah, we’re good. 2017 is in the books, for better or worse.” We walk towards the door. “There’s one thing that bugs me though,” I say. “What’s that?” “Those books on the floor that we haven’t read…if we kept looking at them they’d mount all the way to the ceiling. Our little shelves are nothing in comparison.” “Yes, but it will always be like this. The books that we have read will always be outnumbered by the ones we haven’t. It’s sort of like epistemology. Our knowledge is finite.” I take one last look at our shrine of traveled pages. The barista’s face is almost lost in the clouds of steam, but her silhouetted figure is clear. “What about her, though? Maybe she’d like to come with us.” Brisker follows my glance for a moment, then turns and opens the door. “She’s just like all those books we haven’t read. She only exists as pure potential until we find her.  You could find her in the next book you read, or maybe the one after that. Or maybe she’ll ask to share your table one day at a crowded food court. But even so, you’ll have to recognize her.” I don’t say anything for awhile as we walk down a dim hallway. “You’ve found her in a book already, haven’t you?” I finally say. Brisker only smiles and keeps walking. 

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