Excerpt: Teju Cole's Known and Stranger Things

Teju Cole has a new book out. Whoope! Finally! 

The Excerpt Reader has been looking forward to reading something new from this young and (very) talented writer ever since reading his excellent debut novel, Open City. Whilst waiting impatiently for a new book, I've also read Every Day Is for the Thief, a book which, to my eye, walks the border between Fiction and Non-Fiction. 

So now we have a new book, after 4 years of waiting. It's a compilation of essays Cole has written in the past 8 years, some of which were published in The New Yorker. The title is Known and Strange Things: Essays.

As a customer review on Amazon points out, 'This book of essays by Teju Cole aren’t always essays: they might be scraps of thought, well-digested and to an immediate point.' 

Here's an excerpt from the book. It's the opening chapter.

Judging by the excerpt, Cole's writing in this tome of essays is very intimate, pensive and revealing at times.

In this opening chapter, Cole writes about a visit to the town of Leuk, Switzerland, following the footsteps of renowned writer James Baldwin, who also spent a while in this town, back in 1951. Baldwin recorded his experience of being the only black person in a small Swiss town in his essay, “Stranger in the Village.” 

Being a black man himself, Cole sympathizes with Baldwin:

To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at especially [...] To be black is to bear the brunt of selective enforcement of the law, and to inhabit a psychic unsteadiness in which there is no guarantee of personal safety. You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.

In 2013 as in 1951, to be black, indeed to be a person of color in a predominantly white environment, is to be singled out, pre-judged. 

There is one huge difference, though. As Cole rightly points out, the cultural world Baldwin inhabited was still predominantly white. Black art - be it music, literature, or painting - was regarded with skepticism and suspicion during his years as a young writer. Cole inhabits a totally different world, wherein African Americans heritage is given its due place in American mainstream culture, and black people occupy influential positions in all echelons of society. 

Still, there is a huge divide between white and black people, in the US and elsewhere: 

Black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard.

Which leads Cole to end his essay in a very pessimistic tone:

Baldwin wrote “Stranger in the Village” more than sixty years ago. Now what?

Indeed, what has changed?


Excerpt: Stephen Fry's The Fry Chronicles

"That Stephen Fry needs no introduction is what he has always wanted." 

So begins a recent Guardian Books coverage of Fry's latest installement in what is shaping up to be a multi-tome autobiography.

And yet, judging by Fry's relentless efforts to try and have himself explained to his audience (while simultaneously avoiding any classification and throwing sand in everybody's eyes, as it were) it seems as if the 54 year old actor, writer, journalist, comedian, television presenter, film director and director of Norwich City Football Club (is there anything Fry hasn't put his hand into? Oops! double meaning..) is doing everything he can in order to make that introduction a necessary factor of every (chance or not) encounter!

Indeed, there's not much Fry hasn't done over the past 30 years or so.. The man isn't considered a `National Treasure' in vain, after all.. 

Though he's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (Fry suffered a nervous breakdown in 1995 while appearing in a West End play..) Fry has managed to publish 10 books thus far (amongst which one can find four novels, several non-fiction works and two volumes of autobiography.) He's also narrated countless audiobooks (amongst which, J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter series of audio books, Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy audiobook, and, of course, his own novels' audiobooks..) His voice has been featured in a number of video games.

All this without mentioning his rich acting career: Theatre, Radio, Film - these are no strangers to Stephen Fry..

So much for the (elusive) intro. Let's cut to the chase..

Thirteen years after he's published Moab is My Washpot, the first chapter in his Memoirs, Stephen Fry returns with a sequel, The Fry Chronicles.

In Moab is My Washpot (Excerpt Reader devotees can catch up with an excerpt from the book here) Fry covers the first 20 years of his life, from cradle to college, so to speak.. 

Moab is a classic Black-Sheep story.. A dishonorable schoolboy who can't help but steal, cheat and lye, Fry is a terribly insecure yet highly intelligent little brat who finds himself entangled in one 'plot' after the other: One moment we find him manifesting his hatred for P.E. lessons (non-Brits won't understand..), coming to terms with his sexuality, struggling to understand maths, etc.. & the next we see him coping with prison, having stolen some credit cards from some very nice people and forged their signatures..

But don't worry (here comes a spoiler..) Everything is alright by book's end: the young Fry does everything he possibly can to catch up with his studies and makes it into Cambridge, where he will go on to meet fellow actors Hugh LaurieEmma Thompson and Tony Slattery

So now he's got the sequel out.. 

What's it about? 

Embracing a trio of publishing platforms, combining the traditional with the modern (the book was simultaneously published as an iPhone App, iPad eBook and AudioBook, as well as the ever-so-traditional book form, paper and all - Mr Fry is well known for his passion for gadgetry,) The Fry Chronicles tells us what Fry got up to after leaving gaol. 

After Cambridge, Fry goes into lengthy, amusing little stories of the TV shows he's made, the many articles he's written, and of course, how he'd trousered his first million by adapting a musical, ‘Me and My Girl’. The book ends in August 1987, his 30th birthday, at his agreeable six bedroom house in Norfolk, leaving ample room for a third, and perhaps even fourth tome of the Grand-Autobiography.. 

Judging by his Twitter testimonials, Fry hasn't been working on the 448 pages which comprise The Fry Chronicles for too long (Fry's testified last April in his twitter account to his 1,888,895 followers that he'll be taking some time off to write the second tome of his memoir. He was back a couple of months later..)

Still, there's no denying a polymath, prolific writer like Mr. Fry has the writing potency of 10 able writers, which makes the reading of The Fry Chronicles, well, any of his books for this matter, a considerable enjoyment on any reader's part.

Not convinced yet??

Why don't you let Mr. Fry himself convince you:


Excerpt: Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

A lot has been written on what draws us to books.. Their jacket cover, the buzz around town, the sexy or intellectual photo of the author on the back of the cover, whatever turns you on..

But what about what draws us away from books? Now, I don't mean that we're repelled or God forbid disgusted by these books. But we're reluctant to pick them up, for fear we'd disappoint them, or they disappoint us.

We've all got at least one or more books or authors we shy away from..

We're secretly drawn to them. Their names or their books' titles linger many a times on our tongues or journey amidst our brains. 

I'm talking about Tolstoi's War and Peace; James Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake; Don Delilo's Underworld (well, almost anything by Don Delilo) David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest; Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (well almost anything by Thomas Pynchon..)

And this is just my 'list of 'awed' writers.. 

Pynchon's led the list for a good decade or so.

For some reason, I was always reluctant, or better yet, wary of and hesitant to pick any of his recalcitrant books up and give them the old once over..

I'd even bought a Penguin-Classics used copy of Gravity's Rainbow some 2-3 years ago.. And I've had the hebrew edition of The Crying of Lot 49 sitting on my bookshelf for God knows how long, but I never really picked any of the up and dusted their jackets.. 

Now, when Pynchon published Inherent Vice, a Sixties Rock N' Roll meets Private Dic'-Film Noir flic Novel - well, what sounds like a more accessible, easier read - I knew I had to pick a copy of the Novel at my local Steimatzky (what with 25% off all EnglishFiction and 2 brand new paperback novels for 100 NIS, I couldn't resist the temptation anyway, so..) 

Right away, I knew I liked the cover, which is always a good start (I don't know about you, but 'good' covers lure me into reading!) 

What did I like about it? 

Well, the HUGE Station-wagon for starters.. (is it a Cadillac?? Don't know why but it reminds me of Back to the Future). 

Then the fact that's it's under 400 pages, which basically promises it to be one of his 'lightest' reads.. Is Pynchon becoming soft in his hay days? (he is 77 after all..) 

Finally, of course my Pynchon-Awe ;) Though you have to admire a (young) writer who starts out his (writing) career writing for Boeing and goes on to (write and) publish sprawling, geopolitical, postmodern farces in 1960's-70's USA: V (563 pages. Published in 1963), Gravity's Rainbow (784 pages. Published in 1973. Won the National Book Award) & it goes on (and on) in the 1980's-90's: Mason & Dixon (784 pages) and Against the Day (1,104 pages!).

I then knew I had to look up 'Inherent Vice' on the internet (you know, that old' dusted library on your Mac'..) and, much to my surprise, this is what I found: 

inherent vice: n. ~ The tendency of material to deteriorate due to the essential instability of the components or interaction among components.

* special thanks to http://www.inherentvice.net/

What's it about, you ask?

Well, it's a classic murder/suspense, private dic'/noir kind of novel, or as the jacket cover says: 

"It's been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It's the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that "love" is another of those words going around at the moment, like "trip" or "groovy," except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists."

A typical boy (re)meets girl; girl asks boy to murder her (other) boy; boy grapples with his conscience story..

Well, kinda.. Read a short excerpt here.

As you can see, the narrative is very private-dic' film-noir'esque. The narrator and main protagonist, Doc the dic', seems to be taken right out of all that long American 20th century Hardboiled, Crime Fiction genre: kind of Raymond Chandler meets Columbo..

Here's a little passage, a few pages on, where the narrator's 'stream of thought' runs wild: 

"Shasta named a sum. Doc had outrun souped-up Rollses full of indignant smack dealers on the Pasadena Freeway, doing a hundred in the fog and trying to steer through all those crudely engineered curves, he'd walked up back alleys east of the L.A. River with nothing but a borrowed 'fro pick in his baggies for protection, been in and out of the Hall of Justice while holding a small fortune in Vietnamese weed, and these days had nearly convinced himself all that reckless era was over with, but now he was beginning to feel deeply nervous again. "This…" carefully now, "this isn't just a couple of X–rated Polaroids, then. Dope planted in the glove compartment, nothin like 'at…"

And if all this didn't turn you ON enough, here's a little promo Video for the book, narrated by your very own Thomas Pynchon:

VERDICT: BUY IT (cos' Pynchon might never be this 'easy' to read again..)


Excerpt: Tom McCarthy's C

Here's a book you won't be seeing on the Oprah Book Club list anytime soon..

& not because it's written bya Brit', mind you.. Oprah's recommended Ian McEwan's Solar just this April, and I bet it wasn't the only Brit' Novel on her favorite books list..  

No, Tom McCarthy's C won't appear on Oprah's book club anytime soon because it's a challanging, postmodern'ish read!

It did however make as one of the six finalists on the 42nd Man Booker Prize shortlist - the leading literary award in the English speaking world. Which is saying much! 

Indeed, the Brits are currenlty placing the highest betting odds with C, favouring it above all other books - and now that David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap are out (the first was reviewed by the Excerpt Reader last July; the latter will be reviewed in this blog very soon..) it may very well be the most favorite contender - yet I'm not sure how many people have heard of it so far (outside Great Britain that is..)

A well acclaimed novelist, literary critic (in Tintin and the Secret of Literature he reads Herge's Tintin through the prism of structuralist and post-structuralist literary theory) and conceptual artist, as well as "the most galling interviewee in Britain" - C is McCarthy's third novel, after Remainder - a literary Memento of sorts, about the loss and recapture of identity - and Men in Space, a dystopian tale of social ruin. It may very well be his easiest read thus far; though, to be sure, it could just as easily be classified by most literary critics as an avantgarde, postmodern novel..

Despite the intriguing cover (and the American cover, just on your left, is no less beguiling than the British one, placed below;) and albeit its odd, single-letter title, C is, in essence, quite an 'esoteric' novel. 

Above all, for the way it treats its subjectswar, sickness and death and, of course, communication (that's what the C, amongst other things, stands for: good, old fashioned communication between individuals, but also  futuristic, cutting edge technological communication: wireless communication, the kind that will bring on, many decades later, the modem and then the World wide web..)

Set in early twentieth century pre-war Europe, C follows the short, intense life of one Serge Carrefax, who finds himself from an early age steeped in a weird world of technological developments (Serge's father is an aspiring scientist leading experiments with electrical fields). When loss strikes him when his beloved sister dies, Serge embarks on an epic journey encompassing the prison camps of Germany, the drug-fuelled London of the roaring twenties and, finally, the ancient tombs of Egypt in what quickly shapes up to be a stunning tour de force of √©criture.

Once, he picked up a CQD: a distress signal. It came from the Atlantic, two hundred or so miles off Greenland. ThePachitea, merchant vessel of the Peruvian Steamship Company, had hit an object—maybe whale, maybe iceberg—and was breaking up. The nearest vessel was another South American, Acania, but it was fifty miles away. Galway had picked the call up; so had Le Havre, Malin, Poldhu and just about every ship between Southampton and New York. Fifteen minutes after Serge had locked onto the signal half the radio bugs in Europe had tuned into it as well. The Admiralty put a message out instructing amateurs to stop blocking the air. Serge ignored the order, but lost the signal beneath general interference: the atmospherics were atrocious that night. He listened to the whine and crackle, though, right through till morning—and heard, or thought he heard, among its breaks and flecks, the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into waves that had come to bury them.
* You can read the rest of the excerpt here.

Yes, it all sounds very adventure-novel'esque, but the writing itself, (McCarthy's elegant prose is often dense with emotion, information and constant interruption - very stream of thought..) is quite challenging. Luckily, like any challenging read, C is also a highly rewarding read. 
VERDICT: BUY IT (If only to walk about town with the alluring hard-cover, single-letter cover under your arm)