Julian Gallo

A New York City writer's thoughts on the books he reads. 



"Papa Sartre" by Ali Bader

A short but very interesting novel about a fictional Iraqi philosopher named Abd al-Rahman, a self-styled bohemian and devoted follower of Jean-Paul Sartre. Abd al-Rahman returns to Baghdad from his studies in Paris with the intention of launching an existential movement in Iraq akin to that of his hero; and being that he resembles his favorite philosopher in physical appearance (with the exception of Sartre’s ‘lazy eye’) he’s convinced that the task is up to him.


The novel is framed by an unnamed narrator who is commissioned to write Abd al-Rahman’s story by his close circle of friends. However, there isn’t much information to go on and Abd al-Rahman’s death is shrouded in mystery. Was it suicide, or was it an act of murder? The narrator sets about collecting as much information as he can about the elusive philosopher and what he learns, we learn, and it’s a very intriguing peek into the intellectual and artistic world of Baghdad in the late 1960s as well as into Abd al-Rahman’s dalliances with various different women (including prostitutes) and his bohemian circle. The more we learn about him the less clear it is about his ultimate fate. There is something of a twist which takes place regarding the narrator’s benefactors, one which only furthers the satirical approach to the novel.


There are a lot of references to late 1960s Baghdad that the general reader may not pick up on and those with a more in-depth knowledge of the time and place may get a lot more out of this book. There were times where I had to look up certain names to see whether or not they were fictional or were real people being used in a fictional setting, however, one doesn’t necessarily need this knowledge to enjoy this story. The glimpse into Baghdad which will seem utterly alien to many of today’s readers, especially when you consider recent history, is enough to keep the reader curious and intrigued. It is a window into a world long since gone and an interesting peek into Baghdad’s once flourishing intellectual world. It is a highly satirical look into those who seem to need guidance in order to find meaning in their lives — whether philosophical or religious — and how that meaning will ultimately be fleeting.


Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe" by Chris Andrews

A highly in depth, academic study of the fiction of Roberto Bolaño. It would help to have read his complete works before reading this book since it literally examines all of his published work (as well as interviews he had given over the course of his life). There are still some books I haven’t yet read (but this only made me want to get to them sooner) so if you aren’t familiar with his complete catalogue, some of this may lose you.


In it, author Chris Andrews focuses mainly on Bolaño’s three major works: “The Savage Detectives”, “2666” and the novel that brought him attention to the English speaking world, “By Night In Chile”. This doesn’t mean his other novels, short stories and poems are ignored — not by a long shot — but these three novels are the main focus as Andrews delves into the “expanding universe” of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction: how it interconnects, how he utilized various different genres (such as Suspense), how his work differed from the giants of the ‘Latin American Boom’ generation and his conscious attempt to move beyond it, to create something new while exploring the political, ethical and aesthetic values that shaped it. 


It also gives a little insight into how Bolaño worked and his staggering output (especially in the last years of his life) is highly inspirational for the would-be and even seasoned writer, for here was a novelist/poet who was truly his own man. Andrews contrast’s Bolaño’s work with past Latin American masters and the steps the author took to either build on those foundations or utterly decimate it and start anew.


A must read for die hard fans of Bolaño’s work and a great introduction to those who are less familiar with his writing and want to gain a little more insight into his work. Highly recommended.

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Sleepwalking Land" by Mia Couto

Mozambique’s Mia Couto is an author I’ve only become familiar with in the past year. The only book I’ve read up until now was his short story collection “The Blind Fisherman”. “Sleepwalking Land” is the first full length novel I’ve read by him. It also happens to be his first novel, originally published in 1992. In “The Blind Fisherman”, Couto’s stories are awash with ‘Magical Realism’ but each had a distinct African flavor to them, combining African folklore, the fantastic and sometimes brutal realism.


In “Sleepwalking Land”, all these elements are also present. There is also a kinship to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”, although Couto’s novel preceded it by about a decade. Two of the main protagonists are refugees from Mozambique’s bloody civil war: An old man named Tahir and a young boy named Muidinga, who Tahir had taken in when he discovered the boy near death. The two wander the war torn landscape until they find a burnt out bus beside the road and they decide to take refuge in it in order to hide from the violent bands still roaming the countryside. It is there, among the charred bodies, where they make camp. One of the bodies is a man with suitcase. Muidinga rummages through the suitcase looking for something useful and he comes up with a series of notebooks written by the dead man who he learns is named Kindzu. In order to relieve the boredom, Tahir agrees to allow the boy to read aloud from these notebooks, which tells the story of the dead man and his search for a missing boy during the height of the conflict.


The novel’s chapters alternates between Tahir and Muidinga’s adventures as they try to survive, and Kindzu’s story, which tells of the horrors of a country at war with itself and it is in this tale where the meaning of the novel is revealed; and even though the two stories are different from one another, the more Kindzu’s story progresses, the closer to Tahir and Muidinga’s it starts to become and Couto handles this in a most brilliant way.


Full of magical realist elements, dream-like metaphors, and African folklore (I assume from Mozambique specifically), the story explores the effects of colonialism (Mozambique was a colony of Portugal) and how, once given its independence, turned on itself in the most brutal way. The magical realist elements in the story slightly mask the brutality of war and the effect on its victims, most of whom are just normal people, peasants, descendants of the colonists and foreigners and the difficulties to try to form a new nation with its diverse population, old vendettas, racial, ethnic and tribal strife. This is not a novel for the faint hearted and Couto’s prose is rich and poetic, forcing the reader to completely engage with not only the language but the beautiful imagery the language paints throughout the story.


“Sleepwalking Land” was voted “one of the 12 best African books of the 20th Century”. After reading this, I can easily see why. It’s not just a great read. It’s an experience. Highly recommended.


Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Me, You" by Erri De Luca

Erri De Luca is known to be the most widely read author in Italy today. He’s an author I enjoy reading very much. His novels often explore life in post-war Italy, usually through the eyes of a child growing up amidst the ruins and confusion and the aftermath of war.


“Me, You” changes things up a bit. While still essentially a ‘coming of age’ tale, this time the setting switches from a post-war Naples to an idyllic island off the coast of Naples where the unnamed narrator spends the summer with his uncle.


There he meets Nicola, a local fisherman who is a former Italian soldier who had been sent to the front in Yugoslavia and was taken in and cared for by a local Serbian family. The young boy narrator, who was too young to remember anything about the war, is curious about what had happened and why so many people were reluctant to talk about it. Instead he teaches the boy about fishing, preferring not to talk to much about the war.


But the boy knows there’s more to the story and he could tell from the reactions of the older boys he hangs out with as they observe the American soldiers all over the island, pretty much taking over the place with their wild antics. There is a sense of humiliation, shame, guilt as Nicola, little by little, opens up about his war experiences. Then the boy meets Caia, a pretty young girl who he soon learns is Romanian, on the island for summer vacation just like he is. He falls head over heels in love with her but soon realizes that perhaps her attention is more towards the other boys than himself.


Little by little their relationship grows and he learns that she is Jewish and that her family had been killed during a Nazi atrocity. The more the boy learns about the war from Nicola, and Italy’s complicity with the Nazis, he becomes outraged and the quest to understand his country history begins.


As their relationship grows, the more he feels himself growing toward manhood, shedding his boyhood skin and navigating the normal adolescent confusion most sixteen year old boys have about love and sex. When an incident occurs one night where a table full of German tourists begin to mock and make fun of Caia for being Jewish, the boy’s outrage reaches fever pitch, leading towards a highly dramatic conclusion that the reader will not see coming.


“Me, You” is a wonderfully written coming of age tale so the focus is more on this aspect of the story as he tries to understand this young woman he has fallen so in love with. However the specter of the war is ever present, tainting everything, a war he knows nothing about and cannot understand. It is a portrait of trying to make sense of the world, make sense of life in the aftermath of horror.

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"A Brief History Of Portable Literature" by Enrique Vila-Matas

For a such a short novel — 84 pages — this is incredibly dense. It is most definitely written for the lovers of literature by a lover of literature, particularly lovers of the period between Dada and Surrealism. 


Written as an exploration of a fictional literary and artistic group/secret society, “The Shandies”, Vila-Matas delves into the period with relish. Combining both actual history with a healthy dose of fictional invention, we follow a group of well known writers/artists: Marcel Duchamp, Witold Gombrowicz, Francis Picabia,  Federico Garcia Lorca, Man Ray, Georgia O’Keeffe, and of all people Aliester Crowley, among others, as they seek to invent and/or discover a new approach to art and literature via an obsession with “the portable”. What that precisely is is hard to say but is sort of hints around the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’. We listen in on their conversations as they move around various cafés throughout the world (as well as other exotic locales) to discuss what “literature really is: brief, not too serious, and penetrating the depths of the mysterious”. And that’s precisely what this book is in a lot of ways. 



A healthy dose of knowledge of this period in literary history will go a long way. For those who are not familiar with these writers and artists, this book will definitely generate one (in fact, there’s even an ‘essential bibliography’ at the end so the unfamiliar reader can explore them). It is an intellectually playful and highly dense exploration into the infinite possibilities of artistic expression as well as a love letter to a particular time and place of literary history. There is a hell of a lot more going on here and there is a lot of ideas to digest and contemplate. A must read for fans of Dada and Surrealism. Definitely recommended. 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Journals" by Keith Haring

I have to admit that I was never a huge fan of Keith Haring’s work. He was insanely popular during the 1980s but at the time, to be honest, I just didn’t “get it”. My first exposure to his work was not in a gallery or a museum, but in the subways of New York City. It wasn’t uncommon in those days to find any number of his drawings on the black paper which used to cover the old movie adverts or whatever other advertising one normally doesn’t pay that much attention to during the course of their commute. In those days, I worked as a messenger, so I was riding the subways all the time. Seeing Haring’s drawings was commonplace, as common as the ads themselves. It was only as the years went on — and as Haring became more of a popular visual artist — that I learned just who was behind these mysterious drawings, which in a way, at least to me, reminded me of glyphs from some long lost culture. Some of them were amusing, I admit, but his work never moved me as much as other artist’s work had. I know this is probably blasphemy in some quarters but it is what it is. 


The early 1980s was a very exciting time for me. There was a lot going on in New York City in those years and it was a very inspiring time. Everything was changing and I felt as thought I was right in the thick of it to some degree. At any given day there was some pop up gallery, some underground literary event, the “secretive”, word of mouth punk rock clubs, the “No Wave” scene, and of course the ‘club scene’, which I had nothing to do with nor wanted to. Besides, in the early 1980s, I was much too young to participate in many things and those places I did get into, checking IDs wasn’t common.


Reading Keith Haring’s “Journals”, I was hoping it would reveal a more detailed, in depth account of artistic life and the New York art scene in general, during these years. While they do to some extent, for the most part Haring’s journals reveals the innermost thoughts of an artist who took his work very seriously and for that alone you have to admire him. My view of his work went from being “just drawings I used to see in the subway” to a much deeper appreciation for what he actually accomplished. We are privy to his ideas, his aspirations, his influences, his motivations, and most importantly, what he had expected of himself as an artist. We also get a peek into his struggle with AIDS, which was unfortunately all too common among the downtown art scene in those days.


The journals also reveal some interesting insights into his ideas on “success” and “fame”. Early on in his career, as he became more popular and more in demand, he was asked how “success had changed him”. His response: “Success hasn’t changed me; it has changed people’s reaction to me”, something I found very interesting because of the truth it ultimately reveals. Haring’s work hadn’t changed much from his earliest days as a SVA student to when being commissioned by everyone and anyone for work. And as his social circle expanded to include the most prominent artists of the day, his work still remained HIS. However, as much as he tried to remain “unchanged” by his success, it was clear that it HAD changed him in a much more significant way: his travels, his social circle, which had begun to include celebrities, his feelings and opinions on his contemporaries (there’s a particular passage where he shows absolutely NO LOVE for his contemporary JULIAN SCHNABEL).


The book is a wonderful insight into the mind of an artist as he rises from student to world famous, celebrated artist. The same is that his life was cut short so soon. For admirers of Haring’s work, this is a must read. For those who may not have heard of him (the younger generation) or for those who never appreciated his work at the time (like me), it is a fascinating read which will cause you to reevaluate your opinions on who he was and what he had tried to accomplish. For the artist in general, there are some interesting insights here as well, as you watch the artist grow before you the further along you read.

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Fire Flowers" by Ben Byrne

“Fire Flowers” is Ben Byrne’s first novel and it’s quite an impressive debut. Set in the months immediately following Japan’s surrender to the allied forces, the narrative follows four characters in the war’s immediate aftermath. There’s Hal Lynch, a former pilot and current photographer for “Stars and Stripes” who is slowly drawn to finding out the real effects of the two atomic bombs that were dropped to end the war; Satsuko Takara, a woman in her twenties who had lost her entire family in the firebombing of Tokyo and is trying to locate her missing brother; Hiroshi Takara, Satsuko’s fifteen year old brother, looking for his missing sister, trying to survive day by day with other orphaned children; and finally Osamu Maruki, a would-be writer who has just returned from the pacific islands to find his home city in ruins. He was once Satsuko’s lover, and he is on a quest to find her as well as trying to readjust to the changed landscape and American occupation.


Each of these narratives are told in the first person, with each chapter jumping between the different characters. The reader knows that eventually all the characters will eventually converge and Byrne as a knack of adding just enough suspense to keep the reader turning the pages. Each character has their own unique story and own perspective on the war and what will become of Japanese society and it’s very interesting to see the end of the war through Japanese eyes. But the crux of the novel deal’s with Hal’s quest to seek the truth behind the effects of the dropping of the two atomic bombs and though strictly ordered not to go to Hiroshima (the city is declared “off limits” to American personnel), he hops aboard a train and makes his way there anyway after hearing about the survivors of the bombing suffering from a “mysterious disease” which the Japanese doctors were calling “Disease X”. Once he gets there and sees the effects for himself, he’s determined to report the truth. However the military brass is determined to shut him down and they indeed fire him from his position at “Stars and Stripes”. Now on his own during the occupation, he eventually meets Satsuko and his meeting only complicates matters even more.


As for the rest of the characters — Satsuko, who resorts to prostitution in order to make a living, her clients being her conquerers; Hiroshi, living hand to mouth and trying to avoid being scooped up by allied forces and forced to live in an orphanage, manages to steal a camera and become a budding photographer himself; and Osamu, who is determined to put the war behind him and focus his energies on writing, falling in with a group of surviving Japanese bohemians who are looking to bring art into the modern age. It is their perspective, their outlook on what their nation had just been through which I found most interesting about this novel.


There is a lot happening here and I don’t want to give much away because it’s a wonderful story that must be experienced by the reader. For me, a great book to begin the new year. Highly recommended.


Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Beirut, Beirut" by Sonallah Ibrahim

A fascinating novel which blurs the lines between fiction and journalism. Set in late 1980, the divisions of the brutal Lebanese Civil War are still in effect. Beirut is divided into East and West and depending on who you are or where your allegiance lies, one part of the city is most certainly off limits.


Into this post-war nightmare comes an Egyptian novelist who is seeking publication for his new novel, an experimental novel which lambasts just about every Arab regime there ever was. There’s also a lot of graphic sex. The narrator has no illusions about the publication of his novel but due to a prior connection he holds on to a thread of hope that it will indeed be published. Meanwhile, he navigates the treacherous divisions which have now split the city in two. We’re not sure of the narrator’s political allegiances, nor his religion for that matter (which does matter to many of the political players running each portion of the city); he drinks, smokes and has a raging libido. There are two women who enter the fray — an independent filmmaker named Antoinette, who hires him to write the voice over for her latest film about the Lebanese Civil War, and Lamia, the beautiful employee of the publishing house who has shown interest in his book. The narrator takes on the job of writing the voice over with relish and it is here where the novel begins to blur the lines between fiction and journalism. A good portion of the novel is a play by play of the images in Antoinette’s film, which describes in explicit detail the ravages of the civl war — it’s political alliances, it’s sometimes blurry lines of who is with who and who is against who, the wheeling and dealing between politicians both home and abroad, the role of the United States in the affair, the massacres committed by all sides, the bitter religious differences, and the eventual sectarian division of a once open and cosmopolitan city. Meanwhile, his own friends can’t be trusted and his relationship with Lamia is contentious at best, with Lamia being more liberated, albeit selfish and independent, whose allegiance is more to herself than to any group or faction.


What makes this novel the powerful one that it is is the journalistic detail of what went on during this bloody civil war and the absolute savagery of it; how all the different sides vying for power and control were willing to disregard human life as if it were merely an obstacle toward that goal. In essence, no one is innocent and through all this sectarian and political mindlessness, what’s universal is love and desire and the yearning to make sense of one’s life. Highly Recommended


Translated by Chip Rossetti 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"The Land Of Green Plums" by Herta Muller

Nicolae Ceausescu’s police state in Romania was one of the most brutal out of all the communist block during the cold war years. Typical of such regimes, a cult of personality evolved around him and he used his secret police — the dreaded “Securitate” — to rule with an iron fist. During the fall of communism in 1989, there was a joke that went that Poland would take ten years, Czechoslovakia ten months and Romania, ten days. The revolution that saw the fall of Ceausescu’s regime began when one lone woman began yelling for the dictator to “shut up” as he was giving a speech. The army refused to turn on it’s citizens and on Christmas day, 1989, both the dictator and his wife were executed.


Herta Muller’s “The Land Of Green Plumbs” takes place at the height of Ceausescu’s regime. The narrator, a young woman of German descent, recalls her life during these bleak years. The narrative is typical of that sort of Eastern European surrealism which always appealed to me. Muller doesn’t write like anyone else I’ve read before. Her metaphors are colorful and weird yet lyrical and poetic. Which can make this a strange read at times. There really isn’t a plot to speak of and the narrative comes in short, non-linear bursts which describe the bleakness of Romanian society. There’s the narrator’s childhood, her friendship with Tereza, a woman suffering from cancer but refuses to see a doctor, the narrator’s best friend Lola, who commits suicide while at school; her student friends Kurt, Georg, and Edgar who all move from the country to the city only to discover the dictator’s presence over every aspect of life; the Securitate agent known as Captain Pjele who shadows their every move; their work life, which consists mainly of making things that no one wants or needs. Through their interaction you feel the yearning to be free. They try to communicate by subterfuge (leaving hairs in letters and utilizing specific punctuation marks in the salutation in order to send cryptic messages to one another). It is a nightmare society, where everyone is afraid and corrupt and no one can be trusted.


There’s an almost fairytale-like quality to the story. Coupled with the surrealistic imagery and metaphors, it sometimes reads like a dream or a collection of scattered, fading but still potent memories of someone looking back on a very bleak part of their lives. Between the lines one gets a good idea of what life must have been like under such a regime. It doesn’t beat you over the head with specific deeds but it’s there. You feel it. For fans of writers such as Milan Kundera or Gyorgy Konrad, or the many other wonderful authors who came out of Eastern Europe during this time period, this comes highly recommended.

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Submission" by Michel Houellebecq

This novel has been the victim of bad timing — twice. On the day of its release, the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred in Paris and a mere few weeks after its English translation release, the recent attack occurred. When the novel was first released it was said to be “alarmist” but after reading it, I don’t see it that way.


The basic plot is about a university professor, François, well known for his lifelong study of the ideas of the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who finds his own life running a remarkably similar course. Huysmans was a man prone to decadence who eventually turned to Catholicism later in life. François is unmarried, middle aged, unable to maintain a long term or healthy relationship with women, and also finds himself living a somewhat decadent yet still lonely life. We are privy to his dysfunctional relationships with women and his friendships with his fellow academics, many of whom he doesn’t have a good word about. He’s basically drifting, having a middle-aged existential crisis about his own life and work which he concluded had ultimately led to nothing. Late Capitalist society, with all it’s perceived decadence and selfishness, has essentially left François spiritually empty — and in his mind, his fellow countrymen who care more for the latest fashions, consumer goods and trends than they do about anything else.


The year is 2022. Normally this kind of dystopian tale would take place far in the future but Houellebecq has something else in mind entirely. The political situation in France is volatile and the upcoming presidential elections pits two parties against one another: Marie Le Pen’s far right National Front and a surprising newcomer, Muhammad Ben Abbes of the Muslim Brotherhood (a fictional party not related to the actual Muslim Brotherhood). Ben Abbes is a young, charismatic young politician who has the ability to woo both the far right due to his perceived “strength” and those on the left due to his insistence on “inclusiveness” for all. The election is close and there is a run-off, and Ben Abbes is eventually elected due to his ability to form a coalition with the left.


Virtually overnight the country is transformed: The university that François works at immediately becomes an “Islamic University” (with its professors let go unless they agree to convert to Islam), polygamy is encouraged and women begin wearing the veil. One would expect all the brutality that comes with an “Islamic Regime” but, as I said, Houellebecq has something entirely different in mind here. Instead of envisioning a totalitarian society, he envisions a European society as spiritually bankrupt as himself, with everyone turning to religion to fill the hole. Willingly, French society “submits”, most converting to Islam to fill that hole, finding Christianity, Judaism, Capitalism, Consumerism having failed to give their lives any meaning whatsoever. The academics (of whom Houellebecq focuses on) merely convert in order to increase their status in life and, of course, be able to take more than one wife, some as young as 15 years old.


It’s Houellebecq’s classic cynicism that takes the reigns here and the novel seems, to me, to be more of a critique of the emptiness of Western values and how, over centuries, has failed to give anyone spiritual fulfillment, so much so that he envisions a society willingly submitting to the new order as a way to find happiness in their lives, a submission he sees as almost inevitable. It is much less a critique of Islam than it is of his own Western values (although, between the lines, Islam is not exactly ‘the answer’ either, merely another vehicle in which a lost and empty society embraces in order to find spiritual fulfillment).


Like all Houellebecq novels, there are a lot of ideas to think about. The novel is clearly a satire but it is also very current. He raises a lot of questions about the current state of 21st Century Western values and European society, though his conclusions are as cynical as ever. Definitely recommended.


Translated by Lorin Stein 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"City On Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg

I’d been waiting for this novel for over two years, ever since I first read about it. There’s been a lot of hype about this novel, mainly because it’s the author’s first novel and he secured a $2 Million advance for it after going through a bidding war from among 14 different publishers who desperately wanted this book. That, naturally, piqued my interest. I joked at the time that one could hear writers’ heads exploding the world over because of it. But what really piqued my interest more than anything else is the time frame in which the story is set — New York City, 1976-1977.


There was talk of Punk Rock, the gritty “bad old days”, The Blackout, but not much else was revealed about the plot. It was said that the novel was “ambitious”, and in some ways it is, mainly due to the sheer scope of the thing. But with all the hype and the word “ambitious” being thrown around so flippantly, one had to wonder what kind of novel “City On Fire” was going to be. Well, it finally came out, last month, and I finally got my hands on it, eager to read it. One other question I had on my mind: How was the author going to handle the time period being that he wasn’t even BORN yet? Not that one can’t write a novel set outside his/her own life time (many authors have done so). The answer to this question was answered almost immediately upon reading the novel. Hallberg handles it beautifully, subtly. He never throws the time period in your face. It simply exists as a frame in which the story takes place. A few cultural references here and there, a bit of description, and what it does is allow a reader who had lived through that time period bring the image to mind. For those readers who were too young to remember it, any old film, TV show or documentary will form the picture in their minds. It’s done so deftly that it almost becomes irrelevant with regard to the larger story taking place. It’s not overdone and a lesser writer (especially one of a more ‘hipster’ bent) would have been more over the top with the cultural references, beating you over the head with it. “IT’S THE 70s!”. Thankfully, Hallberg doesn’t do this and the effect is perfect. Back to being “ambitious”.


I suppose one could say that this novel is indeed ambitious. However it’s not what some readers may expect it to be. Hallberg’s prose style is very akin to Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon and it is these writers that I would align Hallberg with as a stylist. He’s a damn good writer, extremely talented, and the prose flows effortlessly. I’m sure the comparisons to Franzen will come up (although I think Hallberg is a much better writer). The novel is ambitious in scope, with a tinge of experimentalism such as inserting an entire issue of a (fictional) punk fanzine, as well as personal letters and a reporter’s article into the mix (as if they were photostats. Remember those?). Aside from these experimental digressions, the novel it most resembles, more than any other, is Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire Of The Vanities”. While Wolfe’s novel was THE novel that depicted the late 1980s New York, “City On Fire” could very well be the one that does the same for New York of the mid-1970s.


Again, the word “ambitious”: With all the hype surrounding the novel and the press the author has received for it, many readers may not be prepared for the kind of novel it ACTUALLY is at heart, and that is, a crime story. Populated with a host of characters, the novel’s length seems almost essential in order to fit everyone’s story into the mix — and each one of these characters are essential to the story itself. There’s Mercer and William, two lovers who live in the then wastelands of Hell’s Kitchen. Mercer is an aspiring novelist, coming to New York to write the “Great American Novel” but can’t seem to get the word down. He works as a teacher for a prestigious prep school. William is an heir of the Hamilton-Sweeney fortune, the black sheep of the family, and once the drummer of a 1974 era punk band named Ex Post Facto (then known as “Billy Three Sticks”). He wants nothing to do with his well to do family and is no longer playing in the band and has turned his talents towards the visual arts. He’s also a junkie, something he tries to hide from Mercer.


There’s Charlie and Sam, two Long Island teenage punks who regularly head into “the city” to catch punk rock bands and to get away from their hum-drum existence in the suburbs. Charlie, naturally, is in love with Sam and Sam may be in love with Charlie too but Sam has issues and she spends a lot of her time roaming around the East Village taking photographs of the remnants of Ex Post Facto and hanging around with them in their squat on the Lower East Side. The band, and squat mates, are made up of fucked up but colorful characters, all of whom try to live as “punk” as possible, their leader being a guy who calls himself “Nicky Chaos”, who sees himself as something of the groups “philosopher”, and he does so for a reason. The band has moved far beyond their musical aspirations towards more political ones, dubbing themselves “Post Humanists”. And they have plans.


There’s Keith and William’s sister Regan — a well to do couple who live on the Upper East Side with their two children. Their marriage is falling apart and this is due to Keith’s chance encounter with Sam. Sam is in love with this much older man and her insistence on not letting go leads to a tragedy one night as she splits from Charlie to head uptown to see him for one last time. She winds up being shot in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1976. Mercer, who was at a party at the time, happens to hear the gunshots, finds Sam’s body in the park. Calls the police. Here is how the reader can see how all the characters are eventually going to come together, how their paths will cross, and what it will all lead to.


An older NYPD inspector, an alcoholic reporter, and the city coming apart at the seams, all these paths will eventually lead to one point and that climaxes on the night of July 13th 1977, the night of The Blackout. The pace of the novel is handled very well and Hallberg has a way of keeping the reader gripped as he leaves one hanging only to go back in time to further connect the dots, showing the lives of the characters going back over the previous 20 years. Who they are and who they will eventually become and how it seems all but inevitable that these lives will all bump into one another. But while it’s fun to read about a New York that once was, at it’s core “City On Fire” is a murder mystery (or a ‘Police Procedural’). It has a plot, as looping and as, well, ambitious as it is. This is not the stuff of “LITERARY FICTION”, and some readers may be turned off by this. Hallberg does a fantastic job making these characters real, three dimensional, with fully fleshed out lives. No character is “cookie cutter” (except for perhaps William’s Austrian art dealer and her Asian-American assistant Jenny, who will play a more pivotal role as the story progresses). Underneath some of the experimental elements, the more literary approach to the character’s lives, it is essentially a crime story, nothing more, nothing less and one could easily see this being turned into a big film one day (or perhaps a television mini-series. There’s enough there for at least two full seasons). But this is not my criticism about the book.


My one criticism is that the novel is perhaps a little TOO long and it could have been just as good with some of it cut out. Not everything NEEDED to be there and one gets the sense that Hallberg was so in love with his characters that he had a hard time letting them go. Definitely worth checking out. It’s a tightly plotted story, and suspenseful, and thoughtful as well. It’s another example of how blending genres can make some interesting fiction. For those expecting something more “Literary”, you may be somewhat disappointed by “City On Fire”. It’s NOT that kind of novel. However, it’s a damn good novel, with an engrossing tale to tell. It’s all about the characters and you will love them as much as the author apparently did. Oh, and one last, curious thing: The bulk of the novel takes place between the summers of 1976 and 1977 and not ONCE, not even a passing reference, is made about The Son Of Sam, who terrorized the city during that same period. Not that it was essential to the story (it would have made no difference) but his presence from the scene is curiously absent, especially since the core of the story revolves around a shooting. I wonder why this is? 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

" Bolaño: A Biography In Conversations" by Monica Maristain

Everyone knows Roberto Bolaño these days and this is a good thing. Bolaño has done much to change the nature of Latin American literature over the past two decades. This book is the closest thing we have to a biography on the man, made up of interviews of people who knew him best, from his earliest years growing up in Chile to his years in Mexico through his final years in Spain.


Bolaño, to me, is a very inspirational writer. Not only was his output immense, but here was a writer whose love of literature was complete and total. He was a writer with his own unique style, his own voice, his own vision. His appearance on the Latin American literary scene caused some consternation from the old guard giants of Latin American literature — those of the “Boom” years. Many did not take him seriously, many didn’t even bother to acknowledge his presence. His work announced the arrival of a new generation of writers, many of whom were tired of the old guard and were looking for something new.


He’s inspirational not only because he was a brilliant writer and poet but also because he’s a model for how many writers should be: sitting down and getting the work done. Bolaño saw himself primarily as a poet for most of his life. He only turned to fiction when he was in his 40s. A steady stream of novels followed and like many other novelists (i.e Milan Kundera, Henry Miller), his work should be looked at in totality and not by individual novels. He was a writer who had a lifelong plan, a mission, and he did the work. He was most definitely not an overnight success as this biography takes great pains to point out. Many of the people who knew him often speak about how for many years not many people paid any attention to him, despite the numerous awards and prizes he had won in his lifetime. His relationship with the literature of his own country was contentious, having no time for the Chilean “giants” such as Isabelle Allende or Antonio Skármeta, both of whom refused to acknowledge this young upstart.


What a young writer (or other writers) can learn from this book is his dedication to his work, his insistence on remaining himself, to carve out his own place in the literary tradition. His influences were all over the map, everything from Borges (who he considered “a God”) to detective novels and even science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick. While this book does touch on some of his lesser known work, it is his two most adventurous and ambitious novels, “The Savage Detectives” and the posthumous “2666” that get the most attention; for these are the novels that made his name and eventually gave him world wide attention and the respect from the more important literary figures the world over.


Like any other human being, Bolaño was a complicated figure, often at odds with his own popularity. He never believed in posterity although it seemed — according to many who knew him — that he was writing for posterity. Unfortunately his literary popularity would grow to an immense size after his premature death (he died at 50 years old) and it makes one wonder had he been alive to experience how much his work is now respected around the world how he would have dealt with it all. The book could have delved into his work a bit more than it does but this was more about the man himself and what drove him to produce the work he did. For fans, it’s an absolute must but perhaps one day a more in depth biography will emerge that explores his work more thoroughly. For now, this is the best we have. Get reading.

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"Woman In Darkness" by Luisge Martin

If you’re a writer, you often hear about what one “isn’t supposed to do” with regard to the narrative and these little rules often turn many a novel into the same-old, same-old. What draws me to Luisge Martin as a novelist is the fact that he is more than willing to do what he sees fit and that is precisely what he does with his amazing novel “Woman In Darkness”. It’s a story about shadows, hidden identities, secrets, mysteries and how the pursuit of them can cause one to spiral down towards unknown depths.


The novel begins with a man named Guillermo, whose real name happens to be Segismundo. He meets an American woman named Nicole, who eventually renames herself Olivia when a horrible accident that took the life of her friend makes her literally unable to leave Madrid. She and Guillermo begin seeing one another and eventually get married and have their first child. Life looks good for them. Enter Eusebio, a close friend of Guillermo’s. Over coffee one day, Guillermo confesses that he has been seeing another woman. Not just any woman, but a dominatrix named Marcia. This disturbs Eusebio and although he tries not to judge his friend, he can’t help thinking about the stories he had been told. How could Guillermo do such a thing when he has a wife and child at home? Not long after this meeting, Guillermo is killed in a bad car accident, again tearing away someone close to Olivia. Eusebio goes to his friend’s funeral but keeps himself in the background, observing Guillermo’s wife, harboring the dark secret he had been told.


Eusebio, even after months of learning the story, is still obsessing on it. Eusebio is the main protagonist in this novel, an interesting change of pace being that the first chapter focuses on Guillermo and Olivia with extreme detail. As soon as the reader becomes comfortable with them, Martin tears them away, turning the focus on Eusebio. Eusebio is a man in his later thirties/early forties. Independently wealthy due to being orphaned at a young age and eventually inheriting a lot of money, he has a lot of time on his hands. He often takes jobs just to give him something to do and as soon as he’s bored with it, he leaves, moves on to something else. He dates many different women, commits to none of them. From early on one could see that he has something of a problem.


Still obsessing about the story Guillermo told him about Marcia, Eusebio begins to troll the online sex sites, looking to see if he could find this “Marcia” with the idea of paying her a visit and giving her the news that Guillermo was dead. But he has something else in mind — to experience what Guillermo experienced. He goes through great lengths to track her down, which he eventually does, but what happens is not what he expects. He meets “Marcia”, whose real name is Julia, and the woman he meets is far from what he imagined her to be. Marcia is beautiful, soft spoken, loving, kind — hardly the image of the dominatrix that Guillermo had painted for him.


Strangely, the two hit it off and Eusebio begins to date her and Julia (“Marcia”) eventually falls in love with him. Their relationship is like any other and Julia betrays no hints of her sado-masochistic alter ego. Obsessed with trying to discover why, Eusebio begins on a venture to find out and little by little he finds himself sinking into the depths of human depravity — getting more involved with people he meets in the sex chat rooms (including a neighbor of Julia’s who has a penchant for underage boys and girls). He begins to obsessively follow Julia, watching her every move: where she goes, who she hangs out with, all in an attempt to find the mysterious “Marcia” lurking beneath the soft and loving Julia and does so with the skill of a private detective. He goes as far as writing letters to “Marica” taking on the role of Guillermo in order to see how she reacts to them. Even still, “Marcia” remains elusive. Eusebio, meanwhile, sinks further and further into the sexual underground until he himself is brought up to a line that he isn’t sure he is willing to cross.


What I find interesting about this novel more than anything else is the way it twists and turns. Just when you think it’s going one way, an abrupt about face takes place, sending the story careening down another path entirely. The reader does not see any of what happens coming. Not by a long shot, and this is what makes this novel the amazing read that it is. Brilliantly written, expertly plotted, it keeps readers on their toes, all with enough tension and intrigue of a great detective novel. However it is very dark and not for the prudish or feint of heart. There are a lot of disturbing scenes here and the reader will grow to dislike Eusebio the further he spirals out of control.


Translated by Michael McDevitt

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"The Faint-hearted Bolshevik" by Lorenzo Silva

Who says the protagonist of a novel has to be “likable” in order for the novel to be enjoyable? Javier, the protagonist of this short but disturbing novel, isn’t very likable. He’s cynical, nihilistic, and vindictive, though at times he does show a more softer side. However, we are introduced to him as he’s driving to work on one of those Mondays all nine-to-fivers hate. As he gripes about the coming work day (while listening to Judas Priest on high volume), he accidentally rear ends a young woman’s car in front of him. A momentary lapse which only furthers his frustrations for a Monday morning he already despises. The woman in front of him — Sonsoles — is livid, insulting Javier for his incompetence and an argument ensues. Javier reveals to the reader his hatred for Sonsoles, based purely on her class: she’s driving a convertible, her appearance indicating wealth. Not that Sonsoles is a nice woman herself. The two bicker back and forth as the policeman takes down their information and soon both are on their way. However the incident sticks in Javier’s craw, a slow burn. He decides he’s going to spend the rest of the summer making Sonsoles’s life a living hell.


It begins innocently enough with a few harmless prank phone calls but it soon escalates. It isn’t long before he’s stalking her around Madrid. It is during one of these stalking sessions where he sees Sonsoles pick up a beautiful teenage girl in front of a school who he initially mistakes for Sonsoles’s daughter. After more prank phone calls he soon learns that the teenage girl, Rosana, is Sonsoles’s younger sister. Her appearance in the story unlocks Javier’s most base instincts and he soon finds himself on a path which could only lead to trouble. How can one unfortunate incident and one man’s bad choices lead to such tragic consequences? Javier’s vindictiveness, cynicism and nihilism pushes him further down this dangerous path as he begins to court Rosana, feeling himself weakening in her presence, pursuing the young Rosana. What exactly does he hope to gain by this?


Putting himself in the place of the Bolshevik hired to kill the Grand Duchess Olga (one of the last Tsar’s daughters; a photo of which Javier keeps on his desk at home), he ruminates on how he could understand how the Bolshevik fell in love with her before having to kill her and it forces Javier to confront his own most primitive instincts. Pursuing this impossible affair, he struggles with his inner conflict as well as the frustrations of the middle-aged man in a contemporary consumerist society. Economics and class surrounds nearly everything, from the type of cars people drive, the clothes they wear, the type of schools they attend, the careers they have.


Javier feels like a “have not”, despite his office job at a bank, and as he begins to relate to the Bolshevik who was tasked with the deed of killing the Grand Duchess Olga, an unexpected twist occurs which will alter his life forever, a twist that occurs just when Javier begins to come to his senses. It’s a highly suspenseful novel and a devastating critique on the modern work place and the values of a materialist, capitalist society, where more often than not a man’s worth is measured by what he has (or doesn’t have).


Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Isabelle Kaufeler 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"The Blind Fisherman" by Mia Couto

From Mozambique. A collection of short stories which were originally issued as two separate books, Voices Made Night (1990) and Every Man Is A Race (1994). This is my first sampling of Couto’s work and these short stories are very interesting reads to say the least. The stories from Voices are steeped in magical realism and African folklore while those in Every Man tend to have a more explicit political message. Many of these stories mine Mozambican history, from colonization to their bloody civi war to independence from Portugal. The issue of race is paramount in many of these stories and how the indigenous population were treated by their Portuguese colonizers. The stories that don’t necessarily have a political edge to them (or at least none that I can see) are surrealistic, folkloric tales which takes reality and turns it on its head for a most enjoyable experience.


The stories that stood out for me were The Fire, where an old man digs a grave for his still living wife in the pouring rain and once he completes it realizes he must kill her in order to justify all his hard work; The Talking Raven’s Last Warning, in which a villager vomits up a raven who protects its owner and threatens to curse the entire village; The Whales of Quissico, where a rural villager is accused of working with the rebels after claiming repeated sightings of a giant whale beaching itself and offering gifts; The Barber’s Most Famous Customer where a rural barber’s lie about cutting the hair of a famous American celebrity attracts the unwanted attention from the authorities; Rosa Carmela, the story of an ugly hunchback woman told by a man who grew up in the same village who discovers she may be closer to him that he ever realized; The Bird Dreaming Baobab, a black street merchants who sells birds earns the love from the neighborhood children but angers the white adults over the fact that he dared even enter their neighborhood; and The Rise of Joao Bate-Certo, about a boy who builds a ladder to the sky to collect clouds in order to help his ill mother.


After reading this I am curious to delve into his novels. A fantastic introduction to a fantastic writer. Highly recommended.

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com

"The Drug Of Art" by Ivan Blatný

Czech poet Ivan Blatný, like many of his contemporaries, found himself in exile after he was “officially banned” by the communist regime in the late 1940s. Declared dead on Czech radio, his poetry was forever banished and he went to spend the rest of his life in obscurity in England where he continued to write but found no publishers for his work. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that some of his work began to find a home in publications such as samizdat and other exile publishers but it wasn’t until 1989 that his work would appear in his home country again.


The last years of his life were spent in an English mental institution, where he continued to write, much of which was tossed by the staff for being the mere ramblings of a mentally ill patient. Luckily some of his work survived and this volume seeks to make that available for a contemporary audience.


Like a lot of Czech poetry and literature from this time, much of the work is surrealistic and experimental. Many of the early poems are about his childhood on Czechoslovakia and his later work experiments with multilingual poems, incorporating Czech, French, and English all in the same work. For me, the work is uneven. Some are not so great. The one’s that work (for me) would rival any poem from his contemporaries, such as Funeral Music, which reads:


Houses of ill repute with clients

a new shepherd in town is looking for them

he asks me for directions, like in Jirasek’s The Lantern

the right of the torchbearer


You must scrub the floor of the lavatory all naked

on your hands and knees even melody.


And Janua Sapientiae:


The Monx speak Monx I speak czech and english

I have an instrument for getting traffic-wordens out of the drain-pipes

and changing them into an apple-rose

It all happens in time-space when the traffic warden is already out

we can hear the noise.


There’s a tragic story behind these works and luckily his work managed to survive him despite the hardships he had to endure for the majority of his life. It is a peek inside the mind of a virtually unknown poet who struggled like the rest of us to be heard. Thankfully someone allowed us to. 

Source: http://www.juliangallo66.blogspot.com