Turn, Magic Wheel

I received this book from a coworker as a gift nearly three years ago. Respecting both her and her taste, I was ready for a literary gem. Well, unsurprisingly, I intended to read it right away and then three years went by before it popped into my head for some reason or another (most likely because of the rather delightful cover which is rather memorable in my mind), and I started reading it without glancing at the back cover for a reminder as to its topic. My opinion holds firm -- this was quite a delightful book.

Turn, Magic Wheel is one of Dawn Powell's New York novels and she personally considered this her best work. The plot is this: Dennis Orphen has written a novel about a woman, left by her famous author husband -- cannibalizing the life of his friend, Effie Callingham, to do so. Effie is the first wife of Andy Calligham, who has since become a rising star in the literary world, and he left her several years before the start of our story. Despite that, Effie still lives in a world where she is still addressed as "Mrs. Callingham," though no one is deceived, except for Effie. Dennis takes few pains to conceal that his novel is about Effie and Andy Callingham, and our story almost immediately opens with Effie discovering his advance copy of the book, realizing that now the reality of her abandonment will be made public knowledge. This betrayal is one of many in the novel, and arguably, it isn't even the worst thing that one person does to another. A poignant and lovely novel, Turn, Magic Wheel is also a delightfully witty and wicked look at the New York literary scene.

The title of the book comes from Theocritus: "Turn, magic wheel / Bring homeward him I love" which vaguely outlines a bit of what is to be expected in this book. The action hinges on the fact that we spend a great deal of time talking about Andy Callingham, the famous writer (and modeled on Hemingway), but we're all waiting for him to appear, for only with his arrival can we sort anything out.

Powell has created wonderful characters, painfully and beautifully real. One frequently wishes to slap some sense into Dennis; he can be so curious about the lives of others, still be completely wrapped up in his own, and find himself totally flummoxed when the reality of someone else's life actually dawns on him. Somehow, this novel is both a biting satire and yet still an unconventional... I hesitate to use the phrase "love story," but there are elements of that, too.

Certainly, for anyone who loves New York and literature, I think they'll enjoy this novel. Dawn Powell writes about New York as if it's more than just a setting... it's another character, living and breathing around the others, with a life and hum and energy. I'm certainly looking forward to discovering more of Dawn Powell's work, and I'm quite in the debt of my former co-worker for exposing me to her writing.

Also, I might also direct you to a New York Times review of this book, published in 1936. I don't know why this delights me so... perhaps it's simply the idea of the NY Times actually bothering to put its book reviews from the 30s online, but it makes me quite happy.


Death and the Penguin

For some reason, this book caught my eye ages ago, on a table in Barnes and Noble, and I picked it up and knew it would be a Great Book. Three years later, I tucked it into a suitcase and read it in one sitting on the train and while I certainly think it has incredible elements to it, the hype of having it tucked away for a few years meant that I had that sense of wanting something a bit more... but only upon initially closing the book. I don't necessarily read a great deal of existentialist literature, but I quite enjoyed this... particularly the writing style and the characters, and further reflection upon it only seems to improve the work.

The basic plot is this: Viktor is a semi-aspiring writer (who lacks ambition and inspiration) living in post-Soviet Kiev. His only true companion is his pet penguin, Misha. Why does he keep a penguin as a pet? Well, when the zoo could no longer afford to feed some of its animals, it gave them away to those who could (which is a true story). Viktor, having just broken up with his girlfriend, was a bit lonely, and so he took on Misha, and King Penguin. Now, this isn't a story with a talking penguin, so don't think we've gone there. No, Misha simply waddles around the apartment, a bit depressed and lost, so he and Viktor are somewhat alike as we start out in this novel. But then Viktor gets a job writing obituaries - obelisks as the book calls them - for those VIPs in their society who have not yet died, the idea being that these tributes will be on hand when they do. Of course, things aren't always what they seem and just when Viktor appears to find his life settling into something resembling the stereotypical dream of job and family, he discovers that his obelisks are being used as a kind of hit list.

I had tried to get this into my book club for discussion, but no one seemed terribly enthused, which leaves me to muddle through the questions it raises on my own. Naturally, my favorite parts of the novel are with Misha, who became so vivid in my imagination as he moved through the apartment and looked at Viktor with sad eyes. Viktor himself is an interesting character, vacillating between paranoid despair and an ignorant (but actively opting to be ignorant) and childlike contentment. Things tend to fall into his lap (the job, another man's daughter for Viktor to raise, a relationship with the girl's nanny) and he tends to simply accept them, make the most of things, and not question them. One cannot help but ask how much one tends to accept in his/her own life in a similar way as to Viktor... how much benefits us in a "no questions asked" kind of way, even if ours must certainly be a bit different. (When were you last paid $1000 for showing up at a funeral with a penguin?) But the only creature that Viktor seems to have a real connection with is Misha, who came about as a result of an active choice to take on a penguin from the zoo... though perhaps unsurprising since Misha is used as a mirror for Viktor himself throughout the story.

If I knew more about post-Soviet Ukraine, I'm sure I could have gleaned more from the relationship between the media, the government, and the mafia -- or at least beyond the obvious manipulations of them all upon each other. I mean, I was prepared for the drinking and the routine murder from simple historical stereotypes of this period of time. What I can determine is that there's certainly something to be said about entrusting your fate to the mafia rather than the government (which is perhaps why Kurkov's work was banned in Russia), as the mafia seems more capable of caring for you. It seems to make no difference which camp you're in, as life is just as precarious either way, but at least the mafia seems to have the funds capable of caring for your body if not your conscience. Some reviews have called the prose "cold", but I imagine it's simply apt as a voice representative of the Ukraine and its people. An absurdist humor, a resignation to certain goings-on in life, an emphasis on how it's better not to know too much...

No matter what, if I can somehow find Kurkov's other works, I'll certainly be quicker about reading those than I was this one. And you should waste no time in discovering this gem for yourself.


The Song Is You

I must say, I was rather pleased with The Song Is You. It's not that I didn't expect to enjoy this, because I did, but I also expected to feel like it was missing a small something. That's how I felt about Prague and The Egyptologist, both works that I enjoyed, but ultimately finished feeling a teensy bit dissatisfied (and also feeling like they went on just a touch too long). No matter what, though, I still really enjoy Phillips' writing style -- which is why I keep reading his stuff. When LibraryThing listed The Song Is You as an early reviewer's option for the monthly books they offer for free, I threw my hat into the ring and snagged a copy. (Oddly enough, the day I received it in the mail, my friend who gets free books via a literary site that he runs, also offered me a copy, which I passed along to another friend.)

I began reading this without the faintest idea of the plot, beyond a vague knowledge that it must have something to do with music and a relationship. The title supplied me with the music idea and the cover (featuring a young man and a young woman) suggested the relationship bit. That's it. So perhaps I shouldn't summarize the plot, but suggest that you, too, should take a chance on this and just read and fall into it. Perhaps, but I won't. Instead, I'll provide a hazy sketch, because really, the plot is a bit hazy, too -- in a good way. Our main character is named Julian and the book focuses on his relationship to music in his life, and his relationships with two other women. To a great degree, the novel portrays people whose relationship to music can often be seen as a means of pushing back on actual human interactions and how music can be more than just the background soundtrack. The novel starts with a scene involving Julian's father at a Billie Holiday concert. Sure, this was the concert where his future wife and mother of his children was seated beside him, but above all, the siren and her music meant so much that it seems to overpower even the events set into motion on that night. Julian is instilled with a great respect for music, raised by a widowed father alongside an older and antisocial brother. He marries, he has a child, that child tragically dies, and his marriage essentially ends, though the final divorce decree has not yet come down. And then Julian is introduced to a new siren, an Irish redhead whose fame is growing, and they become involved in an intricate dance of longing for connection.

The book jacket calls one's attention to the fact that Phillips is a writer for people who both think and feel. And we all know that "think" can often mean "overthink." This particular book is a beautiful portrayal of characters who perhaps aren't looking for romance and meaning, but once it becomes an option, they are hungry to have it, but constantly overthinking in their attempts to create something perfect and potentially lasting.

I shall certainly be recommending this novel to those who have previously enjoyed Phillips' work... and to those who were not perhaps won over, I shall urge them to give it another shot with this, because I think Phillips has really done something remarkable here. The novel shows incredible growth, away from the somewhat arrogant youth of Prague, and while there is a certain indulgence to the melancholy of romance here, the emotions feel real and true. An excellent work, and I shall continue reading whatever Phillips puts out next.


Smilla's Sense of Snow

Oh my goodness. I devoured this book... I actually had to keep it in a separate room so it would be out of my line of sight and I could prolong the reading experience.

A longer review will follow, but here's the basic plot.

In Copenhagen, a young Greenlander boy named Isaiah dies from falling off the roof of his apartment building. Smilla (our narrator and his neighbor, another Greenlander) sees his footprints in the snow and even while the police are ready to declare it an accident, she can tell from his tracks that something isn't right in that ruling. A child -- moreover, a child afraid of heights -- would not run so assuredly towards the edge of the roof. What follows is Smilla's determined search to understand how and why Isaiah died, which takes her far from Copenhagen's snowy streets and into the treacherous ice of Greenland.