Hill by Jean Giono, trans. by Paul Eprile

This slim French novel in a new translation pits humankind against the natural world in moody, lyrical prose.

hill

Hill, Jean Giono’s first novel, won the Prix Brentano in 1929 and has been newly translated into English by Paul Eprile. Focused on the conflict between humans and nature in a tiny French village, the story’s imagery and atmosphere offer a thrilling, disturbing, visceral experience in an unassuming package.

A small Proven├žal hamlet known as the Bastides Blanches (the White Houses), or simply the Bastides, has been for some time slouching back toward a state of nature. In these crumbling houses now live four families comprising a dozen residents–plus one, a mute vagabond they call Gagou, “who throws off the reckoning.” The eldest resident, an old man named Janet, falls ill, takes to his bed, and here the troubles begin: an ill omen is noted, the town’s water supply runs dry, and the surrounding landscape takes on a sinister cast. Janet begins to speak in tongues, and “in the old man’s talk there are chasms where untold powers rumble.” The men of the village meet to strategize as the natural world encircling the Bastides advances.

Hill runs just over 100 pages, but its impact is powerful. Giono sketches his characters sparingly. The character of Gagou presents ominous questions that are left unanswered: Are his differences malevolent, or merely another force of nature? The individualities of human characters are not the point; instead, this story is about the shape of the world, the breadth and agency of nature independent of humankind. Eprile’s translation emphasizes language and a brooding tone. The result is a curious, intriguing novel of wind, earth, water and fire, both threatening and luminous.


This review originally ran in the April 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 purple foams.

Distant Light by Antonio Moresco, trans. by Richard Dixon

A man on a remote mountain puzzles over a mysterious distant light in this gently disquieting novel.

distant light

Antonio Moresco offers an otherworldly story of isolation with Distant Light, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. The unnamed narrator opens with the statement that “I have come here to disappear.” He is the sole resident of an abandoned village in the mountains, and spends his day wandering the ruins of houses, sheds and a cemetery that are fast returning to nature. He contemplates the forces around him, described in sinister terms: evil, savage plants strangling and fighting one another in “this slaughter, this blind and relentless torsion they call life.” While bothered by these thoughts, and the noises of the wild animals, he is most tormented by the mystery of the light across the gorge. Deep in a thick forest, the light comes on each evening at the same time. What could it be–human, bioluminescence, alien?

Distant Light combines poetry and philosophy, and employs a setting both threatening and teeming with life. In a plot where not much happens, with few characters and no names, Moresco nevertheless evokes profound concepts and deep emotions. His quietly anguished protagonist claims to seek seclusion but cannot put down the question of the “maelstrom of little lights.” When the man finally crosses the gorge and meets the small boy living alone in an ancient house, he finds only another puzzle. Lonesome, dreamy, desolate, this is a novel of reflection on humanity’s place in the universe and the fluid relationship between life and death. Patient readers of philosophy will appreciate this brief but deliberately paced meditation.


This review originally ran in the March 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 potholes.

Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong, trans. by Scott E. Myers

A passionate, troubled love affair between two men is set in a time of cultural upheaval, in late 20th-century China.

beijing comrades

Translator Scott E. Myers’s introduction to Beijing Comrades is itself an engrossing story: the tale was originally serialized online, and the author–listed here as Bei Tong, elsewhere as Beijing Comrade, Miss Wang and other names–remains anonymous; Myers does not know Bei’s gender. This is the first English translation and the third version of the novel to be published, combining two previous publications and a new manuscript by Bei with an expanded story and explicit sexual detail.

Beijing Comrades is about Handong, a privileged, successful, egotistical businessman, and Lan Yu, a younger man of modest circumstances. When Lan Yu arrives in Beijing as a student, Handong immediately takes him as a lover. The older man had been accustomed to myriad sexual conquests of both men and women, defined by psychological domination and materialism, but this liaison is different, eventually coming to dominate both men’s lives. Over the years, Handong and Lan Yu strain to reconcile their relationship with a culture in upheaval: late 1980s China, experimenting with capitalism, approaching the Tian’anmen Square protests, increasingly materialistic and anti-gay.

While the dialogue is stylistically inconsistent, reminding readers of the fact of translation, the emotions of the story reinforce its realism. First-person narrator Handong is not always a likable character: he is cynical, profit-driven, fickle in love and often cruel. But these flaws make him credible, and even increase the impact of both men’s anguish.

Beijing Comrades is an important entry in the Chinese historical record as well as a moving, erotic and emotional novel.


This review originally ran in the March 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 dinners out.

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Set during a weekend of pro football reenactment, this sidesplitting novel displays all the baggage of male middle age.

throwback special

The Throwback Special stars a group of middle-aged men gathering for the 16th annual reenactment of a memorable moment in professional football: the 1985 sack, by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, that resulted in a career-ending comminuted compound fracture of the leg for Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. In the hands of Chris Bachelder (Bear v. Shark), this is rich material, by turns poignant and droll.

The 22 men are expertly evoked as individuals, often pathetic but also sympathetic. “It could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.” This is Bachelder’s specialty: the intersection of the absurd with earnest emotion, neuroses lovingly portrayed. The Throwback Special is endlessly hilarious, ranging from the serious, even the existential–it is true of the play, like everything else, that “while it was happening it was ending”–to the shrewdly wise: a seven-page interior monologue about race relations by the group’s one person of color is surprisingly entertaining.

The book takes place over a single weekend, involving a certain amount of action but mostly focused on the men’s thoughts and reflections. In this brief window, Bachelder reveals the magic of professional sport spectating, the silliness and profundity of traditions, and the tender illogic of friendship. Obviously, this novel will attract football fans, but there is absolutely something for everyone (even the sports-averse) in this rollicking, irreverent but sweet human drama.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the March 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 ping pong balls.

Everything I Found on the Beach by Cynan Jones

A profound story in simple packaging tells of three men longing to catch a break, against a desolate backdrop.

everything I found

Cynan Jones’s (The Dig) Everything I Found on the Beach is a remarkable novel, quiet but powerful. Three unacquainted men on the west coast of Wales aspire to better their respective circumstances, and to that end make a series of decisions that have dire consequences. It is a story filled with tension, desperation and stoicism. Patient pacing nonetheless accompanies a relentless momentum, moving toward an ending that inspires dread.

Hold is a Welsh fisherman, consumed by his sense of responsibility. He is dedicated to the natural world and his place in it, carefully balanced and respectful in the hunting and fishing he does for a living. He is devoted to the wife and son of his recently deceased best friend; Hold made a promise to this friend that worries him constantly. His sense of duty begins as rational and admirable, but may end by overwhelming him. Grzegorz is a Polish immigrant who brought his family to Wales for a better life but found disappointment. He works shifts at a slaughterhouse whose practices offend him, and sees little hope of escaping the indignities of shared migrant workers’ housing. If only he could get a little ahead, he thinks, this might have been worth it. Finally there is Stringer, Irish and a middleman in a criminal hierarchy that he feels has taken advantage of him for too long. These men find potential solutions to their problems in a scene on the beach: a boat, a dead man and a package. Hold’s livelihood offers the metaphor of the net: “Once they choose a course, if the net is there, they hit it.”

Jones’s writing is deceptively simple, often employing short, declarative sentences that belie his poetic mastery of language. His words have a marching rhythm to them that recalls Hemingway: “The first time he ever shot rabbits he was alone and it was with a shotgun and he had been looking for a long time….” His tone is deliberate, resolutely unexcitable despite the extraordinarily high stakes of his story, peopled almost entirely by the three men, whose interior monologues do much of the work to characterize them.

Such a bleak story and austere style may sound gloomy, and it is true that this is a serious book that rewards careful reading. But Everything I Found on the Beach is also thought-provoking and somehow uplifting, in its beautiful, artistic consideration of life itself.


This review originally ran in the March 11, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 rabbits.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (audio)

third policemanThis will win the Pagesofjulia Perplexing and Peculiar Award of 2016, which I have just invented.

Flann O’Brien is one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan (he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, or Myles na Gopaleen; Brother Barnabas; etc.). This novel came to me first from this list by the Guardian, and then from my friend Barrett, who bought me O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds when we were traveling in Ireland together several years ago. (I still have not read that one.)

The Third Policeman is not so strictly about bicycles or cycling as the Guardian list had led me to believe; I was quite confused for the first, oh, third or so of the book. Our unnamed narrator is an odd one. He was orphaned, lost a leg, and then returned home from college to find his parents’ pub managed by a man named Divney, who is clearly embezzling from the business. Narrator is quite obsessed with a (fictional) scientist-philosopher named de Selby, about whom he writes a definitive work that he cannot afford to have published. This financial need is set up as his motivation to join in a plot with Divney to rob and murder a neighbor, the wealthy Mathers. After the murder, Divney hides the money, inspiring Narrator to follow him around closely, finally sleeping in the same bed to prevent Divney’s sneaking off to recover the funds alone. Very strange, right? It gets stranger. Narrator meets a figure who is, apparently, the ghost of Mathers; Narrator’s soul speaks up quite suddenly, is named Joe, and becomes an occasional participant in dialog; Narrator hikes off to find a certain police station where he wants to report the theft of a nonexistent watch, thereby seeking clues as to Mathers’s missing money; etc. When we meet the policemen (only two of them, the titular third being absent), we get into the bicycle-related part of the book, but nothing makes any more sense than before. Remember de Selby, Narrator’s obsession? Footnotes throughout discuss his life and work (gradually revealing that he was perhaps less the genius than Narrator would have us think), and, digressively, the lives and petty conflicts of de Selby’s other biographers. WHEW.

The policemen, in turn, are obsessed with bicycles. (Recall this teaser.) Apparently in their world, those who spend too much time on their bicycles become bicycles. You know I loved this part.

This plot, if I may call it that, is every bit as twisted and weird and disconnected as it sounds. Despite all that, it is entertaining, stylish in its own way, and yes, smart. Narrator has a strong voice and personality, strange though he be. The policemen have interesting theories and skills, metaphysical and philosophic. And I have by no means hinted at the central questions of the book yet; there is a final big reveal that makes you think. No spoilers here! and you should avoid them elsewhere to keep The Third Policeman‘s full effect intact.

As far as I can tell, O’Brien gets credit with coining a usage of the word ‘pancake’ for ‘puzzle.’ His policemen use it repeatedly:

It is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes that I have ever known.

…nearly an insoluble pancake…

A very unnatural pancake. A contrary pancake surely…

And thus my rating: this book is a contrary pancake surely.

The real live narrator, who reads this audiobook for us, is Jim Norton, and he does a splendid job. I felt pulled into a surreal world that I enjoyed and giggled at and was occasionally disturbed by. I’m sure I missed two-thirds at least of the opportunities to interpret this work as a piece of philosophy, itself, but I was utterly entertained. The audio format worked well for letting the zaniness just wash over me. It would not be ideal for close reading, of course – never is – but I really appreciated the experience of this audio introduction to Flann O’Brien, or whatever he calls himself, and I will read more. Don’t be too intimidated – just, don’t expect to understand everything you hear. I’m sure O’Brien has been the subject of a few dissertations, and is probably ripe for another, if you’re feeling ambitious.


Rating: 7 pancakes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This is an exceptionally strange one, friends. I got a little confused. This was recommended as one of The Ten Best Books About Cycling. But early pages (hours) were devoted to an odd friendship, an odder murder and reanimation, and the main character’s obsessive devotion to and criticism of a fictional philosopher.

third policeman The plot remains weird, which I have come to accept is partly the point; and now we have got around to bicycles.

“I do not want to be insidious,” he said, “but would you inform me about your arrival in the parish? Surely you had a three-speed gear for the hills?”

“I had no three-speed gear,” I responded rather sharply, “and no two-speed gear and it is also true that I had no bicycle and little or no pump and if I had a lamp itself it would not be necessary if I had no bicycle and there would be no bracket to hang it on.”

“That may be,” said MacCruiskeen, “but likely you were laughed at on the tricycle?”

“I had neither bicycle nor tricycle and I am not a dentist,” I said with severe categorical thoroughness, “and I do not believe in the penny-farthing or the scooter, the velocipede or the tandem-tourer.”

MacCruiskeen got white and shaky and gripped my arm and looked at me intensely.

“In my natural puff,” he said at last, in a strained voice, “I have never encountered a more fantastic epilogue or a queerer story. Surely you are a far-fetched man. To my dying night I will not forget this today morning.”

I am totally tickled, naturally. Stick around, and I will try to illuminate the weirdness for you in my final review. For now: worthwhile.

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