SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris – Review

Santaland DiariesDavid Sedaris

Abacus (2006, first published 1999), 138 pages

Unknown Bookshop, €10

Country: USA  USA

This slim volume contains five pieces (three fiction and two non-fiction) that capture Sedaris’  characteristic biting satire (with a sweet centre).  It is the two non-fiction tales, “SantaLand Diaries” and “Dinah. the Christmas Whore” that  stand out.  “SantaLand Diaries” describe Sedaris’ job as a Christmas elf at Macy’s.  Sedaris was thirty-three when he started the job and he manages to retain a sense of optimism few others could muster at having to dress as an elf for money.  Sedaris recounts the bizarre behaviour of parents, their children, other elves and the various Santas.  Sedaris witnesses racist parents, he trys to keep his cool as a child repeatedly throws a quarter at him, and a Santa who refuses to ever act as anyone other than Santa.  In between all the madness Sedaris succeeds in showing that for all the strangeness there is also genuine hard work and love by the workers for the SantaLand visitors.   Some workers show great kindness to disabled children and recognise the importance of their lowly paid job to the SantaLand visitors.

“Dinah, the Christmas Whore” goes back to Sedaris’ teenage years and he is shocked to discover a new side to his sister when she rescues a prostitute from her drunken boyfriend.  It is Sedaris’ Wildean eye for the surreal details of human behaviour that sets him apart from most writers.  The background details always take second place to the descriptions of his characters.  Dinah’s drunken boyfriend is comically evoked, “He was dressed casually in briefs and a soiled T-shirt and had thin hairless legs the color and pebbled texture of a store-bought chicken.  We had obviously interrupted some rite of unhappiness, something that involved shouting obscenities while pounding upon a locked door with a white-tasseled loafer.” (p.83-84)

The other three stories are amusing and satirically originally but lack the punch of his two non-fiction pieces.  There has been some criticism that Sedaris’ anecdotes take certain liberties with the facts.  This misses the whole point of anecdotes.  No reader is actually expecting every detail of Sedaris’ writings to stand up in a court of law.  Sedaris has a unique view of life and the strange behaviour of the human animals that roam the surface of the earth.  A well told humorous tale will contain a  certain element of exaggeration and caricature.

SantaLand Diaries well worth reading for “SantaLand Diaries” alone and makes a perfect gift for Christmas for anyone you know with a biting sense of sarcasm.

7/10

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Books of the Year 2013

I’ve listed my favourite books of the year below.  These are in no particular order and can be any books I’ve read this year, they don’t have to be published in 2013.  If I was lucky enough to have the money to buy every good book as soon as it was published there’d be a few more from 2013!  Feel free to comment on my choices or come up with your own.

The Border Trilogycormac-mccarthy_the-border-trilogy
Cormac McCarthy  USA
Picador (2002)
This is a brilliant triptych which evokes the haunting atmosphere of a dying breed of cowboys living near the US/Mexico border.  Despite being a weighty tome at over a thousand pages it’s hard to put down.

Nothing to Envynothing to envy: Real Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick  USA
Granta Books (2010)
An astonishing journey into North Korea told through the lives of six escapees.  This book shines a light onto the world’s darkest country.  A fascinating insight which shows that even the DPRK government can’t resist change forever.

City of Bohanecity of bohane
Kevin Barry  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg
Vintage (2010)
This is perhaps my favourite Irish book of the year. It has a unique rhythm of language and graphic model imagery. It also won the world’s richest literary prize, the 2013 Dublin Impac Award.

FreedomFreedom
Jonathan Franzen  USA
Fourth Estate (2010)
An epic look at the journey made by one family as they struggle to cope with the freedoms offered by modern America and the consequnces of their actions for themselves, their family, and society as a whole.

14931493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology, and Life on Earth
Charles C. Mann USA
Granta Books (2011)
A great look at the results of the Columbian Exchange, when the Western world came in contact with the Americas, Asia, and Africa for the first time. Written with Brysonesque flair this book is full of fasacinating facts and insights.

The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Amthe faster i walk
Kjersti A. Skomsvold  Norway.svg
Dalkey Archive Press (2011)
Shortlisted for the 2013 Impac Dublin Literary Award this book explores the life of an eldery woman with a wry sense of humour. A high quality debut that captures loneliness perfectly. Few novels deal with aging so sympathetically.

Ulysses and UsUlyssesAndUS: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece
Declan Kiberd  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg
Faber and Faber (2010)
This book is vital for anyone who has read Ulysses, is reading Ulysses, or will read Ulysses! Kiberd shows that Joyce’s book really is for everyone as well as offering countless insights and original readings of the book.

The Castlethe castle
Franz Kafka  Czech_Republic.svg  Austria-Hungary_1869-1918.svg  (translated by J.A. Underwood)
Penguin Classics (1926, first published as Das Schloß)
I think I preferred the Willa and Edwin Muir translation but this is still an astonishing work. Kafka’s vision of a senseless all pervasive bureaucracy is filled with black humour and is still as relevant in this century as the last one.

Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and MemoryParis 1961
Jim House & Neil McMaster  England
Oxford Universtiy Press (2006)
An astonshing book detailing the still little known massacre of Algerians in modern Paris. This book documents how parts of the French authorities lost their souls making Algeria and life for Algerians in France a living hell.

Berlin: The DownfallBerlin 1945
Antony Beevor  England
Penguin (2002)
This is the first Antony Beevor book I’ve read and he is a master at combining historical research with fastpaced narrative. Berlin has been criticised for being anti-Soviet but Beevor’s arguments are convincing.

Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never WillAtlas of Remote Islands
Judith Schalansky  Germany
Particular Books (2010, first published as Atlas der abgelegenen Insein in 2009)
This book brings out the inner child explorer in every reader. Beautiful maps of islands which have fallen between the cracks of history are brought to life with fascinating, and sometimes disturbing, tales.

100 Famous Views of Edo100 Views of Edo
Hiroshige  広重  Japan  (editors Melanie Trede & Lorenz Bichler)
Taschen (1856)
This is a beautiful book, from its wonderful binding to the beauty of its contents. The editors have done an excellent job in providing context and descriptions of each of Hiroshige’s fantastic woodblock prints.

The Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1990Diary of Edward
Miriam Elia & Ezra Elia  England
Boxtree (2012)
A hilarious look at the brief, yet sporadically productive, life of a rodent trying to search for a meaning to his life.  Be warned!  You’ll never look at a pet hamster the same way ever again.

Empress Dowager CixiCixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China
Jung Chang  張戎  China
Jonathan Cape (2013)
Chang is a powerful storyteller and her historical subjects come to life on the page. It’s fascinating to see Cixi’s modernisation of China in a male dominated society in light of the current regime’s attempts to hold onto power through gradual reforms.

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939Battle for Spain
Antony Beevor  England
Penguin (2006)
A comprehensive and balanced study of the Spanish Civil War.  Beevor manages to make the key events comprehensible without resorting to simplifcation.  The Spanish Civil War’s shadow still looms large over Spanish society and this book is vital to anyone wanting to shed light on the subject.

Nelson Mandela – An African Revolutionary

NM

The death of Nelson Mandela will be greeted with sadness but it must also be taken as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of one of the truly great individuals of the last hundred years.  Mandela was, first and foremost, a revolutionary.  There has been a tendency in recent years to portray him as a grandfatherly figure but Mandela was no saint, he was a fighter.  He was also man with a great sense of humour and a mischevious streak who, once when George W. Bush asked him what he would like to drink replied, with a wry smile, “Cuban rum”!  It must also not be forgotten that the USA, under Ronald Reagan, Britain, under Margret Thatcher, and Israel, were deeply suspicious of the left-wing ANC.  Reagan vetoed anti-apartheid legislation in 1986.  Thatcher, who had an inability to see the human side of any story, opposed sanctions as they flew in the face of free trade and she described the ANC as terrorists.  Israel was instrumental in providing the expertise that allowed the apartheid regime to develop nuclear weapons.

A lawyer by training, Mandela first tried to use peaceful means through the African National Congress (ANC) to challenge the racist apartheid government.  Initially Mandela favoured a black only solution to tackling the authorities but soon saw the importance of forming a united front with anyone who was willing to challenge the government whether they were black, white, communist, or Indian.  When the racist National Party proved unwilling to alter its course, Mandela saw the necessity of using violence to overthrow the government.  In 1961 he was involved in establishing the guerrilla group Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” or MK).  MK was modelled on Cuban revolutionary groups and had a communist outlook.  MK used sabotage tactics including bombing government infrastructure (such a telephone and transport links) in an attempt to exert pressure on the National Party.  In 1962 Mandela travelled around Africa as the ANC’s representative.  He met left-wing African leaders such as Nasser of Egypt, Bourguiba of Tunisia, Sékou Touré of Guinea, as well as Ethiopia’s Haile Selaisse.  In 1962 Mandela was sentenced to five years imprisonment for leaving South Africa without permission and inciting strikes.  The following year evidence was uncovered linking Mandela and others to MK and they were sentenced to life imprisonment.  Mandela was to remain in prison until 1990.

nelson-mandela-by-eli-weinberg-1961-ii

Following Mandela’s release from prison he helped to engineer the end of the apartheid era with international support and the more moderate National Party leadership under F.W. de Klerk.  After the ANC’s victory in the 1994 elections Mandela became South Africa’s first black President.  Perhaps Mandela’s greatest presidential achievements were successfully preventing widespread revenge attacks on white South Africans.  Given the history of twentieth century South Africa it would have been easy for a firebrand politician to stir up Rwandaesque ethnic attacks.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was also a great success and offers a potential path for conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and other areas grappling with post-conflict societies.  It was Mandela’s intelligence, warmth, gentle charisma, and ability to see the humanity, even in his political opponents, that enabled him to successfully steer post-apartheid South Africa through it’s early years.  Of course South Africa today still suffers from poverty, crime, the AIDs pandemic, corruption, and poor policing, but Mandela still offers a template for how a good person can improve a country for the better.  Hopefully the scores of politicians, South African and international, that will pay to tribute to Mandela in the coming days will take on board his message and not merely try to bask in the light of Mandela’s many achievements.

file-pics-nelson-mandela-has-died-8-630x413

Credit: Photocall Ireland

From an Irish perspective the Irish people were generally opposed to the apartheid regime but we were slow to introduce comprehensive sanctions.  It was the strike by Dunnes Stores workers in 1984, who refused to handle South African fruit and vegetables, that ultimately led to the Irish government agreeing to ban the importation of all South African fruit and vegetables.  Mandela angered Thatcher by suggesting in 1990 that the British government should talk to the IRA to end the conflict in the North.  He said, “I would like to see the British government and the IRA adopt precisely the line we have taken.  There’s nothing better than opposites sitting down to resolve problems by peaceful means.”  History has proven Mandela to be correct.  In the 1980s Queens University Belfast Students’ Union named it’s main entertainment venue, “Mandela Hall”.  Mandela was given the Freedom of the City of Dublin while still a prisoner in 1988.  Following his release from prison he visited Ireland three times.  Mandela’s most memorable visit to Ireland was when he opened the Special Olympics in front of over 80,000 people in Croke Park in 2003 but perhaps his most stirring comments on Irish history, past and future, were spoken to the Dáil in 1990,

The very fact that there is today an independent Irish State, however long it took to realise the noble goals of the Irish people by bringing it into being, confirms that we too shall become a free people; we too shall have a country which will, as the great Irish patriots said in the proclamation of 1916, cherish all the children of the nation equally.

The outstanding Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, has written that too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. He spoke thus because he could feel within himself the pain of the suffering that Irish men and women of conscience had had to endure in centuries of struggle against an unrelenting tyranny. But then he also spoke of love, of the love of those whose warm hearts the oppressors sought to turn to stone, the love of their country and people, and, in the end the love of humanity itself.

For three quarters of a century, under the leadership of the ANC, our own people have themselves confronted a racist tyranny which grew more stubborn with each passing day. It had to be our lot that even as we refused to take up arms to save lives, we still had to bury many martyrs who were shot down or tortured to death simply because they dared to cry freedom.

The apartheid system has killed countless numbers, not only in our country but throughout Southern Africa. It has condemned to the gallows some of the best sons of our people. It has imprisoned some and driven others into exile. Even those whose only desire was to live, have had their lives cut short because apartheid means the systematic and conscious deprivation and impoverishment of the black millions.
It could have been that our own hearts turned to stone. It could have been that we inscribed vengeance on our banners of battle and resolved to meet brutality with brutality. But we understood that oppression dehumanises the oppressor as it hurts the oppressed. We understood that to emulate the barbarity of the tyrant would also transform us into savages. We knew that we would sully and degrade our cause if we allowed that it should, at any stage, borrow anything from the practices of the oppressor. We had to refuse that our long sacrifice should make a stone of our hearts.

Strangers by Taichi Yamada – Review

StrangersTaichi Yamada  山田 太一

Translated from the Japanese by Wayne P. Lammers

Faber and Faber (2006), 203 pages

Country: Japan  Japan

Awards: Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize (山本周五郎賞) Winner 1988

Originally published as Ijin-tachi to no Natsu, 異人たちとの夏, in 1987

I love Japanese fiction.  I love the clearness of the prose, it’s ability to make the ordinary seem incredibly strange and terrifying.  In film form The Ring is perhaps the classic example of this skill.  A commonplace modern object, the video cassette tape, is transformed into a terrifying vehicle of death.  Like many people my favourite Japanese author is Haruki Murakami.  The mundane and the miraculous mesh seamlessly in his novels.  Japanese authors seem to have the amazing ability to allow the reader to suspend disbelief in a way that doesn’t seem forced.  The universes they create are wonderfully elegant, their simplicity belies the deeper meanings hidden within.

Sensoji-Temple-Tokyo

Strangers also finds the extraordinary in the everyday modern world but in this case the ghosts are the protagonist’s (Harada) parents.  The story is a first person narrative with only a few main characters.  Yamada successfully makes an apartment block seem the perfect location for a ghost story as it emerges that there are only two residents in the building at night.  Harada is a scriptwriter struggling to come to terms with his divorce and his best friend’s (Mamiya) admission that he wants to start seeing Harada’s ex-wife.  Harada’s existence is portrayed as a lonely one as he struggles to find an identity as a solitary person in Tokyo.  Harada was orphaned as a child and rarely sees his own son.  Perhaps due to the stress of his divorce Harada begins to develop a relationship with the ghosts of his dead parents.  But this relationship is seen to have a physical cost.  Straddling the border between life and death is shown to have physical consequences for Harada.  He also starts a relationship with Kei, the only other night time resident of the apartment block.  Yamada explores the effect that the unresolved past can have on the present and how the modern world has altered the notion of familial security.

Strangers ends with a surprising twist that makes the reader question all the events that have gone before.  It’s also a love story of sorts as Harada bonds with his parents and begins to fall in love with Kei.  Despite the dark subject matter Strangers is never depressing.  For fans of Japanese literature Strangers is definitely worth a look.

8/10

Related Links: JLit, Books from Japan – Website dedicated to Japanese literature