The Word Wrangler

Writer. Editor. Reviewer.


December 2011

Review of Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This title was billed to me as the thinking person’s zombie novel, released in time for Halloween to match the zeitgeist. Now I usually don’t pick up zombie novels and I’m less than thrilled by zombie games (though Left for Dead is a superb game) but I think that billing Zone One as a zombie novel is a bit of misdirection. I know that literary works generally don’t enjoy the sales of genre novels, so from a marketing point of view I can see why its being lumped with said undead novels.

But the zombies play a background part, and I would argue that New York is a bigger character than most in the novel. In brief, we follow Mark Spitz, a member of a sweeper team whose job it is to kill off the remainder of skels (zombies) and stragglers (zombies who just repeat the same action over and over until they get shot) that the marines left behind after the initial wipeout. Amongst their sweeps through battered, post-apocalyptic New York, they struggle with PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome) and what it means to rebuild their lives amongst a hopelessly destroyed world trying to reassert itself with mantras and desperate hope. This is where it starts to get deliciously literary and less cheap paperback thrills. New York looms always in the landscape, and the novel is an exploration of our lives as we know it, including the subways and human relations and how people might react when most of the world turns into monsters.

This is not like most novels, with a clear path of action and a conclusive happy ending. This is a languid stroll through psyche and city, lifting the rocks where fears and dreams live and how people ultimately strive for some kind of hope. The camps where triplets are born and crops are being raised are the best, grandest hopes that the survivors have. It is a sharp-eyed view of America in the style of Chuck Paulahnuik but less visercal, perhaps. Whitehead is definitely a literary voice with huge accessibility. The descriptions of life before Last Night (when the world turned) make for superb social commentary without it being obvious. The survivor’s mind is explored in depth, encouraging the reader to ask what they would do when in a house surrounded by hundreds of zombies shuffling around it for days and days.

Overall, Zone One is that kind of novel that feels like a hot bath in winter. Wonderful to immerse in, and with no other reason than because its a fine way to pass the time. There’s no heart-pounding action or sweeping romance (or any of those tired adjectival phrases that so litter book blurbs) but nonetheless it was a rewarding and thought-provoking read.

Read more about Colson Whitehead and this novel here at The Atlantic

The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards

The Bad Sex Award is definitely not as prestigious as the Man Booker Prize, but it is one of the most popular awards in the literary calender. Established by Auberon Waugh in 1993 ‘to highlight – and hopefully discourage – the “crude, tasteless, and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in contemporary novels”‘, the Bad Sex Award has become also notorious for its rather snide awards ceremony. When Rowan Somerville won last year, he had this to say about receiving the award for The Shape of Her:

In October, well before the shortlist was announced, an article by Susana Rustin in the Guardian had quoted me criticising the Bad Sex award: “It reminds me of a bunch of sniggering sixth-formers in the back of the class. There’s a kind of English notion of sexuality that I wish we could get away from, it’s Benny Hill, it’s page 3 …”

Despite the magazine’s assertion that “it’s only a bit of fun” there’s an atmosphere of bullying peculiar to public schools about the whole thing. If you decline to show up, like the excellent Sebastian Faulks, they harangue you for years.

One wonders what this year’s winner, David Guterson, will undergo at the ceremony. You can read the extracts from Ed King that landed him this prize here.

Ed King by David Guterson

I read all the extracts (it behooves a bookseller to do so) and to be honest, I really thought that Christos Tsolkas would have won for his hugely grotesque descriptions. I would rather not put this blog on some kind of predator watchlist by posting extracts from Dead Europe, but you can read them here.

While I think that gratuitious sex scenes are exactly that, I’m not so sure that some of the extracts (listed below) really count as ‘bad sex’. We can argue all day what constitutes bad sex (and please do so with me in the comments thread!) but the Bad Sex award seems determined to punish clumsy writing more than actual sex scenes. If I were to offer a definition, I’d say a bad sex scene would be one that has no place being there and stands outside the general style of the novel itself. Like throwing in fifteen gang bangs in the middle of a Miss Marple tale, for example. Or some pedestrian, tired new parent sex in the heart of a chainsaw massacre story.  But most of the scenes are just bad writing more than actual bad sex, and reflect on the rest of the novel. Auel’s extract sounds like something my grandmother would write if she weren’t quite so British; its not really bad sex like Mills and Boon produces on a weekly basis.

The other nominations included literary heavyweight Murakami for 1Q84 and the monarch of horror Stephen King for11.22.63; their extracts can be found here and here. Also nominated:

The award generates controversy and publicity for the books, which Rowan Somerville found himself pleasantly surprised by. The Shape of Her had mostly disappeared before the award nominations went in.
But let’s be frank … this ridiculous award had put my novel in newspapers and websites across the world and although, when the deputy editor of the mag emailed me to ask if I’d enjoyed the party, I replied “as much as a televised visit to a proctologist”, I don’t think the publicity is going to do me, or the book, any harm either. So although it surprises me to say it, I am very grateful to them.
For more reading around the Bad Sex award, there’s Alistair Campbell’s article about why he wants to win the Bad Sex Award, the need for a Good Sex Award and why men write such bad sex scenes.
Originally posted here at the Blog (by me) and adapted with product lists. Buy the books and support your local bookstores where possible.  

The Closing of Boekehuis

It was only a matter of time, really, but Naspers has announced that they will be closing down Boekehuis at the end of January 2012.

Naspers, henceforth known as the evil empire, has informed Boekehuis in Johannesburg that they intend closing that fine bookshop at the end of January 2012. Despite raking in billions, they contend that they are closing Boekehuis because it is not profitable. Such short-sightedness stupifies one. Boekehuis is a literary haven in Johannesburg, a forum for the free exchange of ideas. As such we will all be immeasurably impoverished by its closure. Protest against the decision and messages of support for the shop have been streaming in since the announcement, including those from Mark Gevisser, Albie Sachs, Edwin Cameron, Zakes Mda, Achile Mbembe and Evita Bezuidenhout, amongst many others.

Tall Stories Bookshop Blog

The link above leads to a far more eloquent and passionate defence of Boekehuis and other institutions like it than I could ever hope to manage, but I share the sentiment.

And the sad thing is, its not as though Boekehuis has been quietly rotting away, unattended and unloved. It has had people in it, it has been busy. But perhaps Naspers cannot see the value for the bottom line. I’m fairly sure Boekehuis can support itself, though it may not turn much profit. And while this is a blasphemous suggestion to make in this capitalist world, maybe that’s all it needs to do. It just needs to support itself. It does not need to make mega-bucks; indeed that is not its purpose. Boekehuis has evolved beyond the tawdry exchange of coins and notes; it has become a home for literary expression, a watering hole for the minds of Joburg that have sought the cool waters of knowledge and sexy prose. That such a venerable institution is being so summarily shut down is as saddening as it is pathetic.

I will keep all readers posted if there are any petitions or motions to save Boekehuis. In the meantime, don’t forget to support your local bookstore, especially the Mom & Pop stores that are closing down quietly.

Wonder by RJ Palacio

Like My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, this title surprised me with the depths of its wisdom considering its guise as a book for pre-teens. I’m going to call these books ‘Sneaky Adult Favourites’.

August Pullman, or Auggie as he is called by his loved ones, was born with a facial deformity that causes kids to ask him if he was in a fire, or if he’s a zombie. A Star Wars fanatic, Auggie also spent two years wearing an astronaut helmet in an attempt to hide his face. At the suggestion of his parents, he decides to leave homeschooling and go to fifth grade. Supported by his remarkable family, the first half of the story is narrated through Auggie’s eyes. Worse than the intentional cruelty of some of the kids (like naming him the Plague and refusing to touch him) is the fake friendliness of some of the teachers and the students, with their ‘shiny’ smiles. The rudeness, Auggie knows and can try to ignore; it’s the false smiles and quick looks away that hurt as much. There’s no anger, just frustration that might be expected of any small boy when so few will be his friend. The reader is also treated to multiple narrators in their own sections, creating a wonderfully multi-faceted story.

The major theme of the novel is ‘be kinder than is necessary’, something that definitely should have pride of place in not just a children’s novel, but in any novel. I struggled to get into it initially, since I was expecting some emotional manipulation with ‘he is deformed, take pity, for shame!’ After all, the book arrived at the office with a packet of tissues attached. But it isn’t manipulative or woeful; just sweetly honest. There are all the castmembers of childhood; kind teachers, bullies, nerds, popular groups, jocks, mean girls. Auggie navigates them all, and gets a little help from his friends.

So often, books focus on cruelty and pain, and I would never be so trite to say that life does not deal vast amounts of unfairness on a daily basis to people who don’t deserve it. But it is something of a joy to read a book that celebrates the potential for kindness in everyone. I cried, I laughed, and I loved the characters in their development. I especially loved the line “I think that there should be a rule that everyone should get a standing ovation at least once” from Auggie. This is definitely going to be a hit with the parents that borrow this from their kids once lights are out.

Wonder will be available in March.

If you liked this, then try: 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece 

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