This month's reads

The month's top reads from Ablutions to the Way Through Doors and The Manual of Detection…

This month's reads

The Way Through Doors Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball writes clever, digressive fiction in which the plot forks and mutates to yield multiple new and sometimes interconnected storylines. His latest, The Way Through Doors, opens as a young man named Selah Morse arrives in a slightly antiquated New York office, where his uncle offers him a job in an agency known as the Seventh Ministry (‘We inspect things,’ a colleague mysteriously explains. ‘Our authority is both unlimited and nonexistent.’) One day, he sees a young woman, Mora, get hit by a taxicab and takes her to the hospital, where he poses as her boyfriend. Having suffered a head injury, Mora can’t remember anything. A doctor releases her into Selah’s care, advising him to keep her awake and detail her past experiences in an effort to jolt her memory.
Vintage. Available from Magrudy’s for Dhs65

The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel Yoko Ogawa (trans. Stephen Snyder)

Some people would never be caught dead reading a book about an endearing pet. ‘No cheesy Marleyxploitation for me!’ they sniff. And yet they have no qualms throwing themselves into equally sentimental novels: those in which two apparently mismatched, brainy-but-socially-inept outcasts connect through some kind of highbrow pursuit. Some authors can spin this premise into something that reaches beyond mere clichés (Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog comes to mind), but most only settle into cosy routine.

Such is the case with The Housekeeper and the Professor, in which the former gets to know the latter – and in the process inevitably also learns valuable things about herself, her young son, Root, and the world at large. As if this weren’t enough, Japanese novelist Yoko Ogawa throws in extra added value in the form of a very-now neurological issue: After an accident, the math professor suffers brain damage and his short-term memory is wiped clean every 80 minutes. He keeps track of basic details – such as the fact that he has a housekeeper, for instance – by appending notes to his clothes. One thing that seems to stick, however, is his innate bond with Root.

Ogawa occasionally succeeds in evoking the cosmic beauty of amicable numbers and natural logarithms, the thrill of problem-solving, and the excitement of baseball – a sport apparently enchanting to both children and math brainiacs. But in the end, this isn’t enough to distract us from the underlying formula. Unlike the professor, for whom everything is new again at regular intervals, it’s hard for readers not to be plagued by a constant feeling of déjà vu. Elisabeth Vincentelli
Picador. Available from Magrudy’s for Dhs78

Ablutions Patricia deWitt

Patrick deWitt’s debut novel is the viciously hilarious story of an alcoholic, 32-year-old Hollywood bartender in the midst of a slow and steady downward spiral. Told deftly in the second person – a potentially annoying conceit – deWitt’s portrayal of the drinking life is staunchly unromantic. (Consider him the anti-Bukowski.) The author, an ex-barman himself, poses the book as ‘notes on a novel,’ arranged in short, anecdotal snippets that read like the outline for a future, more elaborate project. This risk could have resulted in an under-realised mess, but the result is an accessible, side-splitting story that never buckles under its apparently haphazard structure. The cast of characters – which include a former child star and various tawdry, characters – adds background to the main narrative of a man whose life and ambition are drowning in an ocean of Jamesons.

Much like a typical dive, Ablutions is rife with sad hookups, occasional brutality and maudlin bursts of emotion. Things get pretty bleak – at one point our besotted hero punches a horse in the face –but don’t mistake this for a cautionary tale about the perils of booze. A more conventional book would find the protagonist bottoming out and moving on, or at least in the redemptive bed of an understanding woman. But deWitt is committed to subverting those clichés: The closest the novel gets to recovery is a road-trip ‘journey of self-discovery’ that finds the bartender shotgunning cans of beer on the highway. But its strange and funny declarations evoke much more than a drinker’s life, and despite its messy topic, the book becomes a welcome rarity: an experimental novel that’s also a page-turner. Scott Indrisek
Houghton Mifflin. Available to order from Magrudy’s

The Manual of Detection Jedediah Berry

Most good detective fiction will keep the reader guessing until the very last page – that ‘Aha!’ moment when the true murderer is revealed and the shabby, hard-talking private dick explains to some mixed-up dame the reasons why things could never work between them. But Jedediah Berry, with his debut The Manual of Detection, almost dares the reader to preemptively figure out the crime at its center by making his meta-novel just what the title implies: each chapter heading offers a new tip on the not-so-gentle art of detective work. And yet even as readers feel close to solving the case, confusion prevails. Intentionally misleading, the advice, one soon learns, is more mysterious than the mystery itself.

The story follows a fastidious clerk named Unwin, who works at a sprawling, monolithic, unnamed agency cataloging case files submitted by the legendary detective Travis Sivart. One day Sivart disappears, and Unwin is suspiciously promoted to the rank of detective, despite his indignant protests. Pretty soon, he’s caught up in a struggle between the forces of chaos (represented by an oddball crime syndicate known as Caligari’s Carnival) and order (the agency), with only his umbrella and his copy of the manual to aid him as he sleuths through this world of good and evil.

Dreams are fair game in this book’s idea of detective work, and Berry offers a fun meditation on the relationship between perception and reality. He has the sleight-of-plot thing down, but one wishes that he would’ve spent a bit more time adding color to his quirky noirish setting. Though the crimes they solve are complex, his characters and their motivations never get beyond the elementary. Drew Toal
Penguin Press. Available from Magrudys for Dhs97

Report on Myself Grégoire Bouillier

Readers were first introduced to Bouillier’s charming descriptions of self-loathing and glee in The Mystery Guest, which details a fraught reconnection with an ex-girlfriend who, after years of silence, calls to invite the writer to a birthday party. Perhaps because its scope includes the hard-to-map territory of childhood, Report on Myself lacks The Mystery Guest’s concentrated manic riffs. But when the book reaches his adulthood, Bouillier vaults from despair to unadulterated joy, at one point treating, with trademark eccentricity, Homer’s Odyssey as a modern-day self-help manual. He’s not an instructive memoirist; there is no ‘Here’s how I learned to love myself’ rhetoric. But Bouillier’s writing is so euphoric that it would be a drag to stop and wonder how he acquires his energy – just be thankful he possesses it.
Michael Miller

There’s an abrupt shifting of gears between the first sentence of Grégoire Bouillier’s memoir Report on Myself – ‘I had a happy childhood’ – and the paragraph that immediately follows, which recalls his mother’s attempt to throw herself from a sixth-floor window. In the hands of most authors, that opening gambit would seem annoyingly cute or sarcastic, but read on and you’ll realize that Bouillier is also being deeply sincere.

This recollection – covering the author’s early years and young adulthood in Algeria and Paris – is shot through with bouts of fugue-state madness and Tristram Shandy–worthy neuroses (at one point, his mom teases him that he was conceived during a ménage à trois, and looks nothing like Bouillier père). At the same time, the book’s prose hums with an infectious enthusiasm. Rarely do authors make humiliation and happiness coexist so cosily.
Mariner. Available from Magrudy’s for Dhs65

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders Daniyal Mueenuddin

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut collection of interconnected stories awakens all the senses, evoking the vibrant sounds, tastes and scents of the countryside outside of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city. Beneath the lush descriptions of jacaranda trees and baked chapatis, however, a somber pulse drives each tale. The common thread running through the book is K.K. Harouni, a prominent landowner with a staff of dozens. Masters and servants alike are motivated by greed and self-interest; often the sympathetic characters fare no better than the despicable ones.

Take, for example, the title character, Saleema, who unexpectedly finds love with a fellow servant only to become separated from him when Harouni dies; she winds up addicted to pills, her son a beggar on the streets. That’s not much worse than the fate that befalls Zainab, who in ‘Provide, Provide; manipulates her married lover, one of Harouni’s overseers, into giving her one of his children to raise when she learns she is barren.

Aside from the book’s knockout first selection, ‘Nawabdin Electrician,’ chosen by Salman Rushdie for 2008’s Best American Short Stories, most of the characters and individual plotlines don’t leave a lasting impression. Instead of building upon each other, Mueenuddin’s stories blend together, circling around the same themes of power and corruption. As a portrait of a feudal society caught between tradition and modernity, the collection succeeds, though one is left with the sense that Mueenuddin could have delved deeper into the psyches of the men and women who inhabit his book. Despite Mueenuddin’s redolent descriptions of Pakistani life, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders never quite achieves literary liftoff. Katie Vagnino
Norton. Available from Magrudy’s for Dhs97

Security Stephen Amidon

Call it wishful thinking, but for a while we were willing to buy the basic romantic trap at the heart of Security, Amidon’s fourth novel. All of the male characters – including the slacker bookstore employee and the creative nonfiction author – are damaged beauties, and women can hardly resist their vulnerable charms.

But it’s an outdated view to tuck into a story riddled with cell phones, laptops, GPS devices and paranoia-perpetuating home-surveillance systems. Ed Inman, owner of Stoneleigh Sentinel home security, serves as the hero of this sluggish moral drama. At the outset, insomniac Ed discovers the 19-year-old son of his old flame drunkenly shambling down a back road, just after an alarm sounded at the expensive house of rich recluse Doyle Cutler. It will be about 150 pages before we return to that scene, and in the meantime Amidon takes us on a long tour of the crumbling, melodramatic relationships in exurban Stoneleigh, a fictional western Massachusetts town.

Amidon trades in pacing for pondering; this is the sort of novel where modulated epiphanies spring up when a character looks at himself in the mirror: ‘A stranger looked back at him…. He understood now.’ Though ostensibly a harsh look at contemporary America, it’s a bit too Days of Our Lives. Jonathan Messinger
FSG. Available from Magrudy’s for Dhs85

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