Book reading groups recommendations: avid book readers should buy these three novels reviewed here

All dogs are blue by Rodrigo de Souza LeaoAll Dogs are Blue by the late Rodrigo de Souza Leão and translated by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler has an introduction from prize winning author Deborah Levy that puts it in context.  It is Book 11 from the enterprising subscription publisher & other stories.  The names of the current roughly 700 subscribers, listed in order of given, not family, name can be seen at the back of the book.  The publisher’s eclectic list has many novels in translation that would not otherwise be seen in the UK or USA.  This book is, according to the blurb, ‘a scurrilously funny tale of life in a Rio de Janeiro insane asylum.  Kept awake by blaring Rio funk and fantasies about his aunt, the narrator misses his old toy dog, keeps company with Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and becomes the leader of a popular cult.  “We’re the minority,” says the narrator, “but at least I say what I want.”  All Dogs are Blue is an extraordinary outpouring about mental illness and its controversial treatment, revealing the illumination of the ill in a troubled society.’  Insofar as he can, the author takes us inside the troubled mind of the narrator and makes the book a fascinating and usefully disturbing experience.

Levy writes: ‘All Dogs are Blue is a comic modernist novel about being messed up – and then being messed up even more by even more numbing doses of pharmaceuticals.  Rodrigo de Souza Leão is very clear about what has happened to his thirty-six-year-old narrator.  He has swallowed ‘a chip’, and the chip makes him do things he doesn’t want to do. […] Souza Leão’s autobiographical novel is about a whole lot of other things too: the drunken street sweepers from the favelas who somehow also end up in the asylum; the narrator’s teenage years growing up bookish and paranoid; [and] a blue toy dog which is both childhood companion and the colour of the narrator’s medication. […] If life in an insane asylum is actually very dull, Souza Leão’s subtle achievement is that he evokes the dull and deadening days without ever being boring or making them more exotic than they are.  Everything that is interesting about the novel can be found in its light, laconic tone.’

For Levy, the novel reminds her of Houellebecq’s first novel Extension de la domaine de la lutte (or Whatever) and I found myself thinking of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by the very sane Mark Haddon and, at the same time, of a book by the maestro William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.  This novella is well worth reading and my personal rating would be 7 out of 10.

N W by Zadie SmithZadie Smith is a writer to make lesser novelists green with envy.  As in all her earlier novels, the succinctly titled N W takes the reader inside the thoughts, language and idioms of its four main characters; Londoners who grew up in an NW London housing estate and made their separate later lives, yet still shaped by their NW roots.  Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan seem to make the old but telling point about being able to take the children out of NW but not take NW out of the children.  Smith’s very special gift is the way she captures the individual voices of her characters which she does by the shape of her sentences, the inflection of their speech and her empathy with their not-so-much predetermined but clearly circumscribed lives.  To quote from NW would tend to destroy the essential context a reader needs so you will have to read it yourself to understand fully what I felt.

As well as being short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013, it was chosen as their ‘book of the year’ by at least 18 reviewers, say 19 including myself.  I rate this title as up there with Zadie Smith’s earlier White Teeth and better than both On Beauty and The Autograph Man.  As far as tragic-comedies about Londoners are concerned, I place this higher than Martin Amis’s Money, giving it a rating of 9 out of 10.

Losing the Head of Philip K Dick by David DuftyAnd now, as they used to say, for something completely different!  I bought this book because I am a fan of the sci-fi writer and guru, Philip K Dick, about whom I will not hear a word of criticism.  I was delighted when Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was on the reading list for my MA and I devoured it, together with several viewings of Blade Runner.  I stumbled across the intriguing book title: Losing the Head of Philip K Dick by David Dufty quite by accident, or, in truth, quite by Goggle’s amazing serendipity.

Described as ‘a bizarre but true tale of Androids, Kill Switches, and Left Luggage’, the story begins by doing just what it says on the cover. 

In December 2005, an android head went missing from an American West Airlines flight between Dallas and Las Vegas.  The roboticist who built it, David Hanson, had been transporting it to northern California, to the headquarters of Google, where it was scheduled to be the centrepiece of a special exhibition for the company’s top engineers and scientists. [Hanson] had worked late the night before on his presentation for Google and was tired and distracted when he boarded the 5 a.m. flight at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. [He] had fallen asleep on the Dallas-Las Vegas leg so, after the other passengers had disembarked, a steward touched his shoulder to wake him and asked him to leave the plane.  Dazed, Hanson grabbed the laptop at his feet and left, forgetting that he had stowed an important item in the overhead compartment: a sports bag.  Inside was an android head.  The head was a lifelike replica of Philip K Dick, the cult science-fiction author and counter-culture guru who had died in 1982.  Made of plastic, wire, and a synthetic skinlike material called Frubber, it had a camera for eyes, a speaker for a mouth, and an artificial-intelligence simulation of Dick’s mind that allowed it to hold conversations with humans. [pp. 1-2]

The book goes on to recount the story of how a group of young robot designers and computer scientists dreamed up the fantastic and audacious idea of building an android modelled on Philip K Dick.  Dufty deftly weaves the various strands of the story, as complex as a wiring diagram but easy to follow in this well-written account, not only giving credit to the software designers, the grant-giving bodies and the selfless donation of thousands of man-hours by assorted experts, but also showing how Dick was the ideal choice to become the world’s first android to host something like a chat show.

The author was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Memphis in 2005 where most of the events took place and where he was on the periphery of events he relates.  That said, he turns out to be the natural person to put together this altogether gripping account of the creation, triumph and total loss of the head of Philip K Dick.  Readers interested to know more about the human version of Philip K Dick should get hold of the biography, I am alive and you are dead: a journey inside the mind of Philip K Dick by Emmanuel Carrère which I rate the best of the several biographies.  As for David Dufty’s book, I give it 8 out of 10.  Now read on …

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