Book Review Catch-Up

Wilderness Tips (Margaret Atwood)

I enjoyed reading this collection. It was a pleasant bedside table read. It didn’t blow me away, but I did end up reading the whole thing, so there you go. There’s lots of Canadian summer camps and intense friendships between young girls in the style of Cat’s Eye (which seems to be everyone’s favorite Atwood novel, at least among people I’ve met here). Extra martial affairs, smoking, scummy men, a tumor dressed up as a chocolate truffle (courtesy of “Hairball,” probably the book’s most crowd-pleasing gruesome tale). We also get two prehistoric preserved men, in swamps and ice respectively (“The Bog Man” and “The Age of Lead”). I think my favorite stories were “The Bog Man” and “Uncles,” the latter being an especially exceedingly mysterious tale. I couldn’t figure out if the narrator was criticizing the main protagonist or merely observing her. It also had a really intense theme, asking what does it mean to be a “successful” woman, as opposed to a performing little monkey, desperate to please the men in your life who are constantly on the sidelines, watching and nodding in approval. It was cool.

I did not particularly care for the title story (too many characters, none of them interesting) or the ones like “Isis in Darkness” in which the themes were too explicit (women as empty receptacles for men = bad, etc). But I liked how a lot of these characters are capturing the sense of a “lost age” for my modern day oblivious self–the 50’s and 60’s, the days of bobby-pin hairdos, milkshakes, excessive smoking, and omigawd should I sleep with him. So I appreciate that aspect of these stories, the way they’re capturing a very specific time and place. I also liked how they played with time a lot (very reminiscent of Alice Munro in that sense)–some very big time jumps take place here. And to put it plainly, these stories are very readable. Straightforward. Well-plotted.

I’ll always respect Margaret Atwood for doing her own thang. Does she have to slave away to make her writing seem this well-crafted or is she just the ultimate consummate professional? Either way, here’s a poem that she read last night at the reading I attended, which I really enjoyed (it helps that I’m a sucker for anything cat-related).

All the Fires the Fire (Julio Cortázar)

Wow, do I need to read more Cortázar. This is the kind of book that makes you want to write–the stories are insanely experimental and ambitious and makes so much else of what you’ve read (or written yourself!) seem so inevitably bland and tame. We get bizarre, surreal scenarios treated with the utmost seriousness, like the traffic jam in the opening story (“The Southern Thurway”), which gradually evolves into… I don’t even know, a parable for the formation of civilization? A commentary on barbarity and communities? It’s the kind of story where you don’t even bother asking a question like “why don’t they just start walking?”, because Cortázar does such an amazing job at getting you to accept this absurd reality.

In terms of surrealism, we also get extremely experimental narration in pieces like “All Fires the Fire,” where we get alternating paragraphs switching back and forth between ancient Romans in a gladiator arena and a couple arguing in their apartment. What do the two have to do with each other, you may ask?! Never fear, Cortázar makes it pay off and even make sense, in a strangely inexplicable way. There’s also “Nurse Cora,” in which the first-person narrators switch MID-PARAGRAPH, and yet you still somehow never lose track of who’s speaking. Here’s one example: “I wonder if the baby’s warm enough with that blanket, just to be sure I’ll ask them to leave another one in reach. Of course I’m warm enough, a good thing they finally left, Mama thinks I’m a kid, and she makes me act stupid.” (66) HOW DOES HE DO THIS, HE IS DEMONSTRATING SUCH RAZOR SHARP PRECISION AND CONTROL OVER THE NARRATIVE, HE MUST HAVE EDITED THIS UNTIL IT WAS AS TIGHT AS A DRUM, I AM SO JEALOUS AND IN AWE.

This is the kind of book that creative writing students would really benefit from studying. Bolaño was right, Cortázar is a badass and a must-read. I’m looking forward to reading more of his collections; they’re gonna be truly yummy to savor.

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (James Lasdun)

I ended up buying this book after attending a talk by the author. I think it is the first time I ended up purchasing a book based on said talk, without having previously read anything else by the author in question. It was just one of those talks where I was like I just have to buy this book in order to find out what happened (here are some articles that provide the general gist of the situation). His story of being Internet-stalked by a former student is SO compelling and gripping and horrifying and other strong makes-you-want-to-know-more adjectives. It makes you want to, like, not use the Internet ever again. It also strongly reinforces the inevitable fact that there are some CRAZY ASS BITCHES out there. The good thing is that said crazy ass bitches make you feel better about yourself–it’s like oh, okay, at least I’m not an INSANE STALKER; I can’t be doing too badly if I haven’t gone down that road, right?!

Apparently it’s very easy to find out the stalker’s identity on google (it personally took me 5 minutes). The number one lesson I learned from this book is Do Not fuck around with crazy people on the Internet. Lesson number two is that if you want to be a highly efficient stalker (or “verbal terrorist” as she calls herself), you need to have a LOT of time on their hands–for example, the girl in question spammed her victim’s editors, wrote negative reviews on Amazon and the Guardian, emailed his colleagues and bosses, STOLE HIS IDENTITY, and harassed several other Iranian-American novelists she accused of stealing her ideas. WHAT THE HECK. I am in awe of her time management skills & sheer commitment.

The other thing I thought was really interesting about this book is that I was surprised that the author didn’t come right out and blatantly say I was attracted to this girl and wanted to sleep with her (this is a question that the New Yorker article also raises). I mean just from the prose and the way he described her… it seemed kinda obvious that that was the case. To his credit, he does acknowledges it somewhat (writing at one point that if he wasn’t married, things between him and her would have been different, etc), but in a book that is otherwise so honest, I’m surprised he didn’t just come right out and make it explicit. It’s like there’s no shame in that man! Just come right out and say it! But instead he makes it sound like they were “friends,” he respected her work and was interested in knowing how she was doing, etc. But as a creative writing student myself, I would NEVER, EVER, EVER correspond with a professor of mine the way that this girl does pre-stalking–even one that I considered myself to be on “friend”-ly terms with. What female former student “friend” of yours would send you updates about her dating life? There is no way that would EVER, EVER be appropriate. I mean I guess it is really easy for me to sit here on my highhorse and be all wah-wah finger-wagging judgemental. But yeah, that was just the one thing I thought was interesting–that he wasn’t more direct about the sexual attraction. But I don’t judge, man. Irregardless, what a thing to go through.

Operation Massacre (Rodolfo Walsh)

I can’t believe it took me so long to actually read this book! I read excerpts as an undergraduate in Spanish but never got around to read the whole thing until now. I guess I’m lazy and wanted to read it in English, because I read so much faster in English than Spanish. WHATEVER!

I’ve always been a big Rodolfo Walsh admirer. I think he is the epitome of a Badass Writer. I loved reading his biography, and the two quotes of his I have posted on the sidescreen of this blog have always been very inspirational to me. Operación masacre, about a 1950’s Argentinean police-enforced execution gone wrong, is his most famous work and apparently some people call it the first example of true-crime literary journalism, beating In Cold Blood by a decade, which I find very intriguing.

So what did I think of the book? In terms of a reading experience, the first two parts (describing the victims and the titular massacre as it unfolded) was extremely gripping, an excellent combination of literary techniques and investigative writing. Part three was less interesting to me, as it’s an endless litany of evidence about the case–quotes from the judge, police reports excerpts, etc. I also struggled sometimes understanding what was going on in terms of the political & historical context (the footnotes help, but boy oh boy, is the history of Argentinean electoral & political party politics dense–the book made me feel like such a dummy at times!). But I understand why Walsh felt compelled to include that evidence-based material–the point of the book, after all, is to PROVE something that happened that the state denied.

It was interesting to read this book right after 2666, another book that uses extremely forensic, fact-based language and is also famously based on true-life horrors. In Walsh, we get this evidence-based language because it’s functioning as testimony: the specific details and the concrete facts are giving the event meaning by proving that it happened. They work as a way to provide clarity to the text, by making it seem more real and memorable for the reader. The most striking example we get of this is that of the “phantom tree”–a tree that looks solitary from one specific angle, but from any other you realize that it’s actually many. Walsh writes that “it was fascinating, worthy of a Chesterton story. Moving fifty paces in any direction, the optical effect would disappear, the “tree” would split into many trees. At that moment I knew–it was an unusual kind of proof–that I was at the scene of the execution.” (79) I find this idea equally fascinating–that it’s the “unusual kind of proofs,” the details that seem more fictional than realistic, that give a story its truth-value.

In Bolaño, though, things are a lot more murky and chaotic, and investigations are significantly less direct and straightforward. “How can you narrate horror without just reporting on it?” Ricardo Piglia asks in the extremely well-written afterword, and this question, I think, is key when considering both Bolaño and Walsh’s intentions. This is definitely an idea I hope to develop further, about the ways in which literature can not just Show and Tell, but also be more subtle, and make the readers See and Understand by NOT showing or telling the essential–by being more elusive or elliptical.

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