Category Archives: short stories

Homesick for Another World

I leave tomorrow for a weekish-long trip in the U.S., visiting friends and family in D.C., North Carolina, and New York, and launching “The Lucky Ones” in Brooklyn alongside Lisa Carey (who I can’t wait to meet) on February 21st–if you’re in the neighborhood, do come!

It’s sunny today (for now), but the seasonal affective disorder has been strong in me, just like the Force in extremely talented Jedis. I hope it is sunny in North Carolina. England!! What else can I do but shake my weak puny fists at your grey, grey sky?

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh was a good book to read after the Cat Marnell memoir, and a good book to read during February, the roughest of months to me (thank goodness it has such few days!). In many ways, both books have similar themes: the body, women moving through space and the way men look at them, drugs, addiction, how to be good, the meaning of being “better.” I love Moshfegh’s writing (especially this essay, which I find encouraging and authentic) and would definitely teach these short stories in a short fiction class. I find her sentences so dark and twisted and memorable. You could say these stories are “grotesque,” and are obsessed with the body: blackheads, rotting teeth, ingrown hairs, acne. You might also say they have a “dark view” of humanity. IDK, maybe it’s just the lack of sunlight speaking through me, but maybe it’s an accurate view of humanity?? What does it mean to be crazy, the book seems to be asking, or fucked-up or weird… Don’t we all have our problems?

Overall, I really liked the journey these stories take us on, from the first story (“Bettering Myself”) to the last (“A Better Place”). It definitely feels like a trip from self-hatred to a weird kind of peaceful acceptance. Overall, highly recommended, but you should know what you’re in for and brace yourself for an uneasy ride.

Here are my notes on the individual stories, so that I don’t forget what each one was about!

“Bettering Myself” – Definitely one of the highlights in the collection and a strong opener. I really sympathized with the narrator, a teacher with a drinking problem who decides she’s going to quit her job.

Half my clothes, books, unopened mail, cups, ashtrays, half my life was stuffed between the mattress and the wall. (6)

Anything good I could think to do I did. I was filled with hope. I bought new sheets and towels. I put on some music. “Bailar,” I said to myself. Look, I’m speaking Spanish. My mind is fixing itself, I thought. Everything is going to be okay. (11)

“Mr. Wu” – Another standout. One of the few stories not set in the U.S. This piece really highlighted to me how effectively a short story can follow an unlikeable character. It also brings up one of the themes (IMHO) of the collection, that of disgust. I loved the ambiguity of the ending.

The woman had one flaccid hand that reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn. He shuddered and gagged whenever he saw it. He felt sorry for the child, held and fed by that twisted, thin, limp, and red-skinned tentacle. (19)

“Malibu” – Wow, what a sad story. Again, I  really felt for the pimply narrator, and how handsome he kept insisting he was. This story reminded me of the scene in the Cat Marnell book, where she falls asleep during Eyes Wide Shut and when she wakes up the movie has gone on playing on a loop and is back again, on the exact same scene, playing again. In other words, this story made me feel very trapped (but in a good way).

As good-looking as I was, I was scared nobody would ever marry me. I had small hands. They were like a girl’s hands, but with hair. Nobody marries men with hands like that. When I fit my fingers down my throat, it’s easy. My fingers are thin, soft. When I put them down there, it’s like a cool breeze. That’s the best way I can explain it. (41)

He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristics some smart people have. (42)

“The Weirdos” – I think I initially read this in the Paris Review and it was thus the first piece of work of hers that I encountered. It is a CLASSIC, and not just because of the way it plays with that famous Chekhov quote about bringing a gun onstage…

“A Dark and Winding Road” – This may be one of my favorites in the collection and it is also very sad. A married lawyer you could easily imagine voting for Donald Trump goes to a cabin in the woods where he runs into his brother’s hook-up, a girl who’s there to smoke meth (or maybe it was crack). I loved the ending of this one (most of the endings of these stories are very abrupt and ambiguous, just my cup of tea). By the time the narrator in this story says, “Twenty years later, I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to someone else” (87), well, it just about broke my heart.

“No Place for Good People” – Another stand-out. A widower volunteers with a group of mentally disabled men and says things like “You can call them “retarded”–that word doesn’t offend me as long as it’s used the proper way, without pity.” (88) Yup.

“I rarely interacted much with anyone back then who wasn’t retarded. When I did, it struck me how pompous and impatient they were, always measuring their words, twisting things around. Everybody was so obsessed with being understood. It made me sick.” (98)

“Slumming” – A story about a high school English teacher who spends her summer vacations doing drugs in a dead-end town that would have also definitely voted for Trump. She hires a young pregnant teenage girl to clean her house, who eventually starts hemorrhaging. The narrator’s reaction to this really made the story for me, especially in terms of the whole “dark view of humanity” thing.

“An Honest Woman” – This one took forever for me to finish. For whatever reason, I found it very difficult to be inside the main character’s head, a sleazy old man. He has an encounter with a neighbor, the honest woman of the title, but her dialogue felt a little too much like a speech for me. But I loved his obsession with buying discounted vegetables: “He’d been doing it for so long that the very sight of that neon orange discount sticker could make his mouth water.” (139)

“The pale, swollen, spotted hand on the girl’s knee was inert, like a fat, sleeping lizard that could at any moment awaken and claw up her soft thigh.” (153)

“The Beach Boy” – Wow, definitely one of the collection’s highlights. I don’t want to spoil it, as the funnest thing about this story is its VERY unexpected twist. Basically, it’s about an elderly married couple and their days back in New York, having returned from an island-getaway vacation, where the beaches were populated with the titular beach boys, or male prostitutes. Along with “The Weirdos” I think this would be a very interesting story to teach, if only for the scene where the main character pretends to be deaf in a drugstore. This story definitely feels like a turning point in the mood of the collection, perhaps because of its upfront confrontation with death, and the way it questions how well we truly really know anybody, and what does “normal” really mean.

“‘Why tell stories?’ he wondered aloud. “As soon as something is over, that’s it. Why revive it constantly? Things happen, and then more things, inevitably, happen next. So?” (172)

“Nothing Ever Happens Here” – This story follows another young male narrator, this one from Utah, who moves to L.A. and dreams of becoming an actor. I liked how this story wasn’t afraid to stay in the head of someone who is arguably unsympathetic.

“Dancing in the Moonlight” – A man with a shopping addiction buys an ottoman online so that he can try to get a girl at an antique furniture market to fall in love with him. Talk about a parable for America.

“So much of my life I’d been faking my reactions, claiming to myself and others that I liked what I liked because I believe it was good for me, while in fact I didn’t like that shit at all. This woman could see that I wanted to be ruined. I wanted someone… to come and destroy me.” (238)

“The Surrogate” – Hmm, is this the happiest story in the book? I don’t know if I have much to say about this one. It definitely felt like a story that attempted to explore the idea of finding acceptance, via a young woman with an unsightly medical condition who gets a job in which she must pretend to be someone else.

“Life can be strange sometimes, and knowing it can be doesn’t seem to make it any less so. I know I don’t have any real wisdom. I don’t have any wonderful ideas. I am lucky to have found a few nice people here and there.” (261)

“The Locked Room” – One of the shortest stories in the collection, two members of a music school orchestra are locked in a practice room and must plan their escape. The main male character is described by the narrator as “fearless, like he could do anything he wanted to do, even if it was disgusting,” (266) which feels like a nice description of the collection itself. Oh, he also carries around a small knife with him for “mutilating himself,” so there’s that too. And his hand tastes like “baby powder and excrement.” Yup! The final paragraph of this story reads as a prayer of sorts for all the characters in this book:

“But I never did try very hard to please my mother. In fact, I never tried hard to please anybody at all after that day in the locked room. Now I only try hard to please myself. That is all that matters here. That is the secret thing I found.” (272)

“A Better Place” – The final story and another stand-out. A sister and her brother believe themselves to be aliens, and the only way to get back to the place where they belong is through killing someone. Gripping and memorable, this story exhibits an amazing control over voice and a limited, skewed viewpoint.

To end here are two quotes by the author, the first from the essay linked above, and the second from this interview:

Most of the time, I feel pleased that I’m living my purpose on this planet… We make art about our own ineffectuality, and in doing that, somehow we are no longer ineffectual. That’s the good news about being a human: We are creative. We feel compelled to make something new, to forge new paths through consciousness and grow. Nobody is going to save me—that’s how I’ve always felt. It’s up to me. It’s either do or die, and I decided to do. Maybe we’re going nowhere, but I chose to find meaning anyway.

*

I also feel that everything I’ve written has had a predetermined destiny. As author, I’m just figuring out what the correct version of it is, sweeping the dirt off the gravestone, and I know that I’m right when it feels just so, when it’s undeniable. And it can be really hard to sit with something and go through my stupid thinking and make lots of mistakes and go down the wrong road and throw out pages and pages and feel like I’m wasting my time. I’m writing a new novel now, and I’m back where I started a year ago. And I’m not happy. I’m totally depressed as I’m writing this thing. At the same time, it’s a complete joy. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. There’s nothing else more important to me. It’s the joy of living your purpose. So I’m not regretting this suffering. It isn’t a waste of my life.

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Filed under books, contemporary, review, short stories, women writers

Notable Books of 2016

Here are some notable books I read in 2016 that I didn’t have a chance to discuss on this blog:

Annihilation trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

I read this trilogy while I was sick on my deathbed with the worst flu of my life during my Christmas holidays and it was definitely good escapism. I miss reading sci-fi, and this trilogy cured the itch for now. I first became interested in reading this trilogy when I read a profile about the author in the New Yorker. Overall, it’s very innovative sci-fi. The first book, Annihilation, would most likely be the most beloved among the readers, with its short length and succinct premise, the slow creepy build up of everything that had to do with the Crawler (even the name gives me shivers), the sense of mystery surrounding Area X, and the reserved reticence of the narrator.

There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout all three books, like when a scuttling sound is heard on the roof, or a plant that won’t die is discovered, or when the videos of the failed expeditions into Area X are watched. I like how ballsy the trilogy is in terms of not explaining everything, even if it meant I was confused or frustrated sometimes with not getting all the answers. But the more I think about it, the more I admire the book’s refusal to give me what I want. Please, Lord, don’t let the HBO adaptation dumb it down. I especially liked all the different perspectives in the book, and its overall (potentially anarchist?) message about nature.

I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)

I first heard of this book because I read an interview with the author on (where else?) the Internet. The interview was basically a scathing rant that I found hysterically funny, so I read this book to find more of the same. In that sense the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s basically a howl in the dark. Reading this for character or plot is not the best mindset with which to approach it. I read it because I enjoyed reading sentences like “Miley Cyrus’ songs were about the same six subjects of all songs by all pop stars: love, celebrity, fucking, heartbreak, money, and buying ugly shit” (264) or “Arcade Fire was a Canadian band which experienced minor popularity in the early 2000s before transforming into a market commodity that aging parents used as a theoretical reference point with their Internet addicted children.” (275) LOL.

This is the kind of book in which Twitter is described as “a mechanism by which teenagers tormented each other into suicide” (130), the Internet as “a wonderful resource for sexism, abusing the mentally ill, and libeling the dead” (196) and as a way “to create content based on inflamed emotion for the sake of selling advertisements,” (212) and Instagram as “the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate… Mostly, Instagram’s users uploaded photographs of things on which they’d either spent money or wished to spend money.” (76)

I dug it.

This book reconfirmed my belief that I do not want to live in the Bay Area.

Other brutal satire moments:

“On the Internet, you could be right. On the Internet, you could be wrong. You could love racism. You could hate racism. It didn’t matter. In the end, everything was just money.” (211)

“Expressing concern about racism was a new religion and focusing on language rather than political mechanics was an effortless, and meaningless, way of making sure one was seen in a front-row pew of the new church. They prayed not from any hard earned process of thought or genuine faith but because failing to bow and scrap before the shibboleths of the moneyed political Left might hurt their job prospects. And poor job prospects meant less money to buy consumer electronics built by slaves.” (212)

“The illusion of the Internet was the idea that the opinions of powerless people, freely offered, had some impact on the world. This was, of course, total bullshit.” (213)

“Global warming and climate change were the methods by which the human species, plagued by guilt and unacknowledged depression, committed suicide. The mechanisms of this suicide were eating too much beef, operating too many electronics and driving too many cars.” (184)

“I am moving back to Los Angeles where gentrification barely works because everything is a hideous strip mall and there is nothing worth destroying!” (270-271)

The Friend Who Got Away (ed. Jenny Offill & Elissa Schappel)

A good collection of non-fiction essays that at least three different people in my PhD program recommended to me (IDK if Elena Ferrante is making female friendships a hot topic for literature or what, but anyway, I finally got round to reading it this year!). It felt a little East Coast, private college, Brooklyn writer heavy at times, but what can you do. It made the essay set in Jordan really stand out. The pieces that most stood out to me were “End Days” by Jenny Offill (religious childhood friend), “Toads and Snakes” by Elizabeth Strout (very powerful tale of a long term friendship fading), and “Want” (about a copycat friend). The essays two estranged friends wrote about each other were also a cool concept. I would definitely recommend this to people.

Autumn (Ali Smith)

A fun, fast read. It was a unique read in the sense that it’s interesting to read a book that was written very quickly, about such a recent moment (the Brexit election). So it was very trippy to read a chapter set in November 2016 in November 2016 (!). I will always like Ali Smith, especially how she always attempts to do different things with her books. I liked the surrealistic dream sequences in this one. One thing I will say is that I was glad before reading this that I knew the following: 1) it is the first book of a planned four-book sequence, each named after a season (otherwise I think I would have found the ending a bit underwhelming and “whaaaaat?”), and 2) one of the main plot threads of Autumn follows an undiscovered woman artist from the British Pop Art period–it’s explained near the end who she is, but if I hadn’t known before that she was going to feature, I would have found her sections in the novel confusing. Overall, I enjoyed reading this. The sections where the main character is trying to fill out a passport application are particularly memorable, in a painful “have I ever been there” kind of way.

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)

Definitely a stand-out of the year–hallucinatory, hypnotic, and strange. A man lives alone on a west-country moor and is stalked by a mysterious beast–gripping stuff. I am definitely going to read Kingsnorth’s previous novel, The Wake, which is apparently a precursor to this one.

I liked the disorienting way we jump between dreams, visions, and the present moment–basically, Beast is a book in which you are never sure if what is happening is “real”, and if that kind of thing frustrates you, this may not be a good choice for you (it was for me, though!). I liked how the style of the book reflected the content (it reads almost like a free verse poem at times). I also liked the slow way that the beast’s horror is unveiled–very rewarding for me. And I liked all the Stone Age, The Dark Is Rising imagery, mixed with apocalyptic doom. This book made me want to wear a wolf skin, speak to ravens, run on the moors naked, and drink the blood of my enemies.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)

What a great story collection! I loved The Serialist and I loved this one too. The five star stories (discussed below) truly elevate it to an exceptional collection that I enjoyed reading very much. It explores similar themes as The Serialist: writers, writing, genre, horror, growing old, losing love… if you are a fan of funny, readable writing a la Lorrie Moore or Roberto Bolaño, then I recommend this book.

Stories that stood out to me included the opener, “Man-Boob Summer,” and not just because of its excellent title. I related to the main character a lot, an aimless postgrad, and the simple scenario explored by the story (he goes swimming in the pool of his parents’ apartment complex and gets a crush on the lifeguard). A very melancholy ending.

The second story, “We Happy Few”, was also one of my favorites in the collection. This one explores themes of addiction and recovery as a recently fired teacher gets a job escorting an up-and-coming addiction memoir star, trying to keep him clean and off drugs before his appearance on Oprah. The satire in this story about the writing-as-entertainment world is pretty killer. I also liked how the story explores questions of why we write, and who for. Also, the way the ending jumps forward in time is brutal, and really makes the story.

“Today I am remarkably healthy, considering. I do yoga (stiffly) and run (slowly). I eat vegetables and fold the laundry. I water my neighbor’s plants. I even quit smoking. But I didn’t write a word. I tried at first, but I couldn’t get started. Then I took a break. Then I decided it didn’t matter anyway. The world wasn’t weeping for my unwritten books. Now when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a teacher.” Or: “I proofread legal documents.” Or: “I hand out jalapeño hummus dip at Trader Joe’s.” I say to myself, mostly: “I’m alive, motherfucker.” What else do you want?” (20)

“I read to disappear and carry books like spies carry cyanide in their teeth.” (103)

I think my very favorite story was “I Think of Dreams”–WOW. Again, the use of time at the end (in terms of the abrupt flash forward) makes this story BRUTAL. What a lesson. Basically, two teenage boys take acid on a camping trip and things are never the same. I read this story with my mouth falling open. The title story is another star of the collection. You’ll never think of sexting the same way after reading this. Poignant and horrifying. And then you have “Literature I Gave You Everything and Now What Am I?”–what a title, right? I liked how the narrator of this story is such a jealous, petty asshole. The plot follows his attempts to write in a coffee shop that becomes occupied by a writer’s group that he finds extremely annoying. The final story is (I think) the longest, “The Amateur”, a layered story reminiscent of Borges and Bolaño in which the narrator listens to a story told by a man he meets in Paris, a story that takes a decidedly unexpected turn. A highly recommended collection.

“Hence the most important question facing any young writer may well be: How often should I masturbate and when? (It also brings up the second most important question: How much coffee should I drink? But here the answer is clear: As much as you can without dying.)” (235)

Best author I discovered this year was Alex Garland (Coma and The Beach, both great novels, what a shame he has moved away from fiction-writing into filmmaking). In terms of my new Ferrante-Knausgaard (i.e. author I read obsessively), I think Barbara Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths) might be the strongest contender for 2017.

Books I read this year that I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would were El Sicario by Charles Bowden (while the concept of having a book constructed solely out of a sicario’s words was interesting, the book would have benefited from more contextualizing paragraphs to break up the monotony of the voice), and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (I liked the memoir elements of this book, but the literary criticism ones went over my head).

Onwards and upwards to 2017! I am now about the same age (if not a bit older!!) as Adrian Mole in The Cappuchino Years, except I have no illegitimate children and have yet to be comissioned to write a book based on my reality TV show, which I consequently fail to turn in and have to hire my mother to ghostwrite for me. There’s still time!! :D

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Filed under Ali Smith, apocalypse, books, non-fiction, review, short stories, women writers

Pond

Pond (Clare-Louise Bennet)

My first day as a volunteer in Tijuana ten years ago, I spent the afternoon painting white lines on a basketball court. It was a task assigned to me by Martin, the beady-eyed Austrian volunteer who was working at the parish. It felt so peaceful at the time, shuffling up and down that court, mechanically dabbing a paintbrush. I didn’t need to focus on or think about anything else. I had fled from my undergraduate college in Portland, where I’d turned in all of my papers that semester extremely late. In contrast to a semester that had caused me to write things in my journal like “I feel like butter scraped over too many pieces of bread” (quoting LOTR, naturally), the act of doing something so simple, so straightforward, as painting a dirty court felt like a kind of magic to me.

I thought of this moment in Tijuana, and of all those afternoons spent in the Boys & Girls Club playing UNO or scraping gum off the underside of desks, while reading Pond. In this book, the narrator finds a similar refugee, as she spends a great deal of time deriving pleasure from small, simple actions. Much of the book consists of descriptions of eating oatmeal in the mornings, gathering firewood, weeding, going for country lane walks, and taking out the compost. “That’s right,” the narrator thinks while burning what she refers to as “evil-looking” holly during Christmas: “suffer, damn you to hell.” (146) Or during her frenzied, indiscriminate weeding: “Perhaps I really hate all this stuff and it is a very normal and human thing to wish to crush it.” (140) So yes, she is that kind of person: the kind of person I’d love to be best friends with, basically.

This is a novel that isn’t a novel. Or maybe it’s a collection of stories that aren’t really stories–more like flash fiction or prose poems. Essentially, this book is an example of my favorite thing in the world: the novel-story hybrid. The narrator is a woman living by herself in a shabby, rural cottage. We never learn her name. We assume she is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, since she refers to the Atlantic Ocean and to Dublin. We know that she has dropped out of a PhD program, where she has written thousands of words for an unfinished dissertation. She refers to different friends, some who may be lovers; one is married with children. In one paragraph she discusses a phone call with her father and their conversation about his “new,” younger family. That’s pretty much it. How she supports herself, how old she is, how long she’s been out here, living in this cottage, we never learn. This is a novel (and I keep calling it that, because it definitely read like a novel to me, with a clear arch and journey experienced by the character) that is very resistant to naming things, to pinning things down.

I was initially afraid that I wasn’t going to like this book, based on the description on the back cover and my own high expectations.What if I just wasn’t smart enough for it? What if I found boring, ranty, pretentious, overly lyrical and philosophically inaccessible?  Thankfully, the book is none of these things, saved by its engagingly readable style, deliciously dark humor, and above all else (for me personally, at least) the hysterically relatable misanthropic worldview. This is the kind of narrator who says things like the following: “I like worms and have no problem picking them up, which is unusual and thus gives me a clear advantage in certain situations because it means I can fling them at people if I feel like it and that never fails to cheer me up.” (26)

Or this: “What a sexy and beautiful thing it is to look at someone and decide suddenly and for no reason at all that I will for a while give them the cold shoulder.” (49)

Or this: “I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk.” (55)

Or this (my personal favorite): “One has to have illustrated links with the fair to middling ranks of reality I should think in order for something like Christmas to really work out otherwise it just seems odd and sort of accusatory.” (147)

Actually I take that back, I like this one the best: “In any case, gigantic joints of meat notwithstanding, there’s not much room in a Baby Belling oven so I should think the possibility of comfortably shoving one’s head into it is pretty slim.” (90) (Is it just me or is this hysterical?!)

(I could go on and on, but will stop there!)

The title of the book comes from the story “The Big Day,” about a party that the landlady is throwing. The landlady places a damp piece of wood with the word POND scrawled across it, next to the pond in question, which infuriates the narrator to no end:

One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go. (41)

This is the kind of passage that I would like to give to my undergraduate students and say something like “hurrrr ok the signifier vs. the sign in this passage discuss ok go.” Basically, I love how the narrator feels like naming things is crude and insufficient. This specific story ends with her throwing an item away into the Pond, something she never specifically describes but wants to get rid of fast: “a broken, precious thing. I dropped it into the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible.” (51) What a classic, invaluable technique—the not-naming makes the thing so much more intriguing.

One needs to be careful with names,” (84) the narrator says in another story, in which she is reading an apocalyptic novel about the last woman alive on earth (apparently this book really existsThe Wall by Marlen Haushofer—I must track it down and read it!). The apocalyptic feel of Pond was something else I very much enjoyed and appreciated, even though the narrator herself is not that isolated (she bikes to a store to buy expensive cheeses, and even throws a party herself). I loved the sense of retreat in this book, how there’s only a few references to texting; it’s obviously a contemporary book but at the same time feels quite timeless. It is a very anti-instant gratification book—anti-Instagram, anti-Twitter, anti-humblebrag, anti-resume culture. The narrator refers consistently to her “persistent lack of ambition.” (166) “It’s quite true,” she says languidly, “I don’t do anything really,” (133) which is an apt description of the book itself. It doesn’t “do” anything in the sense of a traditional, satisfactory plot or journey, but it is this not-doing that makes it valuable and interesting. Talk about an antidote to the kind of permanently judgmental culture described here!

So what’s up with this narrator? What is she running from (if anything)? In the last few stories, there are many references to a monster, a rising sense of terror, to a feeling that reappears from time to time “just to remind you, perhaps, what you are living with, even if you almost always forget.” (154) Forget what? In one of the most striking stories (see how I refer to them as stories even though I consider it a novel? TAKE THAT boring straightforward out-of-date genre considerations!!), the narrator is passed by a young man in a field, and imagines what it would be like to be raped by him. Did something happen to her? Is that almost a too easy explanation? Can’t a woman just want to hide away and like, chill, without it being the result of something traumatic? Even so, there definitely seems to be something there in the last few stories to me, which helps the book feel like it’s traveled towards something, even though whatever “it” is ultimately (thankfully) remains unnamed. “Sooner or later,” the narrator thinks, “you’re going to have to speak up,” (154) and one of the cool things about this book is that you feel like it goes on living even after you’ve finished it, that its complete story can’t quite be contained by its pages, that the narrator isn’t going to allow us to see what happens to her next. “I just don’t know if I’ll ever get the hang of it if you want to know,” (172) she says at the end, while contemplating a trip to Brazil or Bail, but somehow, that feels heartening rather than worrying.

Basically, I think this book is an incredibly achievement, and should be taught on contemporary literature courses for the next bazillion years, alongside Knausgaard and Thoreau. I have been waiting for YEARS for a book written by a woman to be as acclaimed as the ones written by Sebald and Teju Cole and so on, and with Pond I thus feel officially satiated.

Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream… So even though it sometimes feels as if one could just about die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive. (112-113)

Some other quotes I liked:

It was very nice I must say to every now and then take a break from cobbling together yet another overwrought academic abstract on more or less the same theme in order to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out. (25)

I’d sit at my desk from time to time, but that was all over with. That’s right, I’d thrown in the towel at last. It hadn’t worked out. I stopped doing what I wasn’t really doing. (25)

A lack of enthusiasm for a project makes me very clear-headed indeed. (44)

I don’t understand the past—I don’t understand the way the past is thought about, I don’t know why but it makes me wild with anger, to hear the ways the past is thought about and made present. Enforced remembrance is, I think, a most stultifying thing. (46)

The large-scale changes were in fact of no interest to me at all; it was the small things that remained constant which sort of attracted me. (47)

[While describing the dark green, porous bathroom walls] It was as if I might actually be able to glide my hands and arms and the rest of me so far into the wall and enter some other place that requires small sharp weapons and a hunk of kick-ass cheese. (134)

Even looking away was looking. (164)

I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things, it feels fatal for one reason. (165)

Once a word was written it was quite irretrievable, as if abducted. (154)

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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, review, short stories, women writers

Two Story Collections

Hot Little Hands (Abigail Ulman)

Along with Anna Metcalfe’s Blind Water Pass (written by a fellow PhD-er, this is an excellent, extremely relevant collection about migration and borders, very Lydia Davis and Kafka-esque), Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands is one of the strongest short story collections that I’ve read this year. Thematic links are young girls, sex, Australia, Russia, San Francisco, and not knowing what to do with your life. This is definitely the kind of book I would buy for my female friends.

Here’s a brief commentary on each story:

“Jewish History” – I really enjoyed this one. Kind of like “Mean Girls” written by a melancholy Emily Gould. Very powerful closing sentence. I liked the narrator’s perspective, a Russian girl in Australia who doesn’t quite speak English yet, and the oblique yet effective way the story conveyed this.

“Chagall’s Wife” – the first of many “mature” young girls that appear in this collection. Man, none of the girls in this book would have wanted to be friends with me in middle school; they’d have found me such a hopelessly boring square. The girl in this story runs into one of her teachers at a coffee shop, spends the afternoon with im in an art museum, before the story concludes with them going to the movies. Basically, us readers feel very, very nervous during the entire story about what’s going to happen next. I love the interrupted, in-the-moment, suspenseful ending (quite a few of these in the book).

“The Withdrawal Method” – the first of three stories in the book about Claire, a twenty-something finishing her PhD in film studies in San Francisco, playing in a band and “flailing around” (as one might say). In this story she has an abortion. I liked these three linked stories a lot; they add up to a pervier, more punk rock version of The Wonder Spot.

“Warm-Ups” – possibly my favorite in the collection. It’s also possibly the darkest. It’s about thirteen-year-old gymnasts who go to the U.S. for a performance (not going to say more than that). What a heartbreaking, gut-twisting ending. This story uses slow build-up of dread very well.

“Same Old Same As” – another great story, with a divisive lead character. Ramona is in therapy and starts telling everyone that her stepfather has sexually abused her, enjoying the attention that she gets from her classmates. It’s an ambiguous story right till the end and is definitely one that would challenge readers who need to “like” a main character. I found it very honest.

“The Pretty One” – the second story with Claire, about her relationship and break-up with a younger man. I like how she found solace working in her dissertation (lol). Kind of like The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, with a lot more drinking (wow, that’s the second reference to Melissa Banks that I’ve made so far…). I found the descriptions of San Francisco hipsters listening to bluegrass music, juice cleanses and too many facial piercings painful to read. I found the ending a bit too sweeping, like it was trying to sum everything up, but isn’t that what the fall-out of relationships is sometimes like?

“Head to Toe” – maybe the strangest story for me. Very understated. It’s narrated in a distant style: “this happened, this happened, this happened,” with little interiority of the two main female characters. Two sixteen-year-old best friends grow tired (as in existentially so) with their partying lifestyle. They return for a week or so at the horse camp they used to attend as children. The story ends with them returning home and then going to a guy’s house where one of them has porn-style sex while listening to Kanye West. This was a story that made me go “what?” but I definitely kept turning the pages, with a sense of trainwreck fascination.

“Plus One” – my other favorite story in the book. Twenty-two-year-old Amelia can’t finish her collection of essays, so she decides to get pregnant with her gay friend instead. This story made me think of Lorrie Moore and Jenny Offhill. What a devastating ending. This is another story I found extremely honest.

“Your Charm Won’t Help You Here” – I won’t spoil it, but basically this story describes why Claire ends up having to leave San Francisco. I found it compulsively compelling. I’d love to know how the author did research for this one.

All in all I would highly recommend this book and await the author’s next work with great interest.

Lovers on All Saints’ Day (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

I bought this book at The Strand in New York, where it had a different title than in the UK (The All Saints’ Day Lovers–what’s up with that?). At one point in the final story of the collection (which I’ll talk more about in just a bit), the main character watches the weather report on mute, and thinks about the upcoming news: “The one o’clock news was part of Oliveira’s routine, his day incomplete without the most recent scandal from the Assemblée Nationale or the images of the dead in Algiers, more or less sophisticated forms of violence that vindicated his desire to leave, to hide away from the world.”

I find the phrase “more of less sophisticated forms of violence” very interesting, and perhaps key not just to the collection overall, but to Vásquez’s other novels, which also approached violence as a main theme. Vásquez writes in the introduction to this book that he was inspired by Tobias Wolff, in that “a book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other,” which perhaps explains many of the eerie repetitions. In these seven stories we see the same scenes or images reoccurring over and over again: hunting trips with large groups of men, rural settings in France and Belgium, love affairs gone wrong, exile (both emotional and physical) and yes, shocking moments of violence (usually at the end). Are the intimate, emotional, personal-level forms of violence we see in these stories unsophisticated forms of violence, in contrast to the “sophisticated” scenes that tend to broadcast on television, make national news? And yet it’s these unsophisticated forms of violence, the kind that take place between lovers, that tend to impact us all, regardless of class, geography, etc. It’s this idea of emotional violence as a unifying force, more than anything else, which links this book in my head to Vásquez’s other works, especially The Sound of Things Falling.

The majority of these stories begin sloooooowly and build up to killer endings (a patience-based form of pacing similar to many of Bolaño’s works). The ending of “The Solitude of the Magician,” for example, makes a simple pencil have an emotional impact that you just plain would not believe. “At the Café de la Republique” is another standout, in which a  husband and wife reunite six months after separating, and the husband decides he wants to get back together (an medically inexplicable lump in his jaw is a major factor in his decision).

My favorite story by far was the aforementioned final one, “Life on Grimsey Island,” the darkest and one of the longest. In this story, a man whose father has recently died meets a veterinarian, whom he agrees to drive back to her home in Paris. During their journey (which is, believe it or not, full of unexpected twists and revelations) she tells him about the titular island north of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets: “so no one is afraid, no one feels the horror of having a fear of the dark.” It runs the risk of being a heavy-handed metaphor (dark = death, light = love + connection, etc.), but in the end, the story earns it, devastatingly so.

At another point, the main character stands in front of a map: “He approached the map on the wall and looked for Iceland. It was a violet-colored country. France, where he still was, was saffron red. Portugal was green, an intense green similar to the color of the van … Rootlessness had no color, however. It makes no difference to live in one place or another and being born here or there was an accident. One was a chameleon, countries and people mere scenery.” Oh boy, talk about a passage that one can relate to…

Overall, I’m impressed by Vásquez’s understated writing style, and his ability to show how violence and greed can split people’s lives open irregardless of the promise of love.

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Filed under books, colombia, review, short stories

IFFP Panel and updated reviews

Everything’s exhausting (<– the best way to utter this sentence is to sing it to the tune of that Lego Movie song). It’s only been exhausting lately, though. Just that time of year. And what’s good is that very, very soon this exhaustion will be done once Easter break starts. Lisbon!! I’m ready for you… not so much for your half-marathon (LOL) but definitely for your infamous custard desserts, which are obviously going to be the best way for me to get in touch with my Portuguese ancestry :D

Something that is definitely AWESOME rather than exhausting is that this year I am on the Shadow IFFP jury! This is an informal group of happy blogging folks who love reading translated & international fiction. We are going to read ALL of the books on this list (with the same kind of BRING IT ON attitude with which one decides to clean all the things). We are then going to select our own shortlist (which will most likely be different from the official one) and then before the real winner is announced we’ll have a top-secret vote/Hunger Games fight-to-the-death and crown our very own 2015 IFFP Prize Shadow Champion. This is a completely unofficial endeavor; there is nothing in it for anybody rather than reading tons of good books, talking about them, discovering new authors and hopefully promoting high-quality translated fiction along the way (you can read all about the other panelists here).

Um, I am also going to be honest and say that I am probably not going to to read EVERY single book on the list by the time the shortlist is announced sometime in mid-April… (sorry Knausgaard, you are probably not going to make the cut… but I totally want to read you someday! I promise!!) BUT either way I am super excited and can’t wait to get started with Murakami tomorrow. I’m also looking forward to Can Xue and Tomás González (a Colombian author I’d heard of but have never read).

In the meantime, here’s an update on some books I’ve read lately in what so far has been a relatively s.l.o.o.o.w. reading year for me… something that is hopefully going to change (!). Before I get started, let me just say that there are TOO MANY GOOD BOOKS in the world. I could have easily given all of the books below an asterisk (which represents excellence) on my reading list–I’ve basically had to refrain myself from actually implementing my usual ranking system or else every book I’ve read so far this year would have one and my list would look totally whack…

My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

Well, I just gobbled this book down like I was bingeing on Netflix. **** TV! Read books!! I’m currently reading the sequel (The Story of a New Name), but as much as I love being immersed in Naples-world I’m probably going to have to put it aside for now due to all the other reading I have to do (see IFFP news above).

There were several reasons why I found this book (and am finding its sequel) so addictive. The first is the complete and utter pleasure of being sucked into a world that I know absolutely nothing about–I’ve never been to Naples, am obviously not part of the generation of any of these characters, so when I read this book I am basically in a WHOLE NEW WORLD a la Aladdin. THIS is what the very best fiction can do: suck you into an unfamiliar universe that is utterly absorbing. The world-building and level of detail here is comparable to that of a well-done fantasy novel, and I obviously mean that as a big, big compliment.

I also love this book’s ambition– we start out small, with a Judy Blume-esque friendship between two young girls, and then slowly but surely the scope of the novel gets bigger and bigger, taking in the society that they are living in as a whole. Capitalism, communism, and the brutal lack of choice these women are faced with are just a few of the Big Themes this extremely well-executed book grapples with. Let me tell you, as a 21st-century female this book made me feel privileged as hell, especially in terms of the choices I’ve been able to make in regards to my education.

This novel has so much going for it. The prose is very straightfoward and easy to read. The characters are incredibly rich: forever surprising you, full of mystery and contradictions. This adds to one of the biggest pleasures of the novel–you’re constantly trying to figure people out, their motivations, their true selves vs. the roles they must play in society (some of these people would fit right in with Game of Thrones, matching wits with the very best of the Tyrells and Lannisters). Similarly to Game of Thrones, the cast in this book is massive–just listing their names and professions takes up a good 4-5 pages at the beginning (this sure would be one expensive HBO series).

The other thing this book does extremely well are Killer Pay-offs–devastating moments in the book that happen after long build-ups, which make you realize how much you have emotionally invested in these characters. There’s the wedding scene at the end, when you realize that the titular role of the “brilliant friend” has been brutally reversed. Or the fate of a pair of shoes. Or a teacher’s reaction to an old pupil’s visit. Ufff I could go on but I don’t want to spoil anything.

This book served as a strong reminder to me that one of the main reasons I read is for well-developed and interesting characters. Give me characters who want something, who are flawed and complex, and I’ll hang out with them all day. Best of all–there are still TONS of Elena Ferrante books in the world left for me to read!

The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)

“A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”

This book (and sentences like the one above) pretty much broke my heart. It’s the only book I’ve read on the IFFP list, but I am already (foolishly) thinking it will most likely make my shortlist. The premise is simple, could even be summarized in cheesy phrases: What would happen if this happened and not that? What would the road not taken be like? What if all the roads not taken by a character were all narrated as a single storyline?

From this premise, we thus get a single character who lives many lives, dying and living repeatedly in various incarnations: as an infant who dies in her crib, as a teenage girl in pre-World War II Austria, as a communist intellectual in Moscow, as an old woman in reunified Germany. The ambition in terms of geography and history in this book is stupefying. On a very personal level, I also find this theme of what-might-have-been, what-could-be absolutely gut-wrenching. What keeps us whole in face of the brutal forces of history? How do we keep going? Is something like a complete set of Goethe books (which plays a key role through the novel) enough compensation? With this book and Visitation I now officially bow down to the altar of Erpenbeck, forever and ever.

The Serialist (David Gordon)

Love, love, loved this. Stayed up till 2AM reading it. A Bolaño-esque romp through New York with vampires, trashy sci-fi and pornography, as well as a good dose of Silence-of-the-Lambsesque serial killers, unsuccessful writers-as-detectives and good ol’ page-turning classic plotting fun. The chapters are all super short, which helps makes this book feel like it just flies by. The style is easily readable as well (my kind of writing! No flowery or lyrical prose for me; I’m all about being prosaic). The hysterical scene of Brooklyn hipsters giving a reading in Chapter 20 is alone worth the price of admission. Oh my God, the satire! The convention of ‘expensive jeans, ironic vintage T-shirts and interesting glasses‘, and references to 90’s cartoon shows! (pg. 73) It’s all too painfully familiar for my generation, and a convenient reminder of why I could never live in New York…
I also loved the part in which the narrator contemplates organizing a brigade of writers, like during the Spanish Civil War, in order to help combat crime: ‘I had an image of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem, dressed in matching windbreakers and parked outside my building with flashlights, waiting for Squad Captain DeLillo to call in on the walkie-talkie. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘A gang of armed neurotics. We’d all shoot ourselves or each other.” (pg. 189) LOVE IT. Bolaño would approve.

I keep mentioning Bolaño… I guess because this novel reminded me of something the Bolaño character says in Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis: I read everything, even bits of paper blowing down the street.” This attitude of complete and utter openness to anything and everything is (for me) not just a literary stance, but a political one. A vital one. An essential attitude towards life, an openness and willingness to anything and everything. For me, the willingness to read everything–bits of paper, detective novels, trashy murder mysteries–isn’t just an attitude towards literature, it’s a lifestyle.

I could say more on that theme but I won’t for now. Instead, I thus heartily recommend this book to anybody who loves reading in its purest form, as utter escapism–reading as fun, as a joy. Here are my favorite quotes, which I can’t help but share:

‘Why do we read? In the beginning, why do we love the books we love? For most, I think, it’s travel, a flight into adventure, into a dream that feels like our own. But for a few it is also escape, flight from boredom, unhappiness, loneliness, from where or who we can no longer bear to be. When I read, the words on the page replace the voice in my head and I cease, for a little while, to be me, or at least to be so painfully aware of being me. These are the real readers, the maniacs, the ones who dose themselves with fiction the way junkies get high, the way lovers adore the beloved: beyond reason.

This kind of reading, ironically, precedes all judgement. Objective criteria don’t enter in, any more than with love. (I say ironically because it is these very readers who, having fallen for books, become scholars, critics, editors–in other words, snobs–while maintaining their secret vice.) Genre fans–vampire lovers, sci-fi geeks, mystery addicts–are a kind of atavistic species, a pure but anomalous breed. They still read like children, foolish and grave, or like teenagers, desperate and courageous. they read because they need to.’ (139)

‘But of course we have only one world, this dark and knotty one, and the truth we find when we look too deep is rarely pretty. Unlike in books, where we are all fearless seekers, in life, most of us would rather not see too clearly.’ (259)

The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Bilal Tanweer)

An enjoyable read. This is a linked collection which acts as a hybrid between novel and short story collection–it’s probably more on the novel side, as I feel most of the pieces would lose something essential if they were read on their own. The book is narrated in multiple voices–traumatized ambulance drivers, young children, aspiring writers, a teenage girl–who are connected by a central event, a bomb blast on a bus in urban Pakistan.

Overall, I liked the stories narrated from the kids’ point of view the best. The strongest for me was the final one, in its haunting, hallucinatory romp through a city labyrinth in search of a man called the Bird of Death–it reads like Kafka and Borges had a baby, and how could I not love a child like that, right? In terms of basic plot points, by the book’s end I was still confused about how the father (Baba) died, but I suspect it was in there somewhere and I just missed it. I also really liked the subtle understatement of the narration, and how we never actually see the moment of the bomb blast itself. There is a lot about this book that is resistant to neat categorization and commercialism–a refusal to tie up loose ends, to turn the book into a nice pretty comforting narrative full of cute Crash-like coincidences. I respect that a lot–the resistance to make things feel complete. Here’s to chaos and fragmentation!

Young Skins (Colin Barrett)

This is one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve ever read (it’s deservedly already appearing on lists like these). I could read stories like “Calm With Horses” all day (fortunately it’s novella length). In these stories we see garbage-filled yards, Alsatians accidentally swallowing wasps, distant fathers working in mines, brutal Irish young adulthood, and pubs, pubs, pubs. The endings are for the most part understated and open. The language is straightforward and to the point. I loved the theme of having stories narrated from the POV of right-hand men, the silent hulking bodyguards who are usually only treated as background material in most gangster, hard-knock-life type films. Strong stories include the aforementioned “Calm With Horses,” “The Clancy Kid” (which opens the collection and has a fantastic scene of a crown-wearing kid guarding a bridge; what a way to evoke Irish mythology, history and the loss of childhood innocence in one go) and “Diamonds” (love the rehab theme). The unexpected switch of perspectives at the end of “Stand Your Skin” and “Kindly Forget My Existence” are also incredible and serve as excellent examples of the kind of gut-punch gesture that the short story form is capable of. My God, there are so many good books to read in this world, and this is definitely, definitely, definitely one of them.

 

Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill)

Fuck the plot, as Edna O’Brien said. What I try to capture as a writer is the feeling of being alive, of being awake. Because of this, I’m more apt to follow the wisp of a thought or a half-glimpsed image than chart a sequential series of events. But I absolutely believe in momentum. Momentum is not plot, but it has that same quality of urgency and forward motion, I think.

The quote above is from Jenny Offill’s interview with The Paris Review, and I think it captures a lot about what I enjoyed about this book: the momentum. It’s like an avant-garde, fragmented Lorrie Moore–the humor plays a HUGE role in making a book this “experimental” (whatever that means) work. The plot is simple: a girl and a boy meet, get married, have a baby, go through relationship trouble. What really makes this book exemplary, though, is the execution: it’s narrated in short, often disconnected sentences that form fragmented vignettes–almost like prose poetry. It reminded me of Renata Adler, though I found this book a lot more approachable and enjoyable than Adler–I guess I will always be an old-fashioned plot person at heart. But the style makes sense to me in terms of the content–what relationship is whole rather than fragmented, right? What better way to narrate a long-term love story other than in little moments?

Besides love & sorrow, there’s also bedbugs. And part-time jobs that involve astronauts. There’s fun facts about Buddhism and random quotations. There’s reflections on marriage + art (especially in terms of being a woman & mother). It also deserves to be said that the reading list on Offill’s website (of books that helped inspire her novel) looks absolutely stunning, not least for the inclusion of Mary Ruefle. Overall, this book was good for my soul, and  chances are it’ll be pretty damn good for yours, too.

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Filed under books, review, short stories, women writers

Best Books of 2014

I read 101 books last year!! I feel proud of this but I’m not sure if I will set that kind of specific goal for myself again (i.e. read x number of books in 1 year). I found myself reading a lot of short books (Rodrigo Rey Rosa was especially great for this) because it meant I could finish them faster and thus meet my “quota,” while long books like Underworld I sort of gave up on (though I did manage to read The Luminaries, Ulysses, and re-read 2666). It was really helpful having a set goal, though. It helped me stay focused and motivated. In terms of Reading Goals for 2015, I want to read more books in Spanish that haven’t been translated (I’m gonna aim for between four and twelve, starting with Juan Villoro’s El testigo) and one book of poetry per month. If I end up reading between fifty and sixty books total for the year, cool.

If I had to choose a single Best Book of 2014, it’d be a tie between Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers. I also have to say all the Cortázar short stories I read this year were amazing and basically exist in a category of their own (i.e. a higher plane of existence the rest of us can only dare to dream of inhabiting). I also loved Dani Shapiro’s self-help book on writing, and Mary Ruefle’s poetry and essays. But here are some other books (ones I haven’t talked about on this blog) that also stood out to me as pretty excellent works of literature.


Under the Skin (Michel Faber)

Well, this book blew me away. I loved the movie and after watching it immediately wanted to read the book, which shocked me by how different it was (as in, COMPLETELY different). But like the movie, I loved how the book was so disturbing, creepy, unforgettable, haunting, insert other exclamatory adjective here. This book is a masterful example of how to pull off an otherworldly narrator. The moment in which the word “Mercy” is scrawled into the ground by one of the characters is one that I think I will never forget; reading it almost gave me goosebumps. What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be human? In terms of sympathizing with characters, should we root for what is alien or for what is familiar? Post-Elizabeth Costello Coetzee would dig this book, I think. So would Jonathan Safran-Foer. I hope those comments don’t make it sound like I’m implying that this book is a parable for vegetarianism, or a cry of arms against mega-scale meat farming. Though it very well could be those things, as well as a commentary on immigration. Who knows? Does it really matter when the writing is this good? I would recommend this book to pretty much anybody who wants to read something exceedingly creepy that will (can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but here we go!) crawl under your skin and refuse to leave.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

Another creepy, spectacular book recommended to me by my friend S. who also recommended Under the Skin and May-Lan Tan to me and has thus pretty much cemented her reputation as someone with exceedingly excellent literary taste. I would love to assign this book to read in creative writing classes. Just look at this opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

That voice!! I was instantly hooked. This is the kind of book that makes you remember why you love to read–you stay up until 2.30am even though you have to get up at 7AM the next morning because you just simply HAVE to find out what happens next. The way this book slowly but surely unveils its weirdness is exemplary. I wish I could extract a mathematical formula that explains how this book crafts suspense and develops its plot so that way I can just copy it myself. I guessed the “twist” revelation of this book early on, but even so that didn’t matter to me; I still couldn’t tear myself away. What truly elevates this book into the realm of the spectacularly weird classic is the unconventional, haunting ending. Is it a victory? A feminist triumph against the demands of society? Or a horrendous descent into madness? The book doesn’t tell, but ends with the chillingly sing-song phrase of “We are so happy.” This book is like the stories you hear late at night at sleepovers in sixth grade but then never, ever forget.

Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. Forget bingeing on Netflix; epic sci-fi trilogies about Mars are the way to go. I read Red Mars several years ago but amazingly still remembered just enough about what happened in it to read this book with relatively little confusion. The one problem I had while reading this is that boy, there sure are a lot of descriptions of Martian geography and landscapes. You can tell that the author did a ton of research and wanted to include EVERYTHING. No wonder the permaculture-loving, Biology-major Burners I lived with in Ecuador in 2008 loved these books. But even though I found myself occasionally skimming the descriptions of rock and crater formations and lichen growths, I still found this book (and its follow-up Blue Mars, which I’m currently reading) utterly, completely fascinating. Writing a dissertation about the representation of history in these books would be da bomb. The main conflict in the series is set up between the Greens–the people who want to “terraform” Mars, or transform it into a livable habitat similar to Earth–and the Reds,  the people who want to keep Mars the same, as untouched and uninfluenced by humans as possible. It’s such a relevant, urgent question, one that reminds me of this classic Radiolab episode (a show that has provided me with infinite small talk fodder for parties). Is it our responsibility to mold Earth the way we best see fit? Or is the world better off without us? This book does what science fiction does best–it raises very contemporary-feeling questions about futuristic societies that function as uneasy and uncomfortable parallels for our own.

School for Patriots (Martín Kohan)

This book was powerfully narrated and is an excellent example of how to write a novel about a fucked up historical period in an interesting, genuinely innovative way, as opposed to descending into some heart-rending classic cliché weepy plot about a Family Torn Apart By Violence and other such nonsense. Too bad the summary on the back cover SPOILS EVERYTHING (if you get this book, DON’T READ THE BACK COVER). Set in Argentina during the Falklands war, this book follows the teaching assistant María, who seeks to win the approval of her supervisor by attempting to catch male students smoking in the bathroom. Her efforts to catch the students leads to her spending most of her time hiding in the stalls, until things cumulate in a climax you may think is predictable, but just you wait–it’s not. The way this book indirectly deals with Argentina’s Dirty War, espionage, conformity and desire for power is masterful. What an amazing lesson this is in the power of fiction to “show” as opposed to “tell.” I learned way more about corruption from this book than any philosophical essay or news article could ever teach me. All in all, this book is a brilliant parable about state-enforced violence, in which much remains unspoken and unsaid, lurking uneasily beneath the surface of things.

How To Be Both (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith! Will I ever not like you? How do you do it? How does writing like this get done? What can I even say about this book? It’s two interconnected stories–one is historical fiction (narrated in a thoroughly modern voice) set in 15th-century Italy with much Shakespearean gender-bending and picaresque wandering. The other story is set in the present day, with all of its glories such internet advertisements, Edward Snowden-inspired fears about surveillance, and child pornography watched obsessively over and over again on ipads. There’s mothers and death. Gender and difference. Time-traveling ghosts. Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is sung;  twin strands of DNA are studied. We think of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, George Eliot and George Sands. We confront classic Ali Smithian questions (yes, like Kafka and Orwell, I am turning Ali Smith into a literary adjective): what does it means to be properly compensated for art? Does art actually do anything in terms of helping us dealing with the world and all its grief-causing horrors? Or does “poetry make nothing happen“? Why do things have to be one or the other? Why CAN’t it be both? My God, what questions! What a book!

The Humans (Matt Haig)

This is definitely the crowd-pleasing, feel-good, comfort-food book on my list, a perfect read for a Saturday afternoon that you want to spend curled up on an armchair drinking tea, not doing anything other else than reading for five hours straight. I read this soon after reading Under the Skin and it felt compulsively appropriate. I find it fascinating that the author wrote this after a severe anxiety disorder (based on the afterword)–it feels SO appropriate. I definitely related to the narrator’s observations about human nature, especially after he read Cosmo magazine and experienced social media. A highly enjoyable read.

Randall (Jonathan Gibbs)

A very entertaining, thought-provoking novel. It reminded me of Bolaño with its parallel universe of artworks and artists, so effectively evoked it was impossible for me to tell what was Real and what was Fake. I loved how this book took risks (such as the final section, which is told from the perspective by a character who has yet to narrate, and its riddle-like final sentence) and yet was well-plotted in a very satisfying way, almost like a detective story. The other big pleasure about reading this is that I know absolutely nothing about contemporary art and this book was a fascinating introduction. I’ll certainly never think about the color yellow in quite the same way again. I especially loved the central question that the book kept circling around: “Is there any art in here, or does it just look like art? And is there a difference?” Food for thought, indeed.

Things to Make and Break (May-Lan Tan)

Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice!! But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read. I can’t wait to see her read in April!

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

This was definitely one of THE best books I read this year–possibly one of the best books I’ve read ever, which is saying a lot. The premise is so simple–a house in Germany that hosts generation after generation of inhabitants–but the execution is simply stunning. While I didn’t always understand what was going on (there were at least two chapters I had to read twice), it didn’t feel like a problem. For me, it was worth it. Considering that hardly any of the characters have names in the second half of the book (most tellingly, the Holocaust victims do), the author does an amazing job of inserting sneaky little signs and telling characteristics that allow us to remember characters from chapter to chapter. The most powerful chapters for me were “The Visitor,” “The Girl” and “The Architect’s Wife.”

Fuck me, this book! The cold, factual narration, such a complete contrast to the emotional devastation that takes place! The way violent, traumatic incidents explode at the end of chapters, shocking you like a punch in the stomach (see, I have to resort to cliché in order to describe it, I’m failing to capture the appropriate words)! The epic themes of Exile, Time, History, Family, Identity! The experiments with time and structure! The hypnotic rhythm of the gardener’s chapters, the way they remind us of the daily tasks of life that are maybe the only things that keep us going and provide continuity in the face of the brutal, unstoppable forces of history. PLEASE READ THIS if you want to experience the absolute nuts, groundbreaking shit that fiction is capable of–a small tiny hopeful light in a dark dark world. Here are my two favorite Mrs. Dalloway-esque passages:

Things can follow one after the other only for as long as you are alive in order to extract a splinter from a child’s foot, to take the roast out of the oven before it burns or sew a dress from a potato sack, but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find these dandelions, these larks.” (pg. 103)

In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.” (pg. 108)

What a book! What a year!!

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, review, Rio Plata, short stories, year in review

Soundtrack 2014, and some books

In celebration of my recent birthday and the incoming new school year (two things that evoke feelings of New Beginnings and Hello Closure), here is my 2014 soundtrack (i.e. what I mostly listened to on a recent long bike ride):

  1. All Fall Down” (Shawn Colvin)
  2. Let It Go” (Frozen soundtrack)
  3. One More Night” (Maroon 5)
  4. Take Me To Church” (Sinead O’Connor)
  5. All These Things That I’ve Done” (The Killers)
  6. Bailando” (Enrique Iglesias)
  7. Counting Stars” (One Republic)
  8. Freedom” (George Michael)
  9. Pompeii” (Bastille)
  10. Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter” (R.E.M.)
  11. Diane Young” (Vampire Weekend)
  12. Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” (Owen Pallett)
  13. Think of You” (MS MR)
  14. O My Heart” (R.E.M.)
  15. You’re Still A Mystery” (The Bleachers)
  16. Streets of Philadelphia” [live cover] (Tori Amos)

A lot of these songs make think of my summer job in the U.S., running ENDLESS miles for marathon training in England in the spring, or private mini dance breaks in my room year-round. I wonder what fall has in store…

Additionally, here are some good books I’ve read lately: Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices, Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.

Good Offices is a delightfully gothic tale that feels like a closely related cousin to Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, in the sense that both books deal with corrupt priests and combine the genuinely shocking with the darkly funny (it might be a bit TOO dark for animal lovers, though I was okay with it). It also has an absolutely killer opening sentence: “He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime.” (It’s interesting that the Spanish title of this book is Los almuerzos, the lunches.) This book also deserves mucho respect for being so short, concise, and effective: it knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and it gets it done in 150 pages, an easy afternoon read. Sometimes I wonder if it’s harder to write this kind of book than it is to write, say, a 350 page novel.

Marcus’ Leaving the Sea, meanwhile, is one of the strangest collections of short stories I’ve ever read. I started it before I left England in June, so it was a bit of a headtrip to finish it when I came back, as all the most innovative (i.e. just plain weird) stories are (purposefully?) grouped near the end. This deliberate structuring gives the collection a consistent tone, though–you start out nice and slow in familiar and amusingly satirical Jonathan Franzen territory, and then things slowly but surely start dissolving into a bad acid trip with George Saunders mixed with seriously experimental prose-poetry. I think my favorite story overall occurred near the beginning, “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” if only because it was about a writer running a creative writing workshop on a cruise ship. How come more writers don’t write about being writers? I also liked “Rollingwood” (a dystopic nightmare about a single father dealing with a sick child and a hostile workplace), and “The Loyalty Protocol” (another dystopic tale concerning aging parents and apocalyptic gym evacuation drills). I think I can now definitely proclaim that this is the kind of dystopic writing I prefer–the kind that’s ambiguous and leaves much unsaid and unexplained–as opposed to the specific world-building kind.

Leaving the Atocha Station is one of those Sebaldian, Teju Cole-like novels that blurs fact with fiction, includes black and white photographs and mainly involves the first-person, male narrator wandering around a large city. So far I have yet to have a problem with any of those things, though I would love to know if there’s a female author out there somewhere who’s written a similarly-themed book and received the same kind of critical attention and acclaim as Sebald, Cole and Lerner have. My favorite thing about this book was how dislikable, needy and insecure the main character was, and yet… I still really enjoyed spending time with him. Kudos to Lerner for pulling this off. I think if a lot of us were truly honest with ourselves, we would confess to having similar thoughts and feelings as this narrator does (delusions of grandeur, petty jealousies, deliberately lying in an attempt to evoke pity from love interests, etc.). That might be part of the cathartic appeal of this character for me, maybe (there but for the grace go I etc). Lerner’s book will also remain memorable to me for having lots really good quotes and passages about The Point of Art in the World, especially in the Face of Violence and Horror and so on (here’s a good essay about it, and another good essay by the author himself). I’d like to read this one again someday.

“I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things over poetry, when I imagined, with a sinking feeling, a world without even the terrible excuses for poems that kept faith with the virtual possibilities of the medium… then I intuited an inestimable loss, a loss not of artworks but of art, and therefore infinite, the total triumph of the actual, and I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.” (Leaving the Atocha Station, pg. 44-5)

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Filed under books, music, review, short stories

Short Story FUN!

Every time I go away for the summer (whether “away” is England, Colombia, the U.S. or all three), this blog dies a quiet little death. I am behind on everything. I injured my foot three weeks ago but I THINK (hope…?) that I’ve mostly recovered. Unrelated to said foot injury, while running in D.C. three weeks ago I tripped and landed on top of a tree root and got an IMPRESSIVELY humungous purple bruise on my leg that is still there (albeit faded), but I guess I won’t deal with it until I get back to England & free health care in September. I am also like seven books behind in my reading schedule. BUT! I am learning a lot here in Amish-country, observing lots of different teaching styles and teaching classes of my own (one popular lesson: I had the students read Anne Lammott’s “Shitty First Drafts” and then write their own versions of The Worst Story Ever. Several parents told me at the semester-end conferences that many of the students called it their favorite activity : ) #teachinghumblebrag). Will I ever be a teacher myself one day? Will I have a quiet little house on the hill in the country, as in this wonderful poem? Will I do this, will I do that? Will I have that, be that, go there, stay here? Questions, questions. At least fuckass Mercury Retrograde is finally over. (It’s times like this, when I type a sentence like the former, that I pause, stare into space and ask myself questions like Wait… did I really just sincerely write that?) Let’s… not go there.

One of the fun things about teaching is getting to daydream about my own Ideal Fancy Future Teacher Syllabus. As in, what I would love to have on my dream syllabus. The works I would love to share with others, discuss in class, and basically freak everybody out by getting EXTREMELY OVEREXCITED. Such a syllabus would primarily consist of short stories, since that’s what I’ve spent most of my time thinking about for the past two years. So what are the Dream Short Stories that I would include on my Dream Ideal Best Teacher 4-Eva Syllabus?

Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”

Probably one of my favorite short stories ever. What an example of characterization. What brilliant plot execution. The location is limited, there aren’t that many characters, and yet, and yet, and yet. Is the ending happy, ambiguous or tragic? Is Arnold Friend a liberator or abuser? What to make of Connie’s character? It was especially fascinating teaching this story here in Pennsylvania, where so many of the students related to it SO MUCH, especially the parts about Connie’s relationship to music. It was also great getting to play them Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and hearing them ask in incredulous voices, What’s wrong with his voice?

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

Wait, okay–this is definitely one of my favorite short stories ever, if not the top pick. The peculiarity of the ending!  I think this is what I love most about the short story form–how the endings can just feel so LIFE-CHANGING and EARTH-SHATTERING. Like, everything we think we know about the Grandma and the Misfit is completely turned upside down, inside out and battered to death by the story’s end. Who’s good? Who’s bad? IDK. But this story is pretty much perfect.

Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”

A story that is SO SHORT and yet SO EFFECTIVE and tells us SO MUCH in so few words (see all the capitalizations I just used there? That means I am being EMPHATIC…!). The beauty of the ending, in which the main character’s love of poetry and rhythm and language is summed up in one final American Beauty-like dream passage: They is, they is, they is. This would also be fun to read aloud in class.

Lorrie Moore’s “How to be a Writer”

A classic. Would be a good segue-way into a 2nd-person exercise. Not to mention a good way to prepare for the experience of being workshopped, heheh.

Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”

I’d love to use this in a lesson about unreliable narrators. Or to talk about the effect that short stories can have on us–how more than anything else, you know that a short story has done its job when a) you want to keep reading and b) it’s created some kind of FEELING in you. Any emotion, period. Not to mention the way the narration is full of constant twists and turns, to the man with the knife in his eye to the angels in the movie theatre to the hitchhiker at the end–Johnson creates a wonderful sense of absurdity and unexpectedness, in which we never know what is going to happen next. Another reason to teach this: I love it. Also: it is hilarious. Also: I could show the film clip of the bunnies getting squashed, which I believe I have already posted on this blog, but whatever, here it is again.

David Foster Wallace’s “Forever Overhead,” ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” Aleksander Hemon’s “Islands”

These three stories I have stolen directly from the syllabus of the short story class I took in graduate school, because a) I loved them and b) do I need another reason other than that? I guess I feel like they are masterful texts, and (in the case of Packer and Hemon especially), hilarious. The Wallace and Packer pieces would feel especially relevant to the age group I am currently working with, while Hemon I find simply hysterical in the darkest of Herzogian senses (I swear to God if I ever have a fulltime job teaching literature/writing one day my students will ALL be converts to the Church of Herzog by the semester’s end, srsly).

KAFKA, Cortázar & Borges

Oh my goodness, three of my all-time favorites–how to even begin? “The Metamorphosis”? (Too long?) “The Judgement”? (Too out of context?) “The Hunger Artist”? (Too… weird of an introduction?) What about Cortázar–would I go with “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary,” my current favorites, or the more commonly taught “Axolotl” and “Continuity of Parks“? And how on EARTH would you introduce Borges? (Perhaps this hilarious article would work best.)

Raymond Carver’s “Beginners” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

We used these two stories in one of the most memorable classes I’ve had as a graduate student–after reading them, we had an interesting discussion about the role of the editor (how would we personally feel if an editor COMPLETELY CHANGED the majority of the story, even if it made it better? What about the editor WRITING HIS OWN PARAGRAPHS and inserting them into the text?). Then we passed out pieces we’d written ourselves and had classmates edit them by slashing them in half, i.e. cutting 50% of the words, Gordon Lish-style. It was an interesting exercise and its primary lesson lingered with me to this day: when in doubt, cut cut cut.

Flash fiction!

Lydia Davis! Amy Hempel! More Kafka! I’d love to use this as way to talk about expectations & satisfaction: is a short story meant to provide some sense of satisfaction or completion to the reader? If not, what then? And I’d especially love to use this book, leftover from my own youthful student days!

Poetry- Richard Siken, Jeffrey McDaniel, Tony Hoagland — ahh, who am I kidding, I know nothing about poetry apart from my own gut instinct about what I like vs what I don’t : )

Ali Smith would have to go on there somewhere too, but with what story? The tree one? The meeting-Death-on-the-tube one? The awkward dinner party surrounded by dead River Phoenix photos one? What about Alice Munro? Aimee Bender? Judy Budnitz? Junot Díaz? Sherman Alexie’s “The Toughest Indian in the World”? Isn’t J.D. Salinger a must-have? Would I have to include Edgar Allan Poe in order to have something “old” represented? Will I ever appreciate Chekhov? Should I include Helen Simpson? Deborah Levy? Do I need to include Barthelme in order to have the white male postmodernists represented (if I did include him, I’d use this story)? What about Sebald? Can I include a stand-alone chapter from Buddha in the Attic, one of the best novels I’ve read recently, as an example of innovative historical fiction? Am I a bad person for “not getting” Karen Russell? How about Ben Marcus, another recently discovered favorite? What about someone like David Means, whom I’ve never even read? Is there a way I could sneak the short film “Plastic Bag” onto the syllabus, if only to have Werner Herzog’s voice boom throughout the classroom at top volume?

Aaaaah! These will all be such good in-the-future problems to have!

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Filed under future, jobs, lists, short stories

Fragmented Novels

Ah, the fragmented novel. Why do I enjoy you so much? Is it because you remind me of my own fractured, splintered brain? (That’s a slightly melodramatic exaggeration, but not by much.) Is it because you’re an accurate representation of our broken society, our shattered world?  (I guess you could call it multi-faceted if you’re a Thomas Friedman fan.) Are you the current hot shit thing in publishing, thanks to A Visit From the Goon Squad and Cloud Atlas? Are you a pretentious term for a short story collection because nobody wants to read short stories anymore? Are you a marketing gimmick? Are you a symbol of our own collapsing attention spans, numbly clicking from one Internet tab to the next? Are you really that fragmented, or are you merely broken, episodic, polyphonic, a novel-in-stories? Does your special members club include As I Lay Dying and Infinite Jest or am I kinda pushing my luck here?

Whatever. I have no answers for those questions (obviously). They merely serve as a convenient introductory paragraph for this one basic truth that I DO know: I like reading fragmented novels. Like, a lot. I enjoy feeling like a detective when I read, hunting for clues, for hints at ways the stories are going to link together or add up. The thrill of the hunt, the joy of the chase. I like short story collections and I like novels, and with the fragmented novel, you get both! 2-in-one! Like a deal at Fred Meyer where you buy a stick of glue and get a pair of scissors at the same time! What’s not to like?

I have been reading a lot of fragmented novels lately, since that’s the kind of book I’ve been writing (HECK YES). Here are a few that have stood out for me.

Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout)

This book (a “novel-in-stories”) definitely deserved to win the Pulitzer IMHO, as it is quite the achievement. I think I’ll probably buy it for my mother for Christmas. Olive Kitteridge is the main character (obviously), a high school teacher in small-town Maine, and appears in every single story in this collection, although sometimes only briefly, barely qualifying as a cameo. The stories in which she is not a main character instead focus on different members of the town, or sometimes members of her family.

The main reason this book was so successful for me is that Olive is a terrific character–abrasive, dislikable, yet sympathetic and complex. The moment in which I was truly sold was in the fourth story, “A Little Burst,” when she steals a sweater and single shoe from the know-it-all bride, just to keep her on her toes: Nobody knows everything. They shouldn’t think they do. It’s the kind of characterization that’s makes you want to sit up and clap your hands in delight, even if in other stories you see how her obtuseness can be hurtful. Thanks to the other stories, you understand why some people in her life (like her son) can’t stand her, yet at the same time you pity her (that is a very English 101 statement, but there you go). Strout does an amazing job at creating empathy, at showing both sides of the story (though interestingly enough we never get a story from the son’s point of view). This book really drives home the message  that it is CHARACTER that makes a novel great–more than anything else, good characters are what make you want to keep reading. The writing style was also very impressive–beautifully written, yet unpretentious and extremely readable. I was also very intrigued by the theme of mental illness that runs throughout these stories: different characters are affected by legacies of suicide, eating disorders, pyromania. The levels of crazy  seem to get more and more intense as the book progresses–I’m not sure what it means, but I found it very interesting.

This book was a true pleasure to read and I looked forward to picking it up every day. The other important lesson I learned from this book is that it opens with what is arguably the strongest story in the collection, “Pharmacy” (I hope I don’t get arrested for posting that link here). This helped remind me that you really can’t be fucking around with your reader at the beginning of your book and wasting their time. You gotta put your best shit first.

The Illustrated Man (Ray Bradbury)

This was a nice fun light little read. The framing device in this story is a bit strange and felt somewhat unnecessary: basically, in the opening piece, the narrator meets the titular “illustrated man,” whose body is covered in animated, cinematic tattoos. Every tattoo on his body represents a story in this collection. Bradbury refers to this framing devil in the first two stories then seems to give up on it completely, which makes it a bit jarring when you suddenly return to the illustrated man in the collection’s final piece. Weird, but I guess he wanted to make it more interesting than just a plain short story collection. So party on, Ray Bradbury.

I have become a big fan of Ray Bradbury this year (I’m currently reading The Martian Chronicles as we speak). My favorite story in this was definitely “Kaleidoscope,” which I am seriously tempted to say is one of the most moving short stories I’ve ever read. Or maybe that’s just due to the effect of the Gravity trailers. Tumbling through space into the endless void and abyss–God.

But anyway, there’s something about the simplicity in Bradbury’s writing that feels very escapist and enjoyable to me–like I’m reading the kind of book I would have loved when I was twelve. The contrast between childhood and adulthood is definitely a big theme in his writing. I liked the straightforwardness of this book–they are science fiction stories, tightly plotted, plenty of meditations on man vs. technology, done simply and done well.

I also liked this quote from the collection’s closing story, “The Playground”: It seemed you did more planning in autumn than any other season. This had to do with dying, perhaps. You thought of death and you automatically planned.

NW (Zadie Smith)

Can you believe that this is the first Zadie Smith novel I have ever read? I refuse to count White Teeth, which I read SO LONG AGO (2000!!!) I’m sure most of it went completely over my head, or her collection of essays, which I read earlier this year and very much enjoyed (I definitely aspire to one day write at a Zadie Smith-level of criticism).

I also really enjoyed this book. I wouldn’t have thought of it as a fractured novel–it doesn’t feel like a short story collection in the same way that Olive Kitteridge does. It definitely feels like a novel, albeit narrated in different voices (Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan). By the fourth section it definitely becomes clear which character is the one Smith finds most interesting (and thankfully I did as well), and that helps it feel more novelistic as well–you are following one character’s journey or arch, as opposed to many.

My favorite sections in this book were the first and third (the Leah and Natalie sections respectively). I liked these two sections the best because I got the feeling that these were the sections that Smith enjoyed writing the most–that she really KNEW and was invested in the material. They also happened to be the sections that were the most experimental, for what it’s worth (perhaps as a homage to Ulysses, the most obvious example of a city-based book? I’d also really love to know why Natalie’s chapter is divided into 182 sections–why 182?). Section 2, about Felix the ex druggie trying to go clean, was less compelling for me and took a long time to get through, but maybe that was just because I was reading it the day that I adopted my cat (!! yes, along with writing a book, this is another big development in my life…). But yeah, Felix rang a little less true to me, because his chapter felt very familiar–like something I had read before. The last paragraph (depicting the traumatic event that the rest of the book circles around) is truly a thing a beauty, though, and definitely reminds you that Smith is a capital-W Writer. I was also disappointed that unlike what the book jacket promised, we didn’t get to enter Nathan’s head–instead we see him through the eyes of Natalie. That was kind of a bummer. Since we only see him from Natalie ‘s perspective, he comes off as a classic crackhead and not really much of a character. As a reader, I felt like Nathan got turned into the Villain at the expense of giving the book a sense of Plot and Structure. Poor Nathan.

Still, Zadie Smith definitely deserves all the accolades and hype that she gets. She has produced a real treat to read that is accessible yet decidedly uncommercial. Good for her. I also loved the theme of the self that kept popping up. Who are we, this book kept asking. Are we just a composite of what we want other people to think of us? Images that we project and produce? At what point do our real selves end and our fake selves begin? It was all very David Foster Wallace (apparently Smith is a big fan–delightful!).

Anagrams (Lorrie Moore)

This was definitely my favorite work of Lorrie Moore’s that I’ve read so far. It is a very weird, exciting book–it  somewhat loses steam at the end, but I still found it very enjoyable and inspiring. It’s definitely setting out to do something different, and I LOVE fiction that makes me feel like that–like I’m reading something I’ve never seen done before. It’s like that classic Werner Herzog quote about how we must constantly be seeking new images in art, or else die out like dinosaurs (a great sentiment to live by).

I am glad that I knew before reading this book that it was a “fragmented” novel–i.e., in each chapter, the three main characters appear in different forms, with varying ages, careers, personalities, etc. So in some they are a couple, in some they are friends, in another the main character is a university professor with  a daughter, in yet another she is a single aerobics teacher. It is as though each chapter is a jazz riff or variation on what came before. If I hadn’t known this, it is very likely I would have gotten confused or even frustrated. I can definitely see why some people wouldn’t like this book–but I loved it!

The book’s structure  makes sense in light of the book’s title, which in turn is an encapsulation of the book’s main themes: how fragmentary and fragile our identities really are, the possibility of parallel universes and endless combinations of the self, etc. Very Borges-esque. In her Paris Review interview, Moore describes the book as five short stories and one short novel, whereas I would totally be okay with calling this a novel. It follows the same characters throughout on an emotional journey, so why not?

Anyway, I am glad I read this book. It does something really interesting I have not seen before (in the longest piece, one of the main characters is  an imaginary friend–I found this to be EXTREMELy avant-garde!). It is also full of hilarious, classic Lorrie Moore one-liners. Like many people I think this is what I enjoy most about Moore–the humor. I almost NEVER laugh when reading books so anything that makes me even crack the faintest of smiles is a hugely commendable Pulitzer-prize worthy achievement. I think the part that made me laugh the hardest was this line about insects in the bathroom: A big fly buzzed right through a spider web and instead of getting caught in it, the fly ended up dragging the spider along on about six inches of spider silk torn from the web; they flew around the bathroom like that together all day, the spider a kind of astonished kite trailing behind. The whole thing seemed emblematic of something–though I wasn’t sure what.

What really kills me in the passage is the use of the word “astonished”. Amazing.

Hawthorn & Child (Keith Ridgway)

This is definitely the best book I’ve read so far this year and arguably one of the best books I’ve  read in my life. If I could purchase a copy for everybody I knew I would. I couldn’t put it down. Bolaño would LOVE this book.

The titular Hawthron & Child are a pair of detectives who wander in and out of these stories (or are they chapters?) like Rosencratz and Guildenstern, or like they’re waiting for Godot. The plot of the story is that there is no plot. There is no journey or change or connection. Mysteries are unsolvable, life is nonsensical, things don’t add up, there is no answer or explanation. I LOVE THESE THEMES. Onetti and Piglia (two of my other favorite authors) do as well. I find these themes fascinating because they say so much about our desires as readers (and as people!) for order, answers, and conclusions. We want our lives to make sense, to add up, to be coherent. And yet they’re not (if  yours is, what’s your secret?!).

The other thing that is worth commending about this book is the writing style. Ridgway must have edited this book ruthlessly (or maybe he is a sparse writer from Draft 1; who knows?). It is HIGHLY readable, yet the language is beautiful. Every sentence in this book is tight, tight, tight; not a word is wasted. Check out the opening sentences: He dreamed he was sleeping and Child was driving. / It was fucking hot. / She liked art. / I am ill. I have been ill for some time. It is a very smart move on Ridgway’s part of make his writing so readable and approachable (almost pulpy)–with a novel this innovative, it helps to not add an extra level of confusion on the level of the prose.

I was also fascinated by how well Ridgway is able to develop character. We are given virtually NO distinguishing details about Hawthorn & Child: we know that Child is black and wears glasses, and that Hawthorn is gay and cries a lot. That’s basically it. It really drove home the message to me that sometimes to make a character memorable, you don’t need a super complicated image or epic description. Sometimes “funny-looking face” works just fine. The dialogue between Hawthorn & Child is also pitch perfect and hilarious; the scene in the last story where they buy cigarettes for the first time in years is hysterical. I could read 400+ pages of them just talking. The characterization in these stories is magnificent, particularly with the 1st-person narrators–not since American Psycho have I read a work so good at getting into the heads of some seriously sick lunatics (the book’s use of violence sometimes reaches an Infinite Jest-level of icky–there’s one scene involving stairs and a baby that Cormac McCarthy would have truly been proud of). I think my favorite story in this collection is the one about a publisher who must deal with a Game of Thrones-like manuscript about a pack of wolves (this was seriously the most WTF story). Runner-up is “Rothko Eggs,” a bittersweet story about an art-obsessed teenage girl falling in love for the first time with a potentially gay boy.

I am also extremely in awe of the subtle way that Ridgway connects the stories–I never felt I was getting beaten over the head by the author shouting “LOOK AT HOW THESE ARE CONNECTED!!!” The titular cops appear in every story (sometimes only fleetingly, not even named, but recognizable via Child’s trademark glasses or Hawthorn’s pale weepiness). The other threads that connect the pieces are much more subtle: a gangster with a distinctive name floats in and out like a ghost, violence, homosexuality, madness… Everything in this book is gold, I tell you. GOLD. If you are a fan of Paul Auster, you’d dig this. As soon as I finished this book I wanted to buy it. It makes no excuses or apologies. This book pushes the boundaries of what a novel and/or short story collection can and should do.

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The Whole Story

I love Ali Smith. The first work of hers that I read was a novel called “The Accidental,” for a literature class called “Fiction and Time,” during my semester abroad in England, at University of East Anglia. I’d never read anything like it. I loved it, and list it on my favorite books list on this blog. I went on to read “Hotel World,” which I also loved, in all its “Mrs. Dalloway” canon-like homage, and then I read this short story collection, “The Whole Story,” while I was recovering from a pretty nasty break-up. After finishing two Lorrie Moore collections, I was still in the mood for some good old female-penned fiction, so of course Ali Smith was one first to come to mind. Not only does she remind me how fun it is to read stuff written by women, but how fun it is to read contemporary writers. I really should do it more often, if I can ever get myself back into a stable reading rhythm again… oh well, baby steps, right?

I like the quote that precedes the collection, by a Brazilian author called Clarice Lispector: Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It makes me think of Molly Bloom’s closing monologue in “Ulysses,” and then in turn of the sexy Kate Bush song: “mmmm, yes.” I feel like this quote is relevant to the collection because it seems to be asking when does the “story” truly begin: with the creation of molecules? With prehistory? With the prehistory of prehistory? With the “yes” uttered by God… Sophia… quantum physics… oh man, who knows.

The opening story (called “The Universal Story”–its place at the beginning definitely doesn’t feel like an accident!) is a good way to set up these themes for the rest of the book. The story asks good questions about when does a story truly begin, by using a series of false starts. “There was a man who dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.” (1) And then it goes on from there, to a woman who lived by a cemetery, to a woman who lived by–no, in–a second-hand bookshop, to the life of an edition of The Great Gatsby, to the life of a common domestic house fly, to the customer who comes in to by a copy of the book because his sister is a performance artist building a boat made solely out of editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American opus. Using the Great Gatsby is an appropriate choice, as not only is it a reflection of the book’s closing lines (“beating back ceaselessly into the past” or so on), but it’s also a nice image: a boat made entirely out of books, carrying us away (not to spoil anything, but it unsurprisingly just ends up sinking in the English channel).

Maybe this summary doesn’t make this story sound like much. In this case, I would say that this story is a good example of how it’s not so much what a story is about, but rather how it is about it. I’m really not the kind of person who’s delighted by the trumping of style over substance… in fact, I would say that I’m pretty much over magical realism altogether, unless it is very, very well done. But for some reason Ali Smith pleases rather than frustrates me. She makes reading fiction fun. These stories make me feel good about myself and happy to be alive–I really can’t think of a better reason to recommend her other than that. They’re just delightful. They’re fun to read!

For example, take the story “May,” which has one of the best examples of Smith’s enviable ability to write killer opening lines: “I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom.” (45) Oh man! This may very well be my favorite story in the collection. There’s just so much to unpack here, about nature and technology and alienation and capitalism. One of my favorite parts of the story is also a good example of one of my favorite things about Smith in general: she has this technique where 1) we don’t know the gender of the narrator, 2) the narrator constantly refers to an unnamed “you,” their romantic partner, and 3) the 2nd half of the story is narrated by the subject of the previous narrator’s “you,” so that the new “you” becomes the first narrator. I just find this technique to be a really unique and powerful way of narrator–what is storytelling, if not talking to a “you”? And how awesome is it that the “you” character gets to narrate themselves, at the end? So in this case, after listening to the first narrator expound upon how he/she fell in love with a tree, the 2nd half of the story is from their partner’s perspective, which is even more interesting: how do you deal with your boyfriend/girlfriend, if they claim to be in love with a tree? This is an example of a magic-realism element that is handled quite well by Smith, in a way that is sweet and realistic rather than annoying. What’s so weird about falling in love with a tree anyway? In the story it isn’t treated all too differently than if the character was having an affair with a person. I also like how Smith puts people/tree relationships in context by referring to other stories and myths, such as the one with Daphne, which in turn makes it seem less weird.

Pretty much all my favorite stories in this collection are the ones that use this “you” mid-story switching technique. The one where the narrator is trying to get home on the Tube, and thinks that they see Death (“You know he’s Death because when he smiles, your cell phone goes dead.”). The one called “Believe Me”, which opens with these lines: “I’m having an affair, I said. No you’re not, you said.” (119) There’s other stories, too: the one where the main character is haunted by a band of Scottish bagpipers in full regalia (this is the most magical realism story of the lot). The one about the three Scottish sisters, and their random dead-end jobs working in fast food restaurants or as the coffee-drink vendor on a Loch Ness monster tour ferry. The weirdest story to me is “Erosive,” which is divided in three sections, “middle,” “end,” “beginning,” but still doesn’t seem to have any order: I can’t figure out if this story is about killing ants that are killing your apple tree, what it feels to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, or some weird combination of the two.

My favorite passage in the entire collection comes from “Believe Me,” which reminds me of something out of a Sarah Kane monologue:

“I can read you like a book and because the thing about a beloved book, if it’s a good one, is that it shifts like music; you think you know it, you’ve read it so many times, of course you know it, of course the pleasure of it is in how well you know it, but then you hear in the background, the thing you never heard in it before, and with the turn of a page you see a combination of words you know you’ve never seen before, you thought you knew this book but it dazzles you with the different book it is, yet again, and not just that but the different person you have become, the different person you are now, reading it again, and you, my love, are an excellent book for me, and then us both together, which takes some talent with rhythm, but luckily we are quite talented at reading each other.” (127)

Aaaah! Talk about making my heart stop… man, imagine someone writing that in an e-mail for you, or a text message, or a postcard. It makes my heart hurt just to think about it. I wanna write something like this myself, but for me, rather than for some stupid boy. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to Ali Smith is that she makes me feel inspired enough about fiction that I want to pick up my pencil and start writing again, myself. I’m getting there… it’s like that Buddhist expression: “Wherever you go, there you are.” You have to make YOURSELF the unattainable, idealized “you” that you long for and address and narrate to… you know? It’s like what one of the many, many self-help books I have read in the past two months said: YOU have to make yourself the hero of your own story, rather than some random other person who is supposed to swoop in and save the day and make everything all better with a band-aid and a cookie and a kiss on the cheek. The things that you long that have in a relationship, the qualities that you long to see manifested in other people, are typically the qualities you want to see manifested in yourself. The best thing about this is that YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF, rather than wait for someone else to do it FOR you!! Like: don’t wait for someone to write a poetic love letter to you comparing you to a well-read book… do it yourself! What an important realization, to think that YOU are that person to whom you are narrating and addressing and directing your life towards… not someone else.

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