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February 11th, 2016


02:14 pm
Adam Gopnik, on memoir in general and the memoirs of Henry James specifically:

The effort to communicate experience rather than to invent it, the feeling that, however distilled and removed it might be, it is still distilled and removed from a river of experience that the author cannot quite dam and alter as he wishes, is the secret of the memoir's appeal. We like an author who gives it to us straight, no matter how fancy his prose style may be. James has a tricksy manner, but his purpose in his memoirs is touchingly transparent: to say how the big moments of his life felt exactly as they happened. Each page is lit up by the bright light of memory, then is crumpled by the aging hand of scruple, only to be smoothed out again by the comfort of fine old feelings: It looked like this! Did it really look like this? Well, it sure felt like this while I was looking.

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January 2nd, 2016


01:48 pm - 2015: the year in books
Happy New Year, friends! Oh, my year is off to a lovely start. I have come down with a cold, it's true, and I would prefer if I hadn't. But other than that it is lovely. I am settling in to my residency; I am working; I am walking in the woods in the afternoons; I am reading Virginia Woolf; I am watching bluebirds outside the window of my studio. I will have more thoughts to share about the residency soon, but for now it is time to talk about books.

So. here is the list of what I read during the past year. Links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote; my orderly reviewing habits got away from me a bit towards the end of the year, so there are some books without links. Oh well. Some of them I still intend to write about; others will just have to be passed over. Books marked with a "Q" are those that I deem to be, in some way, queer:

1. Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet (Q)
2. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Q)
3. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi (Q)
4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
5. The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
6. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (Q)
7. Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (Q)
8. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
9. Another Country by James Baldwin (Q)
10. The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
11. Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris
12. Am I Blue?, Marion Dane Bauer, ed. (Q)
13. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
14. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
15. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
16. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
17. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
18. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
19. The Gathering by Anne Enright
20. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
21. A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
22. Now and Then by William Corlett (Q)
23. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
24. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
25. A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
26. On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory
27. The Women by T.C. Boyle
28. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
29. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
30. How Winter Began by Joy Castro
31. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
32. Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford
33. Watchers at the Pond by Franklin Russell
34. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (Q-ish)
35. Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley
36. So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ
37. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
38. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (Q-ish)

Look at how many Qs there are in the first part of the year, and how few in the second! That's interesting. This is also the third year in a row in which I didn't re-read any books--I'm glad I set myself a goal of doing a bit of re-reading to remind myself that it has real value. Books by women made up 55% of my reading this year, so that's nice and balanced. I only read four works of nonfiction; while that may not be balanced, it is quite typical for me.

Because I always find this a bit interesting, here is the list broken up by nationality of author.Collapse )

Books that will stay with me:

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann: I had been searching for over a year for a book that would sweep me off my feet, and this was the one that did it. It is a flawed book, but it tells an all-consuming story. A muscular, immensely powerful, ferocious story. An indelible reading experience.

Another Country by James Baldwin: A big, messy, and stunningly ambitious book about race, sex, identity, and the way those things intersect and merge in New York in the late 1950s. It sprawls, and some parts of it are more successful than others, but it contains fearless metaphors and more than one scene that I know I won't forget.

Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris: This is the sequel to Harris's book The Southpaw, but it far surpasses it in quality. It's the best baseball book I've ever read. Harris touches on deep matters with a light hand, finds humor everywhere, and bundles it all up into a beautifully bittersweet package.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: I can't remember the last work of nonfiction that held my attention as effortlessly as this memoir. I love books that are in deep conversation with other books, as this one is with T.H. White's The Goshawk. Smart, thoughtful, and written in straightforwardly beautiful prose.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. This book is a tour de force. On the surface it is about four siblings who survive Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, but it is about so much more than that: family, memory, poverty, community, and so many different forms of love.

Other titles that I recommend include Jacob's Room, The Testament of Mary, The Gathering, A Month in the Country, Lila, The Blue Flower, and Sunstroke.

Happy reading to all in the coming year!

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August 30th, 2015


02:50 pm - Reading
The Women by T.C. Boyle: Ugh. What a disappointment. I read Boyle's short fiction relatively regularly, but it occurred to me while reading this book that I haven't picked up a novel of his in years. Perhaps he is just better as a short story writer, when the exigencies of the form force him to be concise. The Women, on the other hand, is wordy: endlessly, impossibly, maddeningly wordy. Right from the beginning I was annoyed by the verbosity. There are details crammed into every nook and cranny of the story, adjectives piled on all available surfaces, descriptions draped thickly over everything. Scenes that might have been affecting or tense or beautiful at three pages, swelled and sagged over seven or ten pages. I couldn't figure out whether Boyle's style had changed since those earlier novels I read years ago, or whether the problem was that, over the past five or ten years, my own taste has been steadily evolving away from this maximalist approach.

So the wordiness of the book was off-putting, and Boyle's decisions about narration and chronology were baffling. The book tells the story of the complicated and controversial love life of brilliant architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle presents the story in reverse chronological order, beginning with Wright's third wife and moving backward through various other marriages and affairs. I can imagine a situation in which this strategy could work, but here it just seems to separate events from their consequences and prevent the work from developing much emotional depth. Not only that, but Boyle makes the bizarre decision to present the work as though it were written by a fictional apprentice of Wright's who (according to the novel!!) did not even meet Wright until long after the events he is ostensibly narrating. What purpose could this possibly serve? How does it make any sense? Why on earth not just tell the story???

I might have put this book down if not for the fact that it was loaned to me by my father (after we toured Wright's home in Oak Park together in July), and for the past few years I have not had a very good record of reading and returning his books in a timely fashion. So I forged ahead and finished it, and then got mad at it for taking up all of my reading time while I was at Stony Lake. Ha! I was quite disappointed to have this frustrating book turn out to be the only thing I managed to read while I was there, and I'm sure that didn't improve my opinion of the book.

Mostly, The Women just seemed like one long missed opportunity. There is plenty of dramatic meat in this story, but Boyle does not seem to have done the imaginative work necessary to make it compelling. Wright's wives come on stage and leave in succession, as though the same actress were going through various costume changes--each of them responds to Wright in the same predetermined set of ways and they never seem like fully-realized individuals. I wish Boyle would have dug more deeply into their characters, or even into the character of Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead of a long recitation of scenes gleaned from Wright's life history, how much more powerful might this book have been if it wrestled with the question of why Wright's life took the path it did.

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February 22nd, 2015


12:09 pm - "With your soft fingers between my claws / like purity against resolve"
I finished reading As Meat Loves Salt last night. The reading experience was extraordinary: profound, all-consuming, in some ways almost as violent as the book itself. Maria McCann does not do things by half measures. Every characteristic of this book is the most: the battle scenes are the bloodiest, the sex is the most ardent, the loving moments are the tenderest, the anger is the bitterest, the pain exquisite. When she writes about a troubled character, he is tormented by the blackest demons imaginable. When she writes a book about obsession, the book will come to obsess me, lingering in my thoughts all day, every day, even when I'm not reading it. Reading this book, for me, was so intense that I can't quite say I liked it.

I am not much for either spoiler alerts or trigger warnings, but this post may merit both.Collapse )

I was moving across your frozen veneer
The sky was dark but you were clear
Could you feel my footsteps?
And would you shatter, would you shatter? Would you?

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January 21st, 2015


10:51 am - Two new reviews
1. Just before Christmas, as I was busy packing up, feeding the cats, loading the car, and getting ready to leave for a week at my parents' house, I walked out the front door with a suitcase in my hand. From down the block, I head someone call, "Wait! Don't leave!" It was my mailman, and he had a package for me that wouldn't fit through the mail slot: my contributor's copies of The Chattahoochee Review, containing my review of Family Feeling by Jean Ross Justice. I hadn't been expecting the magazine until January, so it was a lovely and funny surprise to have them handed to me just as I was leaving for Christmas. And it has been a long time since I was published in an actual print publication that I could hold in my hand, so that was nice too. The review is not available online, unfortunately, but you can see my name in the list of contributors to the most recent issue here.

2. My newest review, of Molly Sutton Kiefer's book-length lyric essay Nestuary, was published this morning in the January issue of Literary Mama. This one is available online (though not in a magazine that my mailman can wave at me from down the street), and you can read it here.

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December 8th, 2014


05:05 pm - Books!
I have quite a few books I want to talk about!

Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield:
I first encountered Katherine Mansfield in grad school, when we read her long story "At the Bay" in a novella workshop I took. I was Mansfield's coolness, by her light touch, by the ease with which she shifted about among an array of perspectives, by the way she built a story out of tiny, ordinary moments somehow turned it into much more than the sum of its parts. Now that I've read more of her fiction, I can say that these qualities are shared by all of her best stories, and the ones that don't succeed are the ones where she loses her lightness or the effortless mobility of perspective. I found some of the stories in this collection to be quite flat, but those that are good are very very good. The best stories of all were the group about the Burrells, the family in "At the Bay."

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel:
What an uneven collection! There were a few standout stories that I loved (the title story, "The Heart Fails Without Warning," and "How Shall I Know You?"), but the rest were either underdeveloped or marred by pat endings. Reading this collection gives the impression that Mantel is much better at starting stories than at finishing--almost every piece here had a promising premise and atmospheric beginning, but most of them fizzled by the time they were over. Although I was sometimes frustrated by Mantel's prose in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in general I found it more interesting than the style in these stories.

The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt:
Wonderful! A beautiful tiny gem of a book. This book contains only three stories (longish stories, but still), yet it feels very rich and full. And pleasurable! I luxuriated in Byatt's descriptive writing. The characters all felt natural and believable, and though there was considerable thought put into themes and connections, it didn't impinge on the stories' need, first, and foremost, to be good stories. (Hilary Mantel could learn a thing or two.) As much as I admire Byatt as a novelist, I'm beginning to think I might like her even more as a short story writer.

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet:
I've just started this after having it on my shelf for quite some time. I confess that I'm reading it now more out of sense of mingled curiosity and obligation (if one is going to claim to be knowledgeable about queer literature, one must read Genet!) than out of a deep desire. So far all I can say is that it's a strange book, with very flowery prose applied to base acts, and an unusual relationship between the narrator, the author, and the text.... I am fifty or sixty pages into the book, and still feel like I don't quite have a handle on it yet. We shall see.

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November 10th, 2014


04:12 pm - Anna Karenina: concluding thoughts
I finished Anna Karenina last night. It took me almost exactly a month to read. During most of that time I loved it, but even in moments when the love faded a bit, the book still felt like such rich nourishment, meat for the mind, the imagination, the soul--whatever part of me it is that reads and writes, and thinks about reading and writing....

It feels like my thoughts are too many and disparate to organize them into a neat review. So, a list:
  • I was impressed by the degree to which this book, so often considered 'classic' or 'timeless,' was actually so firmly rooted in its era. Tolstoy is remarkably specific about the world in which his characters move: they attend musical performances that actually took place in Moscow and Petersburg in the 1870s, participate in the various fads that moved through society at that time, read books that had been recently published or recently translated into Russian, make offhand references to political and social preoccupations of the moment. Many of these details were not strictly necessary, yet they added such texture to the story.

  • For the first half of the book, or maybe the first two-thirds, I loved its length. I was happy to just read and read about anything at all; not even the longest digressions from the two main plots bothered me. It was only as the book started to move toward the conclusion that I began to get a bit impatient. I don't know whether this has something to do with feeling like it had become clear how things were going to turn out and getting tired of waiting for them to turn out that way, or whether it was simply because I had already six hundred pages and was ready to go on to something else.

  • Mostly, I enjoyed the book for Tolstoy's characterizations and the long unfurling of his plots, rather than for any particular vividness of the imagery or prose style. But there were three scenes that were absolute stylistic standouts: the moment in which Kitty and Levin communicate their feelings to each other by chalking mysterious coded phrases (intelligible to no one but each other) on a table; the chapter in which Kitty and Levin's wedding is narrated through the thoughts of the various attendees and onlookers; and, of course, the virtuoso depiction of Anna's state of mind, simultaneously frenzied, muddled, and marked by amazing clarity, leading up to her throwing herself under the train.

  • What would it be like to read this book not knowing the outcome of Anna's story? Her demise has become so famous--one of those things that just sort of float in the culture, to be absorbed even by people who have no intention of ever reading the book--that I don't think it's possible for any contemporary reader to experience the book as a surprise. I wish I could have, though. God, imagine how powerful that final chapter of Part 7 might have been if I hadn't know what was coming!

  • I found it hard to place the book on the spectrum of conservatism. There were these fantastic, Forster-esque moments that seemed to show how authenticity in feeling and action is the highest value of all, and to demonstrate how adherence to social order gets in the way of authenticity (for example, the moment when Anna is gravely ill and, in a rush of feeling, Alexei Alexandrovich experiences true forgiveness for her and absolves her of her infidelity, only later to reverse his position when he begins thinking about how it looks to others. That scene really did read like something out of Forster! Except for being five times longer than anything Forster would write, of course.) But at other moments the book seems to suggest that adherence to convention is necessary, that if only Anna and Vronsky had married their love would have remained secure and happy, for instance.

  • I was surprised by how little the two main story lines had to do with each other. Kitty and Levin move through the same social milieu as Anna and Vronsky, they have connections in common, they know of each other and encounter each other once or twice, but I kept expecting an intertwining that never arrived. Is that just my modern sensibility, shaped by the fact that contemporary authors would be unlikely to fill their books with two stories that simply existed alongside each other in the way these two stories do? Perhaps.

  • The story of Kitty and Levin, which seems in many ways to actually be the main story in the book (it is certainly given far more pages than the story of Anna and Vronsky), also shows Tolstoy disproving his own famous opening sentence: if happy families were truly all alike, why would he bother to so thoroughly imagine and narrate this one, in all its unique particulars?

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October 11th, 2014


11:36 am - ...there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again.
J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians tells the story of a magistrate in a small frontier town on the edge of the Empire. The nameless magistrate is a civil servant of long standing, content with the status quo. The people of his walled town grow grain and fruit, store food for the long hard winters, hunt along the shores of the lake, and coexist peacefully with the nomadic tribes outside the gates. Everything is fine until Colonel Joll arrives from the capital with orders to put a stop to the barbarians--those same nomadic tribes--who are preparing to make war on the Empire. Joll cannot be swayed by the peaceful reality; he conducts raids, brings in prisoners, and tortures them until they confirm the things he already believes. This is the end of the magistrate's complacent existence, as he begins the process of resisting Joll and Joll's methods, and the much slower, longer process of understanding the nature of empire and his complicity, however unthinking or unwilling, in the deeds of his own Empire.

That may seem like a lot to tackle in a book that's only 150 pages long. And that's not even the whole of it. There is also a trek across the desert in winter, complete with evocative descriptions of the changing landscape and the hardships of the journey. There is a strange relationship between the magistrate and a barbarian girl who has been blinded and had her feet mutilated by Colonel Joll. There are brutal scenes of torture and famishment. There are the mysterious ruins of an earlier civilization buried in the dunes of the desert, and thin slips of poplar bearing their inscrutable writing. And yet the slim little book never feels rushed or overstuffed. Perhaps this is because Coetzee's prose is so spare and clean, or because he is so economical, bringing characters and settings to life with just a few well-chosen phrases.

In some ways, Waiting for the Barbarians felt almost like a fairy tale. The story seems to take place in the same world where fairy tales are set--in a place where there are towns, deserts, and lakes, but none of them have names; where it is always some time in the past, though never a specific year. There is a sort of fairy tale detachment in the way the story is told, too. Although the books is written in first person, from the perspective of the magistrate, he seems to be telling his own story from a great distance, as though it all happened many years ago. It reminded me most of Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. Both books are meditative takes on totalitarianism, both are short, both make use of archetypes and feel almost allegorical. Neither one affected me much emotionally; both contain powerful images and plenty to think about.

And now I am reading Anna Karenina, which I expect will keep me busy for a while.

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August 15th, 2014


04:26 pm - Books!
I have some catching up to do! And I am spending today on the couch, recovering from having some dental work done this morning, so what better time to do it?

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels: Sigh. I wanted to love this book, and for a while I thought I would. The first third of the book is devastating, full of gorgeous prose and powerful images. But it falls apart as the book goes on, disintegrating until I wondered whether Michaels had any plan at all, or even knew what she was trying to say. Unfortunately, I finished the book quite a while ago--about two weeks, I think!--I think I might have had more to say about it or been better able to analyze its problems if it were fresher in my mind. Regardless, I can say that it was frustrating to read a book that seemed to have so much potential but failed to live up to it.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace: I knew nothing about Wesley Stace before I heard him read alongside Roddy Doyle at the Free Library back in February, but I liked his reading enough that I decided to check out one of his books. This book is a take on a murder mystery, in a way: on the night before his first opera is to premiere, the composer Charles Jessold kills his wife, her lover, and himself. The first half of the book takes the form of a long narrative provided to the police by Leslie Shepherd, a music critic who is also Jessold's friend and librettist; the second half is also narrated by Shepherd, much later in his life, and fills in the many aspects of the case that Shepherd left out of his official account. I liked the first half better than the second, but that is at least as much to do with me as a reader as it with anything about Stace's plot or writing--I always prefer murky uncertainty and strange hints to anything that approaches clear resolution. While reading the first half, I was full of a hundred different hypotheses about what was really going on below the surface of Shepherd's statement to the police (Did he know much less than he thought he did? Or much more than he was letting on?), but the answer turned out to be something much different than I had expected. The resolution ended up being a little too clear for my taste, but the book was still highly enjoyable. I especially loved the historical setting, in the world of English classical music between the wars, and I thought that Stace really used that setting to add a lot of richness to the book.

Leaving China by James McMullan: Oh, lovely. This is a slim little memoir made up of short chapters, none longer than a page, and each illustrated by a watercolor painting on the facing page. In calm prose, McMullan tells the story of his peripatetic childhood during World War II. At times the events are quite dramatic, but the tone of the book remains serene and distant throughout. The watercolors are really lovely and add so much to the text.

Selected Stories by E.M. Forster: And now I am halfway through this volume that collects the short stories that were published by Forster during his lifetime (as opposed to those posthumously collected in The Life to Come, which I read early this year). So far, these stories are more in line with Forster's novels than those in The Life to Come. All of his familiar themes are present: experiences of the sublime, the necessity of authentic life and feeling, the constraining forces of propriety and society. Like all of Forster's writing on these topics, the stories seem to be deeply felt, but I think his novels give him time to explore his ideas with greater subtlety. I've read a few stories that I liked in the first half of this collection, but none that I've loved. We'll see what the second half brings.

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July 15th, 2014


03:02 pm - "...obscure, internal, unformulated, and as secret as any complicity."
I have, at long last, finished Memoirs of Hadrian. I have spent three months with the book, but now that it is finished I hardly know what to say about it. I have never had a reading experience quite like this one, in the sense that it felt both transcendent and like a slog, often simultaneously.

Let me say first that the book is undoubtedly a work of genius. The phrase "literary ventriloquism" gets tossed around, but Marguerite Yourcenar has achieved something that goes beyond even that commendation. Memoirs of Hadrian is the perfect distillation of a human consciousness, a work of utter authorial effacement. Despite the incredible amount of scholarly work she did to produce this novel, Yourcenar renders herself invisible and presents to us Hadrian complete: full of his memories, shaped by his time and by his lifetime's worth of work and thought. Not only does she do this, but she does it in absolutely beautiful prose--her sentences are careful, measured, unadorned, but beautiful nonetheless.

So why did long stretches of the book fail to hold my interest? Why did I feel so little impulse to pick the book up again after I had put it down? I found that reading it required immense concentration; I could only handle five or ten pages at a time, and even then I had to continually pull my focus back to the words on the page in front of me. I developed a fondness for Hadrian as I spent more and more time with him, and there were times (though they were isolated incidents) when his thoughts or (even rarer) his feelings resonated deeply with me, yet this never translated in a desire to know what would happen next. I could admire the book intellectually and aesthetically, but could not feel deeply engaged with it.

But it's another form of engagement, isn't it, to spend three months with a character? To sip continuously from a book over a long period, rather than drinking a few deep drafts? It is, of course, even if I can't describe exactly what the difference is. I only considered quitting the book when I was trying to read it in my usual mode. Once I had slowed down, and settled myself into the habit of reading just a few pages at a time I never questioned whether it would be worth it to finish the book.

And perhaps that is the result of my long wrestling with this work: something of value has been imparted, though I can't say now what it was. Perhaps the value, or part of it, is in the wrestling itself.

Reflections on the CompositionCollapse )

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