Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mini-rant: Why keep telling the "same" stories?

I recently had occasion to discuss a newish novel about the African slave trade in the 1700s and how that terrible practice affected generations of both African people and the slaves that were brought to America. I liked the book, but not everyone in the group felt the same. In the discussion, it was remarked that we already knew the stories of slavery and what was the purpose of reading about it yet again?

I didn't know what to say to that in the moment because who wants to be the know it all in a friendly gathering? But what I thought to say later and will say here is that writing a novel and then finding a company willing to publish and support a novel (or any book, really) is political, and to keep publishing new stories about old topics, especially topics that reverberate in insidious ways and just won't be easily or peacefully resolved is an especially brave act of resistance. We all know that publishers want to make a profit; they choose what to produce with the bottom line in mind. So to put a lot of capital into a work written by a person of color who has done extensive research and created a book full of compelling characters that covers decades should be celebrated. Aside from the possible "learning" on the part of the reader, there's also the pleasure of interacting with a work of art that can't be overlooked.

I read all kinds of books and not all of them can carry the weight of history or the beauty of art. I accept that about myself. But if my reading choices have a positive effect on a publisher's willingness to sell books with historical and sociological meaning, I'm glad.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

August 2017 wrapup

My August books ended up being published in the last year, but that’s not a normal month for me. In general I’ve been re-reading favorites and exploring books I ended up missing, just not in August, I guess. Here are my August reads.


1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It’s a family saga about Koreans who end up in Japan, and in general, they find they’re not exactly welcome there. Koreans were considered inferior and lived in poor neighborhoods and weren't given good jobs. Once the second world war begins, things get worse. But Pachinko is a strong family story, and I felt like I got to know the characters over the decades of their lives. I gave Pachinko four stars on goodreads.

2. Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. I would put this Perrotta into one of his b-role novels, down there with The Abstinence Teacher. It's fun, but light, if you know what I mean.

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann 
A five-star non-fiction exploration of the early 1900s and a series of brutal murders of Osage people and how federal law policing developed as a result of local corruption. Great photos, amazing story, well-researched. Love it.

4. Re-read of Commonwealth by Ann Patchett 
This is a masterpiece of a novel. Happy to re-read it.

5. The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson If ever there's a need for community and doubt and an exploration of the Tragic vs. Trivial planes of existence, it's now.  The memoir covers a single year, 2012, of monthly meetings for contemplating works of art that question our purpose. Woven into analysis of the works that were chosen is the story of Gisleon's family history: her challenging and larger than life father and all his contradictions, the elision of her mother from hard truths about family secrets, and her tragic sisters' early and self-chosen deaths. It seems at the beginning like this might be superficial, but it's anything but. I felt a connection to the stories and the primal need for community that comes through deliberative acts of wanting to learn more. New Orleans and the catastrophic Katrina also play a major role in this memoir, brought more to light and to bear by the hurricane in Houston. 

So that's my August wrap up. I've already had a pretty good start to September with the amazing House of Names by Colm Toibin, pronouced Colum Toe-Been. 



Wednesday, December 14, 2016

2016 Reading Notes

My reading came to a screeching halt after the election and I've been having trouble resuming it since. But I did have a good reading year before that day.
White Noise by Don DeLillo. First read in 1998, re-read in 2016. I remembered that White Noise is about supermarkets and Hitler studies. I remember loving it in 1998, but little else. What I rediscovered is that this novel is full of anxiety, dread, distrust of systems and data, environmental waste, precocious children, familial and romantic loves, and the repression of our fundamental fear of death. It's satirical but also mildly terrifying. I am happy to say that it's still a five-star read. I also read DeLillo's Zero K, which was fine but unexceptional and probably very close to the future as elites hoard all the money and try to preserve themselves past death, waiting out the demise of most of mankind.
I was happy to discover three Louise Erdrich novels: Love Medicine; The Round House; and LaRose. Loved them all in their own ways, but The Round House rises a step above the others. It's about an adolescent boy bent on revenge for a violent attack on his mother. I revisited Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, which might be dated but I still like more than her more current works of dystopia. New to me: The Sparrow by Mary Russell Doria (Jesuit space opera with loads of friendship, guilt, language, and long amnesiac flights between planets.) Also, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I think I had mistaken in my mind with Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but no, they are two separate stories that have nothing in common. I Capture the Castle is a charming family story. I was duly charmed.
Veronica Gaitskill's subversive and angry novel, Two Girls, Fat and Thin, got stuck in my head. Not recommended if you aren't up for lots of violent bullying and sex, plus a satirical jab at Ayn Rand and her deluded followers.
Literary autobiography and memoir: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is so good. Robert Gottlieb's memoir about his life in publishing, Avid Reader: A Life made me nostalgic for a time I have never really known. Slipstream by Elizabeth Jane Howard has its ups and downs pacing-wise, but I did enjoy her account of growing up in a repressed British family and life during wartime. Also, she had many, many romantic trysts that were always terrible in the end. All three of the aforementioned bios/memoirs showcase sad and unbalanced marriages. Conversely, Ann Patchett's This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, essays about her life and writing, introduced me to a famous author I had never read and showcase a romance that will make you tear up and root for love. I also liked Nick Hornby's More Baths, Less Talking: Stuff I've been Reading #4. And while not necessarily literary, I am so glad I read Susan Faludi's memoir about her father, In the Darkroom (gender identity, war, Nazis, the current right-wing takeover of Hungary, terrible parenting, and deeper family secrets), and Sally Mann's Hold Still (art and photography, family secrets and shames, racism, bonds between parents and children, friendship, guilt, and beauty). Yes, I read harrowing books.
You might like: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (harrowing between the lines) and Ann Patchett's Commonwealth (a delightful novel about a blended family.)
This month, I’ve started Dickens’ Little Dorrit, but haven’t made much progress. We will see what happens in 2017. Fiction feels hard to absorb in this post-fact world.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tobias Wolff
Some of the stories in In the Garden of the North American Martyrs

1. Next Door
The narrator and his wife, unnamed, live next door to a man who abuses his wife and dog, and who is hostile to the narrator and his wife. The neighbor urinates on the narrator's flowers while the narrator watches. The narrator characterizes the neighbor as "hairy" and likens him to an Airedale. The narrator does not take action against the violence; he and his wife listen to it in impotent despair. The narrator cultivates plants and the garden; his wife has been ill and rebuffs her husband's sexual advances. This odd and lonely life seems to have been exacerbated by a particularly violent encounter the pair witness from the window: the man beats the dog into submission and then he and his wife have passionate sex, all visible through the window. The narrator's wife here turns against the neighbor woman, judging her to be complicit in the abuse.

The final sentence, where the narrator describes a movie he would write about explorers: "They stand and raise their arms, like white trees in a land where no one has ever been."

2. Hunters in the Snow
Tub, Kenny, and Frank go deer hunting. Kenny bullies Tub (who is overweight and having a hard time keeping up with the others) and Frank has a secret: he loves a young babysitter. Tub is so unhappy; Frank has a dark underside. A dog is shot; one of the friends is also shot and left in the back of a pickup truck on a very cold winter night as he lays dying. Tub comes to term with his eating, and friendships and loyalty are tested.

3. An Episode in the Life of Professor Brooke
A professor who considers himself exemplary has a rival at school who taunts him with his handlebar mustache. The professors have to attend a conference together and all the spite and malice that you've heard about in academia presents itself in the acts of the conference attendees. Professor Brooke has the occasion to remember some terribly malicious things he did as a youth; at the conference he is presented with temptation and is weak. He thinks his wife will never find out, but she knows the scents of his laundry and knows something has marred their marriage when she smells perfume.

4. Smokers
I think this story must have been taken from Wolff's novel Old School; it felt familiar and the subject is certainly the same. But I haven't read OS since 2005, so memory is slippery. In this story, a "charity" student at a prestigious boarding school is so insecure and is such a social climber that he subtly orchestrates the dismissal of a boy who is in a similar circumstance but seems to be somehow getting in the way of the narrator. No animals were injured in this story.

5. Face to Face
Virginia was dumped by her husband and subsequently fixed up with Robert. Robert is shy at first, polite. Virginia is ambiguous. After a period of benign dating, they go out to eat. At dinner he's a big shot, paying for a violin serenade and smoking a big cigar. Robert wants to know stories about Virginia's ex-husband. She is hesitant at first but because it warms Robert up, she complies. When Virginia asks about Robert's ex-wife, he gets flustered and wants to leave. They go on a weekend trip to Vancouver. Robert is embarrassed about sexual matters. He drinks a lot at dinner, and more afterward at the bar. He makes it clear that he will drink a lot. They can't communicate. Their first sexual experience was cold and it hurt. At the movie in the afternoon, Robert tries stroking the inside of her thigh. She asks him to stop. Virginia insists on knowing more about Robert's ex-wife. He calls her a whore and Virginia asks if he means that literally. It turns out that, no, she fell in love with someone else and they are now married with a child. "But you called her a whore," Virginia says. And then we're told that "Robert's nostrils flared and his brows crept together. He panted softly. 'You women,' he said." There is another scene of pushing and pulling, and by the end, they have both permanently retreated into themselves.

6. Passengers
You expected that this story of a man in a borrowed car (borrowed from his boss AND roommate AND albatross) who picks up a hitchhiker and her dog to have a lot more malice. But here, none of the characters mean to do harm. They are just not able to relate to each other in normal ways. There's a scary moment when the dog (as the narrator, Glen, thought he might) caused the car to spin out of control on a foggy highway, but they all came out unscathed. You realize that Glen must figure out a way to get out of his roommate's life, and you have hope that he will.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

George Saunders' Tenth of December: Notes on the stories

Tenth of December by George Saunders
My notes

1. Victory Lap
The imagination of a girl named Alison is unspooled in this first story of the collection. She is full of romantic ideals about boys and thought in French phrases. "So ixnay on the local boys. a special ixnay on Matt Drey, owner of the largest mouth in the land." She thinks about her parents, teachers, ethics. Then there is an ominous knock at the back door. Kyle questions the "family status indicator," which his father built in the downstairs workshop. The father has left a note that shows the incredibly strict expectations for behavior and habits. Kyle's mind races for ways to live up to these rules. "I know we sometimes strike you as strict but you are literally all we have."Kyle sees the stranger trying to abduct Alison. He cannot decide what to do. But then he acts. Victory Lap is not as absurdist as the stories of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There is a manic quality to the points of view and narration, but the story is not as tied into bigger institutional failures and fissures as the older stories.)

2. Sticks
Flash fiction about a pole dressed to suit the mood of its owner.

3. Puppy
Marie is a mother to two children who do not share her imagination. Marie had troubling parents and she want to affect a happier life for her own family. The story is written in a hyperloud voice, where you can feel the manic nerves just under the surface of the words. They have a dog named Goochie. Callie and Bo are other characters in the story. Bo is a child wanderer, the son of Callie. He is not taking his medications properly and his doctor is afraid he'll get smashed on the highway. Callie fixed up the yard for him. They have a puppy that they'll have to kill if Marie and her family don't take it. They'll have to kill it because they said they would and they cannot go back on what they said. Marie thinks she'll buy the dog and then she sees Bo tied to a tree, dog style, with chain; he also drinks, dog-style, from a dog bowl of water. Callie abandons the dog in the corn and then thinks about Bo, how miserable he was stuck in the house, how happy now. 

4. Escape from Spiderhead
Here's where institutional failure really shines, and it's Orwellian methods of linguistic persuasion are omnipresent. The story is set in a dystopian prison where convicted criminals are the subjects of experimental drugs that affect every part of their brain function. They are given various cocktails of injected medication and then their responses are measured. In essence, they are turned into non-humans, in that they are not allowed to refuse the drugs and there is a looming threat of a particularly terrible drug that will make feel so terrible that they will commit suicide. In this particular experiment, the drugs make the subjects feel like they are falling in love as they have sex. The feelings are so intense, yet wane as soon as the drugs wear off. The narrator, Jeff, is forced to watch one of his sex partners be drugged and she commits suicide. When it becomes clear he will have to view the second partner go through the same scenario, he is able to instead medicate himself in an act of defiance and ultimate escape. (This ending was murky.)

5. Exhortation
This story via memorandum seems to be a cousin to Escape from Spiderhead, where a manager pleads with his employees to do their jobs with more cheer and less gloom. Though the nature of the job is alluded to be awful, probably murderous, he uses a "cleaning a shelf" analogy and warns that if attitudes and quantity do not improve, the employees and he himself may soon become "shelves." There isn't much dramatic arc here; just a bleak satire of working the dark side from the dark side.

6. Al Roosten
Al doesn't know himself very well. He runs the town antique store and helps his sister raise a nephew. He is not close to anyone else in town. At a bachelor auction, he is terrified to go on stage and when he does, there is no response from the crowd. He shows himself to be vulnerable and the crowd gives him some sympathy applause. Then he plays it up and they respond. Another man being auctioned off, Larry, a realtor, tries to cheer Al up as they wait for the others. But Al had no idea there was a reason he should be embarrassed. Al has a lot of pent up anger and revenge fantasies in his head, but works hard to keep it all suppressed. In anger, he kicks Larry's wallet and watch under the bleachers, then has some remorse (but not enough) when it turns out Larry is in a big hurry to transport his daughter to the doctor for some major foot surgery to correct a birth defect. If he doesn't get there in time, the girl will have to wait and wait. Al has some sympathetic inclinations, but he can't live up to them.

7. The Semplica Girl Diary
Very strong story about the perils of materialism; an indictment of American culture, immigration policy, trafficking in human despair. Also, funny and gut-punching. The narrator is a middle-class father, married with three children, and surrounded by other families of extreme affluence. He thinks he is attuned to the needs and wants of his children, and is self-deluded into thinking his own personality is something special yet unheralded. The moral weight of this story is hidden in the diary entries of the narrator, who is trying to record his culture "for future generations" who will presumably not have the same human or ethical concerns. The diary narrative has the feel of a teenage girl; it is defensive and self-deprecating and trying to charm those imagined future readers into understanding his motives and forgive his trespasses. And in the end, this diary is an unwitting confession of grievous crimes.

8. Home
A veteran returning from war must confront the loss of his children to a new stepfather, his mother and her boyfriend being evicted for non payment of rent, the probable death of his mother soon to a brain tumor, and gossip and conjecture regarding his own behavior in the horrorscape of war. He is on the precipice of complete breakdown, but in the end turns to his family to see if he can be saved.

9. My Chivalric Fiasco
This was the weakest story. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, there were better variations on workplace as living hell. This one pales in comparison to those.

10. Tenth of December
I read this story when it was published in the New Yorker and have not re-read it for the purposes of these notes. I do remember that it is well worth reading, an A+.



Monday, March 10, 2014

"A Sheltered Woman" by Yiyun Li
The New Yorker, March 10, 2014

Auntie Mei is a first-month baby nurse with strict rules about her care of new mothers and infants. She does not want to become attached to the babies and refuses to have anything to do with them once she is no longer in their care. Conversely, the new mother named Chanel for whom Auntie Mei is caring has a self-proclaimed case of postpartum depression; she wants nothing to do with her son and is angry because her much-older husband is never home to be part of this new development in their family.

Over time, Auntie Mei sees the possibility of taking care of this new baby boy full time as she recalls the history of her mother and grandmother and how they dealt with having babies.

Friday, March 7, 2014

"The Largess of the Sea Maiden"
Short story by Denis Johnson
Appears in the 3/3/14 New Yorker

An adman recalls moments of impact and conversation with several people in his life. The episodes are quiet but have had an impact on him. He recalls a friend who painted and then died. He attends the memorial. He is given an award for an ad and then propositioned in the bathroom. The sense of death looming over him and the world is large. But there is a hint of resignation and even slight satisfaction.

This is the first Denis Johnson I've ever read. I want more.