My reading winter, part I

It’s time to dust off the old blog again, my dears. Welcome back to me!

It’s been a funny and infinitely rewarding reading winter for me. I read three books in translation, all in a row: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, followed by Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and rounded off with the more contemporary Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master. I jumped from there, at my husband’s insistence, to the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, and yesterday I found myself compelled to pick up a book that my son checked out from the library because it’s too damn intriguing not to, Brian Falkner’s Battlesaurus: Rampage at Waterloo.

I mean, could you resist cracking this cover? I think not.

So let’s begin with Solzhenitsyn. This was my first exposure to the great man, oddly enough, not One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which Patricia Blake called “one of the masterworks of 20th-century fiction.” Like One Day, Cancer Ward is semi-autobiographical, following some of Solzhenitsyn’s own saga of exile and cancer treatment in Tashkent. It is set in the spring of 1955, during the “thaw” of post-Stalinist thought. It is one of his least political novels, and, according to Blake, Solzhenitsyn himself insisted that it was merely a book about cancer, though this beggars belief when one considers that the novel was only able to be published as samizdat, then subsequently banned in the Soviet Union. This is not to mention the many references and details and character arcs that would be hard to read as less than symbolic. And according to the wikipedia entry on the novel (alas, citing a JSTOR article that I cannot access), “Solzhenitsyn writes in an appendix to Cancer Ward that the ‘evil man’ who threw tobacco in the macaque’s eyes at the zoo represents Stalin, and the monkey the political prisoner. The other zoo animals also have significance, the tiger reminiscent of Stalin and the squirrel running itself to death the proletariat.” Others have picked up on the weather and the medical practices in the novel as symbols of the regime, as well. One of the main characters, Oleg Kostoglotov, ponders, “A man dies from a tumour, so how can a country survive with growths like labour camps and exiles?”

A few lines of inquiry would make reading this novel much more rewarding. For one, I would like to brush up on my Soviet history to better understand what the dissolution of the Supreme Court means to the characters, for example, or the harsh realities of life in exile, or just the oppression in everyday life under Stalin. And I think it would be interesting to explore the relationship between Tolstoy and Cancer Ward, since there are mentions of Anna Karenina and the short story “What Men Live By,” which are major clues to the themes of the novel.

My choice to read this novel turned out to be particularly prescient; it was a random used-bookstore find, bearing an old, nondescript brown leather cover, and I decided to carry it along with me for a two-week trip to Budapest. While I was there, learning about the atrocities committed by the Arrow Cross Party and then the Hungarian Communist Party under Matyas Rakosi, an ardent Stalinist who was responsible for the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians and the deaths of thousands more, I was shocked to see Rakosi’s name in Cancer Ward, giving a speech that the hospital patients listen to on the radio one day. I was struck by the interconnectivity of our world and of history; this was not to be the last of these realizations.

I found the last few chapters of Cancer Ward to be particularly captivating, as we follow Kostoglotov in the days following his release from the hospital. The writing is the most lyrical of the novel, which can be quite spare and bleak at other points (although, sadly, I cannot tell you the edition or the translator of the edition that I read, as I left my copy in the hotel in Budapest; I hope it has found a good home), and the images of Kostoglotov salivating at the smell of street food or searching for the blossoms of the apricot tree have stuck with me.

Well, I had intended to give just a brief synopsis of my reading winter, but now I see that there’s just too much to be contained in a single post. Stay tuned, dear readers. I won’t leave you for so long this time.

I’ll leave you with just the second of my winter reading coincidences. I also brought The Hunchback of Notre Dame with me to read in Budapest, figuring I’d need at least two books to read for a two-week trip (as it turned out, there was so much to see and do in that marvelous city that I didn’t have nearly as much time to read as I expected). And what should my wondering eyes behold but another reference to Hungarian history, about which I previously knew literally nothing, only to have not one but two historical names cross my path in both of the books I brought with me to read, one book from France in 1831 and the other from Soviet Russia 1966. One of the crime bosses in Hunchback is named Mathias Hunyadi Spicali, the self-proclaimed duke of Egypt and Bohemia, and he is named for Matthias Hunyadi, or Matthias Corvinus, the medieval king of Hungary, under whom a golden age blossomed in his kingdom. Pierre Gringoire also mentions the noble Hungarian king when he is begging for his life from King Louis XI.

Until next time, my friends!


The infinite David Foster Wallace

A great piece is up on First Things about David Foster Wallace. I’ve written about DFW here, and here. He is one of the most expansive and inspiring writers whose work I’ve had the pleasure of reading. James K.A. Smith, in his article at First Things, writes a loving defense of Wallace against the critics and those who simply misunderstand or mischaracterize what he was trying to do. He writes:

Infinite Jest struck a chord with its accurate diagnosis of a generation; it especially resonated with mine: those in college in the mid-90s, who witnessed the birth of MTV in our youth and the expansion of the internet while in college. The narrator seems to sympathize with our sense of being trapped in self-consciousness and the malaise of endless opportunity, and to be beckoning from beyond it—maybe even inviting us, in halting, haphazard ways, to something else. Wallace could not show us our entrapment without suggesting a way out. In the drug-addled, despairing world of Infinite Jest, readers nonetheless sense something like love.

In other words, Wallace felt that the cynical social critique that pervades so much contemporary literature is simply not enough. There is a responsibility on the part of the writer to offer a better way, to illuminate the exit sign from a repetitive postmodern fun house.

I found it interesting that Smith quotes Wallace’s biographer D.T. Max regarding Wallace’s push toward redemption in his work. That redemptive impulse became a moral obligation for him as a writer. As Smith explains for those who misunderstand Wallace, he was so much more than postmodern tricks and whimsy. Smith writes:

What was congealing was the moral purpose of his fiction. In various venues in 1991 and 1992, the years that Infinite Jest was beginning to take shape, Wallace began to debut this new agenda. In one place—perhaps tweaking Barth once again—he would describe this as living under the “new administration of fun,” which meant, in Max’s summary, “no more irony and distance, commitment not spectation (a favorite word of his), involvement. And even, where possible, the hope of redemption.” As he told Larry McCaffery in a famous interview in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, even authors of fiction depicting the darkest of worldviews should “find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it,” to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” In sum: Fiction, he says, tells us what it is to be a human being.

Or, as he actually said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

Benjamin Kunkel saw redemption in Wallace’s work as well:

The publication of Infinite Jest in 1996 seemed to show up despair as a mistake. You didn’t have to have read the book yet—and I didn’t start until 1998—to get a sense of historical, generational redemption. The few critics I trusted, plus the smartest people I knew in college, agreed that Wallace had done something amazing. When I finally read the book, it confirmed what before was mostly a set of willful, abstract premises: literature can matter as much now as ever; the age is no bar to greatness; even this world before our eyes can be represented in a novel. My friend and I ended up arguing about dignity by way of Infinite Jest because it supplied the fullest and clearest, as well as the most intelligent and beautiful, picture of the life around us.

It’s ironic that so many people have found DFW’s writing to be self-indulgent when his intentions were diametrical. He is quoted in Conversations With David Foster Wallace:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.

That’s certainly true to how I walked away from Infinite Jest. It required more attention, engagement, and work than any other piece of fiction that I’ve read outside of a class, and I came away from it with a greater understanding of what it means for me–and for everyone on this planet, in our time, far outside of my range of experience–to be human.

Smith and Kunkel both find meaning in the formal aspects of Infinte Jest (and, really, in much of his earlier writing as well, though none so fully realized as IJ) that many detractors have dismissed as unnecessary and in need of editing. As Smith notes:

For Wallace, the novelist should be fireman, not arsonist. Hence a new sense of responsibility and sobriety emerges alongside the linguistic pyrotechnics that would always characterize his prose. This isn’t an inherent contradiction, as if Wallace’s moral vision for the novel never managed to change his nihilistic style. No, we need to resist the sense that an unconventional style is necessarily amoral. To the contrary, I think Wallace’s unconventional prose intentionally achieves a kind of immediacy that is consistent with his sincerity. … Wallace was looking for a form that was akin to the voice in our postmodern heads. And then he could speak to us directly, sincerely, with a moral vision.

If it’s true that postmodernism articulates that the world is in a state of perpetual incompleteness and permanent unresolve, then David Foster Wallace embodied that ethos with the clear, compelling message that we must find or make meaning in this life. Near the end of his now-famous Kenyon College commencement speech he says:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I would venture to add that upon the death of DFW in 2008, the world lost a truly beautiful, valuable, infinite thing.

lectio divina

Lectio divina, or “divine reading,” is the classical monastic practice of the prayerful reading of the Bible, but in this Atlantic piece, Karen Swallow Prior discusses how this practice of spiritual reading can inform all of our reading–not just of the scriptures. She cites Annie Murphy Paul, whose research shows that “deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience,” a kind of reading that differs in kind and quality from “the mere decoding of words,” what we might call carnal reading. She goes on:

It is “spiritual reading” — not merely decoding — that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won’t make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might. …

As Eugene H. Peterson explains in Eat this Book, “Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul — eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight.” Peterson describes this ancient art of lectio divina, or spiritual reading, as “reading that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes … love and wisdom.”

This article resonated deeply with me because I have just last night finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and it left me sobbing big, loud tears. That doesn’t really ever happen to me. The last book to make me cry was All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr–which I’ve been recommending to every last person I know, even going so far as to give copies as Christmas presents–but even that was a soft weeping. This thing that overtook me last night on the last few pages of Home was ugly. This is, no doubt, because of the ways the book echoed the story of my own family and the troubled emotions it stirred in those deep waters.

But it’s a beautiful book, regardless of the reader’s family history. James Wood describes Robinson’s writing as Melvillian, and it’s true. The prose requires that kind of “deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity” that Paul wrote about, and since my days are filled with the chatter of children, I often found myself having to re-read passages to let them fully sink in. I wish I’d kept a list of words to look up, but I was too engrossed in the story to stop and write them down as I encountered them. (And–as a side note–you know how I love good food writing, and Robinson’s characters’ days are filled with cups of coffee, chicken and dumplings, fresh bread and biscuits; food is a form of communion for these people; food is a form of love.)

It’s beautiful, yes, incredibly so, but there’s something so keenly sorrowful even–or especially–in the beautiful moments. Leslie Jamison says it eloquently in her review of another of Robinson’s novels, Lila:

Robinson’s fiction also exposes the vexed terms of our devotion to the wonders of the immanent world. A boy blowing bubbles, a tree covered in dew, a handkerchief stained by black raspberries, the rustling of sheets as a husband and wife settle into bed: there is sublimity in these details, but also a preemptive sense of mourning—our mortal attachments are only ever distractions from the eternal, precursors to inevitable loss.

And Sarah Churchwell writes in The Guardian:

At the end of Home, Glory thinks of Jack in terms of the famous description of the Messiah as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face”. Home is a book of sorrows, of disappointment, and of the fragile, improbable ways in which home, even when it is shadowed by failure and guilt, can offer hope. Near the end of Gilead Ames observes: “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. ‘He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” This sentiment, that all will be weeping, and in need of divine comfort, is the foundation of Home, one of the saddest books I have ever loved.

The titular conflict of the novel regards the adult child coming home, which–mutatis mutandis–everyone has experienced. One character ponders: “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?” There is so much that goes into exploring this question in the novel, and it’s a question that’s captured my own curiosity, insofar as I’ve attempted to reconcile childhood perceptions and ideas with adult realities.

One of the first passages to choke me up was fairly early in the story, when Glory reflects on her childhood experience of religion that has persisted into her adulthood has habit. She says:

For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God’s good world, with God’s good sunlight pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church.

That was church for me too. I can picture that airy white room so clearly, even down to the smell of the musty old carpets and the gleam of the sunlight on the tall brass ribs of the pipe organ.

Wyatt Mason has a truly lovely interview and essay at The New York Times Magazine, almost an etude on the person and work of Marilynne Robinson. I found it very informing and appropriate that Robinson believes that to read a text well “makes you think that comprehension has an ethical content,” again echoing Paul’s premise that good people are not created by the reading of good books, but perhaps in the manner by which we read and comprehend and apply what we have learned, some progress can be made.

Mason goes on to say: “For Robinson, writing is not a craft; it is ‘testimony,’ a bearing witness: an act that demands much of its maker, not least of which is the courage to reveal what one loves.” This belief, too, is evident in her writing. Mason quotes Robinson as saying:

A lot of people who actually believe in the sacredness of life, they write things that are horrible, desolating things. Because, for some reason, this deeper belief doesn’t turn the world. . . . It comes down to fear; the fear of making self-revelation of the seriousness of ‘I sense a sacredness in things.’

There is something about this sacredness in things that Robinson conveys in her writing that simultaneously sorrows and succors you. I wish I knew how she does this. It’s magical to experience. It is divine.

I started with Home because it was what my local library branch had in stock, and now I’ll have to track down Gilead and Lila, both of which novels concern the same characters around the same time (I also picked up one of her books of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, which deserves its own entry here). I’m glad I started with Home. In fact, I may re-read it before I return it and move on to other books, because I don’t know what else to do with the devastation I feel in having no more of it to read. It’s the best kind of loss, that sorrow you feel down to your bones when you’ve finished a truly exceptional novel, one that has changed you somehow, or wounded you, or killed you even, and resurrected you.

Home was written for me. And it was written for you. Robinson is a master storyteller at the height of her powers. Reading her work truly is spiritual reading, it is so much love and wisdom disguised as ink on paper.


John Irving’s ‘Avenue of Mysteries’ vs. Luis Alberto Urrea’s ‘Into the Beautiful North’

What could possible motivate me to update a near-defunct lit blog after so many months of absence? Hatred, apparently.

If I asked you to name your least favorite book (let’s say, only counting books you’ve actually finished), could you answer right away? Last week, I would probably have had to give it some thought. The last book I read that I didn’t like too much was The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. I thought it was pretty dumb. But all-time least favorite?

Well, we have a winner now. John Irving’s latest novel Avenue of Mysteries claims that prize. This is a bad book, plain and simple. The NY Times review ended with this gem: “On the topic of blood flow, this exhausting novel reminded me of an advisory from William S. Burroughs: ‘If, after being exposed to someone’s presence, you feel as if you’ve lost a quart of plasma, avoid that presence.'”

Here are a few of my main issues with AoM. I found the writing to be clunky and repetitive. The scenes that were supposed to be slapsticky physical comedy came off as forced and contrived. Irving seems to have no faith in his readers’ intellect or imagination; for example, in the last scene a nun murmurs (“in Latin,” Irving tells us, because we’re dumb), “Sic transit gloria mundi.” Which is then translated in parenthesis. In contrast, a book I recently reread, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter Miller, is filled to the brim with Latin phrases. Guess what Miller does? He makes us work for it a little. (Although wikipedia has made that work very easy.) I appreciate that. I don’t like to be insulted by an author. I like for an author to have a little faith in me as a reader. Irving, it would seem, has about as much faith as his Catholic Church-hating protagonist Juan Diego.

The opening of the book makes it clear that the story will run on two parallel tracks: Juan Diego’s childhood in Mexico, which we revisit with JD in his dreams, and present-day Juan Diego’s pilgrimage to the American soldier cemetery in Manila. While the narrative of JD’s childhood was certainly the more compelling story, and would have made a better novel by itself, without the present-day interludes, I also found his writing and portrayal of his characters to be a little hollow. Perhaps his writerly imagination was just not sufficient to inhabit the lives of kids born and raised in a Oaxacan dump.

Here’s a little section I found annoying:

On the other hand, the Jesuit orphanage was relatively new (it has been less than ten years since they’d remodeled the former convent as an orphanage), and not everyone was crazy about the orphanage’s name–to some, Hogar de los Ninos Perdidos was a long name that sounded a little severe. … over time, most of those tender souls who objected to the sound of “Home of the Lost Children” would certainly admit the Jesuits ran a pretty good orphanage, too. Besides, everyone had already shortened the name of the place–“Lost Children,” people called it. One of the nuns who looked after the children was more blunt about it; to be fair, Sister Gloria must have been referring to a couple of misbehaving kids, not to all the orphans, when she muttered, occasionally, “los perdidos”–surely “the lost ones” was a name the old nun intended for only a few of the more exasperating children.

Let me tell you why I’m annoyed. No Spanish speakers would ever complain that the name of the orphanage was too long or too severe. My family jokes that everything takes twice as long to say in Spanish as in English. That’s just the way the language works, and no one thinks twice about it. And instead of all that nonsense overwriting, all he had to do was have a character refer to the orphanage as “Ninos Perdidos,” and we’d all know exactly what was going on. That last bit about Sister Gloria is just pablum.

So. Moving on. I guess Irving is a bit sex-obsessed, no one is surprised about that. But I find his sexual references to be juvenile at best, and elsewhere just excessively crass. For example, in the excerpt below, Juan Diego’s prescient little sister Lupe is complaining about some of the thoughts she reads in men’s minds:

“All men ARE always thinking about their penises,” the mind reader said. To a degree, this was the point past which Lupe would no longer allow herself to adore the good gringo. The doomed American had crossed an imaginary line–the PENIS line, perhaps, though Lupe would never have put it that way.

If Lupe wouldn’t say it that way, then why in the ever-loving hell does Irving say it that way?! It makes no sense!

Present-day JD’s story line is primarily concerned with two strange women he meets at the airport, Miriam and Dorothy, ostensibly mother and daughter but perhaps the manifestations of the Virgin Mary and Our Lady of Guadalupe–both of whom manipulate and seduce him multiple times, ultimately distracting him from accomplishing his goal of visiting the cemetery at all. You know, the whole reason for his trip. He seems only mildly confused that the women don’t show up in photos or mirror reflections, and they seem to appear and vanish at will, more concerned with whether he took enough Viagra that day and never once stopping to wonder why two ravenous women would care at all about a crippled, middle-aged B-list author who is, in his own estimation, woefully sexually inadequate. This is never resolved in the novel. It was suggested by several readers in the book discussion I attended that JD was only imagining them, but I think this undermines the credibility of the entire novel. You can’t hang any dramatic tension on a story that is half dreamed (so perhaps not entirely true?) and half imagined (not at all true). You’re left not caring at all what happens to any of the characters because nothing’s real and nothing’s invested in their success or failure. And no, unlike the woman who kept chirping, “It’s magical realism! It’s magic!” to explain away any problems with plot or characterization, you cannot magic your way out of bad writing. And if this is magical realism, it’s magical realism at its absolute worst. (The magical realism woman also claimed Irving set the book in Mexico because magical realism is a “South American thing.” So.)

To fully understand my loathing of Avenue of Mysteries, you would have to go back to October with me and read Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. Also a quest novel, also set partly in Mexico, also concerning characters who live in the dump (in Tijuana, not Oaxaca), one comes away from Urrea’s novel with a very different feeling. Instead of a it’s-all-hopeless-shoot-me-now sort of vibe, Urrea leaves us with a sense–despite the racism, xenophobia, poverty, fatherlessness, drugs, and bigotry that his characters confront in the novel–of hope, of faith in humanity, of belief that there is beauty and goodness in the world. (It’s not unlike the character Clark French in Avenue of Mysteries. I suppose Juan Diego would hate Urrea.)

Urrea was born in Mexico and spent a number of years doing relief work with the people who live in the Tijuana dump. His 1996 book By the Lake of Sleeping Children details his experiences there in that “malodorous volcano of garbage.” He knows these people. He loves these people. The title character in Into the Beautiful North, Nayeli, is based on a real girl by the same name who was born into that life, but Urrea has been able to help her family buy a home and Nayeli goes to school and plays soccer like a girl her age deserves, instead of picking through trash like her mother had to. Urrea is infinitely humble about this. I had the immense pleasure of hearing him speak when he came through town last month, and he told us about his family history (and why he looks so Irish) and some of the real-life people who were the inspiration for characters in the novel: Tia Irma, Nayeli, Tacho, and Atomico, to name a few. He is as fantastic a speaker as he is a writer; I could have listened to him for hours. In fact, here’s a little video clip of him that I found of Urrea talking about the novel!

Urrea doesn’t insult his readers. He sprinkles Spanish throughout the text, but even if you don’t speak it, you’re not lost because Urrea has invited you to come alongside and join his characters on a journey. In various reviews I’ve seen the novel compared to O Brother, Where Are Thou and Don Quixote, because, as one blogger put it, “the border’s not just a place that bleeds death and injustice, it also bleeds mythology, cuento, testimonio, and yes, even humor.” Into the Beautiful North is actually funny where it’s inteded to be, and lovely and heart-rending in just the right places.

If I’ve done my duty correctly, you’ll know now to steer clear of Avenue of Mysteries, but you can’t go wrong with Into the Beautiful North or Urrea’s other work, like The Hummingbird’s Daughter or Tijuana Book of the Dead, a collection of poetry. I leave the choice up to you. Choose wisely. Caveat lector.

Two quickies

I’ve been reading like mad lately, and I’ve a ton of things to tell you, but I’m going to start with two quick collections, B.J. Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories and Lou Beach’s 420 Characters: Stories.

Novak, of The Office fame, had already captured my heart (and the hearts of my kids) with his children’s book The Book With No Pictures, so I knew he was funny, but I was not prepared for One More Thing. It’s not just funny, it’s smart-funny. He reminds me very much of George Saunders (a similarity also noted by NY Times reviewer Teddy Wayne in his very good write-up of the collection). The book even has a hilarious trailer! Can I just say, even as someone who always prefers the book to the movie, that I am so happy that book trailers are now a thing?

Novak turns the story on its head in many of these pieces. Some are simply vignettes, such as the two-line microfiction entitled “The Walk to School on the Day After Labor Day,” which reads, in its entirety:

I was sad that summer was over.

But I was happy that it was over for my enemies, too.

I fell in love immediately with the first piece, called “The Rematch,” wherein the hare finally persuades the tortoise to do a rematch of their famous race. We read:

Never, in the history of competition–athletic or otherwise, human or otherwise, mythical or otherwise–has anyone ever kicked anyone’s ass by the order of magnitude that the hare kicked the ass of that goddamn fucking tortoise that afternoon.

There are too many other great standouts to name them all. And I loved how some of the stories referenced other stories in the collection. They are funny and fun and refreshing, and they show a great heart and keen insight. I loved it. I disagree with the NY Times review in that I don’t think any of the stories ought to have been excised; it’s perfect as it stands.

Lou Beach’s work began as a series of Facebook status updates. The stories are astounding in their range, and they are interspersed with Beach’s own original collages, which are creepy as hell. Here are a couple of samples.

While I was away you managed to rust all my tools. How is that possible? Did you dip them in the bathtub like tool fondue? I do not understand. You deny everything but cannot explain the rusted brad puller, pliers, awl, and bucksaw in our bed. “Maybe someone was playing a joke,” you say, then add: “A wet hammer is still a hammer.”

“Geronimo!” I leap from the trestle high above the river, imagine myself parachuting into occupied France during WWII and meeting up with Marie, beautiful dark-haired fighter of la Resistance. We kill some Krauts together, then hide out in the hayloft of a barn. I draw her to me, kiss her neck, her full red lips, unbutton her tight white blouse, and hit the cold water. “Sacrebleu!” I scream. “Sacre fuckin’ bleu!”

The schoolgirls marched through the snow, melted it with their youth, heads haloed in heat. They felt secure in their green coats, silver crosses hanging from white necks. He stood behind a tree and pared his fingernails with a buck knife, wondered if the clippings would root in the soil beneath the snow and burst forth in spring as fingers that would clutch the ankles of those who strayed from the path.

Beach got a very friendly review from the NY Times, as well. I saw a little Denis Johnson in him, although the reviewer also notes quite a few other similarities with authors I don’t know. Some of Beach’s stories are pastoral, some are like mini thrillers, and others have a fun surreal twist. Oddly enough, just as in Novak’s collection, there are self-referencing stories here and some recurring characters. It’s a great little book to sit down with on a sunny afternoon in the shade of a screened porch which enjoying an IPA and salted Virginia peanuts.

Dave Eggers’ ‘Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’

Regular readers of this blog (all two and a half of you) know that I’m a big fan of Dave Eggers. I always have been. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius back before it was cool. So when I was recently faced with a crippling bout of indecision following my receipt of a gift card to my favorite local bookstore, it was with great relief that I spotted the recently released paperback edition of Eggers’ latest book, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

First thought first: I was going to give Eggers winner of all-time-best title creator, but his last book was called The Circle, and anyway, the title of Your Fathers was lifted from a verse in Zechariah from the Bible. But it’s still cool as hell. Secondly, this novel pulled me in from the very first page. I finished it in a day. It reads along quickly because it consists of nothing but dialogue between a man named Thomas and a series of people whom he has kidnapped. I don’t want to tell you anymore about the identity of the abductees because I think it adds so much to the tension and, oddly enough, the humor of the book, but be aware that many of the reviewers I’ve linked to have no such compunctions.

It has mixed reviews from some of the top publications. Phil Klay from the New York Times was less than impressed, particularly with the book’s discussion of veterans and US foreign policy. He says, “This book is political only in the degraded way that cable news is political — it’s uninterested in the nuances of policy because it’s already certain of which side it’s on. In that way, it’s a fitting document of our current level of political discourse.”

The Guardian seems to have received the book more favorably, with two separate reviews. Mark Lawson compares Eggers’ last three books to the works of Dickens and Zola insofar as they are “politically and polemically engaged,” and he likens the protagonist of Your Fathers, Thomas, to Holden Caulfield, which is a comparison that never would have occurred to me (not only because Holden Caulfield is 17 and Thomas is 34), but I think it’s appropriate. Societally, we are “growing up” at a later age, and much of the existential horror that Thomas is feeling mirrors Holden Caulfield’s. I think Thomas would like to think he is unique in his feelings, that he suffers from a distinctly post-everything malaise, but when you consider the time period from which the title of the novel is pulled, you may conclude that, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun (which, incidentally, is also a quote from the Bible).

About the dialogue format of the narrative, Lawson says:

There is a prejudice that dialogue fiction is either a gimmick or an unfilmed screenplay cannily repackaged. Eggers, though, has a precise reason for employing only voices. As the doubly interrogative title tips us off, Your Fathers … is a story about questions, with Thomas, who uses the legal term “depositions” for his interrogations, asking his hostages to explain what he views as anomalies in American life, including the cessation of the space programme, Congressional consent for recent wars, and failures in the professional conduct of teachers and police officers. It is typical of Eggers’s intelligence that the answers are often less easy and more unsettling than the hostage-taker expects.

Mark Athitakis, in his Washington Post review (wherein he compares Eggers to Steinbeck and Vonnegut for being “so willing to deploy his talents to such deliberately political ends”), adds this regarding the dialogue:

The novel’s opening banter is earnest and didactic, Eggers using his fiction to work through his public-policy concerns. And Thomas, who’s plainly disturbed, is a hard main character to get behind. His voice tends to shift between messianic pronunciamento (“I’m a moral man and I’m a principled man.”) and adolescent sarcasm. …

Yet…Thomas’s voice gains a third, more empathetic register that redeems the novel: a voice of rage and grief. “Your Fathers” acts out a kind of revenge fantasy that many people indulge when faced with the world’s unfairness: If only I could just make all these people sit down and listen, really listen, to me!

Now, what was interesting to me about what Athitakis calls “the world’s unfairness” is that, yes, Thomas certainly sees himself as a victim (he just doesn’t know of what or whom). But he’s a 34-year-old man. You can only play that card so long before it becomes unbearably tiresome. All the same, he makes some very valid points about just a few of the myriad ways that society has its priorities all out of order. As Thomas says, “I mean, you guys complain about not having money for schools, for health care, that everything’s broke and we have government shutdowns and every other goddamn thing, and then we look up and you’re spending 150 million on air-conditioning in Iraq. … You guys fight over pennies for Sesame Street, and then someone’s backing up a truck to dump a trillion dollars in the desert.”

As the other Guardian review puts it:

The other big challenge Eggers has set himself here is to manage the character of Thomas so that he walks the tightrope between truth seeker and psycho; if he falls one way and is too sane, the novel fails because we don’t believe he would actually kidnap these people; if he falls the other and is too crazy, then we don’t believe that Thomas’s pursuit of answers has any resonance wider than that of his own mini-manias. Again, for the most part, Eggers manages the balance well.

I agree. Thomas has kidnapped multiple people and has them chained up in an old decommisioned Army base. He’s clearly not exactly hinged, shall we say. Yet many things that he says make sense (to be clear: I do not agree with him on many issues), and we feel that the people he is interrogating are, for the most part, supposed to be in the wrong. There are a couple of conversations where this is not the case, but what I loved was that at a certain point in each interaction, the register changes just slightly, and for a moment, no matter how monstrous or wrong the other person may be at heart, for a moment what they are saying makes sense. Sometimes they get Thomas all wrapped up in his own brain, and he doesn’t know what to say. I thought it was really artfully done. I agree that “there’s a streak of wilful naivety in Eggers’s work that is often attractive and, yes, heartfelt but that can occasionally shade into facetiousness,” but I guess I’m just a sucker for his very distinct narrative voice.

Eggers himself says in a Q&A over at McSweeney’s, in reply to the question of whether there is any importance to the novel being set in the West:

Thomas definitely identifies with the West, and rightfully or not he’s internalized the mythology of the West, and feels he’s owed some of the glory of the frontier. So it’s important that he’s at the end of the country, and feels he has nowhere to go. He’s like the bear on the California flag. These are huge mammals that need a range of three hundred miles or so to thrive. Well, there aren’t three hundred miles anywhere anymore in California, so basically the bears have been driven to the sea. That’s where and what Thomas is, too—a suddenly unnecessary animal driven off the edge of the continent. …

The interviewer then asks: Thomas feels that the promises made to him as a son and an American have been broken.Who is ultimately responsible for the fulfillment of these promises? Eggers replies: “I don’t think that question is answerable in a tidy way. But I really don’t know that Thomas is asking for someone to give him that fulfillment. I think he recognizes that he’s of the species that needs to be inspired, that he needs that north light, that Polaris, to guide him, and that he’s lived a life of nights without stars.”

Athitakis concludes:

Eggers is still tinkering with a moral fiction that’s as flexible and subtle as any other kind, and at its worst it sounds like it’s being said by an angry op-ed columnist on a bender. Yet the dialogue-only structure and depth of feeling in “Your Fathers” are to its credit. You know what Eggers wants to say, he says it quickly, and he says it with a respectably righteous fury.

And, ultimately, he says it with a compassion that’s always been present in his work, even when he caked it in layers of snark. His “Grapes of Wrath” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” still elude him. But watching him work his way toward that level is one of the more fascinating literary projects going.

I think I’m with Athitakis. I can understand why this book might not strike the right notes with everyone, but I loved it. I found his narrative form fascinating and fresh; his treatment of heavy modern-day issues, perhaps not fair and balanced, but certainly affecting and very human; and his characterization funny and creative. There is something so vital in all of Eggers’ writing that makes me feel very rewarded and engaged as a reader. I’d recommend this book even to people who I know would disagree with much of its politics, simply because I think it would open a door for some very necessary conversations in this country.

J.C. Oates’ ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ And Some Thoughts on Breakfast

I just finished reading Joyce Carol Oates’ 26th (26th!) novel We Were the Mulvaneys, a find from the annual library book sale that had languished unread on my bookshelf for months. It was my first foray into her novels, though I’ve read a great number of her short stories.

I love David Gates’ NYT review of the book and his candor in describing Oates, as no other author can be described: “Once in a while, Ms. Oates will write something so discouraging it puts you off her for a novel or two.” Because what other writer is so prolific that you can skip “a novel or two” and then get back to reading her work? Gates also does a good job of briefly summarizing some of the allegorical imagery in the book, for example, the novel’s Eden, which is the Mulvaney family home, High Point Farm. So you know right from the beginning that someone (though it turns out to be everyone) is going to fall, and far. As the poet so famously put it: “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit/Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste/Brought death into the world, and all our woe,/With loss of Eden.”

I have to confess, though, that my reading experience was much more similar to this reviewer’s: “We Were the Mulvaneys, however evident of Oates’s talent as a novelist, is a tedious, overdescriptive work that requires a lot of patience and perseverance to get through.” I had a lot of trouble finishing the book (I took breaks from it to read Dickens, if that tells you anything), and I very rarely found myself lost in the story. Instead, oddly, I kept imagining Oates as she was writing. Maybe the voice was too self-consciously crafted, or maybe it was something else, but the characters never came alive for me. They were more like marionettes hung from strings on Oates’ fingers, and all the while I was too aware of Oates looming godlike over the narrative. Part of this might have been because of Oates’ choice to make the youngest Mulvaney brother the narrator, and since he wasn’t present for much of the action in the novel, he tries to craft close third-person POVs of his siblings and parents in order to tell the story, and the whole thing is awkward. I thought it was a poor choice on Oates’ part.

I also found the ending formally unsatisfying and abrupt after spending so much time with the lengthy story. To say nothing of the lack of resolution in the plot; there’s no justice for the characters, no closure for the trauma they’ve undergone, no psychological catharsis, there’s just… nothing.  The payoff never comes. As the reviewer says: “There is never any real attempt to explain the stunningly cruel behavior of Marianne’s parents; instead Oates writes: ‘In families, things just happen.’ It’s almost as though the author lost interest and decided to wrap up a complex and riveting story with a few quick ‘feel good’ chapters at the end and a ridiculous family reunion in which everything turns out hunky-dory.”

I remember a number of times during writing workshop at Queens when the workshop consensus was that a piece of fiction was not “believable” enough. To which the writer would protest, “But that’s the way it really happened!” It posed a difficult problem for the writer trying to fictionalize a real-life event, but I guess sometimes life really is stranger than fiction, and if you want your readers to be rewarded for their investment in your work, you have to give them a conclusion that holds up under the weight of what has come before it. In We Were the Mulvaneys, we were dealing with rape, alcoholism, domestic violence, abduction and nearly murder. In real life, sure, maybe a family could come through that without ever really dealing with their issues, by sheer force of will, denial, and coping mechanisms. Maybe they would never talk about it, never get counseling. Maybe they just go on pretending nothing happened. But at the end of the novel, there are no forced smiles. There’s no sign that any of the scene is meant to be taken ironically or to hint at the deep emotional scars borne by all the Mulvaneys. We are really and truly supposed to buy that everything just magically worked itself out, ta-da! Nah. I’m not buying it.

On a more satisfied note, I recently very much enjoyed Nick Ripatrazone’s Breakfast: A Love Story over at The Millions. I’ve read it several times now, perhaps in part because I love breakfast so much. But I discovered the work of Christian Wiman in Ripatrazone’s little meal-time meditation, which sent me on a lovely journey through Wiman’s poetry. His essay “Mortify Our Wolves,” on the struggle with faith in the face of pain and death, is a dense but very rewarding read. And from an essay that Wiman wrote on the passing of his friend, the poet Craig Arnold, I then went on to discover Arnold’s poetry (oh, the joys of the unending Internet!), a journey which came full circle back to breakfast upon my reading of Arnold’s Meditation on a Grapefruit. Happy breakfasting.

Laurie Colwin’s ‘Happy All the Time’

I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time. Laurie Colwin’s quick little novel “Happy All the Time” is a joy and a delight. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with a happy marriage as the subject, and it’s rare to find such a gem about true friendship. It’s just–though I rather detest the word–heartwarming.

This Washington Post review has a number of quotes from the novel as well as some biographical information about Colwin, including her unexpected and tragic death from heart failure at the age of 48. As the author of the review touches on, I thought she had marvelous characterizations, like this one:

Holly could cook, do needlework, play tennis, and fish.  She had studied the Italic hand, the Carolingian minuscule and the restoration of paintings and china.  She could balance her checkbook to forty-five cents, make a perfect pie crust, identify most wild flowers in the northeastern United States, and bandage simple wounds.  She could stand on her head, do a swan dive, repair lamps and knew the collections of most major museums.

And this one:

“Sybel was a modern dancer who also studied mime. She was a vegetarian and took a brand of vitamin pills that could be obtained only in New Jersey. … Once a week she saw a psychiatrist who thought that all mental distress had its origin in posture. … Stanley’s apartment was cluttered with Sybel’s possessions–her tatty leg warmers, her numerous bottles of vitamin pills, her jars of kelp, soybean paste, and brown rice. The three-pound leg weights she walked around in to strengthen her calves were hanging over the bedroom doorknob … The time they spent together was taken up in large part by looking for a restaurant in which Sybel might eat. Walking into an ordinary restaurant was as good as drinking a bottle of poison to Sybel, and her schedule prevented her from shopping for the chewy vegetables she craved.”

The story centers around two cousins, Vincent and Guido, and their travails and successes in love. Guido very quickly falls in love with the emotionally unavailable but alluring Holly (“She withdrew as if withdrawal was as natural as drinking coffee, and she did not make emotional statements.”) and much of the rest of the book is left to Vincent’s pursuit of Misty, who apparently is a very thinly veiled autobiographical insert of Colwin herself.

I adore Misty. When Vincent first asks her out to lunch, surprising himself in his brashness, she wants to know why.

“Why can’t I simply take you out for lunch?”

“Behavior is no accident,” said Misty. “People have reasons for what they do. Besides, if you wanted some appealing girl, why didn’t you go down to the PR department? It’s loaded with appealing types.”

“I don’t want any of those appealing types,” he paused. “I wanted you.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Misty. “What are you going to do when you get me?”

“Well, take you out for lunch,” said Vincent.

“Really? Well, I don’t permit myself to be taken out for lunch.”

“Is that some sort of militant stand?”

“No,” said Misty. “I’m just not that sort of girl. I don’t go in for all that adorable socializing. I think it’s stupid and disgusting.”

“I see,” said Vincent. “You’re not very nice, are you?”

“No,” said Misty.

I like to think of myself as not that sort of girl, either. I find so many things that come up on my facebook newsfeed to be stupid and disgusting, but I tend to keep my opinions a little closer than Misty does.

I love the way we get to watch their lives play out in the novel. There is so much about the way the two couples communicate and stress each other out and simply enjoy each other’s company that strikes me as so incredibly real. I feel like I know these people intimately, because I am these people and my friends are these people.

When Guido and Holly have a baby, Vincent and Misty come to the hospital to view it–it being the baby because “babies were all ‘it’ to Misty until they wore clothes that more properly identified them.” Holly tells them a few months later,

“Having babies is wonderful. It’s really quite stupefying. I feel I should be given the Nobel Prize. I can’t wait until you two have one.”

“If we ever have a baby,” said Misty, “it will have my temperament and no one will want to come and see it. When it grows up, it will have Uncle Bernie’s criminal tendencies and will cause great scandal.”

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Vincent. “Besides, you promised me that someday we would have a little Communist of our very own.”

Somehow, Colwin manages to strike that perfect balance between laugh-out-loud humor and deeply penetrating feeling. She reminds me of Lorrie Moore in that way. There is such a resonance and a humanity to her writing that I find very affecting. Margo Rabb’s review of Colwin’s writing very neatly summarizes my feelings about her: “There are times in life when you need a book that doesn’t rend your soul or make you want to crawl under the covers and weep. Yet you don’t want fluff, you’re loath to have your brain invaded by young ladies dithering over where to find their next man/martini/Manolo, and you’re not in the mood to see how long it takes Miss Marple to find the murderer. You want to find a book that’s meaningful, smart, funny, and—dare one even hope?—maybe even joyful. You need Laurie Colwin.”

All of Colwin’s books are still in print, which is unusual. I can’t wait to read more of them. I am particularly interested in her two volumes of food writing (I am a sucker for food writing), because, as Rabb says, ” I would love Home Cooking for no other reason than that it includes the essay ‘Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir.’ ”

I can’t think of anyone to whom I would not recommend Colwin’s Happy All the Time. Read it and be encouraged.

Practice resurrection

I’m alive. I survived my third pregnancy and so did the rest of my family–although just barely. And now Little No. 3 is six months old and sitting up and where the hell has the time gone?

But at least I’ve been reading in absentia.

First, the greatest disappointment of my recent reads: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. WHY have I been hearing about this book everywhere? I really disliked it. One review described the novel’s as a story that “movingly portrays an adolescent girl’s struggle to comprehend love in a time and a culture under strain as it comes to terms with a complicated disease.” The novel’s main strength is the voice of the narrator, who is a very convincing young teenaged girl, not a lot different from myself at that age, in fact. But the plot is just…weird. Nothing is resolved. Nothing comes of the wolves in the woods or in the painting. And, most disturbingly, nothing is made of the VERY weird and inappropriate relationships between the girl and her uncle and then later the girl and her deceased uncle’s boyfriend. There are so many layers of weird. Not a fan.

Secondly, the greatest treasure of a novel that I’ve read in a very, very long time: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. A Washington Post review calls it “a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.” I agree. This is a deeply affecting novel, about the strange intersections of the lives of three people in war-torn Chechnya. The plot and the skillfully drawn characters are enough to pull you into the story, but the beautiful language that Marra uses to paint his landscape is something immeasurably rewarding. As the NPR reviewer says, “And what would make a reader want to go deeply into a world of hopelessness and seemingly perpetual war, a world of torture and intimidation and exploding land mines? There are many answers. One of the most obvious, of course, is the language. If it’s powerful enough, it can make you want to ‘go there.’ ” I loved this book. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. I wish I had time to write a more complete review here, and maybe I will come back to it, but for now, just take my word for it: read it.

Honorable mentions include: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome; All Over But the Shoutin by Rick Bragg.

And lastly, I have been thinking a lot about this, and then this made me weep for its beauty.

William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness”

I really, really wanted to love Styron’s first novel, published in 1951 when Styron was 28 years old. But I didn’t love it. I barely even liked it. There were standout moments, of course, beautiful, glowing descriptions of Tidewater Virginia that makes me homesick as hell, but the overall mood of the book is unalleviated bleakness.

Jonathan Yardley captured the situation perfectly in his Washington Post review of the novel. He writes:

By the 1970s, when he was writing “Sophie’s Choice,” Styron had come to understand that catastrophe and/or tragedy must be alleviated (and thus in a way illuminated) by humor, but in his mid-20s he had yet to learn that lesson. The passage quoted above about the Tidewater gossips is the exception rather than the rule in “Lie Down in Darkness.” Setting out to write the story of a family doomed by its inability to love, he became so bogged down in the agony of it all — as Peyton ruminates, “everywhere I turn I seem to walk deeper and deeper into some terrible despair” — that he ended up writing a 400-page dirge that ultimately is far more stifling than enriching.

Now that I’m finished with Lie Down in Darkness, I feel a need to cleanse my palate with a story that strikes more than just one note. Let’s see what the library turns up for me this week.