Apr 012018
 

This book is populated by characters that became real to me as I watched them live for forty years or so in New York. They aren’t interesting in any extraordinary or flashy way—which makes the title odd—but I cared about them and became involved enough in their lives to lose track of the fact that the book would end.

Now that it has, I feel torn up and sad the way you do when you lose people.

Update: That last bit surely sounds exaggerated, but it’s not. I miss Ethan, Ash, Jonah, Jules and Denis. There’s no other way to say it, and I’ve been in a funk all day from their story being done.

 April 1, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312018
 

It’s been a long time since I’ve taught a book where the gap between how much I loved it and how much my students disliked it was as large as it was with Karen Russell’s collection of short stories.

I can say without reservation that these stories are (almost without exception) marvelous. Funny and allegorical, they are a lot like bones: let them simmer slowly over a steady heat and they give up riches. Yet my students, who I thought would be sucked in by the fantastic elements and young adult protagonists, were put off and confused by them. They asked things like “Do the goggles really let them see ghosts?” and “Are the girls werewolves?”—which is fine but only if you’re willing to accept that the answer is “Yes. But maybe not.” And then to think about how “yes” changes your sense of the story, and then how “no” and “maybe” do. For reasons I don’t really understand, my class wouldn’t go there and got hung up on the ambiguity generated by the conceits.

Here’s my dream though: they have read the thing and someday, they are going to be at a cocktail party, trying their best to fit in and to impress but failing and when they leave and become self-hating and say to themselves (or to their significant other) something along the lines of “I’m like an animal and am not fit to attend these things and I don’t understand why anyone would invite me to wander loose among the humans like that,” they’ll remember this book and think “oh, wait, I get it now…”

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312018
 

The idea for this book is straightforward: cull the biographical material for enough details to describe a typical work day for each of the chosen writers.

I know most of the writers here quite well, and yet the resulting portraits turned out to be fascinating. A biography presents a life, but how someone fits the thing it is that they do into that life operates like a windows onto their personality and their sense of who they are.

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 302018
 

I was impressed by two things about this book.

The first is that, in an effort to get things right on a large scale by pulling disparate events together and identifying patterns, Harari is willing to risk being wrong by going out on a limb. The cruel irony of higher education is that it teaches most people to play it safe. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, but you’ve studied dammit and you want to be right about what they’re right about. So listening to or reading informed academics talk is a bit like watching rabbits chew lettuce: it’s all little bites with eyes on horizon, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. Harari isn’t like that at all. He goes out on limbs, sometimes in areas I know a fair bit about. Sometimes I questioned what he was saying in those areas. But in general, I liked those moments of the book the best because they made a claim and trusted I’d take the time to think about it.

The second thing that impressed me was the clarity with which his book demonstrated what anthropology offers as an academic field. I studied history as an undergraduate and continue to read it as an amateur. Somewhere along the line, I’d foolishly decided that anthropology was the historical study of people living without writing (and of cavemen and of the liberal arts version of evolution). Harari’s book makes me realize that this conception of the field is ignorant enough to approach idiocy. Anthropology is a study of Culture and conceptualizes the term with enough sophistication and breadth to make the “Cultural Studies” I’m familiar with seem parochial. This reassessment of the field is the most significant thing I took away from the book.

 March 30, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 182018
 

This history of the Antebellum period is complex and breathtaking. The country changed so much in these years that Polk’s administration feels like a different world than Buchanan’s. There are lots of ways to track that change. One of the best I’ve read is actually a novel: James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird.

This history couldn’t be more different from that book. Whereas the novel watched the world from ground level and from a marginal space imagined within central events of the period, this history leaps into the political center without shying away from the details of committee conferences, vote counts, and the back-and-forth of parliamentary procedures. This is a story of power struggles played out in halls of government and across the western territories. Yet, the whole is handled with such a sure hand that the details enliven rather than obscure the developing events.

This book fits nicely across the joint connecting What Hath God Wrought? and Battle Cry of Freedom. Perhaps more unsettling is the way it seems to offer insight into the resentments and risks the States are muddling through today.

 March 18, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 132018
 

I read this book in a rush, caught up in the world and the characters. This is great fantasy writing.

I also really like that nothing here is a revamping of Germanic or Nordic mythology and that this isn’t a world of wise, white men helping young white men discover themselves and save the world. That’s a shift from the norm and it feels right.

Narratively, this book takes all kinds of risks with point-of-view and plotting. Yet somehow, by the end it pulls everything together. It’s a feat of strength and makes the book extremely satisfying.

 March 13, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Feb 242018
 

I stumbled across the name of this book and its author in the opening anecdote of a magazine article a couple months ago. I’d never heard of either, but the odd context of the reference made me curious. So I stopped by Indigo the next time I was downtown and, after some confusion over which name was used to file the book—Cixin or Liu—found a copy.

The book was wildly disorienting because I know nothing about Chinese history that can’t be captured in the broadest of strokes. The footnotes saved me in this regard. By the same token, character interactions are clearly stylized here but they are done in a manner different from what I’m used to. The differences weren’t enormous and I adapted, but they were enough initially to make it quite hard to peg characters down. I don’t know enough to say what precisely these differences amount to. I am conscious of difference, but is it a product of a) my cultural distance, b) an unexpected generic variation, c) a purposeful narrative choice, d) the translation, or e) some combination of these? I don’t know.

What I do know is that the book is tightly constructed. Without generating much tension or suspense and without giving the impression of holding back secrets, the plot slowly, methodically unfolds piece-by-piece until in the end everything is backwards and inside out compared to what it was on page one, and this despite the fact that in fundamental ways, nothing has changed except the state of my understanding. I’ve learned what happened before page one—like in a mystery—and that knowledge makes all the difference. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling.

 February 24, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 152017
 

This is the second of James Purdy’s novels that I’ve read and I was not prepared for how different it would be from the first in style.

This novel begins as the narrator’s elderly husband tries to recover from a stroke. This event has brought his eventual death into view and Carrie, his younger and extremely deferential wife, copes by turning her attention to her memories of her long-dead daughter, a successful artist. The narrative is Carrie’s memoir telling of her coming-into-herself as a person as she steps out of her cloistered, conservative home to investigate her daughter’s sexual adventures and to understand her bohemian life.

As the story begins, Carrie is like soft clay, untouched by anything except her own sense of her untouchedness. As she meets other people—first her sister-in-law, then a man-hating Elizabethan obsessed with Edmund Spencer, and finally a man who reminds her of her first love but who was one of her daughter’s lovers—as she meets these people, she receives their way of being in the world into herself. She is not, however, adrift. What others mistake as impressionability and lack of identity is in fact a budding openness to life made possible by her not-yet-defined and not-yet-understood (but still weighty and valuable) sense of herself as having a self. At the end of the novel, Carrie is sensitive, loving, and strong.

This solid simplicity does not exhaust, however, the sophistication of the text we’re given. Although written in Carrie’s plain voice—simple sentences, naive diction, stacks of short paragraphs—the text is run-through with allusions to the myth of Persephone and The Fairie Queen. The resulting complexity of this memoir is extreme. There are echoes and repetitions and allusions galore. This complexity may not be Carrie’s alone—Purdy’s voice is there too, the allusions may belong to him—but it isn’t not Carrie’s voice either and so her simpleness can be read—at least possibly—as a bright reduction of life to essentials. In some of the best moments, this reduction manifests the dark clarity of a dream. All of this is handled with such a sureness and lightness of touch that the book reads as small and particular even though it is also, simultaneously, a heady meditation on the artist’s creation of the self.

As was the case in In a Shallow Grave, the ending here is happy, self-consciously so. But Carrie has earned her happiness in a way that the war veteran in that earlier novel hadn’t. I think the other characters are lucky to have her in their lives.

Shifting gears, this novel reminded me during long stretches of Washington Square. This in turn made me think of Wright Morris, a now more-or-less forgotten mid-century novelist I read a lot of in the 90s. My sense of him then was that many of his novels were working through the style and subjects of his immediate predecessors, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, etc. Purdy is a much better writer than Morris and possess a much stronger point of view. But given the way both Purdy’s novels evoked other works for me, I’m curious to what extent the stylistic differences in the two I’ve read might be the sign of a similar hearkening back and working though.

 April 15, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with:
Apr 152017
 

In a Shallow Grave is the first novel I’ve read by James Purdy, an author I know next to nothing about.

It tells the story of a traumatized and disfigured war veteran who haunts (and eventually loses) his family home, which is a former slave plantation. The veteran spends his time reading books he doesn’t understand and writing letters to a young widow he is trying to court. These letters are written in an affected language imitating the incomprehensible books, and she accepts them only out of pity and only after being told to do so by a minister. The veteran’s only friends are his “applicants,” a black man and a handsome wanderer who keep him company and deliver his letters. The latter eventually sacrifices his life for him.

The language and the plotting of this book are disarmingly simple but self-consciously off-kilter. The narrative frame of reference is clearly gothic.  As I read two novels kept coming to mind: Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Harry Crews’s The Gospel Singer. I’m not sure either is is very much like Purdy’s novel, but something in the veteran’s efforts at love reminded me of McCuller’s love triangle, and his oddly sophisticated and manipulative naiveté reminded me of Crew’s protagonist.

What all of this means for me is that In a Shallow Grave reaches back to and evokes one of my very first adult literary passions. It’s one that predates this blog by years, and since I don’t read much of what gets called post-war “Southern Gothic” anymore, it has remained mostly invisible here. But it’s real and deep-seated, and as a result, I read this novel warmed by a deep reserve of sympathy for it’s project and style. Happily for me, it paid back the good will by being fresh rather than mannered.

 April 15, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 012017
 

I stumbled upon this book seven or eight years ago in a used book store just down the street from the Stanley exit of Peel metro station in Montreal. I was writing my dissertation, and walking helped me sort out my ideas. Sometimes I wandered for hours.

That day the window display caught my eye, and I took a break to browse the bookstore’s shelves. When I saw this slim but enticingly named volume, I was curious what it was, picked it up and started to flip through it. Right away I saw Dillard compare a sentence to a worm inching forward in the darkness. Not long after I learned a manuscript left overnight was like a circus lion gone wild again. This was inventive wonderful stuff, and obviously I bought the book. Back home I read it through, felt recognized by it, and for the next few months kept it close at hand as I struggled to cobble together, for the first time, a book-length argument.

Last week while rearranging books in my library when I should have been working, I found myself standing and flipping through Dillard’s book again, and again I found myself amazed by what I read there. Seduced by passages that echoed in memory, I sat down and read it through for the first time in years, remembering those months spent writing as I did.

However my experience of the book this time around was more complicated than simple nostalgia. I was struck anew by how good Dillard is on writing and how good her writing itself is. But I was also surprised by how bad she seems to be on life and living. We’re all mysteries to each other, and I won’t pretend to know the terms of Dillard’s happiness. She certainly doesn’t need me to suggest how she should live. But I’m certain that how she lives would make me very unhappy if I imitated her.

There is a deeply religious sensibility in Dillard’s work that sits on its surface. But in this book, it seems cruelly monastic in ways that poison her conception of literary sensibility and literary pleasure. Beneath Dillard’s beautifully compact sentences are a hair shirt and tightly cinched belts of thorns, and her endurance of these pains feel competitive. The effect as a whole is ecstatic, apocalyptic and, somehow, inhumane.

Years ago, I needed desperately Dillard’s words about writing. I’m grateful she wrote them and grateful I found them. But the parts of the book I hadn’t gone back to over and over as I wrote and that, as a result, I hadn’t remembered, these parts have likely put me off this book for a long while.

 April 1, 2017  Book Logs Tagged with: