Archives for posts with tag: Review

Kornél Esti Book Cover, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

Dezsö Kosztolányi wrote Kornél Esti in 1933, very near the end of his life. I can’t help but imagine that there is some special significance in this fact, that a novel that begins with the words “I had passed the midpoint of my life…” and that implies in its opening chapter that its unknown and unknowable narrator is none other than Dezsö Kosztolányi himself, would speak to the chasm between the now and then, would bring some golden kernel of insight into the function of memory, of nostalgia, of experience, of life recollected, of life itself.

And it does, even when it doesn’t. At first, I was comfortably wrapped up in the premise, in the promise of plot, and in the lyrical and philosophical writing. In the first chapter, an unnamed writer rekindles a warm friendship with a friend from his childhood, Kornél Esti. As boys, the men were just as different from each other as they were the same, with identical birthdays, down to the hour, and similar physical features. To each the other offered a mirror, every cruel whim and longing of Esti’s matched by the purity and contemplation of the narrator. After a decade spent apart, they come together again and decide to write a book together, presumably the one that the reader so fortunately holds in her hands. The next chapter describes Esti’s first day at school, a young boy without his mother and confident of his own unsurpassable excellence. The one after that recounts two rites of passage, his first time traveling alone and his first kiss.

And then, without much warning or announcement, the book changes shape like a country cloud, becoming a series of short stories, anecdotal explorations of surprising scenarios. One in particular, which takes place in a city where self deprecation and even loathing are the standards of advertising and even the means by which the citizenry expresses its spirit, reads like a refined Vonnegut. Others bring to mind Camus, Borges, Poe, and Beckett. The stories are ostensibly the remembered experiences of the title character, but the real link between them has more to do with a longing for connection, and for meaning.

Many of the chapters involve translation and there are many peripheral characters that are linguists or poets or translators themselves. Language here is a game of hide and seek, or a stage designed for gifted actors, a tool equally suited to the tasks of clarification and obfuscation. Here again I can only imagine the potential of the personally significant: I wonder how Bernard Adams, who skilfully translated Kornél Esti from Hungarian, how he must have felt as he handled each word of each chapter, felt its weight even as the shape of the work as a whole pokes gently at the idea that it is ever possible to understand anything through language.

And perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn’t. In the end, it’s an unthinkable question, a paradox that is best used as a prompt for play rather than puzzlement. I know this, though: I liked this book too much to put it down, and I am looking forward to taking Kosztolányi up on the invitation to play forever with this paradox, to edge myself bit by bit, to the feeling of having, at least for a moment, understood.

EM Keeler BookSide Table Monoceros book cover

“The Unicorns Are Coming.”

As you can probably guess from the title, and the immensely enjoyable book trailer, Monoceros has something to do with Unicorns. And it does. But that something, the something that Suzette Mayr is doing with Unicorns, has nothing to do with meme culture, with juvenalia, or with twee. Instead, Mayr’s talking about anatomically correct Unicorns. These are desirous and righteous beasts, and they rampage through the novel with all of the swagger and anxiety of adolescent libido.

The novel begins with the end of a young man’s life: Patrick Furery hangs himself after being tormented, threatened, and encountering the unendurable pain of having his small world refuse to recognize in him the complicated and shimmering dignity of his personhood. As a gay teen enrolled in a Catholic high school in Calgary, Furey is victimized by his immediate enviornment, and the opening chapter of Monoceros paints his portrait with a delicate hand, even as the character launches himself right  out of frame.

The rest of the novel takes the real shape of human life. Mayr decentres the story of the cruelties and injustices that battered Patrick, and instead explores the community at the margins of this tragedy. Classmates who never knew him, his secret lover, the girl with the history of assaulting him, his teacher, his principal, his guidance councilor… By engaging with so many voices Mayr has managed to diffuse the isolation and immobilization of the trauma of teen suicide and homophobia and create a space for empathy, intimacy, and even comedy. Monoceros evinces the kind of comedy that brings you closer, the kind of comedy that reminds you of the way that a great story deftly told is an invitation to commune with that which makes us our most human, our frailty, and, of course and always, our dignity.

Mayr manages to collage together these voices, these characters, as proof that life is more complicated than our over-determinations of each other. Faraday, a young woman obsessed with unicorns as an article of her faith in eventually escaping the prison of adolescence, and Walter, the sweet gay guidance councilor who is still looking for his own guide in life, are particularly heart breaking characters. Mayr has written them honestly and truthfully enough that you simultaneously feel like hugging and smacking them. The voices that make up this unwitting community are evidence that people and circumstances are the tectonic plates shifting deep beneath our conscious lives, unaware that at any moment there could be a fissure. At almost any moment, there could be a tragedy. But then again, at any moment, there could be a unicorn.

Scandal,  Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

Have you read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy? There’s something so earnest and formal about it, and I couldn’t help but recall my experience reading it when I was between the covers of Shusako Endo’s Scandal. Maybe it has to do with the situation of literature in the 1980s, but there’s a sense of tautness, of an almost oppressive seriousness in this work. It’s not an exceptionally difficult book to read, but it’s not exactly fun either.

Endo writes with a specific psychological end in mind: he wants to get to the very bottom, to unearth some of the ugliest aspects of human being, and discover in that darkness how close they can come to the light. Scandal appears to be modeled on The Divine Comedy, taking the reader deeper into the abyss of the main character, Sugaro, through nine chapters that progressively get tighter, tenser, darker and darker, until the ending line. It’s a very anxious work, and almost all of the characters live in estrangement from others, and often from their own desire.

Translated from Japanese by Van C. Gessel, the language employed in Scandal is sort of hard-boiled, and there is definitely a sense that detective fiction and film noir have been major influences in the way that Endo has crafted this story. There are a few characters that seem to emerge right out of these related genres, and the plotting builds tension just like a classic whodunit. But then again, there is also thematic content that morphs these generic tropes into  a vehicle for carrying the burden of some much grander ideas.

Sugaro is a novelist, and in the description of his oeuvre seems to have been working through many of the themes that Endo has tackled in his previous work; the tensions between sin and redemption, East and West, Christianity and Japan. The book follows sixty-five year old Sugaro throughout the streets of Tokyo’s Yoyogi district. As Sugaro stares down his imminent death, he pits his faith in Christ against his writerly fascination with sin, nay–evil. As the battle unfolds, it becomes apparent that the only possible outcome is his own defeat. The plot revolves around Sugaro’s attempts to outrun a scandal that threatens to break, and while I wont spoil anything, the final two chapters are definitely the most rewarding.

I think that this gesture of laying the work out as a metafictional account of Endo’s own trials was only partially successful in bringing the story to its own life. While it offered a surprisingly bleak description of the cowardly hunger that a man in need of stories might face, and a moving exploration of the myriad risks that an author negotiates in working with the variable qualities of humanity, readers, and the book industry, it also made manifest a character who is perhaps too desperate to preemptively direct the readers attention. This may not be a flaw in the work. It may have something to do with my own distaste for the character that Endo has created.

It’s possible I am willfully transferring that dislike onto Endo and Scandal as a whole. Even if that is the case, I think that Endo’s treatment of basic psychoanalytic principles, both as implied and explicitly addressed, anticipate and perhaps encourage this reading experience. There is a sense of argumentation that runs through this work, and it’s formal structure and literary allusions achieve perhaps too exactly the mood of isolation that affects the characters on the page. Its ugly parts are not  quite ugly enough, and I never felt that the darkness in the story had much depth, because there was very little in the way of light.  In my reading, Scandal, while a good enough book, doesn’t quite make a virtue of the terror it appears to be engaging, and so manages to overshoot in the dark, just missing the mark.

Emily M Keeler, Booksde Table, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God is by far the most emotionally moving novel I have read this year. And that’s saying a lot, after The Optimist’s Daughter and Tracks. Because I came to read this book having read some of Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological writing, I was anticipating great detail and dialogue. I was not ready for the thunderous love that spilled off these pages. Even if I had been warned, I don’t think I could’ve felt prepared.

Hurston’s prose is absolutely dazzling! This is the stuff that James Wood dreams about. Never have I felt closer to the way that characters feel, to the smallness and the biggness of their mysterious inner workings. Janie and Tea Cake and the people of Eatonville and the muck are so alive and kicking that I feel like I must be a walking bruise from having spent the past few days dancing and wrestling with them. I feel like they’re under my skin and in my breath. Hurston makes it easy, dropping prose bombs like flower petals.

They sat there in the fresh darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing–self revelation.

For such a little book, it’s depth is nothing short of astounding. Janie, always Janie, has her heart broken by her family, by men, and by the tension between the degrees of whiteness and blackness that surrounds her. Her capacity for love, the real stuff of it, buoys her above her circumstance, and though she’s sweet she is never naive. She is steeped in so much charm that it almost hurts to think of her as a character in a novel rather than a woman who has lived all of time through the love that she alone can give.

There is so so much in this book. I can’t even believe it. I feel almost ripped off that I haven’t read this earlier, that I haven’t known Tea Cake and Janie for my whole life.

But see for yourself:

She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off… Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.

Janie meets with despair and comes through it like a candle in a dark room, glowing and warm. Her light will shine on as long as Their Eyes Were Watching God can be read and re-read, agressively and tenderly, in all the forms that love can take.

The Pure and the Impure book cover, Emily M KeelerThe Pure and the Impure can be dark at times, even oppressively so, and Colette’s voluptuous prose feels suffocating and liberating in equal measure.  Herma Briffault’s translation yields a work that scans with varied yet consistently gorgeous cadences, and I actually found myself reading at least half of The Pure and the Impure out loud  into the night.

The book is a set of linked remembrances, a lucid investigation into the ways that our being is molded always by desire, by love, and sometimes, if we’re especially unlucky, by both at once. Colette chronicles her adventures in places where the light is low, where bodies lie entwined and the air is thick with the smells of incense, blond tobacco, opium and spirits. She transcribes some of the conversations she has had, and is not afraid to make herself look bad. Her stories, and her friends stories, show the ways in which desire can make a person callous, can be the exact point of their vulnerability, and, in my reading, can make you misremember as you shape the world of what was to  suit the needs of the terrific hunger within.

I really wish that I had read this before I read Nightwood, because I think it would’ve made a fabulous primer for that unmappable terrain.

I had a bit of trouble with some ideas in this book, as beautifully as they were expressed. Every word in the book bears the burden of truth, in a novelistic sense, and there are so many staggeringly strong lines up for the challenge. Yet, at its weakest, The Pure and the Impure reads as a catty and gossipy tell all from the days when a tell all was called a roman a clef. But at it’s best, the book is a clear evocation of the myriad forms that desire may take, a treatise on sensual pleasure, and an exploration of the divide between men and women, and between  masculine and feminine. Perhaps many of the problems I felt with relation to Colette’s sense of this difference are a function of time, of me being here rather than there, or vice versa. Nonetheless, it pained me to see her deride women who love women for being either childish or deluded, especially as she herself describes experiencing her own Sapphic desire. I also thought that there were one or two stray ideas or comments that alluded to a deeply anti-trans* position, though I may have misconstrued their intent. This last observation is not excusable through historically situating the novel, given that Collette was writing at the tail end of the Dada movement in Europe, where gender was fluidly understood and expressed in many circles, and certainly even within some of the ones in which Collette found herself. Despite that, there are parts of this book that I liked so immensely that I will undoubtedly find myself caressing these dog-eared pages for the rest of my life.

The Obituary book cover, Emily M Keeler, bookside tableThe Obiturary is a fantastic book, but it’s hard to describe. Gail Scott has written, even at times somehow overwritten and underwritten, this rolling novel that looks at life, history, sex, love, and two-tongued Montreal through a fractured lens. The main character, if you’d even call her that, is Rosine.

Sometimes the text reflects the rhythm of her thoughts, of her memories, but sometimes the words you’re reading are coming out of a photograph, or a fly. Sometimes they come through the walls. Scott plays with the phonetic quality of letters and words, in both English and French, to great effect. It’s an unconventional novel, though it is deeply (even lyrically) sensual, evoking the sharp clean smell of oysters and approaching the use of language as if hoping to encourage a synesthetic experience. This story has a complex structure, and some of its hypertext takes the form of heart–rather than foot–notes. The heart notes offer more information, more context, and tie the strange interior life of Rosine and the fly on the hotel wall to something more conventional, like a book about a dark history. But even in the heart notes there are subtle revisions and perversions that maintain a sense of particularity rather than detached objectivity. Even the fly on the wall only sees what it sees not from above, but from the very front lines of life.

The Obituary is much richer than I’m making it seem; it is so much more than an engaging experiment with form. Or maybe, that’s not quite right either. More likely, the form this novel takes comes directly from it’s content, with its grammatical omissions and contradictions. The book weaves around the idea of intersectionality, and what it means to have so many stories contained in a person, and how those stories crash up against each other, and how they run smack into the other stories in the world. Films, books, photographs, and other records that come to be a framing device for the morphological process of talking about what a life is, or what it can be.

The novel poses the question: “Reader, you may be forgiven for asking here what is a novel life?” Scott doesn’t have an answer, but  The Obiturary gives you a few clues, describing always “what is alive + speaking within us” even as it traverses over the dead, buried, as they are, in the past.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover, E M Keeler, bedside table

I decided to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is sort of like saying that I decided to be deeply disturbed and conflicted, because I had read an incredibly vivid piece by Rebecca Skloot in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I. I was hungry for more work in her voice, so I picked up this book even though I had only a rough understanding and somewhat limited interest in biology and medical research.

But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not really about science and cellular tissue; it’s not even really about the tricky ethics of consent. I mean, it is about those things, and Skloot writes about HeLa and research labs and medical conferences and the way that different cells function both inside and outside of our bodies with such clarity and simplicity that the chapters that chronicle the advances in cellular tissue studies build up a suspenseful narrative in their own right. Skloot’s science reportage is meticulously researched and highly readable. But this isn’t really a book about science.

This is a book about life, and the real story here is the one about Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks. When Deborah was a little girl her mother died from an inconceivably horrible case of cervical cancer. Shortly before this, some of the malignant material in Henrietta’s body was taken, without her consent, for research, and her unknowing contribution changed scientific history. Deborah Lacks grew up without a mother, without knowing that the cellular tissue taken from her mother would go on to be the material that enabled much of modern medicine.

Skloot and Deborah forge a very complicated relationship as they track down the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa. Where Skloot is white, in her mid-20s, university educated in both biology and the arts, Deborah is a fifty year old black lady who works part time and can’t afford even basic health care. This last is especially painful, given the contributions to medicine that her mother’s cells have enabled, and this sad irony is forefront in the minds of many of the surviving Lackses. The way that these women relate to each other, and form an incredible bond as they delve into the past to piece together the complicated history of HeLa and Henrietta is tumultuous and beautiful. Together they unearth both unknown tragedies and gifts. Skloot describes Deborah with such love that their unlikely friendship gradually over takes the rest of the book.

Skloot started a scholarship fund for Henrietta Lacks’ descendents, and her book goes a long way to realizing the Deborah’s dream of the world’s recognition of her mother’s unwitting heroism. I want to tell you more about Deborah, but I also want you to read the book and hear her voice, her story, for yourself. Overall, I think that this is a powerfully written account that needs to be told and told again.

The Fortress of Solitude Book Cover, Jonathan Lethem, Emily M KeelerThe Fortress of Solitude is, plainly, about a lot of things. Jonathan Lethem has put down in this book a dream of childhood, of comics and lives with thick lines and colour blocks, of thought bubbles bursting out of frame. And of course, it’s really about how things are never as they once were. I have a lot to say about this book, because it’s about a lot of big things. It’s about identity, and that means race, and class, and who your parents are, and who your friends are, and who you love, and it how it all works out in the end. I don’t think I’m prepared to say everything I could here, right now.

But I’ll say this: Lethem has done something really complicated here. A story about little boys who, perhaps like all little boys, want nothing so much as to lift up off the ground and fly through the air. This Brooklyn burb is a never-neverland, and Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude are the lost boys of Gowanus.

Dylan knows even at five years old that whiteness is blonde angles with roller skates. He also knows that this is unspeakable knowledge, that his mother and father and the little black girl with the chewing gun and hula hoop can never be told that this is what he knows. Dylan is our guide to this wild land of hobbesian children running amok with spaldeens.

Lethem sets up the novel in three distinct sections, the first of which details life on the block in free indirect style. The first quarter of this section captures exactly the endless summer nights of being very young, where school is a dead zone and the summers are infinite and you and your friends take the street hostage, take ownership of every paved surface, and hold on to the game even as mothers call out names from windows and front doors.

Somewhere along the way all the kids become aware of their blackness, of Dylan’s whiteness, around the same time these boys are beginning to negotiate their growing sense of their own power and masculinity. They try on identities, but they all have to contend with the racialized bodies into which they were born. This is the biggest thing going on here, this examination of the way that race takes hold, grows in a person the way a seed puts down roots. And so these kids grow up, get bigger than Gowanas, which undergoes a change of its own, becoming Boreum Hill by the end of the novel.

And it’s here at the very end that Mingus Rude gives you a key to Dylan, the kid who loved him most in the world, back when they were lost boys, and to the heart breaking distance between black and white. Mingus, who’s mixed race with a black dad and absentee white mom, shows Dylan his mean face. The face that Dylan’s seen thousands of times since adolescence, the face that a black teenager pulls to bully a white boy, the face that is born out of the way that white people fear black people, and circles back to become the reason for that fear. Seeing Mingus wear this face, someone he has loved for almost his whole life, the man he thinks of as his brother and savior, Dylan confronts a terrible truth that he’s always known about the stickball playing kids that grow up into frightening teenagers. Lethem asks in Dylan’s voice: “What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” and that this is a question at all, let alone one that has an answer, breaks my heart.

There is a lot of pain between the covers of Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, and so much of it runs beneath the surface. Laurel, or Polly to those who’ve loved her the longest, walks around the flowers, rivers, and mountains of her childhood, listening to the past through her bedroom wall, and feels the hands of her dead mother, and her dead husband, running through her hair and over her back, as she tries to face down a future without them.

I picked up this book, without knowing anything about it whatsoever, because last summer this advice column made my heart quicken. Sugar gives invariably difficult advice, but only because life is difficult, and to say that there is an easier way out of the mess of being human is sophist at best and flat out an insidious and life-negating lie at worst.

I was anticipating some heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose, bone clean and real. I was not disappointed.

This was the first piece of American fiction that’s pointedly Southern that I read this year. It’s hard to read work from the South because it seems like I can’t help but sort of tie the stories up with a bunch of non-related ideas I have, the free-floating concept, of the Southern US. Ideas about magnolias, and okra, and flies and, if we’re being honest, fried chicken and heat. And politics and oysters. These were, of course, not the underpinnings of this novel of love and loss.

The Optimist’s Daughter is a bit of a difficult book to pin down, without giving everything away. It’s organized into four books and each of them marks the days and interior life of Laurel in a very specific way that I think is sort of akin to the way that grief is made up of so many different components. The structure of the story compartmentalizes the events of the plot nicely, in that each book can detail a precise moment of being for Laurel. As each of the books comes to its end, the reader gets a little closer, Welty’s free indirect style becoming a little less free. Laurel’s father’s second wife Fay, similar to her only in age,  acts as a foil for the ways in which grief can be a selfish thing, neither woman knows what to make of the situation and they both do the best they can the only way they know how.

I was torn apart by Fay. She’s Texan, where as the other characters are Mississippian, and Fay is very much an outsider. Her brashness and vanity make for a strange bedfellow to Laurel’s methodical and thoughtful father. Laurel’s dad reads the classics and answers letters, having been both a Judge and the Mayor of Mount Salus. Fay obsesses over shoes, spills nail polish on uncluttered desks, opens walnuts with a hammer. Fay cries out loud, screams her discontents, and often says things like “why is this happening to me?”. Laurel is quiet, almost emptied out. The events of this book are so far removed from her daily life of textile design in Chicago that they almost slip away from her like a nightmares–she is not her self in her home town. Fay is always and only herself, and always on the look out with the paranoia of a megalomaniac; she is a permanent second wife that causes the other townsfolk to raise their eyebrows.

The trickiest and best thing that Welty does with the negotiations of these two women is to have Laurel set Fay up as a child, as a silly woman, to have her sweat with the attempt to withhold  the judgement she has already made, and by the time we get really close to Laurel we can see her own silliness, her own childishness, in her inability to let go of the world for an hour or twelve and really get into the mess of grief. When she does break down, it happens like life itself: beautiful and all at once.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores book cover, Bedside Table, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

After failing to rise to the challenge of Nightwood, I wanted to ease my soul with something sweet and familiar. Having read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work before, I figured that Memories of My Melancholy Whores would be the perfect story to soothe my ravaged nerves.  Which is not to say that this is a lesser book, by any means. In fact, it’s great. Edith Grossman’s translation renders highly readable prose that’s simple tone allows for the power of its content to accrue word by word until the very end, which is actually by and large yet another beginning.

Set in a small and nameless Colombian town, the modernization of which threatens to render the 90 year old narrator obsolete, or worse, a living artifact imbued with a sick-sweet nostalgia, this story unfolds in hot back rooms and sun soaked libraries. The basic plot is that a really old and broke but kind of famous writer/scholar falls in love with a sleeping child, a fourteen year old virgin that breathes quietly in a drugged, perspirant slumber.

It’s pretty gross. And very disturbing.

But the language is so smooth and fine that you can sort of be persuaded that something beautiful is going on. It’s kind of like Lolita, that way, where the main guy is actually a monster, but because it’s his story it’s relatively easy to miss this crucial point through the hypnotic retelling of a powerful but ultimately horrifying ‘love.’ A pleasure to read these words, to feel the torment of a man made young through love even as he stands on death’s narrow door step. But it’s certainly unpleasant to reflect on what this so-called love really is, on how the narrator admits to loving this child more as a memory than as a real person, with her own needs and desires in waking life.

This dissonance is the root of the magic of Marquez, I think. The eloquence and clarity with which this story is told make you really feel for this old man, with his body failing him and the condescension of flirtatious young women thinking that he’s harmless and impotent, and his burning asshole assailing him in pain when the moon is full, and living on in spite of death. And this same sense of empathy makes you almost ready to accept his abuse of power, this denial of love, as evidence of the great thing itself.  So it seems that language is a means of creating a dream, a story is a delusion and it can be beautiful, like love, or terrifying, like death. But in the end, all we have are stories. Memories.

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