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I felt like I wouldn’t really like this Aurelie Sheehan story, “Recognition”, in the latest dispatch from Guernica. But I did!

Reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it:

1. It’s literally compiled of false starts, which struck me as a little gimmicky before I read it.

2. It’s about a woman trying to get a fellowship so that she can write. And fiction about writers can sometimes be a little much. I’d actually never read a story expressly about trying to get a writing fellowship or grant, but I assumed I wouldn’t like it because, well, it’s a peculiarly and narrowly unglamorous premise.

3. I thought that because it referenced the process of applying for a fellowship it would be exclusionary and, um, MFA-y. Not that that’s so bad, but I’m very conflicted about the role of the MFA program, of academic models in general,  in literature. I’ll tell you about it some time.

Reasons I liked it a lot:

1. The gimmick dissolves under the surprising strength of the language Sheehan uses. There is an internal wavering, and near-repetitions in each of the false starts. These repeititive re-workings are a view on the conflict between the desire to create art and the need to have not only the art but your desire itself meet with recognition.

2. The core metaphor involves the book that the narrator wants to write, a fiction book full of novelistic and life like truth!, the one she needs the fellowship for, being actually a box. But it’s not that she’s actually engaging in conceptual writing, here, she’s not literally making a box, it’s not quite that formal. The narrator is obsessed with containing truth and life in words, boxing in details and experiences, and pinning down ephemera. She’s trying to figure out a structure for that could actually distill life into a solid  and knowable thing. The false starts really speak to the absurdity of this tortuous and necessary desire in the artist, in the writer, looking to get a little something to stay put on the page.

3. The last false start, where things kind of cohere for our narrator, is so lovely and rewarding after you’ve seen the wavering, the agony over form, the insecurities bound up in asking for money and time. While the whole thing is a successful short story, this is the part that gets close to our narrator’s purpoted aims, solidifying a feeling and a tone with words. Gorgeous.

***

You can read “Recognitions” here. I borrowed the photo above from Guernica, who in turn borrowed it from Flickr user Grievous Angel. I’m still working out how I wanna do images for the Thursday stories.

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Vanity Fair, U and I, The Books in my Life, Bookside TableFor the most part, I purchased all the books I read this year.  A few were from the library, and a couple were gifts. The rest I bought. When it comes to books, I find that I frequently buy more than I need, or put comfortably as a cliche: I quite often get more than I bargained for. Here are some notes on a few of the books I have purchased, but remain unread.

1. Vanity Fair, by W. M. Thackeray

I first read this “novel without a hero” as an early adolescent. I didn’t really get that you weren’t supposed to like Becky. I was super impressed by her ability to assess any situation,  and I liked her immediately because she’s just so damn smart.  To be honest, I think part of what I liked about her was that she had a sort of power over men. This appealed to me, as an awkward adolescent. Also, I am a product of perpetual financial precarity, and I empathized with her money hunger, having felt those pangs myself. It’s been a little more than a decade since I read Vanity Fair, and I don’t remember any details of the plot, or the ending, though I’m sure it’s ugly. That’s something I learned from re-reading Cakes and Ale, that I tend to remember beginnings more strongly, especially when it comes to books I read at the beginning of my rewarding reading career.  This is probably especially true when the first two thirds feature the characters in their youth. Basically, I want to figure out whatever became of my old friend Becky.

2. The Books in My Life, by Henry Miller

Around this time last year I took out James Wood’s How Fiction Works from the library. I read it in one sitting, and then a lot of different parts of it again, out loud to my partner. I was inspired to read more, and I really think that I wouldn’t have started this project if I hadn’t happened upon that book. I felt a renewed interest in both stories and language, and I knew that I could be a better reader, both in terms of quality and quantity. Wood had given me some tools, and lit a little fire. Not because I love the same books he does, but because I aspire to love the books that I do in the same way. When I saw The Books in My Life at Balfour Books, the first time I went into their new shop in the spring, it felt like fate. Here was an author who know how to love the dirty, the drunk and deranged writing about how he learned to love books! This would be exactly what I would need to guard against the return of that cold sense I’ve had in the past, that reader’s apathy or, worse ennui. I’m still keeping it for when I feel those first few symptoms come on.

3. U and I, by Nicholson Baker

After I read The Mezzanine, I wanted more Baker. I was gearing up to read this year’s release, House of Holes, but for some reason I never actually felt compelled to plunk down $30 on it. Every time I went to BookCity, since its release, I  would run my finger over it’s glossy jacket, and open ‘er up at random and dip in for a bit. But I just never walked it up to the ’till. I did however, ask them to order in U and I. Because for a while I was obsessed with How Should A Person Be?.  I still am. But it was unhealthy. I would follow Sheila Heti around the internet, and I would try to go places that would invite scenes and phrases from HSAPB into my head. I took the book to the bar, by myself, practically on dates. We would sit together, me and this book, and I would swim around and pull up sentence after sentence for my note book and try to make a new world out the one Heti made. I would get angry when I read less than glowing reviews, even when they were sound and pointed out what I considered forgivable flaws in an otherwise perfect work. I was a mess, and I thought that Nicholson Baker would be able to help, because he seems to have gone through a similarly traumatic (and equally one sided) relationship with Updike. But then I read a few more books and the suffocating feeling passed. And then I went to the book launch for The Chairs are Where the People Go and saw Heti in person, and felt ashamed of the squalid (but let me reiterate: one sided) intimacy I forced upon her. And then I heard her on the radio, talking about how her friends and her all agreed that the book is smarter than she is, because she spent five years working on making it the best it could be, and she would never spend five years on just walking around, talking to people, like a normal person, and I felt a little better about the whole thing. I’m still looking forward to reading U and I, especially because now I can probably actually read it instead of mining it for solutions to my problem.

I’m of two minds when it comes to Tao Lin’s Shoplifting From American Apparel:

1. Lin’s doing something here, but it may be hard to recognize exactly what he’s doing because it feels like it comes from a realist, even documentary, place. Which is something I think I only recognize because he’s documenting what it’s like to be a twenty-something artfuck in a big city, right this minute in history. In the opening scene, Sam is talking on Google chat with what I call an ‘Internet friend.’ This is a person he’s met with in real life, but it wasn’t easy and fluid in an F2F context; they barely talked IRL. But online, they can take great leaps of intimacy, make easy jokes, and have a private friendship where they can talk about anything. At the tail end of the story, Sam encounters another person that he knows from the nebulous online world, and the time they spend together is a mirror for that first digitized interaction. Sam is motivated by a particular eros, a constant desire to come together with others in the hope that something will happen, and his brief stints in police custody (for shoplifting) are incredible by dint of the fact that these experiences are so easily adapted into his life of aimless coming together. It’s as if the men he sits in a cell with are almost (but not quite) objects or props in the perpetual performance that Lin is both observing and creating. The way that Lin refuses to give the reader a sense of depth to Sam and his nearly interchangeable cast of friends and acquaintances is nothing short of phenomenal. This is a story that takes place completely on the surface, where meanings are interchangeable. Drinking iced coffee in the sun is pleasurable, but empty, just like the community service that Sam is sentenced to after his first arrest is something that passes the time, but there is no take away lesson and Sam shoplifts again, is arrested again. This total lack of a sticking quality, this slickness of being and experiencing the world is something that resonates deeply with me, and I can recognize in myself and my circle of friends. You can just say almost any fucked up shit for the sake of it:

“Luis,” said Sam. “What is happening. It’s Saturday.”

“I think we are going insane,” said Luis. “From not being around people. We are starting to go inside ourselves, and play around inside of our own mental illness. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What should I eat,” said Sam. “I have two choices. Cereal or peanut butter bagel.”

“Cereal,” said Luis.

And it might not matter. Even when Sam’s one time lover Sheila ends up in psychiatric care, it’s just another borderline meaningless thing. The characters often (and I do this too!) verbalize their feelings, especially if the feelings are positive. They say “I feel good.” Or, “I’m feeling really good right now.” As if the feelings themselves are noteworthy, more so than the circumstances that enable those good feelings. Or maybe it’s in part a reaction to the strange intimacies of text based friendships. Either way, it’s both chilling and strangely vindicating to see this aspect of my life presented [without comment] on the page.

2. But does this strange fealty to life, young and shallow artfucky commodified and digitized life, mean that a book like this is a good one? I haven’t read Lin’s other novel, or his poetry, but I like parts of his older blog Reader of Depressing Books. But I hope that Lin’s other books are nothing like this one, in shape or content. Because I would hate to think that there is more than one of these out there, more than one shallow and repetitive (real!) meaningless story about a person who has awkward and vague romantic or sexual relationships, wandering about in parks and libraries day after endless day, thinking about either being FUBAR or absolutely nothing. In a weird way, Shoplifting From American Apparel is one of the best books I’ve read this year because it’s making me think really hard about why I don’t like it. I’ve read it twice, trying to figure these things out. I’m resistant to the idea that art should be basically meaningless and unaffecting, even if some parts of life are, or come to be seen that way. I want this book to be the only one like it in the world, in all of history, because by virtue of that watery singularity, I can manipulate my understanding of what Lin is doing here into something that coheres into significance, and then do the same with all of the aimless and subjectless G-chats and park coffees that have made up so much of my life. But that would be a lie on both accounts. Lin is like the antithesis of the big young 1990s writers, the anti Franzen, the anti Wallace; there is no reaching for depth, no human virtue glinting under the sharp light of meaning saturated prose, nothing sacred to worship or terribly trying to overcome. Things are just things, the world of experience is permeated with a knowing and ultimately neutral vagueness, and we endlessly repeat ourselves, without comment. So maybe the reason I didn’t like it is just that this isn’t the present I wanted back when it was the future. I’d hoped for so much more.

I’m almost there. Three quarters of the way to having read and written about 50 books this year. Where did the time go?

Instead of updating the top 5, like I have for previous milestones, I decided to acquiesce to my pal Janice‘s request that I list the books I’m most looking forward to re-reading, once this project is through. As you know, ranking books is not my strong suit. Like the liberal arts narcissist I went to university to become, I always want to reflect backwards from the text itself, and give primacy to my experiences reading the book. After all, that’s what I know the most about. But because this is a reflexive practice, reconstituted by remembering and rereading and rewriting, my thoughts about each of the books listed below are subject to change.

In no particular order, the 5 books I’m really looking forward to re-reading:

5. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

I got a lot out of this one the first time around, but something about it tore me up. Even as I was reading it I was doing that childish thing where I was fantasizing about having already read through it once, so that I could spend more energy on really seeing the prose rather than desperately trying to make the events described cohere into something solid enough to hold on to. I want to go back and get to know Jenny and The Doctor a lot better in particular. From what I remember, there was a lot of strange beauty in the images that Barnes used to evoke her characters, but Jenny and the Doctor were so slippery, never quite settling into their similes, dodging metaphors left and right. I’m really looking forward to going back into Nightwood to try to parse them out.

4. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

I really fell in love with Nanapush, one of the novel’s narrators. I want to visit him again. Erdrich’s use of language is stunningly effective, though never ostentatious,  and I feel like I need to have her voice in my head. I think this will be the first one I re-read, actually, because it’s a wonderful winter book, so full of small rooms and snow.

3. Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a re-read, as I’m planning to read a different translation. The Lydia Davis translation made for a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see what Elenore Marx can do for the text. The thing about Flaubert in general, or so I’ve read, is that he was apparently obsessive over his use of the French language in his writing, and he himself thought that to read in translation was pointless, that the loss of value was far too great. I obviously do not hold this view. Literature requires the cross pollination that translation allows for. That said, it is probably my secret hope that by reading and comparing the different translations of this book I’ll be able to make a mental composite, to average the readings, into some kernel of authentic Flaubert. Turns out  I believe many contradictory things about literature.

2. The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Obituary is a story that braids many different threads together. There are different perspectives, different histories, continuously displacing one another, and I’d like to go back into it and see what new strands I can pick out. Also, Gail Scott’s playful and experimental use of language is just really exciting! She uses sound and allusion and strange little tricks with letters, and there is a lot of formal innovation going on. I think that Scott and  César Aira are two of the most exhilarating writers I’ve read, and not just this year.  I want to keep being exhilarated.

1. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields.

There’s something about David Shields. Even if you’re not all about his collage manifesto, the man is really really good at what he does. The Thing About Life, which came out before his much discussed Reality Hunger, is partially a collage work, using textbook biology and the many ruminations on mortality that float in the historical ether. But what’s so strange about his method is this: Shields himself is a brilliant sentence maker! Using other peoples words, even advocating free play with plagiarism, okay sure, I see how that’s transformative and just plain cool. But the man can lay it down on his own!  Some anecdotal evidence: My partner and I sometimes play this game where we grab a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence or paragraph out loud. Sometimes we get each other to guess if it’s an ending line, or who the author is. He grabbed Enough About You and read a single sentence of maybe 25 words. Not only did I know it was Shields immediately, but the sentence itself was a tight little story all on it’s own. In fact, Shields may be too polished, too damn good, to read only once. His little book machines are so well constructed that they seem magical, and I think you need to keep coming back to really see just how much is going on underneath the hood.

I can’t believe it. I’m already half way through the 50 books I promised myself I would read this year.

I wish I could say that it’s been all pleasure, but it hasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been happy to dance and wrestle with almost everything I’ve read. And picking the number 50 was a great way for me to really commit to communing with my sense of myself as a reader, first and foremost. This has been a really wonderful gift, this sense of reconnection with a misplaced piece of who I am, wrapped up so often in the everydayness of life.

It’s just that… here, at the halfway mark, I wish I had allowed myself some more time with some of these books. I also want to re-read, which is one of my greatest pleasures. Perhaps this is a problem with setting down a number, and therefore establishing  a pace and routine. Reading, for me, is a form of love, and love  should never be routinized.

But don’t worry, I’m not giving up on my goal.  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I’m excited for the next few books, and for what treasures may yet reveal themselves, entering into the second half of the year.

Updated Top 5, in no particular order:

5. Ghosts, by César Aira

4.Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

3. The Obiturary, by Gail Scott

2. How Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

1. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Again, I’m not very good at making lists like these, because I can barely stand to see this list without thinking about how great all of the books I’ve read that aren’t on it are. Like, for example, Fortress of Solitude, The MysteryGuest, A Gate at the Stairs, and The Mezzanine. There is an overabundance of books, and I am a very lucky lady to have had mostly good ones– and some great ones!– for Bookside Table.

Bedside Table Books To Date

I’ve read 13 books so far this year, which is slightly more than 1/4 of the way to the 50 I’ve set as my resolution. I wanted to take a little minute here to go over some observations about what I’ve read so far:

  • five outta thirteen are authored by women, and maybe a half, if you count Lydia Davis’ translation of Madame Bovary.
  • Four of these are translated books: Three from French, one from Italian. None of the translated works were originally written by women.
  • Four of these books are autobiographical or memoir, as opposed to novels.  I think it’s fair to count How Should A Person Be? in this category.
  • Three, actually call it three and a half,  of these include main plots or subplots that feature characters dealing with their own identities as Jews  in American, Canadian, and European contexts. (The half refers to Tassie Keltjin’s fascination with her Jewish mother and goyish secular father in A Gate at the Stairs.)
  • Of the thirteen books, I only read two that I wouldn’t gladly read again (American Pastoral and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist).
  • One of these books was about the reproductive system of a dog.

My top five so far, in order of first remembrance:

1. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

2. How Should A Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

3.The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Boullier

4. The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

5. Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi

Although honestly I really want to put Madame Bovary and A Gate at the Stairs, and To the Lighthouse and My Dog Tulip on that list. I guess that’s ’cause I’m not really one for playing favorites. Plus, I’ve been lucky enough to have chosen, for the most part, pretty damn good books so far.

I’m always on the lookout for good books.

If you’ve got any rad recomendations, drop me a line in the comments, or even send me an e-mail at see.emily.read[at]gmail.com.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.

Technically, I’d only read one of Philip Roth’s books before, The Breast, but I somewhat charitably decided that it didn’t really count.  So American Pastoral was the first one, then. And it was great. And it was also not so great.American Pastoral book cover


What I liked:

i. Prose that felt legitimately tied to the story

Y’know how sometimes, in , say, Delillo, or Ondaatje, there are these completely beautiful little aphorisms, fantastic constructions that illuminate the world, open it up, and that are beautiful on the page. American Pastoral had a few of its own, but rather than flying out of the story they were carefully and subtly embedded in the fabric of the life of the famous protagonist, of The Swede.

ii. Work, as a subject and as a way of life

I loved how this was a novel about, in many respects, work. How the characters have occupations, and how Roth lovingly renders the business of making gloves, or raising cattle. How the joy of doing is one that shapes each character. Especially Dawn, who’s resume complicates her ability to relate to the world and to understand herself. I think this is one of the huge discrepancies between the ‘Old boy’ era of Roth (and Updike etc.), and our contemporary MFA-driven literary world. It seems like newer books are entirely psychological and emotional, that characters are writers or artists or academics, that characters think more than do. Or maybe my working class roots are showing a little here. But still, I enjoyed the way that Roth handled the business of business in rounding out this work.

iii. The remove

The book is a book within a book. So, yeah, this is technically marginally about a writer. But it works here.  The first of the three sections sets the story up as a bit of a Tale, and Nathan Zuckerburg is our handily unreliable narrator. From what I understand, Zuckerburg authors lots of books within books by Philip Roth. Anyway, I think it really worked here, because so much of the novel’s thematic content, political violence, the dissolution of American values, the diffusion and dilution of religious, especially Jewish, values, has already been thoroughly mass-mediated. The key events in the novel are situated in the late1960s, and the book was published in the late 1990s, so Roth knew that he had to somehow make it new.  Putting Zuckerburg between the story and Roth, or between The Swede and the reader, changes the dynamic in a very pleasurable, if sometimes frustrating way.

What I didn’t:

i. The misogyny

I know that Roth is a writer from “that generation” and that he wrote a book about a man who wakes up as a walking human milk sac, but still. This won the Pulitzer prize! How is it that every female character in the novel becomes emotionally stunted, a cold bitch, a pathetic alcoholic, or a soft spoken wife? Though there were some particularly sexist snippets of dialogue in the beginning, the ending reminds the reader that women are always the source of pain for men, that even gloriously goyish–American!–, manly men like the Swede are broken down by the follies of females.

ii. The ending

The last section of this book takes the form of a tragedy of manners, and what bubbles up in the characters during a dinner party doesn’t match really with the beauty and pain that came before. The structure of the end feels somehow misaligned to the form of the rest of the story, and the last thirty pages are particularly sluggish. There is also no return to Zuckerburg, no symmetry in the denouement, and the lackluster finale didn’t leave me so emotional or heartbroken that I forgot about him. In fact, I wanted to read his afterword, to give the ending a second chance! To be honest, the ending was a big, really big, letdown. I think it was kinda like Roth’s prose had carried the book so far, but then by the end the whole thing sort of caved in on itself. Like a faux leather bag that starts to peel on the way home from the store.