Archives for category: Reflections

Van Gogh's Bad Cafe, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe is an unusually beautiful novel, built on the fault lines between worship and addiction, artist and muse. Yet despite the immediate intrigue associated with these themes, Frederic Tuten has taken time itself as his primary obsession in this work. And why wouldn’t he? The narrative form of the novel is the perfect tool for experimenting with time; events described therein are pulled along by the knotted rope of plot, and the reader can momentarily occupy a noumenal rather than physical time, collapsing space and time into a single and dynamic entity.

Tuten skillfully engages this possibility, and gently, brilliantly, manages to separate time from history. Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe tells the story of a woman caught between two lovers, who are themselves a century apart. Ursula is a photographer with a morphine addiction, trying desperately to capture the fleeting formal beauty of light bursting through space. She has her first lover, Vincent Van Gogh, haul her heavy plate camera into the fields where she hopes to trap the miracle on paper, catch it like a child would a lightning bug. Her second lover, an artist in 1990’s New York named Louis, equips her with a Diana and a Leica, and she breaks out on her own to try to intercept the east river’s rally with the fading day light. In addition to her ability to travel forward a hundred years, or perhaps because of it, Ursula is also fascinated with plugging up time, she has the addict’s peculiar ability to speed up time by slowing herself down, to literally kill time by entering a magic stupor, the warm blooded sleep of opiates slowing her blood and eating through the hours.

Ursula covers her ultra feminine body in the 1880’s by occasionally dressing in menswear, and carrying a revolver around to shut up guff givers as she runs into them. In the 1990’s, she transgresses gendered boundaries by shaving her hair, donning docs, getting pierced and reading Sylvia Plath. She eventually turns away from photography in order to make her body her primary mode of expression, and rather than escaping the women’s ghetto of the muse she becomes imprisoned by temporality. Her flesh will rot, her ideas shouted however loud will go unrecorded, and though she traveled through a century in her body she can never undo time, she can never reach forward with the miracle of light caught on paper.

Tuten’s prose is sensuous and lyrical, and this love story between art and time is charged with eros as it moves through the ages. Eric Fischl’s visual contribution of several eerie and diluted sketches offer so many small islands in the sea of yearning that makes up Van Gogh’s Bad Cafe.

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Should you be lucky enough to find yourself in NYC on December 4th, you might enjoy a marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s astounding first novel, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, hosted by The New Inquiry and BOMB Magazine in celebration of New Directions Publishing’s 75th anniversary. Click here to RSVP.

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Chilly Scenes of Winter Book Cover, Emily M Keeler, Bookside Table

Chilly Scenes of Winter was not exactly funny. In fact, it was one of the rare books that made me think to myself, gee, what would happen if I read something that wasn’t totally depressing, for a change? My mom is constantly complaining that things are too dark here on Bookside Table, and this was the first book that really made me consider her position.

Which is not to say that Ann Beattie’s prose is dismal, or that her characters are humorless and unlovable. In fact, just the opposite; Charles and his friend Sam are riddled with the good kinds of flaws. They’re dynamic and Beattie paints their portraits with real verve and no small measure of skill. They are in that strange post college funk, where they’re technically adults but they feel unsure and unhinged in a world where the term no longer has a clear meaning. So much of Chilly Scenes is about the accumulation of the micro disappointments and disillusionment that come with growing up. Charles’ mother is mentally unstable, his stepfather is over-invested in a fantasy life, the older man that Charles and Sam meet at the local watering hole is an alcoholic well past the point of functioning, and love consistently proves easier in theory than in practice as these young men try to move forward without ever catching their bearings. The book is set in the mid 1970s, and the characters are almost all at a loss for how they can ever truly grow up, how they could possibly move on from the mayday of the ’60s.

Througout Chilly Scenes of Winter there is an incredible tension between the roles of fantasy and intimacy in relationships and in love. Charles pines for his ex, feels alienated from his sister, and relies on his best friend for the quotidian comforts of loving companionship. He imagines his ex in a big kitchen, fixating on A frame housing, imagines a bright but loveless future for his sister, and tends to the intimate work of caring for Sam when he loses his job, his apartment, and his dog. Beattie’s use of language seems calm on the surface but, just like her characters, has a deep and anxious pulse .The dialog still feels fresh, 30 years on, and there is a strange whimsy and exhilaration even in the most desperate scenes. “Charles sat up and sat cross-legged in the back seat, looking out the back window at the highway. He was so tired that he was giddy; he thought about waving to oncoming cars, seeing if they’d mistake him for a kid or think he was retarded and wave back. But he was too tired to play games.” And there it is! The incremental build up of so many small sadnesses, littered throughout this break-out novel, born on the back of repetition and blossoming into pervasive ennui. And let me tell ya, it gets to you alright.

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.

Before You Suffocate Your Oxwn Fool Self book cover, Bookside Table, EMK Keeler

“It’s called love, shithead. You hurt people and then you make it better.”

Danielle Evans’ stories, collected here in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, are about families, both the ones you choose and the ones that have, through the mechanisms of fate, chosen you. They are about people, mostly young, smart, black women, who experiment with boundaries, loyalties, and the process of growing up.

Evans uses either a very close indirect or first person voice, and though there is a lot of variety in the characters that populate this collection, her prose and characterization are consistently engaging. Though many of these pieces tackle dense and emotional themes (“Snakes” explores racism in a mixed race family, “Harvest” is a small and revelatory revolt against a system that privileges the desire for white babies over black ones, “Robet E. Lee is Dead” describes the complicated relationship that young, black, middle class southerners have with histories of place), Evans’ powerful and compelling style almost always handles these potentially disablingly deep fissures with a gentle touch; these stories are first and foremost works of art, and while their setting and subject matter are charged they are not the faux literature of the crusade.

Besides, just as the title (taken from a poem about being in the middle, about being black in a white world, by Donna Kate Rushin) suggests, for the most part these characters, facing very different struggles, have a tendency to obstruct their own paths. Each story seems to grow out of a pivotal moment, a man returning from military service, a teenager losing her virginity, a college freshman trying to decide whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,  and Evans’ subtle and detailed prose is a near-perfect conduit for these momentary tensions that stretch out and shape the lives of these characters. At its heart Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is made up of a dogged and anxious love;  a love for a future that can never quite deliver you out of your past.

“I watched my feet as though they belonged to someone else. I looked up at the sky, feeling grown and full of something sad and aching to be known.”

The Lover book cover, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

The Lover is a small book composed of what initially appear to be almost fragmentary recollections and miniature story scenes, but the overall effect results in a dazzling love story. In this translation, ably provided by Barbara Bray, Marguerite Duras weaves together a variety of tenses, voices,  and points of view to piece together a shifty portrait of the way that memory creates distance just as it recreates intimacies.

The story seems to begin with a simple enough narrative goal: an old woman addresses the reader and begins to describe an important event in her life, her first love. At first, Duras interweaves changes in voice, tempo and tense with a deft, barely noticeable subtlety, but by the middle of the novel, the height of the reverie, these changes are rapid and wildly intense, mirroring the trauma and overwhelming delight of her adolescent love affair with a much older man. The story is set in Saigon (Vietnam), during the French occupation. The nameless heroine, reportedly modeled on Duras herself, is a poor fifteen year old French girl stranded with her mother and two brothers after her family makes a bad investment in the wake of her father’s death.  The lover is a man of nearly thirty, a Chinese millionaire who is overwhelmed by the forbidden desire he feels for the young woman. Their relations are, of course, complex, and often incredibly steamy. They celebrate each other, bodies coming together in private, and their secret pleasures become wrapped up in the violence of the time and of the young woman’s heartbreaking home life. Of course, there is for each of them no small measure of shame: she is so young, he’s from another, wealthier world, and miscegenation was, of course, extremely out of fashion at the time. And yet. And yet Duras pokes holes in her own memories, recalls and recoils from a painful past, destabilizes the experience,  and allows that first love to continue to grow even well past its functional end.

Emily M Keeler, Super Sad True Love Story, Bookside TableSuper Sad True Love Story was one of those rare books that entered my life at the absolutely optimal time. It’s made maximum impact on how I’ll remember the way the world looks right now.  Gary Shteyngart’s  satirical dystopia, published only last year, is terrifying in its acute diagnoses of a consumerist-nihilistic-techno-fascist future. It’s also a joy to read, for Shteyngart’s hilarious bubble-bursting and total mastery of this apocalyptic post-American prose landscape.

While I don’t want to rob you of the joy of discovering the details that Shteyngart invents, I have to tell you that this novel is exceptional for the pulsating pleasure that goes into them. One detail that tickled my cynical fancy was one character’s university degree; she majored in Images with a minor in Assertiveness.

Excellent books, films, and songs, take you to a new place, or a new vantage point for seeing a place you know well. Art, for me, is an invitation to freshen up your perceptive sensibilities, and it is exhilarating to bear witness to the incredible and deliberate delight that has gone into creating this space of the new. Because Super Sad True Love Story takes place ever so slightly in the future, Shteyngart has created an entire cultural lexicon that is etymologically related to our fractured present. The new words he coins are recognizable splinters from current linguistic turns. Everything is a stark acronym, an erogenous zone  objectified, everything an instance of synecdoche, flattened and reappropriated nouns.  Language recedes from  its voluptuary qualities, becomes a set of modular components, and loses so much weight to fit into a mediated world where windows only open for the extremely rich, absurdly young, and morbidly thin.

There is no space in this world, in this future, for the 99%. One plot point of Super Sad True Love Story includes an occupation of central park by what, in Shteyngart’s nightmare, are called “Low Net Worth Individuals.”  These people have been left behind by the banks and the state, by the perpetually advancing technorati of the profit hoarding private sector. They are in every way malnourished, and they live in central park, demonstrating their refusal to be erased in a world that refuses them basic rights. So they do the only thing they can: They take up space; they refuse relocation; they organize.

Obviously, this scenario has now leaped off the page. And unlike Shteyngart’s uproarious take down of the nightmare future we’ve all implicitly set our sights on, the demonstrations taking place on Wall Street, and in solidarity the world over, are absolutely real. They represent an eruption in the smooth and shallow surface of the American dream. In Shteyngart’s work, the demonstrations only cease once America is literally dismantled for parts and sold off to the countries that form a new financial reign, a new world order. In the waking world, where we currently find ourselves, there is precious little evidence that the end will be so neat, simple, or swift.

The Odious Child book cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

These stories are dark. Some of them are shot through with the surreal, and all of them operate in a space of intensely self-aware psychic intimacy. Maybe self-aware is the wrong choice of word, or it’s only the right choice if we’re using it in a layered way, for the self, and awareness of the same, is presented in a layered triplicate in The Odious Child. There is a sense of Carolyn Black’s self awareness, her ability to know when to recede into the shadows of the text and when to present a full face to the world, when to provide you with the shimmer of her mindful prose and when to leave a thought unhinged or unsigned. There are the almost oppressively self-aware characters that populate these eleven stories, each of them demonstrating a strange metacognition that distances them just enough from their experiences to let you come right into the middle distance between their thoughts and their circumstances. And of course, there is the expectation that you gradually bring your own awareness, indeed your own self, into the fray. Because so many of these stores, “Serial Love”, “At the World’s End, Falling Off”, “Martin Amis is in My Bed”, for starters, are about women who spend their days collapsing things into words,  the book invites you to try and untangle experience from language.

And good luck with that. Black’s prose is sometimes spare, cerebral, and cool overall. But there is real warmth in these stories. Her work here reminded me of Sheila Heti and AM Holmes, with her ability to craft these bracing urban fables. But don’t get me wrong, Black’s voice is distinct; there is a great deal of wonderment and an empathetic sense of curiosity about the people at play in these stories. “Tall Girls”, about a man who is in the process of learning what it feels like to imagine something, to fantasize, reads like a celebration of the mystery of the mind, creepy and jubilant in equal parts. The titular story, about a woman who is so distraught and shamed by her beastly child that she fails to notice that her neighborhood is in the middle of either a massacre or an uprising, is striking in its elegance and distressing by virtue of its social prescience.

The collection is strong overall, and the stories sit well together, forming a quilted pattern of the alienation and anxiety of urban life. The Odious Child is an alluring portrait of the magic of the mind to twist and tense under the conditioning of a fractured city. Black’s work here evinces the kind of spirited control that gets my gears turning, and her ability to zero in on details, the myriad tiny fragments of thought and life, ensure that in me she has enchanted a perpetually devoted reader.

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.

33 1/2 series, Let's Talk About Love Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

Taste is a tricky thing. There is a shifting hierarchy of preferences for each player in pursuit of taste, which ideally develops as a process of greater and greater pleasure. But then again, sometimes the things we take pleasure in are in poor taste. In Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson succinctly boils down part of the problem with taste: if ‘good’ taste is an elevated ideal (especially one reached dialectically), then very few people can have it, because good taste would have to be practiced and developed. Good taste requires a specific means of access, the structural and personal resources needed to educate oneself about the markers of aesthetic quality, and the opportunity to try a little bit of everything in order to create an evaluative schema. This is, plainly, not fair. Also, it’s inaccurate. Especially this late in the game of culture, and of cultural studies. But let me back track a bit: what the fuck is taste? And, in development of Wilson’s project, is there an end to it?

Taste is a means of experiencing the world. The word is sensory in nature, but even in it’s etymological origin story the word confers critical evaluation: based on the Old French taster, the Middle English verb tasten means to touch, taste, or test. To develop a sense of taste is to test the quality of whatever it is you are tasting. Wilson is quick to point out that we all have our own subjective “taste biographies” and throughout Let’s Talk About Love, he gives the reader a clue into his own; as a 14 year old living in a mostly white industrial town he hated disco, and later learned to rock his adult body to the glittering beats in Montreal. Our abilities to test for preference are shaped by our social environments, sure. That personal taste is subjective is not exactly a novel idea. We like what we like for myriad reasons, but mostly, I would hope, because what we like is an avenue for pleasure.

However, because what we like is shaped by our experiences, it’s easy to mistake a basic familiarity with a person’s ‘taste biography’ for knowing about the kind of experiences they may have had, and then that for the person they themselves may be. Taste, then, provides a handy metric for measuring other people’s compatibility with ourselves, and each other. But it also works the other way around too. I, for one, have learned to like things, first in the posture of enjoyment, then sometimes the real thing, to negotiate access to a group or person. Don’t tell me you’ve never once been overgenerous in your estimation of some cultural artifact if it meant getting laid, or getting the job. Sometimes, the degree to which you like the person makes you like the thing they like, even if it doesn’t rate well according to your taste rubric; sometimes love or infatuation can obliterate that rubric all together. Taste is an identity marker, and we use it to gauge and manipulate ourselves and others.

But Let’s Talk About Love is not a ‘taste biography’, an index of identity culled from the matrix of pop culture; Wilson’s project is much more subtle, and for my money, much more interesting. Two important things to note: 1.Wilson is a professional music critic. 2. While taste may be social, criticism, taste’s highfalutin’ cousin, is historical.

To the extent that critics can engage in the validation of taste, they are bound in their abilities to shape the future by the time in which they work. Some songs, some albums, are released and go unappreciated until the right critic, attuned to the temperament of culture, can revive them, or restore them, to relevance. Wilson gives the example of disco and metal, as genres, and their rebirth as legitimate markers of cultured taste after their hey day had come and gone. With the passage of enough time, the cannon can be reevaluated, so “The Monkees are now as critically respectable as Jimi Hendrix.”

After giving a brief overview of rockism’s critically anti-pop orientation, and citing a few examples of reflexive, reclaimatory turns in the history of western music, Wilson ends up with some ponderous questions about the effect of this ‘second thought’ criticism: “If critics were wrong about disco in the 1970s, why not about Brittany Spears now?”

Let’s Talk About Love is an exercise in a new form of music criticism, one that evaluates the place of an album in the larger cultural sphere but also situates those songs within the critics’ own taste biography. Wilson includes one chapter that reads as a straight up review, a longer piece that functions to critically engage the tone and texture of an important, though critically unsatisfying album. His review is standard, well written, relatively nuanced, and evocative of the sound a listener might expect. But the rest of Wilson’s work with this project evinces that this is not enough. This late in the game, you can hear a sample of any album on iTunes, you can read read your friends yea/nay response to any song on Face Book, or you can read a blog post to get the jist. Wilson recognizes the democratization of criticism, and rather than rail against the tide, he posits a potential path for the future: one where the professional critic may look beyond the canonization of their own taste biography. This book is a celebration of taste’s peculiarities, of the democratic forest of love and pleasure: “Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.” Wilson, in the end, is afforded an opportunity to connect to something outside of his taste, and so also outside of himself. This work of new criticism tells us about more than just an album, more than just a song… It invites us to acknowledge that our tastes, personally and culturally, go beyond the qualities you can test for. They run deep enough to tell us a little more about ourselves, and about the other side too.

Not Becoming My Mother Book Cover, EM Keeler, Balfour Books, Bookside Table

With Not Becoming My Mother, Ruth Riechl exonerates her mother Miriam from the narrow caricature of the charmingly embarrassing anecdotes that survived her. Because I had the pleasure of reading one of Reichl’s other memoirs, Tender at the Bone, a few years ago (when Gourmet sadly folded), I was already familiar with this narrow Mirriam. TATB opens with the story of how Miriam, loved more dearly as ‘Mim,’ accidentally poisoned the guests of her son’s engagement party with her, um, ‘creative’ approach to cooking with food past its prime.

In NBMM, Reichl looks to the record that her mother has kept of her own life, her letters and diary entries, to make sense of their relationship. Like many women of her generation and social station, Miriam felt overwhelmingly restricted; her world was too small for her, stuck at home while she longed to participate in a larger sphere.  She was hopelessly inept at domesticity, a legendarily terrible cook, horrible housekeeper, and well meaning but irregular at childrearing.  Well Reichl’s other work pokes gentle fun at Mim’s shortcomings, this small volume looks more closely, ultimately allowing Reichl to come to terms with never having known the fullness of her mother’s life.

Like David Shields’ The Thing About Life, NBMM  seems to come out of a place of simultaneous love and rage; we love our  parents–they gave us life!, and we rage and we rage… because they could’ve given us more. Reichl begins with an astounding speech where she expresses some regret for characterizing her mother in such an unflattering light in her previous work, and moves on almost immediately to Miriam’s own words and letters. Reichl is shocked by how unfamiliar the young Miriam is, how her mother as a young girl had seemed so different, so plainly nice, always accommodating to her own parents. There is real delight in seeing Reichl process her own pain through the small discoveries. The book is overall a very personal, though beautiful, meditation on the emotional torture of growing up for each of these women: Miriam’s freedom controlled by her parents, then by the social expectation that she marry and settle down, and Ruth’s distress at being raised by a wonderful, though terrifically unfit, mother.

I’ll refrain from spoiling it for you, but let me just say that NBMM is a short book that fails to resolve itself completely. Its brevity in no way relates to its devastating impact. I read these 100 pages in one sitting, at a Pizza shop on Bloor, tears streaming onto the greasy counter. And I would do it again. Reichl has written a sweet study of her origin, of her mother, and though the end result is painful, the book itself is nothing if not nourishing.