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Susan Minot’s “Lust” is about sex.  It’s made up of short paragraphs that get just a little longer, describing the intimacies  with various very young men one very young woman experiences at boarding school. And the way she comes to feel about giving herself over, “surrendering” to sex and the men she’s having it with.

In part because of the shortness of the paragraphs, and that there are a lot of different men in this story, individuated from each other  only through single actions, features, little collapsible moments, “Lust” feels very fragmentary. And also very personal. Minot’s prose is deadly in it’s clarity, there’s no poetry here to distance you from her subject. In fact, she brings you as close as possible, executing a perfect and barely perceptible transition from the first to the second person somewhere in the middle of the story. It becomes all but impossible not to recognize your history in that of the unnamed narrator towards the end.

I think that this subtle switch in voice, this mingling of histories (yours and hers), is one of the main sources of the power this story had over me. It was impossible not to think backwards, about the sex I had as a teenager, about discovering this thing “that felt like a relief at first until it became like sinking into a muck.”

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This story was kindly sent to me by Nick Moran,  my co-captain over at millionsmillions.

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AM Homes’s  “A Real Doll”  is powerful, playful, and a little dark. This might be the story I’ve re-read the most in my life, because it’s the best piece of writing I’ve ever read on burgeoning adolescent sexuality, the dangerously rigid confines of commercially defined gender binaryism, the exciting wilderness of negotiation during those first few tentative steps toward sexual relationships, and the way that the mediated cliches of love and attraction make it difficult to feel the things you want to feel.

The story unfolds in the voice of an unnamed young man, who falls into something that seems to approximate love with his younger sister’s barbie doll. Homes’s prose is engaging and funny, and the story of this  boy-on-Barbie fling is totally captivating for it’s sheer fuckedupitude. But it’s tricky, because it’s not actually shocking, that a person would confuse plastic for the pleasure of the flesh.  Sex is one of the only arenas of adult life that allows for real play, for trying on stories and identities and tying your imagination to your body. Because Homes’s narrator is right on the cusp of adulthood the posturing he does is a little more anxiously free, outside of the implied boundaries of the adult world between the bedroom  and everywhere else. His footing is made even more unsure by the socially constructed world of desire, of men and women and boys and girls, and of course that his feelings are wrapped up in a literalness of the phrase ‘object of his desire.’

“A Real Doll” is so full of detail and expertly used syntactical contradiction that I feel a bit guilty for talking about the themes of this one instead of just gushing over the humour and dark warmth of Homes’s craft in this story. It’s a blessing and a curse that this story is so good because I just want to keep reading it over and over.

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You can read “A Real Doll” in the Barcelona Review here.

Photograph borrowed from the Flickr account of Keven Fredirko.

Emily M Keeler , Bookside Table, The Paris Review

Clarice Lispector’s “A Story of Great Love,” translated here from Portuguese by Rachel Klein, is about a young girl who loves chickens. It’s about love as an obsessive and one-sided thing.

This very short story describes the relationship that a young girl develops with two hens, how they sustain her and give meaning to her life, how she smells beneath their wings to see if they are sick, and how her love for the birds is bigger than what she can possibly know about them: “The girl did not yet understand that it’s impossible to cure humans of being humans and hens of being hens, insofar as a human, like a hen, has miseries and splendors (the hen’s consist of laying a perfectly shaped white egg) inherent to its species.” It’s a lonely thing, this early and deluded love, and when it comes time for her family to eat one of these chickens the girl rages at her father for liking the taste of chicken flesh. Her mother makes it a little better by telling her how eating the hen is a way for humans to show respect, even love, for the animal. By making it a part of your body, you elevate the loved one, you commune with it when you take it inside you.

That this piece of advice comes toward the end of the story, and as something handed down from mother to daughter makes strange the power of feminine love. The hens are incapable of loving the girl, of loving in any human manner, and so the feeling can only ever rest with the girl; the ability to literally incorporate the body of her loved one into her own, to love with a bodily and an emotional interiority constitutes the height of this early suffering, this early love. The point Lispector may be grinding here is the loneliness, the solipsism and consumption, of that feeling that occasionally destroys us. Love.

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This story is one of two that appeared in this Winter’s Paris Review. The other one, “One Hundred Years of Forgiveness” is available online.

I will read 100 short stories this coming year. I’ll post about them, here on Bookside Table, every Monday and Thursday morning. Or, that’s the plan. Wish me luck.

Bookside Table, A Sleep and a Forgetting book cover, EM Keeler

William Dean Howells’ novella, A Sleep and a Forgetting, is touching and discomfiting in equal measure. A young doctor takes on an unusual charge when he meets a young woman and her father outside of a hotel in San Remo in the early 20th century. There’s something so charming about doctor stories from the past, perhaps because medicine has, as a science, changed so vastly in its scope and method through the years. I love the idea of a doctor advising a patient to ‘take the air’ in a mountainous or Mediterranean locale to cure if not the cause of their sickness, then at least any affliction’s accompanying melancholia.

The affliction faced by the young woman in this story can not, alas(!), be cured by salty sea air or walks through well kept gardens: she is trapped in an eternal present, having experienced the selective obliteration of her memory after witnessing the gruesome death of her mother. She retains her abilities to read, write, and converse, with some eloquence at that, but nothing sticks to the perpetually slick surface of her mind. Her father, happening upon the young doctor, insists that this qualified stranger join their party in San Remo and work on developing a cure for his daughter.

One of the virtues of the novella’s form is that it provides a knowing sort of space; while a short story must be read multiple times so that you can get your bearings, and a novel can use the exciting carrot of story or plot to persuade the reader down a specific path, a novella tells you exactly where you are without ever handing you a map. Howell uses the form well, and sets up the events he describes in a way that mirrors the strange facts that face the doctor. Howells also uses a distantly omniscient voice to tell the tale, and he seldom gives us much of a peek into the interior lives of these characters. Here again the framing mirrors elements of the young doctor’s struggles: he can only marvel at the young woman’s condition, and though he can offer endless interpretations of this malady he is at a loss to solve another beating heart. He will never solve the mystery of her life, even as he becomes increasingly involved therein. In his heart, this doctor is, just as we are, powerless to ever know the mind of another.

I love Aira, and Ghosts, you might remember, blew my mind. I am so excited to see this short. I only hope they manage to somehow convey the otherworldly heat in the story.

Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table, The Seamstress and the Wind book cover

New Directions, one of my favourite publishing houses, celebrated its 75th year last week. And  this past Saturday was my birthday, so it made sense that I would pick up César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind to celebrate both events.  I’m so glad I did.

Earlier this year I was dumbfounded by Aira’s marvelous Ghosts, a novel about literature and the unbuilt architecture of human life. This time around, I was a bit more prepared for arrhythmic plotting and peculiar digressions that form the base of Aria’s prose. But I was still, if you’ll pardon the pun, blown away by The Seamstress and the Wind.

The plot moves along like an uncanny nightmare, where the terror and despair that the characters feel develops out of the sheer senselessness of their circumstances. Aira inserts himself into the novel, as a character and as the authour, and actually devotes space within the text to wondering about and struggling with the story he is telling. Aira suddenly remembers to pick up dropped threads and leaves all of the seams of the novel showing, every hem unfinished and raw.

The miraculous thing is that rather than having this rawness be a flaw, Aira manages to make it a great virtue. His use of imagery is often dazzling, thanks to Rosalie Knecht’s translation, and he levels off the cheeky acrobatics with a generous helping of humour. It’s like Aira is pulling a Pen and Teller on his reader. He’s  playfully pulling back the curtain, showing the ways in which a story can manufacture despair and delight. The story itself, about a woman who gets lost in the desert of Patagonia, or “the end of the world,” looking for her missing child, is clearly an allegory for creative work.

The Seamstress and the Wind is joyous like a dream, and leaves you shaking when you’re eventually forced to wake up and put the book down.

Madam Bovary Book Cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

I couldn’t help it. It was so beautiful. I already have a copy of Madame Bovary. And I loved the Lydia Davis translation. And this isn’t even the Paul De Man translation that most people will have read. But it was just too lovely. How could I resist?

Madam Bovary Title Page, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

Even though I know that a good reader should be able to divorce the author’s, or in this case translator’s, biography from a work of literature, I can’t help but feel a vaguely histrionic urge to marry the fate that Eleanore Marx met  to her decision to spend significant time wrestling with this story of an unhappy woman in a man’s world. My own relationship with Davis’ Emma Bovary was, as I have already described, complicated. Actually,  I should say is complicated, because in fact I’m still thinking about her. I can’t help but imagine the influence that Flaubert’s Emma might have had over the way that Marx lived, and ended, her own life.

I’m excited to compare the translations. I’ll let you know how it goes.

So, who knew that book trailers could be so rad?

These are my three favorite book trailers:

1. Etcetera and Otherwise, by Sean Stanely

2. Monoceros, by Suzzette Mayr

And a really close third:

3. The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst

Though I haven’t read any of these books I think that it’s really cool that the trailers can be used to convey a tone that lets readers know what to expect, without resorting to literal imagery or boring talking heads. I think it’s a really exciting way for literary culture to stay here, in the present, and for readers to begin their relationship with a book in a fun way.

It’s like book trailers are a party where you can meet your next great read, well before you bring it home to bed.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man bok cover, emily m keeler bedisde table

Some books should not be read in the Summer time. It’s a fact. I made the mistake of reading James’ Joyces Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the beach when I was sixteen. I think I also read Trainspotting that same week. These were not summer books. These were not beach books. These were hardly even books you would read in the park. As a result of not reading The Portrait of the Artist in the right conditions, I think I basically cheated the work out of having much of a lasting impact. Also, I was sunburned and chewed to bits by sand fleas.

These were, however, near perfect conditions for reading Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, which I think should be read either at the very hottest or possibly coldest time of the year. And only when you are very very hungry.

I began thinking about all of this because, well,  Summer is on the horizon, and because of this essay on reading Tolstoy in Jamaica in August, by David Gilmour, in The Walrus magazine’s archive.  I will probably continue thinking of this until the summer’s bitter end.