Archives for posts with tag: Book Review

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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A Moment in the Sun book cover, Emily M. Keeler, Bookside Table

A Moment in the Sun is big in size and generous in story. Just like in his movies, John Sayles is a story weaving king here, threading an overfull menagerie of characters through an historical bricolage composed from the vastness of America and her foreign exploits between 1897 and 1903.

It’s a heavy and learned book, full of finely realized historical detail and an abundance of really big issues; the absurd terror of war, the ongoing trauma of racism, the importance of journalistic ethics, the incongruity of corporeal punishment in a so-called free world, familial responsibility, love… But at 953 pages, Sayles havs definitely given himself room to make something messy and real, as troubled and sprawling as America itself. Parts of his story are decidedly revisionist, like the scene where Mark Twain is tied to a tree with the fictional Lt. Niles Manigault in the Philippines, two Americans strung up to die by dehydration or dismemberment. The famous author’s cameo is another beat on Sayles’s loundly banging anti-Imperialist drum, and a not so subtle reminder that always there is a better way out of history, if we listen carefully and watch closely the minutely forking path.

The book, for all of it’s physical, emotional, and historical heft feels a little misweighted to me; there are some story lines I would have liked to see a little more flesh on, particularly the interesting dynamic that develops between the robbed and fallen black woman Jesse and the white Irish maids she is forced into wage earning with towards the end of the novel. In fact, most of my favorite parts of A Moment in the Sun were about the women, who were, for my taste, too frequently left on the story’s back burner.

The first half of the book felt ripe and well paced, with personal and political climaxes plotted out in perfect tandem: here an unwanted pregnancy,there a riot, here a hanging and an initiation into a secret society, there a fixed bar fight that has no real winner. It was a perfect mix of yellow journalism, wanton pyschology, and intriguing historical dialects blending pleasurably on the page.

The second half lurched forward just a little less gracefully. The pacing felt misaligned, perhaps once half of the characters found themselves in Asia, once the American-Filipino war started really rumbling. I personally have relatively little tolerance for war stories, especially for those set before the advent of television, so it may just be that I am a flawed reader for this work. But nonetheless, I felt a stark shift between the riveting storylines in the first half and the tedium of the threads coming together in the second. A few of the character’s resolutions, especially the one with Jessie,  feel a little pat, a little too much like a story in light of all the life that happened over the course of the novel. Despite the lack luster denouement,  Sayles leaves the best for last and gives as a parting gift a perfect final chapter, one that may well infect you with the shudder and the shiver of a ghost, haunting and cruelly beautiful even as the heavy book sits once again inert on the shelf.

The Cows book cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

“‘They come out from behind the barn as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens.”

What can I possibly say about Lydia Davis’ The Cows?

A while ago my main squeeze treated me to an excellent dinner at a relatively fancy restaurant. The meal was long and luxurious, and we were patiently attended to, and each plate was an exercise in elegant restraint, the food alienated from the edges, a generous helping of white space. My favourite course was the dessert for its familiar and simple flavours: chocolate ganache droplets on a butchers block, with tiny almond butter cake cubes, and concord grapes. That dish, the small serving size, the serious consideration of humble ingredients, and above all the emphasis on deliberate spatial isolation, is a perhaps labourious but still apt metaphor for The Cows. And I loved them both.

The Cows is a meditation on stillness, perception, and the seasons. Davis writes koan-like sentences about three neighboring cows. Simple and humble, (like grapes, almonds and chocolate) these cows become even more than they are through Davis’ masterful command of her medium. Delightfully, these beasts never cross over into the realm of allegory; Davis refuses to anthropomorphize them. They remain cows, broad and black, gentle and heavy. It seems like the project of exploring the significance of these cows is a way for Davis to demonstrate the arbitrary nature of life, of the years passing. But it’s also a meditation on the quiet and joyous riddle of subjectivity: “After staying with the others in a tight clump for some time, one walks away by herself into the far corner of the field: at this moment, she does seem to have a mind of her own.” The spare beauty of these cows, of my desert, of Davis’ prose, relies on such quiet celebrations of mindfulness, or of subjective presence. The Cows is a pure and simple delight, an open ended riddle on the joy of moving forward by standing still.

The Heart is a Lonley Hunter Book Cover, Bookside Table

I’d heard of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter before I picked it up. It’s a classic that appears on a lot of lists, I guess. But I had never once heard anything really meaningful about the book, and every time I ever saw it on a bookshelf or in a store I assumed it was basically the sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird. I think that’s because every edition I’ve ever seen of this book relies on a stunning and romantic photograph of its author, a young woman in workman’s clothes, complete with a wrist watch and an incredibly fatigued expression. To me, I guess, Carson McCullers looks just like I would imagine Lee’s little girl main character Scout would as a grown woman, who was also McCullers. Basically, becuase I knew it was a first novel, a work of Southern fiction, and every copy I’ve seen has a picture of the authour on the cover,I thought it would be a roman à clef. And I thought it was a romance novel, too, based on the title.

But it wasn’t about a young workaday woman, and it’s short on the type of romance I was expecting. It’s mostly about loneliness. There are a handful of main characters, a whackload of secondary ones, and they are all in some sort of orbit around a deaf and mute man named John Singer. And they are all lonely, all of the time, even though they sometimes delude themselves into believing that they are not lonely, that they have found some friend with whom they can commune. Each suffers from a type of loneliness for which there is no cure, political, moral, racial, intellectual… Try as they might to stop the well with music, gin, rage, or even words, loneliness becomes a primary orientation for these characters, and though they drive onward in life in search of communion they eventually slip through and down into the dark.

The Tiny Wife Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

The Tiny Wife is a small but surprisingly sweet urban fairy tale about a metaphysical bank robbery. While the book as an object, with Tim Pervical’s charming ink block illustrations and its twisted hand lettered cover, recalls the Gothic twee sensibility of a Tim Burton or Jhonen Vasquez, Kaufman’s quirky story seems to spring from a deeper well.

The thief in the opening chapter robs everyone at the bank of the item they consider the most sentimentally valuable. One man hands over his most recent pay stub, the first he’s received since getting an important promotion; a woman gives the thief a crumpled photograph of her children; another man hands over the original key to a house that’s been in his family for generations; one woman, the wife of the book’s subtle narrator, hands over the calculator she has had since high school, which she has used to make some of the most important decisions in her life. Being robbed of these materials will effect these people in strange and unpredictable ways. One woman’s tattoo comes to life, another turns into candy. The man with the key becomes physically overpowered by the family history contained in the walls of his house.

Each strange incident is described through the rhythm of a fable, short sentences and simple ideas that have totally steam rolled you by the time they come to the last line. These pieces are threaded together by the confusion that the narrator and his wife experience about the way that their feelings may have changed since the birth of their son. For the most part, The Tiny Wife feels like a dream, a fiction that seems senseless but meaningful, the kind where you wake up feeling like things have worked themselves out and you can keep moving forward in a world made a little clearer.

Pitch Dark Bookcover, EM Keeler, Bookside Table

Pitch Dark is elegant and subtle. Renata Adler takes on love, travel, journalism, terrorism, the Holocaust, and other strange realities of the now and turns them over gently, again and again, until they are polished and compact, small hard  scenes rendered as beautiful little prose poems. The novel feels like a collage, pieces of narrative and history glued down in overlapping layers. There are allusions to classic literature and historical events, bracketing observations on the nature of love or of success. Pitch Dark also functions as a work of demonstrative criticism, insisting on the importance of stories and on our ability to create new forms to contain the repetitive content of human life.

The plot, to the extent that one exists, follows Kate, a newspaper journalist, as she deals with the fall out from the dissolution of a long term affair with a married man. She tries to compose herself by visiting Ireland, but her emotional fragility is made worse by feelings of paranoia about terrorism, and the IRA. Unable to gracefully extract herself from accommodations provided by a collegial acquaintance, she falls into an absurd pattern of behavior that escalates almost comically, and culminates in a crime committed without intent.

One thing about reading this now, in 2011, is how distant my reading is from the alleged source material. When Pitch Dark was published, in 1983, Adler was a huge figure in the New York literary world. The novel, not unlike Cakes and Ale, was supposedly shocking in the way it presented a fiction molded from a publicly known set of facts, based on real characters. Adler was so well known at the time, that my first edition copy doesn’t even include a biographical note, just a large photo of her face, bathed in sunlight. And just like Cakes and Ale, I was happy to be afforded the space to read this novel without being forced by the zeitgeist to read into it.

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.

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.”