Archives for posts with tag: Book Review

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.

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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.

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.

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.

EM Keeler , Bookside Table, The House Without Windows book cover

It is certainly much too late in my life for anyone to describe me as a child prodigy, though I have, at times, somewhat arrogantly felt that my rather short list of achievements is out of balance with the abundance of my talent. I have plainly mistaken the vague and formless desire for greatness for the thing itself.

Humbled by this realization, I have begun to investigate instances of greatness in the world. One such instance can be found in the story of Barbara Newhall Follett, who wrote the original draft of The House Without Windows at the unlikely age of eight. The novel is about a little girl and her nearly infinite capacity for awe in the raw beauty of the natural world. Eepersip Eigleen runs away from the country home of her parents and makes a life for herself in the great vastness that is nature, the house without windows. Butterflies, chipmunks, the sky and the sea become her intimates. She toughens the soles of her feet and leaps through the forest, taking joy in the naturalness of her ascension, the abilities of her animal body to fly with the wind through the grass.

Follett wrote this paean to the animal freedom of childhood when she was eight years old. According to the afterword, written by her father, the original manuscript was lost in a house fire, and she re-created the text from memory at the age of twelve. The prose is sometimes repetitive, but lovely, and occasionally splendid. A very impressive achievement, especially from someone so young. But for all of her gifts, Follett made clear sacrifices for this extraordinary talent. She locked herself in her room to pound out this story, forgoing the free play and friendship that would be afforded to all little girls in a perfect world. My favorite parts of the novel examine the peculiar loneliness that Eepersip feels for other children, most clearly expressed in the two instances where she risks capture to play with a golden haired boy and her black-eyed younger sister. She is drawn to their beauty and their recognition even as their company poses a threat to her wildness. The tension of these scenes speak to the ineffability of the compromises that love entails, the desire to be singular and wild and free always in conflict with the bondedness of affection and recognition.

Because this is a rare book, now long out of print and largely unavailable, I hope you won’t mind if I spoil the ending: Eepersip lives in the meadow, dreams in the sea, and gradually becomes unable to take any joy in others, animals or people. Her step lightens, and in the end she lives on a diet of pure mountain snow. Eventually, she transcends what remains of her humanity and becomes a fairy, relegated to the invisible world of magic. Never again will she have to contend with the threat of captivity, and she is unbound from the human world of recognition.

Follett herself went on to be, for a time, magical in a darker sense. Her childhood achievements were celebrated, and her work was recognized, however briefly, by the public eye. She wrote a few more books, which were received well enough, and her father left her and her mother to start a new life with someone else. She was forced to prematurely join the tedious world of work, and was married before she turned twenty years old. Shortly thereafter, facing down the burdens of debt and despair, she would disappear indefinitely. Her body was never found, as if she too eventually could not be contained by the constraints of this human drudgery, looking only through windows out onto the world. Instead, her work remains, like the world, a window in on itself, bound only by the magic of a child’s freedom. The potential of her prodigious gifts goes unfulfilled, and so retains its promise indefinitely; like the nymph Eepersip becomes, Follett is invisible and, perhaps tragically, completely free.

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If you would like to read more about Barbara Newhall Follett, Lapham’s Quarterly published a lovely essay on her life, which you can read here.

The Chairs, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

The best thing about The Chairs Are Where the People Go is the way that Misha Glouberman talks about his frustrations. The book’s forward, written by Sheila Heti, describes the text that follows as the product of morning meetings, where Glouberman would talk to her about “everything he knows.” As it turns, out, he knows a lot about negotiation, about managing expectations, and about how people communicate with each other. That’s why, I guess, he also seems to know so much about frustration.

The book is arranged into little meditations of various lengths that are centered on a specific idea, observation, or experience. A lot of them are about the games that Glouberman teaches as part of his Charades classes (–Yeah, he teaches classes on how to be good at playing charades–) : “Get Louder or Quit”, “The Gibberish Game”, “The Conducting Game”, “Fighting Games”, and, naturally enough, “How to Play Charades”. (There’s also one called “These Projects Don’t Make Money”.) There are sections on conferencing, on neighborhoods, on why getting piss drunk is only fun when you’re still really young, and on quitting smoking and wearing a suit. But a lot of them are about living in a city and remembering a lot of almost obvious things that I, for one, often forget: For instance, one section is called “Doing One Thing Doesn’t Mean You’re Against Something  Else”, which uses a few examples from Glouberman’s work with Trampoline Hall and his experimental noise classes to illustrate his point, being that choosing to set some perimeters on whatever you’re doing or making doesn’t automatically mean you oppose everything outside of those perimeters (“Like, if you write a book about Paris, it’s not a statement that no book should ever take place in New York.”). This is helpful advice, and the book has a lot of similarly simple ideas that are sometimes not put so simply in our day to day lives.

In fact, The Chairs, with Glouberman’s casual and friendly tone fueling an abundance of good advice, is arguably a self help book. But before I read it, I didn’t realize just how badly I needed the help.

The Film Club book cover, bookside table, EM Keeler

David Gilmour’s The Film Club is about movies, and parenting, and love, and pain. It reminded me, in parts, of The Stand-In, because of its Canadian-ness, and because I get the vibe that somehow it just wasn’t meant for me, in an almost generational way, even as it was loaded with good stuff I could take away from it. A friend and I were discussing it, and he said that it actually gave him a lot of insight into his own father (who, like Gilmour, dates somewhere between the Boomers and Generation X). This made a lot of sense to me.

Because, after all, that’s in a lot of ways what this book is about. It’s about Glimour and his teenage son, trying to negotiate the border between their lives as Jesse becomes a young man. I was touched by the amount of love, incredible-even-awful-love, that Gilmour expresses for his son throughout the book, and it was interesting to read a coming of age story told from the perspective of a parent.

At the centre of this memoir is a deal these men made, where Gilmour would let 15 year old Jesse drop out of school if he agreed to watch 3 films a week. Gilmour chooses the films, and makes loose units–Horror, guilty pleasures, nouvelle vauge, etc.,–for them to talk about and watch. With his knowledgeable adoration of film, Gilmour manages to teach his son a lot about the world from the living room sofa, and the book is packed with little facts and hundreds of movie suggestions. At it’s heart, though, The Film Club is a love letter from a father to his son, full of pride and fear, trepidation and tribulation. The very last line, borrowed (of course!) from a film, was inordinately moving; I  cried.

The Verificationist book cover, Bookside Table, EM KeelerDonald Antrim’s The Verificationist is basically about a really long hug that makes a guy named Tom loose it and jump into the abyss of what seems like a prolonged nervous breakdown. Tom is a psychoanalyst, and the bear hug takes place at an informal meet-up (in a Pancake house!) of a whole university hospital department of analysts.

It’s a literally heady book, but headless too, because Tom is cognitively disembodied by this hug, and he floats up and away into the dusty rafters of the 24hr breakfast joint. He overworks his mind by tracing the map of intimacies, predominately sexual intimacies, between himself and his colleagues and his wife and the desirable young woman who has been their party’s waitress. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it. But I think it’s a relatively successful exploration of a peculiar tendency of a culture steeped in the mumbo jumbo of psychoanalysis to develop a paralysis of self awareness, though it may in fact be more of a delusion than an awareness.

Tom is obsessed with the fulcrum point between what it means to be a son and a father, and he gets himself into the situation of the bear hug by being childlike and attempting to start a food fight with a group of child psychologists. The bear-like analyst that hugs him into submission is described as a figurative father, and Tom submits to a fantasy of being raped by this imaginary father rather than develop the maturity it would require to commit to becoming a father himself. They have an empty room in their house, and because The Verificationist is nothing if not an invitation to armchair psychoanalysis, he is afraid of painting it because he can’t commit to the idea of impregnating his wife. They fight about it. And so after the  pleasure of eating blueberry pancakes–a silly and juvenile food– he suffers a nervous down, aware that he chose the kiddish comfort food because his is unable to confront his fear of adulthood and reproduction.

And who could blame him? If he is professionally obligated to believe in Freudian bullhooey, how could he possibly choose to be the passive object of fear and hatred and homicidal feelings; wouldn’t you  rather have the active hatred of the child? Psychoanalysis, much like American culture, almost always places the higher drama and the primacy of representation in the development of the child rather than the agency of the parent. Antrim hints at this through having Tom imagine floating away to the scene of an important battle: that of the Americans against the (paternal) British. This is a site of embarrassment for Tom, and a site of mythmaking for America writ large. The battle is restaged year after year, and the trauma of separation, the shame of that original (and indeed, orginary) dependency, never quite goes away.

Antrim uses language clearly, and having the entirety of the story filtered through the obsessive lens of Tom even as he becomes fractured in the middle of his traumatic event (the hug) is fascinating, to say the least. Antrim manages to make you loath Tom as much as the character loathes himself, and you feel just as trapped by his obsessional and circuitous thinking as he does. Which is certainly a testament to Antrim’s skill, but at times I felt that the premise of the book was a bit too much of a trick. Even as it called Nicholson Baker and DavidFoster Wallace to mind, The Verificationist feels like a practice run. The idea is there, the formal constraints are set, but… What’s missing? I think it may be a sense of meaning–it maybe authenticity, on all fronts. Tom, so well versed in psychobabble, can only harken back to hollowed and cliched ideas from his discipline to give meaning to the experience of his breakdown, and because he does this in real time, it crowds out the readers ability to make anything of this extraordinary circumstance. This is not necessarily a flaw, in fact I suspect that it’s one of Antrim’s aims. It’s just that, from where I read,  Tom and the discourses of Jung and Freud are too overbearing to give you a chance read much into this story; it’s all there on the page, and doesn’t need you  at all.

Cakes and Ale Books Cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler,

The first time I read W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale I was almost 15 years old. I picked it up in a second hand book shop, titillated by its pulpy cover and the promise of scandal. I read it twice that year, almost back to back, with only Of Human Bondage in the middle. For a while, I considered it one of my favorite books, always with the secret hope that I would miraculously mature into a writer like Ashenden. Perhaps because I was so young and knew so little, I didn’t then appreciate the pathos of this fantastically well crafted little book. How wonderful it is to have discovered that an old favorite book can also be a new favorite!

Cakes and Ale is a novel that reads like a partial memoir, both in the history surrounding its release and in the way that Maugham frames his story. The narrator, Ashenden, is approached by a writerly colleague for material for a biography being written on another writer, Edward Driffield, who has recently died, a giant of English letters. The book is really really British, brimful with snark and occasional pomp, and Maugham evinces a near total command of the language he employs, which is precise and droll and often grey.  There are some brilliantly vicious lines detailing the colleague: “I could think of no one among m y contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise mans daily does of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped up tablespoon.” The memoir quality of the work, with it’s first person framing and detailing of nostalgia, is doubled in these instances of insult; Maugham delivers brutal little jabs out of Ashenden’s mouth, but at the time they were read as pointed arrows signalling out some of his real life peers.

This cruel wit was lost on my adolescent self, so enamored was I by the part of the story where the fifteen year old Ashenden is taken in by the eccentric and ‘common’ Driefields. Edward Driffield and his first wife Rosie meet the young Ashenden by happenstance, and he falls immediately in love with them. By proxy, so did I.

I had to buy a new copy of Cakes and Ale when I decided it was time to revisit it. The one I’d read before,that I’ve carried with me to my first apartment, then across Canada, from place to place, has been held by too many hands. It has that dusty vanilla smell of a book that has begun to decay, and it is literally held together with a piece of tape. The newer edition has roomy margins, a sturdy glue spine, and a rather boring cover, if we’re comparing the two.

And reading the newer edition, through my slightly older eyes, really deepened my appreciation for the book. On the one hand, it’s a lurid story about class tourism and sex. It’s also a bitter barb thrown like a rock at a literary establishment that relies on cannibalization and knowing how to order a good luncheon. It’s a coming of age story in the middle of a novel about coming into the winter of ones life. It’s about love, and lineage, and language so clear that we can only wish our memories were made of it.