Archives for posts with tag: books

Emily M Keeler, Booksde Table, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God is by far the most emotionally moving novel I have read this year. And that’s saying a lot, after The Optimist’s Daughter and Tracks. Because I came to read this book having read some of Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological writing, I was anticipating great detail and dialogue. I was not ready for the thunderous love that spilled off these pages. Even if I had been warned, I don’t think I could’ve felt prepared.

Hurston’s prose is absolutely dazzling! This is the stuff that James Wood dreams about. Never have I felt closer to the way that characters feel, to the smallness and the biggness of their mysterious inner workings. Janie and Tea Cake and the people of Eatonville and the muck are so alive and kicking that I feel like I must be a walking bruise from having spent the past few days dancing and wrestling with them. I feel like they’re under my skin and in my breath. Hurston makes it easy, dropping prose bombs like flower petals.

They sat there in the fresh darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing–self revelation.

For such a little book, it’s depth is nothing short of astounding. Janie, always Janie, has her heart broken by her family, by men, and by the tension between the degrees of whiteness and blackness that surrounds her. Her capacity for love, the real stuff of it, buoys her above her circumstance, and though she’s sweet she is never naive. She is steeped in so much charm that it almost hurts to think of her as a character in a novel rather than a woman who has lived all of time through the love that she alone can give.

There is so so much in this book. I can’t even believe it. I feel almost ripped off that I haven’t read this earlier, that I haven’t known Tea Cake and Janie for my whole life.

But see for yourself:

She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off… Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.

Janie meets with despair and comes through it like a candle in a dark room, glowing and warm. Her light will shine on as long as Their Eyes Were Watching God can be read and re-read, agressively and tenderly, in all the forms that love can take.

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.

The Pure and the Impure book cover, Emily M KeelerThe Pure and the Impure can be dark at times, even oppressively so, and Colette’s voluptuous prose feels suffocating and liberating in equal measure.  Herma Briffault’s translation yields a work that scans with varied yet consistently gorgeous cadences, and I actually found myself reading at least half of The Pure and the Impure out loud  into the night.

The book is a set of linked remembrances, a lucid investigation into the ways that our being is molded always by desire, by love, and sometimes, if we’re especially unlucky, by both at once. Colette chronicles her adventures in places where the light is low, where bodies lie entwined and the air is thick with the smells of incense, blond tobacco, opium and spirits. She transcribes some of the conversations she has had, and is not afraid to make herself look bad. Her stories, and her friends stories, show the ways in which desire can make a person callous, can be the exact point of their vulnerability, and, in my reading, can make you misremember as you shape the world of what was to  suit the needs of the terrific hunger within.

I really wish that I had read this before I read Nightwood, because I think it would’ve made a fabulous primer for that unmappable terrain.

I had a bit of trouble with some ideas in this book, as beautifully as they were expressed. Every word in the book bears the burden of truth, in a novelistic sense, and there are so many staggeringly strong lines up for the challenge. Yet, at its weakest, The Pure and the Impure reads as a catty and gossipy tell all from the days when a tell all was called a roman a clef. But at it’s best, the book is a clear evocation of the myriad forms that desire may take, a treatise on sensual pleasure, and an exploration of the divide between men and women, and between  masculine and feminine. Perhaps many of the problems I felt with relation to Colette’s sense of this difference are a function of time, of me being here rather than there, or vice versa. Nonetheless, it pained me to see her deride women who love women for being either childish or deluded, especially as she herself describes experiencing her own Sapphic desire. I also thought that there were one or two stray ideas or comments that alluded to a deeply anti-trans* position, though I may have misconstrued their intent. This last observation is not excusable through historically situating the novel, given that Collette was writing at the tail end of the Dada movement in Europe, where gender was fluidly understood and expressed in many circles, and certainly even within some of the ones in which Collette found herself. Despite that, there are parts of this book that I liked so immensely that I will undoubtedly find myself caressing these dog-eared pages for the rest of my life.

The Obituary book cover, Emily M Keeler, bookside tableThe Obiturary is a fantastic book, but it’s hard to describe. Gail Scott has written, even at times somehow overwritten and underwritten, this rolling novel that looks at life, history, sex, love, and two-tongued Montreal through a fractured lens. The main character, if you’d even call her that, is Rosine.

Sometimes the text reflects the rhythm of her thoughts, of her memories, but sometimes the words you’re reading are coming out of a photograph, or a fly. Sometimes they come through the walls. Scott plays with the phonetic quality of letters and words, in both English and French, to great effect. It’s an unconventional novel, though it is deeply (even lyrically) sensual, evoking the sharp clean smell of oysters and approaching the use of language as if hoping to encourage a synesthetic experience. This story has a complex structure, and some of its hypertext takes the form of heart–rather than foot–notes. The heart notes offer more information, more context, and tie the strange interior life of Rosine and the fly on the hotel wall to something more conventional, like a book about a dark history. But even in the heart notes there are subtle revisions and perversions that maintain a sense of particularity rather than detached objectivity. Even the fly on the wall only sees what it sees not from above, but from the very front lines of life.

The Obituary is much richer than I’m making it seem; it is so much more than an engaging experiment with form. Or maybe, that’s not quite right either. More likely, the form this novel takes comes directly from it’s content, with its grammatical omissions and contradictions. The book weaves around the idea of intersectionality, and what it means to have so many stories contained in a person, and how those stories crash up against each other, and how they run smack into the other stories in the world. Films, books, photographs, and other records that come to be a framing device for the morphological process of talking about what a life is, or what it can be.

The novel poses the question: “Reader, you may be forgiven for asking here what is a novel life?” Scott doesn’t have an answer, but  The Obiturary gives you a few clues, describing always “what is alive + speaking within us” even as it traverses over the dead, buried, as they are, in the past.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks book cover, E M Keeler, bedside table

I decided to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is sort of like saying that I decided to be deeply disturbed and conflicted, because I had read an incredibly vivid piece by Rebecca Skloot in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I. I was hungry for more work in her voice, so I picked up this book even though I had only a rough understanding and somewhat limited interest in biology and medical research.

But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not really about science and cellular tissue; it’s not even really about the tricky ethics of consent. I mean, it is about those things, and Skloot writes about HeLa and research labs and medical conferences and the way that different cells function both inside and outside of our bodies with such clarity and simplicity that the chapters that chronicle the advances in cellular tissue studies build up a suspenseful narrative in their own right. Skloot’s science reportage is meticulously researched and highly readable. But this isn’t really a book about science.

This is a book about life, and the real story here is the one about Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks. When Deborah was a little girl her mother died from an inconceivably horrible case of cervical cancer. Shortly before this, some of the malignant material in Henrietta’s body was taken, without her consent, for research, and her unknowing contribution changed scientific history. Deborah Lacks grew up without a mother, without knowing that the cellular tissue taken from her mother would go on to be the material that enabled much of modern medicine.

Skloot and Deborah forge a very complicated relationship as they track down the stories of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa. Where Skloot is white, in her mid-20s, university educated in both biology and the arts, Deborah is a fifty year old black lady who works part time and can’t afford even basic health care. This last is especially painful, given the contributions to medicine that her mother’s cells have enabled, and this sad irony is forefront in the minds of many of the surviving Lackses. The way that these women relate to each other, and form an incredible bond as they delve into the past to piece together the complicated history of HeLa and Henrietta is tumultuous and beautiful. Together they unearth both unknown tragedies and gifts. Skloot describes Deborah with such love that their unlikely friendship gradually over takes the rest of the book.

Skloot started a scholarship fund for Henrietta Lacks’ descendents, and her book goes a long way to realizing the Deborah’s dream of the world’s recognition of her mother’s unwitting heroism. I want to tell you more about Deborah, but I also want you to read the book and hear her voice, her story, for yourself. Overall, I think that this is a powerfully written account that needs to be told and told again.

The Fortress of Solitude Book Cover, Jonathan Lethem, Emily M KeelerThe Fortress of Solitude is, plainly, about a lot of things. Jonathan Lethem has put down in this book a dream of childhood, of comics and lives with thick lines and colour blocks, of thought bubbles bursting out of frame. And of course, it’s really about how things are never as they once were. I have a lot to say about this book, because it’s about a lot of big things. It’s about identity, and that means race, and class, and who your parents are, and who your friends are, and who you love, and it how it all works out in the end. I don’t think I’m prepared to say everything I could here, right now.

But I’ll say this: Lethem has done something really complicated here. A story about little boys who, perhaps like all little boys, want nothing so much as to lift up off the ground and fly through the air. This Brooklyn burb is a never-neverland, and Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude are the lost boys of Gowanus.

Dylan knows even at five years old that whiteness is blonde angles with roller skates. He also knows that this is unspeakable knowledge, that his mother and father and the little black girl with the chewing gun and hula hoop can never be told that this is what he knows. Dylan is our guide to this wild land of hobbesian children running amok with spaldeens.

Lethem sets up the novel in three distinct sections, the first of which details life on the block in free indirect style. The first quarter of this section captures exactly the endless summer nights of being very young, where school is a dead zone and the summers are infinite and you and your friends take the street hostage, take ownership of every paved surface, and hold on to the game even as mothers call out names from windows and front doors.

Somewhere along the way all the kids become aware of their blackness, of Dylan’s whiteness, around the same time these boys are beginning to negotiate their growing sense of their own power and masculinity. They try on identities, but they all have to contend with the racialized bodies into which they were born. This is the biggest thing going on here, this examination of the way that race takes hold, grows in a person the way a seed puts down roots. And so these kids grow up, get bigger than Gowanas, which undergoes a change of its own, becoming Boreum Hill by the end of the novel.

And it’s here at the very end that Mingus Rude gives you a key to Dylan, the kid who loved him most in the world, back when they were lost boys, and to the heart breaking distance between black and white. Mingus, who’s mixed race with a black dad and absentee white mom, shows Dylan his mean face. The face that Dylan’s seen thousands of times since adolescence, the face that a black teenager pulls to bully a white boy, the face that is born out of the way that white people fear black people, and circles back to become the reason for that fear. Seeing Mingus wear this face, someone he has loved for almost his whole life, the man he thinks of as his brother and savior, Dylan confronts a terrible truth that he’s always known about the stickball playing kids that grow up into frightening teenagers. Lethem asks in Dylan’s voice: “What age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” and that this is a question at all, let alone one that has an answer, breaks my heart.

There is a lot of pain between the covers of Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, and so much of it runs beneath the surface. Laurel, or Polly to those who’ve loved her the longest, walks around the flowers, rivers, and mountains of her childhood, listening to the past through her bedroom wall, and feels the hands of her dead mother, and her dead husband, running through her hair and over her back, as she tries to face down a future without them.

I picked up this book, without knowing anything about it whatsoever, because last summer this advice column made my heart quicken. Sugar gives invariably difficult advice, but only because life is difficult, and to say that there is an easier way out of the mess of being human is sophist at best and flat out an insidious and life-negating lie at worst.

I was anticipating some heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose, bone clean and real. I was not disappointed.

This was the first piece of American fiction that’s pointedly Southern that I read this year. It’s hard to read work from the South because it seems like I can’t help but sort of tie the stories up with a bunch of non-related ideas I have, the free-floating concept, of the Southern US. Ideas about magnolias, and okra, and flies and, if we’re being honest, fried chicken and heat. And politics and oysters. These were, of course, not the underpinnings of this novel of love and loss.

The Optimist’s Daughter is a bit of a difficult book to pin down, without giving everything away. It’s organized into four books and each of them marks the days and interior life of Laurel in a very specific way that I think is sort of akin to the way that grief is made up of so many different components. The structure of the story compartmentalizes the events of the plot nicely, in that each book can detail a precise moment of being for Laurel. As each of the books comes to its end, the reader gets a little closer, Welty’s free indirect style becoming a little less free. Laurel’s father’s second wife Fay, similar to her only in age,  acts as a foil for the ways in which grief can be a selfish thing, neither woman knows what to make of the situation and they both do the best they can the only way they know how.

I was torn apart by Fay. She’s Texan, where as the other characters are Mississippian, and Fay is very much an outsider. Her brashness and vanity make for a strange bedfellow to Laurel’s methodical and thoughtful father. Laurel’s dad reads the classics and answers letters, having been both a Judge and the Mayor of Mount Salus. Fay obsesses over shoes, spills nail polish on uncluttered desks, opens walnuts with a hammer. Fay cries out loud, screams her discontents, and often says things like “why is this happening to me?”. Laurel is quiet, almost emptied out. The events of this book are so far removed from her daily life of textile design in Chicago that they almost slip away from her like a nightmares–she is not her self in her home town. Fay is always and only herself, and always on the look out with the paranoia of a megalomaniac; she is a permanent second wife that causes the other townsfolk to raise their eyebrows.

The trickiest and best thing that Welty does with the negotiations of these two women is to have Laurel set Fay up as a child, as a silly woman, to have her sweat with the attempt to withhold  the judgement she has already made, and by the time we get really close to Laurel we can see her own silliness, her own childishness, in her inability to let go of the world for an hour or twelve and really get into the mess of grief. When she does break down, it happens like life itself: beautiful and all at once.

Nightwood Book Cover, Djuna Barnes, E.M. Keeler

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is the story of a well loved woman: Robin Vote. In her name and character, Robin embodies certain freedoms. She is a pure line of flight, a painfully democratic animal that brings exquisite suffering to people just as she gives them pleasure.

Nora Flood, and Jenny, and Felix, the ignoble and decidedly ungentile Baron, all try their best to wrap her up in their civilized arms, but this woman who looks like a boy is wild, and willfully innocent. Robin is not a woman so much as a child, a bird, a doll, and a dog. Everywhere she escapes into images, into animals. Her children are fragile faced dolls and sensitive imbeciles. She denies the future in all things, and has no memories.

The story is told back to Nora by a madman, an illegitimate doctor, Mathew, a lost soul with a loud mouth who haunts the streets of Paris’ least reputable arrondissement. His cloaked and hunched body becomes the instrument of a Queer story, and yet he is reliable precisely because his narration is not official; he can only tell Nora and Felix what they need to hear. He is pure and pompous and yet he shifts the grounds of this story with such swift subtlety that you can just hold onto the thread of meaning even as the tapestry undoes and re-weaves itself.

This was a very complicated read, and I need to go back to it. More than once. T.S. Eliot went back into it again and again, and marveled at the dynamic power of this prose, of this story. I can only give you my very first thoughts, which are unstable and fragile.

Reading this hurt me, damaged me in some way. It was beautiful but never pretty, like a dying bird or a slab of meat. I couldn’t afford to read this the way it needs to be read. I need to go over each line with eyes like a scalpel, to parse out the beauty of every sinew of the beating muscle. There are treasures buried here, and though I saw the glinting gold I couldn’t bear to dig beneath the scarred surface. But I will. Next time.

Ghosts Book Cover, Woman Reading, Bedside Table

I have no idea what this book is. I think it’s a simple fable, but I also think maybe it’s a meditation on the role of literature in the age of mass media. Then again, I kind of think it’s just a beautiful story about a family. But it’s also a complexly clear perversion, a post modernization,  of a typical coming of age tale. And a work of architectural criticism. And a phenomenological study, a la To The Lighthouse, of what thinking actually feels like. César Aira’s Ghosts defies generic categorization.

There are no chapter breaks; you don’t come up for air. The story unfolds around a Chilean family living in a half finished apartment building in Buenos Aires, and the building’s skeleton is a frame for their experience as outsiders. They share the space with it’s own contracted  future, and naked and powdery ghosts that wander between the unfinished floors.

Elisa, the matriarch of the family and wife of the best man in the world, by her own estimation, has a problem with belief. Her fifteen year old daughter Patri is a serious dreamer, and though thoughts happen upon her like sweat in the intense and befuddling heat, her frivolous sensibilities prevail. They watch soap operas during siesta time.

And the language! I’ve never read anything like this ever before. Imagine Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie and Jorge Louis Borges were getting high as kites in Argentina, and playing a literary game of exquisite corpse.  Chris Andrew’s translation of this work is amazing; there are some subtle internal rhythms, and lots of complicated word play and serious puns that feel authentic and beautiful.

So good. So so good. Haunting and sensual and playful. If you’re gonna read it, and I hope you will, do it at the dog-end of summer, when the heat is shimmering and hallucinatory, and there’s construction all around you.

Bedside Table Books To Date

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

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

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

1. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

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

3.The Mystery Guest, by Grégoire Boullier

4. The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker

5. Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi

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

I’m always on the lookout for good books.

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