Archives for posts with tag: reflections

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.

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Vanity Fair, U and I, The Books in my Life, Bookside TableFor the most part, I purchased all the books I read this year.  A few were from the library, and a couple were gifts. The rest I bought. When it comes to books, I find that I frequently buy more than I need, or put comfortably as a cliche: I quite often get more than I bargained for. Here are some notes on a few of the books I have purchased, but remain unread.

1. Vanity Fair, by W. M. Thackeray

I first read this “novel without a hero” as an early adolescent. I didn’t really get that you weren’t supposed to like Becky. I was super impressed by her ability to assess any situation,  and I liked her immediately because she’s just so damn smart.  To be honest, I think part of what I liked about her was that she had a sort of power over men. This appealed to me, as an awkward adolescent. Also, I am a product of perpetual financial precarity, and I empathized with her money hunger, having felt those pangs myself. It’s been a little more than a decade since I read Vanity Fair, and I don’t remember any details of the plot, or the ending, though I’m sure it’s ugly. That’s something I learned from re-reading Cakes and Ale, that I tend to remember beginnings more strongly, especially when it comes to books I read at the beginning of my rewarding reading career.  This is probably especially true when the first two thirds feature the characters in their youth. Basically, I want to figure out whatever became of my old friend Becky.

2. The Books in My Life, by Henry Miller

Around this time last year I took out James Wood’s How Fiction Works from the library. I read it in one sitting, and then a lot of different parts of it again, out loud to my partner. I was inspired to read more, and I really think that I wouldn’t have started this project if I hadn’t happened upon that book. I felt a renewed interest in both stories and language, and I knew that I could be a better reader, both in terms of quality and quantity. Wood had given me some tools, and lit a little fire. Not because I love the same books he does, but because I aspire to love the books that I do in the same way. When I saw The Books in My Life at Balfour Books, the first time I went into their new shop in the spring, it felt like fate. Here was an author who know how to love the dirty, the drunk and deranged writing about how he learned to love books! This would be exactly what I would need to guard against the return of that cold sense I’ve had in the past, that reader’s apathy or, worse ennui. I’m still keeping it for when I feel those first few symptoms come on.

3. U and I, by Nicholson Baker

After I read The Mezzanine, I wanted more Baker. I was gearing up to read this year’s release, House of Holes, but for some reason I never actually felt compelled to plunk down $30 on it. Every time I went to BookCity, since its release, I  would run my finger over it’s glossy jacket, and open ‘er up at random and dip in for a bit. But I just never walked it up to the ’till. I did however, ask them to order in U and I. Because for a while I was obsessed with How Should A Person Be?.  I still am. But it was unhealthy. I would follow Sheila Heti around the internet, and I would try to go places that would invite scenes and phrases from HSAPB into my head. I took the book to the bar, by myself, practically on dates. We would sit together, me and this book, and I would swim around and pull up sentence after sentence for my note book and try to make a new world out the one Heti made. I would get angry when I read less than glowing reviews, even when they were sound and pointed out what I considered forgivable flaws in an otherwise perfect work. I was a mess, and I thought that Nicholson Baker would be able to help, because he seems to have gone through a similarly traumatic (and equally one sided) relationship with Updike. But then I read a few more books and the suffocating feeling passed. And then I went to the book launch for The Chairs are Where the People Go and saw Heti in person, and felt ashamed of the squalid (but let me reiterate: one sided) intimacy I forced upon her. And then I heard her on the radio, talking about how her friends and her all agreed that the book is smarter than she is, because she spent five years working on making it the best it could be, and she would never spend five years on just walking around, talking to people, like a normal person, and I felt a little better about the whole thing. I’m still looking forward to reading U and I, especially because now I can probably actually read it instead of mining it for solutions to my problem.

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.”

The Lover book cover, Bookside Table, Emily M Keeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m almost there. Three quarters of the way to having read and written about 50 books this year. Where did the time go?

Instead of updating the top 5, like I have for previous milestones, I decided to acquiesce to my pal Janice‘s request that I list the books I’m most looking forward to re-reading, once this project is through. As you know, ranking books is not my strong suit. Like the liberal arts narcissist I went to university to become, I always want to reflect backwards from the text itself, and give primacy to my experiences reading the book. After all, that’s what I know the most about. But because this is a reflexive practice, reconstituted by remembering and rereading and rewriting, my thoughts about each of the books listed below are subject to change.

In no particular order, the 5 books I’m really looking forward to re-reading:

5. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

I got a lot out of this one the first time around, but something about it tore me up. Even as I was reading it I was doing that childish thing where I was fantasizing about having already read through it once, so that I could spend more energy on really seeing the prose rather than desperately trying to make the events described cohere into something solid enough to hold on to. I want to go back and get to know Jenny and The Doctor a lot better in particular. From what I remember, there was a lot of strange beauty in the images that Barnes used to evoke her characters, but Jenny and the Doctor were so slippery, never quite settling into their similes, dodging metaphors left and right. I’m really looking forward to going back into Nightwood to try to parse them out.

4. Tracks, by Louise Erdrich

I really fell in love with Nanapush, one of the novel’s narrators. I want to visit him again. Erdrich’s use of language is stunningly effective, though never ostentatious,  and I feel like I need to have her voice in my head. I think this will be the first one I re-read, actually, because it’s a wonderful winter book, so full of small rooms and snow.

3. Madam Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

I’m not quite sure that this counts as a re-read, as I’m planning to read a different translation. The Lydia Davis translation made for a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see what Elenore Marx can do for the text. The thing about Flaubert in general, or so I’ve read, is that he was apparently obsessive over his use of the French language in his writing, and he himself thought that to read in translation was pointless, that the loss of value was far too great. I obviously do not hold this view. Literature requires the cross pollination that translation allows for. That said, it is probably my secret hope that by reading and comparing the different translations of this book I’ll be able to make a mental composite, to average the readings, into some kernel of authentic Flaubert. Turns out  I believe many contradictory things about literature.

2. The Obituary, by Gail Scott

The Obituary is a story that braids many different threads together. There are different perspectives, different histories, continuously displacing one another, and I’d like to go back into it and see what new strands I can pick out. Also, Gail Scott’s playful and experimental use of language is just really exciting! She uses sound and allusion and strange little tricks with letters, and there is a lot of formal innovation going on. I think that Scott and  César Aira are two of the most exhilarating writers I’ve read, and not just this year.  I want to keep being exhilarated.

1. The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, by David Shields.

There’s something about David Shields. Even if you’re not all about his collage manifesto, the man is really really good at what he does. The Thing About Life, which came out before his much discussed Reality Hunger, is partially a collage work, using textbook biology and the many ruminations on mortality that float in the historical ether. But what’s so strange about his method is this: Shields himself is a brilliant sentence maker! Using other peoples words, even advocating free play with plagiarism, okay sure, I see how that’s transformative and just plain cool. But the man can lay it down on his own!  Some anecdotal evidence: My partner and I sometimes play this game where we grab a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence or paragraph out loud. Sometimes we get each other to guess if it’s an ending line, or who the author is. He grabbed Enough About You and read a single sentence of maybe 25 words. Not only did I know it was Shields immediately, but the sentence itself was a tight little story all on it’s own. In fact, Shields may be too polished, too damn good, to read only once. His little book machines are so well constructed that they seem magical, and I think you need to keep coming back to really see just how much is going on underneath the hood.