Archives for posts with tag: reviews

Junot Diaz’s “How to Date” is written in the second person, but like most successful second person stories, that tricky little ‘you’ is anything but general. You, in this case, are a young man living in America. You’re from the Dominican Republic. Some of your family still lives there, and you take  the photographs of shirtless young cousins leading goats around off of the walls of the crummy apartment you live in when you’re expecting to host a girl. You are also totally girl crazy, or maybe just crazy in general, because you’re a teenager. Because of who you are and where you live you’re a little fucked up by racism, by poverty, and by the way that desire is so often tied to big things outside of what it is you want. Mostly, you just want to bang, but even that’s imbricated within a larger social structure.

I like Diaz, and he’s so good with this story. The details feel so right, hiding the government supplied foodstuffs so your date wont know the extent of your poverty, the awkwardness of making conversation, experimenting with boundaries and social roles… they just feel right. But the story is painful, too, because it’s not just about being girl crazy, it’s about negotiating the complexities of race, and about the hierarchy of racialized desires, about stereotypes and sounding ‘smooth’ when the person you want to snuggle up to is categorically collapsing you. But now I’ve made it sound heavy, and parts of “How to Date” are, but it’s also fun and sweet! In that respect, it’s a lot like adolescence itself.

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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.

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.

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 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.

 

Bookside Table, Asterios Polyp book cover, EM Keeler

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp is almost perfect. The title character is a so called ‘paper architect,’ inventive on the page, but his designs are unfailingly unrealized. As a professor at Cornell, he pushes his students hard to avoid the decorative, and makes clear his deeply modernist sensibility: he has built the form of his life to follow what he imagines is its the function. But the function of life is not so easily understood, and his designs are flawed. When his tastefully furnished apartment literally goes up in flames, destroying his Eames lounger, his pair of Wassily chairs, his tapes and books and drafting table, Asterios’ design sensibility is torn up, and he is forced to build his life from scratch at the age of fifty.

He is obsessed with what he perceives as the duality of life, yin and yang, men and women… form and function. The part-time narrator is his still born identical twin, who also visits Asterios in his dreams, and acts as the shadowy other side, the constantly present absence, of Asterios’ life and accomplishments. Mazzucchelli develops this lost twin trope into a moving exploration of loneliness and repetition, in a refreshing and surprising way.

Throughout the book certain postures, words, or even entire frames are repeated, though transformed by their context even as they depict an identical image. Asterious sitting on a bed and examining a blister, for example, is a scene of domestic bliss when his wife Hana is there, in the next panel, rooting through the medicine cabinet for a bandage, and also an unromantic piece of solitude, even loneliness, when years later he sits on a bed as a border in rooming house, his feet in pain from work.

Many of the panels in this graphic novel were completely breathtaking, and the visual techniques that Mazzucchelli used to convey the innate difference of each character–their voices and interior lives so distinct from one another–were so successfully executed that I wish I could just reprint the whole thing here for you. I was dazzled by the way that this work was able to be both subtle and bold, with the varying graphic styles working together so well, sometimes seamless and others with great clashes. Just like the bonds that people form in life.

One scene, where Asterios recalls with a strange longing the cloistered intimacy of his disintegrated marriage, is unbelievably effective: Hana vomiting; Hana’s underwear on the floor, stained with her menstrual blood; Hana’s hand reaching into her cosmetic bag; Hana smiling; Hana’s hand between her legs; Hana waving in a scarf; Hana popping a pimple; Hana’s sweat stained gym clothes; Hana; Hana; Hana. The longing for precisley her, the realness and mutability of her presence, is almost overpowering. The warmly vulgar sensuality of their former intimacy reveals to Asterios the stultifying emptiness of his obsession with formal purity.

Mazzucchelli’s lines on these pages are clean and elegant, but have just enough friction to rub you raw. The story that he tells here is bound up in aesthetics, and his plentiful offerings are pleasurable and moving. While this may be a work of paper architecture, the lives built for Hana and Asterios have a palpable weight, a shape that takes up space in the world that the reader must build and rebuild, every day of her life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakfast at Tiffany's Book Cover, EM Keeler, Bookside TableThis was my first time reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and other than a smallish handful of reporting pieces in The New Yorker archives, I hadn’t really read much Capote. I fell asleep watching the film Capote, and also, come to think of it,  the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But I stayed up way too late reading this book. Which didn’t even have Philip Seymour Hoffman in it,  so that’s really saying something.  When I woke up, I pretty much had a Holly Golightly hangover.

In a way, it’s hard to describe my experience reading this one, partially because I feel like you’ve probably already read it or seen the movie or something. But then again, I hadn’t done those things, so we’re back to square one. It’s so weird how a book can permeate culture, can become an idea or a reference that makes the original thing, this wonderful and  seamless novella,  become kind of hollowed out.

That said, one thing that really struck me was the way that the unnamed narrator actually seemed like he had his own stories, a whole back log of them, but he was just legitimately more interested in telling tales about Holly Golightly. I mean, at one point he causally lets drop that he once went for a 500 mile interstate walk. He’s not a blank pair of eyes, there to let the reader in. He has his own stories, his own singular history, and the small details that surface up as he describes the way that this young woman lives her life are specific to him.  Capote struck the perfect balance between having this young writer type be the filter through which we see the real story and hinting at the multiplicity of the stories contained within the filter himself.