Archives for posts with tag: reviews

Fugitive Pieces book cover, Bookside Table, EM Keeler

Stories, songs, and poems are the best ways for the past to come to the present, and in Fugitive Pieces they are the only gifts that can be given back to the dead. Anne Michael’s work here is a beautiful and often sensual attempt to bear witness to the trauma and tragedy of the Holocaust.

It’s hard to think about the way to write out my thoughts on this book, because it’s really difficult to think about this huge fissure, this cruel and horrifying eruption that happened a lifetime ago. It’s equally hard not to condense my privileged sense of alienation from genocide, from the horror of this history, into a feeling of alienation from this story. Any narrative work of art that takes the large scale trauma of the Holocaust as its subject has a strange effect on me; I worry sometimes that the beauty of film or the written word somehow makes me less  empathetic by way of the aestheticization of human horror.

Fugitive Pieces is a poetic and dense work, where the earth and atmosphere shape the stories that are told. There are two main sections, and each is structured as a journal. The two men that chronicle their memories and experiences are always carrying a near crippling consciousness of untold stories, of secrets, of buried testimony. And each of these men come to terms with the way that time ripples through them, whispers forgotten names, through giving themselves over to love.

Bella, Alex, Michaela, Naomi, Petra, these women dance across these tormented pages, and they are alternatively tyrannical, obsessive, gentle and yielding, tearful and ecstatic, kind and cruel in ways that are unfathomably accidental. The heat of their love warms the men that write about them, and the way that their bodies and hair and voices fill these pages bubble up in a symphony of compassion and pain like Appalachian Spring.

A gate at the stairs book cover

I’m definitely not the first person to say that Lorrie Moore’s ability to build beautiful stories sentence by immaculate sentence  is excellent. But I’ll say it over and over again, especially about  A Gate at the Stairs.

Tassie Keltjin, the narrator and heroine, is rendered so finely and authentically that I can’t help but be on the look out for her whenever I find myself on campus.  I can’t get over how real she seems, she’s not so smart or sexy or athletic or well read or insightful or pretty or particularly special in any way. I don’t mean she was a dud– just that she has the complicated dignity of someone more or less average; her role wasn’t to be saved or doomed. Her role was to reach out from the french cut pages of this book and into my heart.

The way that Moore was able to take Tassie’s experiments with intimacy and create this breathing guide to understanding just a little bit more about the world, about America, about motherhood, about women and men and room mates and brothers, gave me a feeling of tremendous awe.

This is why I read books.  Because the power of imaginative empathy is so overwhelmingly illuminating, so much so in this work that I feel like I can’t even begin to cross the bridge of language that would enable me to tell you about this ineffable liberty of feeling. Instead all I can do is beg for more, more, Moore.

My Dog Tulip Book cover, JR Ackerley

Admittedly I don’t read a lot of books about dogs, loving them, caring for them, grooming and breeding and healing and so on. But then again, My Dog Tulip is not a book about dogs;  it’s a portrait of one in particular, Tulip, and how her distinctly canine personality is all her own.

I had a wonderful dog growing up, a big black lab named Sheba. I loved her as a pet, but now that I’ve read about the intimacies and intricacies of Ackerley and Tulip, I’m not so sure that we did the best we could by each other. Ackerley chronicles Tulip’s adventures with a gentle curiosity, and manages to somehow never speak on her behalf, only having  her loving and protective and occasionally beastly self shine through.

Together these lovers try to come to some sort of understanding of each other, though their differing natures dispose them to continual miscommunication and anxiety. All they have are gestures, and Ackerliy is moved often by Tulip’s choosing appropriate places to defecate, which he interprets as her canine means of showing loving consideration. He is also shamed by his occasional inability to understand her needs, even when she’s doing her best to straight up tell the guy. This to me seems to approximately characterize almost all relationships, especially where love is involved.

The crazy thing about this book is that Ackerley never seems gushy, sentimental, he never breaks down into ‘puppy talk.’ Rather he catalogs Tulip’s moods with respect to her internal dignity. While he claims to acknowledge the effect of anthropomorphism–the danger in collapsing animal emotions into human ones–he frequently falls into contradiction: Tulip is given many humanizing characteristics, but only because ‘love’ is a written word, and canines aren’t much for reading.

That said, it seems like one could learn a lot about the meaning of love from the way that Ackerley and Tulip care for each other, from the ways they devote themselves to one another while always respecting each others liberty.

I never thought I’d say this, but I want to learn how to love like a dog.

Tracks booke cover, louise Erdich

This magical wintry read was devastatingly beautiful, right from the very first line: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.”

But of course, the characters of Louise Erdrich’s Tracks are so alive that Margaret, Pauline, and Nanapush continue to whisper at me even after I have put this treasure back on the shelf. Tracks gives a distinct pleasure, each of it’s alternating narrators drawing you in in in to this world, where a woman makes love to a lake, and an old ‘grandfather’ teaches younger men the ways to woo even the wildest hearts, with a little girl running throughout, in shiny patent dancing shoes or soft and yielding moccasins.

There’s a darkness too, in the way that this story is bound in history. These characters, despite Nanapush’s  occasional cynicism, are quietly (and sometimes loudly) robbed by a faceless bureaucracy, and they change shape, in some small ways, and some big ones too, so that they may better fit into the pews of the Catholic church.

Pauline’s hallucinatory visions and complex masochism change the way she sees her own body, and eventually the scars of her maniacal devotion creep up to her skin, and she wears them like the mark of an adulteress, of a leper, of a moving target. Yet this is only half her story, and she herself can do nothing that could discredit its power.

Tracks is a beautiful and powerful work, and I can still feel the reverberations of this story, these characters, in my dreams.

1. Sheila Heti lives in my neighborhood, well kinda. She’s a youngish white woman in Toronto worried about what art should be like, and what people should be like.

2. How Should a Person Be? is like an incredibly localized map of the neighborhood of these concerns, and Heti’s cartographic co-adventurer is her invariable friend and painter Margaux.  I definitely definitely felt like this book was a map for me, specifically, in a lot of really good ways.

3. But not an official map, more like the kind of sweetly personalized map that a friend will draw of where the good croissants are and how to get back to their house when you visit them in the city that they live in, where you don’t live and only go because you want to see them.

4. But better than that kind of map because I’ve never worried, not deeply, about where to find great croissants, but I have worried about betrayal, and lonliness, and fame, and friends, and whether or not I’m good enough at blow jobs, and what it means to be accomplished at something, like painting or cutting hair or imagining grilled cheese sandwiches. And I’ve also felt that maybe I’m not important, in a lot of ways, and I’ve agonized over my own equivocal enjoyment of that feeling too.

5. That whole business of ‘recognition’ is only part of the reason I liked this book, though. In addition to filling in a little bit of my life by way of reading about hers, this book was also funny and sad and sweet.

6. I read this book because one of my pals said the second time I met him that Sheila Heti is one of his favorite writers. He’s also a Torontonian, and he likes Trampoline Hall and other little things that make Toronto a place worth living and really local and lovable. He said that that he likes her, but is kind of wierded out by the degree of that like because she’s not only ‘from around here, but she’s from around here.‘ Which I took to mean that she’s like us, more so than other people are like us, because not only does she go to the same bars and concerts and pop-up venues that we do, but somehow she’s even more like us, in the ‘we, all of us, are having a moment’ kind of way.

7. And, not to spoil anything, but I kind of felt like that moment, the one we are all having, and by ‘we all’ I mean a very small number, in the long run, but still, that moment is kind of the answer to “How should a person be?”

8.  So I guess a person should be themselves, but throwing their hands in the air, and making a go of it, having a moment.

9. If only we could all make a go of it with the grace and humor and deceptively light touch that Sheila Heti does in How Shoud a Person Be?.

My Cousin, My Gastroenternologist by Mark Leyner book cover

So, I think that maybe you had to be there when it comes to My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. This guy, Mark Leyner, was a giant of new American fiction when this book exploded onto the scene. He was a muscle-man among gladiators; he was standing shoulder to shoulder with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen. That’s actually why I wanted to read him.  And don’t get me wrong, it was pretty damn good stuff… mostly.

There were moments of real intrigue and delight! It’s billed as fiction, but there’s a picture of Leyner himself on the cover, and it reads like a gonzo memoir. Leyner even says right in the first section that it’s “An autobiography written wearing wrist weights.” And his real life wife, Arleen, to whom this book is dedicated, is a person-cum-character in this sparkplug story.

I think that part of Leyner’s project here may have been to showcase the way that corporations, commercialization, television, etc., have in some respects limited our abilities to communicate with each other. I’m not so sure that he nailed it. His much lauded prose was delivered with the shimmering delight of an over-medicated, over-caffeinated, and over-educated psychoanalyst. And I totally laughed, literally out loud, at many of his glorious one-twos. But, ultimately, there was no single punch that I couldn’t just roll with. The book lacked the heft of flesh, had no sticking power, and for all of it’s bravado didn’t make contact, and didn’t leave a bruise.

Lydia Davis Translation, Madame Bovary, Book Cover, 2010

I totally cried.

Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was beautiful, clear, and her ability to perfectly translate the tone of the work is astounding. For a taste of what she can do, The Paris Review published a handful of Davis’ short stories that were modeled on Flaubert, and you can read them here.

Because this is a well known story that has permeated literary culture, I already knew what was going to happen.  And honestly, I decided to read this version because I like Lydia Davis’ writing; if she specifically hadn’t translated Flaubert, I may never have read this book. I mean, everyone knows the story anyway: A stupid but good looking woman marries without love, and then seeks passion elsewhere, and tragedy ensues. I was so prepared to hate the heroine in this book, so ready to be dismayed by another old story about a woman torn by the choice between two men, so anxious to feel the sting of a character built from the sexist archetype of beauty without brains.

Yet when I was actually reading this book I was really surprised by how much I liked Emma, how I recognized in her the anxieties and fits of naivete I have seen in myself and other people I know. And she wasn’t so dumb, really. She was callous, selfish, brutally unkind at times, and a wretched mother and careless wife. But somehow I felt for her, y’know? It seemed like the little fictional village in Normandy that Flaubert sets this drama in was built up of insidious illusions and untruths, that there were lies in the newspapers, and that the shop keepers and notaries were disingenuous at best. In that light, Emma isn’t a sexist archetype, just a player in a larger game. Her ideas about passion and love and being head over heels and having cosmically and improbably hot monkey sex are still ideas that circulate in the cultural landscape of right now. The lurid romance novels and poems that turn Emma on to impossible love are old time versions of pop songs and rom coms. We’re still looking for that spark, that special person that breathes fire and incinerates the desire for everything but love.

The Mezzanine book cover, Nicholson Baker

Today I rode the escalator at Yonge and Bloor, up from the North bound platform, which I do almost every weekday, without fail when the weather’s poor, though not like I did today. I felt like I was glowing, a total exuberance, swept up up and away by the gentle rhythmic machinations.  I was suddenly smiling so wide that my cheeks almost hurt, and I placed my hand on the black rubber rail and measured its motion, the tiny delay with respect to the grooved steel of the tall steps.

I had just finished Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. That man is a bad ass in the department of banalities. With clear and thoughtful language this small novel unfolds over the course of a single lunch hour, and with astounding clarity offers meditations on the quotidian pleasures and displeasures of drinking straws, of popcorn, of office bantering, and even corporate restrooms. This is a small book that deals in small things, yet the cumulative effect of a lifetime of  tiny wonders is hugely moving.

The Mezzanine dances on the border between inspired and banal, and hits you full on in the face with something powerful: Life is more than work, relationships, lunches and paper cuts. Howie, the narrator, is attempting to slog through Aurelius‘ Meditations, one of the oldest Self Help books, and at times Baker’s extremely detailed and pedantic prose  made me commiserate with Howie. I mean, it’s cool and all, but it is honestly difficult to read over 1000 words of footnooted text. But of course, Baker knows that. The physical challenge of small text, the difficulty of maintaining mental alertness through a four page in depth discussion of the different stresses on shoe laces and the possible systems that may be able to measure wear and tear are totally worth it in the end. In fact, in dealing so seriously and at length with these minor details of life, they are made into new fascinating things. This devotion to fleshing out the meaning of small and practical objects imbues the world with a freshness that is absolutely intoxicating.

Sometimes, when I’m going to a party, I stand outside for a really long time. Like, a realllly long time, and I just listen in. Then my mind starts going, and I think about all of the possible interactions and outcomes; I write the party, I mentally rehearse the party; bare shoulders and bold thumb prints on the bowls of wine glasses, condensation on beer bottles, exclamations and padding around the kitchen, always the kitchen, in stocking feet.

Mystery Guesy Book Cover, Presents

Of course, if you’re partying at Sophie Calle‘s house, chances are pretty good that you’ll find yourself drinking from champagne flutes and wearing your shoes. Then again, Sophie Calle lives in France, where a house party means something else entirely. And for Grégoire Bouillier in particular, this party takes on such psycho-symbolic significance, that it becomes in and of itself a sort of cosmic event in the small universe of his life.

The Mystery Guest is an involuted party. The pre-party preening is a whorling cortex of pain and the pathetic, wrapped around the peculiar French take on spurned love. Because Bouillier’s relationship with a woman who remains unnamed was of the type that ‘died suddenly at home,’ Bouillier spends about a third of the book attaching meanings almost ad hoc to the objects that are in his orbit; turtleneck shirts, light bulbs, bottles of wine, cut roses in a vase.

In other parts of the book, Bouillier manages to gracefully connect his own prismatic and kaleidoscopic  interiority to another famous party; he traces the outline of Mrs. Dalloway onto the remembered flesh of his former lover, and in so doing reveals anew the circuitry of the mind.

I enjoyed this book immensely! Not having anything like fluency in French, I can’t say if Paris Review editor Lorin Stein’s translation was faithful, but I can tell you that it was beautiful. Great stuff!

Woolf, To the Lighthouse book cover

I read this little gem on my sofa, with tea, as the diluted winter light spilled in through my large front window; all in all the  pretty much perfect conditions for reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Now, I knew going into it that I was in for a treat (I’d read Mrs. Dalloway in school and “Street Haunting“on the bus), but I didn’t realize how pampered I would feel by the lush prose, or the lovingly rendered vignettes. The book is structured into three sections, and the first section is a psychological collage reflecting one end of summer afternoon on the Isle of Skye. The characters are the Ramsay Family and a loose collection of boarders in the their big country home, and the narrative is a tapestry woven together from the many dropped threads that make up each characters thoughts and impressions, which frays even as it is being woven.

Man, I liked this book. Woolf took on a lot of thematic content in this little volume, and I am not exactly qualified to unpack all of it, especially here. Nonetheless, I can’t help but come back, again and again,  to two specific little things that tie together a number of the characters. So many of the fragmented thoughts and observations that make up the bulk of the text are devoted to excellence, to creation, to worrying about being excellent, to the compulsive machinations of a mind racing towards excellence.  And yet, at the same time, these characters are equally obsessed with intimacy, with empathy, with sympathy, with that feeling of togetherness. They are always pairing off, teaming up, or taking measure of each others emotions, always crashing up against each other in search of admiration and intimacy. There’s something in the way that Lilly Briscoe, in particular, tangles up her ideas about love and about her work that is staggeringly beautiful.

I’m stoked to read some more Woolf this year! Flush and Moments of Being are both in queue.