What I Read in January

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Triburbia, Karl Taro Greenfeld. A splendid, fun read to start off the year, about interconnected families living in gentrified Tribeca. The story “Fun Won,” which I read in Harper’s and wrote about here, makes up most of one chapter, and is the reason I wanted to dive right into this one after I received it as a Christmas gift.

A group of fathers meets up for breakfast each morning after dropping their kids off at the same school. Each chapter is a self-contained story centered around a different character (not just the fathers), and the web of relationships becomes more apparent after each one. My sloppy cast of characters:

Mark, sound engineer, married to Brooke, father to Cooper & Penny, affair with babysitter Sadie;

Brooke, married to Mark, mother to Cooper & Penny, at one time worked with Marni;

Brick, sculptor, married to Ava, affair with Beatrice;

Beatrice, married to Giancarlo, affair with Brick

Sumner, film producer

Giancarlo, restauranteur, married to Beatrice, fucks Shannon on his yacht;

Marni, magazine editor, married to Rick, at one time worked with Brooke;

Rick, memorist, guilty of Frey-like fabrications, married to Marni;

Barnaby, gimp photographer, works with Cooper, father of Miro, brother to Shannon;

Levi-Levy, playwright, married to Charlaine;

Cooper, daughter  to Mark & Brooke, child model, crush on Miro;

Miro, son of Barnaby, object of affection of Cooper;

Unnamed avant-garde puppeteer, married to Caroline, father of Sadie;

Shannon, sister to Barnaby, fucks Giancarlo on his yacht;

Rankin, mobster, owns & manages property, married to Sydney, father of Amber & Jeremy;

Sadie, daughter of the puppeteer, babysitter to Cooper & Penny;

Amber, daughter of Rankin, bullied in school by Cooper.

And I know I am missing a few. The book is constructed in the same novel-in-stories style that defined Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (of which the electric prose of “Fun Won” reminded me); the picture gets sketched in from different camera angles, one chapter at a time, to portray a three-dimensional urban neighborhood once friendly to families and creative professionals with sub-moderate to above-average incomes who are soon to be priced out by wealthier types who merely want to pay for the bohemian allure.

My favorite chapter, I think, was the one that centered on child model Cooper; although written in the third person (Greenfeld switches among tenses and points of view depending on the chapter), it weaves the class insensitivity of a child made too often the center of attention, and prompted too frequently to behave as an adult (and hence, rush to have a boyfriend), with genuine prepubescent yearning impulse and confusion:

Ah, an older boy. His appearance in the loft, blond-haired, sleepy-eyed, in button-up blue shirt, slim-cut selvage denim, and Converse sneakers, seemed to Cooper a manifestation. Had he been here all along?

“Miro—Cooper goes to school with you,” Miro was told by the photographer.

Cooper looked at the photographer, with his crazy gyrating limp, his somewhat effeminate manner; he didn’t seem to her like other dads, but she guessed he was Miro’s dad.

Miro nodded, uninterested.

Cooper gazed at him hoping he would recognize her: surely even the fifth-grade boys must have noticed her. Miro, though, merely flopped on another of the many sofas in the room and started doing something on his phone. But when they were finished with her test shots, Miro asked her if she wanted to draw, and Cooper loved drawing. She looked at Sadie, who looked at the photographer, who shrugged and said sure, though he wondered if it might be weird for Cooper to see the other girls coming in for their go-sees. Sadie assured him that Cooper wasn’t the type to be bothered by that.

Other Kinds, Dylan Nice. From SF/LD, the book imprint of Hobart, comes this exquisite collection of stories the size of a prayer booklet, which makes it the perfect book for carrying in your pocket and getting caught reading on public transportation. The nine stories are grouped in threes and all have sensitive, keenly observant male protagonists whose active social spheres contrast with their inner aloneness. The plots are minimalist, almost mumblecore-like, but the narratives are not.

Nice keeps his sentences simple and short, then works up to the occasional outpour of folded-over layers with two or three ands. The effect is one of poignant ruefulness:

A year passed. Friends moved. His rent went up and the university would still not surrender its degree. He withdrew from school owing to debt and took up with a nice girl who enjoyed her work. They lived together in a well-insulated apartment for young professionals.  (“A Short Essay About the War”)

That night there was a girl I was in love with. I wore a nice sweater and smoked in the car driving to her house. I had made a CD and labeled it Tonight and played it, thinking there were chord progressions that sounded like whatever it was I was pursuing. (“Thin Enough to Break”)

John Updike Review, 2011. When the John Updike Society launched in 2009, I immediately signed up and sent the required dues, even though I didn’t have much to contribute on an intellectual level other than my deep fondness for Updike’s books, at that. I was simply happy it existed. After the folding of The Centaurian, the helpful site run by James Yerkes, in 2009, there hadn’t been a sole reliable place on the Internet to turn to for information on my favorite author. For my contribution I received a lapel pin (with a drawing of Updike’s face) and a subscription to the John Updike Review, an annual peer-reviewed critical journal edited by James Schiff and published by the University of Cincinnati.

The first issue of JUR does a good job of covering varying aspects of Updike’s work—not necessarily an easy task given the man’s range of interests and sheer voluminous output. (A read through his collections Hugging the Shore or Due Considerations would lead one to think that Updike never turned down an assignment no matter how far afield.) The selections are also very readable, not weighted down by academic jargon or theory. The authors’ joy in reading Updike comes through with the questions they ask to understand his work better.

Since this is the first issue, there are a lot of Why-are-we-here moments to get out of the way, including “John Updike’s Sense of Wonder,” Ann Beattie’s keynote address delivered at the First Biennial John Updike Society Conference (in Reading, PA), as well as J. D. McClatchy’s tribute for the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a eulogy from Updike’s son David.

I enjoyed “Updike and Kerouac: Rabbit on the Road,” by Donald J. Grenier, which reminds us that Rabbit, Run was conceived by Updike in part as a response to On the Road (published the same year that Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was put into effect), asking the question of what happens to the people left behind when a young man puts wandering urges before his responsibilities. I also enjoyed “’The Bright Island of Make-Believe’: Updike’s Misgivings About the Movies,” by Peter J. Bailey, an argument that sources Updike’s fiction and criticism with equal weight to portray a writer’s suspicions of the Hollywood machine.

One of my someday projects is to attempt a wholesale annotation of the Rabbit novels, starting with Updike’s use of alliteration in the first line of Rabbit, Run that is meant to echo the bouncing of a basketball, as well as Janice’s sweet tooth (she puts sugar in her old-fashioneds) in contrast to her husband’s taste for salt.

The Way the World Works, Nicholson Baker. Baker’s second essay collection lacks the unity and serendipity of his first, The Size of Thoughts, but is still an enjoyable read. In fact, Baker’s essays are on the whole probably better than his fiction; for one thing, they do away with the mere shadow of a thoughtful protagonist on which to hook narrative, and rely instead on an already-established, complete, and fully reliable one: the author himself.

The book is divided into sections: Life, Reading, Libraries & Newspapers, Technology, and War, and a final essay, entitled “Mowing,” included at the end “because it didn’t seem quite right to end the book with an impressionistic article on my unsuccessful efforts to master a series of violent video games.” In Technology, one sees the sentiments of this man who once wrote a paean to the card catalog, and who spent his life savings to rescue an archive of newspapers, begin to evolve. He is unhappy with the functions of the Amazon Kindle 2, with its “greenish, sickly gray” screen and inability to mark text, but he thinks Wikipedia is “just an incredible thing” and mourns the death of Steve Jobs, “our techno-impresario and digital dream granter.” (I gotta ask: so what does he think of the Kindle Fire? Has he tried to use an e-reader in the presence of any direct light?)

The ‘War’ section includes three essays that feel like they were written in order to justify, or at least accompany, Human Smoke, Baker’s line-by-line retelling of the facts leading up the U.S.’s decision to enter World War II. A short essay near the front of the book, “Why I Like the Telephone,” may have been my favorite, not least for what it achieves in showing off Baker’s ability to bring forth the wonderment in how we visually and aurally receive things, like dial tones.

Big Fiction # 3, Fall/Winter 2012. As its name implies, this journal out of Seattle focuses on longer works of fiction, which as a submitting writer I have found to be a thin market, in that window of length beyond the threshold of Internet readability, but hard to get published in print, where space is at a premium and journals are understandably reluctant to devote so much of an issue to a single author.

Even better, the volume is published in exquisite hand-designed letterpress. Three stories make up the issue. A lot of attention will probably be paid to the longest of the three, Mylene Dressler’s novella “The Wedding of Anna F.,” as it concerns an elderly character who believes herself to have “recovered” the life of Anne Frank. Elderly characters don’t get a lot of love in fiction for a number of reasons, not least of which that they are hard to write about reliably, since the authors writing about them often haven’t reached the age of the character. How do you convincingly place yourself if the shoes of someone who’s at an age you haven’t lived at yet?

And the ones we do see get played off much younger, dynamic counterparts: I think of the Lee Krasner-modeled Hope Chafetz in Updike’s Seek My Face and Leonard Schiller in Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening, both the subjects of ambitious students eager to pin down the elders’ lives and work for some boxed-off, line-item accomplishment. The common practice is to portray older folks as limited, doddering, reminiscent, and not so eager to advance the conversation. Outside of a few small moments, Dressler mostly avoids this technique, and the use of flashbacks help to break up the long conversation.

Dressler’s story should not overshadow the two smaller ones leading up to it: Eric Neuenfeldt’s “Telegraph Pine” and Molly Bonovsky Anderson’s “The Bricklayer’s Club,” both with convincing male protagonists looking to rebuild their self-worth after falling into despair.

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