What I Read in October and November

November 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

October’s reading was light due to the baseball playoffs, so I’m bundling it with November.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart. I can’t remember why I bought this book—it may have been the title, which promised some kind of magic urban realism (you’ve noticed, I have a fondness for books about women living in the city). And what flickers of information we get toward the plot does provide that. But since this is prose poetry, a term that I had never really considered until I gave this book a try, the effort of forwardness is meant to be secondary to image and language, even though there is an inchoate plot based on the author’s life (Smart’s affair with the poet George Barker, with whom she bore four children).  Smart is more interested in taking us down routes where the lights are so bright they distract us from where we are going, but I found it hard to enjoy the journey without some clue as to where I was being taken. There was a point where I gave up and just imagined I was closing my eyes in my balcony seat, listening to a symphony.

Green Mountains Review, Vol. 26,  No. 1. Picked this up at the Brattleboro Literary Festival; I had been meaning to check out an issue, and this one happened to include a number of familiar names. There is a special feature on Tony Hoagland, presenting 14 new poems and critical appreciations by Mark Halliday and Tony Hart.

The square page dimensions of GMR are well suited for flash fiction, and there are good selections here by Sean Lovelace and Lou Beach (who also designed the cover and an eight-page selection of Surrealist artwork). Among the longer stories, the two I particularly liked were “A Kind of Extinction” by Jaimee Wriston Colbert and “Breakup Blog” by Lee Ann Roripaugh.

Colbert’s story is about the preteen daughter of Tea Party activists (aptly named Fortune Hopewell), who is also a petty thief (of all things aquamarine, her favorite color). She considers herself a neighborhood spy and is somewhat enchanted by her beatnik neighbor and her science teacher, who each present opportunities for thought challenging to the family doctrine. She has a job taking care of her convalescent grandmother. Her eldest sister was killed in a motor-scooter accident; her other sister has taken to meth addiction, and her parents’ activism seems born less out of reflexive anger to these developments than a wish to deny the necessity of personal interrelationship in their healing (they refuse casseroles from the neighbors). Colbert is great at filtering the buzz through Fortune’s limited third-person POV:

Fortune’s Dad calls him the Beatnik on the Hill and Mum says, For crying out loud, there’s no more beatniks, you think it’s the fifties? Then Dad points out that he looks like a beatnik, with those billowy white pants and his pointed beard, and he wears jewelry, Dad says. Plus he’s a jazz player, which as far as Dad is concerned is no kind of music and certainly no kind of work. Their property abuts the Beatnik’s only his goes up the hill and theirs is flat downhill, which means the Beatnik gets the view of the Susquehanna River and the hills beyond while the Hopewell house is hunkered in the trees where not even enough sunlight beams in to melt the ice from their driveway in the winter.

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s “Breakup Blog” follows a trend I’ve been seeing lately of second-person present-tense narratives, with the ‘you’ not as an agent so much as a kind of absorptive reactor. The ‘you’ in this case is the subject of a slander perpetrated by an ex (here called The Plagiarist) in her electronic journal:

You have to hand it to the Plagiarist. Despite the icky title, it’s a pretty snappy format. First the plagiarist talks a lot about her feelings with both hair-shirt verve and martyred solipsism … And then—either the best or the worst part, depending on how you want to look at it—the post concludes with a zippy little featurette called Reasons to Get Over Her, in which the Plagiarist catalogues one new thing each day that’s wrong with you … You need to stop reading The Plagiarist’s blog. Need. To. Stop. You know this. Your friends agree. So does your therapist. But it’s like looking into the distorted mirror of the funhouse effect on your MacBook’s Photo Booth: fascinating/horrifying/ fascinating/horrifying.

Slice #13, Fall ‘13/Winter ’14. Every issue of Slice has a theme, and this issue’s theme is “The Unknown.” I probably would have taken this to mean “unknown” in an ostensible, Time Life Mysteries of the variety, and its attendant themes: outer space, the supernatural, death and the afterlife. Rather, many of the stories here are about people embarking on new stages of their lives with uncertainty: new motherhood, a childhood spent in Poland. It feels like somewhat of a safe interpretation, especially given the publisher’s note at the beginning:

New writers are often urged to write what they know. The suggestion, of course, is that you shouldn’t start with writing about the foibles of 18th-century French aristocracy if you grew up on a farm in North Dakota. This is good advice, though if we never wrote anything but what we knew for sure, we’d be writing nothing but blogs about what we had for dinner.

Among the fiction, Helen Phillips’ “The Wedding Stairs” plays with a fun premise, the forbidden access to the downstairs room where caterers at a wedding reception carry out their operations.  My favorite story was Scott Lambridis’ “Laurent,” about a prostitute and her client-cum-lover, using their fascination with a local serial killer of prostitutes to cover up their bleaker terror at their uncertain futures. The prose sings with urban shoe scrapes and hints at the characters’ evident pasts:

“Look at them,” said J. She sipped the cheap coffee, watching one of the girls, a young one with a clip in her hair. “How cliché, a whore and a policeman in love. They’re all talking about how sweet her relationship is, they might even have the child, he’s going to leave his wife.” The others put their arms around the girl, drew her into their cocoon of bodies until she disappeared. She watched the men now—the ones she knew, the ones she didn’t, reading newspapers of their own. “Do you think that could be him? Do you think he reads about himself?” she asked, pointing to a man with legs folded and only a green hat visible above his newspaper.

“Look at that headline, blaring loud as day,” said M. (Laurent had strangled another on the footbridge between the four theatres of the Flats.) When the man snapped his newspaper down, J. folded into M.’s armpit.

“We have to leave,” she said. M. laughed.

There are some silver-tuna interviews as well, with Rick Moody, Francine Prose, and Penguin editor Allison Lorentzen, among others.

Varieties of Exile, Mavis Gallant. Many of the stories in this collection are set in Montreal, where Gallant was born, though she lived most of her life in Paris. Montreal is one of my favorite destination cities, and at four and a half hours from where I live, one of the most accessible to me. Its bilingualism and independence from the rest of North America, its proto-European streak (on one trip they had a film festival with Godard movies projected, without subtitles, on the side of a warehouse), the fact that everyone there is somehow young and beautiful and tireless, give it a feeling of exoticness at a reasonable price.

The stories in Varieties of Exile were selected by the American novelist Russell Banks, who, due to his part-Canadian heritage, admits of “an abiding affection if not an outright preference for the North American stories, if only because Gallant has attended there to lives that are familiar and matter greatly to me and rarely make it into literature.” Interestingly, Gallant writes of the city as though expecting an American audience, or at least, an audience that would not be very familiar with Montreal and its outsider identity. We are reminded when conversations shift between French and English, that hockey players are considered celebrities, and that, in one particular instance, Quebec is unique in that its blue laws allow grocers to sell beer.

Gallant often wrote multiple stories about the same characters at different stages of their lives, and Banks has taken care to group several of them together. I was most drawn to the stories of Madame Carette and her daughters, intelligent Berthe and flighty, naïve Marie. Berthe is written off early as a spinster, and in “A Chosen Husband,” the family anxiously awaits a marriage proposal for Marie by an awkward visitor:

His French was slow and muffled, as though strained through wool. He used English words, or French words in an English way. Mme. Carette lifted her shoulders and parted her clasped hands as if to say, “Never mind, English is better than Greek.” At least, they could be certain that the Driscolls were Catholic.

Of course he was at a loss, astray in an armchair, with the Carettes watching like friendly judges. When he reached for another chocolate, they looked to see if his nails were clean. When he crossed his legs, they examined his socks. They were fixing their first impression of the stranger who might take Marie away, give her a modern kitchen, children to bring up, a muskrat coat, a charge account at Dupuis Frères department store, a holiday in Maine. Louis continued to examine his bright Driscoll hair, the small nose along which his glasses slid. Holding the glasses in place with a finger, he answered Mme. Carette: his father was a dental surgeon, with a degree from Pennsylvania. It was the only degree worth mentioning. Before settling into a dentist’s chair the patient should always read the writing on the wall.

Gallant’s writing is alive with subtlety while showing off its cosmopolitan awareness, with dialogue that dresses characters in layers of complexity and skepticism. Varieties of Exile is one of three collections of Gallant’s stories brought back into print by NYRB Classics.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky. Second read, in anticipation of the film, currently sitting in our TiVo queue. The first time I read it was just after it was published, in 1999, and without all the references to mix tapes, the apparent lack of Internet (it’s set in the early nineties), photofinishing shops, and gay characters preferring to remain closeted, it would be hard to believe the book is fourteen years old. But teenagers are still reading it, the book has been banned from not a few high schools, and now it’s a film, directed by the author.

Does it read differently the second time around? As an older reader, I think I am more accepting of the blurriness of message; that Chbosky is willing to give his hero a fair chance from the start. Charlie is a freshman who comes under the wings of two very accepting seniors, a brother and a sister who appreciate his intelligence, sensitivity, and yearnings, as well as an English teacher who cultivates his writerly potential with extra reading assignments. He comes with a lot of demons: a close friend recently deceased, a sister suffering abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, an aunt with a troubled past, and some hints at mental illness. These are revealed in a series of letters to an unknown friend that is supposed to be us, but that, due to their searching internality, read more as diary entries. His perceived isolation tends to make him magnify these demons.

Which is to say that for a wallflower, Charlie isn’t exactly getting trounced. Even from the beginning, things seem to progress for him on a social level that probably would have made the high-school me envious. I was seven years out of high school when I first read Perks, with a lot of lingering resentment, and I suspect I wanted the book then to be something it wasn’t, perhaps be a little more defeatist and angry. The pressure put on the book to be the MTV Generation’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye (MTV Books is the imprint that published Perks) might have inflamed that. Chbosky resisted those temptations, and the result is a nuanced book with lasting heart.

R.I.P. Doris Lessing

November 17, 2013 § Leave a comment


Were you around a lot of storytelling as a child?


No . . . the Africans told stories, but we weren’t allowed to mix with them. It was the worst part about being there. I mean I could have had the most marvelously rich experiences as a child. But it would have been inconceivable for a white child. Now I belong to something called a “Storytellers’ College” in England. About three years ago a group of people tried to revive storytelling as an art. It’s doing rather well. The hurdles were—I’m just a patron, I’ve been to some meetings—first that people turn up thinking that storytelling is telling jokes. So they have to be discouraged! Then others think that storytelling is like an encounter group. There’s always somebody who wants to tell about their personal experience, you know. But enormous numbers of real storytellers have been attracted. Some from Africa—from all over the place—people who are still traditional hereditary storytellers or people who are trying to revive it. And so, it’s going on. It’s alive and well. When you have storytelling sessions in London or anywhere, you get a pretty good audience. Which is quite astonishing when you think of what they could be doing instead—watching Dallas or something.

From The Art of Fiction #102, in The Paris Review 106, Spring 1988

All of Knowledge as One’s Province

November 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

On the release of Susan Sontag’s complete and unexpurgated (as in 168-page) Rolling Stone interview from 1978, Mark O’Donnell cannot help but marvel at Sontag’s ability to keep up with the sense of boundlessness and insatiability she projected in her approach to reading, her wish to have her assumptions challenged and the euphoria she evinced at the discovery of the new, and “the way in which she positions curiosity as not just a primary critical value, but a primary human value”:

There’s always the sense, with Sontag, of reading as a process of acquisition and assimilation, as a kind of territorial expansionism of the self. All those itemized resolutions in the journals, all those lists of things to be read and absorbed; her project was, as she put it, “taking all of knowledge as my province.”  And this is one of the most striking things about her, this conquistadorial spirit brought to bear on a basically democratic sensibility—the famous imperative to be interested in everything.

It is hard not to think that Sontag decided to invest in the responsibility of her image early in her life, what from the boasts of reading translations of Mann and Gide as a teenager to the lists and self-absorptions she committed to her journals in those years (Age 15: “It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence.”). Such pressure to keep feeding both the self and the public image of the self could have easily led to madness.

Fittingly, here is what she wrote, at age 16, about Gide’s The Counterfeiters:

I am fascinated but not moved … Here; a novel by Gide called The Counterfeiters dealing with a small chronological slice of life around a man called Edouard, who is planning to write a book called The Counterfeiters, but is now preoccupied with keeping a journal of his life while his life is colored by the idea of writing this book (as Hopkins sees the wreck of the Deutschland through a drop of Christ’s blood)–and he thinks this journal will be more interesting than the proposed book, so that he now plans to publish the journal and never write the book. Edourard is Gide, beginning and ending in medias res.

Medium Cool

November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Albert Camus was perhaps admired as much for his façade of masculinity as he was his writing. It was not just for his handling of the subjects of absurdity, suicide, or politics that he inadvertently made it a normal thing for philosophers to be featured on dorm room posters. (Nietzsche joined him, retroactively.) The resemblance to James Dean in both vulnerable pose and tragic death via automobile seems an undue pressure on his life’s narrative.

In her 1963 essay “The Ideal Husband,” Susan Sontag found an explanation for the allure: Camus was able to “assume the responsibilities of sanity” while having to “traffic in the madmen’s themes” of suicide, affectlessness, guilt, and paranoia worn out by his contemporaries:

But he does so with such an air of reasonableness, mesure, effortlessness, gracious impersonality, as to place him apart from the others. Starting from the premises of a popular nihilism, he moves the reader—solely by the power of his own tranquil voice and tone—to humanist and humanitarian conclusions in no way entailed by his premises. This illogical leaping of the abyss to nihilism is the gift for which readers are grateful to Camus. This is why he evoked feelings or real affection on the part of his readers. Kafka arouses pity and terror, Joyce admiration, Proust and Gide respect, but no modern writer that I can think of, except Camus, has aroused love.

Camus channeled affection in his personal relationships as much as he evoked it in his writing, as demonstrated by his tender 1957 letter to his former teacher upon his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

(Hat tip: Alex Pruteanu.)

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