What I Read in January

February 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Laughter of Strangers, Michael J Seidlinger. The Laughter of Strangers is a novel about boxing, which made me think two things: how few novels these days, it seems, want to be about something, and two, how few novels there have been about boxing. Much of the literature that has stood the test of time is of the nonfiction variety: Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer have written books about it, and there are classic autobiographies like Raging Bull that have made into feature films.

I say this as I’ve tried to write a story about an ex-boxer: The sport itself seems to have been outfoxed in the cultural conversation by mixed martial arts, as though regulations, punching, and gentlemen’s rules were dragging us down the whole time. But given its structure, it makes an ideal frame on which to draw out the intricacies of primal and inner conflict.

Seidlinger’s book takes us inside the mind of Willem Floures, a veteran heavyweight boxer who may be nearing the end of the line. (The title alludes to the public humiliation that comes with defeat; Morrissey’s song “Boxers” comes to mind here.) After Willem loses his top ranking, his trainer, Spencer, develops a scheme to win back public sentiment while Willem works to regain his crown. It is then that we are let in on a twist: all of Willem’s opponents are also named Willem Floures, distinguished only by their aliases (Executioner, Dynamite, etc.), suggesting they are merely figurative extensions of the protagonist’s psyche. At this point it is hard not to make comparisons here to another boxing-related book-turned-film about a man confronting a figurative extension of himself: Fight Club.

Seidlinger uses an interesting manner of first-person storytelling that interjects mental “shouts” in all capitals that seem to mimic a trainer’s yelling advice from the corner. They work for Willem’s thought processes as he operates in the ring:

X has me pinned against the ropes for a third of the round.

BLOCK

HOLD

SHORT LIFELESS HOOKS TO THE BODY

It’s what I do to survive.

They also work as a kind of demonic hallucination interfering with his ability to process:

How many times have I hit the canvas at the expense of myself but to bolster what this is, the betterment of the brand?

ARE YOU ASKING?

Lately, it’s been a lot.

So what I’m saying is—

I COULD TAKE A PUNCH

Nowadays every punch feels like glass cutting skin, earth quaking up my spine, calling me collect, telling me to stay down.

END IT NOW

I’ve got a few fights left in me, thank you.

The story takes a somewhat sinister twist around the three-quarter mark with a device that envelops, among other things, Spencer’s young daughter and her imaginary friend. Seidlinger’s use of rhythmic jablike sentences and short chapters make for fluid and engaging reading.

Check out Seidlinger’s interview at Other People With Brad Listi, Episode 246, and Jim Ruland’s dynamite review of the book in the Los Angeles Times.

The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz. A Christmas gift from my wife. Seitz, longtime film & TV critic and Editor-in-Chief at RogerEbert.com, has put together a hefty and exquisite coffee-table-sized full-color tribute to the director of charming films about eccentric characters trying to exert control their own micro-worlds.

One chapter is devoted to each film in the Anderson oeuvre thus released (not The Grand Budapest Hotel) with insightful introductory comments by Seitz and an extensive interview with Anderson. The interviewer and interviewee have been acquainted since the days when Anderson was seeking a distributor for his first feature, Bottle Rocket, and so Seitz is comfortable enough to do away with straightforward question-and-answer and instead try out his own theories and interpretations of Anderson’s films on the director himself. (On more than a few occasions, Anderson replies to Seitz’s remarks with a coy, “Hmmm.”)  What makes the book eminently browsable are the collected storyboards and set photos as well as the whimsical Chris Ware-esque illustrations by Max Dalton, the intentional flatness of which pay homage to Anderson’s diorama-like stage aesthetics.

Flying at Night, Ted Kooser. A Christmas gift from a couple years back, signed by the author the year he was named Poet Laureate of the United States. This collection assembles poems from Kooser’s volumes Sure Signs and One World at a Time covering the years 1965-85.

The imagery juxtaposes the rustic with the rusted, the domestic with the exotic. As on-spot as his description is, I think I enjoy Kooser the most when he injects a wry sidelong note of persuasion:

There’s a click like a piece of chalk

tapping a blackboard, and the furnace

starts thinking: Now, just where was I?

(“Furnace”)

(Those k’s in the first two lines ignite the whole poem.)

At the end of a freight train rolling away,

a hand swinging a lantern.

The only lights left behind in the town

are a bulb burning cold in the jail,

and high in one house,

a five-battery flashlight

pulling an old woman downstairs to the toilet

among the red eyes of her cats.

(“Late Lights in Minnesota”)

I would say Kooser reminds me of Frost, with the caveat that as a novice poetry reader I only have a surface knowledge of Frost, but how does a poem called “Snow Fence” not remind you of Frost?

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