What I Read in June and July

July 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

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(This is not a complete list. I’ve also been reading the Complete Novels of Jean Rhys, which I will write about as a whole, once I’m finished.)

Later the Same Day, Grace Paley. This collection was given to me some 20 years ago by the nice woman who was my internship supervisor. She was an ex-nurse who had moved into a communications and development role for the VNA. She gave me the book because she knew I was an English major and had ideas of becoming a writer. After enjoying the stories of Lucia Berlin, to whom Paley is frequently compared, I decided to crack open the delicate yellowed pages of Later the Same Day.

Paley’s characters, like those of Berlin, operate under a complicated moral code with a conniving self-interest that has evolved to adapt to their uncooperative surroundings. That’s what happens in “Anxiety,” when a woman calls out from her apartment window to criticize a young father for scolding his child:

Let’s not go too far, said the young father. She was jumping around on my poor back and hollering oink oink.

When were you angriest—when she wiggled and jumped or when she said oink?

He scratched his wonderful head of dark well-cut hair. I guess when she said oink.

Have you ever said oink oink? Think carefully. Years ago, perhaps?

In “Somewhere Else,” we follow an American tour group in China. Their travel guide accuses them of taking photographs of the peasants without permission. “We hoped we were not about to suffer socialist injustice,” Paley’s narrator says, “because we loved socialism.” They put their cameras away, reluctantly: “Still, I know that any non-Hispanic white man with a camera looks like a narc.”

Many of the stories revisit the same character, the somewhat oxymoronically named Faith Darwin, who appeared in two of Paley’s earlier books, The Little Disturbances of Man and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Faith is divorced (her ex-husband is an explorer), a mother of two, a New Yorker, and an observer informed by her anxieties regarding these things.

The business of the domestic, its errand-based rituals and fires (especially those of other people) to put out, occupy the pages of Paley’s fiction, much like Berlin. This is no more apparent than in “Friends,” a story of visiting an older friend with cancer. They see her wobbling, bumping around in her room, steadying herself. Selena’s daughter, present in photos in her room, has died. Deferring a question about her own son, Faith narrates, “It was only politeness, I think, not to pour my boy’s light, noisy face into that dark afternoon.” Then, as the visiting friends set to leave their ailing friend, guiltily and helplessly: “We had a long journey ahead of us and had expected a little more comforting before we set off.”

You Are Having a Good Time, Amie Barrodale. Picked up this new collection on a whim at Longfellow’s Books in Portland, Maine, after happening to read a couple of positive tweets about it that morning. The relationships in You Are Having a Good Time are deliciously complicated, with lines many times crossed and stepped over; there is enough bad behavior to give off a very bright Mary Gaitskill vibe (and Gaitskill gives a blurb on the back on the book). A common thread is women seeking the wrong answers from, or being led astray by, male authority figures who do not have their best interests at heart. “Frank Advice for Fat Women” is as audacious (in the sense of sheer audacity) as its title suggests: a mother ostensibly concerned with her daughter’s depression and weight gain sets her up with a therapist as a way of spying on her, and the doctor leverages each one against the other as a way of exerting control over both.

There is also some loose interconnectedness at play. In the second story, “Animals,” an actress works under a demanding and abusive director, to whom she is attracted, on a film called “The Imp”; “The Imp” also happens to be the title of the third story, about a failing marriage. And while impishness suggests a playful innocence that drags one away from the seriousness of life’s decisions (echoed in the book’s title), there is also the suggestion of forces of destruction at work for the better, much like the damage caused by a sprite or gnome.

They Could Live With Themselves, Jodi Paloni. I know Paloni from her work with the Brattleboro Literary Festival and purchased her book after hearing her read at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. This collection of eleven linked stories are set in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont, and much like Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Triburbia, features connected characters weaving in and out of each story, but with a small-town sensibility appropriate for New England. Among them are art teacher Meredith; her former student, Sky, who lingers in the neighborhood and gets paid for odd jobs; grocery store manager Wren; and Molly, Sky’s mother, who is best friends with Wren.

The filaments of the web are sketched in, and as characters grapple with broken dreams and cluttered pasts, and the younger characters like Sky seek paths to meaningful futures, a complex portrait of Stark Run and its limitations—both social and geographic—are finely rendered. If there is an emotional center to the book, it might reside in Meredith, whose relationship to Sky is tense, visceral, and complicated and who is ambivalent about settling in Stark Run after a career as a New York artist:

He picked up the top sheet from the pile of the figure sketches she had made earlier in the week and appeared to be reading the notes in the margins, measurements and letter codes about points and angles that only she could decipher. She bit a flap of skin from a thin blister on her index finger, nervous about his actual body, located so near to the wire figures, nervous he’d call her out.

He stretched his arm in a gesture that swept the space above the pile of jumbled wire forms. “All of this looks super cool.”

He didn’t seem to realize they were miniatures of him, but still, Meredith felt odd to have him probing her design process. Her work hadn’t always been so private, but now it came out of loss, a study of how one lives in a body and then leaves a body.

Harpur Palate, Summer & Fall 2015. This issue includes the winner of the John Gardner Memorial Prize in Fiction, “Hourglass” by Sam Keck Scott, about a young man recalling the troublesome actions of his late older brother. While I enjoyed the issue, I am at a loss to explain why the pieces were arranged alphabetically by author. This seems a random and careless way to present a journal. It means that Scott’s piece doesn’t appear until two-thirds of the way through the issue, and even though the pages are highlighted with a green border stripe, it violates the principle of putting a store’s best merchandise where it can be found.

Carrie Messenger’s essay “My Soviet Shadow” is a fascinating account of the author’s being selected, with a group of classmates, to appear on a Russian quiz show about a year before the fall of the Soviet Union. The Russian contestants with which they are paired as teammates are regulars on the show, and it is apparent that there is a cultural contrast being sold as part of the deal: “These Russians are our essences, what we would be if you strip away our accessories, our slang, our pop music, our jeans, our ironies.” The American kids are taken under the wings of the Russian parents; the kids swap mix tapes; and friendships take time to build as they hop over the language barrier, riddled with codes and sarcasm that doesn’t translate:

Tanya keeps making everyone laugh in Russian, but tells me she can’t translate it. It’s the fundamental problem of my building a friendship with Tanya—our best selves are rooted in our languages. The parts of ourselves we don’t care about, the parts that say banal, everyday things about weather, asking and answering if we are cold, is what we have to offer each other. What we have to offer each other is kindness. All my interest is in wit. I can’t understand why Tanya would like me if we can’t follow each other into slang.

The loss in translation affects not only relationships, but the decisions of the producers, who make the kids dress in literary-themed costumes and don’t open up the avenues for understanding that Messenger seeks:

The boys are wearing partially unraveling straw hats and overalls with patches. The patches are fresh. They are there not to cover holes, but to create the Huck image. Ilya chews a piece of straw. Scott decides to mirror him. The band is dressed in leather with cowboy hats. The women in the band are wearing leather skirts with square cut out of the pattern. They’ve been given holes to approximate some kind of image of daring cowgirls. Chenel says, “Where did they get the idea that is ever okay fashion?”

The Russian judge with the attitude no longer cares if we don’t understand suffering. He doesn’t see Jim at the heart of the book. The band plays twangy bluegrass for the second dancing competition, the hoe-down. Nobody knows how to dance to it.

I want to talk about the end of Huckleberry Finn, about Huck’s decision to light out to the territory. I’m at an age where I think heading off to the college will be my way to light out. But being in Moscow makes me wonder if there is any territory to go to. Identification is easy—you learn new street names, new food. It’s the big questions that follow you around, history, fate, and suffering.

Humanity Is Not Concerned With Us

July 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

“Poor devils, you’re going to the crematory.”

He seemed to be telling the truth. Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load – little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it – saw it with my own eyes…those children in the flames. (Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes.)

So this is where we were going. A little farther on was another ditch for adults.
I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare….Soon I should wake with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself back in the bedroom of my childhood, among my books….

My father’s voice drew me from my thoughts:

“It’s a shame….a shame that you couldn’t have gone with your mother….I saw several boys of your age going with their mothers…..”

His voice was terribly sad. I realized that he did not want to see what they were going to do to me. He did not want to see the burning of his only son.

My forehead was bathed in cold sweat. But I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it….

“Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us. Today, anything is allowed. Anything is possible, even these crematories…..”

Elie Wiesel found a weapon in the first person singular. I read Night for a history class in eleventh grade. It was the first horror novel I ever read.

Where Am I?

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