What I Read (And Wrote), End of 2017

December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Everyone’s reading Margaret Atwood these days, but this book was recommended to me by H. after we got to talking about how bullies—from Nelson Muntz to Scut Farkus to Biff Tannen–are treated in popular culture. There’s a bully in Cat’s Eye, named Cordelia, whose personality is large and divisive and who casts a long shadow over the adolescence of the narrator and protagonist, Elaine Risley. But Cat’s Eye is more broadly a book about the natural undercutting that occurs in female friendships and how they carry over into adulthood and shape identity.

Elaine is an artist who grew up in Toronto and now makes her home in Vancouver. She is returning to Toronto for a gallery opening that is a retrospective of her career as a painter. The return prompts her to revisit her past, as she anticipates possibly running into Cordelia.

I really liked how Cat’s Eye was paced, and how its revelations were timed; this is not something I tend to pay enough attention to in novels. The retroactive narration is relayed with wry distance by the adult Elaine. It is not accidental that one of her frequent painting subjects is Mrs. Smeath, the evangelical mother of Elaine’s childhood friend Grace, who encourages Elaine to join the family at church and whose judgments are a heavy influence on Elaine’s image of herself. As a woman of middle age with a successful career and a lifetime of having her worked talked about by critics and explained wrongly back to her, she exhibits a caution as she selects and dredges memories from childhood and young adulthood and walks along the string:

Grace is waiting there and Carol, and especially Cordelia. Once I’m outside the house there is no getting away from them. They are on the school bus, where Cordelia stands close beside me and whispers in my ear: “Stand up straight! People are looking!” Carol is in my classroom, and it’s her job to report to Cordelia what I do and say all day. They’re there at recess, and in the cellar at lunchtime. They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew. On the way home from school I have to walk in front of them, or behind. In front is worse because they talk about how I’m walking, how I look from behind. “Don’t hunch over,” says Cordelia. “Don’t move your arms like that.”

They don’t say any of the things they say to me in front of others, even other children: whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important, I know that: to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin. If I tell I will be cast out forever.

But Cordelia doesn’t do these things or have this power over me because she’s my enemy. Far from it. I know about enemies. There are enemies in the schoolyard, they yell things at one another and if they’re boys they fight. In the war there are enemies. Our boys and the boys from Our Lady of Perpetual Help are enemies. You throw snowballs at enemies and rejoice if they get hit. With enemies you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.

Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

I hadn’t known that Cole was as prolific as he apparently is; I read Open City when it came out and since then he’s published another novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, and this collection of essays, many of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. He’s an accomplished photographer as well, and a frequent traveler of the world, and the subjects here effectively manage to cross-pollinate themes of beauty, history, identity, and the fleetingness of memory in art.

Cole’s literary interests intersect with mine: there’s a lot here on Sontag and Sebald, both writers who allowed the impression of the visual image to shape their work. I particularly like how he has reassessed the value of the image in the age of hyper-shareability. “More people than ever take photographs,” he writes, “and more photos than ever are being made.” The “curatorial uncertainty” has been unloosed in an age when robot cars take pictures of street corners and artists seize new ways to release the artistic potential in them. What even is a photograph when everything is being constantly photographed, no moment left unreplicated and unshared, even in places humans will otherwise never visit? What is it when the subjects or objects in the photograph no longer live or exist? Cole finds numerous angles with which to ponder these questions.

The Comforters, Muriel Spark

I bought this book used, and my copy came with some light but pointed underlining and annotations; I wondered, going through them, if the reader before me was having the same perplexed reaction to the book that I was. The Comforters was Spark’s first novel, published in 1957, five years before The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and stood out for its distance from the realist trend of British fiction of the time. Its most significant twist is a metanarrative in which the young woman Caroline, a recently converted Roman Catholic, begins to hear the sounds of the typewriter and what is meant to be the voice of her own story being narrated back to her.

I read Miss Jean Brodie four years ago and my takeaway then was how its mock-theatricality seemed to contrast itself artfully in a story about loyalty and betrayal. There’s betrayal in The Comforters as well, and a subplot about a diamond smuggling ring run by an elderly woman who gives nothing away that she’s even capable of such underhandedness. This is the gag behind Spark’s fiction, it seems, that the potential for evil still lurks amid those who present themselves at their most polite and fussy. (Caroline’s initial reaction to the typing voice isn’t so much to be confused or frightened as offended at the notion that her path is already laid for her.) There feels an uncomfortable distance between intention and consequence that the manners hide, and complicated by the jibing at mental illness. “Is the world a lunatic asylum then?” Caroline asks. “Are we all courteous maniacs making allowances for everyone else’s derangement?”

Last Night, James Salter

I have enjoyed Salter’s work, particularly the novel Light Years, though I can understand a reader’s frustrations with him—adultery can only be trod so many times as a plot before the grass no longer grows back. The male gaze frames everything in these stories. That’s not exactly a groundbreaking observation about Salter, but here it seems shallower; Viri in Light Years and Philip in A Sport and a Pastime come more fully equipped with graces that at least distract from the intent.

Old lovers drop back into lives; people show up unwanted and desperate. A guest arrives late and drunk to a dinner party and tells the host, “you’re my friend , but … you’ll become my enemy.” He stumbles into the kitchen and “they could hear him among the bottles. He returned with a dangerous glassful and looked around boldly.”

The trajectory of each story locks predictably onto hurtful decisions. There’s the energy of managing relationships once thought safely shut:

He felt nervous. The aimless way it was going. He didn’t want to disappoint her. On the other hand, he was not sure what she wanted. Him? Now?

We forgive Salter for these basic arrangements, because he has a knack for writing a simple, graceful line that suggests a fullness of atmosphere. Characters stand idly while he manages to make you aware of darkness creeping in beyond a kitchen window. Pasts catch up.

Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn

A year after I read Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, here is another novel set in Jamaica, only a much different sector. Instead of the cocaine trade, this time it’s the hotel industry, where the façade of Jamaican paradise is presented for the wealthy tourist and business clientele.

Margot lives in a struggling town called River Bank and works at a Montego Bay resort, ostensibly as a front desk manager, but makes her real money as an escort for wealthy patrons, including the hotel’s owner. Leverage is measured by what can be weaponized, and Margot was taught at a young age that her weapon could be her body when her mother, who sells roadside souvenirs, offered her at the age of 14 for $600.

Now Margot’s objectives are two: leveraging herself a position managing a soon-to-be-built competing hotel, and the protection of her younger sister Thandi, who has the intelligence to pursue something beyond what Jamaica offers but risks falling into the same traps and temptations that lured and trapped Margot. Thandi secretly tries to lighten her skin, fearing that blackness is precisely what prevents any kind of opportunity in this tourists’ paradise of expectation and assignment. In conservative River Bank, Margot’s relationship with another woman, Verdene, has to be kept under wraps, but she is not afraid to use rumor and innuendo as a weapon herself.

There is a hard, unapologetic tone to this book. The arguments go on for pages: Margot’s resentment toward her mother; Thandi’s bitterness at being wagered on to break the family spell, when she would much rather pursue her talents as an artist; the ambivalence felt by Thandi toward her boyfriend Charles; and moreover, the constant on-their-feet calculations that must be performed in the name of survival.

Almost Crimson, Dasha Kelly

The relationship in Almost Crimson is between the title character, nicknamed CeCe, and her mother, who lives with mental illness. Successful in her work, with a supportive network of friends, CeCe has had to devote significant resources and mental energy to her mother’s care and as a consequence has had to make numerous sacrifices. Her mother, Carla, suffers from a crippling depression—lying immobile in her bedroom for days at a time–and with no father around, she has no real adult supervision until the understanding family of a childhood friend takes her in.

The choice that CeCe faces is made apparent when a loyal friend, dying of cancer, bequeaths CeCe her house, a significant distance from where her mother resides. In flashbacks, we get the story of how CeCe managed to pull herself up throughout her childhood, until the father who abandoned her suddenly pops back into the picture, essentially to whisper in CeCe’s ear about Carla and her affliction. There are emotions tugging from all directions: anger and resentment at her compromised youth; a daughter’s guilt at what seems like abandonment; and a rueful looking ahead at the possibility of ultimate independence and happiness.

There also might be one too many clearheaded and well-meaning friends, including a love interest, surrounding CeCe for her struggle to project any real stake. The hazard surrounding Carla is stated but never well exemplified; I would have expected at least one scene of a daughter’s overprotective panic that accompanies such caretaking relationships. For this reason, the scenes from CeCe’s childhood and grade school—with personalities that have to be manipulated–feel riskier and more alive.

One More Cup of Coffee, Tom Pappalardo

This book is from a local author who is known as a designer and creative-of-all-trades. You hear Tom Pappalardo’s voice in the radio ad for a local record shop and he draws cartoons in the alt-weekly. He’s had a hand in designing a number of signs for local businesses.

This is a lovely book that is an observational travelogue of the hangouts around Western Mass where coffee drinkers are likely to sit, chat, read, write, and be. But it provides a distinct level of comfort while achieving that. It allows us into the headspace that is familiar to anyone who has taken their notebook out in public, who has needed to get out and people-watch. Pappalardo writes with a subtle humanity and is relatable in terms of where he lets his mind wander–when he gets irrationally angry, or when he gets nostalgic for old neighborhoods.

The book is wholly designed by Pappalardo, text and graphics, and the illustrations in particular are bold-lined and of a distinctive style. You can find more of his designs here. He is remarkably able to render brand logos precisely and human shapes roughly and still have the two exist with unity on the page. The book is a sweet love letter to the 413.

My tally for 2017: 34 books read, including six re-reads. A handful were written by people I consider friends and people who are very much dear friends, including Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, discussed here. I thought Tom McAllister’s The Young Widower’s Handbook was gentle and patient, while managing to be funny, in telling how grief comes with no convenient process.  I read Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door around the same time and appreciated its ability to portray the tug of two strong personalities settling into a friendship with moments of turbulence. I liked how Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts could fuse theory and narrative seamlessly while telling a story about a family. Roxane Gay’s Hunger deserved all the accolades it received as it unsparingly critiques our society’s values concerning body and image.

In my own writing, I also published essays for the first time: one about my father and the posthumous discovery of his having once reeled in a 452-pound tuna; and another about the era when highbrow writers and artists appeared in TV Guide magazine. I sort of started writing a novel, and have three pieces due to be published next year. I published stories in JMWW and Bodega, the latter of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It was a year in which Americans were tasked with choices of what to value—common decency or vulgarity, blind aggression toward the vulnerable against an understanding of mercy. Against that backdrop, it felt like making and engaging with art came with a heightened responsibility. Art is its own rebellion. Its rejects the metrics that others set for us and tells the world that only we get to decide how we value ourselves.


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