You may notice that there was an uncharacteristically gap between my last post and this one. I was reading Americanah during most of that time–it is super long–but I was reading slowly. It’s been a busy few weeks!

At the beginning of that time, I went to an event put on by the Aspen Institute featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I saw her speak once before and I recommend it if  you have the opportunity. She’s charming, hilarious and crazy-smart. There are a few talking points she hits in most of the interviews and articles that I’ve heard and read, such as not having been black until she moved to the United States, that I think are really important to contemplate.

americanah

When I read Adichie’s last novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, I was obsessed with it–the story, the structure, the writing, the surprises, the devastating plot turns, and creative “reveal” at the end. I was prepared to feel the same way about this novel, but I actually didn’t, in the end. I keep writing sentences about why and none of them are quite accurate. I wanted it to be more focused, but in many ways it was extremely focused. Perhaps it was that it was thematically focused but hit some of the same or similar points more times than I felt like it needed to–not harder, but too often or for too long. Read the rest of this entry »

Barbara and I have worked together for a few years. For a while, we worked at two different jobs together. Given how our weird world operates, though, we only see each other a few times a year. So I was delighted two weeks ago when I got to assist her with some large classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and have lunch afterward. I was EXTRA delighted when she handed be a copy of her very newly released book, Painting Your Way Out of a Corner: The Art of Getting Unstuck. 

barry

A few lucky people get to experience Barbara’s teaching in person. She’s a museum educator, teaching artist, and runs her own workshops, Art for Self-Discovery. She is the kind of alchemist who can transform an entire classroom of writhing toddlers into productive artists, magically on (developmentally-appropriate, creative) task. With a slightly older age group, she can help students learn historically accurate information through open-ended conversations about visual art. In her adult workshops, she can make the most up-tight executive feel comfortable with a paint brush. Her book brings her encouraging, exploratory style of teaching and nurturing to those who may not be able to take a class with her in person.  Read the rest of this entry »

I decided I wanted to read everything that Jesmyn Ward ever wrote after hearing her Other People podcast. I acquired two of her three books–Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped–as Christmas gifts and started my Ward-intake with her memoir, Men We Reaped.

men we reaped

 

Between the year 2000 and the year 2004, Jesmyn Ward lost five young men who were important to her–her very dear younger brother, her cousin (who was, more importantly, her sister’s boyfriend), and three friends. These five young African-American men, all from her poor rural Mississippi community, died in ways that seem, on the surface, to be unrelated. Some of them seem to have been accidents rather than directly related to gun violence or drugs. But over the course of the book, Ward weaves together their stories with the broader stories of her own family and those like them, going back generations, to show that the same institutional racism, poverty, and crushing lack of opportunity played a large part in all five men’s deaths, as well as the deaths of many before and after them.  She shows, through personal, poetic storytelling, that despite all of the love these men were given by those around them, despite their individual, unique and giving personalities, despite their own, personal specialness, they were part of a much bigger system they weren’t ever going to be able to escape.   Read the rest of this entry »

Although I’ve heard of him quite a bit afterward, when I saw Kevin Barry read a few months ago, his name was new to me. I was at his reading because he had been paired with Craig Finn from The Hold Steady, and I have a friend who wanted very much to see Craig Finn in conversation, regardless of his conversational partner. We were both pretty blown away by Kevin Barry. He’s Irish and the accent in combination with his animated reading style, more akin to storytelling than anything, was enticing. His banter with Craig Finn was great. It was kind of amazing how a guy from Ireland could nail Brooklyn so quickly. He said things like, “Isn’t everyone from Brooklyn moving upstate now?” and “In Berlin, we knew it was over when the Americans arrived.” We chatted after the event and I bought the book. As I’ll mention in all the blog posts I’ll write until forever, I was still reading Ulysses at the time, so I didn’t get to read Barry’s collection, Dark Lies the Island, until now.

dark lies the island

I really liked the collection but also felt that I could only get so far with it and that, weirdly, was because of the language barrier. Barry makes heavy, wonderful use of the vernacular, something I appreciated but didn’t totally understand. Read the rest of this entry »

This linked short story collection is the kind of book that gives me hope for the future. Subtle, slim, quiet, and about interpersonal relationships, incremental inner growth, and not much more, it is exactly the kind of book I like and the kind of book I would love to see proliferate. The title–Remember How I Told You I Love You?–has shades of Maile Meloy to it, no? That can’t be a bad thing!

linden

The first story starts like this:

Karen meets her in the fall of freshman year. She has another roommate at the time, a scowling brunette named Julie, assigned by the college. That relationship isn’t going well. Julie brings home cups of macaroni and ketchup from the dining hall and leaves them on the windowsill in the room. Karen throws away the cups because Julie doesn’t, and she keeps finding noodles on the floor.

If you know me, and know me well enough to know anything about my freshman year of college, you will know why this resonates. Suffice it to say that I experienced this phenomenon but tenfold, involving baked potatoes, literal spilled milk, and OE forties. One of my dearest friends in the whole world, on the other hand, is the roommate that wasn’t bringing home a baked potato every day and hiding it somewhere in the room–I still talk to her nearly daily FIFTEEN YEARS after we first met. So I truly appreciate a book that delves into, and places so much importance on, the friendships women form in college.

The two women at the heart of that first story weave through the rest of the book, as do characters that are peripheral to that first one, some of them emerging as the protagonists of other stories. The style that carries through all the stories is spare, economical and unsentimental. Even when characters are dealing with loss or behaving badly, the prose is clear and consistent.

I had some serious reading disappointments in 2013, but I’m on a role in 2014–I’ve really loved everything I’ve read so far! Let’s hope the streak continues.

My brother ordered this collection for me for my birthday but it took a while to arrive, and then the Ulysses ordeal intervened, so I only was able to buckle down and read it after the holidays. I’d heard Said read pieces of two of the stories–including the chilling one that appeared in the New Yorker–so I had an idea of what I was in for when I finally got to reading and I was certainly not disappointed.

brief encounters

The collection is unusual, I think, in that it is linked–neatly and coherently–through premise rather than character. In almost every story, present is the idea of going to war. Whether it is the protagonist enlisting himself or sending off a friend or coworker, much of the circumstances surrounding the event are similar. In general, these men are not idealistic or going to fight for a particular cause, but instead to get positive attention of the sort they don’t get, and don’t necessarily deserve, in their everyday lives. Often, they toil in low-wage, low-imagination, and/or low-stakes positions, navigating bus strikes, heat waves, and generally demoralizing situations, and somehow latch on to the idea that going to war is the answer.  Is it? Of course not.

Throughout the stories, some of the same phrases and language appear in more than one place. At first, I was jarred by this–did he forget he already used this expression in another story? But I quickly changed my mind and realized how Sayrafiezadeh was tightening his book and the world in it. This all keeps happening, I thought.

Despite the amazing consistency Sayrafiezadeh created to link the stories in Brief Encounters with the Enemy, I didn’t find the stories repetitive. For all their though-lines, they are singular, too. From a cartographer being proposition by his weirdo boss to an undocumented worker, disproportionate due to his mismanaged workout regimen, from a shoplifting rich girl love interest to a roller coaster date with a dreamy Orthodox Jewish woman, there is a lot of quirky, awesome stuff happening in this book. Highly recommend!

I’d been hearing about this collection for months and was thrilled to receive it for Christmas. As usual, with collections I’m really loving, I read it too quickly. No matter how I tell myself to leave a break between stories, sometimes I can’t manage it. I considered holding off writing about Battleborn until I read it again, but since I probably won’t do that right away, I figured I might as well write about it now.

battleborn

Almost every story contained in Battleborn is a stunner. It starts off with this nonlinear, sort of deconstructed tale called “Ghosts, Cowboys” that engages with Watkins own very dramatic life story (her father, who died young, was a member of the Manson Family). It is sensational material told in an almost subtle manner.  Read the rest of this entry »

I received a giant stack of books from some very generous soon-to-be in-laws for Christmas and wasted no time diving in. The first book I pulled from the mix was We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, which I’ve been coveting ever since reading the first two pages in a bookstore a few months ago. I tore through the novel, which is narrated by a girl named Darling. She is ten years old and living in Zimbabwe at the start of the novel, older and living in Michigan by the end.  Her voice is immediate and unflinching. Early in the story, Darling and the pack of children she runs with come across a woman hanging from a tree. Entire novels have been built on moments like that, but in this one, it is mentioned almost in passing. Just the way Darling absorbs that sight and moves on tells the reader right away so much about her life and the lives of her friends.

we need new names

In the first half of the book, the Zimbabwe half, there is a pregnant eleven year old, militias, crushing poverty, AIDS, out-of-control church elders, starvation, aide workers snapping poor children photos, and yet the story isn’t depressing. Darling doesn’t elicit pity. She’s self-possessed but not precocious–she seems like an actual kid, not a figment of literature.

When the action shifts across the world to Detroit, and to Darling’s new struggles living with extended family and trying to navigate a world where it snows, where there is enough to eat, but where she is brutally teased for being African and loses her grip on what had been extremely close bonds with her friends, the book becomes harder. Not harder to read or enjoy, but harder to handle on an emotional level, for me at least. The thought that in some ways we can do worse by kids here in this country than they do by themselves in a place where they have no access to essentials like food is pretty deranged.

There is a really poetic chapter in the middle of the book that is told in a sort of out-of-time, out-of-body omniscient voice; it uses the phrase “things fall apart” which was a nice reference, I thought, to what is probably the work of African literature most read in the United States (that’s my unsubstantiated guess). There is another similarly out-of-time chapter a little later on about what becomes of African immigrants as they grow older–it was desperately sad and beautiful.

But don’t read this book for the politics, or even the story–read it for Darling’s voice. It is singular, beautiful and unforgettable.

This morning, I finally finished Ulysses! It took me nearly four months of not entirely pleasant plodding, but it feels like a victory. I can’t say I understood much of what I read (yes, even with the companion book…) but I did enjoy the language, especially Joyce’s funny way of smashing words together.

I loved a few other books this year that weren’t released in 2013–The Age of Innocence, When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka, Half In Love by Maile Meloy, The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger and The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin.

I read a lot of books that did come out this year that, sadly, I really hated. (I’m not mean enough to reiterate which those were).

Friends of mine released some great work this year–The Transcriber by Kristen Witucki, Domestic Uncertainties by Leah Umansky, The Man Who Noticed Everything by Adrian Van Young, An Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein and more.

My favorites that came out this year or late last year were:

What were your favorites?

If you think that the fact that I’m writing about another book here means that I’ve finished Ulysses, you have more faith in me than you should. I am stalled somewhere near the midpoint. I needed a break and a welcome one came in the form of Lauren Grodstein’s An Explanation for Everything.

explanation

In previous posts I’ve mentioned that Lauren was my writing teacher in my first few post-college workshops. If you ever get the chance to take a workshop with her, I highly recommend it. Luckily, you don’t have to be enrolled in the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden (the program she helps run) in order to learn from her, though–you can read her books. Of course, it requires some meta-reading to learn about writing from a novel like The Explanation for Everything, because it is so absorbing that its bones aren’t the least bit exposed unless you’re looking for them.

For the third time out of three novels, Lauren writes this one from the p.o.v. of a man–Andy Waite, a biology professor at a small New Jersey college. He’s a staunch, evolution-driven atheist who finds himself challenged, on multiple levels, by a student named Melissa who asks to do an independent study with him on intelligent design. I don’t want to say too much more about the premise of the book so that I don’t hinder your opportunity to make discoveries as you read. I will say, though, that the narrative is both straightforward and unexpected. Lauren doesn’t employ any tricks or pull any manipulative moves; she tells an honest story and the reader–at least this one–is right there with her the whole time.  Read the rest of this entry »

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