Shelly is one of the first people I met in grad school, and we’ve been touch ever since. For a while, we met up and wrote across from coffee shop tables from each other, interspersing gossip and work. Watching her collection emerge into the world has been a special thrill because of this. I remember it when it was still scrawled in her little notebook!

tel aviv

New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 is a truly singular book. No one writes like Shelly. Some of this comes from, she has said, the fact that English isn’t her first written language. Is that why her sentence constructions are so interesting and the way she fits those sentences together into paragraphs and pages so unusual? Probably in part, but the particular tone and feel of the book comes mostly from Shelly’s sensibility. I think a little bit of using a sewing machine when I read her work. It’s little perfect stitch after little perfect stitch, and then hit the “reinforce” button, go backwards for a few stitches, then forward again. She will often make a statement, repeat it, and then write something like, “By which i mean:…” Constructions like this make for really neat structural elements and underscore the precision with which Shelly writes.

A few stories in the collection are very subtly speculative. In one, a fog is cleared by professionals in the wealthy parts of town, but left to devour the poorer sections. In another, a woman works as a “soaper,” washing people for a living, in a world where there are periodic stops in time. I love that these elements are presented in such a quiet, integrated, non-flashy way. When outrageous events like time-stoppages are presented as normal, there is more space for real-life elements–like the fact that all young Israelis are forced to serve in the army or that families are forced to move around during constant wartime, fearing for their lives–to stand out as strange. It’s easier to believe that people can sweep away fog than it is to believe that every eighteen year old in Israel is required to learn how to use an automatic weapon.

I loved all the stories in this collection, but my true favorite was “The Disneyland of Albany.” I don’t want to tell you what it’s all about because it would reduce it to its plot and it is irreducible. A father and his young daughter, who he doesn’t get to see very often, take a trip to the titular city so the father can take a meeting about selling some of his art to a big spender–see? That makes the story seems small when it is actually about so much more. It braids together the personal concerns of an artist, estranged husband, lover and father with some very political ideas concerning Israel in a way that is natural and surprising all at once. The daughter is used to heartbreaking effect without ever slipping into precocity. It’s really an incredible story, with an incredible title, too.

This is a special book and you’ve probably not ever read anything like it, which is as good a reason to pick it up as I can think of–click and buy, folks! Happy holidays.

So much has been said about this book and its author that I hardly need to add my own sentiments to the mix. But, I will. I love Lena Dunham, I’ll start off with that. When people were freaking out about how big her advance was for this book, sure, I may have been a tiny bit jealous but mostly I was psyched. When women in their twenties get paid a whole bunch of money, it is usually for making pop music or acting in a blockbuster, not for writing books. In fact, giving any literary writer a lot of money to write a book seemed like a victory! (Yes, I said literary. I think this book was pretty literary! Also pop-y and chatty, of course, but smart and complicated).

not that kind of girl

Not That Kind of Girl is divided into five sections: “Love and Sex,” “Body,” “Friendship,” “Work,” and “Big Picture.” If I’d had to guess before reading the book, I would have guessed that “Friendship” or “Work” would have been the section I was most drawn to, probably followed by “Body.” In fact, “Love and Sex” was the best, I think, followed by “Big Picture.” My least favorite section was “Work.” I think it could have been the most interesting because Lena Dunham’s work life is pretty singular. Many young women have tangles with shitty men, issues with their bodies and eating, barbed friendships and thoughts on camp (both in the conventional and the Sontag usage). Pretty much only Lena Dunham makes a bid-deal feature film and then scores an HBO series by the time she’s twenty-five. But rather than focus too much on her very particular, completely fascinating ascent to major cultural figure, she writes about, for example, the job she had at a kid’s clothing store. She may have been trying to relate to ordinary readers by playing down her extraordinariness, but by calling a section of her book “Work,” she set up the expectation that we’d get to read about her work, not just her jobs.  Read the rest of this entry »

As always, I’ll say right away that I know Amy, although not well and mostly on the internet, although a little bit in person. That she is a lovely, generous person does not influence this post, though–even if I’d never met her, or thought she was awful, I would LOVE this book. I haven’t read a book in a few months that I stole moments with in between other activities–even if I could only get in a page or two at a time, it was worth it.

mermaid

The Mermaid of Brooklyn has several different wells of magic within it. First is the voice. It is confidential and chatty, quick and witty. Have you ever read a first line more audacious than this?: “Before I died the first time, my husband left me broke and alone with two tiny children and it made me feel very depressed, etc.” BOLD!

Second, it is the ambiguous actual magic in the book. It’s not giving away anything the first sentence doesn’t to say that the narrator dies early in the book. Or does she? If she is brought back to life by a supernatural being (ok, a mermaid…I guess the title already tells you that) or if she’s developed an elaborate coping mechanism to deal with her husband’s disappearance and the family-, financial- and psychic-challenges that accompanied it is left up to the reader.

Third, is the book’s handling of the narrator, Jenny’s, many complicated relationships with members of her family and community. There are very real, well-drawn dynamics between her and her mother, father, sister, mother-in-law and brother-in-law, not to mention the absolutely incredible way she writes about Jenny and her children. Toddler Betty and baby Rose are both the center of Jenny’s life and one of the biggest sources of her undoing. Their behavior, physicality, and individual personalities are unsentimentally and perfectly rendered. And if there’s a better-drawn portrait of parent-life in Park Slope, I haven’t read it. (There are, obviously, a lot of these). Neither caricature nor celebration, the depiction of the stereotypically parent-oriented hood is honest and revealing. Jenny loves and hates it in equal measure. She constantly calibrates her place in the neighborhood–more of a mess than this mom but way less of a mess than that one, etc. I don’t think anyone would be proud of looking at other women like this, but I imagine that most people do and it is really cool to read about it.

Fourth–the relationship between Jenny and two specific other people–her friend Laura and a neighborhood dad, Hot Dad. Although much of the interiority and action of the book centers around a “will they” or “won’t they” between Jenny and Hot Dad–the sexual tension was, excuse the cliche, palpable–Jenny’s conversations with Laura were incredibly real. Sure, they talked about men–a lot–but also about their kids and their secret ambitions, regrets, and motives. They passed the Bechdel test and then some. Theirs was one of the most true friendships I’ve seen on the page in a while.

I could go on and on, but I should probably get back to Middlemarch. 

I’ve been a terrible, terrible blogger in the last few months. A terrible book blogger, specifically. It all comes down to, as it has in the last few years, my desire to finish, but inability to concentrate on, a classic book. This time, it’s Middlemarch. I dropped a class in college right before we got to Middlemarch and never picked it back up. I’d heard such wonderful things about it from such varied people that I was pretty sure I’d read it, with relish, in a few weeks. But, although I don’t hate it, I’ve beens stalled just past the halfway mark for months. I was trying really hard not to let myself read anything else until I finished, but finally, I cracked. First, I inhaled The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffel.

OBJECTS_COVER_RAFFEL

This book is a memoir, told in tiny snippets sparked by various objects in the author’s possession. Each chapter is inspired by a different thing and titled accordingly: “Soap,” “Peacock Feathers,” “The Mirror,” “Garnet Earrings.” There are also chapters that challenge the premise like “The Phonograph That Proves That My Memories Were Wrong.”

The writing is simple and beautiful, but it’s biggest feat is it that it is unsentimental. To fill these little vignettes with meaning and emotion without making them precious or cloying is a challenge that Raffel meets. Also, that she was able to put all of these pieces–all of these objects–together to form a larger narrative is remarkable. I won’t ruin the end, but the final object–a dictionary–holds within it much more than words.

What can I say? She did it again. 

bark

There are eight stories in this collection but the one that really grabbed me was “Wings.” About a couple of failing musicians in their late thirties, it starts with a few paragraphs of hilarious, circular musings on the part of the woman regarding how her boyfriend makes his living. Is he a pot dealer? She sure hopes not. But, wouldn’t that be a steady income? It would be kind of great if he were a pot dealer. I was dying. When the woman meets an elderly neighbor on a morning coffee-run–she and her boyfriend share one to-go cup of coffee, which she fetches and drinks half of on the way home–the story takes a new turn. It ends somewhere completely different than one would expect at the beginning; it was a little Alice Munro-y in that respect. But, as with every Lorrie Moore gem, it was witty, sad, complex and true. 

The other most memorable story was the first, “Debarking.” It was fantastically unreliable. I’d say it had an unreliable narrator, but it was written in the 3rd person, so is that the right way to describe it? I think the whole story was unreliable. About a divorced man who starts to date a very strange, beautiful woman named Zora who has a bizarrely close relationship to her teenage son, it also hits all the marks: funny, unsettling, and–this may be what Moore does that is so special–too close for comfort. Not everyone would recognize themselves in her stories, but a certain segment of the population–perhaps a segment that overlaps with her readers–definitely does. 

This collection was more political than others–much of it was situated in the early years of the Iraq War. I’ve written about other books that tackle the same time period–it makes for a strange reading experience, I think, because it isn’t quite history yet but it is in the past. Is there a term for that? 

Regardless, I loved reading this book. I can’t wait for the next one…

 

I doubt there is a one of you who hasn’t heard about Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. The book, and the writer, are EVERYWHERE and that is such a good thing! Julia is the founder of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and thus has been cultivating a devoted fan club of hundreds (thousands?) of writers for a decade now. I can personally attest to her talent and generosity as an instructor–I sat around her kitchen table for three workshops before she sent me off to my MFA program. Nearly ten years later, she still enthusiastically plugs everything I publish or edit or do on the internet, as she does with so many of her former students. Anyone who was ever a recipient of her wisdom and support would obviously want to turn it back to her and luckily, it seems like the whole world has been doing just that to get this book, her first published effort, a crazy amount of buzz.

cutting teeth

About a “mommy group” who head to a Long Island beach house for a weekend of passive aggression, outright aggression, and all-around upheaval, the novel is told from multiple points of view. Often, this structure bums me out because I have a favorite character and feel like I don’t get to hear from him or her enough, or I feel like the structure is trying to turn a story collection into a more marketable novel. Neither was the case here–the action and arc of the book would have been incomplete without the exact pieces Julia put into play. There was only one character, Nicole, who launches the book, that I wanted more of–the rest of them were best taken in small doses! Read the rest of this entry »

When the second book of this trilogy, The Year of the Flood, came out a couple of years ago, I received it as a gift and started reading. By the time I realized that I should have read Oryx and Crake first, I had read enough that I didn’t want to stop. (Only a few pages, mind you). So I did read the whole thing and I enjoyed it, although now that I’ve read it again with the appropriate background–I read Oryx and Crake on the beach in Tulum–I see how much I missed the first time around. I followed it right up with the last book in the series, MaddAddam.

trilogy

The three books are what the term “speculative fiction” was coined to describe–they happen in the nearish future and project forward from what is going on in our world now. The extreme technologies and crazy animal splices (rakunks and liobams), the insidious pharmaceuticals and enforced class divides don’t exist quite yet, but there is logical reason to believe that they all could, and soon. (There are also irregularly capitalized made-up proper nouns all over the place–the same thing that I hate in George Saunders’s speculative work–“CorpsSeCorps,” “HappiCuppa”….)

The overall effect of the three books is chronological although there is overlap between the first two in which the reader gets to see some concurrent events. Read the rest of this entry »

I won’t say that this is the best book of all time, because I can’t quite substantiate that, but holy shit is The Flamethrowers AMAZING. I mean, I loved it so much. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read it and can’t wait to read it again. I’m also trying to keep composure and wait until I calm down some before I write Rachel Kushner a slew of fan letters. I don’t want to worry her.

flamethrowers

In some ways, this is a book about a young woman growing up a tiny, tiny bit. That’s something we’ve all read before (except maybe she even changes less than in other protagonists change over the course of their narratives). In other ways, this is a book about a million things I’ve never read about before at all. Reno (not her real name) is in her very early twenties and, influenced by Land Art and a love of motorcycles, sets off at the start of the book to race across salt flats and then to photograph the line her motorcycle makes in the salt. Wow, right? She works as a China Girl, a woman whose photo serves as the color standard for a film. There are passages about Brazilian rubber workers, the Red Brigade, World War I flamethrowers… so much that was new to me. And then the book went deep into the late seventies Soho art scene. It was so cool how the real history mixed with Kushner’s invention. Her fictional artists and gallerists mix with art historical figures; narratively, there’s no way to tell if John Dogg or John Chamberlain was the fiction. (I won’t erase that because I think it makes my point–I just googled and John Dogg is actually real and I just didn’t know about him). I loved that although Robert Smithson and Dan Flavin exist in the world of the book, Donald Judd doesn’t and because he doesn’t, one of the main characters, Sandro, gets to make Judd-esque art.  Read the rest of this entry »

I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying by Matthew Salesses was the second book I read on the beach in Mexico. It is a novel, but comprised of about a hundred and ten tiny chapters that could–and some that at one time were–be read as flash fiction. It is about an unnamed Asian-American man who inherits his previously-unknown five year old son, when the child’s white mother, a one-night stand, dies. The narrator takes on this child with trepidation but not a lot of hesitation, and begins to raise him with the help of his girlfriend, referred to as “the Wifely Woman.” There is also the “Asian girl” and the “white girl”–two women he has on the side, and his friend, Randy, the only person in the whole book that gets a name.

Race is, in large part, what the book is about. The narrator was picked up by the boy’s mother, years ago, when she came on to him with a ridiculous pick up line about “going yellow.” (I read in an interview that this happened to Salesses himself and he stuttered awkwardly and moved away, but then started thinking about who the man would be who would lean in to that situation). So the boy is half-white, but being raised now by two Asian-Americans–the narrator is of Korean descent while the Wifely Woman is of Chinese descent, a fact that disappoints the narrator’s mother. There’s a sweet scene where the narrator introduces the boy to Korean food. In one of the scenes I thought was most interesting, the Asian girl infiltrates the narrator’s other life and is upset most, he thinks, by the fact that the Wifely Woman is also Asian (and prettier). These sort of issues, raised by an Asian-American man, don’t get a lot of cultural play so it was gratifying to read about them being dealt with so specifically. Read the rest of this entry »

I just spent a week on the beach and so, of course, arrived in Mexico armed with seven books. The first one I pulled out was the one I’ve been recognizing in the hands of many subway riders over the last few months: Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I’d been reluctant to read it for a while because I conflated it with Chris Beha’s What Ever Happened to Sophie Wilder? because of the semi-similar titles and the fact that, I think, they came out around the same time. When it clicked that they were different books, I purchased it just in time for the trip.

bernadette

It was truly the ideal beach read. Lots of reviews of this book mention it being laugh-out-loud funny and although I never laughed out loud (do I ever? I only remember once, in To Kill a Mockingbird, at the line: “Pass the damn ham.”) I was entertained totally and completely throughout the entire book. It starts off with the dead-on, progressive-school report card (the grades one can achieve at the Galer School are Surpasses Excellence, Achieves Excellence, or Working Toward Excellence) for an eighth grader named Bee, the sort-of narrator of the novel. I say “sort-of narrator” because while some of the book is in Bee’s voice, most of it is not, and is instead a compilation of emails, letters, Artforum articles, intervention-transcriptions, and other kinds of written ephemera. I was a little worried for a while that the form was going to wind up being arbitrary, but even before Semple revealed why it wasn’t, I’d given up that fear to the fun of the book. There was a reason for all of it and although it was a little far-fetched, it worked well-enough to justify the invention. Read the rest of this entry »

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