I saw Rebecca Scherm read at the Sackett Street Reading Series at BookCourt and promptly picked up her first novel, Unbecoming. It’s an absorbing read that, although it is literally about antique and jewelry heists, I was surprised to read described as a book about antique and jewelry heists. It is a book about Grace, the protagonist–the rest of it is just the plot.

unbecoming

The readers gets to know Grace in a close, intimate and uncomfortable way over the course of the fairly long novel, from her childhood–when she begins to suspect that she’s a “bad apple”–through her teenagerhood, spent almost entirely in the family home of her boyfriend, a boy named Riley whose family she worships, into her brief stint in New York as a college student, through the downward spiral that comes next. Structurally, the book is interesting in that this all doesn’t happen in a linear fashion, until the end when the narration becomes fairly straightforward. Before that, chunks of the book happen in the far past, in the more recent past, and in the present. This structure both diminishes suspense early on and builds it later.  Read the rest of this entry »

My friend and I got tickets to see Miranda July and Lena Dunham do an event together so long ago that we assumed the event was focused on Dunham’s book; we didn’t even realize July had a new one when we shelled out for our prime BAM seats. It wasn’t until we settled into said seats that we realized the format of the evening was that Lena Dunham was interviewing Miranda July about HER new novel, The First Bad Man. We were fine with this turn of events, of course; the only thing that would have made it better would have been if we’d had a chance to read July’s novel before hearing them talk about it. Since it had only come out that week, or maybe the one before, they were careful not to give too much away about it plot-wise, and instead talked about more process-oriented or big-picture concerns. It was a really fun, inspiring night and hilarious to watch the two real-life friends and their dynamic on stage. My favorite pull-quote from the night, which I don’t actually remember verbatim, was when July said that publishing a novel made her feel more vulnerable than performing on stage because there was no way to conceal how hard she tried with her novel.

first bad man

I immediately bought The First Bad Man and read it in the three days following the conversation. It is a dark, bizarre book. What I felt was brave about it was how willing July was to go to very unappealing places. Cheryl, the protagonist, is herself a bit unappealing but endearingly so. Her antagonist, Clee, though–oh boy. One of her prevailing characteristics–which does morph into a plot point–is that she has hygiene issues, and particularly smelly feet. The phrase that echoes in my head is “yeasty feet.” It is so great, though, that July is able to make these two particular people, each with their own host of repulsive qualities, three-dimensional and complicated, people that the reader cares about and–at least for me–wants to see prevail. I really don’t want to say anything about what happens in the book, but in general terms, it tackles violence and sexuality in a way that I’ve never read before and found extremely surprising.

Besides that one horrifying phrase, the other aspect of the book that i keep returning to in my head is the very ending. July said that she was really proud of it, but I was unconvinced when I first read it. It seemed too short and vague to provide the payoff I was looking for and the emotional impact it seemed to be striving towards. As time has gone on, though, the fact that it stuck with me in a way that I can really picture, and feel, makes me think that she was right to end the book where and how she did. Read it and let me know what you think!

At the hours dwindle until I head to New Orleans, I managed to read a NOLA class in just an hour or two: A Streetcar Named Desire. I haven’t read a play in years; it was really fun. Despite the heavy material–alcoholism, mental illness, death, domestic abuse, rape, class and ethnic bias–the play was surprisingly easy to take in.

Set inside or just outside one Elysian Fields apartment, the heart of the story is the relationship between two sisters, Stella and Blanche, and Stella’s husband, Stanley. Secrets are revealed, trust is broken, many hearts, too, are broken, and everyone is implicated. Despite the real love that many characters have for each other, they treat each other and behave terribly.

Music and setting are important elements in A Streetcar Named Desire, but are hard to appreciate when only reading the text. I hope to see the play sometime!

I’m going to New Orleans on a family vacation this week, so I finally dove into my list of related reading. I read part of The Sound and the Fury, and then finished Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I know that neither of these books are actually set in New Orleans–or even in Louisiana–but they’re close!

salvage the bones

Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones is told from the point of view of a fifteen year old, secretly pregnant girl named Esch, who lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi with her three brothers and father, her mother having died after giving birth to the littlest sibling, a seven year old named Junior. Esch’s brother Skeetah is obsessed with his pit bull, China, who’s just given birth to a precarious litter of puppies. (Do you see a theme here? Down to the number of puppies–four–who survive the birth.)  Read the rest of this entry »

File another one under “late to the party.” I just finished Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and, no surprise, it was amazing. I live by Alison Bechdel’s “Bechdel Test” in terms of my writing–consciously following or consciously not following it with every story I write. (For a work of art–film, theater, writing, etc.–to pass the Bechdel Test, you probably know, there must be at least two named female characters who have a conversation together about something other than men.)

fun home

So why did it take me so long to read this book? I’ll admit–I have a slight bias against graphic novels. It’s not that I don’t think they’re worthy or valid or just as good as other forms of literature, but, for me, I usually think they tend to do too much. I like to meet the work I’m reading halfway, but I think, in some cases, graphic novels, by supplying both words and images come at me with more than half the work done already. Honestly, this was somewhat the case with Fun Home, though, so I think I might just be wrong. The words compliment the pictures, which, as the best “illustrated” works do, don’t illustrate the pictures but tell complimentary, but different, pieces of the story. The images were often witty, self-effacing counterpoints to the words, or lent ambiguity to what might seem more decisive if limited to pure text.

Bechdel’s book is a memoir, covering her childhood until her father’s death, while she was in college and he was in his forties. The story isn’t linear; at times chapters retread different time periods, but revealing different information and perspectives. In this way, she starts with broader information about her family and then goes psychologically and thematically deeper as the book progresses. The book as a really careful, calculated, but seemingly natural structure.

This is a moving, complicated, beautiful book that I’ll probably read again.

I’ve had Far from the Tree on my to-read list ever since it came out in 2012. I was very happy to receive it as a gift for Christmas this year, but as soon as I started reading it, I realized that I should have gone out to buy it myself three years ago. Words like “monumental” and “life-changing” get bandied about in relation to this book, and honestly, they’re not exaggerations. This is a truly important book; it’s scope and subject matter reframe the world. It is also a mind-boggling achievement. Researched for what must have been at least twenty years, over 700 pages long, not counting the extensive notes, and extremely wide-ranging in its breadth, I literally can’t imagine how Solomon managed to put it together.

far from the tree

Very early in the book, Solomon presents his organizing principle: vertical vs. horizontal identities. Vertical identities often are shared between parents and children: race, nationality, religion. Horizontal identities often are not: trans, deaf, gay. Of course children can be of a different race than their parents and children of gay people can also be gay–this isn’t an absolute distinction. What Solomon delves into, though, are the relationships between parents and their children whose assorted horizontal identities that they don’t share. He profiles particular people and families, goes into various movements’ histories, explores science and morality, and inserts his own experiences, impressions, and interpretations. It seemed, at least to me, that he did a really good job presenting a cross-section of experiences, including families of diverse of socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds–although he immediately admits that there is an element of self-selection in terms of his subjects which may skew the perspectives he presents.

The book is organized into twelve chapters: “Son,” “Deaf,” “Dwarfs,” “Down Syndrome,” “Autism,” Schizophrenia,” “Disability,” “Prodigies,” “Rape,” “Crime,” “Transgender” and “Father.” Read the rest of this entry »

First of all, I don’t know if there’s ever been a better book title than Godforsaken Idaho. Second of all, this story collection is fantastic.

GodforsakenIdaho_ARC_5-210

Shawn Vestal took advantage of what seems to be a great gift in the writing world–a Mormon upbringing–to put together nine stories filled with history, heaven and spiritual disappointment. The book kicks off with the story “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” which is a fresh take on the afterlife in which heaven seems, in many ways, just as bad as hell. It’s a feat of world-building and a great introduction to the collection.

I loved the story “Winter Elders,” although I feel weird saying that because it is not the kind of story one can actually enjoy–it is filled with tension and culminates in a horrible act that is the definition of “surprising but inevitable.” Despite the dim view the collection takes toward Mormonism, this story contains about the best description I’ve ever seen of why one might want to take part in organized religion. The protagonist recalls his baptism on page 112: “It was as  though a bright beam of joy was pulsing from the heavens into the core of the earth, threaded directly through him.”

I think my favorite story is “Families Are Forever!” Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title. The writing is fantastic, the characters are unique, the premise is weird and, best of all, it thwarts all expectations–or at least all of mine. The protagonist is a true fuck-up, and yet, at the risk of ruining something here, it seems like maybe everything will be okay for him.

The book ends with a series of stories concerning the early days of the Mormon church. I liked them, but liked them the least because they seemed less immediate, which is probably not surprising giving the time frame and subject matter. They reminded me a little bit of Claire Vaye Watkins’s more historical stories–the whole book reminded me of hers, actually, as well as Alan Heathcock’s Volt and Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson (who wouldn’t want to read a book with hints of those in it, right?). It is not for nothing that Vestal won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction with this book.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer is a collection of short stories linked thematically by the centrality of animals–horses, camels, gorillas–and the medical world–med school, hospitals, biology, illness. Often, these two threads are braided into the same story. Scheer seems to have gotten some of her expertise and ideas as a writer-in-residence at a cancer care center, which is something I’d like to know more about!

inc girls

I really loved the first story in the book, “Fundamental Laws of Nature.” It layers and integrates three generations of mother-daughter relationships, cancer, and horseback riding. The protagonist is a doctor, which gives her more information than is probably good for her, but her scientific background doesn’t prevent her from believing in magical impossibilities. It is beautiful, sad and very strange in the best way.

The second story, “Transplant,” takes the theme of illness and wraps it with questions about faith and religion. It walked a line between realism and magical realism–which was it?–and like the story before it, was beautiful, sad and strange.

Those adjectives apply to almost every story in the book, in fact. There were a few that were a little too much about their ideas to feel like real, fully-formed stories, but even those only paled in comparison to the best stories.

The last story in the collection, the title story, really surprised me in that it was about the Armenian Genocide. It didn’t veer so far from the rest of the stories that it felt out of place in the book, but it was totally different; it was told from the point of view of an angel of death. It’s hard to find the right way to write about atrocities like this, but by taking a truly outsider perspective and then zooming in on the story of just one girl out of the many who suffered, it really worked.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few months and am so glad I picked it up to finally read. What better combination is there besides beautiful, sad and strange?

I finally finished it! I went in to Middlemarch thinking that I would love it, because I’d heard from everyone that they did. I figured I’d finish it in a few weeks, in time for the next meeting of the Masochists and Classics book club (even though I couldn’t attend that day). Then, I started reading it and, after a couple chapters, stalled out.

What happened was that I really liked how the book began, with the sisters Dorothea and Celia. I was engrossed in their story and interested in their dynamic. But, when what I wanted was to see what was going to happen with them, the book left them–never really to return to Celia–and moved on to some other members of their community, then others, then others before swinging back to Dorothea. It’s not that the other people in the book weren’t fascinating in their own right, and the writing was still bright and funny, but the further I moved from Dorothea, the more anxious I got. What is going on with her? is what I wanted to know.

The book is more about a community, and themes of marriage and money, than it is about any one person, but I think Elliot set up such a special character in Dorothea that I couldn’t handle the story’s expansiveness. I almost gave up, but I don’t really give up on books so I went back in to finish it this past week and am glad I did. The last quarter of the book moved faster and was more fun than the first three quarters (excluding, of course, the Dorothea parts). Even though I wanted the book smaller (which is really not a surprise–I like small books) I could appreciate it in the end.

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.

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