Saturday, November 4, 2006
Nanowrimo Research Trip to Historic Virginia
Thursday, August 3, 2006
The Blond Box by Toby Olsen
Here we have a book that I don't fully understand. However, I feel like I probably would understand if I really thought about it hard enough, and read enough ancillary documents. Possibly I'd need a good night's sleep and a Coke. It's all wrapped up in the artwork of Marcel Duchamp, and it takes place in three different times -- 1949, 1969, and a hypothetical 2069, which actually takes place in one of the characters' scifi novel. The most interesting thing to me about the book right now, and I'm about 50 pages from the end, is how the events in this scifi novel strangely mirror the events in the 1949 part... I like that kind of shadowing. It's also kind of a comfortable read, for me, because I feel like this is familiar territory in a way, and I don't really feel the need to scrub my eyes, refocus, and understand every line. I have to tell you that when I read the first few chapters, and began to formulate my reactions in my mind, I found myself saying something which is probably very crude and unliterary and wrong -- yes, another FC2 type of book, in a phrase: Poop and penises, lovingly described.
Here are some links about it, written by people more diligent than I apparently am, who have perhaps had more recent sleep or fewer recent toddlers:
Golden Handcuffs Review, if you scroll down past the poetry, has two book reviews of it and then a possibly related (?) piece by Toby Olsen with an amusing first line.
New Pages has a review of it.
You can't discount a book with a Robert Coover blurb on the back, can you? I get the feeling that Toby Olsen is a very entertaining guy to sit next to at dinner. I'm just a little weary, at this point in the book, of the different ways of saying that prostate pain is like a knot in your testicles.
I am not into saying bad things about small press writers. However. One of the main characters spends the last 100 pages wearing a diaper. And the narrative not only refers to the diaper constantly (as in, "He shifted his diaper.") but also has the character feeling the urge to urinate, and then urinating painfully into the sand. Like... all the time. This character must have been pounding 40s right off camera, because he peed more than a male dog on a walk down fire hydrant alley. So... I'm not weeping or anything that it's over. It was an interesting book. It made me, at the end of the day, feel a little bit dumb about my ignorance of contemporary art, and a little bit tired of the whole diaper/prostate/urination/testicles thing. Husband postulated that the thing was maybe revised on a laptop in a urologist's waiting room.
BUT! It's a unique interesting book and I'm going to write a positive review of it. I'm sure Olson's other books aren't quite so relentlessly crotch-o-centric.
The story takes place in three different times... 1949, 1969, and a fictional 2069, where characters in a sci-fi book being written in 1969 follow a parallel storyline to the plot unfolding in the "real world." Beyond this interesting and unusual structure, the book introduces us to an odd grouping of characters who are engaging and genuine, wracked as they are with various medical problems.
Ultimately _The Blond Box_ is about the art of Marcel Duchamp, and the best function of this odd narrative is providing a thoughtful, hypothetical context for his strange art. It's like a different way to write about an installation, instead of a scholarly article, instead of a critical review, a novel that positions the art in the center of a system that explicates it in the unusual way it demands.
Saturday, July 29, 2006
Forgetfulness by Michael Mejia
Here's a description from the back jacket:
The first part of Forgetfulness is a fictional monograph on the life of the Austrian modernist composer Anton von Webern (1883-1945).The collage-work monograph unfolds in a Webernian sequence of events and silences combining quotes from Webern, his friends and associates, and various historical and literary figures with short scenes, monologues, dialogues, newspaper articles, and theater and film scripts. The result is a lyrical panorama of early twentieth century Vienna.There was more. Also, flipping through it, I saw that part of it was divided into three sections on the page, between "Soloist" and "Composer" and "Archivist" and I anticipated a fractured narrative, with time jumping around, and thought it would be a pain in my ass. I MUST BE GETTING OLD. I ADMIT. I WAS CRABBY ABOUT IT! I wasn't really jumping up and down, anxious to crack into it.
The second part of the book takes place in Vienna on May 1st, 1986, shortly before the election of Kurt Waldheim as President of the Austrian Republic and shortly after the Chernobyl disaster. The three simultaneous, intertwining monologues of an archivist, a retired opera singer, and the author of the monograph, revisit the themes and events of the first part, commenting on postwar conceptions, analyses, and revisions of the period during which Webern lived, while continuously haunted by the specters of Waldheim and Chernobyl, the persistence of crimes that are immanent, unpaid for, or only dimly, disingenuously recalled.
WAS I WRONG.
I read this book while I was coming down with the flu, and as sick as I was, and as miserable as I was, and as much as I just wanted to close my eyes and think of clean snow, I COULDN'T PUT IT DOWN. I have never had a reaction like that to a book this experimental. I've thought they were funny before, brilliant before, even engaging, but I have never read a book without traditional characters or plot with such avid determination from cover to cover.
This book is gorgeous. I can't explain it properly, but... it's incredible. That three section part that I was so belligerent about reading was genius. Instead of feeling distracted and irritated, it was actually fun to kind of read around on the page, then turn it, then read around on the next page... the formal experimentation totally worked. And all the mixing of different texts and characters and times and places really WORKED. It formed a picture, at the end of the book, that could have been rendered in no other way. And that's the point of experimental fiction, right, to do something in a new way that couldn't be done in the old way.
It was beautiful, beautiful, ever word on purpose, every image worth looking at, every page a study. This book offers the reader a massive pay-off for the diligence involved in reading an experimental form. The thing is... the challenge in this book is not even like work. Go buy it, read it, see how it's done.
Friday, July 28, 2006
Girl Beside Him by Cris Mazza
1. The book is so much easier to read than the others I've read in this summer challenge that it's like eating yogurt after eating mueslix.
2. I think I've figured out Mazza's strength. I've read a few of her other books, most recently Indigenous which was about growing up as a Southern California native. That book is REALLY interesting, for the same reason I think I'm interested in this one: Mazza takes you into an unfamiliar world -- like the interior of an orchestra, or life in marching band, or working in a hospital, or in this case a ranching town in Wyoming. Instead of filling you in, in some patronizing irritating way, on the way things are, she just lets the way things are penetrate the text. So, you have this feeling of keeping up with the book, and figuring things out as you go. Like playing a game without a manual, and you know you'll just figure it out. the novel is very confidently, firmly written, so you don't have to think, well what's this lingo? What's going on? You just get immersed. It makes her books very memorable too, because you feel like you learned something -- that sounds so dumb -- but you feel like you learned something via experience, not via information.
3. All three of the novels I've read have to some degree been about filing in the lines of a mystery that's in the past. In this case it's something with the main character's sister and mother. It makes me very aware of the line being tread between giving the reader a mystery to unravel, and playing "What have I got behind my back" with the reader, rationing out clues and past scenes in just the right doses. This novel is coming from a lot of different directions -- it can kind of make you feel like skipping forward through the past sections. I suppose that's what it's like with any book where the past is a mystery.
Reading a book by Cris Mazza is like being set down into someone else's life. This is what novels can do for you that non-fiction books can never do. It's what novels should always do, of course, but Mazza does it so expertly that picking up another of her books is like preparing to go on a trip. There's that same anticipation. Whether it's the world of dog shows, or inside a rehab hospital, or playing in a symphony, or in this case doing wildlife research in the badlands, the immersion is immediate, complete, and seamless. Instead of holding your hand and patronizingly explaining the details, Mazza just slides you in next to one of the characters, and the life you're living unfolds with the natural progression of the plot. Would I ever have known all the details of playing in a marching band, without reading Cris Mazza? Would I have ever thought it could be that interesting?
Another experience this book affords is the ability to like and understand someone that in your usual life you would either ignore or reject. Mazza's main character in _Girl Beside Him_ is rough, irritable, and unpredictable. He's violent and sometimes mean. By all indications, he should be the most unlikeable main character in the history of novels. Not only do you not like the guy, but reading along, you have no doubt that if he met *you* he would definitely *not* like you either. However, by the end of the novel, I was really cheering for this guy, really wanting him to have something resembling a normal, healthy interaction with another human being. I'm not sure, in the end, if I got that, and I'm not entirely sure I understood the ending. However, putting the book down, I felt like I'd been somewhere and had seen something that I never would have looked at before.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
The Garden in Which I Walk by Karen Brennan
On to a collection of short stories.
Karen Brennan wrote several books before this one, notably Wild Desire back in 1990 which was positively reviewed in the NYT Review of Books. Now she's a professor at the University of Utah. She's written five books, total, and she teaches the graduate level poetry workshop at U of U. I'm 100 pages into this book and there's not much left, about half as much again, I'd say. It's what they used to call a slim volume, back when they said that sort of thing. There are a few things I have to say, at this point...
1. This writing is very controlled, very lovely, very fine. There isn't a lot of warbling excess -- it's carefully honed. It reads like poetry, lots of it, and I'm not surprised to find that she's also a poet. Reading these very short short stories, where often what's central is an image, or a situation, or an idea, and not a plot exactly, I'm thinking of this analogy: Handling good writing, like this, good images and interesting phrases and bright language, is like handling a lap full of sparkly jewels. It's pleasurable. Maybe poems are like the loose jewels, unset, just rolling around. Maybe short stories are like the jewels strung onto a wire, that you can wear, but with no interstitial weave or anything, just a sequencing. Maybe novels (I could be wrong, maybe they are nothing like this) are like a beaded garment, where you not only have the pretty gems, but you have to arrange them over a space, and it can't be too crowded or too sparse, and you have to also create the fabric between them, and make sure that fits, and that the seams are hidden. These stories, while all beautiful in themselves, are not connecting together to make anything wearable. I carry them off in my memory as separate things. It's really hard to write a novel. This writing, here in this book, is gifted and at times genius, but I don't think it was *hard* to write this. That's not a criticism, it's just the way the book feels.
2. It's not a good idea, in my opinion, to have a lot of first person stories in a row, all sounding alike. They started to bleed together in my mind, and I felt when I started the next story that I was still reading about the last character. I liked the third person stories best, I think, because the narrators of the others failed to differentiate themselves. I think my favorite was the one in three sections about the wreckage, the face, and the... sleeping. That was very well woven. My least favorite were the most fragmentary ones in first person. I also very much liked the one about the beautiful woman who maims her hand with a chainsaw accidentally. That one I will remember.
3. I was already struck with an example of why I don't usually read contemporary fiction. After reading this book, so rich in the image department, I was outside watering flowers with my little daughter. She had the hose in her hand, looking very picturesque with the little cotton dress and the flowers and her wavy hair. I was just loving watching her and I kept smelling something awful and rotten, and eventually I looked around carefully and there were two dead baby birds under the tree. Baby birds that fell out of the nest and died and there was nothing anyone could do. And my first thought, all seeped in this kind of literary brainjuice was, 'I should write a short story and use that.' Which, of course, wouldn't be altogether BAD. But the right thing to do, if I do use it, would be to work it into my novel... or just think about it and let it filter in. Or blog it. When I was in grad school I used to keep running lists of these "things" you know, what I would call jewels using my analogy above, and when the list got long enough I'd write a story using all of them, forcing them all in together like a salad.
4. Everyone in this book is miserable. Some extremely miserable. It's funny because from the first three pages I thought it was going to be kind of sweet and nice and boring. I think that's why that story is first.
So, on I go to finish and release it. I'm trying to decide whether to email these authors. Seems kind of pushy, like hey, I'm reading your BOOOK pay attention to MEEEE. Heh heh.
Friday, June 16, 2006
Gone by Elisabeth Sheffield
It's making me ask myself things like... why are books written? Why are books read? For years I have tried not to read anything written in this century, with very few exceptions including material I am critiquing for friends. I have read a few things but in general I haven't, especially I have tried to avoid other "experimental" writers because I'm afraid of being influenced, etc. I know that is not in the spirit of postmodern piracy and we're all very collectively conscious and text cannot be owned or authored or whatever, but this is just me. I read 19th century fiction, or else I read like... Jan Brett books to my kids.
So this is the first experimental fiction I've really read in a while. I have a few thoughts.
I think that readers naturally try to romanticize things. We try to imagine the settings as beautiful (or at least sublimely ugly) the characters as deep and true, and beautiful, and we want to believe there is significance. We're on the author's team, automatically, because we bought the book (or at least we're spending time to read it). It seems to me, and I could be completely wrong, that this author is trying to undercut my subconscious but earnest attempts to romanticize things in this book. I'm not allowed to believe the main character is beautiful or nice or even wise. Smart, she is. The smartness is packed into every crack of every sentence, with extra smartness crammed in around the edges. And a big fat dollop of smartness on top. Maybe it's droll of me to want there to be some romance here, and I mean, gauziness, not like... true love or anything. I want something to drag me back to the book after I eat dinner, make me consider staying up all night to finish it.
This book has a hook -- it's not lacking in a plot question. But I think the questiony lesbiany relationship burgeoning in old letters is maybe supposed to be the hook. There is also the question of whether the main character will find the painting she wants to find. The thing is... she's kind of rough. She puts on sweaty shirts. I *realize* okay? I realize that I'm not being very pomo and whatnot abotu this. But... I feel differently about reading a book where not only does the main character judge how sweaty her shirts are before putting them on, and sit down naked on the bathroom floor in grit, but that the narrative tells me that pointedly, as if... this is the kind of book you are reading, where the women's shirts are sweaty. Like... in your face, reader.
I am going to finish reading this book -- it's a challenge. There is quite a bit of great, great writing in this book, and I will have more to say later.
I finished it.
Right about page 100, my interest began to pick up significantly. I started having that urgent feeling like I had to know what was going on and finish the book. That feeling is the reason I read books (the reason most of us read books, I bet) and it was a relief when that kicked in. In my exalted opinion, page 100 is a bit late, and if I hadn't been committed to reading this, I would have put it down.
Having got to the end now, I think I do understand what Sheffield was doing. The book is about how women (as represented by the main character Stella), and also readers of fiction that's been written by a woman, assume that men are the villains, that the central female character (Stella's mother), especially if she is artistic, beautiful and from a disadvantaged background, must be the noble victim. This novel takes that expectation and turns it on its ear.
The novel is a mystery, and the reader has to reconstruct what has happened in this strange, exotic family, and figure out, as Stella puts it at one point, "who hurt who." While Stella herself is trying to figure it all out, from old letters and from talking to key players, the reader is always two steps behind her. One step behind, because we have to figure out what Stella already knows, which she does not openly tell us, and two steps because the style of the Stella sections is so difficult to unravel, almost purposefully obscuring what is already pretty murky. It takes a lot of work to get to the bottom of this mystery, and some of it I still don't quite understand... I just didn't pay close enough attention, maybe, to tie up all the loose ends.
The Stella sections are in present tense, and are my very least favorite type of stream of consciousness, where the character seems to think about each step she is taking, literally, where every motion or breath triggers a song lyric association, where there is just a swirling flood of thoughts surrounding the slightest action. Nobody thinks that much, that coherently (even thoug it reads as incoherent) and it makes for a very disembodied, difficult to picture narrative. The book's strongest sections, however, are letters from Stella's aunt, Judith. Those sections are great, at times excrutiatingly emotional, in spite of the fact that they *seem* to be written in a more detached, less immediate and personal style. I connected more with the letters in their stiffness and formality than I did with the rushed breathiness of the present time sequences.
For those who are willing to work this book has rich rewards. There is a very unpretentious and ungauzy portrayal of an artist who comes off as brilliant and believable at the same time. There are lots of motifs that pervade the book, affecting you on that almost subconscious level where you connect ideas as you read. The idea of the missing eye, for example, resurfaces throughout, connecting with many parts of the book and anchoring the theme of absense, invisibility, and what is unseen but still there. I really liked that. Also the idea of value, of copying, of replication, centered around the Winslow Homer that the main character is seeking and played out in her mother's art as well. I liked the idea on page 135 about how two photographic prints of a nonexistent original could hardly be said to be copies of each other. There were lots of smart, interesting ideas in the book, buried under the 'cuz' and 'gotta' and 'gonna' and 'yeah' language that Stella flooded us with.
Once the book takes a hold of you, its grip is firm. I did not love the present tense sections, but I loved the contrast of the letters from Aunt Judith. They were like islands of great writing in a sea of Joycey crazyland sometimes. I didn't like some of the things that Stella did, that seemed completely irrational and weird (like trying to seduce Uncle Buck or reading her own letter last -- I thought she might read her own letter first, and try to *kill* Uncle Buck) but I appreciated how omplicated the puzzle really was, after all the mud had swirled away. The underlying message, too, I think, is a treasure worth unburying.
Monday, June 5, 2006
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
It's written brilliantly. There are lines in the description of the people specifically, of the milieu in general, of the zeitgeist, that are just exquisite perfection. Descriptions I will remember and take away with me, into other books, into my understanding of the South during the depression. Her handling of the point of view shifts, around the town, and how the different characters' worldviews are reflected in the quality and nature of the narrative... it's nothing short of genius. I can't even think of a crack to make about this book, because it was so completely shatteringly good.
Nothing I ever want to read again. I could get the same sensation of hopelessness, ignorance, waste, and want by... wait... WHY would I want that sensation? Why don't I just go put my head against the sidewalk and flatten it with a sledge hammer?
It's a book that I should have read, and I'm glad I did, and I'm glad it was written, but now I want to eat strawberry ice cream, and read P.G. Wodehouse, and kiss my kids.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
The Haunted Pool
I think it's because I have this image of George Sand, this just ass-kicking supergenius female from the intimidating past, leaning over my shoulder, saying, "Don't you GET IT you moron? It wasn't just about cabbages and true love. It was about so! much! more!" The truth is, unfortunately, that unless the imaginary spectre of George Sand wants to clue me in, I'm not sure what else is here besides the cabbages. And the true love.
Well, there's the prologue. The prologue, which addresses the reader directly, is about how noble and wise the peasants of rural France are (were) and how their lack of intellect or ability to understand their circumstances doesn't interfere with their feeling of important feelings, and experiencing of deep emotion. Isn't that nice? Those sweet, precious peasants and their silly dumb heads.
Sand takes the prologue to rhapsodize about them and how cute they are, with their toil and whatnot, and then tells a pretty story about them falling (without consciousness) in love with each other. Finally, she takes a few more pages (a lot more pages) to just unapologetically savor the peasants' cute rituals. Marriage rituals.
The truth is, I really liked the book, up until the plot quit and the "I miss the cute peasants I used to look down on in my youth" themes came to the fore. I expected something raunchy, loud, scathing, or at least edgy. This is not that. It's a sweet love story, flavored with a lot of local color. So George Sand was a surprise, for this postfeminist. I'm not sure I'd love to read another of her books, but I'm glad I finally found out what she was really writing, under all that scandal and wild living.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Everyone in 19th century France loved these books, but no one today likes them much. It's pretty hard to find one -- I found my copy of The Haunted Pool in a used bookstore. The publisher is Shameless Hussy Press.
Here's a picture of rural France, just like you might imagine George Sand looking at, when she wrote the book, The Haunted Pool. See the mist? Totally haunting. Someday, I am finally going to write about that book. It wasn't bad. It wasn't great either. It wasn't what I expected.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
1. I can't *BELIEVE* I was trying to read this when I was eight. Maybe I have been getting stupider, my whole life, and at 8 I was some kind of precocious smartybrains, but it boggles my mind how an eight-year-old could have made it through any of this book. Just reading the dialect... takes a lot of concentration. Maybe I *have* been deteriorating. Disturbing. Or not. Strangely, the first chapter has a small girl (her father lovingly calls her a "wench") reading books too hard for her. Like _The History of the Devil_ by Daniel Defoe. Okay, that one I didn't get to. I can *remember* reading this book, like... I remember how I envisioned the mill. Ridiculous. I am purposefully picturing it differently now, to thwart my eight-year-old self who couldn't possibly have read this lousy book.
2. I like this part: "Plotting covetousness and deliberate contrivance in order to compass a selfish end are nowhere abundant but in the world of the dramatist; they demand too intense a mental action for many of our fellow parishioners to be guilty of them." It goes on, but the gist of the passage is that most people are too stupid to be intentionally wicked. Nice!
I think, to begin, that Maggie did not ever love Stephen. Obviously, she never loved Phillip. The love story of the book was between Maggie and Tom. I don't mean any kind of icky illegal brother/sister whatever. I do think that if she had had a larger sphere of experience, more people to know, more exposure to the world, she would have found someone to feel truly "in love" with, in the way that Phillip and Stephen were in love with her. In the passionate, married, adult kind of way. However, she never did find that kind of love. Her love for her brother was the only one that was true. That was eternal, endless, that she would give up everything for, that would have been completely sustaining for her.
Look at the structure of the love story for Tom and Maggie. They were together, they were separated by events and circumstances, they came together in the end -- it's a classic story arc for a very traditional love story, except that it's as if the genders are reversed.
Mmm... more later. Children.
When I say it's like a gender reversal... I mean a reversal of the traditional stuff that you expect to happen in a romance novel. Tom is the one who rejects Maggie for being "bad" as he pursues his relentless morals and virtues. He sends her away, corrects her and refuses her for all her traits that he sees as flaws. Ultimately, as they come together at the end, he sees (I think) that she was essentially herself, and that the flaws were actually her consistency with her own strange (to him) nature. So, Tom is kind of the girl, and Maggie is kind of the man who redeems himself at the end through a heroic, pure act. And they die in each others arms. I mean... come on. The inscription on the tombstone of their shared grave is: "In death they were not parted." That's what you'd expect to see on the grave of two lovers. Stephen and Phillip are just distractions... obstacles and problems. THey aren't really love interests. They're things that keep Maggie from Tom, things she does to disappoint him and alienate him.
You know, this story kind of reminds me of A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy. I have to reread that one, I guess. There was some kind of a train ride or something, reminding me of Maggie's float down the river with Stephen. I just can't remember how it all went together. This is why I need to reread these books.
SO. Baby needs convincing that she really does need a nap. I have more to say, shockingly enough.
Two more things and then I'm done with The Mill on the Floss and I'm on to The Haunted Pool by George Sand.
1. Eliot doesn't have any problem with all her characters sounding alike, except of course the ones that are supposed to sound funny. How is it that Tom and Maggie speak like articulate educated children while their parents speak like such funny bumpkins? Wouldn't they talk like their parents, at least until they went off to school? And then still pretty much? Maggie and Tom sound alike, as do Phillip and Stephen and Lucy. The aunts do have mannerisms that separate them, and of course Bob Jakin and Mr. Tulliver have unique diction. Again, this reminds me of D.H. Lawrence and the way everyone was able to really express everything so exquisitely, in spite of the fact that their parents and teachers were such dullards. Amazing.
2. I think that bringing the aunts and uncles and parents and children all together at the beginning of the book was a great and risky move. Writing a scene like this, with so many characters all new to the reader, would be a real forehead-cracker. Eliot tackles it with her weapon of choice -- exhaustive detail in description. I read that Eliot was one of the first of the Victorian fiction writers who really went all out on the visuals -- painting with words was a highly valued trait in Victorian fiction. So, in making you see the buckram sleeves and the fuzzy hairpieces and whatever else, Eliot is introducing you to these characters with visuals you can hang your information on. Also, bringing them all together with the catalyst of Tom's prospects in education forces them all into their most opinionate mode... so they can be their most exaggerated selves. Going to their individual houses and showing them to the reader in their own settings would have been easier, but less effective. Throwing them all together, guiding the reader through the chaotic scene with detailed descriptions, and making them fight it out -- that gives us everything we need to begin on these characters, in a few concentrated scenes.