Open City by Teju Cole

June 11th, 2021

I’d been meaning to read Open City since it came out in 2011; I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to it. Reading this in 2021 was interesting: we’re nearly two decades on from 9/11 now, and lines about disaster and epidemics have a different resonance, after 2020: at one point the narrator thinks about how “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live an a secure world”; shortly after that, talking about epidemics in Europe in centuries past, he says this: “What could it mean to live with such a possibility, with people of all ages dropping dead around you all the time? The thing is that we have no idea” (pp 200-201).

The prose style of Open City is slightly distancing; the matter-of-fact way that the narrator, Julius, talks about his daily activities and memories keeps the reader at arm’s length: his tone is measured, whether he’s talking about his estranged mother or his dead father or a patient (he’s in the last year of a psychiatry fellowship) or a museum he’s visited. But that measured style has a fluidity, too, and the pacing of the book’s sentences feels like the pace of walking, of Julius’s walks through New York City (where he lives) and Brussels (which he visits). I finished reading the book several days ago, and there are parts of it that are still very much in my head: Julius’s visit to the American Folk Art Museum (in its old 53rd St. location) and how it feels to be in a museum and lose track of time, or the different kind of slippery relationship to time the narrative seems to have when Julius gets his shoes shined and the Haitian bootblack is apparently talking about being in the city during the yellow fever epidemic (which, though he doesn’t mention it, was in the late 1700s/early 1800s). (Or maybe Julius is imagining that story, imagining the story of a Black man’s arrival in the city hundreds of years before he arrived from Nigeria, hundreds of years before the Liberian man he talks to when he visits a Queens detention center with his (now-ex) girlfriend’s church group.) Elsewhere in the book, Julius considers the city’s past, the layers of history and the city’s connections to slavery: the African Burial Ground downtown amidst office buildings, the Customs House; Bowling Green.

I like the parts of this book where Julius is walking and thinking, like this, from early in the book, when he’s talking about the experience of his New York walks: “Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks” (pp 6-7). And this, too: “Every decision—where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought in front of an abandoned building, whether to watch the sun set over New Jersey, or to lope in the shadows on the East Side, looking across to Queens—was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom” (p 7). I also love that the city Julius is walking through is my city, that I was here when the Folk Art Museum was next to MoMA, when the Time Warner Center had just opened, when Tower Records closed. I think this will be a book to reread, and I’m curious what different things I’ll notice when I do: there’s a lot going on in this novel, in satisfying and subtle ways.

“The world is suffused with perfect nonsense. Sometimes it is completely implausible.” So says the narrator of The Nose, which is, I think, the first thing I’ve read by Gogol. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of the Melville House “Art of the Novella” series – I used to get them at the library fairly often (their small size and good design always called out to me from the New Books shelf) and I was pleased to find, in these days where library service near me is still grab & go (hold pick-up only/no browsing), that my library has the ebook version of some of them. I like how the book presents the novella and then some other stuff—including, in this volume, other Gogol quotes about noses, some excerpts from Tristram Shandy, a letter from Gogol to his mother, and an excerpt from Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect.”

But back to The Nose. One morning Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber, gets up in the morning and slices into a loaf of bread his wife has just baked and finds “…a nose!” “Not only that, but a familiar nose” – the nose of one of his customers. Ivan Yakovlevich is distressed, and worried he’ll be charged with some crime; he wants to get rid of the nose ASAP but he isn’t sure how to manage it. After some difficulty, he manages to toss it into the river over the railing of a bridge.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in St. Petersburg, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov wakes up, looks at himself in the mirror, and finds that “where his nose should be was nothing but a perfectly flat patch of skin.” Kovalyov is dismayed: this is not going to be good for his job prospects, or for his chances with the ladies (with whom he very much likes to flirt). But wait, things get weirder: as Kovalyov is on his way to report his missing nose to the chief of police, he sees an “inconceivable sight” – his nose, somehow in the form of “a hunched gentleman in uniform,” getting out of a carriage. He follows it and confronts it: “it seems to me that you should know your place,”he says. But no: “The nose looked down his nose at the major, his brow furrowed.” “I am here on my own,” the nose eventually replies. Kovalyov is distracted by a pretty girl, and thinks he’ll flirt with her, but then remembers his condition; meanwhile, his nose leaves. We then follow Kovalyov as he considers further ways he might get his nose back (placing an ad in the newspaper? appealing to a police inspector?) and ponders how it might have gone away to begin with (a curse, placed on him by the mother of a lady he’s been flirting with but hasn’t proposed to?). But wait, things get worse: when Kovalyov is reunited with his nose, he can’t get it back on his face. Meanwhile, his nose becomes the talk of the town: there are endless rumors about where it takes its walks and spends its time, and everyone wants to catch a glimpse of it. And then, as suddenly as this whole thing started, it ends: Kovalyov wakes up one morning with his nose back where it belongs, after which he goes back to his usual life, “parading around town as though nothing had ever happened.”

I suspect I’d get the satire of this more if I knew more about Russia in the 1830s, but nevertheless this was a fun and funny read. It’s funny how Kovalyov is more worried about his chances with the ladies than anything else, and funny how the nose in uniform is able to pass itself off as a government official, higher in rank than Kovalyov. And Kovalyov’s interactions with a newspaper clerk, who refuses to place an ad in the paper about Kovalyov’s missing nose, are really great.

Further reading: this piece by Bob Blaisdell in the Los Angeles Review of Books makes me want to read more Gogol. I also like this post on the Melville House blog by Jonathan Gibbs, who doesn’t like this novella, and Ian Dreiblatt (the translator), who very much does.

At the start of The Enchanted April it’s a rainy day in London (the kind of day where you look out the window and see “extremely horrible sooty rain falling steadily on the hurrying umbrellas and splashing omnibuses”), and Lotty Wilkins, who is not looking forward to finishing her shopping and going home to have dinner with her husband, finds herself captivated by an ad in the newspaper. The ad is for a castle for rent in Italy, furnished, for the month of April. She’s so entranced by it that she mentions the ad to a woman she knows by sight from church, who has been looking at the same newspaper. That woman, Rose Arbuthnot, thinks of herself as too practical (and too busy with her charity work) to consider a holiday abroad. But when Lotty suggests that they write to inquire about it, Rose goes along with her, and they end up renting the castle—and advertising in the paper for two other women to join them to share the cost. And so Lotty and Rose (whose husband writes books about “the mistresses of kings”, which Rose finds shameful and sinful) go to Italy, along with an older woman, Mrs. Fisher (whose life mostly consists of thinking fondly of the past, especially of the various Victorian eminences she knew when she was young) and a younger woman, Lady Caroline Dester (who is very beautiful, and is tired of being pursued relentlessly by various men, and wants some time alone to clear her head).

I like the mix of humor and sweetness and beauty and seriousness in this book; I like the descriptions of the castle gardens (which are abundantly, riotously in bloom) and the way the characters realize various unhelpful patterns they’ve been stuck in, and the way that being away from their usual lives opens up space for those patterns to change. In her introduction to the edition I read, Cathleen Schine writes that this is “a novel about beauty, and it is beautiful; it is about the senses, and it is sensual; but, most important, it is a novel about happiness that makes one happy,” and yeah, that sums it up.

Highlights for me included the part where Lotty and Rose (who don’t speak any Italian) are picked up from the train station in a carriage, and find themselves doubting whether they’re being taken to the castle or abducted (“Ought they to pay him? Not, they thought, if they were going to be robbed and perhaps murdered. Surely on such an occasion one did not pay”), the complexity of the castle’s newfangled bathtub, and the last few chapters, where everything comes out right in a way that feels like a Shakespearean comedy (in the best possible way).

In this book’s prologue, Liz Phair explains that the book is about “the small indignities we all suffer daily, the silent insults to our system, the callous gestures we make toward one another” (4). These are everyday horror stories, for some definition of “everyday”: affairs, relationship troubles, performance mishaps, brushes with danger. As others have noted, this isn’t really a music-centric memoir, but I was fine with that. Phair’s writing has some clunky moments (like when she describes people temporarily without air-conditioning as stuck in their “stultifying domiciles”), but overall I found this very readable, the kind of book where I kept pausing to tell my fiancé about what I’d just read.

As a New Yorker who missed the 2003 blackout (I was living in Massachusetts that summer) I thoroughly enjoyed Phair’s chapter about it, which she starts by talking about how she was “spellbound by the sight of an unlit Central Park at sunset. Dusk is falling, but there are no streetlights illuminating the sidewalks, no traffic signals changing from red to green” (80). I like how the blackout is presented as a moment of potential discomfort and danger but also a moment of chance connections, and how it’s juxtaposed with Phair realizing that she and her guitar player “are into each other”, though he’s dating someone else (81).

I also really liked the chapter where Phair is on a plane and the flight attendant tells her there’s someone on board who knows her and wants to say hi; it turns out to be a guy from her hometown who had a leg amputated after an accident. Phair thinks this guy “probably doesn’t get out that much” and thinks about how to make sure their interaction is fun and positive, and then has to laugh at herself when her assumptions turn out to be totally wrong (116). (He tells her he’s been touring as a competitive wheelchair athlete and his schedule has been packed, and then hilariously gets her to help him out by carrying his prosthetic leg through the airport so he can make his connecting flight.)

And I loved “Red Bird Hollow”, the chapter where Phair writes about how she and her brother would spend time with their grandparents in Ohio. I like how Phair captures moments of connection with nature (feeding the horses in the barn, finding toadstools and birds’ eggs and wild blackberries). And the chapter’s central story, which is about climbing up a tall pine tree, is totally gripping.

Philadelphia Fire isn’t so much about the 1985 bombing (by the police) of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue (though that did happen, and does figure in the plot) as it is about struggles and failures and failings, and maybe especially failed ideals. The book’s epigraph is a quote from William Penn saying that each house in the city should sit “in the middle of its platt” so that the city “may be a green Country Towne, wch will never be burnt, and always be wholsome.” Yeah, so much for that. Meanwhile, at the start of the novel, we meet Cudjoe, a writer who grew up in West Philly but has been living in Europe, who’s come home to write about the fire. We see him interviewing a woman who had been part of MOVE but had left before the bombing happened; we hear her talk about a child who is the sole survivor of the fire in the MOVE house but has gone missing. (In real life, one adult and one child survived; neither went missing.) Cudjoe wants to find the missing kid, and he wants to write about the fire, and he doesn’t actually do either. He reflects on his failed marriage, on his kids (who aren’t in his life at all), on a production of The Tempest he was going to put on with Black kids from a West Philly public school that didn’t end up happening, because it was meant to be outdoors but got rained out. He has lunch with a college friend who’s now cultural attaché to Philly’s first Black mayor, and they talk about gentrification and the changing city and how maybe if Cudjoe hadn’t left, he “could have told the mayor what to do” about MOVE and its members. “Sooner or later, one way or another, them and their dreadlocks had to go,” says Cudjoe’s friend, Timbo. So much for ideals of tolerance and getting along.

The three parts of Philadelphia Fire don’t entirely cohere, but that may be intentional: the struggle to tell the overlapping stories of a city, maybe. The first part focuses on Cudjoe and his story; the second part feels like a diary or commonplace book, with quotes and notes and musings (though Cudjoe does appear, when that production of The Tempest is discussed); the third part features a homeless man named J.B. (though Cudjoe appears again as well, and I was glad when the story returned to him).

Wideman’s writing in this book is really vivid and often gorgeous: there are so many striking images and passages and descriptions, like Cudjoe thinking of memory as like a snow-globe you pick up, a self-contained thing that sits on a shelf, or Cudjoe joining a pickup basketball game in Clark Park and narrating the rhythm of the game, the feel of it in his body. And I’m such a sucker for passages like this, describing Cudjoe looking at Philly from the steps of the art museum:

“This is how the city was meant to be viewed. Broad avenues bright spokes of a wheel radiating from a glowing center. No buildings higher than Billy Penn’s hat atop City Hall. Scale and pattern fixed forever. Clarity, balance, a perfect understanding between the parts. Night air thick and bad but he’s standing where he should and the city hums this dream of itself into his ear and he doesn’t believe in it for an instant but wonders how he managed to stay away so long.”

Or this, about how the city is created each day by its inhabitants, which made me think of my recent re-read of Mrs. Dalloway, where Woolf talks about people creating life “at every moment afresh:

“Didn’t you need a million windows opening, framing views of the city every morning in order for a city to come to life? Wasn’t a city millions of eyes that are windows opening on scenes invisible till the eyes construct them, till the eyes remember and set out in meticulous detail the city that was there before they closed for sleep?”

If my Goodreads shelving is accurate, it’s been three years since I last read a mystery, or at least, three years since I read a mystery that wasn’t middle-grade or YA—which sort of surprises me and sort of doesn’t. Sometimes mysteries are totally my thing; sometimes they feel too plot-driven. And I didn’t love the seventh Flavia de Luce book, so I took a break before picking the eighth one up. But I’m glad I finally did, and I think I’m now going to get back into this series. I love the setting (England, early 1950s) and I love the voice of our narrator/sleuth, Flavia, who’s a preteen chemistry genius and totally charming. In this one, Flavia’s just gotten back from Canada, having been kicked out of boarding school, but things at home are not great: her beloved pet hen is gone from her coop, and, worse yet, her dad’s in the hospital with pneumonia. It’s nearly Christmas, but no one at Buckshaw (the huge old house in which the de Luces live) is in a festive mood. After heading to the vicarage to talk to the vicar’s wife/just to get out of the house, Flavia is sent on an errand to Thornfield Chase, where she’s meant to deliver something to Roger Sambridge, an expert wood-carver. Except Roger Sambridge can’t come to the door, because Roger Sambridge is deceased.

As a distraction from her own troubles, and because she truly loves the art of detection, Flavia throws herself into the puzzle of Roger Sambridge’s death, and the puzzle of how Sambridge is connected to Oliver Inchbald, a famous writer of children’s books who died in gruesome circumstances several years prior. (Sambridge doesn’t have many books in his home, but he has a shelf of Oliver Inchbald first editions, including multiple copies of the same books, which Flavia finds curious.)

It’s a delight to follow Flavia as she follows various clues and leads and reflects on her process in passages like this: “In reality, analytical minds such as my own are forever shooting off wildly in all directions simultaneously. It’s like joyously hitting jelly with a sledgehammer; like exploding galaxies; like a display of fireworks in which the pyrotechnic engineer has had a bit too much to drink and set off the whole conglobulation all at once, by accident.” And oh, Flavia and chemistry: it may not be very festive at Buckshaw, but she takes a few minutes to turn some rosemary sprigs into a “private Christmas tree,” coated with “artificial hoarfrost” thanks to benzoic acid. Also: I love the wintry atmosphere of this book, with Flavia always bundling up and riding her bike, Gladys, on icy roads past snow-covered fields. (And the end, gah, it totally made me cry.)

This was the first Woolf I ever read, and it’s still a pleasure to re-read. I’d remembered some of the prose but forgotten some of the story and structure, the way that the narrative jumps from one character to another as their paths cross on a single day in London in June, 1923. I remembered the mood, the way that observations or impressions tie to past memories (even as Clarissa Dalloway thinks about the constant newness of life, too, how every one is “creating it every moment afresh”) and the way that life (especially city life) is so full of connections, some apparent, some invisible. Peter Walsh, who proposed to Clarissa when they were young, and who has recently returned from years away in India, thinks about how “to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter, even trees, or barns.”

I love the descriptions of the motion and variety of London, like this, from Clarissa’s walk to buy flowers near the beginning of the book:

In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

Or this, from closer to the end of the book, when Peter Walsh is walking from his hotel to the Dalloways’ house in the evening:

It was not beauty pure and simple—Bedford Place leading to Russell Square. It was straightness and emptiness of course; the symmetry of a corridor; but it was also windows lit up, a piano, a gramophone sounding; a sense of pleasure-making hidden, but now and again emerging when, through the uncurtained window, the window left open, one saw parties sitting over tables, young people slowly circling, conversations between men and women, maids idly looking out (a strange comment theirs, when work was done), stockings drying on top ledges, a parrot, a few plants. Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.

In general, I would say I’m drawn to novels that are tightly focused on a single character; when a story is described as “sprawling” I feel like it’s probably not going to be the book for me. I also don’t read a lot of historical fiction (and when I do, it’s more likely to be a mystery than something “serious”, and more likely to be set in England than America). So The Prophets, which is historical fiction set on a plantation in Mississippi, whose chapters switch from character to character over the course of nearly 400 pages, probably wouldn’t be my first choice if I were browsing the shelves at a bookstore or library. But I got it as a gift, as part of the Strand bookshop’s three-month book subscription package, and decided to read it sooner rather than later because I’m trying to be better about reading books I own.

The Prophets is about Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved young men, and their relationship—how their love and connection, which is so clearly a thing of joy and beauty and truth, is leered at and judged by others, with consequences for everyone involved. It’s also about so many others on the cotton plantation where the story is set—mostly about other enslaved Black men and women, and the everyday horrors they face, and the choices they make as a result, but also about the plantation’s overseer and its owner, and the owner’s wife and son. The past is part of the story, too: what the various characters remember, or have forgotten, or are trying to forget, and also ancestral pasts, ancestral memories, an imagined African place that shows a set of different possibilities for ideas about gender and relationships. I found myself enjoying the switching perspectives, the way we get so many pieces of so many character’s stories.

As for the style: I like how Jones writes dialogue, and there are some lyrical sentences and images that are really great, like when one character thinks about what she’s heard about enslaved people rising up in the Caribbean: “The same blades they had chopped the cane with were held high, in unison and in charge” (115). Or when another character thinks about watching a dinner party in the Big House and describes it like this: “Essie never saw so many candles lit at once, she said, the soft light coming from so many points, casting the most joyful shadows on every wall, growing and growing until, oddly, they became menacing. At which point, what flooded her mind, and Maggie’s too, she reckoned, was that all it would take was a delicate tap to tip one of the candles over, and maybe the resulting blaze would, likewise, begin as splendor before it became tragedy” (59). Sometimes, though, the style comes off as overwritten rather than lyrical, like when an outhouse is described like this: “It was thin and shocking set against the backdrop of the wilderness. He had it built there, far enough away form the house that the odor didn’t overwhelm. Not too far from the flowers so that they, too, could be the arbitration between what stank and what bloomed” (251). Still: I was engaged enough by the characters that I didn’t mind some clunkiness, and while there were moments when the book felt slow, the last sixty pages went by in a rush.

I’m probably not the target audience for this book—I’m not particularly looking for encouragement in creative pursuits—but my fiancé got a copy as a gift and I ended up picking it up from the shelf while waiting for a library hold on a different book to come in. Gilbert’s tone is conversational and engaging, and she tells lots of great stories about her own writing life, and about the artistic pursuits of others, all under the broad themes of Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity.

Early in the book, she defines “creative living” as “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear” (9). Later in the book, she returns to the idea of curiosity—noting that she thinks that telling someone to follow their curiosity is better than telling them to follow their passion, since passion may feel too big or intimidating or people may not know what theirs is, whereas with curiosity, you can start small and see where it takes you. I like that, and I liked Gilbert’s own story about following her curiosity, when she realized she was interested in gardening (though she never had been previously). She talks about how she planted a garden, then found herself doing research to find out where the plants in her garden came from. She then realized she was interested not so much in the “garden itself, but the botanical history behind it—a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue,” which ended up being the subject of one of her novels (243).

Gilbert is big on choosing to look at things in ways that make things easier for yourself, not harder for yourself, which makes a lot of sense to me. Like: she rejects the idea of the tortured artist/thinks that “too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure” (209). She talks about interpreting certain situations in certain ways, like when she writes about how a story she submitted was rejected, then later ended up being accepted by the same person for the same publication. The accepted story was submitted by Gilbert’s agent, and she talks about how she could have a negative interpretation of this, thinking that “it’s who you know” that matters, rather than talent (193). But as she puts it, she would rather take it as proof that “miraculous turns of fate can happen to those who persist in showing up” (ibid.) (As she also points out, she doesn’t know the other circumstances around the initial rejection or later acceptance: maybe the first time around, her story was read at the end of a long and difficult day; maybe the second time around, the person reading it was in a great mood.) Even some things she chooses to believe that may seem bonkers (ahem, like the idea that ideas have their own “will” and “consciousness”(35)) can be seen in this same spirit: if you start with the idea that there is an abundance of ideas and that the right one will come to you, your experience of creativity may end up being less pressured, more full of a sense of wonder.

I like how much joy there is in this book, whether Gilbert is advising readers to “Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self” (161) or talking about a woman she knew who became an expert in ancient Mesopotamian history at the age of eighty or relating a story about a guy in a lobster costume. And now I kind of want to read that novel that Gilbert wrote that came from her curiosity about plants!

Daisy Miller by Henry James

April 6th, 2021

In her introduction to the edition I read, Elizabeth Hardwick describes Daisy Miller as “an intramural battle between middle-aged, deracinated American women long abroad and a young, provincial American girl whose naturalness and friendliness are more suitable to hometown streets than to the mysteries of European society.” Hardwick also talks about “the banal social proprieties that will condemn the provincial spontaneity, friendliness, and forthrightness of Daisy,” and yeah, that about sums it up. Daisy is an American girl in Europe with her bratty younger brother and her ineffectual mother; while they’re in Vevey, Switzerland, she meets Frederick Winterbourne, who’s 27 or so. He’s charmed by her beauty and alternately charmed/puzzled/bothered by her flirtatiousness, lack of interest in or knowledge of proper social behavior, and general idiosyncrasies. They talk in a garden and visit a castle. Later, in Rome, their paths cross again, only now Daisy is flirting with “various third-rate Italians”, though mostly just one in particular. She scandalizes all the American expat society ladies by “flirting with any man she can pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all the evening with the same partner; receiving visits at eleven o’clock at night”: clearly “she has been going too far.” Winterbourne alternates between trying to give Daisy advice on how not to be ostracized and trying to tell others that she’s just a clueless innocent, though he can’t decide whether he thinks she actually is innocent or not. Without giving away the ending entirely: he ultimately decides she’s innocent, but at that point it’s too late. He goes back to Geneva and his normal life, where rumor has it he’s romantically involved with “a foreign lady, a person older than himself” (hm, double standard much?!).

I didn’t love Daisy Miller, though I didn’t hate it either. There are some funny moments—Daisy’s brother asking Winterbourne for a lump of sugar and promptly taking three; Winterbourne thinking maybe Mr. Miller is dead when Daisy’s brother says he’s “in a better place than Europe” (the kid just means his dad is in Schenectady); Winterbourne’s aunt and her friends gossiping in church in the midst of a service—and some pleasing descriptions of European scenery, which I wanted more of. Also, I associate James with super-long/lush/elegant sentences, which I didn’t really find much of in this book—maybe that’s more characteristic of his later work, but at any rate, I missed that style.