Despite loving Roz Chast’s work whenever I see it in the New Yorker (speaking of which: her recent cover is amazing), I hadn’t known she had written a book about NYC until Jenny from Reading the End mentioned it in a comment here last year. I immediately put a hold on it at the library, and after a lengthy wait, it finally arrived, right as I found my normal reading routines upended by an injury that means I can’t currently hold anything heavier than a coffee cup in my right hand, which makes reading on the subway pretty much impossible.

Ah well: this ended up being a perfect book to read on my couch in two sittings, though I am not entirely its ideal audience. I came to NYC for college and stayed after graduation: I’ve now been here for nearly 18 years if you count my time in college; I’ve lived in Brooklyn for nearly 14 years. So I don’t really need an explanation of uptown/downtown, how streets and avenues work, and where the different Manhattan subway lines go. That said, Chast’s style, both narration-wise and illustration-wise, totally works for me, so even her descriptions of basic Manhattan geography had their charm. (This book got its start as a guide for Chast’s daughter, who grew up in the suburbs and came to NYC for college, so it’s a little bit of a beginner’s guide to the city, but it’s also more than that.)

Where this book shines, for me, is in the more personal bits: the parts about Chast’s favorite things in NYC, the parts that capture her style and sensibility and sense of humor and way of looking at the world. There’s a bit about the time when Chast found an unusual item on the sidewalk that I’d read previously (I think it was published in the New Yorker) that still made me laugh out loud this time around. There are bits about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. There’s a drawing of a street tree in winter with plastic bags caught in its branches, whose accompanying text is just: “If Manhattan had an official tree, it would be this one” (125). There are multiple bits about the pleasures of walking in the city, which I relate to a whole lot. “I am interested in the person-made,” Chast writes, and continues: “I like to watch and eavesdrop on people. And I really like DENSITY OF VISUAL INFORMATION” (40). (Which is followed by the totally excellent image you can see as the lead illustration in this NPR piece.) “If you are feeling antsy or out of sorts,” Chast advises, “pick a street and walk across it from coast to coast. Any street will do. The more nondescript your street is, the greater chance you have of making your own discoveries” (47-49). And Chast’s drawings and photographs show some of these sorts of discoveries: I love a drawing of a sign for a deli advertising “ham & cheese warps,” and photos showing different varieties of standpipe connections. I also like the way Chast quotes from E.B. White’s Here Is New York, another lovely book about the city that I should reread one of these days.

Winter is the second novel in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, and I initially found it less approachable than Autumn, though I think that’s absolutely by design. This is a story about a family, and about family memories and secrets and dysfunctions, and its characters aren’t as instantly likable as those in Autumn, but it’s also, eventually, a book about light and connection and generosity and warmth in a midwinter time of darkness, and as things got a little brighter I found myself enjoying the book more.

The book is set mostly in Cornwall, mostly around Christmas: an older woman, Sophia Cleves, is expecting her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte for a holiday visit. But Art and Charlotte have broken up, not that he wants to tell Sophia that, and since Sophia and Charlotte have never met, Art figures he can bring someone else, someone who will pretend to be Charlotte for a few days. But when Art and his companion arrive, it’s clear that all is not quite right with Sophia, so Art’s environmentalist/activist/ex-squatter aunt Iris is called in to help out, despite the fact that she and Sophia haven’t spoken for decades.

All of that, though, makes this book sound like more of a straightforward holiday family drama than it is. There’s various bits of strangeness throughout, like when Sophia sees something in her field of vision that seems to turn into the disembodied head of a child, which then keeps her company for several days, or when Art gets drunk at dinner and sees a bit of coastline looming in the air over the dining room table. And there’s lots of humor and wordplay and pleasingly-constructed passages (like a bit where we get a whole conversation first in terms of what one of the characters is saying, and then in terms of the other character’s replies) and thoughts about art and memory and emotion and nature and the current political moment and life in general, and bits of Autumn that come into play in this story, too, and it all ultimately really worked for me, despite the initial chilliness of it.

Malacqua is about what its subtitle says it’s about—”Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event”—but that only partly captures the mood and feel of this atmospheric novel. Malacqua is about four days of rain, yes, but it’s also about how things work or don’t work, about how the government works or doesn’t work, about how people are stuck or indecisive or unsure or resolved about things in their lives, and about how life goes on, and about how people move through their days, with their everyday frustrations and rebellions (or dreams thereof) and hopes and worries. There’s an introduction/prologue, and then a section of the book for each of the four days; the narration of each day is made of long sentences, long paragraphs, wonderful unspooling phrases about city-life, city-moments, with the focus shifting from place to place, character to character. The book starts and ends with a journalist, Carlo Andreoli (who’s 35, though I read him as ten or twenty years older and was surprised when his age was mentioned), and focuses partly on the direct consequences of the rain that starts and then continues for four days: a sinkhole opens in a road; buildings collapse; people die. But we also get little snippets of other inhabitants of Naples and their lives: a stenographer thinking about sex and her boyfriend, a girl in her late teens meeting up with a lover, a poet giving a reading, a café owner and his English wife, a mother whose son has just gotten married, a ten-year-old girl whose mother is difficult, a secretary waiting for a bus and thinking about her romantic relationships. We also get some magical realism, which is sort of loosely integrated into the story: a few weird/inexplicable things happen, but mostly we’re in a more or less realistic, if soggy, landscape.

I loved the descriptive passages about Naples and its water and its weather, from the first sentence of the book on: here’s how the book starts:

And through the windowpane steaming grey thoughts following the sea, with Santa Lucia huddled behind him, hands in his pockets, listening to the silence of his silence, the gusts of the coming wind, and those leaves twisting in the street, down into the asphalt (9)

A few pages later, we read about “the brackish air, the smell of diesel” (11). Later, night arrives “with inky streaks and sudden gusts” (13); later still, there’s this, which I think is great:

The harbour was peaceful and silent, with very few lights still burning, and only from time to time a train’s rattle in the silence, a rattling train and a few silent cars inside that silence. There was night, only night, floating over the telegraph poles, the neon signs. (61)

I also like the way that the narrative shifts from character to character, and the way that different characters’ thoughts and memories are explored: I like how a passage about a police officer looking at the sea turns into him thinking about swimming off a boat with his friends when he was a kid, which turns into him thinking about his marriage and his wife, who’s ill/anxious, so that you can’t help but reflect on the contrast between his childhood (all possibility and freedom) and his adult life, but in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed, in a way that just flows.

Malacqua was originally published in Italian in 1977, and this is the first time it’s been published in English translation: as the back cover explains, it was withdrawn from publication until after Pugliese’s death, at his request. This was Pugliese’s only novel, but I wish he’d written others: I found myself thoroughly immersed in this book and its style, transported from a wintry New York existence to a rainy autumnal Neapolitan one.

Standard Deviation is a novel about married life and parenting, but also about life in general: it’s full of “all that stuff you do every day that sometimes seems pleasurable and sometimes seems pointless but never seems to end” (259). Those everyday moments, particularly the ones that are on the edge of ridiculous, are a big part of what I like about this book. The everyday moments we see are from the twelfth year of Graham and Audra’s marriage: he’s 56, she’s 41, and he cheated on his first wife, Elspeth, with her, but now they’ve been together for longer than he and Elspeth were, and they have a son, Matthew, who’s 10 and on the autism spectrum. I like that we see Graham and Audra going grocery shopping (where she runs into her yoga teacher and lies about why she missed class that morning) and going about their workdays (Graham’s young/clueless secretary is pretty great) and doing parental tasks they’d rather not (from a party for parents of kids in Matthew’s Cub Scout troop to an origami conference to a really great scene in which Graham and their doorman, Julio, rush around collecting food from various parents for a multicultural school event). I like the humor of scenes like a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, scenes which are often made funnier by Audra’s lack of a filter: she seems to say whatever she’s thinking, without any sense of whether or not it’s appropriate for the time/place/audience. And I like the way we see Graham and Audra, and then just Graham, interacting with Elspeth (who hasn’t been in their lives at all until now) after Graham runs into her by chance at a deli. I like the way Graham and Elspeth’s interactions, in particular, are used to explore friendship and intimacy and personhood and agency, and I also like the scenes where we see Graham and Audra and Elspeth together. I like how Heiny captures little things so well, like the “half-present, half-absent sort of voice people use when they’re looking at a computer screen and talking at the same time” (16), or like this:

Graham’s and Audra’s were not the only universes. There were also other universes—hidden ones, secret ones. Little pocket universes scattered around and you slipped into them unexpectedly, like when you stopped into a bodega for milk and discovered a cardboard display stand of Sucrets or Love’s Baby Soft perfume or some other long-defunct product. (43)

That said, I think I’m not really the ideal audience for this book, or maybe for books about marriage in general: I disliked how the question of infidelity kept coming up in various ways/for various people, without any recognition of the fact that monogamy is not the only relationship model (even though I realize that for a lot of people, it is).

2017 year-end wrap-up

December 30th, 2017

It’s not quite the end of the year yet, but I think it’s unlikely I’ll finish another book over the next two days, so here goes. I think 2017 was the first year ever in which the number of movies I saw was greater than the number of books I read, which I attribute to having started to date someone who a) is very into/knowledgable about film b) has a MoMA membership and frequently gets us tickets to film screenings there and c) convinced me to join MoviePass, which has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience. But it was a solid reading year for me, too. I read fewer books than last year (50, as opposed to 52 last year) but enjoyed most of what I did read. The breakdown:

Picture books/middle-grade books/YA (including one play): 15. Highlights: Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea, with its magic of intuition and empathy, and the way it mixed fantasy/Chosen One elements with real-world/coming-of-age elements. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry with its smart/no-nonsense protagonist and its depiction of a Black family in the South in the 1930s. The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. PĂ©rez with its mix of prose and visual art, and its mix of plot-focused narrative and lovely descriptive passages. I also loved re-reading The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper in December.

Fiction (for grown-ups, including graphic novels): 23. Highlights: Empty Streets by Michal Ajvaz, with its gradually unspooling connected stories, The Chimes by Anna Smaill, with its gorgeous and musical writing, and Autumn by Ali Smith, which is so full of heart. I also was totally engrossed by Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, both of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children books, and Max Gladstone’s latest in the Craft sequence: but, really, I read a lot of good fiction this year. More of what I read this year was of the plot-driven/delicious variety than the thorny/challenging variety, and I’m OK with that.

Non-fiction (including autobiographical comics): 12. In the books-about-other-places category I really liked Marcelino Truong’s graphic memoir about the Vietnam of his childhood, Such a Lovely Little War, and Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House, about going to the Falkland Islands to write. In the books-about-sex category, I was delighted by Emily Witt’s really really smart book of essays, Future Sex, and by Toni Bentley’s memoir about sex/submission/transcendence, The Surrender. And of course I loved Tamara Shopsin’s Arbitrary Stupid Goal, which includes a lot of great bits about the NYC of decades past and about Shopsin’s quirky/interesting family.

I ticked off 14 of the 24 categories for the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder challenge, and am probably going to approach the 2018 challenge in a similar way as I did the 2017 one: keeping an eye out for books that might fit the challenge, but mostly reading according to my whims. I hope 2017 was a good reading year for you, whatever that means for you, and that 2018 is full of bookish delights.

I know I read and liked at least the first two of Louis Sachar’s “Wayside School” books when I was a kid, but I hadn’t thought of them in ages. Then I read this piece by Jia Tolentino on the New Yorker website, in which she describes the first one, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, as a book with “a surfeit of heart and an absence of sentiment,” and describes the style of the trilogy as being like “Shel Silverstein with hints of Barthelme and Borges.” Clearly I needed to go get the first book from the library. I read it over the course of two days and found the absurd humor of it pretty pleasing, though I probably liked it more as a kid than I do as an adult.

The book consists of thirty chapters/stories, each of which is named for one or more of the students and teachers at the imaginary school of the title (mostly the students and teachers from one particular class). The school is a bit odd: it was meant to have thirty classrooms on one floor but it was accidentally built sideways, with one classroom per story: “The builder said he was very sorry” (9). The builder is also sorry for having accidentally skipped from the 18th floor to the 20th, but the school’s loss is the reader’s gain: one of my favorite chapters in the book is about that missing 19th floor. Wayside School is odd in other ways, as well: in the first (and very memorable) chapter, a mean teacher turns students into apples; in another chapter, we get to ponder what ice cream that tastes like a particular person might be like. There are creepy bits and kind of mean bits and clever bits. Highlights for me included a chapter where illiterate bank robbers try to rob the school and a character gets revenge on the boastful kid who sits behind him, a chapter where a kid who draws a lot of pictures very quickly during art class learns about the idea of quality over quantity, a chapter in which a kid goes up and down thirty flights of stairs more times than he would like, a chapter with a mysterious interrogation in it, and a chapter in which a student says she’s too distracted by her itchy mosquito bites to do math. That mosquito-bite chapter features this, which I find so charming/funny/great:

“But we have all kinds of arithmetic,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without carrying, addition with carrying, and carrying without addition.”
“I don’t care,” cried Dana.
“We have that, too,” said Mrs. Jewls, “addition without caring. Now, stop carrying on.” (52)

The last time I read The Dark Is Rising was more than ten years ago, in summer, and while I always love this book, there’s an extra magic in reading it during the time of year in which it’s set, in the dark and cold days of midwinter, with the festive pleasures of Christmas all around me in real life as well as in the book. This time around I probably read it a bit slower, too, because for the first two-thirds of the book I was pacing my reading for the Twitter readalong (#TheDarkIsReading), though after Christmas I couldn’t keep from just reading on: I finished the book on December 26th, totally unable to ration out the last third until the action of the book ends on Twelfth Night.

The Dark Is Rising is a fantasy quest narrative, a Chosen One narrative, and the story of a centuries-long battle between Light and Dark, all of which are fine and satisfying things, but what makes this book, for me, is the rest of it: how well-written it is, and the sense it gives of landscape, of place, and of the daily life of a large and happy family in an English village, all the ordinary sweetness of Christmas, even as the Dark threatens the everyday peace of village life. I love passages like this:

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering. (79)

Other choice Christmas phrases: at one point Cooper writes about the “enchanted expectant space” of Christmas morning (127), and then, later on Christmas Day, writes about church bells in a storm “chiming through the grey whirling world around them, brightening it back into Christmas” (139). So good.

I think it’s hard to talk about the fantasy/quest elements of the book without spoilers, or without getting bogged down in detail, so I’m not really going to try, but I will say that I love that part of the fantasy involves time-slips, where the protagonist/hero, 11-year-old Will, finds himself in the past on a number of occasions. I like the sense of history that those scenes bring, and the sense of the vast expanse of time.

The Swiss Family Robinson was originally published in German in 1812; the English translation I read is from 1814, but (as I learned from a “Did You Know?” section at the back of the book) some of it is based on sections added by the French translator, Baroness Isabelle de Montolieu: one of the most memorable episodes isn’t in Wyss’s original! I’d never read the book as a kid, or seen the movie, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect: I knew it was about a shipwrecked family who ended up building themselves a treehouse, but that was about all I could tell you about it.

As it turns out, I found The Swiss Family Robinson to be kind of a slog. The plot: a man, his wife, and their four sons (who range in age from 8 to 15) are leaving Europe on a ship that’s going to set up a new settlement far away, but the ship gets wrecked in a storm and the members of this family are the only ones left on board. The wreck ends up perched on some rocks in such a way that the family manages to survive, and also manages to save a lot of the ship’s provisions, which are both plentiful and useful. When they make their way from the rocks to an island that’s within sight, they find a landscape that turns out to be full of edible and otherwise useful plants, and also full of a fairly bewildering/nonsensical assortment of animals, many of which are also edible or otherwise useful. They proceed to set themselves up with living quarters, first right by the shore and then farther inland, where they build that treehouse; as time passes they make a number of other structures on the island, and even manage to hollow out a winter shelter inside of a cave full of crystals of salt.

The writing (at least in this translation) is more serviceable than beautiful, but my main problem with the book is that it’s narrated by the father, which has the result of making it extremely didactic. Apparently (again, according to the backmatter of the edition I read) this book was received, when it was published, as being more entertaining/less solely instructive than other books for children, but to this 21st-century adult reader, anyhow, the narrative often feels like a lecture. For example: the father says he “cannot approve of deceit, even as a joke” (24) and also talks about how he wants his family’s story to show “how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious and pious life of a cheerful and united family, to the formation of a strong, pure and manly character” (399). Unfortunately, character development in novelistic terms is not the book’s greatest strength: I feel like I can only describe the characters in the most general terms, even after having read more than 450 pages about them. (The father is knowledgable; the mother is hard-working; Ernest is the science-minded one; Jack tends to be impetuous; Fritz and Franz are kind of just the oldest and the youngest.) I guess I’m glad to have read this, and there were scenes/scenarios that I found interesting (like when the father teaches his family how to prepare manioc root, or when he makes rubber boots for everyone), but, yeah: I don’t feel like I missed out because I didn’t read this as a kid.

All the Dirty Parts was an extremely fast and extremely fun read for me. The day I started it, I was reading it on the elevator en route to work, and a woman who I don’t know/who works elsewhere in the building asked what I was reading and how it was. I think I said it was funny, which it was, at that moment, but that is not, overall, a word I would use to describe this book. I also added that it was “by the guy who writes as Lemony Snicket, you know, the kids’ books, but this is not for kids.” I don’t know that I’d recommend All the Dirty Parts to that woman on the elevator without knowing anything about her, but if you are OK with reading a whole lot of explicit teenage sex scenes and are into stories told as a series of vignettes, this might be the book for you. One of the back cover blurbs is by Jenny Offill, and I can see how people who liked Dept. of Speculation might like this book, too: I definitely enjoyed them both.

So, right: All the Dirty Parts is pretty much what the title says, though it’s not only the dirty parts, just mostly. It’s narrated by Cole, a seventeen-year-old boy who runs cross-country and takes art class and sometimes fails tests and thinks about sex basically always. When the book opens, he’s slept with eleven girls, and has “a rep” around school for being into casual hookups. He’s eloquent about sex, about the delight of it and the hotness of it and the occasional humor of it and the way he constantly wants it. His eloquence feels more adult than adolescent, but I was willing to give the narrative the benefit of the doubt, particularly because it results in some lovely descriptions, like when Cole is talking about pretty girls and how he wants “to capture their whole bodies under a blanket with enough light to see the pleasure of what we are doing” (3).

I like all the little bits that make up this narrative, the way the story unfolds: Cole talking about sharing online porn with his best friend, Alec, and the unspoken code they have about it; Cole’s conversations with a female friend about sex and his rep and how he treats girls; Cole’s thoughts on the Kinsey scale, after he and Alec have messed around a bit; Cole meeting a girl, Grisaille, who wants sex as much as he does, and how he feels when he’s in the unfamiliar position of being more into the other person than the other person is into him. I like that Cole is knowledgable about sex, that he talks about things like knowing where a clitoris is and going down on girls; I like that Grisaille puts her own pleasure first sometimes. I really like the way the sentences flow, the way the tone is easy and conversational, like in this bit where Cole and Alec are watching porn together: “We both keep shifting, our jeans crackling, weird and hot to watch it together. More weird than hot, or the other way, I don’t know” (35). And I like the funny bits, too, like when Grisaille asks Cole if he has “a favorite German poet” and he replies, “Sorry, I thought you were kidding. Let me answer for everyone you will ever meet in this town, no, we don’t have favorite German poets. We have favorite dinners and beers” (54).

I picked up Everywhere I Look at the library on the strength of its really lovely/well-designed cover: the author’s name in bold black sans serif, the title beneath in the same font but smaller and red, and then a color photo that spans the front, spine, and back: the author in the center, looking at us, a dog by her side, with others in the background, against a white brick wall topped by a hedge: a woman talking to a small boy, a woman with a mobile phone, a man with a bicycle, a younger woman, an older one, an older man. It’s a staged and stylized photo but also has something of the feel of life, ordinary people moving through their days, and it’s an apt image for the book, whose essays and diary entries feel polished, crafted and carefully shaped, but with vivid moments of humor and lived experience.

The book is divided into six parts, some of which are more thematically organized than others, and some of which I liked more than others. Part Four, for example, with its five pieces about crime/court cases, was not my favorite section of the book, though there were things in it I liked, particularly the descriptions of an exhibit of photos of mug shots and crime scenes at the Sydney Justice and Police Museum in “On Darkness.” I also really liked the ending of “The City at Night”: in the piece, Garner writes about the period just after Jill Meagher’s rape and murder—hearing that a suspect has been charged, the crowds at the vigil, the experience of talking to a friend at a bar about the crime and the public reaction to it. And then the piece ends with an encounter with a stranger at a train station, which starts out a little uncomfortable but turns really sweet: here’s how we live, how we have to live, with moments of trust and kindness and connection in a world in which horrible things happen.

Elsewhere in the book, I really liked “Some Furniture,” which is about moving house and settling in and learning a place, and which proceeds by way of accumulation: little bits of Garner’s own experiences and also conversations she’s had about moving with various people, all piled together into a piece that works really well. I like all the diary pieces, filled as they are with a satisfying mix of thoughts and vignettes, conversations with friends and family and strangers, things seen on television or read in books or magazines or seen or overheard while out and about: a funny handwritten sign in a public restroom, or a conversation with women on a train about the challenges of baking scones. The pieces of criticism were all good, though I might have liked them more if I’d read more of the writers or seen more of the films they were discussing. The last two pieces in the book, though, are what I liked best: “The Insults of Age” is moving and very funny, and makes me want to be a badass like Helen Garner when I am seventy-one. My very favorite thing in this book, though, has to be “In The Wings,” which is a beautiful and perfectly-crafted piece about the behind-the-scenes workings of a ballet company: Garner observes a morning class for company members, rehearsals, and a wardrobe fitting, and it’s just a sheer delight. “Everywhere I look I see a wonder,” she writes, and I’m enthralled by those wonders and how Garner captures them.