Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House), 2016
(Originally Stinging Fly Press, 2015)
April 21st, 2017
I don’t know whether to call Pond a novel or a collection of linked stories: it consists of named pieces of varying length, all but one of which are first-person narrations, with the same narrator. A novel with a shift at the very end? Whatever it is, I found myself alternately enjoying it and not. I found it well-written, with a strong voice, but that strong voice is pretty much all there is: there is little in the way of plot or character, other than the sense of our narrator’s character we get through her voice, and I found the whole thing a bit claustrophobic, and a little off-putting, but I think that may well be intentional. Our narrator lives in a cottage somewhere in the west of Ireland; she was an academic at some point, or was trying to be, but seems not to be at present. She sleeps with people; she has friends; she throws a party. But largely it feels like she moves through her days alone/in her head, and these stories are very concerned with the way she moves through her days. She talks about breakfast: “Sometimes a banana with coffee is nice” (3). She talks about her fading nail-polish and the dirt under her nails: “They look like the hands of someone very charming and refined who has had to dig themselves up out of some dank and wretched spot they really shouldn’t have fallen into” (6-7). She talks about coming to a literal and figurative standstill after a break-up, and about fleeing the room after giving an academic talk, and about how the knobs on her stove are eventually all going to break and she’s not sure what she’ll do then. There are some really lovely bits, like when she talks about lying in the garden on a blanket listening to insects and various kinds of birds:
And each sound was a rung that took me further upwards, and in this way it was possible for me to get up really high, to climb up past the clouds, towards a bird-like exuberance, where there is nothing at all but continuous light and acres of blue. (25)
Some of the shorter pieces in the book are funny and really well-paced: there’s one called “First Thing” that’s only a page that’s about waking up after having had maybe too much beer the previous night, and having to deal with a ratcatcher coming to take care of a rat in her cottage, which ends like this: “And because I wasn’t really here I didn’t yet know how I like things, so I put two sugars and milk into my coffee, because that’s how the ratcatcher takes his” (29). A piece called “Wishful Thinking” was another highlight for me, as was “Stir-fry,” which you can read in full in Jia Tolentino’s review on the New Yorker website.
Also, I really like this, from “Finishing Touch”:
Quite often I’m terribly disappointed by how things turn out, but it’s usually my own fault for the simple reason that I’m too quick to conclude that things have turned out as fully as it is possible for them to turn, when in fact, quite often, they are still on the turn and have some way to go until they have turned out completely. (80)
April 16th, 2017
The essays in Calamities all start, until the final fourteen pieces, with the phrase “I began the day,” and I like how that phrase (depending on what follows it) is sometimes grounding/grounded, sometimes disorienting, which is maybe also how I felt about the book as a whole. These pieces sometimes feel like more or less straightforward narrations, sometimes like dreams, sometimes like life but abstracted or at an angle, poetic. There is a lot about reading and writing and teaching in this book, and also a lot about being a person with a body/in the space of the world, and also a lot of smarts and humor. There are pieces I love in their entirety (like one about Gladman going on vacation with her mom and two sisters, or one about Gladman’s experience of 1990s lesbian community, or one about watching Antonioni’s Red Desert with a class she’s teaching) and pieces I found kind of obscure, and pieces where certain lines or phrases were the highlights for me, like “as if someone had written a story about our day, where we stayed on this side of the snow that was falling, and the inside was our city” (87).
I love this, from the start of one of the pieces:
I began the day wanting these essays to do more than they were currently doing and even had a book alongside that I thought would help me, but it turned out I wanted more from this book as well. It was hard to be a book about engineering in architecture when an essayist wanted you to be a book about structures in fiction. But why were you called Atlas of Novel Tectonics, if I was not supposed to think of you this way? (73)
There is a whole lot in this book about narrative and language and the idea of the line and the mark and mark-making, about writing and drawing. Near the end, there’s a great passage, too long to quote in full, that includes the image of language as being “like a live wire set loose, a hot wire, burning, leaving trace” (103). I love that image, and the idea of “leaving trace” feels central to what this book is doing: tracing patterns of living, of being, of thought and intention, traces of the shapes of days.
Elsewhere: I really like Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s review of Calamities in Tarpaulin Sky and also Juliana Spahr’s review of it in the Brooklyn Rail. You can read two short pieces from this book on the Granta website.
April 11th, 2017
I’m sure I’m not the only person to have the problem of always packing too many books when I go on vacation, right? I mean, I read a lot when I’m at home, surely I’ll read a lot elsewhere, too? I’m on vacation! I’m not going to be cooking or cleaning or doing laundry, so, I mean, what else will I do? And what about those long flights? I’ll read, right? Well, sort of. I tend to forget that at home I have a twice-daily chunk of reading time built in, in the form of my commute via subway to and from work; that isn’t there when I’m on vacation. And when I’m on vacation I’m probably out doing things/seeing things/getting lost, or sleeping after a long day of walking, or having dinner with the friend I’m visiting: all very good things, but things that are not reading. And those long flights—sometimes reading works on them, but sometimes I just want to sleep. Or watch movies back to back. Or stare out the window, wondering where exactly we are and whether I’m going to make my connecting flight (true story: on this particular vacation, I found myself full-on running from one terminal of the airport in Houston to another: it was fine, but my flight was already boarding when I got to the gate). All of which is to say, it probably took me longer to read Norse Mythology while I was on vacation than it would have if I’d read it at home, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it.
The book is made up of 16 stories, plus an introduction and a glossary, but there is a narrative arc/the stories should be read in order. In the introduction, Gaiman talks about his own introduction to the Norse gods via comic books he read as a kid, followed by books of myth; he says he has tried to retell them as “accurately” and as “interestingly” as he can (14). I can’t really speak for the accuracy of his retellings—I think maybe the only other book of Norse myths I’ve read was A.S. Byatt’s retellings in Ragnarök: The End of the Gods—but Gaiman’s retellings are definitely interesting. I like how he uses current/casual language to often-humorous effect, like when Freya, worried that she’s going to be married off against her will because of an agreement Loki’s gotten all the gods to buy into, turns to him and just says “I hate you so much” (78). And I like the way Gaiman combines a matter-of-fact tone/phrasing with more poetic language, like this early description of Loki: “Loki makes the world more interesting but less safe. He is the father of monsters, the author of woes, the sly god” (24). After an introduction to Odin, Thor, and Loki, Gaiman moves on to the Norse origin myth, and from there onto the world-tree, Yggdrasil, and Odin’s desire for wisdom, and other, more various stories. I love this, from a story about Thor and his wife waking up one day to find that she’s bald, and Thor being convinced that it’s somehow Loki’s fault, then telling Loki he’ll break every bone in his body if he doesn’t fix the situation:
“Today,” mused Thor, it will probably take me about an hour to break every bone in your body. But I bet that with practice I could get it down to about fifteen minutes. It will be interesting to find out.” He started to break his first bone. (53)
As with Byatt’s retellings, I felt like Loki was often a highlight of this book; he’s forever being motivated to sort things out because he needs to save his own skin, and the uncertainty and drama he adds to things gives the stories a lot of their force. I love that when Odin confronts him about his monstrous children, this is how Gaiman describes it:
Loki said nothing. He tried to look ashamed and succeeded simply in looking pleased with himself. (94)
I think the story of “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” was probably my favorite in the book, followed by “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants,” but the whole thing was pretty delightful to read.
March 31st, 2017
Apparently Bleaker House was just what I was in the mood for right now: it’s a travel/writing memoir with a playful form and a mix of nonfiction and fiction (Stevens includes a few short stories in the text, as well as excerpts from an unfinished novel) and I kept finding myself looking forward to the next time I’d be able to pick it up. The subtitle is “Chasing My Novel to the End of the World” and it’s about how Stevens, having done an MFA at Boston University, then had the opportunity, thanks to a fellowship, to travel anywhere in the world to write. Wanting to go someplace different, and thinking that isolation will be good for her in terms of providing time and space to concentrate on her work, she picks the Falkland Islands, where she plans to spend most of her time on tiny Bleaker Island, with a bit of time spent in a settlement in Darwin and in the capital, Stanley, too. Spoiler alert (not really, I think this is pretty apparent from the beginning): the book she writes is not the book she set out to write, but that turns out to be an OK thing.
I really enjoyed the structure of the book, which is a mix of landscape writing about the Falklands, and personal narrative about being there/trying to write, and personal narrative about how Stevens got there (both in terms of immediate preceding circumstances, like applying for the fellowship through the MFA program, and farther back, in terms of what she did in university and afterwards that ultimately led to her doing the MFA program, and also more-loosely connected bits of her life/writing life), and fiction. I liked the interplay between this book and Stevens’s rereading of Bleak House, which is the only print novel she has with her on her trip (she does have a Kindle) a whole lot. I also really liked the landscape writing and the parts about Stevens’s experiences on Bleaker Island or in previous travels, with sentences like this: “I walk for hours and see only monosyllables: cliffs, birds, waves, sand, sheep, rock, moss” (4). Or this, about Boston: “The windows frame the silver curve of the Charles sliding between brownstones and glassy office blocks. It is dusk and everything looks pink” (6). I like how Stevens brings Bleaker Island and its changeable weather alive: she talks about sitting in a glass-roofed sunroom during a storm and feeling like she is “sitting inside the weather itself”; she writes about watching “a sheet of weather approaching the island over the water”; in another storm, she writes that “the sky is filled with so many birds that they look like a new kind of weather: seagulls emerging from waves like an extension of the spray, grey wings overhead dripping down from the clouds.”(99, 115, 202).
I also appreciated the humorous bits a whole lot. There’s a very funny section about Eat Pray Love being the only movie she’s able to watch during her trip (because it’s the only one saved on her computer and there isn’t reliable/fast Internet), and a bit about counting out raisins for her food rations that made me laugh out loud on the subway, and a great exchange between Stevens and the housekeeper in an otherwise-empty guesthouse in Stanley that is so good I feel like I have to quote it in full:
“Wi-Fi?” I repeat. “The Internet?”
Maura looks troubled. “The Internet?” Jane would know, she says. She leads me into the hall, and points at a bulky machine squatting on a table by the door. She looks doubtful as she says, “Is that it?”
“No,” I say, “no, that’s a printer.”
“The Internet?” Maura repeats, again. She shrugs. “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. I’m just not sure where.” (31)
March 28th, 2017
This book, which is made up of portions from selected zines that Pérez created from 1994-2014, was a pleasing read to immerse myself in over the course of several commutes and evenings. I don’t think that I’ve read a single-author zine anthology before and there’s definitely something satisfying about it, in terms of being able to get a feel for someone’s style and voice. In her intro, Pérez writes about “document, as noun and as verb”: she’s concerned with documenting her life and also with the zine-as-document and also with various kinds of documents she interacts with (like books and family photos) (11). She also says this by way of introduction, which resonated with me a whole lot: “This is what I look for in stories, in people, in the world, in life and what I hope to convey in my own writing: humor, wonder, simplicity, magic, history, a sense of connection however small” (12).
There are so many good bits in here: lists of things Pérez likes that feel both very specific/personal and very relatable, writing about family and loss and difficult familial relationships and family histories known or unknown, writing about race and culture and representation and other-ness and sameness, diary-like entries about people-watching on public transit, or about the little details of books and meals and the rhythms of days, drawings of household objects, a great mini-zine Pérez made for her 40th birthday, notes from a trip to Oaxaca, and more. And I love that there are end-notes, some of which are for clarification but others of which are Pérez commenting, amusedly/amusingly, on her past self.
Every Heart a Doorway, set at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, is a novel (novella?) that I felt was more about the allegory than the story, though Cory Doctorow feels that it’s the other way around. Not that I didn’t like this (beautifully-written) book: I did, a whole lot. It just felt less about the plot or even the characters and more about the ideas. There’s a fairy-tale feel to Every Heart a Doorway, which is appropriate, given its subject: the Home for Wayward Children is a school for teenagers who have traveled to other realms via magic portals but had to leave, for whatever reason or non-reason, and now find themselves back in our world, each yearning for the place they left, the place where they felt right/understood/at home.
Near the beginning of the book we meet Nancy, a new student at the school: she’s been to the Halls of the Dead and wants to go back. Her roommate, Sumi, tells her she should know better: “You can’t go back. Once they throw you out, you can’t go back,” Sumi says, but others at the school share Nancy’s hope (26). As the book progresses we get to learn bits about where other students have been: the other worlds they’ve traveled to are roughly divided into worlds governed by Logic and worlds governed by Nonsense, with Wickedness and Virtue as the other main “compass points” by which the worlds are categorized, though there are other characteristics too, like Rhyme and Linearity, or Whimsy and Wild. A pair of twins went to a world with wild moors and vampires and a Doctor-Frankenstein-ish mad scientist; another girl went to a place with “boys made of glass whose kisses had cut her lips”; when someone else tells about the world she went to, it’s “a majestic, epic tale of spider princesses and tiny dynasties”; a boy who turns out to be able to make bones dance went to a world of “happy, dancing skeletons” that he describes as “pretty sunshiny, but sort of sunshine by way of Día de los Muertos” (56, 95, 110).
There’s a lot in this book about the tensions of growing up, about parents like Nancy’s who say they want their “real daughter back,” parents who want the children they knew and can’t/won’t figure out how to let those children be the people they’re becoming. There’s a lot, too, about identity and self-determination and belonging/not-belonging, and kids/teens figuring out who they are: Nancy is asexual and talks about the challenges of explaining that to her peers; there’s also a trans boy, Kade, who talks about how his trip to a Fairyland was the first time he was properly seen as himself, rather than as a girl. Every student ended up in a realm that was right for them: as Jack (short for Jacqueline), one of the twins, puts it, “for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be” (57). All of this worked for me, moreso than the other aspect of the story, which is a horror-inflected mystery plot, though it wasn’t bad, just not what I found the most appealing (and hard to talk about without being spoilery!).
If you’re curious, you can read an excerpt of this book over at io9.
Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Translated by David Homel
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016
March 18th, 2017
In this graphic memoir, which was originally published in French in 2012, Marcelino Truong writes about his family’s move to Saigon early in his childhood, during the earlier part of the Vietnam War: they lived there from 1961 to 1963. Truong was born in Manila, after which his family lived in the DC suburbs, which is where the book opens, in 1961: we see Truong (Marco, in the book) and his brother Domi playing with neighborhood kids as their sister Mireille plays with her Hula Hoop. Not that it’s all idyllic: the Truong brothers are always cast as the enemy when they’re playing war games (Indians in Cowboys and Indians, “the Commies” against the GIs in the Korean War). Truong’s father, who is Vietnamese, works at the Vietnamese Embassy, but then, in 1961, he gets word that he’s being called back to Saigon. His French wife is not happy about it, but there isn’t anything to be done. We see the family’s trip to Vietnam, with an initial journey by boat to Saint-Malo, France, where Truong and his siblings and their mom visit her parents before Truong’s dad joins them and they all fly from Paris to Saigon, and then we see their life in Saigon, where Truong’s father ends up working as President Diệm’s interpreter.
I like the art in this book, most of which is either red-toned or blue-toned, with some pages or spreads in more vivid/naturalistic color, including the opening page showing the Truong family in Washington DC, pink cherry blossoms blooming against the blue sky, and I like the story, too. Truong’s narrative mixes his family’s story and details from daily life with sections about the larger political/military context for what was happening: we get a recap of events in Vietnam from 1954 onwards leading up to where things stand in 1961, which I appreciated: I’m not sure how much about this period I ever really learned in school, and if I did learn about it, I apparently didn’t remember it that well. The balance of the personal and everything else worked for me: I liked reading about the Truong siblings listening to their parents argue and about Catholicism in Vietnam and about the 1962 attack on Saigon’s Presidential Palace and about Truong’s mom telling the Vietnamese teenager hired to help around the house that “You don’t put nuoc mam (fish sauce) in boeuf bourguignon” (62). Truong writes about the fear and anxiety of being in a place at war, but also about the everyday things, like how he and his brother caught crickets and kept them in boxes, or how Chu Ba, a Vietnamese man also hired to help around the house/with the kids, used to take them to the outdoor swimming pool at the Cercle Sportif de Saigon, or to the movies. Truong writes, too, about his mother’s bipolar disorder, which made things at home even more unpredictable than they already were. And Truong writes about leaving Saigon and moving to London in 1963, before the coup d’etat in which President Diệm was killed.
This is a really satisfying graphic memoir: I’m looking forward to the English translation of the sequel, which is about Truong’s life in London between 1963 and 1975.
I’ve been making my way through Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series over the past four years, picking one up when I found myself wanting something light and fun, and this fourth and final book was probably my favorite. As with the others, we’re in steampunk/paranormal alternate England in the 1850s; our heroine, Sophronia, is a student at Miss Geraldine’s Quality Finishing School for Young Ladies, where the students are actually getting a training in espionage as well as in manners. Throughout the series, Sophronia and her friends have been trying to foil the dastardly plans of an anti-paranormal group called the Picklemen, so it’s not surprising that the Picklemen feature heavily in this book. But the Picklemen and their plans were less interesting to me than Sophronia and her friends: I love how the book opens with a ball where the students have been told they have to be dressed as and in character as each other, with Sophronia assigned to be the more retiring Agatha, Agatha assigned to be their bubbly friend Dimity, Dimity assigned to be class Mean Girl Preshea, and Preshea assigned to be Sophronia herself. I like, too, the scenes we get of the girls in London over their Christmas holidays, and the bits of humor, like this: “Dimity had firm opinions on cucumber, which she felt was nothing more than slimy, embarrassingly shaped water and should never, under any circumstances, be presented at table” (131). And I like how in this book, Sophronia finally figures out/admits to herself who she wants to be with, romantically speaking. All those bits are more satisfying to me than the action-adventure portion of the plot, though the action is well-written and I found myself caught up in it, too.
March 12th, 2017
For years, until it stopped happening, my favorite thing to do on New Year’s Eve was to go to the Pratt campus here in Brooklyn, which has a steam-powered electricity-generating power plant. On New Year’s Eve, the chief engineer would rig up his collection of historic steam whistles outside: there was a steam calliope, and whistles from trains and boats, and at midnight they’d go off together with billows of steam, a variety of pitches. You can find videos online but they don’t capture how it felt to be there surrounded by the sound, not just hearing the whistles but feeling the vibrations from them in your body, especially the biggest and deepest one. I thought about that thrum when reading The Chimes, a dystopian novel which features a massive instrument called the Carillon, whose sounding brings the people of England to their knees on a daily basis, and whose vibrations mean loss: of written language, of birds, which died when Chimes started, and also, daily, of memory.
The Chimes is disorienting at first, and it’s meant to be, and it works: we’re with our narrator, Simon, as he makes his way to London from Essex: his mother, who recently died, has sent him to find a woman named Netty, and that’s about all he can remember about that: he has no idea who Netty might be or why he’s meant to find her. We learn about this future England in bits and pieces: there’s no written language; people communicate largely in music and in the hand-signals tied to the notes of solfege. Memory doesn’t work properly: people have their bodymemory, their muscle-memory of the work they do, and they are able to sort of/sometimes remember important things by storing the memories in objects, and music helps keep some memories, too, though mostly just place-memory, the route to take from point A to point B, communicated in song. Children all learn musical instruments, and every morning everyone sings Onestory, a song about how the Order (the group who built/compose for/play the Carillon) brought the country together after a cataclysmic event called Allbreaking, which seems to have turned much of London to rubble and sent the country back to a pre-Industrial-Revolution kind of existence.
In London, Simon finds Netty but doesn’t know what help she’s meant to give him, and she doesn’t seem too inclined to be helpful anyway, so he follows a sound/feeling he has to the Thames, which leads him to a hunk of palladium in the muck: palladium, we learn, is what the Carillon is made of, and packs/pacts of scavengers in the city collect it and sell it to the Order. Simon falls into one of these pacts, with a boy named Lucien and a few others. Lucien is blind, but leads the pact through the tunnels under London with his extra-sharp hearing; they have their daily routines and each other but not much else. But then another member of the pact, a girl named Clare, tells Simon she hears him and Lucien talking at night. Simon doesn’t remember this so doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but then, slowly, he figures it out, and the plot turns into an adventure/quest, with Simon and Lucien setting out from London together on a mission.
After reading a bunch of realistic fiction, this book was exactly what I was in the mood for. The writing is gorgeous and immersive, and it was a delight to be absorbed in the book’s world. I loved things like this description of Chimes, early in the book: “Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then bursts like a flowering. Who can say if it’s very slow or very fast? Chimes is always different, and even after the thousands of times, I couldn’t venture to say what it’s like” (12). The adventure/quest narrative plays out somewhat predictably, though there was a twist I totally didn’t see coming, and by that time I was invested enough in the story and characters that the predictability didn’t bother me. I mean, it’s OK for certain stories to fit certain shapes. I cried, multiple times, and when I wasn’t crying I was busy being pleased by the themes of the book, by its focus on memory and story and how narrative shapes things, and how narrative opens up possibilities. Simon is, basically, a writer, someone who observes and wonders and imagines and remembers as best he can, and I like how the book explores all of that. I did wonder (as I sometimes do when reading this particular kind of dystopia that’s set in our world but focuses on one geographical location, like The Hunger Games did), about the rest of the world: does the Order’s power stretch beyond England? Or is the rest of the world like, “Oh, London. Used to be a nice place, and then it was a war zone. Now it’s, like, medieval? *shrug*” But mostly I was willing to suspend disbelief and just go with it.
Also: I love this page on the author’s website: The World of The Chimes – A Non-Exhaustive Handbook.
Attachments is not my favorite Rainbow Rowell novel, but it was a quick read, and I was in the mood for something light, and it was fun enough that I was willing to overlook its flaws.
The books starts with an email exchange between two women who are best friends and work at a newspaper: it’s 1999 and the paper has only recently given email accounts to its employees, and Beth and Jennifer use theirs to have private/funny/fun conversations during their downtime. They know they’re not meant to be using their work email for personal chats like this, and they know everything they send is being monitored, but they’re not overly concerned about it. We then switch to Lincoln, who lives with his mom and works in the IT department at the same newspaper where Jennifer and Beth work. His job, in fact, is to monitor the company’s email: there’s a piece of software that flags messages containing certain words, or that exceed a certain size or frequency, and he’s supposed to review them and take the appropriate action, which is usually just giving the emailer(s) a warning. Beth and Jennifer’s messages keep getting flagged because they write to one another so much, but Lincoln is charmed by their friendship, and by the messages’ humor and kindness and heart, and he doesn’t send them a warning: instead, he finds himself looking forward to their exchanges being flagged so he can read them, so he can get a little window into their lives. He knows he should stop, but he can’t seem to make himself, and after a while he realizes he’s totally falling for Beth, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend (who isn’t reliably present for her in their relationship) and despite the fact that he’s never even seen her. Beth, meanwhile, has a chance to engage in some stalker-y behavior of her own as the story progresses, and does, which I guess is meant to balance things out? (It was funny to read this book relatively soon after reading Crosstalk by Connie Willis, which is also a book centered around co-workers and also features a basement-office-IT-guy who knows more than the female protagonist does/withholds information from her at some points. I was willing to not be bothered by it in that book, too.)
I like how we get to see Lincoln grow up over the course of this book: his mom is overbearing, and he dated someone in high school/early college who was way more assertive than he was and he’s never really gotten over that relationship even though he is now, like, 28, and he’s never really figured out who he is and what he wants. I like the depiction of the arrival of email and the Internet in a workplace that hasn’t had it before: as far as the company bosses are concerned, it’s suddenly “impossible to distinguish a roomful of people working diligently from a roomful of people taking the What-Kind-of-Dog-Am-I? online personality quiz,” and they’re dismayed about it (11). I was amused by the throwaway references to things like Zima and Orange Julius and appletinis—oh, 1999/2000. I also really like the beautiful descriptive writing about a crisp October day near the end of the book: big chunks of the book take place either in the newspaper offices or in people’s heads, and I appreciated the bits that were views of the outside world the characters are moving through.