I wanted to love this novel, which is set in 1966-1967 and centers on a twenty-nine-year-old book conservator who goes to Florence to restore damaged books after the Arno floods, but either it’s just not the book for me or I wasn’t in the right mood.
Maybe my problem is mostly structural: after starting really engagingly, with a wonderful first few chapters narrated by Margot Harrington, the aforementioned book conservator, the book switches to third-person narrative to introduce Sandro Postiglione, the fifty-two-year-old art preservationist with whom Margot ends up embarking on an affair. The book then carries on switching back and forth between first-person and third-person narration, and while I think that’s sometimes a good narrative strategy, it felt clunky here.
I do mostly like Margot as a character: she’s smart but adrift: she’d been a promising student and had planned to go to Harvard, but ended up staying in Chicago because her mother was dying of lung cancer, and hasn’t really figured out who she is or what she’s doing because she’s too haunted by her “ghostly double,” the imagined self she might have been, with the imagined life she might have had. She’s good at what she does, though, and is engaged in her work in Florence, trying to save the library of a convent from water damage. When the nuns find a 16th-century book of erotic sonnets and engravings, she throws herself into restoring it and figuring out how she can sell it and give the proceeds back to the convent without the bishop finding out (because he’ll want the money from the book’s sale to go to the diocese generally, rather than to the convent).
The back cover, which talks about Margot being “inspired to sample each of the ineffable sixteen pleasures,” sells this book as much sexier than it is: Margot does have a sexual awakening (she notes that before she started seeing Sandro, she’d never really experienced lust), but there is more about bookbinding and the restoration of frescoes and how the Church courts deal with annulments than there is about those sixteen pleasures. There are some lovely descriptive passages about Italy, though, like this list of things that Margot and Sandro hear from their hotel room when they go to Rome:
buzz of Vespas, shifting of gears, opening and closing of heavy doors, steady plash of fountain, deep masculine laughter, dreamy voices of women who’ve been drinking wine and smoking cigarettes, rumble of wheels on the paving stones, voices of porters who arrive at three o’clock to assemble the stalls: fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, flowers, clothes, material, shoes, leather goods, vendors in full cry—it’s morning. (234-235)
February 26th, 2015
This was a good book to read while home sick with a cold: fun, funny, and not too mentally taxing. Shea, who says in the introduction to this book that he collects words the way other people collect tangible and/or valuable things, read the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in its entirety, and this book is the result. There’s a chapter for each letter, and in each chapter we get some narrative about the project, or about dictionaries generally, or about reading/words generally, followed by anywhere from three to thirty-two words starting with the chapter’s letter that Shea has pulled from his OED reading as being “outrageous, funny, or archaic and deserving of resurrection” (xii). Shea writes about “the enormous number of words that begin with be-” (including bedinner and bemissionary), and about slogging through 451 pages of words that start with the prefix un-. He writes about how different letters feel different: how W, for example, is a section of the dictionary that’s “overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon in origin,” since the letter W didn’t exist in ancient Latin. He writes about the trials of finding a comfortable/non-distracting place to read, and about remembering the first book he bought with his own money when he was a kid.
But the words themselves are really the highlight. Some that I particularly like:
“Apricity (n.) The warmth of the sun in winter.”
“Impluvious (adj.) ”Wet with rain.” (Thomas Blount, Glossographia, 1656)”
“Jentacular (adj.) Of or pertaining to breakfast.”
“Obdormition (n.) The falling asleep of a limb.”
“Peristeronic (adj.) ”Suggestive of pigeons.” (OED)”
“Wine-knight (n.) A person who drinks valiantly.”
February 24th, 2015
I don’t have kids or want kids, but this parenting memoir was a whole lot of fun. It’s episodic and loosely chronologically/thematically structured, and I would maybe have liked more of a narrative arc, but it’s well-written and very New York-y and often laugh-out-loud funny, like when Halliday describes breastfeeding on the subway, looking up at Dr. Zizmor ads to attempt to avoid interaction with fellow passengers, while the guy next to her loudly and enthusiastically gives her props for breastfeeding rather than using formula. Or when her first kid, who’s been weaned before the birth of her second, surprises her in bed one morning by pretending to nurse. Halliday finds amusement in the whole enterprise of parenting, including her own expectations and ideals: there’s a great section about needing to provide her pre-schooler with valentines to bring to school, and wanting them to be homemade, but also wanting them to conform to certain aesthetic/artistic standards, rather than being construction-paper hearts covered with globs of glitter glue. Not that it’s all laughs: Halliday writes about the physical experience of childbirth, and about her first child having to spend ten days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and about the isolation of being a new mom suddenly removed from the downtown theatre world in which she used to be a more active participant. Excellent illustrations from Halliday’s zine, the East Village Inky, serve as section dividers, and the book ends with a really sweet letter to her baby son.
Full disclosure: I’m Facebook friends with the author, having met her on the 2011 Manhattan WonderWalk, but that’s got nothing to do with my enjoyment of this book.
February 18th, 2015
Near the end of Conundrum, Jan Morris writes about walking through Casablanca on the eve of her sex change operation as feeling like she was about to pay “a visit to a wizard,” like she was “a figure of fairy tale, about to be transformed” (119). And, as in some fairy tales, what she is to be transformed into is only what she has been all along: she writes, at the start of the book, that her earliest memory, from when she was three or four, was the realization that she “had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl” (3).
This slim book is full of Morris’s experiences on her journey from male-bodied to female-bodied, from her childhood sense of differentness and her early sense of affinity with particular places and landscapes to her years, pre-transition, in the army and as a journalist, including her increasing sense of isolation due to the gulf between her inner self and the self the world sees. She writes about her sense of the wrongness of her male body, but also an appreciation of its energies and what it can do, e.g. on a 1953 journalistic assignment to join the British expedition climbing Everest. She writes about taking estrogen for years before her sex-change operation, and about how it was to travel in the resulting in-between body, reading as a man to some and as a woman to others.
Morris is primarily known as a travel writer, and some of the loveliest bits of this book are the ones about landscapes or cities, like this description of the place where she grew up:
The sky may not always have been as blue as I recall it, but it was certainly clear as crystal, the only smoke the smudge from a collier laboring up-Channel, or the blurred miasma of grime that always hung over the Swansea valleys. Hawks and skylarks abounded, rabbits were everywhere, weasels haunted the bracken, and sometimes there came trundling over the hill, heavily buzzing, the daily de Havilland biplane on its way to Cardiff (4).
Or this, about Oxford: “a presence so old and true that it absorbs time and change like light into a prism, only enriching itself by the process, and finding nothing alien except intolerance” (8).
London was in that heightened version of itself that one always discovers when one returns from abroad—the buses redder than usual, the taxi-drivers more Cockney, and everything more thickly infused with the pungency that is London’s own. Even the light that came through the consultancy window was more than reasonably London, much creamier than the Italian light, and charged with the dustflakes of W1. (44)
(And those are just a few: there’s also a great long list-paragraph about the cathedral in Oxford during Morris’s time at the choir school there, and a beautiful description of the sensual pleasure of being in a small boat in the lagoon of Venice at night.)
The edition of Conundrum I read is the 2002 reprint, which has a new introduction, which Morris wrote in 2001. In it she says the book “is already a period piece. It was written in the 1970s, and is decidedly of the 1970s” (ix). It does sometimes feel dated, particularly some of the gender-related bits, like one moment in the part about the Everest expedition in which Morris says she thinks women can’t have the “feeling of unfluctuating control” over their bodies that men can have: I suspect elite female athletes might disagree. And there’s a bunch of stuff at the end about how nice the courtesies afforded to women are, and how it isn’t so bad when you’re a woman at a restaurant with a man and the waiter assumes the man is the one who knows about/is choosing the wine, and anyway it’s nice to have doors opened for you and things done for you, right? But at the same time, Morris is very up-front about the fact that her conception of femininity as being tied to “gentleness” and “helping” and “give more than take” is her conception of it, not necessarily everyone’s.
February 16th, 2015
At the start of Codex, Edward, a twenty-five-year-old investment banker with an English degree from Yale, is about to take the first vacation of his working career. Not that he’s actually going anywhere: he’s about to transfer to a different position at the company he works for, in the London office rather than in New York, so he’s taking some time off to rest and pack before the trip. Or at least, that’s what he’s planning to do. But things don’t quite work out that way. He pays a visit to the apartment of a pair of very wealthy clients because his boss asks him to, and learns that his boss has volunteered him to help these clients, the Wents, also known as the Duke and Duchess of Bowmry, with a project. The project turns out to be unpacking and cataloging their library, which was sent from England to New York before WWII, but hasn’t been touched in sixty years. He’s told to keep an eye out, in particular, for anything by a writer from the 1300s named Gervase of Langford, specifically a book called A Viage to the Contree of the Cimmerians. Edward is baffled and annoyed, but finds himself unexpectedly sucked in by the work.
So that he’ll have some idea of what he’s looking for, Edward visits a rare book library that has a work by Gervase of Langford in its collection, but on the day he goes, someone else is using it. He ends up finding and talking to that person, who’s a medievalist named Margaret, and hires her to help him with the cataloging project. She tells him that the specific book he’s looking for is actually a hoax, a document put out by an eighteenth-century printer who claimed it contained fragments of a medieval text, but who actually wrote the thing himself. And then things get weird: Edward is told by Laura, the Bowmrys’ assistant, that the Duke has decided to stop looking for the book, and, indeed, to stop the whole project of cataloging the library. Margaret, having seen the library, talks Edward into letting her keep the key to it. And the Duchess calls Edward separately, telling him to find the book as soon as he can, without letting the Duke know he’s still looking for it.
Alongside this plot of Edward and Margaret and the Viage, as they call it, there’s another plot, as Edward finds himself unexpectedly sucked in to a computer game called MOMUS, which he’s introduced to by a friend from college. The game has single-player and multi-player modes, and parts of it remind Edward weirdly of the plot of the Viage, which Margaret has explained to him, or of bits of things he sees in his search for it. As he’s playing MOMUS, Edward gets stuck, and his attempt to get unstuck in the game is what gets him unstuck in the search for the Viage, too.
And there’s more, plotwise: the possibility of the Viage containing a hidden encrypted message, the question of why the Duchess still wants to find it and the Duke doesn’t, doubts about the Duchess’s sanity, and potential for betrayal/double-crossing all around. The way the book picks up speed as all this is revealed is what made me enjoy it: after a slow start, I was willing to let myself be caught up in the story. The images of scenes from MOMUS and from the Viage are also pleasing, and while I didn’t love this book, I liked it more by the end than I did at the beginning.
February 13th, 2015
I definitely owned this book as a kid, and was pleased to remember some parts of it as I read—including the really excellent/hilarious opening scene, in which Anastasia is so bored she’s lying on the floor acting out all the deathbed scenes she can think of (Beth from Little Women, Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, Charlotte from Charlotte’s Web, Cleopatra), and in which Anastasia’s mom teaches her what a groan sounds like (Anastasia thinks it just consists of saying “groan”). But there were other things I didn’t remember at all, and I definitely did not remember how stressful this book is (which is something that, as an adult, makes me like it a bit less than I liked the first two books in this series).
So, right: it’s summer vacation, and Anastasia’s broke (because her allowance is two dollars a week) and bored (because her family recently moved, and the only kid her age she knows in her new town is off at basketball camp). Her dad suggests that a summer job will solve both problems, so she writes up a flyer advertising her services as a lady’s companion and posts it around town. A woman named Mrs. Bellingham responds to the ad and hires her, but then, on her first day, Anastasia finds herself in the kitchen with the housekeeper and two cooks, polishing silver: she’s doing the tasks of a maid. And two things make the whole situation worse: first, she accidentally drops a silver spoon down the garbage disposal, and is told she’ll have to pay for it out of her wages—so she can’t just quit until she’s paid it off. And then she learns that the following day, she’s expected to serve appetizers and drinks at a birthday luncheon Mrs. Bellingham is throwing for her thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Daphne—who’s going to be in Anastasia’s class at school.
Which leads to the first stressful thing: Anastasia decides she’s going to disguise herself as a middle-aged lady, so maybe when school starts Daphne won’t recognize her. Clearly this is not the strongest plan, and a comedy of errors ensues at the party. But luckily, Daphne turns out to be nice, so Anastasia gains a friend. Which leads to the next stressful thing: Daphne’s upset at her grandmother for having given her a doll for her birthday, and Anastasia’s upset that she has to work as a maid rather than as a companion, so they decide to try to humiliate Mrs. Bellingham at the big charity party she’s throwing the following week. Again, not the best plan. There’s more stress, too, involving an accident that befalls Anastasia’s little brother. And oh, Anastasia gets in trouble with her parents because she says something really offensive about the town’s low-income housing development—never mind that she was only imitating Daphne imitating Mrs. Bellingham, not actually saying the offensive thing herself. Everything turns out fine, ultimately, and the stressful things resolve themselves in sometimes-hilarious ways, but I don’t really like reading about plans that are clearly doomed to go awry. Still, I liked this book, particularly the very beginning and the very end.
February 11th, 2015
I read Station Eleven in three days, and over the course of those three days I was entirely engrossed in this book’s story, in this book’s world. On the day I finished it, I read while eating my breakfast, closed my office door at lunchtime to read while eating lunch, and was so caught up in it on the subway ride home that it was a little surprising when we got to my stop. It’s literary post-apocalyptic fiction, which is not a thing I necessarily expected to like, but it’s really satisfying, with a structure that weaves together characters and subplots. It requires a suspension of disbelief—the way some characters’ paths cross and re-cross feels like a stretch—but it’s so good I really didn’t mind.
The book starts in Toronto, during a production of King Lear: an actor, Arthur Leander, has a heart attack onstage; an audience member, Jeevan Chaudhary, jumps up from the first row to give him CPR but can’t save him, and ends up comforting a child actor named Kirsten Raymonde who’s watched the whole thing happen. Meanwhile, that same night, the hospitals in Toronto start filling up: an aggressive new strain of swine flu has entered the city on a flight from Moscow. The virus spreads, and civilization falls apart in the face of the pandemic: Jeevan, holed up in his brother’s apartment, makes a comment about how it’ll be when the power comes back, and his brother asks why he thinks it ever will.
Twenty years later, Kirsten is still an actor, moving around the area that used to be Michigan with the Traveling Symphony, an orchestra + Shakespearean troupe that performs music and plays in various scattered settlements of survivors. She carries some keepsakes from childhood with her, including a pair of comic books no one else has ever seen, both of which feature a protagonist named Dr. Eleven, who lives on a space station after Earth has been taken over by hostile aliens. (“I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth,” Dr. Eleven thinks at one point, and the line resonates.) Meanwhile, a pair of Kirsten’s friends from the Traveling Symphony have temporarily settled in a town: they were having a baby, and the idea was that the Symphony would pick them up again at some point after the birth. But when the Symphony passes through town again, they hear that the couple and their baby have left; the town is being run by a man calling himself the prophet and his followers, and the rest of the townspeople seem frightened: things are not good or normal in this town.
The story progresses, then, alternating between Kirsten and the Symphony’s travels/their attempt to reunite with their friends (who, they’ve heard, might have headed for a settlement at a nearby airport) and their further run-ins with the prophet and other bits of narrative: flashbacks to pre-pandemic moments in Arthur Leander’s life (including letters from him to a friend that were published as an unauthorized biography); pre-pandemic moments from the lives of other characters connected to Arthur, including his first wife, Miranda; various events from about five years before the main Kirsten/Symphony narrative, including an interview between Kirsten and a small-town librarian who’s started up his own newspaper; flashes of the earlier post-pandemic world, including the early days of the settlement at the airport. I like how the story is constructed, and I like the lyricism of Mandel’s prose when she’s writing about the world that was lost, or about the unexpected moments of beauty in the new world: the stars more visible without city lights, the idea of a traveling theatre troupe/orchestra that has a quote from Star Trek (“Because survival is insufficient”) painted on its caravan.
Hotel World is a novel divided into six sections, each named for a grammatical tense (e.g. “present historic” or “future in the past”), and each (well, except for the last, which is broader) centered on a character with some connection to a particular hotel. As the back cover puts it: “Five people: four are living; three are strangers; two are sisters; one, a teenage hotel chambermaid, has fallen to her death in a dumbwaiter.” The first section is narrated by that chambermaid’s ghost, by the fading bit of what’s left of her ghost six months after her accidental death. We get little bits of the chambermaid’s life in this section: how she unexpectedly fell for a girl in a shop, having previously assumed that she was straight, how she went swimming the day she fell for the girl in the shop, how there was a woman at the pool who couldn’t fit into the changing cubicle, how people stared (how it is to be different, how it is to be a person, how it is to have a body). Then there are three sections of third-person narration: a section about Else, who begs on the pavement outside the hotel, a section about Lise, a receptionist at the hotel, and a section about Penny, who’s writing a publicity piece/review of the hotel. Clare, who’s the dead chambermaid’s sister, narrates her section in first-person stream-of-consciousness: it’s an inner monologue, partly talking to herself, partly talking to her dead sister. And then there’s the last section of the book, which touches on other ghosts, other people, how life continues.
The different sections are different in style, but there’s a lot of satisfying linguistic and literary playfulness throughout: a Joycean-but-not “Yes, I said, yes” moment in a shop, the different senses of the word “change,” plays on Else’s name (“I don’t know what else to do” as “I don’t know what, Else, to do”), plays on the word “well,” quotations from John Donne. There are bits of straightforward narrative and lovely descriptive passages, and there are also other kinds of narrative, lists and deconstructions. There’s a list of “Some of the other things policemen and policewomen have said to Else over time,” and a list of “Some of the things (concerning love) which members of the public have said to Else over time,” and a list of things from Else’s pockets that were photographed for a newspaper story; there’s a great bit in Lise’s section that dissects, in reverse order, a whole previous passage, phrase by phrase; there’s a list of things in the storage room in the hotel full of stuff accidentally left behind by guests. (I really really really like lists.)
And oh, there are so many good moments in this book, everyday moments of hypocrisy or disconnect (a well person telling a sick person that illness is “revelatory,” a comfortably well-off person thinking that poor people can’t handle money, that having no money “must be a relief”) balanced by moments of, if not connection, exactly, then kindness and togetherness, or just everyday ordinariness: starlings on a building ledge, a purring cat, rain on tree branches.
January 31st, 2015
This is the third book in Gail Carriger’s “Finishing School” series, which is to say it’s a YA book set in a steampunk Victorian world with vampires and werewolves, in which the main characters are students at a school of espionage that’s housed in a dirigible. Most of the action in this one, though, takes place away from the school: our protagonist, Sophronia, has permission to leave campus for her brother’s engagement ball, and her best friend Dimity is allowed to come with her, along with Dimity’s brother Pillover and Sophronia’s maybe love-interest, Felix Mersey, both of whom attend a boys’ school for evil-geniuses-in-training. Meanwhile, Sophronia’s friend Sidheag leaves school without permission: she learns that there’s trouble in the werewolf pack she grew up with, and wants to be with them to try to set things right. And Soap, Sophronia’s friend who works in the boiler room of the school (and totally has a crush on her), sneaks out as well, to keep an eye on her at the ball. When Sidheag shows up at the engagement ball, Sophronia agrees to help get her home to Scotland, and various other characters come along for the ride, which ends up including a mysterious train and run-ins with various enemies.
I like the action scenes in this book, particularly the two excellent fight scenes between Sophronia and other female adversaries, and, as usual, Carriger’s humorous writing, particularly some of the dialogue, is lots of fun. Not that this book is all action and fluff without emotion: I found myself on the verge of tears when it seemed like a character might die, and totally relieved when things took a different turn.
January 27th, 2015
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 is the story, basically, of 10:04 being written, except fiction, not fact: the book’s narrator is an author who’s gotten a big advance for his second novel; he thinks he’ll expand a story of his that was published in the New Yorker (which is itself a story of Ben Lerner’s that was published in the New Yorker, and which appears in this novel in full) but then decides the plot isn’t what he wants to do, after all. (Meanwhile, the novel presents various phrases/images/themes/scenes from that New Yorker story earlier in the narrative, so it’s as if the story is the narrator’s life made fiction.) All of which sounds very meta, and it is. But as Lerner explains in this interview with Tao Lin, this “self-referentiality” is “a way of exploring how fiction functions in our real lives,” a way to write about “how we live fictions, how fictions have real effects, become facts in that sense, and how our experience of the world changes depending on its arrangement into one narrative or another.” That exploration of the relationship between fact and fiction comes to the fore in several moments in the novel: a character tells the narrator about finding out that the man who raised her (who was Lebanese) wasn’t her biological father, making her identity as an Arab-American feel, if not false, then complicated; another character tells a story about how his college girlfriend lied to him about having cancer; the narrator re-tells a story his father had told him about not telling his then-girlfriend about his mother’s death.
But there’s more going on in this novel than a concern with narrative: there’s also a concern with time/mortality/the future/what kind of world we have created and are creating, and there’s a lot of Whitman, and bits of some other poets, and I guess some plot (largely concerning a) the narrator’s health worries and b) the fact that the narrator’s best friend wants to have a child and asks if he’ll be the sperm donor) and a whole lot of New York City between Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, in wonderfully specific detail. It is funny to read a book that contains little pieces of the neighborhood where I live: I’m not a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, but I have friends who are, and whose preferred work shift duties are bagging bulk goods in the basement, like Lerner’s narrator. I walk past that BP gas station on Douglass at least three times a week. I can picture the ghost bike in memory of Liz Padilla on the corner of 5th Ave, next to the Israeli restaurant I keep meaning to go back to for brunch. And then of course there’s the broader city, the High Line and Chelsea galleries and the subway and the bridges, the Union Square Whole Foods, the very nice restroom at the SoHo Crate and Barrel: all these different markers of here/now that are vivid to me because it is my here/now (or here/recent past) as well as the narrator’s.
And oh, the language. It’s sometimes over the top, sometimes just gorgeous. Phrases repeat: “for whatever complex of reasons,” “majesty and murderous stupidity,” “stout-bodied passerines.” The book’s first sentence includes a meal that “included baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death” (3). The narrator describes the walks he takes with his best friend, “walks through Prospect Park as light died in the lindens; walks from our neighborhood of Boerum Hill to Sunset Park, where we would watch the soft-winged kites at magic hour; nocturnal walks along the promenade with the looming intensities of Manhattan glittering across dark water” (7). The narrator talks about the sense of anticipation before Hurricane Irene, how the city has “something like the feel of a childhood snow day when time was emancipated from institutions, when the snow seemed like a technology for defeating time, or like defeated time itself falling from the sky, each glittering ice particle an instant gifted back from your routine” (18). And mm, I love it when the narrator talks about art, particularly in passages about The Clock by Christian Marclay and one really lovely bit about seeing work by Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas, which, just, here, read it:
The work was set in time, changing quickly because the light was changing, the dry grasses going gold in it, and soon the sky was beginning to turn orange, tingeing the aluminum. All those window opening onto open land, the reflective surfaces, the differently articulated interiors, some of which seemed to contain a blurry image of the landscape within them—all combined to collapse my sense of inside and outside, a power the work had never had for me in the white-cube galleries of New York. At one point I detected a moving blur on the surface of a box and I turned to the windows to see two pronghorn antelope rushing across the desert plain. (179)