We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

December 1st, 2019

In her foreword, Nicola Yoon says this book is “a small, glittering world of beauty and emotion and truth,” which I think sums it up pretty nicely. I read this book over the course of two days and loved being immersed in Marin’s world, raw as it felt. (I cried near the end of the book. Twice.) The dual-timeline narration goes back and forth between Marin’s present (a winter break that she’s spending in her freshman dorm) and recent past (the end of her senior year of high school in San Francisco, and the summer before college started). That kind of narration can sometimes feel gimmicky to me (like the author doesn’t trust the story to be engaging enough on its own), but here it worked: Marin is dealing with grief and coming back to herself, and the dual narration lets us see how Marin got to where she is when the book opens.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I’ll be vague, but one thing I love is the way that Marin and her best friend Mabel talk about art and literature—the way that Marin spins out interpretations of a painting or a novel, the way that the ambiguity or complications of a narrative are exciting to her or stressful to her, the way that coming to terms with her grief involves thinking about how things could have been different but accepting how they are, while also realizing that there isn’t actually a single interpretation for or explanation of that.

I read and liked the first three books in this kids’ series in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and also read and liked the prequel in 2012, so I was delighted to learn, this year, that there was now another Mysterious Benedict Society novel. Like the others, it’s about super-smart kids (well, they’re a bit older now) solving puzzles and fighting bad guys; also like the others, I found it to be a quick and fun read. At the start of the book, we learn that the Ten Men (the muscle of the evil genius Mr. Curtain, so called because they have ten ways to hurt you) have escaped from a supposedly escape-proof prison, and are no doubt planning to spring Mr. Curtain (who is imprisoned in a separate facility) loose as well. This means that Constance, Kate, Reynie, and Sticky have to act fast to prevent that from happening. Everyone’s a bit older than they were in the other books: Constance has better control over both her temper and her telepathy, and the other three are all figuring out what they want to do next. That’s a big element of the book—the story of childhood best friends growing apart/not knowing how their old selves and old friends fit with the people they’re becoming. But there’s also a lot of straight-up adventure, and a sweet new addition to the crew, a five-year-old boy named Tai who gets to the town where the others are by hiding amongst sheep on a freight car: “I petted every single one of them,” he says, and I was totally charmed.

I read a few sentences of This Is How You Lose the Time War aloud to my boyfriend because I was liking it so much, and he just looked at me and asked if this book was written for me. It really is full of things I’m into: tea and cities and literary allusions and lush prose and crystalline details; there’s also letter-writing, and the kind of time-travel plot I really enjoy. The book follows two characters we know as Red and Blue: they’re rivals from different futures, each of whom is sent to various points in time to influence the outcome of events in their future’s favor. There’s narrative about them, but we also get letters by them, to each other: letters that start as brags and taunts and shift as the book progresses; letters that are mostly encoded in things, rather than being written on paper: a letter in the flight of a bee or the flow of lava.

It’s a really pleasing conceit, and when it comes with sentences like the ones I read aloud…Yeah, I’m here for this:

London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, filthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving. (55)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

November 13th, 2019

Having never read Dracula before, I didn’t know what kind of reading experience I was in for when I picked it up, in ways good, bad, and funny. The good: I didn’t realize that it was presented as the journal/diary entries and letters of various characters, plus things like newspaper clippings and telegrams, rather than as a single-perspective narrative. I like the way the story is pieced together from all the little bits. The bad: I could have done without all the misogyny. I definitely felt myself scowling as I was reading on the train and reached a sentence about how a female character has a man’s brain and a woman’s heart, ugh. The funny: I obviously knew before I started reading that Dracula is a vampire. But the book’s characters don’t know this at the beginning, which makes for some amusing moments: like, a character gets a letter signed “Your friend, Dracula,” because, you know, that’s just the guy’s name, but it’s as if the letter were signed “Your friend, the vampire,” because we all know that Castle Dracula is not some charming/comfortable place, but of course the character getting the letter doesn’t yet know what he’s in for. Also: I wouldn’t have guessed this book would have so much snow in it, or so many wolves, both of which are excellent additions to the overall mood. There are some extremely creepy moments in this book, and also some passages of tedious narration (there is one character in particular who isn’t a native English speaker whose speech patterns are super-annoying) but also descriptions of things like “the wonderful smoky beauty of a sunset over London, with its lurid lights and inky shadows and all the marvellous tints that come on foul clouds even as on foul water” (120).

As I was reading The Wind in the Willows (which I somehow never read as a kid), I found myself wondering whether I should picture the anthropomorphized animals as human-sized, animal-sized, or somewhere in between. Like, if a toad has a horse, and his friend who is a mole can walk down the road having a conversation with the horse, is the horse a tiny creature, or are the toad and mole as big as people? As the book progressed, I decided to imagine them as people-sized, for plot-based reasons, but I think this book really might be a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat situation where the protagonists are both human-sized and animal-sized, all at once. Leaving that oddity aside, I found myself glad to have finally read this. Its chapters tell the story of impulsive Toad, his poetic but still more sensible friend Rat (who is actually a water-vole), their loyal pal Mole, and a no-nonsense Badger, all of whose paths intersect in the English countryside, by a riverbank, not far from the Wild Wood. The book is as much about a sense of home and place and safety as anything, and it’s also about the seasonal rhythms of the natural world, all of which serve as a counterpoint to Rat’s dreams of elsewhere or Toad’s madcap adventures. There are excellent humorous passages throughout the book, and lovely descriptive ones. The river is described as being all “glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble”; a character walking through a winter landscape that’s all bare earth and barren trees thinks that “he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things” (3,42). And there’s a great scene where Toad, when he’s cold while he’s asleep, dreams that “his bedclothes had got up, grumbling and protesting they couldn’t stand the cold any longer, and had run down to the kitchen fire to warm themselves,” obligating him to chase after them (176).

Though Walking is a short book made mostly of brief vignettes, there are several different kinds of things in it. It’s partly about the mental and physical benefits of walking, both anecdotally and backed by research. It’s partly about a certain kind of philosophy of walking as tied to a certain kind of way of being: walking and paying attention, walking and connection to the natural world, walking and the senses and the body. There’s a little about walking in literature and other art: Kagge talks to the theatre director Robert Wilson about walking, and also writes about how central walking is to Joyce’s Ulysses, and how Nabokov made maps of the paths that Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom take through Dublin in that book. There are color artworks, some of which are photos of scenes from walks/treks Kagge has taken. And there are bits of narrative about some of Kagge’s walking experiences, which were probably my favorite parts of the book: he talks about walking in LA with two friends, and the experience of walking in an unfamiliar place that isn’t made for pedestrians, and about walking (or crawling) through sewer tunnels in New York with an urban explorer.

Some quotes:
“Walking, I become the centre of my own life, while completely forgetting myself shortly afterwards” (15).

“You are shaped by buildings, faces, signs, weather and the atmosphere” (28)

“Everything moves more slowly when I walk, the world seems softer and for a short while I am not doing household chores, having meetings or reading manuscripts” (15)

I’ve been meaning to read this book for literally a decade, and I’m glad I finally got around to it, even though it didn’t totally click for me. Basically, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a multi-generational family saga, and that is generally not my thing, and this book isn’t really an exception. I like how Díaz uses different chapters to focus on different characters/time periods in a non-linear way, and I like the way the book moves between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, as its characters do, and I like the use of footnotes and the snappy narration, but I also wanted maybe a little more description, maybe a little less plot. Near the end of the book there are a few pages where we get sprawling page-long sentences full of observation, full of detail, and when I got to those parts I was so delighted, and subsequently wished the rest of the book had had more of that. Like this, which is just a short snippet:

after he’d gotten somewhat used to the surreal whirligig that was life in La Capital—the guaguas, the cops, the mind-boggling poverty, the Dunkin’ Donuts, the beggars, the Haitians selling roasted peanuts at the intersections, the mind-boggling poverty, the asshole tourists hogging up all the beaches, the Xica de Silva novelas where homegirl got naked every five seconds that Lola and his female cousins were cracked on, the afternoon walks on the Conde […] (276-277)

But right: “Oscar Wao” is the story of Oscar de León, an overweight Dominican-American nerd from Paterson, NJ, whose mom has raised him and his older sister Lola by herself. It’s also the story of his mom, Beli, and her family: how she ended up in America to begin with, how the brutality of Trujillo’s regime tore her family apart, and whether there might be such a thing as a family curse, and what that might look like. We hear about Oscar’s childhood and his teen years and his college years; we hear about his mom’s teen years and his sister’s teen years, too; we hear about his grandfather and how the family’s troubles all got started. I like how the different pieces of the story fit together, and I like the historical footnotes and the mix of Spanish and English and I like Oscar’s sister Lola a whole lot, and I’ll probably read more by Junot Díaz at some point, but this book wasn’t entirely the book for me.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

September 28th, 2019

At the start of The Goldfinch I felt slightly annoyed by the narrative voice and writing style—just little things, like the way the narrator says “for I’d left New York in a hurry,” or the way “punch-drunk” is used something like three times in the first hundred pages. But as I kept reading, I was won over, and found myself totally engrossed in the story: despite the book’s length, I read it over the course of eleven days, largely on the subway or on breaks at jury duty; I found myself eagerly looking forward to the next time I’d be able to pick it up. There’s a lot of plot, and it’s hard to write about it without spoilers, but OK: our narrator, Theo, is 13 when his mother dies, in an act of violence that he survives, and which changes the course of his life in multiple ways. There’s a painting (the goldfinch of the title), and an interlude in Las Vegas; there are a lot of drugs; there’s a return to New York City, where Theo grew up; there’s a fevered stay in Amsterdam in late December. There are musings about fate, and chance, and luck, and art, and beauty, and obsession, and loss; there are passages that feel over-written and passages that are just gorgeous. Tartt’s style of description leans heavily on lists, which I personally find really really satisfying, but if you don’t, this is probably not the book for you. I mean, I am all about things like these passages about Amsterdam:

Outside, all was activity and cheer. It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles. (5)

the strangeness of the city pressing in all around me, smells of tobacco and malt and nutmeg, café walls the melancholy brown of an old leather-bound book and then beyond, dark passages and brackish water lapping, low skies and old buildings all leaning against each other with a moody, poetic, edge-of-destruction feel (649)

Or this, describing someone’s bedroom:

Cinnamon-colored walls, rain on the windowpanes, vast quiet and a sense of depth and distance, like the varnish over the background of a nineteenth-century painting (150)

And oh, I love some of the book’s descriptions of New York places/moments/moods because I can picture them so clearly—the park near the subway by Canal Street with the pharmacy across the street, the way the streets feel after a spring rainstorm, what it would be like to step out of a movie at Film Forum and into a world turned white with just-fallen snow.

The back cover describes The Perineum Technique as “a contemporary meditation on seduction and intimacy in our age of hyperconnectivity”: it’s a graphic novel about an artist, JH, who meets a woman, Sarah, on OKCupid; they proceed to have Skype video chats where they talk about sex and watch each other getting themselves off. He’s done this before but usually just once before either meeting up with someone or not, but this is different: they’ve been talking for a week and have had a dozen chats. He invites her out; she says no. He invites her out again; she counters with an invitation to a swinger’s party. After the party, she brings up the technique of the title, which she says she’ll teach him, so he can last longer. And after that comes a challenge for JH: Sarah says she’ll be away for four months, and if he doesn’t ejaculate while she’s gone (which is one of the things the technique is about), they can go out to dinner when she gets back. We then see JH in Sarah’s absence, working on pieces for his upcoming gallery show, kind of miserable, kind of driven crazy by sexual frustration, but also artistically flourishing: he’s been unhappy with his work for a long time, and now he’s doing things he’s excited about. I like the way we see bits of JH’s art/dreams/fantasies, how his interior landscape is also the landscape of the book, and I like how the book explores a relationship that’s sexual before being anything else (if it ever is going to be anything else, which it may or may not be). And I like the art, which is playful and coolly sexy and just lots of fun: there’s one scene where we see the cast of an opera backstage, waiting for the curtain to go up, and the text is just speech bubbles near the ceiling saying “whoops” and “sorry” – the voices of JH and Sarah making their way out of their seats to find a quieter spot to talk before the show starts.

The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe

September 7th, 2019

It was fun to read The Wolves after the last two books I read, because it felt like there were some commonalities, while all three are also very different works. Each act of The Wolves is set at an indoor soccer field, where we see a team of teenage girls warming up before their weekly Saturday games, which reminded me of the structure of Nick Hornby’s State of the Union and the way each chapter shows the same couple having drinks at a pub before their weekly counseling session. And like Halle Butler’s The New Me, though less bleakly/less cynically, The Wolves is all about female interactions: all the men in the play (the coach, characters’ brothers or boyfriends or fathers) are all off-stage. That’s where the similarities end, but I found them satisfying nonetheless.

I’d love to see a production of The Wolves and am sad I missed it when it played in New York in 2016 and in 2017: it was an enjoyable read, but I imagine it would really come to life on stage. In the script, the characters are referred to as their jersey numbers: we don’t learn any of their names until nearly the end, and there are several characters whose names we don’t learn at all. Some of the characters are very distinctive, but I had trouble keeping a few of them straight. The dialogue, though, is great: I love how we get the girls’ overlapping conversations, which contain everything from talk about world affairs to discussions of tampons to trash talk and insults to tensions between friends. They talk about their sorry excuse for a coach, who always seems to be hung-over, and how the boys’ team has a much better coach; they talk about the Khmer Rouge and Lord of the Rings and what they’re learning in school. Most of the team members have been playing together for years, but there’s one home-schooled new girl, who struggles to know how to be social/how to join this group of girls who have all known each other for ages, who have all these shared jokes and memories that she doesn’t know about. Pauses and silences and awkward moments are vividly rendered, too, and I like the way we get to know these characters and the many things going on in their lives, even though we only ever see them in their weekly time together on the AstroTurf before the game.