December 21st, 2014
My Body Is a Book of Rules is a memoir in essay form, but these essays aren’t just straight essays: there’s one (A Cascade Autobiography) that’s broken into sections and interspersed with other pieces; another is an academic paper about the use of the phrase “hooking up” by college-aged men and women, annotated after the fact with footnotes about Washuta’s connections to the students she interviewed; there’s one piece in the form of a match.com profile, with footnotes telling the whole story as opposed to the things one says in a profile on a dating site. Throughout, Washuta explores her identity as someone who is bipolar, as someone who is Native American, as a former Catholic who went to Catholic school for a substantial part of childhood, and as a rape survivor. The book includes diary excerpts about disordered eating and fucked-up body image; several essays take the form of lists, including a reverse chronological list of sex partners (counting back to the first, her rapist), a list of psych meds and experiences with them, and a list of books read. Like Marie Calloway’s fiction, Washuta’s memoir includes IM conversations; it also includes quotations from Mourning Dove and Black Hawk and stories of Catholic virgin martyrs. There’s one piece in the form of lines from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit juxtaposed with Washuta’s own experiences. This book is raw, unflinching, but there are also lyrical bits: I love this:
My mother, brother, and I would spend all year being the only Indians around, as far as we knew. In July, Indians from all over would converge at the local powwow, bringing with them beads and feathers, suede and abalone, weave and fringe. I wondered what they had been born with that I hadn’t, since we were all Indian yet they had these steps in them, these rhythms, these fur wraps and plumes that made them seem part bird or part otter. I wondered whether I would grow up to be Indian like that. I thought I might be part animal, too—part guinea pig, hamster, crawfish, cat, all my pets, as we got along so well when we played, and they understood me better than any classmate. (71)
December 13th, 2014
The style of Railsea, the language and syntax, won me over at the start. Plot-wise, Miéville is playing with Moby-Dick crossed with Treasure Island, with some nods to Robinson Crusoe and the Odyssey, but weird, because this is China Miéville. Our protagonist is Sham, or, really, Shamus Yes ap Soorap, and when the book opens he’s a doctor’s assistant on a moler, a train that hunts giant moles. Or, really, one particular giant mole, a giant ivory mole that is the captain’s obsession, or “philosophy”: she calls it Mocker-Jack, and ponders what it symbolizes as she travels the tangle of railroad tracks called the railsea in pursuit of it.
I love how Miéville plays with narrative and structure and style: the book’s first sentence is this: “This is the story of a bloodstained boy” (3). But then, farther down that page, the narrator pulls back: “The situation is not as macabre as it sounds. The boy isn’t the only bloody person there: he’s surrounded by others as red & sodden as he. & they are cheerfully singing” (ibid). And then, the narrator pulls back farther, “Just to before the boy was bloodied, there to pause & go forward again to see how we got here, to red, to music, to chaos, to a big question mark in a young man’s head” (4). And oh, there are so many good phrases and sentences: Sham watches “everyone wetly unmaking what had been a mole” (16); he “[runs] about on inventy errands” (36); when a giant creature attacks Sham sees “a glimpse of great mouthness” (49). The captain’s quarry is “that burrowing signifier,” which she hopes to subject “to a sharp & bladey interpretation” (105, 104). There are sentences like this, which made me laugh out loud on the subway: “Their cold accidental pursuer accidentally pursued” (241).
And oh, man, the whole thing about captains and their philosophies: Sham notes that not every captain has one,
but a fair proportion grew into a close antipathy-cum-connection with one particular animal, which they came to realise or decide—to decidalise—embodied meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world. At a certain point, & it was hard to be exact but you knew it when you saw it, the usual cunning thinking about professional prey switched onto a new rail & became something else—a faithfulness to an animal that was now a worldview. (95)
There is too much plot to try to summarize—there’s a pair of precocious siblings Sham meets, who set off on a quest of their own as a result of news he brings them, and there are pirates, and nomads with wind-powered trains, and prophecies and rumors and the possibility of treasure, and sometimes the plot drags or feels overstuffed, but overall I found this book pretty delightful.
November 29th, 2014
I liked Eleanor & Park, but not nearly as much as other people seem to have liked it, and I’m not sure why. It’s a YA love story set in Omaha in 1986, in which the two “star-crossed sixteen-year-olds,” as the flap-copy puts it, meet on the school bus and fall for each other without really expecting to or meaning to. Eleanor is the new girl in town, and the fact that she’s a chubby redhead who dresses in “weird” clothes makes her a target for teasing and bullying. Park is biracial—his mom’s Korean, his dad’s Irish-American—and isn’t quite at the bottom of the heap, socially, but isn’t exactly popular either, and spends his bus rides listening to his headphones or reading comic books. Eleanor’s home-life is terrible: she’s just moved back home after having been kicked out by her stepdad a year earlier; she’s the oldest of five kids, living in a too-small house with too little privacy and too little money; her stepdad drinks too much, hits her mom, and shouts at everyone. So, right: Park gives Eleanor a seat on the bus when no one else will, and then they keep sitting together, and they become friends, and then more than friends.
I think part of my problem with the book was structural: the first line is “He’d stopped trying to bring her back,” so you know Eleanor isn’t with Park at the end, and the tension of wondering what happens/how they end up apart is different from the tension of wondering what’s going to happen/how they’re going to end up, and maybe I would have preferred the latter. Another issue I had was maybe just me being the wrong reader for this book: Eleanor and Park bond over comic books and new wave music, neither of which I have any connection to. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the book made me understand why the characters feel a connection to those things, but I didn’t, not really. Park likes comics because … he’s a boy and that’s the kind of thing boys read? Eleanor likes them because they’re something he’s sharing with her? I could imagine comics being about escape or wish-fulfillment, but those things aren’t really mentioned; Eleanor and Park don’t really talk about comics that much (there is one good in-depth conversation about whether the X-Men comics are sexist). And I felt similarly about the music: after Park makes Eleanor a mix-tape, they talk about “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and she also thinks to herself that the music makes her “feel like everything, like the world, wasn’t what she’d thought it was. And that was a good thing. That was the greatest thing” (57-58). I wanted more of that.
One thing I thought was really great was the physical aspect of Eleanor and Park’s relationship, the way each of them rhapsodizes to himself or herself about how holding the other’s hand feels, the terror and delight of kissing, the deliciousness of warmth and skin and touch. I also thought the contrast in Eleanor’s personality and Park’s personality felt realistic—his openness, her defensiveness.
November 23rd, 2014
The flap copy of this book calls it a “haunting literary thriller” that’s a “deft portrait of a city in transition” and “a hymn to the joys of urban exploration.” It has moments of being all those things, but I’d say it’s mostly a thriller, which isn’t a genre I really read. Maybe that means I’m not the ideal audience for this book: maybe Nicholson is playing with conventions of that genre here, and maybe the way he plays with them adds to the reading experience. I don’t know: I wasn’t totally won over. The book opens with a murder, with a hit-man named Wrobleski killing a well-dressed older man in a parking garage. In the next chapter, we meet Billy Moore, a criminal trying to leave crime behind him so he can keep custody of his twelve-year-old daughter. In chapter three, a woman is kidnapped, tattooed, and then returned to the spot where she was taken. These threads come together as the book proceeds: Wrobleski and the murders he commits (or doesn’t), Billy’s inability to turn down a job offer from Wrobleski, despite the fact that he’s supposed to be going straight, and a number of women, all kidnapped and tattooed the same way as the first. And then there’s Zak, a map-nerd who works in a store that sells antique maps, and Marilyn, a photographer/squatter/city-explorer who Zak quickly falls for. There’s more violence in this book than in most books I read, but there’s humor, too: an early scene with Billy and his daughter Carla and a social worker is hilarious/excellent. But I wanted this book to be something different than what it was: the city, with a few exceptions, felt frustratingly vague. It’s “a big mess,” “in the process of being simultaneously built and unbuilt, reshaped and made formless,” (37) but I wanted to see concrete examples of that—there are a few, in the form of a crumbling 1960s hotel (where Marilyn squats) and the juxtaposition of an abandoned subway station/construction of a new subway line, but I wanted more.
November 13th, 2014
I like the humor and atmosphere of A Long Way from Verona, which is basically a coming-of-age story set in England about a year into WWII. The thirteen-year-old narrator, Jessica Vye, is solitary and quirky: she starts off by saying she is “not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine” (15). She means violent in the sense of an epiphany: when she’s nine, a writer comes to her school to give a talk, which turns out to be more interesting than anyone expected; he ends, as he’s leaving, by shouting, “To hell with school. English is what matters. ENGLISH IS LIFE” (17). Jessica is struck by this, though she hasn’t been much of a bookish child thus far:
I was only nine and I wasn’t really far off fairy tales. They had had a job getting me started reading at all actually, because I was always wandering about, making these scrawls on my father’s foolscap, pressing my face against windows and so forth; WASTING TIME, as they all kept saying. He kept on—book after book after book that I’d never even heard of, poems and stories and conversations and bits of plays, all in different voices. And I sat so still I couldn’t get up off the floor when it was over, I was so stiff. (ibid.)
Jessica’s so won over by the writer that she mails him everything she’s written; months later, as her family’s about to move to another town where her father is going to be a curate, she gets a letter back telling her she is “A WRITER BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT” (20).
Then comes, basically, the story of Jessica’s life at school and home at age twelve: we hear about her classmates, her lack of popularity, how another girl overhears a teacher saying she “was getting above herself and needed a bit of setting down” (34). We hear about her closest friend, Florence; a whole chapter is letters between them, when Jessica is home from school with tonsillitis. We hear about her family, including her hilarious father, who is described like this:
He says a great deal most of the time, and he sings a lot. ‘The Lord of HOSTS is with us,’ he’ll sing to the cat on the stairs. ‘The God of JACOB is our refuge.’ He’ll walk down the High Street and see the poor old butcher standing on his step with a great empty slab and he’ll sing ‘Forty days and forty nights’ very sorrowfully. (86)
To balance out the teacher who wants to take Jessica down a peg, there’s a teacher who is kind to her; there’s also a story about a house-party in the countryside, and a boy Jessica meets there: all everyday things. But this is all, too, against the wartime backdrop: ration coupons and food shortages and air raid sirens and bombs. At one point, Jessica retreats to the public library and decides to read all the English classics, and is struck by the negative fatalism of Jude the Obscure, by the idea that good fortune doesn’t come to Jude “BECAUSE IT NEVER DOES” come, not to anyone. Except, of course, sometimes it does, even alongside misfortunes, which is part of what Jessica knows already, but maybe needs to re-learn.
November 10th, 2014
This YA book starts with “A Piece of Evidence,” a letter dated 2007 from one Frances Rose Landau-Banks (everyone calls her Frankie) to the headmaster of Alabaster Preparatory Academy, confessing that she “was the sole mastermind behind the mal-doings of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds” (1). Based on this, and the list that follows of “the disruptions caused by the Order—including the Library Lady, the Doggies in the Window, the Night of a Thousand Dogs, the Canned Beet Rebellion, and the abduction of the Guppy,” I expected this to be a prep-school caper book, a book about those “mal-doings” and the story behind them. But there’s more going on in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and that more, and how it differed from my expectations, meant that I didn’t quite like this book as much as I expected to. Part of the problem was pacing: because I wanted the book to be about the “disruptions” Frankie lists in her letter, I wanted them to start sooner than they did: the idea of planning pranks doesn’t come up until page 183, and it’s page 227 before the planning actually begins.
Up until that point, what we get is Frankie’s story, and the story of how the place she’s in and the people she’s around are problematic for the self she’s becoming. In her freshman year of high school, Frankie was smart, but ordinary: she was on the debate team; she tagged along with her older sister; she wasn’t exceptionally pretty. But over the summer before sophomore year, puberty hits and her looks start turning heads. Back at school, she ends up dating a smart/popular/rich senior boy. Everything’s great, except it isn’t really: Frankie wasn’t super-close to any of her friends from freshman year, and now she’s got this circle of clever guys she gets to hang around with, by virtue of going out with one of them, except she’s not actually part of their circle: she knows her place in it will last only as long as her relationship does. And her boyfriend seems to like her more when she’s feigning helplessness than when she’s expressing her ambitions. And elements of her school are really patriarchal: her dad, who is an alum, was part of an all-male secret society that’s still all-male, despite the school having gone co-ed; it’s the kind of place with walls of “pompous oil paintings of past headmasters, distinguished teachers, literary figures, and board presidents,” all of which depict men (25). One thing that is great is the “Cities, Art, and Protest” elective Frankie’s taking, in which “the students read architecture criticism, a history of Paris, and studied the panopticon—a kind of prison designed by late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham” (53). All these things come together in the pranks Frankie orchestrates, in the what and why and how of them, and that’s pretty great, but I still wanted to get to the pranks sooner.
Meanwhile, a thing I’m curious about is how much this book does or doesn’t resonate with women my age or younger, the extent to which women my age or younger feel or don’t feel like their high school experience had bits that are reminiscent of Frankie’s. (I went to an all-girls high school, and didn’t socialize much with guys beyond IM conversations with a guy I’d gone to junior high with and hanging out with a few male friends-of-friends: I never had the experience of being a girl on the edge of or excluded from a group of guys, and witnessing male privilege was not really part of my everyday experience at that age.)
November 3rd, 2014
This book, for me, felt right on the edge of being twee in a kind of off-putting way. But it wasn’t: it was whimsically charming. It’s really two short books, the first of which is about Jasper Gwyn, a successful author who decides that he’s going to stop writing and publishing books, and who announces this intent via an article he publishes in the Guardian, “a list of fifty-two things that Jasper Gwyn intended never to do again” (9). But as time passes, he realizes that he misses “the act of writing, and the daily care of ordering thoughts into the rectilinear form of a sentence” (17). He considers and rejects various jobs that include writing (writing travel guides, writing instruction manuals for appliances). But “in the end, the only thing that came clearly to mind was a word: copyist. He would like to be a copyist. It wasn’t a real profession, he knew, but the word had a resonance that was convincing, and inspired him to look for something precise” (ibid.). He meets an old woman who suggests he should “find something like copying people,” but time passes and he doesn’t start anything, until one day he sees a gallery show of painted portraits, and is struck by something in them, though he doesn’t like paintings, as a rule. “I don’t like paintings because they’re mute,” he tells the gallerist, and then thinks about how his own portraits will be similar, but also different (38). He rents a studio, makes preparations, chooses all the details of the environment—the textures of it, the light of it, the sounds of it. He decides he will do sittings that are about a month long, and chooses his first sitter, who is his literary agent’s assistant. The assistant, Rebecca, asks if she can bring books with her, or music: he tells her no. “I think you should simply be with yourself, that’s all. For an entirely unreasonable time,” he tells her (73). And so he does her portrait, and then she becomes his assistant, and he does other portraits, and then things shift and change and Rebecca is left to think back on everything. The second story, Three Times at Dawn, is a book mentioned in the first book, and an insight into it, & the combination of it with the preceding story is pretty satisfying.
October 28th, 2014
Half a Crown was compulsively readable, the kind of book that had me staying up past my bedtime, sitting on the edge of the bathtub reading after I’d brushed my teeth, reluctant to put it down. It also had me repeatedly wailing, “This is terrible!” to my boyfriend, who read this a few months ago. Not that the book is terrible—it’s not. Rather, various plot points are terrible/stressful to read about/horribly depressing, which is to be expected given the mood and events of the first two books in the trilogy, and given that this one is set in 1960 in a fascist London, in a world in which Hitler is still in power in Germany, the English having made peace with him to end the Second World War.
The book follows the now-familiar structure of Farthing and Ha’penny, with chapters of first-person narration by a young woman alternating with chapters of third-person narration about Peter Anthony Carmichael, who we met in Farthing when he was an investigator at Scotland Yard, and who has since moved on to other things. The first-person narration in this one is by Elvira, a young debutante who’s about to be presented to the Queen and who finds herself questioning fascism for the first time in her eighteen years. It’s hard to say anything more about the plot without lots of spoilers, and part of the appeal of this book is the suspense and pacing, so here, have a nice descriptive passage:
Across the street, there were parties at other windows. The sky was fading behind the roof peaks and chimney tops, which stood out like cardboard cutout silhouettes, and I looked from them to the lit windows, and back again. A flock of birds, pigeons probably, wheeled across the sky, heading home before dark. (39)
This quiet novella, which originally appeared in Japanese in 2001, is the story of a couple in their thirties who live in a suburban-ish neighborhood of Tokyo in the late 1980s, in a rented cottage that used to be a mansion’s guesthouse. Their cottage is next to an alley, and a neighbor across the alley adopts a stray cat, Chibi, who then starts to visit the couple, slipping into their house through a window they leave open for her. They feed Chibi; she naps on cushions in their closet; the narrator’s wife tosses a ping pong ball around in the garden for her. But Chibi isn’t theirs, doubly so: there is something wild in her (there’s a scene in which she bites the narrator’s wife hard enough to draw blood), and she’s really a part of the neighbor’s family, despite how much time she spends at the narrator’s house. The way things a) don’t belong to us and b) are always in flux is really the heart of the story: the narrator talks about his aging landlady and her ailing husband, who first move to an apartment complex for seniors and then decide to sell the house entirely, with the guesthouse too. So the narrator and his wife are in this space where nothing is theirs: renting a home they won’t be able to rent for much longer, with the “guest cat” visiting from next door. (Their landlady tells them to visit the empty mansion as much as they want; the narrator tends its gardens and watches them change through the seasons until he and his wife move, and even a bit afterward.)
The prose of The Guest Cat is graceful and understated: I liked passages like this:
Having played to her heart’s content, Chibi would come inside and rest for a while. When she began to sleep on the sofa—like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from a prehistoric archaeological site—a deep sense of happiness arrived, as if the house itself had dreamed this scene.(14)
Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013 (Originally Allen Lane, 2012)
October 21st, 2014
The structure and subject of and tone of Unmastered—prose in numbered sections, sex, the mix of the personal with semi-academic meditations—made me think of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, though I am not as in love with this book as I am with that one. Which isn’t to say this book is bad, just that it didn’t hit me quite like Nelson’s did. Unmastered was a quick read for me (there’s a lot of white space) and I read it twice over the course of a week, finding myself struck by different bits each time.
The book is, as the subtitle says, about desire: about Angel’s own desires and experiences with desire, and also about sexual desire more generally, women’s and also men’s. Though Angel quotes Virginia Woolf on the androgynous mind— “‘It is fatal,’ wrote Woolf, ‘to be a man or woman pure and simple'” (95)—this book looks at and thinks about desire in very gendered terms. “I am proof of your masculinity,” Angel writes (30). And “I lock him into his masculinity. I am anxious to protect it, for it pains me, it pains my femininity, to see it fragmented” (109). And “he puts down anchor in me, and finds his masculinity there. I put down anchor in him, in his masculinity, and find my femininity there” (112). All of which is interesting to me, but feels very removed from my own experiences. (My gender identity is basically “tomboy,” and I’ve dated both men and women, and I’m more comfortable with the idea of gender as a spectrum than a binary thing.) When Angel writes about things like pornography, or domination and submission, it’s mostly in a gendered way—even when she flips things and talks about a woman being dominant, it’s still in relation to the idea of a dominant man and a submissive woman, which isn’t really how I think about these things. Angel writes about women’s experiences in contrast to men’s experiences: she writes about the entitlement men may have, while women may find it harder to know/voice/own desire. She writes about the way society, women included, can work to contain women’s sexuality, to contain women’s bodies and wants. She writes about the “unruly, lustful body,” and how we react to things like unplanned pregnancy and abortion (264).
I think I like this book best not when Angel is quoting Virginia Woolf or Susan Sontag (this book’s other guiding spirit, in a way), but when she’s writing about her own experiences, in and out of the bedroom. “I have become a body,” she writes, and “I have sounds, but I have fewer words” (42). “When he grabs my hair, when he presses my throat, when he holds my hands down, I know—because I feel—that this is pitch-perfect” (90). I like writing that captures the experience of feeling open, feeling awake to the possibilities of pleasure, and when Angel does this, she does it really well, as in this, one of my favorite passages in the book:
Crossing Waterloo Bridge, that spritely spring, that razor-sharp spring, looking over at St. Paul’s, I sniffed pleasure—openness—light—in the air.
I could feel it in my hips. (332)