I think I read this book as a kid—I certainly owned a copy of one of the later books in the series, and pieces of this one felt familiar—but it wasn’t one of my favorites, and I’m not sure why. Anastasia Krupnik is ten, and hilarious. She’s an only child, living with her English-professor/poet dad and her mom, who’s a painter, but that’s about to change: she’s not at all pleased to learn that she’s going to have a baby brother. She has a notebook in which she keeps many lists, including a list of important things that happen throughout the year (e.g. “I began to have a mercurial temperament” (88)) and a list of things she loves and things she hates, which is charmingly reproduced between chapters—it’s great to see the way the list changes, with things crossed off from one side and added to the other, sometimes multiple times, in a way that captures how strongly kids can feel about things. (And the list is often quite funny: one of the things Anastasia loves is the wart on her thumb, which she finds “very pleasing,” and which “appeared quite by surprise, shortly after her tenth birthday, on a morning when nothing else interesting was happening” (2).)
There are so many funny moments, like when Anastasia gets super-excited that her fourth-grade class will be writing poetry, but then doesn’t pay attention to the assignment and gets an F because her poem is all in lowercase and doesn’t rhyme (it’s wonderfully e.e. cummings-esque). (When she brings the poem home and shows it to her dad, he changes the F to Fabulous.) Or when Anastasia decides she wants to convert to Catholicism because Catholics get to choose an extra name for themselves, but changes her mind once she hears about having to go to confession. (I love that her dad’s reaction to her wanting to become a Catholic is to say “That is both interesting and preposterous,” and then to carry on eating dinner. (32))
But the book isn’t all humor: there’s a tender and sad subplot about Anastasia’s grandmother, who’s 92 and seems to have Alzheimer’s, which totally made me tear up on the subway and then, later, cry outright at my kitchen table.
July 16th, 2014
One thing about City of Djinns, which is about a year that William Dalrymple spent in Delhi with his wife in his twenties, is that it suffers for me a bit by comparison to Tamara Shopsin’s wonderful Mumbai New York Scranton, which I read in February and loved. It’s not a fair comparison, really: both books include travel in India, and both feature art by the author’s spouse, but Shopsin’s book is more personal, while Dalrymple’s book has more history in it. I found Dalyrmple’s mix of travel/memoir and history sometimes appealing, and sometimes not: I sometimes wanted to be reading just a memoir, or just a history book.
Dalrymple tells the story of Delhi, or rather, of many Delhis, in two strands: he writes about his time there chronologically, but writes about the city’s history in reverse chronological order, from Partition back through the mythic past of the Mahabharata. He writes about Delhi as “a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic” (9). And the Delhi of the present (this book was published in the early 1990s) is multiple, complex: “it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices” (7-8).
I liked the humor of Dalrymple’s Delhi experiences: his landlady who turns off the water because of too many toilet flushes, the customs officer who won’t let him leave the country on a five-day trip without bringing the electric kettle, printer, computer, and boom box he brought to India to the airport, the cab driver who always points out pretty women.
And I like the nostalgic or lyrical bits, like this conversation with an author born in Delhi but living in Pakistan:
We talked for an hour about the Delhi of their childhood and youth. We talked of the eunuchs and the sufis and the pigeons and the poets; of the monsoon picnics in Mehrauli and the djinn who fell in love with Ahmed Ali’s aunt. We talked of the sweetmeat shops which stayed open until three in the morning, the sorcerers who could cast spells over a whole mohalla, the possessed woman who used to run vertically up the zenana walls, and the miraculous cures effected by Hakim Ajmal Khan. (64)
Or like this passage about Delhi after the winter rains:
That February, Delhi seemed like a paradise. Olivia and I filled the garden on our roof terraces with palms and lilies and hollyhocks and we wove bougainvillaea through the trellising. The plants which seemed to have died during the winter’s cold – the snapdragon, the hibiscus and the frangipani – miraculously sprang back to life and back into bloom. The smells began to change. The woodsmoke and the sweet smell of the dung fires gave way to the heady scent of Indian champa and the first bittersweet whiffs of China orange blossom. (200)
Olivia Fraser’s watercolors of people and buildings, which illustrate the book, are sometimes really satisfying: I especially love a pair of turbaned Sikhs reading (p 26) and a pair of boys on a roof with their pigeons (p 226).
This collection of linked stories set in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen in the ’70s and ’80s does a great job of capturing a sense of place. The narrator of the first story puts it like this: “I remember all this vividly, our summer nights, but really, all I can recall is what it felt like. I try to piece together image from that” (2). The Pilsen of this book is a place of gangbangers and guns and drugs, a place where there’s a shootout at a cotillion and where the guy who lives upstairs “would have loud parties that ended up in fistfights at 3 a.m., people falling down our three-flat’s stairs, creative insults being slung in the stairwell, bottles being thrown on the front sidewalk” (7). But it’s also a place of childhood wonder and ease, summer streetscapes with open hydrants, kids playing in the water, competitions between blocks to see whose hydrants could shoot the highest jets. These stories capture the sounds and smells of this place: “frying tacos, boiling pots of garlic-spiced frijoles, cool Lake Michigan breezes transported by miles of sewer pipe,” and “how the expressway sounded from underneath, the high whine of tires, the low drone of truck engines, the shudder of engine brakes” (21, 137). This is a neighborhood of hiding spots and secrets: there’s a great story in which the narrator climbs to a pierogi factory’s roof, where he and a new friend carve out a space for themselves for a time; there’s another great story in which the narrator and his friends eavesdrop on another friend’s mother having sex in the apartment upstairs. But the stories aren’t all realism: there’s one that features a vision of an underground city connected to the aboveground one, and one in which the narrator’s friend can bring back the dead. But I like the realistic descriptive passages best, passages like this:
Up and down Eighteenth Street, the morning delivery trucks worked their horns to announce their backing into docks. The early mist had not yet burned off the neighborhood. The smell of yesterday’s fried food, tacos, gorditas, chicharon, hung in the air. Soon the sun would burn the haze away and allow a fresh day’s worth of fried-food smell to settle over the neighborhood. (55)
June 30th, 2014
“One final time I told myself I wasn’t abducting my little brother”: this is the start of She Is Not Invisible, and it certainly made me want to keep reading. The narrator is Laureth Peak, who’s sixteen; her brother, Benjamin, is seven. They’re at the airport, about to check in for a flight from London to New York. Laureth’s dad, a writer, seems to be missing: she had thought he was in Switzerland, but he’s been out of contact for days, and when she checked his email (she normally helps him out by replying to common questions with form letters), she saw something that made her worried: someone in New York has his notebook, which contains his ideas and research, and which he’d never part with willingly. When Laureth tries to tell her mom how worried she is, her mom doesn’t really listen, and so Laureth decides she’d better go to New York, meet the person who has her dad’s notebook, and find her dad. But Laureth is blind, which is why she needs Benjamin: she can’t make her way around a new city alone.
And so Laureth, Benjamin, and Benjamin’s stuffed raven, Stan, fly across the Atlantic, with a plan to meet the “Mr. Michael Walker” who has their dad’s notebook at a library in Queens, and very little idea of what they’ll do beyond that. Their dad has been working on what they call “that book,” which he’s been working on for a long time: it’s a book about coincidences, and his research for it has become all-encompassing. He can’t write anything else, but he can’t write it, either. Part of the problem, he thinks, is the nature of coincidences themselves: as he’s explained to Laureth and Benjamin, coincidences feel meaningful to the person experiencing them, but that feeling is extremely hard to convey: a coincidence recounted to someone else either feels unextraordinary or unbelievable; coincidences are either “so pathetic that they don’t excite anyone but you,” or “so incredible that they are literally just that” (40). There’s lots about coincidence in this book: the coincidence that Laureth’s dad experienced that made him want to write about them, snippets of his research on coincidences, and the coincidences that Laureth and Benjamin experience as they search for their dad. Do coincidences mean anything, or do we only notice them because we’re good at noticing patterns, and do they only feel like they mean something because we want them to? If Laureth’s dad feels like he sees the number 354 everywhere, to the extent that it becomes “his number,” does that mean it’s everywhere for him, or does that mean he’s looking out for it? Do coincidences say something about the nature of the universe, or about the nature of being human?
The parts of this book focused on people are maybe the most interesting: I love Laureth’s relationship with her brother, and the way she navigates the world and people’s reactions to her blindness. Between that, and the thinky/philosophical bits about coincidences (the book reproduces whole passages of Laureth’s dad’s notebook as a way of introducing/explaining various topics), and the suspense/adventure aspect of Laureth’s missing father, it sometimes felt like there was too much going on, or like this book didn’t know what kind of book it wanted to be. But the strength of Laureth’s narration helped hold it together, and I’m glad I read it.
In her preface to this reprint of her first novel, which was originally published in 1930, Kay Boyle writes that “the meaning of the book may perhaps be that there is always in life the necessity to choose,” which isn’t my favorite moral: I mean, yes, but sometimes the choice you get to make is to have both/and, rather than either/or, but many stories about choices only look at the either/or kind. So I started this book a little bit ready to dislike it, but ended up pretty pleased. Boyle’s prose feels very considered, poised: involved descriptions of the coastal landscape of Brittany (a river that meets the sea, the inrushing tide, gulls on the wing) serve as metaphor for the protagonist’s situation: the broad possibility of the ocean, the comparative narrowness of the river, the sense of freedom in the wind and waves, but the sameness of them, too.
Boyle’s heroine, Bridget, is an American in her early twenties who is married to Nicolas, who’s French. When the book opens, Bridget and Nicolas are resting after having just arrived at his parents’ house: the book starts thus: “She came gradually to be awake, lying soft and rested in the plumed bed, deep in the protective palm of his family” (7). But a protective palm can close into a fist, preventing escape, and escape ends up being a major theme and concern. Bridget and Nicolas don’t have money; his parents do; his father says he’ll give them fifty thousand francs if they have a child. But Nicolas has a bone disease that’s clearly genetic, and doesn’t want to pass it on to a son he might have. Meanwhile, Nicolas’s father is full of judgment: he judges what Bridget wears to swim, scolds her when she lies in the grass, polices what his 32-year-old daughter reads, withdraws his permission for another daughter to go on a church trip. Other family members dream of their own escapes: one of Nicolas’s sisters wants to go into a convent, another wants desperately to marry a friend of the family, Luc. But Luc’s intentions and affections are unclear, until they’re clarified by Bridget’s presence: he wants her.
And so, Bridget finds herself with a choice between two men, except not exactly: her choice is between the stasis of life with Nicolas’s family and the cost of escape, the cost of change. (In the preface, Boyle notes that the novel is largely autobiographical, except that there was no Luc figure in reality: he was added at the advice of a publisher who wanted a romantic subplot. And he’s a bit too much a figure of romance, too gallant and dashing and also inscrutable. I would perhaps have liked to read the version of this book without him.)
What I liked best in this book was the language, the pacing and tone, and description. There are some excellent set pieces: a fire in town, with Bridget and one of Nicolas’s sisters joining the bucket brigade; a summer afternoon that was meant to be a peaceful family picnic but is encroached upon by a group of English tourists; a visit from a fastidious uncle.
June 19th, 2014
Villa Bunker, a novella made of 133 numbered sections (ranging in length from a sentence to several pages each) is weird and interesting and pretty great to have read right after Martha Ronk’s Transfer of Qualities—I felt there were moments when these two books complemented one another interestingly. Ronk’s book was concerned, in large part, with objects, with how we arrange them, with how they affect us. Brebel’s book features a narrator whose parents have just moved into a vast isolated villa. They think they’ll make it into their dream home, but that doesn’t seem to happen. The narrator’s mother writes him letter after unhinged letter: is the villa making his parents crazy? Or is the disordered space of the villa a result of his parents’ disordered minds? At one point the narrator’s mother thinks that her husband’s “exhaustion was being transmitted to the furniture, which was slumped in the dark recesses of the room” (59).
“Perched on a cliff above the sea, looming and hostile, secretly opposed to anyone staying is what she’d written about the villa”: this is how the book opens, attributing energy and will to the villa (1). The villa is isolated; the villa has bars on the first floor windows to keep intruders out, but it feels like they’re also there to keep people in. (The narrator is writing (or failing to write) his dissertation on Foucault, the “philosopher of prisons, hospitals, and barracks,” which feels significant. (81)) The villa has a locked and windowless master bedroom, and a vast ballroom in which the narrator’s parents initially decide to camp out, just while they make their plans to renovate the rest of the place, but the narrator’s mother worries they’ll be there forever: she feels “hemmed in on all sides, surrounded by the multitude of objects summing up their life together” (20). The narrator’s mother is oppressed by the old clothes and furniture that previous inhabitants have left in the villa, too: “She would see a man’s jacket on a chair, and this abandoned article of clothing would haunt her thoughts, this individual thing among so many others would dispossess her of herself; the old jacket would come to life in the silence of a bedroom (someone had left it there), and all around the chair things would stir, one by one, things roused from their sleep, awakened by her mere presence, she’d thought, and now these things wanted her to notice and recognize them” (35).
The villa is a bewildering space: “It was as though the villa were growing, expanding gradually, constantly. The rooms were multiplying, forming something like a long snakelike dwelling space, whose coils extended over several floors” (41). The narrator’s parents try to master it: his father obsessively photographs it; his mother obsessively writes about it, and also tries an experiment in indoor gardening, which she soon abandons after the plants begin to feel like an “invasion” whose “fragrance was delivering a coded message, the toxicity of which was growing by the day, or perhaps hour” (65). And then there’s the strange child the narrator’s mother finds, or thinks she finds, or maybe it’s her husband, or maybe she’s imagined it, or maybe all of this is a product of the narrator’s imagination—he keeps mentioning what his mother wrote in her letters, but he also says he’s been tossing them in the wastebasket unread. The sense of what’s “real” in this book shifts like the villa, like the narrative, and it makes for a compelling read.
June 17th, 2014
This book takes its title from a phrase from Henry James, which features as the book’s epigraph: James wrote, in The Sacred Fount, about “the liaison that betrays itself by the transfer of qualities” from one person to another. Ronk writes about this idea more broadly, applying it to things as well as people: what marks do we leave on objects, and how do the objects we live with/use/love mark us?
I like the sense of life in this book, the sense of dailiness, of experience, as in the first phrases of the first piece, “The Cup”: “The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first glass of water, the running of water now clear after the silty water of yesterday” (13). Other pieces, like “A Paper Crown,” use the object as image/metaphor: that piece starts like this: “You realize some piece of you has to be pierced in order for the almost unbearable desire to be slotted into place” (19). Other pieces meditate on images: “Branches” describes part of this photo; Man Ray’s “rayographs” and paintings by Manet and Sargent are mentioned. Other texts are quoted, too: there’s more James, and Maurice Blanchot, and Georges Perec, among others. There are sections about the relations between image and object (particularly in photograms: traces of objects, shadow-objects); there are bits about the book as object, and the book as experience. There’s an expression of a sense that we are drawn to objects, or they to us, with a kind of fate: in one piece, the narrator asks, of a plate: “how did it come to be there by chance just when I also was there? How did it survive all the careless sinks and hands, earthquakes and upheavals?” (42).
And then this ties into other kinds of survival: what survives of relationships when they end or change; how we deal with death/loss/grief. There’s also a lot in this book about the body: in a piece called “Talking to Things,” there’s this, which I love:
In some ways objects “speak” directly to the body and alter a route through the room creating slight vectors of pressure. The drawing I’d make of it shows thin ink lines from each object in the room to each other object, door, person, rug, crayon, phone, paper bag, plant—until the page is crisscrossed with lines. (48)
Possibly my favorite piece in the book is the last one, a short essay called “Posada,” which is about doing kung fu for seventeen years, and about what having a physical practice is like, and also about grief/fear.
June 11th, 2014
If you’re looking for a novel that’s plot-driven or character driven, Every Day Is for the Thief (which was originally published in Nigeria in 2007, by Cassava Republic Press) is probably not the book for you. This is an episodic novel, a novel of vignettes and moments, a novel where the city of Lagos (which appears in photos by the author, interspersed with the text) is perhaps more vivid a character than the nameless narrator (a dual citizen of the US and Nigeria who travels to Lagos from New York to visit family). Cole’s prose is graceful: an airplane “drops gently and by degrees toward the earth, as if progressing down an unseen flight of stairs” (9). And Lagos is vivid, from the airport on: “The entrances are clogged with passengers’ relatives and, in far greater numbers, touts, hustlers, and all sorts of people who are there because they have nowhere else to be” (10).
The narrator moves through the city, noticing how it works, or doesn’t: the official at the airport who asks for money, the man who opens a shop door and asks for a tip, the woman in begging in the parking lot, the young unemployed “area boys” who attempt theft, the policemen by a roundabout collecting bribes “under a billboard that reads “Corruption Is Illegal: Do Not Give or Accept Bribes” (15). He visits Internet cafes and watches scammers typing advance fee fraud letters (like the policemen, under a sign forbidding it): I love this passage:
Once, looking to my right in an Internet cafe—and this surreptitious reading quickly becomes habitual for me—I see a letter being written from the “Chairman of the National Office of Petroleum Resources.” The writer is a rough-looking man who is clearly chairman of nothing. There are other letters, from the heirs of fictional magnates, from the widows of oil barons, from the legal representatives of incarcerated generals, and they are such enterprising samples of narrative fiction that I realize Lagos is a city of Scheherazades. The stories unfold in ever more fanciful iterations and, as in the myth, those who tell the best stories are richly rewarded. (27)
The narrator wants to experience Lagos: its markets, its streets. He takes public transit even though his aunt and uncle discourage him from it: “There is no better place to make an inquiry into what it was I longed for all those times I longed for home,” the narrator thinks, as he moves through a crowded bus terminal (35). And then, in one of those perfect city moments, there’s a woman on the minibus reading Michael Ondaatje, one of his favorite authors: it’s a surprise to see someone reading literary fiction on Lagosian public transit, and he wonders about the woman, thinks maybe he’ll talk to her, but doesn’t get a chance to:
The bus crosses from Yaba over the Third Mainland Bridge into Lagos Island. In the shadow of skyscrapers, half-nude men in dugouts cast nets into the lagoon. The work of arms and shoulders. I think of Auden’s line: Poetry makes nothing happen. The bus comes to a stop. She disembarks, at Obalende, with her book, and quickly vanishes into the bookless crowd. (43)
The narrator is a solitary walker, moving alone through the city “to observe its many moods: the lethargy of the early mornings, the raucous early evenings, the silent, lightless nights, cut through with the sounds of generators” (128). “It is in this aimless wandering that I find myself truly in the city,” he says, and then, later: “letting go of my moorings makes me connect to the city as pure place, through which I move without prejudging what I will see when I come around a corner” (128, 159). The descriptions of those wanderings, with their lovely and unlovely moments (a market where a boy was burned to death, a museum that doesn’t match the narrator’s memory of it, coffins that the narrator initially mistakes for boats) combine with snippets of conversation, pieces of days, and the result is really satisfying.
The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square by Gert Jonke
Translated by Vincent Kling
Dalkey Archive Press, 2009
June 4th, 2014
In his Translator’s Afterword, Vincent Kling describes The System of Vienna as a “parody-tribute to the art of autobiography as construct,” which is a good way of putting it (109). The book starts with the story of the narrator’s birth, as told to him by his mother: the language of it makes you aware of the story-as-story, the way lived experience gets remembered and told and re-told: “The story begins with a description of that cold winter night and how my mother allegedly started out not being able to find her shoes for a long time, locating them only after a frantic, extensive search and disappearing into the darkness of the February night after putting them on” (9). There follows the story of a trip to the hospital, a locked side entrance, a paragraph-long sentence about what the night porter is “supposed to have” said to the narrator’s mother, and then finally the narrator’s birth and, apparently, near death: “and, bringing the story to its end, there’s a description of my skin, at that point completely blue” (10-11).
Other really useful bits from Kling’s afterword are this:
Jonke’s convoluted structures are clear as music, since music needs to express only its own utterance, unhampered by lexical meaning, but they are bound to grow bewildering as elaborate verbal statements careening through obsessive repetitions. Units that as musical notes reveal “meaning” obscure it as words. (116)
Elevating elaboration to an essential value in his Baroque art encourages clauses of such convolution as to gradually slip away from due proportion and begin sprawling over whole pages, gestating storms of thunderwords and getting snarled in syntactic structures no mind could follow, let alone unravel. (115)
The System of Vienna is full of humor and absurdity and really great long tangled sentences, and also lots of repetition on the phrase or sentence level, which is structurally/stylistically interesting but can sometimes be a slog to read, though less so if you do think of it as musical, rather than as words/sentences. I love the whimsy of the images in various stories, like the description of a haberdashery where “the owner scampers excitedly among his shelves trying to put down a revolt by buttons leaping out of their boxes,” or the idea of walking through a town “until it all becomes too much for you and you can’t take any more, whereupon you simply wrap the Old Square up in thick brown paper with great care and neatly tie string around the package, which has ended up rather long” (13). (Followed, a page later, by this: “Someone must have spread out the Old Square, which not long ago you had wrapped up in thick brown paper and tied very carefully with string, making it a longish package”—gah, I love it.)
The urban landscapes of this book (and the landscapes on the city’s edge, too), were really satisfying to read about: buildings and streetcars (including one that the narrator feels “wanted to roll straight onto some pile of scrap metal”), the Danube Canal with its bridges and lighted signs and reflections, a public restroom at the Nussdorf station, garden plots by the Danube and a chain ferry that’s out of service. Meanwhile, I like the plot of the last story a whole lot:the narrator discovers he can speak with the caryatids and “atlantes” (plural of “atlas,” he says) holding up columns and balconies on Vienna’s buildings, and becomes a “creative sleep artist” who teaches these statues the theory and practice of sleep, something previously unknown to them. But what if the statues can learn how to sleep: what happens to the city and its buildings then?
Rookie Yearbook One features highlights from Rookie’s first school year of existence, September 2011 to May 2012. Though I am definitely older than the intended audience (it’s for teenagers; I’m 32) it was still a satisfying read. It’s a mixture of advice pieces, personal essays, and other stuff from a mixture of teen and adult writers, on subjects including how to deal with a bad day, how to talk to your crush, racism, female masturbation, the male gaze, and street harassment. There are interviews with Joss Whedon, Daniel Clowes, David Sedaris, and other famous people; there’s also a piece of interviews with groups of ordinary people in their late teens/early twenties in Manhattan diners late at night. It’s smart and well-written and often funny and the advice pieces don’t ever assume heterosexuality; it’s upbeat without being saccharine; it’s awesomely feminist: there’s one great part where a reader of the website asks why being skinny is so fetishized by the mainstream media, and the answer is basically, because certain people/large corporations make a lot of money by making girls/women devote their resources, mental and otherwise, to the idea that they should try to attain this particular ideal of feminine beauty. Yup, that. The book also features art, in the form of collage-y page backgrounds and dividing pages (which I liked lots) and photography (which is mostly in the style of artsy fashion photography, like a teenage W magazine, which I was less interested in).
My favorite pieces were probably all personal essays, like this one by Kevin Townley about being thirteen and discovering Rocky Horror Picture Show, or this one by Jenny Zhang about moving from a diverse neighborhood in Queens to a very white Long Island town in 7th grade, or these first-time-having-sex stories by Lena Dunham, Liz Phair, and others. I also really really love the “People Reviews” (1, 2) at the end of the book: they’re funny/great vignettes of daily life, with the people at their center being rated 0-5 stars. Like, 1 star for a judgmental dentist, 5 stars for a girl who buys the last glazed donut at a local coffee place, and then, when it falls on the floor, asks the staff if the floor is clean, then says “don’t judge me” and proceeds to eat it. Or 5 stars for a barefoot guy in orange shorts skateboarding down Liverpool Street in the winter in London, giving high fives to guys in suits. I would happily read a whole book of People Reviews—it’s like the Metropolitan Diary section of the New York Times, except funnier and less cutesy.