(Spoilers ahead/don’t read if you don’t want to know what happens in this book.)

Early in Washington Square we meet Dr. Sloper, who married a wealthy woman but is an eminent medical professional with a solid career of his own. He lives with his daughter, Catherine, and his widowed sister Lavinia: his first child (a son) died young, and his wife died shortly after Catherine’s birth. “I should like her to be a clever woman,” he tells Lavinia, when they’re talking about how Lavinia can maybe help with Catherine’s education. Lavinia is perhaps not the best person to raise a clever girl, though: she’s described as “romantic” and “sentimental”, with “a passion for little secrets and mysteries.” And Catherine? By the time she’s in her early twenties, she’s described as “not ugly” and also “decidedly not clever.” She doesn’t have a lot of suitors, and when one man, Morris Townsend, starts to express interest in her, Dr. Sloper assumes he’s just after Catherine’s money (which may, in fact, be true). Dr. Sloper tells Catherine he’ll cut her off if she marries Townsend, and takes her to Europe in an effort to make her forget him; meanwhile, back at home, Aunt Lavinia has Townsend over for drinks on the regular and encourages him in his romantic affections: she tells him her brother will surely change his mind. Dr. Sloper does not change his mind; Catherine and Morris do not get married. Poor Catherine! The girl has no mother, a meddling aunt, a father who she’s convinced doesn’t particularly like her, and a first love she can’t/won’t get over, even though by the end of the novel when she sees him again, after many years, she thinks about how he “was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing.”

I was hoping for more 1800s New York atmosphere in this book, but there isn’t a ton of it. There is a rather nice description of the area around Washington Square, which James describes as “having a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city.” And there are some social occasions that are fun to read about, and a few strolls, and a secret rendezvous at an “oyster saloon,” all of which I enjoyed. I feel conflicted about how stoic/passive Catherine is—on the level of particular scenes, it makes for some very funny/great moments, like when Lavinia tells Catherine, after an upsetting night, that she should stay in bed for three days and Catherine can’t imagine doing that … but also, it’s fairly depressing, at least the way it’s presented in the book: Catherine is the lively friendly spinster in her social circle, but the book doesn’t show those happy moments, just tells about them, and it ends with a moment of solitude that feels more dark and lonely than peaceful or content.

Yikes. Tokyo Ueno Station is a beautiful book, but it’s also incredibly sad, much moreso than I was expecting (even though I went into it knowing it’s narrated by the ghost of a man who spent the last years of his life homeless in Tokyo’s Ueno Park). “I had no luck,” the narrator, Kazu, says, very early in the book, and as we learn about various episodes in his life via his memories, it’s hard to disagree. He’s from a poor family and is the eldest of eight siblings; he talks about leaving home at age 12 to work. Even when he’s older and has a wife and a family, he lives apart from them to earn money—he talks about having first come to Tokyo in 1963, and finding work in construction, building stadiums and such for the upcoming 1964 Summer Olympics. He works hard, and hardly knows his two kids, but that absence is nothing compared to the losses he experiences later (though it also makes those losses harsher).

The book alternates between Kazu’s memories of moments of his life (whether with his family or with other homeless people in the park, in his later years) and his ghost’s observations of various people around Ueno Park and Ueno Station. He listens to two older women on a park bench, looking at an old school photo and reminiscing about their classmates; he listens to another pair of older women in a museum, talking about their own family difficulties and not even looking at the art; he watches a young man in running clothes pay a visit to a temple in the park and read the prayers and wishes others have left there. He notices gingko trees and cherry blossoms and rain, and remembers those things from his life, too; he notices the park’s monuments and remembers how another homeless man, Shige, would always talk about different key events/moments in Japanese history. (This is one really satisfying thing about the book, the way that the space through which the narrative moves is so full of history and memory, both personal and national. Kazu himself notes that he was born the same year as the emperor, and that his son was born the same day as the emperor’s son, though obviously their experiences are nothing alike.)

Having read this, I’m curious about reading more of Yu Miri’s work—I learned in this interview on Electric Literature that this book is actually the fifth in a sequence of books involving the same subway line in Tokyo. But after what feels like a few too many sad books and movies lately (The Alpinist, I’m looking at you), I think I’ll need some lighter/happier reading first.

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

September 22nd, 2021

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously, it sometimes takes me a while to read books I own, especially when there are shiny new library books available. This book was a Christmas gift from 2019; my now-fiancé saw this pre-wrapped surprise book at Book Culture and got it for me because he knew I liked Maggie Nelson and Eileen Myles; I opened it and was delighted because I’d already wanted to read Black Wave but hadn’t yet. Well: it took me over a year, but now I have read it, and it is excellent, and I look forward to re-reading it at some point, because it’s one of those books where I wanted to know what would happen next so I maybe read some of the more description-heavy sections more speedily than I might have.

When the book starts it’s 1999 and its protagonist, Michelle, is living in San Francisco, which is rapidly gentrifying, though Michelle is poor and queer and very much a denizen of “old” San Francisco. Meanwhile, we learn early on that the planet is in very bad shape: in the first ten pages there are references to pollution, smog, ‘killer sun”, and “SARS masks”; later there are mentions of heat and “heavy rains” and “black mold festering in the walls.” But Michelle has her own issues to deal with. She smokes crack (once), drinks (a lot) and does heroin (for a while); she messes up a relationship with a kind older woman and starts dating a teenager (she’s 27) and drinks (I know I said that already, but there is a lot of drinking). After one particularly rough morning when she realizes she’s “certain, finally, that her life was out of control”, Michelle wonders if she should move to LA, where her brother Kyle lives.

Michelle then does move to LA, where she thinks maybe she’ll write a screenplay but actually ends up living in a depressing apartment and drinking a lot and working in a used book/record store, which is fine-ish except the drinking is really excessive. She keeps thinking maybe she’ll stop and then telling herself she’s being too extreme; she then tells herself she’ll just have a glass of wine, but then, always, she drinks the whole bottle. And then Michelle gets a phone call from her brother, telling her the world is going to end, at which point the rest of the book is basically Michelle’s experience of the time leading up to the apocalypse, a time in which the world, not unexpectedly, goes even crazier than it already was.

All of that’s a whole lot going on, and I haven’t even talked about the metafictional elements, where it becomes clear that Michelle is writing her story/this story, a story that “Is Part True And Part False”; there are references to Michelle doing things with one character, or alone, and then corrections and clarifications saying she “really” did those things with a different character, had a whole different LA experience in a relationship that has now ended. So the character Michelle tries to figure out how to tell her story, how other people fit into it, how to write about people who may not want to be written about. The character Michelle, like the author Michelle Tea, has written memoirs; the character Michelle thinks at one point “that if people didn’t like the way they looked in her book then they should have behaved differently.” At one point, when the character Michelle says that in her book “The World Is Going To End,” another character notes that “It’s like a metaphor for the end of love.” Which it is, though the way the book ends makes it feel like it’s not about the end of love so much as the presence of love, even in the midst of everything ending: some connection, some spark.

Temporary by Hilary Leichter

August 15th, 2021

The unnamed narrator of Temporary is a temp, and always has been: in the world of the book, being a temp is something you can be born into, and if you’re a temp, you start young: “My mother arranged for me my very first job, just as her mother did for her,” the narrator says (57). This first job, in a cute little house on a cute little street, “was to open the doors, then close them, every forty minutes, every day, all day long, until otherwise notified” (58). It takes the narrator a while to realize what is happening: “the house was a house for a family, and I was filling in for a ghost” (66).

If this premise seems unappealingly weird to you, you are probably not going to like this book. If this premise seems delightfully weird to you, then maybe, like me, you will love Temporary, which is about capitalism and the gig economy and loneliness and identity and how people interact/relate to each other, but is also straight-up bonkers. I love the way the book mixes hilarious realistic details/moments with settings and scenarios that are surreal or bizarre. Like: the narrator has a brief stint working as a human barnacle on a rock, after her gig on a pirate ship comes to an end. There’s a blimp that drop bombs, and a job at a “small murder business” (77). People fill in as parrots or bank robbers or the Statue of Liberty; the narrator has a temp job at a big company filling in for the Chairman of the Board. But also, the narrator says things like “my favorite boyfriend devotes himself exclusively to pumpkin spice this time of year, in his cocktails and his coffee and his attitude” (144). Or when the narrator’s boyfriends (she has a lot of them) turn the absent narrator’s closet into an office, one of them talks about throwing away stuff in the closet and notes that they “threw away an old bag stuffed with other bags, with little plastic bags balled inside the medium-sized paper bags” (104-105).

I love the structure of the book, which starts with a section called “Onboarding” and ends with a section in the form of an exit interview; in between, other named sections made up of shorter segments give us the story of the narrator’s various placements, all of which she hopes will bring her to “the steadiness” and “permanence.” (Sometimes, people who start out as temps stop being temps. Sometimes, but not always.) Details and plot points from various sections pop up in later sections in ways that never failed to surprise and delight me, and the narrative style (which is sometimes deadpan and sometimes punny) totally works for me. There are also moments of unexpected sweetness, like when the narrator is taking a jog with a ghost (don’t ask) and we get this: “I put on some sneakers and take him for a run in the park, but the dogs distract him. He tries, and fails, to pet every single one” (15). Or this, from when the narrator is working temporarily as a mom, and thinks she’ll rent movies for her kid and his friends: “They can just sit here and watch as many movies as they want. How many days are like that? It’s a good kind of day to have. I make a shopping list for all the different kinds of days I want to provide for my son, and I cross this day off the list” (160).

Memory and absence are at the center of this novel: the narrator, Jessa-Lynn, is dealing (or not dealing) with her father’s death, and also with the absence from her life of her first/only love, Brynn (who’d been close with Jessa and her brother, Milo, since they were all kids, and who later ended up marrying Milo, before leaving him with their daughter and her son from another relationship). Jessa numbs herself with work (she’s running the family taxidermy business) and alcohol, and doesn’t really see any problem with that: she just wants to keep powering through her days, tiring herself out, doing the work she’s always done. When her mom starts making art installations featuring taxidermied animals in sexual scenarios, Jessa is weirded out: she expects her mom to be stable and domestic, not edgy. She can only see her mom’s art as a problematic/upsetting/wrong expression of her grief, and she’s appalled when a local gallery owner wants her mom to collaborate on a show. (Meanwhile, she find herself attracted to the gallery owner, Lucinda, while also being completely incapable of having a functional relationship.)

The book alternates between Jessa’s current experiences and her memories of childhood/her teen years/her earlier adulthood; the memories let us see Jessa’s past interactions with Brynn and also with her dad, as well as more of her dynamic with Milo (who was always closer to their mom, while Jessa was always closer to their dad). I like the way the past and present narratives fit together, and I like Arnett’s writing, though it’s often describing unpleasant things (dysfunction and humidity and sweat; animal guts and insects). Here’s a rare passage describing some kind of nice smells, when Jessa is driving after the rain: “The world cracked open and smelled fresh cut, seeping green over everything. I drove with the windows down and inhaled the world: the dank scent of wet dirt at a construction site, orange clay smoothed into wet puddles at the high school baseball field, the fruity shampoo as my hair whipped around my face” (69). At first, I wasn’t sure how into this book I was: family dramas aren’t always my thing. But as the book progressed, I found myself totally into it; a chapter near the end definitely made me cry, and now I definitely want to read Arnett’s new novel, With Teeth.

Weather by Jenny Offill

July 22nd, 2021

On a companion website for this book, there’s a quote from Thomas Merton’s journals that includes the phrase “I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place,” which I like a lot (I should really read more by Merton one of these days) and which feels very relevant to this book. Weather is partly about the narrator, Lizzie’s, preoccupation with and dread about climate change. But it’s also about a general mood of anxiety, related to a number of things, from politics (the book is set around the 2016 US presidential election) to family worries (Lizzie’s brother is a recovering addict; she’s also worried about her mom) to everyday life stuff (dread about going to the dentist, dread about a dermatologist’s appointment).

The style of the prose works for me: the book is made of little snippets, mostly Lizzie’s first-person narrative but also other things (stuff Lizzie’s reading, or pieces from her second job—she works in a university library but also starts helping her former grad school prof/advisor, Sylvia, answer emails about the climate-related podcast Sylvia hosts, and we see pieces of the questions/answers related to that work) and I think the style lets Offill change topic or tone quickly, adding bits of humor or depth (plus it’s just an appealing style to me, in general). I do think there are maybe a few too many strands—the portions of the plot tied to Sylvia felt a little too loosely-connected, and I feel like Sylvia ends up being a plot device to explain Lizzie’s increasing fascination with/focus on doomsday prepping. But overall I found this a quick and satisfying read.

One of the rules of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children (a boarding school for children who have travelled to other worlds but have been forced back to the world they were born in, which is our world) is “No quests” (15). But rules sometimes get broken, and this is definitely a quest narrative. Jack (short for Jacqueline) Wolcott and her twin sister Jill were students at the school in the past, but made their way back to the world of the Moors, where Jill has been being spoiled by a vampire father-figure and Jack has been learning mad science as an apprentice to a man named Dr. Bleak. The Moors are a creepy place, but they have their own balance, which is now at risk thanks to Jill, who wants to be a vampire herself and has engaged in some body-snatching to make that possible. (There are reasons/it’s complicated.) Jack needs to stop Jill, and also needs to get her body back, and also wants to see what she can do about making sure that Dr. Bleak is alive to keep teaching her (and to keep the Moors from descending into chaos). (As one character puts it: “the windmill stands empty, with no scientist to hold back the dark and no apprentice to risk the storm. This isn’t how things are supposed to happen in the Moors. You can’t have a single unopposed force” (71).)

So Jack needs help, and her old school friends are happy to assist: Christopher (who went to a skeleton-filled world called Mariposa that is still less creepy than the Moors), Kade (Eleanor’s great-nephew), Cora (who was a mermaid in an underwater world) and Sumi (who went to a nonsense world full of candy) all go to the Moors to help Jack and her fiancée, Alexis, do what needs to be done.

This book (which is the fifth in the Wayward Children series) was perfect summer vacation reading: I started it one morning and finished it later the same day, and the pace and style were exactly what I was in the mood for. I really love Sumi in this book: she’s perceptive and energetic and pushes the action forward while dispensing wisdom to Jack. Like: “panic is fun, but sometimes revenge is better” (41). Or: “The world doesn’t stop spinning because you’re sad, and that’s good; if it did, people would go around breaking hearts like they were sheets of maple sugar, just to keep the world exactly where it is” (107). I also like the moments of humor, like when Jack says she’s heard that “the public house nearest the docks serves excellent chowder that practically never contains human flesh” (142). There are moments of sweetness, too, like this description of Jack and Alexis speaking in sign language to each other (Alexis can hear, but sometimes loses her voice): “Sometimes they’d abandon signs in the middle of a gesture, their message already conveyed, language become shorthand become intuitive understanding” (53).

Open City by Teju Cole

June 11th, 2021

I’d been meaning to read Open City since it came out in 2011; I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to it. Reading this in 2021 was interesting: we’re nearly two decades on from 9/11 now, and lines about disaster and epidemics have a different resonance, after 2020: at one point the narrator thinks about how “We are the first humans who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live an a secure world”; shortly after that, talking about epidemics in Europe in centuries past, he says this: “What could it mean to live with such a possibility, with people of all ages dropping dead around you all the time? The thing is that we have no idea” (pp 200-201).

The prose style of Open City is slightly distancing; the matter-of-fact way that the narrator, Julius, talks about his daily activities and memories keeps the reader at arm’s length: his tone is measured, whether he’s talking about his estranged mother or his dead father or a patient (he’s in the last year of a psychiatry fellowship) or a museum he’s visited. But that measured style has a fluidity, too, and the pacing of the book’s sentences feels like the pace of walking, of Julius’s walks through New York City (where he lives) and Brussels (which he visits). I finished reading the book several days ago, and there are parts of it that are still very much in my head: Julius’s visit to the American Folk Art Museum (in its old 53rd St. location) and how it feels to be in a museum and lose track of time, or the different kind of slippery relationship to time the narrative seems to have when Julius gets his shoes shined and the Haitian bootblack is apparently talking about being in the city during the yellow fever epidemic (which, though he doesn’t mention it, was in the late 1700s/early 1800s). (Or maybe Julius is imagining that story, imagining the story of a Black man’s arrival in the city hundreds of years before he arrived from Nigeria, hundreds of years before the Liberian man he talks to when he visits a Queens detention center with his (now-ex) girlfriend’s church group.) Elsewhere in the book, Julius considers the city’s past, the layers of history and the city’s connections to slavery: the African Burial Ground downtown amidst office buildings, the Customs House; Bowling Green.

I like the parts of this book where Julius is walking and thinking, like this, from early in the book, when he’s talking about the experience of his New York walks: “Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks” (pp 6-7). And this, too: “Every decision—where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought in front of an abandoned building, whether to watch the sun set over New Jersey, or to lope in the shadows on the East Side, looking across to Queens—was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom” (p 7). I also love that the city Julius is walking through is my city, that I was here when the Folk Art Museum was next to MoMA, when the Time Warner Center had just opened, when Tower Records closed. I think this will be a book to reread, and I’m curious what different things I’ll notice when I do: there’s a lot going on in this novel, in satisfying and subtle ways.

“The world is suffused with perfect nonsense. Sometimes it is completely implausible.” So says the narrator of The Nose, which is, I think, the first thing I’ve read by Gogol. It’s been a while since I’ve read any of the Melville House “Art of the Novella” series – I used to get them at the library fairly often (their small size and good design always called out to me from the New Books shelf) and I was pleased to find, in these days where library service near me is still grab & go (hold pick-up only/no browsing), that my library has the ebook version of some of them. I like how the book presents the novella and then some other stuff—including, in this volume, other Gogol quotes about noses, some excerpts from Tristram Shandy, a letter from Gogol to his mother, and an excerpt from Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect.”

But back to The Nose. One morning Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber, gets up in the morning and slices into a loaf of bread his wife has just baked and finds “…a nose!” “Not only that, but a familiar nose” – the nose of one of his customers. Ivan Yakovlevich is distressed, and worried he’ll be charged with some crime; he wants to get rid of the nose ASAP but he isn’t sure how to manage it. After some difficulty, he manages to toss it into the river over the railing of a bridge.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in St. Petersburg, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov wakes up, looks at himself in the mirror, and finds that “where his nose should be was nothing but a perfectly flat patch of skin.” Kovalyov is dismayed: this is not going to be good for his job prospects, or for his chances with the ladies (with whom he very much likes to flirt). But wait, things get weirder: as Kovalyov is on his way to report his missing nose to the chief of police, he sees an “inconceivable sight” – his nose, somehow in the form of “a hunched gentleman in uniform,” getting out of a carriage. He follows it and confronts it: “it seems to me that you should know your place,”he says. But no: “The nose looked down his nose at the major, his brow furrowed.” “I am here on my own,” the nose eventually replies. Kovalyov is distracted by a pretty girl, and thinks he’ll flirt with her, but then remembers his condition; meanwhile, his nose leaves. We then follow Kovalyov as he considers further ways he might get his nose back (placing an ad in the newspaper? appealing to a police inspector?) and ponders how it might have gone away to begin with (a curse, placed on him by the mother of a lady he’s been flirting with but hasn’t proposed to?). But wait, things get worse: when Kovalyov is reunited with his nose, he can’t get it back on his face. Meanwhile, his nose becomes the talk of the town: there are endless rumors about where it takes its walks and spends its time, and everyone wants to catch a glimpse of it. And then, as suddenly as this whole thing started, it ends: Kovalyov wakes up one morning with his nose back where it belongs, after which he goes back to his usual life, “parading around town as though nothing had ever happened.”

I suspect I’d get the satire of this more if I knew more about Russia in the 1830s, but nevertheless this was a fun and funny read. It’s funny how Kovalyov is more worried about his chances with the ladies than anything else, and funny how the nose in uniform is able to pass itself off as a government official, higher in rank than Kovalyov. And Kovalyov’s interactions with a newspaper clerk, who refuses to place an ad in the paper about Kovalyov’s missing nose, are really great.

Further reading: this piece by Bob Blaisdell in the Los Angeles Review of Books makes me want to read more Gogol. I also like this post on the Melville House blog by Jonathan Gibbs, who doesn’t like this novella, and Ian Dreiblatt (the translator), who very much does.

At the start of The Enchanted April it’s a rainy day in London (the kind of day where you look out the window and see “extremely horrible sooty rain falling steadily on the hurrying umbrellas and splashing omnibuses”), and Lotty Wilkins, who is not looking forward to finishing her shopping and going home to have dinner with her husband, finds herself captivated by an ad in the newspaper. The ad is for a castle for rent in Italy, furnished, for the month of April. She’s so entranced by it that she mentions the ad to a woman she knows by sight from church, who has been looking at the same newspaper. That woman, Rose Arbuthnot, thinks of herself as too practical (and too busy with her charity work) to consider a holiday abroad. But when Lotty suggests that they write to inquire about it, Rose goes along with her, and they end up renting the castle—and advertising in the paper for two other women to join them to share the cost. And so Lotty and Rose (whose husband writes books about “the mistresses of kings”, which Rose finds shameful and sinful) go to Italy, along with an older woman, Mrs. Fisher (whose life mostly consists of thinking fondly of the past, especially of the various Victorian eminences she knew when she was young) and a younger woman, Lady Caroline Dester (who is very beautiful, and is tired of being pursued relentlessly by various men, and wants some time alone to clear her head).

I like the mix of humor and sweetness and beauty and seriousness in this book; I like the descriptions of the castle gardens (which are abundantly, riotously in bloom) and the way the characters realize various unhelpful patterns they’ve been stuck in, and the way that being away from their usual lives opens up space for those patterns to change. In her introduction to the edition I read, Cathleen Schine writes that this is “a novel about beauty, and it is beautiful; it is about the senses, and it is sensual; but, most important, it is a novel about happiness that makes one happy,” and yeah, that sums it up.

Highlights for me included the part where Lotty and Rose (who don’t speak any Italian) are picked up from the train station in a carriage, and find themselves doubting whether they’re being taken to the castle or abducted (“Ought they to pay him? Not, they thought, if they were going to be robbed and perhaps murdered. Surely on such an occasion one did not pay”), the complexity of the castle’s newfangled bathtub, and the last few chapters, where everything comes out right in a way that feels like a Shakespearean comedy (in the best possible way).