My boyfriend often teases me about how I like really little books, and I always protest that I like books of varying lengths/sizes, but there is something appealing about a little book that’s easy to slip into a purse. The Door in the Wall by H.G. Wells is a Penguin Mini Modern Classic, and it’s little indeed: I read it in the course of a late afternoon/evening, mostly on the subway. It consists of three short stories: “The Door in the Wall” (from 1911), “The Sea-Raiders” (from 1897), and “The Moth” (from 1895). The first and last stories are somewhat thematically similar, in that they both deal with ghosts/hauntings, though they’re quite different in feel.

“The Sea-Raiders”, which I like the least, is about giant cephalopods wreaking havoc on the English coast, but even though I found it less engaging than the other two, it wasn’t terrible. There’s a sense of danger (made slightly less vivid by the third-person narration, but still) and also of scientific interest/curiosity, and also a sense of the menace of the unknown depths of the ocean, and I like the interplay of those elements. I also like this description of the cephalopods:

The creatures, it seems like most deep-sea organisms, were phosphorescent, and they had been floating, five fathoms deep or so, like creatures of moonshine through the blackness of the water, their tentacles retracted and as if asleep, rolling over and over, and moving slowly in a wedge-like formation towards the south-east. (46)

In “The Moth”, meanwhile, we learn about a lengthy feud between two entomologists. There’s humor in this story, with the entomologists publishing journal articles and replies (maybe this is funnier because I work in academic publishing?) and dissing each other in late-1800s style: at one point one of them “suggested that [the other one’s] microscope was as defective as his power of observation” (50). When one of them dies, though, the other finds himself adrift without his old nemesis, and haunted by a moth that reminds him of his dead scientific rival, at which point the story takes a turn from funny to dark (in a good way).

My favorite of these stories, though, is “The Door in the Wall”, which is the longest of the three and feels the most well-developed, plot-wise/idea-wise/style-wise. It’s a portal fantasy/parable about the dangers of either following or not following your desires, depending on how you look at it, and it’s narrated by a man whose childhood schoolmate, who grew up to be a very successful politician, has just died unexpectedly. We learn about how the man told the narrator about passing through a door into a garden in another world when he was a young child, and about how that garden/world then proceeded to haunt him for his whole life. The description of the garden is really pleasing, as is the narrator’s friend’s description of how he used to amuse himself on the way to school by trying to find a different way to get there than the usual one, getting himself lost on purpose and trying to find his way without being late: it’s like a schoolkid’s psychogeographical experiment, from long before the Situationists.

The City in the Middle of the Night is set in the future on January, a tidally-locked planet settled by humans after Earth has become uninhabitable. It’s a harsh world: half frozen night, half boiling day, with a narrow twilight range where people live in the two main cities, Xiosphant and Argelos, one of which is rule-bound and repressive, the other of which is a perpetual carnival. People aren’t the only life-forms on January, though: there are creatures they call giant squid, which live below the ice on the Sea of Murder, and hunting predators they call bison, and large creatures they call crocodiles, which turn out to have a culture and civilization of their own that long predates the arrival of humans.

The City in the Middle of the Night alternates between sections narrated by Sophie, a Xiosphanti student who, early in the book, is banished to the night but survives, and sections about Mouth, a smuggler who grew up in a nomadic civilization that was suddenly and catastrophically wiped out. The two stories intertwine, and we also learn about a bigger cast of characters: Sophie’s roommate Bianca, who’s part of Xiosphant’s elite but says she wants to make the city more just, Mouth’s companion Alyssa, who grew up in Argelos and is ready to be done with smuggling, and more human and non-human characters, including the crocodiles, who end up saving Sophie when she’s banished to the night. Sophie starts calling them the Gelet, a Xiosphanti word with connotations of building and exploring, once she learns that they have a whole technologically-advanced civilization, and it’s their city that’s the city of the title.

I liked the Gelet city most of all, I think, but I found this whole book really compelling: I liked the pace of the alternating/intertwined storylines, and all the ideas the book explores: racism and colonialism and trust and communication and memory, friendship and romance, being an outcast, being a survivor, climate change, the interconnectedness of everything.

Spring by Ali Smith

May 20th, 2019

Spring, which is the third book in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, is one of those books with two intersecting storylines where I was initially sad when the perspective shifted, because I liked the first storyline so much and wasn’t sure how the rest of the book could compare. But this is Ali Smith, so I needn’t have worried: the rest of the book won me over. Like Autumn and Winter, Spring is very of the moment: most of the book’s action takes place in October 2018, though there are memories of earlier years and little glimpses of certain characters’ futures. The first storyline is centered on a film and television director in his late sixties named Richard, who’s at a train station somewhere in the north of Scotland. He’s frustrated with his work, and grieving for his best friend/work collaborator, an older woman named Paddy. In the second storyline, we meet Brit, who works at an immigration removal centre, and Florence, a twelve-year-old girl who brings a bit of magic realism to the book with her uncanny ability to move through the world with ease, getting people to do what she wants. In addition to the narratives of these storylines we get other things: bits of writing by Florence, part of a script for a terrible film project Richard has been working on with a writer he can’t stand, lists of things Brit has learned at her work, a letter from Paddy to Richard, postcards from Richard to Paddy. There are also things about Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke (the terrible film project is about them) and Tacita Dean (whose work Richard sees at a gallery show) and of course about spring and hope and life and change. We read about “the thinnest of green shoots” splitting a rock, and about “transformation. How we’re changed by things. Or made to change, Or have to learn to change” (9, 276). We read that life “can change over time, what looks fixed and pinned and closed in a life can change and open, and what’s unthinkable and impossible at one time can will be easily possible in another” (248).

There are a lot of great things in this book, but one of my favorite things is how Richard has an “imaginary daughter”: he’s divorced, and estranged from his ex-wife and their child, but Paddy at one point suggests he imagine his daughter as being with him—suggests that he take this imagined daughter to galleries and plays and on holiday, and send Paddy postcards as he does. I love that Richard does send postcards to Paddy, over the course of decades, and I love how the image of the postcard recurs at certain points in the book, and I love how Richard uses his imaginary daughter as a reference point, and I really love this, from after Richard sees Tacita Dean’s chalk drawings of clouds (one of which, Why cloud, is reproduced in the back of the book):

They’d made space to breathe possible, up against something breathtaking. After them, the real clouds above London looked different, like they were something you could rad as breathing space. This made something happen too to the buildings below them, the traffic, the ways in which the roads intersected, the ways in which people were passing each other in the street, all of it part of a structure that didn’t know it was a structure, but was one all the same. (79)

French Exit is described on the title page as “a tragedy of manners,” which is apt. It’s a dark/funny/darkly funny novel about Frances Price, a (formerly) very rich widow who, at the age of sixty-five, has burned through all the money in her husband’s estate and finds herself having to move to a friend’s apartment in Paris in a hurry. It’s also the story of her son, Malcolm, who has lived with his mother since he left boarding school at the age of twelve, and their cat, Small Frank, whose body houses the spirit of Franklin, Frances’s late and not-at-all-missed husband/Malcolm’s father. They all move to Paris, though Malcolm is engaged to a woman in New York, and though Malcolm has no idea what they’re going to do once they get there, and along they way they interact with an amusing cast of characters, including but not limited to a medium, a wine merchant, a private investigator, and another American widow living in Paris.

Somehow Patrick deWitt makes his characters simultaneously awful and likable: I saw him read the first chapter of this book at a bookstore in Brooklyn last year, and the quirky humor of that first chapter made me want to read the rest of the book. That humor is present throughout the book, though it ends up being moving, too, especially in the interactions between Frances and Malcolm, and in the stories they both tell about their unhappy childhoods and fraught parent-child relationships. If you’re looking for straight-up realistic fiction, this is probably not the book for you, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and are in the mood for an odd family story, this is an excellent read.

At first, I was worried that Conversations with Friends was going to be the kind of novel where a) cheating is a plot point but b) no one ever considers the possibility of non-monogamy. I’m happy to report that it is not that kind of novel, and also happy to report that it’s really really good. This book was a delight to read from the start, even with my initial misgivings about cheating-as-plot-point. It’s narrated in the first person by Frances, a 21-year-old university student in Dublin, and it’s about her best friend Bobbi (who’s also her ex-girlfriend), their new mutual friend Melissa (a writer and photographer who sees them perform spoken-word poetry together and says she wants to do a profile of them), and Melissa’s husband, Nick, an actor who’s been having a tough time with himself/in his marriage. Melissa and Nick are a bit older than Frances and Bobbi (Melissa is 37; Nick is 32), and their moneyed/married life is something that both attracts and repels Frances (whom Bobbi describes as a communist, and who talks about not wanting to work for money). Frances’s voice is a lot of what carries the book, but it’s not just her voice: I like the way that the narrative includes IM conversations or texts and emails, the way that it’s full of the exchanges of Frances’s daily life, in whatever format, as well as her thoughts and feelings. I like the book’s sense of humor, too, and the way that it captures things people do—looking at Facebook videos, looking for more information about new friends/acquaintances, looking back at past conversations. (About Melissa, shortly after meeting her and Nick, Frances thinks this: “I didn’t know how long she had been married to Nick. Neither of them was famous enough for that kind of information to be online” (12).)

A lot of the book ends up being about Frances’s feelings for/relationship with Nick, though it’s also about her friendship/relationship with Bobbi, and her identity as a writer, and her family, and families/relationships/friendships in general, and being young and not knowing what to do and figuring things out as you go along. Frances is difficult/prickly/endearing: she’s smart and independent and uncomfortable with emotion and vulnerability, and I love her voice/the tone of the narration, the way there are lyrical moments that are beautiful without being too ostentatious. I love sentences like this: “A bumblebee flew through the open window and cast a comma of a shadow on the wallpaper before flying out again” (98). Or this: “We were driving along by the harbor, where the ships implied themselves as concepts behind the fog” (132). Or this: “I loved when he was available to me like this, when our relationship was like a Word document that we were writing and editing together, or a long private joke that nobody else could understand” (178). Or this: “Lights sparkled on the river and buses ran past like boxes of light, carrying faces in the windows” (252).

In an Absent Dream is the fourth book in Seanan McGuire’s “Wayward Children” series, and gives us the backstory of Lundy, a character from the first book. Lundy, like the other characters in this series, goes through a magic portal to another world when she’s a child. The world she goes to is the Goblin Market, and she can actually keep going back and forth between it and our world—until she turns eighteen. When the book opens, it’s 1964 and Lundy (full name: Katherine Victoria Lundy) is eight, though we also see a scene from a few years earlier, when she turned six. She has an older brother and a younger sister, and her parents are fine, though her dad’s job as the principal of the elementary school she attends makes things hard for her: no one wants to be friends with the principal’s daughter. But Lundy is happy to entertain herself: she’s a bookish kid, fine with her own company or that of adults. At the start of summer vacation when she’s in second grade, though, something happens: she’s walking home, lost in a book, and ends up in the woods instead of in her neighborhood. She knows where she is/it’s a path she’s been on before—but now there’s a tree in the middle of the path that definitely wasn’t there before. And in the tree is a door, carved with images of fruit and the words “Be Sure.” When she goes through the door, there’s a hallway, which introduces her to the Goblin Market’s rules, and then she emerges into the Market itself, a place full of human and non-human creatures that feels like “a carnival and a farmer’s market and a craft fair” all at once (41).

At the Market, Lundy meets a girl her age, who says to call her Moon, and who says she’ll take her to the Archivist, who will explain the Market’s rules. The Market, it turns out, is based on barter and the idea of “fair value,” which the Market itself magically enforces: if you don’t give fair value, you’ll go into debt, and if you go into debt, you can lose yourself in a way I won’t describe because it’s impossible to do so without being spoilery.

I liked reading about the Market, which the Archivist describes as “a place where dreamers go when they don’t fit in with the dreams their homes think worth dreaming” (56-57). But if the last book in this series felt too plot-driven to me, this one was the opposite: Lundy has adventures in the Market but they’re described in asides; most of what we see is her daily life in the Market, or at home, as she travels back and forth between the two worlds. Daily life in the Market is interesting, though: I mean, I love this:

There was a woman in a wheelchair with a shaggy golden dog whose fur flickered around the edges, like it was burning without being consumed. There was a man with four arms, weaving ribbons into beautiful ropes with the speed and ease of a lifetime spent in long practice. There was a centaur of a sort, half human and half unicorn, a single spiraling horn rising from his forehead, taking a tray of meat pies out of an oven large enough to hold an entire bakery. (64)

And of course, the traveling back and forth has its drama too. The first time Lundy goes to the Market she’s an eight-year-old kid who has disappeared on her way home from school: her mom thinks she’s been kidnapped. After she disappears again, when she’s 10, she’s sent to boarding school when she comes back, but she’s determined to go back to the Market, to be with Moon and the Archivist again (and she does, though if you’ve read Every Heart a Doorway you may remember how things end up). The later part of the book, when Lundy’s older and wrestling more with the tension between what she wants and what others want from her, was more compelling to me than the beginning, and this definitely isn’t my favorite book in the series—but I’m glad I read it and I’m sure I’ll pick up the next one when it comes out.

Crudo by Olivia Laing

January 19th, 2019

Near the end of Crudo, the book’s protagonist, Kathy, is having a conversation about plagiarism, which doesn’t concern her, and we get this: “You take what you find, it’s all material, I mean what is art if it’s not plagiarising the world?” (121). Which is a pretty good thesis statement for the novel as a whole, which is full of bits of actual life: people’s tweets, bits of news headlines, details from Kathy Acker’s life and quotes from her writing, and details from Olivia Laing’s life, too: moments from the summer of 2017, twined with fiction to make a novel about the anxieties of that particular moment, both globally/politically and personally for the protagonist (who is on the verge of marriage when the book opens and not sure she’s suited to it). It was interesting to read this book so soon after I read Laing’s The Lonely City: the proximity in time of my reading experiences made the points of overlap between the texts stand out to me—little things like references to Basquiat, or the Alphabet City location of Ninth Street Espresso, but also bigger themes of how people relate to each other.

I liked both books, but I liked Crudo more, the style and pacing of it, the narrative playfulness, the prickliness of the protagonist. (From page 2: “Was Kathy nice? Unclear.”) So, plotwise: Kathy is 40; Kathy is getting married. Kathy and her husband-to-be are in Italy together, and then in England, where they live. They are preparing for their wedding, and Kathy is preparing for a trip to New York, and it kind of feels like the world might end. I like how the narrative looks at Kathy’s personal happiness and how it contrasts with her unease with the state of the world and also looks at her personal unease, the question not only of how to be happy/in love when it seems like the world is falling apart, but also the question of how to be happy/in love when one is perhaps a difficult person, and when solitude/loneliness has been, or has seemed to be, a key part of one’s identity. I like passages like this:

You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realise how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room. You’re selfish and rigid and absorbed, you’re like an infant. (65-66)

Bilgewater by Jane Gardam

January 10th, 2019

Early in Jane Gardam’s 1977 novel, Bilgewater, Marigold Daisy Green describes herself as a “strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea” (11). She’s good at chess and math, started reading quite late (but loved being read to, and quotes Keats and Chaucer and Coleman and Blake), is farsighted, and lives at the boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire where her father works. Her father is Bill, so she’s Bill’s Daughter, or Bilgewater, and this book is the story of her last year of high school, in which she’s seventeen and doesn’t much understand other people or herself, until, eventually, she does. We see bits of her life at school, where she’s surprised, partway through the year, by the return of Grace, a girl she was friends with when they were young who’s been away at boarding school. And we see bits of her life at home, where she lives with her sweet/absent-minded father (her mother died when she was born), and where we see her interactions with her father and his friends and the boys at the school, who are at first just there but then become a source of romantic interest/possibility.

I like the style of Bilgewater’s narrative voice, how she describes people and situations in ways that are funny but also concise and illuminating. She describes Paula, for example, as “always running and usually towards you” (19). Of the school’s headmaster’s wife, after Bilgewater sees her with one of the older schoolboys in the town’s lovers’ lane: “She was given to sofas and thinking. Some people said that she suffered from melancholia, others from her husband” (35). That said, I found the start of the book somewhat slow-going, but am glad I stuck with it: partway through, Bilgewater’s romantic concerns/travails become central to the story, and the mix of teen angst and ridiculous/humorous situations, which I don’t want to spoil by describing, totally works for me.

My reading experience of How to be both felt slower and more scattered than I would like—I started it while getting ready to move, and finished it after moving, and there was a lot of packing and unpacking boxes and generally being stressed in between—but it’s Ali Smith, and I pretty much always think she’s great. This is a dual-narrative novel in which the two sections can be read in either order, and the book was printed so that some copies have one section first, while others start with the other section. Mine started with the “camera” section, which focuses on George (short for Georgia), who’s an English teenager whose mother unexpectedly died a few months before the story starts. George remembers a trip she took to Italy with her mother and brother, and remembers, in particular, the frescoes they saw at Palazzo Schifanoia. (A detail from one of the scenes in the fresco is what prompted the trip to begin with.) We see George’s daily life: her experience of loss and grief, the way she thinks about her mother, her relationship with her father and brother, conversations she has with a school counsellor, and her relationship with a girl from school, H (short for Helena). Then comes the “eyes” section, which is narrated by the ghost/spirit of Francesco del Cossa, the artist who made those frescoes George and her mom saw. del Cossa is unexpectedly conscious, and in England (and watching George, in fact—they’re somehow tied together). We get del Cossa’s memories of working as a painter and living in Italy in the 1400s and also del Cossa’s observations of England, and of George.

I like the bothness of this book a lot, the way it looks at past and present, art and life, death and life, grief and love, and other dualities besides, and I like how it’s full of Ali Smith’s usual combination of playfulness and empathy and grace and intelligence. I’m glad I read the “camera” section of the book first: it’s more of a straightforward narrative, and while I probably liked the “eyes” section more, I might have felt adrift if I’d opened the book to it, and I like the way that the start of the “camera” section raises questions that are very relevant to the “eyes” section. (George and her mother in the car in Italy have this conversation, where George’s mom is telling her to imagine a hypothetical situation where George is an artist asking for more money: “Is it happening now or in the past? George says. Is the artist a woman or a man?” and then: “Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other. Who says? Why must it? her mother says” (9).) I also like the way this book explores different aspects of paintings, and of stories, and of what art does/how art works.

This book, which was originally published in Japan in 1988, contains two pieces, a novella and a story, or a novella and a shorter novella. “Kitchen”, the first piece, is the longer of the two; “Moonlight Shadow” is shorter. They’re both about love and loss and grief and loneliness and hope and connection, and I think when I first picked this book up, I read through both pieces too quickly and didn’t fully appreciate them. On a reread, I paid more attention to the things I liked about them, especially the things I liked about “Kitchen,” and enjoyed the book as a whole more.

“Kitchen” is narrated by Mikage, who was raised by her grandparents after her parents both died young. Her grandfather died when she was about to start junior high; when the book opens she’s been going to university, but has been taking time off after her grandmother’s death. Her life becomes intertwined with that of a boy named Yuichi who’s a year younger and works at a flower shop her grandmother used to frequent; after Mikage’s grandmother’s death, Mikage ends up going to live with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, for a time, then moves out, then reconnects with Yuichi after he experiences a loss of his own. A lot of the book is about the distance between people, and how that distance is magnified by grief, and also about the tension between the inner world and the outer one in general: there are lots of passages where Mikage is looking out a window, and that sense of the self being separated from the rest of the world by more than just glass keeps recurring. And then there’s the kitchen, the room of the book’s title: it’s Mikage’s favorite place, and it’s a place of warmth and comfort and food and the possibility of connection. Mikage finds herself feeling heartened by just the sounds and steam from a kitchen she passes on her way home on a night when she’s feeling sad and adrift; she and Yuichi bond, when they reconnect, after she cooks him an elaborate meal.

A lot of the passages about looking out windows are really pleasing to me, like this, when Mikage is looking out the window on her first night at Yuichi and Eriko’s apartment: “Suspended in the dim light before the window overlooking the magnificent tenth-floor view, the plants breathed softly, resting. By now the rain had stopped, and the atmosphere, sparkling, replete with moisture, refracted the glittering light splendidly” (16).

Or this: “The sky outside was a dull gray. Waves of clouds were being pushed around by the wind with amazing force. In this world there is no place for sadness. No place, not one” (23).

Or this: “I watched the rows of windows in the tall building across the street from the bus stop, suspended, emitting a pretty blue light. The people moving behind those windows, the elevators going up and down, all of it, sparkling silently, seemed to melt into the half-darkness” (33).

“Moonlight Shadow” is about love and loss and hope, too: the narrator, Satsuki, talks about how she’s recently taken up jogging as a way to cope with the sudden death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi, who was only twenty. The same accident that took his life also killed his younger brother Hiiragi’s girlfriend; we see the ways Hiiragi grieves and tries to cope, too. While jogging one morning, Satsuki meets a girl who’s around her own age, or a little older; the girl startles her and Satsuki drops her thermos off the bridge that she runs to every day, which separates her neighborhood from Hitoshi’s. The girl, Urara, tells Satsuki about a mysterious event she might be able to see at the bridge in a few days’ time. Urara, and that mysterious event, end up bringing a sense of closure and hope to Satsuki, and maybe to Hiiragi too. It’s a pleasing little piece, though overall I think I liked the length and descriptiveness of “Kitchen” more.