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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

September 28th, 2019

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

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

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

Or this, describing someone’s bedroom:

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

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

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

The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe

September 7th, 2019

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

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

The New Me by Halle Butler

September 7th, 2019

The short chapters of The New Me are a mix of first-person narration by Millie, who’s thirty and working as a temp in Chicago, and third-person narration about various people whose lives intersect with hers—her supervisor at work, other women at the office, her downstairs neighbor. Nearly all the characters are female: there’s some conversation about Millie’s ex-boyfriend; there’s a dude at the party; there’s the downstairs neighbor’s male significant other; there’s Millie’s landlord: but basically all the interiority in the story is women’s interiority (I think a brief paragraph focused on Millie’s landlord might be the one exception). One of the cover blurbs, from Catherine Lacey, describes Halle Butler as “a first-rate satirist of the horror show being sold to us as Modern Femininity,” and yeah, that: the inside of these women’s minds, even the ones who seem to have their shit together in a way that Millie doesn’t, is a pretty awful place to be.

So yeah, Millie: as mentioned, she definitely does not have her shit together. It’s been a year since she and her boyfriend of four years broke up; she lives alone (with financial help from her parents) in an apartment she only sporadically cleans; she works a mindless/thankless temp job in the back offices of a design showroom; she doesn’t really do much other than work and smoke and watch Forensic Files—sometimes she drinks with her sort-of friend, Sarah, but they time they spend together doesn’t seem particularly rewarding or fulfilling to either of them, with both of them complaining about their lives/waiting for the next gap in the conversation to say what they want to say, not actually connecting at all. But Millie has all these ideas about how things could be different if she ends up getting hired on permanently: maybe with more money she’ll be more stable and she’ll also be a nicer person. Maybe she’ll be less judgmental; maybe she’ll go to yoga classes. But other characters in the book who do have more stability don’t necessarily seem totally fulfilled: a girl at work who just got a puppy is frustrated by her friends, too; Millie’s downstairs neighbor with the clean apartment wishes her partner wouldn’t talk about work all the time/struggles to listen to him; Millie’s supervisor isn’t taken seriously by her bosses. Everyone’s stuck in their own heads, though Millie’s particular combination of self-loathing and judgmental-ness is the most extreme.

This was a fast read that was simultaneously satisfying and really uncomfortable: the messiness of Millie and her life are so vivid; her anxiety and dread are described so well as to feel kind of contagious. When I first read Jia Tolentino’s piece about this book in the New Yorker, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the book or not, and while I’m glad I did, I’m also glad I’m done with it.

State of the Union by Nick Hornby

September 2nd, 2019

I like the premise of State of the Union: A Marriage in Ten Parts a whole lot: in ten short chapters, set over the course of ten weeks, we see a married couple, Louise and Tom, having a drink at a pub before their weekly couples’ therapy appointment. They’re both in their forties; they have two kids; she’s a gerontologist; he’s an out-of-work music critic. While you learn early on what precipitated these counseling sessions (she had an affair), you also learn, as the book progresses, that there’s obviously more to it than that.

The text is mostly dialogue, and I wonder how my experience would have been different if I’d watched it in its SundanceTV version with Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd rather than reading it. (Part of the reason that I picked up this book is that my boyfriend saw the SundanceTV production at the Tribeca Film Festival back in May and enjoyed it.) I obviously can’t know, but I wonder if seeing it on-screen would have made it feel more character-driven rather than idea-driven, and I wonder if that would have made me like it more or less.

The book felt very idea-driven to me, in a satisfying way: every week Tom and Louise are talking not just about their specific situation and how they ended up where they are, but also about marriage more generally: about different metaphors for marriage and how those can cause problems, about what different people assume a marriage is or means. Is it about sexual exclusivity and sexual desire? Is it about having a family together? What does it mean/does it matter if two people who are married to one another can’t imagine themselves being friends if they weren’t married? Is a marriage like a computer, i.e. a complicated machine that you shouldn’t take apart because you might not be able to put it back together? If you do take it apart, should you try to put it back together even if you can’t make it the same as it was originally? Is being a couple about being “two against the world,” or is it about some other kind of teamwork? What does it mean when someone says they have doubts about a relationship that they’ve been in for over a decade? Is there such a thing as a “new start” in a relationship? What’s the goal of marriage, or is that the wrong question to ask?

Which isn’t to say that this book is all seriousness—it’s also quite funny. I like how Tom and Louise watch other couples leave their therapist’s house (which is just across the street from the pub) and speculate about those couples’ lives; I like how they find out big or small things about each other that make them kind of appalled, and how they react; I like how they joke with each other and work on cryptic crosswords together; I like the pace and humor of their back-and-forth.

Fox 8 by George Saunders

August 30th, 2019

I read Fox 8 over the course of a single day, starting it on my morning commute and finishing it on my evening commute, and aw, what a sweet/funny/sad/hopeful little book this is. It’s a fable narrated by a fox who has learned human language by listening to a woman read bedtime stories to her kids; he’s entranced by “the Yuman voice, making werds” (3) and by human achievements generally: houses, cars, stereos, malls, all the things people can build. But it turns out people, and the things they build, can cause problems: a mall being built disrupts Fox 8’s habitat, and when he and a friend set out in search of food, things go tragically wrong thanks to human cruelty and callousness, after which Fox 8 gets lost and finds himself wandering the world, unable to find his den-mates. He doesn’t give up hope, though, and after managing to find a new life for himself, he ends the book by offering a piece of advice to humankind, or I guess I should say Yumankind: “If you want your Storys to end happy, try being niser” (49).

I really like Fox 8’s narrative voice, phonetic spelling and awkward syntax and all, and found so many things in this book really charming: how bothered Fox 8 is by the “fawlse” depictions of foxes, bears, and owls in the stories he hears the mom reading to her kids; his conversation with a dog in the mall parking lot; his tendency to daydream. I also like Chelsea Cardinal’s illustrations a whole lot: her line drawings, with the foxes in red and most other stuff in black, complement the text really nicely. (You can see some of those drawings on her Instagram: I love the one with the tree on the left page and the foxes on the right, and that gorgeous two-page spread of Fox 8 under a cloud-filled sky, surrounded by grass and trees, with the city off in the distance.)

I expected this book about food (which was published in 1825, and whose author was born in 1755) to be much drier and less funny than it actually was. In her introduction, Anne Drayton (who translated the book) describes it as “a unique combination of recipes and aphorisms, reflections and reminiscences, history and philosophy,” and that sums it up pretty well (12). I like this aphorism, which is seventh in a list of twenty at the start of the book: “the pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss” (13).

Early in the book, Brillat-Savarin talks about the senses in general, and then the sense of taste in particular: he talks about the relationship between smell and taste, and about taste as being the sense “which, on the whole, gives us the maximum of delight” (45). He then goes on to talk about various kinds of food, both in terms of where it comes from and how it’s prepared and what it’s like. He talks about how chickens are overfed and overfattened: I didn’t know that was a thing before modern factory farms. (He also notes that “It must be admitted that this unnatural rotundity is also delicious,” which cracked me up (74).) He talks about going hunting in Connecticut in 1794 and shooting a wild turkey; he talks about game and fish and truffles and sugar. He talks about coffee and ways of making it, and hot chocolate and ways of making it. There’s a whole chapter on “the theory of frying,” and another on thirst.

Later, Brillat-Savarin moves on to talk specifically about gourmandism, which he defines as “an impassioned and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste” (132). It’s an all-around good thing, he argues: it’s pleasurable, and good for the economy (he talks about the Napoleonic Wars as having given Brits, Germans, and others a taste for French food and wine), and good for social life, too (he talks about the pleasures of two married gourmands, who get to eat good food together and talk about good food together and therefore always have something to do and something to talk about). He also talks about the science of eating and living, as it was understood in his time: there are sections on digestion, rest, sleep, dreams, obesity, and thinness, and it was interesting to read his early arguments in favor of a low-carb diet for weight loss (though he doesn’t call it that: he just says to avoid potatoes, flour, and sugar to lose weight, or to eat those same things if you want to gain weight). He then moves on to a history of cooking, and also talks about restaurants as a “completely new and inadequately recognized institution” (266). The end of the book consists of a whole section of miscellaneous anecdotes and recipes, some of which felt too random, but some of which were fun. (At one point he describes being at an inn with some companions and seeing “a very handsome leg of mutton at which the ladies from sheer force of habit darted extremely coquettish glances” (303).)

I liked all the little bits of food history in this book, and I liked its humor, and it was fun to think of the similarities and differences between Brillat-Savarin’s time and now. At one point when talking about chocolate, he talks about how vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon are the only things good for flavoring it (as opposed to things like pepper, ginger, and aniseed, which he says were tried and abandoned): I’d love for him to be able to go to a fancy 21st-century chocolate shop and try all the different flavor combinations.