learn by going

Reading with a felonious mind, cross-genre. Also, I read contemporary poetry, and so should you.

DNF: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Night Film - Marisha Pessl

I've recently made a new rule for myself to avoid purchasing or attempting to read a book by a new (to me) author if I've already purchased but not read another work by the same author. Pessl has a new book coming out this year, but I own both Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Night Film and had not read either. I decided to read Night Film first, as I remembered being intrigued by its synopsis and the first several pages I read.

 

I understood it to be literary fiction, but 50 pages in, it felt more like typical genre fiction--not that I never read genre fiction--specifically, noir, which I typically dislike. The protagonist felt like a cross between Sam Spade and Mikael Blomqvist: a disgraced journalist who gets caught up in a mystery involving a reclusive film director. I think I need to stop being seduced by books about filmmakers; this is the second I DNF.

 

The prose got on my nerves fast, especially the overuse of italics. I wondered if perhaps this book intended to do what Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island does, which is exaggerate genre tropes and style for the purpose of representing a character's point of view. After skimming some reviews, it didn't seem so, and i wasn't willing to continue reading to find out.

NaPoWriMo Update

We're a week into April (and it just got cold and snowy again where I live: April is the cruelest month), which means I'm a week into National/Global Poetry Writing Month, and it's time for an update.

 

I've successfully drafted a poem each day: hooray! I made a note to myself early on that I would suppress my perfectionism and edit after this whole month is done. Yesterday was the first day when I really felt the poem was crap, but I already have thoughts on how to at least make it okay. Other than that, it hasn't been much of a challenge to write every day. On the one hand, that's great; on the other, it shows me how lazy I tend to be otherwise!

 

I also vowed to post about poetry I'm reading. Since I was unfamiliar with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith's work, I found some online, read a poem evoking David Bowie (I'm a big fan), and promptly ordered two books, Wade in the Water (just released) and Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer.

 

Here is a link to the poem I read, from Life on Mars.

Girl in the Dark, by Anna Lyndsey

Girl in the Dark: A Memoir - Anna Lyndsey

I became interested in this book because as a migraine sufferer who hasn't always had my headaches under control or been able to reliably treat them, I would be shut up in my apartment, in the dark (or as dark as possible when I lived in Arizona), for up to 24 hours. I couldn't read or watch television or go online. I'd sleep but couldn't do so all day. I was bored and felt alone. The next day, when the pain was gone, it was like a first day out of prison or after a long illness. I'd be almost euphoric but also feel vulnerable, as sometimes I'd get rebound headaches. Thankfully, I now have medications both to reduce my headache days and to stop them before they become agonizing.

 

"Anna" has an extreme sensitivity to light that keeps her inside, in a light-tight room, not for a day but months (even years) at a time. Certain wavelengths affect her more than others, but she can't read, watch television, or use a computer. She listens to audio books, talks on the phone with others who share debilitating chronic conditions, plays mental logic games alone or with her partner or other loved ones. She understandably feels depressed and experiences suicidal ideation.

 

Yet the book itself is not depressing. There is a humor to her writing, and her strength in dealing with this condition is impressive, encouraging, and inspiring without being maudlin. She's candid about her frustrations, as when she talks with others with chronic conditions that don't limit them in all the ways she is limited and finds herself angry.

 

She's also a terrific writer; the book feels literary in its prose and structure, which includes shorter chapters ordered thematically and achronologically (in one chapter she goes through the alphabet--one of her mental games--to list all the therapies she's tried and their results). At the end of the book she explains her decisions about how to structure it and even includes a chart indicating periods when she could not leave her home at all and periods of remission when she could go out around dawn and dusk.

 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Girl in the Dark to read about is the fact that doctors refused to come to her when she could not leave her home. She corresponded with some, but knowing that house calls have been part of the medical profession in the past (and still are in some places--or for the right price) demonstrates their reluctance--not inability--to engage with patients with rare conditions like Anna's. To me, that's inexcusable and shameful.

NaPoWriMo

So November (I think?) is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I've just learned about and decided to participate in National (or Global) Poetry Writing Month (April is national poetry month in the U.S.) where the aim is to write a poem a day. Wish me luck! I am generally undisciplined and not very prolific as a poet. I figure even if I don't end up writing one for every day, I'll still write a bunch. It will be more new poems than I had on March 31st. I already wrote one today.

 

But how about also making it National Poem Reading Month? I try to always be reading poetry regularly, but most folks don't. I'm still reading Szymborska's collected and last poems. I'd be psyched to know others were reading a poem a day!

 

I'll do my best to post some lines from what I'm reading. If there's a national poetry month where you live, I'd welcome similar posts whenever that is.

 

Also, here is a link to an NPR interview with the current American Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith (whose poems I am excited to read for the first time this month), who discusses the value of poetry, especially in our rough global times.

The Animators, by Karla Rae Whitaker

The Animators - Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators struck a deep chord with me on two levels: as an artist and as best friend to a fellow artist. If you are either, you'll likely love this novel as I did.

 

Funny and engaging from the first page, The Animators starts with our narrator, Sharon, in college, where she meets the charismatic Mel Vaught. Both are aspiring animators who are into the same shit and share an aesthetic; both come from poor, rural southern U.S. backgrounds. Many of us in the arts could identify that time when we learn we're not actually outsiders, that others share our interests; college tends to be a place where we find our tribe.

 

But this is not a novel about being a college arts student. The narrative quickly brings us to a present where Sharon and Mel have made a successful indie animated feature that centers on Mel's life. They live together in New York City. Mel drinks and does a lot of drugs; she's the life of the party. Sharon...is not. She spends a lot of time and emotions angsting over her latest romantic interest, of which there are many.

 

Tension develops between the two, much of it, from Sharon's perspective, owing to Mel's lifestyle. There's a blowout, followed by a shocking, life-altering health crisis for one of them. It's a reset that leads them on a path to mining Sharon's childhood for their next project. This raises very real questions artists face about using their lives in their art in ways that may hurt loved ones. I wasn't quite satisfied by the resolution to this issue, but I appreciated its being seriously considered.

 

This book excels at depicting partnerships between women, their working lives as artists, and craft. The prose is engaging, the characters vivid, and there are some heartbreaking and harrowing moments. Even if you're not an artist or friends with one, I can't imagine Whitaker's (first!) novel not winning you over from page one.

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

White Tears - Hari Kunzru

It was difficult to read the first half or so of this book because the protagonist (Seth) and his best (and only) friend (Carter) are aggravatingly ignorant of their appropriation of black culture. They're even more offensive for thinking they're woke or genuine in their fetishistic consumption of the rarest blues, at least in Carter's case. Seth is less than sympathetic in his own distinct way; he's such a follower that he barely has a personality of his own. As little as I could bear the privileged Carter, Seth is consequently even harder for me to care about given that he follows Carter like a puppy. I don't know what to make of the fact that both have or have had mental health issues. And I don't know what to make of Seth's thing for Carter's sister.

 

I patiently waited for these guys to get some sort of comeuppance. When it came, it was a whirlwind of genres, a mishmash of past and present, a blurring of identities. Formally, stylistically, this novel took off, grabbing me by the collar. It was hard to put down. I hadn't known what to expect at the beginning, which is a gift for a reader. I do think at times the cues or signals were overdone; we could have been better trusted to follow the shifts in time and perspective. But what a ride.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

It took me almost four months to read Pachinko. As I read, I began wondering about my slow pace. My fall semesters are busier, yes, but I still manage to finish most books in what's a timely manner for me. It certainly wasn't because I found the book hard to read in terms of comprehension or engagement. As I got closer to the end, I realized: it was because I was so invested in the characters and storytelling I had to take time to process the intense feelings the novel evoked. There are also regular gaps in time that take place between chapters where characters' situations change significantly; I needed mental space before diving into the story again. I can't think of another novel that required this sort of reading from me.

 

In addition to Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, Pachinko has served to establish that "family sagas" can engage me, or at least when another culture is involved. Through the family portrayed here, I learned more about Korea, but it never feels like a history lesson. Everything comes from the characters. The novel also provokes thought about national and racial identity.

 

There were moments I dreaded, as with the return of a less sympathetic character, though not in a way that made me dislike the novel or its author. There were moments that shocked me to the point of gasping. There are many scenes that easily and vividly come to mind when I recall my reading, which I finished more than a month ago.

 

I would love to teach this novel. I have the feeling I may reread it some day, regardless. For me, that's a rarity, a compliment, and a sign of deep gratitude. 

The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Book of Joan: A Novel - Lidia Yuknavitch

More a novel of ideas than a "yarn," The Book of Joan's characters exist primarily as symbols, vehicles for ideology. This quality brought to mind older modes of storytelling, such as ancient Greek and Roman epics, fairy tales, and didactic poems. Everything is heightened--the language, the stakes, the characters. At first I highlighted many passages, dazzled by the prose, but the lyric language reached a critical mass about a third of the way through, and I became distracted by linguistic tics such as the overuse of "wrong" as an adjective. It could also be hard to read some of the graphically violent passages.

 

Nevertheless, I applaud this novel's ingenuity, its reworking of Joan of Arc's story and interesting notions regarding gender and sex.

Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Little Star: A Novel - John Ajvide Lindqvist

After seeing the recent adaptation of Stephen King's It, I was inspired to delve into a big, fat horror novel (I already read It a few summers ago); plus, 'tis the season. John Ajvide Lindqvist has been referred to as Sweden's Stephen King, and I can see why. What I like most about King's writing is his characterization: characters feel like real people, no matter how fantastical, or evil. Little Star is my second Lindqvist novel, and he has a similar gift for creating engaging characters.

 

In some ways, though, I find his horror even more frightening than King's. He has a way of providing the details that are often skipped over in horror movies, such as the way the human body reacts to terror. Acts of violence are shockingly brutal (early in the novel a husband savagely breaks his wife's kneecap). He also appears to be interested in children as protagonists, especially girls. Little Star, like Let the Right One In, the other Lindqvist novel I read, features two children as the characters who drive the narrative. One (Theres) does not seem to be quite human (like the vampire in the latter novel), while the other (Theresa) is a human who is an outcast (like the boy who befriends the vampire). Each one's story is told separately at first, including their parents' points of view, until they meet--virtually and then in person. At this point we know the two will be frightening together.

 

Much of this novel details the angst and alienation of young girls, which can be painful to read if you're a woman who felt like an outsider at some point during your childhood. That alienation is weaponized; it's a freight train whose collision you can't stop but also can't look away from. It reminded me of Dietland, which I read a while ago and is not a horror novel, or even Kill the Boy Band and The Girls. I suppose I'm drawn to stories where patriarchal suppression erupts in violence.

 

I was left with a question or two, including Theres's origins (she's left to die as an infant in a forest before being discovered) and the red smoke she and the girls feed on. I also wanted a bit more of Theres's adoptive mother's perspective at the beginning.

 

Despite these questions, this novel shocked, disturbed, and awed me. I tore through it. AND I learned about several Swedish pop stars!

Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello, Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I've been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it's been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both "Bartleby" and Billy Budd.

 

I began with "Bartleby, the Scrivener," which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it's also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he "prefers not to." From this point he "prefers" not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.

 

Why does Bartleby "prefer not" to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.

 

The stories I liked next best were "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids." The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England--a lawyer's club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville's own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There's some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work. 

 

There are five other stories, but the last I'll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It's become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a "Handsome Sailor" who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he's pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman

The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa, Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

 

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

 

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

 

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest opens with elderly Ruth fearing she can hear and smell a tiger in her house--in Australia. One of the great pleasures of this book is its unreliable narrator, unreliable not because she's deceptive but because her mind isn't what it used to be and may be getting worse. Yet the phantom of the tiger presages what may be a real danger: the arrival of a woman named Frida who claims to be a government carer. Is she, or is she fleecing Ruth?

 

Ruth's narration leaves just enough room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about her and Frida. Some things are left diaphanous, but not so hazy as to cause confusion. On top of that, the prose is terrific: distinctive but not overbearingly poetic. McFarlane capture fine states of feeling or consciousness with her language and imagery. I really delighted in reading it.

 

Not so delightful is the nature of what's going on, or even the suspicion of it. My grandmother, who died a few years ago, suffered from dementia. She had an excellent aide, but my parents eventually had to put her in a nursing home close to where they live. Even the best of those places upset me, and it was hard for me to see my grandmother--the smartest person in my family--lose herself. This recent experience made it difficult to continue at times.

 

I also found myself thinking about Frida's race and physicality--she's a brown-skinned and heavyset woman. Ruth is tiny and was fair-haired. What's being said about Frida and race? I searched reviews and finally found one that addresses the issue by referencing the author's own explanation (in the Sydney Review of Books, here). This explanation satisfied me, though I'm still wondering about Frida's size.

 

Finally, it was lovely to see a bit of romance between Ruth and her almost-love from the past, who's even older than she is. A delicately handled rarity in literary fiction.

The Accusation, Bandi

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea - Deborah Smith, Bandi

As tensions rise with North Korea, my sympathies remain with its citizens, those who truly suffer under the regime and the sanctions placed upon their country as a result of their leaders' actions. This collection of short stories--written by a North Korean, as far as can be verified--puts a face to the individual lives living there, like a present day dystopia. Each story reveals characters disillusioned or betrayed by a system that punishes even those who believe in it and live according to its rules. The stories are often heartbreaking, yet they didn't beat me into submission with desolation. Somehow the fact that these characters come to recognize their situation lends them dignity, though that's not to say suffering is noble. People suffer around the world, but the mystery under which North Koreans live seems to compound the appearance of that suffering when we get glimpses of it.

A Writer's Diary, Virginia Woolf

A Writer's Diary - Virginia Woolf, Leonard Woolf

For lovers of Virginia Woolf, but also those interested in writing itself, as well as history (Woolf details the approach and beginning of World War II, including the bombing of her home in London). This "writer's diary," edited by husband and first reader, Leonard Woolf, comprises those entries where Woolf discusses her writing and reading as well as encounters with literary acquaintances.

 

There is a pattern to her writing process whereby she's excited about a new idea (which sometimes comes while she's working on another project) and rides a sort of high until she completes it. This is followed by depression and ambivalent feelings about reviews. Some books come easier than others, but the overall pattern remains the same. Every one feels like it might be a failure or badly reviewed, and she attempts to convince herself she doesn't care. The ups and downs in her mood suggest bipolar disorder, which contemporary psychologists believe afflicted her. Knowing her fate (she drowned herself not long after the last entry of this diary) made reading portions very sad.

 

On the other hand, Woolf felt she had just begun to know her own mind in her 40s, which gives me hope! Elements of her process and the way one negative review overrode all the positive responses created a sense of affinity for me as a writer. Woolf changed literature, and I'm glad she kept such a diary.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles.

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel - Amor Towles

I'm putting this one aside and may not come back to it. Much praise has been lavished on it, but it has too little narrative thrust for me, and I find that its charm can be overbearing to the point of preciousness.

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Reservation Blues - Sherman Alexie

This is my first Alexie and not my last. I'm struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it's packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band's steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It's necessarily sad yet not depressing--there's the humor, and there's wonder and hope. There's not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I've taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.

Currently reading

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World
Nell Stevens
Progress: 4 %
Map: Collected and Last Poems
Wisława Szymborska, Clare Cavanagh, Stanisław Barańczak
Progress: 109/447 pages
Absurdistan
Gary Shteyngart