learn by going

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

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can't let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It's a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

 

I'm surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she's lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She's bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

 

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn't been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he's just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he's doing and why. He doesn't seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he's another character I found I couldn't care about.

 

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He's been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

 

I won't spoil how the three characters' stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn't enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I've waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author's fault or mine. It's silly to assign blame when one doesn't like a book; I suppose this one just wasn't for me, and I wish every book was.

 

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much "me." The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator--I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to--borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious "accident." The game also embodies what I understand to be the book's major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

 

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn't until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean's "accident," though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery...except it's not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you're even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don't have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

 

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn't. A book can be about roads we do and don't take, how our choices don't always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

SPOILER ALERT!

Deliverance, by James Dickey

Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

The film version of Deliverance is known for "that scene," the one where Bobby, one of four city men traversing a wild river in Georgia, is raped by a "hillbilly." The scene is a bit different in the book--there's no "Squeal like a pig!" moment--but essentially the same. Before I even saw the film, I knew about that scene. Men as victims of rape (outside of prison as a context) in stories shock us; women as victims are so common, often serving as the impetus for a male protagonist to seek revenge, or to "develop" a female character, that it's rare for their victimization to become the talking point of a film or book, unless the scene is especially brutal (e.g. Irreversible) or unique (e.g. that turkey baster in Don't Breathe).

 

I mention this because I came to Deliverance as a reader who is now rarely interested in books with white masculinity as their subject. Its spot on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century likely put it on my radar, and when I read a sample I was dazzled by its language. Dickey's prose is the best thing about the novel, for a reader like me. He has a way of describing moments of consciousness or states of being that is unlike anything else I've read. It carried me through the story, even as the book became what I feared it might. In essence, it's about using and relying on one's physical and mental resources as a man to make it through a dire situation.

 

The leader of this river expedition is Lewis, the most capable and masculine "man's man" of the foursome. He's what we would today call a survivalist; he has faith in himself and his body, first and foremost, and wants to be prepared for anything. There's Drew, the sensible, amateur musician, and Bobby, the smartass who's the least helpful on the river. The protagonist and narrator is Ed, Lewis's best friend. Ed is mildly dissatisfied with his work (in advertising) and goes back and forth about wanting to take part in the river trip. When Lewis is badly injured and another member of their party killed by the surviving local man who participated in the rape (Lewis killed the other), it's up to Ed to get them out of there alive. He does, though injured and obliged to murder (or kill in self-defense, depending on your perspective). The three survivors lie about what happened, concerned they won't be believed by local law enforcement. This experience will clearly haunt them always.

 

What troubles me is the way Bobby is characterized, especially after the rape. When reading, especially a violent and potentially offensive book like this, I try to separate characters' actions and attitudes from the author's. Immediately after the rapist is killed by Lewis, Ed thinks to himself that he doesn't want to touch or be around Bobby. This is a moment where you can distinguish between character and author. But Bobby is elsewhere characterized as weak by the author; his ineptitude makes him a hazard to his friends more than a help as they traverse the river and try to escape the situation. Bobby is, in effect, the least masculine and feminized. Drew had his sense of morality going for him; what does Bobby have except (useless) humor?

 

The few women in the book are wives or objects of a desirous male gaze. Ed has sex with his wife the morning he leaves for the trip, and when he returns, thinks he hasn't appreciated her enough. Drew's widow is angry and predictably points out how useless a death he suffered, adventuring on a river. Throughout the story, Ed thinks of the model who posed topless (back to the camera) and held her breast in a roomful of men, a gold tint in one eye. The women seem there to help define the men's masculinity.

 

Deliverance is tightly constructed, the type of book with symbolism to pore through, ready for a book group or class discussion. I've mentioned its stellar language and also gasped at several points. I can certainly understand its presence on the Modern Library's list, even as I struggle with some elements.

The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik

The River at Night - Erica Ferencik

A compulsively readable survival thriller ala Deliverance and The Descent that is begging to be adapted into a show or film. It features a group of friends in their late 30s, all women, who don't regularly see one another in their day to day lives but who take periodic, adventurous vacations away from it all. On this vacation their fearless leader, Pia, has arranged for them to raft a river in Maine, one that is virtually "undiscovered," according to their young, male guide. Read "undiscovered" as in the middle of nowhere, no cell phone coverage, and no help nearby. You see where this is going.

 

Disaster strikes during the trip, and the group is forced to make tough decisions and survive a dangerous situation that only gets more dangerous. The strain heightens tensions and reveals cracks in the group, and everyone loses their shit in a way specific to each character. Our narrator is Winifred (Win or Wini), clearly the least brave of her friends, a woman who's recently lost her husband (divorce/separation) and younger, deaf brother. She's lonely, at sea in her life but without the impetus to make changes and be happier.

 

All the women bring their own baggage, but it's Pia's need to be "off the grid," be authentic, whatever that means, that brings them to the river. Besides Win's relatable narration, the adventure, and some very cool descriptions of their environment, the book's refusal to say, simply, that nature is better and civilization is corrupt is a favorite aspect of the story.

Magdalene, by Marie Howe [poetry]

Magdalene: Poems - Marie Howe

I began reading Marie Howe when I was an undergrad taking my first poetry workshops. At first, I wasn't sure I liked her style, which is deceptively simple or plain. This was a contrast to many other poets I was introduced to at the same time, such as Mark Doty and Yusef Komunyakaa. But somewhere along the line, I fell in love with her aesthetic, and that first book of hers I read, What the Living Do, remains a favorite and a touchstone.

 

I now recognize and admire the delicate straightforwardness of Howe's language, which packs as much power as any formal poem or one with more verbal jujitsu. Her lines can be long, with lots of room between them or stanzas. They feel quiet, contemplative, so when there's a turn or revelation coming, it heightens the impact. I'm trying to explain her appeal, but part of it is that I can't. Or I could if I analyzed it to death, and I prefer letting the magic linger.

 

The poems' subjects range from desire to mental health, self-perception, spirituality, and motherhood. Though I don't read the book like one overarching narrative, it does feel like there's an arc; there's a fullness to that arc that somehow replicates the sensation of completing a big, fat novel. You have an idea of a life.

 

Here's a favorite:

 

How the Story Started

 

I was driven toward desire by desire.

believing that the fulfillment of that desire was an end.

There was no end.

 

Others might have looked into the future and seen

a shape inside the coming years --

a house, a child, a man who might be a help.

 

I saw his back bent over what he was working on,

the back of his neck, how he stood in his sneakers,

and wanted to eat him.

 

How could I see another person, I mean who he was--apart from me--

apart from that?

 

Indie Next List

Book recommendations from a community of independent booksellers from across the U.S. (including my local indie bookstore here in Milwaukee). A new list each month, plus specialty lists for book clubs and kids.

SPOILER ALERT!

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons Why - Jay Asher

I've had this book forever but was prompted to finally read it by the series adaptation that just came to Netflix.

 

(Spoiler-free until the note.)

 

The most impressive element of this book is the fact that it takes on toxic masculinity and rape culture head on. It's the sort of book that I'm not sure would have existed when I was going through high school. That alone makes it a relevant, disturbing, but necessary read for students (and teachers, counselors).

 

The story is divided between protagonist Clay's perspective and Hannah's, the girl at the center of the narrative who committed suicide. One day Clay finds a package containing seven cassette tapes, which he must pass on to the next person spoken about on the tapes (one side per person). Each person had a role in Hannah's downward spiral, so the book is set up as a mystery. What happened to Hannah? Why did she kill herself?

 

Each chapter takes on one tape, and as he listens, Clay follows the map Hannah made and slipped in his locker before she died that marks key spots in her story. It was sometimes difficult for me to engage with this structure; someone wandering around listening to audio tapes isn't all that dynamic. I liked the idea of the book's structure but not necessarily its execution.

 

(SPOILERS) I'm also disappointed in the revelation of Clay's role once he reaches his own tape. I understand the choice to keep Clay a "good guy" in the reader's eyes since his is the point of view we're following, but I think the story would be more impactful if there was something he did or didn't do that forced him to reevaluate his own actions or inaction. He does regret leaving Hannah alone, but it's when she asks him to, which felt a bit problematic because generally when a girl tells you to leave, YOU SHOULD LEAVE, so technically Clay did the right thing. He blames himself for not helping her, for not persisting, but it feels like he's making Hannah's pain about him.

 

Clay also feels guilty and angry at himself for not standing up to others when it comes to how girls are treated, and by the end, in the last scene, we're to understand that will change (in contrast to another person on the tapes he runs into earlier, who still seems incapable of understanding his role--or won't acknowledge it). Though there are girls among the thirteen reasons, there's a way in which their roles enact rape culture and patriarchy (not that this makes them beyond blame). At the same time, the potential saviors the narrative suggests could have made the difference are boys/men, which both fairly places the responsibility on their shoulders--but also suggests the old man-as-rescuer trope. (END SPOILERS)

 

Regardless of my concerns, I'm grateful there's a book like this out there, tackling these subjects, and I'm interested in how the show on Netflix adapts its particular structure.

Why I Love Poetry

I was disheartened but not surprised poetry was left out of the "Why I Love" featured posts in February. Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has a comparatively small readership, at least in America. As a poet, it sometimes seems that only fellow poets read poetry, which is a shame.

 

Before I explain why I love poetry, here are some reasons why it appears readers avoid it (feel free to skip!):

 

1. Poetry tends not to be taught in school as consistently as prose, at least in the U.S. When it is, it's often works that are at least 50 years old, if not centuries. I went to a good public school, and in addition to Shakespeare's sonnets, we may occasionally have read the likes of Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Emily Dickinson. Fine poets, but not contemporary and not representative enough. As a result, students think all poetry must rhyme or be in form and sounds antiquated.

 

2. Poetry has a reputation for being "difficult." This is related to the reason above in that students erroneously learn to see poems as puzzles to be solved. Poems are not math problems (one more reason I love them). There is no mystical key you must stumble upon to "unlock" a poem. Poems are like living beings when encountered in that space between the words on the page (or in the air if heard) and what happens in your mind and body. When poems are approached as if they are puzzles, it's like treating them as dead things, or like Prufrock in T.S. Eliot's poem, when he is "fix[ed]...in a formulated phrase...sprawling on a pin...pinned and wriggling on the wall." If a reader is fixated on "solving" it, he/she will miss the poem's beauty.

 

3. We're living in a time when the arts and humanities are undervalued. In the U.S., funding for the National Endowment for the Arts has been gutted in Trump's budget proposal, even though it's a minuscule slice of the federal pie. Even in Obama's presidency, the emphasis was on training and education for the science and technology fields. I have a PhD in English and still have been unable to find a full-time teaching position as the recession hit a few years before I graduated. As universities' budgets are cut, so are the literary journals they help fund. Essentially, there are fewer places to publish and read poetry.

 

So here's WHY I LOVE POETRY, and you should too!

 

1. Every line of a poem (or sentence/phrase in a prose poem) can be a surprise, can change everything, including the reader. Prose forms and drama build tension and suspense through plot; poetry doesn't need that. That combination of surprise and recognition that happens when you read a good poem is like having an epiphany over and over with each line, with no dilution of its revelation, or like hearing a favorite comedian deliver a punchline. My favorite example of a poem that embodies this sort of surprise is Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo."

 

2. Sound and language for their own sake. Even if you have no idea what a poem is "about," you can enjoy the way it plays with language and sound. This is why nonsense poems like Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" are still a delight. Also a reminder that poems are meant to be heard.

 

3. Diversity: of form, source (writer, culture, time), purpose. Every culture with which I am familiar has its own poetry (or poetries). Before prose, there was poetry. Before we wrote anything down, there was poetry. So whatever you're in the mood for, there's a poem for it, whether it's something political, personal, social; narrative or lyric; formal or free; angry, joyful, sad, funny.

 

Here's my favorite site to browse poems: poetryfoundation.org. You can browse by occasion, poet, movement, time period, place, etc.

 

Here are some contemporary poet recs. (Also feel free to browse my poetry tag(s).)

 

Anne Carson

Billy Collins

Mark Doty

Rita Dove

Daisy Fried

Louise Gluck

Matthea Harvey

Robert Hass

Seamus Heaney

Zbigniew Herbert

Juan Felipe Herrera

Marie Howe

Ko Un

Yusef Komunyakaa

Jamaal May

Harryette Mullen

Adrienne Rich

Tomas Transtromer

David Wojahn

Adam Zagajewski

 

Reading progress update: I've read 31 out of 96 pages.

Magdalene: Poems - Marie Howe

Every one of those poems is blowing my mind (and heart). Actually, every line of every poem. Damn, Marie Howe, your output may be infrequent, but it's always worth the wait.

"All novels are imperfect, and if we like a story we will say we like it in spite of its flaws, and if we don’t like a novel we will say we dislike it because of them... But most of the time, those particular missteps of craft don’t really inform our decision as much as we think. This is something that has become really clear to me in 13 years of the Rooster. Our appreciation (or not) of any work of fiction happens on a gut, emotional level. Our attempts to explain why we love or we hate a book are often just rationalizations. But we learn so much from the attempt to figure it out. The ToB is a lab where we try to define the connections between our hearts and our heads, and hopefully it makes us all better readers and writers."

From the Tournament of Books match commentary for The Nix versus Homegoing.

Literary Data Analysis

Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: And Other Experiments in Literature - Ben Blatt

Fascinating. Also, I now recognize a graduate project of mine on D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf's use of the word "pure" to be a stab at data analysis, though the goal of the project shifted to something more manageable to me.

 

And, coincidence, I'm currently reading Nabokov.

Version Control, by Dexter Palmer

Version Control: A Novel - Dexter Palmer

I'm seeing a theme in this year's Tournament of Books shortlist (or, I should say, those books whose samples appealed to me): genre-bending and concerns about identity. I like to think about the lines between or blurring genres, and I appreciate the lens of race or sexuality, both of which are commonly excluded from much genre fic.

 

Dexter Palmer's Version Control is speculative, but only just: its future is near, and there are certainly elements that are not at all far-fetched and therefore frightening: self-driving cars that can endanger passengers when, say, a firmware update has a glitch; data mining and what it could be used for; digital avatars, operating much like bot accounts on social media sites. There are also reminders for our own present, such as the real goals of online dating services--to keep you using (and paying) as long as possible, not successfully find a partner.

 

Palmer's novel is marketed as "time travel like you've never seen it before." I'll go ahead and preface my questions about and problems with the book by saying I'm easily confused by time travel narratives, no matter how well explained.

 

The book is structurally tight, with thematic echoes across points of view and timelines, of which there are two. The idea of "the best of all possible worlds" is central; when it's inevitably discovered that the device the protagonist's husband is working on is, well, working, despite a lack of scientific proof, the characters realize what we as readers learned about halfway through the book when details of their lives change (character x is dead instead of y; characters go--or don't go--by certain nicknames; character a cheats with character b rather than c, etc.): every time someone enters the "causation violation" chamber, a new timeline branches off.

 

Before the characters themselves are in the know, in the first timeline explored, the protagonist feels something's not right, but can't explain what. She's not alone; the phenomenon is experienced by others and has become a diagnosis. What I don't understand is why they have that sense of wrongness. I was also confused by Sean, the physicist and protagonist's son. Is his mural as his mother, Rebecca, sees it, or as Alicia sees (or doesn't see) it? Is he simply an artistic child suffering from loss?

 

Though thematically sound with some fresh explorations of gender and race in the hard sciences especially, Version Control didn't quite come together for me. I didn't particularly like or care about any of the characters; I'd say Carson was most interesting to me. The end was fairly predictable; I enjoyed the first half more. I have some stylistic quibbles that are just my bias, like chunks or pages of dialog, which reminded me of exposition in movies, and what felt like unnecessary section breaks. But I wanted to know what happened next, and the mystery of what was going on and why definitely kept me reading.

Black Wave, Michelle Tea

Black Wave - Michelle Tea

The more I read (and watch movies and TV), the more I value encountering something unlike anything else I ever have before. Black Wave, by Michelle Tea, immersed me in a world new to me in several ways.

 

Though there are occasionally individual queer characters in the books I read, I haven't read much queer lit where a larger community is represented, especially queer women. Black Wave is set in San Francisco in the 90s at the start, an alternative past where gentrification has strangled most of the culture(s) from the city. In addition, the world appears to be ending due to advanced climate change: it's dangerous to be out in the sun even incidentally, the ocean is a trash wave, many animals are extinct, and invasive species have overtaken the dying native flora. In other words, the environment's death mirrors a cultural and, as is soon apparent, a personal one.

 

The protagonist, Michelle (like the author), is in her later twenties, and is the kind of addict who tells herself she's not because she doesn't shoot heroin but snorts it and is able to keep her job at a bookstore. She falls in love (or becomes infatuated) easily and hooks up with many of the women who come into her orbit, despite being in a "steady" relationship with a partner more stable than she is. At one point the point of view shifts from Michelle's to her girlfriend's, who thinks she's a sociopath.

 

That feels pretty accurate, but one of the amazing things about Black Wave is that despite Michelle's objectively unlikable character, I still felt very much invested in her. In part this is due to the humor and energy of the writing. For example:

 

Michelle seemed more like some sort of compulsively rutting land mammal, a chimera of dog in heat and black widow, a sex fiend that kills its mate. Or else she was merely a sociopath. She was like the android from Blade Runner who didn’t know it was bad to torture a tortoise. She had flipped [her girlfriend] Andy onto her belly in the Armageddon sun and left her there, fins flapping.

 

I may also personally respond to Michelle because she's a writer, one who's even published and had a sort of local fame. Around the midpoint of the book when she moves to L.A., the narrative is deconstructed as she attempts to write a new book. It becomes clear that not everything we've read so far is as it happened. Another aspect I liked is that somehow this sudden shift doesn't feel like a trick as can happen in many modernist and post-modernist writing and metafiction. How and why I don't know, but after some minor readjustment on my part as a reader, I was still invested.

 

I've often noted what a structure fanatic I am, and the last major selling point of Black Wave is the way it beautifully spins out in the last third.

 

Tangents were Michelle’s favorite part of writing, each one a declaration of agency: I know I was going over there but now I’m going over here, don’t be so uptight about it, just come along. A tangent was a fuckup, a teenage runaway. It was a road trip with a full tank of gas. You can’t get lost if you don’t have anywhere to be. This was writing for Michelle: rule free, glorious, sprawling.

 

As the world ends, people begin dreaming vividly and lucidly about others who exist in the real world, all over the world. They're dreams of connection and love where identity is fluid, and some begin living in them, like Michelle's bosses at the bookstore who hand over the business to her. So the world ends, but somehow Michelle's in a good place, and so was I.

Tournament of Books Play-In

The Sport of Kings: A Novel - Morgan E.C. Sant The Throwback Special: A Novel - Chris Bachelder Sudden Death: A Novel - Álvaro Enrigue, Natasha Wimmer

Featuring three novels all to do with sports that I haven't read, one of which I plan to read and won this pre-tournament round.

"In order to have your complaints listened to in this world you couldn’t have that much to really complain about."

Michelle Tea, Black Wave

Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet

Sweet Lamb of Heaven: A Novel - Lydia Millet

Hm. Hmmm. This is a difficult book to write about as it defies easy genre placement. It has notes of thriller, horror, SF/speculative fiction, and philosophy. I chose to shelve it under "literary fiction" because I don't see a conflict between the literary and genre elements.

 

Judging by the three-star average rating, most will either love or be confounded by and hate this novel. It took some warming up for me, and I have other quibbles about characterization and writing style. But when I finished the book, I wanted to jump back in and discuss it.

 

It's a novel of big (and politically relevant) ideas wrapped in a domestic thriller. The story centers on a mom and her young daughter. The mother, Anna, hears a voice. Not voices, one voice, and much of the novel's first quarter or third is spent characterizing this voice--what it is and isn't, if not why it is at all. Then, the voice stops. Anna is relieved but still puzzled. More importantly, she has to get away from her husband, who is revealing himself to be a sociopath. She sets out on her own with her daughter and shacks up at a motel in New England. Her husband doesn't care until he decides to run for a government office. He wants his estranged wife and kid around as political props. Anna resists but is threatened.

 

Interspersed with events are bits of research Anna has done on the voice--on language and communication across species, flora and fauna, on God and mental health, community and self-hood. She's found a small community at the isolated motel, and they contribute to her understanding. The closer she comes to making sense of things, the more danger she's in until matters reach a breaking point, not felt until she realizes just how much she's been manipulated.

 

Millet is posing some big questions and making assertions that ring especially true in our new extreme-right and digital environments. I haven't yet sorted through all the implications of the story, but I'm happy for the challenge.

Currently reading

Pachinko
Min Jin Lee