Tag Archives: 2016

27. The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

30 Jun

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Thriller writer Patricia Highsmith—of Talented Mr. Ripley fame—published this groundbreaking early lesbian classic anonymously in the 1950s and later reissued it under her own name, when that could be done without destroying her career. (How times have changed, right?). But, amazingly, the changing times matter very little in the reader’s enjoyment of The Price of Salt. The book is a nail-biting romantic thriller that functions just as well today as it did in the fifties, despite that its forbidden love is now out-and-proud.

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The vintage cover with Highsmith’s pseudonym

The story is about a shop-girl in Manhattan with dreams of making it as a set designer, who meets and falls for a married woman living in New Jersey. At first the erotic subtext of their relationship is repressed. The ‘falling for’ is something neither one of them can quite admit, the shop girl because she has a boyfriend and doesn’t quite know she’s gay, and the married woman, who has had lesbian affairs before, because she has a small child and is in the middle of a divorce. Or possibly because she’s manipulative and prefers to watch the shop girl want her than to let the shop girl have her.

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Beautiful young Highsmith.

The “salt” of the title is passion. Both women are to some extent capable of passing in the straight world. Both have huge incentives to do so. Both have to choose between eroticism, thrill, “salt” over almost everything else. For the married woman the price is so high it’s not easy to say that she should pay it. She faces terrible choices, and her response to the escalating stakes in both the affair and the divorce is half-rational at best. The shop girl, despite her naive passion is a cool customer; it’s wonderful to watch her discovering her own mind and sticking to her own desires, against massive pressure.  The complexity of these characters is why the story still works. I’ve read it’s what set the book apart from the other lesbian pulp of the ’50s.

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This last bit will be a spoiler, so STOP HERE IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THIS BOOK!!

It’s my theory that the happy ending was forced by conventions of the genre. There’s a chapter that feels like a real, complex, ending (a chapter I wanted to be the end), and then a last chapter that feels like the kind of movie scene where people run through the airport to catch each other before the plane takes off. I am so curious what the author’s thinking was about those two choices.

 

23. The Rose of Tibet, by Lionel Davidson

22 Jun

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Recently I won my Top Reader reality-TV challenge*—a timed challenge!—by using my bookworm know-how to find an amazing book in an airport bookstore. You know, that moment of truth in the reader’s life when she has only a few minutes before her flight, and is confronted with a wall of generic bestsellers. The wrong choice will result in a dull 3-6 hours. In such conditions I’m happy to read a literary bestseller, a thriller, a romance, nonfiction, violent historical fiction about knights (strangely preponderant in the U.K.)…I’ll read anything as long as it’s tightly written and plotted, suspenseful and has realistic characters. You would think that every bestseller would be like that, but sadly no, very few. (Why mass-market fiction sells like gangbusters and is genuinely hard-to-read is a topic deserving its own post.)

I was hindered—or possibly helped—by having either read and disliked, or tried to read and not finished many of the literary entries available in the shop. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Johnathan Franzen’s Purity, The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth MacKenzie, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible… all books I’ve already tried and discarded. I have also learned the hard way in previous airports about the later works of Phillipa Gregory, posthumous works by Robert B. Parker and Lee Childs, full stop.

The book I chose was The Rose of Tibet, by a writer I hadn’t heard of named Lionel Davidson. I chose it mostly because it was written in 1962 and is a thriller involving a hapless Englishman going on a desperate quest to find his lost filmmaker brother on the slopes of Mount Everest. The vintage re-release and the locale made the book seem a little bit different. I like Everest stories. The cover copy promised a thrilling, can’t-put-it-down plot.  And here was the first paragraph:

In the summer of 1949, when he was twenty-seven, Houston found himself having an affair with a married woman. She was thirty, and he was not in love with her, and he had gone into it only because he was bored and lonely. He didn’t think that the affair would outlast the summer, but it did, and by the autumn, when he started school again, he was wondering how to end it. He was a bit disgusted with himself.

It’s hard to say why I fell in love at first sight with this paragraph. The man-at-loose-ends was the perfect starting point for an adventure. I liked the character right away for sleeping with an older woman, and for being lonely. His slight self-disgust was human and unusual.

And then what follows is almost a James Bond-level thriller, with the exotic locale, Chinese-Tibetan politics in the 1950s, a forbidden romance and brilliant, excellent salting of the drama and suspense throughout the book’s early pages.

The narration is also really interesting. In my copy there are two prologues, one from a contemporary writer, which contains many spoilers and should be skipped, and another by Lionel Davidson (second prologue, should definitely be read), who claims to be merely the editor of the following adventure story. Reading alone on the airplane I wasn’t quite sure if Davidson was in truth the author or just the editor, if I was reading fiction or non-, and I really enjoyed the suspense. The insertions of Davidson’s editorial voice served to dramatically increase the tension, with tantalizing asides like “oh, of course, Houston hadn’t murdered anyone yet…”.

As promised on the cover, I couldn’t put it down.  Alas, Top Reader is not a reality show that exists, but if it did, I feel confident that a panel of judges would pick The Rose of Tibet as the most readable book in that whole store, and I’d be moving on to the next round…..

 

 

24. The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, by Stephen D Gutierrez

10 May

Stephen D Gutierrez

So, in the critical wasteland which is the American Book Review, a review in the “working class fiction” issue, written by , recently stood out. It was readable and coherent, an utter rarity in that publication. It recommended the work of a writer named Stephen D Gutierrez, and operating on the assumption that a man who can write might know another man who can write when he sees one, I obediently purchased the book the reviewer was recommending, The Mexican Man in His Backyard.  The book turns out to be a quiet classic on poverty, race and storytelling. Also unique: The stories manage to be meta-fictional and really elegant without feeling commercially polished or insincere. It’s a very interesting book.

The stories are about Mexican-American life in Fresno and L.A., starting in the 1960s. The title story, subtitled “a fable” tells of a newcomer to a Mexican neighborhood in Fresno who is casually racist while thinking he’s multicultural. He wants to appropriate his neighbor (the titular Mexican man, hanging out in his backyard) while condescending to him. The story is complicated (first twist) by the fact that the narrator is also of Mexican descent, but barely speaks Spanish and rolls out racist chestnuts, like saying about his wife that “she’s as shy of Mexicans as they are around her.” So, Gutierrez seems to be critiquing not just the outsiders but the insiders who falsely venerate people they don’t essentially respect. It’s sharp, this story. It’s also structurally done very well, since it’s told by a first-person narrator we grow to mistrust. I love those reveals where the voice you think you trust starts sounding wonky, and such a device used on a story about the moral bankruptcy of our fashionable multiculturalism (the voice you think you trust), is a knockout punch. At the end of the story the narrator manages to briefly engage the Mexican Man, but the Mexican Man then goes back to his TV. The last line is “He didn’t care”  (about the narrator). And we are glad.

Another story I loved in this collection was “The Spot”.

The Spot was on the roof of a “squat building with drab gray walls and dark windows at the very top. Headquarters for an electronics firm, it employed many people and saw them go home at night.” On it, “was a tightly wedged corner by a buzzing electrical storage shed that overlooked the city, a metal structure vibrating your back when you stood against it.”

It doesn’t sound like a great place, but it was special to the narrator, who explains:

“And I held my first ass there, cupping that handful of delicious flesh, and almost got a hickey. I pulled away from scared and laughed nervously about. I dug my face in the collar of my heart throb’s pea coat as I grabbed another handful of ass and told her, “Not now.”

We kissed for hours.

The moon was up.”

The sentiment is heart-felt, and that bit of nervous elision “I pulled away from scared and laughed nervously about” is lovely.

Later the girl goes home, and the narrator meets up with his friends. While they’re hanging out in the park, shooting the shit, they hear a noise. “Great echoes reverberated off the handball courts.” It’s ambiguous, but I think what’s happening is that the sounds are gunshots. Someone says, “Shut up, they’re dying” though it’s not clear who or what or what it means. The last paragraph reads:

“We argued the last stretch, straining to hear. We couldn’t catch it anymore, the faint echoes sounding in the night, the loud hollow booms diminishing to a muffled vibrato, an airy remnant.”

Again, I thought this story, which is very short, was just brilliant. The juxtaposition of this idyllic early sexuality and urban decay has a kind of primordial beauty, of love flowering even against the electrical storage shed between people still young enough to be hopeful. If the sound is gunshots, a reading is available that the kids do know that their world is dangerous—they recognize the gunshots better than the reader does—but the danger hasn’t caught up to them yet. If it’s thunder or something more innocuous….maybe I’m the asshole for assuming it’s gunshots. I don’t know.

Every story in this book is that good. Each one could make its own new and different blog post. And the strategy of the collection overal—it lives in a weird space between essay, fiction and autobiography—feels endlessly inventive.

I wrote more about Gutierrez here.

20. The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz

5 May

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It sometimes happens that I get an indie-press book whose author seems personally appealing or whose cover is beautiful or whose press I like, and then I get into the book and a) hate it and b) feel guilty about writing about how much I hate it, since the author is probably a nice person and certainly this book was their dream and it’s such an obscure book anyway, why bother?

Well, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, by Rios De La Luz, published by Ladybox press out of Portland, Oregon, is a classic example of that problem. I struggled through it. I thought it was actively awful. And despite that probably no one but its author cares about this book, I’m going to expound upon why.

So, it’s a book about race, about being a queer Latina, and the kind of myth-making and dreaming you need to do to make space for yourself if you are those things in an unfriendly world. That’s my best guess. The stories are about girls dating, grandmas, mean white boys, early girlfriends, cleaning houses for a living, sexual assault, with self-consicously lyrical flights like….

“During recess, I lugged the classroom’s bucket of crayons, color pencils and markers with me. The class played kickball and I sat under the shade of a palo verde tree because of asthma. I arranged all the greens together, blues and reds together…. Yellows owned the sun. Naranjas represented astronauts with Martian dust on their boots. Brown was my favorite. Brown represented the people I interacted with every single day.”

The  lyrical space-making mission isn’t a terrible idea, but its execution it struck me as so out of ideas. A crayon box? Really? The crayon box to talk about skin color? That is the biggest cliché in the history of writing about skin color. In a book that’s supposed to be lyrical and odd, a fucking crayon box?

None of the execution of these stories, from the good brown girls to the bad white boys brought any complexity beyond what you’d expect from campus politics. Brown girls might be more sympathetic than white boys. Many grandmas are lovely and deserve to have their struggles lionized. But these truths are not self-evident, both god and the devil are in the details, which De La Luz skips.

The story “Rosario,” is a two-page hash of bad things white boys have done to the narrator, one thing a sexual assault, another the annoying way they try to speak Spanish to pick her up, for example.  Those two things don’t seem the same to me, and erasing the differences between them obscure the possible stories therein, and the meaning of either anecdote. The point of the story is that the narrator is angry at white men and doesn’t forgive them for their crimes, but that’s not a story yet either. Lines like “Blatant sexualization of my brownness makes me gag,” are all tell, not show.

I’m going to write soon about The Mexican Man in His Back Yard, a collection of stories by the incredible Stephen D. Gutierrez on growing up poor and Mexican in Fresno and Los Angeles, a book with so much truth, passion, and pain that it makes the flaws of a book like De La Luz’s glare. Gutierrez’s stories are about race and class, but they’re about other things too: the history of illness in Gutierrez’s family; a local bully Gutierrez didn’t like. It is through talking about these other things—these characters’ real lives, because they are people first and race representatives second—that the insights about race bubble up. The cliche events in De La Luz’s book might be cliche because they’re true, but they’re so literal they allow no bubbling.

For example, in a wonderful story “Lucky Guys Forever,” Gutierrez writes about a local kid “a poor boy…. His name was Herrera. He was dark, with big, bulging frog eyes and a lambskin-lined jacket he wore all seasons of the year.” In Herrera’s one shining moment of social functioning he had a 10-speed bike early, when they were cool, and he loved it and was proud of it. That’s sad in a mostly-obvious way. I thought of the character Dukie from The Wire. But as the story goes on, it focuses not on the sad kid but on the narrator writing this kid’s story, and how much the narrator hated this kid. Gutierrez does some fancy meta-fictional footwork, circling through methods of telling that would allow his child self to beat this boy up—whom he had personal reasons to want to beat and also, we suspect, symbolic reasons. Symbolically perhaps he doesn’t want to be this sad kid with his perfect-bike sad moment. He doesn’t want to have to empathize. But eventually, he does. Here’s what he thinks:

Everything’s cool. I saw a little bit of myself in him. And I knew he needed only one thing, love. We had to help each other, the wounded. This came upon me in a flash, without premeditation. Later I would learn what it was called, an epiphany. And in that state, feeling much for him and the world, with myself included, I turned away for a second.”

The empathy is powerful because it was hard-won. It’s a brilliant story about rewriting stories. It’s a story about how much Gutierrez hates that sad-kid story, at the same time as he must admit that it’s related to his story, and find a positive, powerful way to incorporate it into his identity. The real killer in that paragraph is with myself included. At every turn, Gutierrez writes himself in, overwrites cliches about race. He’s brilliant.

Writing didactic stories De La Luz erases the details, turns everyone into caricatures, reveals nothing, includes neither herself nor the people she’s critiquing. The lyricism in this context feels like hiding from truth, or covering it. Don’t know how you really feel about your grandma? Invent her a time machine!  Sexually assaulted? Imagine throwing paint over yourself.

It’s so much easier than putting who you really are and how you really feel on the page.

 

 

21. Margaret the First, by Danielle Dutton

5 May

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Daily life in the 1600s was stranger, even, than we can imagine, but it’s fun to try. Margaret the First is the story of Margaret of Newcastle-on-Tyne, an eccentric lady-writer-aristocrat, a wearer of weird hats whose London provocations and bizarre plays were a Baz Luhrmann wet dream, all flocks of rooks and potted limes and stars like comets. Here are some science questions Margaret asked:

“Are seeds annihilated when a plant grows?”

“Is God full of ideas?
“Is lightning a fluid?”

“Is thunder a blast of the stars?”

Margaret was the first woman in England to write for publication under her own name. She wrote poetry, philosophy, feminist plays and utopian science fiction—some of the very earliest sci-fi on record. Dutton takes these accomplishments as a fictional jumping-off point, and writes Margaret’s story as that of a woman artist inventing herself, with a focus on the difficulties she faced as a woman in a men’s arena.

The writing on Margaret’s creative process is exciting, vivid, beautiful. I related to this:

“But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of bright blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains.”

The delight of this book is Dutton’s prose, and her skill at inhabiting the weird details of the historical moment. Hair is “crimped and fierce as wild lettuce”. Young Margaret wears “petal flecked shoes” and takes a “conserve of marigolds for breakfast, trying to loosen a cough.” Awful sounding medical treatments, arcane plants and flowers, strange outfits, carriages, Kings, wars, hysterical blindness and perilous sea voyages…. it’s a lusciously textured vision of the 1600s.

My only slight cavil was that the pro-woman-artist perspective felt so….modern. Margaret’s “woman-in-a-man’s-world” struggle was recognizable as how we think today. And I suppose since obviously we know that story, it’s a little bit flat as a plot. The fun is discovering how Margaret’s era was weirdly different than ours. I wanted her values, and especially her feminism, to have that same psychedelic pulse of difference. But overall this was fun to read and I enjoyed it.

 

17., 18. & 19. Two Books About Climbing Mount Everest

22 Apr

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I surprise myself by having a great, obsessive love for Jon Krakauer, based entirely on the man’s grip of reporting and narrative, which, honestly, if there’s any better nonfiction writer/reporter on earth, I don’t know about him. I recently re-read Into Thin Air, twice through, starting directly again from the beginning after having completed it once, bringing my total lifetime reads of Into Thin Air to five. This is just weird, I realize.

Into Thin Air, for the uninitiated, is the first-person story of Krakauer’s disastrous 1996 summit of Mount Everest. He was on the trip as a magazine journalist, writing for Outside magazine, covering the increasing crowds on the mountain and commercialization of the climb. The thesis of the piece was supposed to be that the new forces were making the climb more dangerous and that a big disaster was in the offing. No one knew how prescient that would be, but the big disaster in fact happened in front of Krakauer’s eyes. Eleven people died on Everest in the few-day time window that Krakauer was summiting the mountain, including two guides and two clients in his group, and the head guide of a rival group. This was the trip that included socialite Sandy Hill Pittman, who did manage to make the summit, but whose celebrity presence warped the climb in ways that directly led to several deaths. Krakauer’s chronicle of the disaster is just simply one of the most harrowing and riveting adventure stories of all time.

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The summit of Mount Everest!

You might think that with such good material, the story would be hard to fuck up. It’s not that Jon Krakauer is a great writer, it’s that he got “lucky” to be along on a trip where people died in spectacular circumstances. This couldn’t be more wrong. Into Thin Air reads so effortlessly that the reader barely questions that Krakauer has re-created, through painstaking original reporting, the timing, movements, thoughts, soul-searching, etc., of dozens of people wandering around on the top of Mount Everest in a snowstorm, most of them half-demented from hypoxia, some of them actually hallucinating. These were not reliable sources, but Krakauer sorted it all out. He also imposed a narrative on events, which could roughly be translated as “What went wrong? Why did this happen?” Again that seems so obvious that the reader doesn’t question it, but creating structure takes intellectual rigor.

And I have proof of this!, because my Kindle auto-prompted me to buy another Everest book, Dark Summit by Nick Heil, and I took the bait. This book focuses on an almost equally deadly season on Everest ten years after Krakauer’s, in 2006, when ten people died. You could teach a master class in narrative in comparing these two books, which are as close to apples and apples as you’re ever going to get, yet Krakauer’s is the classic of the genre and Heil’s is sketchy at best, despite that he also had a riveting and horrible story to work with, about a young climber named David Sharp who sat dying for days on the top of the mountain while teams of climbers walked past him without trying to help. A week later another experienced climber was left for dead in the same location. (He miraculously survived).

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Dark Summit is worth reading, barely, just because the story is so crazy, but Heil misses the boat with asking the interesting questions about it or imposing a moral narrative. I can’t say what that narrative should have been, but I feel its lack, and suspect that in the hands of a different writer the facts could have been orchestrated to mean more.

Heil’s reporting, also, is thin. He frequently quotes from websites, TV interviews and so on instead of directly from the sources. He doesn’t seem to have talked to two of the story’s villains, a couple who ran an adventure website that was generating scandal and misinformation. I found myself wondering if he’d had adequate financial support to write the book, and then wondering more in the epilogue when he mentions that some of the reporting was done on the tab of another of the book’s major players, Russell Brice, a prominent adventure-tour leader who was blamed (probably unfairly) for Sharp’s death. (Sharp was not his client.)

It’s not necessary to tear Heil apart by comparing him to Krakauer (we can’t all be Jon Krakauer, sigh) but it’s so tempting because of how illustrative it is. Into Thin Air starts with the information about who its writer was and how he related to the expedition. Krakauer was a journalist working for Outside magazine, a member of a luxury tour, basically a representative of the exact type of person not qualified to be on Everest but there anyway. He turned out to be physically up for the climb. His mountaineering expertise probably saved his life. But his presence as a journalist clearly added to the pressure on the tour-leaders, and was a factor in the body count. Krakauer puts this up front and wrestles with it, hard, for the entirety of the book. He is there to be critical, do his research, and tell the truth, the core tasks of the journalist.

I think it’s possible between-the-lines that Heil was hired by Brice to write Dark Summit. And if not, Brice was obviously his main source and the person he had the most access to. The book is Brice’s story, but it pretends not to be. It would have been stronger if Heil had just said OK, it’s Russell Brice’s story. Brice is a new microcosm of the dangers and problems of Everest, the “big boss” of the base camp, the man running all the ropes up the mountain, footing the bill for many a rescue of people not on his team, yet with no real authority. What does that ultimately indicate about life and death, good, evil, human society, the modern-day state of the commercialization of Everest?  Brice has too much power and too little and how does that get into the heads of guys like David Sharp, climbing in his proximity? That kind of synthesis is what Jon Krakauer excels at, and Nick Heil unfortunately does not.

Heil also fails to get into any of his characters’ heads. There’s a tediously in-depth chapter about David Sharp’s personal history, but it comes after two filler chapters about the history of climbing Everest, by which point I’d forgotten that Sharp was the name of the climber who’d died. In a well-written book that wouldn’t have happened.

Some people will say that Krakauer had the massive advantage of having been there. I don’t, actually, think it’s entirely relevant since he’s shown the same virtuosity and moral reasoning in Into the Wild, the story of a young man who died alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer wasn’t there for that one, but he recreated it as if he were. And, in fact, he entered the story himself, bringing in his own struggles with his family, mountaineering and the hubristic impulses of young men in order to shed light on the story’s mysterious subject. Krakauer is self-revealing, critical and honest, a brilliant combination in an investigative journalist. Amazing!

I could go on, but surely this is enough. Adding a 19. to this post because I have also just read Eiger Dreams, Krakaeur’s first book on mountaineering.

And here, I shall leave you with Krakauer in 1964, at age 10, summiting his first mountain. Taken from his beautiful Instagram feed. A little boy about to cause the world a lot of trouble, right there.

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The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

7 Apr

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I bought this book—and even bought a second one as a gift for a friend!—based on the first few chapters and its resemblance to a 2001 Ishiguro short story published in the New Yorker, “A Village After Dark,” which is a masterpiece of weirdness and withholding.  In the short story, terrain shifts, memories change, no one knows quite why they’re here, a village becomes a warren closing in on itself. Forgotten crimes could indicate that the village is a metaphor for England’s colonial history. There’s a sublimely pleasurable sense of vague horror. As a writer I’ve studied this story’s technique. It’s a master-class in how to get away with changing the rules. The trick, we discover as Ishiguro knocks out the underpinnings of narrative (time? not working; space? not working; location? obscure; motivation? unclear; characterization? eh), is to pin everything on the serenity and matter-of-factness of the narrative voice. A reliable narrator—who can paint a scene as confidently as Ishiguro can—can narrate anything and we’ll believe him.

Well, at least it works for a short story, because The Buried Giant, which uses the same technique, goes on my list of officially irritating and unreadable books and might mark a parting of ways between me and Ishiguro. The idea is similar to the “A Village After Dark” premise: an old couple, this time in Dark Ages, post-Arthur England where the Britons and the Saxons were recently at war, live in a warren where the inhabitants are cruel to them and everyone is afflicted with a curse of not being able to remember much. It’s scary and it could be a colonialism allegory. Eventually the couple discovers the source of the memory curse and lift it, at which point things may get worse because they’ll all remember each other’s crimes.

The allegory, I thought, was heavy-handed. The pleasure of the narrative voice was not enough. Reading The Buried Giant, I longed for characterization. These people were not allowed to really be people and thus were impossible to care about. The loss of memory meant nothing when they weren’t distinct characters with distinct memories in the first place. I really had to slog through to the end, and found myself skimming.