Tag Archives: Popular

41. Between You and Me, by Scott Nadelson

7 Dec

Scott Nadelson, Between You and Me

So this is silly but I burst into tears on page three of Between You and Me, a new novel from Portland author Scott Nadelson, at the totally ordinary moment when protagonist Paul Haberman meets the woman he’s going to marry, a divorced mother of two. Paul is a single man living in Manhattan in his mid-30s, described as having “settled into a comfortable bachelor’s life, with a job as in-house legal counsel—one of a dozen—for a mid-sized insurance firm in Midtown and an apartment on the Upper West Side he shared with his cat Franklin…”. It’s a good if uneventful life and he’s perfectly happy until he meets Cynthia, falls “deeply, heedlessly in love” and suddenly becomes a husband and father. I absolutely love Nadelson’s writing, and my tears were for….something like the sense of life-lived and decisions-made in the opening scene, which shows the reader the moment in Haberman’s life that meant, “Oh, this is what the rest of your life will look like.”

If that sounds romantic or romanticized, it’s anything but, though the book is full of beauty, deep joy and excellent writing about love and parenthood. Nadelson has a great eye for the ordinary human, with all our pettiness, struggle and quiet triumphs.  The epigraph, which conveys the book’s humor as well as telling us what we’re in for, is a Wright Morris quote that says:

“A man who headed no cause, fought in no wars, and passed his life unaware of the great public issues—it might be asked: why trouble with such a man at all?”

But of course you can find everything essential about living in such a person’s life, and that’s what Nadelson does, with elegance, grace and a perfect eye for detail. The story is told in chapters that jump in time every two years, from 1981 when Paul meets Cynthia, to 2001 when he’s forced into early retirement and his children are grown and gone. The events are small dramas—how Paul copes with co-parenting with Cynthia’s ex husband, a potential infidelity on a business trip, a sweet-sixteen party gone wrong—and nothing can exactly be said to have worked out well or badly either, in the way of real life.

The book’s construction, scenes, pacing, prose and humor are all so absorbing and well done they make such excellent writing look easy, when it’s actually so hard. Every metaphor is layered and every set-up has power. For example the premise where Paul meets not just a woman but a woman with children, and becomes not just a father but a step-father seems simple but actually raises the stakes dramatically. Nadelson lops off the children’s babyhood years, thrusts his character into the thick of something that’s already half over, lets us watch him sink or swim.

A first of several repeating chapters called “Nocturne For Left Hand” is one of the best and most beautiful things about the joys of parenting I’ve ever read. It starts “Every night, after the kids have gone to bed, he searches for their shoes…. This is one of his contributions to the efficient running of the household…. He performs the task quietly, without announcing himself, and takes private pleasure in knowing how useful he has been.” —For the non-parents in the audience to get this, I’ve also cried this month upon discovering that my 4-year-old had hidden his only pair of clean, somewhat presentable shoes. Tears of frustration, mainly, that I’d done the work to provide a pair of seasonally appropriate shoes, that fit, that were in good shape, for just such a moments as this, and the fruits of my labor were being denied to me. The step-dad who finds the shoes every night,  the man who recognizes this work as needing to be done and takes it upon himself to do it, is a very good man.

The rest of the Nocturne so offhandedly and subtly you’d almost miss it explores Paul’s reasons for finding the shoes, which are venal (it makes the morning easier) and personal (an orderly house is pleasant) as well as mensch-like. And the payoff is only implied, which is that parenting is about exactly this type of work, it’s about finding the fucking shoes, every day, having the right pair, getting the child to put them on.  The relentless work is the joy, if you’re doing it right. The Nocturne ends with Paul trying to untie his daughter’s shoelaces, like so:

“The lace tangles. He feels sweat sliding down his sides. His knuckles grow stiff. He reminds himself that he should buy replacement laces, stock up with every color and length. If he had a pair now, he’d cut the goddamn things off and start fresh. But all he can do is keep pulling, as patiently as possible, while big wet snowflakes catch light from his lamp on their descent.”

And in such moments, we have our lives.

Incidentally, this chapter also has a line that’s stayed with me for days:

“Obliviousness to the lives of adults is the gift of childhood, its crucial freedom.”

Much of the beauty of this book is its realism, and thus Nadelson also chronicles Paul’s failings, which are large and small. A misunderstanding leads his black neighbor to think he’s racist, yet rather than correct the impression he retreats into awkwardness and avoids the man for the next decade. He’s genuinely surprised when his step-son Kyle gets into medical school, and realizes he’d always expected the child to fail. Nadelson even offers Paul one great-events-style challenge to rise to, and shows him flunking it. Kyle somewhat at random researches Paul’s European Jewish roots for a school project and discovers a pre-holocaust tragedy that wiped out all of Paul’s bloodline. Paul’s response is to sidestep the information, ignore it. Obviously he couldn’t have done anything. Maybe he didn’t need to know, but the reader, at least this one, wanted him to engage a little more.

As he ages, he seems less happy, and I also wondered if that would have been different if he’d tried a little harder in various areas.

A chapter near the end is called “Anything Quite Like It,” a title which refers to an eel a child has caught in a bucket at a summer picnic. Here’s the description:

“From the bucket came an unsavory slurping sound, and when he looked inside he experienced an odd dizzying sensation at the sight of swirling water sloshing against orange plastic. It took him a moment to realize the water wasn’t moving on its own, and for a flash he believed the boy had magical powers, or mystical ones—confirming, in either case, childhood suspicions that the world was far more complicated than he knew. Then he saw the wriggling creature at the bottom, about six inches long, a black streak turning circles and figure-eights, at once frantic and graceful.”

The child says he’s never seen anything quite like it, and that he’ll remember it for his whole life. Later he seems to forget, but Paul remembers, and sees the eel again at a moment when his life is in danger. I read the eel as a metaphor for the mystery of our lives, there in a flash and then gone. Paul is not really the type of character to grasp at mystery, which either matters or doesn’t. Nadelson, on the other hand, has grasped it brilliantly.



38. Death in Spring, by Merce Rodoreda

11 Nov

Death in Spring, Merce Rodoreda

Well, Death in Spring is the most fabulously gruesome and disturbing book I’ve read in a while.

It’s the last novel by Spanish writer Merce Rodoreda, originally published in 1986 in the Catalan language, translated into English in 2009 and published by Open Letter books.  The book is an allegory for life in Spain under the dictator Franco, and takes place in a village overrun by wisteria, undermined by a rushing river, swarmed by bees and girded with awful customs that deny the inhabitants all desire and dehumanize everyone they touch. The pregnant women wear blindfolds so they cannot see any men other than their husbands. A “prisoner” is kept and forced to neigh like a horse. Dying people’s throats are filled with rose-colored cement to trap their souls after death. The villagers are brutal and complicit, and the whole thing is overseen by “Senyor,” a crippled man living on the hillside above the village.

In the first section the main character watches a man commit a ritual suicide, chopping open a tree and climbing in it. The tree then seals itself around him with bubbling green resin. Every inhabitant of the village has a tree with their name on it. The boy describes it thus:

The trunk looked like a splayed horse. The tree was as wide and tall as a man, and I noticed the seedcase inside. It looked slightly green in the green light of the forest, the same color as the tree trunks in the nursery. The man poked the seedcase with the pitchfork, first on one side, then the other until it fell to the ground. Smoke rose from the gap left in the tree. The man put down the pitchfork, wiped the sweat from his neck, and rolled the seedcase to the foot of another tree. Some leaves were  caught on it…. He was weeping. He stepped backwards into the tree.

Later the narrator tells us that, “I was fourteen years old, and the man who had entered the tree to die was my father.” After this event the villagers find out what happened, return to the tree, exhume the still-dying man and fill him with rose cement so his soul cannot escape. And then the boy develops a strange passionate affair with his stepmother, an odd, child-like woman only a few years older than him.

We never know, really, what the seedcases are for or what the nursery is for or why the villagers must visit the buttermilk fountain. The point, I thought, was to convey the horror of a society devoted to senseless violence and turned in upon itself, where the end goal—in so much as there is ever any goal in a totalitarian state—is to crush the inhabitants’ souls.

In this telling of the tale, too, the inhabitants create the system perhaps more than Senyor, the dictator. Here is a part when the hero prepares to swim under the village, a forced passage that often causes mutilation or death:

I remember the sound of water. I don’t know whether it was because of the women or the sound of the river, but I thought about two types of water. One good, one bad. They all wanted it. They had contrived to do it. They were bored and needed it to keep living. Everyone’s face bespoke a craving, although what they wished was not really clear to them; they just wished it at whatever cost. I never realized they had all joined together to do this to me: men, women—even the pregnant women—the old men from the slaughterhouse, the man in charge of blood, the faceless men….

In the metaphorical language of the book, the ‘good’ water is desire, greenness, but it is corrupted or impossible for these people. Even the protagonist succumbs:

From the damp sprouted a new-green stem, topped by a bud. The bud grew large, the green streaked with the color of crimson dust. One day I had curled up, waiting for the flower to blossom. It made a clicking sound when it opened and the flower released the leaves. I plucked it, and bitter, viscous water spurted from the stem. If you touched it and rubbed your fingers over your lips, you got sores. All of a sudden I realized what I desired: sorrow. The stones scattered in the mud were patches of sorrow.

It doesn’t seem like it’s his fault, more like his destiny. Though he does turn away from love (I think) at one crucial part near the end.

Here’s a last bit about water, as close as he comes to good desire, and a decent sum-up of the author’s project for the book:

Tenderness changed me into water and everything that fled from me was in that water. I don’t know why, I don’t know what those mornings were because no words exist for them. No. No words exist. They have to be invented.

30. The Imago Trilogy, by Octavia E. Butler

3 Aug

Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler

I have just completed my fourth re-reading of Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler, also known as the Imago Trilogy or the Xenogenesis Trilogy, one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction, an eye-popping, queasy, deeply uncomfortable imagining of the issues that would arise if the human race were sexually absorbed by aliens.

The speculative framework for the books is that after an apocalyptic human war, when everyone on earth is dying or dead, a race of deep-space-traveling aliens comes along and offers a sort-of choice: Survive, while mating with us and breeding with us to create a third race, or you all die. The choice is framed through the personal struggles of the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, a young black woman from Los Angeles who is the first kidnapped/saved human the aliens wake up from suspended animation on their space ship, and who is tasked with convincing other humans to cooperate.

The beginning is the perfect waking-up-in-a-locked-room-mystery. Lilith awakens, with no idea where she is. “The walls were light-colored—white or gray perhaps. The bed was what it had always been: a solid platform that gave slightly to the touch and seemed to grow from the floor.”

She proves to be strong-minded and adaptable:

“When her body calmed and became reconciled to reanimation, she looked around. The room seemed dimly lit, though she had never Awakened to dimness before. She corrected her thinking. The room did not only seem dim, it was dim. At an earlier Awakening she had decided that reality was whatever happened, whatever she perceived. It had occurred to her—how many times?—that she might be insane or drugged, physically ill or injured. None of that mattered. It could not matter while she was confined this way, kept helpless, alone and ignorant.”

The aliens are terrifying and repulsive to humans, but find humans erotic and compelling. They are vastly more evolved, deeply condescending, and can manipulate human bodies on a molecular level to produce pleasure. They stick their tentacles into us, drug us, and produce spectacular, instantly addictive sensations. They live in three-person, three-gender groupings, have wild sex, and hope to add human partners to make five-person households, plus children. Anyone who won’t cooperate with them, they sterilize. Eventually everyone ends up back on a repaired earth, either as a collaborator, living and breeding with the aliens, or as a resister, sterile and angry. Lilith is a collaborator, but is tortured by it. She has a family and is attached to her alien partners, at the same time as she cannot forgive them for coercing her, and cannot forgive herself for betraying humanity, which will cease to exist as a separate race after the last resister dies.

Butler is famous for being a black, female science fiction writer who came to prominence in the ’80s, and is unusual in the genre for putting “soft” “women’s” issues like reproduction, sex and love at the heart of a hard sci-fi series. She’s asking difficult theoretical questions—What kind of sacrifice is more noble? How much violation should we take for a good cause?—but always embodying them and grounding them in fully-realized characters’ lives.  It’s simply my favorite type of speculative book.

I was sad to notice on this reading, though, that as a speculative work about gender and sexuality written in the 1980s, the book has dated. Butler—in this work at least—has fairly intense gender essentialist views—men are biologically more violent and prone to wander, women are more domestic and care more about babies—and leaves same-sex pairings entirely out of her framework. In a book about extreme reproductive technologies and genetic mixing, nowhere does she question the idea that it takes a man and a woman to reproduce.

Another somewhat sad note from 2015, apparently the publisher has decided to tart up the cover to make the book look more lightweight and appealing to women, or something. Here’s the latest. I cannot imagine the author would be pleased.

Lilith's Brood New Cover


14. Things I Like About America, by Poe Ballantine

19 Feb

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 9.06.43 PM

There was a desperately unhappy and bored time in my life when I learned to draw the map of America freehand, all the states named, in the right places, mostly in the right shape; the line of the Mississippi helping to define the erratic edge of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana; the jigsaw of the northeast represented accurately; some rough attempt at 2-long, 1-tall scale done with the handspan between pinkie and thumb; all of it ballooning, squashed and demented, but maybe, I thought, just maybe, representing hope if I were abducted by aliens and forced to account for my country. Or really I was thinking about elsewhere, freedom, escape from myself and towards a place where no one would expect anything of me.

I never left Brooklyn, but that’s my road story. Something about the map of America seems to evoke them, to call forth the idea that there’s a place out there where one could dispense with the bullshit, live the right way, just be.

That this itself is known bullshit and escapism only makes it more attractive.

Poe Ballantine is a master of the road story, a drunk, writer and late-bloomer, lover of women, laborer at crap jobs who, in his first published book, Things I Like About America, chronicles decades of drift. At some point he says he’s written 17 unpublishable novels, that 90 percent of what he writes is no good. His age skips from 17 to 28 to 43. He takes busses and stays in motels. He lives in Eureka, Louisville, Niagra Falls. He’s a man with no ties, down to his last few dollars, going somewhere new. There’s something deeply consoling about this much freedom…and this much failure.

And oh is his voice great.

Here he is describing an early encounter with crack cocaine:

The first inhaled hit of volatilized cocaine is the best: it launches you through the roof of the sky. There is no greater high. It makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe. You love, with the power of God, all things: house plants, bumblebees, lint balls, even the cat shit in the sandbox beneath the sink. I thought of Charlene and loved her for once purely, without resentment or remorse, without a trace of indignation for having neglected me. I longed to share this feeling with her, this unfathomable, infallible, and virtuous love. So I called her apartment but she wasn’t home.

It’s witty, unpretentious writing with many great turns of phrase. The high of crack “launches you through the roof of the sky” and “makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe.” Elsewhere he says, “I was dazed by love, like someone hit in the forehead with a two-by-four.” Elsewhere yet, running out of money, he writes, “I had about a month before my feet would be sticking out of a bunk at the Baptist Mission.” I liked the image of the feet, his ability to paint himself into a landscape.

There’s a point when the traveling gets to be too much, when the bad jobs reach their nadir, when he dreads again confronting, “the strangers, the empty room, the low-paying job where they would lead me through the door marked Hazardous Chemicals, the willful isolation and the poverty.” So he goes back to collage, likes it, almost graduates, but doesn’t stay, because,

“How can you expect to produce anything interesting or different while sitting in secure, climate-controlled comfort year after year, doing exactly what you’re told? How do you get your certificate of long-standing conformity and then expect somehow to stand out from the crowd?”

This brings us to the why of the road story. In the chapter “Never and Nowhere,” Ballantine says that

“for twenty years I’ve had a vision of the ideal place. I’ve tried to explain the place but I can’t. It is something like nowhere but not a ghost town. It is alive.”

This is so strange that it bears examination. He’s not looking for an idealized way to live, he’s looking for a nowhere. I don’t understand this exactly, but I sense truth it in, the truth that makes road stories sad, haunted by suicide, driven by hope and failure in equal measures. Maybe when we hit the road we’re looking for a safe place to fail among all the other failed people, an anonymous room, a lowered expectation. Maybe we’re looking for a thing that isn’t there.

Ballantine almost kills himself, but then he makes it through somehow, and the book is evidence that his career slowly blossoms by its own lights.

This is another gem from Portland, Oregon small-press Hawthorne, who also publish Lidia Yuknavitch and Tom Spanbauer. These books are so great, so likeable, so well-written that it’s hard to understand why they aren’t front-and-center in every airport in America.  The world would be a better place, I tell you what.



7. Testo Junkie, by Beatriz Preciado

12 Jan

Testo Junkie, Beatriz Preciado, Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era

This book, translated from the French, is a “voluntary intoxication protocol,” in which Spanish drag-king activist and cultural theorist Beatriz Preciado takes testosterone off-label for 200-something days, as a strategy of resistance towards the involuntary intoxication of what she calls the “pharmacopornographic” regime. It’s a memoir, a terrifying and brilliant work of cultural deconstruction, and also a eulogy for the French writer Guillaume Dustan, a loved one of Preciado’s who died of a drug overdose in 2005. Some of the first-person text is written addressing Dustan. She explains:

I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man or as a physical strategy of transsexualism; I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me, so that I can write, fuck, feel a form of pleasure that is postpornographic, add a molecular prostheses to my low-tech transgender identity composed of dildos, texts and moving images; I do it to avenge your death.

I’m probably behind on this, but I’d never connected our cyborg prostheses—the phone, the laptop, that I-word thing I’m using to talk to you right now—with the “molecular prostheses” of drugs.  And oh but these things are connected, in Preciado’s theory, as an overall strategy of capitalist surveillance and control, which has moved away from human mercantile activity into the more fertile, more profitable ground of human subjectivity.

Specifically, she says that sex and sexuality, in which she’s including the vast realm of gender-identity, have become “the main objects of political and economic activity.”

I suspect that many gender-normative, heterosexual readers of my blog are not the types to think of themselves as even having a gender identity, which will be a stumbling block towards comprehending the vastness of the arena of control. Maybe seeing “some semoitechnical codes of white heterosexual femininity” will help: (And also, Preciado is funny.)

“…the subdued elegance of Lady Di, Prozac, fear of being a bitch in heat, Valium, the necessity of the G-string, knowing how to restrain yourself, letting yourself be fucked in the ass when it’s necessary, being resigned, accurate waxing of the pubes, depression, thirst, little lavender balls that smell good, the smile, the living mummification of the smooth face of youth, love before sex, breast cancer…”

As she puts it, gender is a “biotech industrial artifact” and we are living in a “gigantic pharmacopornographic Disneyland in which the tropes of sexual naturalism are fabricated on a global scale as products of the endocrinological, surgical, agrifood and media industries.”

She also posits a concept of “potentia gaudendi” or “orgasmic force,” which she claims is being put to work through pornography, among other things.

I have some doubts and questions. I find her arguments about the control of sexual subjectivity  convincing without seeing how she’s concluded that it’s the primary thing being controlled. If you look at capitalism as a vast strategy to generate in humans the desire to buy things, gender seems to be one of the many things we purchase. I will admit, though, that I’m not perfectly versed in a lot of the theory she’s riffing on.

And speaking of those riffs, the power of Preciado’s writing and synthesis is glorious to behold. She gets a manicure, hilariously. She writes about the World Cup. She starts thinking about the couch we sit on to watch TV and ends up characterizing it as “a tentacle of the control system, an installation within inner space in the form of living room furniture…a political device, a public space of surveillance and deactivation.”

I suspect she’s too serious of a thinker to want to be this entertaining, or to write prose this aesthetically exquisite, but she does both.

The path leading from the Vauvert writers’ residence to the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a paradise of plants over which they’ve rolled a tongue of asphalt. It’s a natural garden inhabited by new technoliving species: beavers, eagles, bulls, white horses, colonies of pink flamingoes, and cars. The cars that glide along that unique gray carpet are cyberpredators longing to eliminate all competition between mobile prehistoric organisms and new ultrarapid human-machine aggregates…. The beavers swim nimbly through the river, plunging under the submerged shrubs, their fur-covered shapes rippling…. On dry land their furry bodies become clumsy, their tails too heavy; their eyes still covered by a liquid film, can barely distinguish the other shore. The cars zigzag to try to trap these viscous volumes under their tires. Sometimes they hit them head on, making them burst into blood and guts.

She goes on to describe the eagle circling above the road-kill beavers as using the automobile as its “hunting prosthesis,” and looking forward to a meal of the beaver’s “foreign and exquisite tripe.”  It’s a perfect passage.

The strategies of resistance to pharmocoporn and the narco-state that the book offers in the end—voluntary intoxication, gender-hacking, activism, telling your own story—are surprisingly low-tech, and that too is perfect.





Top 10 Best and Worst of 2014

20 Dec

2014 has been an amazing year of reading books for me—thanks to AWP, meeting more publishers of independent presses, and mostly avoiding mainstream literary fiction. The following is a best-and-worst of the books published this year that I happened to read this year. It does not include books by dear friends because I have three dear friends with great books this year, and that just gets silly. (If only all Brooklyn critics could opt out in this way, the year-end lists would be different indeed!)

1. Best: Testo Junkie, by Beatriz Preciado

An “autoerotic intoxication protocol” by a Spanish post-Marxist feminist and gender renegade that has changed the way I understand my body, my life and that emotional, intellectual and sexual cyber-prosthesis sometimes called a laptop. Scary, scary shit that everyone should read.

2. Worst: Department of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

This was a very good Brooklyn Mother book, impressively structured, witty, well-written, and deserving of its many accolades compared to the others in its genre, but its existence annoyed me for a large chunk of 2014. I felt that Offill failed to bring any heart or soul or greatness of spirit into the airless chamber of bitching that is her topic. She said it well, but she said nothing new.

3. Best: Seiobo There Below, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Fall down and start screaming and wailing and gnashing your teeth at this cult Hungarian writer’s unchecked brilliance. The Krasznahorkai is  a blizzard of ecstatic layers on art, transcendence and God. The Krasznahorkai is unknowable, immersive and deranged. Please read the Krasznahorkai. I also interviewed the translator for The Paris Review, which was good fun.

4. Worst: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 7.52.36 PM
Has no one else noticed that David Mitchell’s voices are boring? As a young woman, I loved Cloud Atlas, but I also brazenly skipped the parts in dialect. Mitchell has moments of lovely prose and interesting, intricate plotting, but for vast rafts of the novel the point is to enjoy the voices, and I don’t. To me these quirky characters don’t feel like people and, thanks to plentiful mimetic indulgence, bring us gems like “I felt like a clubbed baby seal.”

5. Best: Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier (re-issued this year by the NYRB imprint)

This obscure volume by a sardonic teenage Frenchman starts with the smell of war and tells us everything from there. The most honest and illuminating book on trench warfare I’ve ever read.

6. Best and Worst: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich
Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 8.24.43 PM

Lena Finkle got divorced and lived on to have hot sex and a happier life, contrary to what mainstream culture would have us believe. Best book, most beautiful illustrations, worst New York Times Review.

7. Best: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A NAB (non-American black) view on race in America in very-funny-immigrant-novel format. Adichie provides social comedy, social commentary and takes neither shit nor prisoners. This book is about blackness, but the send-ups of whiteness are also pretty eye-opening.

8. Worst: Sugar Skull, by Charles Burns
Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 8.21.43 PM
This is only a “worst” book in comparison to the other two volumes of Burns’s X’ed Out series, two of my favorite graphic novels—or novels, period—of all time. I was let down by the overly literal and tidy end.

9. Best: I Loved You More, by Tom Spanbauer
Despite having spilled my own ink, I still prefer Rob from LitReactor’s statement on Tom Spanbauer: “The sensation of reading his books is that, while you’re reading them, it’s like he’s placed his hand on your chest, the warmth and pressure and intimacy of it reassuring you that you are alive, and you are not alone.” Yes. That.

10. Best: The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, by Hassan Blasim 

The absurdity and horror of living in the political catastrophe that is Iraq is laid out in these tight, disturbing, allegorical stories by an Iraqi writer. I haven’t read anything quite like this.

32. Women, by Chloe Caldwell

20 Nov

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 1.03.11 PM

“When Finn and I are drinking in dark bars, we forget we are in public, it’s as though we go underwater. When we finish kissing, she pulls away and looks around, saying, Woah, everything is still here.”

Every white-hot train-wreck passion deserves a book, at least in the eyes of the person experiencing it. These are moments of unbearable clarity, longing, sex, perfection—the sun coming through the curtains of a rented room, a particular person’s skin, the little things they said, the way one feels that one could not possibly feel more. And then so all that feeling overflows into writing. In Chloe Caldwell’s case it’s the story of her first female lover, an affair she had with a woman twice her age, who was also in a relationship, with whom she’s pushed off the emotional edge of the world with an intensity and desperation that clearly won’t end well. The book is an e-book published by Emily Books, Emily Gould’s awesome alt-lit project.

“I ask Finn if things are always this insane and dramatic between two women, and she says yes. She says it’s either like this, or monotonous and boring. As if there is no in-between.”

I liked this book. Caldwell has a directness and clarity in writing about herself that works really well, and the casual brushstrokes of her surroundings in a small, unnamed liberal city (I dunno, Portland?) are precise. The transgender best friend, the coffee shop, the bars and library and house-sitting for wealthier friends serve to let the reader in rather than locking us out, harder to do than it appears to be.

“We lay in bed together, stoned from the cookies. The bed was against a brick wall and I began to imagine we were alone in a different city together. Let’s pretend we’re in Paris or Brooklyn, I said.”

Caldwell is young; the story takes place in her early 20s, and she makes everything she doesn’t yet know or doesn’t yet understand one of the writing’s strengths:

“Sometimes I wonder what it is I could tell you about her for my job here to be done. I am looking for a shortcut–something  I could say that would effortlessly untangle the ball of yarn I am trying to untangle here on these pages. But that would be asking too much from you. It wasn’t you who loved her, or thought you loved her.”

She’s not sure, really, what the ball of yarn is about, and doesn’t end up with an answer. There’s a quote I now cannot find where she says, something like, Oh, meaning, I’m sick of it. I give up.

I usually find that to be a drawback in writing by young writers. Two other excellent books about mad passions I’ve read this year, Cris Mazza’s Something Wrong With Her, and Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, are both written by women experienced and self-aware enough to start finding answers to Why this person?  Why now? Caldwell isn’t there yet, but she knows how to tell a story based on what she’s got. At one point her therapist says about Finn, something like “you’ve got your hand an inch from your nose, she was never your friend,” which I thought was true. Respect to a girl who can write a good book with her hand in front of her face.

That hand, though blocked the view of the lover.

“I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will.”

I wanted to fall in love with her, but I could barely see her. I had so many questions about her that went unanswered. Why was she so stuck in the relationship that she wouldn’t leave for Caldwell? (I suspected a child had been elided from the text, though Finn seemed to have a bit too much flexibility to party and sleep over for that). It’s implied that she’s stone-butch. How did she get there? How did Caldwell feel about it? How did Finn get to this point where she’s in her 40s and has fallen in love with a 20-year-old outside of her relationship? Does the affair leave both parties alienated and unknowable? Does sexual chemistry that intense need a particular brand of otherness and pain in order to thrive? I really enjoyed thinking about these things while reading, and didn’t feel the book needed to have the answers.

Another direction that the text goes, but only implicitly, is to raise the issue of how Caldwell’s own mothering is tied up in her sexual relationship with Finn. Almost the only details we get about Caldwell’s life outside of the affair concern her mother, with whom she’s very close and feels even closer to during the affair.

“Though I’ve always felt affectionate with my mom, I feel it more acutely now. Taking her hand under the table at bars. Noticing whether or not she touches me during the night while we sleep or rubs my back in the morning.”

It’s my theory that this is why the book has the generically wide but actually quite pointed title, Women. Heaven help us when we get together. It makes a good story though.

22. The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

6 Aug


My review of N.K. Jemisin’s first novel was positive, but I didn’t know I’d buy and read the sequel the very next night, in a blur of delight. (I’ve also now read book three in the Inheritance Trilogy, so am officially a superfan…).

In The Broken Kingdoms, the narrator—this is a spoiler, but a tiny one—is blind, and can see only magic. She’s an artist on the streets of Shadow, which is what the City of Sky from the first book has been renamed. The action starts around ten years after the first book ended, and concerns some of the same gods from the first book, with different emphasis.

(There will be some spoilers about the first book, but I’m trying to keep them to a minimum, since Jemisin’s twisty and elaborate plotting is one of her strengths.)

Here is how the blind woman, Oree Shoth, describes a man she finds in her muckbin, whose identity and relationship to her will form the spine of the plot:

“At first I saw only delicate lines of gold limn the shape of a man. Dewdrops of glimmering silver beaded along his flesh and then ran down in rivulets, illuminating the texture of skin in smooth relief. I saw some of those rivulets move impossibly upward, igniting the filaments of his hair, the stern-carved lines of his face.”

Oree’s world creating itself out of the dark, in lines of flame or color, is a beautiful prolonged effect that thrilled me throughout the book. I was also amazed that Jemsin was writing action-adventure-fantasy, which requires so much world-building, without having access to telling us what stuff looked like. Every time Oree touched someone’s face (or wished she could), or explained how she was drawing conclusions about things she couldn’t see, or made fun of someone for having a stupid response to her blindness, I was impressed by Jemsin’s skill as a writer. She took a limit and made it into a strength, made blindness more interesting than sight.

I also realized in Book Two that employing a narrative gimmick will be a feature of the series. In Book One, there were strange conversations and artifacts, like blips in the text, that kept me guessing throughout and (spoiler) ended up being Yeine, dead, arguing with her second soul (end spoiler). In this one, there is a “you” who Oree is addressing, whose identity, revealed, made me weep.

These kinds of epic touches are the delight of reading fantasy. Another delight is Jemisin’s language, which is so flowery, dreamy and embellished, that it’s easy to miss how tightly crafted it is.  Here is Oree introducing herself (and also laying the groundwork for an important plot reveal later in the book):

“My parents named me Oree. Like the cry of the southeastern weeper-bird. Have you heard it? It seems to sob as it calls, oree, gasp, oree, gasp. Most Maroneh girls are named for such sorrowful things. It could be worse; the boys are named for vengeance. Depressing, isn’t it? That sort of thing is why I left.”

For me, however, all of the epic touches and dazzling style in the world aren’t going to be truly, deeply, exciting if a book doesn’t provide something to think about. In this case it was the portrait of people (mainly brown-skinned people) dealing with the fall-out from a fallen ruling class (white-skinned, mostly-evil people), formerly absolute dictators with the Gods on their sides, now in Book Two struggling to hold on to their power. The ruling-class God, Itempas, the Lord of Light and Right, has fallen too. (Incidentally, he surprised everyone by turning out to be brown-skinned.)

Jemisin executes this with her usual panache. The Arameri (ruling classes) live in an obnoxious palace in the sky and just. don’t. care. about anyone non-Arameri. They play roles, they cause trouble or sometimes even turn out to be not-so-bad, but Oree Shoth and the good guys are from other races, and take center stage. It’s very clever. Instead of making the princess black, Jemsin has made the princess bad (which makes so much more sense), semi-sidelined her, and created a more exciting female hero.

Even more  interesting, Jemisin calls into question the idea of a God who is always right. Wouldn’t an always-right God be kind of an asshole? Could he ever change his mind? Would he have any sympathy for imperfect humans?  What would it take for this God to become someone worthy of worship?

Overall, a fabulous book.














20. Something Wrong Her, Cris Mazza

28 Jul



(The following review is cross-posted today on HTML Giant)

This amazing “real time” memoir by Cris Mazza deserves a love-letter, and also a review or maybe six, written at different points while the reviewer is reading. Some would be awed and respectful, some would be infuriated, or in tears.  I was obsessed,  and ended up forming intense bonds to the characters, the love story, and the way of telling. It’s such a complex book, it’s taken me months to try to write about it, and even now….

The basic format is that Mazza sets out to explore what she characterizes as her sexual dysfunction, which she intends to both confess and try to explain (to herself and to us), through an examination of her sexual and emotional history. But as she’s working on the book, she gets back in touch with a high school boyfriend, and the story she thinks she remembers starts to change. She begins to include the story of their current emailing, along with old journal entries, earlier draft versions of the same chapters, and excerpts from her previous published books, which have fictional versions of real events, remembered and re-created at different points in time.

A strange note: The book was supposed to come out in fall 2013, and a cover was released and some advance reviews came in, but due to problems with the publisher, it was finally published with a different cover in April 2014.

Most of the other writing on the book has addressed its feminism and sexual politics—Mazza is a well-respected writer of experimental literary fiction with 17 books to her name, known for graphic sexual content and a feminist bent. A previous novel was titled Is it Sexual Harassment Yet? She edited a collection of “chick lit” before that was a term that meant a pink-shoe. And yet in this book she confesses that she has or had vaginismus (a spasming condition that makes penis-in-vagina sex painful) and has never had an orgasm. She also admits to many un-modern-feminist thoughts, like considering herself to be frigid, and thinking her body is dirty.

Her honesty is brave, rare, and hopefully might be helpful to other women who suffer from the same problems. Mazza found talk-therapy to be useless and something called Pelvic Floor Therapy helpful in decreasing the pain during sex. It’s refreshing to hear a woman—especially an older woman—speak honestly about sex, especially when she’s admitting to the uncoolness of not liking it. As she points out, we usually hear from women who are having too much sex, and though this is presented as a flaw, “isn’t the unspoken aura that these women are—for the same reasons—exotic, worldly, exciting, charismatic, provocative…or just plain cool?”

But for all its frankness and willingness to tell-all, Something Wrong With Her isn’t self-help book or a statement of sexual politics. The quest as Mazza writes it is not medical or feminist-political, or even psychological, but historical. She wants to know what’s wrong with her (in her own words) and embarks on “a memory-search for the reasons my sex life had been set on a path towards dysfunction or complete failure….” She looks at her early sexual experiences, her feelings about her body, and most of all, a handful of relationships where she felt violated or controlled by men. Early boyfriends pressured her or were rough. She was a band geek in college, and worked in the office for a band leader who she had a hero-worship crush on, which she feels was obscurely damaging. A later boss was sexually inappropriate. All of this is explored on an infinite loop of repetition and re-visiting, in obsessive detail.

Were these events damaging, or just normal?  Mazza, looking back, concludes that no real crimes were committed and that her problems are no one’s fault (but her own). I recognized many of the events as “normal” occurrences from my own adolescence, from the creepy and insinuating boss to the unpleasantly groping dates; for me, these were sexual wrong-things that happened along the way to discovering sexual right-things. For Mazza, they were something more. At one point she writes, “Mark, why don’t I ‘stand things’? Why have I never? Why am I not ‘over’ anything that’s ever happened or not happened?”

Perhaps that’s the right question, but it made me wish for a wider cultural interrogation. Nothing “bad” really happened to her, but on many levels the whole stew is bad. Our culture’s focus on “sex” as the act of heterosexual penetration is ridiculous. There is no one sex act that fits everyone; there is no correct assemblage of parts. Mazza’s sexuality bears this out, but she can’t say “I don’t like that; I want this instead,” so she considers that she’s a failure at sex. She also writes about her sense of failure at being a desirable woman, since she’s uncomfortable with femininity and dislikes her female parts. (At one point Mark asks her, “When did you start thinking of your body, there, as a wound?”) Is she a failure as a woman, or do we as a culture have an idea of “woman” that doesn’t fit everyone? If your assigned gender role makes little sense to you, maybe it’s more difficult to roll with the usual small violations and humiliations of adolescence. Mazza is in her late 50s, and the feminist theory she quotes is second-wave Erica Jong, but I’d imagine there are young women like her today, still feeling like failures because they don’t live up to “sex” and “woman” as commonly described.

Increasingly, the book turns into the love story between Cris and Mark. The reveals on this story are so brilliant (one happens, unbelievably, in a footnote, about halfway through) that I don’t want to say anything more about the plot here. Except maybe, Oh Cris, Oh Mark, Oh Cris, Oh Mark. You are killing me. We’re all waiting to see if Mark can cure her. We all want to know if it ever turns out like the fairy-tale.

(My contribution to posterity here, in case I happen to be reaching any masturbation-shy, non-orgasmic women in my humble blog post, consists of two words: bathtub faucet. You will need to find one with decent water pressure. Try it. Please.)

I had long wondered if the quality of an Internet affair (Mark is married when then story starts) could be recreated in a book, if the tension of the correspondence could be made narrative. Mazza has done it, which is funny since she’s a pre-Internet age writer often using handwritten diary entries from a time long before e-mail. Yet those diary entries capture something quintessential about how people connect online, when we so often turn other people into our diaries, when the relationship is as much an exploration of self as it is of the other. The whole book is a diary, and a correspondence, and it played for me nearly as effectively as I were part of the affair, in real time.

Some of the most poignant and beautiful lines in the book concerned that morphing between writing and life. “Basically: while I wrote this book something happened. Something happened while I was writing the book I thought I was going to write, which turned it into another book altogether.” Or, “Oh Mark, what am I going to do when I finish this book? It’s the only life I’m living. How does a person who only lives when she writes, write a memoir?

The aura of dreamy, self-absorbed storytelling that many of us recognize from obsessive e-mail correspondence pervades the book. Mazza jokes in several places that she’s going into way too much detail. “Why include this barely significant vignette of a heartbreak?” she says at one point.  And in another she mentions something that (I’m paraphrasing) “no one would care about—but Mark I know you do.” I loved her for it, and Mark too, for caring, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note that there were times I couldn’t believe what I was reading—and couldn’t believe I was still reading it—like, the time the school band went on a trip and Cris’s boss, who she had a crush on, “betrayed” her by not riding on the bus, and not calling to make sure everyone was OK after the bus broke down. Sometimes I just had to laugh. The humor was deepened by Mazza’s inclusion of comments from her writing group, who rightly point out the many reader expectations that she seems bent on frustrating. Go, writing group! One particularly funny part was someone telling her that having a crush on a high school band teacher was itself humorous. (She was indignant, and didn’t agree.)

I thought she got away with it all, partially through sheer commitment and partially because she’s a great writer with an excellent grip of pacing and suspense. Anyone wanting to write a deconstructed memoir, or include e-mail and text in a book should use this as a guide. As testament to her prose abilities, here’s a snippet from her fiction, from a story quoted in the book called “Let’s Play Doctor,” that seems representative of her lucid, risky, bold approach:

“She has a magazine in her hands and Dr. Shea moves behind her, very close, his cheek against hers. The smells from the bakery at the back of the bookstore become potent. She sees a whole pan of buttery cinnamon rolls coming from the oven. She doesn’t let go of the magazine; she can feel the slick heavy pages in her hands. Dr. Shea kisses her neck. ‘Let’s check your wounds,’ he murmurs. She’s looking at the magazine but doesn’t see anything. Dr. Shea lifts her shirt and runs his finger along the line where he had cut her open.”

I’ve written all this and not mentioned the explosive political content. Is it rape if we change our minds about it later? Can we call teenage grappling “rape games”? Do we dare admit to eroticizing our traumas? Is it sexual harassment if we want it? Mazza’s experiences with authority figures, and the men in her life, raise all of those questions in ways that aren’t always comfortable. She admits to calling situations that were or turned out to be ambiguous “sexual harassment” and “sexual excessive force.” I don’t like a world where ambiguous shit like that is legislated, and at the same time I think it right and necessary that sexual harassment and rape are illegal. It’s a mess, and this book does not help clear it up (not that it’s supposed to).

What it does—wonderfully, agonizingly—is look at one woman and her experiences with sex, in a deeper, more real, more fascinating, more exposed, more sexual way than I can recall having read anywhere, and all that in the middle of a firebomb of an Internet affair. What you want in a sex memoirist, it turns out, is not a blogger with a cute Instagram, but a hard-core old lady who has written 17 well-regarded literary books and never had an orgasm. I am only pretending to be surprised by that. I am not surprised. And I love you, Cris Mazza.

15. The Secret Rendezvous, Kobo Abe

19 Apr

20101124170413 images

Milan Kundera, writing about the novel, says that its purpose is to tell a truth that only a novel can tell–I’m paraphrasing, but the point is that a novel is a complex, non-linear vehicle for revealing complex, non-linear insights about the world that can’t be gotten at any other way. If you can relay the “point” of a novel is in a single pithy sentence, it probably didn’t need to be written, Kundera says.

So hold onto your horse penises my friends, because this is a novel.

The Secret Rendezvous, by Kobo Abe is a the tale of a “jump-shoe” salesman and former nude model whose wife is taken away in an ambulance by mistake one morning. When he goes to look for her, he stumbles from the mundane world into a vast, half-submerged, increasingly surreal hospital complex where the patients are semi-prostitutes and a man who thinks he’s a horse is running the show. The hero slowly loses track of his quest to find his wife and becomes enmeshed in sexual jealousies and subplots surrounding the horse-man’s attempts to co-opt a functioning penis (he’s impotent) and use it on a 13-year-old nymphomaniac with an incurable bone disease. The ending is one of the creepier and more awful bits of surreal body-horror freakout I’ve read, and leaves the reader in an interesting frame of mind, denied “meaning,” but with a lot to think about.

I absolutely loved it.

I love anything that is hilarious, bitter, absurd, fetishy and breaks all the rules. Something this weird could really never be didactic, but the hospital-run-amok theme has rich enough parallels to the real world. And it also occurs to me that the plot is driven, in essence, by the head hospital bureaucrat’s hard-on. Isn’t that what drives all bureaucracies?

Many of the fireworks are structural. In the first parts of the book, present-tense action (involving the hero writing a surveillance report on himself, in notebooks) alternate with segments containing the notebooks’ contents. He’s been ordered to write about himself in the third person. But sometimes “the man” forgets. As he says after describing himself, “This report contains the results of an investigation of the above man. Since it is not apparently meant for publication, I won’t adhere strictly to form.” And then throughout there are various nesting complexities of when and where he’s writing, that devolve into what I think they’d call “a singularity” in sci-fi terms, getting so wrapped up that the book only sorta ends.

There’s cleverness and sweetness in “the man” and Abe’s meticulous, scientific approach to the mounting insanity. The man gets upset from time to time but he is, as he describes himself in his surveillance report “extremely mild-tempered.” He pursues his increasingly irrational quest rationally, even when he has to admit that his own actions make no sense. The writer has the same kind of understatement, calmly describing the halls, hills, graveyards and tunnels of the monstrous hospital as if it were mappable… as if any of it is.

The same friend who recommended Abe also recommended The Ark Sakura, which is supposedly Abe’s masterpiece of twisted genius. I look forward to reading it soon.