Archive for the ‘Books I’m Reading’ Category

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Rebecca Lee’s wonderful story collection Bobcat and Other Stories for the Chattahoochee Review (33.2-3).

OF DUST AND EROS: A REVIEW OF REBECCA LEE’S BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES
lee_bobcatBobcat and Other Stories. Rebecca Lee. Algonquin. 2013. 212 pp. $14.95 (paperback).

One of my favorite poems is George Herbert’s “The Pulley,” in which he speaks of the “glass of blessings” God bestowed upon man at his creation. God imparts strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure, but withholds “rest,” believing that if he gives him everything, man would “adore my gifts instead of me.”  As Herbert writes,

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

 The characters that populate Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories experience the same restlessness of Herbert’s poem. Lee’s characters are all propelled by desire: for love, connection, recognition, understanding, and a place in the world. Their desire as perpetual restlessness drives Lee’s stories and their characters, most of them academics, artists, and students.

The book opens with “Bobcat,” a big story in a small setting, and perhaps my favorite, about a dinner party between friends and narrated by a pregnant lawyer questioning the authenticity of her friends’ troubled relationships, as well as her own. I had just read the title story when I visited a friend one night while his wife and daughter were away. Over dinner we caught up on the routines of our lives. My friend spoke about a recent outing with his family he described as “nearly perfect” if not for an ongoing disagreement with his wife that left him frustrated and weary. He believed they would never settle the issue, and the constant friction troubled him. It was then that I fully understood Lee’s story, particularly the sentence in which the protagonist’s husband is seen squatting in an Irish field: “This field grew out of not dirt, but pebbles really. It surprised me that anything could grow out of those stones, but there was a bright-green grass that seemed to be thriving, and a lot of bluebells” (16).

Lee guides us through the cozy but extravagant dinner party with friends and colleagues, in which the French dessert, a terrine the protagonist attempts, the “perfect melding of disparate entities,” reflects how relationships survive and fail in similar states (3). Such an assembly of ingredients, such care and effort to create a dessert barely contained in its own wobbling shell. The volatile mix of components feels like the marriages we witness in the story—a chaotic splendor, each one on the verge of collapse. It’s what they, and, by association, we do with this potential for collapse that keeps us invested and going forward. When a friend of the protagonist declares she wants none of it and asks why people fall in love and get married, the narrator rationalizes that “nobody really knows. But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed not to do it” (12). It’s in the doing, in the attempt at order, that we find the answer. Lee reminds us, “You would no more expect to find peace within a family than you would expect to find it in yourself” (16). We are all chaos barely contained. Though the protagonist’s marriage will not survive infidelity and a miscarriage, she recognizes, like her client, a Hmong immigrant on trial for allowing his wife to die when he refused to seek Western medical treatment, that sometimes God requires “a living sacrifice in place of a person, to balance out the forces of life and death” (19).

I found familiar territory in the other stories too, as Lee evokes nostalgia for an academia cradled in perpetual autumn, when professors were wrapped in “elaborate historical” (65) selves, comfortable and imposing in offices overlooking campus color, when “murderous innocence” (63) and youthful desire were offered in exchange for knowledge and distinction. Her nostalgia is steeped in an appreciation for art and language, its limitations and possibilities, musical descriptions affectionately rendering scenes on college campuses, across elegant dinner tables with colleagues, and at rural artistic residencies. There were so many lovely passages that my copy of the book is dyed in yellow highlighter. This review could easily have been a collection of those lyric moments. Lee’s characters allude to Ovid, Rilke, Auden, and Wharton. Readers outside academia or the arts might find the nostalgia isolating. But academia merely gives Lee’s characters a setting in which to struggle with the universal desire for permanence and order. Lee finds particular wealth when she mines the relationships between student and teacher, as told from the student’s point of view, reflective, often whimsical, first person recollections that probe the mysteries of relationships, art, and language.

In “The Banks of the Vistula” we witness a relationship borne of deceit when a freshman plagiarizes her first linguistics paper in order to stand out. Her professor recognizes the plagiarism, stolen from a rare text of Soviet propaganda, and they embark on a game of cat and mouse in which the young woman’s professor befriends and eventually coaxes her to own the text she has stolen at a university symposium, despite its outdated and shocking content. The student Margaret says:

He was my teacher… and [he] stood in front of the high windows, to teach me my little lesson, which turned out to be not about Poland or fascism or war, borderlines or passion or loyalty, but just about the sentence: the importance of, the sweetness of. And I did long for it, to say one true sentence of my own, to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity—the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows. (65-66)

The beautiful “Fialta” explores a similar student/teacher dynamic when an architecture student discovers the incongruities between desire and fulfillment at an artistic residency (Fialta) hosted by the fabled mentor Franklin Stadbakken, whose single restriction is that residents not sleep with each other. The protagonist finds his longing for Sands, another resident, is complicated by Stadbakken’s own problematic interest in the student. He asks Sands if Stadbakken is in love with her. “‘Not in love, no,’ she said. Which of course made me think that his feelings for her were nothing so simple or banal as love” (169). Like many of the other stories in this collection, underneath the narrative tension we find that life is like “the simplest buildings,” which ought to be “productions of the imagination that attempt to describe and define life on earth… an overwhelming mix of stability and desire, fulfillment and longing, time and eternity” (178).

In “Min,” Sarah, a restless American college student in the late 1980s, accepts an invitation from her classmate to spend a summer in Hong Kong working for his father at an overcrowded and politically sensitive refugee camp. She also agrees to interview prospective brides for Min’s arranged marriage, using the notes his grandmother took when fulfilling the same duty for Min’s father years before. While Sarah wrestles with her own desire, for both Min and a clearer understanding of a world out of balance and suffering “compassion fatigue,” she discovers that longing does not always lead to fulfillment (102). In the grandmother’s notes, she finds a formula for women: “two-thirds contentment, one-third desire,” a principle that “seemed to capture the entire world in its tiny palm” (117). Summer ends and Sarah concludes her interviews, introducing Min instead to an unlikely prospect she meets in a street market: an outspoken Filipino amah whose background would be “a lot to overcome” (125). As Sarah witnesses Vietnamese refugees preparing to be deported, she realizes that desire can sometimes become a liability, an ache that will never be satisfied.

Lee unearths beauty in every landscape whether in a post-dinner party bliss and the fantasy of timelessness that resides there to the “collection of mangled bones” that “every man stands before as he declares life good.” Like the husband in the title story, Lee believes words are “fascinating—their origins and mutations, their ability to combine intricately,” and shades each story as a “collection of treasures, a pleasure-taking, a finding of everything praiseworthy.” Her characters long for fulfillment professionally and personally, but find that human relationships are thorny and happiness is elusive. In this transformation of desire into art Lee finds life in the “little treats—little chocolates and liqueurs, after the meal, so that as the night decelerates there is no despair” (28).

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Just finished Christopher Coake‘s You Came Back – a book I didn’t want to read. There are almost no subjects I avoid reading about. If an author presents the material in a unique and compelling way, I can be curious about almost any subject. That is, unless it’s the loss of a child. As a father, this is the one subject you really never want to imagine, not through your own eyes, those of someone who’s lost a child, or those of a fictional character. Coake’s book is fiction but still I was wary.

I might not have picked up the book if I hadn’t already read Coake’s debut story collection – We’re in Trouble: Stories – and liked it so much. I’d also heard him read and met him when he interviewed for a position in the program where I was a graduate student. I liked him and his stories. And Coake knows a thing or two about grief, so I trusted him to treat the subject carefully.

I wasn’t disappointed. Using a very close third person, he planted me firmly in his protagonist’s shoes and, from the first pages, I was in for the duration. The story is driven by our compassion for the protagonist and his desire, like ours, to know, to understand what we don’t, including himself and his handling of his son’s tragic loss.

I grew up reading ghost stories (from Poe and Lovecraft to the wonderful (true) ghost stories of the Carolinas, particularly those set in the Outer Banks, to the ghost stories (the best of their work) of Stephen King and Peter Straub). I listened to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater on my transistor in bed at night (at 10:00 and long after I was supposed to be asleep) and, when I first tried to write, drafted my own (highly derivative) ghost stories. These stories stirred my imagination, left me both wondering at the possibilities and shrinking from them at the same time–always a skeptic. And Coake takes cues from this wonderful genre,but without exploiting it. His book is haunted, no question.

Coake works from real life and haunts his book with the emotional, spiritual and intellectual challenges there: loss, doubt, guilt, survival, faith/belief, and reconciliation. He employs a ghost story to get at these emotional issues in a compelling way.

I don’t want to say more. I read the book in two days and was glad for it. The book lingers in my (unsettled) heart and mind, and the more I think about it, the more I applaud what Coake has done so honestly–an unblinking look at the horrors of grief and survival.

I’ve been meaning to post about this smart collection of essays — Pulphead — from John Jeremiah Sullivan for some time but then I find and read another essay by him and would rather just read him than talk about him–I think I’ve finally exhausted what’s available out there. And now I’m in line behind dozens of other writers and readers who have already championed this guy’s work, someone whose prose is so intimate and immediate that I feel as if we have a relationship.

He writes in the tradition of the “new” journalists, a genre I love and don’t see nearly enough of, especially in the long form. Outside of Harper’s, The New Yorker, and occasionally pieces in GQ (where Sullivan has published many of his) Esquire, and some literary journals, few magazines publish long form journalism. A broad generalization: the contemporary reader has little patience for the 10,000+ word essay. For that matter, most readers can’t get past 800 words, an essay so short as to nearly negate the subject itself by so superficially exploring it (I exclude the compressed, or flash essay which explores a subject “through action, through objects, through metaphor, through inference (Brevity Craft Essays).”)

Sullivan uses long form journalism to explore just about any subject that catches his curiosity. And it’s his exhaustive curiosity, his ability and willingness to come at his subjects from the periphery while also investing himself in his subjects and his piece, that makes his work so goddamned compelling and addictive. Each essay is about much more than the title subject and he manages to make each one compelling. James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, says of Sullivan: “He seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity.”

To my writing students: I emphasize that an undaunted curiosity for the world–and not just the subjects we obsess over or that happen to be trending at the moment, but the world at-large–is essential. Never stop looking, wondering, asking questions.

John D’Agata–another favorite essayist–says that the essay is about “human wondering.” It’s this human wondering, this curiosity about the world and an attempt to explore it without the need for resolution, with the very real, even necessary possibility of failure, that makes for an interesting and successful writer. Scott Russell Sanders said: “The writing of an essay is like finding one’s way through a forest without being quite sure what game you are chasing, what landmark you are seeking.” And that kind of writing takes fearlessness and an insatiable desire to know more, more, more.

I also encourage students to read as much and as broadly as possible, a habit that should derive naturally from this need to know. I love this quote from Christopher Higgs in answer to the question “what should young writers today study or do in order to improve their craft?”

Become intellectually polyamorous, cultivate an insatiable curiosity for knowledge and experience in as many different guises as you possibly can, question everything, always challenge, learn that failure and rejection are positive things, subscribe to at least three non-literary magazines in three completely different fields (for me, right now, it’s National Geographic, Juxtapose, and Wine Enthusiast – last year it was Seed, Esquire, and Art in America), forget politics: it has nothing to do with you and any time or energy you invest in it is wasted time and energy you could be using productively to learn and experience and create, do not choose sides, do not agree or disagree, embrace contradiction, watch cinema from as many different countries and time periods as you possibly can, seek out unclassifiable music, spend time in unfamiliar locations, expose yourself to new activities, go to the opera, go to the ballet, go to the planetarium, travel a lot, observe as much as you can, pay attention to the way people talk and the way people listen, eat strange food, watch at least one sporting event but instead of thinking about it as entertainment think about it as narrative, ABR = Always Be Researching, carry a notebook and pen at all times, remember it is more important to ask questions than give or receive answers, seek to open up and never close down, seek to seek, do not seek to find, fall in love with language, think obsessively about language, about words, about sentences, about paragraphs, about the sound of words, the weight of words, the shape of words, the look of words, the feel of words, the placement of words, and most importantly be your biggest advocate, think of yourself as a genius, think of yourself as an artist, think of yourself as a creator, do not despair, do not listen to criticism, do not believe naysayers, they are wrong, you are right, they are death and you are life, they destroy and you create, the world needs what you have to say.

I live by this and remind my students daily. Read. Become readers. Become better readers. Read several new and different things daily–no excuses. The optimist in me remains hopeful.

Because I’ve run out of Sullivan essays to read, I picked up his first book: Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son. It’s ostensibly about thoroughbreds, a subject I would not normally be drawn to–hell, horses, in general, for that matter. But to read broadly, you have to implicitly trust an author up front–which doesn’t always pay off–to make the chosen subject new, to find the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange. I’ve only just started Blood Horses but already I feel myself free-falling, curiouser and curiouser, the horse as fascinating a subject as any I’ve ever read.

Finally, check out john-jeremiah-sullivan-and-wells-tower-in-conversation at the New York Public Library (Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is one of the better short story collections in the past few years).

The Book of Freaks by Jamie Iredell

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The Book of Freaks by Jamie Iredell

Excerpted from my review in H.O.W.

Freaks, an encyclopedia of the everyday, does not allow for the standard book review. There is no sequence of events with which to unfold narrative and pull us through a summary review. There is no life to examine, unless we consider all life, for Freaks is that kind of book—a panorama that swings between the lines of American life. There is no obvious theme, unless you go for everything, e.g., “a connected series of conclusions deduced from self-evident or previously discovered principles.” There is no protagonist to root for, no lush setting to calm us. How does one then assess an entry like this sample from the B section, “Big Legs,” which begins: “Breached out the birth canal massive legs first, legs like gas planets, in leg-shape” and follows with metaphors in which her big legs become Studebakers? Is this poetry? Fiction?

We read on out of simple curiosity, like Alice down her rabbit hole.