Reviews and podcasts

First of all, I’ve had some reviews published elsewhere that I haven’t yet linked to here. I had two reviews appear at Full Stop: Samantha Harvey’s amazing novel Dear Thief and Virginie Despentes’s feminist take on crime fiction Apocalypse Baby. At Bookslut I reviewed Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, a rivetting account of a Australian murder trial. And, finally, I’m proud to make my first appearance in Open Letters Monthly with a review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s dark, troubling novel Hausfrau. Check them out!

I’ve written about podcasts here before, but not since the success of the amazing podcast Serial. I was hooked on Serial, as were so many, many other people. Last night I had the chance to see the host and producer, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, at an event in Hartford, Connecticut. It was really great. Koenig and Snyder told their story in a casual but polished way, keeping it light with their jokes — I was surprised at how much I laughed — but giving a good sense of how tremendously strange, difficult, and anxiety-inducing the whole experience was. They had no idea how popular the podcast would get and how strong people’s responses would be. They couldn’t have anticipated how other people would pick up the investigation they began and take it in different directions, often without their careful journalistic standards. They seemed distressed that personal information about the people involved in their story became public and their lives were changed. But they made a strong argument for the importance of what they were doing and are now hard at work on Seasons 2 and 3.

All that was great, but the evening will also be memorable for another event. As I watched people enter the auditorium and take their seats, I noticed a woman who looked vaguely familiar. It occurred to me that she might be Julia Pistell, one of the hosts of my favorite bookish podcasts, Literary Disco, and someone I know from listening to the podcast lives in the area. After I heard her very distinctive laugh, I was almost certain it was her. So afterwards I mustered up the courage to ask if she is indeed Julia. I always agonize about this sort of thing. I like meeting people but worry about saying the wrong thing or looking silly, or bothering someone who doesn’t want to be bothered. This situation was particularly odd, since Sarah Koenig had just talked about the experience of being recognized by her listeners and how it can make her feel uncomfortable. The whole thing was just a little too meta — I wanted to introduce myself to a podcaster at an event about podcasting in which the podcaster talked about people introducing themselves to her. Strange! But I did it, and Julia Pistell was lovely. In fact, she was super-excited and thought it was hilarious that I recognized her by her laugh. So thank God, I hadn’t made an ass of myself and instead have a fun podcasting experience tucked inside another podcasting experience to remember.

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Books I want to read NOW…

…except I don’t own them and don’t have much time to read them in. But if I did have the time and felt like going on a book-buying binge, I’d buy:

  • Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock. I loved this interview with Julavits on a new podcast called Lit Up, and her book sounds fascinating — a diary of sorts, with a unique structure.
  • Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Yanagihara appeared on the Lit Up podcast as well, and that conversation was great (the podcast is excellent so far — and run entirely by women. I love it). The truth is I own a copy of her first novel The People in the Trees that I need to read first, but ideally that would be followed by reading her second book in short order.
  • Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Nelson is just the best. I’ve read two of her books so far (Bluets and Jane: A Murder). Both are amazing.
  • Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk. I’ve read lots of grief memoirs (for no particular reason — probably just because I read a lot of memoirs and memoirs are often about grief), but this one sounds particularly good.
  • Elisa Albert’s After Birth. A novel about childbirth and motherhood? I’m in.
  • Patricia Park’s Re Jane: A Novel. This is a retelling of Jane Eyre set in Queens. Sounds like it could be fun.

Well, maybe this summer I’ll get to these…

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Eugenie Grandet

I should admit before writing about Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet that this is my second Balzac novel, and I didn’t get along with my first, Cousin Bette. Fortunately, I liked Eugénie Grandet much better. Those of you in the know, is Eugénie Grandet simply a better book than Cousin Bette? Or have I changed somehow, or am I simply in a different mood this time? I found Cousin Bette unsatisfying because I missed the depth of character I love in 19th-century novels. The characters were either perfectly good or completely awful and without some complex, interesting character to latch onto, I lose interest. I should confess, also, that I don’t remember a thing about Cousin Bette and am basing these remarks on a paragraph I wrote in an old blog post. The book just didn’t stick with me.

I’m not sure how much longer Eugénie Grandet will stick with me, but I did enjoy the reading experience much more [lots of spoilers ahead!]. Like Cousin Bette, it’s a critique of society’s obsession with money and the way the hunger for money corrupts and ruins lives. But perhaps Eugénie as a character is more memorable than anybody in Cousin Bette. Yes, she is drawn in broad strokes and the very large changes she makes throughout the course of her life are described quickly, but I think the shortness of the book and the relative brevity with which many of the events are described work well. We can see the larger point Balzac is making about greed, enjoy the satirical way he portrays many of his characters, feel pity and horror at Monsieur Grandet’s miserliness, and even suffer a little at Eugénie’s fate, all in a book that’s only about 200 pages. I like long novels very much, but perhaps I don’t like long novels by Balzac.

I seem to be confessing a lot in this post, so let me keep going: I had a hard time with the novel’s opening pages, the description of the town of Saumur and the Grandet home. I read and reread those pages, and I couldn’t pin down the details in my mind. I also couldn’t keep many of the minor characters straight, those Cruchots and des Grassins. It didn’t seem to matter much as I read along that I couldn’t remember who was who and what their relationships were. Those characters are there to make a point collectively, to illustrate the greediness of the town generally and the atmosphere in which Eugénie lives — one in which everyone is after the Grandet money but everyone generally loses their money to the Grandets instead. These characters spend their whole lives trying to ingratiate themselves into the Grandet family, hoping Eugénie will marry one of them, or her parents will marry her to one of them, and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that they are spending decades in this one pursuit.

The heart of this book seems to be the relationship between Eugénie and her father Grandet, and then the ways that Grandet haunts her even when he is gone. Through the influence of her mother, most likely, or just through strength of character, Eugénie passively resists her father’s greed and miserliness, keeping a freshness and innocence throughout her young life. When her cousin Charles appears on the scene, she finds a reason to actively resist her father: romantic love. She wants to provide for Charles, to give him the comforts she has grown accustomed to living without herself, and she doesn’t care about the money involved. And then she commits the act that her father finds it nearly impossible to forgive, giving away money itself.

But what does she get in return for her generosity and love? She gets to do the thing so many women get to do in novels: wait. And she is waiting for a man who fell in love with her, yes, but who is not worthy of her. He was a young dandy when they first met, vain and foolish, but after his father’s bankruptcy and his desperate need to make money, he becomes truly corrupt, making that money through slavery and wanting only to reappear in Paris a fabulously wealthy man. Poor Eugénie keeps believing in him as long as she can, but her faithfulness gains her nothing. Or perhaps it does gain her something — it seems to insulate her from corruption herself. She stays true to idea of love, even though she doesn’t ever experience it again herself.

Ultimately, the book seems to be exploring what greed does to the emotions, the way it shrivels them up and kills them. Or if it doesn’t kill them, it turns them against the one feeling them, becoming a burden:

and yet that noble heart, beating only with tenderest emotions, has been, from first to last, subjected to the calculations of human selfishness; money has cast its frigid influence upon that hallowed life and taught distrust of feelings to a woman who is all feeling.

This is a melancholy tale, but it is kept lively by Balzac’s wonderful descriptions, like this one of Grandet:

Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.

Or this one of the Cruchots and des Grassins:

All three took snuff, and had long ceased to repress the habit of snivelling or to remove the brown blotches which strewed the frills of their dingy shirts and the yellowing creases of their crumpled collars. Their flabby cravats were twisted into ropes as soon as they wound them about their throats. The enormous quantity of linen which allowed these people to have their clothing washed only once in six months, and to keep it during that time in the depths of their closets, also enabled time to lay its grimy and decaying stains upon it. There was perfect unison of ill-grace and senility about them; their faces, as faded as their threadbare coats, as creased as their trousers, were worn-out, shrivelled-up, and puckered … A horror of fashion was the only point on which the Grassinists and the Cruchotines agreed.

These people are just horrible. Balzac is wonderful as describing horrible people! This seems to be where much of the book’s energy lies: in capturing just how truly terrible people can be.

This novel was the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda group, so make sure to check out other posts there.

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Writers in Person: Stalking the Essay

Unspeakable Sometimes it seems a little silly to get so excited about seeing authors I love in person. They are just people, right? They are just people who put words on a page. But whatever, I get excited about it. And today was a particularly great day. My husband agreed to watch our toddler so I could head into New York City to Columbia University, which hosted a conference called Stalking the Essay. They had a similar conference two years ago, which I got to go to and which was amazing. This time around, it was even better. It started off with an all-women panel (which is something that makes me happy even though it shouldn’t be a big deal — but it is a big deal) including Leslie Jamison, of The Empathy Exams, and Meghan Daum of The Unspeakable, a book I fell in love with and am recommending to everyone I know. Also on the panel was a new-to-me writer Lia Purpura. Their topic was the “new essay,” a concept everyone seemed rightly skeptical of. Daum was the star of the panel; the other talks were very good, but Daum’s was very good plus very funny, which is always a plus when you’re at a conference on the essay. She made an argument against calling writers “brave” for revealing personal things in their writing or making controversial arguments. It’s the writer’s job to be honest and to write something worthy of the time the reader puts into it, and if that involves revealing personal things about oneself, well, then that’s just part of the job. If it involves saying something that might be unpopular, then so be it. Also part of the job.

The next panel included Geoff Dyer, which was, after seeing Daum, the highlight of the day. I’ve been wanting to see Dyer — who is one of my most important writers — for ages. Ages! He does events in NYC fairly regularly, but I’d never been able to make one before. This time, though, I wasn’t going to miss it. Also on the panel were Wayne Koestenbaum and Laura Kipnis, whose book Against Love is another favorite. All the speakers this time around were both smart and funny, and I didn’t want it to end. Their topic was the book-length essay, so they talked a lot about genre distinctions, which is something people always do when they get on panels about the essay. No one knows what it is exactly. Dyer’s definition was pretty good, though: what makes a book-length work an essay is that the writer can never be definitive on the subject and that his or her essay-book doesn’t replace previous books on the subject, nor does it rule out future books. Regular book-books, though, tend to be definitive, as in a definitive biography, which, if it’s good enough, replaces all previous biographies and remains the final word, until someone digs up new information and there is a need for a new definitive biography.

White Girls The last panel was kind of strange, although it was hard to tell if it really wasn’t as successful as the others or if I was just getting tired. It had some big names, though: Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, and Hilton Als. I liked Als’s talk very much, although I was too tired to take notes so I could remember it. Lethem’s, though, was disjointed and wandering, and a little too long. Robinson’s was interesting, but not at all on the topic of the day. She talked at length about the disturbing habit that Americans have of forgetting their own history, and I fully agreed with her, but kept wondering when she was going to talk about the essay. It never really happened. Still, she’s a hugely important figure in American literature, so I guess she can talk about whatever she wants to. There was no formal book signing time, but during that period after the panels where everyone mills around talking to people they know, I worked up the courage to ask both Daum and Dyer if they would sign their books for me, which they did. And I’m so excited about it! The whole thing was free and open to the public; all I had to do was register beforehand. Really, does it get any better than that?

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Updates

First, I’ve had a few reviews published elsewhere in the last months. In February, I reviewed Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green for Necessary Fiction, which I enjoyed very much and was glad to spend the time thinking about it in depth. Another was of Robert Dessaix’s book What Days Are For, which I reviewed for Bookslut, and the last is Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I reviewed for The Quarterly Conversation. These last two books were satisfying to think and write about, even though my reviews of both are mixed (to different degrees).

I have also, of course, been following the Tournament of Books closely, and was disappointed to see that judge Victor LaValle chose Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation over my beloved Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I didn’t agree with LaValle’s assessment of Offill’s book, but he does do a good job writing about his decision, and it’s a decision I can respect even if I don’t like it. I listened to Annihilation on audio and enjoyed the experience very much, but it didn’t measure up to Offill’s accomplishment. LaValle was dissatisfied with Offill’s ending, but for me, the ending was pretty much beside the point; the point was the sharp, incisive, witty writing. But hope for this book hasn’t entirely died, as two books that have been eliminated come back in the zombie round, the two books with the most reader votes.

I was also a little disappointed that Evie Wyld’s novel All the Birds, Singing lost, although I haven’t read its competitor, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. I loved the Wyld novel, which was haunting, both harsh and beautiful. The other match-ups from last week I didn’t have strong feelings about. I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of Jesse Ball’s Silence Upon Begun this coming week, though, as I recently read it and loved it. It’s an unusual book, based on a real story, or at least that’s what it says, with letters, transcripts of interviews, transcripts of interrogations, and other documents telling the story. It also contains many photographs that add to the atmosphere and mood. It’s beautifully done, and I hope it does well in the tournament.

Finally, I promised a while back to follow up on my post about using Scribd, a subscription ebook and audiobook service. I’ve been happy with it so far, and it’s worth the money, which is something like $9 a month. For that, you can read as many ebooks and listen to as many audiobooks as you want to. At first I found the audiobooks a little difficult to get downloaded and a little buggy, but more recent experiences have gone well. I listened to three books from the tournament on Scribd, All the Birds, Singing; Annihilation; and Everything I Never Told You. I have more books and audiobooks than I can possibly read any time soon set aside in my “library” on the site, so there are plenty of good books to choose from. Overall, it’s a nice addition to my reading options, which … well, I probably don’t need more reading options, but I want them and am glad to have them!

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The Tournament of Books 2015

It’s late February, so if you are at all like me, your mind may be on the Tournament of Books, which begins on March 9th. What is it about the Tournament that is so much fun? Why do people get so obsessed with it, including me and all the people in the Tournament discussion group on Goodreads? It’s such a silly enterprise, but everyone who runs it knows it’s silly, which makes the silliness just fine. Maybe it’s that there are so many things to think about — which books will get chosen to participate? Which ones will get paired to compete against each other? How will they be seeded? (Seeded!? It really IS silly.) Who are the judges and is it possible to guess how they will decide? What type of book will make it to the end?

These last few years I’ve taken the opportunity to read as many books from the tournament as I can that I find interesting. I can’t and won’t read them all because they don’t all appeal, but many of them have already caught my eye, and others I may not have known about before but now I realize I might like them. This year I’m doing very well in my tournament reading: out of 16 books total, I’ve read seven and am listening to another. I may even add one or two more in the next couple weeks. For me, that’s not a bad record.

Here are this year’s books, in alphabetical order, along with my very personal, very biased commentary:

  • Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball. I haven’t read this, but I have it checked out of the library and it looks super-interesting. It seems to be at least somewhat experimental, and a good story too. That right there is pretty much my thing.
  • A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor. I hadn’t heard of this one before the tournament. The organizers always include one or two small press books that haven’t gotten much attention, and I’ve learned about great authors such as Kate Zambreno this way.
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I read this one and admired it. I didn’t fall in love as many other people have, but it’s a very good story, and beautifully written. This one has a chance to win.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I want to read this eventually, but it’s the third book in a trilogy, which makes it an odd choice for the tournament. I plan on reading the trilogy in order, but that will take me a while.
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I read this last summer and had mixed feelings, but many readers have unequivocally loved it. This one might have a chance to win.
  • Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer. I haven’t read this, but I thought his earlier novel Spurious was very good.
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Not read yet, but it’s on my list to check out eventually. I’ve heard it’s an important, powerful book.
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay. Not read yet, and I’m not sure it’s my thing. But again, I’ve heard very good things.
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Not read yet, but my husband read and liked it, so we’ll see. Maybe. I can see our copy on the bookcase across the room from me, so maybe it will call out one day and demand to be read.
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Nope. At least not any time soon. I like Mitchell a whole lot, but this one is long and complicated with fantasy elements, and it’s just not my thing right now. I think I prefer the realist version of Mitchell (Black Swan Green for example).
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I listened to this on audio, and I enjoyed it. It’s a great story, an absorbing family drama. I’m not sure it has what it takes to win the tournament, though.
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I want this one to win. It was my favorite book of last year and I think it’s just amazing. I’ve read it twice and plan to read it again.
  • Adam by Ariel Schrag. This one was a good read, an interesting story. It’s a coming-of-age novel focusing on LGBTQ young people, and Schrag does a good job with her characters. I read it happily. I’m pretty sure it won’t win, though.
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This one was another fun read, very absorbing, but I didn’t fall in love with it. Not one of Waters best, I think (for that, turn to Fingersmith).
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. I listened to this on audio, and I plan to get to the two other books in the trilogy on audio eventually. I liked it; it was an unusual venture into science fiction for me, and I’m glad I tried it out.
  • All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. I’m listening to this one on audio right now, and so far I’m very impressed. I may even want to read it on paper at some point.

So, go Dept. of Speculation! I’m hoping the tournament is fun and the discussion is lively. Have you read any of these? Which ones are you rooting for?

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Pioneer Girl

Two books have recently been published called Pioneer Girl, one of which is the “annotated autobiography” of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I haven’t gotten my hands on this book yet, but as I understand it, the book consists of Wilder’s manuscript on which the Little House books are based as well as other manuscripts, diaries, and letters. Clearly, as one who was obsessed with the Little House books as a child (and I mean the BOOKS, not the television show, although I watched that too), I’m going to be reading this.

But I wanted to mention how much I enjoyed the other Pioneer Girl: a novel by Bich Minh Nguyen. This one is also about the Little House books but from an entirely different perspective. It tells the story of Lee Lien, child of Vietnamese immigrants, who has moved back in with her mother and grandfather after finishing graduate school. She helps them run their restaurant while she half-heartedly looks for an academic job. In her mother’s house she comes across a gold pin that has always been a part of family lore: an American woman named Rose left it or gave it — it was unclear which — to her grandfather back in Saigon in the 1960s. When Lee discovers the pin, she realizes that it’s exactly like the one described in These Happy Golden Years, the one that Almanzo gives to Laura as a gift. Well, those of you who know the books will realize what Lee realizes — that it’s possible the woman named Rose was Rose Wilder Lane and that the pin was actually the one in the Little House books. Of course, Lee, with all her recent research training, has to investigate further.

The novel takes Lee deep into the history of Laura and Rose, and along the way she thinks about the parallels between their lives and her own. Lee’s family is a pioneer family in its own way, as immigrants to the U.S., and while not a pioneer in the sense her mother was, Lee too has to forge her own way as a member of the first American generation. Lee finds comfort in the complicated relationship between Laura and Rose as she tries to make sense of her own relationship with her difficult mother. As with so many other readers, Lee finds that the Little House books have shaped the way she thinks about the world and about her life. However, in her case, it’s possible that she has a much closer connection to Laura, through Rose, than any of the rest of us. It’s enough to make any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan very jealous.

So, for all you readers as obsessed with the Little House books as I was, here are two more books to enjoy!

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