Reading Round-Up, 3/4/2016

First of all, in writing news, I now have three posts up on Book Riot, and I will be writing for them regularly. I’m excited about this! I’ll be reviewing books for other sites as well, so I’ll be busy writing, writing, writing. It should be fun. I wrote one post on teaching and not “getting” books (my students and me), one post on Jane Austen’s contemporaries, and one on how to approach the work of Maggie Nelson. I have some thoughts about what I want to do next, but we’ll see!

As for reading, I’ve read the forthcoming reissue of Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, originally published in 2009, and I reread her 2007 book Jane: A Murder because those two books cover some of the same material. I love both of these and you should be hearing more about The Red Parts from me soon.

I also read a memoir by Alain Mabanckou called The Lights of Pointe-Noire. I had mixed feels about this one and rushed through the last 40 pages or so because I wasn’t loving it. Mabanckou was born in the Congo, and this book tells the story of his return after many years away. It describes his meetings with people from the town and the town itself, and it offers an interesting glimpse of the life and culture of Pointe-Noire. Mabanckou tells stories from his childhood as well. There were some very engaging moments as Mabanckou describes his interactions with family members and townspeople, but I thought it was a little too meandering and could have used more forward momentum. The book includes photographs of some of the people he writes about, and those I liked very much.

I also read Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, which I thought was very good, and which you will be hearing more about from me soon.

Now I’m beginning Wrapped in Rainbows, a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, which I’m reading as a member of the Women’s Lives Club, started by the writer Rachel Syme. I found out about it from Rachel’s tweets and joined immediately, although I wasn’t and still am not sure I can read every book they choose. Last month they read Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman, which I’ve read before and loved. I would have loved to read it again, but had no time for it. But I’m giving this month’s book a go. It’s a fabulous club and anybody who wants to is welcome to join.

And next week the Tournament of Books begins! So much to do, so much to read.

 

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Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir

Chris Offutt’s memoir certainly has a catchy title: My Father, the Pornographer. It’s a very good book too. It’s a fairly typical memoir in a lot of ways, about an unhappy childhood and the writer’s vexed relationship with his father, and to a lesser extent with his mother. It’s about coming to terms with that childhood and, as he grew older, learning to see his father from an adult perspective and coming to understand how his father helped shape the person he is today. The book stands out because of its powerful writing; it’s simply and clearly written, catching in its straightforwardness and bluntness the force of his father’s personality and his own terror and anger in response.

His father was an obsessive writer; he produced hundreds of books, mostly pornographic novels, but also science fiction. Offutt’s parents became regulars at science fiction conventions, and his father collaborated with other well-known authors of his time. But he was a volatile man and ended up alienating most people he knew. He was verbally abusive to his family, and made his house a difficult place to be in once he quit his day job and began writing full time.

Much of the book is about Offutt’s efforts to clean out his father’s study, which contained a vast collection of pornographic writing, and to read and make sense of the work he produced. The story is as much about Offutt’s struggles through his task and his recovery afterwards as it is about his childhood — a childhood he spent roaming the woods of Kentucky to keep a safe distance away from his father.

I don’t think this book takes the memoir genre in a new direction, really, but to have produced a very good example of a story we are familiar with, at least in its rough outlines, is certainly an accomplishment. And Offutt’s father is a character who has lingered in my mind, a testament to Offutt’s skill with language.

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Reading Round-Up, 2/13/2016

The book I just finished last night and that is most on my mind is Ban En Banlieue, by Bhanu Kapil. I’m reading it now because it’s part of the Tournament of Books this year, but I had it on my mind to read even before that happened, I think because some writers I admire wrote about it glowingly. I … well, the book leaves me a little befuddled. It’s the kind of book that is impossible to categorize, hard to summarize, and tricky to describe. But I found myself absorbed in it. It’s sort of a novel, sort of not. More like notes towards a novel. It’s about the 1979 riots in London, and Ban is a fictional girl walking home when the riots begin. She lies down, knowing she is going to die. The book moves back and forth among various elements: Ban herself, as a girl and a metaphor for women’s experiences more broadly; the author trying to understand Ban by haunting the place she died, by taking Ban’s same position lying down on the road, and through performance art and writing; the author thinking about writing itself, what it can do and its relationship to the body; and stories of others who died or suffered violence because of political protests or simply because they were women. There are photographs throughout the book, and an extremely lengthy acknowledgments section that makes an implicit point about the value of communities of writers.

I was often uncertain of what I was reading, although there were moments that brought everything together. Mostly I admired it and liked the experience of working at figuring it out. It’s a hard book, but I think it rewards hard work. That said, I have a feeling there’s going to be a lot of resistance to this book in the Tournament. It’s up against The Turner House, and my guess is that The Turner House will win. I’ve read both and liked both, and I don’t know which I’d vote for. They are just such very, very different books.

Other recent reading? I finished Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and I liked the experience of reading it. It was entertaining, interesting, an unusual way to tell a life story, and it did capture the author’s life well. I wanted something weightier, though, deeper, more moving. It was fine, just okay, a solid three-star book.

I also finished Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night on audio, and liked it very much — the story was moving, powerful, much more interesting than it has a right to be as a story about two older people finding companionship and dealing with small-town gossip. Haruf brought me into the life of his two characters so fully I came to care about their fates very much. It’s a story that can, if it reaches you in the right way, break your heart and make you love it. It’s also in the Tournament, up against The Whites, and although I haven’t read The Whites, I’m guessing the Haruf will win.

At the moment I’m in the middle of a memoir, Chris Offutt’s My Father: The Pornographer. It’s quite the title. More on that next time!

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Book haul

Yesterday was my birthday, and although it might have been wiser to stay home, since life has been crazy lately and there was plenty I needed to do, including most especially sleep and try to recover from the cold that might one of these days kill me (it feels like it will at any rate), I instead took a train to Manhattan to visit some new-to-me bookstores and buy books. Here’s my haul:

I stopped first at Albertine, which specializes in books in French, although it has books in English as well. It’s the kind of store that is small (even smaller for me since I don’t read French) but makes up for that by having extremely well-chosen books, including many small-press titles you won’t find elsewhere. It’s here that I bought Anne Garréta’s Sphinx. The space was beautiful, worth stopping by for the calm, contemplative atmosphere alone. It’s across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pretty much, and so worth taking a look at after a day in the museum next time you are there.

Then I went on to Rizzoli Bookstore, another beautiful space filled with carefully-selected volumes. Here I bought Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, a book I have almost bought several times but always put back on the shelves. Finally I was ready to commit, and felt vindicated when the bookseller who helped me pay told me she loved the book. I love getting bookseller approval.

Then I went to the Strand and headed straight downstairs to the literary nonfiction section, which is the best of its kind anywhere I’ve ever been. They have shelf after shelf after shelf of memoirs, essays, biographies, autobiographies, other kinds of nonfiction, and it’s my idea of bookish heaven. There I found Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz, Shame and Wonder by David Searcy, Poor Your Soul by Mira Ptacin, The Two Kind of Decay by Sarah Manguso, Hammer Head, by Nina MacLaughlin, Savage Park and Eight by Amy Fusselman, and Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson. I could have gotten so much more, but my arms were starting to get tired and my cold was getting bad, so I thought it was time to stop. All in all, it was a good trip, but I made sure to get home in time to have a comfy evening on the couch to do a little reading. I have so, so much of it to do!

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Oreo vs. Man Tiger

As I’ve described in earlier posts, I’ve been participating in an “Alternative Tournament of Books” on Goodreads — “Alternative” meaning something like “celebration of” and “we can’t wait for the real TOB to start, so let’s do one right now!” Today I got to be the judge. It was fun to write up a decision like the real TOB judges do, and I got to read two fabulous books to do it. Below is the text of my decision. (You can find all the other decisions here.)

Oreo vs. Man Tiger

 

Following the Tournament of Books the last few years – and being a reader, a reviewer, a person who likes to talk about books, a person who teaches English – has taught me the many ways that our tastes are subjective; I’ve seen that the opinions that strike us as so very fair, so carefully-reasoned, so obvious, are actually idiosyncratic and personal. So I’ll be upfront with my biases. I like many kinds of novels, but I love novels that attempt to do something new with the form. Plot can be awesome, good characters are essential, well-crafted sentences are great, but the novel that really knocks my socks off is the one that makes me think, “I don’t think I’ve read anything like this before.”

Now, Oreo vs. Man Tiger. I’m already in trouble making this decision because both of these books twist the novel form into new shapes. First, let’s look at Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger. This is the more traditional of the two books: it has no mathematical formulas or charts and graphs; it offers the kinds of details about scene and event that we are used to; the writing is straightforward and accessible. But, and this is a big “but,” the main character, Margio, has a tiger living inside him, and we are offered no explanation for this. We are told that this tiger was passed down to Margio from his grandfather, but otherwise, it’s an impossible situation we are asked to accept – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say Kurniawan simply assumes we will accept it.

This, in my case, was a good assumption. Kurniawan describes the presence of this tiger in such clear, convincing detail that I didn’t balk at the absurdity. Of course, the title prepares us for the presence of a tiger, but I would have guessed that “Man Tiger” was meant as a metaphor, not as something “real.” But it’s actually a tiger living inside a human, and one that – prepare for some gruesomeness – makes Margio kill a man by biting through his neck. This scene is captured in such gory detail, I was both sickened and compelled to read on. This is the most grittily realistic of magical realism:

The idea came to him all of a sudden, as a burst of light in his brain. He spoke of hosting something inside his body, something other than guts and entrails. It poured out and steered him, encouraging him to kill. That thing was so strong, he told the police, he didn’t need a weapon of any kind. He held Anwar Sadat tight. The man was startled and struggled, but the pressure holding his arms was intense. He sank his teeth into the left side of Anwar Sadat’s neck, like a man roughly kissing the skin below his lover’s ear, complete with grunts and passionate warmth.

That “Man Tiger” Margio becomes (through a simile) Sadat’s lover is horrifying and brilliant.

Kurniawan’s combination of realism and absurdity was enough to capture my heart and mind, but I found the novel’s structure intriguing as well. It tells basically the whole story in the first chapter, minus some key details. It’s a story of bad fathers, disillusioned wives, and disobedient children, of pregnancy and murder and circuses and swords. The first chapter is a marvel of both scene-setting and action. And then the rest of the novel is back story, filling in the details of why Anwar Sadat died and why Margio killed him. I wasn’t expecting this. In a more traditionally-written narrative, the story might have ended with the murder, or moved on from the murder to explore its consequences. Instead, the bulk of the novel is filling in the gaps in the first chapter, and the marvel is that this gap-filling is so compelling.

But then there is Oreo, originally published in 1974 and reissued in 2015. Oreo has charts, lists, mathematical formulas, a several-page menu, and a quiz to test one’s knowledge of Jesus’ qualities as a manual laborer. It has this unbelievable opening sentence:

When Frieda Schwartz heard from her Shmuel that he was (a) marrying a black girl, the blood soughed and staggered in all her conduits as she pictured the chiaroscuro of the white-satin chuppa and the shvartze’s skin; when he told her that he was (b) dropping out of school and would therefore never become a certified public accountant – Riboyne Shel O’lem! – she let out a great geschrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary.

And so you can see that the racism on display is equal-opportunity, here is Oreo’s second sentence:

When James Clark heard from the sweet lips of Helen (Honeychile) Clark that she was going to wed a Jew-boy and would soon be Helen (Honeychile) Schwartz, he managed to croak one anti-Semitic “Goldberg!” before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika, discounting, of course, head, hands, and feet.

Included in the novel but not here is the three-lined half swastika that illustrates the shape James Clark’s body has taken.

The concerns of Oreo are (clearly!) not with realistic characters or setting; in fact, Ross tells us upfront that “there is no weather per se in this book.” She does not want to describe people “taking off and putting on overcoats.” Instead her concerns are with social satire, humor, and voice. It’s a viciously witty novel about race, and despite its age, it fits well with other 2015 books that brilliantly use humor, sharp or gentle, to discuss America’s racial pathologies (see especially Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and Mat Johnson’s Loving Day). Ross’s contribution to this flourishing sub-genre is a playful one, and one that works hard to turn novelistic conventions upside down.

The book is not without plot, though. In fact, without stretching the point too far, one might say that in some ways it’s a conventional story about warring families, unsuccessful marriages, and unhappy children. Crucially, it is also a retelling of the classical story of Theseus, who goes on a quest to find his father and must overcome obstacles and prove his abilities along the way. Oreo is a wonderful modern-day Theseus, young and inexperienced, but confident and ready to both follow in the footsteps of the white, male journeyers who precede her and, when the time comes, to forge her own path. The classical underpinnings of Oreo provide a structure that helps contain the novel’s zaniness and that clarifies what must have been one of Ross’s goals: to write her way into the canon and turn it upside down at the same time.

Man Tiger and Oreo are both good novels that deserve a wide readership. They are ambitious and daring. They both have moments that will make your jaw drop (if for very different reasons!). But Oreo is the book that captured my imagination and that made me excited about all the strange and wonderful things fiction can do, so it’s my winner for this round.

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Reading Round-Up, 1/18/2016

This is my last week before the spring semester begins, and since my classes are all set to go already, I’m enjoying not working on school things for a while. But it’s funny, with an almost-three-year-old around, winter break isn’t very much like vacation. Somehow the hours seem as full as ever.

I’m finishing up a review/essay about memoir that inspired me to investigate nontraditional, experimental memoirs and to order a few, which arrived today. They include The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie, and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. This last one I started today and am 50 pages into. It’s fun, certainly not experimental in the heavy, ponderous sense experimental books sometimes can be (or we expect them to be this way sometimes, at any rate). It’s basically a series of very short essays — sometimes only a line or two — about topics coming from her life, arranged in alphabetical order. It’s playful and is making me laugh.

I’m interested in a whole range of experimental nonfiction, especially of the personal sort, serious and not, so if anyone has any recommendations, please let me know.

On the more serious end of things, I finished Terry Tempest Williams’s book When Women Were Birds, which I’d call an experimental memoir. There’s much that I liked about it, including an intriguing premise, which is that when Williams’s mother was on her deathbed, she told her she was leaving her years of her personal journals. But when Williams went to look through them, she found they were all blank. The book is an effort to understand what message her mother might have been communicating through this legacy. Much of the book is beautifully written, and the meaning she finds in those blank journals is extraordinary. I did find that the writing veered too far in the lyrical direction now and then and became ponderous and vague. It’s a little bit too sincere and earnest now and then. And in some sections she wrote about women in ways that seemed overly generalized and limiting. So, not a perfect book, but one worth reading and pondering.

Just today I began Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls at Night in an effort to read more of the Tournament of Books short list. I most certainly won’t get through the whole list, but I’ve read seven of them already (!), and adding another one or two seems like fun. I’ve heard such good things about the Haruf novel, and it has begun well.

Have a great week everyone!

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Reading Round-Up, 1/10/2016

For a while, I was posting a round-up post on Sundays discussing my reading from the previous week, and I’d like to return to that whenever I can. The truth is that when I’m both in the swing of the semester and working on formal reviews for other sites, devoting even a half hour to writing this kind of post becomes very difficult. But I’m going to do it as much as I can, so the books I’m reading get some attention here, even if only a little.

So, current reading. I’m feeling a little allergic to novels right now. Perhaps trying to read a bunch of them quickly for both the Booker read-along last August and September and the alternative Tournament of Books reading I did in November and December has left me tired of fiction for a while. Last week I finished a memoir, Lynn Darling’s Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding. This was well-written and about subjects that interest me (learning one’s way through the woods, weathering changes that mid-life brings) and about a place that interests me (Vermont). But it left me a little cold. It was a thoroughly traditional memoir — person changes life with high hopes, is disappointed, recovers, learns — and written in a familiar style. Perhaps my problem right now is not that I’m allergic to novels per se, but that I’m allergic to books that fit comfortably in their genre, whatever it is, rather than challenging it or trying to break through it.

I’m having better luck with a very slow reread of Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, probably my favorite book from last year. I’m reading an entry every evening before sleep, and I’m loving it once again. This is the kind of writing I want.

I’m also slowly reading my way through Emma, which, yes, is a novel and a traditional one, but it’s an old novel, and not one I find tiresome in my current state. Rereading seems to be going better for me these days than reading for the first time, and perhaps I should do more of it.

I’m also halfway through a forthcoming book on memoir, but I won’t discuss that in detail here, since I’m writing a formal review of it. Let’s just say that … current writing on memoir as a genre has NOT been satisfactory. I want another book like Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. Or maybe I should just reread that one.

Speaking of formal reviews, I had one come out last week at Full Stop Magazine, of Susana Moreira Marques’s book Now and at the Hour of Our Death. I admired this book very much.

Have a great week everyone!

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