Category Archives: Books

The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

I’ve finished my first book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. I’m going to follow Frances’s example and keep my posts on these books short, mostly because of my normal time constraints, which are now compounded by this reading project. I didn’t fall under the spell of this book, which I was hoping to do, especially since I suspect it casts a spell on some of, maybe many of, its readers. I admired it, didn’t love it. It’s self-consciously working in the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, so much so that the book becomes a plot point. This means, of course, that I can’t help but compare it to Achebe’s masterpiece and it’s not surprising that it doesn’t live up to it.

The novel tells the story of a family in Nigeria, specifically about four brothers in that family and what happens after they hear a prophecy from a local wandering mad man. The novel can be read as the story of what happens when the father-figure moves away, so about the loss of patriarchal power — the removal of their father leads the boys towards greater and greater rebellion against their mother and against the family rules generally. I’m guessing it’s possible to read the novel as a political fable as well, as a story that gives insight into Nigeria’s history, but I don’t know enough about the subject to say for sure. It’s also about the power of prophecy and of superstitions and folk beliefs and the relationship of these things to Christianity.

I admired how the author handled the point of view, which is from the perspective of the youngest of the four brothers, Benjamin. Seeing the story through his eyes increases the sense of dread and powerlessness that pervades the narrative. The novel has emotional power — there were scenes that made me gasp — but there were also enough moments that seemed awkward or meandering or with unnecessary detail that I kept a certain amount of distance from it as I read. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the tightness of the storytelling in Things Fall Apart, but that’s what happened to me. Still, there’s lots to think about here. Perhaps enough to justify its inclusion in the Booker long list.

And so now it’s time to start my next read, which I think will be A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’m concerned about taking on such a long novel, but as soon as I finish my current audiobook read, I can start listening to some of the books on the long list, including the Anne Tyler and Anne Enright. That way I’ll be able to read two books from the list at once.

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Better get reading…

So it appears I’m doing this? Craziness.

Yes, I’m going to try to read the Booker long list in the next six weeks and be a part of the (Wo)Man Booker shadow panel. I’m almost certainly going to fail to get all the reading done, but I’m going to have fun trying, and I’ll be in good company, with Frances, Teresa, Nicole, and Bellezza.

I’ll be posting here about my reading, although only very briefly, because I have lots of books to read as well as other reviews to write.

And now back to the books!

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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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