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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Best of 2015

Before we get too far into 2016, I’d like to post my best-of lists from last year. It was a year, once again, where I read a lot of great novels, but the books I thought about the most and remember the most fondly are nonfiction. I should, perhaps, take this as a sign to read more nonfiction in the future. But I wonder sometimes whether reading more nonfiction might make it less memorable. If I go on a memoir-reading binge, or personal-essay-reading binge, perhaps they will start to blur together as novels sometimes do. I don’t know. I think I’m mostly feeling dissatisfied these days with realistic fiction and need less of it in my reading diet. So bring on the experimental fiction and the unclassifiable nonfiction in 2016 (recommendations appreciated)!

Best fiction:

  • Elisa Albert, After Birth
  • Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings
  • Fran Ross, Oreo
  • Paul Beatty, The Sellout
  • Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth
  • James Hanaham, Delicious Foods

Best nonfiction:

  • Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
  • Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination: A Memoir (also wins for least-memorable title — I can’t keep it in my brain)
  • Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock
  • Helen McDonald, H is for Hawk
  • Margo Jefferson, Negroland: A Memoir
  • Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
  • Meghan Daum, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
  • Alison Bechdel, Fun Home

Books that frustrated me the most:

  • Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir (Many people loved this but I thought it was sloppy)
  • Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (incoherent project, uninspiring writing)
  • Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (I liked the ideas but couldn’t stand the writing. This may be my most unpopular opinion of the year, but so be it.)

Books that made my head spin after reading what felt like thousands of conflicting opinions about them (although I enjoyed the experience of reading them very much):

  • Hanya Yanigihara, A Little Life
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book One

Here’s to great reads in 2016 for everyone!

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My 2015 in Reading

Time for the year-end stats post. Here’s my reading from 2015:

  • Books read: 88. I was hoping to get up to 90 — but in the end, who cares? 88 is a great number.
  • Audiobooks: 15. Up from the 10 I listened to last year. Using Scribd has made the difference here (although now they give you only one audiobook a month, so my number for next year may be only 12).
  • eBooks: 12. Down from the 18 I read last year. I’m discovering that I definitely prefer print, although I continue to read ebooks for various uninteresting reasons. I just read them more slowly than I used to.
  • From library: 14. All print books. Because of Scribd, I’ve stopped borrowing ebooks and audiobooks from the library.
  • Fiction: 60. About the same percentage of the whole as last year.
  • Nonfiction: 26
  • Poetry: 2. Same as last year.
  • Essay collections: 6
  • Biography/autobiography: 13
  • Theory/criticism: 4
  • Short story collections: 1 (that’s it?)
  • Mysteries: 7
  • Graphic Novels: 2
  • Books in translation: 9 (up quite a bit — good!)
  • Books by writers of color: 30 (doubled what I did last year and reached more than 1/3 of total reading)

Gender breakdown:

  • Women: 57
  • Men: 27
  • Collections with men and women: 4

Nationalities:

  • Americans: 56 (a lower percentage than last year — but still high)
  • British: 13
  • French: 3
  • Australian: 2
  • Indonesian: 2
  • One each by authors from Canada, Ethiopia, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, and Portugal.

Year of publication:

  • 19th century: 1 (although I’m currently in the middle of Emma)
  • First half of 20th century: 1 (really??)
  • Second half of 20th century: 7
  • 2000-2009: 8
  • 2010-2015: 71

The number of recent releases has gone up steadily in recent years, for a number of reasons. One is that I’m reviewing more, so of course I read new releases for those reviews. I also participated in a Booker long-list read through this year, which added 13 new releases to the list. And I’m also currently reading new books for a Goodreads group that is doing an “alternative Tournament of Books” that will take place in January, in anticipation of the real one coming up in March (it’s been super fun — check it out if you want to). All of this reading has been great and I don’t regret it. I just wish I could also read older works as well. But until I figure out how to fit more reading in, that may not happen.

All in all, it was a good reading year, with lots of good books (more on that later!) and, in particular, lots of great bookish company, here on this blog, on Twitter, and on Goodreads. Thanks to everyone who reads here and chats with me in various places online. Happy new year!

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