G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen. Word from the wise: If you ever think to read your way through an awards long-short-any list, don’t. Not unless someone is paying you and/or offering to introduce you to Zadie Smith, Barbara Kingsolver and Hilary Mantel over a champagne dinner. And then prepare to be bored out of your skull. I’m usually lucky in what I read, in that I am tolerant person and I know my taste well enough to predict if I will actively hate something. So when I decided to read the Orange long list to get some sense of female fiction today (whattay dreadful phrase) I figured there would be some painful stuff on it, but I could get to it after I had committed myself by reading all the books I was excited by. So I went through the list, excised all the fake-minaret stuff, and made my selection. I also decided that I wouldn’t read any of the famous folks until the end and allow for some momentum that way (which excluded, as it turned out, almost the entire shortlist, which came out a few weeks after I began reading).
The first to arrive was The Red Book by Deborah Kogan, an updated version of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which I read earlier in the year and quite enjoyed and I thought this new book couldn’t be any worse than Girls. I was wrong. It was awful. It was turgid. It was banal. It was so bad my brain hurts when I think about it, or about Shutterbabe, which Kogan wrote about her years sleeping her way across three continents and being, purely incidentally, a war photographer. Then I started The Light Between Oceans and Mateship With Birds, and while they weren’t terrible, I got bored. I couldn’t finish, a chronic problem I have with books that don’t work for me. Next I borrowed out The Innocents, yet another book by someone who thinks the point of The Age of Innocence is the plot. THEN came Alif the Unseen, which I really, really liked, because (atleast) I couldn’t stop reading it. It’s genre! It has plot! And the quotidian East! It ends, alas, extremely flat and has no real people to speak of, but it was, by far, the best thing I read on the long list until I began The Marlowe Papers, which is my pick for the unknown-person Orange award. I haven’t yet read Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? - the only overlapping between my list and the shortlist - but I have a hard time imagining a mom novel can beat a verse novel about Kit Marlowe’s undead existence. Alif, meanwhile, is an earnest, ambitious book that has all the techonerds I know going Booyah! I think it needs to grow a sense of humor, a deeper mythology, and a more astute politics. And it needs to read Rae Armantrout a few times.
Stella Gibbons, Nightingale Wood. This is the best novel. It is a retelling of Cinderella with Gibbons’ inimitable wit and sly lyricism and while I don’t like it more than Cold Comfort Farm I like it as much? It has the same pulverizing of character: her keen, shrapnel analysis of human behavior, only rescued from brutality by her obvious affection for her people, flawed and silly though they may be. Gibbons was, in some ways, a war novelist - many of her books are about people preparing for or recovering from war - and it tinges even this, the most frivolous of her novels. Besides, who doesn’t know that love is the most martial of maladies? Nightingale Wood suits my romantic temperament, my cool laughing brain, and my fleet beating feet all at once. Here, anyway, is evidence:
The tune swayed on, pulling the dancers irresistibly like the moon dragging the tides of spring. People glanced at one another and laughed, and waded into the ocean of music as the moonlit bathers had gone out into the silver-green sea. Round and round, white crinolines swaying like the bells of flowers, cloaks swinging gallantly from young shoulders. The music swelled and fell as the waves of warm, moon-swayed water rolled round and round, and the dancers dreamed that life was beautiful, in a world toppling with monster guns and violent death.
I have taken this waltz in my heart all this long winter etc.
Teju Cole, Open City: If you know me, you know exactly where I stopped reading. But I am walker in New York City and it was nice, while it lasted, to read someone else meandering pointlessly through Manhattan borough.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. I work in a bookstore called Bluestockings. We have feminist book clubs. Me being me and new being new, I thought I should participate. I didn’t like this book in 2003, when I first read it. A decade later I continue to dislike it.
Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place. Is this book amazing or is it amazing? It’s so beautifully enraged, so wonderfully controlled, so neatly constructed, that I read it three times in three days and the only cogent thing I can say about it is !Jawdrop!
Katie Roiphe, Uncommon Arrangements. Yes, yes, I know. But this book is lovely. Honest. Did you know that a person with the excellent name of Ottoline Morrell not only existed but was notoriously beautiful and Bertrand Russell’s mistress and had the coolest country mansion like ever? I didn’t, and I thoroughly enjoyed the many litsoap titbits in this book and best of all was I could disguise my callow joy as “research” for Love Feminism Treatise. But I will write more responsibly about this once I, you know, read it again.
Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The first non fiction I ever read, I’m pretty sure, was Ex Libris at the age of thirteen? Fourteen? It was how I discovered, anyway, that such a beast as an essay existed. Back then I was going to be a novel writing quantum physicist, so much as I loved that book, I didn’t seek her out. More fool me. In Spirit.. Fadiman takes incomprehensible world of medicine and makes of it the thriller it must be for its practitioners. That she does it while writing a cultural history, a family drama, and the tale of a superhuman migration taught me the true potential, perhaps for the first time, of non fiction. Could I write this book? Probably not. But damned if I won’t die trying.
Rsyzard Kapuściński, The Emperor. Almost everyone thinks this is greatest Kapuściński of all time. I prefer Another Day in the Life, or even Shadow of the Sun, but I adore him to pieces and will worshipfully read most things he wrote. I am aware this isn’t a popular opinion and even I have my limits (looking at you, Travels with Herodotus) but let it be said that I have given him a spirited defense in the positivist prison that is American journalism. And let it also be said that my sex life has duly suffered. (kidding; my sex life is non existent even without the oppression of subversive opinions)
William Finnegan, Crossing the Line. If, by the time I am 29, I haven’t witnessed a student uprising in an apartheid state, I will consider myself a failed human being. Or something. I had much conflict with this book, a white boy’s coming of age as a surfer and teacher in black South Africa. I explained my reservations in tedious detail in class and can’t be bothered to repeat them, but I will concede Finnegan is a fine writer and everyone should learn how to catch a great wave and I really am extremely lazy. And also that I speed-skimmed the book and should reread it (as I will) before I get to have a respectable opinion.
(I chose one per writer based on which I remembered most vividly as I wrote this.)
Edith Wharon, “A Cup of Cold Water.” I’ve told anyone who will listen, and most who won’t, that Wharton’s real genius is in the short stories. This one, which is about walking and alienation and the reckless night that changes your entire life, suited me admirably the morning on which I inhaled it. I had to read it again before I wrote this, because I knew it had clauses like this one - her ideas had the brilliant bloom and audacious irrelevance of those tropical orchids which strike root in air - and I wanted to point them out to you all.
Edwidge Danticat, “New York Day Women.” There is a bit somewhere in this short story that goes She has to be careful with her heart, this day woman. I will carry that with me for a long time. It’s so true and so untenable. Also, well, my mother is coming and I am preparing.
Susan Minot, Lust and Other Stories. Is it my fault or the writer’s that I can’t tell one story in this collection apart from the next? I started reading Minot because I asked around about Serious Writers tackling Romance and got, well, her. I do not recommend her.
Lorrie Moore, “You’re Ugly, Too.”There was something clever I wanted to say here, according to my notes, about the relationship between author and protagonist and I’ve forgotten it cos I read this on like March 1. All I remember are several excellent jokes and the phrase “Professional Women and the Demographics of Grief”. Right after that- this I looked up- comes a line of clumsy verse: If there were a lake the moonlight would dance across it in conniptions. Paging Stella Gibbons.
Mavis Gallant, “Thieves and Rascals.” Teenagers, everyone knows, are disconnected from their parents. It motivates half the pop culture out there. But it takes Mavis Gallant and her citrus irony to show us that parents can’t grasp their kids either. Or each other. And that memory is a thing often best left repressed and life is sustained through a series of small hypocrisies* and that family is fragile in and beyond all the obvious ways. This was the most unsettling thing I’ve read in months, and it explains why I go so spare and so slow on the Gallant.
*an epiphany I kinda wish I had last week instead of languishing in my notes from early April. I have every failing except the useful ones.
Katherine Mansfield, “Marriage a la Mode.” I started reading the collected Mansfield after finishing her chapter in Uncommon Arrangements. I began with this one and it is devastating. Partly I read it trying to figure out who the characters were based on and partly I was propelled by the precise lucidity of her prose and partly I was amazed at how much stuff she conveys in so little time. I think there’s something to be said about Lorrie Moore being a later Mavis Gallant being a later Katherine Mansfield being a later Edith Wharton and I fully intend to say it once I’m better acquainted with all. For now, though: I can’t believe it took me 26 years to fall headlong for the short story format. It is perfection.
I read a lot of essays in the past two months, but most of them were for school and school is out and I am reluctant to think about them. I read a million Didion essays for different classes (her Joan Baez profile is quite awesome, must admit). I read Ellen Willis’ essay about radical feminism about a dozen times for the finals essay of my ethnography class. Many of the other essays I read were by another professor, Lawrence Weschler, who writes very eccentric things, and you should read “Shapinsky’s Karma” if you’re fascinated by bizarre dudes from Bangalore who wander about evangelizing unknown American artists. (and really who isn’t) He writes a lot about art and so forth, and it was (I thought) a really good class for opening one’s mind about the weird world we inhabit. I am making my way through his work, and maybe in a few months I will do a Ren post on here. We read dozens of poems and everyone from Joseph Mitchell to Grace Paley and I left each class energized and wanting to conquer All the Books and craving whiskey.
The only essays I read outside work were some essays from the New York anthology while I waited for an interview (far as I remember: Pete Hamill’s “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class”, which was great; Vanessa Grigoriadis’ “Everybody Sucks”, which told me many things about Gawker that I could easily have lived without knowing but am glad I didn’t, and Jay McInerney’s “The Death of the Idea of the UES” which seems to think Carnegie Hill = UES)
I also read many essays about telly, for an essay I am writing about soaps. I find soaps, and the social-moral nexus they chart, intensely compelling. So I read John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay about Reality Television and about Michael Jackson, both from Pulphead; DFW’s “E Pluribus Pluram” (does the man ever say anything without saying it twenty times?!) from A Supposedly Fun Thing.. , Daniel Mendelsohn’s Mad Men essay from Waiting for Barbarians and the essay that began it all, Renata Adler’s “Afternoon Television” from Canaries in the Mineshaft. My problems with Adler’s syntax are evident from the very first sentence — You have to tolerate extremes of hatred and loneliness to follow, Monday through Friday every week, through a still unterminated period of weeks, the story of an educated man so bitter that he kills himself solely to frame another man for murder. Now there’s a sentence that requires work and one that is, depending on how you look at it, either fucking brilliant or fucking frustrating and I change my mind each time I read it. After that sensational start, however, her essay gets mired in the impossibility of describing Days of Our Lives, which, like any soap, has stayed on the air for decades by fabricating a steadily more implausible plot. If someone as closely analytical as Adler can be baffled, I began to wonder, how much of a mess would I make? So I have set out to find out and will probably reread all these essays many times before I’m done. Additions gratefully solicited.
Meanwhile, these months in poetry have mostly been Merwin, Wislawa Szymborska, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Jennings, Rae Armantrout and Nikki Giovanni. Oh, and Dom Moraes. If there is some sense in that list, I leave it for you to discern. See you next month, when I will probably be telling you about perennials. Much of my reading is snippety things I never quite finish, and I’m not sure how to capture them in these posts? So they get their own.