A catalog of my comments and thoughts on books, reading, and writing as well as anything I come across that seems interesting. I used to sell other people's words at an independent bookstore but now I hope to get by on selling my own.
Finally finished 360 days later ... very tired but happy I got through it!
The Liars' Club is steeped in a strong blend of Texas scenery [oil rigs and nutria rats], sounds ["He's not worth the bullet it'd take to kill him"] and it's stifling stickiness as much as it is run through with the horrors and trauma Karr experienced as a child.
What is worth the price of admission though is Karr's writing. She draws on the rhythms and turns of her Texas dialect to craft sentences that are evocative and unexpected. And they always serve the story, from the heat of a Texas summer to the smell of her stepdad's breath the whys of the story and the imagery of it are always linked in ways that make for a really engaging book. Even in framed stories, anecdotes her father is telling at the bar and she is passing down to us, his shape and movement, the intrusions of his friends in the titular "Liars' Club," add to the story in a way that is more than just a painted background on which to picture the story.
Karr's story is full of sweet, heartfelt moments, absurdity, humor and trauma. It's easy to picture a very different book with the same material, but the way Karr structures her telling moves the trauma away from the center of the story. It makes the book about her family and not what has happened to them, and also makes those moments more impactful.
"That afternoon, for the first time, I believed that Death itself lived in the neighboring houses. Death cheered for the Dallas Cowboys, and wrapped canned biscuit dough around Vienna sausages for the half-time snack."
If you've heard about the book you may have heard about the more lurid incidents, her mother threatening her with a knife, for instance. These scenes are major parts in the story, but they never feel central in the way they might in a tell-all by the subject of a story that got national media attention, or a book that will get made into a typical Lifetime-style movie. For one, you don't see them coming. The only one she forecasts in detail is the night with the knife, but there are several other deeply disturbing incidents throughout the book. The story about the knife itself arrives suddenly at the end of one of Karr's long chapters. Others kick off chapters. At least one comes suddenly in the middle of the chapter.
It's a shock to read at times, but may be the healthier way to write. We are so used to building to such dramatic moments, but there is no inevitability to an assault, or an emotional breakdown, sometimes things just happen. It's terrible, but it's also a way of keeping your own story. Karr is not a sum only of these abuses, she's also her father's storytelling, her mother's erudition, a take-no -shit-attitude and much else besides. Which makes it more appropriate when Karr ends years later with her family still together. Her mother who held the knife, her father who got too drunk, Karr and her sister, sharing their traumas and the many other experiences that make up their lives. I think a hopeful note is the tendency for the ending of memoirs, but it rings true here because throughout the book Karr has always seen through the worst times as a bug not a feature.
If you've not gotten onto The Liars' Club yet, I highly recommend it. It's a straight shame I hadn't moved sooner to read Mary Karr after hearing her interviewed and reading and excerpt from The Art of Memoir.
Side note: I picked up my copy of Mary Karr's memoir in the last indie book shop in San Antonio [Twig Book Shop at the Pearl Brewery if you're ever in town]. I try to find local bookshops any time I travel and buy something of local interest. I have trouble explaining my intentions sometimes — I'm more interested in fiction or memoirs that happen to be here than the local "Images of America" installment — but it starts a conversation and leads to some unexpected treasures.
Nearly 40 pages into my used copy of The Things They Carried I found a large post-it note with the words "Start here" scribbled in small print at the very top. It's the point where the novel, which till then seems to stick to the premise of viewing the Vietnam War by examining the things U.S. soldiers carried. The writing comes back to these items again and again, grounding the story in pictures and mementos, weapons, ammo, clothing, and small comforts like a bible, a knife, pantyhose, what have you. Some are practical, some are remembrances, but they provide some insight into the men of Alpha Company, but going into the fourth chapter it starts to lose its ground.
Except, after page 38, the story drifts away from these items, and from the perspective Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who was central through these early pages, and from the kind of straight war story that we know well. The story gets messy. Tim O'Brien then writes in snapshots and in framed stories that, even when the subject is usual, have a touch of the surreal. Whole chapters veer off as in "The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong" in which one character tells the impossible-seeming story of a man bringing his girlfriend to visit him at his station in Vietnam and her getting lost in the world of special forces -- first asking questions, then tagging along, then participating in missions, and eventually dropping off the grid altogether. But as the subject matter gets more outlandish, the narrator "Tim O'Brien" won't give us neat answers on what is true. Some very believable scenes he reveals to be fiction, others he insists are true, others are true but didn't happen to that person, or the person had a different name.
"A true war story is never moral," we are told on page 68. Then on the next page, "You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you." Then on page 71, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen," then "In many cases a true war story cannot be believed," and still later down the page, "In other cases a true war story cannot be believed." Reality becomes a non-Newtonian fluid, appearing clear before us, but slipping away whenever we try to hold it too tightly.
From a literary studies angle, it may be interesting to model what is supposed to have actually happened to "Tim" and what has not, but following that post-modern rabbit-hole down to try to tell what happened to O'Brien is a fools errand and lead you far astray from the important lessons of the novel [and that realization may lead you to one of the important take-aways from this story].
I often thought back to Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut while reading The Things They Carried. Something in the tone and the way reality seems to shift under your feet while reading it. But where Vonnegut let that distortion play out in fantastical ways, with aliens, time travel and other science fiction elements, Tim O'Brien keeps our eyes on the war the whole time. Truth, time, beauty, and reality are distorted but in a way that is much more familiar in the way we understand memory and especially traumatic memories. "Tim" isn't taken away to a far away planet with a beautiful movie star. He is Vietnam, even when there is a discordant, impossible, beautiful image like that of Curt Lemon stepping back so that the sun catches his face and flying into the vines and white blossoms, blown by the explosion of the landmine he stepped on.
The Things They Carried is a meditation on war, on youth [and youth lost] and on storytelling, whether through novel, gossip, or your own memories. O'Brien's war stories, to whatever degree they are factual, feel truer than most, and closer to home. He never tries to educate on the 60s, the war, or the government, though it's hard not to walk away with some thoughts on these matters. The war for him and us readers is what the dozen men [give or take] of Alpha Company see, hear, and feel. It's death and loss and a connection unlike just about any other on Earth.
Bang My Car was gifted to me by a friend returning from a work trip in Singapore. I am not sure what linked me to this book in their mind but I am glad things worked out as they did. Bang my Car is a short story collection dealing most notably with language in Singapore, specifically the use and acceptance of "Singlish," an English dialect particular to that country. But, as language goes so goes identity, politics, economics, and family, all of which come through in this collection.
I, like the dust jacket and the intro, make a lot of the use of Singlish, but the language isn't any more difficult than Junot Diaz [for non-Spanish speakers]. The language represents one facet of concerns across generations and classes about identity. Ang writes a lot about family, with the parents representing a westernized post-industrial economy driven by the need to work and improve their station while older generations pushing against these foreign influences. It's the older "uncles" usually speaking in Singlish, where the parents are interested in wine, violin lessons, and schooling. And we observe from the perspective of the youth, uncertain what to make of it all.
Many of the stories are written in the second person, often an old man ranting at the "you" [in the person of some neighbor or party in a care accident]. The effect can be alienating, like watching a subject under glass. The remove is most obvious in "Imaginary Geographies of the Singapore Heartland" where interviews with an unidentified man are dissected and analyzed through an academic lens. But while other stories skip the analysis, the anonymity and one-sidedness seem more like a person being watched than an interactive experience.
I'm a sucker for stories about language. Hollywood loves films about Hollywood, news companies love stories about news, and I love stories that interrogate our relationship with language. Ang's stories try to capture the intricacies of Singlish, but also probe it and the society from which it comes. What does it say when a person chooses to speak Singlish or to speak English for that matter? These questions are being asked all over the world; they can be as wide as the conversations between nations and be as intimate as a person understanding their own identity. But as Ang illustrates, the battles themselves are played out thousands of times a day in small interactions: a survey-taker and an old man, a father and his father, a man complaining to his neighbor about people of a different ethnicity moving to their area. There are plenty of people trying to decode the major events of the day, and they sometimes seem right for a moment. Ang focuses us on the small questions, the ones that persist and point to something bigger.
After hearing for the last few years that it took a WWII book program to bring The Great Gatsby into fashion, I think it's pretty awesome that Stein saw Fitzgerald's brilliance back in 1933.
If you start thinking too deep about Gertrude Stein's motivation and headspace in writing this book it's easy to lose yourself in a hall of mirrors. Stein — noted, notable, an influencer before #influencers were a thing — wrote this book "largely to amuse herself" [according to the back cover] in the persona of her partner Alice Toklas, but largely about herself. It is easy to find ways throughout the book that she seems to play with the form, frustrate expecatations, amuse herself, which makes it fun but can also feel like an inside joke, especially if you're not in on the game.
I was expecting to get away from the popular vision of Stein into the actual writing. I was knew little more than what I had seen read in Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which was written much later, and seen in the movie Midnight in Paris, which presents a fan-fiction version of Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and others in the Paris social circles of the time. Stein, played by Kathy Bates, comes across as a kind of oracle, a sought after voice of guidance who dashes off short, enigmatic quips to her cadre of famous artists and writers.
To my surprise, my image hasn't changed that much after reading this book. I imagine this is at least in part an effect of the playfulness, playing into the image that had been built of her. She shows us the same ultra-cool group around her, they all come to 27 rue de Fleurus for advice which is always more quizzical than practical. But when you expect intimacy, she changes the subject, when you expect to hear about art she cuts you off with a neologism, you're ready for more Picasso but she has already drifted to Picabia.
The story constantly jumps from anecdote to anecdote, following thread forward through the years and back so that you lose track of the fact that the chapter that started 40 pages ago is supposed to be about 1907-1914. All her famous friends appear but rather than a revealing look, we get a glimpse and a quip. About Bebe Berard's paintings, she says, "they are almost something and then they are not." And Picabia, "although he has in a sense not a painter's gift he has an idea that has been and will be of immense value to all time." [I'll note that both these instances appear in the book attributed to Stein by Toklas.]
At the heart of my issue with this book, and the way it most conforms to the tell-all, is the assumption of a deep familiarity with the subject. Many things that are entirely uninteresting if it's some guy on the bus are suddenly newsworthy if it's done by Anne Hathaway. TMZ owes it's whole existance to this phenomenon and goofy sound effects. In more narrative stories, where the people are fictional or unknown, you would establish that connection between the reader and the principle characters, but in tell-alls and memoirs you can trade off the reader's existing connections to public figures.
Going back to Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson [the only name I will ever use for any character he portrays] meets a man at the party who introduces himself as Scott Fitzgerald. He is dumbstruck and the audience is expected to be as well because it's assumed we all know who F. Scott Fitzgerald is. If we had given the name Charles Boyle it would have been a very strange scene, no person watching would have any reason to know why meeting this Charles guy was exciting.
So it is here at points. There are so many artists and wives and personalities that flit in and out and we get no characterization. Of course I was very interested in the Hemingway part not only because I like his work but because I know something of his biography. Picasso's work I really enjoy but I know little of his life so I didn't really know what to make of the events that happened to him. He is with Fernande, then he is with Eve and neither mean much to me. I am told Stein and Toklas like Fernande but that's about as high as the stakes get. I know almost nothing of Cezanne's biography though I love his painting, same with Matisse. Juan Gris and Braque, I know their names and a few pieces, and many I don't know at all.
That is why the writing feels so unconnected and why it dragged so much at moments, it sometimes felt like random pages torn out of a notebook and mixed up, there is a story there but I don't have all the pieces to make sense of it.
Adding to the slowness, Stein uses a conversational style, which here means following loose trains of thought and bouncing around between subjects and time periods. In my mind I could picture Toklas professionally lit for a documentary and just speaking for hours straight running through the notable events of her life with Stein. But it doesn't build to anything and the chapters run to about 50 pages so staying focused took some doing.
That is a lot of complaining for a book I enjoyed fine and may revisit someday, probably when I have learned more about Picasso and the art scene in early 20th century Paris. If that is your focus, this is surely a must-read, but if not, I'm hoping there are other routes into Stein that are more inviting.
Great finds at the Book Corner in Philadelphia.
“It’s amazing how right you can be sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.”
Where have you been hiding all these years, Sally Jay Gorce? How is it that a sixty-year-old novel with a quirky name, a novel I've never even heard of before, has been hiding one of the most clear-eye, interesting and honest female protagonists either side of the sexual literature? And why does a novel released in 1955 feel more current than so many attempts at capturing my own age?
I found The Dud Avocado in a clickhole, looking up Paris-set novels I'd like my friends to check out on their vacation to the city of lights. I was struck by the odd title and discovered good notes and reviews. Now I'd like to add my own take to that list.
The Dud Avocado is a 1950s roman a clef about by Elaine Dundy about her post-collegiate adventures in Paris. It's a form ripe with opportunities to go wrong. Some list off a string of unrelated anecdotes, and others craft some heavy-handed lesson about coming of age. Dundy manages to navigate the narrow straits between and write a novel that reads true to the experiences of life in your 20s, and the larger challenge of that period when you're facing all the possibilities and limits of the world and deciding who you are.
When we meet our protagonist, Sally Jay Gorce, she has already been in Paris for months. She has an Italian lover, a group of bohemian friends, an allowance from her French uncle, and a crush on a friend from home she just ran into on the street. It's the beginning of the end of her Paris days, but she doesn't know that yet. What ensues is a series of events, most funny in some way, some devastating, and at least a few are both. And when I say they are all enlightening, I don't mean to expect a moral, only that she, like us, is always learning what people are capable of, both for better and worse.
The Dud Avocado was released about two years before On The Road introduced us to that other Sal, and I have to say Sally is the more compelling of the characters. She is much more clear-eyed about free-living, it's benefits and its pitfalls. The depictions of nightlife are more recognizable. Sally gets too drunk some nights, she pisses some people off and sometimes she just thinks she does, she falls for the wrong person or the right person or screws it up with either of them. She gets tired of the scene and gives it up, she returns re-energized. She goes through different roles: the party-goer, the career actress, the striver, the wife, the slut, the runaway, and even the librarian. She realizes that bad people, like bad habits are hard to kick.
So why haven't I heard of this novel until now? The foreword insists it comes in and out of style, and hopefully it's star is again on the rise (and I will help it what little I can). Sally comes across ages ahead of her time. She's not always empowered or modeling feminist virtues, but she is allowed to be as flawed as any male character. She is unabashedly sexual, she can be fickle and dramatic, she makes plenty of mistakes through the novel and it's her struggle that makes the story compelling. In short, Sally Jay is free in a way common wisdom tells us women weren't allowed to be at the time, hell, in a way we were told men weren't allowed to be at the time. Two years before Kerouac and she has everything — jazz, sex, poverty, art — just without the ecstatic spiritual streak of the latter.
Dundy's writing also feels strangely modern. From the lack of constraint on Sally's voice to the way she describes the bohemian subtypes in different Parisian neighborhoods, I could reproduce whole sections, with a few location names swapped, and it would be a perfectly plausible story for Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Fishtown (Philadelphia) or Austin, Texas.
So I'll raise a toast to Sally Jay Gorce, along with 4.5 stars and a hearty recommendation.
"War … yes, everyone knows what war is like. But occupation is more terrible because people get used to one another. We tell ourselves, 'They’re people just like us after all,' but they’re not at all the same."
Irène Némirovski — famed writer, Russian emigre, and woman of Jewish ancestry — in the midst of World War II, and in the hands of the third Reich, began writing a novel. She did not live to see the end of the war or the end of the novel, but what she did write of that novel is what we have here under the title Suite Française. Némirovski's work stands out from World War II stories I have read throughout my life, in particular those popular in America: It is not about America and it is not about the fighting of the war. The focus here is on the French civilians living in the shadow of war, people trying to survive and continue their lives in a world turned upside down.
Némirovski planned to write five parts for her novel, but only produced the first two before she was captured. The story starts in (free) Paris as news arrives that the French army is in retreat and the war is coming. We follow a handful of French citizens trying evacuate the city — specifically the wealthy Péricand family, working class Jeanne and Maurice Michaud, their son Jean-Marie, the author Gabriel Corte, and the rich Charles Langelet.
Suite Française contains a very human story about the common choices we rarely hear about in the accounts of war. The characters of this book are neither heroic nor villainous in any grand sense. They make small choices that can have big consequences. they are sometimes brave, sometimes cowardly, sometimes decent, often petty. In many cases there is no easy answer at all. The good guys don't always act good and the bad guys aren't always terrible.
In this way, Suite Française feels immediate in a way few war narratives do. The horror of the story is not how alien this world is, but how familiar. Their choices are our choices but heightened. What do you do when you see someone in need? What would you do to others to protect your family? Or just yourself? You wouldn't have to kill someone, just steal gas, or pack your fine linens and drive past a line of people fleeing on foot. And on the other side, acts of kindness like caring for a wounded soldier in your home or helping reconnect children and parents after a bombing. There are many common decisions that suddenly hold the power of life and death in wartime and Némirovski never lets us forget that imperfect humans are the ones having to make these decisions.
When we move into the second part, "Dolce," things get even more confusing. Invasion has given way to occupation and we get a look through the experiences of two households, each forced to house a German officer. "Dolce" takes place mostly in the summer two years after the invasion. Life is not back to normal, but it looks much more like it. Old grievances are renewed, people bicker and gossip, and we are told, despite numerous proclamations of French solidarity, that the townsfolk were reporting their neighbors to the Germans from the very start. "If we'd taken them all seriously, everyone in the region would be in prison," the German officer says.
Meanwhile, the officers are gentlemanly, polite, kind even and they live in these homes for months, and politeness in return is compulsory. Over months grudge melts into kindness, respect and even affection (thus the epigraph to this essay). We know what the Nazis (as a whole) stood for, what they perpetrated against Jews and other minorities, but one person can be complicated, a soldier, we are reminded several times, does not set the policies. As an abstraction, years later, Nazi's appear as pure evil, but as individuals, in the houses of the protagonists, the image is less clear. In fact, Germans in this town act much like American soldiers later in the war. They give sweets to the kids, offer to help carry groceries, and pay well at the local shops. In this way, Suite Française reveals our humanity both in the capacity to transcend, and our weakness to, the worst parts of ourselves, and in this book it is hard to even know which parts those are.
The tension in "Dolce" seems to pull tighter and tighter until you can't stop reading. The friendship between Lucile and a German officer seems to draw inexorably toward disaster. Némirovski writes at her best at these moments when her characters are torn between what they want and what they know is right and even possible. Quiet, impossible feelings spring up between people despite themselves. It's not a naughty affair, but a tragic affection expressed through a song on the piano, a look at a ring, blanched faces, or a startle when the real world reinserts itself into a quiet moment on the lawn.
Suite Française feels defined almost as much by what is included as by what is not. Hitler is not mentioned at all until very near the end. Jews and concentration camps aren't mentioned at all. This feels very strange if you do not read the appendix that is included with Némirovski's diary entries about the book. I have often skipped afterwords and appendices in recent years, but since this novel was so conspicuously unfinished I decided to read them. Now I wonder at what more this book could have become. Némirovski kept the horrors to the margins while she told us when it must have seem that way to citizens. She invites us to feel as conflicted as many may have felt at the time — and from her notes it appears she too was sympathetic to individual soldiers — before dropping hard truths in the next sections. The reality of the Nazi rule would intrude disastrously on our protagonists and they would find themselves colliding in different ways, trying to survive the new, even more insidious threat of occupation. The final two sections of the novel she never even outlined; they would depend on the outcome of the war.
Unfortunately, Némirovski, and her story, in Auschwitz on August 17, 1942. What remains is written with a rare heart and clarity, untainted by nostalgia, parades, or narratives of heroes and villains. It's a story of ordinary people living in turbulent, dangerous times, and Suite Française is especially charming, and haunting, for that reason.
Karen Russell, “Looking for Home”