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.
“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”
One late night, having been sucked into a dead end conversation with a drunk old man, it came out that I had studied history in college and that I had focused on Irish history.
"Irish history!?," he shouted. "Why there wouldn't be any Irish history without the English!"
The "great man" theory of history had never been laid so nakedly to me before. The idea that the decisions of British monarchs were not just a major force on Irish history, but the only thing that mattered was so obviously wrong I was flabbergasted.
Between the time when that old man's education and my own, the rote memorization of kings, presidents, and dates, while not completely out of style, had been supplemented by the stories of the people who lived in those times. Ethnic, social, and other groups that rose up in the 60s and 70s awoke people in and out of academia to an interest in what it was actually like to live at different times and places. They started to look not only at how Andrew Jackson dealt with Native American tribes, but in the tribes themselves, their histories, motives, home lives, and what happened after big events like the Trail of Tears.
Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States was among the first and most well-known books to come out of this new school of history. It's a survey of the entirety of European presence in the United States of America, from the landing of Columbus to — in my edition — the bombing of Afghanistan after 9/11. Zinn tries to do this by collecting the stories of people who lived outside of the government: farmers, factory workers, Native Americans, African-Americans, women, domestic workers, miners, and so on.
Most of us by this time recognize the spark notes: disease and massacres against the Native Americans, slavery and stolen rights for black people, insult and deportation for Latinx, hard labor and exclusion for Chinese immigrants, and women of all ethnicities resigned to domestic servitude. These high level facts are enough to be upsetting but Zinn brings us closer in, using contemporary documents to illustrate how these played out on an individual level. What did it mean to be an enslaved black woman or a Native American family marched from their homes in Georgia to an unknown expanse in Oklahoma. These stories are even more devastating than you remember or could have imagined.
In a book that covers a great breadth of human experiences, going into detail requires that he move through subjects quickly. If you want a comprehensive dive into the civil rights movement or women's suffrage you will have to find more pointed books on those topics. Zinn acknowledges this weakness in the afterword, pointing out that he didn't go far enough into LGBTQ issues and the Latinx labor movements in California, for example, and he recommends some books for further reading on those issues, if you are interested. But by taking the time to explore these stories past the statistics, A People's History carries a punch that numbers and charts alone could not achieve.
Because of all the good that is in this book, my critiques feel minor, but there were aspects that I feel distracted from the good of the book and made it harder to finish and embrace.
My first issue actually cuts both ways. Zinn doesn't bother to retread the traditional history of many subjects. He assumes you know what is taught in favor of different wars and our westward expansion or maybe he doesn't care to make other people's arguments for them. In a way, this is clarifying. How we act as a nation, or even personally, shouldn't be subject to how others act against us. In more specific terms, if an enemy targets civilians our responsibility, if we are the force for good we insist we are, to not respond in kind. Usually we might try to soften criticism against our actions by listing off the ways others have done wrong, but Zinn offers no such quarter. This does serve as a challenge because there are almost certainly causes in American history you supported and will feel slighted by when Zinn points out the cruel American actions, say in World War II, without bothering with the disclaimer that "the other guys were worse."
I also found that A People's History works best in the parts where the name is treated literally — as a history focused on people — rather than euphemistically — see: the People's Republic of ______. As the book starts covering the rise of populism and socialism in the early 20th century, Zinn allows himself to get pulled from the stories of people living under government decisions and in a harsh, dangerous industrial economy to the political efforts he would side with. In his defense, mass demonstrations, general strikes, and calls for government control of industries have been pushed to the margins in many books, but Zinn presents a certain kind of movement as the most legitimate. As we push into the Nixon and Reagan eras his argument really gets strained. He raises up mass demonstrations as the voice of the people, but then has to get it to jibe with the electoral victories of angry, pro-capital men like Nixon, Reagan and Bush in moments that seem to be defined by activism. He looks at elections with skepticism, noting that over half the electorate stays home. This means even the landslide electoral victories represent the votes of just over a quarter of the electorate — a fair point. He attributes this to disillusionment then says the elected act undemocratically when they take positions that go against what the people believe according to polls. It's at worst a convenient belief, at best an optimistic one.
Some Democrats are now playing with the idea that a true economic populist would swing working-class voters back to their party, but Zinn seems to believe that such a platform would rewire the whole system, break down the cultural and political lines that divide natural allies in the poor, working and middle classes. I think he has to believe this. Addressing many of the systemic problems would require a huge electoral mandate ... or a turning away from democracy as we know it.
Part of his turn toward demonstrations, he acknowledges, is to offer some hope. This is a devastating book that highlights how the government has done many truly indefensible things that we now have to live with. America's is a devastating and moving history. It's also very long, and in Zinn's hands, sometimes tedious. I had to put it down for a few months — after the election — partly because it was a lot to handle and because I hit a wall.
For those who have been frightened by the openly antagonistic role of the current administration to immigrants, the poor, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and so on, this is great place to start reminding yourself that America has never been good to these groups and how easily it can slip from bad to worse. There are constant efforts to bury the sins of our past, by removing it from our schools, by decrying these facts as unpatriotic, but knowledge is the first step in making real change to address these deep-rooted problems.
Taking a break from his usual fare of jet cars and martians, Ray Bradbury turns his sights to a setting more alien to us than any red planet or dystopic future: middle class America in the 1928. Such "in the days of yore" fare is almost everywhere now, from TV to books to political speeches, and it is very often pat and awful. But what could have been a book-length nostalgia trip of the most puckering sweetness is saved (somewhat) by Bradbury's writing and his unique sympathy that makes for a more expansive story.
No doubt, this is a book that trades heavily on nostalgia, complete with neighborhood characters, folksy discourses on the old ways, not-so-veiled digs at modern — for the late 1950s — entertainment and conveniences, and long, loving descriptions of typical summer tropes like fresh-cut grass and the buzz of cicadas. It is exceedingly quaint and especially now I find it hard to read such "back in the day" lore without expecting some screed against millennials, minorities, taxes or all of the above to follow. But I was able to pocket my cynicism for a few minutes a day and travel back to 1928 Illinois.
One of the successes of Dandelion Wine is the way Bradbury breaks the narrative up to inhabit different perspectives and experiences. Though Douglas Spaulding is at the center of these summer happenings, Bradbury lets us see through the eyes of other townsfolk, making the story more immediate and real. He does this best through the story of "the Lonely One," a figure connected to a string of murders in the town that lurks through gossip and whispers throughout the novel. To the young boys it's exciting, a story to be shared for titillation and to demonstrate their boldness when staying out late or taking a shortcut home. They even feel sad when the Lonely One is stopped and their game is nearly ruined. Bradbury could have left it there and it would have been just part of the scenery of a youthful summer, but he takes us away from the boys perspective and reminds us of the real stakes the children don't fully grasp.
Our first serious encounter with the Lonely One is in an early chapter seen through Douglas's brother, Tom, on a night that Douglas is late coming home. Tom watches as their mother becomes more and more agitated as it gets dark and the hours go by with no sign of Douglas. She calls out the door, tries to talk herself down, and eventually walks with Tom to the edge of the wooded ravine to call for Douglas into the silent and dark forest. Bradbury draws the experience out, illustrating the signs of tension in Mrs. Spaulding's voice and behavior and how Tom picks up on those worries even if he doesn't fully understand the stakes. A later chapter finds a young woman discovering the dead body of one of his victims, and facing the risk of a nighttime walk back through that same ravine. These are genuinely frightening chapters in a book where you would expect the kind of bandits that would be foiled by a gang of pre-pubescent boys, and they make the novel feel real in a way other sepia-tinged stories don't.
Many writers seem to iron these complications out of their origin stories, but they are what save Dandelion Wine. Coming of age stories are usually locked onto one character or group and a quest of some sort (often to have sex). Everyone else is simply window dressing. But coming of age in Bradbury's novel means learning that everyone has a story. The summer of 1928 isn't about Douglas's quest for new sneakers, that is just one of many stories he has in this novel, and his is just one of many summers experienced in Green Town in 1928. That summer will mean something else entirely to Lavinia Nebbs, William Forrester and John Huff and that is what Douglas discovers. In short, Dandelion Wine is unique because it is specifically about the awakening of a fiction writer.
Bradbury also understands that a book trading in nostalgia is ultimately a book about loss. After all, who would want to bother with a book about the old days and how they were exactly the same as today? Douglas faces two deaths that summer, his good friend moves away, he nearly witnesses an attempted murder. It's handled pretty lightly in this book — despite my enthusiasm for the dark parts of the story, it is really a testament to summer and youth — but this is heavy stuff and it makes you feel that the author respects you in a way that is rare in this class of story.
From the start, the folksy nostalgia is pretty heavy, I definitely put this book away a couple times without being able to finish the first chapter. Obviously, if you like that kind of story you will enjoy this book, but even if that isn't your usual speed, I think you may find some pleasant surprises in Dandelion Wine. I give it 3 stars, a decent vacation read that can fit in your pocket.
Now that I’ve reached the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (this edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) I have begun to see it as the story of a man scandalized by a world that disappoints nearly every effort at goodness. A man, the prince and maybe the author, who, having ventured into the world, extended sympathy out to the people he saw but has been broken by them and retreated to a shell of conservatism and safety.
The (relatively brief) synopsis: A young man of the Russian aristocratic class, Prince Lev Nikoláevich Mýshkin, arrives in St. Petersberg after having been raised in Switzerland where he was treated for what we assume is epilepsy. It’s told that he has seizures and was an “idiot” as well, mute and developmentally challenged as a child from the sounds of it. Arriving back in Russia he becomes known for extending sympathy and withholding judgement and for this naivete the label follows him throughout the novel as a term of abuse. He encounters several groups of people his first day back that become the basis of his social circle in Russia. Among these, a rich merchant Rogózhin, who is bullish and immediate in pursuing his desires, the Epanchin family that serves as a sort of “straight man” (or family) tumbled about by these external forces, the Ívolgin family, and Nastásya Filíppovna, a beautiful young woman who has been sexually abused by an adopted father-figure and has grown to be a troubled figure who tends to sow chaos.
Driving the story along is a tortured love triangle between the prince, Rogózhin and Nastásya Filíppovna, with Agláya Epanchin, the youngest and most beautiful of three Epanchin daughters, eventually being thrown into the mix.
This is all hardly a skeleton of this 610 page story and if I had one piece of advice to impart before reading this book it would be to remember that it was published serially and to view it more like a television series than today’s more plot-driven novels. Chapters, much like episodes, are little stories within themselves that involve our main characters but often do not move the main story arch forward, much like a sitcom that weaves tidbits of larger romantic plots into the self-contained 30 minute adventures.
So if you find yourself wondering how a 20 page reading of the suicide note of the prince's consumptive neighbor ties into these primary goals, it doesn’t really, but not everything has to. Much of it is a way to imagine the simple, kind prince into contemporary — for its time — debates and conversations, which can make it feel dated. But while the specifics have changed, the conversations never change that much: faith, government, sexual mores, frivolous lawsuits, and stab-happy rival suitors.
The prince handles himself well in many circumstances, though is often scoffed at for some reason not necessarily related to the argument. But stepping back now and taking the novel as a whole, especially the ending, the story leaves a rather bleak impression.
If you are one to read the introduction or footnotes you should be tipped off by the association between this book and “Christ’s Body in the Tomb,” a painting by Hans Holbein depicting a gruesomely realistic dead body about which the prince says, “A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” Dostoevsky seems interested in what it would take to do just that.
The sensitive characters of this story: the prince, Nastásya, even Aglya and Ippolit, get ground down by the world they encounter. It’s a world they wish to embrace but one that is full of awful people and acts, where goodness is nigh impossible. While those who thrive in this story are the savvy and amoral. They are practical folks like Iván Fyódorovich Epanchin or cynical like Gavríla Ardaliónovich, Lebedev and Evgény Pávlovich.
Rogózhin seems a special case to me, too sensitive to be practical but certainly not sympathetic. In the end, he too gets broken down but he recovers mentally if not financially. He lives in a passion for the now and these can bring him as far as the breaking point but he is not introspective and doesn't really care for others so he is not haunted by the deaths and misfortunes of others. Nastásya proves almost too much for him and drives him to a sort of ruin for him though he lives and even recovers his wits. He chases a desire, lets it consume him even to disaster, but he picks himself up, dusts off his shoulders and runs headlong into the next disaster.
I don’t know how soon I could read this again after the couple months I spent in this world, but I would be interested to. Dostoevsky uses many long monogoues broken up only with brief descriptions of tone or intention in the character that more often confused me than enlightened. I wouldn't be surprised if whole scenes turned on a new impression of how Aglaya, Varvára Ardaliónovich, Gavríla, and others spoke or bore themselves in these conversations if I were to read them again with foreknowledge and in a different mood. Were they mocking or playful, obtuse or merely cautioned.
Lizavéta Prokófyevna Epanchin (Aglaya’s mother) may be the most fascinating character to revisit as she is in so much of the book and may be the most dynamic character. Lizavéta is drawn strongly to the prince and seems fascinated by him, is dedicated to being his friend, but at times it seems she is ready to throw him over for his lack of social savvy and too forgiving nature. Aglaya too acts and speak in a way that confounded me often and as she became a love interest I wondered if her feelings was genuine or cruel or something else.
This confusion may stem from many things, the author’s intention, different understandings of the world over 100 years apart, but leading them is a narrator whose role wasn’t entirely clear. Dostoevsky, like Charles Dickins in A Christmas Carol, let the narrator fade in and out of the story and gave them unclear powers. The narrator is not a named character, but is self-aware. They break the fourth wall, referencing what we know or can know and even expressing difficulty in describing characters or situations. They seem omniscient, recounting private goings on and the inner thoughts and motivations of various characters, but then at moments take up a voice and explain why they do or do not know the content of some conversation or event. One story came through some reliable gossips in town and seemed the most likely version of the story, another was recounted in testimony or written in a letter. At one point the narrator says they can’t know what was said in a private conversation though just pages before they write word-for-word a long private discussion between the prince and Nastásya.
It can frustrating in its inconsistency, but I’m being generous and will take for granted that Dostoevsky was using the uncertain narrator to heighten moments when other characters are kept in the dark. When our protagonist is trying to learn something, when the author wants to build tension for a reveal by leaking that something is coming but making you read through to discover what it is.
If you’re a fan of Russian literature I hardly need to encourage you to pick up a Dostoevsky novel but if you’re not I’m not sure this is the best introduction. The best I can offer is that it is very much of the 19th century, and if you enjoy society types such as Henry James, I think you’ll find much to like in The Idiot, only a lot more of it and perhaps a bit more philosophical. Don’t treat it as a race to the finish and allow that this novel could take a while. But overall expect a thought provoking and often moving story.
Could Seymour Krim make a comeback? Could a little-known holdover from the beat generation, a writer who died nearly 30 years ago, have something new to say to the iPhone generation? Not likely, but for my money the collection of essays in Missing a Beat felt among the most present discussions of celebrity, ambition, envy, doubt, and optimism in modern America that I have read recently.
Krim comes across in this collection as a disappointed striver. A writer who came up through the beat generation and kept plugging through the era of New Journalism, but never quite found that pearl Kerouac had promised: “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything.” He is constantly in the shadow of more famous friends — recounted most directly in “Norman Mailer, Get Out of My Head!” — and frustrated in his efforts to achieve the kind of fame/notoriety or the wild adventures everyone around him seemed to be having. But Missing a Beat isn't merely a collection of regrets. What makes Krim's writing meaningful is the way he interrogates his own sense of failure. Why is it that he has to measure himself by Mailer’s fame? What is wrong with being a struggling artist? Isn’t that what he had wanted? How should he measure his own success?
In essays like “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,” Krim reckons as much with his own expectations and faults as he does with the terms of success society has handed him. Krim recounts how limitless possibilities have led him to chase dream after dream without settling into one place or occupation. He writes about a quiet movement of dreamers like him who have missed out on the middle class comforts of a stable career path — a savings account, a house, a family, a title, a legacy — and must sate themselves on the hope for something new and better tomorrow.
“I’ve published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who’s Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I'm as open to every wild possibility I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat.”
Krim wrote “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” when he was 51 years old — that’s better than 20 years my senior — and I’m not sure if I should be comforted or very, very worried about that fact. What Krim saw as a freak community of dreamers is just reality for many of us today for whom “careers” at one company have gone the way of the Studebaker. He seems to warn of a future where unfavorable comparisons to the financial success of peers is constant, a future that's easy to imagine as I scroll the vacation photos of my friends on Instagram.
In fact much of Krim's writing seems eerily suited to the social media landscape, despite preceding it by decades, a fact I think that makes it only more applicable. Too many writers get hung up on the latest app or feature, sure that society will be redeemed or destroyed by a new filter on Snapchat. Social media may highlight our insecurities, but Krim reminds us that these have been around long before we ever started carrying them around in our pockets.
“You may sometimes think everyone lives in the crotch of the pleasure principle these days except you, but you have company, friend. … It is still your work or role that finally gives you your definition in our society, and the thousands upon thousands of people who I believe are like me are those who have never found the professional skin to fit the riot in their souls.”
“For my Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business" is a standout, but the same themes carry through many of his essays including “Making It!” and “The American Novel Made Me” without becoming repetitive. Each essay seems to come from a different angle: lack of direction, envy, and ambition, respectively. The writing itself crackles throughout with the energy of the beat generation. He writes in long sentences, each with several parenthetical phrases and catalogs that go to ten items or longer. He deploys slang but sparingly and to good effect. The descriptions are grounded in real sensations using onomatopoeia and analogies to the items and people around him instead of reaching for more academic language (like onomatopoeia). His essays seem always anchored in place, even as zooms out for a wider view, the world is recognizably his.
Missing a Beat is a good read for anyone a few years out of school who is starting to rethink their career choices and sometimes Googles “how to work abroad” while at work.
I've spent months with the writings of Anaïs Nin collected in this book, reading much as she might have written them, at night in the hours winding down to sleep a page or two at a time. The writings come from her diaries, written in 1931 and 1932 when she came to know June Miller and her husband, the writer Henry Miller, culminating in a passionate affair with Henry.
The writing here can be fantastic, though as you might expect in a diary, it can also be uneven. There are transcendent passages, even more compelling in many cases than Henry's fictional(ish) accounts of the same world, and it tells in real time the story of a woman awakening to some knowledge in herself she's tried to ignore.
The Millers become a conduit for Nin's sexuality to open in a way she couldn't have imagined. Nin first finds herself enthralled with June then, after June leaves the country, gets drawn into a physical relationship with Henry and she lives the whole affair through her writing. There are entries full of rapture and passion, but there are many others about her doubts and fears. Nin, who was married at the time, struggled with her passion and how her actions could hurt her husband. What's more, she is haunted by the promise of June who holds a strange power over both Henry and Nin and will return at some point threatening their relationship.
If you are the type who reads one book at a time, Henry and June can feel tedious, as I learned during some periods when I was more consistent in my reading. It was not written as a self-contained story so it reflects the uneven way life actually moves. Nin has remarkable character shift in these years but it happens in fits and starts. On one page she may come to a declaration like, "I want passion and pleasure and noise and drunkenness and all evil." But an entry or two later she may again be convinced that Henry is cruel or she is.
If you're able to stick with it, Henry and June is a remarkable book both for Nin's honesty and her ability to charge the writing with such emotion without going over the top. Her cruel moments, her insecurities, her lust, her indiscretions, Nin spreads it all out on the page and we're lucky enough to get to read it.
Henry and June is a great read for this and for anyone who has been avoiding the big questions in their head, about a relationship or sex or work or even religion and politics. Nin's willingness to explore her passion — intellectually, physically and in writing — may embolden us to face the doubts and dark corners of our own minds honestly.
Vivian Gornick's book on the art of essay writing was bound to get good marks from me, if only for its extensive drawing of examples from famous books and essays.
Criticism — as compared to reviews — is a singularly rewarding experience, especially in the hands of a good writer such as Gornick. It can open your eyes to a new way of seeing a piece you have already read or turn you on to writers you have never experienced. In the course of this book I was turned on to Seymour Krim, I reopened an essay by Joan Didion, and I've hunted down a PDF of Edward Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles."
The point is theoretically to help in the writing of essays, but I was delighted to discover that what drew me in was perhaps the point all along. Gornick does not reveal until the conclusion her suspicion of studying "craft" (as it were) and the idea that one can teach writing at all. It's not how to write but how to read, critically and with an eye toward story, that drives The Situation and the Story. Gornick is asking the reader to dig deeper, discover what it is about Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" that makes it compelling.
"Who is speaking, what is being said and what is the relation between the two," is a repeated admonition as you read into a story. Orwell going out and shooting an elephant could be an act of bravado, it could be an act of cruelty, but in the way he writes it is an exploration of colonialism. What it means to represent a ruling nation among a people who aren't keen to have you there, and especially when you're not too keen on the idea either. What does that position do to someone? This comes through in his voice, in the way he describes "the situation" as much as in the actions he takes. Asking these questions will make such readings more enjoyable and meaningful, but should also inform your own work.
The crux of this lies in a story about one of who students writing an essay about her grandfather — a man she has never met. The story isn't quite working until someone realizes that her learning about her grandfather is the situation, it provides a structure for the story, the actions on which the writer can hang meaning. The story, the meaning itself, is actually about the girl connecting with the grandmother. From there the essay starts to come together in a more satisfying way.
I am not convinced with all of Gornick's stances, her belief in the inborn gift of writing skill is maybe just said wrong or maybe it is magical thinking. And the way her distaste for post-modernism is slipped in does not serve any end except to let you know she is not a fan. But if you are interested in personal writing, either to write or read, this is a good place to start.
It would seem convenient, career-wise, for George Saunders to have found a novel in him after the success of Tenth of December, but if timing makes Lincoln in the Bardo seem shrewd, the writing inside will assure you that it was, in fact, inspired.
I'm not sure why I try to temper my enthusiasm for this book and Saunders generally; I suspect years of cool outlaws make siding with any sort of consensus group uncomfortable. Saunders has certainly garnered a mass of critical and audience praise but yeah, I'm going to jump on board because his writing is very good and original and relevant.
Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange and ambitious novel. It is structured almost like a play, a 300 page dialogue. The main story takes place in a graveyard among ghosts including Willie Lincoln, who has just arrived (i.e. died) and will be visited by his father, Abraham. This part is based in contemporary stories of Abe visiting his son at the cemetery at night and holding the body. Willie was just 11 when he died. Willie is greeted by our protagonists, Hans Vollman and Richard Bevins III. They, like all the other ghosts, have not accepted their situation and, as ghosts tend to, have unresolved business in life.
Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters of actual historians and contemporaries describing the times and life with the Lincolns. I was a bit concerned going into these sections, but Saunders uses a device that is common through the novel, splitting the account among many voices. The effect is kind of like a mosaic, with the scene being built, one sentence or paragraph at a time, each from a different perspective. It brings the scene home a little, like a group of friends talking over to recount some interesting event. They diverge at points, and come to consensus at others, but it comes off as something more interesting than a straight recounting. Saunders is able to dwell on interesting points, like a city of candy for a party at the Lincoln's, or the weather the night of Willy's death. It was probably much more work on Saunders point, but it removes some of the formality of the history while puncturing his story with the weight of real events, real deaths, and a real war not far to the south of these events.
The ghosts do this as well and often you'll find Bevins telling us what Vollman said then Vollman telling us what Bevins said. Being a chorus of souls who can't even acknowledge they are dead -- though they know they are dissociated from their bodies which reside in "sick-boxes" -- this is the most honest way of accounting for beings that are too busy looking at everyone else to notice their own situation. Everyone apart from the two Lincolns.
Saunders' voice is something like the literary equivalent of artisinal hamburgers or secret shows in Brooklyn speakeasies, it's high art masquerading as everyday objects. For the most part, he reflects spoken language, often dropping articles and subjects, or inflecting statements with interrogative properties. (Like, writes it so it sounds unsure, as if you're asking a question.) But it's not really speech, that would make for shit writing. He's always leading, pulling you to a particular emotional state where he can drop the next reveal on you.
Lincoln in the Bardo does what I think is most amazing about Saunders: His most sorrowful stories are somehow his most heartening. I saw Saunders speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia and he ended talking about the book as an acknowledgement not just of our own mortality, but everyone's: everybody you love will die. This was on Valentine's Day.
Loss is a pretty clear theme in the book, it is about ghosts, after all. Lincoln is having to bury his child, and deal with the fact that he is sending many young men to die in a war at the same time. The ghosts are powerless in the world, they cannot find resolution through their actions. The futures they see will never come about, and what comes next is, if nothing else, inevitable, and the focus on postponing that next place is ultimately fruitless.
Still, this realization comes with a (relatively) light touch. Something in how Saunders makes it common, makes his characters one of many. It's not the sad, impotent thrashings of a raving hero striking at the sea, it's a family at the end of a tough day sitting together for a quiet moment. It reminds me of Whitman:
"That you are here -- that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."
The point isn't that life/love/humanity/Firefly will end, but that life happened, isn't that miracle enough? Saunders is more clever than to hammer you in the head with it like I do, but that's what I take from it, and what many seem to -- his work is often noted for it's "humanity" whatever you make of that. Despite the real horror of some of his novels, and many decidedly tough endings, there is something affirming in the story, something hopeful. Bravery, usually, often of the less obvious sort.
The novel has its flaws, most noteworthy I'd say that Saunders has trouble smoothing out some very modern speech patterns. I'm not holding him to a real high standard on this one, he said in his talk that he wasn't trying to go full method actor or anything though he worked to strike things to obvious like "friggin". Still, in a couple parts it was a little distracting to hear someone who spoke like they had seen more than one Keanu Reeves movie.
I highly recommend this to all readers of fiction. One nice thing is the dialogue structure seems to pull you along and also depress the word count so it is a very quick read.