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.
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”
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.