Sunday, October 29, 2017

Coming to my Senses by Alice Waters

 I was very skinny and didn't like to eat much. The sandwiches my mother made me, things like peanut butter and bananas on whole wheat bread, were always dry, so sometimes I traded for my friends' cheese and bologna sandwiches on white bread. 
I really, really wanted to like this book. Coming to my Senses ends on opening night at Chez Panisse, Waters' world-famous restaurant, and it traces her path to that fateful evening starting with her childhood in New Jersey and Michigan. It follows her to L.A., Santa Barabara, Berkeley, and Paris, and gives a glimpse of activist life in the Bay Area in the late sixties. I love food, especially Berkeley food and French food; I find Alice Waters fascinating (if a little self-absorbed), and I was really hoping for a treatise on the slow food movement, or at least some good food writing. Neither came through.

The biggest issue was the writing. Even though I had high hopes, I found myself continually distracted by her awkward, almost childlike syntax, and long, italicized digressions. The quote above was the most interesting one I could find, and I only picked it because the thought of a young Alice Waters eating a bologna sandwich is entertaining. She seems to have used two ghostwriters (they are effusively thanked in the acknowledgments), but I am at a loss as to what they or her editors did to tame her stream of consciousness. Much of the book reads like what my high schoolers produce in their early college essay drafts: choppy statements of fact describing things that happened to them and awkward, superficial reflections on those events. Even though Waters provides anecdotes from decades of her life, she comes off as flat and uninteresting because the writing is so stiff.

I've always struggled with Waters' philosophy on food: that we all should be eating slow, local food; that all it takes is a taste of a "perfect peach" to win someone over to growing their own produce in their backyard. Everything else I'd read of hers wildly oversimplified the underlying issues of poverty and access that affect our national food culture, and I was hoping that this memoir, since its format would allow for more thoughtful reflection, might delve into her philosophy in a more nuanced way. It did not, and I remain frustrated.

Overall, this is not a good use of anyone's time. Fans of food or Chez Panisse will not find much to like, and even ardent Waters fans won't get much more than a few poorly told stories.

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

On balance, most of the time, in the ordinary course of life, it was probably best to say what was in your heart, to share what was on your mind, to tell the people you loved that you loved them, to ask those you had harmed to forgive you and to confront those who had hurt you with the truth about the damage they had done. When it came to things that needed to be said, speech was always preferable to silence, but it was of no use at all in the presence of the unspeakable. 
Michael Chabon spent the last week of his grandfather's life sitting with him and listening to him tell, for the first time, his entire life story. Moonglow is the novelization of that life, but it retains the frame of the deathbed confession. Chabon brings his flair for storytelling but grounds the book in his grandfather's real life and experiences (the first line is: "This is how I heard the story"). We follow Chabon's grandfather through decades of marriage, multiple careers (many of which fail impressively), WWII occupied France, and a crusade to capture the alligator terrorizing the cats in his retirement community.

This felt much like all of Chabon's other novels: it's funny and sarcastic, filled with creative characters who all seem like they're just about to catch their break (but rarely do), and just enough of the touch of the absurd to make you raise an eyebrow. Moonglow has the added layer of strange intimacy that comes with chronicling the life of a loved one who you are getting to know along with your reader. Chabon refers to his grandfather only as "my grandfather," a phrasing that can feel awkward, especially in the chapters that deal with his earlier life, but it also adds to that same sense of intimacy and makes the whole novel feel like you're listening to Chabon speak it aloud.

The most haunting presence in the book is Chabon's grandmother, a French Jewish refugee who arrived in America at the tail end of the war with a daughter in tow. Her troubled but loving marriage to Chabon's grandfather and her slow unraveling are eerily portrayed, and the truth about her identity is artfully unveiled throughout the book.

Chabon does tiny details well, and he uses them throughout to give emotional depth to a man who has come off (at least to his grandchild) as stoic and silent for most of his life. My favorite comes from a model of a moon station he has built from discarded plastic bits and assorted model railroad sets--late in life Chabon's grandfather designed and built scaled models for NASA. A spray-painted coffee lid's hatch lifts to reveal a tiny family hidden below: figures representing Chabon's grandfather, grandmother, and mother. Even long after the death of his wife, he quietly and discreetly weaves her into the fabric of his life.

I often enjoy Chabon's work because it takes place in places I know and love (I especially loved Telegraph Avenue for its portrayal of the massive range of humanity living along a few miles stretched between Berkeley and Oakland). Place played a much smaller role in this novel, but the characters shined through and were more likable than I'm used to from him.

Count Magnus and Other Stories by M. R. James

So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and he declares, not the mouth of a human being.

M. R. James was a well-regarded Classical scholar who also happened to dabble in ghost stories. His stories are often described as "antiquarian," and they read exactly like the kind of story you might expect a Classical scholar to write.  The ghosts, ghouls, and monsters are often relics of a past age, accessed through a spooky artifact like an illuminated manuscript.  In one of the best stories, "The Mezzotint," the supernatural object is actually just a lithograph print depicting a country house, but the collector who acquires it notices that every time he looks at it a frightening shrouded figure has moved to a new spot in the picture, until he's made his way into the house and carried out an unsuspecting little boy.  They also take place against the backdrop of the stuffy world of Oxbridge; another story, "Casting the Runes," is all about a devious alchemist who uses his black magic to seek revenge on the scholar who refused to publish his monograph.  In another standout, "A School Story," a murdered man communicates with his murderer through his students' Latin exercises.

The best thing, I think, about James' stories, is how frightening and particular the various monsters are.  There's the mouth under the pillow above, but I also liked the monster from "Canon Alberic's Scrap Book," which has "[p]ale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled."  These disheveled ghouls are a perfect contrast to the gentility and decorum of James' professors and barristers and classicists.

My favorites are: "Number 13," in which the title hotel room appears at night and disappears during the day, housing a man who once made a deal with the devil to escape the hangman's noose, and the title story, "Count Magnus," about a medieval count who continues to hang out with demons long after his death.  Count Magnus is hardly ever seen, but the story is a masterwork of suspense.  Like most of the stories here, it's reported through several layers of hearsay, but that fails to dilute this image: "Also Anders Bjornsen was there, but he was dead.  And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away from his bones."  Nice.  Happy Halloween, everyone!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Demian by Herman Hesse

Novelists when they write novels tend to take an almost godlike attitude toward their subject, pretending to a total comprehension of the story, a man's life, which they can therefore recount as God Himself might, nothing standing between them and the naked truth, the entire story meaningful in every detail.  I am as little able to do this as the novelist is, even though my story is more important to me than any novelist's is to him--for this is my story; it is the story of a man, not of an invented, or possible, or idealized, or otherwise absent figure, but of a unique being of flesh and blood.

Brent hates this book so much I just had to read it for myself.  Is it really that bad, or does Brent just have really bad taste?  The answer, as I expected, was a little bit of both.

We agree that Hesse's Demian starts out well: the narrator, Emil Sinclair, recounts a particular story of his childhood.  He makes up a story about stealing apples from an orchard to impress a local bully, Franz Kromer, which Kromer--clearly seeing through the lie--uses to blackmail Sinclair for months on end, pressing him into a kind of servanthood.  It's a great story, written in clever detail, and amplified with the ironic touch of a child's perspective and lack of understanding.  It's all the more interesting because of the inward agony it causes Sinclair, whose Manichaean view of the world is challenged by Kromer's cruelty.  If the world is divided into the good and the bad, has Sinclair's fib aligned him with the bad; with Cain instead of Abel?

But like Brent says, the beginning of the book is the high point.  Sinclair's agony is put to rest by his classmate Max Demian, who not only wards off Kromer but forces Sinclair to see the story of Cain and Abel--which operates as the principal symbol of the novel--in a different way:

"It's quite simple!  The first element of the story, its actual beginning, was the mark.  Here was a man with something in his face that frightened the others.  They didn't dare lay hands on him; he impressed them, he and his children.  We can guess--no, we can be quite certain--that it was not a mark on his forehead like a postmark--life is hardly ever as clear and straightforward as that.  It is much more likely that he struck people as faintly sinister, perhaps a little more intellect and boldness in his look than people were used to.  This man was powerful: you would only approach him with awe.  He had a 'sign.  You could explain this in any way you wished.  And people always want what is agreeable to them and puts them in the right.  They were afraid of Cain's children: they bore a 'sign.'  So they did not interpret the sign for what it was--a mark of distinction--but its opposite.  They said: 'Those fellows with the sign, they're a strange lot'--and indeed they were.  People with courage and character always seem sinister to the rest.  It was a scandal that a breed of fearless and sinister people ran about freely, so they attached a nickname and myth to these people to get even with them, to make up for the many times they had felt afraid--do you get it?

Cain, in this version, represents not the "dark side," but a rebuke to the Manichaean worldview that separates dark from light, bad from good, and right from wrong.  Demian becomes the story of Sinclair's long, slow education in this worldview, the development of his own "mark of Cain."  The God of the Bible is replaced by Abraxas, a pagan deity who represents a mixture of both God and Satan in one.  In literal terms, this manifests itself in Sinclair's slow disillusion in the structures of pre-war European society and his drift back toward the figures of Demian and his alluring, androgynous mother.  Gender becomes another binary to be deconstructed (which is, admittedly, anticipates a lot of our modern conversations) and Sinclair falls in love with Demian's mother precisely because she looks like Demian with a little bit of the feminine principle superadded.  These two run a cult in the mountains which Sinclair joins with great enthusiasm.

There's a lot of interesting ideas there--okay, one interesting idea--but the story itself becomes dull after Kromer is dispatched.  The conflict is no longer with petty bullies but with the antimetaphysical bourgeois worldview, which isn't exactly a gripping adventure.  I think Demian might be more compelling if it didn't point toward an ultimate conclusion that seems retrograde for us who are able to look back on the bloody twentieth century: Demian's mother insists that the upcoming war--World War I--will offer an opportunity for man to grow and change in the crucible of violence, and for individuals to transform themselves in to enlightened Demianesque supermen.  That kind of searching for meaning in violence may have been possible before, and even after, World War I, but not after World War II and the Holocaust.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

The worst one of all said boys thought all girls were ugly except when they were dressed.  She said the Snake had been seeing Eve for several days and never noticed until Adam made her put on a fig leaf.  How do you know? they said, and she said because the Snake was there before Adam, because he was the first one thrown out of heaven; he was there all the time.  But that wasn't what they meant and they said, How do you know, and Temple thought of her kind of backed up against the dressing table and the rest of them in a circle around her with their combed hair and their shoulders smelling of scented soap and the light powder in the air and their eyes like knives until you could almost watch her flesh where the eyes were touching it, and her eyes in her ugly face courageous and frightened and daring, and they all saying, How do you know? until she told them and held up her hand and swore that she had.

Sanctuary is Faulkner's "potboiler," a novel that takes his familiar themes and characters and weird, poor Mississippi setting and uses them to frame a salacious and prurient story.  There's an element of pulpiness in it--check out the trashy cover in the image above--but Faulkner is too idiosyncratic and elliptical for Sanctuary to really be shocking or titillating.

The first of the novel's two main characters is Temple Drake, a Mississippi undergrad who gets mixed up with a jerkoff alcoholic frat boy who takes her against her will to a bootlegger's house where he abandons her.  There she's raped by a petty criminal named Popeye, who whisks her away to a brothel in Memphis where he stashes her away.  The second is Horace Benbow, a conflicted lawyer who has just left his wife (because of his sexual feelings for his stepdaughter--nice one, Faulkner) and who takes up the defense of the bootlegger who has been charged with a murder that Popeye committed.

Horace and Temple's stories only intersect briefly.  Horace's sympathies are oriented toward Ruby, the wife of the bootlegger Lee, and her infant child; in fact, the townspeople begin to assume that he and Ruby are carrying on an affair, explaining his pro-bono work on Lee's case.  Faulkner wants us to see that Temple is pretty much forgotten; the case hinges on a murder that has nothing to do with Temple, and though Horace tracks her down to find out what happened, his priorities are elsewhere.

Temple's character is frustrating.  We're asked to accept that her feelings toward Popeye are conflicted, and that she's not exactly his prisoner, but neither is she exactly free to leave.  A kind of Stockholm syndrome makes sense, but Faulkner wants us to believe that the rape takes away Temple's agency to a degree that makes her passiveness in the face of her imprisonment sensible.  There are hints of a retrograde notion of female hysteria.  I think we're supposed to read Temple as a cautionary tale about the teenage desire to be inducted into the world of adult sexuality, the darker side of which she and her fellow coeds are unprepared for.  But there's something about the way that's coded according to gender that makes Sanctuary seem like it's trafficking in cheap literary archetypes.

Mostly, Faulkner's elliptical style makes it difficult to really figure out what's going on.  We learn that Popeye hasn't been having sex with Temple himself; instead, he's recruited a gangster named Red to do it while he watches.  Temple has fallen for Red, in a way, making Popeye jealous, but Faulkner neglects to include any of this in the narrative.  By the time we learn about Red's existence, Popeye's already shot him, and we're expected to fill in the blanks.  Faulkner keeps the most salacious part of the ordeal close to the chest, choosing to reveal it only in the final courtroom scene: Popeye is impotent, and the initial rape is performed with a corncob.  Okay.  Honestly, the "shocking reveal" is what makes Sanctuary seem more like a pulp novel than anything else.

Still, Sanctuary has all the elements that make Faulkner worth reading: the currents of sex and death, the lack of sentimentality, the tension between the impoverished setting and the flights of decorated prose, the black humor.  The savageness of Faulkner's novels makes us underestimate how funny they can be, I think.  But it's hard not to feel that Faulkner's slumming it a little, searching for a bestseller that his style won't let him fully commit to.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma's little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence.  Jaja's defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma's purple hibisucs: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup.  A freedom to be, to do.

Kambili is the daughter of an eminent businessman in Enugu, Nigeria.  Her father is a rich man and a brave man, who keeps supporting the local newspaper even when its criticisms of the recent military coup have become dangerous.  He is a pious man, as well-respected in his Catholic church as the priests themselves.  He also punishes his children for their perceived sins by breaking their fingers and pouring boiling water over their feet.  In a particularly theme-heavy scene, Kambili's mother gives her a little bit of food to help her stomach absorb the pills she needs to help with her menstrual cramps, but because she is supposed to be fasting before mass, her father punishes her.

Kambili and her brother Jaja are offered a vision of a different kind of life when they visit their aunt, their father's sister, Ifeoma, in the university town of Nsukka.  Ifeoma is poor but her children have a "freedom to be, to do" that Kambili had not known was possible, and sets her on the path of realizing how restrictive her father's regime has been.  In Nsukka, she can see her grandfather, from whom her father has barred her because of his traditional religion.  I really liked this observation by her grandfather about the effect of Christianity in Nigeria, which seemed to me the closest the novel ever gets to the style, namechecked on the jacket, of Adichie's fellow Igbo writer Chinua Achebe:

One day I said to them, Where is this god you worship?  They said he was like Chukwu, that he was in the sky.  I asked then, Who is the person that was killed, the person that hangs on the wood outside the mission?  They said he was the son, but that the son and the father are equal.  It was then that I knew that the white man was mad.  The father and the son are equal?  Tufia!  Do you not see?  That is why Eugene can disregard me, because he thinks we are equal.

Adichie sets the novel at a time of great social and political upheaval in Nigeria.  The student riots threaten Ifeoma's job; the fear of retaliation complicates the violent reaction of Kambili's father, who clings to a sense of supernatural order in the midst of great stress.  Adichie's depiction of Eugene is particularly sharp, as careful to show his generosity and fine principles, which grow from his piety as his abuse does.  But the story is Kambili's, who awakes into not just a realization about her family but about her home in Nigeria as well.

The symbol of the hibiscus--which grows purple only in Ifeoma's garden--is dull and heavy-handed.  I found the plain prose of the novel to be artless sometimes, but I could say the same thing about Achebe.  But I really enjoyed the complexity of the characters and the escalating tension of the novel, which I didn't expect.  Most of all I enjoyed reading a complex portrait of a place that it would be easy to spend most of my life ignoring.

The House GIrl by Tara Conklin

Those nights felt like this now: a creative energy, a limitless enthusiasm, a faith that talent and will and work would ultimately prevail, and a fatalistic wryness about the whole spectacle too-- of course we are all creative and interesting, of course everyone will know our names, but tomorrow and the next day and the next we must go to our low-paying jobs where we sit on stools or take orders for food or clean up messes that no one else wants to clean; at least tonight we can say we are artists.
Tara Conklin gives us twinned heroines in The House Girl: Josephine, the titular character, a Virginian slave in the 1850s, and Lina, a young corporate lawyer in today's New York. The novel is written in flashes-glimpses of Josephine's life the day before she runs away and Lina as she unravels the story of Josephine's life as part of a slavery reparations case. Lina uncovers the mystery of both Josephine's escape and her life as an artist--her mistress, Lu Anne Bell, was a renowned Southern painter whose lauded pieces may have been largely Josephine's.

The back and forth works well here--the interplay between the two storylines as they move closer together is well done. and Conklin builds two interesting, layered female leads. Josephine is revealed through a variety of sources: her own chapters, but also "primary" sources in Lina's portions.

Despite dealing with slavery and all of its implications, this wasn't a particularly philosophical or reflective novel. Conklin weaves an engrossing, gripping story, and I enjoyed getting swept up into the narrative arc and the suspense, but the trade-off of that much action meant not much time or space for reflection. There are moments in sections from each protagonist where the characters pause and reflect, and Conklin doesn't gloss over the cruelties of slavery, but the jumping back in forth through time and the quick pace of the narrative made it hard for the emotional impact of slavery to land.

This wasn't the most thought-provoking novel I've read all year, but it was a quick and engaging read. As long as you don't expect any life-altering revelations about slavery, and are going in looking for some interesting ladies and a good story, it's worth a read!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Image result for february house tippins

February House by Sherill Tippins

It would be the group life that Carson had been dreaming of... a sanctuary for themselves and others who were also, for financial, political, or any other reason, finding it difficult to focus on their work.... Auden was looking for a cheaper place to live.   If such a respected poet moved in, everyone else would follow. It would be an experiment... but surely it was worth trying.

February House  recounts the story of an experiment in communal living taken up by Carson McCullers, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Gypsy Rose Lee in 1940.  The gathering was the brainchild of George Davis, an influential editor at Harper's Bazaar, a fashion magazine that was attempting to compete with Vogue by expanding its literary and cultural offerings.  Davis seemed to know and be liked by everyone and was the center of an intellectual and social circle in late 30's New York.  He was also a gifted editor whose gifts did not include showing up to work regularly.  When he lost his publishing job, he needed to find cheaper real estate.

He invites his new friend Carson McCullers - in her early twenties and already famous for having published The Heart is A Lonely Hunter - and his old friend, WH Auden to share expenses.  However, all three of them also want to share something more than expenses.  It is 1940 and everyone seems to know that America will eventually enter World War II.  Auden in particular believes that this second twentieth century calamity calls for artists and writers to think of new ways to be productive, to offer a higher consciousness to humanity before it is too late.  An artist's commune seems to offer Auden a chance to think through his evolving ideas about the poet's role in human culture while also allowing him to leave a nosey and judgmental landlord behind.

Gypsy Rose Lee has been an avid and adventurous reader her whole life, and has recently decided that the small press bits and commentary published in her name no longer require a ghost writer.  Davis encourages her to develop her talent as a writer and they come up with the idea for a murder mystery, The G-String Murders.  He suggests she move into one of the apartments at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights so that he can mentor her writing process.  Her presence becomes a bridge between the intelligentsia and the world of entertainment, and soon Middagh Street is place where everyone who is anyone in New York tries to get invited.

Tippins attempts to balance the serious artistic and political issues that imbue the house - centered on Auden's deepening spiritual quest, Britten's desire to find his musical voice and McCullers struggles to write what will eventually become A Member of the Wedding - with the partying hijinks of some very high-strung individuals.  For the most part, she errs on the side of the hijinks.  We learn that McCullers drinks tea spiked with sherry all day long and that Auden regularly uses benzedrine to focus on his writing and seconal to get to sleep.  We are told that after a particularly wild party, McCullers and Lee go running through the streets of Brooklyn Heights in the snow chasing a fire engine and that McCullers, while running and laughing and holding the burlesque star's hand, has an epiphany that what the character she has been struggling with really wants is to be a member of the wedding party.  I sense a bit of a stretch in Tippins' renditions of the residents' accomplishments, but their artistic struggles are carefully analyzed and make fascinating reading.

The one area where I would have liked a more thoughtful approach is sexuality.  All the men associated with 7 Middagh Street in these months are openly gay - at a time when that was illegal in New York (and virtually everywhere else).  Britten and Pears are essentially married, and Auden comes to view his relationship to Chester Kallman as a marriage during his residence in Brooklyn.  It is clear that part of the attraction of the house as a social center is that it offers a safe space to other gay artists - so that Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Mann's son Klaus are regular guests, with Mann living in the attic for a time.  McCullers uses the house to explore her own desires for certain women.  George Davis is also openly gay, but uninterested in long term relationships.  He walks down the hill from the house to the Brooklyn docks and cruises for gay sailors and longshoreman to bring back to the house, giving their parties a working class representation centered on sexuality.  How the community responds to this (apparently quite well - there are no neighborhood complaints until later, when Richard Wright moves in and the white neighbors complain), what, if anything, such a gathering means in the history of gay life in New York, how the tensions around openness and secrecy were handled in a communal setting - all these are questions of interest that go largely unexplored.  Tippins treats questions of sexuality matter-of-factly - as is appropriate in the 21st Century - but has little to say about how such openness operated or what its implications were in the mid-2oth century.

Ultimately, February House is not designed to take on such issues.  While the residents artistic ambitions (and accomplishments) are well represented, and the coming war hangs over every page of the book, this is a fun read about an amazing and entertaining coincidence.  The house itself has been destroyed - torn down to build the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the two years that it was filled with artists is memorialized only by a small plaque  a block away.  February House gives us a much better way to remember.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Republic of Wine by Mo Yan

Ancient fairy tales sooner or later become reality, liquor is mankind's greatest discovery.  Without it there would be no Bible, there would be no Egyptian pyramids, there would be no Great Wall of China, no music, no fortresses, no scaling ladders to storm others' fortresses, no nuclear fission, no salmon in the Wusuli River, and no fish or bird migrations.  A fetus in its mother's womb can detect the smell of liquor; the scaly skin of an alligator makes first-rate liquor pouches.  Martial-arts novels have advanced the brewer's art.  What was the source of Qu Yuan's lament?  There was no liquor for him to drink.

Investigator Ding Gou'er is dispatched to the city of Liquorland (rendered in the title as The Republic of Wine) to investigate a horrible crime: the administrators of the Luo Mine in that city have been accused of cooking and eating children.  These "meat boys," as they're called, are part of Liquorland's famous tradition of gourmandizing: it produces the best, most exotic liquor and the best, most exotic food.  Is the braised infant that is brought to Ding on a tray real, or is it merely a clever fake, made of lotus root, as the administrators claim?

The Republic of Wine is somehow weirder than that description suggests.  There are apes that brew liquor in a secret mountain; there's a scaly child who wanders the streets seeking revenge against those who raise boys for their meat; there's an oily archvillain who can drink as much as he wants and never get drunk; there's a hideous dwarf who vows--and nearly makes good on his promise--to bed every attractive girl in the city.  Oh, and there's this sentence:  "He tripped over something, and discovered it was a string of frozen donkey vaginas."

Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for works like this: often dreamlike, heavily biological, and pointedly satirical.  At least, I assume it's satirical, though what exactly is being satirized is probably lost on me.  I'm guessing it's about the luxurious tastes of the party classes in post-Mao China, and the way that decadence victimizes the powerless.  But the nuances of the satire are lost on me, knowing as little as I do about China, and the clunky translation doesn't really help.

The novel is interspersed with letters between Mo himself and a young admirer and would-be writer, Li Yidou.  Li lives in Liquorland, and his stories seem to provide Mo with a lot of the material he needs for The Republic of Wine; whether the stories are "true" seems to be a matter of not much consequence.  Li's stories and Mo's novel begin to converge, and the detective story that the novel presents at first becomes much more complex and troubling.  As both character and author get increasingly drunk, the semi-realist narrative is abandoned completely for an extended hallucination.  The final pages are a stream-of-consciousness riff in the demarcation between Ding and Mo is blurred, and in which Mo admits, "Damn some will say I'm obviously imitating the style of Ulysses in this section Who cares I'm drunk..."

The Republic of Wine isn't an easy read.  It's a little like reading the liner notes to a Captain Beefheart album.  But it'll reward those for whom weirdness is its own virtue, and its scatological sensibilities are pretty in tune with Joyce.  It made me want a drink.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

We always just miss New York. I watched it with this neighborhood. When I moved here everyone was mourning the SoHo of the seventies, Tribeca of the eighties, and already ringing the death knell for the East Village. Now people romanticize the Alphabet City of Jonathan Larson. We all walk in a cloud of mourning for the New York that just disappeared. 
Danler's Sweetbitter takes on the cliché of the blonde (I assume she's blonde...I don't actually know) ingenue coming to the Big City to Make it. I'm not sure she does much with it, but it's an enjoyable read. Tess moves to New York from middle America at twenty-two, rents a dingy room in Williamsburg, and gets a job as a backwaiter at a Union Square restaurant. She stays out late, does a lot of drugs (like really a lot...seemingly too much to be a functional human), sleeps with her colleagues, and falls for the bad boy bartender.

The two most engaging characters in the novel are New York and the restaurant where Tess works (a thinly veiled fictionalization of Union Square Cafe where Danler herself worked upon arriving in the city). Her New York is the big, roiling exciting mess that the city presents to all twenty-somethings. As she walks across the Williamsburg Bridge to a solitary lunch in Chinatown on Christmas day, Tess thinks: "It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave." That duality comes across well in the book and captures what it felt like (minus the drugs and the late nights) to live here, doing an impossibly demanding job for no money, figuring out what it meant to be an adult: at once thrilling and terrifying.

The elite food service world, of which I know next to nothing, comes across as cutthroat and addictive, and Danler immerses us completely in its chaos. She does dialogue well, and there are sections that are just extended, unattributed snippets of conversations that submerge you in Tess' new universe in all its glory.

Tess herself, unfortunately, is pretty awful. So are basically all the other human characters. They're all young and self-centered (or old and self-centered), and their inability to acknowledge a world outside of their own experience (or even outside of the confines of their restaurant) is troubling. I realize that may be an authentic representation of what it is to be twenty-two, but it was still hard to read. Tess' romantic entanglements are even harder to swallow and her obsession with the prototypical bad boy who (spoiler alert) doesn't change for her is a snooze.

This was a fun look into a side of New York that I knew nothing about, and the food descriptions made me hungry, but the characters were disappointing at best.

Only the Little Bone by David Huddle

Vanity is not the moving force behind all that follows. On the contrary, I am wholly without awareness of self, am without sorrow or desire, nostalgia or greed, am in that state of pure, thoughtless spirit that I later come to understand as aesthetic experience, as I hold my Roy Rogers neckerchief out the car window and watch it fly gorgeously in the wind. I have had to bargain with Ralph for the place beside the door, and I have had to exercise considerable discretion in sticking my hand and arm out the window. My mother's stiff neck prevents her from turning to see what I am doing, and I am sitting behind my grandmother, whose sense of wellbeing is directly proportional to the stillness of her grandsons. 
I took a writing class this summer, and our teacher gave us the last page of this book (which I will share later) on the last day. I got halfway through it, took out my phone, and ordered the book on Amazon. In Only the Little Bone Huddle gives us a slim volume of autobiographical stories that hang gracefully together as a whole, but can also be read as individual pieces. In the foreward, Huddle describes the book as a "final elegy to my childhood," the pieces that helped him move fully into adulthood. Each story is a snapshot of a transition out of boyhood; there is the loss of innocence you would expect from a series of coming of age stories, but Huddle also brings a cinematic sense of detail, slowing down moments to fill pages and launching you back to the summer evenings of your own childhood.

Huddle's father, the taciturn yet thoughtful manager of a factory, is the most interesting character in the whole book. This is my favorite snapshot of him: "My father was a man who had faced a toolshed full of rattlesnakes, had been shot at by union strikers, had taken a knife away from Bernard Seeger at a high-school dance, but around women who came to our house as company, and especially around Susan O'Meara that past week, my father took on the persona of somebody who'd stayed indoors all his life and eaten nothing but cheese sandwiches." This one sentence description captures the mythology and the humanity of a parent so perfectly, and it evokes that period in one's life where the flaws of one's parents start to seep through the veneer, where the incongruencies start to pile up. In many ways, these stories are a grappling with those moments of realization both small and large.

The book reads more or less like a memoir. One story, "Dirge Notes," takes on a slightly different form, and I had trouble fitting it in with the rest of the stories. The story is broken up by section headers and it moves jumps between time periods and storylines without quite enough signposting to keep the reader on board, but all the other stories work together beautifully. The last one shares the book's title and is home to that famous last page. Here, Huddle has returned home as an adult and is remembering the accident that broke "only the little bone" in his leg, leaving him in a cast:
I stand there holding the cast in my hands, reading something somebody in my third-grade class wrote on the side of the knee, and I know that everything that happens is connected to everything else and nothing that happens is without consequence. I am washed by one memory after another like ripples moving backwards to their source. All of a sudden I am no one. Or I am this stranger standing in an old toolshop with memory trying in its quirky way to instruct him. A man came home to visit his parents, a man who got an office and built bookshelves, a man whose grandfather died and who was a soldier for a little while, a boy whose leg was broken by a car and who did not become a basketball or a football player, a boy who stayed a summer with his brother and his cousin inside his family's hard. The moment of my disappearance passes, and I come back to myself. Now, holding this cast in my hand, standing in this one place, I feel like I could remember all of human history. If I put my mind to it. 
These are the kind of moments, tiny and huge, that make up the stories in this book. The same moments that pave our own senses of ourselves and our histories. I love the rhythm of this section; it's a rhythm that comes up again and again in his writing, and it's one that resonates with how my own memory works, in lists and moments and fragments.

Only the Little Bone is out of print, and is somewhat tricky to track down without Amazon's help (I tried to find it in a couple of bookstores for a friend and failed). It's worth the search!