Sunday, December 30, 2018


So it turns out that baby plus new full-time job plus life means no time for reviewing books. Who knew? As 2018 draws to a close, here is my frantic attempt to finish reviewing the (not even close to 50) books I haven't gotten around to reviewing yet. Maybe I'll get around to a top 10 by the time Nathan turns 1 in February. Maybe.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This novel tracks the unraveling of a marriage after the husband is wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to prison. It was well paced and exciting while still asking some big, juicy questions about marriage and commitment. I was pleasantly surprised with the depth Jones is able to achieve while writing what amounts to a romantic thriller.

The Book of Essie by Meghan Maclean Weir
I have an unhealthy obsession with ultra-conservative religions in America, and this book delivered a deliciously engrossing look into the inner-workings of both a fire and brimstone Christian family and a creepily orchestrated reality TV show. The Hicks family has been the focus of a reality TV show for Essie's entire life, and when she becomes pregnant (gasp!), her parents and the show's producers scramble to fit her into the narrative of their squeaky clean ethos. This was a very fun, very immersive read that took me only a few hours. It didn't hold any earth-shattering revelations about mankind or religion or our love of reality TV, but it had some good, fairly unexpected twists and was accessible enough for my currently addled brain.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown
This was my first foray into the cult of Brene Brown, and I was impressed with how genuine and not self-helpy the whole process felt. The central idea of Rising Strong is that by confronting our failures and shortcomings and examining the ways in which we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and our realities, we can emerge stronger and better able to face the world. Brown relies heavily on her own experience as well as extensive interview-based human data, but she weaves in a massive range of other sources from pop lyrics to Dostoevsky, and I was won over by her willingness to make herself vulnerable paired with an unusually sharp understanding of humans and how they tick. This never felt condescending or trite (which is the tone I get from most books that preach some kind of life-altering hot take on the human condition), and I was left willing to read more Brene Brown if I ever have time again.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Wolitzer is really good at building interesting, multi-dimensional, only partially likable characters, and this was no exception. The novel tracks Greer Kadetsky (great name!) from her fumbling first sexual experience in high school, through college (at her safety school because her parents wouldn't file the financial aid paperwork), and into adulthood as she falls into a career with a feminist superstar. There is a lot of good here, but most interesting was Wolitzer's portrayal of Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinham-esque icon on the decline.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
I unabashedly love Barbara Kingsolver and will read basically anything she writes, but it helps that she seems to be getting better with age. Unsheltered shifts between a Trump-era middle-class family slowly circling the financial drain and struggling to hold it all together and a 19th-century family facing many of the same struggles, 200 years earlier. The centuries-wide split between narratives can often be jarring, but Kingsolver weaves the stories together well, and I found myself totally engrossed.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This was my YA guilty pleasure read this summer, and I loved it. It's a YA spin on the Black Lives Matter movement, but it's well written and the narrator, Starr, is thoughtful and incisive without being overly precocious. Thomas has her heroine straddling two worlds: the largely black, lower-income neighborhood she calls home and the largely white, expensive private school she attends. The book is centered around a shooting that Starr witnesses in the opening pages, and there is a ton of social commentary woven throughout. Thomas has written a book that is accessible while still being brutally honest and open.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
I cried four separate times reading this book, all in public, and all totally uncontrollably. The autobiography tracks Obama's life from her start on Chicago's South Side all the way to her last days in the White House, and was totally gripping. She (and, I assume, her team of very talented ghost writers), writes beautifully and evocatively about race and education and poverty, but I was most struck by her reflections on motherhood and partnership: the heart-wrenching challenges of being a working mother, the sacrifices and compromises that came with agreeing to let Barack run for office, and the overwhelming strain that being in the public eye put on both of those roles and her sense of self and identity. I didn't it was possible for me to miss the Obamas more than I already did, but apparently, there was room for more.

...and one more for the road
Come with Me by Helen Schulman
I got this one in at the buzzer and was very pleasantly surprised. Come with Me takes place in Silicon Valley and tracks a crumbling marriage as it explores the limits of VR. It takes place in Palo Alto and weaves in the horrors of life in modern day Silicon Valley. Schulman crafts a startup, manned largely by insufferable Stanford undergrads, where the CEO's side project is a VR experience where one can explore all the "what ifs" in life: what if you never broke up with that first boyfriend, took one job over another, never lost that pregnancy? In what could have felt like a trite device, the main character Amy is thrust down these alternate paths throughout the novel, and it's surprisingly engaging.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christopher's Top Ten of 2018

Is it possible?  Is it top ten time already?

I had two resolutions this year: I wanted to read 75 books in total, and for half of those to be by women.  (I stole this second resolution from Brent.)  The 75 turned out not to be so hard--making the commitment is half the effort, I think, and it certainly helps that I don't have any kids.  In fact, I had enough time left over at the end of the year to read that great big brick of English-language lit, Ulysses.

Making half of those women turned out to be even harder.  I would say more of my favorite authors are women than men--Muriel Spark, Alice Munro, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Marilynne Robinson are probably all in my top five--but like most people I end up reading more books by men than women.  My strategy was to alternate, to the best of my ability, women and men, but what I found was that I depleted my shelf of women long before I depleted it of men.  I ended up at the Strand many times this year because I had run out of books by women, while I still had a big stack of men's books left to go.

But in the end the resolution turned out to be worth it.  Without making myself do it, who knows if I would have read Jean Stafford's The Mountain Lion, or Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, or Mavis Gallant's terrific collection of stories?  I'm completely sure I never would have read the first of those Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which I had been avoiding.  My reading life was much richer this year for having done it, and not just because it exposed to me to a wider variety of voices: I think women are better writers, on average.

That sounds like a performatively woke thing to say, I know.  I don't say it to burnish my feminist ally cred.  But I think it's true: it's quite easy to hear, as a man, nothing but male voices.  It's why men have such trouble writing convincing portraits of women.  But women must be more awake to the multiplicity of voices in the world, because they have to be fluent in their own private voice as well as the voice of the male world.  That's pretty reductive, I think, but I think you can see evidence of it in The Mars Room, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Mountain Lion, and in Gallant's stories: all stories which weave multiple voices and perspectives together, male and female, with skill.

Anyway, I'm claiming victory on this one: If you count Emily Wilson's translation of Homers's Odyssey as half written by a man and half written by a woman, I read 37.5 books by each.  I think it's a good habit to have, and I'm going to try to keep it going.  Here's my top ten, with some honorable mentions, from a year of reading.

Honorable Mentions 2018:

The Aunt's Story by Patrick White
Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
The Comforters by Muriel Spark
The End of the World by Mavis Gallant
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider
July's People by Nadine Gordimer
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul
Ulysses by James Joyce

Top Ten 2018:

10. Warlock by Oakley Hall - Up until like 30 seconds ago, I put Ulysses in this spot.  But it's hard for me to tell if I'm responding to Ulysses the book or the idea of Ulysses, with all its cultural baggage and heft.  I'm not sure how to balance out the parts of it that seemed astoundingly brilliant with the parts that seemed tedious.  So I switched it for Oakley Hall's Warlock, a book of narrow ambitions that does what it does with perfection.  All the pieces of Warlock are recognizable from other Westerns--the conflicted sheriff, the sympathetic rustler, the challenge of establishing law in the lawless West--but few combine them in such a gripping and compelling way.

9. Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro - Munro's The Beggar Maid, with its overarching narrative, closer resembles her best work, The Lives of Girls and Women.  But I liked this collection, which contains some of Munro's stranger, more experimental work even better.  Published in 1974, its big theme is the disorienting feeling of generational change--these stories are obsessed with "hippies"--but they're structurally novel and layered with modernist tricks that make them sneakily avant-garde.  Munro gets knocked for her domesticity, but deep down she's got a radical heart, both artistically and socially, as the standout story "Material" suggests.

8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - Of course, Munro's not the only woman whose work is much darker and nastier than they're given credit for. Who knew that Ferrante's uberpopular novel was so savage?  It's a testament to female friendships, yes, but those are darker and nastier than they're given credit for too.  My Brilliant Friend is really about psychological trauma, violence, and the way they are produced by poverty and social unrest.  It does an especially good job of capturing the fear and anxiety of childhood, and while I'm excited to read the rest of these, I'll miss that aspect of the book as Elena and Lina grow up.

7. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker - What's it like to be an identical twin?  According to Baker, who had identical twin children, it does strange and violent things to your own sense of self.  The weird, knotty Cassandra at the Wedding is about a woman whose identical twin's impending marriage leaves her feeling as if she's lost a part of herself.  Baker's account of Cassandra's attempted suicide is one of those bravura passages of writing that is going to stay with me for years and years.

6. The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy - Walker Percy is like Patrick White in that sometimes I can't decide if his writing his brilliant or terrible.  It sure is audacious, and strange, even as it seems to be invested in some of the most banal banalities of Southern life: college football, golf, cheerleading, etc., etc.  The hero of The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett, returns to his home in the South from New York by way of his attachment to a family seeking treatment for their critically ill son, before launching him out into New Mexico.  Percy's heroes always have the South in their bones, even as they became increasingly estranged from it.  Georg Lukacs calls that feeling "transcendental homelessness," and few authors talk about it as well as Percy.

5. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald - The synopsis of H is for Hawk--a woman turns to falconry to help her process the sudden death of her father--doesn't capture the complexity of this memoir, which is by turns urbane, witty, and desperate.  Macdonald weaves a whole history of falconry in literature and history with her own experiences training a goshawk named Mabel, and never once does it feel anything but honest and sincere.  It's rare to see someone write about themselves so nakedly as Macdonald does here, buoyed by her skill as a poet.

4. Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson - I asked the seniors in my fiction writing elective to read Denis Johnson's story "Out on Bail" for next week.  I hope they like it.  Like all the stories in this collection, it's written from the perspective of a junkie identified only as "Fuckhead," and it's as empathetic as it is filthy, fractured, and bizarre.  For Johnson, capturing the off-kilter understanding of an addict is an act of radical understanding, and these stories continue to light off fireworks in my head for months after reading them.  There's always a book that starts toward the bottom of my top ten list and works its way up in retrospect; this year it's this book.

3. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - I'm such a snob when it comes to contemporary literature; I hardly read anything new.  I don't trust it.  But I'm grateful to know that books like this are still being written.  Lincoln in the Bardo is stylistically innovative and brutally honest about its big subject, death.  Saunders' version of the afterlife, a limbo-like place filled with comically exaggerated spirits, reminds me of both Beetlejuice and The Good Place in its creativity and scope of vision, but with a powerful sense of the reality of grief and loss.

2. The Rifles by William T. Vollmann - Here's another book that feels like it should just not work, in which Vollmann, working from his own harebrained experiences visiting Inuit communities and isolated nowheres in the Canadian Arctic, fashions himself into a character known only as Captain Subzero, who is also somehow the same character as the ill-fated Arctic explorer John Franklin.  Vollmann's work is always a weird mix of fact, sometimes too much fact, and fiction, but here I think it works tremendously.  The story of the Inuit woman Subzero gets involved with, Reepah, is heart-crushingly sad.  Novels by white writers about indigenous people are always a dicey proposition, but I think Vollmann's writing works because he doesn't absolve himself of guilt or shame.  It's a weird balance, but somehow it works.

1. The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford - I love books that really get how weird it is to be a kid.  The Mountain Lion is one of the best.  It's got something of the grotesquerie and horror of The Man Who Loved Children.  In a nutshell, it's about two kids, Ralph and Molly, who grow apart as Ralph grows closer to his uncle, a rancher in Colorado.  Like his uncle, Ralph wants to hunt and kill a mountain lion that prowls through their property as a way of affirming his manhood, his adulthood.  Molly, trapped in the weird solipsism of adolescence, burns with resentment toward Ralph.  The end of The Mountain Lion is so shocking I had to to close the cover and take a deep breath.  What a tremendous book.

There it is!  Another year "in the books!"  As always, we'd love to have more people join us on this weird wild quest, so if you'd like to join us, shoot me an e-mail at misterchilton at gmail dot com.  Happy new year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Ulysses by James Joyce

What past consecutive causes, before rising preapprehended, of accumulated fatigue did Bloom, before rising, silently recapitulate?

The preparation of breakfast (burnt offering): intestinal congestion and premeditative defecation (holy of holies): the bath (rite of John): the funeral (the Rite of Samuel): the advertisement of Alexander Keyes (Urim and Thummim): the unsubstantial lunch (rite of Melchisedek): the bookhunt along Bedford Row, Merchants' Arch, Wellington Quay (Simchath Torah): the music in the Ormond Hotel (Shira Shirim): the altercation with a truculent troglodyte in Bernard Kiernan's premises (holocaust): a blank period of time including a cardrive, a visit to a house of mourning, a leavetaking (wilderness): the eroticism produced by feminine exhibitionism (rite of Onan): the prolonged delivery of Mrs Mina Purefoy (heave offering): the visit to the disorderly house of Mrs Bella Cohen, 82 Tyrone street, lower, and subsequent brawl and chance medley in Beaver street (Armageddon): nocturnal perambulation to and from the cabman's shelter, Butt Bridge (atonement).

I did it.  I read Ulysses.  I carried it on the train, where I read from it, impressing many.  I understood, on the level of mere plot-and-character understanding, perhaps half of it.  I was in delighted, frustrated, amused, and bored, in about equal measure.  Now I will try to review it, which is probably only a little bit less sensible than having written it in the first place.

First: Actually having read The Odyssey helps immensely.  Joyce takes the pattern of the epic quite seriously, but applies it with clever humor: the cyclops becomes a bigot who throws, not a giant boulder, but a biscuit tin; Nausicaa, the beautiful young maiden Odysseus flirts with and cannot have, is a woman on the sea shore who provides the pretext for Leopold Bloom's afternoon masturbation session.  (Like Nausicaa, Gerty has "white arms," which is especially ironic because Bloom fails to notice her legs, which are "lame.")   The suitors are, alternately, one college asshole who wants to crash at Stephen Dedalus' place, and a series of adulterous lovers that Bloom knows his wife is having.  The pattern is used to elevate the tawdriness, the ordinariness, of everyday life, to collapse the difference between high myth and the life of normal people.  It's inseparable from the stream-of-consciousness methods that track the inner lives of Stephen, Bloom, and most famously, Bloom's wife Molly.  Life is in your head, Joyce says, and that's as meaningful as any grand narrative that's ever existed.

Like The Odyssey, Ulysses is a story about anxious relationships between parents and children.  Telemachus is unable to become a man until his father returns to Ithaca and validates his power.  Stephen Dedalus' relationship to Bloom, a kind of would-be paternal surrogate, is an ironic version of this.  Unlike Telemachus, Stephen is pretty ambivalent about being "adopted" by Bloom, though they spend an evening drinking and carousing together, and their relationship doesn't seem to provide meaning, power, legitimacy, anything.  Both part with their own anxieties about their parenthood intact: Stephen's depressed by the recent loss of his mother; Bloom has never gotten over his father's suicide or his young son's death.  Stephen, in a speech at the National Library, calls the entire idea of fatherhood into question:

Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man.  It is a mythical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to begotten.  On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro and microcosm, upon the void.  Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood.  Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life.  Paternity may be a legal fiction.  Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

Fathers, Stephen says, don't have the same relationship to their children that mothers do.  You once had a physical connection to your mother, quite literally, but what is the real nature of your relationship to your father?  It is "a mythical estate, an apostolic sucession"; it's nothing at all.  It's this thought that makes his mother's death especially painful.  It also connects to the old themes of sex and adultery.  What does Bloom lose, exactly, when Blazes Boylan sneaks into Molly's bed in the middle of the day (as he well knows)?  What is it exactly he desires when he masturbates to the vision of Gerty on the strand?  What's lost in what Joyce calls the "Rite of Onan?"  One of the thing that undermines Ulysses' claims to universality is its singular obsession with the male sex drive and masturbation, though Molly famously gets her own account of her sex drive in the final chapter.  But all of it, Joyce contends, is "founded... on the void," and the way we connect sex and generational succession is really a con that distracts us from the meaninglessness of our own sexual desires.  I don't think Ulysses is actually very pessimistic, but I do think, for Joyce, the pattern of myth supplies something that traditional marriage, sex, and family, fails to supply.

Okay, but is it any good?  There's that old joke about the local weather, that gets told everywhere but San Diego: If you don't like it, wait ten minutes.  Ulysses is a little like that.  Each of its eighteen chapters is stylistically discrete and distinct, presenting some different gimmick or satire.  And while the story itself is unwieldy, the chapters break it down helpfully.  Some of my favorites are: chapter three, "Proteus," in which Stephen expounds his theories on Hamlet (and fatherhood) to some friends at the National Library; "Cyclops," the mock-heroic that tells the story of Bloom's encounter with the anti-Semitic bigot and the biscuit tin through the language of world myth; and "Circe," which is formatted like a play.  "Circe" especially seems like the missing link between Faust and Beckett; it's an extended drunken vision where Bloom is accosted by the mental images of his dead father, is put on trial, becomes a woman.  A bar of soap reads a little poem.  ("We're a capital couple are Bloom and I. / He polishes the earth.  I brighten the sky.")  You know, stuff like that.  "Ithaca" takes the form of a traditional question-and-answer catechism, "Penelope" is the famous single sentence stream-of-consciousness inside Molly Bloom's head as she drifts off to sleep.  (Who knew that would be one of the easiest chapters to read!)

But I didn't love all of it.  I was particularly frustrated by the chapter "Eumaeus," which was evidently Joyce's attempt at bad, circuitous, ponderous writing.  "Aeolus," done in the language of the contemporary news, is too far from my conception of that style to really make much sense.  And while I enjoyed sussing out the different parodies in "Oxen of the Sun," which I'm told is meant to mimic the development of the entire English language, I couldn't tell you what happened in it.  I think someone had a baby.

Is Ulysses the best book ever written?  Well, it certainly is the most book ever written.  Not that it's the longest, though it might feel that way, but that it has a totality to it, a breadth that nothing else can touch.  As much as it meets its reputation for stylistic difficulty, it's beauty is in the sheer capaciousness it has for language, and the way it contains multitudes.  I never want to read it again.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset

It seemed to her that when her weary body at last was rotting under a tombstone, her restless spirit would still be doomed to wander about somewhere near by, as an unhappy ghost wanders lamenting round the tumble-down houses of a ruined farm.  For in her soul sin still had its being, as the root tissue of the weeds is inwoven in the soil.  It flowered and flamed and scented the air no long, but 'twas still there in the soil, bleached, but strong and full of life.  In despite of all the tenderness that welled up in her heart when she saw her husband's despair, she had not will or strength to stifle the voice in her that cried out, in bitterness and anger: Can you speak thus to me?  Have you forgotten the time when I was your dearest love?  And yet she knew that as long as this voice questioned thus within her, so long would she speak to him as though she had forgotten.

The Mistress of Husaby, the sequel to The Wreath, the first book in Sigrid Undset's series about the medieval Norsewoman Kristin Lavransdatter, picks up as Kristin moves into her husband Erlend's ancestral home, Husaby.  Husaby is a wreck: it's filthy, poorly managed, largely neglected.  Kristin makes it her mission to whip the house and its servants into shape, and to turn it into a home as noble and warm as the one she's left behind.  (It's a fascinating glimpse into the strange domestic habits of the medieval Norse household, arranged, Beowulf-style, around a great hall, and where everyone sleeps together on benches for some reason.)  For Kristin, the remaking of Husaby offers a chance to make things right, to forge respect and harmony out of a tumultuous courtship and marriage.  Soon, the house is completed by the addition of six--six!--young boys that Kristin bears.

But Kristin has trouble leaving the past behind.  She continues to be haunted by the way she and Erlend got together: the initial affair, the loss of virginity, and the ultimate suicide of Erlend's first wife.  The marriage is largely an unhappy one, complicated by Erlend's recklessness and diffidence, but Kristin makes things worse by keeping the original sin of their marriage polished and ready, like a dagger, to wound both Erlend and herself.  Her brother-in-law, a priest named Gunnulf, chides her:  "Kristin... dare you think in your wicked pride that sin of yours can be so great that God's loving-kindness is not greater?"  While The Wreath seemed to me an honest and empathetic depiction of the complexity of living out a life of honest faith, Kristin's obsession with her sin in The Mistress of Husaby can be tedious and dour.  The Wreath showed that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible; The Mistress of Husaby suggests that they're never quite complete enough, and that moving past our own failures takes an almost impossible strength.

The political subtext of The Wreath gets amplified in Husaby.  It's easy to forget that these characters, whose lives seem so close to the earth compared to our own, are really a kind of nobility.  I hadn't remembered that Erlend is related to the queen regent, Ingebjorg.  He spends a lot of this novel away from Husaby, serving as a Warden on a distant island.  Symbolically, Erlend continues to spend a lot of time with men--his integration into his own home never quite seems complete.  But he's also embroiled in a lot of political intrigue that happens almost completely out of narrative vision, which is focused narrowly on Husaby.  The distance emphasizes how the political world pressures the domestic sphere without being totally seen or understood; Kristin is a victim of political turmoil she cannot see.  Erlend, apparently, gets implicated in a scheme to usurp the throne and redivide Norway and Sweden (a political crisis I never totally understood) and spends the last third of the book in prison, on trial for his life.

The possibility that Erlend will die seems very real.  It would be a fitting subversion of the fairytale narrative in which love overcomes everything: family, religion, and politics.  But it's family that saves the day, in the form of Simon Darre, the man once betrothed to Kristin and who has since married her sister Ramborg.  Darre puts his own life and reputation at risk to defend Erlend, a man he despises.  Just like The Wreath's last chapters are overtaken by the point-of-view of Kristin's parents, the last chapters of Husaby belong, surprisingly, to Simon Darre, his complex goodness, his feelings of obligation and revulsion.  These chapters are a glimpse into the life that Kristin might have had, and a reminder that there are more good things in the world than passion.  And like The Wreath, the addition of Simon's voice to a larger multitude of voices emphasizes the complex social fabric that Undset explores so well.  She doesn't let you forget that Kristin's life is not lived in a vacuum, that as tedious as her obsession with her sin can be, it reflects meaningful obligations to her family and her community.

In the end, Erlend is saved, but not changed.  The last thing he does is make a reckless joke about how, if he had died, Simon could swoop in and marry Kristin.  It's maddening: Erlend forgets that Simon is married to Ramborg; he misunderstands Simon's motivations; because he had become resigned to the prospect of losing his life he underestimates the pain and effort others have taken on his behalf.  It's an unsettling place to end the story, but there's a kind of steely-eyed realism to it.  Erlend won't change, and Simon is a better man, but the love between Erlend and Kristin is not nothing, and neither is Simon's effort on Erlend wasted.  It's enough, all of it, because it has to be.