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EllaMc

"So it goes."

Ella Mc's book blog. Brand new 2018 - Only books read after 1st January 2018

Currently reading

The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike
Progress: 100/307 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 203 out of 368 pages.

No One Is Coming to Save Us - Stephanie Powell Watts

Billed as an updated black Great Gatsby, this turns out to be really pretty good. It's not a carbon copy - so far it's an interesting story all on its own. You certainly wouldn't have to know Gatsby to enjoy or follow this. There's much more to this story plot wise, and we get to hear from everyone except JJ in the big house on the hill. Now I'm getting worried that there's going to be a horrible accident though. I hope she changed that part too.

 

Rereading Junot Díaz in light of recent events - the cycle of abuse harms us all

This Is How You Lose Her - Junot Díaz

Men may feel they get the upper hand by treating women poorly, but long before "me too" Yunior told us otherwise in these stories and in the novel.

 

Reread these after recent revelations by both Junot Díaz & women who were victimized by him. I was interested to see how this would affect the reading.

 

If you've missed the fireworks, a quick rundown:

  1. Junot Díaz publishes a personal essay in the New Yorker (The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma) revealing that he was the victim of repeated childhood sexual abuse by a man in his neighborhood, that he's paid dearly for it, can no longer write and has mistreated women tremendously while trying to hide behind a mask of machismo.
  2. Fairly quickly he is confronted by a number of women, notably women of color, other writers of sexual misconduct and verbal abuse.
  3. He decides (with the full blessing of the committee) not to take his place as Chair of the Pulitzer committee.
  4. Bookstores decide to remove his books from the shelves, others keep him on, nobody knows what the right thing to do is, and everyone picks a side.

 

All of this led to discussions - hell, thousands of discussions - around me, with women, with other survivors, with everyone but writers. I don't know any writers or I'm sure they'd have talked to me too. EVERYONE in the trauma community was afire with this discussion. Eventually some of us got around to his writing, and my response was that I hoped I'd still be able to read it, since I really have been a fan, and it made me sad to read in the NYer that he could no longer write. Then I grabbed these short stories off my shelf and read them. This is where I landed:

 

I loved these the first time I read them. I was just as uncomfortable with the over-flexing of what we now call toxic masculinity then as I was this time. In fact, I think my reaction was pretty much the same: the narrator's toxicity harms him and everyone else in his life, including his great love - but in the end, he's hurt himself badly (some great female writer might want to take the feminine perspective someday.) If only we could get people in real life to own up to how harmful toxic masculinity actually is for everyone.

 

The character in these stories is clear on how he's harmed himself, and while he may use bravado to try and mask his torment, it clearly doesn't work. Everything, including his body, breaks down.

 

Explanations are not Excuses. 

 

This is not to say that these fictional stories should be taken as an indicator of real life, but misogyny is a problem for everyone, and the pain in the voice of these stories spells that out. In fact, I think these stories might be used as an example of how badly misogynistic bullshit works out for everyone. Men may feel they get the upper hand by treating women poorly, but long before "me too" Yunior told us otherwise in these stories and in the novel.

 

As a person who has lived through some stuff, I'm glad to have read these stories the first time and again now. They are excellent, and the message is probably more clear now than it was the first time I read it, though my history hasn't changed at all. I still react badly to the mind games, abuses of power and name calling, AND I appreciate the stories. They have a moral dimension I now see even more clearly, and it's about far more than diversity or a "unique voice." Yunor spells out how harmful his misogynistic buddies and lifestyle are to both the women and the men in his life.

 

Sexual abuse begets pain, anger, confusion, acting out and abuse - sometimes even more sexual abuse. The issue is not on whose side will we fight - we should all be on the side of protecting children and getting everyone (including rapists and child molestors) help before this cycle begins in yet another person. Otherwise we are doomed to an assembly line of horrors. I'd bet that if you spoke to the man who abused Junot Díaz, he'd probably have some horror tales to share about his life. None of this excuses anyone. It does show how harmful it all is for everyone, be it the abused person, the perpetrator or the many people who have relationships with either of them through lifetimes. Abuse is poison. It harms souls. It murders a part of us that we can never regain.

 

When we have no tools for coping with this existential terroristic threat, we often cope in tremendously harmful ways - both to ourselves and those we love. Interpersonal relationships are forever changed, and we're all the victim - everyone in society.

 

This is why "rape culture" and "toxic masculinity" must end. It's killing as many men as it is women. It's a way of acting out, and it's unacceptable, if understandable. It will reach us all eventually, and nobody comes through unscathed.

 

As for the stories, the final line "sometimes a start is all we ever get" rings just as poignantly as it did before I knew so much about Junot Díaz.

 

Census by Jesse Ball - Love Song to a Sibling Wrapped in a Road Trip

Census - Jesse Ball

“It is so easy for humans to be cruel, and they leap to it. They love to do it. It is an exercise of all their laughable powers.”

 

Jesse Ball's writing has always fascinated me. I first knew him as a poet and I don't have a ton of faith in poets becoming novelists. (I've missed some good novels, but I've missed more bad ones.) So imagine my delight when his first novel, Samedi the Deafness gave me literal thrills. I foisted it upon so many people that year...and I don't think anyone has read their copy yet. Idiots. Since then he's been very productive - a new work nearly every year, experimental but readable, and always interesting. His experiments don't interfere - instead they seem to be a way of getting exactly to the core of the story. Where other experimental writers carve curlicue apple peels for our delight, Ball cores an apple to show us the seed.

 

So here we are at his latest Census, which came about in different way than many novels. Jesse Ball had a big brother named Abram who lived with Downs Syndrome. Ball always imagined being with Abram, as a child even imagined how to navigate dating and finding a woman who would understand/accept that Abram was a part of their lives. Sadly, Abram died years ago, and Ball wanted to write a book about his brother and their relationship without ... writing a book about his brother.

 

So Ball worked from a child with Down Syndrome and fit a book around that character. What we end up with is Census: the story of a widower with a son who has Down Syndrome. The book starts as the father gets a fatal prognosis from his doctor. He decides the way to carry out his days is to see the country with his son, so he signs up to be a census taker, and the two of them set out on a road trip across a nameless country to gather the data from people in towns named for letters of the alphabet while spending this last time together.

 

They start in the beginning (A) and travel alphabetically. Soon we realize this census is different from any census we know. Rather than an external record, each participant gets tattooed on a rib to prove they've taken part, and rather than just facts, he's looking for what's special or unique about the people he counts, so the census takes time with each person as he listens to their stories. This allows time for each town and the citizens in it to respond and react to this interesting census duo, and it allows the loving father to reminisce on his life, his family and his son - sharing stories of his previous work, his life, his own family and very poignantly his wife, a famous performance artist/clown. In these memories we find all the light that the bones of the book need for balance.

 

Some of the towns are welcoming, allowing them easily into their homes and workplaces. Because the son wants to go to every single house, the father creates a sort of game where he's allowed to pick. One day he picks a house they've visited previously, but a deal's a deal, so up they go, and the couple doesn't say a word about them having done every single thing just a day or so earlier. One man allows the son to hang out in his workshop while the father covers the rest of the town. Along the line they meet another family with a Downs girl,and the mother recognizes in the father all the love and respect she feels for her daughter.

 

“...I have come to see that he who looks too hard for any particular thing, though he may find it, will certainly miss the most wondrous and strange things he passes, though they stare him in the face.”

 

Not all the towns are so welcoming. As they get further into the alphabet, the towns are more sparsely populated and the people much more wary. While the terrain gets more difficult, so does the inner "journey" because as they approach the end of the country (Z), the father, nearing the end of his life, has to confront the best way to say goodbye to his beloved son. He worries about his son's future (though he did provide, early on, for the care of his son.) He also has questions about the purpose of the census itself.

 

We are mostly in the father's head as he narrates their travels, it's through his eyes that we know the son. We hear how people meet or refuse to meet his son, we see hostility and kindness. Best of all, we get to see the boy's unbridled joy and excitement with things people who perceive life differently might not find so endlessly fascinating. I've known people who live with big differences, and the most heartbreaking part for me is always the way the world treats these human beings. Jesse Ball's touch is never maudlin or strident, and he doesn't preach. Instead he shows us how prejudice actually robs that person of a whole range of experiences. The lesson is never stated, but it's clear that the people who laugh at, recoil from or can't even recognize his son are so much poorer for their lack of imagination, decency, kindness and subtlety. As the book goes along, it's hard not to question the idea of "normal" and pack mentality, the strictures many of us enforce as "grown-ups." But he rarely comes close to stating these things. They would be easy to miss.

 

“I have always despised people who join societies. In general, I feel that groups of any kind are for the weak. The need for consensus is the most disgusting and pathetic aspect of our human world. Is there none who can simply wander alone beneath a sort of cloth tent painted with dreams?”

 

 

While the world it's set in is very ordered, gray and different from ours, Census isn't a dystopian story. It's a profound lesson on love, grief, belonging, conformity, decency and humanity.

 

 

 

 

What NOT to do with a signed first edition:

put a giant cheap gold sticker saying "signed first edition" on a hardcover book that has its own sleeve. But even if it was written on a rock, this would be a great book.

 

 

Absolutely On Music - Conversations between Seiji Ozawa & Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa - Haruki Murakami, Jay Rubin, Seiji Ozawa

As Duke Ellington once said, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” In that sense, jazz and classical music are fundamentally the same. The pure joy one experiences listening to “good” music transcends questions of genre.

 

I studied at Tanglewood during summers as a teenager when Seiji Ozawa was conductor of the BSO. The amazing thing about him was that he had no real requirement to deal with Tanglewood kids, yet he did. It didn't surprise me at all many years later when he started both an orchestra and a school for the younger musicians of the world. He is brilliant, patient and an excellent teacher. I enjoy reading or listening to conversations between smart people in general, and this book hits on many cylinders. 

 

While Murakami says he's an amateur, his words often feel like music (even in translation.)

Haruki Murakami is well known for his love of music. He sticks a Beatles reference in nearly every book and there are always myriad musical references. So it wasn't that shocking to learn that he and the Maestro are fast friends.

 

One thing I learned early in my own mostly amateur musical life is that music happens and it's gone instantly - you have to experience it all in the moment and find an effective way to communicate about it. This is often why teachers and students have their own special language. My teacher used to tell me to sing like green velvet. Why? Because I told him I thought a certain singer sang like green velvet. That's fine, but what about when you want others to understand? This is the magic Murakami and Ozawa make.

 

It's hard for me to point out how very high the wall is that separates the pro from the amateur, the music maker from the listener. The wall is especially high and thick when that music maker is a world-class professional. But still, that fact doesn't have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least that's how I feel about it, because music itself is a thing of such breadth and generosity. Our most important task is to search for an effective passageway through the wall - and two people who share a natural affinity for an art, any art, will be sure to find that passageway. 

 

It's unsurprising when the "interlude" about music and writing comes early in the book and Murakami explains patiently to Ozawa about rhythm in writing. It sort of shocked me that Ozawa hadn't noticed this on his own. He reads a ton of scores, and he works very hard, so maybe he just hadn't thought about it? He readily admits to being a horrible student, and I doubt he reads much beyond scores when he's working.

 

It's a series of conversations between the two masters - complete with markers for which one is talking. (Audio book would be great, but I don't know if one exists.) They talk about a few pieces in deep detail and the range of music covers everything from the blues to opera and Japanese music. They also talk about record collecting and teaching in lovely chapters. I'm pretty sure my enjoyment had to do with the fact that I knew the music they discussed well, and I'm not sure whether others would like it as much if they didn't have a familiarity and curiosity about both the men and the subject. Their fun and mutual respect nearly shines off the page, and I enjoyed it a lot.

 

Chapter Titles:

Mostly on the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto 
On manic record collectors 
Brahms at Carnegie Hall 
The relationship of writing to music 
What happened in the 1960s 
Eugene Ormandy's baton 
On the music of Gustav Mahler 
From Chicago blues to Shin'ichi Mori 
The joys of opera 
In a little Swiss town 
"There's no single way to teach. You make it up as you go along."

 

The Displaced - Excellent Anthology of Refugee Writers

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives - Aleksandar Hemon, Marina Lewycka, Ariel Dorfman, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Fatima Bhutto, David Bezmozgis, Porochista Khakpour, Vu Tran, Joseph Kertes, Kao Kalia Yang, Dina  Nayeri, Maaza Mengiste, Reyna Grande, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, Lev Golinkin, Joseph Azam, Thi Bui, Meron Hader

Viet Thanh Nguyen serves as editor for a short but impactful collection of essays about refugees and the refugee experience. I read a lot about immigration. I'm not entirely unaware that many of these stories are actually about refugees, but it's interesting that people often morph themselves into "immigrants," when in fact most of our families came from a refugee experience at some point. My father's family came in dribs and drabs to both coasts (and ended up with numerous spellings of our last name) because of the potato famine in Ireland. Nobody calls our family "refugees" but they were. It was just an easier time to be that when they showed up and pretended to have degrees in things like medicine... (true, but much too long a, story) So, given all of that, it's a willful political act for these writers to reclaim the identity of refugee -- especially given their successes and acceptance now in their new homes.

The tragedy is how these new homes forced people in a variety of ways to deny their original national identities. Some are more obvious than others, but all carry an almost unexplainable burden to the individuals, and I'm pretty sure to their new countries as well. 

Many, but not all, of the writers are now living in the US, and all of them are successful, educated, prize-winning, feted authors. Interesting how willing countries are to claim these refugees now that they have proven their worth. They've come from all over the world and they have personal experiences that frequently left me tearing up. The overall effect is rather devastating. I'm not going to review each piece, because they are all worth reading more than once.

Pass the Kleenex -- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead Trilogy #1)

Gilead - Marilynne Robinson

In my efforts to read more classics/prizewinners in the last year, there have been some real clinkers, so I wasn't sure about this one. I'm an agnostic col-lapsed Catholic with a half-Jewish family who took a tour through every single major religion before I realized I have a tough time with organized religions. I did like the basically agnostic Universal Unitarians, but I have never liked getting dressed on Sunday mornings, so I wasn't entirely sure I'd like a book about a dying minister writing a letter to his young son.

 

Turns out a book full of religious stuff was, in a word, awesome. When I just clicked five stars, I realized I need to go back and redo all of my other stars. (In truth, I've read a handful of books that actually should count for five, but I seem to be way too generous with the 3-4 range, which makes 5 less special. Someday soon, I need to go over my ratings, create a system & fix them before I have too many books to do so here.) Anyway, this is one of those books that just killed me. It was about as bad as a talking pet that dies book in terms of how wrecked I was when I finished it. If the next book to start hadn't been also part of the trilogy, I'd not have started the next book. I would be crying in the dark with crumpled tissues all round. Instead I am crying in the light with the tissues mostly in the wastebasket.

 

Reverend John Ames, a third-generation Congregationalist minister living in the tiny fictional town of Gilead, Iowa is dying, and the whole book is his letter to his very young son who will not grow up knowing his father. Despite being about an old preacher who married a young woman in a small town in Ohio, emotionally this book hit me in a very personal way. I'm a non-believing biracial woman from the urban east coast. How does this book feel so much like it was written for me? As therapists love to say, it's the emotions that matter. The neighbor's son, Jack, also felt very familiar to me.

 

Robinson quietly hits on huge soaring themes with a gentle touch that never ever turns maudlin or flowery. In telling the story of his three generations of ministers in Iowa, there are some very funny stories and some very sad, deeply painful moments all combined with sweetness that is never sugary. (As children they baptise kittens and worry about the fact that the cats keep jumping around. Pagan cats, it turns out, are as good as Christian ones.)

 

It feels almost sacrilegious to just cite the hilarious stories but I must tell you about  the abolitionists who get a bit too tunnel-happy, causing a stranger's horse to sink through the road. These highly religious people get the horse drunk (problematic for the teetotalling stranger), tell preposterous lies to get rid of the stranger, then they have to get the horse out of the hole in the middle of town. All of this happens with an escaped slave desperately trying not "escape" from their help too "I think I'm better off doing this on my own." The whole town ends up moving a few miles away to get away from their tunnel. That story made me cry tears from laughing.

 

But what's so affecting is the warmth and decency and reasonable attitude from the highly religious Congregationalist minister John Ames, whether it's regarding his young wife and son, his years of being alone after losing his first wife and daughter, or dealing with Jack Boughton - his namesake, godson and the bane of his existence. This book is a healing book, full of reserve hiding reservoirs overflowing with humanity and most of all, loving kindness.

 

I'm pretty sure I will still feel this is an excellent book at the end of the year and next year, but if I had to defend it, I'd be at a loss. It got me in such a way that I seriously considered writing a thank you letter to Marilynne Robinson. It just is one of the most affecting books I've read lately. I'm still sort of surprised I love this book so much. It's a deceptively simple book. But man, it really packed a punch.

 

"these people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you're making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice."

 

So despite my initial qualms about religion, it was in no way patronizing, irritating,  hypocritical or any number of other things I've run into with books based on religious characters. Ames is one of the most Christlike fictional characters I've run across: a very decent man doing a very decent thing in a town full of decent, multifaceted and religious people. 

 

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - Look At It

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - David Foster Wallace

I've been treating myself to rereads of books and authors I love, and I just reached to the Wallace shelf the other day with my eyes closed, so this got read again, and only for the second complete (cover-to-cover) time since I bought it because I didn't like it loads the first time. Honestly, if it wasn't written (and signed) by David Foster Wallace, I'd have given it away - not because it's oh so awful, but because it seemed like - on that first read - an uncharacteristically unending parade of toxic masculinity, which (as it turns out, on a reread and more than one close reads of a few pieces) is precisely the point and not at all true.

 

My penciled notes (I use pencil first, then go to various colors on later reads) haven't all remained legible, but they are harsh. Tucked in the back of the book was an envelope with an article written by David Foster Wallace, which I just learned can still be found online, so here is DFW on Great Male Narcissists in literature.

 

There's much to love about that piece. Here's one of many paragraphs I have squared off w/ my pencil: 

 

incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous, self-pitying … and deeply alone, alone the way only a solipsist can be alone. They never belong to any sort of larger unit or community or cause. Though usually family men, they never really love anybody-and, though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, they especially don’t love women.

 

What Wallace castigated in his ''Great Male Narcissists" piece - he goes after John Updike, and I'd add a hard case of Philip Roth to the mix. I'm sure there are many more, but these two men pioneered then glorified and received mounds of awards for toxic masculine self-absorption with a seriousness that doesn't seem to fit the subject matter. Women are readers these days, says Wallace, and women don't like those characters. (Complete with possibly the best quote ever, that I hope came from Mary Karr, but she won't claim it now that it's famous: "penis with a thesaurus.")

 

Wallace's hideous men here might be a kind of mirror held up to the characters in these most toxically male novels. Not surfacely toxic like American Psycho, but the ones that seem more benign - even sometimes just stupid. I think Wallace was staring at humanity and showed us in these stories a bit of the ugly side of what he saw.

 

On first glance, these characters (all written in a terrifying first person feel, even if it's not actually in first person. In other words - you feel like you're inside these hideous men while reading these stories - no, you eventually become the people, whether you want to deal with that or not) but anyway, on first glance they seem like caricatures. On a closer look they are carefully constructed and while hideous and scary, this book contains some of the best writing DFW did (and I'm including Infinite Jest in that appraisal.) After IJ, Wallace was clearly upset that everyone found his very sad and terrifying novel "hilarious." He didn't set out to write an hilarious novel and didn't feel he had. I'd agree with him that IJ isn't just hilarious, but there are parts that are very very funny, and there's no getting around that.

 

So Brief Interviews feels like a direct reaction to the reaction that IJ got. Nobody would call this "hysterical realism" or find much about this funny. What is so sad is that this book got horrible reviews in many quarters because it requires close attentive reading, deconstruction, doing a fair amount of research at times, certainly a dictionary and internet access if you are to understand some of these stories. He knew that. He probably knew the newspapers with their deadlines would not "get" this book, and he surely could have guessed that many people would mistake the author for any one of the horribly misogynistic, self-absorbed, overly verbal yet emotionally stilted men found in the pages. Or maybe he didn't think that far. I don't know. I honestly didn't spend much time reading criticism of DFW until after he'd died, and then it was just because I wanted more DFW and rereading everything every year only got me so far for so long.

 

While this is the second time I've read this in its entirety, I've read many of the pieces very closely many times. This book contains a few of my favorite pieces from David Foster Wallace: The Depressed Person, Octet, Think, Suicide as a sort of Gift (which I like more for personal than literary reasons,) Datum Centurio (which took me at least 10 reads just to begin to crack the code - but it's oh so worth it,) the prayer-like overview of life found in a young boy's dive -- Forever Overhead, and the stunning Church Not Made with Hands. Those are my favorites. That's a lot of the book right there. 

 

And holding all of these gems together are the Brief Interviews. They have no questions because the men answering know the questions and don't need some interviewer to ask the obvious. They tie the book together - making it, in some weird way like a novel - defending against what they know we think.

 

 This book, like all of Wallace's fiction, makes the reader sweat. If you're not educated in many subjects, like I'm not, you have to work harder to figure out what might be a reference even before you then move on to what that reference might mean. As in all of his work, it requires a dictionary on round one, note-taking and time - time and more time. It requires multiple readings, and it rewards them (much like all of his fiction does. The later the writing, the more time it will require.) Sometimes it requires reading aloud, over and over. Sometimes it requires a notebook to write questions and then another notebook to puzzle them out. And maybe a third or fourth when you find you've gone down a bad alley and need to find your way back to a better start.

 

"Look at it."

 

demands an uncharacteristically short sentence very early on. And that's really what this entire book asks of us. Look at it. Not at him - but it -- life, death, horrors, terrors, bullshit, you name it. At the end of that story, I've written (in a later read - purple pen) a long paragraph that includes "this is the whole book. He wants us to stop and really look" and after more words ends with "We need to STOP. and THINK. And allow ourselves to feel it for as long as it takes, no matter how horrible that is." So, clearly I'm not the writer, but it stuck me somewhere along the line that this was exactly what my shrink took decades to beat into my brain and still reminds me on a bi-monthly basis. It's too easy to just stay up on the surface. I need someone to remind me to plumb the depths. I think these stories, the book entirely asks the reader to do exactly that - plumb the deep, scary depths. 

 

And yes, that's way more work than I'd offer to many writers. I can think of two (only one of whom is still alive) I have enough faith in to do the work required every time. Sometimes it doesn't pay off. I've found that with Wallace, especially as he matured as a writer, it does.

 

I doubt I was Wallace's intended reader. I think he thought his reader would be more literate than me and I know he expected his reader to be more formally educated than me. I have advanced degrees but they are very narrow subjects and I spent my early life in music school, so I missed a lot of that classic liberal arts education. I think he thought his readers had a lot of the references already at their fingertips. No matter. I find that reading like this is more satisfying than almost any other kind. And even so, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone. I might suggest it if someone asked for certain things. I've suggested some of the pieces to other people, but only in response to something specific they've discussed with me.

 

Why am I willing to work so hard to make sure I'm getting as much out of this book, and his other work too, as I can? Because it's worth it to me. There is a pay off. In fact the payoff is bigger every time I put a bit more work into it. The feeling isn't like figuring out a problem. It's like finding a deep truth or meaning or finally grasping something you have sort of felt for a long time but never had enough of a grasp to figure out. I find meaning in this work.

 

And the meaning isn't "misogynistic bullshit" like some reviews I've read on some sites. It's exactly the opposite, actually. These men are, by and large, misogynists (and the women aren't so hot either.) Everyone is hideous, save perhaps the diving boy and the man in Think (though even he is not a perfect specimen.) But this hideousness is something we've all seen, perhaps been - if not exactly in the same way. There's a universal truth in this group of stories, and there's writing that I can't even begin to explain (though I'd recommend Zadie Smith's essay "The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace" for a clear and understandable explanation of why this writing is so blindingly excellent at times.) 

 

So, if on a first read I found these nameless men and women almost cartoonish, it's because I could only see the surface on that read. Here's what I wrote after that read: 

 

These men really are hideous. I mean they are awful people, and people is a very kind word for these characters. So few of them have names or faces. They are simply babbling egos, many of them narcissistic others outright sociopaths The word hideous is important because it is exactly correct, yet so many of them come off as your average know-it-all at the bar it's depressing.  Structured around the "brief interviews - given places and names, but only answers" the stories are unrelentingly bleak and horrible. I can't even call them tragic because they're not complete enough to be tragic characters.

 

I was wrong. They're more complete than I could see on a first read. I was looking for an easy answer, not a psychological/philosophical ocean that I'd need to dive into and swim for a while before I could understand what lies beneath.

 

Wallace was most experimental in his fiction, and his craft and  talent are on rare display here, with none of the easy humor or zing found in all of his previous work (including his political reporting and scholarly work.) Infinite Jest is a much easier read. It feels like a beach read compared to these very short stories. 

 

But there's something much more real here. Something that I can't explain. I learn about people - myself included - from reading these stories. He was already, in this first work after Infinite Jest, pushing himself to a much deeper place. And he set a high wire that he manages to walk in most of these pieces. 

 

This book gets a bad rap because everyone wants it to be easy and they want it to be like the earlier nonfiction or Infinite Jest. It's not. It's different. You can feel the growth of an already talented artist here. But I can't recommend this group of stories - or any of Wallace's fiction - to anyone without knowing something about that person and what they might be seeking. The one person I've recommended most of these pieces to is my therapist. And I read them along with him, notes in hand, breaking things down, explaining what I thought various things mean. (And, um, I'm SURE I'm wrong about most of these things.) But this is the kind of person I'd recommend these stories to - someone who is deeply concerned with the darkest, saddest, hardest parts of humanity, and someone who already knows how ugly human beings can be when they're shown without any fancy make-up and easy laughs.

 

If it sounds like I'm defending this book, I am. I think this is Wallace upping his game, projecting toward what he might try to do in long form in a novel someday. I don't know if it's doable in long form. It could be way too hard and way too heavy. This book is very heavy, but once I started to break it down, and really read it carefully, I became even more enamored with the soul of David Foster Wallace, and to me that soul is anything but hideous.

 

Hey Kids -(long health stuff) TL:DR: I'm still alive

I shouldn't joke about life and death. Here's a quick catch-up on what I've been up to since I last checked in - getting more tests than any lab rat I've ever known and no real answers from medical science, so I'm still in pain and swollen and mostly irritable and some days I can't see or use my hands, and I've always been a klutz but I've been falling over more than usual lately.

 

However, I'm not overly concerned about that because about three weeks after my mystery illness started, my younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She's in the midst of preparing for a full mastectomy. The good news is that it seems to have not spread, which is the most important thing. Her lymph nodes are clear and after a trip to several specialists, we believe her prognosis is good. She's in excellent health otherwise (she teaches kickboxing and yoga for fun, she eats perfectly and does nothing unhealthy.) So, she's my baby sister, and obviously all of that was upsetting, but we're keeping our hopes high.

 

This has all transpired after my father has been getting progressively sicker for a couple years now, after he beat a bad esophageal cancer of his own five years ago, but since then he's had many weird and unexplained health problems, in and out of hospital, and when the phone rang in the middle of the night two weeks ago, I assumed it was about my father or my youngest sister - but no. This time my mother (the picture of health - I've been worried since childhood that if nuclear destruction came, she and I would be the only people alive in the dystopian future amongst cockroaches and rats - and she'd tell me to "just put on some lipstick and you'll feel better about the situation.") Anyway, my mother had a routine operation (necessary but nothing horrible) and then she had a stroke - which was not expected. As of yesterday, she's recovering very nicely, with no obviously long-lasting symptoms. I ran a whole battery of neurological tests on her (much to her chagrin.) Beyond mocking me, she seems to be improving well, and they've changed her blood pressure meds. They are apparently of the opinion that this could have been a result of anesthesia. So, beyond worrying everyone, she may actually still outlast us all.

 

My oldest sister seems unscathed by the family curse thus far, and none of the next generation has any weird illnesses. But this has been a crazy few months!

 

I wish this was my idea of a joke, but it's not. It's all true. I'm still a medical mystery, but honestly it's a bit hard to complain when everyone else is having such dramatic illnesses all around me. I'm hoping to find myself with answers eventually, but I've realized that it's not going to be quick or easy, so I'm modifying by reading behaviors accordingly, trying to sleep more (a chore) and I'll be back here adding books and trying to at least catch up with keeping track of what I've read.

 

I'm waiting for a new computer that requires less sitting, but I've tried a few and been not happy with any of them, so I'm still trying to figure out which one might work best with my clumsy fingers and poor eyesight.

 

All this to say that I'm going to try to check in more than I've been lately, and I will be annoying you with book additions. I'm not sure how much I'll be able to check the feed - it depends on the day and my eyes, but I will at least try to navigate your goings on from my phone sometimes. And I would be very appreciative if anyone wants to send positive vibes or prayters or whatever your thing is to my sister. (I'm pretty sure that I am indestructible.)

 

Meanwhile, I really miss you all! I have been thinking of you all at different times, when I read something or think of various discussions and groups. I do hope you're all well - Ella

The Broom of the System - David Foster Wallace

The Broom of the System - David Foster Wallace, Duke Riley

Years ago (elsewhere) I gave this five stars. When I reread it this week, I downgraded it to four and just now changed it back halfway. Here's why: 

A quote from DT Max's biography puts this pretty well. The publisher on the reason they took it:

Broom was different, that it used postmodernism in new ways. He remembers reading the manuscript and thinking he was reading something truly new, “a portent for the future of American fiction,” as he remembered it: “It wasn’t just a style but a feeling he was expressing, one of playful exuberance…tinged with a self-conscious self-consciousness.”



It's hard to remember how new this felt in its day, before I had any clue who the author was and before I'd read anything else he'd written. When compared to his later novels, The Broom of the System is clearly earlier work, but compared to books I've read, both recently and back when this was published, by authors who aren't David Foster Wallace, it's a delight and it really doesn't feel like a first novel or a thesis or a get out of school novel. We do it a disservice by comparing it to IJ or even The Pale King (though The Pale King reads, at least the parts I've read thus far, much more like this novel than Infinite Jest. I need to start the Pale King again and finish it this time because it was really good, until I put it down and didn't pick it back up - for no reason at all.) Back to Broom: Hilarious wordplay throughout, a decent mysterious plot, no silliness just for silliness' sake (though a lot of silliness for other reasons), no dumb gimmicks beyond perhaps the delightful absurdity of names of pretty much every character including the bird. The family is insane in the way only a fictional family can be, but it's just one degree away from real families, the characters are amazing. This is an excellent novel that stands up to any comparison except, perhaps, DFW's essays and Infinite Jest.

 

It takes reality and sort of blows it up - taking it a step further, making it funny because it's so absurd. It's clearly well-planned and I could spend hours discussing the technicality of the book, but I don't want to and nobody wants to read that anyway. If they do, they should read the book ;)


I know David Foster Wallace was not happy with it later on - you can find mention of his annoyance at being attached to it in any number of interviews, letters, conversations, etc. Apparently, it felt very juvenile to him. It seemed like it was "trying too hard" or a "very smart 14 year old." Perhaps though, it's just buoyant and he remembered that it was harder to write than we get to know on reading it. When we're depressed, it's easy to see absurdist anything as juvenile or trying too hard. I know wonderful musicians who can't listen to their own recordings because they hear only the problems and not the miracles. So when I read The Broom of the System this time, I actively looked for "first book problems" and "workshop writing" and all the other things that make first novels often problematic. (I didn't find workshop writing because he wrote this in undergrad!) I ended up with a list of notes a couple pages long disproving that theory. I think Mr. Wallace was being hard on himself. This is an excellent book, and when I compare it to the books I've read, it gets almost five stars from me even in 2018, and a TON of laugh aloud moments too.

Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino and everyone's imagination

Invisible Cities - William Weaver, Italo Calvino

“For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name; perhaps I have already spoken of Irene under other names; perhaps I have spoken only of Irene.” 

         ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

My memory of this book a month after finishing it is almost like a memory of a particularly good guided meditation (OK, I don't have a ton of experience with good guided meditation, but I know bad ones!) This is a nifty book. It seems so simple: Marco Polo telling tales to Kublai Khan about his travels through the Mongol Empire, with some notable additions. So there's a realm where it's a bit like a travelogue to all the cities I've visited, lived in, loved or have wished to see ― a wonderful imaginative experience. And there's another realm where it's philosophy about cities, humankind, differences and similarities, the changes that happen over time both physically and mentally ― and this is the part where the meditation comes in. It's a terrific book that I wasn't sure I wanted to read before I started. It starts slowly, but once you start to see what's happening between the two main characters and the world in which we all live, it starts to seem almost too short.

 

It also made me very curious about a lot of things and one of the best things I found along the way was a course curriculum for school students based on Invisible Cities found here and the Yale National Initiative seminar "Invisible Cities: The Arts and Renewable Community."

 

Those are just two things I thought were kind of awesome, but there are other nonfiction books and all sorts of memory/artistic and other creative projects that tie into this book. You could spend a lifetime doing nothing but reading related texts. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities is an incredibly imaginative springboard to seeing our world using our fullest imagination.

 

Rumaan Alam's That Kind of Mother

That Kind of Mother - Rumaan Alam

~ All You Need Is Love, help, education, communication, money, humility & hair tips ~

 

When I like something, I often can't tell you why. Most of my favorite books are still waiting for the reviews I can't get right in my head; so here's what I noticed about this book:

 

I expected it to be more hard-hitting in the areas of cross-cultural or cross-racial adoption, but it is subtle throughout. Even when making hard-hitting points, the touch is light. I also expected more stupid white people, to be honest, but all of the characters come with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, blind spots and positive traits. Nobody is a hero, everyone is a real person. The characterizations are mostly believable and treated with dignity.

 

Rumaan Alam wisely steers around lots of potential pitfalls by setting this novel between 1985 and 1999, when the world really was a different place in many ways. At times the irony is so heavy it left drops on my table, but it's never sarcastic or mean-spirited. The characters are all learning and growing, and nobody gets off easily when dealing with race, family, class, gender, background or other issues... Almost more than race and class, what I read here was a uniquely American book. I can't remember being as optimistic as the people in this book, but it's impossible to regain ignorance in a post-everything world. These characters still have the Twin Towers (and even eat at Windows on the World,) haven't seen a full-on war in decades, and truly believe things are getting better. So beyond the obvious issues of race and class that get most of the ink in reviews, there is also a careful and poignant exploration of what it means to be American now that we know what these characters have yet to experience.

I couldn't help wondering what would happen in just a few years, when it all started to crumble for this family - I'd love to have followed them all through so many more points in history, and while it wasn't a cliff-hanger, I'd like to see the next decades covered by the adopted son if I got to make wishes into books.

 

Finally, Alam does another good job of writing from a woman's perspective including the way sometimes nobody "gets" a friendship from the outside, even other people who are close to one of the friends, even when it seems like the friendship can't possibly be "real." He must've done a lot of research since he covers everything from birth and breastfeeding to clothing styles from the era. After seeing some women respond angrily about a man writing "women's thoughts," my reaction was "well, I'm not a mom, never gave birth, never breastfed - would *I* be allowed to write this book?" This "who gets to write what" thing bothers me in many ways and is personal in many ways to me. Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but  Rumaan Alam is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, married to a white man with whom he's raising two adopted black sons in Brooklyn.

 

When it comes down to it, families are more than blood or the way others perceive us. Love will not heal everything, but it also doesn't harm anything. Parenting is hard for everyone from time to time. It's probably very wise - whether you've adopted a baby or born your own - to allow others to offer wisdom and insight (on more than the basics.) Knowing what you don't know might save your family. And it will certainly save your kid's hair! 

 

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen - Megan Backus, Banana Yoshimoto

I'd read the first novella in Kitchen before, but embarrassingly, I'd never read the second! I love the first one so much, I was a bit worried that I wouldn't love the second. Honestly, I don't love the second as much, but I loved it anyway. It has some of the most wonderful lines I've ever read.

 

This book is very personal to me - it hits me in exactly the right spot. It's come to be one of my comfort reads. I've been sick lately, and this book is thin enough to hold up while laying down, simple enough to not require anything beyond reading to get through it. (I looked up the one word I didn't know the first time.) It's a great read for illness because the women in it are grieving, longing, hurting, confused, exhausted, feeling helpless and hopeless and sometimes even sick. Sounds great, eh?

 

Despite the despair, they're comforting books about growing, getting through and going on even when it feels impossible. They are infused with so many kinds of women - each an individual in her own way. Now that I've read them both, it's still one of my favorites, but I can't tell you why beyond saying they make me feel far less alone. (And I don't even cook, which is a theme as you may be able to tell from the title.)

 

Also, how can you not love someone who renames herself "Banana"?

Less - The Horrors of Turning Fifty

Less: A Novel - Andrew Sean Greer

What a delightful book! I will definitely read this again, just because I have a feeling there are things I missed this time. It may be one of those books that's actually better once you know the ending. Dunno - I will figure that out later. Meanwhile...

 

The tone is so waggish that hefty subjects get piled one on top of the other, yet it never feels like reading a heavyweight book. There were several times when I didn't just laugh, but laughed so loudly that I shocked myself. I mean like Ha!!! really loudly! The writing feels just perfect, but never twee or overdone.

 

I was drawn to this, not because it's about a writer, but because I'm very in touch with the horror that befalls a single person on the dawn of fifty -- it ain't pretty. Less is so on target about this, despite the hugely different circumstances between me and our protagonist, that at times it was a relief to know I've already lived through the horror and will never have to do it again. (For anyone who hasn't gone through it, the second you embrace the new decade, it's just fine. Remind me of this when I'm about to do 60 and 70 please.) Arthus Less is a very lucky guy, despite his complete unwillingness to see that. (Honestly, if writers are this self-pitying, I'm very glad I only read them rather than hanging out with them. When a woman tells Mr. Less that nobody will feel sorry for his protagonist - gay or not - I nodded right along with her.)

 

It's OK that Arthur Less is so absurd and pathetic - because we all are, deep down. And because we're dealt a narrator whose treatment of the protagonist is both hilarious and kind. That's a rare thing, and it's a good read. There were some things that I saw coming and that made it a bit less magical. One question I have is how this rose above so many other novels to win the Pulitzer. It didn't feel like a particularly "important" book, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.

 

Not gone - just not here

Hi friends,

 

I have been MIA because I'm having some medical issues that are really bothering two things: my ability to read/see and my ability to sit at a computer and type stuff. 

 

I'm trying to work all of that out, or at least to figure a workaround if a miracle diagnosis and cure don't arrive soon. I do plan on at least getting here for short periods to list books and try to catch up on what you all are doing, but I felt like I should at least give a shout to let you know I've not (nor do I ever plan on) abandoned booklikes. I like it far too much to do so.

 

I miss you all, and I hope for many reasons that I'll see you very soon for more than a shout-out.

 

Hugs - Ella

 

 

America Is Not the Heart (neither is this book)

America Is Not the Heart - Elaine Castillo

I wanted to LOVE this book. Showing up on every list of anticipated books for months, I waited for the release, ordered it from the library to make sure I'd be first in line, ran there the day it was processed, and loved the opening.

 

Then the character on whom we focus completely changed after the brief opening, and the story became a sort of Filipino in California Outsiders meets West Side Story without the romance, the dancing or the good story, so all we're left with is grit.

 

I was looking forward to a book about the immigrant experience from a Filipino view, especially given the timeframe in the 1990s, running from a dictator and brutality, a refugee experience, but none of this was examined in detail, if at all. Instead we get a play-by-play of "we went to dinner at this place" and "we saw these people" - very ordinary. While my life is exceedingly ordinary, and I have an interesting back story as well as some unique challenges, I wouldn't subject anyone to a book about my daily life, which is sort of how this read.

 

There were some slightly interesting parts involving her sexuality, which happens in most coming of age novels, and there were some gorgeously written passages, but overall, this book was not moving or compelling in any way. I'm still a bit stunned that I made it all the way through, and two months later I can only remember the broadest of themes, like her hands - which happened outside the covers of the book!

Palace of Treason (Red Sparrow Trilogy #2) More realistic spies this episode

Palace of Treason - Jason  Matthews

Palace of Treason made me happy. It was the spy novel closest to the ones I love - international intrigue, CIA officers who crack wise with each other, bungling upper managers who couldn't carry a mission in a bucket, stupid puns, great characters on all sides, honor, loyalty, danger, intrigue... That this second novel in the series was so good surprised me, given I thought the first book was just OK. I am headed off to bed with the final part of the trilogy having just grabbed it from the library today. That worked out very well (though I will admit I'm ignoring a few book club books to read these first.)

 

Nate and Domi (now settled in to her place at the SVR and her code name DIVA) are joined by a larger cast, though the main players are still around. There's levity whenever the CIA team gets together because they are good at their jobs and good at digging each other. Their banter offers space for a breath in a very suspenseful plot.

 

Basically it's another mole-hunt extravaganza, but this time there's a mole that could expose DIVA's real name. She has a terrifically talented new handler in Moscow, and Dominika doesn't make it easy for anyone to handle her, so she does daring things, putting herself in terrible danger more often than anyone would like. She's never stupid though, and her reasons for putting herself in danger make sense.

 

Beyond that, Nate and Domi are still together (though usually apart) and they're much more careful in this book. That made my reading less exasperating and my life less terrifying. Please real spies - keep your pants on! Their affair is constantly a point of contention within the CIA and frequently gets Nate in trouble (also he gets called the Dumbassador of StupidLand by his boss, which is cute. The team that handles DIVA from the CIA side are a great trio of characters, with Nate being the least interesting of the three.)

 

Dominika is gaining ground in the SVG, partying with Putin and the oligarchs and working her way up in Moscow while reporting back to Washington (or wherever the guys are currently stationed - Athens mostly in this book.) One can only imagine what might happen in the final installment. Domi was barely alive when this one ended, so I need to go read that final book of the trilogy now.