Magdaléna Platzová's Aaron's Leap is a powerful, sobering meditation on both the human condition and the nurturing of the artistic soul that closes the distance between far-flung eras, absent friends, and seemingly unrelated histories of people and places alike--all of which demonstrate a unifying power akin to a ripple effect in time.
The narrative bounds across decades to explore a modern-day Israeli film crew's efforts to produce a documentary about the early- to mid-1900s life and art of Berta Altmann. Berta gets her own voice and story throughout the book, revealing intimate details about her that no retrospective examination of the conflicted woman could ever hope to replicate--a limitation that Berta's friend and fellow artist, Krystýna Hládková, is keenly aware of, coaxing her toward filmed interviews in the hopes of adding crucial dimension to what she sees as a detachedly historical film. Krystýna's granddaughter Milena tags along as a translator and soon finds herself romantically though confusingly entangled with the crew's cameraman, the titular Aaron, and the two add their own interconnected threads to the book's tapestry of inevitable connections.
Aaron's Leap is not just one character's story but it is bound by one idea: the necessity of art. The crucial role art plays in society and the artists' need to create form the backbone of the novel, with the characters' stories serving the central thesis to varying degrees. Aaron throws himself into his work, almost talking himself out of his feelings for Milena by convincing himself that she would be a distraction from the career to which he's devoted himself; Berta practically tortures herself to produce art that satisfies her, railing against her own impulses to fit a mold that isn't true to her own avenue of expression; Krystýna, primarily appearing as an elderly woman whose final days are upon her, destroys some of the uglier vestiges of her past and throws most of her efforts into detailing the Berta she knew in the hopes of leaving behind images both of herself that her son can peacefully live with after she's gone and of the Berta she knew and loved that would otherwise die with her.
The conflict between artists' utterly devoted, almost childlike tunnel-visioned regard for the work driving them and the cold imperatives of adult responsibility emerges as a recurring theme, emphasizing the frustrations that arise from trying to strike a realistic balance between the two. Berta is the best encapsulation of this, from witnessing a professor's descent into seeming madness in order to live in unbridled servitude to his art to trying to find her own harmonious allocations of energy. She responds to an interrogation regarding the openly communist ideals she has cultivated by explaining "We don't want to destroy... We want everyone to have enough food and heat, so they don't have to choose between working for money and working for the soul" and crying out in her diary entries with existential crises like "Must one really work and scrape by only for oneself to be able to create something? Must one be self-centered?"
The seemingly self-serving nature of the artist is a frequent concern for Berta, who is routinely described as a warm, magnetic and wholly selfless woman. A therapist suggests that growing up without a mother and with a father who couldn't give her the attention she needs left the adult Berta craving love and unwilling to impose upon others, which ultimately reconciles her artistic confidence with the ostensibly incompatible self-doubt plaguing her personal life. Berta is so worried that she doesn't give enough of herself to others and saves her best parts for her art that it's not until two days before she and her husband are sent to the Terezín concentration camp that she finally realizes she has sabotaged herself, confessing that "the balance of almost forty-two years" is that she has "accomplished nothing as an artist." Neither Berta nor anyone else directly pose the question, but it is this slap of clarity that asks whether it is more selfish to live for one's art or to be so devoted to others in the finite present that it compromises one's intended legacy as a canonical powerhouse, inadvertently diminishing the enjoyment of others in the far more expansive future. When Krystýna correctly observes that Berta was only able to give herself to others through her talents in Terezín by offering art lessons to the children imprisoned with her--and, therefore, giving them some shred of normalcy during a hellish obliteration of the childlike innocence she understood so well--it is one of the book's most piercing, tragic revelations about an otherwise strong woman whose unearned sense of guilty obligation to others was her undoing.
Platzová expertly illustrates the connectivity of the past, present and future, as well as the influences such chains of events impose on the widening spiral of time. It is not only Berta's living past and current memory that unite strangers and places but also the shifting times that she witnessed that drive this point home with a poignancy. The artists comprising the company she kept as a young woman regard themselves as midwives ushering in a new era on the ashes of the old in an "attempt to remold human life and its industrially produced elements into an artistic work." There can be no new worlds created without nurturing a dissatisfaction with the old, and a willingness to sit by dispassionately in uncertain times of flux between the two is to suffer a living death.
Likewise, stagnation arises from sidestepping opportunity one too many times, as the chances to become the person that one's talent mandate they should be are not a limitless resource. While it took Berta nearly her entire life to keep her short-term needs from obscuring her long-term goals, there is a chance that Aaron will not make the same mistake and, in fact, take the leap that will lead him to the sublime fulfillment that life is waiting for him to embrace. ...more
Igor Vishnevetsky's Leningrad combines poetry and prose, newspaper articles and personal journals, publicized tallies and top-secret communiques to paint a complete (and completely bleak) image of Leningrad Blockage-era Russia and the full scope of horrors that can rain down on a war-pummeled city while its residents try to hold their lives together throughout an increasingly turbulent period.
As history is reduced to numbers and outcomes and notable skirmishes with the ever-widening distance separating then from now, it's easy to forget that people did their best to live through times of far-reaching upheaval and misery that encroached most disastrously on their smaller worlds. Here, Vishnevetsky presents us with Gleb Alfani, a composer, and his lover, Vera, as the intimate connection between a ravaged city and its residents' desperate attempts to preserve the humanity that they need to survive in a brutal environment. Gleb distracts himself from both a hopeless world and the barrage of ammunition disfiguring his home by drowning out the cacophony of ceaseless fire with the opera he superstitiously believes will keep him and his beloved safe as long as he's composing it. Vera's safety becomes a paramount concern when she divulges her pregnancy, already a complication in turbulent times where death far outpaces births but an even more daunting hurdle since Vera's husband is both a naval officer in the war effort and very obviously not the child's father. She flees Leningrad in the hopes of finding refuge, instructing Gleb to follow her once he receives her next letter, but his emaciated body and weakened spirit soon fall victim to a flu that leaves him delirious and split from reality. Spring eventually returns to Leningrad and health finally returns to Gleb, but the world he is reborn to is nothing like the one he once knew.
Aside from their roles as the beating heart in the political history of war, Gleb and Vera, as well as their friends and family orbiting the periphery of the plot, are witnesses who provide their own personal narratives about struggling through another day, clinging to the things that gave their life meaning before, and how those things become frivolous necessities as the life rafts keeping their rapidly deflating morale afloat. The continuation and preservation of art is a recurring theme throughout this short book: A minor character retrieves rare books from bombed-out buildings; Vera's husband writes of how he feels that the time he once spent painting now seems "absolutely ludicrous in comparison with the immense, unifying cause propelling us all forward," though the painting to which he refers is the lone item in Vera's apartment that glimmers with hope when Gleb goes looking for her and finds only a long-empty residence; Gleb slips into poesy in some of his journal entries, finding dark beauty in a devastated world and imposing metered order on a time when chaos ruled, and later mourns the books he sacrificed to the fire that kept him warm throughout the unforgiving winter. The aesthetic value of artistic pursuits aside, holding tight to one's appreciation of art is how these characters preserved elements of pre-war life, fighting impending death and coping with persistent uncertainty by remembering the things that gave beauty to the world and brought them happiness.
The importance of bearing witness to the unenviable epoch in which they lived and to which they had front-row seats is among the primary functions Vishnevetsky's characters serve. One of Gleb's first journal entries talks of how a friend confessed that being confronted with death leaves him in a state of arousal; rather than being a deviant's admission, it highlights how the triumph of living when thousands die each month is an understandably muddled, confused thing. Some characters find themselves almost gloating to the corpses they've stepped over in the streets, so giddy they are with life--hard as it is--while others try not to take in too much (if any) of their squalid environment. But no judgement is imparted to make one reaction seem more honorable than the other: Vishnevetsky merely uses each character's response to meteoric body counts to color their personalities, demonstrating how the coping mechanisms of the living are as varied as their methods of survival. While some characters need to record the loss and desolation of the times, especially once discrepancies arise between what they've seen and what official documents claim, others merely want to survive, and looking too closely at the carnage surrounding them would only deliver the final blow of emotional defeat. Self-denial looks an awful lot like self-preservation in the right circumstances and, as accounts of cannibalism rise and Gleb's instructions to himself about what does and doesn't prove to be edible betray the desperate edges of madness, it is increasingly clear that each individual must decide for themselves what desperation looks like and how they must harness it to see another day.
Since the world has a cruel way of moving on despite the sufferings of its inhabitants, the first spring of the siege finally comes and is wholly incongruent with the winter that still clutches at the hearts of those who have lost and suffered through so much. But it is proof that all things will pass and that time always shuffles onward, and the most we can do is learn from the past and remember its harsh imperatives. While time does not heal all wounds, hindsight is a stern teacher that is keen to remind its students that life goes on for those who are strong enough to forge ahead with it. It is in this truth that the crux of Leningrad's lesson dwells, the affirmation of life's ability to take root in the most hard-scrabble, inconceivably hostile elements as long as there is something to live for....more
Of all the successes contained within Palmerino's deceptively slim form, chief among them is its sound example of why Melissa Pritchard should be everyone's factually based but fictionally rendered introduction to coarse, easily misunderstood and half-forgotten writers. WIth a sensitive touch, lush descriptions and a richly evocative narrative triptych, Pritchard's exhaustive research into Violet Paget--perhaps better known as her nome de plume and masculine alter ego, Vernon Lee, the grandiloquent feminist and penner of supernatural tales, aesthetic studies and travel essays--flawlessly blends the late-nineteenth century writer's life with that of her fictional modern-day biographer.
Sylvia Casey, also a writer who has fallen on hard times (namely her marriage's demise as signaled by her husband absconding with another man, not to mention the faltering critical and commercial reception of her two most recent books placing her career in precarious uncertainty), has retreated to Palmerino, an Italian villa not far from Florence where Violet had spent much of her life, to slip away and throw herself into writing a novel inspired by Violet's life. Through research and walking the same grounds Violet once did, Sylvia immerses herself in the life of her spirited muse, mostly unaware that her subject has become her possessor in an unintended bit of method biographing.
The triumvirate of narration is an effective collision of past and present: Sylvia's quest to alternately lose herself in and hide from Italian life as she learns about the tempestuous Violet and writes of her discoveries; snapshots of Violet's life ranging from girlhood to brief mentions of her parents' and beloved Clementina's deaths; and ethereal interjections from Violet herself, as not even death could silence such an indomitable spirit, watching (and becoming gradually besotted with) her biographer, guiding the still-corporeal writer to clarify the truths about a life that has grown tarnished by assumptions: Violet is not a figure to be pigeonholed into easy descriptions, and she is irritated by history's posthumous efforts to reduce her to flat absolutes.
Though Violet is the linchpin holding the trio of perspectives together, the commingling of biographer and subject is present in each section to increasing degrees as Violet breathes her own essence into Sylvia by gradual possession. Sylvia's own writings are the most obvious interplay between the two, with Violet's resurrection flowing from her fingers onto pages both typed and intimately scribbled. Violet herself has been observing her biographer since the latter's arrival, a benign watchfulness yielding to a ghostly seduction that becomes ever more apparent in the chapters that follow Sylvia's pursuits. As the present-day writer encounters relics and writings from Violet's life, Sylvia withdraws more into herself and her work, at first wondering almost wryly if Violet is guiding her and eventually shirking her own rigid writing methods to scrawl pages in a hand nearly as illegible as Violet's, certain that a female presence draws ever closer until "hearing her name, she understands who is calling her" and finally flees to Violet's secret garden in the book's final pages.
It is Pritchard's sympathetic but honest rendering of a woman some found tyrannical, some found charming and almost all found terrifyingly learned that urge her ghostly heroine into genial illumination. By preserving Violet's intellectual intensity as well as capturing the softness of her romantic pursuits, the hard-edged scribe becomes a fully realized figure rather than the wanly uneven caricature such a divisive female figure can so easily be written off as. It is this careful balance that lends so much female empowerment to the novel, as Violet publicly shuns all the social niceties that she believes exist "principally to defang" a woman but extends the compassionate sensitivity stereotypically attributed to the so-called fairer to those she feels most deserving of her affections, selectively embracing her femininity when she finds it necessary. It is easy to reduce a strong woman from a repressed era to the limited and scandalously taboo "lesbian" label but Violet was volumes more than her attraction to other women. She recognized the disadvantages of her gender the moment she was pitted for her ugliness and turned an unfair liability into an asset, which led her to adopt the mannerisms, dress and persona of a man, denying the world a chance to thwart her ascent, both as an intellectual and a human being, by seizing an opportunity to turn biology's lousy hand into something she could take control of and claim as her own.
If Violet's off-putting bravado and ferocity are pleasingly mitigated by inclusion of both her past and her first-person chapters, then her actions are justified by the more submissive Sylvia, who can't catch a break and shrinks from people in direct opposition to the way Violet sought to dominate them. Sylvia has merely inherited the equality for which her female predecessors have won and quietly moves through life, never questioning the path she has chosen until she begins to wonder what would have happened if she ever sought the pleasure of another woman's company, while Violet has struggled to assert herself in a male-dominated world, wrestling her way into commanding respect where she could get it and striking fear where she could not. The opposing trajectories of their writing lives--Sylvia chronicling the rise of Violet's career while her own is in rapid decline--and the sense of novelty with which each regards her near-perfect foil is a subtle affirmation that expression of one's sexuality can be a thing constricted by the absence of that perfect half, lying in wait for its cue to finally rise from dormancy.
The achingly gorgeous prose in which Palmerino is written strikes pitch-perfect harmony with its equally strong expression of humanity, promising that the hidden beauty within is always worth the time it takes to discover it. ...more
I don't remember many details from Julia Glass's first novel, Three Junes, other than stumbling upon it that summer between high school and college when I only read books with award medallions emblazoned on their covers, finding justification for such a pretentious pursuit in my enjoyment of that novel. That same ease of getting lost in a story packed with likably intriguing personalities came screaming back after a couple dozen pages into Glass's fifth and most recent offering, And the Dark Sacred Night--a novel that, like the Louis Armstrong song from which it borrows a lyric to refurbish into a title, is unconventionally beautiful and just the right amount of earnest.
Glass returns to a handful of events and characters introduced in her debut novel, dipping into its material for a splash of background color in some places and smaller but crucial supporting detail in others, to spin a new yarn about the connectedness of people and the familial ties that alternately bind and throw out that last viable lifeline. Kit, an out-of-work husband and father, is not only in the throes of a mid-life crisis of crippling proportions but also pushing his wife, however unintentionally, to the limits of her patience. The only solution to Kit's inactivity, he and his wife, Sandra, agree, is to finally seek out the identity of and story behind the father he never knew, as Kit's mother, Daphne, has remained doggedly silent about her teenage lover who died in his 30s, more than 20 years removed from the book's present. Kit's efforts reconnect him with his first stepfather, the man who formally adopted Kit as a boy and with whom a teenage Kit lived well after his mother left, who puts him in contact with the paternal family he never knew existed.
Here, the rich backgrounds and layered stories that give each character dimension have also made each character palpable and engaging. These are everyday people with the kind of problems people face every day--making ends meet with dwindling resources, the slowly realized crisis of a faith that was once unshakable, the dawning of an augmented understanding of the self, aging parents and spouses, chronically underestimating the decency of which most people are capable--and who are forced to yield their secrets as others' unanswered questions become too much to bear. What's more, Glass's characters actually behave like adults, aware as they are that no two people want the same things or see the world the same way because every individual is a composite of their unique experiences and places, as well as the private details that add further duality to their personalities. The maturity with which Glass graces her characters allows for their adult dilemmas to be addressed in an adult manner, fostering an effective contrast between the teenage urgency and freedom that emanates from the flashbacks to Daphne's fateful summer at the music camp where Kit was conceived.
As Glass demonstrates her knack for believably and effectively linking people and events across time and connections, she twines them together to revelatory but largely positive effect: A book with a less optimistic regard for human nature wouldn't have allowed Kit to be so warmly welcomed by the grandparents and extended family he meets for the first time in his 40s, nor would his mother be so understanding (but forgivably reluctant) of Kit's need and right to discover his genealogical past for himself. But this isn't a novel that seeks external conflict to move its plot along so much as it demands that the personal growth of its characters develop the story. The recurring element of underestimating people only to be pleasantly surprised is evidence enough that this is a warm-hearted book, as is the way it embraces tragedy as one of the greatest unifiers among those touched by it.
Every good story needs some friction, though, and that which punctuates And the Dark Sacred Night is the novel-long query of conscious that weighs the benefits of lifting the veil of ignorance to gain a fuller understanding of one's self against its consequences, namely the risk that an escalating ripple effect could throw another's life in complete upheaval. But since there is no way to accurately compare what is with what could have been on account of the myriad unpredictable, unforeseeable variables of the roads not travelled, the limbo that comes from a lack of closure is deemed to be a far worse fate than the fleeting hell of slicing open old wounds and setting oneself for new ones. All anyone can do in an unpredictable world is take responsibility for their own happiness and find peace in knowing that any chance is taken with the best intentions.
And the Dark Sacred Night's many successes, unfortunately, do make its faltering missteps jarringly obvious. There is some heavy-handed drawing of parallels (a blizzard forces Kit to prolong the visit to his stepfather; later, when a hurricane similarly traps a house full of newly acquainted connections that share Kit's father as their common bond, it's a bit obvious that storms signal momentous occasions, diminishing the shock of the tragedy the latter sets up) and somewhat laboriously emphasized meanings, as if Glass doesn't always trust her audience to follow her implications. But such things are mostly innocuous grievances, as Glass deftly navigates her way through the most important instances of foreshadowing and symbols.
As a whole, Glass's newest novel is a largely successful one that, like its characters, is a bit uneven and imperfect but is buoyed by hopeful optimism that certainly deserves kudos for avoiding the kind of pat sentiment that is all too tempting to deploy when matters of the heart float so close to the surface....more
Sometimes, a quick read highlights the enduring poignancy of a book's message; sometimes it's a matter of a novel being meant as a one-sitting escape into a world that goes far beyond the distance between two covers. And sometimes a book is mercifully quick, not because it's a chore to read but because, like pulling off a practically-grafted-to-your-arm Band-aid, it hurts less just to get it over with so the reader and the tortured characters can all move on as painlessly and as quickly as possible.
Such is the case with Matthew Revert's Basal Ganglia, an ostensibly odd novella that is, at its core, a meditation on the fine line that separates the contended familiarity of marital habits from brewing hostility. Its main (and only, really) characters are Rollo and Ingrid, who began as teenage lovers and are now both consumed with and isolated by the underground pillow-and-blanket fort that Rollo had built to mirror the structure of the human brain and has been indefatigably maintaining for years. With no connection to the outside world, all external conflict has been removed; what unites them in purpose has removed any common enemies that would strengthen their roles as teammates, leaving them to foster alternately resentment and indifference between them. Ingrid soon declares that she wants a child but is reluctant to expose another life to their strange, secluded world, asking that Rollo play his part in the creation of a new life by gathering materials intended for repairing the fort so she can use them to knit their baby.
What ensues is a cautionary tale about all-consuming love: Rollo and Ingrid have reduced the entirety of their world to nothing more than the two of them and the fort, losing sight of themselves as one whole comprising two parts that possess histories and individual identities. The arrival of the baby--a thing that Ingrid protects with such a fiercely believable maternal instinct that I'd find myself worrying about the newborn's safety at certain points--brings their long-suppressed issues screaming to the surface, turning their knitted offspring into a nonliving but tangible thing that becomes the embodiment of the couple's living but intangible hostilities. Both Rollo and Ingrid fear the other will inflict some harm on the baby and damn near tear down their decades-old fort in her efforts to keep the baby from him and his need to know that the baby really exists, as the (still totally inanimate) baby quickly supplants the fort as the ultimate manifestation of their union, only to just as swiftly become the physical representation of the psychological war that has finally erupted between the couple.
One of the things that struck me most immediately about this novella is the gender roles that Rollo and Ingrid assume, not just in terms of their level playing field and strength, but also how they each assume traits of the other's gender to their benefit. Allowing the child to be the tipping point for both characters makes for some of the most overtly effective shattering of gender-dictated stereotypes I've seen in a while, which I think can be attributed to three things: Rollo and Ingrid's individual perspectives receiving equal attention; getting to see how the arrival of a child affects the father just as much as the mother on an individual basis as well as within the confines of a relationship that has shifted focus as it has expanded to include a third; and that both characters possess qualities and characteristics that are presumed to exist almost exclusively within the realm of the other's gender (some examples: Rollo has experienced the joy of creation by way of the fort both he and Ingrid tend to with almost parental obsession and Rollo, unlike Ingrid, begins lactating by the end of the book; Ingrid sprouted a beard before the novella began and assumes the masculine role of the protector in terms of their child). Such atypically balanced and implicitly empathetic regard for gender makes the emotional turmoil of wanting, having and raising children--all of which come with the knee-jerk fear of overwhelming responsibility bitterly feuding with the emotional satisfaction of being charged with the care and protection of a totally dependant being, all wrapped up in a life-changing event--rife with the potential to wreak havoc on man and woman alike.
The yarn Revert spins could be just another take on the familiar tale of a relationship on the rocks and that ill-advised, last-ditch efforts to "fix" years of unacknowledged damage with a baby, but its ability to refashion an ordinary situation into something extraordinary with its offbeat elements (a pillow fort and a knitted child, mainly) keeps things refreshingly focused. There is no fear of childhood scars bringing itself to the forefront because the child in question is made of the same materials as the fort--a fort that is its builder's very own return to the womb (if I knew more about psychology, I'd have something clever to say about the yawning chasm between the part of the body the fort actually represents and that upon which its design is based). Rollo has spent so much time and effort making sure his fort keeps the outside out that he has neglected life inside the fort and is in no way emotionally prepared for a child, either the care it needs or the issues it will inevitably drudge up. The fort is rich in symbolic purpose, demonstrating how two people can work toward a common goal in isolation, underscoring the dangers of living for one obsessive purpose and detailing what happens when a life becomes all purpose and no pleasure.
Basal Ganglia is devastating, fascinating, brutally honest and cautiously hopeful. But most of all, it offers insight and imagination in equal measures, offering both a new take on an old story and compelling characters who breathe oceans of sympathetic humanity into what often err on the side of black-and-white arguments. ...more
Writing about the death of a parent presents the tempting trap of invoking cheap sentimentality to tug at readers' heartstrings; sidestepping those easy clichés is the mark of a mature writer who knows how to craft a powerful tale with the arsenal of unique details that makes a person irreplaceably dear to their loved ones, illustrating the extent of the void that their passing has created. Elizabeth Nunez's memoir, Not for Everyday Use, takes the four days between the frantic phone call that has her rushing to her native Trinidad from her adopted home in New York to the burial of her mother and couches that surreal blur of emotions and necessary tasks in a past that goes far beyond her own lifespan in a testament to the immortality of personal history and the vivacity of one's heritage.
The third-oldest in a family of 11 children, Nunez grows up with a vantage point perhaps a bit too mired in adult responsibilities at too young an age. While this has imbued her with a strong sense of familial responsibility that remains with her through the present day, she ponders that perhaps a little less preparation for the real world and a little more parental affection might have made her a little more well-rounded in terms of the balance between her emotional needs and passionate determination to succeed. The forced retrospection that comes with death, however, shows that Nunez has long ago reached the point where she can observe her mother and father as flawed but well-meaning individuals separate from their parental roles, appreciating all the good they've done for her and accepting that their lesser moments embody the dueling forces alive in every person.
Indeed, Nunez cannot call forward the myriad roles she plays--daughter, sister, mother, woman, educator, writer, storyteller--without acknowledging that everyone else is a collection of components that are constantly fighting for prominence as different situations call for different personas. As her memoir progresses, the reader gets a glimpse of her vastness of character through all the identities roiling within; the implication is that if she wears so many hats and is pulled in so many directions, her parents and siblings must be, too. As a natural spinner of fictions, Nunez confesses early in Not for Everyday Use that she has a tendency to conflate facts for the sake of bettering the story: This admission makes Nunez immediately believable and even more likable, ready as she is to lay bare her inability to resist polishing reality to fit her narrative standards. But it also hints at her self-awareness and her own flaws while simultaneously underscoring the fact that she recognizes when a story needs no embellishments because of its inherent significance and emotional weight.
Being both an immigrant and a native of a former British colony that is still in touch with the dark underbelly of colonialism's prejudices have put Nunez keenly in touch with the way places leave their own individual impressions on a person just as much as living relations do. Trinidad is as alive as the people influencing Nunez's past and present, its tropical locale adding natural color to her narrative, right on down to her parents' two mango trees that serve as subtle metaphors for their decades-long marriage, having grown indistinguishable from the other save for the flavor of the fruits they yield. But it is not just the local atmosphere that Nunez captures: The class divisions, oppressive Catholicism and slowly shifting gender stereotypes of her home color Nunez's upbringing, especially by contrasting the stifling attitudes of her parents' younger days with her generation's more liberated perspective. Furthermore, it highlights the divide between the judgments cast by different cultures: Many of the Nunezes bear darker skin, the stigma of which they have mostly transcended by living in a class-based society's upper-middle class; in countries like America, their expansive educations, elite jobs and enviable salaries do little to deter strangers from assuming that their generous doses of melanin pin them as thieves, junkies and sub-par parents.
Nunez's inner conflicts are rooted in something much deeper than societies' superficial prejudices, though: She has her own family, her own gender and her religious upbringing to contend with. Reconciling her lofty ambitions, determination to leave the world in a better state than she found it, the maternal desire to be surpassed by both her son and her students in talents and achievements, and her long-held religious doubt with the old-fashioned world in which she was raised fuels Nunez's ongoing battle within herself. Ever the academic, she tackles each issue point-by-point, laying out how she came to each bump in her road via past beliefs and modern understanding, such as resenting a society where mothers were burdened with veritable litters because birth control was a one-way pass to eternal damnation, robbing otherwise strong, motivated women of a life outside the home and leaving her with a lingering sense of feminine failure when her marriage crumbles and she produces only one child.
But Not For Everyday Use is ultimately a celebration of understanding and empathy, as Nunez scrutinizes herself and her loved ones with a curious intensity that betrays her need to examine individuals as fiercely as she loves them. It is a demonstration of both the intellectual freedom her parents encouraged her to pursue and the strength they pushed her to discover---the end result more than justifying the means, well-intentioned but perhaps not always flawlessly executed as they were. It is proof that family doesn't have to be in close proximity to remain close-knit. It is confirmation that blindly extended affection is but a wan facsimile of the kind of love that grows from accepting a person for everything that they are, imperfections and all. ...more
(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I won the book--which would have been(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I won the book--which would have been a perfect five-star read if not for my own frayed edges getting snagged on typos often enough to jar me out of an otherwise euphoric reading experience--through a First Reads giveaway.)
Written while the author was also finishing his Ph.D in some field that's well beyond my range of comprehension (or genome sciences, whatever), Oliver Serang's debut novel, Stay Close, Little Ghost, is a meditation on loves both past and present that is made all the more personal by the mathematician protagonist sharing a name with his creator. It slams the rigidly logical vehicle of mathematical distillation into the hallucinatory fog of magical realism while the neither-black-nor-white realm of romantic love and the games it can make people play hang in the balance of such a collision, giving rise to a maelstrom of jagged emotions, discombobulating experiences and brutal self-discovery set against a backdrop that's at once universally familiar and hazily disorienting.
The story begins with city-dwelling Oliver meeting up with friends who introduce him to the chronically flirtatious Yuki (whom he'd already met in an elevator under less than auspicious circumstances). It's plainly obvious that their ensuing romance is not long for this world, given Oliver's lingering damage from previous relationships and the rightful jealousy he fosters over Yuki's inappropriate displays of affection for her male friends. They fight, they make up, they break up, they reconcile, they fall to pieces all over again until the last Oliver sees of the girl who was so careless with a boy she deemed far more wholesome than herself and his still-freshly wounded heart is her slow disintegration into a subway tunnel shadow, where she remains a stubborn reminder of a last desperate attempt to mend irreparable harm every time Oliver passes her frozen silhouette.
Oliver flounders around the city for a while as he's plagued by strange happenings--an eyeless girl scratching subterranean messages to our hero, mirror realms, secret worlds of which only a chosen few are told, unnaturally persistent homeless subway riders, obliterated mental maps charting the locations of all the city's four-leaf clovers--and the all-too-common ruefully single man's ruminations on his other ex-girlfriends, like Anne, the girl who began his transformation into something more jaded and jagged than he used to be, and "you," the one Oliver speaks of most regretfully and to whom he directs his narration. He eventually flees to a lakeside house far from the city, where he befriends both a gravesite and, later, a skittish, artistic girl named Laika whose innocence and need to be protected allow Oliver to shed the role of the wholesome half in a pair. It seems that Laika's fragility exists in tandem with the kind of gentle heart that can soften some of the prickliness that Oliver has acquired with time and experience, but she, too, falls victim to infidelity; their love disintegrates as the painted landscape in her home turns from idyllic to cataclysmic, driving Oliver out of her life with a frenzied snowstorm.
The story ends as it began, with a letter to the "you" Oliver has lost and the love he'll be trying to replicate for the rest of his life, only the concluding letter is so awash in remorse over the past being an out-of-reach dream to which the future merely pales in comparison that it would actually hurt to read the final pages if they weren't infused with the kind of hope that comes with accepting the dualities of growing up, that one cannot know the pain of exquisite heartbreak without stumbling upon something sublimely beautiful first, and that learning from both gives them a place in the peaks and valleys of one's personal landscape.
Playing fantastic elements against the universally felt bitterness of a broken heart and the people whose purpose for passing through our lives is to remind us that not all love stories conclude with the fairy-tale endings they deserve puts a strange spin on an otherwise ordinary rite of passage into adulthood. It's so easy to dwell on the slings and arrows we've survived like tragic heroes while conveniently glossing over the times we dealt those same cruelties to others. Here, Oliver watches a sobbing Yuki turn into a frozen shadow and a wailing Laika disappear in the snow, in silent, metaphorical acknowledgment that the end of their romances hurt more than him, regardless of the women's cavalier attitudes toward romantic loyalty.
Oliver finally accepts that we all do desperate, unknowingly hurtful things to simultaneously satisfy our need for self-preservation while tightening our hold on the one person we've entrusted with the safekeeping of our most vulnerable selves, observing that the "you" he's writing to has always seen past his transgressions to accept him as a good person who couldn't help but commit a few wicked acts: When someone means the world to us and they make it clear their love is divided among others, it's only natural to let our lesser selves lash out like a hurt animal--but that doesn't damn a person to unconquerable rottenness.
Maybe it's because I'm coated in a little residual magic from recently revisiting the similarly feverish, preternaturally dreamlike world of Haruki Murakami, or because I've been wallowing in a surfeit of 30s-onset introspection about things that exist in a more distant past than their still-healing scars suggest, but Stay Close, Little Ghost offered one of those fated chance encounters of crossing paths with a novel at the absolute perfect time: It told me everything I've been needing to hear and I got to be the patiently, earnestly receptive audience it deserved. Perhaps I took interpretational liberties with this story but I do think that anyone who never got a sense of closure for a crucially formative but prematurely extinguished experience would have to be rubbed as raw as I was by this book: It's hard to resist personalizing a tale that serves as a tribute to the heartaches both inflicted and suffered that usher us away from childhood's temporary refuge by tempting us with romances fueled by intensities we can't understand and are destined to burn out in spectacular disasters we can't yet imagine....more
I've not read anything by Paul Auster before, including his Winter Journal that's both a companion piece of sorts and predecessor to Report from the Interior. While the earlier work is an account of Auster's physical state, the title of this unconventional memoir is absolutely indicative of its inward focus, with the author examining himself through memories of childhood (the lens of recollection is, thankfully, not slathered with Vaseline), the movies of his adolescence that have left the deepest impressions, letters to the woman who would become his first wife written during their college years, and a photo album highlighting points of interest from the book's first quarter. While I imagine Auster's fans would derive the most enjoyment from observing this particular author's inner formation, Report from the Interior made for a warm (if not charmingly self-indulgent) introduction to the writer's style and personality.
One of the things that makes a memoir compelling enough to read about someone's else's life is the universality it brings to each memory, how a writer translates a personal experience into the language of ubiquitous milestones. Using the weirdly compelling second-person as his narrative vehicle for most of the book, Auster leads his readers through the awe of one's early years, winding his way from idyllic youth to adulthood's harsh realities, each childlike expectation derailed by adult-sized disappointment becoming a foothold in the uphill battle of dawning awareness. But as he learns that not all people are as trusting as he is or that even heroes are imperfect men, young Paul also inches closer to the person he'll become as the world of literature reveals its secrets with an ever-increasing generosity and as life itself becomes a richer place as he discovers things like dancing with girls, unsupervised days at the cinema and the nonstop rush of New York City.
While each mile marker between youth and maturity is Auster's alone, he zeroes in on the heart of the memory, locating the reason why that particular moment sticks out more vividly than others and addresses the relatable humanity of the moment. He recalls his boyhood idolization of Thomas Edison, the heady rush as degrees of separation dwindle between the two when he finds out his barber also cut Edison's hair and how his own father once worked in Edison's lab, and the acute despair of discovering that Edison himself fired his father for being Jewish: The players and details comprise Auster's own drama but the slap of cold realization that comes with a hero's irrevocable fall is familiar to all who've passed through that checkpoint on their ways to becoming jaded adults.
Auster shares a number of life lessons gleaned through firsthand experience, particularly those that impinge on his developing sense of justice, and the movies that have left the most striking impact on his formative years' memories were his first tastes of life being unfair on a grander scale. Two films (The Incredible Shrinking Man and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) receive special attention for how viscerally Auster's younger self responded to them: Both forced their young viewer to accept that sometimes the hits just keep coming, especially if, like the films' protagonists, one just happens to be an unfortunate victim of circumstance. In a book that relies largely on firsthand experiences, examining the effects movies can have on their audience and hinting at how entertainment like books and film can be an excellent supplement to one's emotional education, as illustrated by the palpable horror Auster felt on behalf of the characters he observed. Letting an observer live vicariously through a fictitiously upended life without suffering through actual consequences cultivates the kind of empathy that comes with living vicariously through a tormented character for the duration of their story.
The letters Auster wrote to his college sweetheart and first wife, writer and translator Lydia Davis, offered a glimpse of the writer as a young man in the cusp between collegiate freedom and adult responsibility, even if they are awash in a young writer's inability to resist the showiness of burgeoning talent and a wordsmith's experimentation with a medium he is on the brink of mastering, even mentioning how his parents won't address a pressing issue in letters because Auster has the advantage over them. But they're an honest time capsule that screams of uncertainty and potential colliding in that desire to experience everything with the exuberance only a university student can sustain.
I've found that one of the biggest appeals that memoirs hold for me is the assurance that other people--successful, decidedly functional people, no less--have experienced and felt things I always wondered if other people went through. Far beyond the general coming-of-age embarrassments and skin-thickening hurdles are those little moments that could either be personal quirks or things no one talks about for one reason or another. This is where writing in the second person best serves the readability of Auster's autobiographical tale, as it's almost comforting to realize that statements like "you would walk around in a state of stunned disassociation" (and a page later, "you have never completely outgrown this tendency to vanish from your own consciousness") and "once you were old enough to compare your situation to that of the other children you knew, you understood that your family was a broken family, that your parents had no idea what they were doing" offer a sense of comfort and belonging, knowing that this is a categorization of things that happened to someone else but feeling like that someone else is acknowledging that they happened to you, too.
Report from the Interior is a quite beautifully written attempt at reclaiming youth's lost relics through vivid recollections, a tribute to the fact that you can't predict what memories will stick around decades later or what details will define them, but that you can make sense of what they say about the individual by wrangling them into a written work....more
I keep trying to write a review for this book, which had a coworker asking me if I was okay because of the noises I apparently made whenever I stifledI keep trying to write a review for this book, which had a coworker asking me if I was okay because of the noises I apparently made whenever I stifled the unprofessional guffaws trying to erupt from my face while I was reading it (fuck yeah, bookworming on the company nickel), but it keeps coming out as shitty parodies of "Bohemian Rhapsody." And both pieces deserve better than shoddy manglings.
"The future business of journalism will resemble the past and will also be unlike it," proclaims journalist-cum-professor George Brock as he begins the final chapter of Out of Print, an enlightening and engaging exploration of how journalism got to be what it is through trial and error that also calls upon the industry to maintain its spirit of flexible experimentation if it wishes to thrive in the 21st century. It's a line that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of a book that is part history/part dissection/part prescriptive measure for the current state of journalism, an industry in upheaval that has been struggling with outdated business models in this hyper-personalized, swiftly moving era that bears little resemblance to the world a decade prior, to say nothing of the centuries before when the only available medium, still in its fledgling state, was adapting to the needs and wants of an increasingly informed public.
I've officially been out of print journalism longer than I was in it but, hey: You can take the girl out of the newsroom but you can't take the newsroom out of the girl. Especially when she fled job satisfaction for job security and resents the decision on a fairly regular basis. At the time, anything was preferable to fearing for my job every three months and not being able to hear myself think over what sounded suspiciously like the death rattle of an industry I arrived at just in time to watch it crumble around me. In hindsight, I do wish I'd stuck around a little longer to administer palliative care to something I truly loved being a part of, though I think I got out just in time to be able to justify recalling my newspaper days with perhaps a tad too much nostalgia rather than the exhausted, overworked frustration that punctuated those last months.
So when I heard about Out of Print--which examines the interlocking past, present and uncertain future of journalism with a focus on newspapers--I felt like it was one of those rare times when I was actually part of the target audience. Perhaps for that reason, or because the book maintains an unflinching but rationally optimistic attitude about what's in store for journalism, I found it to be the perfect example of the educated tome one needs to read in order to form both a credible, well-informed opinion on the state of journalism today and an idea of what it will take to ensure that we'll one day look back on these times as a turning point rather than a terminus.
With his book, Brock effectively dismantles the myths born of lazily connected, coincidental cause and effect, presenting a much-needed reminder that what a thing is and how it looks are rarely the same. Two easy examples: One, the dawn of the internet didn't really strike the death blows to more traditional media, especially print, so much as it merely exposed their long-festering issues, like how advertising dollars have been on the decline since the '80s but were easily mitigated by cinching editorial budgets, a decline in competition, and predominantly stable developed-world economic conditions; two, hindsight offers us the luxury of looking at the whole in retrospect to create a history by linking media milestones but actually living in the middle of one--without the comfort of flipping to the end of the chapter to see how the turbulent present fits with the paradigm-shifting moments of the past that led to this current transition--feels more like standing on unstable ground than witnessing another historical epoch from the inside. As someone who used to vehemently, bitterly complain how those damnably stubborn dinosaurs before me destroyed print journalism with their refusal to either adapt to newer models or embrace the internet as a supplement to rather than replacement of the newspaper, it was strangely comforting to see the extent of just how wrong I was in that regard, to finally understand that it's not easy to consider the implications of new technology when the daily, immediate demands of having a job to do often demand one's full attention.
Furthermore, Brock points out that every sudden expansion of information has ripple effects that are both long-lasting and often delayed. When the rise of the internet's accessibility didn't have immediate effects, it was hard to anticipate either the full impact or the personal and practical application of these modern connections that have rapidly decreased the size of world while mind-bogglingly increasing every individual's opportunity to access information both ancient and up-to-the-second current. As someone who has been using the internet since elementary school, it's easy to forget that such far-reaching connectivity was daunting in its scope to anyone not looking at it for the first time with an adult perspective rather than a child's easy acceptance of new discoveries.
I can't speak for someone who never experienced that odd combination of personal excitement and deadline-driven occupational pressure that comes with watching historical events unfold from the strange vantage point of a newsroom, surrounded by like-minded people in that surreal suspension of time between waiting for results and scrambling in unison to create a product that not only passes along but elaborates on such information for public consumption, but as a former journalist with an admittedly romantic notion of what the industry can accomplish (with a shameless bias for newspapers, whatever the lacking regard many seem to have for them), Out of Print offers plenty of rational reassurance that we're not facing the death of something but rather its rebirth--should it choose to adapt rather than stagnate. The book is optimistic without being sentimental, thought-provoking without being pretentious and realistic without being harsh, which makes it comforting for someone with a keen interest in seeing journalism prevail and hopefully eye-opening for those who wish to better understand it....more
The story that is the backbone of Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, is one I keep seeing compared rather favorably, if not with a bit of reductive simplicity, to Dickens: An adolescent Theo Decker loses his mother in a museum explosion, leaving him first emotionally orphaned and later legally unmoored when his ne'er-do-well father meets a graciously early end (which is the only death in this book that brought me physical relief), eventually driving him to seek refuge with the avuncular Hobie, an antiques dealer to whom Theo was fatefully led in the aftermath of his mother's death. Theo carries around the untreated damage of his mother's death for as long as The Goldfinch follows him---into the early years of his adulthood---and presumably well beyond that to the point where he refers to his PTSD and its array of triggers with a familiarity usually reserved for an appendage. This gaping, fiercely protected wound draws him into some less than savory proclivities, like a nasty drug habit and selling Hobie's lovingly refurbished antiques as extant relics from earlier times, unbeknownst to the guardian who's more of a father figure than he's ever known in the only way he knows how to rescue the older man from financial ruin, but also renders Theo so bravely honest and sympathetically magnetic that it's easy to forgive his lesser qualities, especially since many of his shortcomings are born of a marriage between good intentions and limited options.
In fact, among the myriad lessons this book explores regarding the dualities of human nature and life itself, the fact that goodness doesn't always come from goodness and that bad doesn't always beget bad is one of its most fervently emphasized--and it should come as no surprise that a novel so devoted to art should be so keen on the notion that the world is painted in much more than just blacks and whites. The Goldfinch borrows its title from the Carel Fabritius painting of the same name (the artist, it should be noted, also died in an explosion), a favorite painting of his mother's that Theo "rescues" from the museum during his dazed, frantic efforts to escape, a theft that was really executed as a testament to the hope that his mother would soon return home to both her son and the painting he liberated for her delight alone. It is the painting that propels Theo toward a life of covert misdeeds but it is also a tangible connection to the mother whose death threw the trajectory of his future regrettably off course. Theo himself is proof that something good can come from less than well-intentioned origins, as his own father lacks the integrity and heart Theo inherited from his mother. Far from harboring delusions about himself, Theo is his own worst critic, which only renders him all the more likable.
Theo is the bruised, beating heart of this novel and the supporting cast does lend vibrant splashes of color and gorgeous harmonies throughout the composition, but the cities Theo finds himself ping-ponging across are just as alive as any corporeal character. The New York City Theo considers his lifelong home and the one he returns to after years of Las Vegas life reflect the city's tireless mutability as well as Theo's own internal metamorphosis. If NYC acts almost as its own foil, then the thin, flashy veneer and always encroaching desert of Vegas offers a glimpse into downright alien territory, a life of premature adulthood's self-reliance and prolonged childhood's tendency toward bad life choices under the uninterested watch of his self-absorbed father that contrasts darkly but critically against with the two-against-the-world safety and warmth his mother offered. The unceremonious and abrupt shift to Amsterdam robs the city of some of its old-world, foreign charm in Theo's alternately confused, feverish and despairing states during his relatively short but transformative stay, but Tartt still subtly weaves its essence into Theo's distracted narration. The full effect allows the unique spirits of the three cities to spring off each page with a palpable dimensionality that is wholly immersive. It is impossible to not see each dark street, feel each slap of icy wind and tiny drop of sweat, conjure each richly but unobtrusively detailed scene down to the draping of a tablecloth.
The painstaking research that went into this book--foreign languages, art, literature, antiques restoration, far-flung locales, capturing low-brow banter and high-class empty chatter with equally convincing success--is as impressive as Tartt's enviable command of storytelling and word-slinging. Each detail is as necessary as it is beautifully finessed, the mark of a gifted writer who knows exactly what to highlight for maximum impact rather than an amateur's scattershot load of tacked-on trivialities to hold up a story that carries no emotional weight.
A work that champions the restorative power of art, how one thing can be so beautiful in so many ways that it indiscriminately sings out to scores across the barriers of time and geography and culture to unite an audience that can't begin to know the exhaustive scope of its reach, ought to be an appropriately transformative work itself. Celebrating a masterful talent that echoes across otherwise impregnable distances because it is so rarely seen again rings trite if the tribute isn't equal to the task. The Goldfinch hits all the high notes, captures a complicated spirit in the warmest and richest of tones, and deploys an impressive literary arsenal all to such resounding success that it is, without a scrap of doubt, my only logical choice for Best Book of 2013. What else do you call a book that spans nearly 800 pages and still feels too short? That it takes a commanding self-control to write about without using five exclamation points after every caps-locked sentence? That brings with its last page the heartache of saying goodbye to an old friend?...more
A coming-of-age tale, like every other journey at its core, is a journey to death. It might exist outside the story's scope and well beyond the hero's happy ending, but it's still hovering there in the shadows beyond the last page. Tommaso Pincio's Love-Shaped Story makes no attempt to hide that its hero is positioning himself for a headlong descent to the grave, resulting in a moody, charmingly sympathetic book about heroin addiction and the delicate souls who are obviously not long for this world.
As explained in an author's note, Pincio's story initially focused on "a bizarre individual who has convinced himself that he doesn't exist... and falls in love with a stripper whom he mistakes for a beautiful alien from a forbidden planet." Realizing that the plot and its tone were best served by dropping his characters in the dreary Pacific northwest of the '90s, connecting those dots to the grunge movement and one of its most iconic figures, Kurt Cobain (featured here in a respectfully but highly fictionalized manner), was all but inevitable: That bizarre individual became Homer Boddah Alienson, a personification of sorts of Cobain's childhood imaginary friend and the sobering mirror reflection of the heroin abuse that plagued his older years.
Homer, like so many drug addicts before him, had an unhappy childhood punctuated by his parents' casual neglect and his compulsive, joyless need to own duplicate after duplicate of various mass-produced toy spaceships, which he boxed away almost immediately upon acquisition (unbeknownst to his younger self, he'll later sell these piece by piece to the "nostalgia geeks" whose desperate clamor for his now-collectible childhood trinkets he abhors). He grows up lonely but not morose, emotionally stunted and a little naïve from a lack of interest in experiencing life and other people because at the age of nine, Homer becomes deadly certain that he is alone in a world of "differents," people who aren't who they seem, ranging from the garbage man to his mother who, in a very Invasion of the Body Snatchers way, have been slowly replaced by the pod people who will subsume Homer if he betrays his humanity with hot-blooded outbursts or any telltale signs of emotion. So he disengages from the world and stops sleeping for nearly two decades, until one of his beloved nighttime walks introduces him to Kurt, a kindred spirit carrying around the kind of damage instantly recognizable to Homer as his own, and Kurt introduces heroin to Homer's life.
Prior to this, Homer had become recently preoccupied with the question of love, namely what it is. His journey, at first, seems to be his search for love; in actuality, love is just one last thing he has to do before he goes. Homer is too steeped in paranoia (the caliber of which is on par with what one would expect from a writer whose nom de plume is a nod to Thomas Pynchon) to fully give himself to another; however, opening himself up to the possibility of love's presence in his life is his final atonement before giving himself entirely to the thanatos that has been creeping over him for decades.
What Homer discovers on his quest to find out what love is is Kurt, in whose friendship he finds both a long-awaited connection and the drug that will become his world entire for the remainder of his life. From their fateful meeting springs a habit that Homer lovingly fosters, ceremoniously introducing the substance to his body and giving himself up to it completely, all because Kurt, who also feels like an outsider wherever he goes, said it would help kick Homer's 18 years of self-imposed sleeplessness. With the melodic white noise of movies and the occasional visit from Kurt to slice the days into significant chunks of passing time, Homer carelessly crosses over the threshold into the land of modern-day lotus-eaters.
As Kurt's band--known to the everyone who lived through the '90s as Nirvana but unnamed in these pages--begins its ascension to fame, Homer imagines himself giving a televised interview that goes from bad to worse as he rambles on to the hostess's annoyance before she outs him as a junkie and he spectacularly voids his stomach all over her. Homer can't even see himself as someone worthy of others' attention and regard inside his head, serving as nothing more than a trove of before-he-was-famous Kurt stories and having his mind rub his own nose in the problems he doesn't want to face; the talk show inside Homer's strung-out head serves as the first real indication that his drug problem is getting away from him while quietly signalling that the damage inside us is capable of delivering hurtful blows just as effectively if not more so than any combination of violent external forces.
When Nirvana goes on tour, Homer departs for Rachel, NV, a town that makes its living on the tourists who come for the possibly extraterrestrial light shows, a town whose population is a little extraterrestrial itself. There, having already faced the challenges of a depleted heroin supply and the unwelcome revelation that his drug problem is less about using to get some sleep and more about just being a junkie, Homer the outsider is a welcome novelty: The locals and tourists alike come to greet him in an E.T.-esque manner (as in, "E.T. phone Home-er") and soon he is paid to be a fixture at a local dive bar where he tells his story, from being a mail-order vendor of childhood memories who sells off his own childhood with every immaculately preserved toy spaceship to his friendship with Kurt to his ongoing search for love. In Rachel, the recurring theme of Homer's alienation comes to a head, as he is finally an outsider in a place where it's acceptable to feel out of place, rather than feeling disconnected from his hometown and his own head, both being spaces in which he could only comfortably exist with the help of a drug that lets him turn off and tune out the world so he can cope with living in it. After a life of living among the differents, a town of legitimate strangers is a welcome, almost hopeful, change.
As the lines separating Homer from Kurt blur in inverse proportion to the growing physical distance between them, they ride out their respective rises to reluctant celebrity, with Homer's being the journey laid out here in excruciating detail: He becomes miserable, with his dwindling stash being the only thing that keeps him afloat. When he uses the last of it, knowing no one in the desert from whom he can score, withdrawal hits him hard (as it is wont to do) and in his agonizing transformation from daily user to stone-cold sobriety, a woman comes to him and changes everything. Touted by the dive bar's barkeeper as the love from another world to maintain Homer's mystique and make a few dollars while Homer's sweating and shaking out the worst of his withdrawal symptoms in solitude, the woman, Molly Resident, supplants the now-absent heroin as his heroine. Homer, paranoid and self-defeating as he is, is torn between getting to know Molly and doing something about what he thinks is love for her (she being the only woman he's ever talked to for any length of time, as uncomfortable as their conversations are), and winds up sabotaging his big chance to reveal his jumble of feelings. Fearing that Molly, too, has been claimed by the body snatchers, Homer runs.
And he is not heard from again 'til days before Kurt's suicide and the discovery of his body; when Homer reads the letter his friend addressed to Boddah--to him--he puts that very same Remington shotgun in his own mouth and pulls the trigger, Homer and Kurt being connected as they were like the arms of a clock: One moves with the other, occasionally coming together but mostly tending to their own peregrinations, and one stops when the other ceases to move forward.
Homer, a harmless, self-proclaimed coward who finds himself on a hero's journey, is a man seeking some kind of meaning. He gets a taste of love, hints of happiness, but what he really wants is the sweet release of death. The discovery of a drug that lets him sample the erasure of life's ills and wounds is the beginning of his escape from the mortal coil, his way of preparing for the death he warmly welcomes. Love-Shaped Story doesn't go so far as encourage suicide but it forgives it by reminding us that some people are much too comprised of too-breakable parts to live in a world that will try to reshape them to fit more easily among the neighbors and family with whom they share neither a connection nor commonalities.
Like the grunge it relies on for background color, Pincio's story is one of inherent merit, letting itself rest on the truths it embraces rather than distracting from its incomplete heart with professional polish and appealing to its audience to maximize its appeal. The writing itself is understated, darkly beautiful and compassionate, but the details on which it focuses to drive its points home are raw, dirty, unflinching and brutally honest. It's also sympathetic to the fact that some people have a beauty within them that exists in direct conflict with the world and the zeitgeist shaping it at that time, and that some people simply can't cope with so-called normal life. Homer and Kurt keep intersecting and coinciding, Homer often appearing invisible to others when Kurt's around and then being mistaken for his more famous friend when he's alone, as their inability to function as normal people in normal society for their excess paranoia and extent of their inner damages keeps them from relating to the world they regard as overwhelmingly populated with differents who regard them as indistinguishable from each other.
It is, most of all, a kind of an apology for those who are wired in such a way that they're doomed from childhood to a life of being misunderstood by others and roughed up a little too easily by the sucker-punches life throws. Homer seems like just another drug-addled loser who retreats inward because facing the world is just too much for him, but he makes a valiant effort to cope with a life he doesn't necessarily want, save for the distant hope that there are others like him who've yet to be claimed by the differents. He finds that connection in Kurt, who proves to be the love Homer was looking for: an identical soul trapped in a world he doesn't belong in, waiting to be released to the home beyond this alien one in which they've been deposited by some mistake of fate that they're trying to correct. ...more
This was my first short review for CCLaP, as well as my first-ever provided-by-the-publisher ARC. I would give this a solid 3.5 if GR would allow suchThis was my first short review for CCLaP, as well as my first-ever provided-by-the-publisher ARC. I would give this a solid 3.5 if GR would allow such things but will settle for elaborating on my original review at some point in the undefined future....more
Sometimes a book so thoroughly defies its reader's expectations, is such a departure from more conventional fare and is still utterly enjoyable that it's a difficult entity to write about. Sometimes it takes a person three months to find the words to describe such a uniquely entertaining read when a few paragraphs of casually punctuated chuckles would be the most appropriate reaction. And sometimes, you just have to exclaim that a book was a damn good way to spend an hour or so and not give three flying figs that many, many people would disagree. Because those sounding alarms of dissent probably did not give this odd little book the chance it deserves.
Mastodon Farm, much in the tradition of American Psycho and The Stranger before it, demands to be read as an allegory almost from its first word. Otherwise, it's no easy task trying to impose much sense on its page-long lists, restlessly leaping gambols both across state lines and from celebrity crib to celebrity crib, name- and brand-dropping like there's an endorsement deal on the line, and endless parade of circuitous conversations.
A novella told in the second person, Mastodon Farm follows you with a stalker-like attention to details as you deal with broken African masks at James Franco's house (yes, really), measure the passage of time in songs listened to and movies watched, drive to Dean Cain's apartment only to stare at his bookshelves, lie to your parents about your imaginary relationships and just wish for things to return to normal.
And what is this normalcy for which you're striving, exactly? Good question. Because you seem to be taking your celebrity-populated, party-hopping, crashed-your-Ferrari-so-you'll-just-buy-a-Bentley-rather-than-wait-for-the-shop-to-fix-it existence in admirably nonchalant (though some might say suspiciously numb) stride. Scenes and chapters flicker by as if someone is impatiently flipping through the hundreds of channels comprising the made-for-TV movie of your life. One minute you're hopping on the company jet and heading to Libson; the next, you're casually doing drugs with Kirsten Dunst and talking about living on the moon before she gets up to make chili for you and James Franco (to whom you seem rather close, as he will later accompany you to, among other things, your grandmother's funeral--your grandmother's death, of course, will occupy not even two pages of your attention and warrant absolutely no further mention).
The adage about what's discussed among simple minds (people), average minds (events) and great minds (ideas) is turned on its head here, thanks to the aforementioned metaphorical approach to this fidgety, quirky book. Because the things mostly addressed herein are people more famous than you--wealthy as you apparently are--and the things they either consume for pleasure or create for a living, a superficial read would reduce Mastodon Farm (which derives its name, presumably, from that of a nonexistent apocalyptic film rather than the similarly titled Cake song) to a roll-call of digestible entertainments rather than appreciate it for what it symbolizes.
Applying a dollop of whatever cynicism the reader can bring to the experience of Mastodon Farm greatly adds to the enjoyment one can derive from it--not for the mean-spirited sake of belittling the topics at hand but rather to scratch through the story’s opaquely artificial sheen of mindless, disposable superficiality coating to arrive at its true intent. We live in a time of easy digestion, fleeting obsessions and diminishing attention while clinging to the life raft of escapism, and this novella highlights the maddening vapidity of it all by training a hyper-focused eye on something for a few pages before bouncing to something entirely new and offering it the same intense scrutiny of even the minutest details, over and over again. In a time where irony’s self-congratulatory mockery has become an easy default, it is a relief to witness Mastodon Farm’s more subtle (if not mildly schizophrenic) approach to social commentary via deceptive sincerity: It does not exist to poke fun at but rather to raise awareness that we are losing sight of what really matters with a dangerous haste.
Mastodon Farm is not for everyone but those who give it a chance will be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. You may walk away with a slight concussion and a temporary onset of low-grade anxiety, but such admission fees are a small price to pay for taking an eye-opening ride with this distinctly thought-provoking beast....more
For a book that comprises less than 200 pages and can be read in a single sitting, The Reason I Jump is deceptive in its brevity. Using a computer and an alphabet grid to form and "anchor" words "that would otherwise flutter away," it is the first real chance that then-13-year-old Naoki Higashida had to share his rich but silent inner world and explain the impulses that drive his seemingly erratic behaviors, as autism had prevented him from responding to the volley of questions and years of unwanted stares his condition has prompted from others.
The book itself is nearly a decade old but was only recently published in English, as British writer David Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida translated Naoki's painstakingly chosen words from their original Japanese. While Naoki's own jovial warmth and tactful sincerity deserve much of the credit for the charm within these pages, the couple adds a palpable sensitivity to the task of bringing this big-hearted book to a new audience with their unique combination of struggles, as their son has autism and Mitchell himself is a stammerer; while a stammer may not be as debilitating and imprisoning as autism, it does lend the afflicted a keen understanding of what it's like to be rendered speechless and to have one's intelligence doubted by a wanting verbal fluency, never mind the capacity for eloquence that waits in frustrated silence.
Both Mitchell in his introduction and Naoki in the Q&A portion that comprises the bulk of The Reason I Jump emphasize that autism is by no means a disorder of universal constants, though it does feature a handful of commonalities--enough commonalities, in fact, that Mitchell said this book allowed him to "round a corner" in his relationship with his son. While Naoki tends to speak in the first-person plural when he talks about autism, he does so usually with a preface that he's basing his explanations on his own experiences and most often as a plea for understanding. Early in the book, he answers the question "Do you prefer to be on your own?" first as a person and then tinged with the communicative defeat faced by a person with autism: "I can't believe that anyone born as a human being wants to be left on their own ... The truth is, we'd love to be with people. But because things never, ever go right, we end up getting used to being alone."
Naoki fields a battery of questions with a combination of maturity, grace, honesty and willingness to admit when he just doesn't know how to answer a question that is remarkable for a teenage boy. He effectively dismantles the longstanding presumptions society has assumed about people with autism, such as a lack of empathy or that there can be blanket catch-all descriptions for the way autism manifests itself in each individual, the latter being a point that Mitchell, too, makes by pointing out that "[e]very autistic person exhibits his or her own variation of the condition--autism is more like a retina pattern than measles."
Of all the autism myths that are effectively, beautifully obliterated in The Reason I Jump, it is that supposed dearth of empathy that is most enthusiastically debunked. Naoki acutely feels the stress he places on his caretakers and the frustration they feel over his powerlessness to resist the impulses that keep him jumping, spinning, running, repeating, organizing and wandering. He gently reminds his audience that while the caretaker's exasperation is fleeting, he is the one who will always feel like a captive in a body he can't control. But Naoki also says that he no longer would trade being autistic for being "normal," as his autism has helped him see the beauty in little things while offering him comfort in realizing that he's a part of something much bigger that connects us all.
Tucked in amidst Naoki's thoughtful explanations are short stories that read like more ethereal Aesop's fables, demonstrative of Naoki's active imagination, knack for parable, and desire to emphasize a thought or feeling he finds worthy of extra mention. He revisits the Tortoise and Hare theme to illustrate the necessity of kindness; another metaphorical tale shows that even those we envy are always searching for happiness and self-fulfillment. The final section of the book is a longer, emotionally ripe allegory for what it's like to live with autism, which would read as an apology for the stress he has caused his parents if it weren't so girded with hope: "If this story connects with your heart in some way," Naoki's foreword to the short tale says, "then I believe you'll be able to connect back to the hearts of people with autism too."
One of the most remarkable features of this book is not even that is was laboriously created with an alphabet grid or that Naoki displays nearly tireless optimism but rather the slow dawning of empathy it quietly draws from its reader. He explains what it's like to live inside autism using "normal" examples that betray an outsider's wistful observation, such as likening his inability to move forward in certain actions without a verbal prompt to a pedestrian waiting for the "Walk" signal, as well as explaining his interests in terms of exaggerated reactions to routine stimuli, like his love of nature offering comfort in its sense of belonging to something so big it reduces a person to the tiny speck in the universe that so many of us try to forget that we really are.
Naoki's inventive approach to writing a memoir offers an enlightening look at a still-misunderstood disorder while embracing the beauty in imperfection and proving that one person's normal is another's mystery. It doesn't provide all the answers, which isn't a reasonable request from any one person anyway, but it begins an invaluable dialogue by approaching all the right questions.
(A final thought: Surely if David Mitchell's fabulousness extends to his abilities to translate Japanese, he should be the obvious choice to translate any and all future Murakami works, yes?)...more
(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book an(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Thanks muchly to Lori for providing me both the digital version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)
If you're looking for a breezy, feel-good tale, The Man Who Watched the World End is probably not for you, nor will it be your kind of novel if you prefer endings that are neatly packaged with bright, optimistic bows that herald the joys awaiting a story's characters beyond the last page; however, if you like your fiction to be character-driven and insightful even as it teeters on the brink of society's obsolescence, then Chris Dietzel has written the book for you.
The novel begins as humanity's reign is ending. The children comprising mankind's final generation are alive only in the biological sense. They grow older but are human marionettes: silent, immobile, helpless to care for themselves, kept alive by the loving kin or kindhearted strangers upon whom they are wholly dependent. Decades later, these Blocks (so named "because it was as if their condition obstructed them from the world") and their siblings are the last proof of man's existence, reduced to pockets of senior citizens cohabiting in group settlements (though, if our narrator is indicative of the outliers, a handful are watching their and society's clocks run down in the familiar imprisonment of crumbling homes in derelict neighborhoods) as nature reclaims all that the elderly remnants of a once thriving species no longer have the youthful vigor to defend.
We see very little of this, as the reader's glimpse into the quieting world is a three-month period captured within one lonely old man's lovingly, diligently maintained diary. It is through the eyes of this man -- who, along with his Block brother, is the last human occupant of the otherwise abandoned and symbolically named neighborhood of Camelot -- that the audience bears witness to the conclusion of our earthly chapter. Since the world is ending not with a bang, not even with a whimper but a slow exhalation, there really isn't a whole lot to see other than one man's daily ritual of tending to the brother for whom his love becomes increasingly unyielding, hoping for a southward ride from a passing convoy on its way to one of the communal-living sites, and watching the local flora and fauna take back what man has only temporarily claimed. But this is not a story of man vs. nature, man vs. self or even man vs. improbable odds: It is, simply, an account of one man's life that turns flashbacks into a supporting cast and exposition into thoughtful narration.
The elderly gentleman tasked with narrating the end of society as he witnesses it carries the story almost entirely on his own: his brother is in a waking coma, his last remaining neighbors fled right before the novel's beginning, and the animals surrounding his house are more interested in his future carcass than his breathing companionship -- including the wild dogs and feral cats born of domestic pets so many litters ago. All he has are his memories, which are equally parts familiar and tinged with a foreign sorrow, as he was among the last wave of normally functioning children and grew up knowing that most babies born after him, like his brother, would never be shaken from their unresponsive silences.
As he reveals more of his past self and present worries, he paints a picture of a bygone era that is just recognizable enough to be eerie: His memories are just like any of ours, composites of his internal and external memories with a few of his parents' own that have stuck with him over the years, but interspersed with the sense that doors previously unknown to mankind were suddenly slamming shut forever as he and the rapidly diminishing number of "normal" children became the last to tackle the once-joyous milestones of growing up.
It is in showcasing such memories that Dietzel's attention to detail may shine the brightest, as the far-reaching impact of a species poignantly aware that it has no future was something he obviously (and successfully) considered from all sides. From baby items suddenly becoming a defunct business to the government finally summoning the foresight to ensure the last hiccup of humanity will at least be provided for in what should have been its grandchild-rich golden years, the international ripple effect of newborns lacking discernible brain functions is terrifying in both its implications and the ways in which Dietzel summarily dismantled familiar infrastructure. The secondhand glimpses of a world that has seen the last Hollywood film, the final World Series, the disbanding of governments, the emotional ramifications of tracking the youngest "normal" person, and the annihilation of the hope that keeps us moving forward are hard to watch even as past events, but Dietzel writes so matter-of-factly and compellingly that each memory becomes the ultimate example of how our very human curiosity forces us to ogle unfolding tragedy.
There are a few weak spots in what is an otherwise impressive debut novel. The greengrocer's apostrophe -- my sworn enemy -- popped in to say hullo a few times ("Dalmatians and Rottweiler's united"; "if the Johnson's just now decided...") and there were a few homophone issues, like "feint breaths," "slightly older then myself" and "faired better," that drove me a little batty. Less frequent were simple editing issues, such as "the last four decades years" and "He couldn't help but be letdown." Aside from a comparatively few lapses in mechanics, the biggest problem I had with the story itself was the government's Survival Bill, which "provided the last generation of functioning adults with resources to take care of themselves and their Block relatives." As a reader, it sometimes seemed like an easy way to sidestep the survival issues a vulnerable society would face in a more brutally overt end-world scenario; as a writer, though, I understood that tacking on the additional responsibility of a people left to fend for themselves without food, electricity and a reliable internet connection in increasingly hostile terrain would only detract from story Dietzel wanted to tell.
But for every one pitfall, The Man Who Watched the World End had a dozen more successes. It shows an incredible awareness of the human condition, of how loneliness and constant reminders of our fading presence in a world we once lorded over can affect everything from a single man to an entire desperate, dying species. The metaphors were resoundingly spot-on: I couldn't help but read the Block phenomenon as a cautionary tale foretelling the long-term dangers of what happens when children of Helicopter Parents grow up without any idea of how to function outside their protective bubbles, and having the narrator reside in Camelot -- a name nearly synonymous with so much promise and so much lost -- was a subtle yet effective touch.
The Man Who Watched the World End is a tribute to humanity's prodigious knack for optimistic denial and its inability to believe that its end is not only possible but also inevitable. It is fraught with hopefulness and helplessness, a celebration of how the past and present can be powerful motivators in the absence of a future, and a touching example of how the strength of family in all its incarnations can often be enough to keep an individual going against the harshest of odds....more
I've stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn't mean I'm completelI've stuttered since first grade. My relationship with that part of myself is oceans better than it used to be, though that doesn't mean I'm completely at peace with it. The little girl who was too afraid to assert herself for fear of sputtering all over the difference between what she wanted to say and the tangled ghost of approximation she had to settle for quickly supplanted the even younger girl who had no problem hamming it up with improvised songs and dances on home videos; the adult she grew up to be, on less fluent days, automatically apologizes for stuttering and will feel a wave of relief no less powerful than the countless ones before when her conversational partner says they've never noticed. The wild dream of unblemished speech is just not a realistic one after a certain point, so acceptance is the only viable option: Realizing that one merely chooses to live in fear of their own voice and can just as easily choose not to is a moment nearly as empowering as sudden fluency.
Speech therapy was presented as an option exactly once, in what felt like an ambush when my elementary school's speech therapist pulled me aside during class a year later. Not being able to withstand the internally embellished embarrassment of a public outing as someone needing to be fixed while also imagining all the ways I could be reprimanded for interrupting class, I insisted I didn't need help just to end the inquisition as quickly as possible; I now have to assume that academic professionals wouldn't let a clueless seven-year-old have the last say, and that my parents (who, after asking my pediatrician how to treat my stutter, summarily ignored his advice and chose to make fun of me for years to come -- which did have the benefit of making the surprisingly few schoolyard jabs roll right off my otherwise too-sensitive self) or whatever teacher initiated this encounter didn't see the worth in pressing on.
The first time I decided I was ready to try speech therapy was in high school. I only wound up seeing the school's specialist a handful of times, as the sessions pretty much involved me reading aloud from whatever book she had available and her declaration that I didn't have a problem. At that point, after nearly a decade of living with a stutter, I knew my own patterns well enough to be frustrated with a seemingly optimistic prognosis: I have good days and I have bad days, with the problems mostly flaring up at double consonants or when speaking on the phone, and rarely occur when a book or a script supplies my every word.
I doubt I'll ever work with someone to "fix" the way I talk just as much as I doubt the possibility of shedding the verbal flaw I've sported for more than two decades, as I am now more interested in what I can do to encourage understanding but have been unsure of what exactly my options are. So when I stumbled upon an article about this book, I had two immediate reactions: "I absolutely need to read this" and "I absolutely should have written this." (Later, "Why wasn't I interviewed for this?" would come, but fleetingly and only half seriously.) I have never spoken to another stutterer and certainly never had a chance to ask the probing and probably eagerly invasive questions I've been dying to lob at someone else who knows what it's like to live with an invisible hand at one's throat: This book was that chance. Here is someone offering up not only her own experiences but also those of so many others.
Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice is a story in two parts. It is an unflinchingly honest account of its author's nearly lifelong battle with her stutter as well as a study of how the condition manifests itself in others, the schools of thought proposing various coping methods and solutions to hide behind, and the search to understand just what exactly causes this particular speech impediment. It is the need for inner reflection happening in tandem with outward-focused curiosity that turned Katherine Preston's debut into exactly what I expected a stutterer's memoir to be, as the affliction makes it impossible for a person to remain in ignorance of how his or her faltering speech affects and is perceived by every single person who serves as our audience. To stutter at an early age is to find out what happens when childhood's blissful lack of self-awareness is replaced, with a callous prematurity, by adolescence's almost paranoid perception of harsh scrutiny.
It is a book fraught with disappointment, frustration and embarrassment, but also determination, hope and self-discovery. Stuttering is, as Katherine quickly points out, not a fatal disease but it is a decidedly unexplored and misunderstood one. It is a condition that is unpredictable and humbling, that lays the afflicted vulnerable to the slings and arrows of society. It is a childhood bully who tends to retreat by adulthood, though not all of us will reach the wonderland of fluency: "Statistics will later break us into two groups," Katherine writes. "Those who "recover" and those who don't."
Katherine traces her journey with an unwanted passenger whose mission it is to mangle her every word -- her phonetic renderings of a voice made exasperatingly arrhythmic brought to mind another stutterer, the estimable David Mitchell, and his personification of the impediment through the inimical Hangman -- from its first appearance at the age of seven through the already daunting terrain of adolescence to finding a place in the adult world that will accommodate her years of accrued baggage. It is a personal voyage so punctuated with objective reflection and the slow growth of inner strength that any stutterer would be proud to call it their own.
For all my knee-jerk self-reproachment at having been beaten to the punch in terms of penning the definitive stutterer's memoir, Katherine's is by no means the path we all have followed. Despite her numerous attempts to find "success" in speech therapy, her gradual shift in knowing that she would give anything to divest herself of a speech impediment that makes simple verbal communication grounds for a panic attack (let's not even approach the unique horror the prospect of phone calls brings) to realizing that the hurdles such a condition has helped her overcome and the resolve it has instilled in her is empowering and paved with tiny victories but it is her own path to self-acceptance and hers alone, though her milestones and breakthroughs and jumbled emotions are all stops along the way that I can't help but believe are common to all stutterers' experiences.
The part of me that read this book in the hopes of recognizing echoes of myself and feeling a little less alone for it was dizzyingly satisfied. Katherine is roughly the same age as me and began stuttering around the same time I did. She, too, is a rarity among rarities, being a female stutterer who carried the disorder into adulthood. She is able to examine her younger self, her fears and her insecurities with a clinical eye and an improbable amount of heart. Reading about her early retreat inward, her horror over being seen as something broken, her struggle to overcome a speech impediment that overshadows all she is and is capable of every time she ventures a spoken thought offered me a sense of empathetic kinship that is usually reserved for the beautifully damaged fictional characters I've come to favor. Like me, she is no stranger to deploying an arsenal of thesaurus-gleaned stutter-friendly synonyms to dodge the words that are habitual problems. She adopted accents and affectations to gloss over verbal traps. She was reluctant to identify herself as a stutterer, preferring to ignore that which plagued her until she finally had to learn all she could about the foe within. Later, having realized that she could make her written voice do all the things her spoken one couldn't but being unsure of how to make it as a writer, she tried her hand at journalism.
It was what Katherine and I shared that made the differences in just our two stories appear so divergent, though: It was so easy to sympathetically nod along when she was navigating familiar territory that being jarred from it had the strange sensation of an out-of-body experience, or seeing the same role played by two different people. She emphasizes her parents' unflagging support and willingness to help her "get better" without pushing her beyond her comfort zone and reducing her to incurable disfluency, and I couldn't help but envy her of that. Her tales of speech therapy, the brief spurts of hopeful fluency that sputtered into the resurgence of the stutter she thought she had finally put to rest, were genuinely surprising, as I had always fancied that corrective measures were the ticket to speech unencumbered. And, because I can't help it, yes, I compared the severity of my stutter to those both reprinted and spoken of in this book, and was profoundly grateful that my worst days are what someone else wakes up hoping for.
The bravery Katherine embraces in exposing that which has been the most fiercely guarded part of herself is incredible. She digs into old diaries and painful memories to pinpoint relevant stopping points along her journey, which read as an offer of trust to the reader rather than cheap bids for congratulations. As an adult stutterer, I found it reassuring that someone was so open and detailed about this things so few people truly understand; as a younger stutterer, I imagine I would have found relief in knowing that someone else has trod this path before without letting the all-too-easy giant-in-chains excuse keep her down.
It is that honesty and refusal to sugarcoat her life as a stutterer that makes Katherine such a perfect voice for those who have yet to embrace their own. She examines how stuttering twists the things most people take for granted, like being able to supply one's own name quickly and effortlessly or making a joke without fearing that the punchline and timing will be ruined by an inopportune loop of repetition, but it is her straightforward examination of how a stutter affects one's professional path that nearly had me giving myself whiplash by nodding in such vigorous assent. "It turns out that careers are a sticky subject for stutters," she writes as an introduction:
Many advocates argue that any job is possible. They have a point. I have met stutterers in every career that, at twenty-two years old, I had assumed were nigh on impossible. ... Their hearts were in the right place, but there was one rather large problem. They gave me the distinct impression that any job was possible as long as there wasn't a discernible speech impediment. I could have anything I wanted as long as I didn't stutter obviously. ...
If you have the advocates on one hand, you have the realists on the other. They appreciate the sentiment that no job is impossible, but they refuse to drink the Kool-Aid. Instead they take to emphasizing the degree of the stutter. What may be possible for a mild stutterer is not always possible for someone who stalls on every word.
Katherine is able to take a step back from a condition she knows all too well in order to consider the non-stutterer's vantage point, to recognize the severity of each stutterer's impediment. She is a narrator who is remarkably adept at sidestepping the pitfalls of judgement in favor of considering all sides before attempting a thoughtful, logical assessment.
Out With It is engaging and insightful, showcasing its author's curiosity and capacity for overlooking the worst of a situation in order to focus on its benefits. While it's obviously got loads of appeal for stutters in particular, the gist of the story is making peace with one's imperfect demons and learning to look outward. Katherine's book "is not one of deliverance" nor does it have that moment where she is "magically fixed as the curtain drops" -- and it's all the better for delivering one of the book's unexpected messages: Recognize the difference between being grateful for what you have and settling, and know when wanting to be better becomes the same as demanding too much.
Katherine bemoans how she was in her twenties when Hollywood finally presented a stuttering cinematic hero in The King's Speech, and how there are few role models for stutterers beyond those who have successfully hidden their impediment to land some some of societal prominence. In unloading so much of herself in a book that's less of a memoir and more of a promise that someone has not only shared those moments of seemingly insurmountable mortification but also overcame all those same hurdles to become what she knew she was meant to be, I can't help but believe that Katherine Preston is filling that once-absent role all by herself....more
This is the first time my enjoyment of a book was negatively impacted by forcing myself to hammer through some pretty nasty writer's block in an attemThis is the first time my enjoyment of a book was negatively impacted by forcing myself to hammer through some pretty nasty writer's block in an attempt to make a review happen. Fortunately, my love for Camus did not suffer....more
While waiting for my white whale of novel--Joseph McElroy's Women and Men--to emerge from the murky depths of the internet with something akin to a realistic price tag in tow, I've settled for introducing myself to the writer's more readily available works the way one "settles" for Guinness when the bartender has never even heard of Three Philosophers. I finished McElroy's debut novel, A Smuggler's Bible, nearly a month before picking up Cannonball, his ninth and most recent offering: Reading two bookending extremes of a writing career in quick succession produced the effect of watching a new acquaintance transform into an old friend as endearing quirks became welcome habits, as a whisper of what will come crescendoes to a thundering boom of masterful storytelling.
Discernible plots emerge like a developing photograph's slow cohesion: a young man forges a symbiotic friendship with a younger immigrant of incredible talent before enlisting in the Iraq war, only for their paths to cross one more fateful time in that Fertile Crescent; recently discovered scrolls that may or may not be genuine accounts of Jesus from a contemporary's vantage point are revealed to posses great religious or political significance; familial ties are questioned, strengthened and redefined, especially in terms of when a friend becomes a brother, a father becomes a foil and a sister becomes an object of desire.
Cannonball is not written in the most invitingly accessible of styles--the plot is rendered in a first-person narration that initially feels like a shuffling slideshow of non-sequential images and impressions--but it is by no means impenetrable. This is a book that divulges its secrets in ravenous gulps rather than ladylike sips: Patience and greedily lapping up the book in 50-page guzzles are rewarded with a better sense of its pace and disjointed recollection.
McElroy is a writer whose plots and characters exist to move a thesis toward its inevitable elucidation. His books are not simply vehicles transporting his characters in linear, predictable joyrides through personal growth as they hurdle toward the happily-ever-after finish line. That's not to say that this novel is populated by uninspired archetypes who mechanically convey the writer's agenda, because that would be a lie; in fact, McElroy's minimalist approach to exposition proves that a deft hand can show so much by telling so little, as I left this book with a complete image of everyone who lived and died within its pages.
Several of the characters who play significant roles in Zach's life possess the kinds of talents that tend to forgive--nay, willfully gloss over--the perfectly natural failures of character that aren't exactly negated by finely honed skills. It is that mental difficulty in reconciling extremes and other seemingly at-odds elements that is the force propelling Cannonball: This is a book about dualities, how easily they come into existence and how unavoidable they are when no two people can ever see any one thing identically. Once the novel begins to grab hold of and run with this theme, every action becomes more significant, every word is made richer with layered precision, every character develops into something more believably human. We know that Zach is not a perfectly reliable narrator, that he possesses great abilities as well as a great capacity for lapses in judgment, but he is also a magnetically empathetic soul who puts the world together in such a familiar, non-academic way--as if he, too, were groping in the dark without the hand of an omniscient writer guiding him as both the bigger picture and his part in it come into focus--that such flaws make him companionable to a degree that sheer, awesome talent alone cannot.
This is a novel told in symbolic metaphor stemming from Zach himself: He is a gifted swimmer and diver, but it is photography that drives him, and, as the novel barrels ahead, it becomes more and more evident that the commonalities between these two pursuits hold the key to the heart of the story. Which is this: Universal understanding is a myth. No two things look the same to two people, much like a photo and its negative, like a concrete entity and its pallid, rippling reflection on water. Zach, who never had the crucial thing separates a competitive diver from an Olympian, who sees photography more as a mode of artistic expression than factual representation, stands at square opposition to his father, who seeks a champion in the water and a documentarian behind the lens, neither of which Zach is destined to be.
For all its frenetic pacing, Cannonball never feels rushed; there is no hurry to get to the next stop but there are a controlled urgency for understanding and a need for some sense of correlation between seemingly unrelated events that drive the narration. A scene of great chaos and destruction occurs about halfway through the novel that arrives so quickly and is such a turning point for the story that it takes Zach and the reader alike a few seconds to realize what's happening, as is often the case with those moments that change everything. It offers a slow dawning of realization that echoes how such moments of upheaval are processed and later recalled in the real world.
True to the dualities it encompasses, Cannonball is at once hotly emotional and coolly rational, capable of blending everyday humor with routine human tragedy, celebrating true talent and the virtues of incredible heart. Its curiosity is honest without being mawkishly earnest, its questions are sincere without erring toward saccharine sentiment. McElroy challenges his audience with unconventional narration and the occasional up-close look at some uncomfortable realities but he more than generously rewards his readers with a thought-provoking examination of how one things can have so many varied appearances from different angles, with a clearer understanding and through the increasing distance created by the onward march of time....more
(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book an(This review was originally posted at TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog. Many, many thanks to Lori for providing me both the PDF version of this book and the opportunity to be among her guest reviewers.)
Hunker down, friends and goobers, and let us explore this tale of hero-worship, espionage, and warring fast-food franchises built on the sturdy foundation that is good ol' American greed and gluttony.
If you only know of Patrick Wensink's Broken Piano for President for its legal kerfuffle with Jack Daniel's (which the internet universally reports as involving the nicest cease-and-desist letter ever -- and you know how hard it is for anyone on the internet to agree on anything), then you are doing yourself a great disservice and ought to remedy such an unfortunate truth by getting lost in this light-bizarro joy ride. If nothing else, you may find that your problems pale in comparison to those faced by some of these characters.
Like any satisfying slab of bizarro-flavored fare, Broken Piano for President features an antihero who would be an unlikable loser if he weren't such a sympathetic everyman whose dilemmas -- the guilt of unexorcized childhood demons, an unsuccessful love life, a job that he thoroughly despises -- are relatable to anyone old enough to know that a blackout-drunk dependency on alcohol is the only way to deal with such staggering hopelessness. That is, until you wake up in a strange but totally awesome car one morning with no recollection of how you got there, whose car you've purloined, or who the corpselike lady in the passenger seat with the gaping head wound is and whether or not you're responsible for such a gory morning greeting.
Such is the life of and our introduction to Deshler Dean (presumably named for the author's town of origin). And things don't necessarily get any better for our self-brutalized protagonist, nor does he acquire any immediate clarity regarding either this or any of his multitudinous memory lapses brought on by drunken stupors. What he does gain, however, is an avalanche of opportunity for flexing his liar muscles by way of his alcoholic's amnesia and his improvised double- (and triple-) agent status for two fast-food giants (Winters Olde-Tyme Hamburgers and the subtly named Bust-a-Gut Hamburgers) who are locked in a game of perpetual one-upmanship with absolutely no conscience about offing the competition's (or their own) employees and clogging their consumers' arteries in pursuit of the almighty dollar. While Deshler stumbles through his jobs as an inebriated wunderkind of sorts who dreams up shamefully, sadistically delicious foodstuffs for his employers' menus that he never remembers once the hammer of sobriety thwacks him between the eyes, it is that same dollar-beer haze that allows him to write word-salad songs and serve as a frontman for his true love: his Butthole Surfers-inspired, art-house nightmare of a band, Lothario Speedwagon.
It is satire that deserves its comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Moore, for sure. The dirty underbelly of the two fictitious hamburger heavy-hitters grows worryingly less and less outlandish as the violence escalates and the calorie counts of Deshler's brainchildren reach meteoric heights. It takes no mental gymnastics to imagine real-life corporations planting spies in the corporate offices of their biggest competitors to ensure that they come out on top for just one fiscal quarter, as it's also no surprise that one of the chain's founders has been iconified and deified at the hands of the American public. The dangers of greed, blind consumerism, scare-tactic TV news, and sacrificing job satisfaction for job security are all on parade as the story catapults to its frenzied climax.
While bizarro is definitely not for everyone, this is hovering more on the Regular Guy Thrown into Extraordinary Circumstances with Some Violence on the Side spectrum of the genre rather than its Batshit! Insanity! at Every! Corner! counterpoint, which might make it a little more palatable for someone looking to introduce themselves to what can be a scary little literary niche that often requires a more willing suspension of disbelief that some readers may be comfortable extending. Broken Piano does, however, weigh in at a veritable novel-sized length, making it the first non-novella bizarro I've had the pleasure of reading. And it does, for the most part, successfully carry a plot (aided by dozens of subplots, lists, asides, montages and lessons in fictional histories) for its substantial duration. There are a few lags where characters wax a little too self-indulgent, where the story seems to meander, where the violence seems a little gratuitous in its detail but, hey, sometimes life errs on that side, too. Besides, I've seen examples of the genre commit far more literarily heinous crimes.
Bizarro is at its most successful when there's something significant to be found for those who are willing to dig below the violent, exaggerated-for-shock-factor surface that gives it its charm. Broken Piano is fueled by enough cautionary tales (never sacrifice corporate comfort for the art one was meant to create, even if it means being a valet for a little longer), life lessons (how the best-laid plans can be blown asunder by life's pesky unpredictabilities, like falling in love) and allegories (there are far more options than the two public favorites -- which I couldn't help but compare to the stranglehold of America's two-party system, even though there was nary a cue pointing me in that direction within these pages) to lend thematic support to its off-the-wall goings-on. It is an entertaining romp through some sick shit for those who just want to be told a story and a modern-day morality play of sorts for those who aren't satisfied with simply taking a novel at face value. ...more