More note to self than a review: Girmay follows up her successful collection, Kingdom Animalia with this collection of cycles of poems (there are twoMore note to self than a review: Girmay follows up her successful collection, Kingdom Animalia with this collection of cycles of poems (there are two cycles), and though I can see her grappling with the enormity & size of the task (black history, slavery, racism in the US, and myriad deaths symbolized by the black empty sea of the moon called "black maria" as well as various other seas). A melding of locations, times, and themes that gives her concerns with African Americans a historical continuity. A truly ambitious work. BUT—and there's a but—I was left unmoved for the most part (probably because I'm an outsider to the particular history she's portraying?). The lines seemed flatter (flattened & overwhelmed by the subject matter?) compared to her previous collection and the lyricism just wasn't there to capture me....more
"I am the second Adam. I learned to read / and write through my sins' lessons"--
It's really hard to describe Darwish's poetry. It's a little Lorca-esq"I am the second Adam. I learned to read / and write through my sins' lessons"--
It's really hard to describe Darwish's poetry. It's a little Lorca-esque in places, but not that extreme or loud. It's quietly surreal, and simple but also lyrical. There are so many lines I underlined and poems I need to go back to. A few excerpts:
"It's your bad luck that you chose the gardens near god's borders, where the sword writes clay's tale..."
"We store our sorrows in our jars, lest the soldiers see them and celebrate the siege ... We store them for other seasons, for a memory, for something that might surprise us on the road."
"we are in need of myth to bear the burden of the distance between two doors..."
Not knowing Arabic, I can't comment on the accuracy/faithfulness of the translation, but like Borges, I'm not too worried about accuracy or the problematic notion of "faithfulness.". What matters is (and should be): Is it beautiful in English? Does it move me? Yes and yes. And as much as I would've liked to see how Fady Joudah—himself a Palestinian American poet (and doctor)—has rewritten Darwish (for every translation is a rewriting), that was good enough for me.
I've read most of David Mitchell's oeuvre and liked them, even loved some. He knows how to draw you in with immediate tensionOn the fence about this--
I've read most of David Mitchell's oeuvre and liked them, even loved some. He knows how to draw you in with immediate tension and has a knack for choosing cool premises (incorporeal beings hopping from mind to mind!). And The Bone Clocks is no exception. Cool, manga/sci-fi premises of good vs. evil, the fight scenes, and each story interesting enough to pull you in.
But something I realized this time around about Mitchell's favorite novel-in-novellas form—for he writes a bunch of interconnected novellas—is that it's ultimately unsatisfying. Granted, The Bone Clocks, more than any of his works (aside from his conspicuously traditional novel set in Japan, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, has an overarching narrative that gives coherence to each character's story. Still, the form's essential limitation seems to be (this is from experience, as a writer and reader) that while it's conceptually cool and flexible, it can't beat the traditional single narrative in depth and total immersion.
I kept thinking of, say, Murakami's novels, especially because Mitchell makes so many direct and indirect references to him (the whole two forces vying with each other and Holly Syke's publication of a book reminded me of 1Q84, while the book title Holly publishes—Radio People—is also reminiscent of "Little People" from 1Q84 and Murakami's short story collection, TV People). While Mitchell's work was fun to read, it wasn't as exciting or immersive as works by Murakami, Neal Stephenson, or any work told in the traditional novelistic form. The reason is pretty simple: every time one character's story ends and the next starts, you feel disoriented. You have to get to know the character again, from scratch. The connections you find out are fun, but as a whole, the fragmented narrative by its nature doesn't offer the ultimately satisfying experience of total immersion. Proof: When you finished one character's story, did you feel compelled to read the next one? Not really for me. Maybe after one or two of the stories (Hershey Crispin's, for example), but not for others.
Also for me, as much as I love manga and sci-fi, the whole premise of the good versus bad incorporeals felt half-baked, even hackneyed. Especially the bad guys: the voluble villain Pfenninger, cruel beauty Constantin, and the traitor-who-is-in-turn-promptly-disposed-of-by-the-bad-guys Sadaqat. I also did not buy Hugo Lamb's "sacrifice" for Holly AT ALL. It felt completely forced and even out of character at least from what Mitchell has given us. The naming of the abilities and places and things, too, felt too familiarly sci-fi ("The Script," "Psychosoterica," "Act of Suasion," etc. etc.). I guess what I'm trying to say by all this is that the work was too clear. Unlike in Murakami's 1Q84, for example, there was no mystery left when the story was over. Everything was laid out loud and clear before us, so straightforwardly and so neatly—the origin of the Anchorites, the centuries-old war, etc.—that it all felt too overt as opposed to subtle. Of course, it's a very personal preference. I like things expressed in subtle ways, I like mystery—something that doesn't quite make sense—I like things defamiliarized, distorted, misaligned. So for someone who likes that, this book might not leave you completely satisfied.
Notwithstanding all this, however, kudos to him for genre-bending and writing what seems to be a literary sci-fi work ("seems" because I don't know what's "literary" and what's not anymore these days). And kudos to him for employing so many first person narratives with distinct enough voices (though to my ear they sounded a little too similar despite all the different words they used. Their accessories—words—might be different enough, but they had the same habit of thought, the same eye for description, the same sensibility, and the same rhythm of language for me).
I did enjoy it despite all my gripes. And it did make me realize where my literary preference lies (for it is a preference), so I consider that a valuable lesson in and of itself....more
I have read Saunders's "Jon" before and wasn't too impressed by it for some reason, and so I didn't have too high an expectation goinVery, very good--
I have read Saunders's "Jon" before and wasn't too impressed by it for some reason, and so I didn't have too high an expectation going into this, but then the first story in this collection K.O.ed me with humor, storytelling, and voice. I had NO idea he was such a FUNNY writer. Then I kept reading, and reading, and reading. Typically, I like only a few stories in a short story collection, with the rest squarely falling in the grand category of "Meh." But not so with this collection. It's so strong that I was impressed by most of them—and this hasn't happened since Alice Munro's Open Secrets. The only pieces I didn't really care for were the really short ones: "Sticks" and "An Exhortation." One device he uses that I thought was neat was that of a futuristic medication that enhances a character's linguistic ability (in "Escape from Spiderhead" and "My Chivalric Fiasco"), allowing him to be as linguistically inventive (and funny) as he wants without compromising the characters' consistency. In almost all the stories, there's a theme of class—of poverty—that injects into them a sense of urgency and tension, and as a writer myself it was liberating to see that this kind of literary fiction (of obvious urgency as opposed to subtle tension or none at all) is still being written and acclaimed. But what I most appreciated was his humor. He is a humorist through and through, a comic writer in the true sense of the word, a writer who combines humor, social commentary, and linguistic inventiveness (among other things) in telling gripping stories with compelling characters you'll end up feeling really, really sad for. Here I might go into my thoughts on each of the stories, but forget about it—you should go ahead and read them yourself.
It was good, with hard ores of wisdom stuck deep in the layers and layers of grief and mourning. The repetitioMay not have been the right time for me—
It was good, with hard ores of wisdom stuck deep in the layers and layers of grief and mourning. The repetitions, the lapidary, analytical prose, the parentheticals, and eclectic quotations all worked together to crystalize the experience the author had to go through after the death of her husband. There was a heft, a weight to the narrative that fiction doesn’t have—the weight of reality, of history, perhaps—and I appreciated that very much. And yet, there was a part of me that wished it was portrayed and even transformed in another way. Maybe it’s the fiction writer in me, or maybe I’m not all that interested in straightforward realism to begin with (and hence might not be an ideal reader of nonfiction), and I’m not sure how else the author could have handled the material, but I did wonder if this was the best way to come to terms with, digest, and express this magnitude of grief. It was heartbreaking, sure, and this may well have been the author’s only way of coping with her loss, and yet I found myself wanting something more, something even more compelling, visceral, unforgettable. More personal. “How could possibly have been more personal?” you might ask. I don’t exactly know, but something other than straightforward realism. “But this is a work of nonfiction!” Here, I think of expressionism, a style of painting that expresses an emotion, an experience, or a world in nonrealistic, subjective, and thereby deeply personal ways. Paradoxically—and this might just be me—the distorted picture speaks more viscerally to me than a straightforward, realistic portrayal of the same subject. The unique distortions, in other words, help convey the feeling, the experience at a deeper level than a run-of-the-mill work of realism is capable of achieving. This isn’t to deny the powers of realism—it can be very powerful indeed.
Or as Borges in his criticism of a German translation of The Thousand and One Night has powerfully put it: “In Littmann [the translator], who, like Washington, cannot tell a lie, there is nothing but the probity of Germany. This is so little, so very little. The commerce between Germany and the Nights should have produced something more.” Then he asks, “What might a man—a Kafka—do if he organized and intensified this play, remade it in line with the Germanic distortion, the Unheimlichkeit of Germany?”
Because writing in and of itself is an act of translation—translating experience into words—can I not ask, even from a work of nonfiction, the same question? What might a woman—a Flannery O’Connor or an Emily Dickinson—do if she organized and intensified her experience, remade it in line with the American distortion?
But again, it might be wrong to expect something like this from such a work. Or it could be that it was the wrong time for me to read it. Didion mentions reading and despising the book Dylan Thomas’s widow wrote after the death of her husband. She read it when she was 22. She was too young to understand, sympathize with it, quoting Delmore Schwartz: “Time is the school in which we learn.” And so maybe I need more time to fully appreciate this book. Only time will tell. ...more
Reading and writing poetry has had some unexpected and unfortunate consequences, one of them being the increased intoleranceQuirky & Poetic Prose—
Reading and writing poetry has had some unexpected and unfortunate consequences, one of them being the increased intolerance for any prose short of lyrical. So reading something for pure entertainment—like Stephen King—has become simply impossible. I couldn’t make it past the first paragraph of, say, The Stand (a book I’d still like to read someday) without feeling soiled—yes, soiled, tainted, contaminated—by the less than stellar language.
I realize this is a serious problem, especially for a fiction writer who likes reading and writing long works.
And so you understand my relief when I came to Tom Robbin’s work and found prose so deliciously good I felt I was saved by that fact alone—I could still read fiction!—though it ultimately proved to be just lots of mesmerizing MSG without any real meat in it.
Let me explain.
As a writer, I’ve learned a lot from this book—description of cities and large events and phenomena, and use of surrealistic imagery and metaphor in fiction—but as a reader, it left me wanting.
The novel might be well crafted, and all the ingredients for a great book are there: the strange premise, the beautiful language, the quirky characters, the comical and complex plot. And yet it didn’t do it for me. The story—the story wasn’t really there. There was not a point in the novel, even the climax (!) where I felt compelled to read ahead. Not that I was expecting to get the adrenaline rush of entertainment you get in fast-paced action stories. All I wanted was the feeling of being drawn to, or awed by, the story. And this maybe due to the characters, who, while well drawn and memorable, didn’t have much depth, intrigue, or je ne sais quoi that makes them matter to me. Alobar is a grumpy, pigheaded guy who never learns to grow up in a thousand years and who conveniently and mysteriously doesn’t tell anyone of the formula for the perfume he makes; and Kudra, while more developed and complex, more or less remains a static character throughout (though granted, she does change a bit). Then there are Priscilla “the genius waitress,” Madame Devalier, V’lu, and the LeFevers, none of whom had anything but quirkiness and passion for perfume going for them.
Maybe this has to do with the mode of storytelling Robbins chose—mostly done in summary instead in scene—or maybe with the scope of the story (it covers more than a thousand years). Or it might have to do with the way I read this book, in dips and spurts while reading other books in tandem. Whatever the reason, though, the resonance, the depth, the ineffable, electric something that makes me fall in love with books was simply not there.
The only reason I kept reading, in other words, was Robbin’s prose, but language alone can carry the load only for so long; by the end of the novel, I was impatient for it to wrap it up and call it a day—always a bad sign; you want great books to never end—and I found the overall story to be, despite the dozens and even hundreds of succulent morsels of metaphors and descriptions, very much forgettable.
I did appreciate his prose enough, however, to want to pick up his other works as well in the future, but not from the manic craving to devour all his works because I’m in love with him but more from general curiosity and desire to learn from him.
This charming novelette actually comprises two tales: one longish short story of about 40 pages and a flash fiction of about 4 pages, bothDelightful—
This charming novelette actually comprises two tales: one longish short story of about 40 pages and a flash fiction of about 4 pages, both inspired by Japanese culture. They're highly engaging and satisfying to read, even for someone originally from that culture. Whenever a story that takes place in a different culture is written by an outsider, there’s always the fear of abuse and misunderstanding, of caricaturing—that is, the possibility of cultural appropriation. But Baker’s respect for the culture is clearly seen in the loving care he takes in depicting Japan in its cultural specificity and faithfulness. The reader knows they’re in the hands of a skilled writer who knows what he is doing.
Cultural note aside, if you like or have any interest in Sci-fi, Japan, or fantasy—and/or heard of Borges, The King of Elfland's Daughter, H.G. Well's The Time Machine—then this is a story for you.
The main story, told in diary format, is engaging and moves along at a good clip, but the storytelling is only the beginning; what Baker excels at is depicting scenes with the precision and vividness of haiku, coupled with the creation of a convincing voice he creates throughout the work. Just listen to the comforting rhythm of the voice, the imagery in this passage:
"In the city of Hakodate, where we have taken rooms at an inn, Western-style homes loom above drifts of snow as tall as a man. The streets are cleared, and people rush along them bundled in many layers of clothing, their breath steaming white from their mouths.
Outside the city the snow is broken only by the green of pines and stark browns of bleak myrtles. Ryouji is pleased with the vastness of the place. The woman is impatient—eager, she claims, to be home. I am that in truth, though I should not be: 'home‘ is but a feeling which distracts and entangles."
While I enjoyed the story very much, it is lyrical and true moments like this that I appreciated the most in it. Another instance where I was particularly impressed by was the poignant moment he creates out of the sci-fi-fantasy-Zen mesh and the rather tropic device of parallel universes. Having lost his wife, the protagonist, Ryoji, ends up summoning another version of her from another reality, and they travel together so she can go back to her world. In an emotional exchange between them toward the end of the story, Baker goes above and beyond simplistic genre characterization by showing a surprising depth of character:
“I‘m sorry,” he said. “I didn‘t want to upset you, and I . . . “ He sighed and looked down, ashamed. “I was so happy to find you again that I did not want to make you hate me. I could not bear to lose you twice so soon.”
She let out a soft snort of air through her nose, scorn now on her lips instead of sorrow. “Lose me? Lose me? I was never yours, other-Ryouji, and this does not change things. As your abbot tells you over and over when he thinks I am not listening, your wife is dead.”
I was never yours—with that, the other-Akemi comes to full life (for me at least), and with that, Baker manages, however temporarily, to transcend genre.
The second story needs little commenting as it is a delightful read on its own, a tale based on the myth of a legendary Japanese prince Yamato Takeru and succinctly and creatively reimagined from the point of view of one of his daughters. Here, more than in the main story, his talent as a haikuist shines as he sculpts the story in such a way that you're left wondering how he manages to tell so much with so little.
Just listen to this: "Play your favorite songs / for everyone who will listen, / and the way the old records beMade Me Excited to Write Poetry Again--
Just listen to this: "Play your favorite songs / for everyone who will listen, / and the way the old records bend like dementia—that." And Mlekoday's poetry is that, dementia—slick, vinyl-covered nightmare of city life remixed in Hip Hop cadence & with John-Donne-esque spirituality. For those of you who think contemporary poetry is confusing as hell or just indignantly obscure, this is a book you should read and let hymn through you (as Mlekoday might say). Accessible and powerful, it resurrects the Minneapolis of his childhood & loss, and graffities it with ferocity, with gunshot freshness, with spirituality that is at once intensely personal & fitting, counterpointing the brutality of urban life like a soft axe that bitch-slaps you out of nightmare: "I have skinned / the animal I found in me / & watched him wrench himself / back into the flesh. / I have made gods / of my skinned hands."
Read it. Find the animal in you, see it transformed into gods.