Mike Puma's Reviews > Threats

Threats by Amelia Gray
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Mar 09, 12

bookshelves: 2012
Read in March, 2012

Okay. Every once in a while, someone will ask me: Puma, what do you look for in a woman? Immediately, I know two things: 1) they don’t know me very well, or they’d know that I don’t, and 2) they don’t know me very well. That, of itself, wouldn’t be particularly interesting to most people, but it does give me pause to wonder what it is that I do like in women.

It’s pretty simple really, what I like in women is the same combination of traits I like in men—that he or she be either smart and/or funny, interesting is ancillary as it seems to be some function of the two. That I’m lucky enough to know many people who are both smart and funny, I’m the better person for.

But what about women authors? Do I hold them to some higher standard? They’re certainly not well represented on my Read or TBR lists. I’d like to think that I don’t hold women to some higher standard, but I might, who knows? Here’s what I’m certain of—the women authors I’ve liked the most, were—surprise!—smart and/or funny: Toni Morrison (smart), Helen DeWitt (smart & funny—at least in The Last Samurai), Austen (a gentle smart and funny). Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall, Leslie Marmon Silko—plenty of smart writers; but for every Naylor, there’s a Cisneros, for every Silko, a Hong Kingston. Smart and/or funny isn’t enough. What the best of these women do, what the best authors do, is somehow create in me some sense of caring, whether positively or negatively. I can read about ugly, ugly people; I read Delany for cryin’ out loud.

So, Threats, the one I’m supposed to comment on. Gray is smart—very smart and, at times, very funny. Brutally funny. Painfully smart. I hope she makes a gabillion on this novel for the dentistry research alone. BUT. The characters are caricature—emotional investment is strained. The parts don’t make a whole.

But, Mike, you read Marías! Does he make you care about characters? Sometimes. Sometimes, I care more about the writing. Sometimes the writing is enough. Threats, like am/pm, is wonderfully written, but for me, there was simply something missing.

So do you know what that something is, Mike? Maybe. It begins with the Myth of the Writer’s Writer. Most of us have heard that phrase: He (or she) is a writer’s writer. It is frequently rendered with the dismissive tone of You’d Know If. It’s an effective tool for marginalizing the reader, similar in kind to the frequently occurring MFA status in an author’s bio. THIS author comes with a receipt! But it tells you nothing. (I’m on very thin, rapidly melting ice) What’s missing is the sense of having read a novel. Novels come in all types; creative writing can take almost any form. Occassionally, creative writing takes place within the confines of a great novel, or it expands the confines of what we expect from novels—all the better. I have to believe there’s more to great fiction than skill. I want to believe in informed inspiration, confident spontaneity.

So do you have an Ultimately here, Mike? Yeah. Gray is an engaging and gifted writer. I’m looking forward to the story she’ll eventually write—the story she needs to tell in her own talented way.

I’m frustrated here. Frustrated that I haven’t cared for this as much as others have and will. Frustrated that, with this novel, there’s no feeling that it matters.

4 stars for what the author does well.

_______________

Rereading this before posting, I’m getting hung up on Smart and/or Funny, and increasingly thinking, you don’t get Funny without the Smart. Have to give that more thought.

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Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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s.penkevich my tormentor! Gray is pretty rad so far, I'm liking her short fiction a lot. So quirky and fun. I'm pumped for this novel, although you will probably get to it before I!


Mike Puma s.penkevich wrote: "my tormentor! Gray is pretty rad so far, I'm liking her short fiction a lot. So quirky and fun. I'm pumped for this novel, although you will probably get to it before I!"

I, sir, will make a point of getting to it immediately. Furthermore, I'm currently readingWe Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I notice is on your TBR list. I'm waiting for some pretty good material--some of which comes from reading RB and Bartleby & Co.


s.penkevich Tormentor! You beat me to it ha, just barely. Great review. Good point about her being a 'writer's writer', and I like the idea of authors like that 'coming with a reciept'. That seems very valid. I really, really like the way Gray can write nearly perfect sentences, but I see your point about how there isn't that lasting effect. Does this one come together really well at the end? Right now I'm enjoying it, loving it in fact, but I'm just lost in the cloud of surrealism and not sure theres a way out.

This review reminded me that I need to read more women as well. You may like Alice Munro. She writes short stories that go nowhere filled with acute, bright observations - exactly what I love. She's similar to the Southern Gothic, but she is Canadian so 'Northern gothic' maybe?


message 4: by Megha (new)

Megha My experience with AM/PM was similar. I thought it was cleverly written and I enjoyed reading it. But it didn't leave much of a lasting impression.


Mike Puma s.penkevich wrote: "Tormentor! You beat me to it ha, just barely. Great review. Good point about her being a 'writer's writer', and I like the idea of authors like that 'coming with a reciept'. That seems very valid. ..."

I really didn't want to post this until you'd finished reading it because I knew you were enjoying it. Some perverse obligation not to spoil things for other readers. But then, I do have that Tormentor rep to live down to. We can talk more when you've finished and written your stellar review.

I've read one book of short stories by Munro and liked it--been a while though. Usually, I'm not crazy about short stories, although I'm liking the one I have going now. Not sure what to read next--I need something to cleanse the palate, cleanse the palette, or both.


Mike Puma Megha wrote: "My experience with AM/PM was similar. I thought it was cleverly written and I enjoyed reading it. But it didn't leave much of a lasting impression."

Like performance art. Or coming out of a dark theater after a matinee.


message 7: by Megha (new)

Megha Mike wrote: "Megha wrote: "My experience with AM/PM was similar. I thought it was cleverly written and I enjoyed reading it. But it didn't leave much of a lasting impression."

Like performance art. Or coming..."


Come to think of it, I can remember a performance or two that did stay with me slightly longer than AM/PM did.
I was wondering if AM/PM stories will grow on me if I re-read them, because they are quite well written. But then I don't really feel inclined to try and re-read it.


Mike Puma Megha wrote: "Mike wrote: "Megha wrote: "My experience with AM/PM was similar. I thought it was cleverly written and I enjoyed reading it. But it didn't leave much of a lasting impression."

Like performance art..."


I know the feeling. I have to believe she has a great story in her somewhere. I'm certain she has the skill to tell it.


Mike Puma s.penkevich wrote: "Tormentor! You beat me to it ha, just barely. Great review. Good point about her being a 'writer's writer', and I like the idea of authors like that 'coming with a reciept'. That seems very valid. ..."

You might find this review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth interesting; it was later included in Wood's
The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel with the title: Hysterical Realism.


message 10: by s.penkevich (last edited Mar 09, 2012 08:58AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

s.penkevich Mike wrote: "I really didn't want to post this until you'd finished reading it because I knew you were enjoying it. Some perverse obligation n..."

Much appreciated, but you got there first so it's only fair ha. I'm still enjoying this, but I am also planning on returning to my classics after my trip through modern writers I've had lately. There are some great authors like Gray out there, and I've really enjoyed them, but it's still no McCarthy or Dostoyevsky for me; it doesn't have that solid core of compounded substance and meaning that keeps certain novels around long after time has weeded many away (even great books). I really enjoy these modern novels I'm reading though and I'm glad I've read them and plan on continuing to persue them. In fact, Cloud Atlas is one I've come to love as a favorite and think will survive the test of time. Not quite sure where this rant is headed, but I feel you will understand ha. But seriously, Gray can craft tone like a master. I envy her prose.

I enjoyed the White Teeth essay, glad you're there to keep me up on these! Hysterical Realism, that is a perfect description.


message 11: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Mar 09, 2012 10:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I like the term Hysterical Realism, even though Wood means it as an insult.

Sometimes it almost seems random how a book plays on our emotions. I find myself having lasting emotional experiences with books that I can totally understand someone finding to be flat, intellectual exercises--Lydia Davis being a good example. But with Threats I think there's a case to be made that there's something pretty moving going on there. But again, it's all so subjective and context dependent. For instance, my grandpa's pretty much at the end of his rope and there's been some intense drama going on in my life because of it. So I was really thinking about aging and dementia and dying and grieving more than usual when I read Threats and much of the book is about that. So I brought my own current experience into the book with me in a way that someone in a different mood wouldn't. Et cetera.


message 12: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Joshua Nomen-Mutatio wrote: "I like the term Hysterical Realism, even though Wood means it as an insult.

Sometimes it almost seems random how a book plays on our emotions. I find myself having lasting emotional experiences wi..."


Absolutely agree. I kept thinking she's captured David's confusion after loss, and done it really well, and...and... That's part of the reason I don't really enjoy writing brutal reviews--that feeling of It's Me that sux. Sorry about your grandfather. Late last summer, as my mother was dying, I had the pleasure, and I do mean the pleasure, of reading The Last Samurai while those around me grieved. Right book at the right time.


message 13: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma s.penkevich wrote: "Mike wrote: "I really didn't want to post this until you'd finished reading it because I knew you were enjoying it. Some perverse obligation n..."

Much appreciated, but you got there first so it..."


s.penkevich wrote: "Mike wrote: "I really didn't want to post this until you'd finished reading it because I knew you were enjoying it. Some perverse obligation n..."

Much appreciated, but you got there first so it..."


Glad you liked the Wood essay. The book you bought will seem very informal in comparison. I want to do the Mitchells, but I've decided to do them oldest to newest--of course, that isn't how I purchased them; still waiting on a couple to get here.


s.penkevich Joshua Nomen-Mutatio wrote: "I like the term Hysterical Realism, even though Wood means it as an insult.

Sometimes it almost seems random how a book plays on our emotions. I find myself having lasting emotional experiences wi..."


Yeah, i guess it is pretty pointed insult from him, but I almost like it in a complimentary way (although it's because I love DeLillo and Pynchon).

What I like about Gray, and especially Davis (can't get enough) is the way they basically say 'this is how to write a perfect fucking sentence' in so little. Gray manages to build a ominous tone in such small space. I don't spend as much time linking symbols and reading into it as I do with others, but for me it's like some amazing drug. I can let go of the world and swirl formlessly in their tone and beautiful words. If you can't tell, I just got back from lunch break and spent it reading more Threats ha. I don't know where its going, but I'm glad its taking me there

My earlier comments seems a bit negative reading it now, but I just meant that sadly, I don't see something like AM/PM, which i Loved, being on shelves in 30 years. But then again, it is cool to live in the moment of such bright young authors that seem to be making headway lately.


message 15: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma s.penkevich wrote: "Joshua Nomen-Mutatio wrote: "I like the term Hysterical Realism, even though Wood means it as an insult.

Sometimes it almost seems random how a book plays on our emotions. I find myself having l..."


JW took plenty of flack for that review, in particular, and his perspective, in general. He likes what he likes. The difference between him and others, say me, is that he can say why he likes what he likes with an effortless vengeance.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Amelia Gray is sort of the perfect relief from Hysterical Realism, actually. As much as I love Wallace and Zadie Smith et al, I need a break from that kind of breathless, information-dense verbosity once in a while. Until I read AM/PM I probably thought what a lot of people do about flash fiction: it's a cop out. It's a lazy excuse to try and make the mundane seem profound. The lack of words is a lack of ideas. Et cetera. But she and Lydia Davis changed my mind on that last summer. That being said, I enjoyed Threats more than the two shorts collections even though it maintains a similar kind of style. The novel's made of little moments, like her stories, but there's still a novelistic narrative arc there, too. To me it was the best of both worlds.


message 17: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Paganus Love it, Mike, a smart and funny review.

Re clever writers, some author I read recently had a character say of a writer, "you're clever, because you don't have the courage to be honest".


message 18: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Ian wrote: "Love it, Mike, a smart and funny review.

Re clever writers, some author I read recently had a character say of a writer, "you're clever, because you don't have the courage to be honest"."


I'd like to know the source of that quote. Sounds Wildean--but then, what clever retort doesn't sound Wildean?


message 19: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Paganus Gaddis.


message 20: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Ian wrote: "Gaddis."

Ah. Very nice. One of these days I'll get to Gaddis.


message 21: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian Paganus Fear not.


message 22: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye Joshua Nomen-Mutatio wrote: "I like the term Hysterical Realism...Sometimes it almost seems random how a book plays on our emotions. I find myself having lasting emotional experiences wi..."

Even if we don't pay attention to our process in choosing what to read next, there is often a synergy that will give us the right book at the right time, as Mike reading the Last Samuri, but also in more daily ways. The synchronisities are signposts.

In his review, Mike stated>>I have to believe there’s more to great fiction than skill. I want to believe in informed inspiration, confident spontaneity.

It is true: skill is necessary but without emotional resonance, there is no impact.

As for women's fiction, have you read Louise Erdrich, Doris Lessing, Byatt, Drabble and Murdoch, for starters....

not forgetting our Canadians Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence and Nancy Huston and Bargara Gowdy


message 23: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Magdelanye wrote: "Joshua Nomen-Mutatio wrote: "I like the term Hysterical Realism...Sometimes it almost seems random how a book plays on our emotions. I find myself having lasting emotional experiences wi..."

Even ..."


Seems I read something by Erdrich, sometime ago; not sure. I did meet her and her husband, Michael Dorris in an elevator once (before all the crap came out about MD), and told him a friend of mine thought he wrote like a woman, no small praise from my feminist buddy, he signed the book and wrote: Dear Jill, thanks for thinking I write like a woman. I thought that was great and kept him human, in my mind, through the shit that followed. Atwood and Lessing, should be better represented in my list; a personal failure.


message 24: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye OMG You actually met them...in an elevator! I adored them both first seperately and then toether and was devstated (still am) and unsure of the truth of the matter and his tragic suicide? was it? The Crown of Columbus which MD wrote with LE was an amazing book, worth searching out.

Dont take anything as a personal failure, just a matter of time. Lessings sci fi is among the best and her social commentary has been prescient.


message 25: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Magdelanye wrote: "OMG You actually met them...in an elevator! I adored them both first seperately and then toether and was devstated (still am) and unsure of the truth of the matter and his tragic suicide? was it? ..."

Unfortunately, as I remember it, it was suicide and acccusations regarding the nature of his relationship with his adopted son. Ugly stuff.


message 26: by Magdelanye (new)

Magdelanye I have only heard these ugly rumors but believe in the mans integrity so who knows what happened. sadly.

I truly think the man incapable of doing harm.


message 27: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma Magdelanye wrote: "I have only heard these ugly rumors but believe in the mans integrity so who knows what happened. sadly.

I truly think the man incapable of doing harm."


That's pretty much the same way I feel about it. They were pleasant to meet and talk with, that's how I'll remember him.


message 28: by Louisa (last edited Feb 14, 2014 02:43PM) (new)

Louisa "I’m frustrated here. Frustrated that I haven’t cared for this as much as others have and will."

That's how I felt about her book of short stories: Museum of the weird. I wanted to love it, I wanted to immerse myself in it and come out at the other end jumping for joy that I've read something amazing and originally creative. Sad to say that I too was frustrated, I couldn't connect with the characters and struggled to get through the book.

I haven't given up on Amelia Gray. A friend suggested that I should have started with AM/PM and I have taken her suggestion to heart and bought the book. Looking forward to giving her another go.


message 29: by Mike (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mike Puma I'd give her another chance, someday. Not the most anticipated arrival, but I'd try once more.


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