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2020 Reading Log

February

10. María Sonia Christoff. Include Me Out. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. One day, finally tired of the “manipulative discourse” she had to deal with daily in her career as a simultaneous interpreter, Mara took action. Instead of translating to the assembled crowd, she launched into a fifteen minute speech that “examines, scrutinizes, dissects, and exposes” the “vacuous” speeches she had to listen to everyday. After being fired, she took a job where she could be utterly silent. She became a museum guard in a provincial town. But her plans go awry when she is promoted to help the conservator re-embalm the museum’s centerpieces—two famous horses of a specific local breed. It doesn’t take long before she decides to take revenge.

9. Julie Otsuka. The Buddha in the Attic. NY: Anchor, 2012. I read this and Annie Ernaux’s The Years simultaneously, two wildly different “collective biographies.” This truly is a collective biography, with no central character and richly deserving of “we” as its primary pronoun. Otsuka tells the multiple stories of Japanese women who came to America to become the brides of Japanese men already working here during the time between the two World Wars. Of course most of the men lied about themselves and their circumstances, not to mention the welcome that these women would find in America. And then came World War II, Pearl Harbor, suspicion of all Japanese immigrants, and finally American concentration camps for its own Japanese-American citizens. The many brief stories that Otsuka tells give this slim book a powerfully emotional wallop. “Is there any tribe more savage than the Americans?”

8. Nina Revoyr. Southland. Brooklyn: Akashic Books, 2003. This mystery came with great reviews and such a promising story line: in 1994 Los Angeles, circumstances bring a gay Japanese American woman and an African American man together to investigate the deaths of four teenagers which occurred thirty years earlier during the Watts riots in 1964 in the corner grocery store owned by her grandfather in the neighborhood where the Japanese and African American communities overlapped. The writing is better than adequate to tell a good, if sometimes clichéd story, but I couldn’t stand the use of an omniscient narrator who would tell the reader what each person in the room was thinking and even told us what the four teenagers were thinking to themselves as they died. Omniscience is the antithesis of mystery. Revoyr loves L.A. history (as do I) and I’ll probably give one of her more recent books a try.

January

7. Annie Ernaux. The Years. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer. This book, which launched the concept of “collective autobiography,” vacillates between two very distinct forms of narrative. The premise is that an unlikely pair of narratives can work together dialectically to construct a more complex self-portrait of the author. In one strand, Ernaux provides a history of post-war France as seen through her own subjective experiences and her very personal lens. These portions are written in first person plural, in ‘we.’ The second, alternating narrative is that of her own story as she grows up, except that Ernaux turns the ‘I’ of autobiography into the ‘she’ of biography. Ernaux treats the memories she has of herself as if they were the observations of another. The big themes for Ernaux are family, class, feminism, commercialism, and politics. Though when she writes about the collective history of her time, she speaks not for her entire generation but only for those her share her particular views. The Years is the story of her tribe.

6. David Salle. How To See. NY: W.W. Norton, 2016. For true enlightenment about what is really going on in an artist’s work, I would always turn to painter David Salle, who writes brilliant, jargon-free pieces from an artist’s perspective. Salle is not a critic; he generally won’t write negatively about an artist. I think of Salle as an ideal writer. “I think the task is to describe how the sensation evoked by a work of art emerges from the intersection of talent, formal decisions, and cultural context.” I’d like that to be my goal.

5. Graham Greene. The Third Man. The Fallen Idol. NY: Penguin, 1981. In his Preface to the “The Third Man,” Greene explains that this short story was written only for the purposes of becoming a film script and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it’s still a great example of Greene at his best. It hardly matters if the facts are bare and sometimes confusing, what is dazzling is the narration. The story is a first-person narration by Colonel Calloway of Scotland Yard, who is currently working in the British Sector of divided Vienna immediately after the end of World War II. Calloway manages to become invisible for pages on end as he gives us a very omniscient third-person narration of the adventures and misadventures of Rollo Martins, the writer of “cheap novelettes” who comes to Vienna to find his friend Harry Lime (played by Orson Wells in Carol Reed’s famous film in 1949), who seems to have been run over by an automobile just before he arrived. When Calloway reasserts himself and returns with his first person narration, it feels like someone has just pulled the blinders off, widening one’s vision to see where one is really standing. “The Fallen Idol” is a very short story that was also made into a Carol Reed film of the same name in 1948.

4. Olga Tokarczuk. Flights. NY: Riverhead Books, 2018, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft. With the widely disparate tales, short stories, and other types of brief writings that make up Flights, Tokarczuk is trying to see what happens when the hegemony that has ruled the novel form for centuries is eliminated, when there is no longer even a rudimentary combination of characters, plot, and/or continuity of time. Virginia Woolf nearly broke through this hegemony with Orlando, except for the fact that the main character keeps some remnant of continuity despite becoming different people and switching genders over several centuries. There are a number of contemporary novelists that are stripping the novel of its traditional elements in search of new forms and combinations. (It looks like Annie Ernaux is doing something along this vein with her novel <b>The Years</b>, which I am just starting and which is described as a “collective autobiography” of a time period.) What Tokarczuk seems to be trying to do is to create a novel in which the sole unifier is something philosophical. As I read the many often wonderful stories of Flights, some part of my brain was working overtime attempting to puzzle out what the theme was and the best I could come up with was “Mortality.” A surprising (and, to me, puzzling) amount of the book is given over to a number of stories that focus on 17th and 18th century history of embalming and more recent successes in saving human bodies through plastination and then sending them out on exhibitions such as “Bodies…The Exhibition” and “Body Worlds.”

3. Fiona Benson. Vertigo & Ghost. London: Cape Poetry, 2019. An incredibly powerful, moving second book of poetry by Benson. Half of the book is given over to a cycle of poems in which Zeus is often depicted as a rapist, sometimes imprisoned, sometimes on the chase. Contemporary events (like the widely ridiculed six-month sentence given to the Stanford University rapist in 2016) are sometimes referenced: “Zeus given/light sentence/temporary gaol./The judge delivers/that he is an exemplary member/of the swimming squad;/look at his muscular shoulders,/the way he forges through water;/ as for the girl” In the second half of the book Benson more or less continues to think along the lines of: “as for the girl…” She gives birth to a daughter, fears for what could happen to her two daughters, fears for what happens to women and children everywhere. “The trapdoor is always opening.” Her poems demonstrate how easy it is for one’s world to suddenly crack open, for sudden terror to descend. Nature is where we tend to turn to in such events, and in Benson’s poems Nature is beautiful, unforgiving, and “a useless sort of shield.” Benson’s language is precise, visceral, and sometimes raw. There is little tenderness and love to be found in these poems; but all the more valuable because so hard won. Highly recommended.

2. Tony Horwitz. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. NY: Picador, 2011. I wanted to get a clear picture of John Brown’s key abolitionist activities and his impact on the movement as the United States headed toward civil war. Horwitz is a fine writer and researcher and makes the reader feel as if s/he were on the scene, as it were. Brown’s October 1859 raid struck fear into the hearts of many in the south and only six weeks later South Carolina voted to repeal its ratification of the U.S. Constitution made back in 1788. The raid, the words Brown spoke and wrote in the month before his execution, and the many speeches given by his abolitionist supporters, helped convince countless Northerners that only violence would end slavery. By coincidence, John Wilkes Booth was at Brown’s execution and Langston Hughes grandfather was one of Brown’s raiders, who was shot and killed during the first day of action.

1. Edward Parnell. Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. A highly personal exploration of the idea of “haunted” in literature and film. It’s also a bit of travel guide to parts of England and Wales, a dash of history, and a family memoir. Highly readable.

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