Archives : November 2010

The Last Book I Loved: The Physics of Imaginary Objects

November 30, 2010 

My essay about the last book I loved — The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall — is now up at The Rumpus. Here’s a excerpt:

It is late and I am reading The Physics of Imaginary Objects, a book that was awarded one of the few honorary spaces in my luggage primarily because of its haunting cover—a mirror perched atop a podium draped in black velvet, the image of pine trees reflected in the glass, a wire running down the front and disappearing among the dead braches scattered on the forest floor. The cover is the perfect encapsulation of the experience of reading this collection of stories—quiet, evocative moments tinged with something dark and foreboding lurking at the edges. Indeed, reading The Physics of Imaginary Objects is not unlike the balancing act I am grappling with in my own life. I am constantly unsure which way to fall.

You can read the rest here.

A Thanksgiving Pilgrimage of My Own

November 29, 2010 

Far from friends and family in a country in which the last Thursday in November is just a regular work day, I was feeling pretty lonely this past Thanksgiving. Fortunately, binge book buying always cheers me up, so I headed for El Ateneo Grand Splendid, voted one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores by The Guardian and Lonely Planet.

Located in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires on busy shopping thoroughfare Avenida Santa Fe, El Ateneo is housed in a former theater. In the 1920s, el Grand Splendid Theater played host to many of the early tango greats such as Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini. The first talking movie to be screened in Buenos Aires premiered at El Ateneo in 1929. Although it was converted into a bookstore in 2000, it still retains the look of a majestic, old theater — elaborately painted ceiling, ornate carvings, tiered theater boxes (now reading rooms) and a red velvet curtain framing the stage (now a cafe).

Of course, I was not content just to take in my surroundings. I was there to buy some books! I figured I should start with one of the iconic Argentinian writers, but reading Borges in Spanish seemed a little beyond my language abilities. Nor was I crazy enough to even consider reading Cortazar’s famously labyrinth-like Rayuela (Hopscotch) in the original. So I settled on Cortazar’s Historias de Cronopias y de Famas, a highly experimental collection of inter-connected stories. The first chapter is written in the style of an instruction manual and contains instructions on how to cry and how to sing, among other things. Probably not the best Cortazar work to start with, but it was the only short story collection of his in the store.

My second choice was also obvious but just as indispensable: something by Gabriel García Márquez. I have always wanted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original, but considering I bought the Spanish version a few years ago in an overly ambitious moment of optimism and it is now sitting in a storage locker in New York, I couldn’t convince myself to purchase another copy. Instead, I settled on Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold). First and foremost, it’s short — only 137 pages in large typeface. And it’s one of the few books by García Márquez that I’ve never read. Leonard Michaels, writing in the NYT, described it as a “metaphysical murder mystery in which the detective, Garcia Marquez himself, reconstructs events associated with the murder 27 years earlier of Santiago Nasar, a rich, handsome fellow who lived in the Caribbean town where the author grew up.”

For my last choice, I wanted to buy something written by one of the young Argentines on Granta’s list of Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. I was able to find Pájaros en la Boca (Birds in the Mouth), the short story collection by Samanta Schweblin which won the Casa de las Américas award in 2008. The title story, about a father struggling with the fact that his adolescent daughter will only eat live birds, is available in English translation on the website of the Center for the Art of Translation.

For more on the Spanish-language writers on Granta’s list, see here and here.

Spanish speakers can watch a short video about El Ateneo Grand Splendid on the website of Argentinean newspaper, La Nacion. (Even if you don’t speak Spanish, the video will give you a good idea of what the bookstore looks like.)

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Short Story Spotlight: How to Escape from a Leper Colony

November 22, 2010 

A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.      - Lorrie Moore

For the inaugural post in what I envision as a series dedicated to rescuing the short story from near extinction, I am shining the spotlight on Tiphanie Yanique’s “How to Escape from a Leper Colony.” The story is featured in her debut short story collection of the same name and an earlier version won the Boston Review Fiction Prize in 2006.

Set at the old lepers’ colony on the island of Chacachacare in the West Indies, the story explores themes of physical displacement and emotional isolation, of seeking out identity and connection in a world that believes you are entitled to neither. When leprosy infects her arm, fourteen year-old Deepa is abandoned by her mother and left to the nuns’ care at the leper colony at which her father had succumbed only days earlier to the same disease. The island is a microcosm of the mix of races and religions that make up the Caribbean itself–Indians, African, French, and British; Catholics, Protestants, and Hindus.

Deepa befriends Lazaro, a fellow orphan of the island, his mother having been shot for unexplained reasons by one of the island’s gauze-wrapped volunteers. The young pair forge a deep connection, borne out of fierce need to belong to something and to matter to someone. In one of their most poignant exchanges, Deepa asks Lazaro why they are here on earth.

“We’re here because God wants somebody to know him.”

“Like a friend?”

“Like when someone know you it make you real. Like the tree that fall in the forest when nobody was around. God had want to be heard.”

“A tree fall in the forest?”

“All the time.”

In the end, the unrelenting need to ascribe meaning to their lives leads to tragedy, but also to an escape, of sorts, from the society that holds them captive.

Yanique’s prose is compelling and heartfelt and above all, profoundly human. It is for gems like “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” that she was recently named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35.

The Quick and Dirty on the National Book Awards

November 19, 2010 

Wednesday night I was feeling a little lonely down here in Buenos Aires as it seemed like everyone out there in the Twitterverse was at the National Book Awards in New York. Luckily, there were quite a few folks live-tweeting the event, so I heard all about the food (spinach and cheese cannelloni; branzino al forno in a bouillabaisse reduction; ricotta cheese cake with strawberry sauce), Elmo (wearing a tux; introduced Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of the Sesame Workshop and winner of the evening’s Literarian Award), and Tom Wolfe, who received the Medal for Distinguished Contributions (wearing a white suit; sang a bit of The Girl from Ipanema; talked way too long and people were starving). I ended up going to bed before the awards were announced (thanks Tom Wolfe!), but woke up early to hear all about the good news.

And the Winners are:

Fiction: Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule

Nonfiction: Patti Smith, Just Kids

Poetry: Terrance Hayes, Lighthead

Young Adult: Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

I have to admit that I have not read any of the winning books, but they will all be added to my ever-growing Book Wish List.  (Friends and family: you’ll all be receiving a copy of this list as the holidays get closer.)

Patti Smith definitely wins the award for fan favorite. Not only had she brought everyone to tears the night before with a reading of the last letter she wrote (but never sent) to Robert Mapplethorpe before he died, but during her acceptance speech she delivered an impassioned speech in support of the book. “Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book,” she said. “There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.” Read the NYT’s review of Patti’s memoir here.

The buzz is that Jaimy Gordon was a dark horse, but the award is totally deserved. According to the National Book Foundation, Lord of Misrule is set in “the ruthless and often violent world of cheap horse racing, where trainers and jockeys, grooms and hotwalkers, loan sharks and touts all struggle to take an edge, or prove their luck, or just survive.”  Read Jane Smiley’s review in the Washington Post here.

I am also looking forward to reading one of the other finalists for the fiction prize, I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita, a book in ten novellas centering on a residential hotel during San Francisco’s Yellow Power Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Kirkus Reviews says, “Elements of the picaresque and the satirical play against passages that are almost documentary as the characters struggle to keep the hotel from being gentrified—and to keep the revolution alive in a time when just about everyone seems tired of politics.” Read Bookslut’s interview with the author here.

It has been a good year for small, independent publishers. Paul Harding’s Tinkers, published by Bellevue Literary Press, won the Pulitzer and Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists, until recently printed only by hand by Gaspereau Press, just won Canada’s Giller Prize. (Paperback rights to The Sentimentalists were sold recently to another publisher.) Both Lord of Misrule and I Hotel are also published by small presses — McPherson & Co. and Coffee House Press respectively. Here’s hoping the trend continues. Small presses deserve our respect, and our patronage, for publishing interesting and experimental stories that would not otherwise see the light of day.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Gina Frangello on Risky Writing

November 18, 2010 

TNB contributor Gina Frangello has written what has got to be one of the year’s most beautiful essays on writing what scares you most. She tells the story of her mother-in-law, who stopped speaking to her after the publication of her first novel because of its graphic sexual content. It was just before the birth of Frangello’s son, and her mother-in-law would scream at her husband almost daily on the phone, going so far as to insinuate that Frangello might be abusing the couple’s twin daughters.

“Writing is risk,” Frangello writes. “If you don’t feel that when you’re writing, for god’s sake stop. It’s a shitty job. Give it up if you can.”

The essay is rife with gorgeously honest turns of phrase. Here are a few more of my favorites:

  • “What I know a little something about could only be called the interpersonal consequences of trying to write with emotional honesty.  The way we writers stretch ourselves out on the line, inviting grudges, inviting a fight.  The way I discovered I hated to fight (how had this happened?  I’d kicked my share of little-girl-ass back in the hood when I was a kid.  But my temper, it seemed, had been “gentrified,” and I realized, more than anything else, that I had left the environment of my youth not for a bigger house or even an advanced degree, but because I wanted to be able to live without violence) . . . yet even this being true, I would continue to put my neck out to the blade of others’ criticism or anger when writing.  I would continue to write as if everyone I had ever known was already dead, even though they were not, and even knowing there could be reckoning.”
  • “Everything that matters burns. I believe that.  On the page and in life.”
  • “[T]here is no greater risk than loving something more than you love yourself, be it a political cause or a child.  I can promise all the young, wild people out there that living a life of intensity does not end when you stop going home with strange men, stop snorting coke in the bathroom of the club, stop starving or cutting yourself, stop sleeping on the floor of the overnight train or ferry on which nobody speaks English, stop living in the squat, stop letting somebody tie you up who probably shouldn’t be trusted to drive a golf cart.  I can promise that self-destruction or partying or adventure is but the surface of risk, and that bigger risks happen later, when you have more than your own body on the line and still dare not to numb out and cloister yourself inward to maintain the illusion of safety.”
  • “Risk entails writing what scares you most—pushing beyond the perimeters of just telling a story via plot and pretty words, and instead reaching something deeper, more frightening and profound. Write until it hurts, and if you don’t bleed a little, it isn’t worth much.”

The story does not have a happy ending, I’m afraid. Frangello’s mother-in-law was diagnosed shortly thereafter with breast cancer and although, the two ostensibly made up, she died without Frangello ever understanding why the book upset her so much. Being a writer, however, Frangello could imagine her way into her mother-in-law’s pain about the book: “[I]n the same way we must seek to find something with which to identify in the most dangerous of our characters—something, even, to love—so imagining the things that cut me and the things that cut her, my frightened and relentless reader, as two sides of the same knife brings a strange sort of closure. And forgiveness.”

Amen.

Book Review: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

November 15, 2010 

After hearing that Dinaw Mengestu had been named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, I was really excited to read his new novel, How to Read the Air. Unfortunately, there was only so much room in my luggage for books and American Airlines doesn’t make exceptions to their weight restrictions for “books I absolutely have to read while hiding away in Buenos Aires for four months to get some writing done.” So I opted for Mengestu’s first book instead which, being a paperback, I could just about squeeze in between my running shoes and Spanish-English dictionary. (I know, I know, e-books would have been an easier solution, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to go there yet.)

Through a round aperture I saw appear/Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears/Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.

In the eyes of Joseph, one of three friends, all Africans in exile, this passage from Dante’s Inferno is perfect. “[N]o one can understand that line like an African because that is what we lived through. Hell every day with only glimpses of heaven in between.” Like Dante, the characters in this book are caught between worlds, mourning the past and not fully at home in the present, all of them searching for something beautiful, an ounce of hope and inspiration to mitigate the often harsh circumstances of their daily lives.

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled his home after his father was beaten and murdered during Ethiopia’s Red Terror. Arriving in America with nothing except his father’s cuff links, he stayed with his uncle–once a wealthy man in Ethiopia, he also fled the country in the middle of the night–and got a job as a bellhop at the Capitol Hotel in Washington, D.C, where he befriended fellow immigrants Ken the Kenyan and Congo Joe.

Born into an affluent family in what was then known as Zaire, Joseph is “a man of taste, not means.” He enjoys chess, red wine and poetry and spends what little money he makes on continuing education classes at Georgetown. His dream is to get his college degree and then his PhD at the University of Michigan because a woman, an American teacher, told him he should go there someday. Whereas Joseph sees flashes of Africa everywhere he looks, Kenneth just want to move on. An engineer, he “believes in the power of a well-tailored suit.” He takes his friends to a strip club “because that is what people do at the end of a hard day” and greets Sepha with the same joke day after day because he believes “American men are so successful because they say the same thing over and over again.”

When Sepha decides to quit his job at the Capitol Hotel and open his own corner grocery store, it is a new beginning for the three friends. “We all essentially wanted the same thing, which was to feel that we had a stake in shaping and defining what little part of the world we could claim as our own.” They congregate in the store at night to re-hash the victories and injustices of the day and to play a game which might as well be called Name that Coup — one of them names an African dictator and the other two must guess the year and country.

The corner store is located in Logan Circle, a D.C. neighborhood caught between two worlds much like Sepha himself. Once a bastion of wealth and power, the neighborhood had long been in decline when Sepha first arrived. The mansions had been abandoned or converted into cheap apartments. Drunks and prostitutes congregated in the circle beneath the statute of General Logan, a Civil War hero. But, as things tend to do, circumstances come full circle and the seemingly unstoppable force of gentrification arrives in Logan Circle.

Enter Judith, a professor of American political history, who moves into the dilapidated mansion next door and proceeds to completely overhaul it. Like Stepha, Judith is also attracted to beauty–”I think a few thousand lines of poetry and a handful of novels redeemed the entire country for her,”–and the pair are instantly drawn to each other. Stepha begins a love affair of a different sort with Judith’s bi-racial daughter, Naomi, who spends afternoons and vacations in the store listening to him read out loud from The Brothers Karamazov. Naomi’s trust and affection makes Stepha feel like a better person than he ever believed himself to be.

Judith and Naomi are a foreign presence in Logan Circle–the kind of people that live their lives with “the curtains provocatively peeled back” because “there was something about affluence that needed exposure.” But the neighborhood is not quite ready for them, and a series of racial incidents culminates in their eventual departure.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is not a novel built on suspense. From the start, the reader knows that Stepha and Judith’s relationship is not meant to be, nor will Stepha, Joseph or Kenneth ever be fully accepted into American society. It is not the ending that matters, but rather the getting there. The pain of loss and of never be able to go home again are deeply felt in this novel, even as they are offset to some extent by the salve of friendship–with fellow immigrants, with a desirable woman, with a young girl who chooses his store as “the place to be.” This is a novel about being trapped between places– between countries; between home and exile; between memory and forgetting; between those with power and those living in the shadows. It is sharply rendered, quiet but urgent. Mengestu has undoubtedly earned the honor bestowed upon him by The New Yorker.

(Click here to watch a video of an interview with Mengestu after the release of the book (via Three Guys One Book).)

Ursula K. Le Guin Gets Over Her Dislike of Blogging

November 11, 2010 

Will wonders never cease? Ursula K. Le Guin is blogging over at the Book View Cafe Blog! She writes that she always hated the idea of blogging — she is much too introverted, plus she thinks the word “sounds like a sodden tree-trunk in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage” — but she was inspired by the blog posts Nobel Prize winner José Saramago wrote in his mid-80s (collected and translated into English as The Notebook).

Le Guin’s first blog entry takes aim at the alumni questionnaire she received from Harvard on the occasion of her sixtieth reunion. My favorite part is her answer to Question 14, “Are you living your secret desires?” Harvard wants to know. “Floored again,” she writes. “I finally didn’t check Yes, Somewhat, or No, but wrote in ‘I have none, my desires are flagrant.’”

All this got me thinking about an essay of Le Guin’s that I read for my college thesis on feminist literary theory. I wish I had it in front of me but alas, I could not find it on the internet and somehow I don’t think the few English language bookstores in Buenos Aires are going to carry it.  So the following description comes more or less from memory (and a little help courtesy of Goodreads).

The essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places), posits the dominant “hero” narrative, with its traditional linear and progressive structure, against an alternative narrative style in which, like a medicine bundle, the elements bear a powerful relation to one another, but are not necessarily in direct conflict and thus cannot be so easily resolved. Although it is a little dated, the essay contains some really beautiful passages, like the following:

If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then the next day you probably do much the same again—if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time….

The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

On the Future of Publishing

November 08, 2010 

“Books are dead, [but] long live literature,” says Andy Hunter, co-founder of Electric Literature, a quarterly anthology available in print and digital mediums. Since its launch in 2009, Electric Literature has been at the forefront of new media and publishing. Most notably, they broadcast over Twitter an entire Rick Moody short story in 153 tweets of 140 characters or less.

After I got over the initial shock — I am a fool for the visual, tactile and olfactory pleasures of a real book and if, indeed, they become collector’s items as Hunter predicts, I imagine myself reduced to a Lenny Abramov-type luddite with stacks of books crawling up my apartment walls — I found the article had a lot of fascinating points to make about the benefits of digital publishing.

First, Hunter unequivocally rejects a world in which writers are not compensated for their work. Using digital distribution to displace printing and other up front costs (about $5000, he estimates, for a small literary journal), Electric Literature can use those funds instead to pay their writers.

Next, Hunter point out that “[s]martphones may already be ubiquitous, but consumer behavior—that is, what we do with those smartphones—is still being determined.” In other words, the times, they are-a-changin’, we might as well get on board. And if we can encourage more reading among young people with the use of new technologies, then why not?

Of course, Hunter admits, with the advent of digital publishing comes new challenges:

“The traditional mechanisms that have historically sold books—eye-catching covers, store displays, browsing customers, and knowledgeable clerks—simply don’t exist in the digital space. Few people read book blogs; the Kindle and Apple stores both favor blockbusters over the neglected gem; and most books quickly disappear amid the millions of undifferentiated titles. To find an e-book, readers have to know what they are looking for—and it’s the publisher’s job to help them.

Solving this problem will be critical for publishers in the digital age. The real world systems that, somewhat mysteriously, allow a small book to become a hit must be emulated digitally. Publishers need to build or embrace online systems that create communities around books, the ability to share with friends, digital book clubs, viral buzz, and intelligent recommendations.”

The solution, at least in part, Hunter posits, is the app[lication]. Unlike a book on the shelf, or even an e-book, an app can interact with the reader — for example by telling them about other works by the authors they are interested in, or sending them a text message about upcoming readings in their area. (Read an article in the NYT about author Stephen Elliot’s collaboration with Electric Literature to develop an app for his memoir, The Adderall Diaries.)

Alice Munro on Family, Gender and Being a Writer in Canada

November 04, 2010 

The Virginia Quarterly Review has an interview on its website with short story goddess, Alice Munro. I think that reading interviews with experienced authors is just as valuable for an emerging writer as reading published works, and the Munro interview is no exception. One of the most useful parts from the point of view of technique is when Munro discusses some of the things she tries to accomplish in her stories:

  • “Everyone in life has burdens. Everyone thinks about how they can get out from under them, get away. I like to point the action in one way and then take it into a direction that is not expected. Maybe people find out that they have to get away, or people think they’ll get away, and they don’t get away in the way they think they will.”
  • “I write because I want to get a feeling of mystery or surprise. Not a mystery that finishes you off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder. I don’t really like interpretations. I don’t want to make definite explanations. If I had a different take on human behavior, I would want to take it down in patterns or a more scientific way. But that’s just not what interests me.”
  • “I often feel with writing I really value that that’s what’s happening, that I’m getting some kind of—the word they use for it is atmosphere, but that’s quite an inadequate word. Some of the things that are very hard to communicate can nevertheless be got through with words that don’t exactly say those things. And I don’t know how this is done, but I’d hope that sometimes it would happen.”

There is also a fascinating discussion of the differences that Munro perceives between the Canadian and American attitudes towards women writers at the time she was starting her career:

There was no trying to keep you out because of your gender in Canada. And oddly enough, I think it was partly because it was a faintly “sissy” occupation. And I would think that though male writers dominated in the United States, a lot of them seemed to have to go to some lengths not to be “sissies.” So I think the same thing was all over North America. I think it was because so many women had been teachers from the late 1800s on, and so the whole business of literature was kind of bound up with gentility.

Novels that Tell the Truth about Female Friendship?

November 01, 2010 

Bookslut‘s Jessa Crispin has an essay in the Barnes & Noble Review bemoaning the lack of books about close female friendships:

[I]n the books I read, female friends are the underminers, or the sidekicks, or secretly in love with you, or two-dimensional foils, or sleeping with your husband (or your father). They are secondary storylines, there to wipe away heartbroken tears, provide comic relief, meet for occasional happy hour cocktails that are pink because that stands for girl power . . . Why is it there are so few books about female friendships? That don’t include nursing someone through an illness, or are really about how one friend secretly hates the other and is out to kill them?

After some searching, Crispin finds what she is looking for: Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday, “a wonderfully told story about a woman reflecting on her lifelong friendship with the actress Molly Fox, about how we can know another person for ages and still leave depths uncharted.”

I agree with Crispin that there isn’t a lot of fiction that “explores the natural progression of a friendship formed over decades.” But there is another kind of book about friendship that I am desperately searching for.

As I get older, I have fewer and fewer close female friends. In the past several years, almost all of my friends have started having babies and I see them less and less (in some cases, not at all). Don’t get me wrong, I love kids. And I love that my friends are having them. But why does the introduction of a new life into your inner circle mean that you have to get rid of one of the old ones?

Where are all the books about the disintegration of female friendship? Not in the sense of I stole your lover or your job or your Louboutins, but in the sense of I’m married now and I just had a baby and well, you’re not family, so you don’t fit into my world anymore? I could really use a book like that. Contact me here if you know of any.