Tag Archives: Books

What I’ve Been Reading – March 2019

Of the Farm

11

Author: John Updike

Country: United States

Review: I’ve always admired Updike’s writing for its ability to render the mundane profound. Updike writes about ordinary, middle class families and finds the poetry in their lives. I love the examination of trivial and ordinary events because if you go deep enough, they reveal greater truths. I am very affected by the idea that everyday life can be as epic and immortal as the stuff of myth. In short, this book is about a New York advertising executive that returns to his family farm in Pennsylvania with his new wife and her son from a previous marriage. Awaiting them at the farm is the protagonist’s mother, and the story is basically the four of them failing to get along for a weekend. It’s a subtle narrative that lacks the excitement of Rabbit, Run, but it is well put together. Sometimes the characters’ troubled thoughts rang true, but other times their words and actions left me confused and annoyed. The best thing about the book is the writing itself. John Updike is at his best in the novel’s stellar descriptive passages. Like Rabbit, Run, there are vulnerable, angst-ridden males and fearsome, sassy females, and these are always compelling characters that he writes well and that I enjoy reading. The book lost me a little bit with the Christian stuff at the end, but then again I have about as much tolerance for Jesus in my fiction as I do asbestos in my kitchen. On the whole the novel is an interesting look at themes of divorce, marriage, and family, but I wasn’t gripped by the narrative the way I was with Rabbit, Run.

 

 

Rape: A Love Story

8

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Country: United States

Review: This was my first time reading prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates. I’d always been aware of her but I’d just never got around to investigating her work. I came across this short novel while on my recent second-hand book haul and decided it was time to give Oates a go. I wanted an unflinchingly honest portrayal of a challenging social issue, and the book very much delivered in that regard. Nothing is subtle. The reader is spared no detail, and I think that is the most effective way to tackle the subject. The novel opens up with a horrific gang-rape and the details of the assault are repeated again and again throughout the book ad nauseam- reflective of the way the victim has to relive the events of one evening over and over again for the rest of her life. I like that Oates decided to make the reader uncomfortable, because people should be made to feel uncomfortable. The issue should be portrayed in a way that makes you feel sick to your stomach.

This is also the first novel I’ve read that’s written completely in the second person. The story is told from the point of view of the 12-year old daughter of the victim, who is present during the attack. Having the story written in the second person works really well in my opinion, because the plot is so gritty and realistic, and were it written in a more conventional way, might seem like a mere journalistic summation of events. The second person style instead gives the book a more psychological, introspective tone, as if the whole text is in fact a letter from the narrator to her younger self. And the book is not just about the issue of rape per se; it is, as the title states, a love story. Alongside the very realistic accounts of grief, trauma, and the legal process, is a narrative of something good growing out of something bad. From the horrific events surrounding the assault and its aftermath emerges something tender. It’s not a love story in the romantic sense. But rather, it’s about how this heroic person came to mean so much to the girl during the darkest times of her life. The book shifts from a very gritty and realistic beginning to focus on these more literary concerns as the plot progresses. In fact, the events get less and less realistic, although the characters and their motivations remain quite believable. I can’t say too much without spoiling it. But it’s an interesting blend of social realism and straight up thriller fiction.

 

 

Jamilia

7

Author: Chingiz Aitmatov

Country: Kyrgyzstan

Review: Of all the books on this list- and indeed, the year so far- I enjoyed Jamilia the most. I didn’t think I would, for the reasons that it’s a fairly old book (mid-20th century) and it’s a translation of a translation. The original book was written in Aitmatov’s native Kirgiz, and he then translated it himself into Russian, and it was this version that was then translated into English. I think my hesitance was due in no small part to my experience of reading The Beautiful Summer– another very short novel, written at a similar time period, with ostensibly similar themes about love and art. But as you’ll no doubt remember from my blog post on The Beautiful Summer, the translation was terrible and the plot was vague and insubstantial. I wondered if I was taking a risk with Jamilia, given that it’s a novel from a very remote and sparsely populated part of the world whose culture is no doubt vastly different from my own. I wondered if there would be too many references I’d misunderstand, and that my decision to read such an obscure novel would come off as an ostentatious statement to make myself look cultured and worldly.

As soon as I started reading, however, all of my doubts and anxieties subsided. I’m very glad I took a chance on it, because it was just so darn readable. The plot is not convoluted or hard to understand- in fact it’s very straightforward and deeply accessible. The translation is fantastic, so good in fact that you’d assume the book was written originally in English if you didn’t already know otherwise. The fact that books like this one (and Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red, which I reviewed last month) exist to be enjoyed by those who don’t speak the native language has made literary translators my favorite people in the world. The descriptive passages in Jamilia are some of the most beautiful I have ever read. Devouring each sentence was like snorting a line of coke from a hooker’s sternum. Seriously- get a load of this shit:

 

“The sun, quivering and shapeless, shimmered in the salty, whitish haze.”

 

“The ripened dove-grey wheat awaiting harvest rippled like a lake surface and the first shadows of dawn flitted across the field.”

 

“Dark rocks overhung with briar towered over the road, while far below the irrepressible Kurkureu gushed out from behind a thicket of rose-willow and wild poplar.”

 

“The cool wind from the steppe brought with it the bitter pollen of flowering wormwood, and the faint aroma of ripening wheat.”

 

“The last crimson rays slid past the fast-moving line of skewbald clouds along the hills, and all at once it grew dark.”

 

The story itself is what I’d call a tasteful romance. The narrator recalls an affair that developed during the war between his brother’s wife and a wounded soldier. At the time, the narrator was a teenager, and in many ways the focus of the novel is about how the affair affected his life forever. I found the story to be thoroughly human and universal in its themes. This is a novel that can be understood and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their reading level or where they come from. It’s all about forbidden love, tradition versus passion, family obligation versus self-determination, community versus the individual, small town scandal, coming-of-age, changing times, the importance of art, and a bunch of other stuff. I also think the setting and time period is very interesting- it depicts an era of rapid modernization in Central Asia under Soviet rule, in which the nomadic traditions of the steppe gives way to collectivization. I imagine this novel would have been even more striking at the time when it was written; modern readers are familiar with the idea of choosing partners based on emotional decisions. Not too long ago the institution of marriage was far different, and you really need that historical context to appreciate how shocking it would have been to abandon your domestic role in pursuit of something as lofty as the idea of love.

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What I’ve Been Reading – February 2019

Three books I’ve read in the last few weeks. Let’s do this.


 

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

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Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Country: Colombia

Where I Got It: Quarter Price Books- Houston, Texas

Premise: A ninety year old man decides to celebrate his birthday by giving himself “a night of wild love with a 14 year old virgin”. However, she awakens a tender side in him that he didn’t think he had. For the first time in his long life, he discovers love.

My Favorite Quote: “I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature. I discovered that I am not disciplined out of virtue but as a reaction to my negligence, that I appear generous in order to conceal my meanness, that I pass myself off as prudent because I am evil-minded, that I am conciliatory in order not to succumb to my repressed rage, that I am punctual only to hide how little I care about other people’s time. I learned, in short, that love is not a condition of the spirit but a sign of the zodiac.”

Review: Technically, this book can be counted as one of my celebrated banned book readings. In Iran the book was censored for seemingly promoting prostitution, before being released under the title “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” which I think is hilarious, especially as the title had already been sanitized ever so slightly for the English version. The original Spanish title “Memoria de mis putas tristes” more accurately translates to “Memories of My Sad Whores”, which is a lot less sentimental. The publishers for the English editions decided to change “sad” to “melancholy” because they thought it was more poetic and less derogatory. “Sad Whores” sounds like an insult, whereas “Melancholy Whores” evokes sympathy. It should also be noted that in Spanish, “puta” can also translate to “bitch”, so it’s a lot more cutting and mean-spirited than the English word “whore”.

Anyway, when it was released as “Memories of My Melancholy Sweethearts” in Iran, the book sold out within 3 weeks. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Culture shat out and pulled it from bookstores after receiving complaints from Islamic conservatives. The institution of religion is a recurring villain in the history of free speech, and therefore too the history of banned books. It’s one thing when American Christians complain about And Tango Makes Three for having two male penguins fall in love, because we can swat their homophobia back down with a rolled-up newspaper. But in Iran, religion has a stranglehold on the population, and you can’t risk standing up for free speech and rational thought in case you get executed. It makes me sad, because I think about all the people over there that have these wonderful books denied to them.

But what of the book itself? Overall I liked it. It’s my second Marquez novel, and I do get the sense when reading his work that I’m experiencing a rare kind of genius. In fact, I was more in love with the writing than the story itself. The main character is miserable and unlikable, but you do end up feeling sympathetic towards him because he undergoes a fascinating catharsis. This is best seen in the quote I included above, where he begins to look inward and be honest about his decisions and his behavior. He’s this bitter loner that prefers the company of literature and music to fellow human beings. He’s never slept with a woman he hasn’t paid for. He’s referred to throughout the novel for his horrifically ugly looks, a curse that he embraces to the point that his ugliness is reflected in his behavior too. I even wondered if he might have psychopathic traits, since he’s aware that he’s mean and pretentious and yet seems to do his utmost to own these qualities.

He falls in love with a 14 year old prostitute, but it’s not really a sexual or conventional love. He treats her like a work of art and idealizes her to the point that he goes out of his way to avoid knowing the real her. He doesn’t want to know her real name and he doesn’t like hearing her speak, because he fears that such knowledge would shatter this perfect, angelic image he has of her. So yes, in its own way this novel is a beautiful and touching love story- but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

If you’re looking for a better review, check out Brittany Reads’ video here.

 

 

The Beautiful Summer

4

Author: Cesare Pavese

Country: Italy

Where I Got It: Waterstones- Bristol, England

Premise: A curious yet prudish girl falls in with a group of painters and models whose Bohemian lifestyle challenges her innocent worldview.

My Favorite Quote: “Life was a perpetual holiday in those days. We had only to leave the house and step across the street and we became quite mad.”

Review: I bought this novel from a section of books being marketed as “Summer Reads”. This fact, in conjunction with the blurb and the beautiful cover, gave me the impression I was in for a passionate romance set against an atmospheric Mediterranean backdrop. However, this novel isn’t quite what it appears. There is a love story at work, but it’s no whirlwind romance. The plot itself is tissue-thin. For the most part, it’s about the protagonist Ginia and her feelings. This isn’t a book with an emphasis on its events- there are no real twists, there’s no suspense, no dramatic scenes. It can’t even be called a slow boil, because that assumes the events are building towards something important. Instead, everything feels hazy and vague; the book is mainly concerned with evoking a certain mindset- summer days drifting into each other- leaving you with an impression of a particular period of time in the characters’ lives. It’s an extremely sensual book, and it reminds me a lot of Maggie Cassidy by Jack Kerouac. It’s all about the vivid sensations of that summer and what it means to our protagonist. A lot of very similar events repeat themselves- the characters go on endless walks, they go to the café, they go to the painter’s studio. And when I said that the book was sensual, I’m referring to the patchwork of emotions Ginia feels that are wrapped up in these places, objects, characters, and trivial events. It’s not a very atmospheric or descriptive book. Most of the scenes take place inside shabby apartments.

The minimalist narrative is mostly concerned with Ginia’s feelings toward two characters: Amelia- a carefree model with an overactive libido, and Guido- a young and enigmatic painter. Amelia represents the Bohemian lifestyle that Ginia is curious about. I actually thought that Ginia’s relationship with her was the most interesting part of the book. Amelia is a few years older, is more street-smart, more confident. She’s unlike anyone Ginia has ever met. And Ginia herself has mixed feelings towards her friend. She both admonishes her reckless behavior and seems desperate to win her approval. I like that her feelings are confused and complicated and contradictory. There’s a subtle implication that Ginia might be bisexual, but not know it yet. Amelia on the other hand, is openly bisexual, and in her own free-spirited, polyamorous way, in love with Ginia. As for Guido, he represents Ginia’s experience of first love. I also think that this relationship is very interesting too; they enter a vague and noncommittal affair that, by its inevitable conclusion, has challenged and reshaped the protagonist’s concept of love.

So there’s some interesting stuff going on in this novel, even if it’s not a page-turner. However the excellent character development is hampered by the abysmal quality of the book’s translation. There are some sentences here that just flat-out don’t make sense. The very first paragraph begins in the first person and never returns to it; the paragraph ends in the third person and continues that way for the rest of the book. There are also several British colloquial terms that just don’t seem right given the 1930s Italian setting. This book has been described as “unreadable” by some readers. I do think there is something worthwhile in these pages though. In many ways it’s a fascinating look at first love, jealousy, sexuality, and art, and I’d love to see it get a modern translation. I also think the characters are intriguing enough that their struggles could easily be loosely adapted to some kind of stage or film production. Or perhaps an HBO miniseries? Something that captures the essence of what Pavese intended but fleshed out and expanded upon.

 

 

Seeing Red

2

Author: Lina Meruane

Country: Chile

Where I Got ItWorld of Books

Premise: A Chilean novelist in New York has to adjust to a new life after her eyes hemorrhage, leaving her all but completely blind.

My Favorite Quote: “My memory’s visual laws dictated the landscape to me. Screeching seagulls rose up over the esplanade, leaving a sedentary pelican run aground; they flew up along the sunset and then dove down, they drowned in eddies while the tide rose with the moon to cover the black beach. The moon was lost behind the trees; you could tell it was there, barely, from its shine.”

Review: I’ve been trying my darndest to read as many foreign writers as possible. It’s no problem finding the works of giants like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but I’ve found it difficult to find English translations of contemporary authors from non-English-speaking countries. I am especially interested in modern- that is to say, 21st century- writers from foreign countries. I want to know who is writing right now. I want authors whose careers are ongoing, whose portrait photos on the back cover aren’t in black and white. I’m also especially keen to read women writers that write about women’s issues through a youthful, contemporary lens. Kinda like Elena Ferrante I guess. Anyway, if you have any suggestions for female, non-English novelists younger than 40-ish, please let me know in the comments!

One resource that’s been great for discovering foreign authors is the website Culture Trip. They do these awesome power rankings. I found one that was like “Top 10 Chilean Novels You Should Read” or something like that. This book popped up by Lina Meruane. Seeing Red; the title evoked promises of violence and darkness. Rage, even. That was the vibe I got. Pure rage. A woman loses her eyesight and takes it out on the world. And that’s sort of how the book goes, although it’s a subtle kind of rage. Once her eyesight is doomed, a new woman emerges- one that shocks those that know her. She’s cynical, sardonic, jealous, sexual, angry, and above all- raw.

It’s a short book that’s essentially a fictionalized memoir of the author’s own experience of blindness. In that sense, it can be seen as plotless. It follows the events after the hemorrhage and covers largely the narrator’s senses, how these remaining senses are used to relearn how she navigates the world, and how all of this informs her dark thoughts. It’s not a book full of twists and turns. It’s short at 157 pages, but it took me longer to read than I expected because there are no paragraphs, not even for dialogue. The entire novel is like one long block of text, without indentations, without any blank spaces with which to breathe. It made me think of it as being akin to a monologue. I wouldn’t say I was absolutely engrossed in what I was reading, but the writing itself left me breathless. It’s fucking gorgeous. It’s a visceral and poetic weave of long sentences and sharp, abruptly-short declarative statements that manage to capture a sense of inner monologue with the sense of verisimilar everyday speech. It’s a rapturous blend where everything feels like it’s in the right place, where every sentence is in order, where each word has been given careful consideration for its lyrical and phonetic qualities. I have to say it’s an excellent translation by Megan McDowell, who’s made a career out of using her own talent to spotlight the talent of others.

If you like introspection, monologues, and the beauty of language, this is the book for you! If you’re squeamish about eyes, maybe give it a miss…

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I’ve always been profoundly offended by the censorship of artistic expression. It’s the one thing that consistently fires me up and has the power to bring me down on even the most cheerful of days. It’s an issue that I feel is only becoming more relevant in today’s society. When I hear about a book being banned I’m filled with a Krakatoan rage that makes me want to read every banned book there is, and sing their names from the nearest rooftop.

When browsing the internet for modern examples of banned and controversial books, one title in particular kept coming up: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The title alone attracted me straight away. The key element of that title is the compound adjective “Part-Time”. Without it, the title is worthless. And with it, it’s utterly compelling.

The book is a fictionalized memoir of Alexie’s experiences as a Native American teenager who transfers to a white school outside the reservation on which he lives. This is where the whole part-time business comes in. When he goes to school, he’s part of the white world. When he comes home, he’s a Native American. Except the opposite is true in terms of how each world perceives him. In the white world, he’s seen as that Indian kid. Back on the reservation, he is seen as a traitor to his people- someone that’s trying to be white. And as such he doesn’t feel whole in ether environment. This conflict of identity is the crux of what the novel is about.

Admit it- you’re curious now, aren’t you? Of course you are. Inherent in the premise is a “fish out of water” narrative and a clash of cultures. You can already imagine the fear of being a 14-year old kid walking into a new school for the first time. It’s a scenario that draws universal empathy. Only on top of that, you have the racial aspect of the boy’s fear.

This promised to be a perfect introduction to the banned book spree I was about to embark on. I have a long-standing interest in novels and memoirs that deal with adolescent angst. Bullying, hormones, and the search for identity are things I can relate to. The things I can’t relate to are racist abuse, alcoholism, and being a part of a community that has had its very soul gutted via the machinations of the U.S government. Therefore, the book already won the intriguing distinction of being both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A lot of what the protagonist Arnold goes through resonates with me very deeply. But there’s also a lot of what he goes through that teaches me something entirely new, and opens my eyes to the Native American experience.

I won’t spend too much time covering the plot so that y’all can read it and enjoy it for yourselves. Instead I’d like to discuss why the book is considered controversial, what I liked about it, and why I think y’all will like it too. In short, the book is controversial for the simple reason that it’s aimed at teenage readers. If it were marketed toward adults, there would be nothing for us to talk about. There is nothing remotely shocking about the book’s actual content. When I finished Alexie’s novel, I thought “That’s nothing compared to some of the depraved shit I’ve read in other books- or seen on HBO dramas.”

To understand the book’s controversy, you have to understand the kind of people that are taking issue with it. The argument lodged against the book is that it’s not suitable for young readers. I heartily disagree. This is exactly the kind of book that teenagers should read, because it’s all about being a teenager. I would have loved something like this as a 14 year old. The book is written in a very straightforward, accessible style, and just like The Catcher in the Rye, it’s written in this conversational, colloquial first person voice. It reads as though written by a teenager. There are some lines written all in block capitals to showcase the narrator’s anger, and throughout the book are several illustrations that serve as Arnold’s own cartoons about his life. It’s also got this very light-hearted, comedic tone that juxtaposes nicely with some of the horrific events of the book. The union of humor and tragedy is a natural one in my opinion. I understand that it can be a little jarring for the more serious-tempered folks out there, but I just think it’s inevitable that wherever tragedy strikes, comedy won’t be far behind. When it’s done right, the marriage can lead to some really effective forms of artistic expression that resonate with people very deeply. Often in life you’ll see people making light of a dire situation- especially young people.

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The passages that cause the most uproar among concerned parent groups are the ones that deal with bullying and racism and sex. For instance, Arnold talks frankly about being referred to as a “faggot” and a “retard”. These are horrible words. But what the concerned parent and religious groups fail to understand is that if you ban a word outright, then kids are not only going to use it more often, but they’re going to use it irresponsibly. These churchy types have a profound mistrust in the ability of young people to handle serious subjects. The fact is that these words exist on the schoolyard. Kids are going to encounter them. And they need responsible adults to help them understand the gravity and power of the language they use. My own teenage years are laced with these cruel words and the devastating effect they can have. I suffered these harsh words and I was guilty of using them myself on some occasions. And like any teenager I told jokes with my friends that were offensive, vulgar, or just straight-up gross. A lot of parents don’t want to believe it, but foul language is endemic to the teenage experience. This gives Alexie’s novel a resonant quality. It rings true. Real teenagers ask each other “What would you rather do…eat your Nan’s diarrhea or have sex with the gym teacher?”

They don’t “Run through fields of wheat”.

But what offends the conservatives and the Christians more than crude language? Their own depraved biology of course…

Alexie’s novel doesn’t have any actual sex in it- but it does contain sexual references. The narrator now and then jokes about how much he masturbates, and for this reason many parents have called for the novel to be removed from school libraries. But to write a book about puberty without covering masturbation is like writing a book about the history of music without covering brass instruments. I get the feeling that these “concerned parents” would see teen fiction stripped of all references to sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, and cursing until it’s so watered down and wholesome that it’s worthless as a piece of art. At that point you’re bordering on propaganda, because you’re trying to create an image of young folks that’s patently untrue.

I remember when I was a teenager, everyone around me was eager to talk about puberty in some form or another. It’s natural to want to try and make sense of the changes your body is going through. I remember once at school, I was in a drama class, and a kid in my group asked each of us to reveal how many times a day we masturbated. These types of conversations happen on every schoolyard and at every sleepover. And by writing about it in his book, Alexie is reaching out to teenagers all over the world and letting them know that they’re not weird, that they’re not sinful, that there’s nothing wrong with how they feel.

My favorite passages in the book were the high school basketball scenes. And that’s not just because I love hoops, but because it highlights the dichotomy of Arnold’s world so well. The white kids live in a culture that tells them they can do or be anything, and their games are full of hope. The Native Americans however, don’t have that same agency. They exist in a world where they are made to feel like they can’t achieve anything. The American Dream is a White Dream. Arnold is different from most of the kids in his tribe in that he’s determined to see the world and realize his ambitions. He thrives in a white school and his former classmates on the reservation hate him for it. They call him an “apple”, suggesting that he is red on the outside but white on the inside. When Arnold returns to his old high school as the star shooter for the rich white school, he’s met with an extremely hostile reception.

At first he’s determined to get revenge on them for bullying him, but then Arnold realizes that his fellow tribe members on the other team probably didn’t eat breakfast that morning. It’s a heartbreaking moment, because he realizes that this basketball game was all these poor kids had. It’s not really satisfying to beat them when your team has vastly superior resources.

The two biggest themes in my opinion are the lack of hope and the struggle for identity for Native American peoples. The cyclical nature of violence, alcoholism, poverty, and despair as portrayed in Alexie’s novel makes for very depressing reading. That’s why the humor is so important in my opinion. Arnold is an endearing protagonist because, unlike everyone around him, he refuses to give up.

Overall I quite enjoyed this book. It’s not as subtle as The Catcher in the Rye, but I think the simple language works well for the themes it wants to explore. The scenes of bullying are visceral and hard-hitting- as are some of the tragedies that occur in the latter half of the book. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone interested in Native American issues or Coming-Of-Age/Teen/Young Adult fiction.

My Favorite Titles

When I was ten years old, my schoolteacher gave a lesson on writing stories. I have this distinct memory of her asking us to think about what makes a good title. Given that we were a bunch of hyperactive little shits, we bombarded her with outrageous names like “THE LAVA DRAGONS” that only escalated in ridiculousness. I remember trying to come up with the craziest, most random title I could think of. When the orgy of shrieks and swallowed snot was over, the teacher told us that the best titles often didn’t spell everything out for you. A good title, she said, created a sense of mystery. You don’t want to reveal everything all at once- you want to pique a person’s interest.

Our teacher then proceeded to tell us what she decreed was the best title in the history of art and media.

The Magic School Bus!” she cried to a silent, head-scratching audience. “Think about it! You hear it and you just think: What made this school bus magic? In what way is it magic? What can it do that a normal school bus can’t? It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? It takes something familiar- a school bus- and it makes it magic!”

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No one said anything. I frowned at the woman; I figured she was just lame. Anything that had the word “school” in the title had to be lame. I was firmly of the belief back then that every teacher had no life outside of school, and that it was their mission to make everything in the world boring.

But what she said did get me thinking about titles, and it made me question my ideas. I knew that next time I had to come up with something cool, I’d think about how it sounded before just shouting it out. As the years went by, I began to appreciate that teacher’s words more and more. Even though I thought she was being dumb at the time, what she said nevertheless got through to me, and it stuck with me, to the point that I’ve held onto it for all these years.

I’ve never considered myself the most imaginative title-creator. It’s something I tend to fret over and struggle with when I’m writing a poem or a story. I spend ages trying to think up something witty and original when asked to think of a name for a pub quiz team, a 5-a-side football team, a video game character, or whatever. I’m deeply envious of people that can come up with something catchy on the spot. When I first met my friend Aaron while studying abroad in the USA, I complimented him on his penchant for lyrical, alliterative phrases and titles. Seemingly on the fly, he’d come up with things I’d never even think of. During the snowy nights at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, we’d be folding laundry and listening to music. Aaron had an indie playlist called “Hay Fever and Horn Frogs”. The title didn’t necessarily make sense, but it rolled off the tongue well and it was playful. There’s no such thing as Horn Frogs- they’re like Bananafish and Jackalopes- but in Argentina there are these little badasses called Horned Frogs.

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At the moment I’m finishing up work on my novel and having to decide on its final title. Most authors tend to come up with working titles as they begin the writing process, and give their manuscript its real title when it is finished. It’s generally considered bad advice to come up with a title before a fleshed out story. I for one feel unable to name something until it’s finished. I have to look back on the work and think about what the most important themes are. There are no set rules as to what makes a good title, but one way to go about it is to think about the essence of your work and create a title that embodies it.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite titles and why I like them. Here’s my list:

 

Long Day’s Journey into Night – play, Eugene O’Neil

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – novel, Maya Angelou

Look Homeward, Angel – novel, Thomas Wolfe

Tree of Wooden Clogs – film, Ermanno Olmi

A Streetcar Named Desire – play, Tennessee Williams

No Country for Old Men – novel, Cormac McCarthy

Things We Lost in the Fire – film, Allan Loeb

Beneath a Steel Sky – video game, Dave Cummins

Shadow of the Colossus – video game, Fumito Ueda

Out of this Furnace – novel, Thomas Bell

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – novel, Anne Tyler

Minutes to Midnight – album, Linkin Park

Dreams of Milk & Honey – album, Mountain

Physical Graffiti – album, Led Zeppelin

Where the Red Fern Grows – novel, Wilson Rawls

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada – film, Guillermo Arriaga

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – novel, John Berendt

The Autumn of the Patriarch – novel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Places I Stopped on the Way Home – memoir, Meg Fee

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – novel, Jeanette Winterson

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – short story, Harlan Ellison

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – novel, Carson McCullers

Call Me By Your Name – novel, Andre Aciman

 

Looking at my list, I can already see that I have a real thing for lyrical and poetic titles. A lot of these titles are fairly long too. Heck, some of them are even complete sentences. I like titles to feel unique rather than punchy. But that’s just me. What are some of your favorite titles? Let me know in the comments!

The Top 5 Books I Have Read This Year – 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s time for my annual review posts, the first of which being a power ranking of the Top Five Books I’ve Read This Year. This post is always a special one for me, because reading is more important to me than anything else. This blog began as a reading blog, and I’m committed to never straying too far from these literary roots.

I need to clarify a couple things before we begin! Despite my claim that reading is the pastime I treasure the most, this isn’t reflected in the rate I consume various forms of media. I am a keen reader, but also a slow and anxious one. It’s a skill I’m always working on. I consume video games and movies much easier than I do books. Therefore, the Top 5 Books I’ve Read This Year is just that. It’s not a ranking of five books that came out in 2018, and is therefore unlike my annual Top 10 Films of the Year (which I’ll be releasing tomorrow!). I’d love to be able to keep up with current releases and be able to rank contemporary novels and authors the way I do the latest film releases. But my reading game is just not there yet. It’s still too difficult for me- but maybe one day, these posts will evolve into a “Top 5 Books of [insert year]”.

Looking back on the year’s reading I can see I’ve still got a long way to go to becoming the reader I want to be. I’ve read less books than 2017 and I’ve given up on two books this year, which is always depressing. It’s a combination of my less than stellar time management skills, my reading choices, and my crippling addiction to digital media alternatives (looking at you, Red Dead Redemption 2). I want to challenge myself to read different kinds of books but also pick books that suit me so as to maintain momentum. So there’s a little hypocrisy at work. A moment of silence is needed for the two novels I couldn’t finish- Love by Péter Nádas (a drug-addled haze too ontological for my tastes) and The Snare by Elizabeth Spencer (a more or less decent novel that failed to compete with RDR2 for my attention).

 


#5 Niki: The Story of a Dog

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Author: Tibor Déry

Published: 1956

Opening Line: “The Dog- we will not yet give it a name- adopted the Ancsas in the spring of 1948.”

Premise: After her husband disappears without a trace during a political crackdown in Communist-ruled Budapest, a middle-aged woman finds her only solace in her friendship with the stray dog she recently adopted.

Why I Loved This Book: If I had to pick one reason above all others as to why I loved this book, it would be the way in which the dog is written about. Even though this novel does pull at your heart-strings, the writing style is profoundly unsentimental. Niki is somehow treated as both a character and just as a dog. The prose is beautiful and lyrical in its descriptions of her, and yet it never loses its scientific grounding.

 

#4 No Country for Old Men

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Author: Cormac McCarthy

Published: 2005

Opening Line: “I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville.”

Premise: When a hunter discovers a briefcase full of millions of dollars of drug money, he sets in motion a terrifying chain of events that forever alter his life- and the lives of those around him.

Why I Loved This Book: The dialogue in this novel is as good as anything I’ve ever read. It strikes a perfect balance between evoking the dialect of South Texas while not being so realistic that it lacks a sense of rhythm. It’s a cross between the authentic approach of William Faulkner and the crisp, snappy lines of hardboiled noir writers such as James M. Cain.

 

#3 Pages for You

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Author: Sylvia Brownrigg

Published: 2001

Opening Line: “What would happen if I wrote some pages for you?”

Premise: A curious freshman from the West Coast falls in love with her professor, who opens up for her a world of Ivy League culture and sophistication- as well as some truths about herself.

Why I Loved This Book: I loved the scrutiny of small details in this book, and how those small things contributed to the overall narrative of sexual relationships. I’m someone that takes a great interest in concrete details and trivial things, so I enjoyed seeing them examined through the neurotic lens of the protagonist. For example, she treats us to her ruminations on her first experience of holding hands, or being given a loving nickname etc.

 

#2 The Lost Daughter

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Author: Elena Ferrante

Published: 2006

Opening Line: “I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill.”

Premise: After her daughters leave home to pursue a new life in Canada, a single mother decides to take a holiday to a coastal town, where she meets a boisterous family that brings back painful memories of her past.

Why I Loved This Book: More than anything else, I adored this novel for its deep interior monologues. I loved how introspective and reflective the main character is, and we are given a fascinating window into her psyche as a somewhat ambivalent mother in these lengthy passages. This is easily the most interesting (and in some ways, unsettling) portrait of motherhood that I have ever come across. Ferrante is one of the great writers of our time, and it was hard not to give this novel top spot on this list.

 

#1 The Center of Everything

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Author: Laura Moriarty

Published: 2003

Opening Line: “Ronald Reagan is on television, giving a speech because he wants to be president.”

Premise: A young girl tries her best to navigate the throes of teen angst, poverty, and her dysfunctional family in 1980s Kansas.

Why I Loved This Book: The Center of Everything is the best thing I’ve read this year and a worthy follow up to last year’s winner (Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick). I love it because it’s books like this that remind me why I fell in love with literature. In a way, it’s my ideal novel because of the way it’s structured. It follows several characters over the course of a decade or so. Each character is exceptionally well-crafted and we see how their lives change and intertwine with one another’s. I love this format, and I love the way it so well conveys the themes that I’m interested in- which is simply real, ordinary life. Every scene, every word of spoken dialogue, seems to ring true. It’s the type of book I dream of one day writing. If I ever succeed at the creative writing game, it’ll be trying to emulate something like this.

The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante

The next book I read from my “Summer Haul” was The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. As I stated in my previous post, the novels I picked up in July seemed to anticipate my travels and my embracement of the season. They were thin books, foreign books, and all of them focused on relationships of one kind or another. I’ve been meaning to read more non-English language authors, as well as more female authors. Ferrante was the perfect choice. Her novel The Lost Daughter, in particular, is one that fits the season; it is set over a single summer, the narrator is herself on vacation, and the setting is a coastal town in Italy. But don’t get the wrong impression: this book is anything but light and cheery. It’s light in the sense that it’s easy to read, but it’s certainly not light in tone. This novel is one of the darkest, most unflinchingly-sober portraits of the human psyche and all its fascinating grotesquerie that I have ever read. And I love it. This might just be one of the greatest books I have ever read. I don’t really have favorite novelists, whose works I consume one after the other like so many Aunt Sally’s pralinettes. I drift from writer to writer, genre to genre. But Ferrante might just break this attitude of mine. I have to go back. I must go back. This person has something to say. Something unique and important. Ferrante’s insights into human nature are as cutting as they are utterly compelling. I’m going to read more of her work, and do my best not to read all her novels at once, so that I may maintain some basic semblance of variety. Even though Ferrante writes in a way completely different from Cormac McCarthy, they are alike in that they are the only two active writers that make me feel like I’m reading the work of genius. Something about them just seems- at least to me- a cut above the rest.

But who is this mysterious person upon whom I’m lavishing such praise? No fucking idea. You tell me. All that we know about Elena Ferrante is that she’s an Italian woman, born in 1943, raised in Naples, and that she has a degree in Classics. Since her literary career began in 1992, she’s opted to remain anonymous. There’s a lot of curiosity regarding her true identity, which I think is natural. But I nonetheless sympathize with the idea that everything a writer has or desires to say can be found in their work alone. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with someone trying to find out who she is- but what I don’t like is the idea of that person making her identity public. The instinct to know is fine, but the decision to violate her wish for privacy is flat out wrong. It’s egregiously offensive to publish someone’s personal details in the public sphere if they’ve requested anonymity. Besides, it achieves little of anything. We have her body of work in the public domain, and that’s all we need.

A lot of what is commonly believed about Ferrante is inferred from recurring themes in her novels. She writes about motherhood in a strikingly unsentimental way. The theme of ambivalent motherhood is very much at the center of The Lost Daughter– my introduction to Ferrante. In brief, the premise is thus: Leda is a single mom living in Florence, whose two daughters- now in their twenties- have left Italy to live with their father in Canada. At first, Leda feels like a weight has been lifted. With no responsibilities, she decides to take a break for the summer and do something for herself. She rents an apartment in a small coastal town and begins taking her books to the beach each day to study. It’s at this beach that she discovers this loud, brash, uncouth family from Naples that make her feel uneasy. A small crime is committed that brings her path and the Neapolitans’ together. As she becomes obsessed with them, she is forced to confront some dark things from her past.

You’re hooked now, aren’t you? Go out and buy a copy, because it doesn’t disappoint. The novel itself is only 140 pages long and it’s very straightforward. Like the last couple of books I’ve read, it’s not very plot-heavy. The adjective that comes foremost to my mind when describing the tone of this book is “confessional”. The events of the present are interspersed with Leda’s memories of the past. She muses on things and goes on tangents of thought, and much of it reads like an interior monologue. That might not sound exciting, but her thoughts are so raw and interesting that every page grows more addictive. I had to re-read several passages, not because I didn’t understand them, but because I found them so compelling. Every page seems to have a revelation of one kind or another. Like I said, it’s quite easy to read, for the reason that the protagonist is so forthcoming and straightforward. Nothing is dressed up in style, nothing is omitted for us to infer. Everything is conveyed in a very direct manner. But it’s no less profound or complex for being so accessible. The narrative voice suits the story. I’d like to see a creative writing professor try to tell Elena Ferrante she’s “telling and not showing” because to do so would be to invite a verbal truncheoning by every literary critic from here to Bishkek.

I loved this novel, and I can’t wait to read more Elena Ferrante and blog about it here on TumbleweedWrites. It’s a dark story, but it’s not dark in the Gillian Flynn sense of the word. The mothers of Ferrante aren’t poisoning their daughters, they’re just neglecting them. I’m just pointing this out in case you’re a squeamish type. There’s no gore here. Instead, The Lost Daughter’s darkness is manifest in its tone. It’s unsettling. It’s a powerful, challenging look at the relationships between mothers and daughters and the way the sins of the past come back to haunt the present. Anyway, I hope I’ve encouraged some of y’all to give Ferrante a read.

Let me know in the comments what you think of Elena Ferrante!

Pages for You by Sylvia Brownrigg

Before departing for the USA this summer, I decided to head to my local Waterstones and use up a couple gift-cards I had. My purchases really did seem like a “summer book haul”, reflecting the warm weather, travel, and sociability that was sure to come. The haul also reflected my recent reading choices and the desire to change things up. By the end of July I had just got done finishing Niki: The Story of a Dog and No Country for Old Men. One focused on politics, the other on violence. Both were written by men. Cormac McCarthy, in particular, is noted for writing terse, dispassionate, “manly” fiction, with very few female characters. Don’t get me wrong, I love McCarthy. He’s a genius. But I like to enjoy a variety of literary voices to freshen things up. Aside from the lack of female characters, McCarthy is noted for his interest in themes such as life & death, justice, violence, and he admits to having a dislike for novelists that focus on love and sex, such as Marcel Proust and Henry James. I more or less like both styles equally. My tastes in literature have become a lot broader in the last two years. I knew that I wanted a different voice to McCarthy before going back to him, but I didn’t know what I’d find when I reached the bookstore. I ended up getting several novels from a table with a sign saying “Summer Reads”, mostly by female authors, all of them foreign, and almost exclusively focusing on emotional themes such as love, desire, relationships, identity, loneliness et cetera. I tend to group these kinds of themes as being “human-oriented”, examining the human condition as it relates to individuals. The opposite approach, the way I see it, is a focus on themes such as society, power, justice, existence, politics, and all that, which I tend to group as being “concept-oriented”. They examine the human condition as it relates to groups of people and institutions. What does our political framework reveal about our nature? I don’t see either stylistic approach as being superior or more profound than the other, and what I choose really does come down to whatever I fancy in a given moment. On this occasion, as I said, I believe my choices reflected the season I was in, and my travels to come.

One of the books in the haul was a novel by the name of Pages for Her, written by American author Sylvia Brownrigg. The cover instantly caught my eye; a beautiful woman, natural-looking and unpretentious, staring off into the distance at something. The color scheme was very effective- there were echoes of pop art that accentuated the curious woman and made the book stick out from the pile. The blurb told me that the book was about a woman who reunites with the professor she had a short (but intense) affair with 20 years ago. It seemed like just the sort of thing I was looking for- something realistic and emotive that went to the heart of the soul. It was only when I got home however, that I discovered this new book (published in 2017) was in fact a sequel. I debated just reading it anyway. I’ve done that sort of thing before. But the book was promising to be a hit with me already, so I ultimately ordered the original- Pages for You– off of Amazon.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s post! Pages for You is a novel published in 2001 by Sylvia Brownrigg, that details the rise and fall of a love affair between Flannery, a curious student, and Anne, her sophisticated professor. That might sound like a spoiler, but it’s really not: it’s made clear at the beginning of the book that the narrator, Flannery, is looking back on a relationship that has concluded. In truth, Pages for You isn’t really the kind of novel you can spoil. You know what’s going to happen, and the way it happens doesn’t involve some shocking twist that subverts your expectations. So why read the book at all, if it’s a series of realistic, pre-determined events? I wouldn’t recommend this book to lovers of intricate plots. There’s no suspense here, no revelations, no red herrings. And yet I couldn’t put the book down. I breezed through it like a Liane Moriarty thriller. Pages for You is a character-driven book if ever I’ve seen one. It’s not plot-driven, but it’s no less compelling and addictive. It reads like a memoir, covering Flannery’s freshman year of college. Seeing the world through Flannery’s eyes, interpreted through her unique voice, is the greatest strength of the novel, and the reason I read it so earnestly.

Throughout the novel we are treated to an intimate account of Flannery’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts, all of which are in flux. She’s not the same person at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning. She’s a fish out of water for a start, having traveled alone from her native California to Connecticut for college. She’s intellectually-curious, impulsive, goofy, creative, inelegant, anxious, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s hungry for experiences. She challenges her self-doubt in order to explore and to learn. She’s not got any prior sexual experience to speak of. She unravels, her worldview expands, she discovers nascent truths about herself that catch her off-guard. I love the little details that highlight the clash of cultures between east and west. I love the way her impressions of New York are tied inexorably to the woman she falls in love with. Indeed, one aspect of the book that I have seen so many other readers praise, is its close examination of tiny, seemingly mundane details. Each chapter is about 1-2 pages long, and a given one might focus on her thoughts about nicknames, kissing for the first time, or simply holding hands. The minutiae of life, so often left unexamined by writers, is something that greatly interests me. It interests me because I often find myself fixated on small things, ascribing to them an inflated sense of importance. The sequence of little vignettes that cover Flannery’s freshman year each contribute to the central theme of her coming-of-age; Flannery’s journey to make sense of both herself and the world around her.

The catalyst for this journey is Anne Arden- a woman ten years her senior, whom she crosses paths with one morning in a diner. This event occurs right at the start of the book; it’s with Anne that this story begins and ends for Flannery. In short, the book is about the things Anne awakens in Flannery. Anne represents sophistication, knowledge, and confidence. She’s cultured and ambitious. She has an effortless sense of style and poise. She’s the reason the adjective “wry” was invented. She has a distinctive, mysterious, intoxicating aura that leaves people breathless and intrigued. Her sardonic remarks and sharp tongue can leave people cold, but as Flannery discovers, there’s a big heart underneath her armor. I’ve observed some readers complain that Anne seems one-dimensional, wishing that she were more well-rounded. However, I think the portrayal of Anne is justified because everything in the book is filtered through the lens of Flannery’s desire. It’s not Anne so much as Flannery’s experience of Anne, her image of Anne, the things Anne represents for Flannery. If we were to be given Anne’s perspective of events, then Pages for You would be an entirely different book. It wouldn’t be called Pages for You for a start. I’m hoping that the sequel explores Anne’s character more, because I think there is a lot to work with. It’s made clear throughout the novel that Anne has her own demons, insecurities, and troubled past. She has a life much bigger than just her affair with Flannery, a fact that becomes painfully obvious to the protagonist at the end. And as I said, that’s really what this book is about; Flannery’s affair with this enigmatic woman, and the idea that as big and special as it seems, there is an entire world beyond it.

I enjoyed this book. The format suited the theme very well. Not only did the short chapters and constant breaks help sustain my interest and increase my reading speed, but it gave the book a picaresque feel that I really liked. Each chapter had Flannery documenting a different aspect of her love affair, ruminating on it, musing about it, digesting the experience as a part of her personal growth. She has to come to terms with her obsessive, overwhelming sexual desire. Then she has to get used to the idea that she too, might be an object of desire, that unbeknownst to her she has an eroticism of her own. She describes being naked in front of someone for the first time. She discusses sleeping in the same bed as another person for the first time. She details at length what it feels like to be in a relationship, to feel anchored by someone, to be an anchor to someone. This is the heart of the book, the heart of what makes it a compelling read. What Flannery confides in us is resonant. I think we can all relate to Flannery. Her words touch our own lives and memories. The tangled mix of curiosity, jealousy, anxiety, pride, desire, possessiveness, and confusion that is the tapestry of the human experience. I encourage you to give this novel a try, especially if you are interested in character-driven fiction! I can’t wait to get started on the sequel.