Caryl Phillips. The Nature of Blood

This was my first time reading Phillips, and I was amazed that nobody had recommended him to me before; I’ll be reading the rest of his books in short order. Phillips is careful to particularize the experiences of different people/s (both the individual and, more to the point, the group), yet his use of collage reveals surprising affinities between the stories. “Affinities” is the best word I can think of to describe that effect, and these affinities are the reason you should read the book. There is no true link or likeness between the stories of Othello and of Eva, the concentration camp survivor whose story also bears an affinity to the life of Anne Frank, but there are unexpected affinities that result from juxtaposition, word choice, and the other intervening stories. It’s a subtle, artful effect.
Read Oct. 2007

Patrick White. Voss

Pimelea linifolia

I loved White’s The Tree of Man and am surprised it took me so long to get around to reading Voss, especially since it’s a kind of neo-Victorian novel about a naturalist with delusions of grandeur and the angry, abrasive woman who loves him—and I’m all over that kind of thing. White reproduces the Victorian novelists’ style, character study, and themes with a gift for description that is dizzying, the way that spending too much time with a micro- or telescope can be dizzying: the perspective is off; one sees too much too close; we see veins pulsing and receding under the skin while people think, and smell the ants moving in the dirt, and come to experience soiled gloves and dying mules and cloud shadows as expressions of will. Through the huge cast of of characters, whose skins—not just their minds—White sets out to inhabit, he asks good questions: how does a god become a man, when the people around him believe him to be a man trying to become godlike? Is apotheosis a solitary or communal effort? What is humiliation? How does a 20th-century novelist find ways to collapse boundaries between individual and community when he confines himself to writing in a Victorian style about Victorian characters? And, given those self-imposed constraints, how does he speak about class, gender, race, and religion? Wondrous stuff.

Read April 2009

David Shipler. The Working Poor: Invisible in America

A manager at Barnes & Nobles told me that this was a great book because it shifted blame for the problems of the poor onto the poor, thus holding them accountable and providing room for personal responsibility. Hardly a compelling case for me! So for a long time, I didn’t read it. But now I have, and what the B&N guy said was a gross oversimplification and misreading. Rather, what Shipler does is link the formation and transmission of emotional and psychological problems to systemic problems, showing how they interplay to form patterns of poverty. I.e., growing up poor puts people at risk, while being white, coming from stable families, having good health, speaking English, and having role models are all things that can lessen risk, though even then it’s precarious. It’s not about personal responsibility: it’s about the formation of personal and political in each other. The writing and the stories are great. It’s such a good book that I wonder how some asshole like that B&N manager could come away from it with entirely the wrong conclusions.

Read Dec. 2007

John Cheever. The Stories of John Cheever

Photo: Andre Zand-Vakili

We read Cheever not because we love stories about the suburbs, but because Cheever shows us that a wild imagination can’t be bound even by the suburbs. We enjoy the quality of observation, the dialogue, the air-tight construction (and what he teaches us about form both in every example and over the course of the collection), but we read him for those moments when his stories take wing to escape cliche, banality, and the mundane. The stories “Goodbye, My Brother,” “The Five Forty-Eight,” “The Country Husband,” and, famously, “The Swimmer” are purely astonishing. Even a fairly low-profile story will spring upon you with a a single perfect paragraph (“The Death of Justina” with its English muffin). There are gothic horror, a sudden, latent sensuality, and a tenderness for little children; there are collages and fantasies and ruptures that remind me of Barthelme; there is a whole world riding that commuter train.
Read May 2011

Helen DeWitt. The Last Samurai.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Yotsuya Ghost Story, 1892

This is a dizzying, brutal, gorgeous book. All I can say is, go visit Helen DeWitt’s website, read her side column on author pay, and Paypal her some money. You won’t regret it. It’s the least you can do, in return for the beauty of this book.

Read: May 2014

Charlotte Brontë. Shirley.

“A Mad Dog in a Coffee-House” by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)

** spoiler alert ** Here be spoilers.
Jane Eyre was a masterpiece, and it’s hard to get around it in reading and reviewing Charlotte Brontë’s other novels. That’s particularly true for Shirley, which has the same slow build as JE and Villette, without either the weirdness and genius of JE or the meticulous portrait of depression in Villette, so I’ll mention the book’s flaws, first.
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Lydia Davis.The End of the Story

photo: “The End” of The Story of a Little Gray Mouse, by Dorothy Sherrill

A good book for people who are giving themselves the hives imagining the ridiculous questions that they might, someday, be asked about their own work at a Q&A session–because most of us won’t be asked anything so ridiculous as Davis was probably asked after her readings of this book. A fictional essay, a What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Love Stories kind of story. How do we begin talking about a _____ (fill in the blank: a love affair, say), and how do we end? How do emotions graph or not graph onto how we choose to be portraying them, and how we are feeling about them, over time, which is the necessary component to any written work or any emotional experience? What is memory?
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W.G. Sebald. Austerlitz. The Emigrants

photo: Émile-Alexandre Taskin and Adèle Isaac as Dr. Miracle and Antonia in the premiere of The Tales of Hoffmann, 1881 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Musique)

Austerlitz is a novel that subversively and gracefully explores the art and artifice of the memoir form: an unnamed narrator reports on the memoirs of a man named Austerlitz, who has only recently begun to research and discover his own past, which has been obscured from him for decades by traumatic amnesia, and of which virtually no traces of supporting data remain after the Holocaust. How does Austerlitz discover that past? By an obsessive study of architecture, which leads him away from the book he’s supposed to be writing, and on a quest to discover why certain kinds of railway stations, village layouts, and styles of fortification bother him so much. Memory exists in buildings; memory is made, brick by brick, image by image, word by word; memory is built at several removes from “experience” and only in fragments. It’s a view of fiction/memoir that allows fiction writers to get past the more defensive and self-limiting aspects of the fiction/memoir divide, yet challenges the assumption that fiction is only imagination, while memoir is a depository of unvarnished, authentic truth.
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Gao Xingjian. Soul Mountain

I’d like to start with a view that dissents with those of some other reviewers, who (in praise, often) claim that this book works outside the rules of fiction, or is unlike all other books, or isn’t even a novel. Of course it is a novel, and a hyperliterary one at that–and it operates within structures of fictional form that are common (even commonplace) in the twentieth century, not to mention in earlier works that share some of its more astonishing features (such as Don Quixote). And Gao got a degree in French literature and appears to have been well acquainted with modernism. So there’s that, to start.
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Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote.

Max Slevogt, Don Quichote und Sancho Pansa, 1917

I don’t know if it was because I was tired (I only read it in bed before going to sleep at night), but after 6 months I’d gotten through only the first 100-odd pages. But then it (or I) started flying. The first thing that got me was the cat joke (im in yr cavalcade saturizing yr litrary deloojuns), then the rapidly escalating violence, and by the time Sancho got tossed in a blanket, I was laughing out loud every few pages.
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