A phantom ocean

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M. Jakubowski

Bored at night I go upstairs to the window that leads to the back roof. Parting the curtains turning the latches pushing up the glass and the screen to bend down to less than half my height with my chin almost touching my knee I side-step over the sill onto the flat rowhouse roof.

My foot is immediately assailed with the waning warmth of the July sun stored in the roof’s surface. I feel the eyes of the birds and squirrels on me, a pale giraffe joining them suddenly thirty feet above the ground to peer at each other between the maple leaves. They stay quiet until I look away. Continue reading

Some expected pain

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They saw us holding hands and made one sort of face or another. This man and a boy. A child without its mother. A father and a son walking around at midday downtown on a Wednesday. A man who wasn’t working regular business hours. Maybe tourists.

The heat as we walked across the sidewalk clamped into the air, fixing the humidity with a vaporous rigidity, giving each breath in and out a clammy form that seemed to widen the nostrils on its way into the body.

His palm was sweaty in mine and usually at the first touch of sweat he’d let go but he didn’t. Continue reading

Memories of books & past lives

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Early drafts of my story-reviews often start out very personal. A moment or two related to grief and family, which I first bend around a review of the book, then work to find a balance.

I’ve been writing these sorts of reviews since 2014 and as time goes on I like to check back to see how I handled finding this balance. I recently looked at my review and marginalia for Bae Suah’s novel, “Recitation,” translated by Deborah Smith. Continue reading

Seasons at the lake

 

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In photo albums at the lake in Michigan, your parents in the 1970’s haven’t hit 30 yet. They look like happy teenagers in swimsuits and long hair without a thread of gray. You are one of the pudgy faces among a dozen pudgy siblings and cousins, on people’s laps, propped up on a hip, in the shallow water learning what a toy sand shovel is. Your grandparents smile at the scene from the lawn holding drinks. The air smells like fresh cut grass, boat engine oil, pipe tobacco, coconut oil, dead perch, the burnt metal of lit sparklers. Continue reading

Art and the assassin

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Halfway through the year, wanted to post about two books I enjoyed.

“Why Art?” by Eleanor Davis, from Fantagraphics, shifts from basic questions of what is art, who does art, how do people make and experience art, into an exploration of the title-question, modulating between factual statements and surreal tangent-anecdotes. When a plot emerges, we’re suddenly in a disaster adventure tale with a climax that would, in another writer’s hands, come off as an insipid platitude. Instead, told via spare text and casually intense black-and-white line-art; with terrific moments of tension and humor; statements about gender, equality, and humanity; Davis delivers complex, convincing answers to the book’s central questions.

In an entirely different book, I had a reading experience I don’t know if I’d recommend, but I have to discuss. One side of me is reluctant to say why it turned into a bad experience. Another side is eager to see if other people had the same experience. But having said even this much I’ve affected the reading experience for anyone who decides to pick it up. Anyway, the book is “Fatale,” by Jean-Patrick Manchette, from NYRB, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Focused on a female assassin who targets the rich in a small port town, it’s one of the darkest, most unfliching crime novels I’ve ever read, and reminded me of Patricia Highsmith, who does not mess around when it comes to depicting violence in society, especially against women. But there’s a hidden explosive in the book that detonated, for me, with the very last line. It was so baffling I said, “No!” loudly and put the book down hard. Which is to say, I highly recommend it, if you like crime novels, and would love to hear if the last line bothered you, too.

More soon! Please drop me recommendations of things to read in the comments, if you feel moved. I’m always looking for new books to try.

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Fearing love and its absence

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Credit: M. Jakubowski

When did the boy get so fast? Warnings can’t slow him down and if they did I think I’d regret it a little. His speed is remarkable to see. He’s four. His little blue shoes land so confidently now on the gray dust of the rocky trail as he sprints through the woods. Continue reading

Keeping a private language

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Quantum entanglement is perhaps the loveliest phrase in English. That’s my humble opinion. I heard that at one time a survey revealed that among English speakers and non-English speakers researchers were somehow able to determine among the respondents the phrase “cellar door” was the most beautiful in all of English. How they decided, among every syllable and permutation possible, is a mystery, but I do recall some teacher in my past discussing this anecdote and its disappointing result — “cellar door,” this image that brings to mind the entryway to dimly lit dirty spaces.

If this kind of survey ever goes out to the world again, “cellar door” is going to have some newfangled competition in the form of “quantum entanglement,” this technical phrase that unlocks its beauty like a lotus, seeming to speak its exact meaning hinged with mysteries within mysteries from one clear syllable to the next. I’m sure it doesn’t speak the same kind of thing to other people. Everyone has their own pet phrases and secret languages from the past that evoke memories we’re happy to keep inside these personal worlds within words, and of course there are deep horrors locked in everyday language that we wish we could filter out completely.

I’m happy to stand up for the beauty I hear and feel in the possibilities inspired by the words quantum entanglement. But there are others I’ll never discuss. Like the secret tree language characters use in Christina Rivera Garza’s novel, “The Iliac Crest,” and as Yoko Tawada wrote in her novel, “Portrait of a Tongue,” as translated by Chantal Wright, “You don’t always want to share a language with the anonymous masses.”