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.
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
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.”
Credit: M. Jakubowski
I saw them up ahead of us beside the road, eight or nine moving in the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb, sure they would flee as soon as I stopped at the light at the corner, but they had city-bird courage, a sturdy flock; browns, grays, ivories, tans made over in the morning light diffused by the fog. Stubby beaks neat and trim, black eyes round as obsidian pearl, heads clicking at angles at every sound and potential danger, as I watched them with love so near the car in the grass alive with green lividity from the week-long rain. They nibbled at the flowering blades, snipping the seeds so neatly, as I waited for the light to change, my human form hidden behind the curved metal and glass shapes they were used to seeing flash by like fleeing buildings.
Sparrows out for their morning hunt. For seeds and soggy moths. Battered beetles and breadcrumbs. I turned the car to take my son the last few blocks to school, and did not point out the birds. We’d been there for a few seconds and he was listening to the song on the radio looking out his own window at the fog in silence, a six-year-old person with a father who stares at sparrows. The cost of an education changes families. Mothers and father disappear into duty. Who will they vote for? Is another mistake unavoidable? Who will care for their parents and their parents before them? What is it to tell someone about the beauty that lies in the grass between the road and the sidewalk, someone trying to prove between stoplights, weekends, birthdays, and funerals that the world is made vast by small brave beings alive in the grass here with us, alive in eternal feathery abundance. The song on the radio went on for years. The boy left the car and there was no school. You turn and see your father. He’s doing something you don’t understand and when you see this you understand a few words of something he said before that made no sense at the time. You swallow some kind of hatred you’re afraid of.
Credit: M. Jakubowski
He would have hands large enough to go to the edge of that green ground, jab his fingerspades into the sod and grip the turf woven with roots and rhizomes to lift the life-giving blanket of the earth, shaking it high in waves through the sky to reveal the giggling children of old and dead and forgotten beneath it, all the bumps and skeletal humps and vertebrae valleys, the shapes of history that are softened and hidden beneath sedimentary layers of the planet’s bedsheets, the holy collective decay of animal and vegetable life like leaf litter under which all the past sleeps until tectonic turmoil strikes at an invisible hour, the dead awaking the living above the blanket, as his hands shake the wavy coverlets free of the day’s greed and corruption.
Gripping the continental edge, standing in the Atlantic off the coast of Maryland, with one shake he sends the concentration camps flying, hurls aside the anti-immigrant shock troops, tumbles the white-power militias, upsets McConnell’s and Miller’s and Kavanaugh’s and Gorsuch’s beers, giving Trump the thump of fate beneath his feet and deep within his temples.
With this generation’s horrors flung beneath the moss, he’d throw his arms out and with his head back shout, “Tsunami!!!!” crashing backwards into the sea, letting his words and energy breach the shore, sloshing back beneath the waves, disappearing into the green black depths, having given, gone, some dreamed echo of justice.
In 2014, I wrote my first experimental book review and I’ve since written seven more, with plans to write as many as I can so long as people keep finding them interesting. Each one is a puzzle to write but I like what they allow me to do, as a form, compared to more traditional criticism. They’re written in third person about a critic, rather than as a critic. Each piece can stand alone, but if they are read sequentially, they show time passing for the critic, and her family, as her career goes on.
The latest review is about Russian author Ksenia Buksha’s novel, “Freedom Factory.” It was published this spring in the online cultural journal, The Critical Flame. Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the full piece below.
The next one will appear this summer in Textshop Experiments. It’s focused on “Aviaries,” a novel by the late Czech author Zuzana Brabcová.
Party On: An experimental review of Freedom Factory
The critic had missed her deadline and couldn’t bring herself to care.
On her couch, with her laptop on the coffee table, she looked at her notes about the book and read a quote: “The factory is a continuation of my father.” Ksenia Buksha had placed it near the end of her book, in one of the more experimental chapters. It had been meant, the critic thought, to convey a sense of something spiritual about the way the place a person works can enter their lifeblood. Continue reading
I recently shared the above photo of a tall stack of small books on Twitter. I enjoyed most of them and think my tastes lately have been running toward the sort of things writers do in a short book versus a long book.
There’s no use in trying to define short book or long book. Yes, there’s its size and page count but that hardly defines it as a book. Reading defines books. In terms of heft and the realities of production costs and potential film rights, in the U.S. so much of the market (we’re told) depends on the 300-page book that anyone who writes fiction is forced to grapple mentally with the meaning of this demanding animal for at least a little while as some kind of arbitrary standard.
The 300-page book’s magical powers are a mystery. If every writer could write one, they would, we are told. Meaning it’s foolish to take it lightly.
Every reader knows what their favorite big-name fantasy, romance, literary fiction, and crime authors will do in a 300-pager. The respective expectations are set. There are infinite possibilities within these templates and I enjoy them. Even if they’re an extra hundred or two hundred pages long, you still know you’re reading a 300-page book when you open it, and if you cross the 600-page mark, no worries. It’s still written in that enjoyable 300-page book prose and the extra 300 pages are probably good for the endurance.
Still, the absurd mystery of why 300-page-books are revered is bound up in money, but only for about 1 out of 10,000 novels. For my money, I can’t get away from liking the shorter books. Most of the very good long books usually could’ve been whittled down to 200 pages and really done something special. Or been pared down drastically into one good essay that cracked a fascist regime in half. Or a poem that led soldiers worldwide to abandon their posts. But these are not lucrative goals.
“Little books” are doing fine, of course, in terms of appearing often on Twitter and in blog posts. I hope their authors are, too. Here’s another photo of a few more.