Friday, November 27, 2020

The Writer's Library

The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their LivesThe Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives by Nancy Pearl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"If life is dreary, literature gives it an extra beat..." I wasn't planning on reading The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives straight through, thinking it was a dabble text to add titles to my swollen To Be Read stack, but I did read every word. These author interviews were interesting and enjoyable as twenty-two writers recalled treasured books from youth and favorite items on their shelves, peppered with comments on the writing life. reading and anecdotes from the likes of Jonathan Lethem, T. Coraghessan Boyle Jennifer Egan, Amor Towles, Louise Erdrich, Dave Eggers, Siri Hustvedt, Susan Choi, etc. With the exception of one stilted email interview (Donna Tartt), the conversation flowed as warm, intelligent chats among booklovers. Many recommendations I read with fondness long ago (Jane Bowles, William Kennedy, Grace Paley, Richard Yates, and a favorite of Pearl & Schwager Philip Roth) and would like to revisit them. A rich list of offerings new to me include Ingeborg Bachmann, Sally Wen Mao, Simon Doonan, Lemn Sissay, Mona Eltahawy, as well as suggestions for poetry and a smattering of nonfiction. A scintillating feast for the avid reader or anyone looking for a good book.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Just Us: An American ConversationJust Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just Us: An American Conversationis a beautiful volume on heavy paper stock with photos, footnotes and statistics on the verso (left), visual evidence of racism, and the poet's sobering thoughts, experiences and interviews on the recto (right-hand pages). I identified with the story of her white companion who refuses to go up on stage with other white audience members at the behest of the black playwright at the end of the performance and appreciated the woman's explanation to the author, their shared conversation. The airplane waiting lines are telling microcosms of our racist society as first-class passengers crowd ahead of her. The cross-burning memory was horrific particularly as was its identification as a prank rather than terrorism. The dinner party where the author, the only person of color, attributes the 2016 election results "to anti-black and anti-Latinx racism couched in terms like 'Obamacare and the Wall'" brings the table to silence. She states that "white people don't really want change if it means they need to think differently than they do about who they are." She concedes that it is systemic but also personal and imagines her admiration for her host if she'd handed her her coat with "What's your hurry?" instead of "serving up redirection and false civility." Reading the book is thought-provoking, it is beautifully written, and of course underlines our white superiority and heavy reliance on false civility, refusal of discomfort, willful blindness. The chapter on blondes where as a born-blonde, made me feel huffy at the associations she drew about Aryan ideals, white purity and superiority factors. But it is something to think about. To question. Start there.

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Sermons and soda waterSermons and soda water by John O'Hara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My goal was to read an older book alternating with a hot, new title. This served well as I had never read O'Hara which would now be considered historical fiction, it takes place in the Thirties, Forties, Fifties in Pennsylvania. The story also tied in with the movie we watched last night, The Swimmer, from the John Cheever tale about a man whose exalted social position collapses with the loss of his job. Sermons and soda water follows the lives of Ivy Leaguers from a small town, Gibbsville, who fall on hard times in their financial and marital fortunes. O'Hara uses lots of dialogue introduce his characters. Class and status are important yet the key couple, Bobbie and Pete, disregard it: Bobbie has an affair with the bootlegger and frequents the Dan Patch Tavern while Pete works at the aluminum plant and sleeps with a typist. Flagons of drink are consumed, in fact, the bootlegger accuses Bobbie of being a lush ending their tryst. People get sore, not angry; bawl not cry; get the bounce instead of being fired or laid off. A slice of Americana, well written by an significant author whom my mom forbid teenage me to read (Appointment in Samarra/Butterfield 8/Hope of Heaven all classics).

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A Line Made by WalkingA Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title, A Line Made by Walking, is taken from a performance art piece where the artist, Richard Long, in 1967 created a short, straight track worn by footsteps back and forth through an expanse of grass and builds sculptures which fall apart naturally. He specializes in "barely-there art." The narrator of the book is an artist in her twenties who has read up and delineates with "I test myself" on dozens of such works of performance art throughout her story. Examples are blowing up a shed, cats striking piano keys, man stepping up and down off a stool at thirty steps a minute as long as he can, acrobats hoisting themselves up a flagpole, a studio cell without media or communication for a year (Hsieh), "This way brouwn" (1960-64) about being lost & seeking directions, daily postcards saying "I got up" (Kawara 1968-1979), tiny birds made from fingernail clippings and glue (Hawkinson), moving a cement block wall back and forth across a thoroughfare (Yilin), penis amputation (Schwarzkogler), dress made of electric lights (Tanaka, 1956), What Does an Artist Look Like (New Yorker photos of artists 1999-2001). "Why must I automatically assume that every strange object is a sculpture, that every public display of unorthodox behaviour is an act of performance?" wonders Frankie. She has moved into her late grandma's cottage in the Irish countryside for the summer while coping with her depression and spends her solitary days bicycling, lying on the carpet, listening to the radio, watching TV, reading and thinking about her childhood and OCD impulses. She also has begun a project photographing dead animals and the chapters are labeled for such critters: hare, rabbit, badger, rat. Her mum visits occasionally, as does her sister. She has an appreciation for the quotidian and solitude which reminds me of Claire Louise Bennett's Pond or Kate Zambreno's new novel, Drifts and which I found soothing. It was a memorable reading pleasure.

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The Word PrettyThe Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Word Pretty does talk about the word "pretty" and how it has come to mean less than beautiful, more of a disparagement than a compliment, "she's a pretty little thing." Elisa Gabbert discusses words and writing in this smart, amusing collection of essays. She tackles notebooks ("I should invest in nice notebooks, strategically, so I'll use them more often."), names of paintings, ambiguities in line breaks in poetry, the pleasures of front matter such as introductions, translators notes, the epigraph, i.e. highlighting Howards End "only connect." Book titles are scattered throughout, many of which I have on my list but enticing new TBRs. She discusses James Salter's sentences in a piece on punctuation, digressions in essays by Tennessee Williams. Although she is a writer of essays and poems, the novel is her "desert island getaway" but she never writes fiction. The "introspective first person" is her narrative mode of choice, as it is mine. She enjoys scattershot plots like those of Javier Marías & Miranda July. She's obsessed with books about people who ruin their own lives such as Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, Broken River or The Awakening. She has an essay on titles and feels spondees make the best titles: White Noise, Jane Eyre, Bleak House. Poems can use a phrase from the poem worth highlighting as a title. And she finishes by reminding us of Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing's "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." As a writer and reader, I thorough enjoyed this collection.

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Monday, November 2, 2020

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World tells of the imagined last minutes of brain function, even after the murdered protagonist's heart has stopped. She recalls her life, her childhood in Van, Turkey, her move to Istanbul to escape sexual abuse, becoming a prostitute, her great love, D/Ali, and her five dear friends who support her in life and death. The friends are all displaced refugees and survivors of intolerance and poverty in a city which once strived to be a rich brew of many religions and lifestyles. The writing is exquisite, poetic and lively, even funny at times. The characters are richly realized. Ever present is its setting, the book is also a paean to the City of Istanbul. I was sorry to reach the end as it provided an addictive escape from pandemic election preoccupation.

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