Thursday, May 26, 2016

EileenEileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Otessa Moshfegh is described as one of the brightest new voices in fiction, an NEA fellow, Stanford Stegner grad, and she is but this book is a hard sale. Her story is suspenseful -- I kept reading avidly late into the night -- but it is a bleak tale (and I love bleak) of a young girl who is trapped living with her overbearing ex-cop alcoholic father, working at a prison for boys, suffering an eating disorder and troubled by her lack of intimate connections until Rebecca comes to work at the prison and provides a "ticket to a new life...She was so clever and beautiful, I thought, the embodiment of all my fantasies for myself." What keeps you reading other than the edge-of-seat shenanigans at the end, are strategic references to the beautiful, loving life she lives now, fifty years later, and the superb writing: "She whirled off her coat as though in slow motion -- this is how I remember it -- and shook it like a bullfighter as she strode up the corridor toward me, hair rippling behind her, eyes like daggers shooting down straight through my heart to my guts." She notes the motto written on a pack of Pall Malls "a shield between two lions -- Per aspera ad astra. Through the thorns to the stars. That described my plight to a tee." The story winds up hopefully "not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks." I am glad I read Eileen and will read her next book but it's a relief not to be the bookseller for this one.

View all my reviews
And for more bleak titles, Paul Bryant on Goodreads offers a "rich seam of female self-loathing in fiction:"

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirio - the unnamed un-beautiful older sister spends her whole life hating everybody especially herself
A Day Off by Storom Jameson - the unnamed middle-aged alcoholic frump spends a day hating everybody especially herself
Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill - the unnamed (as I seeing a pattern here?) wife spends a solid  year or so hating mostly herself
Dietland by Sarai Walker - Plum Kettle (hey, unroll your eyes, that's her name)spends her entire life self-loathing her own plus-size body
All of Jean Rhys' novels except Wide Sargasso Sea - the variously named alcoholic heroines all of whom are Jean, spend their allotted few months in each book totally hating themselves and pretty  much everything else (the curtains, the breakfast egg, etc.)
 The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek - the gold standard of female self-loathing against which all other self-loathers are to be judged. Erica Kohut spends her entire waking moments hating herself and everything else to such a level of frenzy that the women in the above-mentioned books would only look on in envy and loathe themselves a little bit more because they couldn't quite get to the level of loathingness Erica Kohut achieves with seeming ease.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

That Awful Mess on the Via MerulanaThat Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Baroque, ornate, dense, tangled, funny, brilliant unfinished 400-page rant from Carlo Emilio Gadda which
  Carlo Emilio Gadda
thwarts logical conclusions and forces the reader to go along for the ride in the many-layered, stinky, cacaphony of corruption and magic depicted as 1927 Rome. Ostensibly a detective novel, there's a theft, a murder, and a host of descriptions of Mussolini-era Italy including the memorable references to Il Doochay as "Death's Head," or "Fierce Face," or the Shit...the syphilitic Swaggerer." But the investigation is incomplete, derailed like the train in one scene, and the tale ends inconclusively, indeed an inventive "mess."

The book club discussion was lively and mostly enthusiastic. One member, Dani, even produced a fantastic glossary of the book's elaborate vocabulary.
William Weaver's translation was masterful in dealing with Gadda's imaginative vocabulary, made-up words, puns and double-meanings.

View all my reviews

Books - "Unalloyed, summer had lingered miraculously into 
late September without a suggestion that autumn 
was at hand." Mark Shorer, 1938, "Boy in the Summer Sun" 

I see the headline in an email, a newspaper article, or a magazine piece which says "Summer Reading" and I perk up and zoom in like some kind of addict. Well, not so much an addict as a bibliophile, a reader, a connoisseur of literature. I'm not so captivated by best seller fare so much, but anything from a new literary experiment in fiction, a novel from a favorite author, a forgotten treasure from New York Review Books, a travel story or a long and challenging classic. Or even the 78-year-old short story which provided the above quote. I remember the huge piles of books we'd take with us on family vacations in the narrow confines of our cabin cruiser where we slept, read, traveled and ate together in a space thirty feet by eight feet. I envied the hammock dwellers who stayed put and didn't have to leap up to handle the lines for docking or anchoring in a new harbor. Retired now, the idea of long, lazy vacation days from school or work has a different meaning in a life where "every day is Saturday" but still the reading freedom is constrained. Part of the imagined constraint is that it must be somewhere other than here. Somewhere with a hammock or a outside recliner or a beach rather than my own backyard which needs weeding. But I continue to stockpile the list, order from the library, run to the bookstore, to get ready for summer reading. I now have  High Dive
High Dive, Eileen by Otessa MoshfeghEileen, the new Chris Cleve Everyone Brave is Forgiven, the new Jenny Diski In Gratitudeand have ordered  a whole spate of new novels by women which Bethanne Patrick mentioned in her Lit Hub column today, "Five Great Beach Reads Wherever You Are,"  Even Bill Gates has a summer reading list this year:
In fact, lots of people have lists: or, best of all, Washington Post's Michael Dirda's (Bound to Please)list from last year

If I would just vanquish the tv with its summer movie collection of film noirs and newest releases, if I would not doze off in the summer sun or post dinner evenings with doors and windows open, I would read every book on my list and still may do so. My book club offered heavy reading this year, ten novels many of them dense and challenging and listed here:

Kelly Corrigan wrote this hymn to summer reading last summer at

  "To the summer reader who snorts with laughter at Tom Perrotta, Tina Fey and P.J. O’Rourke and mops up tears reading Toni Morrison and Frank McCourt, who has walked Rajasthan with Salman Rushdie and the Sudanese desert with Dave Eggers and the New England backwoods with Stephen King, who learned greed from Tom Wolfe, fear from Tobias Wolff, advocacy from Naomi Wolf, who collapsed with Elizabeth Gilbert or cringed with Jeannette Walls, who has thanked God for David Sedaris, Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen, I say, 'Me, too.'”

I look forward to not reading for purpose and discussion, just soaking up as many books as I can. And we do have a cabin in July on an island. What more does one need?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It TakesThe Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes by Joan Silber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes is a craft book for authors, but Silber also has a stellar book list with descriptions of the use of time in fiction. Even without concern for how to use time in a novel or short story, you could read the titles in her bibliography and know what good writing is all about. From Chekhov's "The Darling" to Henry James ("The Beast in the Jungle"), some Proust and deMaupassant, all the way to Denis Johnson, Alice Munro and Arundhati Roy. Many short stories are included but novels as well. There are translations from Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French and Italian. There are books I have never heard of (Ya Hua's To Live) and short stories I've missed, even a challenge such as Kiergaard's Diary. I want to jump into a hammock with this list and forget my current fiction pickups at the library. Her clarity and love of literature underlies an informative and helpful discussion of time as it is handled in story, how it is slowed down or speeded up, or made circular or fabulously upended but, quoting Kierkegaard, "life can only be understood backward but has to be lived forward." Any which way it moves in time, read Silber's succinct thoughts and explore her bibliography.

View all my reviews