Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

The Topeka SchoolThe Topeka School by Ben Lerner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nicely encapsulated summary is the author's UK agent's description :
Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the new right, the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.
The Topeka School is another "autofiction" from Ben Lerner with many aspects of memoir as he writes about growing up in Topeka, excelling in writing poetry and debating, the son of psychologists (renowned feminist Harriet Lerner who wrote The Dance of Anger is his mom). He explores language and how it affects our lives, personally and politically - you never forget he's a poet, but the language of psychology is never far from the conversation either.
One of the psychiatrists at the institute where his parents worked, Klaus would respond by delivering his signature quotation from Niels Bohr, the quotation he always quoted when he seemed to contradict himself, a saying his conversation was inexorably working toward, one he loved so much he'd stop and stand still, smiling, to deliver it: "The opposite of a truth," Klaus quoted, "is a falsehood; but the opposite of a profound truth"--pause for emphasis, sound of sprinklers, insects, push mowers, felt absence of city noise, Kenny Rogers from a passing car--"may be another profound truth." It either is or is not August (Klaus removes his anachronistic glasses, round lenses, wipes his face, replaces them, resumes walking); if I assert it's August when it isn't--simply false; but if I say that life is pain, that is true, profoundly so; so, too, that life is joy; the more profound the statement, the more reversible the deep truths are sedimented in syntax, the terms can be reversed, just as there is no principle of noncontradiction, no law of excluded middle, governing the unconscious."
I love the insertion of "Kenny Rogers from a passing car."
Deceptive signers on the TV news announcing crises in gibberish instead of sign language. The constant presence of the Phelpses, a right-wing family marching with placards. His mother circumvents similar crank callers by pretending not to hear them and having them repeat their jibes, a technique she uses with her son on the phone hysterical with grief over a "dear John" letter. Repetition in speech figures significantly, as do tornadoes. The sad violence perpetrated by a mentally challenged classmate. The father's challenges treating "lost boys" while fighting his own battles with infidelity. Adam's wily conservative debate coach.
But where are the editors? Or what was the point in the repetitions? Is this a message for the discerning reader of this dense and intelligent book?
"He passes no inn or public house, no one throws him a penny from a hay cart that he might stop for bread or beer" describes Darren's long, sad odyssey home from the lake after being abandoned by his peers on p.153. Our hero walking across Central Park at night: "He passes no inn or public house, no one throws him a penny from a hay cart that he might stop for bread or beer." p. 181
My instant crush on Donna Selkie, the curve where her shoulder became her breast." p. 161 (his father speaking as a young man) mind was picturing Sima half-awake beside Eric: fall of her hair across her pillow, slight part of her lips, curve where her shoulder met her breast." p. 171 (his father speaking again as an adult)
"The problem for him in high school was that debate made you a nerd and poetry made you a pussy..." p. 127
And it is a funny book. The scene of the percolating teen antagonists in the big box store while their mothers make social conversation was priceless.
Political and social upheavals occur alongside the protagonist's own traumas. He touches back and forth with references to his present life as a politically active father of two daughters, married to a professor, living and writing in Brooklyn.
I did not want the tale to end. Lerner's fiction has always had a strong attraction and this book is no different although perhaps his second novel, 10:04, remains my favorite.

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Sunday, September 8, 2019

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, GoneGo, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a timely and profoundly moving book about the unseen. Specifically the black African migrants who ended up in Germany after Italians rescued so many from the sea, and the hopeless future awaiting them in Europe. But it could be the Syrians, Latin Americans in the U.S. The narrator is a widowed, retired professor of Classics, who decides to "know" these people demonstrating in a plaza in Berlin for the right to work and live in Germany. He interviews them and comes to know them and it changes his life. As he befriends them, he comes to know himself and his prejudices. They are no longer faceless. Here is a to-do-list he prepare for himself and his visitors:
"Himself: schedule repairman for dishwasher
Urologist appointment
Meter reading
Karon: Eradicate corruption, cronyism, and child labor in Ghana.
Apollo: File lawsuit against the Areva Group (France); Install anew government in Niger that can't be bribed or blackmailed by foreign investors; establish the independent Tuareg state Azawad (discuss with Yussuf).
Rashid: Broker a reconciliation between C Christians and Muslims in Nigeria; persuade Boko Haram to lay down their arms.
Hermes & Ali: Prohibit the sale of weapons to Chad (from the U.S. and China); Prohibit U. S. and China drilling for oil in Chad and exporting it."

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Sunday, September 1, 2019

February 2012 Return Home from India

Having been home a week (and still confused about being asleep or awake and
what happened to  the missing day crossing the International Dateline?), I was
trying to capture my sentiments about this trip to India.  The initial return responses were all about how peaceful and quiet it is at home, how calm and orderly the motorized and pedestrian traffic flows on street and sidewalk, how clean and comfortably we live.  For India can assault the Anglo senses, particularly its urban life.  The smells of sewage, pollution, incense and spices make a heady mix.  The poverty and aggressive touts shook us immediately out of our complacency, dropping us into the unfamiliar culture. Our 22-day journey with Intrepid Travel called “Rajasthan Adventure” was a strenuous tour which combined an incredible potpourri of experiences:  ancient temples and forts including the Rat Temple devoted to those creatures, ornate palaces of rajas and rani, villages, towns, cities of every color (blue, red, ochre), a cracker factory, a camel breeding center, lacquer-making bracelet vendors, beautifully carved houses called havelis (which also served as our B&B), museums, a camel safari  to sleep on cots under the stars in the Thar dessert 13 miles from Pakistan, gypsy dancers around the campfire, home cooking with urban and rural families, cooking classes, lunch at a Jain Temple kitchen for twenty cents (tasty), an art class, a Bollywood movie in a beautiful Jaipur art deco theatre,  a boat ride to elegant dinner afloat in Udaipur’s palace hotel, bird watching at Keoladeo National Forest where we saw the white-breasted kingfisher with a neon turquoise tail, hair-raising rides, a birthday party with dancing and cake, a street dance celebrating a wedding.  Recollections of cows everywhere, lounging and chewing in the streets and huge glistening black water buffalo, coldest feet ever (marble floors combined with one of the coldest Januaries), women in sarees like brilliant butterflies in fields and markets, fascinating superstitions and rituals (soaking new birthstone ring in milk to “cool” its innate heat before wearing, bridal plans from our soon-to-be-married --in 18  changes of dress-- guide, Neha), fittings at “Lord and Tailor’s” for our traditional outfits, chai with extra ginger, English wine shops for our evening cocktails, an upside-down crescent moon, elephants lumbering along the street, the world’s largest sundial telling the exact time as it has done since the 18th C.  Aand finally the Taj Mahal at both sunset and at sunrise from across the river.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Ocean Reading

Wrapping up a busy summer of little local jaunts back from writing workshops in Denmark and in Port Townsend. We spent last weekend at our friend's ocean cabin near Iron Springs and met up with my sister and her family at Seabrook. The sound of the ocean, brilliant blue skies and enormous Engelmann Spruce trees are conducive to dreamy hours of reading, writing, beach strolls and Scrabble We've eaten well, as we do, and Leo the Labradoodle has enjoyed the ball-throwing and closeness of the pack. All three of us were able to lunch outside on the deck at the Ocean Crest for razor clams and burgers.
I am reading Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the story of a Polish astrologist-teacher-retired bridge engineer-caretaker who reveres animals and investigates a series of mysterious killings of hunters and abusers of four-legged critters in her tiny town. Funny and well written, much more than a mystery but a compulsive reading experience.

I'm also browsing Jia Tolentino's Trick Mirror includes a piece on Ecstasy recalling my own experimentation with MDA "the love drug."in the early Seventies. I pick up the new Alexandra Fuller: Travel Light, Move Fast and Robert Macfarlane's masterful and thoughtful Underland, a Deep Time Journey which calls out for slow careful reading; perhaps I need to buy it.
Next I pick up a New York Times Magazine from last spring to read about a Nobel Literature Prize contender from Australia I have never even heard of named Gerald Murnane. I want to track down his Stream System, a collection of short pieces.

The same magazine has Anne Carson translation of the Sappho Fragment 31 as the poet watches a woman sitting next to a man, laughing:
"...thin, fire is racing under skin
and in eyes not sight and drumming fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead--or almost
I seem to me."

Leo looks longingly at me for a walk and who can resist Leo? I'm struggling. Unadulterated joy is his m.o. as I rise and grab the Chuck-it.

At last, I've finished Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, another of the odd utterly introspective poetic books I favor lately. A series of connected stories, chapters? (about) the thoughts of a young woman in a rental cottage in England or Ireland and her daily ministrations in the kitchen, the garden, the pond, on her bike. She's on leave from her academic career. She sleeps with lovers, eats, drinks, throws a party, writes, talks on the phone, chats with her landlady, fears an underwater monster and muses heavily on all of these preoccupations as she studies the stars. Her writing is dense and introspective and the narrator's voice and quotidian thoughts kept my interest and admiration in recent weeks. She circles round and round in her thinking arriving at the most surprising conclusions, or just pond-ers. Example passages below:

After spying a young man on her walk as he "made his way back down the hill. Away from me, head in hood, hands in pockets. It was as if the sifted moon, weak as chalk dust, hand been abruptly discarded. Just for a moment everything gathered in dreadful suspension, my eyes gaped cold and enormous--and then it all glided backwards into an atmosphere of broadening redundancy, intersected by a sense of abnegation." p. 139

An interaction about buying Christmas holly: "The whole thing was sullied and I remember at the time feeling faintly that I should just leave it but then I located the cause of that regrettably irresolute sensation to an area in me where snobbery and superstition overlap most abominably and I chided myself for being so affected and fey--what are you some sort of overstrung contessa, I thought--certainly not, then wish them well and get going." p. 159

"He came to see me, and in fact he ate some of the vegetables I'd grown and he said they were lovely, which they were. We ate oranges, too, quite often in fact eating Spanish oranges became a bit of a thing. They are very nice to eat oranges, when you've been having sex for ages. They cut through the fog and smell very organised, and so a sort of structure resumes and then it is perfectly possible to make a plan, such as going out somewhere nice for dinner." Morning, Noon & Night, p. 17

Where have you gone this all-too-short summer? What are you reading?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Lanny by Max Porter

LannyLanny by Max Porter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mas Porter uses his virtuoso writing skills to captivate the reader of his haunting story of a peculiar singing child who becomes lost in the forest as he builds his "museum of magic things." Usually, I eschew accounts of children, fanciful fables and mothering stories. Porter led me into this book like an obedient puppy. I was confused, impressed and spellbound into sleeplessness. The POV changed willy nilly. There's a fanciful creature whose lines run all over the page, dipping and circling like the story in our hands. At times, it made no sense but I couldn't put it down. Perhaps he's a bit harsh with the father's imperfections and the nosy nasty old busybody neighbor, Mrs. Larton, is a chance for the author to run wild as Lanny's mom takes her on:
"I just wonder if you've seen my son, you awful bitch, your pissy clingfilm hag and by the way I hate hate hate you. I despise your smell of fetid carpets and toast; Silk Cut, marmalade, gas and antiques. I feel sick just thinking about your yellow-stained lamb's-ear fuzzy upper lip, your heirloom rings stacked on your Churchillian pug-knuckles, the inside of your huge dank house, your weighty silver biro in your splotched hand as you scratch away at the puzzles in your evil newspaper."
The artist Mad Pete is a hero throughout and the mother is a mom any of us would love even if she writes crime stories. Breathtaking. Read it.

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Monday, March 25, 2019

The Baltimore Book of the Dead by Marion Winik

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Baltimore Book of the Dead is a compassionate, funny tribute to dead friends, acquaintances and people the author would have enjoyed knowing. I couldn't put it down even though one needs to take a breath after each two-page vignette to savor the beautiful writing, the pinpoint characterization. An unexpected treasure which I started again as soon as I'd finished.

This is from her foreward:
"As far as death at the dinner table goes, some respectful space must be made for grief. Grief is socially awkward, if not all-out anti-social, difficult to accommodate even in one-on-one conversations. Even now, when I mention that I widowed in my first marriage, or that my first baby was stillborn, I see people's faces fall, and I rush to explain that it was a long, long time ago and it was very sad but I am fine now. I really am. But I am also trying to spare them the awkwardness of having to come up with some appropriate or more likely inappropriate response, perhaps making some well-intentioned but doomed attempt to help me get over it, possibly by implying that it was God's will.
Which brings me back to the time when I was not fine, after those deaths and others, as well, and there I find part of my motivation for writing these books, for dwelling so long in the graveyard for finding a way to talk about it. Ultimately, instead of attempting to flee from the pain of loss, I decided to spend time with it, to linger, to let these thoughts and feelings bloom inside me into something else.
Why do we build memorials, decorate grave sites, set up shrines, stitch an AIDS quilt, paint three murals for Freddie Gray; what are these ghostly white bicycles woven with flowers on Charles and Roland avenues?"

Monday, March 4, 2019

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

Those Who KnewThose Who Knew by Idra Novey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Those Who Knew held my attention from the beginning with its first sentence: "Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident, a woman reached into her tote bag and found a [worn] sweater inside that didn't belong to her." She tries unsuccessfully to return it to the clerk in the store. How did it get in her bag? Who was Maria P. and what did her death have to do with the woman with the bag? There are lingerie mysteries, disappearing stains and ghosts. In short, pithy chapters, the author introduces a small cast of characters living in an unnamed island nation assumed to be in Latin America with its corrupt politics, disparate economy and striking students and its strong connection to the "northerners" assumed to be North Americans. A surrealist script for a play or two, and a journal feed the reader's sense of confusion and questioning. Lena is a key character and her friend and activist, Olga who runs a bookstore called Seek the Sublime or Die, provides a perspective to Lena's resentment of the abusive Senator who kissed her after she made her first Molotov cocktail. His viciousness and suspicious abuse of others threatens his office, although it's a stinky pig farm which topples him. One of my favorite lines: Olga to Lena "I think you're reading too much Saramago." Some rich food descriptions liven Oscar, the baker from the north. And this depiction of a failing marriage: "all that had been solid between them begin to liquefy, the edges of their marriage melting as if it had consisted of no more than a block of ice....[he] felt the drip, drip between them quickening." The book had some editing flaws which irritated me but the writing and pacing made for satisfying reading even with abrupt ending.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

The Mountain LionThe Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford is stunning in terms of prose and story in its beautiful evocation of California and Colorado settings, but most memorably in relating the disgust of children for adults. When her brother's lascivious remark passes the line from childhood to adulthood, ("he has literally beat a rivet of hatred into my heart by a remark he passed on the train today") ten-year-old Molly, two years younger than Ralph, despises him and their special bond is broken. Molly is a fantastic character supposedly based on Stafford, a writer, a misanthrope filled with hatred for herself and others, witty and mean, and a smart aleck " [Molly}returned her cup to the tea wagon and said, “If you will pardon me, this is the pause in the day’s occupation which is known as the children’s hour.”), who seeks funds from the president for a typewriter and collects hibernating ladybugs to send to the university for scientific explanation.
"Ralph's childhood and his sister's expired at that moment of the train's entrance into the surcharged valley. It was a paradox, for now they would be going into a tunnel with no end, now that they had heard the devil speak."
The landscape descriptions are alive.
"There was a silence. Studebaker and Falcon had calmed down now and were cropping side by side in the middle of the meadow. It was not really silent; there was a steady undercurrent of the noises of the land, bu they were so closely woven together than only a sudden sound, like the short singing of a meadowlark, made you realize that everywhere there was a humming and a rustling. And, then, the separate sound, the song or a splashing in the river, was like a bright daub on a dun fabric."
"They saw the mountain lion standing still with her head up, facing them, her long tail twitching. She was honey-colored all over save for her face which was darker, a sort of yellow -brown. They had a perfect view of her, for the mesa there was bare of anything and the sun illuminated her so clearly that it was as if they saw her close up. She allowed them to look at her for only a few seconds and then she bounded across the place where the columbines grew in summer and disappeared among the trees."
I keep finding the best books already on my shelves.

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