Category Archives

Book Reviews

ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

A Reckoning with the Past: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’ by David Grann

Killers of the Flower MoonIn a time where many of us are revising our understanding of American history, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 339), presents another world of facts some have attempted to forget. The book, a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, is a work of stunning archival research whose prose is as laudable as it is grisly. From the outset, Grann’s book proves a necessary journalistic exposé – one that was years in the making – about a campaign to marry and then murder Osage Indians on their own reservation. But between the lines, Grann has written something else: a wrenching Western true-crime mystery about a tribe nearly destroyed by white greed.

As its subtitle suggests, Killers unearths the remarkable story of the “Reign of Terror” against the Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the early 20th century. The allotment agreement given to the Osage Indians by the U.S. government in the 1870s included a rare provision that stated the Osage owned the “headrights” to any “oil, gas, coal, or other minerals” beneath the land they owned, rights which could only be inherited, not bought or sold. Soon after, oil was discovered all across Oklahoma and the registered members of the tribe became wealthy beyond imagining. Grann even recounts the outrage found in articles about the Osages’s fortunes, instances where “the press claimed that whereas one out of every eleven Americans owned a car, virtually every Osage had eleven of them.” But over the course of the following years, slowly at first—then in larger numbers—individual Osage began to disappear or fall strangely ill.

Grann’s narrative starts with the “whodunnit” disappearance and murder of one Osage woman, Anna Brown, and grows to encompass the dozens, if not hundreds (since many deaths went unreported) of Osage who were poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, or otherwise killed in the early 1900s. Grann traces the subsequent investigations by a nascent FBI with considerable intensity, cannily pushing readers to race through the book to find out who killed Anna Brown, Charles Whitehorn, Joe Bates, and so many others. With every page, Grann builds suspense without ever reducing the victims to mere historical subjects. Each person is rendered vivid and captivating throughout, a feat that doubles the horror of the events described.

To add to the urgency of this story, acknowledging that the past is always present, Grann describes his interviews with many of the descendants of the victims of this “Reign of Terror.” These interviews, described in the book’s final section titled “The Reporter,” are perhaps the most fascinating part of the book. “The Reporter,” of course, is Grann, and his attempt to uncover what has happened is a happening in itself, extending the story of Killers into our time rather than pretending it exists apart from us. Switching to the first-person, Grann here also candidly reveals the scope of the work involved in producing historical nonfiction. He evocatively describes the near-mania that can take over when assuming such a project, with “stacks of files” growing into towers in his office as he pores over thousands of FBI documents, archives, wills and testaments, and rarely touched archival photographs.

By detailing the herculean process necessary for unearthing this story, Grann humbly points us toward the real debt he and his work owe to individuals like Kathryn Red Corn, director of the Osage Nation Museum, and Margie Burkhart, murder victim Anna Brown’s great-grandniece. Grann makes it clear that without their insight and willingness to assist his project, Killers could not exist. And in acknowledging their pain and contribution, he underscores the impetus in producing this piece of history: to reckon with the past’s effects on the present. The Reign of Terror on the Osage did not just rob its people of their money – it fragmented families, robbed children of their parents, grandparents of their children, and the tribe of its brothers of sisters. Killers, Grann makes clear, is about, for, and in a significant sense by the Osage, both living and deceased. Grann makes it plain that those losses are still felt today, and although white history has forgotten them, “the Reign of Terror had ravaged–still ravaged–generations.” Killers does not dredge up the past for its own sake, but wisely grapples with its effects on the present.

Because of Grann’s journalistic-historical hybrid approach, we never lose sight of the sight of the here and now: those still suffering today from wrongs no one can make right. While his research could have filled a textbook on Osage-U.S. relations, Grann hones his work instead into a deep, riveting mystery. As a result, Killers of the Flower Moon becomes the most compelling read of the year, shining with a sincerity of purpose and a rare clearness of mind worthy of the lives lost.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Delicious Cocktail of Topics, Tones: ‘In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth: Poems from Far and Wide’

81e1JQnEzOLBecause I love poetry, I always open a new book with some trepidation. I so much want it to be good, to be transformative, and as I turn to the first page I brace for disappointment. But from its intriguing title to its diminutive footprint In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth: Poems from Far and Wide (McSweeney’s; 184 pages) sparkles. Honed from the archives of Poetry International by a trio of editors (Ilya Kaminski, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan), the poems span centuries and countries. Poets range from standbys such as Baudelaire, Celan, Neruda, Rilke, Walcott; to acclaimed living poets—Hirshfeld, Ryan, Zagajewski; to contemporary poets from multiple countries whose names and work you may not know.

So what binds the collection together? The editors have chosen poems that share a sensibility that combines wonder and literate despair. Most of the poems fit on a single page; very few are more than two. The poems share a straightforward diction combined with mysterious content. They tend to often end with a twist. The title poem by Malena Mörling that opens the book is a good example. Here is how it ends:

My arms and legs still work,
I can run if I have to
or sit motionless purposefully
until I am here and I am not here
the way death is present
in things that are alive
like salsa music
and the shrill laughter of the bride
as she leaves the wedding
or the bald child playing jacks
outside the wig shop.

That wonderful series of images left me short of breath, made me think, made me reread the poem from the beginning. I can’t remember when I have read through an anthology with such interest, anticipating the pleasure of each poem, I had to stop again and again to ponder the poem as if staring at the after image of a blaze of light, trying to define its source.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Blank at the Center of It All: ‘theMystery.doc’ by Matthew McIntosh

9780802124913On page after page of Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc (Grove Press), redactions black out key words, crucial questions, and even whole sections of text. I don’t know how far I had gotten through the 1,660-page novel before I stopped expecting the eventual, climactic unveiling of the hidden words, the code-break that would deliver me from all my head-scratching. Surely, it was hundreds of pages after the flip-book sequence that begins on Page 73 with a voice shouting, “>HEY” (flip page) “>DO YOU THINK YOUR SAVIORS COMING BACK” (flip page) “>WHATS HE LOST DOWN HERE”—before I stopped looking for whatever it was that had been lost in those black blocks and began to focus, instead, on the strange constellations of voices and images arranged around the voids.

It can be difficult to recognize a work of real vision. At times McIntosh’s book is profoundly un-fun to read. Without warning the text breaks apart into a cacophony of (seemingly) non-sequitur plot shards, screenshots from classic films, and blips of (seemingly) random dialogue separated by long stretches of emptiness or indecipherable symbols. An uncharitable reader could easily fill up all the black and blank space in this book with dismissals. But the author’s formal trickery can’t be written off as merely evasive, pretentious, or coy. Setting aside the reader’s perfectly valid expectations of entertainment and pleasure, theMystery.doc is some sort of masterpiece—obscure or vulnerable by jagged turns, but in every moment energized by a self-assured sense of purpose: the novel knows, even if you are, for a long time, completely in the dark.

McIntosh employs a grand-scale version of the interlocking vignette structure that made his first book, Well, such an exciting and unique debut. Particular voices and narratives emerge, vanish, and recur over the span of several-hundred-page chapters. A photo sequence begun on page 325 returns on page 1,600. The story of a drowned couple is told and retold. The Twin Towers fall again and again. The novel accumulates meaning the way many mosaic-style works do: by the resonances (or dissonances) created between fragments, and—more mystically—by a kind of sustained déjà vu, which reminds us with echoes of familiar dialogue or repeated photos that no detail is irrelevant to the larger image being composed.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Urban Hymns: ‘You Private Person’ by Richard Chiem

You Private Person“I smoke a cigarette, imagine flocks of birds in the blue sky, and realize I am always going to be a sad person.” So begins Richard Chiem’s You Private Person (125 pages; Sorry House), a reprinted and revised edition of the Seattle author’s first collection of stories. Often in the form of sparse and slender vignettes, Chiem’s stories offer muted portraits of existential malaise among young urbanites. Originally published in 2012 by Scrambler Books, the stories and their running order have since been updated by Chiem, who has already garnered praise from alternative literature luminaries such as Dennis Cooper and Kate Zambreno.

The stories in You Private Person are, by definition, quiet; they appear to take place in a pocket universe comprised entirely of those still and unremarkable moments that make up most of our waking hours, whether it’s watching the clock tick by at work (“I have twenty-two minutes left until I get to go home, she says. That’s like one Simpson’s episode”), or silently listening to the car radio with your partner (“I like that we wait in the car for songs to end before we get out”). These empty minutes are frequently extended for the duration of entire stories, lulling the reader into a false sense of security as You Private Person interrogates the unfeeling stupor of contemporary existence, so that when something momentous does occur—a man falling to his death from a hotel rooftop, a car colliding with a semi-truck on the freeway—the violence has a shattering effect.

In a series of interconnected stories titled “sociopaths,” the narrator contemplates acting out the murder of the man who sexually abused his girlfriend during her childhood. In the icy, Raymond Carver-esque “what if, wendy,” a man derails what could have been an after-bar hookup with a conversation about his own moral failings. “The thing is, I don’t know how to be good anymore,” he confides. Elsewhere, the arresting “how to survive a car accident” details Chiem’s 2008 automobile crash, a traumatic experience that the reader senses must have been life-altering for the author. Each of these stories capture characters arriving at moments of reflection—instances when they are inspired to pause, drink in hand, and contemplate how they managed to go so astray in life. Chiem doesn’t judge these characters, and instead allows them to draw their own conclusions: taking stock of the mess her personal life has become, the long-suffering wife of an ill-tempered boxer muses, “I think I just wanted everyone to be happy.”

Chiem’s prose matches his steely characters turn for turn. His style is stripped down, minimalist but poetic, with frequent pop culture references (the 2003 suicide of Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung looms over one story). Recognizable indie acts like Rilo Kiley and Broken Social Scene play in the background of many scenes. Unsurprisingly considering its original publication date, You Private Person does feels like a document of the mid-Obama years, a time of relative societal calm when the primary concern of these characters’ lives would have indeed likely been the struggle to pay bills and maintain a steady relationship.

Chiem proves adept at examining our obsession with the notion of The Other; many of these stories find their perspective pulling away from their ostensible male narrators in order to consider the interiority of the women they love: “Sometimes she cannot tell whether or not she is being cruel or sarcastic or playful on purpose, especially when she doesn’t have anything clever to say. Inside her head, intentions misfire.” When asked in an interview about his tendency to empathize more with the female characters in his work, Chiem stated, “For me it was about giving particular characters a voice, even though they don’t really say much. It’s about having their lives lived.”

These lives and the quiet tremors they create help form the bedrock of Chiem’s stories; they’re why he’s swiftly becoming one of our great chroniclers of urban melancholy. You Private Person understands that sometimes, when faced with the weight of the decisions we’ve made, both good and bad, and the consequences they’ve wrought in our lives, the only choice we really have is to start the next shift at work.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Language of Trauma: “Incest” by Christine Angot

IncestWhen I started reading Christine Angot’s Incest (207 pages; Archipelago Books), I wondered whether its erratic style was simply the result of how the French language, translated closely, sounds in English. But I soon discovered that it’s not just the translation: French and English-speaking readers alike have found Angot’s book untidy and difficult to decipher. From an artistic point of view, I must commend the translator, Tess Lewis, for resisting the urge to force Angot’s narrative into coherent and clear prose. Rather, her English translation of Incest strives to replicate the same frazzled reading experience as the original French.

Incest is a book that blurs the lines between a novel and stylized nonfiction. The story explores the life of a young woman (who, in a meta touch, shares the author’s name) reeling from a turbulent lesbian love affair as she begins to navigate the emotional trauma of her past, in particular the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. The narrator herself is aware of the fractured nature in which she relays her experience. She chides herself, partway through, for remaining so obscure:

“I punctuate my sentences in an unusual way, I’m going to try to stop. I will use punctuation only for clarity, so that readers can find their way. The clarity of my statements. So that my statements are clear, and understood. A bit fastidious, maybe, but this time properly. I won’t write, anymore, for example, ‘I licked her, this woman, whose child is a dog,’ I won’t write that anymore, what’s the point?”

At times the narrator attempts to be more logical, but inevitably slips back into her circular, obsessive mutterings. It is shocking, then, to be faced with the visceral nature of her memories. Angot’s testimony of her abusive teenage years proves both vivid and immersive. You can tell that the narrator, by describing her experiences, is being forced to relive them as well. The book struggles to make sense of anything else in the narrator’s life as it dances around the very real pain of her past.

Some critics hailed Incest as a fresh, brutally honest recounting of a traumatic experience. And yet others stated they couldn’t make it more than 40 pages through its convoluted and frequently repetitive narrative. There are even those who have dismissed the book as sensationalistic navel-gazing attempting to ride its taboo content to popularity. A 2013 Telegraph article labelled Angot as “France’s Queen of Shock-Fiction.”

This seems to imply that there’s something inauthentic about Angot. But there’s nothing inauthentic about the way she examines incest’s effect on her character’s cognition, or her ability to derive meaning and draw connections from even the most horrific of personal experiences:

“I associate things others don’t associate, I bring together things that don’t fit together. Dog-child, incest-homosexuality or AIDS, cousin-couple, blonde-bitch, money-hate, movie star-bitch, Leonore-gold, mass grave-gold mine, Holocaust-ghetto, worker-black, etc.”

Angot calls these associations “incestuous ideas,” and believes that the incest eliminated her mind’s ability to recognize partitions between concepts:

“I reached a point of no return, the word associations were threatening, incestuous ideas were filling my head…There is no partition, everything touches, nothing is untouchable…I’m not making this up. The brain cannot be divided into separate parts. It’s not that I’m missing something upstairs, as the saying goes, it’s a house without walls…”

She’s right. You can’t make stuff like this up. Now it will be for English readers to decide whether navigating Incest’s murkiest passages and disturbing subject matter is worth the price to experience Angot’s searing vision.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Between the Grotesque and the Real: ‘Her Body and Other Parties’ by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other PartiesHer Body and Other Parties (Graywolf; 241 pages) by Carmen Maria Machado, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, lives up to the critical acclaim it has accrued. This collection of stories utilizes elements of gothic, speculative, and horror fiction to examine life in a female body and its relationship to sex, food, disease, and the supernatural.

Following horror tradition, objects carry great significance here. The first story, “The Husband Stitch,” was inspired by Alvin Schwartz’s children’s horror story “The Green Ribbon,” in which a woman relies on a green choker to keep her head attached to the rest of her body. Machado’s rendition follows this green-ribboned woman’s relationship with her husband, whose curious fingers constantly mess with the ribbon—trying to slip under it or untie it. The woman, dismayed by this invasion, asks him to let her have this one thing, this one secret. But he cannot.

Machado’s use of horror amplifies the bizarre pains, joys, and restrictions women face. In “Eight Bites,” a woman’s basement is haunted by her old body after she undergoes gastric bypass surgery. When the narrator confronts her former self, it is a soft, helpless ghoul: “It is just a body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth. Just soft indents. I crouch down and stroke its shoulder, or what I think is its shoulder. It turns and looks at me. It has no eyes, but still, it looks at me. She looks at me. She is awful but honest. She is grotesque but she is real.”

“Real Women Have Bodies” is a speculative piece which imagines a world where, for no discernable reason, some women start “going incorporeal,” becoming more transparent and permeable until they are essentially nothing. Sex is an important component of this story, as the main characters struggle to hold onto their bodily joy while they still can. (“I come fast and hard,” the narrator says, “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall”). Some of the vanished women, entirely dematerialized, allow themselves to be sewn into the lining of prom dresses. In Machado’s work, emotions materialize and materials become embedded with emotions.

She also has a fascination with pandemics, which she explores in not just “Real Women Have Bodies” but elsewhere. “Inventory” recalls a modern viral plague through one woman’s detailed list of her sexual encounters. The threat of disease hangs heavy over these women as they try to live their lives with as much happiness (and as many orgasms) as they can get away with before being swallowed up by death or disappearance.

Many of Machado’s characters are haunted. “The Resident” tells the story of an artist in residency at a rural mansion who cannot shake off the abuse she experienced as an adolescent at the hands of her fellow Girl Scouts. In “Difficult at Parties,” a woman tries to get over a terrible sexual trauma by watching porn, and realizes she can hear the thoughts of the characters in the films. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” takes the notion of a haunting to the next level: after watching Law & Order straight through with a high fever, Machado was inspired to synopsize an SVU from a parallel universe, where the same characters are plagued by doppelgangers and victims of “especially heinous” crimes, including ghost girls with bells for eyes. “She stands over Benson’s bed, the right bell tinkling faintly, and then the left, and then the right again,” Mochado writes. “This happens four nights in a row, at 2:07 am. Benson starts sleeping with a crucifix and pungent ropes of garlic, because she does not understand the difference between vampires and murdered teenagers. Not yet.”

By taking to its ultimate (and extreme) conclusion the significance of inhabiting a female body, Machado makes the supernatural and madness feel eerily familiar.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Teenage Ecosystem: ‘All the Dirty Parts’ by Daniel Handler

All the Dirty PartsWith his new novel, All the Dirty Parts (144 pages; Bloomsbury USA), Daniel Handler once again displays a preternatural understanding of teenagers (or an exceptionally detailed memory of his own youthful experience). Handler’s book is the first to make me remember what it was like to be seventeen years-old – in a good way – which is a testament to how honestly the book captures the frantic energy and sexual drive of that time, as well as the pain and confusion which can trail close behind. Handler, who appears in ZYZZYVA No. 76 and No. 100, and is already a legend under his pen name of Lemony Snicket, lends his biting and bittersweet wit to Cole, our sex-crazed narrator. Wisely, Handler leaves out the sort of romantic fluff many novels about teens cloak themselves in, and instead hones in on “the dirty parts.” All the Dirty Parts leaves behind the fantasies of “happily ever after,” in favor of the more immediate happy endings most teens think about.

Handler’s slender novel passes through a year in Cole’s life, although time moves in jumps and starts. We see Cole move through several short, sexually driven relationships before they cool off and he ultimately finds himself involved more deeply than anticipated with his best friend, Alec, and later Grisaille, a French foreign exchange student. Cole can be aggravating and unlikeable but if we were honest many of us would admit we weren’t all that likable as teens, either.

What distinguishes Cole’s story is Handler’s sparse description of the fragile and vicious ecosystem created by teens. They rarely see themselves as cruel, least of all when it comes to sex; they can, however, deeply feel the cruelty inflicted upon them. The power disparity that exists in their minds–the “me versus the world” mentality–comes through in Cole’s stream-of-consciousness narrative. We find ourselves on his side through several repulsive episodes, temporarily forgetting other characters’ feelings. This very narrowness of focus, the literal inability to see other points of view, constitutes the novel’s summation of what adolescence is. In other circumstances, this claustrophobia would be irritating; in a novel about a teenage boy’s sex life, one wonders how it could be written any other way.

Divided into sections of varying lengths representing Cole’s trains of thought, the novel gives us short passages acutely fixated on one messy emotion or moment that can accompany sex—rage, confusion, betrayal, even addiction—before halting and veering to the next. The absence of traditional chapters is refreshing, and contributes to the breathless, almost carnal anticipation of the next section. It might be possible to read All the Dirty Parts at a normal pace, but every part invites the reader to rush headlong until the last page, which stops us like a brick wall.

Form follows content, and Handler expertly wields both to produce an all-around startling work. The depth of emotion we experience through Cole’s eyes is matched perfectly by the sparseness of language. Handler’s diction is sometimes poetic, sometimes merely functional. In both cases, his wording seems entirely true to what a teen like Cole might think or say—a feat other novelists have struggled to match.

Readers may find the moments when they dislike Cole the most serve as a painful reminder of those moments as a teen that hurt the most: the girl who stole your boyfriend, the one that got away, perhaps the first time someone looked you up and down and then looked away–or the times you can recall doing something similar to someone else. The intense reality of All the Dirty Parts comes from its curious ability to draw out the memory of our teen selves—the awkwardness and the ecstasy alike.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

L.A. Story: ‘Cake Time’ by Siel Ju

Cake TimeIn 1985, Lorrie Moore announced her arrival on the literary scene with “How to be the Other Woman,” the provocative opening salvo that began her first story collection, Self-Help; she has since gone on to become one of the most revered voices in literary fiction. For writer Siel Ju (who appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 81) to start her novel-in-stories Cake Time (192 pages; Red Hen Press) with the similarly titled, and similarly told-in-second-person story “How Not to Have an Abortion” is a bold move, to say the least. Yet Siel Ju’s voice rings clear as her own, thanks in part to her specificity of detail (“The clinic accepts only money orders, so you stop at Bank of America for your eighty dollars, at Wells Fargo for his eighty dollars, then at Ralph’s, the busy one on Third and Vermont, to buy the money order”), and the uniqueness of her perspective—the story’s protagonist must contend with her stern Korean immigrant mother while trying to navigate the fast-paced, surface-obsessed landscape of ‘90s Los Angeles.

From there, Cake Time follows our unnamed narrator on her journey through young adulthood, relaying her various temp jobs and love affairs in a series of interconnected short stories. In the titular piece, the narrator and her college roommate Carrie persuade Carrie’s brother to drunkenly fornicate in front of them after a birthday party; in “Easy Target,” she hesitantly joins the dating website Match.com only to find herself paired with a callous womanizer who takes her to a swingers club. Yet most of the stories in Cake Time are hardly so risqué; instead, Ju focuses on the quiet disappointments and lingering sense of dissatisfaction that can follow us through our careers and relationships. She displays an uncanny knack for revealing the complex thought processes of her main character, depicting the way emotions often change from moment to moment when making love or peering into a partner’s eyes: “I got that tense, fraught feeling again, like I needed to act quickly, I needed to figure it out before I lost my chance for good…and for some reason that suddenly brought into focus the hilarious absurdity of our night, my life. For a second I had the urge to burst out laughing, though the feeling faded, and I didn’t.”

In this way, her novel-in-stories proves not unlike Mary Gaitskill early collections Bad Behavior or Because They Wanted To. Siel Ju is similarly candid and often unflattering in her portrayal of her female narrator’s psychology. Ju’s protagonist drifts from lover to lover—a sea of indistinguishably handsome young men with interchangeable, all-American-sounding names like Sam, Matt, Christian, and Jeff—without ever finding the elusive something she appears to be searching for. “‘Good luck,’ [Jeff] said. ‘With everything.’ I wished him the same. Then we let go, I gave him a little wave, and we went our separate ways, he to his car, I to mine.”

Through this tapestry of short stories, we watch as the narrator slowly ages before our eyes and characters reappear over the course of her life. In doing so, Ju displays how self-discovery is seldom about arriving at some grand epiphany, but rather interrogating how we feel in the moment. She expertly taps into the existential malaise of many thirty-something urban dwellers, who find themselves feeling strangely adrift despite their respectable careers and “fit, clean, and exact” apartments.

“I thought about how nothing was fixed, that everything—songs, events—held only the meanings affixed to them,” the narrator muses after learning her closest friend will be leaving L.A. “I wondered if my mind had been perpetually stuck in one spot, dissolutely clinging to the uncertainty it was familiar with, adding that scrim to everything I saw. For a few seconds I saw myself as floating in a limpid, amniotic darkness that was comforting, but also keeping me in an ineffectual fetal state.”

For Siel Ju’s narrator, there are no easy answers or tidy morals to unpack after a relationship fizzles—that’s just life. Cake Time concludes abruptly, leaving us without a concrete sense of where her character might be headed, no promise of a “Season 2” in which her existential doubts will be banished and the right choices revealed. We know she will be okay, if only because we know, most likely, we will be okay. Though it begins in the Nineties, Cake Time is a great story collection for our present moment; an exploration of love, morality, and contentment that proves such concepts can be as murky and uncertain as a wisp of cigarette smoke outside a chic bar.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Family in the Wild: ‘A Loving, Faithful Animal’ by Josephine Rowe

A Loving, Faithful AnimalAfter the recent death of a beloved family pet, I was looking forward to reading something sweet and poignant. A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult; 176 pages) by Josephine Rowe promptly disabused me of any such hope. The titular loving, faithful animal is ripped to shreds in the first few pages.

Rowe’s book, set in a small town in Australia, radiates with a sense of danger, but not in the expected ways; it’s not concerned with being wickedly subversive or delivering an emotional sucker-punch. It’s a family story, narrated in several parts by five family members. The premise is simple: an abusive father leaves his family, perhaps for good. The ecosystem of domestic abuse it reveals is not unfamiliar—Father is haunted by the Vietnam War (about 60,000 Australians served in that conflict), and beats his wife, who beats on her daughter Lani, who in turn manipulates and harasses her sister, Ru. The eccentric Uncle Tetch maintains a benovelent existence in the background, fixing bikes and radios and attempting to protect the women of the house from his brother. Ru, whose second-person narration bookends the novel, wonders about the universality of her family’s strife: Are all family scripts so interchangeable?

The sense of danger comes from the way Rowe, a former Stegner Fellow now living in Tasmania, weaves this family’s ecosystem into the wider southeast Australian wilderness, lending the story a feeling of urgency and rawness. Every time you settle into the familiar narrative of suburban linoleum depression, a spider the size of a hand crawls across the ceiling. In this book characters can’t go for a walk without crunching cicada husks beneath their shoes, pass a fence without seeing a strung-up fox (both a trophy and a warning), or hear gunshots without wondering if someone finally got the giant black cat that’s been stalking the area.

Rowe doesn’t use quotation marks, so dialogue blends into characters’ thoughts and descriptions of the environment. This stylistic choice, rather than muting the dialogue, turns the ambient volume up: the crunches, crackles, and gunshots. What people say and think in Rowe’s book is punctuated by the sharp sounds of the parched world around them, a world just waiting to burst into bushfire. Speech is similarly sharp: the family speaks in short phrases laden with Australian twang. Skinny as a whippet–you could put your hands like this around my waist–and just that fast. Tenderness emerges amid the harshness of their dialogue. The mother, cooing to a pair of angora rabbits as she tries to gently comb tangles and burrs out of their hair: I should just shave the two of you. I should knit jumpers out of you little dolts. That’d be something.

A Loving, Faithful Animal is the story of a family trying to rediscover their identity after the abusive presence they once molded themselves around has disappeared. Rowe depicts her characters searching in the wake of their former selves for the moments, objects, and places they can use to construct their new identities. Rowe’s way of emphasizing the landscape to express her characters’ inner worlds proves both contemplative and thrilling.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Last Man in the West: ‘A Texas Trilogy’ by Larry McMurtry

A Texas TrilogyI once talked to Larry McMurtry on the telephone.

I was doing a piece for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, pegged to Terms of Endearment, on why his works were so compulsively suitable for adaptation to the big (and little) screen – this was after Hud and The Last Picture Show, but before Lonesome Dove or Brokeback Mountain.

I was getting nowhere trying to reach him, until a friend tipped me off that he was staying at the Beverly Wilshire with his son, on a stopover before a skiing trip.

When I got connected to McMurtry’s room, and explained what I was up to, he was a little surprised, and polite enough – but direct. “I don’t do interviews,” he said. “I just don’t see the point.”

It’s that kind of understated honesty that, after decamping from the desolate Archer City ranch he was brought up in, helped him survive the wilds of the Stanford writing program, where, as a Stegner Fellow, he hung out with Ken Kesey and other latter-day Merry Pranksters, but kept his hands on the wheel, like fellow classmate Robert Stone.

At 81, and approaching the end of a distinguished literary career, amid (apparently premature) rumors of retirement, his early work is being celebrated with A Texas Trilogy (722 pages; Liveright), the re-issue of his first three novels, Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; and The Last Picture Show.

In a fresh introduction to the new volume, McMurtry humble brags Horseman, Pass By – the title came from Yeats, but was discarded by the filmmakers for the simpler sobriquet Hud – but allows it some credit for “occasionally pleasing lyricism.’’

Well, more than that.

 New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously dissed the movie (and the book) for its sanctimonious portrayal of Homer Bannon, the cattleman who unhappily agrees to let government regulators inspect his herd for mad cow disease – and allows them to be slaughtered once it is confirmed. As usual, Kael far preferred the antihero, Hud (as the movie billboard campaign memorably put it, Paul Newman is Hud), for his virility and lack of pretension, in comparison to Homer or Hud’s younger, more sensitive and idealistic half-brother, Lonnie.

But her real critique seemed to boil down to a less subtle form of social snobbery: at the end of the day, these people were…hicks.

It’s the kind of assault being leveled these days on “Trump country” – even as pictures flooded the news recently of burly boaters rescuing older hurricane refugees, many of them African-American, from roofs and car tops. This is not to discount the myriad ways in which our current President is awful – a gargoylish caricature of our worst collective prejudices – but an acknowledgement that there is a deeper reality than what we see on screens (let alone tweets). To be rooted in the country is advantageous, as well as alarming.

Ask Elvis.

Towards the end of Horseman, Lonnie articulates some of this as he tries to escape his troubles at a dance after a rodeo in which a friend was crushed by a bull:

“The band was playing one of those songs of Hank Williams’, the one about the wild side of life, and the music floated over the car tops and touched me…Only the tune of the song reached me, but the tune was enough. It fit the night and the country and the way I was feeling, and fit them better than anything I knew. What few stories the dancing people had to tell were already told in the worn-out words of songs like that one, and their kind of living, the few things they knew and lived to a fare-thee-well in the sad high tune. City people probably wouldn’t believe there were folks simple enough to live their lives out in sentiments like those – but they didn’t know.”

It is a complex fate being an American, indeed.

“This was the small-town West I and so many of my friends came out of – escaping from the swaggering small-town hotshots like Hud,’’ writes Kael, who was born in Petaluma. “But I didn’t remember any boys like Brandon DeWilde’s Lon: he wasn’t born in the West or in anyone’s imagination; that seventeen-year-old blank sheet of paper has been handed down from generations of lazy hack writers.’’

Although McMurtry admitted, with typical modesty, that the polarities between Homer and no-good Hud were overdrawn, clearly there must have been some sensitive souls on the range – how else to account for McMurtry’s own prodigious output, and his famously good ear for women characters? Maybe Kael was just looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song would have it.

Trust the tale, not the teller.

Even as a first effort, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when the author was all of 25, stands up to re-reading. There’s a touch of Twain in Lon’s lonesome laments, and of Dreiser (and Tom Buchanan) in the depiction of Hud’s rough romancing.

McMurtry, who clearly knows his way around a High Concept pitch, describes his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, as “the bittersweet story of a longtime love triangle among a rancher, his cowboy, and an appealing countrywoman who loves them both.’’

It was adapted into a ludicrous film, Lovin’ Molly, starring the amazingly miscast Anthony Perkins as one of the ranch hands and Beau Bridges, doing as best possible under the circumstances, as Johnny McCloud, his sidekick and romantic rival. But the book’s real achievement is McMurtry’s portrait of Molly. Part of his unending curiosity into the mysteries and unreachability of women in general, and the woman his protagonist is obsessed with in particular, it prefigured the development of more mature characters like Patsy Carpenter in Moving On, Emma Greenway-Horton and her mom, Aurora, in Terms of Endearment, and Jill Peel in Somebody’s Darling.

Molly Taylor, the liberated lady of the prairies, has her overly serious suitor, Gideon Fry’s number about the difference between wanting to be in in love, and the actual experience. As she tells him, “You’re always thinking about Johnny or Eddie or your ranch or your dad or what people will think, or what’s right and wrong, something like that…. Or else you just like to think about having me for a girl. That ain’t loving nobody much. I can tell you that.” Busted.

Huck Finn’s ghost pops up as Gid comes to grips with the fact, that, unlike Johnny, he can’t just walk away from his roots.

“I didn’t mind the company; I didn’t mind the country, or even the cold weather,’’ McMurtry writes, of an interlude in which McCloud has talked Fry into taking off into the wilds. “I just minded feeling like I wasn’t where I belonged…I couldn’t get over thinking about Dad and Molly and the country and the ranch, the things I knew. The things that were mine. It wasn’t that I liked being in Archer Country so much – sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever happened there was happening to me, even if I wasn’t there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery; but it was my country and my people, and no other country was; no other people, either. You do better staying with your own, even if it’s hard.”

Hard times are what define the fictional terrain of The Last Picture Show (1966), the coda of the “new” collection and the most formally accomplished of the trio. As in Peter Bogdanovich’s film adaptation, the sharp-eyed characterizations of small town football buddies Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, the town tease Lacy Farrow, her mutinously adulterous mom Lois, and Sam the Lion, the local pool hall proprietor, are precisely etched, as is the subplot involving Sonny’s callous affair with Ruth Popper, the wife of the (closeted) high school football coach.

As the saga draws to an end, the Thalia picture show closes, with a whimper, not a bang – showing an Audie Murphy vehicle called The Kid From Texas in lieu of a John Ford classic. It’s second-rate, but the novel is not.

“While writing these three novels, it was clear to me that I was witnessing the dying of a way of life, too – the rural, pastoral way of life,” McMurtry writes. “And in many of the books that I’ve produced, it has taken thousands of words to attend to the passing of the cowboy as well: the myth of my country, and of my people, too.”

This was country he would not return to until the publication, thousands of words later, of Lonesome Dove. Intended as an anti-Western, it of course had the opposite effect, bringing the author his first Pulitzer and a massive audience for the mini-series that was based on it.

The irony was not lost on McMurtry, a writer so keenly aware of regional marginalization that he used to wear a sweatshirt with the logo: “Minor regional novelist.’’ (His bemused account, in Literary Life, of his tenure as president of PEN America, and failed attempts to broaden its scope beyond Manhattan, is instructive.)

His portraits of contemporary life have been no less telling. The next re-release of his work, one hopes, will be the “Houston trilogy’’ – Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment – which deal with clearly autobiographical material, especially in Strangers, the tale of Danny Deck, a young Texas novelist whose success brings unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences. And Somebody’s Darling, a picaresque tale of the adventures of rising director Jill Peel, sardonic screenwriter Joe Percy, and Owen Oarson, a Texas stud along for the unlikely ride, is as good a Hollywood novel as I’ve read.

McMurtry is always accessible and humane as the latest trilogy reminds us. Although a former Stegner Fellow, his voice is never as portentous as that of the late Western writer, and less apocalyptic than his classmate Kesey.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,’’ J.D. Salinger famously wrote (and lived to regret).

But I don’t mind that my talk with Larry McMurtry was so brief. It left him more time to keep writing. The conversation continued.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Everything All the Time: ‘Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology’ by Ellen Ullman

Life in CodeEssays about the perils of the Internet are common, as are the many books hawking cynicism about the “Information Age,” the “iGeneration,” or start-up culture. But Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (303 pages; MCD/FSG), stands above the pseudo–science crowd; she draws us into the world of computer programming from the inside, showing us what she’s learned since the beginning of the Internet. The memoir, comprised of some of Ullman’s previous essays as well as several new ones, is arranged somewhat chronologically (from 1992 to January 2017) and thematically as Ullman describes what her title suggests: a lifetime spent in code.

Her perspective is hard-won and enduringly timely. Everything in the book, from her account from decades past of being the only woman on teams of male computer engineers to discussions then of AI advances, could have been published in the Atlantic during the last month. This underscores how little tech culture has changed since Ullman began programming in 1978. However, one would be wrong to assume Life in Code is a stuffy play-by-play of Javascript bugs, Microsoft takeovers, and Silicon Valley unicorn start-ups—though each does have their role. In an irony that is not at all lost on Ullman, it becomes clearer with every page her book is about people—their missed connections, flaws, and rare triumphs—more so than the technologies those very people seem to prefer inhabiting over their own lives.

Ullman’s book upends our expectations. Her writing seamlessly merges with her subject matter, shifting from scientific investigation and programming primer to philosophical inquiry and journalistic account—and circling back again. And because she cannot account for things she did not see, hear, or discuss with someone, the book is welcomingly personal like a diary. But it is a history as well. A longtime San Franciscan, she records the city’s meteoric rise with a sense of horror as Silicon Valley eats it alive. And she recounts the various concerns presented by evolving computer engineering as they happened at the time. (For anybody too young to remember, her account of the Y2K bug provides not only a newspaper-like synopsis of why it was such a concern, but presents us with the real people who were, and weren’t, worried about catastrophe at the time.) With all this comes the hope of presenting a grander truth that supersedes the merely anecdotal. In this, Ullman succeeds.

The stories she weaves throughout are not only interesting in themselves, but offer endless insights, as Ullman bends language to make her point. (I doubt there has ever been a better description of a co-working space in San Francisco than as a “warren” of start-ups.) Given her memoir is centered on the Internet and on programming, there’s a bit of unavoidable nomenclature and jargon to hurdle. But Ullman guides the average person through the vocabulary of this willfully closeted arena with grace and finesse. In doing so, she also forces us to acknowledge how little we know about the technologies we’ve allowed to shape our lives.

Above all, what is so marvelous about the book is its intimate tone. Whether Ullman seems worried, resolute, optimistic, or in doubt, the reader always has the impression of sitting down to coffee in her living room as she tells a story. She cares about her reader, and wants to offer us an important look into the techies’ ivory tower, to see what the world looks like from the Googleplex. To the final page, Life in Code depicts its world of sushiritos and nap corners as a perfectly wound dark comedy. There’s a transfixing, laughable absurdity to it all–but there’s always a disconcerting reality lurking not far behind, one that blinks and blinks like a green power light, always on.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Piercing the Darkness: ‘The Age of Perpetual Light’ by Josh Weil

The Age of Perpetual LightJosh Weil’s first collection of stories, The Age of Perpetual Light (272 pages; Grove Press), spans the course of history to examine the miseries and ambitions of humanity, tracing the mysteries of light and darkness that have long confounded and mesmerized us. Beginning with the tale of a Jewish Russian soldier, who deserts to America where he peddles Edison Lamps and falls broodingly in love with an Amish woman, Weil’s themes reveal themselves. We see the invention of electricity and man’s emerging dominance over light as a magnificent, almost magical trick. But at the same time, as the collection’s stories about the excesses of ambition show, that desire to dominate the dark ultimately raises the question of at what point does our appetite for knowledge and control begin to control us? What happens when the metamorphic light becomes too bright to turn down – when we begin to miss the darkness but have no way of bringing it back?

The eight stories in Weil’s collection—narratives ranging from the struggles of parenting an autistic child to a woman’s tenacious passion for flight, as well as the strife that follows a pair of Serbian immigrants (a young boy and his abusive mother)—were written over the course of a decade. The intonations in each story, by consequence, vary drastically—from lyrical? to almost dystopian. But they all share revelations into the heartbreak and inspiring moments that shape the human spirit.

The collection closes by returning us to the story of the lonely Edison Light peddler. We revisit him at an earlier time in his life, when he is about to embark for America and flee the police who have discovered his desertion. Writing a letter home, Shimel—who has adopted a false identity to protect himself from anti-Semitism—describes his fear of losing himself and those he loves, and his conviction to carry on regardless:

“And here he comes again: the lamplighter, crossing from one side of the street to the other, unlatching the panes, reaching up, snuffing the flames. Watching him it seems as if he might have just kept walking. Followed the night around the globe, lighting lanterns until the dark crossed into day and, coming upon the flames already lit, he flipped his pole to its snuffing end, simply kept on. Maybe, some night in another city in another country I will see him coming down another street. I will call him over. I will ask him to bring a message back to you. ‘Tell them,’ I will say, ‘hello from here.’”

Weil beautifully illustrates the conviction that as we all bear witness to the continual rising and extinguishing of its power, the “light,” and our moth-like attraction to it, can keep us bound both to its elemental force and to each other.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment