Category Archives

Book Reviews

ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

‘Stubborn Archivist’ by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: The Preciousness of a Moment

Yara Rodrigues Fowler novel Stubborn Archivist

The task of organizing one’s life experiences into a comprehensible narrative is a universal one—why else do so many of us go to therapy? Through our internal dialogue we create stories, or perhaps allow ourselves to live according to the stories that best help us cope. This is a work of inclusion and omission, of unearthing and rearranging:

But there were good times
There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.
Yeah the sex had been good sometimes…
And she had loved him…
And there were other things. But she’s a stubborn archivist.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s first novel, Stubborn Archivist (378 pages; Mariner Books), is constructed through this sorting of memories. The book that emerges is funny, painful, and healing. It reads like opening up someone’s journal, as if the never-named narrator stopped to jot down pieces of her story as they burst into view. The novel has the intimate quality of a narrative not yet organized, straddling prose and poetry through its ambiguous dialogue and internal monologue. Rodrigues Fowler refuses to undermine the preciousness of a moment, allowing singular thoughts and actions to take up room, while never shying away from blank space on the page.

Stubborn Archivist follows three generations of women in Brazil and London. There is the unnamed narrator, a young Brazilian-British woman struggling with her digestive health and reckoning with residual trauma from her first relationship. Then there is her mother, Isadora, a doctor from Brazil who moved to London with her British husband as well as with her younger sister, who lives with the married couple and grapples with depression. And finally, there is Cecília, grandmother and matriarch, who resides in Brazil with the narrator’s grandfather. In their own ways, each of these women experience the impact of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Stubborn Archivist roots the personal in the political, as the legacy of the dictatorship trickles through the characters’ experiences of romance and family. The narrator recounts her early relationships and her brave confrontation of an ex-boyfriend regarding his acts of assault. Her sexual experiences frequently cross boundaries, both cultural and consensual:

Something I don’t talk about and I regret
I can talk in Portuguese in bed
Okay yes do it
Okay

Quiet moments like these give Stubborn Archivist a singular intimacy. Rodrigues Fowler uncannily captures that home-alone feeling when one has complete privacy: as the saying goes, the true measure of our character is what we do when no one is watching. Rather than evaluating her narrator, however, Rodrigues Fowler seems to question how she grows through these private moments, and how they reflect her interior life. The reader watches the narrator rewriting and revising an email to her boss while bedridden with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, waxing fastidiously before flying to Brazil, and biking through the streets of London at night. Stubborn Archivist, even as it spans decades, is built from these solitary moments. Layers and layers of experience accumulated through generations are ultimately embodied in the characters’ daily routines. Rodrigues Fowler writes a story of multicultural identity as it is impressed upon the physical bodies that live it. The subtle power of the novel’s ending lies in the narrator taking ownership of her body, despite the ways it has been fetishized, other-ed, and assaulted:

Caetano sings tinny music into the night. He says, you don’t know me at all. You move your body.

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

‘Stay and Fight’ by Madeline ffitch: Living Off the Land

Madeline ffitch novel Stay and FightBuilding family in the face of capitalist-driven environmental collapse might look something like Madeline ffitch’s first novel, Stay and Fight (304 pages; FSG), at once indulging fantasies of reclusive living outside the gaze of the State, while simultaneously narrating the impossibility of such an existence. This is not to say Stay and Fight denies the prospect of, or human capacity for, crafting alternative, distinctly non-traditional ways of surviving. On the contrary, ffitch’s characters sustain themselves, maintain a home, and even raise a child, all miles outside the comforts and confines of urban or otherwise familiar civilization. And yet, even in the wilderness of Appalachian Ohio, systems and their effects creep in: child protection services, energy companies, public schools. Even while off-the-grid, the grid watches.

A uniquely comprehensive and necessarily tangled understanding of what it means to live under normalizing forces and rapid climate degradation is present throughout Stay and Fight, though the plot pays these matters little explicit concern, and for good reason: it doesn’t have to. Told from four distinct perspectives, each character’s understanding of one another and themselves is fundamentally mediated by their conditions; ffitch doesn’t need a manifesto to demonstrate Anthropocenic stakes. The novel’s first narrator, Helen, a young college-educated woman from Seattle, arrives in Appalachia with her boyfriend Shane, looking to make it on their own on twenty acres of empty land. It doesn’t take long for their plan to collapse: put off by his girlfriend’s chattiness and their highly isolated life, Shane leaves after just a few months of “roughing it” in a small trailer and trimming trees with Rudy, a helpful but abrasive local drunk. Helen is alone, but doesn’t mourn for long. She soon takes over Shane’s job as Rudy’s assistant and is introduced to the rest of her neighbors, namely Lily and Karen, a lesbian couple living on “The Women’s Land Trust,” a separatist community. When Lily gives birth to a baby boy, Perley (the novel’s fourth narrator), the couple knows their days in the woman-only community are numbered, prompting Helen, eager to find company and purpose, to offer the new parents a place to live on her land. Lily and Karen have lived in Appalachia for years and know that Helen is clueless and, to make matters worse, thinks she knows everything. Despite their concerns, the allure of living rent-free is too good to pass up. They set off to build a house, unsure of what their life will look like inside of it. A happenstance family forms.

Stay and Fight is built on such moments of unlikely and nearly coincidental intimacies. Soon, the women begin to care for, feed, and shelter one another every day. ffitch, however, avoids the glossy, familiar narrative of feminist utopia this story could have easily reproduced. Life is primarily unpleasant and usually rife with conflict. Helen embraces “the great outdoors” with the gusto of someone who romanticizes fleeing conventional society, and, despite having almost no practical survival skills, tells Lily and Karen what to do and how to do it at every turn, obsessed with “best practices” for living off the land.

Helen’s overbearing behavior founds one of the novel’s most engaging and humorous critiques, that of liberal-arts-flavored elitism. While sparing no attempt to make herself seem native to the poverty-stricken area, Helen lives in Appalachia voluntarily. She loves the hardship, even, or perhaps especially, when it seems most unbearable. Yet Helen also feels fundamentally separate from those who were raised there, proud of her B.A. in liberal studies and overwhelmed by her felt obligation to share knowledge with those around her:

“I think you’re using the word yuppie incorrectly,” I said. The men looked at me, “Young urban professional, right?” I said. I looked at Aldi for confirmation, but Aldi, so ebullient with Rudy, gazed at me like the stranger I was. I pressed on. “That principal may be a professional, but he’s definitely not young or urban.”

“Helen’s from Seattle,” Rudy said. “She’s just mad because she’s a yuppie too.”

We all know a Helen. She is easy to dislike, and disdain toward her is merited. But like everything else in ffitch’s story, it’s complicated. Helen is the only one with a steady job, and she helps care for Perley, becoming an integral part of the toddler’s life. Even when they don’t want to, Helen, Lily, Karen, and Perley come to need each other: no one goes to the doctor, and rather than letting Perley play with toys, they teach him how to use tools. They share a skepticism of social structures, nationalism, and institutions that speaks to a well-founded distrust of government and Western-sanctioned ways of doing things, a distrust which, as a reader, resonates profoundly.

They might not enjoy it most of the time, but staying together is the only way this family can fashion a life that looks the way they want it to. This is not want in the pleasurable sense, but rather want as it relates to need. Amid fighting and hunger and a relentless snake infestation, they retain the power of self-actualization, straddling the hard-to-measure distance between agency and adversity. Each choice—such as not wanting Perley addicted to Western medicine and sugar, or brainwashed by patriotism in school—involves the hardship necessitated by doing everything without help, outside the rules of the State. No matter how strenuous, it seems the only way to make real their collective intent, one born out of love as much as principle. The impulse is utopian, even if reality proves less so.

Stay and Fight is smart and self-aware enough to refuse any confident solution toward forging intimacy and independence under our current sociopolitical circumstances. It knows that such a solution does not exist. Rather, there is staying, there is fighting, and there is fighting to stay. There is trying to protect your child from harm, and there is producing unforeseen harm as a result. There is State intervention, normalizing forces that (as always) refuse to let live those who try and turn away from its authority. There are pipelines slicing through the land, there is inadequate healthcare, there is hateful speech and addiction and hunger. Stay and Fight touches upon the most central, tender, and violent conflicts of our time without opting for simplicity, allowing the sadness and humor of family to guide its reader toward a more generative understanding of all the ways there are to stick around for something you believe in.

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

‘The Wind That Lays Waste’ by Selva Almada: A Long and Humid Afternoon

Selva Almada novel The Wind that Lays WasteA devoted man of God and his sullen teenage daughter are on the road to a church in a remote village when their car breaks down. They soon find themselves at the mercy of a grizzled mechanic who has sworn off religion and runs a garage alongside his wide-eyed son. Though the setting may be Argentina, the setup for Selva Almada’s latest novel, The Wind That Lays Waste (124 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Chris Andrews), feels as though it could be plucked from the pages of revered Southern author Flannery O’Connor. But while Almada shares some of O’Connor’s subject matter and spiritual concerns, this is largely where their similarities end. O’Connor’s stories are well known for their frequently doom-laden endings –– the personal violence building to almost apocalyptic proportions in the lives of her characters. Almada tends to take a gentler and more introspective tract.

The slender tome focuses on the tentative connections between Reverend Pearson, his daughter, Leni, and the sparse crew at the garage they find themselves marooned at: the elder Gringo Brauer and his progeny, Jose, nicknamed Tapioca. As Gringo works on the broke-down auto, and as a storm begins to brew over the countryside, Almada steadily reveals the characters’ backstories in alternating chapters.

As a young boy, Pearson was baptized in a river by a traveling preacher and has since taken to his role as Reverend with a zeal his disaffected daughter does not share. She still bears the emotional scars from the day her father abandoned Leni’s less-believing mother by the roadside. Regardless, Pearson clearly holds sway over his congregation, which Almada wonderfully depicts in an expressive passage:

When he lifts his head, he takes two steps forward and looks at his audience. The way he looks, you know he’s looking at you, even if you’re sitting in the back row. (It’s Christ who’s looking at you!) He begins to speak. (Christ’s tongue is moving in his mouth!) His arms begin to perform their choreography of gestures, only the hands moving at first, slowly, as if they were caressing the listeners’ heavy brows. (Christ’s fingertips on my temples!) Gradually his forearms and upper arms begin to move as well. The torso remains still, but already you can sense a movement in his stomach. (It’s the flame of Christ burning inside him!)

In contrast to the Reverend, Gringo Brauer is a practical, “salt of the earth” type whose days of hard-drinking and womanizing are far behind him; he’s since settled into a contented middle-age, satisfied with a life fixing cars and looking after his collection of stray dogs, as well as another kind of “stray” –– the son he never knew he had until the boy’s mother dropped him off at Brauer’s doorstep.

As the Reverend’s auto troubles lead to a long, humid afternoon of repairs and conversation, Brauer is none too pleased when Pearson begins saying grace over their meals and speaking of spiritual concerns. He tolerates the Biblical talk the best he can, but when Pearson takes a shine to Tapioca –– seeing in the boy a reflection of himself as a younger, untainted child –– conflict between the two men threatens to boil over. Almada proves adept at depicting the religious fervor that takes hold of Pearson when considering Tapioca; there’s an unnerving intensity and single-mindedness to his passion:

Tapioca, on the other hand, was as clean as a newborn child; all his pores were open, ready to take Jesus in and breathe him out again.

Together they would turn the Reverend’s work, which was still just the sketch of a long-cherished dream, into something concrete and monumental.

Tapioca, Jose, would not be his successor, but what the Reverend had failed to become. Because Reverend Pearson had a past, too, as he knew better than anyone else, and in that past there were mistakes, and those mistakes came back now and then to haunt him like a vague but persistent cloud of buzzing flies. There had been no Reverend Pearson to guide him. He had fashioned himself as best he could. But the boy would have him. With Reverend Pearson on one side and Christ on the other, Jose would be invincible.

The climax to The Wind That Lays feels appropriately Biblical: we watch these two very different men come to blows in the mud as rain pelts the earth and thunder cracks the sky. In the grim, often fatalistic world of Flannery O’Connor, this violent confrontation would have likely led to an irrevocable tragedy. But here there is a path forward for these characters, one in which they might learn to let things go and develop as individuals. Alamada’s nuanced approach leaves room to explore her characters’ pasts in some detail, but, crucially, these individuals –– even the Reverend Pearson –– are not defined by their mistakes.

No doubt there will be consequences for their actions, as Pearson’s determined quest to convert Tapioca against Brauer’s wishes only further drives the wedge between the Reverend and his daughter. But their mission will not end here, at this wayward garage in the country. For them, the road stretches far ahead; Almada’s novel offers but a brief glimpse of a moment in their journey, but it is one she renders with great and deliberate meaning.

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

‘Lanny’ by Max Porter: A Farewell to Childhood Innocence

Max Porter novel LannyIn came the sound of a song, warm on his creaturely breath, and he snuggled up against me, climbing up on my lap, wrapping himself up around my neck.

So begins Lanny (216 pages; Graywolf Press), the latest novel by Max Porter, author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Lanny takes place in a village outside of London, where there lives a being known as Dead Papa Toothwort—a formerly mythic figure among the townspeople, now reduced to a popular Halloween costume and a warning for schoolchildren. After napping for an indeterminate amount of time, Dead Papa Toothwort wakes at dusk to embark on his favorite pastime: listening to the music of chattering voices drifting from the village. He listens especially for the voice of an eccentric young boy who has recently moved to the village with his parents. Porter’s description of this boy, Lanny, is ethereal:

His eyes are like spring hornbeam, a very fresh green.

…his little golden downy-hair knees, his bruised and grass-stained boy’s knees.

…he is growing up, shedding his fairy skin…I can’t imagine this boy becoming a man.

Lanny cycles through passages from the perspectives of Dead Papa Toothwort, Lanny’s mother, Jolie, and father, Robert, and their neighbor Pete. While Robert adjusts to a new commute from the village into London and often struggles to understand his son, Jolie, an actress and crime fiction author, adapts to their rural lifestyle and loves Lanny unconditionally. She arranges for Pete, a famous and aging artist, to give Lanny art lessons. The two quickly form an unlikely and joyful friendship, tromping through the forest together to sketch, climb trees, and discuss life, in scenes reminiscent of A.A. Milne’s Hundred-Acre Woods.

Lanny is constantly flitting off to locations unknown, much to the concern of the adults around him, but always turns up with delightful questions and singular insights. That is, until he disappears entirely, and the novel—until now a quiet reflection on nature, childhood, and familial relationships—slips into a harrowing page-turner. The scope of the story grows from the village to the entire country as reporters and investigators descend on Lanny’s family and his case makes headline news. Lanny’s absence is filled with chaos, pain, and scandal, as his parents scramble to find him and their fellow villagers attempt to assign blame. At last, enter Dead Papa Toothwort, who conducts a surrealist performance in order to confront Jolie, Robert, and Pete with hard truths about themselves and Lanny’s whereabouts.

With Lanny, Porter accomplishes very much with so few words. Dead Papa Toothwort’s passages—akin to concrete poetry—illustrate the point-of-view of a true outsider, living beyond human consideration, while Lanny’s Mum and Dad represent an incredibly honest and unromantic portrait of family life. Their perspectives unmask the unkind thoughts humans experience and endure even during times of stability, or perhaps in their efforts to preserve such stability—the necessities of maintaining marriage and family. Lanny and Pete’s friendship, on the other hand, is outside of the domestic, situated in the natural world, and explores the poles of youth and age.

The novel is an ultimately optimistic rendition of the loss of innocence and an examination of growth, but it’s a growth that requires burying uninhibited, elfin childhood. Lanny, who embodies the impossibility of timeless youth, gives and gives to others, but must lose his young self. With time, as Dead Papa Toothwort knows, the forest remains the only constant:

By the time he gets to the edge of the woods he has crumpled into nothing more than a whiff or a suggestion, he is only silent warm crepuscular danger, and the badgers and owls have seen this before, and they know not to greet him, but to hide.

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

‘The Paper Wasp’ by Lauren Acampora: Truer Than Life

Lauren Acampora novel The Paper WaspIt’s easy to conceive of the world of celebrity as a modern day pantheon, populated by figures as remote and untouchable as the gods. But how often we forget that those who fill the pages of Us Weekly are, in fact, people, too –– with family, old flames, and, yes, former classmates tucked away in their distant pasts. As Lauren Acampora’s first novel, A Paper Wasp (289 pages; Grove Press), opens, Abby travels to her ten-year high school reunion in Western Michigan in hopes of making contact with Elise, a former childhood companion now on her way to Hollywood stardom. Although the two only share a few fleeting words at the rather dismal event –– the mentally ill, artistically inclined Abby is dismayed to find most of her classmates have settled for a more conventional life of marriage and childrearing –– Abby takes Elise’s tossed off invitation to visit her as an excuse to steal her parents’ credit cards and a book a flight to L.A..

Unbeknownst to Elise, the decade since graduation has not been kind to Abby: she’s manic-depressive, lives in her parents’ house, works the cash register at grocery chain Meijer’s, and the scar along her abdomen serves as a memento of a failed suicide attempt. If Abby thinks a sudden venture to Los Angeles and the possibility of rekindling her friendship with Elise will solve all of her problems, including a stunting case of artist’s block, she is sorely mistaken. Her psychological issues are as tightly packed as the luggage she takes on the long flight to California.

A Paper Wasp almost dares readers to see how long they can occupy Abby’s truly dark and tormented mind. Abby is clearly obsessed with her grade-school friend:

After you were tucked into bed, breathing loudly through your mouth, I stood in the room for a few moments, watching you. I remembered those everlasting slumber parties, those torturous nights when I’d stare at your face in the dark –– your profile like that of an illustrated girl in an English children’s book, the fine articulations of an Alice or a Wendy, the curl at the nostril, the vermillion of the upper lip –– before you turned away, in slumber, and the hair fell across your face, screening me out.

Before long, Abby has ingratiated herself into Elise’s life, and secured a position as the starlet’s live-in personal assistant. Abby soon begins to fantasize about both Elise’s lover, the Argentinean actor and polo player Rafael, and the possibility of collaborating with experimental film director Auguste Perren, who hovers around Elise’s social circle. If A Paper Wasp were following a more cliché or expected route, one might expect Abby to ultimately usurp her friend’s position in the movie industry, leading to a tale of sisterhood turned to professional and romantic rivalry. But Acampora is true to her characters: Abby is simply too damaged and toxic to ever make inroads in show business. She comes to alienate nearly everyone she meets, and even her appraisals of Elise absolutely drip with disdain, despite their supposed friendship:

I was an observer, a tagalong, a pet. It didn’t bother me to be left in waiting rooms during dress fittings, to sit in the parking lot during script workshops. I didn’t mind not being introduced when you ran into an acquaintance at Nobu. I was admittedly lost by the politics of the film industry, useless as a strategic adviser. I was simply there to listen, to groan in sympathy and glow with pride. And listening was what I did best, what I was grateful to the heavens to be able to do. I loved the sound of your voice. Whatever its petty grievances or vacuous prattle, I would have been happy to hear it forever.

Acampora’s 2015 story collection, The Wonder Garden, displayed a Cheever-esque talent for depicting suburban dysfunction, and she brings that same flair for middle class despair to her characterization of Abby, particularly when describing her dreary college days in Michigan, which stand in sharp contrast with Elise’s sunny existence in California:

When the leaves flipped their colors that first September, it was a personal betrayal, sleight of hand. Rather than slowly fading into gold and umber, the trees burned red. They surrounded the quad in a satanic circle. I sat on the grass and tried to quietly read the newspaper. A terrorist siege in Russia, children taken hostage with their parents. I turned the page. The Janjaweed, burning up villages. Students threw frisbees around me and laughed on their way to the dining hall.

Living with Elise, Abby gains access to the Rhizone, a Scientology-esque creative compound overseen by the enigmatic Perren. It’s there she partakes in guided dream workshops in order to access the Spring, the Rhizone’s concept of the creative unconscious as influenced by the works of Carl Jung. “It’s very important that you listen to these dreams,” her guide at the Rhizone instructs her, unaware of just how unstable Abby is. “Their messages can be truer than life.” This sets Abby on a dangerous course.

Despite the often-vapid nature of Hollywood and Elise’s solipsistic worldview, it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the actress, especially as Abby weaves a destructive path around her. The novel nears its conclusion as Abby reaches the crescendo of her latest manic phase, and we have to fear for those caught in the young woman’s machinations. A Paper Wasp is a dark fable on the nature of friendship, fame, and the way dreams can influence our waking life. It’s also a reminder of the consequences of mental illness when, as in Abby’s case, it goes unchecked and untreated for too long.

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

‘As One Fire Consumes Another’ by John Sibley Williams: Each Poem a Sermon

John Sibley Williams poetry book As One Fire Consumes AnotherThe poems in John Sibley Williams’ latest book, As One Fire Consumes Another (82 pages; Orison Books), are verbs: they implore and demand, they connect and recall, they cry out and they quietly walk away. The collection, winner of the 2018 of the Orison Poetry Prize, maintains a generational sense of story — an understanding of family that is dense in time and broad in scope as it considers both the immediacy of human relationships and the distance of the natural world. Williams is as acutely focused on the wide arcs of historical violence and injustice as he is on everyday detail, lending each poem a sermon-like quality.

Williams’ meditations on some of life’s greatest questions take form as he relates honest perceptions of the world around him. There is a sense that the poet is exercising restraint — each poem is something like a paragraph, constrained within margins of identical width. The sentences themselves are spare, presenting each thought without superfluous explanation:

In the dark of a man’s fist pressed to chest.
Couch clothed in ghost-white sheets like a fishing village in winter.
Next time, use a Sharpie when listing your demands to god.

The collection reads as a sort of offering, inviting the reader to find connection and understanding where they might. And there is a sense throughout these poems that fragments form a whole –– in Williams’ frequently staccato use of language, and in his choices to revisit themes from multiple perspectives and leave visible his edits and revisions. Here are some choice examples:

To tell a body you are not my house, then to furnish it with walls & fire anyway

There is a breeze here that carries a hint of smoke from older crosses

Love feels out of context among so many dead & thirsting things.

What he heard reply from deep within the absence the night before he leapt, unbirdlike, isn’t much use to us now, the dead or the living.

In that last fragment, the seemingly despairing sentiment that often permeates this collection is tangible. But it’s not desperation but rather frankness that characterize Williams’ confrontations with death, loss, and communal pain. Moreover, the titles of the three series he divides the collection into –– Harm, Keeping the Old World Lit, and We Can Make a Home of It Still––suggest a possibility of rectification, or at the very least a forward momentum. Like the smoking aftermath of fire, Williams leaves room for renewal. His poetry itself is part of this project. The poem “Fallow as That” begins, We are out divining fish from dried riverbeds again. With this line Williams encapsulates every poet’s task, and in this collection he sets to work.

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

‘Aug 9—Fog’ by Kathryn Scanlan: Glazing the Mundane with Meaning

Kathryn Scanlan book Aug 9—Fog Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9—Fog (128 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is short and sweet — to be read in one afternoon, then reread many afternoons over. Existing somewhere between fiction, collage, and found poetry, Scanlan’s book is composed of sentences the author pulled from a stranger’s 1968 diary, which she won in an Illinois estate auction. As Scanlan’s authorial voice blends with that of the diary owner, the two meditate together on the passage of everyday life. While reading Aug 9—Fog, I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in the effortless way Scanlan glazes the mundane with meaning. Scanlan forms a collage out of the diary, which was kept by a woman in her eighties, and turns it into a series of slim vignettes that trace the seasons of a year. The book’s perspective is akin to looking out a kitchen window, observing the changing weather and the coming and going of characters:

Mildred papering. Vern took a fish down to Bayard for his birthday. Daffodils and pussy willows out pretty.

Sure pretty out. Sure grand out. D. making a new piecrust. All better.

There are certain works of poetry or prose that carry such an irresistible mouthfeel that I have to whisper along with the words as I read them, and this book offers a perfect example. The abbreviated voice of the diary’s author does not elaborate for the sake of explanation or grammar, and begins to give the impression of a lovably stylized character. Her words are almost childlike in their simple colloquialism, proving irresistibly relatable:

Jar broke, she canning tomatoes. Our apples not a bit nice. So spotted.

Scanlan’s arrangement of the author’s words render a tender and human portrait of old age, relating daily experiences of illness, hobbies, care from family members, and loneliness. One of the book’s most salient themes is the physical body and the fragility of its health. There are delicate passages in which family members wash the aging author’s head, and there are oppressive passages in which characters grieve disease and death. Scanlan’s authorial focus on seasonality and emergence suggest the hope of turnover, but it is difficult to shake the author’s uncanny details of daily life after loss.

Ever where glare of ice. We didn’t sleep too good. My pep has left me.

Aug 9—Fog is fascinating, particularly to young writers still making sense of form and genre, since Scanlan’s authorship is editorial: the words are not her own, and yet the book and its plot are her artistic creation. Her prose pursues an object of fascination and presents it with the language most fitting, regardless of convention.

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

‘Open Me’ by Lisa Locascio: Self-Discovery in a Foreign Land

Lisa Locascio novel Open MeOpen Me (275 pages; Grove Press), Lisa Locascio’s first novel just re-issued in paperback, is a politically charged and erotic story that fearlessly tackles race, xenophobia, and female sexuality. Immersed in the mind and body of a young woman living abroad in Denmark, the novel seethes with passionate descriptions of both sex and emotions. It shamelessly details something often hidden and rarely discussed—female sexuality in its rawest form.

The narrator, Roxana Olsen, is an 18-year-old American girl spending her summer in Denmark — a summer meant to have seen her studying abroad in Paris with her best friend. However, a logistical error on behalf of her school counselor lands Roxana alone in Copenhagen, eating strange meats on single slices of rye and drinking beer in dimly lit punk bars. As Roxana arrives, she is still coping with the shock of her parents’ divorce, and coming to grips with her transition into adulthood. Almost immediately, she falls into a relationship with Søren, an unhappy, 28-year-old student advisor. Soon she leaves Copenhagen with Søren for Farsø, a small town in Jutland:

Outside, the sky and everyone and everything under it was white and low to the ground: the curving cobblestone roads, the narrow buildings that lined them, and the Danes themselves, whose shapes somehow receded rather than grew as we approached. I followed Søren down a sloped sidewalk and around a corner. Signs I couldn’t read and one-story houses with small square yards. Farsø.

Here, Roxana spends her days in a classically Scandinavian apartment: all white and minimalist. She scrubs and cleans, maintaining the image of domestic bliss for Søren while he works on his masters thesis everyday at the library. The apartment in Farsø becomes a white haze for Roxana, and time blurs into itself as she is kept locked inside its walls by Søren. Slowly, her idealistic vision of Søren fades, and Roxana realizes the prejudices and unhappiness heavily present in the older man, as well as in Danish society. Roxana begins to embody her dissatisfaction: she refuses to shower and basks in her filth, seeing it as proof that she is still alive after being trapped in an apartment with little social contact. Her dissatisfaction eventually leads her to another, vastly different man named Zlatan, a Bosnian Muslim refugee of the Balkan War and, in many ways, Søren’s opposite.

Through her relationships with these two men, another important layer of the story emerges: the eroticism of feminine sexuality. With careful observation and lush details, Locascio distills the experiences of the body and the pleasure sex brings, which become an important means through which Roxana feels alive. Daring and flawless in her depiction, Locascio locates the desire at the root of this sensuality. In Roxana’s relationships with Søren and Zlatan, she undergoes a metamorphosis before the reader and becomes open to and absorbed by the people and places around her. Most importantly, she discovers a different form of love—a sense of closeness and compassion. Locascio poetically describes it:

Everyone cloud icons, the floating notes of a surah in the sky. I resisted the beauty. Even as a calm descended, I insisted to myself that I loved him, that this was a reason for the sadness I felt. I pressed my face into his chest.
“Sweet heart,” he said. Two words. “You feel love, Roxana, a terrible openness, so open that it injures you. The pain that tells us that we live, that we have not yet gone into the earth.”

Open Me is an intimate story of self-discovery in a foreign land. Laced with politics and sexuality, Locascio’s novel plumbs a deeper place of love and understanding, toward oneself and others.

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

‘People I’ve Met From the Internet’ by Stephen van Dyck: Delight in the Details

Stephen Van Dyck memoir People I've Met From the InternetStephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From the Internet (151 pages; Ricochet Editions) is the ultimate memoir for the Information Age: a series of extraordinarily personal vignettes derived from a data spreadsheet. The book spans 11 years and takes place in multiple states, mostly roaming the arid space between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. It reads like a grand road trip in the age of dial-up Internet.

The book’s earliest pages take the form of a table divided into columns like “REAL NAME,” “SCREEN NAME AT THE TIME WE MET,” and “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT.” When starting the memoir, you might assume these would be pages to skim, a visual stunt to bring the reader into a digital headspace. However, the data becomes a form of narration unlike any you may have encountered before. The reader becomes a detective and decoder: the simple entry “x99+” under “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT” reveals a long-term relationship, and entries like “watched Survivor at his apartment” clues you into the context of the early aughts.

Van Dyck’s memoir proceeds as a repetition of this list, but this time with annotations, and each successive entry generates a jarringly precise depiction of coming into one’s sexuality at the advent of the social web. Throughout the annotated entries, the men and women van Dyck meets online often play as much of a role in his adolescent development as his father and mother, guiding him into his burgeoning sexual identity. After the loss of his mother, and aided by the sometimes inept but unfailingly kind support of his father, van Dyck sets out on his own, following a connect-the-dots map from AOL user to AOL user around the country. Exploring glowing gay landscapes—in the blue light of computer screens and beneath the rosy warmth of Southwestern sunsets—van Dyck meets tops and bottoms, otters and bears. He acquaints himself with adulthood in strangers’ apartments. Throughout, van Dyck’s writing is unnervingly relatable; his explicit depictions are vulnerable, candid, and human:

When we started to have sex, Luke asked if I had wiped…As I lay on my side, Luke wiped my ass. Luke told me I needed to wipe properly. Inspired by Luke’s bowl of lubes, I filled my pockets each time I went to MPower or the Under 21 Group, and slowly amassed a collection of my own.

Van Dyck’s prose mirrors the dataset the book begins with: a linear presentation of facts. The details he includes are both mundane and mosaic, and as he lists them the story coalesces. In this way, through frank snapshots of the people around him, a dynamic portrait of an evolving artist is rendered.

When the memoir catches up to the present and entries start to occur in real-time, alongside commentary on van Dyck’s self-doubt regarding his writing project, the text becomes something like conceptual art:

I wondered later if I met Robbie because I knew it would be a good story. I was starting to have this question about many of the guys I was meeting. Or was the list project giving me an excuse to do what I already wanted to do?

In People I’ve Met From The Internet, we share in van Dyck’s struggles at the bleeding edge between life and art, and wonder what to make of the man behind the experiment. Perhaps the point of it all, his book seems to suggest, is simply to delight in the details

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

‘The Organs of Sense’ by Adam Ehrlich Sachs: The Pleasures of Misdirection

Adam Ehrlich Sachs novel The Organs of SenseGottfried Leibniz may have discovered calculus, but really he had the soul of a novelist. You might be forgiven for thinking so, anyway, after reading Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s first novel, The Organs of Sense (227 pages; FSG), which tells the story of a young Leibniz, hungry to understand the world, its inscrutable rules, and its even more inscrutable inhabitants. You might also see the novelistic sensibility in Leibniz’s philosophy. Calculus offered a neat method for the world and its rules, but neat methods aren’t all that useful unless you’re trying to ace the SATs or go to the moon. It’s a genuine boon to human thought that Leibniz’s groundbreaking work in mathematics did not get in the way of his inventing a rather batshit metaphysics of his own, the Monadology, which basically posits a simple substance—the monad—endowed with intention and appetite, busy at work acting as the substrate of the universe. Luckily for Sachs, it’s quite possible, probably even necessary, to be a world-historical genius with an innate understanding of the underlying structure of the universe and a weirdo with a crackpot theory.

Here’s some Monadology:

Since the world is a plenum all things are connected together, and every body acts upon every other, more or less, according to their distance, and is affected by the other through reaction. Hence it follows that each Monad is a living mirror, or a mirror endowed with inner activity, representative of the universe according to its point of view.

It’s just about the perfect metaphor for human interaction and, even though it doesn’t appear in the novel, it’s the kind of deep background that might have made Leibniz an especially appealing investigator into unusual phenomena. The Organs of Sense opens with word reaching a young Leibniz, fresh off a failed attempt at a law degree, of a mysterious astronomer’s prediction:

At noon on the last day of June 1666, the brightest time of day at nearly the brightest time of year, the Moon would pass very briefly, but very precisely, between the Sun and Earth, casting all of Europe for one instant in absolute darkness, ‘a darkness without equal in our history, but lasting no longer than four seconds,’ the astronomer predicted, according to Leibniz, an eclipse that no other astronomer in Europe was predicting…

Note the coiled sentence structure, slightly parodic academic tone, and nested narration—all constant features of the novel. Leibniz’s every thought and action is mediated by a conjectural scrim, and the narrator sometimes draws on extant writings or other, more spurious, attributed language. This narrative voice does, in fact, belong to a character—there is an “I” attached—but the absence of a locus of narration or any identifying clues (except that he is a translator, which is mostly a recurring half-joke) makes it hard not to make your inner novelist queasy by throwing up your hands and saying it’s probably just Sachs himself.

The astronomer, who claims to possess “the longest telescope known to man, and therefore the most powerful, a telescope said to stretch nearly two hundred feet,” is not merely scientifically gifted but possibly oracular, “not merely completely blind…but in fact entirely without eyes.” Being “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature,” Leibniz sets off at once, and before too long he finds himself in the astronomer’s tower, somewhere in Bohemia, trying to figure out whether this eyeless man is off his rocker. How is he to know?

The problem of getting inside another head, and seeing what that head was seeing (or not seeing) and what it was thinking (or not thinking), now struck Leibniz as a profoundly philosophical problem. Neither cradling it nor cracking it open would do it, for the barrier involved not only bone but also a thick layer of philosophy. The human skull consists, one might say, Leibniz wrote, of a quarter-inch-thick layer of bone and a quarter-inch-thick layer of philosophy. Of course the brain is also cushioned by various membranes and fluids. A skilled doctor can penetrate the skull with a drill, and he can cut through the membranes with a knife, and he can drain the cerebral fluids with a pump, but his instruments are utterly useless for penetrating that solid, condensed layer of philosophy. “Even the most state-of-the-art medical instrument wielded by the best doctor in Paris will simply bounce off the cerebral-philosophical membrane,” Leibniz wrote. That left language.

Anyone who’s ever been stuck at a party trying to have a meaningful conversation with a philosophy student knows that a quarter inch can seem awfully thick, and language is itself an imperfect instrument. What follows is a self-consciously tangled pattern-building exercise, as the narrator relates the astronomer’s tale, as told to Leibniz, of how he lost his eyes—basically the story of his life as an aspiring chronicler of the cosmos in Bohemia. His father hopes to curry royal favor by presenting a show-stopping mechanical head to Emperor Rudolf, King of Bohemia, descendent of the august Habsburg lineage, and holder of sundry other titles. In the first great Greek tragedy of the astronomer’s life, he betrays his father in order to be installed as the Emperor’s Imperial Astronomer. There is genuine movement and pathos to this part of the story, but it mostly sets up a suspended preamble to the astronomer’s sudden turn into eyeless-ness, meaning it’s an opportunity for copious riffing. To wit:

Then his father went to bed and the astronomer—by the light of a single candle lit only after he heard his father’s sixth snore, for one snore could of course be faked, as could two snores or three, even four simulated snores is not unthinkable if his father had suspicions, and the idea of feigning five snores to catch your son in some verboten act is, if absurd, not impossible, whereas after six snores his father was probably asleep—read, for example, the portions of Friar Bacon’s Opus Majus concerning the physiology of vision or his Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature with its depictions of those ingenious devices of antiquity that according to legend made distant things seem near or near things distant…

The same structure occurs later, when the astronomer slowly recognizes that a room containing a glockenspiel is actually a room containing many glockenspiels, in fact it is lousy with glockenspiels, basically a plenum of glockenspiels. Once the glockenspiel situation has been sorted out, the story continues.

Sachs runs these perspectival recursions often, and while all are smart and some very funny, many only have the tone of being funny, and don’t really work. When they do, though, they follow an absurd and exuberant logical momentum and accrete surprising valences, like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill. In one riff, a ditty about a butcher chopping a pig into limit-approaching sections (quarters, halves eighths, sixteenths, etc.) turns out to be an ode to the beautiful insanity of the infinite: “The song, [the astronomer] realized, had taken a mathematical turn.”

What is the point of all this? One of Sachs’s characters conveniently offers an explanation on his behalf, telling the astronomer that “the true artist walks straight toward the insignificant, while slyly keeping an eye on the significant, and moving at all times away from the gorgeous…” Indeed.

The astronomer finds himself caught up in some palatial intrigue having mostly to do with the Habsburg brats, whose names I couldn’t keep straight. Here, as the novel sprints toward the insignificant, it begins to wobble a bit. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to care about this submerged plot, or even to follow it. The problem is not necessarily that these sections are syntactically convoluted or demanding. It’s that, as the voice luxuriates in its own convolutions, it teaches you to pay less attention, to gloss. I suspect Sachs knows where the reader’s attention is likely to ebb and flow, and, again, he suggests a larger reason: “One wants above all to understand the Sun,” says the astronomer, “but one cannot aim one’s telescope right at the Sun!” The “sun,” in this case, might also be the thing we want to communicate. Sachs knows that seeing into someone’s head requires their head to do a lot of work with language in order to produce a series of gestures back toward some always-inarticulable idea. Not every utterance is worth paying attention to, unless you’re the one talking.

We are periodically re-situated in the tower, where the clock is ticking on the astronomer’s prediction. A cat, Linus, stalks the room. (A perfect syllogism, courtesy of the astronomer: “A man delighted by a cat is discomfited by existence, a man delighted by existence is discomfited by a cat.”) The astronomer occasionally presses socket to telescope and writes down long strings of numbers, a refrain that mostly works to remind us that Sachs is in control.

But his is a fine control, and it’s surprisingly propulsive, this mystery of whether the forecasted event will occur—at once banal (four seconds in the dark, big deal) and galactically meaningful (the sun occluded for four seconds is a very big deal for those of us who rely on its warmth and light for our survival). It’s a kind of structural suspense, reading to see whether Sachs will pull it off, wondering which threads will be tied neatly, which left frayed. Wondering what, for God’s sake, happened to the astronomer’s eyes! Happily, the dénouement of the novel is excellently wrangled, and its grotesquerie depends in part upon a demonstration of the horrors of a vacuum, which made me wish that more inventors had shown up in its pages to blow everyone’s minds. (To be fair, there’s also the aforementioned mechanical head, a perpetual motion machine, and more.) Sachs’s chosen historical moment bristles with so much metaphysical weirdness in large part because discovery and mysticism are not yet at cross-purposes. Cutting-edge scientific discoveries are intimations of reality’s as-yet-unexplained properties and thus, in their uncanny mixture of the mechanical and the unimaginable, seem tinged with magic.

The Organs of Sense, too, turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. Sachs has written a misdirecting novel about the pleasures and perils of misdirection, and the contraption works exquisitely, proving that it is impossible to be a person on whom nothing is lost. I must be one of those cat-lovers discomfited by existence, because after uncountable moments of frustration, by the novel’s end, I was actually charmed to feel that I, like Leibniz, was the butt of some cosmic joke. The Organs of Sense invites us to wander around in Sachs’s head; of course it’s messy and annoying. On the verge of throwing the book across the room, I would reach an unanticipated reprise or an incredible morsel of history or the end of a deftly completed feedback loop, cackle gleefully, and fall back in love. The people around me might have felt their constituent monads twinge and wondered, if only for a moment, what was going on in my head.

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

‘The Grand Dark’ by Richard Kadrey: Staging Vice

The Grand DarkThe Grand Dark (423 pages; Harper Voyager), the new book by New York Times-bestselling author Richard Kadrey, best known for his ongoing supernatural noir series Sandman Slim, is an urban fantasy that both satisfies and defies genre conventions. Looking the horror of war dead in the eye, The Grand Dark is also a moody, multi-layered mystery about human conflict, politics, and artistic expression, as well as an ambitious feat of world building.

The Great War has left the fantastical country of High Proszawa in ruins. The survivors live in Lower Proszawa, a coastal city where the wealthy and poor are stratified by cleanliness. “City silver” from coal plants dirties every neighborhood, and affluent areas are constantly scoured clean. Those less fortunate live where the soot accumulates, and are left to suffer the health consequences. Coal dust is a powerful metaphor for characters who live, both literally and figuratively, in the gray.

The novel’s dystopian setting is reminiscent of interwar Germany—a time when political parties went to their extremes. The Grand Dark takes place in a time of propaganda, suppressed speech, and the oppression of the Secret Police, when vice is a last refuge for a populace whose collective unconscious senses doom. Like “the invader” in John Steinbeck’s classic novel of resistance, The Moon Is Down, the enemy in The Grand Dark is never named. Instead, Kadrey uses newspaper articles, book quotes, and diary entries to capture his setting’s cultural zeitgeist, including excerpts like: “Everything was fun and nothing mattered because everyone knew that sooner or later the cannons would boom again and nothing would be fun and everything would matter.” Living at the mercy of a totalitarian war machine, the notion of self is obliterated, yet The Grand Dark still questions if the enemy comes from within.

Traversing this strange world is twenty-one year old bicycle messenger Largo Moorden. During his childhood in the slums, Largo learned the back alleys and shortcuts of Lower Proszawa by outrunning bullies. His familiarity with the city makes him the ideal choice for chief courier after a co-worker is arrested by the Secret Police. More important deliveries bring higher risk but better tips. Largo quickly learns that information is currency, and begins selling stories to a tabloid—aptly named Ihre Skandale (Your Scandals)—for large payouts. However, Largo’s naivety of Lower Proszawa’s sociopolitical situation makes him blind to the danger of trading in secrets. Soon he draws the attention, and ire, of the Secret Police.

Hooked on a drug called morphia, Largo has thought little about the future outside of feeding his addiction and spending time with his girlfriend, Remy. His evenings are often spent watching her perform at The Theater of the Grand Dark, the novel’s narrative centerpiece, which “specialized in Schöner Mord, little productions of violence and depravity performed by life-size puppets controlled by actors backstage in galvanic suits.” On the surface, these productions appear to be first-act sex and violence for the groundlings, but each performance actually serves as a microcosm of the story world. Characters are presented with truths they fear to speak of offstage—the coming war, the day-to-day violence in Lower Proszawa, and the threat of a deadly plague known as “the Drops.” The puppets also reflect one of the novel’s major themes: trans-humanism: What is the appropriate gap between technology and humanity? And what happens when the line blurs?

Automatons called “maras” already complete many jobs in Lower Proszawa—from cleaning to construction to crowd control. The Schöne Maschinen (Beautiful Machines) armaments factory also manufactures “chimeras,” which are “custom-made mutant creatures favored as work animals by the municipal services and pets by the well-heeled of Lower Proszawa.” The chimera display a human-like consciousness but are also capable of great violence, which makes them a sort of mascot for Lower Proszawa’s warfare economy. They are also a powerful allusion to Nazi eugenic experiments. The reader is left to ponder if the chimera are technically alive, or only technological marvels. And if the characters accept that the chimera are less than human, what are the limits to their treatment?

When Largo is presented with an opportunity to apprentice at Schöne Maschinen, he begins to think seriously about a future for himself and Remy. Standing in as a human counterpoint is Largo’s friend Rainer, who is a veteran of the Great War. Rainer is one of many wounded veterans known as “Iron Dandies” who wear leather-and-steel masks to conceal their injuries. These masks hide the individual cost of war, leaving the Iron Dandies largely ignored by the public and relegated to the shadows. Rainer is a man who has suffered much, but is still passionate about understanding the world through science and spiritualism, and he provides Largo with a unique perspective.

The Grand Dark is a thematic buffet. Wealth, addiction, and censorship are only a few of its social and political layers. Foremost among its concerns are mankind’s relationship to technology, the treatment of veterans, and how a society handles its “undesirables.” The Grand Dark is a fast-paced fantasy read filled with contemporary resonance that new readers and loyal fans of Sandman Slim will enjoy.

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

‘A Student of History’ by Nina Revoyr: A Term Among High Society

Nina Revoyr novel A Student of HistoryIn Los Angeles, there exists a rarified social echelon known as the Street People. These are not, as their moniker might suggest, the many who find themselves without shelter (much like San Francisco, L.A. is currently dealing with a staggering increase in its homeless population). Rather, the name refers to the wealthy landowners and developers who saw prominent streets named after them: the Crenshaws, the Chandlers, the Van Nuys. The descendants of these 20th century tycoons move in a world of power and privilege, the kind that isn’t even whispered about in the society pages. It is into this hermetically sealed environment that the protagonist of Nina Revoyr’s latest novel, A Student of History (238 pages; Akashic Books), finds himself thrust after he takes the job of transcribing the diaries of one of Los Angeles’ most wealthy heiresses.

In his early thirties, Richard Nagano is a graduate student at USC, still reeling from a recent breakup and struggling to make ends meet. At first, he looks at the gig working for Marion W– (the book censors her last name as though to protect the family’s privacy and prevent litigation) as merely a way to supplement his meager income. But as the elderly Marion takes a shine to Richard, going so far as to update his wardrobe with far more stylish (and expensive) attire, and employ him as her escort to various social clubs and galas, Richard realizes the shrewd older woman might be his entry into the upper class. What’s more, he begins to suspect her youthful diaries contain the kind of compelling historical gossip that could revamp his currently stalled graduate thesis.

Both of Richard’s motivations dovetail when he becomes infatuated with Fiona, a well-to-do socialite who quickly develops an interest in Richard, despite the ring on her finger. At her urging, he continues to investigate the tragic secrets hidden in Marion’s past, secrets that once uncovered could potentially put Richard’s good standing with his employer at risk.

With her past novels carrying titles such as Lost Canyon and Southland, it’s clear Southern California has long represented a preoccupation for Revoyr. Her style is both elegant and pleasurable to read; she juggles geographical detail, context, and plotting with a deceptive ease. Revoyr’s L.A. is a city teeming with contradictions, one where the world of everyday concerns and that of the elite class co-exist but rarely intersect until, that is, a random stroke of luck or fate sees a person travel from one world to the next. But even as Richard rubs elbows with the city’s rich and powerful, there remains something to remind him of his origins: his mixed heritage means Marion’s largely white social circles tend to exoticize his good looks; and while Marion may invest in Richard’s clothing, she’s not about to buy him a new car. And so, Richard must head from one soiree to the next in his broken down Honda, the shocked looks of the valet parking attendants a constant echo of his working-class roots.

At the heart of A Student of History, and what prevents the novel from merely serving as a takedown of the scandalous ultra-rich, is Revoyr’s complex characterization of Marion W–. At times, Marion doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about any of her peers; she frequently speaks out of both sides of her mouth, and doesn’t exactly tow the line of political correctness. Yet she is kind to those who work for her, she is fiercely protective of her family, and she absolutely dotes on Richard. While Richard serves as the audience identification character and our entry point into an unfamiliar domain, it’s Marion who proves the most memorable in the drama that unfolds. Her contradictions are exemplified by the fact that she donates generous sums of money to charitable causes, yet does so anonymously, in large part to upstage and frustrate other donors:

You gave that money?”
“Why, yes. Several years ago. No one there has any idea. They all think I’m a stingy old bitch.”
I let this news sink in. Of course she had given it. That was the reason she’d wanted to attend. “But…why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you want people to know?”
“I have no use for all this fuss,” she said. “People groveling and then wanting more. It’s better they think that you won’t given them anything.”

When Marion ultimately comes to feel as though Richard has betrayed her trust, it registers as a betrayal for the reader as well, even though Richard has far more to lose than Marion with his expulsion from the Hollywood high life. Through their time together, Richard reaches some understanding of Marion’s contradictory nature:

She was a misanthrope who gave generously to causes she claimed to despise; an aesthete who welcomed people who didn’t share her sensibilities; a professed hater of the social niceties that she performed with such grace.

In many ways, A Student of History adopts the familiar structure of the bildungsroman; like other classic novels before it, such as Sentimental Education and Great Expectations, we witness an earnest young man enter a hitherto unexplored sphere of luxury and privilege. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading the novel is inhabiting that familiar structure, knowing all the while Richard will likely end his term among high society with a sense that perhaps he has lost more than he has gained. Yet by placing the novel in so specific a milieu—Los Angeles in 2019, an era where Americans are feeling the class divide more than ever—Revoyr forges a work that stands on its own. If the book’s ambitions prove modest, it feels entirely appropriate, considering Richard’s ultimate discovery that sometimes a modest life lived well––far from society luncheons and award ceremonies––is good enough.

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