Bone, Fae Myenne Ng

Cover image for Bone by Fae Myenne NgSoundtrack for this post: I wish I was the Moon, Neko Case

Acquisition

Bone was required reading for my Spring 2003 Literature course, “Asian American and Pacific Rim Literature.” I purchased my copy used–and not just a little used, either. Five different resale stickers, three shades of highlighting, underlining in both pencil and pen. I never read it. Never even started it, as far as I can recall. I suppose I felt honor bound to keep this book, since I received college credit for pretending to have read it.

Notes

In the aftermath of a sister’s suicide, Leila Fu examines her family’s past in search of justification. With simple clarity, she narrates her experiences growing up with her younger half sisters, Ona and Nina, and their lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a city within a city, where she and her family are known to everyone. Her stepfather Leon emigrated from China, sponsored by a “paper grandfather” whose lost bones have been interred in Colma, instead of being sent home to China as he wished. Her mother was abandoned in San Francisco by her first husband, forced to tirelessly as a seamstress. In a bid for independence, the family opened commercial laundry. Its failure and dissolution proved a precursor to the partial dissolution of their family–Leila’s move across town to the Mission to live with her longtime boyfriend, Nina’s exodus to New York, and Ona’s leap from the top of a Chinatown housing project.

The narrative is structured like a tightening spiral, looping through time, but always anchored in grief and personal diaspora, loss and escape. The clean narration and corkscrew timeline create an effect that elevates the story above the simple facts it relates. It’s a fast, absorbing read. It was a special delight to read knowing the city. I work within a few blocks of the landmarks Leila describes. If I had read Bone as a college sophomore like I was supposed to, I would have missed that.

Final Disposition

Goodwill

 

Snow and Shadow, Dorothy Tse, Nicky Haram, Translator

Cover image for Snow and Shadow, by Dorothy TseSoundtrack for this post: 50 Words for Snow, Kate Bush

I was invited to review Snow and Shadow (gasp!). That means some poor assistant charged with scouring niche book blogs copy-pasted my url into a spreadsheet. This type of outreach was one of my responsibilities at my very first (paying) publishing job, so I was irrationally thrilled when in 2014, I received a digital copy for review. That’s right THREE YEARS AGO. Let me say it now: I’m so sorry.

I started reading immediately and finally finished over the weekend (again, SO sorry). The marketing campaign is of course long over, but archaeological evidence still remains: several blog reviews, posted as part of what must have been a major blitz, respectable coverage in more established outlets, an excerpt in the Guardian, another in The Margins (accompanied by a fairly literal piece of art), even a skeleton book site. (I was particularly charmed by this interview in which Tse, while gracious, essentially tells the interview, repeatedly, that they are mistaken, and/or asking the wrong sorts of questions.) Clearly, this was THE book at a boutique small press. I wish I still had access to Bookscan, because I’d love to see the numbers.

Snow and Shadow is not a direct equivalent to any Tse short story collection previously published in Chinese, but rather a greatest hits designed to introduce English-speaking readers to her work. The collection is an assemblage of dreamy, anti-moral parables set in the shifting topography of a surreal Hong Kong. Tse’s style is direct yet obscure, characterized by a loose physicality, impersonal, often iconic, characters, overtones of classic fairy tales turned in on themselves, and, as translator Nicky Harman notes, “a total absence of sentimentality.” Together, these elements create a sense of unreality that enables extreme violence with a minimum of true horror.

In the first selection, “Woman Fish,” a lying wife transforms into a sort of grotesque mermaid, her head and torso morphing into those of a fish while her legs remain human. The piece reminded me of  Aimee Bender’s “The Rememberer” in which a woman watches her lover devolve into a turtle. In “The Love Between Leaf and Knife” a suffering couple engage in an inverted “Gift of the Magi” scenario in which each competes to sacrifice more. In another selection a boy wakes without a head. “Monthly Matters” features these amazing, jarring, violent one-line descriptions of pregnancy, popping balloons, stabbing of pregnant women, discarded fetuses, a girl cut, like Riding Hood, from the belly of a wolf. In the final, title selection, Tse re-imagines Snow White as a brutal hall-of-mirrors story of doppelganger princesses and obsessive emperors, in a snowy country where dwarves and animals with surgically enhanced human features patrol the forests.

I found myself drawn to my favorite tale, “The Mute Door,” initially by the lyricism of the language in the introductory passages. In it, an anonymous pizza delivery boy known only as “the stranger” wanders the constantly shifting halls of a maze-like building, searching for an apartment that may or may not exist. Its an ominous, alienating piece, one of the most concrete, and, for me, “easiest” offerings in the collection.

Reading Tse isn’t, generally, all that easy. The experience reminded me how little I know of Chinese literature. I’ve read the stories of Lu Xun, and Pu Songling’s Strange Tales–but that’s more or less it. This collection eluded me on some level, not only because it is deliberately fantastic, but because I’m only catching about 30% of the references. I know just enough to know that I’m missing something substantial. Serious critics could (and in Chinese I’m sure they probably do) spend scores of pages unpacking each of Tse’s tales, but the criticism that has appeared in English, at least online, is of the thinner “review” type, like the above. These works seem to deserve a deeper, more formal, more contextualized inspection than I can offer.

 

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Territory, Emma Bull

Cover Image for Territory, by Emma BullSoundtrack for this post: Silver Stallion, The Highwaymen

I can trace my love of Emma Bull back to The Other Change of Hobbit, yet another Bay Area bookselling institution that hasn’t survived the age of effortless online sales1Everyone should go to Boarderlands and buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.. I’d never, ever have caught on to the awesomeness of Emma Bull if someone hadn’t hand-sold me War for the Oaks.2n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time. I worry about what I might be missing now that a disturbing percentage of my new book recommends come from Twitter.

I found my copy of Emma Bull’s Territory in the used Sci-Fi section at Green Apple in or around 2013, and for whatever reason, just didn’t get to it. I had it on the shelf, I tried to bully other people into reading it on multiple occasions, I even packed it on vacation. It just wasn’t the moment, I guess. Spiritually I wasn’t ready.

Set in an ever-so-slightly-fantastic version of the Arizona Territory, Territory deals with the conflicts and politics that divided the iconic Wild West community of Tombstone during the summer of 1881, and which would eventually lead to the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.3Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.” Bull’s Tombstone is a slippery blend of history, fiction, and fantasy. Fictional characters mix with real historical figures,4The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance. and a complex magical power struggle underlies real legal and physical battles.

The three pronged narrative is presented through the eyes of Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp’s hard living dentist-cum-professional-gambler right hand man, “so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift” (59), Jessie Fox, an iterate horse trainer with East Coast manners and supernatural talents he can’t quite face, and Mildred Benjamin, a young widow making her living as a typesetter by day while writing sensational fiction at night. After the Benson stage robbery, all three find themselves, in different ways, embroiled in the escalating conflict between the ranchers and townspeople, and facing a mysterious and powerful magic.

The Genre Mash is always a crowd pleaser, instantly refreshing favorite tropes by placing them in a new context, and the Sci-Fi/Old West smashup is arguably the most fail safe.5Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered. If, in the process, the author manages to inject social morays that are a bit more palatable to the modern mind, so much the better. In most retellings of this particular Wild West creation myth women are incidental6Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts. or explicitly problematic.7Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good. Territory, however, is overtly feminist. Mildred comes into her own as a writer over the course of the novel. Kate sees through Earp’s plots and manipulations, engineering Doc’s arrest not because she’s angry with him, but as a means of protecting him. Wyatt Earp’s public infidelities call his character into question. Both Doc and Jessie, in very different ways, seem to value strength and individuality in their women folk.

Totally enjoyable, engaging read, but ultimately not destined for my future estate sale. I’d put this one on Amazon, but unfortunately in the process of reading it I managed to completely destroy it, so I’m afraid its bound for the Goodwill, if they’ll take it. One down. Approximately 200 to go.

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References   [ + ]

1. Everyone should go to Boarderlands and buy something fast, before it sinks into the ocean or something.
2. n another example of how the Bay is really not all that big I later worked with one of the ‘Hobbit founders at a local publisher—though I failed to make the connection at the time.
3. Bull promises the sequel Claim “will really truly contain the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind the O.K. Corral, this time for sure.”
4. The Earp brothers and their wives, Curly Bill Brocius and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, Sadie Marcus and Kate Elder all make their appearance.
5. Back to the Future III, Firefly, Wild Wild West…I was going to do a whole huge list but I’m sure someone else has already got that covered.
6. Available to be fought over or sent away for their own safety, to gather up the poker winnings, and generally to dress up the set with their puffy skirts.
7. Overdoing it with the laudanum, getting their men arrested in a fit of pique, and never wanting to move anywhere good.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Cover illustration for Fun Home by Alison BechdelI started Fun Home after attending yet another Radar Reading Series event where it was repeatedly held up as the pinnacle of what graphic novels can achieve (brilliant, soul-eating, MacArthur Genius earning, Tony Award winning Broadway musical inspiring, and so forth).

Lucky me, it came into the library just before young Brian Grasso’s inexplicably well publicized protests to the effect that images of naked lesbians are against his religion.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to pick this 18 year old apart, trusting that he’ll do enough of that himself once he gains a little perspective on one or more of the following: life, art, picking one’s battles. That said, his Washington Post op-ed is fairly amusing if read in the popper spirit (“even Freud, Marx or Darwin”….my you are open minded!) NB: Seriously, I hope that its impossible to graduate from accredited university without reading at least some Freud, Marx or Darwin–especially somewhere with that much ivy.

This isn’t exactly the first time Bechdel’s opus has come under fire. The same thing happened last year at the University of Southern Carolina, and from time to time various public libraries have been petitioned to take it off their shelves. Still, I feel very timely and fortuitous reading it just now. Everyone loves a banned book, or barring that, a moderately controversial one. Feeling rather guilty that my copy is overdue from the public library, as I’m sure the wait list is exploding.

Not that it wasn’t already. The 2006 graphic memoir has enjoyed enormous success overall (see above MacArthur Genius and Tony Award winning musical) earning a place among great literary memoirs like Liar’s Club and This Boy’s Life.

Illustration for Fun Home, by Alison BechdelBechdel describes her childhood in the family funeral home (the titular “Fun Home”) managed by her father, juxtaposing her growing self awareness through childhood and the process of coming out to her family at the age of 19 with her father’s life as a closeted gay man in a straight marriage in rural Pennsylvania. The work opens with and continually circles back to the death and probable suicide of the author’s father weeks after her own coming out, the end of his life of secrecy at the beginning of her adulthood in the open, the parallels and opposites in their lives a new variation on the Ouroboros themes of parent and child. That moment both typifies and is the underlying point of the work.

The work operates on two levels–the childish interpretation of events, replete with misunderstandings, deliberate obfuscations, and missed details, and the adult’s more informed assessment, consciously aiming for transparency. What was her father’s relationship with the family’s teenaged babysitter? Was that court case really just about giving a 17-year-old a beer, or was Bechdel’s father suspected of something more serious?

Unusually for such a well regard work, Fun Home does not demand much from readers. The author has given us the truths she expects us to know, the hard work of interpretation done for us, clearly articulated in mixed media, each point driven perfectly home, more like a play than a novel.

Illustration from Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Bruce Bechdel leading his English class.

Except, perhaps, that the work is dense with eerily appropriate literary references drawn from the family’s reading material. The Bechdel’s was a household of artists, the mother an actress and musician, the father an English teacher and antique enthusiast, books and letters the vehicles through which the author and her father communicated best. The personal lives and works of Proust, Salinger, Colette, Wilde, and others run through the memoir like additional characters.

I was particularly struck with the role of place, the fatalism of living in the Alleghanys. The circumscribe existence, the isolation, and yet the fairy tale parallel to Kenneth Grahame’s Oxford. The fun home itself, lovingly restored by Bechdel’s antique enthusiast father over the course of her childhood, ostentatious and baroque, the Victorian trappings a strange but pleasing contrast to the family’s 1970 jeans and t-shits, a variation on an aesthetic faintly familiar from television (Six Feet Under, The Munsters).

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Fun Home retains Bechdel’s comic style, filled with humorous asides and flashes of irony, making the sometimes oppressive subject matter more palatable.  I’ve already put Are You My Mother on hold…

Serena, Ron Rash

Cover art for Serena by Ron RashIts difficult to say anything about Ron Rash’s Serena that the novel itself doesn’t convey more clearly, possibly even more quickly. Possibly its difficult to summarize in part because it is such a simple story. A Depression-era timber baron, George Pemberton, and his fierce, beautiful new bride, the titular Serena, push to finish clear-cutting their land in the Great Smoky Mountains before the newly formed National Park’s eminent domain forces them to sell. The ruthless couple will stop at nothing to secure control of their fortunes or revenge themselves on their enemies. Like Julius Cesar played in World War II costume (or MacBeth—ahem—recast in 1930s North Carolina) Serena is a familiar tale against a novel background.

The story opens as the new couple’s train pulls into the station in Waynesville, North Carolina. Pemberton is bringing his wife home for the first time after several months in Boston. Rachel, one of the timber camp mess staff, awaits the train, visibly pregnant, her infuriated father beside her. With his wife’s encouragement and support Pemberton kills the other man in a brief, brutal fight on the station platform using the knife that was Serena’s wedding gift to him. The incident defines the three central characters and establishes a pattern that will play out again and again throughout the work, the stakes rising as Serena assumes an increasingly active role. The pervasive violence and fear slowly degrade Pemberton’s personality, driving him to alcoholism and subterfuge, demonstrating to Serena that he may not be the mate she deserves after all.

The novelist Ron Rash is also a poet, so its unsurprising that the complexity of his novel comes from the layered symbolism and spiraling foreshadowing, rather than from the plot. Like a good poet, Rash doesn’t throw words away. Every line builds toward the conclusion until it feels inevitable, prophetic. Every thread is woven back in and neatly tied off.

Serena is dense with images of grandeur and destruction. Serena supervises cutting crews from the back of an enormous white horse, carrying an eagle trained to hunt snakes. Pemberton and his partners slaughter deer by the dozen on their hunting excursions. Rattlesnakes haunt the camp. The land is destroyed. Buildings burn. Serena herself suffers a harrowing late-term miscarriage. Workers are killed grotesquely, bitten by snakes and spiders, struck by misplaced ax blades, slipping between the logs in the millpond to drown trapped beneath. They die in such numbers that when the business prepares to relocate to a new camp, the graveyard is the first thing they build. And of course, there are all the people the Pembertons murder.

Serena is a force, exerting her power over nature, disturbing the balance, a point driven home repeatedly throughout the work, as when the workers discuss the rat problem in camp (“The thing to kill them is snakes…but that eagle done upset what the Orientals call the yen and the yang”), or when Serena expresses her pride in the destruction wrought on Nolan Mountain, telling one rich couple, “leaving something as it is leaves no mark at all” (p. 241), and insisting on having her photograph taken before the wasteland of stumps.

The novel is similarly highly structured, divided into five parts, the chapters focusing on the central couple periodically interspersed with commentary from one of the timber crews, with slightly longer segments following Rachel and her baby, Pemberton’s illegitimate son. The film copy includes an interview with Rash, reprinted from the journal Grist, in which he explains that modeled his novel on Marlowe, envisioning it as a five act Elizabethan play, punctuated by a chorus of rustics, and that both Serena and the elderly Mrs. Galloway speak in “lose iambic pentameter.”

With its striking dramatic imagery and growing sense of foreboding its easy to see why the novel was selected for a film adaptation–though the critics don’t seem to have appreciated the results very much. I think I’ll steer clear.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for The Keep by Jennifer EganI read The Keep one and a half times: the first half, on a beech in Thailand, and a second complete time, on the commuter train, or while lying on the bed wearing gym clothes in lieu of actually going to the gym. Its a short novel, easily tackled over the course of a day or two, but broken into discrete sections in such a way that putting it down and letting it rest feels natural.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, is a clever, weird, book full of the kind of humor that comes from the unexpected and the out-of-context, and studded with odd, surprisingly genuine moments of real feeling.

The story opens at 2:00 am with Danny, a New York hipster approaching 40, marooned in “some German-sounding town that didn’t seem to be in Germany” (p. 4) looking up at the medieval castle that his semi-estranged millionaire cousin Howie has recently purchased.

In a story made of up strange contradictions and juxtapositions, this is the first, and most pervading: image-obsessed, technology addicted, undignified modernity, against a background of atmospheric decaying gothic grandeur–like an episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy is a middle-aged goth boy with a satellite dish in tow.

The first chapter introduces us to Danny and his cousin, their childhood friendship, and the familiar story of the decline of that friendship in their early teens, as Howie becomes increasingly and painfully nerdy, while Danny grows into a popular soccer star, anxious for approval. Danny sees Howie for the last time when, at a family picnic, he and an older cousin play a cruel trick on Howie that results in his being lost for days in a series of underground caverns. The guilt and shame Egan conjures in this recollection is startling–its incredibly evocative and relatable for such an over-the-top sequence of events.

Now, twenty years later, Danny has lost his latest restaurant job and fallen afoul of the mafia. Basically, he needs to get out of town for a while. Conveniently, a rich, successful Howie offers him a one-way plane ticket and a job helping him to help convert a medieval castle into a hotel.

Chapter 1 also introduces a variation on another trope of classic gothic fiction, the nested tale.  The narrator of Danny’s story, Ray, is present from the very beginning, but breaks in unambiguously for the first time on page 12 to critique his own work:

“He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how am I supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.”

Ray, we learn is a student in a prison creative writing class led by Holly, a newish teacher and the object of his erstwhile desire. Danny’s story is his contribution. Her voice will provide a final coda to the novel, like Nelly in Wuthering Heights or Captain Walton in Frankenstein.

Like Egan’s more recent work, The Keep is meticulously structured, full of echoes and bread crumbs, everything neatly tied up, everything connected. The last line harkens back to Chapter 3, when Howie’s wife describes her vision for the finished hotel. I remember thinking that piece of the story was a little off in my first reading–a little too tangential, just slightly out of character for a woman who otherwise barely speaks. But there’s always a reason.

The author calls readers’ attention to the mediated nature of the tale early and often, complicating what is otherwise a simple story with questions of perspective and reality. Is Danny the one obsessed with power–or is that Ray? Is Howie out to revenge himself on Danny, or is that pure paranoia?

The machinery of the story is so evident, the plot so outlandish, the physics of the world the characters inhabit so questionable–yet, like the gothic fiction it takes as a model, The Keep is compelling and, on emotional level, believable.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Cover illustration for The Goldfinch by Donna Tart Back in August I finished a book. My Amazon history (yes, I know, at some point down the line I’ll find a way to be a better person) tells me I actually bought it the previous November, and I know I started it right away because I was super excited about the whole thing. I loved The Secret History so much I’d buy anything Donna Tartt wrote. Of course, since she writes on average one highly decorated book per decade, so far that’s been real easy.

So why did this book (which I honestly really enjoyed) take me nine months to read and another three to review? Two reasons: primarily, graduate school and a full time job have made me into a vacuous crazy person who only reads historical romances (preferably in a bathtub, with wine) when the day has been too much to ever think about again, and secondly, though I can legitimately claim to have loved this book, I didn’t exactly love the middle 300 or so pages—but more on that later.

The first chapter left me totally amazed, engrossed, enamored. I felt sure sure it must have been excerpted The New Yorker or something and I’d missed it, because that initial chapter could stand alone. I learned later that the extract in fact appeared in the Daily Telegraph, The New Yorker having declared itself too good for this book.

We know from the first line that the narrator’s mother is dead, that she died traumatically. 13-year old Theo, is in trouble at school—for smoking maybe, or some other misdemeanor-—he’ll never know which one exactly. Summoned to the office one rainy day, and, unable to get a cab, Theo and his mother duck into the Met where she shows him a favorite painting, the titular Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius 1654

Theo distractedly observes another pair of patrons, a red headed girl his own age, and an old man, her grandfather or uncle. Minutes later he and his mother separate: he, surreptitiously in pursuit of the red headed girl, she to take one last look in the gallery. A museum guard runs past. A bomb explodes.

Theo awakes in the aftermath of the April 10 terror attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a fictitious but entirely plausible event. In the ruble, he finds one other living person: Welty, the old man accompanying the girl. Deaf and disoriented from the blast, the old man gives Theo his ring and the name of his business, and gestures at a painting on the wall—the same painting his mother had taken him to see—the Goldfinch. Then he dies. Panicked and confused, Theo takes the painting and leaves the premises.

The events of this day color the rest of his life. He becomes permanently entangled with Welty, falling desperately and hopelessly in love with his great niece, Pippa, the red headed girl he first admired; finding a mentor and friend in the dead man’s former business partner, Hobie. Most of all, Theo finds himself burdened and oppressed by the possession of a priceless work of art which he can neither safely display, nor sell, nor bear to part with.

In the weeks and months that follow the attack, a grief-stricken, tortured Theo finds a temporary home with the family of a wealthy classmate and friend, Andy Barbour, and begins to pick up the threads of Welty’s life—only to be swept away when his absentee father abruptly swoops down on him and bears him off to Las Vegas.

In the slow, painful period after the death of Theo’s mother, its easy to drift off as a reader. In Las Vegas, its two pages max before sleep takes over. This section is interminable. Theo is marooned in a subprime Las Vegas housing development with his father, a professional but evidently unsuccessful gambler, and his girlfriend, a drug dealing waitress. He has just one friend in the deserted subdivision: Boris, the son of a Russian diplomat. The boys drink, drug and shoplift endlessly. And, that’s more or less it for a good 150 pages. Any abridger can safely skip these chapters. I’m pretty sure they won’t make up a major portion of the movie (Yes, that’s right. It’s been optioned. By the producers of the Hunger Games.) Los Vegas this novel’s Lowood School.

That this part of the book is boring is appropriate enough for a bildungsroman. Junior high and high school are boring. But considering that Tartt will shortly skip over eight years in Theo’s life, I’d argue that we probably didn’t need to stick with him through this bit.

After the sudden death of his father, Theo decides its time to return to New York. So, with a wad of cash, a pocket full of pills, and a lap dog, all stolen from his father’s girlfriend, and with The Goldfinch carefully wrapped in pillowcases and tape, he says goodbye to Boris and boards the bus for New York, arriving on Hobie’s doorstep.

Eight years later, the novel is, once again, its unputdownable. We find Theo living and working with Hobie, now a partner in the business, and using it to systematically cheat the nouveau riche into purchasing faked antiques. The painting remains carefully wrapped in those same old pillowcases in a storage unit. The FBI have been searching for it since the attack, and one questionable individual on the outskirts of the New York antiques market seems to know that Theo has it.

Then one night in the village, Theo stumbles into a bar and unexpectedly encounters his old friend Boris, now a small time criminal whose exact business interests remain unclear. Boris guiltily confesses that he stole the painting back in high school. The thing Theo has so carefully guarded all these years, the thing that has anchored him, that has inspired so much fear and anxiety, is an old text book. Boris sold the work to some minor Eastern European gangsters but, he promises Theo, he will help to recover it. So begins a harrowing, over-the-top, at times farcical effort to recover the painting, culminating in Yuletide violence in Amsterdam and Theo’s unlikely and rather abrupt extrication from all difficulties.

In the aftermath, a reunited Hobie and Theo discuss the painting with something approaching frankness, and Theo learns that the day of the bombing, Welty was in the building because of the Goldfinch; that he had come to the museum specially because he wanted Pippa to see it. It was that one masterwork, its eloquence, the passion it engendered in each disparate individual, that drove them all. Tartt concludes her ironic, over-the-top novel, with somewhat unexpectedly earnest reflections on the nature and value of art and beauty and the reality of fate.

This novel has been called Dickensian (and by the book review of book reviews no less…then by everybody else). In structure and theme, the similarity is undeniable. The Goldfinch is a long book spanning a long period of time; the plot relies on coincidence almost to the point of magic; its told from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth; there are a lot of non-essential, eccentric characters, especially old people with funny names; there’s gambling and a sick girl (two of Dickens’ favorite things); financial striving and class anxiety are major themes; about 30% of it actually seems to take place inside The Old Curiosity Shop. (Okay, so I’m not a Dickens fan—I side with Henry James (an actual good novelist) on this one.) The author herself seems to concur that the work is Dickensian, though maybe not deliberately so.

Theme and structure, though, are only frameworks in this context; vehicles for genre play; a nod and a wink to a convention the author embraces only selectively. The work is modern in its expression of heroism, post-modern in its referential style. It lacks the moral center and dialog of Dickens and exhibits a profoundly different sense of humor. The melodrama is self-conscious rather than earnest. The characters are as far from life as any Dickensian characters ever were, but they are not satiric caricatures as the population of London seems to have been; they are merely deeply flawed, drastically selfish, mostly shallow, and a little strange.

Its is a Faberge egg of a book: delicate, fantastic, esoteric, entirely artificial, a testament to craftsmanship without being exactly beautiful–but by no means light, and impossible to dismiss. That confuses all of us, a confusion further exacerbated by the accolades the work has garnered on one hand, and the extreme criticism it has received on the other hand.

Tangents inspired by “The Liars’ Club” and “Lit” by Mary Karr

Cover illustration for Liars' Club by Mary KarrI’ve been slowly making my way though Mary Karr’s stunning memoir the Liar’s Club in my spare time for something like a month now, but it wasn’t until a recent 15 hour plane flight that I had a chance to sit down and and finish it.

I love everything about Liar’s Club, its sequel Lit (which I actually read first for some reason) and Karr herself. Her talent, her dry humor, her uncompromising cynicism, her wit, her gift for quick incisive characterization, and her ability to starkly expose and examine her own behavior all make me respect her enormously. Plus, I really enjoy it whenever someone interviews her (prime examples here and here).

Karr’s memoirs are full of unlikely events, often fueled by manic instability and substance abuse. Its consistently surprising, often shocking. But the thing that strikes me most about Karr’s work, especially having given it a couple of weeks to settle, is probably the way she makes God not-quite-so-unpalatable.

I haven’t been much of a God person lately. Like the last 15 years or so. Much of a God person is how I described it to a coworker once, thereby inserting my foot into my mouth. I’ve hung onto the phrase since. Its a handy way to articulate my exact position–beyond agnostic, but not quite all the way up to the rabid atheism that makes you want to actually argue with people. It also seems to suggest to the super-religious that I’m too lazy and ignorant to make big conversion points, which is handy.

What I generally keep to myself is that I really used to believe in a big way, and that there are times I really wish I still could. I remember the comfort there is in faith, the mystery, the sense of purpose, the incredible scope inherent in the idea of God–its something no other atheist I’ve known personally has really been able to appreciate.

These days, I’m sometimes too apt (like the other liberal democrat city-dwellers) to think of religious practice as a kind of mass delusion embraced by the weak, the shallow, the victimized, the under-educated, and the controlling, hateful charlatans who hope to take advantage of them. In fits of politically correct tolerance, I even occasionally fall back on the anthropological approach, which basically boils down to ‘why would anyone think this shit.’ (NB: Nothing makes you look like an asshole quite like speculating on the possible motivations of people you have never met. Political figures are exempt from this rule.)

But when smart, snarky feminist Mary Karr talks about her conversion–to Catholicism of all things–it reminds me of everything I admire and respect in true religious devotion. Rigor, discipline, scholarship, accountability, and most of all living in a conscious and conscientious way, investing small acts with mindfulness, engaging in a level of reflection otherwise almost unheard of in day-to-day existence. A religious expression that is personal and genuine–not just a string of catch phrases repeated by rote, but an evolving experience, the hard work of being an honest and decent human being.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. There’s a lot more in these works then religion–God doesn’t occupy more than about three chapters across the both books–but that’s what I keep returning to in retrospect.

Hot Pink, Adam Levin

Cover illustration for Hot Pink by Adam LevinThis is one of those books I picked up because of the cover. Can I just say I love the faded hipster t-shirt quality of this book design? You could pick this out as McSweeney’s at 200 yards. Cloth bound and embossed, with the weird muted 70s color pallet and Wes Anderson-esque imagery, the total absence of dust jacket (no insight, no explanations), and the thoughtful addition colored front papers (a pricy touch you almost never see any more). You can’t tell from the photo, but the grey background is actually textured with a pattern of raised diamonds. I’m not addicted to print (I’ve been known to read George Elliot on my iphone, for example) but this is the kind of book that just feels great to hold.

So, I was favorably predisposed. Then I flipped it open, read a few lines, and was sold.

I stumbled into this book thinking it was going to be a novel with an eccentric architecture–I guess because I know Adam Levin is also a novelist. It took me, embarrassingly, until well into the second story to recognize it for what it actually is: a straight-up short story collection.

The stories are distinguished by a pervading air of irony, plots filled with unexpected left turns, intensely present characters, clever prose and especially clever dialog. But most of all by their quirkiness–that gently humorous, pardonably over the top, self-conscious eccentricity that is, like the cover, such a part of the McSweeny’s aesthetic. They are for the most part gregarious, engrossing, a pleasure to read. Though violent and occasionally tragic, the stories contain a surprising underlying positivity that I found striking.

Of the 10 stories, I adored three (“Frankenwittgenstein,” “Jane Tell” and “Scientific American”), experienced a strong disinclination for two (“Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls” and “The Extra Mile”), and completely forgot one (“Finch”), only remembering it when skimming the table of contents before writing up this post.

The qualities I find so compelling in these stories are same elements that, in too great a concentration make some of the work unpalatable. In nearly every story, there’s a moment when some side character goes on a page-long rant in what is clearly a go-to voice. Dramatic occurrences send the story skittering off in new directions, leading to conclusions my old writing professor would describe as “not earned.” I loved “Susan Falls” right up until (spoiler alert) the  moment she accepts a cigarette from her cousin and promptly has a seizure and dies–something we all saw coming, but hoped the author wouldn’t actually go through with. Susan’s imaginative lies about the loss of her legs, her analytical consideration of Carla’s ass, the outlandish chapter numbers and titles like some kind of textual synesthesia–I was with him for all that. But the single cigarette death is so after-school-movie-of-the-week, like the girl who smokes but doesn’t inhale one joint and ends up pregnant and addicted to crack living in a car. I get that its deliberate; I just don’t like it. Its too much. Lots of people (Carolyn Kellogg) disagree with me on this point.

The piece that will stay with me longest is undoubtedly “Scientific American,” the story of a nameless young couple plagued by a mysterious oozing crack in their bedroom wall (make all the vaginal allusions you want here…its in the text). Its established early on that they are a little superstitious, a little nervous. The couple suffered a miscarriage in the past; now the wife is pregnant again, and they are both careful how they speak about their expectations.

The oozing crack appears one day without explanation and consistently reappears, Gogel like, despite repainting, and even tearing down and rebuilding the wall. The man descends into a good old fashioned existential madness, until, inexplicably, he decides to mop up a bit of the ooze on a piece of raw bacon and feed it to his much-loved pet dog. The man feels remorseful and guilty about feeding the dog the ooze, but attempts to justify his own behavior as he goes about his day, dog in tow. The dog, apparently poisoned, begins vomiting in the car shortly thereafter, causing an accident.

The man wakes up months later (see what I mean about unexpected left turns?). He and his now very pregnant wife return home, where he ritualistically cleans the oozing crack. Thereafter, the man cleans the crack religiously for the rest of his life–not unlike the natives appeasing the volcano. Its a good life, happy, successful, prosperous. After his death, his wife maintains the crack, and later, their grandchildren.

In the final scene of the story, we go back in time to the christening of the couple’s first child. After the ceremony, the man speaks with their house painter who explains that the crack was caused by shoddy Indonesian paint, purchased by the contractor when their home was nearly complete, so that it was only used on one wall. Other houses in the subdivision had cracks throughout. The builder had intended to use new, quality paint when the wall was rebuilt, but the man had gone ahead and painted himself, using a leftover can of paint from the basement, and no one had wanted to explain the error to him. The man apparently discards this logical explanation, preferring a version of the story in which he did not poison his dog, in which the crack has been successfully placated, in which consistent rules apply.

Tragic misconstruction has always been one of my favorite plot models, and this application with its strong overtones of religious allegory and denial fits closely with what troubles me about Christianity as practiced by certain of my family members. Which is to say, I really appreciated it.

Hot Pink offers such a spectrum of work that it doesn’t entirely make sense as a collection. I was alternately thrilled and disappointed as I read, but my overall sense is that I now need a copy of The Instructions. I’d have got there sooner if people hadn’t kept comparing it to Infinite Jest.

Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue

Cover illustration for Kissing the Witch by Emma DonoghueI know from reading Slammerkin and Room that Emma Donoghue possesses great range, a gift for applying research in fiction with a light insistent touch, and an almost incredible capacity for tailoring her narrative style to her characters’ reality–so much so that it can be difficult to recognize her voice from novel to novel. In the short story collection Kissing the Witch, Donoghue waxes lyrical, redressing a series of thirteen well known fairy tales. Though Donoghue dispenses with Once Upon a Time, and relates each tale through the medium of a first person narrator, the stories retain the timeless archetypal unreality appropriate to their genre. The tales are beautifully written, each line specific and evocative.

The stories themselves are cleverly nested, with the secondary character of each story (often but not always the villain or lover) becoming the heroine of the next. The female beast from “The Tale of the Rose” (Beauty and the Beast) was, in her youth, the heroine of “The Tale of the Apple” (Snow White). The step mother from “The Tale of the Apple” was formerly the maid from “The Tale of the Handkerchief” (The Goose Girl), in this telling, the  protagonist of the story. The book ends (or if viewed in chronological terms, begins) with an original story, “The Tale of the Kiss,” concerning the history of Sea Witch from “The Tale of the Voice” (The Little Mermaid).

Strong feminist themes of self reliance and self determinism run throughout the collection, and there is an implicit understanding that stories do not end with successful romantic love. Prince Charming is notably absent. Indeed, with the exception of the affection between the siblings in “The Tale of the Cottage” (Hansel and Gretel), there are no positive relationships with any male characters, including fathers and brothers.

In these fairy tales, women become disillusioned and extricate themselves from troubling situations, occasionally finding salvation, or at least comfort, in relationships with other women. The narrator from “The Tale of the Apple” eventually abandons the dwarfs of her own volition and returns to the castle to confront the queen. The narrator from “The Tale of the Shoe” (Cinderella) loves her fairy godmother, which, if you think about it, really does make more sense. The heroine of “The Tale of the Cottage” saves her brother from the witch and, in a neat reversal of roles, sends him to safety while she remains behind. Because these adaptions tend to eliminate the conclusion of the traditional tale–because the tiny shoe is never tried on, the beast was always beautiful under her mask, the witch does not end up in the oven, the prick of the distaff does not send the princess to sleep, and the girl never truly lost her voice–the stories can fall a little flat, but in general their brevity, stylishness, and the repartee between the tale as written and tale in the reader’s mind is enough to keep the forward momentum.

In these tales as in most of her other work, Donoghue focuses on strong but victimized women, many of them disturbed, perhaps beyond the possibility for recovery. She explores the effects of trauma on the human psyche with compassion, but also a fearless willingness to expose the ugliest sides of her characters, and she offers no happy endings, only, occasionally, peace.