Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Reading Log and Comments (2021)

March

Horrorstör. Grady Hendrix. (Quirk Books, 2014.)


During the day, Orsk was a building like any other, a sensible container
built with modern materials to house furniture and people.
But after eleven o’clock, when no one roamed its aisles,
when its back offices went dark and the last customers
were escorted out the front doors, when its entrances
were dead-bolted, when its final floor partners
went home, it became something else.

I checked out Horrorstör when a coworker at the library told me it was about a haunted furniture store. I looked it up before putting it on hold and immediately loved its spirit, its absolute buy-in. The novel is packaged like an Ikea catalogue, with a glossy, colorful cover featuring modern furniture with umlauted names and clear prices (along with hints of horror), and interior ads and company propaganda and jargon. The first page of front matter (alongside a map of the “Orsk” store layout) clearly states, “Horrorstör is an original work of fiction, horror, and parody.” Indeed. This novel is a comedic commentary on the horrors of retail, of big-box stores, of the programming that marketers and other capitalistic puppeteers implement to increase sales and gain customer loyalty—while also managing to be a legitimate ghost story.


I appreciate this novel because there is a manageable cast of characters (basically five), and I am not overly emotionally attached to any of them but am concerned for their welfare (who wants to get too attached to characters when they are knowingly reading a horror story?!), and I generally find myself bouncing between smiling and holding my breath.


If you’re looking for a mild horror story set in an Ikea-like store with a young woman protagonist who has the gall to stand up to company-indoctrinated management and tell it like it is—“You know what I see? I see you dedicating your life to a store that’s a knockoff of a better store with better furniture and better management. That’s the big picture I see”—but who also has the integrity to try to rescue her coworkers when literal hell breaks loose, this book is for you!


Welcome to Night Vale. Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. (Harper Perennial, 2015.)


“Things go strange here. Your children forget you, and
the courses of their lives get frozen. Or they change
shapes every day, and they think that just because
they look completely different you won’t be able
to recognize them. But you always will. You
always know your child, even when
your child doesn’t know you.”


I discovered The Night Vale series while checking in books at the library. A title—The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Homejumped out at me. I voiced my intrigue, and a nearby colleague began telling me about the strange town of Night Vale and the podcast on which the series of novels is based. I decided I should find the first book in the series and take a shot. Glad I did.


The book reads a little like Aimee Bender meets Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. It is bizarre. And cheeky. Punny. Sarcastic. Satirical. Obviously humorous. Things that we consider fringe-worthy—aliens, monsters, angels, shapeshiftingare accepted (though perhaps illegal to acknowledge), and things that we consider normal, like clouds and mountains, are debatable. In Night Vale, time can be meaningless, frequent blood loss can be normal, and librarians can be homicidal and many-tentacled.


One of my favorite moves in the book takes place when the authors manage to slip some wisdom into the layers of weird, and in matter-of-fact ways. For instance: "Most people in Night Vale know there is information that is forbidden or unavailable, which is almost all information. Most people in Night Vale get by with a cobbled-together framework of lies and assumptions and conspiracy theories. Diane was like most people. Most people are," or "Comfort was the answer to all life’s problems. It didn’t solve them, but it made them more distant for a bit as they quietly worsened."


And there was even a moment, the one I quoted at the top of this entry, that touched me. Because there is a theme in the book, though it feels improbable to have something so serious as a theme in this work, about mothers and their children and memory and struggle and identity and unconditional love, that is told wonderfully through the characters' unique, somewhat supernatural situations.


This is a story that will stick with me, mainly for the chapter(s) in in which the two main characters visit the library. Man. If you don't want to read this whole book, okay. But at least check out chapter 27. I would happily watch a whole movie built around that chapter alone.


Will I read another Night Vale book? Yes. I can only hope there's another trip to the library or somewhere equally unexpectedly horrifying or that the authors have created more characters who are easy to love.


February

Postcolonial Love Poems. Natalie Diaz. (Graywolf Press, 2020.)


The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part
of our body but is our body. What we do to one—
to the body, to the water —
we do to the other.

- [line breaks are mine],
from "The First Water is the Body"


Natalie Diaz's name had been popping up in my Twitter timeline around the time a patron at the library brought a stack of books to circulation, including Diaz's newest poetry collection. The patron seemed overwhelmed by the abundance in her hands, and she slid Postcolonial Love Poem off the top of the stack with a rueful frown and said she didn't think she'd have time to read it, that she would have to check it out some other time. "Well, this must be my lucky day," I said. "I've been meaning to read her." I didn't know how lucky I was until I cracked the thin volume, which is also when I understood why the patron had let this one go; she would have had to put back all her other books if she wanted to keep this one. These poems deserve one's full attention and time. They should be read and reread, bookmarked, quoted.


Diaz's bio at the back of the book notes that she was "born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe." Diaz's indigenous roots are the foundation of this collection. Her identity as Mojave, Latina, and queer underpins her poetry. Though underpins isn't the right word. Perhaps composes. But no. Perhaps the essence is best captured in a line from "The First Water is the Body": 

If I was created to hold the Colorado River, to carry its rushing inside me, if the very shape of my throat, of my thighs is for wetness, how can I say who I am if the river is gone? 

I do not know how Diaz could say who she was without poetry, either, so perhaps poetry is a river. It sure feels like one in this book, every word like water, every line a current, a ripple, a splash.


These poems are not sentimental, but I cried reading them anyway, these quiet war stories, eulogies, incantations, earthly sermons, graceful summons. For all the political bluster around global warming, for all the fists slammed into the air or onto desks, for all the microphones raised and dropped, for all the bills waged, wagered, signed or thwarted, very few environmental activists have been able to make apparent, so simply, beautifully, and compellingly, the imperative connection between humans and the earth itself. My heart ached reading these poems because they got inside. Or rather, they were already there, inside me like the water that sustains my life, but I forget. We forget. We live in a society that makes it so easy to disconnect, that wants us to forget. And remembering hurts. It hurts because we are scared. We feel powerless, or we feel our power to do something and we fear the responsibility. "If the river is a ghost, am I?/ Unsoothable thirst is one type of haunting," Diaz writes.


My favorite poem in the collection is "exhibits from The American Water Museum," a list of imagined exhibits at an imagined museum, through which Diaz critiques capitalism, colonialism, and other U.S.-defining -isms. I could not help but feel horror, shame, grief, desire, and desperation as I read this long, many-layered piece. I wept at the beautiful sting of exhibit 2345, which reads in part,

The river is my sister—I am its daughter.
It is my hands when I drink from it,
my own eye when I am weeping,
and my desire when I ache like a yucca bell
in the night. The river says, Open your mouth to me,
and I will make you more.

Open your mouth to me, and I will make you more. How can we heedlessly divert, damn, pollute, bottle, buy, and sell something so absolutely innocent, altruistic, pure? We do not simply fill our mouths. If we stopped there, things might not be so dire.

I don't know how to finish my commentary, so I think I will end with an excerpt of the beautiful imagery and truths Diaz lays out in her poem, "Isn't the Air Also a Body, Moving?"

From the right distance, I can hold anything

in my hand—the hawk riding a thermal,
the horizon which across many days might lead to
the sea, the red cliff, my love
 
glazed in fine red dust, your letter, even the train.
Each is devoured in its own envelope of air.
What we hold grows weight,
becomes enough or burden.


The Perfect Guests. Emma Rous. (Berkley, 2021.)

Sometimes I like to look at what's on order in the library catalog and surprise my future self when a book comes in that I forgot I requested. This is one such book. I don't read a lot of genre fiction anymore, but I liked the suspenseful Knives Out sound of this one.

The story takes place in "the Fens," a marshy coastal plane in England, and specifically at a large estate called Raven Hall. The place itself is a real presence on the page, which is good, as it is the heart of much of the narrative conflict. The book is organized into a braid of three narratives, one by Beth beginning in the late 1980s, another by Sadie beginning in 2019, and another that is unlabeled and italicized, meant to be a mystery until it's not. In one narrative, an orphan becomes wrapped up in a dark mystery. In another, a young woman attends a mystery dinner event. Gradually, the two narratives collide, and the third narrative's narrator and purpose become apparent.

The book is labeled "horror" at my library but it is decidedly not a horror novel. It is, however, gently suspenseful. Some of the tricks in it, I've seen before, but I was not put off. I enjoyed my time in "the Fens" and inside the rooms of Raven Hall. The characters are believable enough, and the writing easily carries the reader from page to page. A quick read. Nothing too poignant or memorable in the writing itself, and I may not remember the nuances of the story a year from now, but I was entertained for the duration of the book, and that's all I hoped to be!


All Of Us: The Collected Poems. Raymond Carver. (Vintage Contemporaries, 2000.)


The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn't enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.
~ from "Happiness"


I was inspired to explore Raymond Carver's poetry after recently learning that he wrote poetry. (I already admired his fiction.) Before checking out this book, which is a compilation of four of his books of poetry, I discovered his poem "What the Doctor Said," in which he tempers his cancer diagnosis with with humor and immediacy that create a quietly beautiful portrait of life in the face of death. That poem sold me on Carver.


I kept a record of the poems I most appreciated as I read, and though I didn't log as many poems as I had hoped I would, I was glad of the poems that did speak to me, and there were plenty. I was especially interested in the developing subtext, a narrative of Raymond Carver's life, including moments from his childhood, scenes from the period of his life when he struggled with addiction, and gems from his years in recovery and his years battling cancer. In between these autobiographical poems, Raymond honors other authors and historical figures as well as classic stories. One of the earlier poems in the book, "You Don't Know What Love Is," is a real or imagined conversation with Charles Bukowski and is all the more impressive if it's fabricated because of how perfectly he nails Bukowski's cocky persona. Some other names that pop up through the book are Haruki Murakami, Hemingway, W.C. Williams, Robert Graves, and Karl Wallenda. And there are many excerpts of Chekhov's work, formatted as poems.


It's difficult to say what it is about Carver's poetry that is so compelling. Sometimes he nails a line break so perfectly, the enjambment sings. Sometimes it's juxtaposition. But I suppose it might be the simple intensity of his images. His characters take on three dimensions in their dialogue and gestures. Carver's poems all seem quiet, like they were born in the early morning hours, with a ghostly sun casting gray light through a foggy sky. I guess I'd say they have atmosphere. When he's writing about fishing in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, I want to be in that water with him, seeing the fish flicker like he does, feeling the river lick my calves the way he does. When he's sitting in a kitchen, cup of coffee in his hand or pie on his plate, I want to be beside him drinking, eating, trying to make sense of this life.


January


The Terrible Girls: A Novel in Stories.
 Rebecca Brown. (City Lights Books, 1990.)


Each gift you want to give is an excuse, a toy, a bauble
in lieu of something irreplaceable. You're trying to pay
an unpayable debt. You're trying to buy forgiveness.


I read Rebecca Brown's The Dogs: A Modern Bestiary in grad school and was floored by Brown's use of metaphor and repetition. I appreciated the Robert Coover Spanking the Maid feel of it, and the story was similarly dark and destructive, a tale of a dysfunctional, perhaps abusive, relationship. Recently, I thought I'd like to read that book again, but I gave it away, and I could not locate a copy in the library. However, my search for it yielded other books by the author, including The Terrible Girls. The library app's short description, which included the phrase, "body parts are traded for love," intrigued me. I decided to give it a shot.


I was immediately taken by the voice in the first tale, and by the subject matter. "The Dark House" opens with a recounting of a conversation, in second person: "Never, you said, not me. Don't waste your time waiting.// But after a while you said, Well possibly.// Then after a longer while you said, Well maybe. But that whatever you might do, if you did anything, you'd certainly make no promises and one would be wrong to assume or expect. Then you cocked your head a little and said that if anything were perhaps to happen it would take a long, long time. But if one were around anyway and felt like it, one might wait." Here is the hook, set right away, with a character that is either open to a relationship or who is lying the way a man might lie to his mistress that he will one day leave his wife, and another character who, it becomes clear in the next paragraph, decides to believe in the former rather than the latter. "This," the character thinks, "was your way of saying Someday. Of telling me to wait." And this conflicting dynamic—this push-pull, stay-go, maybe-maybe notdrives the first story and flares throughout the rest of the book, which is either a novel told in stories, as the subtitle indicates, or a collection of interconnected short stories. (I would argue there are at least two stories that are only loosely linked to the rest of the narrative.)


What is quickly apparent are themes of deception (by others, by the self) and betrayal, yearning and distance, have and have not, doing and undoing. The body is especially palpable throughout, its own character. A hand waving or not waving. (Reminiscent of Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning.") An arm severed. Thighs warm and wanting. A square white back. A heartcarved out, boxed, bagged, bleeding, pink and dry and artificial, hidden, overt. Skin black and blue. The body drowning, the body trampled to a right red pulp.


In a world starkly divided, one that is familiar to readers and yet futuristic and surreal, the author plays with the question of forgiveness, redemption. Should liars be forgiven? Should deceivers be absolved? Should a traitor, drowning, be saved? The answer, in no uncertain terms, is no. At least, in many of the stories. But Brown does leave readers with a bit of hope.


What I love about this book is that it's queer and almost primarily populated with women. I like the dystopian feel of it. I like the closeness of the characters to the page, the use of second person, the lack of names. I adore the physicality of it, the language building upon itself like how cells make a body. Some of the scenes in this book will stay with me forever, for their beauty, their truth, their brutality.


Unfortunately, there are a couple of instances in the book where the narrator expresses abusive desires and in at least one instance an act. The term "partner violence" is relevant. I wonder, 31 years after its publication, if the author would change that material if she could. Even as fiction, even as metaphor, it feels dangerous.


The other beef I have with the book is the narrator's lack of introspection. She takes no accountability for her actions, even when she can admit, "I'd gotten so used to hearing what you said the way I wanted to that I couldn't tell what you really said. I wanted, when you had said to me, I'm not, I'll never, for you to have been lying. I wanted someday for you to stop lying and be with me." As a recovering codependent, I recognize many problematic patterns of thinking and behavior in this book. I only wish the author had grappled with these issues more fairly. To cast the "other" entirely as offender and the narrator solely as victim is simplistic and disingenuous, though maybe I missed the part where the narrator does take her own inventory. (I doubt it.) But would I recommend this book, especially to writers looking to hone their craft? Yes. And will I read another Rebecca Brown book? I am sure.


Birds of America. Lorrie Moore. (Vintage Books, 1998.)


It was part of their effort not to become their parents,
though marriage, they knew, held that hazard.
The functional disenchantment, the sweet
habit of each other had begun to put
lines around her mouth, lines that
looked like quotation marks—
as if everything she said had 
already been said before.


After reading The Writer's Library, in which it felt like every author interviewed spoke of their great esteem for Lorrie Moore, and after asking a writer friend her opinion on the author, and being assured that yes, Lorrie Moore is funny, I checked out this collection of short stories. And I fell in love, not immediately from page one, but a few pages into the first story, when the protagonist, a flailing middle-aged actress, is dumped by her married director boyfriend, leaves Hollywood, and moves into a Days Inn in her hometown of Chicago. Moore writes, "She let her life get dull--dull, but with Hostess cakes. There were moments bristling with deadness, when she looked out at her life and went 'What?' Or worse, feeling interrupted and tired, 'Wha--?'" I mean, "bristling with deadness"! And the What/Wha?! I am not sophisticated enough to name Moore's moves, but I am a good enough reader and writer to know she's got the right ones.


I read this book mostly while walking around my neighborhood, which was the perfect setting for these stories, as most of them basically satirize domesticity. Every single story drips with dark humor. I was absolutely tickled the whole time. I looked like a damn fool, my head bent over my phone, smile plastered across my face in the cold. I wanted to shout at the passing couples walking their dogs, "You have to read this book!" Even though the whole collection is a criticism of marriage.


Three things I love about this book: 1) Moore finds a way to weave the bird motif into every story, no matter how unlikely, and it never feels forced. 2) The humor, endemic in the puns, the awkwardness, the absolute brutal honesty, and the way she seems to imply, by her use of surreal moments, that most fiction has largely scrubbed the surreal reality of life off the page when it shouldn't, when in fact life itself is surreal. (E.g., "The plane had taken off with a terrible shudder, and when it proceeded with the rattle of an old subway car, particularly over Greenland, the flight attendant had gotten on the address system to announce there was nothing to worry about, especially when you thought about “how heavy air really is.”) 3) Moore's nuggets of poetic wisdom, which are all the more awesome because they shine between pieces of dark humor.


While Moore engages with the banal—marriage, careers, children—her characters have unique jobs and interesting opportunities. Their stories are very specific. Which reminds me of a passage in the book, a short interaction between two characters that reveals so much about them, their marriage, and probably marriage in general:


“Terence!” Ruth clapped her hands twice, sharply. “Speak more quickly! I don’t have long to live!” They’d been married for twenty-three years. Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically. “And, please,” she added, “don’t be fooled by the euphemisms of realtors. This was never a home, darling. This is a house.”

Honestly, readers who are looking for uplifting stories should get out while they can, as should readers looking for resolution. And those who don't want to engage with characters dealing with midlife crises, divorce, affairs, the monotony of marriage/commitment, strained relationships with family, politics (academic and otherwise), cancer, or sick or dead children or pets should find some tamer fiction, too.


Those who decide to open this collection and stick with it shall be treated to gifts like these:

No one is modest anymore. Everyone exalts their disappointments. They do ceremonious battle with everything; they demand receipts and take their presents back—all the unhappy things that life awkwardly, stupidly, without thinking, without bothering even to get to know them a little or to ask around! has given them. They bring it all back for an exchange.

(Warning: once you've read this book, there are no refunds, returns, exchanges!)


The Writer's Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives. Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager. (HarperOne, 2020.)


Reading means being inhabited by the voice of another person
that originates outside you, a form of possession,
which is not purely passive.
- Siri Hustvedt


I checked this book out of the library with the intent of discovering new-to-me voices. For someone who has enjoyed reading her entire life and attended an upper-crust high school and followed it with seven years of higher ed with creative writing as a focus, I am egregiously under-read—at least, in fiction—and this book is assuredly geared towards fictionistas, despite its introduction by renowned nonfiction author Susan Orlean. Many of the authors interviewed write fiction, and understandably their answers to questions regarding books of significance in their lives elicit mainly names of novelists.


In addition to those interviewees I didn't recognize, I decided to take note of reoccurring authors I have not read along with titles of interest, with the aspiration of building a reading list. Lorrie Moore came up a lot, and I can't recall ever reading a single word by her, but apparently she's smart and funny and revered, so she's at the top of my to-read list. Philip Roth. Toni Morrison. (I am ashamed I have not read much of her.) Fortunately, I've already grappled with the oft-mentioned Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, in college. Zadie Smith. (My cheeks are burning.) T.C. Boyle. Jonathan Lethem. Proust. Tolstoy. Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) came up a lot, but I have such an aversion to 19th century literature that focuses on heterosexual romance and the oppression of women via the patriarchy that I'm not sure I'll ever crack this classic. Alice Munro. Zora Neale Hurston. (My shame is apparently infinite.) Flannery O'Connor (maybe I'll read her, I dunno; has the question of whether we can separate the art from the artist been answered yet?). Donald Barthelme. Saul Bellow. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Lolita comes up a number of times, but considering its subject matter, I may not read it. Faulkner. (No shame here; I've read some of his work, but not enough and not at the right age.) Chekhov. (Same story as Faulkner.) Richard Wright. (Ditto.) Ursula K. Le Guin—I remember trying to read The Left Hand of Darkness in college and failing, but I should probably try something else of hers before totally abandoning ship. Joan Didion (I've read much of her nonfiction and none of her fiction). Edith Wharton. Russell Banks. Luis Alberto Urrea.


Here is another list, of titles and authors I'll explore based on what the interviewees had to say about them. The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems by Diane Wakoski. The Emperor of Air by Ethan Canin. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger. The Wars by Timothy Findley. The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy. "The Rocket Man" by Ray Bradbury. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Any book by Pete Dexter, though The Paperboy might be best. The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis. Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy. Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz. My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. The Door by Magda Szabó. Clarice Lispector. Natalie Diaz. Tanya Tagaq's Split Tooth. Tommy Orange's There There. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis. Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock. Diane Williams. Naomi Alderman's The Power. Ruth Ozeki. Karen Joy Fowler. Ten Windows by Jane Hirshfield. Philip Levine's "The Simple Truth." Jack Gilbert. Robert Hass. The poetry of Raymond Carver. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates. Eudora Welty. Zeruya Shalev. Kate Zambreno's Book of Mutter. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17. Ivan Doig. Renata Adler's Speedboat. Simon Doonan's Beautiful People.


As for the actual interviews in the book, the best involve storytelling, enthusiasm, quoted favorite lines, beautiful turns of phrase, and surprises. While reading, I was—what's the adverb for schadenfreude?—surprised when an author confided in not caring for a classic like Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. Not surprisingly, many authors express appreciation for Shakespeare, Dickens, and others for whom I've only ever at best experienced lukewarm feelings. I almost feel ashamed by how untaken I am by many of the classics. (Yeah, I probably need to read more.)


Anyway. Would I recommend this book? Sure. It's probably best enjoyed by folks who recognize the authors interviewed, though. If you're just looking to expand your reading world, maybe browsing the names and titles I culled above will serve.



The Light Between Us. Laura Lynne Jackson. (The Dial Press, 2015.)


If we don't at least consider the possibility of an afterlife—if we
don't look at the wealth of evidence that has surfaced in recent
years about the endurance of consciousness—we are shutting
ourselves off from a source of great beauty, comfort,
healing, and love. But if we are open to having this
conversation, we might become brighter, happier,
more authentic people. Closer to our truth.


I looked up Laura Lynne Jackson while I was watching the Netflix docuseries, Surviving Death. Her obvious gifts as a medium inspired me to want to know more. In this book, Jackson explores her own coming of age story in terms of her realizing, developing, and ultimately accepting her abilities as a psychic and medium. Her story, though, is really more of a backdrop or foundation for other people's stories—those of her family's and those of strangers, students, and clients. 


Jackson helps readers understand how the unseen realm operates. She addresses how communication between the physical realm and invisible realm works, and talks about how she interprets images and symbols that spirits convey to her. She also addresses the ethics of reading people. And importantly, she makes it clear that her gifts aren't simply a curiosity or sideshow; she mainly uses them to help people who are grieving, especially parents who have lost children.


I came to this book already having a considerable grasp of the field but still found it a worthwhile read. I appreciated Jackson's honesty about her own struggle to determine whether she was imagining her abilities or they were real. When opportunities arise to be tested, she eagerly participates in the studies. She wants scientific validation, and she gets it. 


Some of my favorite stories in the book involve animals and natural phenomena. In one, a bee spirit thanks a couple who saved its life. In another, a kitten spirit relieves a grown woman of a burden of guilt she's been carrying since she was a child. In another, a deceased woman sends her living partner meteors to let him know she still exists.


Who is this book for? Believers and those who want to believe, and for those willing to suspend doubt long enough to be touched by the stories inside, which are really love stories. I cried many times reading this book, shamelessly, on my couch and in public, because I read it with an open heart, which is how I hope, if you decide to pick up this book, you read it. And if when we die, it turns out we don't go on after all, we'll never know about it, but perhaps in believing in a miracle, our lives will have been more beautiful.


_________________________________________________________

Note: This log only includes books, not all of the wonderful literary magazines I like to read online and in print.