The Story Prize 2016: A Tremendous Empathy

2015 authosI recently reviewed a couple of books about patterns; similar subjects, different approaches. One dealt with patterns found in nature, in utilitarian objects, in random occurrences. The other examined the lore behind classic patterns—why the polka in polka dots, the etymology of “seersucker” (from the Hindi śīrśakkar, meaning “milk and sugar,” for the fabric’s alternating rough and smooth stripes). And both dipped a little into gestalt theory—the human tendency to want to find patterns in the disparate elements we see, to organize and sort. It’s a cataloger’s twitch, a taxonomist’s, a stoner’s, a diarist’s, a reviewer’s. I come by mine honestly.

The best fun, of course, is looking for a pattern where there just might not be any. Short story collections, for those of us who read a lot of them—not linked or thematic collections, obviously, but the five or ten or 15 stories that don’t seem to share any elements other than being written by the same person and then placed between two covers. Regularly recurring events are another: is there a theme this year? Is it a reflection of the economy/election cycle/unseasonable weather?

Which is all a kind of roundabout way of saying that every year I find myself speculating about the unseen forces at work behind The Story Prize. Some years it seems like every story read that evening—granted, there are only three at each event, an easy number to invent patterns for—makes me laugh; some years they have all been vaguely haunting. And I wonder: was there some behind-the-scenes zeitgeist driving the judges? If not, why not?—but that’s not the interesting question, of course. If so, why?

This year, the three finalists—Charles Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do (Pantheon), Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles (Random House), and Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House)—all felt particularly compassionate, a palliative kind of compassion, thick with the understanding that we are all hurting or ill or damaged in some way or another, and that it is our job to love each other nonetheless. I could be projecting, of course. This year has been liberally seasoned with unexpected losses and creepy politics; compassion may be the most soothing thought available. Or, as Story Prize host Larry Dark said in his opening remarks, “Welcome to the island of sanity.”

baxterBaxter led off reading from There’s Something I Want You to Do, the sole collection that was explicitly themed. Each story is titled with a cardinal sin or virtue, and each hinges, at some point, on the title phrase—what Baxter termed request moments, some large and some small. There are a number of recurring threads, and characters who surface throughout the book. But, over and over, the act of asking. “If you put a request into a story it becomes a kind of social story,” Baxter explained, “especially if there’s a second part to the request”—a condition, an “if you love me.” Inspired by Hamlet, the Decalogue, Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” and a voice that came to him out of nowhere (that turned out, somewhat randomly, to belong to a babysitter he had when he was nine), Baxter set out to write “stories that had a moral life but were not moral,” and he succeeded nicely.

johnsonThe six stories in Fortune Smiles, Dark told the audience, are the literary equivalents of amusement park rides—an apt description for fiction that finds a weird dark grace (with an equal emphasis on each of those three descriptors) in cancer, a former Stasi prison warden, a man fighting pedophiliac tendencies, Louisiana post-hurricane, and the hologram of an assassinated president. “I’ve learned over the years to trust my obsessions,” Johnson said. He read from the collection’s lead story, “Nirvana,” which featured the aforementioned hologram, and talked with Dark about the challenges of writing technology into fiction—particularly how the need to include cell phones in contemporary fiction, and their suspense-annulling immediacy, has the potential to screw with everything authors hold dear—“What do they to do plot? To brooding?”

mccannMcCann read from “Sh’khol,” an arresting story of a translator and her adopted son that posits the conundrum: “There were words, of course, for widow, widower, and orphan, but no noun, no adjective, for a parent who had lost a child.” When he first set out to write the story, said McCann, he thought there was no direct English translation from the Hebrew “because it was so obscene”—but there are other words, in other languages, and thus a story of a mother’s grief lying, coiled and ready to strike, while the Gardaí search frigid Galway waters for her missing son. McCann also spoke about his affinity, as an Irishman and a New Yorker, with Jews—the “other lost tribe!”—in particular James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, who McCann says gave him access to his great-grandda, alive in Dublin in 1904. “I never met him, but I know him through Joyce,” he explained. And he spoke passionately about Narrative 4, the global organization he cofounded that promotes peace through the “radical empathy” of storytelling.

I know: way to bury the lede. Johnson took the prize, for Fortune Smiles, which won the National Book Award last year—fortune indeed smiling on him, and deservedly so. (Adrian Tomine’s graphic collection Killing and Dying (Drawn & Quarterly) was awarded the Spotlight Prize, But with three good readings from three strong collections, you could argue that everyone in attendance was a winner (minus that $20,000, but who’s counting?). It’s good, and necessary, to take an evening away from work and commuting and doing taxes and the appalling circus of political debates and just stretch the muscles of tenderness for an hour or so.

In fact, Dark called it at the beginning of the evening. All three books, he told the audience, share “a tremendous empathy.” And honestly, I can’t think of a better time for that than right now.

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Shirt Pocket Reviews: Best of 2015

Spending between 10 and 15 hours on public transportation a week isn’t good for much, but it’s been excellent for my reading life. The downside, of course, has been a lack of free time to write about it. I can usually juggle a book or iPad on a train sardine-packed with my fellow commuters; less so a laptop.

But while 2015 was a lousy year for blogging, it was a great year for reading. The following were some of my standout books over the past 12 months:

AndersonSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad – M.T. Anderson
Marketed as YA, and as such has its moments of elision when it comes to Shostakovich’s life, not to mention the Siege of Leningrad—this is not a big fat history. But it’s informative, and if I had read this as a high schooler for my mid-century history class I think I’d have gotten a sharp, interesting picture of the time and politics (as opposed to sleeping through most of first period for four years and graduating largely clueless, but that’s another story). This is a solid overview of the composer’s life as seen through the complex moral and political lens of the time, and Anderson also gets points for weaving commentary about his source material into the narrative, stressing the awareness that any history is pieced together from facts of varying degrees of reliability. Some of the writing edges over into the hyperbolic, but some of it is just terrific, too, and often very affecting. Recommended, though if you’re a serious Shostakovich/World War II Russia historian it may feel slim. The rest of us, though, should go for it.

BerlinA Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin
Berlin’s is a strong and significant voice, with some transcendent attention to the details of what it means to hover around the cracks and margins. I’m glad to see she’s getting the attention she deserves, even if it’s posthumous. I do wish this collection had been pared down a bit, though. The majority of her inspiration is taken from autobiographical sources, and while she lived a hell of a life it’s still one life spread out over 40-something stories; some of the later selections felt repetitious, covering ground that had been mined better earlier in the collection. Still, I’d rather have them all than none, and this is a great body of work to be seeing a renaissance.

BrownsteinHunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
Terrific: sharp, smart, introspective, complex, funny, and sad. What you (I) want in a rock memoir—a little creative process, a little zeitgeist of the times, a lot of self-awareness without too much self-indulgence. I also appreciated that Brownstein focused on Sleater-Kinney and left Portlandia for another installment. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that she can really write, but it made me happy. (As did Sleater-Kinney’s reunion tour, which I caught in Boston in February; I don’t doubt there will be a volume two somewhere down the line.)

CrabappleDrawing Blood – Molly Crabapple
This puts to rest the idea that someone so young couldn’t possibly have a memoir in them. Crabapple tells the story of her life globe-trotting with sketchbook in hand, as should any restless artist escaping the suburbs. But she keeps up a lively interior travelogue as well, chronicling the simultaneous processes of radicalization, developing a graphic style, and growing up. Crabapple’s politics, whether overt or private, are what make her illustration work pop, and it’s fun to follow her journey. Plus the art is integrated well within the text, keeping the book’s jittery energy pumped. A good job from a young author, and I’m looking forward to the next installment in another 20 years or so.

SweetlandSweetland – Michael Crummey
Sweet, sad, strange, and surprising, Sweetland isn’t an easy book to pin down. It’s an old man’s odyssey, the story of Moses Sweetland, the last inhabitant of the tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland that shares his name after the rest of its residents take a government buyout to leave. It’s a story about loneliness and aloneness, and how the two are not necessarily the same thing; it’s a story of the many things that home can mean. Crummey’s language is wonderful and weird, much of it as intensely local as his protagonist—a little dwy of snow, a bare-legged cup of tea. It’s the deep sense of place that makes this novel sing, and gives logic to Moses Sweetland’s refusal to leave even in the face of a long northern winter and chilling solitude: “He looked up at the hills surrounding the cove, sunlight making them ring with meltwater. He’d always love that sound, waited for it each spring. Hearing it made him certain of the place he came from. He’d always felt it was more than enough to wake up here, to look out on these hills. As if he’d long ago been measured and made to the island’s exact specifications.”

GipeTrampoline – Robert Gipe
There are the books you like, and the books you love, and then there are the ones you want to hold to your heart for a minute after you turn the last page. Trampoline is one of those—not just well written, which it is; and not just visually appealing, which the wonderfully deadpan black-and-white drawings make sure of; but there is something deeply lovable about it, an undertow of affection you couldn’t fight if you wanted to. Or I couldn’t, anyway. Coming-of-age stories are supposed to do that, aren’t they?—make you love their young heroes or heroines, no matter how difficult they might be. And most, I find, don’t. But Gipe has done it with 15-year-old Dawn Jewell, growing up at the end of the ’90s in a poor Kentucky mining town with a sprawling (in more ways than one) dysfunctional family, as well as loyal and not-so-loyal friends, drugs and moonshine, strip mining activism, car wrecks, Black Flag on the radio, and a sympathetic DJ. And Gipe deftly avoids every single cliché that could trip such a story up, which includes having a pitch-perfect ear for dialect and making it into something marvelous. There are arrests, fights, bad reputations—”When they showed up, it was like it started raining washing machines. Things got broke.”—and fierce scraps of beauty pulled from anywhere Dawn can find them. Trampoline is a wonder. You can catch a couple of chapters on the publisher’s website.

KingEuphoria – Lily King
As the daughter of an anthropologist, I do love a good anthropological novel, and the Margaret Mead connection interests me to no end (my father worked with her). The conceit of a strong woman written through the eyes of a smitten man is always fun, though I agree with a few friends who’ve read this—I still would have liked the main character to have come through with a little more clarity than the fellow narrating could offer, though that was surely intentional on King’s part. Still, a good lively read.

LivingsThe Dog – Jack Livings
A great, tight collection; folks who say they don’t like short stories might want to get over that for this one. It’s worth it. From my review at Bloom: The Dog’s eight stories cluster at the more familiar end of Chinese history: post-Cultural Revolution, post-Mao. But although the stories are written by an American for a Western audience, this is not a portrait of an Open-door China brightly lit by progress and McDonald’s. Livings’s Beijing has no allegorical agenda. Rather, the workers, outlaws, bosses, journalists, and one hapless American college student who populate The Dog operate in corners that don’t let in a lot of light; each story bears its own whiff of dust, rot, and more than a hint of menace. The book’s underlying tension comes not from individuals endlessly pushing back against the machine of state. Rather, each player in The Dog is straining, in ways large and small, to metabolize that machine—to absorb the everyday contradictions of unwieldy authority and get on with their work, their lives. The low tide of a great bureaucracy leaves behind constraint, fear, a fossilized caste system, and, in the end, a crust of absurdity. This absurdity is the main affliction of Livings’s characters—some of it laughable, much of it soul-crushing. It does not make for happy lives, but it does make for some very good stories. The full review is here.

MacdonaldH is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
This has made a lot of people’s year-end lists, and I do think it deserves the accolades. The book has several very different facets: it’s a memoir of Macdonald’s journey through her grief after the death of her father; a tale of falconry, with lots of thrilling technical descriptions thrown in; and an exploration of the life of T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, and a small, bleak, but beautiful little book called The Goshawk. Which, in fact, I read several years ago and hadn’t thought much about since. But Macdonald has been thinking about it from the time she was a child, and when she gets a goshawk of her own—the wonderfully-named Mabel—as an attempt to combat the numbness of mourning, she revisits the book and its complex, often very sad, author. If this sounds to you like too many moving parts to make a coherent whole, you would be wrong. It is a wonderful, very three-dimensional, very aware portrait of a time in one person’s life. And Macdonald’s writing is gorgeous, whether she’s describing her interior landscape, the natural world outside, or her goshawk—who manages to bridge both states believably (but not un-selfconsciously; some of my favorite musings are on our dependence of capital-N Nature as a metaphor). This is an excellent, very grown-up book—the kind that lets you walk around looking at your own flawed world through that particular prism of wonder, which is really the biggest kindness a book can do a reader.

mccannThirteen Ways of Looking – Colum McCann
My last book of the year, finished on New Year’s Eve, and a good book to ring out the old one. “How do we look out into the dark?” McCann asks the reader. That’s a good question for pretty much any night of the year, and a good reason to read, period. Just reviewed this one here.

MenoMarvel and a Wonder – Joe Meno
You have to wonder, sometimes, how self-conscious an author is about his title. Did Meno envision the review that would begin “Marvel and a Wonder is indeed one”? Because it is: simultaneously dark and almost painfully sweet, sometimes at the same moment. I loved this book, although it’s brutal and bloody and full of unrepentantly nasty characters. Definitely not for the faint of heart. But I think Meno writes like an angel—proof positive being that I, who have a low threshold for violence or animals in peril, ate it up in spite of both. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy are not far off the mark, but Meno brings his own eye for the ways that beauty and ugliness are often facets of the same lumpen thing. Also, a notably beautiful cover. I felt like a better person every time I read it in public.

MontgomeryThe Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness – Sy Montgomery
This was a lovely book—both fascinating and deeply kind, with a lot to interest a broad swath of readers. The science is accessible without being dumb, and at the same time Montgomery brings the octopuses (NOT octopi!) and their personalities (yes, they have ’em) vividly to life. Plus I like reading about any interest that attracts the oddballs among us, and octopuses definitely seem to fall into that category—part of what makes this book so engaging is Montgomery’s vivid cast of supporting octopus lovers. I guess I can count myself among those oddballs now… thus ends any pulpo consumption for me ever again, and no big loss. I gave this a starred review for Library Journal, not least in hopes that readers everywhere will come to appreciate these weird, wild, endlessly cool creatures.

ParkerBeasts and Children - Amy Parker
Whoa, this book. Did I say Marvel and a Wonder roped me in in spite of its dark side? This must have been my year of overcoming my no-read zone. The beasts and the children here—every story features at least one of each—are not in good places. The children are at the mercy of self-absorbed and narcissistic adults—misled at their best, and often cruelly negligent—and the beasts are at the mercy of children and adults alike. Anyone who knows me knows that I have little stomach for children in peril, and even less for endangered animals (I know it should be the other way around, but that’s how I’m wired). And there were a number of points early on in the book where I just thought I’d have to put it down. But the writing is wonderful—strong and innovative—and the stories feed into each other in a way that ramped up my attention, not so much linked as braided, a few strands that come together as the book progresses. The publisher’s blurb invokes Lorrie Moore, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Rebecca Lee—which, along with the fabulous cover, is certainly why I picked up the galley in the first place—and some of Parker’s bemused, slightly sad children’s voices remind me a bit of early Ellen Gilchrist. It’s a grueling experience that works its way up to a kind of emotional transcendence; I’m not sure how else to describe it. Beautiful writing that takes the reader on a journey, a lot of it painful, a lot of it gorgeous. Not out until February but you can—and should—preorder.

SunkenCathedral.coverimageThe Sunken Cathedral – Kate Walbert
Also reviewed here. I’ll quote myself, then: Kate Walbert has calibrated The Sunken Cathedral to the very real concerns of New Yorkers in the second decade of the 21st century without ever taking an easy step. Rather than Google and Amazon, her characters are thinking about real estate, progressive private schools, the lovely, ubiquitous High Line, and—perhaps most urgent, as it is firmly out of the control of even the most carefully insulated city dweller—the weather. For those of us who, in the past five years, have lived through Hurricane Sandy, Tropical Storm Irene, and even an earthquake—remember the earthquake?—not to mention reports from around the world of far more devastating events: tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes that level entire towns, Walbert’s book neatly calls up that sensation of previously solid ground shifting under our feet. As New Yorkers, we expect certain kind of chaos: crime, noise, social unrest. When the elements level our respective playing fields, on the other hand, we’re undone. This was not what we planned for. 9/11 made us jumpy, and as Walbert gently points out, we’re jumpy still.

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Pocket Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

mccannThirteen Ways of Looking
Colum McCann
HarperCollins, 2015

I can’t very well talk about my best books of the year until the year’s over, and I had one last book to finish up on the last day of 2015. So imagine my delight when I opened up Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking this afternoon to find the collection’s second story beginning:

He had agreed in spring to write a short story for the New Year’s Eve edition of a newspaper magazine. An easy enough task, he thought at first. In late May he settled down to sketch out a few images that might work, but soon found himself struggling, adrift. For a couple of weeks in early summer he cast about, chased ideas and paragraphs, left a few hanging, found himself postponing the assignment, putting it to the back of his mind. Occasionally he pulled his notes out again, then abandoned them once more.

He wondered how he would ever push into the territory of a New Year’s Eve story—create a series of fireworks, perhaps, drop a mirrored ball in a city, or allow snow to slowly scatter across the face of a windowpane?

Descriptions of writers trying to write what we’re reading can be tiresome—hey, if we’re reading it, he wrote it, now, didn’t he? But McCann keeps his touch light, and besides, who can resist a metanarrative like that? The writer assembles his characters and the faint outlines of a plot, a Marine in Afghanistan calling home to South Carolina:

[S]he will simply pick up the phone, she will dial through, she will call her lover and her lover’s son, and she will simply say, “Happy New Year,” in the most ordinary way, and they will return the greeting, and life will go on, since this is what our New Year’s Eves are about, our connections, our bonds, no matter how inconsequential, and the story will be quiet and slip its way into its own new year.

And it does. Thirteen Ways of Looking is a tight and nicely realized collection—one novella and three short stories—and its small size means that McCann can play with a few themes at one time without the whole muddying to some shade of literary brown. There is, of course, the Wallace Stevens poem that gives the book and its opening novella their title, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” each stanza of which opens one of the novella’s 13 sections. There are also, literally, ways of looking: at someone, for someone, at a surveillance tape, through the scrim of memory, through the haze of old age. (“Oh, the mind itself is a deep, deep well. Lower me down and let me touch water,” intones the elderly gentleman around whom the title story centers.) And McCann offers a way of looking at loss as something that’s not a consummation but a refraction—how it can be given us, then taken away, then granted again.

There’s not a lot of joy in this collection—in an Author’s Note in the text and on his website, McCann discusses how the book was shaped by an assault in 2014, when he was attacked and injured on the street by a stranger. Yet it’s hopeful, in its way, by virtue of the fact that not one of these tales wraps up neatly. McCann’s resistance to any kind of tidy conclusion speaks to what is, often, better about life than fiction: anything can happen, and usually does. The story doesn’t end just because the page count is finite, and there’s always room for the unexpected.

It’s a good thought for the new year, and Thirteen Ways of Looking was a good book to ring out the old one. “How do we look out into the dark?” McCann asks the apocryphal New Year’s Eve piece’s readers. That’s a good question for pretty much any night of the year, and a good reason to keep reading.

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Jeanette Winterson on Not Cursing the Darkness

386px-Leslie,_George_Dunlop_-_Her_first_placeIf you ask me, the first day of winter doesn’t fall on the Solstice. Rather, it comes on the first Monday after Daylight Saving time ends, when you look up from your desk at 5:00 and it’s dark out—that moment you realize that you’re not going to see much of the sun until March, except on the weekends. You’ve become the sun’s non-custodial parent, and it’s not a happy thought.

No one I know likes the time change, even with that extra hour that comes in the bargain. I hate it marginally less for the extra bit of light in the morning—I like a good sunrise as much as anyone, but walking my dog through the pitch-black Bronx at 6 a.m. can be creepy. Still, those truncated days are hard to love.

But hey, if someone wants to try and tell me otherwise, I’ll listen. I’ve read some lovely odes to the turning inward that comes with an early nightfall, notably Jeanette Winterson’s 2009 piece in the Guardian on why she appreciates the early dark, a very nice meditation on how the rhythms of the short days can bring about a sense of quiet, of closeness.

City or country, that sundown hour is strange and exhilarating, as ordinary spatial relations are altered: trees rear up in their own shadows, buildings bulk out, pavements stretch forward, the red wrapper of brake lights turns a road into a lava flow.

Inside, the lights are going on. Outside, it’s getting dark. You, as a dark shape in a darkening world, want to hold that intimacy, just for one night. Go home. Leave the lights off.

Winterson suggests we roll with it: Light some candles, start a fire in the fireplace, eat root vegetables, make love as soon as the light begins to fail, go to bed early. And while I’d like to be open to such a kind acceptance of circadian fluctuations, I worry that I might be too cynical. I don’t even know anyone with a fireplace. And for those of us who work outside the house for a living, afternoon sex isn’t an option (or if it is, I don’t want to hear about it).

The last time I let the natural rhythms of the shorter day win was exactly three years ago, when we had no heat or electricity in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. But that was less a gentle acquiescence than being knocked down and pinned to the mat—sure, there were some romantic, candlelit, pile-the-quilts-on-the-bed aspects. But those six days were also anxious, inconvenient, and cold.

Maybe voluntary acceptance is the way to go, though. I trust Jeanette Winterson on the subject of love diverted, and I’m always interested in choosing mindfulness over, say, wallowing in self-pity. And I like beets. Front-load my day, get less done after dinner, turn off the overhead lights, go to bed earlier. Maybe this will be the year I read The Greenlanders. It’s worth a shot. And I suppose it wouldn’t hurt for us all to keep Winterson’s words in mind over the next few months:

I believe in pleasure—but not the same pleasure all the time. Seasonal pleasure prevents boredom and cynicism.

Because really, why curse the darkness when I can save my energy for bitching about the snow?

(Painting is “Her first place” by George Dunlop Leslie, Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

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An Unhaunting

640px-Abandoned_house_in_White_Marsh,_VirginiaIt’s easy enough to get in. There are no locks; you can enter as you like. Once you’re inside, though, there’s something unsettling. Everything looks to be in order, but you get an uneasy sense of abandonment. Someone used this place, once, on a regular basis—loved it, even. But now there’s a pervasive pall of disuse; water dripping somewhere in the back, a flurry of feathers upstairs, and then silence. Yet at the same time, you feel that this dereliction is temporary. A sense of life lingers in the appointments; a glimmer of brightness from a cracked, curtainless pane. Whoever has cared for this place will be back. But… when?

Oh. Sorry… I thought I was on the About page.

Yeah, Like Fire has been something of a haunted house as of late. But as seasonally-appropriate as that might be, we’re back—throwing open the windows, giving the joint a good dusting, relegating the raccoons to the attic. It’s good to take a little vacation, but the nature of vacations is that they end.

Speaking of seasonally-appropriate, I had been thinking this time of year called for a good lightweight scary read, and had a couple lined up that I thought might fit the bill. But because my reading habits tend to be governed by some perverse logic that I don’t understand, I started an e-galley of a debut collection that’s not out until February by an unknown-to-me author with no spooky bona fides whatsoever: Amy Parker’s Beasts and Children (Mariner)—which actually turned out to fit the bill in some very unexpected ways.

The beasts and the children here—every story features at least one of each—are not in good places. The children are at the mercy of self-absorbed and narcissistic adults—misled at their best, and often cruelly negligent—and the beasts are at the mercy of children and adults alike. Anyone who knows me knows that I have little stomach for children in peril, and even less for endangered animals (I know it should be the other way around, but that’s how I’m wired). And there were a number of points early on in the book where I just thought I’d have to put it down. But the writing was strong and interesting, and the stories feed into each other in a way that ramped up my attention, not so much linked as braided, a few strands that worked themselves together as the book progressed.

The publisher’s blurb invokes Lorrie Moore, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Rebecca Lee—which, along with the fabulous cover, is certainly why I picked it up galley in the first place—and some of Parker’s bemused, slightly sad children’s voices remind me a bit of early Ellen Gilchrist. It was a bit of a painful book and yes, scary in ways that are less haunted-house and more about taking readers on a discomfiting and transformative journey that bruise their empathy pathways and then, finally, reward with a bloom of beauty—what Hanya Yanagihara was aiming for in A Little Life, I think, but I found Beasts and Children to be less manipulative and ultimately more effective. It’s not the usual short fiction fare—Parker is taking chances here, and they pay off.

I’ll give it a fuller review closer to publication time, because I think this is a book to watch. In the meantime, happy Halloween to all, don’t eat too much candy, and remember: “Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory)

(“Abandoned house in White Marsh, Virginia” by Toby Alter, 1983. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

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A Yankee Girl’s Thoughts on Reading Go Set a Watchman

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanAs others have noted, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is very much a first draft of a first novel. When PBS aired an episode tag on the book’s publication one of the people interviewed said the manuscript was published “without changing a word.” This is wholly believable. The dialogue is choppy. The internal monologues (and most of the external ones) are didactic. Literary devices—like the tactic Lee uses of alternating between Jean Louise’s internal thoughts and her external conversations—feel forced, awkward, and indulgent.

Where Lee is at her best is exactly where you’d expect her to be: in the scenery, the atmosphere, the descriptions of the daily life of the quiet and not so quiet denizens of a small southern town. To the town of Maycomb itself she brings all her considerable powers to bear. Even if you are one of the eight people on this planet who have not read To Kill a Mockingbird (or one of the two who haven’t seen the movie), you know exactly what the courthouse looks like, and what parts of it smell like. You know what the ice cream shop looks like. What the clearing above the bluff and the steps down to the river look like. Lee has a talent for landscape and it is lovely to lose oneself in its shimmering clarity.

But was Lee really writing a eulogy for the small Southern town? If Go Set a Watchman was her first attempt to wrestle with the implications of the South’s cultural racism and the country’s movement towards modernism and desegregation, then readers owe that first editor a debt for derailing Lee from her intended path, challenging her instead to rewrite the story from Scout’s perspective. As an exploration of racism and modernism, the book is unbearably preachy—it is preachy about being preachy. There is a long digression into the misguided attempts of snobby Yankee church music directors to change or get rid of the old tried and true southern hymns. That’s how preachy it gets. Basically, whenever Lee has a point she wants to make, one of her characters launched into a speech.

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdBut the flashback scenes are pure imagination, by far the best part of the book, so we can be thankful they are also a significant part of the book. “Jean Louise” is an emotionally cramped and uncertain young woman, top-heavy with ideas of how the world should be. “Scout” is everything we’ve always known her to be: relatively unencumbered by expectations—other people’s or her own—and thus free to see how the world is. It’s always dangerous to speculate how much of the writer is in the character, but one wonders. It is illustrative, for example, to compare side-by-side Jean Louise’s visit to Calpurnia in Go Set a Watchman, and Scout’s intrusion into the scene in front of the jail in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are beautifully described. Both scenes simmer with grief, violence and rage. But Scout walks into a crowd of angry men, protected only by her innocence, and sets the world to rights (at least for one night). Jean Louise walks into a crowd of grief-stricken, angry men and women wearing her obliviousness, and even though no one so much as raises their voice to her, she comes away with her world in ruins, questioning everything she has ever known.

For the people who have picked up Go Set a Watchman wanting to know “what happened” to some of their favorite characters in a favorite book, it is probably facile to suggest they stick to the flashback scenes, but it would be good advice. The water-tower episode, especially, is a marvel. A marvel. And the scene where the children play at “Revival” is impossible not to love, even for an unchurched Yankee. But the reader who picks this book up hoping to find a more coherent and mature exploration of cultural racism and the effects of desegregation in the South will be disappointed. A reader who hopes to find a good story will be disappointed. Lee was neither coherent nor mature as she struggled to write around these issues, and it shows. And the book is not a novel so much as a series of scenes and ideas for scenes strung together along the fragile question of whether or not one can go home again (you can and you can’t). In the end the story fizzles in the face of Lee’s own indecision. Jean Louise has lost a few idols, gained, perhaps, an understanding that even Atticus Finch must have feet of clay. But this is a pallid comfort that does nothing to assuage anyone’s feelings about the racist pamphlet Jean Louise discovered among her father’s books, or the way he tolerates the ugly diatribe given by a frothing-at-the-mouth speaker in his “Citizen’s Council.” Jean Louise learns she can still love the people she has always loved, even when they hold opinions she despises. But it’s noticeable that this revelation—which teaches her how to be reconciled, after a fashion, with her father and friends—does not reconcile her to Calpurnia.

All in all, I’m glad I read it, but even more glad that I read it unencumbered by any real nostalgia for To Kill a Mockingbird, book or movie. It is interesting from a literary standpoint to think about how this book evolved into the one almost everyone agrees you should read at some point in your life. And I think the questions the story asks are worth asking—such as how much of our identity is built upon, and therefore dependent on, racist principles, and what is the cost of keeping that identity? Or questions about the differences between ideas and action, between what we say and what we do. And even questions of what happens when we discover the people we love stand for everything we hate. All these, even if they are posed in language left a little raw, are well worth asking, and certainly worth discussing. If the book leaves us feeling uneasy and dissatisfied, that in itself is an improvement over the sense of benevolent tolerance and nostalgic complacency that we all seem prone to after reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Pocket Review: Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

Talk_2048x2048Talk
Linda Rosenkrantz
New York Review Books, 2015

Summer reading lists, the midyear staples of literary sites, blogs, and review pages, are necessarily the stuff of fantasy: what we will pack to read on the beach in between dips in the azure ocean, what we will take on that plane trip to exotic lands or read in the train compartment as we rocket off to parts unknown. Even if the reality is more about what will best distract us from the sweltering dead heat of the subway platform on the same old daily commute, it’s a nice construct.

Discovering your book of the summer, on the other hand, happens in real time. Like the song of the summer, or your summer love, you look up and realize that it will be forever linked to a particular time and place. The time is usually mid-August, maybe late July, and even if the place really is the sweltering subway platform with no vacation in sight, it’s still a moment of confectionary clarity that makes the absence of that azure ocean a little more bearable.

Elsewhere (OK, Twitter) I described Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz, as my literary summer soundtrack, and I’m not sure I can come up with a better description than that. First published in 1968, Talk is a transcript of three friends having a months-long, meandering conversation in the Hamptons during the summer of 1965—originally a number of people taped by Rosenkrantz, distilled down to two women, a writer and an actress, and their gay male best friend, a painter. They’re in their late 20s and early 30s, involved in the ’60s New York art scene—Andy Warhol and Henry Geldzahler are name-dropped—and everyone, as was the fashion, is in analysis. They talk on the beach, in cars, over meals and drinks, packing, unpacking. The conversations veer from banal to deep, self-centered to compassionate, trite to interesting, and cover a lot of bases—at least where sex, art, food, relationships, and therapy are concerned.

EMILY: What’s the matter, darling?
VINCENT: I’m so sad.
EMILY: Why?
VINCENT: Because that’s what being alive is.
EMILY: I know it, I’m sad all the fucking time, you have no idea.
VINCENT: I heard something last week about what makes humans different from animals, some gorgeous basic thing, like that humans have memories, but it’s not that.
EMILY: What is it?
VINCENT: Something absolutely beautiful. Are you putting garlic powder in too? Wow, is that cheap. Why use fresh garlic then?

Do people even talk to each other about their therapy anymore? I don’t mean the way everyone airs their mental and physical health on Facebook, but in-depth discussions? The friends in Talk analyze their analyses, and their analysts, as if they’re talking about their favorite sports teams:

EMILY: When I was going over the Emil Reinhardt affair with my doctor, he said it sounded like a threepenny novel.
MARSHA: My doctor says my life is a soap opera.
EMILY: Mine said a threepenny novel
MARSHA: Soap opera.
EMILY: His grasp of dialect is different. Anyway, the point is that my syndrome is just the opposite of yours.

Rosenkrantz has clearly done her editing work; Stephen Koch’s introduction mentions that she began the process with 25 characters and 1,500 pages of single-spaced transcripts. The resulting dialogue is deceptively artless, often with implied stops, starts, changes in tone that register in the reader’s ear before any visuals begin to form.

EMILY: And there’s a certain kind of man’s body I love—it’s a body on which clothes just hang because he doesn’t care about them, but that looks beautiful in bed. It’s a secret body. I love people with secret bodies, secretly beautiful.
MARSHA: I love mayonnaise on my arm, that’s one of my great pleasures.
EMILY: Leave it there, it’s good for suntan cream.

In fact, the chatter is weirdly delightful, even when the speakers themselves get tiresome—the rhythms of the conversation of friendship are what makes the book work. It doesn’t read like a stage play or even a script, as there’s almost no movement, physical or plotwise. But there’s a kind of music to it, even when the reader thinks—often—that they’re all slightly narcissistic and immature.

MARSHA: That’s the thing, you always have to warm these guys up, keep the fires burning, have the blankets ready and the hot tea, all these spiritual heating pads. Who needs it?

But aren’t we all sometimes?—and even more to the point, don’t we think so about our nearest and dearest, inwardly rolling our eyes even as we still love them? Talk is like that exactly, and it swings along cheerfully even as it takes some dark turns. It’s a fine summer read, and it’s guaranteed to put a little burnish on your own shooting the breeze with friends—like a summer song, it’s frothy but still reverberates in your head for a good while after it ends.

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A Novelist in the Poet’s Village: On Elizabeth Bishop by Colm Toíbín

On Elizabeth BishopOn Elizabeth Bishop
Colm Toíbín
Princeton University Press, 2015

1.
The critic David Kalstone said about Elizabeth Bishop in 1977 that “she is probably the most honored yet most elusive of contemporary poets.” How does one capture such an elusive prize? This is the challenge faced by Colm Toíbín. Bishop upped the ante as well when she said in an interview in 1950 that she was not opposed to all literary criticism but that she “was opposed to making poetry monstrous or boring and proceeding to talk the very life out of it.” Colm Toíbín rises to the occasion with his slim, elegant book, simply title, On Elizabeth Bishop, which embodies two of the qualities Bishop valued most: modesty and concision.

Though Toíbín, known primarily as a writer of fiction, might seem an odd choice for this assignment, commissioned as part of the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series (other titles include Notes on Sontag, by Phillip Lopate, and On Whitman, by C.K. Williams), it is clearly an “effort of affection,” to borrow the title of Bishop’s appreciative essay for her mentor and friend, Marianne Moore. In these pages he talks about the poets who were important to him as a young man and nascent writer, recalling a trip to Dublin when he was 15 in which he bought Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist. By the time he reached university in 1972, he had read some poems by Robert Lowell and came across Bishop’s name. He may also have learned about Bishop from Heaney, who succeeded Bishop in her position at Harvard and was a friend and great fan of her work. He picked up Bishop’s Selected Poems, published by Chatto and Windus, in the Compendium Bookshop on Camden High Street in London during the Easter break in 1975. As a teenager in Cleveland around the same time (I see from Toíbín’s bio that he is older than I am by one year), I was making similar stealth purchases (such expenditures were never encouraged) that got packed into the car when I headed to college in 1974 (a truly mixed bag: May Swenson, T.S. Eliot, Diane Wakoski, Howard Nemerov). But alas, I do not share Toíbín’s cultural inheritance of poetry recitations on the beach by his “Auntie Maeve,” as described in his introduction to The Irish Times Book of Favourite Irish Poems (2011).

The story of his growing affinity to the work of Elizabeth Bishop is one that Toíbín wants, even feels compelled, to tell, and the personal narrative is woven gracefully throughout the book. He sees Bishop’s early losses and subsequent itinerant life as analogous to his own. On page two he says, “In certain societies, including rural Nova Scotia where Bishop spent much of her childhood, and in the southeast of Ireland where I am from, language was…a way to restrain experience, to take it down to a level where it might stay.” This is also the territory of Toíbín’s most recent novel, Nora Webster, which he has said in several interviews is drawn from his early memories related to the death of his father.

He clearly loves Bishop’s poems and knows them well. He also knows what others have said about them. Readers who are not already well-versed in Bishop’s work and life may find this a good place to start, as Toíbín provides a useful framework that can be applied to future reading. I hope also that readers who have enjoyed Toíbín’s novels but remain, like a large proportion of the reading public, poetry averse, will open this book in admiration of the author but will stay with it because of the arresting power of Bishop’s poems.

The first authoritative biography of Bishop, Brett Millier’s Life and the Memory of It, came out in 1993 (University of California Press). Since then, the public has gained access to her letters, early drafts, and unpublished work, and this material was available to Toíbín as well, as he clearly states.

2.
Bishop was born in 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts. She was the first and only child of Gertrude Boomer and William Bishop. Her father died of acute and chronic kidney disease when she was eight months old, after which mother and daughter moved to Great Village, Nova Scotia, the home of her maternal relatives. When Bishop was five years old, her mother was committed to an insane asylum, where she remained for the rest of her life. Bishop’s story “In the Village” is a recollection of the scream she associated as a child with her mother’s illness and abrupt departure; she would never see her mother again. She was sent away from her well-loved maternal grandparents to live with her father’s parents in Massachusetts and from there to boarding school and Vassar.

Though she never knew her father, his family’s modest wealth provided her with a small income that meant for most of her life she did not need to work. After college, Bishop moved from New York to Key West, spent time in Paris, and later settled in Brazil, a stop on a planned trip to visit a college friend and a woman she had met once in New York, the self-taught architect and aristocrat Lota de Macedo Soares. When Bishop became seriously ill from an allergic reaction to cashew fruit Lota nursed her back to health, and the two fell in love. She lived with Lota for 15 years in the mountain town of Petropolis, with an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. That relationship ended tragically with Lota’s suicide in New York in 1967. After a short sojourn in San Francisco, Bishop moved to Boston to take over Robert Lowell’s teaching position at Harvard while he was on leave. She remained in Cambridge and Boston until her death in 1979.

After Millier’s biography, and a delightfully readable oral biography, Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, by Gary Fountain and Peter Brazeau (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), the next big event was the publication of a large volume of Bishop’s letters, edited by Robert Giroux, called One Art, in 1996 (FSG). A decade later her 30-year correspondence with Robert Lowell was gathered into a separate volume called Words in Air (FSG, 2008). The letters collected by Giroux are funny and sad in turn and make good reading, illuminating aspects of her life that would otherwise be hard to capture in narrative form. The letters between Bishop and Lowell are more than that; they document an important and rare literary friendship for which there are few precedents.

Newly extended compilations of the work unpublished in book form before she died later became available, including a condensed volume from the Library of America in 2008, but the most contentious volume by far is a selection of Bishop’s unpublished poems, drafts, and fragments edited by former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, titled Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box (FSG, 2006) This book provoked the wrath of the estimable critic Helen Vendler, who stated parenthetically in her scathing review in the New Republic, “I am told that poets now, fearing an Alice Quinn in their future, are incinerating their drafts”—to which Quinn’s editor, Jonathan Galassi, responded: “Most of them [poets] should relax. Elizabeth Bishop is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest of American poets, which means that everything she wrote is of interest.” Galassi went on to say that the aim of the book was not to “present these texts as canonical” but to give her passionate readers a better sense of how she wrote. Lloyd Schwartz, a critic and poet who became close to Bishop toward the end of her life, says that “Bishop never really ‘repudiated’ most of her drafts. If anything, she was quite prepared for their posthumous publication, since her will actually gibes her literary executors ‘the power to determine whether any of my unpublished manuscripts and papers shall be published, and if so, to see them through the process.” (Elizabeth Bishop in the 21st Century; University of Virginia Press, 2012)

3.
Toíbín uses these resources well. He mentions, for example, a letter from Bishop to Lowell from 1958 that describes the apartment Bishop shared with Lota in Copacabana, Brazil: “Top floor…a terrace around two sides.… Ships go by all the time, like targets in a shooting gallery.” He also cites an unpublished Bishop poem set in Brazil, “Apartment from Leme,” from 1969, which describes the beach seen from her apartment window in the morning. Although Toíbín knew Bishop’s work when he himself visited Brazil in 1985, he would not have read this letter and this poem. In addition to making good use of this new material, Toíbín also shows his skill as a close reader of primary sources. He sees a pattern in the way her seemingly casual narrative poems often begin with a simple statement of fact that cannot be argued: Here are a few of many examples: “I caught a tremendous fish” (from “The Fish”); “At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee” (“A Miracle for Breakfast”); “Here is a coast; here is a harbor” (“Arrival at Santos”). Then, as Toíbín observes, Bishop habitually corrects or qualifies herself, “often as a duty or a ceremony,” as in “The Map,” where, Toíbín goes on, “she wrote the word ‘Shadows,’ and then wrote, ‘or are they shallows.’” The same movement occurs in such poems as “The Weed”: “I lay upon a grave, or bed” and in “The Armadillo”: “the stars…planets, that is.” These are conscious moves toward a precision that is the least the poet can offer in this shifting world where what we see cannot be trusted to stay in place.

Sometimes Toíbín’s enthusiasm leads him a bit astray. As a novelist, he may be overeager to prove his “poetry chops” in detailed analyses of Bishop’s prosody. Mostly he gets it right, but a listing of some of Bishop’s paired rhyming words along with their precedents in the work of other greats, including Shakespeare, seems like overkill. Another quibble is that he dedicates a full chapter to a comparison of Bishop’s work with that of Thom Gunn. Clearly, Toíbín is passionate about both poets, and his insights about the way each obliquely works through the trauma of an early loss are worth sharing, but the chapter feels like a stand-alone piece. It is a bad fit for this book.

I was also disappointed in Toíbín’s characterization of the poet May Swenson, whom Bishop came to know at Yaddo in the early 1950s and described, in a letter to Robert Lowell, as “a nice girl” and “not a bad poet.” In a portion of the book that looks at Bishop’s relationships with other women poets, Toíbín recounts a familiar story of the rift that grew between Bishop and Marianne Moore when Moore sent Bishop a revision of Bishop’s poem “Roosters” (about, yes, roosters, and set in Key West). Moore and her mother had spent most of the night working on this revision, in part to eliminate the language they saw as coarse or crude, like the term “water closet.” This anecdote leads Toíbín to conjecture about Moore’s possible discomfort with the sexual implications of some of Bishop’s poems; he brings Swenson into the discussion because he sees her as being more receptive to the sensuality in one of Bishop’s more explicit love poems, “The Shampoo,” than Moore might have been. Unfortunately, he uses as an illustration a bad and embarrassing poem that was not published in Swenson’s lifetime. Many better examples are available, like this lightly flirtatious poem from Swenson’s book, Half Sun Half Sleep (Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1967), written in the form of a letter to Bishop in Brazil:

Yes, I’d like a pair of Bicos de Lacre—
Meaning beaks of “lacquer” or “sealing wax”?
(the words are the same in Portuguese)
“…about 3 inches long, including the tail,
Red bills and narrow bright red masks…”
You say the male has a sort of “drooping
mandarin-moustache…

Toíbín does a disservice to both poets by setting up this false dichotomy, and he should know better. Bishop is, after all, the poet who said jokingly to Richard Howard “I want closets, closets, and more closets.” And Toíbín’s fictional treatment of Henry James in his earlier novel, The Master, makes it clear that he understands well the language of constraint and secrecy. In Bishop’s work, identity might be masked by the lack of third-person feminine pronouns or through elaborate conceits about flora and fauna, but this characterization needs to be interrogated further. I am reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe’s insistence that she painted flowers, not genitalia. We cannot know the poet’s intention, or that of the painter, but the quality of the artist’s attention (and we know that Bishop was very attentive) makes every gesture personal. The sexual act also serves to dissolve that layer of self-consciousness and may be better approached by indirection.

A small handful of the drafts in Alice Quinn’s compilation clearly depict lovemaking between two women, with no need for a magic decoder ring. One of these starts as a plainspoken description of a rock formation that resembles the shapes of roses but then takes a major leap into what Lloyd Schwartz calls a “remarkably rhapsodic conclusion”:

rose-rock, rose-quartz, roses, roses, roses,
exacting roses from the body,
and the even darker, accurate rose of sex—

The ending long dash is Bishop’s own. It is more of a ripple than an end stop. Whether Bishop held back such a poem because it was not quite finished or because it made her feel too exposed, I am grateful to have it now.

Further down in the “Bicos de Lacre” poem, Swenson says she’ll make the birds “a little Brazil on Perry Street.” That would be Perry Street in Greenwich Village, where Swenson lived with her then-partner, “P.S.” I got in touch with P.S. on the advice of another poet, and we quickly became friends who would meet for an occasional dinner in New York and exchange letters in between. In one of those letters, she asked me if I would like her to send me the two letters she had received from Bishop in 1968 when Bishop had left New York for San Francisco after Lota’s suicide. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. One of them is a folded note card with a child-like graphic showing a parachutist, an American flag, the sun, and a small house or barracks. It is signed, “Love, & gratitude always—Elizabeth.”

In 1993, when Brett Millier’s biography had just come out, I took a week off from my day job and made a road trip with my partner to Key West for a Bishop festival. Alice Quinn was there as well, along with such poetry notables as Richard Wilbur, Frank Bidart, and J.D. McClatchy. I was on assignment from Lambda Book Report and had an essay on May Swenson coming out in Kenyon Review; I had dreams of a book contract and eventually being able to quit my day job. Life turned out otherwise, but James (Jimmy!) Merrill’s recitation from memory of Bishop’s poem “Exchanging Hats” is still with me today: “Costume and custom are complex./The headgear of the other sex/inspires us to experiment.” The experiment continues.


Sue Russell’s essays, book reviews, and poetry have appeared in such publications as the Kenyon Review, the Women’s Review of Books, Library Journal, Lambda Book Report, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Killing the Buddha, and the Readerville Journal. She lives in Philadelphia and works in medical publishing.

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Pocket Review: The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

SunkenCathedral.coverimageThe Sunken Cathedral
Kate Walbert
Scribner, 2015

Here is an interesting, almost Oulipean, challenge: How does one write a modern, urban novel without referencing technology? Maybe modern is the wrong word, with its connotations of sleekness and smooth surfaces. How does one write a contemporary novel, then, set in—say—New York City, without mentioning cell phones, laptops, the Internet?

Kate Walbert has calibrated The Sunken Cathedral to the very real concerns of New Yorkers in the second decade of the 21st century without ever taking an easy step. Rather than Google and Amazon, her characters are thinking about real estate, progressive private schools, the lovely, ubiquitous High Line, and—perhaps most urgent, as it is firmly out of the control of even the most carefully insulated city dweller—the weather. For those of us who, in the past five years, have lived through Hurricane Sandy, Tropical Storm Irene, and even an earthquake—remember the earthquake?—not to mention reports from around the world of far more devastating events: tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes that level entire towns, Walbert’s book neatly calls up that sensation of previously solid ground shifting under our feet. As New Yorkers, we expect certain kind of chaos: crime, noise, social unrest. When the elements level our respective playing fields, on the other hand, we’re undone. This was not what we planned for. 9/11 made us jumpy, and as Walbert gently points out, we’re jumpy still.

Marie and Simone, the two elderly women around whom The Sunken Cathedral orbits, know a thing or two about how life spirals out of control. Both survived the occupation of France during World War II, and both have grown old in a city that has changed radically since they met as young mothers in a Brooklyn playground. Their children are grown and moved away, their loved husbands are dead.

So they do what old ladies at loose ends in the city have done for time immemorial: they take an art class. Taught by one Sid Morris—an aging beatnik in a shabby Chelsea studio with questionable credentials—The School of Inspired Arts welcomes a cast of players that, like true New Yorkers, cross paths both randomly and irrevocably, expand outward, and multiply. Thus, in and out of Sid’s studio, we also meet Elizabeth, who rents an apartment in Marie’s brownstone with her husband and teenage son; the movie star who lives in the building behind hers (and his cat, Roscoe, who has a name, whereas the movie star doesn’t); Dr. Constantine, the old-school feminist interim head of a lefty private school; Carlos, the mounted policeman, for a heartbreaking minute; and Helen, the painting class’s resident art historian in thick black plastic glasses, who

peered through the lenses as if trying to see in murky water, her eyes exaggerated and a little off, Simone thought—she’s been through something; and did Marie notice how certain times she went so close to her canvas it seemed she might be smelling it? And other times she squeezed her eyes shut like she was trying to paint in the dark.

There’s an appropriately underwater quality throughout The Sunken Cathedral, and Sid’s classroom discussions of impressionism add a layer of watery, wavery visuals that serve the interwoven plot lines well. New York may not be under water just yet, but the characters flow by each other, refracted and sometimes drifting; the mermaids and ghosts that put in token appearances are entirely at home. When Helen offers the class her vision for a painting inspired by Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral, she recalls visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with her husband, where she got “the first inkling of a loosened world.”

Time is fluid here too, viewed through the wavy lens of memory. And while you might expect a certain imprecision from Marie and Simone, it turns out that everyone’s sense of personal history is subjective, and subject to change. It’s not just the elderly whose sense of time is mutable; everyone in Walbert’s book moves forward and backward through their reminiscences—in a way that’s sometimes confusing, but more often, if the reader is willing to flow with it, reveals a pleasing Pentimento effect.

This is not the easiest of reads. Walbert’s tenses can shift multiple times in a single sentence; her scaffolded viewpoints and voices require close reading. But the book moves with the condensed momentum of a short story, packing a rich sensory pastiche:

The powders were caked in tubes gone dry, or pressed into compacts from the fifties, their plastic clamshell lids and palm-size mirrors flecked with black. How many times had her mother seen her own face in these, and now Katherine looking back, a stouter version of her mother, more her father’s build, stocky, short-waisted, but in this mirror none of that, only her face, pretty like her mother’s though not as pretty, not nearly as pretty, she thinks, dumping the tubes and compacts, the dried-out mascaras and spent lipsticks, the beveled-glass bottles of perfume—some nearly empty, others almost full—and the one her father gave her mother every year for Christmas, her mother pretending she had no idea, squealing like a little girl—into a cardboard box she believed she would throw out but on which she later wrote with Sharpie, MOTHER.

Urban life, art, aging, and death are all considered; perhaps as they are, maybe only as we imagine them, but in the end the distinction is not so important. The Sunken Cathedral is as contemporary as can be, yet carries the timeless sense of the neighborhood back yards you can’t see from the street:

…behind, in the back, the small gardens of the Chelsea brownstones and tenements—some just dog runs, others planted, each a tiny terrarium of hope.

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Dreaming of a Cold and Rainy Fourth

Polar_Bear_16-3Confession time: I’m hoping it rains tomorrow. I know, I know—that’s a terrible thing to say. People have beach plans and grilling plans and fireworks-viewing plans. Me, I have a very beloved ten-year-old dog who is absolutely terrified of anything percussive, and I live in a neighborhood of obnoxious dumbass teenagers who like to blow things up in the street. I’ve seen plenty of fireworks in my life, and I honestly don’t care if I see another one. But I have only one dog and I fear for her heart when the pyrotechnics start.

It’s a selfish wish, I realize this. Although I’m not as selfish as I could be. For instance, given the fact that I’m getting mightily tired of winter and icy sidewalks and shoveling snow—I am not getting any younger, people—you still won’t find me wishing for even rapider climate change. (In fact, let’s get this straight: you won’t find me actually controlling the weather—this is all a sort of whinging atmospheric ideation.) Nor do I spend summer, which I also don’t really like much anymore, waxing wistful about the next ice age. I know, in my heart of hearts, that ice ages are no fun.

So rather than invoke the weather gods and call great sheets of ice down on the world during July and August, I mainly just try to stay hydrated and inert. Reading is an excellent way to accomplish this; reading in front of the fan is even better; reading in front of the fan with a pint of ice cream is about as good as it gets. And I like to read cold when I can: tales of the Icelanders, Ernest Shackleton, doomed searches for the Northwest Passage.

As it turns out, my compadres at Open Letters Monthly feel the same. The July issue is up, and in it a number of fine reviews, poems, and observations—more on those at a later date. It also has, for like-minded cool readers, an expanded Summer Reading 2015 section (in two parts), including my shivery book for this summer, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.

So put that box fan in the window, sprawl on the bed in as few clothes as possible, dig a spoon into some Ben & Jerry’s, and read something that gives you the chills. The suggestions here are great.

And if it rains tomorrow, think of it as a good chance to check out the rest of the issue. And order in a pizza. And take a nice nap. You’ll thank me later, really. (If you’re jonesing for some snapping and banging in the privacy of your home, check out the Museum of Firecracker Label Art. Awful-looking homepage aside, they’re quite beautiful, and they won’t scare the dog.)

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