Have taken a month off from Facebook, which, when I use it, wastes my time. I have this vain idea that a social platform will help me if I ever publish a book again. (Same with Twitter. What if I could get a lot of followers? I could rule the world a little bit, like other people do.) But the effort doesn’t pay off. So I’ve stopped. Worked with Facebook but I’ve cheated and gone back to tweet a couple of times, mostly late at night when I can’t sleep. Big mistake. Twitter never improved anybody’s insomnia. Sense of doom, sense of how stupid people are. When I am in a thinking phase about a piece of writing and I kill time on social media I find myself overtaken by anxiety and then nausea. Not just the poisonous strangers. People I know typing terrible things about people they don’t know but read about on social media. It’s a culture of vilification in an echo chamber where you can choose voices who will reinforce your thought. In between writing about their last art project, in the case of my friends. Some of it is useful, though, isn’t it? Not if it lures you in for the nastiness or the misinformation or the outright lies, and it always does that. Do I blame both sides, left and right? Well, first let’s allow that it’s a matter of left and right; I’m skeptical but okay, for the sake of saying something, yes, that’s it. Yes, I blame both sides; the utter stupidity of both sides is full-on in evidence. No, I don’t blame both sides equally. Sometimes I enjoy the reading of such well-aimed venom at politicians I hate, for instance, or celebrities whom I find vapid. To name only two. This is where the power of social platforms emerges, after all; one wastes time on them because they feed something, like a drug does, almost exactly like that. In my case they feed my need for Xanax. My thinking spins round as I read and I reach for a pill. One drug to counteract another. For years I’ve said I stay on Facebook because of my family and friends but what’s the good of that if what I find out is my friends are as prone to bullying language as anyone else, and when I see my family spreading rumors and worse. It’s about emotion for us all, what we feel ought to be true. Echo chamber is only a slice of it. Will see how long I can maintain my silence. It’s the politics that kills it. Everybody performing their certainty all the day long. For reassurance. For the maintenance of a well-defended self.
The View from Stalin’s Head by Aaron Hamburger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a strong collection of stories, the most impressive aspect of which is the setting and material, Americans, and particularly Jewish Americans, in the Czech Republic, most in Prague, a city that was the cool destination for artists for quite a number of years. The most memorable of the stories for me is the title story and its examination of (and a very subtle examination of) domination dynamics and betrayal between two boys and an older man who is reliving his days as an opponent of what I would call Stalinism, because of the title. There are other jewels here: the first story, “A Man of the Country” and its subtle portrayal of longing, friendship, and a hope that is marginal and fogged. “The Ground You Are Standing On” has a remarkable power, an evocation of the Holocaust as it is still fought out in the present day. I would call “You Say You Want a Revolution” the weakest of the stories, never quite certain of its purpose, though containing some lovely dialogue moments and portraits. These stories viewed in today’s gender setting are examinations of types of people, not particularly centered on queer themes, though queers are welcome here. The stories hold to their territory with strength and integrity and mark out the further development of a fine writer. I have been hesitant as to my rating because I know Aaron but when I think of the presence of an oversized paper mâché bust of Stalin in the basement of a grim apartment where a strange fantasy is repeated… Well, that settles the issue.
To Let by John Galsworthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the best of the Forsyte saga trilogy, a pleasant surprise, since I found the second installment to be tepid. In this novel it feels to me as though Galsworthy is writing of something closer to his own heart, and the depictions of Jon and Fleur are so very touching. The book made me forget the television adaptation, which has been my problem with reading these novels all along: because the adaptations do not do justice to the original in the case of To Let. Galsworthy writes of the full flush of the young lovers and their feelings with such heartfelt clarity that I followed that part of the novel without effort. As for the rest, his characterization of the period after the war covers a part of English history – well, it was not history for him, it was his world, and that shows from his writing. Nevertheless there is something entirely underwhelming about the experience of reading this book. The world is so very much more lively and varied than anything in these pages. The whole of the Forsyte family feels entirely confined within its definition of itself, and the novel is confined to the family, making the whole exercise claustrophobic. It is tempting to read Soames’s nostalgia for the past as Galsworthy’s own. It is clear that there are very many fans of these books; I am grateful for the experience of having read them but I would not say more than that. They are not very memorable. In particular, I was wearied by the beautiful Irene and her constant ghostliness. It is as if the symbolic positions of these characters overwhelm their humanity. I did very much appreciate the use of Timothy, and the delicacy of the ending, which is far less sentimental than the adaptations. Far truer, as well.
In New Orleans a long time ago when drag queens often wore beards and mustaches, when realness was only one way of doing drag, when transgender people were usually called transsexuals, in the bars in the French Quarter we called each other she, girl; look at her with her face in her drink, we would say, look at her about to go to the back room and get on her knees in front of that man, oh girl, she’s got calluses on those knees, or splinters, we would say, and burst into hoots and spill bits of alcohol on the nasty floor. The bar was dark, lights around the pool table where we could watch the butch boys bend over in their jeans. A juke box where the current dance songs were playing. Sometimes the bartender would give me change to get the music going, and I’d pick out something by Donna Summer, Bruce Springsteen, Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson, and we would sing along, harmonizing to the song while he, the bartender, did his dance down the island, flashing his pretty behind at the customers, working the tips. Girl, that man likes you, said my friend. I never made much of it, mostly asexual. Some instinct we had that the notion of he and she had to be fluid, that we had to slide from one to the other as the need arose. Girls had to stick together, run in packs, pick out the real men in the crowd, leave each other alone – what would two queens want with one another, we would ask, all they’d do was fight about who was on the bottom. Not so clear cut as that, of course, but we pretended. Kept the group neutral maybe. Oh, girl, please buy me a drink, these heels are killing me. Even if we weren’t wearing heels. Even if all we really were went something like this: slightly sissy boys in cheap jeans and button-down shirts, a bit pudgy, wearing boat shoes or oxfords. Hair stiff with product, thick with cologne. Talking to ourselves like we were the center of it all, like we were really princesses, and looking about hungry to figure out who in the bar might be worth trying to pick up. Or else frightened at the thought and hoping somebody would just find us and make all the decisions and at least take us home instead of down the end of some French Quarter alley. This was where we figured out gender for ourselves. Heading out for the night we would say, knockers up girls, tonight we’re going to find true love.
In Chancery by John Galsworthy
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In the case of the first book, The Man of Property, I was less certain of my reaction to the novel due to having seen the most recent television adaptation; any freshness in the story was lost, so my reaction to the novel was dependent on the writing and to the parts of the novel that were not included in the series. My reading of In Chancery was more of a chore, and I believe it likely that I would have felt the same level of disappointment with the book regardless of prior knowledge. While one’s understanding of the characters deepens to a degree, it is a small degree. Irene remains an enigma, a ghost; Soames remains dangerously possessive of her; young Jolyon remains lukewarmish; and the rest of the family has a thin, unrepresented quality. The younger generation were appealing in their youth but only in a Forsytish way – to borrow Galsworthy’s ploy – and what happens within the novel is constricted by the narrowness of the people themselves. The cast of characters is too large for depth or exploration. They change a little, their drama feels deflated, and the book feels like a repetition of nineteenth century novels about manners and class. The writing is exactly as one expects, having read the first volume. I can’t tell whether this is actually a second novel in a series or the weak middle of a very long single work. In comparing this work to Joyce, or Woolf, or Mansfield, or James, or Dreiser … well, those comparisons are unfair, really. Galsworthy is surely trying to break new ground here, but his spade is not up to the task.
Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
These are powerful stories carved out of real stuff. Everything I respect and love about writing is embodied here. Jones can write a first line that gives a full frame to every story, often with a note of forewarning, even forboding. “On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother, she takes my hand and we set off down New Jersey Avenue to begin my very first day of school.” This is the opening to “The First Day,” one of the most perfect stories I have ever read. Heartbreak is there from this beginning, and yet the story that follows is never sentimental, never over-reaches; simply one detail follows another, perfectly encapsulated. Every story in the collection is at this level. “Young Lions” is a fearful exchange. “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” is a lucid exploration of parenthood, but also the story of a world contained within the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of its setting. I have read some of these stories over and over again, always seeing some sentence I had never noticed before. There is simply and truly no one who writes better than Edward Jones. Nor any one who writes stories of more importance.
The Man of Property by John Galsworthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I do appreciate the quality of the writing, especially its careful choice of sentences that reveal moments that in their turn resonate in several directions. Compared to Victorian writers, Galsworthy shows a masterful elegance in his constructions. He is not quite able to avoid the need to speechify from time to time, and this is a step down in the writing for me; his speeches are more conventional than his observations and feel uninspired. When he writes knowingly of love, his writing reaches its weakest point; as opposed to the passages when he writes narratively of love, which are among his best. It is as if he hovers at the edge of a modern voice but cannot quite leave off the nineteenth century. Though one should be skeptical of ideas of modernity in writing. His Forsytes are enigmatical, prosaic, untrustworthy, frugal, proud; they are a family drawn to be examined, and the mass of them is, at times, overwhelming. Like many people, I come to this book having seen the television version of the saga, not the classic 1960s version but the second adaptation, which was also quite fine. So the cast of characters was already familiar to me, for the most part; though it was a delight in the book to see the full array of Forsytes, including Timothy and Swithin and Frances the songwriter, who is one of the more vivid of the younger set. Her curious hovering between art and commerce is a gem of writing. There is nothing to complain of here except that the writer drubs us with the word “Forsyte” over and over, insisting on reminding us to see them as a type, a class, a moral lesson, and such. One gets the message and then the book goes on tapping it out till my poor head was sore and I winced at most readings of the name. But I was struck to read that Galsworthy won a Nobel prize for his long preoccupation with this family. When I think of the British writers whom he had as contemporaries, I am amazed that he was the one to achieve the laurel. Will leave it at that. The work is quite fine but I cannot tell how well I admire it, given that I encountered it first as well-done television. The story is not fresh to me because of that, spoiling the effect. I wish had read the novels first.
Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a very old novel, the actual date of its writing in dispute, its authorship also in dispute, written out by hand, copied so many times that the state of the manuscript itself is the subject of much scholarship; the novel was revised by a writer in the Ming dynasty who, according to the translator, improved the novel greatly in form. It is a magnficent piece of work; like much that is magnificent, it exists in its own terms. Its ambition and scope sit like a mountain on the literary landscape. There is truly nothing else like it. The story of the collapse – or rather the long, slow death – of the Han dynasty and the emergence of three stable kingdoms from the wreckage. There are at least a thousand characters in the book, many of them major, all playing a vivid, palpable role in the proceedings, whether for a paragraph or for many chapters. The bulk of the book takes up the long conflict between Cao Cao, a noble who captures the last of the Han emperors and uses him as the center of a northern kingdom, and Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Han who attempts to defend the dynasty and reunite the many parts of China that have fallen away from the emperor’s rule. This is not a modern novel in which characters deliberate about their actions and reveal themselves in psychological detail; this is a saga, an epic, in which the people are indicated by their deeds, their pronouncements, with an occasional reference to their private moments, their thoughts, their longings. Such a vivid piece of writing, it was exhausting at times to read it, coming in at over 2200 pages in four volumes. This is a book to study, one of the central texts of Chinese history and culture, helping to define the nation’s ideas of legitimate rule, politics, honor, and military craft. There are moments of startling savagery: a meal in which the host, starving in a time of famine, cooks his wife to serve her up for dinner; the killing of a eunuch in the bedchamber of an emperor in which his murderers eat his raw flesh. There is no other experience in reading like this one. The kind of novel that a writer devotes decades to producing, the bulk of his life’s energies, perhaps – though the reputed author is also said to have written The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh), a book that is equally long.
by Darcie Little Badger
This is a very fine young adult debut; I am only beginning to read books in this field, but this certainly ranks as one of the best – perhaps the best – I’ve read so far. What makes this book distinct is the solidity of the family core, the use of first-nations themes and stories, and the lack of emphasis on romance; the main character declares herself to be asexual, and the book makes that both important (in terms of breaking new ground with the use of the term) and unimportant (in that everyone in the book accepts her as she is). It was refreshing to read a character who was not looking for a partner in that sense. The relationships in the book are strong, nevertheless. There is a lot of magic, as has been the case with most of the books I’ve read in this genre, but the magic has freshness here, borrowing from the characters roots as an Apache. There were the inevitable vampires, but one of them provided a really unique moment in the book, in which the vampire attacks, and the Apache mother declares it to be unwelcome in her home, which in her case includes most of Texas. The vampire, unable to escape the ensuing curse, simply dissolves. Darcie Little Badger is an important voice, and leaves the door open to more novels.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book came to mind after reading another attempt at a surreal novel; Whitehead’s tale of two opposing schools of elevator maintenance has stayed with me over the years as an example of how a book can make its own reality. In exploring this idea the writer stays true to the partly magical idea that an elevator can best be understood by feeling it rather than by examining it. But at the same time the world expands to include the history of the dichotomy between the empirical and intuitive schools of elevation, and then to embrace, from a different angle, the idea of racism and its effect on both versions of the truth. I can’t find my copy of the book at the moment so I can’t quote names of characters, but the protagonist’s journey is lucid, detective-like, and meaningful. Much as I liked the novel, it felt to me that the ending faltered, employing maybe too much mechanics, too much exposition; but this is a very slight problem in a very good book. This novel stands as an example of what modern writers do with elements of fantasy to make the real, mundane world more vivid.