I am going to be honest here. I might not hit the word count with each of these reviews. Some books lend themselves to more of a review than others.
Annie John – 3/5 Stars
Annie John is a short novel by the Antiguan novelist Jamaican Kincaid. Jamaica Kincaid is best known for her thoroughly brilliant and forever anthologized short story “Girl”. “Girl” is so good not only because of the power of the voice and the effectiveness of the images, but because it’s the perfect example of a second person point of view in action, a form that is often quite bad or overused in fiction. It’s not used very often, and it’s already worn out almost as soon as it’s begun, so a one-pager short story is the perfect employment of it. I read the collection that “Girl” appears in and found it more or less ok, but diminishing outside of that story.
This novel was published about the same time and probably has a fair share of autobiographical subject matter to it. It has that feel of a first novel, about childhood, and about the conflict between a mother and her young daughter. Like a lot of bildungsroman, the more the child learns about the world, the more resentful she feels toward her mother, as if the world had been kept from her.
The writing here is also very good, and while it’s not the same form as “Girl” it’s a novel written in a realistic style of writing, and this works best to create a character and story we’re meant to have sympathy with. What also works about this novel is that Kincaid is clearly a little older than a young writer, and that maturity has created a more meaningful and not precocious first novel.
Here’s a quote:
“The word ‘slut’ (in patois) was repeated over and over, until suddenly I felt as if I were drowning in a well but instead of the well being filled with water it was filled with the word ‘slut,’ and it was pouring in through my eyes, my ears, my nostrils, my mouth. As if to save myself, I turned to her and said ‘Well, like father like son, like mother like daughter.’
At that, everything stopper. The whole earth fell silent. The two black things joined together in the middle of the room separated, hers going to her, mine coming back to me. I looked at my mother. She seemed tired and old and broken.”
The Beauty of the Husband – 4/5 Stars
Like collections of short stories, I am often left unfulfilled if a collection of poems mostly expresses a period of time rather than a whole. Collected stories and collected poems often underwhelm me or I read too fast. But when there’s a clear intentionality and cohesiveness to it all, I get it.
This book is a collection of 30 poems presented against a series of passages from John Keats about a dying marriage marred by emotional intensity and potential abuse. The irony of the title is a version of John Keats’s famous “Truth is beauty” line. If you’re speaking truthfully about something horrible, then it must be beautiful, or at least there’s a beauty in the honesty in its portrayal.
I have a bad sensibility to the kinds of awful relationship going on in this book. This idea will come up a little bit later when I review another novel that presses on this idea in a week or so. But I feel deeply culpable in emotional gray areas, where relationships might dip into abuse, but not the kind of obvious physically and sexually violent abuse that often characterizes abuse. This gray area (and I don’t mean to say that any particular situation is gray absolutely) creates question and ambiguity and in that ambiguity I can more so read my own past behavior and really start to take on forms of guilt. I guess that’s the power of writing like this. I think too much writing these days asks you to clearly take sides, and not consider these kinds of ambiguities.
Here’s a poem:
TANGO XIV. RUNNING YOUR HAND OVER IT TO CALCULATE ITS DIMENSIONS YOU THINK AT FIRST IT IS STONE THEN INK OR BLACK WATER WHERE THE HAND SINKS IN THEN A BOWL OF ELSEWHERE FROM WHICH YOU PULL OUT NO HAND
Today I have not won. But who can tell it I shall win tomorrow.
So he would say to himself going down the stairs.
Then he won.
Good thing because in the smoke of the room he had found himself wagering
his grandfather’s farm (which he did not own)
and forty thousand dollars cash (which he did).
Oh to tell her at once he went slapping down the sidewalk
to the nearest phone booth, 5 AM rain pelting his neck.
Her voice sounded broken into. Where were you last night.
Dread slits his breath.
he can hear her choosing another arrow now from the little quiver
and anger goes straight up like trees in her voice holding
his heart tall.
I only feel clean he says suddenly when I wake up with you.
The seduction of force is from below.
With one finger
the king of hell is writing her initials on the glass like scalded things.
So in travail a husband’s
legend glows, sings.
Beautiful Mutants – 2/5 Stars
I have read 4 or 5 Deborah Levy books now, and some of them I absolutely love. I think her new memoir is very good, and I liked her two recent novels Swimming Home and Hot Milk. This novel is much more hard to get behind. For one thing, I am not clear about what is really happening. And this kind of ambiguity makes me not really know how to follow the narrative if there is one. I know from other recent reading that maybe I am ready for more direct realistic novels, so this one might have hit me at a bad time, but I also have recently read some that are also more abstract, and so maybe not.
Anyway, I will simply quote a long passage and let you see it.
My mother was the ice-skating champion of Moscow. She danced, glided, whirled on blades of steel, pregnant with me, warm in her womb even though I was on ice. She said I was conceived on the marble slab of a war memorial, both she and my father in their Sunday best; I came into being on a pile of corpses in the bitter snows of mid-winter. Afterwards they bought themselves a cone full of ponchiki, doughnuts dripping with fat and sprinkled with powdered sugar, and ate them outside the Kursk railway station, suddenly shy of the passion that had made them search for each other so urgently under all those clothes. On my fifth birthday, my father stole a goose. He stuffed it into the pocket of his heavy overcoat and whizzed off on his motorbike, trying to stop it from flying away with his knees. We ate it that evening, and as I put the first forkful into my mouth he tickled me under the chin and said, ‘This does not exist, understand?’ I did not understand at the time, especially as my mother stuffed a pillow full of the feathers for me, and soaked the few left over in red vegetable dye to sew on to the skirt of her skating costume.
The Taiga Syndrome – 3/5 Stars
Again, I should stop reading abstract novellas, because my brain does not want to for the most part. Or at least put a stop to it for the time being. I have to be honest, I have a very US/American chauvinism that I’ve been dealing with a lot in the last 15 years of reading or so. One book that really helped to challenge this feeling was Roberto Bolano’s 2666. All five sections of that book pushed against my expectations and limits of imagination of writers from various Latin American countries. That that book has a fable about philosophy and language as well as an accounting of a series of crimes does not challenge my sense of the region, but that it does have an American noir novel and two European literary novels about writers and academics does.
That this book is about northern climates and Taigas, and the kinds of writing that tend to happen in countries that contains this natural biome comes from a Mexican writer, again challenges my expectations. I would think Russian, Scandinavian, US, and Canadian writers, but here I am humbled.
This novel is also quite interesting and cryptic, laying out beautiful descriptions and pairing those up with musings on various topics, and references to literature and fairy tales. But I also felt quite dislocated as a result of it as well.
I remember the wolf. I saw him, an enormous wolf, gray against the snow. I saw his jaw: open. His eyes, his paws. I saw the red thread that extended from his tracks and slithered through the snow before momentarily getting lost in the trunk of a fir tree. I saw the fir, so majestic. Then it climbed, the read thread, through the warped branches, through the everygreen pine needles until high above it reached the green branches of another conifer. That was what made me look up at the sky, also gray, filled with thick jumbled clouds. What shade of gray? Ten minutes before a storm gray, of course. I didn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear anything, but I saw that the wolf was preparing to pounce. I saw his saliva, teeth, lips.
Birding is my Favorite Video Game – 3/5 Stars
This is a collection of charming bird comics, and a theme that shall arise here is that for the most part the pictures, while charming, don’t contain a structural narrative or even structured jokes. Nor are they absurdist. Instead, similar to a lot of Kate Beaton comics, there’s a humorous picture or amusing concept being presented, but not a joke.
They are very charming, and more to the point, the art is absolutely fantastic.
Here’s a good example:
Late Bloomer – 3/5 Stars
I am not trans, so my understanding of the experience of being trans is completely nonexistent. In the last 15 years or so, my consciousness toward trans identity has grown, and with that awareness, my compassion and sympathy has also grown. It’s also made me reflect on my own missteps and wrong steps in the treatment of the relatively small number of trans people I have met and known. So a series of comics that works to help better illustrate the experience of coming out and transitioning is a generous and gracious text. The book is presented a journal through webcomics and works as a series of victories, successes, and joys alongside a series of frustrations and hurts. It’s not a joke filled book, but many of the comics are funny, while others are quite painful.
My main experience and interaction comes in my role as a teacher. I have obviously had trans students before, and just like most of the queer students I have had, most have not been out to me. In my state a teacher was fired from refusing to use correct pronouns with a student (the student preferred ones I mean), and after digging in his heels over and over and citing his religion, he was eventually let go.
American Politics – 3/5 Stars
This book is ok. It’s a perfectly fine understanding of American politics, and would certainly be a good primer.