by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Black Ocean, 2013
88 pages / $14.95 buy from Black Ocean
1. I’ve been working on this since this past spring. After reading Beyond The Like Factory & The Hatchet: Rethinking Poetry Reviewing by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, I knew I had to finish this review. This is actually a scary thing to write now.
2. Swamp Isthmus is Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s first book with Black Ocean and the second book in his No Volta pentalogy (first is Selenography, Sidebrow 2010; third will be The Courier’s Archive & Hymnal, Sidebrow 2014). I’ve not read Selenography so there is perhaps some things I’ve missed by not having done so.
3. A swamp is a living-dead landscape; the living feed off of the dead and dying, the most dead areas are filled with the most life and the least dead areas are those with the least life.
From the Hart Crane epigraph (The resigned factions of the dead preside) in the very beginning of Swamp Isthmus, Joshua Marie Wilkinson creates a zombie landscape, a zone that infects the living with symptoms of deadness. In a zombie film this deadness comes to the living with capitalist critiques of our alienating existence, but in Swamp Isthmus we see a zombie that carries critiques of the ecologic and nostalgic sort.
4. The lyrics of Swamp Isthmus are a living-dead endeavor: precise breaks eluding a narrative; linearity reduced to phrases contained in the line.
to disappear you must
descrying over nightfall
with unclogged wind
this coast is longer than a train track
needing coarse woolen cloth &
the clothes you’re in
so needing a bad song
to whistle what’s known
but may stick
to another’s mouth
5. Similar to what Zach Savich says about Wilkonson’s lyrics, to kill a zombie takes precision: remove the head, destroy the brain.
6. In The Dead Rustle, The Earth Shudders, Evan Calder Williams points to something that is obvious in Swamp Isthmus:
“…the undead have never really been dead in the first place—they never died.’
7. To cross a swamp takes precision and a mind for the contradiction of the living-dead: step here, not there; eat this, not that; drink plenty of water, but don’t drink the water.
footpaths marked by
it gathers up in
this bladder of light
8. the trees palsy/ to our bad lines.
9. In some respects, there is an admission with these lines of the failure of poetry to enact this landscape; the lines aren’t good. In some respects it’s proof that poetry works: even the bad lines cause the landscape to shudder.
10. There may be an actual “Swamp Isthmus.” The book’s title might be a reference to Gastineau Channel in Alaska, which at low-tide creates an isthmus from mainland Alaska to Douglas Island. Fritz Cove Road, mentioned in the section, I Go By Edgar Huntly Now, is a road that “dwindles down/to a patch of currants” (note the clever word play on ‘currents’) but it also ends at the place where Gastineau Channel meets Fritz Cove. A place that may eventually be unnavigable by watercraft. A place severely affected by glacial melt/global warming. READ MORE >
December 3rd, 2013 / 5:33 pm
1. What happens when the world goes deaf?
2. Sad Robot Stories by Mason Johnson is a novella about Robot and “his” existential crisis after the collapse of the world, left only with “his” mechanical “brothers” and “sisters” and the usual fire and brimstone of an apocalypse setting.
3. Maybe deaf is the wrong word. Or the wrong cadence. What happens when the sound of humans is extinguished? “Yes, the cries, giggles, laughter, screams, moans of both pain and pleasure, squeals, wails, whispers–the many sounds of the human race–were all gone. Even the minute sound of blood rushing through veins and arteries, speeding through the heart and up to the brain…was gone.” Could you, theoretically, if you didn’t die and weren’t some pile of dust eating radioactivity, I mean, could you handle it?
4. Robot is special or different than his siblings in that his emotional spectrum has for some reason also been anthropomorphized. He is, like the title suggests, sad that the humans are gone.
5. Humans have created (in our world) a null-sound room–which one research team has monikered as a Dead Room–that most scientists call an anechoic chamber, in order to develop and test various auditory waves.
6. “An anechoic chamber (an-echoic meaning non-echoing or echo-free) is a room designed to completely absorb reflections of either sound or electromagnetic waves. They are also insulated from exterior sources of noise. The combination of both aspects means they simulate a quiet open-space of infinite dimension, which is useful when exterior influences would otherwise give false results.” (Wikipedia)
7. Robot specifically misses from the human race Mike and Mike’s nuclear family. Mike was the first human to acknowledge (or perhaps ignore) Robot’s being. “Being” here couples physical and metaphysical, which, according to more Wikipedia, is exactly anathema to Speculative Realism. Speculative Realism, from the one article I read, argues for the multiple possibilities of reality; that no one universal law is stable according to these multiple possibilities (with the exception of the Principle of Non-Contradiction); “there is no reason [the universe] could not be otherwise.” A good ground rule for any Science Fiction.
8. In the anthropocentric world of Robot pre- human extinction, there are workplace laws managing the ratio of humans-to-robots, which presumptuously leads to pay differences, benefits, etc. Like any class distinction, humans have structured a wall to stand on in order to look down upon those below, i.e. robots. Mike plays pool with Robot, takes Robot home to meet his family. He tells Robot stories of his life. He treats “him” like a friend.
10. Robot is fascinated not just by Mike’s stories of an alcoholic, nihilistic past, but of Mike’s budding fascination and subsequent redemption after Mike started reading books. This notion of the redemptive functions of books/stories is not objective. “And it is true that the tool is the congealed outline of an operation. But it remains on the level of the hypothetical imperative. I may use the hammer to nail up a case or to hit my nieghbour over the head.” (Jean-Paul Sarte, “What Is Literature?”) You read/write a story, why? READ MORE >
November 26th, 2013 / 11:09 am
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail: Stories
by Kelly Luce
A Strange Object, 2013
152 pages / $14.95 buy from A Strange Object
1. Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is the debut story collection by Kelly Luce.
3. The only thing is that Kelly Luce grew up in Brookfield, Illinois.
4. How strict is the “write what you know” edict? On Big Think, Nathan Englander reminds us that this advice is too often misconstrued. It really means we should write from a place of emotional familiarity, not that we’re limited to autobiographical writing.
5. But are there limitations when we talk about writers depicting foreign cultures? This story collection seems very Japanese (if a book can even be “very Japanese”) and yet, it’s distinctly American, too.
6. When I was nine I was flipping through channels and caught the end of Akira on basic cable. I had no clue what was going on, but in the weeks, months, and years to follow I found that it left an indelible mark on me—a predilection towards the uncomfortably strange.
7. A Strange Object is the name of the independent press that published Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. They’re based out of Austin, TX. This is their first book, too.
8. This is strictly conjecture, but Japanese culture affords for a strangeness that is uniquely its own. Look at all of the Japanese fiction out there: Akutagawa and Mishima, Ryu Murakami and Haruki Murakami, and the scores of manga and J-horror.
9. The characters in Kelly Luce’s collection are outsiders. Many are Americans who move to Japan for work or to connect with the culture that they find so entrancing. Some are only half Asian, an anomaly to the native Japanese—not gaijin, but not Japanese, either. Others are fully Japanese, but do not fit in as with the Japanese school girls who seek refuge from the tedium of their lives through a unique karaoke machine and with the Japanese widower who invented a machine that measures a person’s capacity for love. All are lost. All are searching to fit in.
10. In ninth grade, I ordered a t-shirt with the kanji for gaijin on it. I wore that shirt proudly even though no one at my school in West Tennessee understood what it meant. Looking back, I think I was so drawn to Japanese comic books and cartoons because it was a way to embrace my otherness as a nerdy, awkward white boy. READ MORE >
November 14th, 2013 / 11:14 am
1. On the surface, Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica is a dot-to-dot adventure tale. After a hurricane hits an English settlement in Jamaica, two families decide to send their children back to England. Early on in the voyage the children are taken aboard a pirate ship whereupon they visit exotic ports and busy themselves with imaginary games. They are eventually returned home, and the pirates’ subsequent arrest, trial, and execution rounds out the proceedings. Of course, that last part seems a little extreme and out of place, and that’s really the book’s program, because simmering just below this surface is the constant threat of rape and murder.
2. In the spirit of Calvino’s later lecture on lightness versus weight, the narrative manages to float just above the threat of violence. You get the feeling after a while that Hughes is totally aware that you’re aware of the divide between high adventure and childhood trauma, and so he starts to fuck with your sense that awful things need to happen.
3. And, of course, awful things do happen—often and with startling frankness—but they are always quickly buried under the book’s relentless trend towards lightness.
4. The earliest memory I have is of staring up at the bottom of a kitchen table. I don’t know where I was or what I was doing, but I remember looking at a pattern in the wood and then turning toward a doorway. That’s it. I know I’ve told the memory differently over the years, adding in details about toys or sounds or maybe a smell wafting in, but the truth is that I just have this one scant moving image. I don’t think it’s a lie to embellish something so bland and colorless in texture, and at certain points I might have really believed in the additions.
5. Before I reread the novel to work on this review, I kept thinking it opened with a bigger feint at being a lighthearted adventure, but this is totally wrong. By the end of the first chapter’s scene-setting, two colonial ladies starve to death (or are fed ground-up glass by their servants, who knows!), a black servant drowns in a bathing pool, and countless rats and bats are dispatched by the family’s cat. All the while, we’re reminded that this is “a kind of paradise for English children to come to.” Right.
6. I usually skip introductions, but when I talk about AHWiJ, I almost always fall back on Francine Prose’s brief intro for the NYRB edition: “First the vague premonitory chill—familiar, seductive, unwelcome—then the syrupy aura coating the visible world, through which its colors and edges appear ever more lurid and sharp… The experience of reading Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica…evokes the somatic sensations of falling ill, as a child.” Sign me up.
7. Another big theme of the book’s opening is the whole colonial question, which is vital and pressing and could probably be handled with greater finesse than I can muster here. Suffice it to say that the first sentence presents ruined slave quarters, sugar-grinding houses, and mansions, all “fruits of Emancipation in the West Indies.” Considering the adventure-story-through-a-fun-house-mirror about to come, it’s hard not to think that this kind of stage-setting is about just rewards, that the English family deserves everything that’s about to come.
8. A brief digression cum recipe: AHWiJ allegedly contains the first mention of a drink called the Hangman’s Blood—a mixture of rum, gin, brandy, and porter—“innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.” Clearly the kind of mix that leads to public exposure and pissing blood and, of course, piracy.
9. Is there actually such a thing as an anti-adventure novel? (I’d imagine something like Coetzee’s Foe might come close, although its meta-narrative seems more about deconstructing the adventure genre than teasing out its hidden desires.) And furthermore, if there were such an anti-genre, would it stand in opposition to all of the finicky colonial and gender and race problems inherent in Defoe and Dumas and Stevenson? While AHWiJ is never really a wholehearted rejection of the adventure novel’s Victorian and Enlightenment-era point of view, the ways in which it represses and then inverts these views are extremely sneaky and, by the book’s end, terrifying.
10. The narrative portrays the adult world as a haze of concealed motives and consequences. A pirate’s drunken leer and a parent’s concern over a coming hurricane are met with the same curious misapprehension: that something vital or alarming is just beyond one’s young recognition. But while Hughes draws a kind of tight circular POV around the children, he also lets the reader step out into the larger circle of this adult world, and somewhere between the larger circle and the nested one is a place where motives and the threat of their attendant consequences exist. READ MORE >
November 12th, 2013 / 2:14 pm
1. This book reminded me of this remix which was incredibly moving and pained me this spring and still pains me now http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KbdOBE1ORw
2. The thing about Kevin Sampsell is that he feels like the kind of guy who has been through everything. He’s just one of those people. He doesn’t have that used up feeling or look at all but he does have that vibe of being the kind of guy who has lived through basically everything there is as a human to experience but not in a hardened way.
3. I’m not explaining this right but he’s just one of those people who seems complicated and well adjusted and like if you talk to him he just has been there, whatever it is but he doesn’t come outright and say that instead he just comes from this I know what you mean mode which isn’t even patronizing the point here is that all of that also comes through in his writing and this book This Is Between Us from Tin House coming out is five years of a life.
4. Anything you have ever experienced in your life is in this book.
5. This book is comforting.
6. Sometimes this book is upsetting.
7. This book is comforting.
8. Some people said this book was disturbing and I was like have you ever lived your life at all or ever really loved someone or had a partner and if you haven’t maybe your life is easier and even if your life has been really nice you’ll still be like “yup” while reading parts of this book because it’s just so real in how it’s rendered because it’s just written so elegantly and simply stated and maybe that’s the thing with Kevin Sampsell’s writing.
9. We’re working with the rhetorical you in this entire book.
10. It’s written like a confessional ode-ish poem. READ MORE >
November 7th, 2013 / 1:06 pm
Götterdämmerung Family BBQ
by Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover
Commune Editions, 2013
1. I met Jasper Bernes at a café in Oakland. He was binding Götterdämmerung Family BBQ with a long arm stapler. Commune Editions is a new publishing venture organized by Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover, and Juliana Spahr.
2. Jasper invited me to the Poetry and/or Revolution conference-taking place at UC Berkeley, Davis, and Santa Cruz. I went to a discussion on manifestos where Joshua Clover delivered his Don’t Put the Rabbit in the Hat. Later, at “The Public School” Joshua and Jasper read from Götterdämmerung Family BBQ.
3. If it’s not clear you can read this online here along with works by Juliana Spahr, Diane Di Prima, and Louise Michel.
4. Poems. These are poems. Don’t forget. They look like poems. They taste like poems. They’re also full of frenetic pop culture references and blatant political antagonisms. They’re fun, but they’re trying to fuck shit up all the same.
5. The line that got the biggest cheer / laugh / reaction from the reading was “I wandered lonely as a drone / That floats o’er jails and landfill / And monitors what we say on the phone. // It knows an amazing amount / About One Direction / And sexting with frenemies of / the public good, who burn in the sun // of total transparency, / brains open to the screen / Memories of one Friedrich von / Ludwig von Mises on scene…”
6. There’s a kind of opulence to lyric like that – a lyrical richness, a sickly sweetness from the rhyme, an excessive beauty. Some other writers, like Julian T. Brolaski, and Joyelle McSweeney, also capture a kind of perverted poeticism, a lavish absence, bastard cousin of luxury rap. “I’m early to the party but my ‘rarri is the latest.”
7. While “I wandered lonely as a drone” pleases, much of the rest of the chapbook is more of a call to arms and a more vigorous critique of political ambivalence. “Your vocabulary did this to me and millions like me, the vulnerability of words wanna be starting something else: rockets, rain, renegacy. Turn it upside down and set it on fire / is too a solution if you believe in emotional truth”
8. Responsibility, commiseration, complicity. This work sits firmly on the let’s do something with our poetry side of the aisle, rather than the “everything is meaningless” or the “poetry can’t do real shit” side of the weird looking aisle.
9. Jasper told me that Commune Editions would focus on work with an anarchist lean. Publishing a recounting of the trials of Louise Michel achieves that in more than one way.
10. “We once thought that there was more to life than breathing carbon emissions through the holes in our faces and we were right” READ MORE >
October 31st, 2013 / 12:31 pm
by Anne Applebaum
Anchor Books, 2004
736 pages / $18.95 buy from Amazon
1. Roughly speaking, the Gulag was the soviet prison camp system that operated from about 1919 through the late 1950′s, though some camps lasted right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union itself
2. Anne Applebuam, the author of this work, has never been a prisoner in a Gulag. In fact Applebaum is pretty much the total opposite of most people who were in the Gulag system, who were by and large poorer Russians and eastern europeans of various national origins. Applebaum is a member of America’s patrician class. She went to Yale and Oxford, worked as a foreign correspondent for The Economist, and is married to the foreign minister of Poland.
3. I can’t help but wonder if one reason Applebaum decided to tackle such a grim, destitute subject is because, like many people who have a fairly secure, lofty station in life, they are morbidly fascinated by the sheer horror of tragedies beyond their geographic and chronological frame of reference. (note: while I am not a member of said lofty station, I am not currently starving to death and am myself often fascinated by horrific national tragedies)
4. I don’t want you to think that Anne Applebaum simply wrote this book out of some universe of vast privilege and is just sort of casually looking down and and trying to explicate history like the Queen of England talking about what’s happening in Syria with the Prince of Wales at afternoon tea or something. The Gulag system as a topic is so enormous, so horrifically cruel and violent, that she obviously had to submerge herself into it to a degree and for a length of time that most people, let alone most writers of history, would probably find appalling.
5. To be honest, I think her outsider status here works to her advantage more than anything. Most of the Russian language works about the Gulag she cites are very emotionally powerful, but they tend to become monotonous and sort of blend all together in a single,very Slavic voice of total despair. You can only read so many descriptions of old women bitterly weeping while receiving their daily bread ration before it becomes this easily dismissible rhetoric of misery.
6. This book is about 700 pages long. About 110 pages of that length is source notes and bibliographical information of one kind or another. Anne Applebaum offers a tidal wave, like an actual wave that engulfs you, of background information and first hand accounts of what life was like in the Gulag system.
7. While reading it I kept wondering if I would ever have it in me to write a 700 page long book of which 1/7 is pure reference information. I mean, I get that people do that sort of thing for a PHD, but that is presumably a big incentive to finish a book. Did she get some kind of advance for this? Or was this just a kooky little pet project she nursed along for years on her own?
8. This is the single most painful work of non-fiction I have ever read.
9. No, really.
10. If the perpetrators of the Holocaust were, as Hannah Arendt famously wrote, committing the banality of evil, then the Gulag system is about the banality of apathy. At no point was the cruelty of the system or of the administrators of the camps or the guards ever mandated. The purpose of the Gulag was never that of the Nazi camps (even if they do bear horrific similarities), in fact, the actual idea of what this whole prison camp system was for fluctuated a lot over time. Sometimes it was about trying to rehabilitate prisoners, sometimes it was about using their slave labor to turn a profit, sometimes it was just about getting rid of undesirable elements and sending them 10 time zones away in the arctic waste. Though that last thing is literally the only thing it did that actually worked. READ MORE >
October 29th, 2013 / 12:15 pm
1. Charles Blackstone is the managing editor of Bookslut, which is a nice outfit with a long-standing thing going on and you can read them at: www.bookslut.com
2. I prefer to call him Charlie and he is fine with that.
3. This novel is about a guy who is in love with a famous girl in Chicago who is a wine expert and has her own restaurant thing going on and her own tv show and the guy contacts her as a fan and then they elope and then five weeks later he thinks she is cheating on him and also they aren’t even getting along really and then they are taking a trip to Greece together.
4. There isn’t any gore or devastating kind of art going on in it what it is instead is more of a vibe of like you’re on a second date with someone you really like and it’s a picnic and you just want to seem really nice because you actually think your date is really nice so you use proper grammar. Don’t even lie you know you look really cute when you dress up sometimes. I want to say this book has a tone you’d use in a job interview but that wouldn’t be helping anyone.
5. Also our narrator has an incredibly sad type of way about him which I am basically a complete sucker for but that is fine.
6. This guy in the novel is an adjunct professor.
7. It has this kind of little nervous guy thrown into a big city feel to it because he like asks this girl out and then they’re married and he has to keep up with her life.
8. Have you ever felt like you had to keep up with someone and was it exhausting.
9. I think this entire novel may be a metaphor for the history of wine. Tolstoy.
10. They’re running around Greece trying to either fix or break a marriage they’ve been in for five weeks. READ MORE >
October 22nd, 2013 / 11:09 am
by Dena Rash Guzman
Dog On A Chain Press, 2013
69 pages / $10.00 buy from Powell’s
1. Dena Rash Guzman climbs trees and sports cowboy boots and straw hats.
2. Many men drown at sea.
3. All the poems are titled Life Cycle to avoid/create/engender confusion.
4. Handless children populate the poppy pods.
5. DRG has been to China and beyond in search of the muse.
6. Farm weddings do not feature high on her list of favorite events.
7. Bones sleep, are tossed, and itch in these poems.
8. I spent one hot summer in Portland once, some years ago, and did not bump into the poet.
9. I have written several poems lately dealing with loss and aging, and “This is how we forget our ancestors:” shakes the dust off my own family skeletons.
10. DRG reads her poetry live more than most writers I’ve come across, and I’m not sure this is due to her brilliant reading, or Portland, OR, having more readings per square mile than Brooklyn, NY. READ MORE >
October 8th, 2013 / 2:47 pm
1. While reading Radical Love I was living close to the ocean and swimming every day. One afternoon I was feeling sad so I swam out farther than usual, surpassing all of my customary stopping-points, until I was so far out that I suddenly doubted if I’d be able to make it back. I recognized in what I was feeling the preliminary symptoms of panic; racing heart, flushed cheeks, repetitive thoughts about the panic I was feeling which only succeeded in increasing the panic. I floated on my back, trying to breath steadily. The stretch of beach I’d walked on only minutes earlier was now impossible to approach, a landscape which in its brazen totality had become not only remote but imaginary.
2. I realized that the ocean was terrifying because it was the opposite of lonely; it was abundant. By traveling so far from the shore I’d become an indistinguishable element of that abundance. The terror of my slow, lucid ego-death coupled with the necessity of moving my legs to keep myself alive was a stronger feeling than any kind of loneliness I’d ever experienced.
3. I arrived at Fanny Howe through an interview she did with Kim Jensen of Bomb Magazine.
4 . In the interview she describes her poetics as a reaching towards the ungraspable, the fragmentary, the bewildering. Her preoccupation is with the bentness of time. The freakish all-possible of moments, the vastness of living in simultaneity. How can two people be in two places at the same time? Or: How do we express actions occurring simultaneously?
5. There is a rare precision to her words. They scrape softly and insistently at a very particular feeling. In feeling it for the first time I realized it was a feeling I had always felt. A familiar estrangement. Like seeing a stranger in a dream for the second time.
6. The feeling is intimate with the abject. Between subject and object, the barely separate, like a limb cast-off or a corpse. It follows that many of the subjectivities in her novels are displaced and marginal; madwomen, children, monks. Kristeva writes that the abject inherently exists apart from the symbolic order of language, as a trauma irreconciliable with subjecthood. Fanny Howe makes a language for which abjection is immanent (a new subjectivity?)
7. A Sensual Metaphysics. There’s a body-depth to her narratives, a sense of being weighted, but not weighed down.
8. “She went to the caravan on her sister’s black bike through the dark and felt this way the happiness of being a hard sea animal that machines its way gracefully through the ecstatic interiors of the outside world.”
9. “She began to harden with the first baby. A firm heel slid across the palm of her hand, under her navel, now like a moonsnail with a cat’s eye at its apex. Her wastes, and the baby’s, moved in opposite directions from the nutrients. Her breasts tightened to tips of pain. She entered her psyche daily on rising…”
10. How do you write from inside madness? Most accounts of people going insane seem to come from after or outside psychosis, stressing the role of narrative as a stabilizing and ultimately redemptive exercise. In these texts there is more of a return to madness through narrative. No one is saved and everyone is ecstatic. READ MORE >
September 26th, 2013 / 2:37 pm
by Knut Hamsun
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008
272 pages / $16.00 buy from Amazon
1. This is an article about Robert Bly’s (b. 1926) translation of Hunger by Knut Hamsun (b. 1859). It was published by FSG in 1967.
2. The cover graphic is the word HUNGER stylized as an open mouth with 2 rows of sharp teeth. I bought my copy in January 2013 from a used bookseller in Toronto. The clerk said it was her favorite book, esp this edition because she liked the cover. The design is not credited in the edition notice.
3. Knut Hamsun is clean shaven and wearing a monocle in a photograph taken in 1890, the year Hunger was first published in Norway. In later photographs he is moustachioed and wears glasses. In the last known photographs of Hamsun he wears a large white beard and squints.
4. The first several times I read Hunger by Knut Hamsun was in a hardcover edition translated by George Egerton aka Mary Chavelita Dunne in 1899. This review is not about that translation, nor is it about the 1996 translation by Sverre Lyngstad.
I am descended from Norwegians but know nothing of the language. This article is not as much a review of the translation itself as it is a discussion of the fact of its publication in 1967.
5. The main introductory essay to Bly’s translation is by Isaac Bashevis Singer (b. 1902) noted Jewish-American author and pioneer of modern Yiddish literature.
”Writers who are truly original do not set out to fabricate new forms of expression,” says Singer, “or to invent themes merely for the sake of appearing new. They attain their originality through extraordinary sincerity.”
6. “People do not love alike, neither do they starve alike.” (Singer).
7. Hunger is about a young man with artistic leanings living in Kristiania, Norway. From biographical details about Hamsun we can guess that the story is based on Hamsun’s own experiences and takes place in in 1879-80.
Hunger itself does not offer much in the way of context. It is a first person account of a young man living alone in a city. He appears to have no awareness of anything outside his own need, which is mostly for food. He is starving and desperate, but the private code by which he lives forbids him from taking work that he considers to be below his abilities.
8. His mental state throughout is ostensibly a result of his being hungry, rather than a symptom of mental illness or PTSD for example. He cycles rapidly through extreme moods: hilarity, despondency, optimism, despair, loneliness, social anxiety etc.
9. Doubt is the driving force behind the narrator’s racing thoughts. His doubt tirelessly regenerates itself. Doubt is what drives the desperation and sets its parameters. It is what keeps need always at the centre.
At every moment he is like a reckless gambler who has already placed his bet before realizing the stakes are too high, and then in a panic must cut his losses before waiting to see the outcome.
“He was a man before his time,” says Singer, “His skepticism, or perhaps it could be called pyrrhonism — doubting even the doubts — belonged to a later era. To Hamsun man was nothing but a chain of moods that kept constantly changing, often without a trace of consistency.”
10. “Fictional heroes who are estranged from their environment seldom emerge lifelike,” says Singer, “With most writers, such heroes are mere shadows, or, at best, symbols. But Hamsun is able to portray both the environment and the alienation, the soil and the extirpation. His heroes have roots even though they cannot be seen.”
There is almost no historical or social/political context in Hunger. In most novels of the era that would be seen as a fault. In Hunger it is seen as a strength.
As a reader I only interact with the narrator’s environment as needed. That is because the novel is not about Norway or Europe: it is about being hungry. READ MORE >
September 19th, 2013 / 2:53 pm
Memories of Underdevelopment
by Edmundo Desnoes, translated by Al Schaller
Latin American Literary Review Press, 2004
110 pages / $15.00 buy from LALRP
1. Memorias del subdesarrollo. Or call it Inconsolable Memories, which shows up in the subtitles of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film adaptation, and is itself a wish taken from Hiroshima, Mon Amour, one of the narrator’s favorite movies. J’ai désiré avoir l’inconsolable mémoire.
2. I’ve looked up “underdevelopment” in the dictionary twenty times since seeing the film and reading the book. I’m waiting for the definition to say: a better word for this word is subdesarrollo.
3. The film was shown during Revolution in the Air: The Long Sixties.
4. The longer the 60s, the shorter the 50s and 70s.
5. We’re talking about how to get to Cuba the way our grandparents talked about how to get to the suburbs and their parents wondered how to get west. “I already know the United States, but what will happen here is a mystery to me.”
6. The author photo shows Edmundo Desnoes with full white beard, pipe in mouth, arms over his head in a pose of relaxation, not surrender. “The first responsibility of a writer is to survive.”
7. Reading books after seeing the movie. I made this mistake with The Firm. Even though I find Jeanne Tripplehorn attractive, and love typing out her name, Abby McDeere is shapelier on the page.
8. The novel’s first person antihero, Sergio Malabre, has less poise/élan than a Grisham creation (or Tao Lin) and believes himself, like so many first persons, to be the last man. He’s not a drinker but there’s probably something wrong with his liver. With his wife and family off to America he decides to stay in Cuba, an island he calls a trap, and to live amongst a revolution he calls a tragedy. On a crowded bus he feels like slime. “I am 39 years old and already an old man. I feel stupid. More rotten than mature.” The theme of rottenness in Memories of Underdevelopment is slightly less romantic than DeLillo’s “apple core going sepia” at the close of Underworld. Sergio, our rotten and rotting antihero, is play acting through the period drama of the future. His actual life is something Donald Draper will make a Park Avenue Sad Face about. He does not want what he wants. He does not want the historical anchors his country offers him. In protest, he removes the timestamps from his journal midway through the novel because he believes dates are meaningless. July 26, 1953. April 17, 1961. October 14, 1962. He’s a cultured, good-looking, overripe intellectual educated in New York and Paris (he’s done the 90 miles; no matter how far away it is, it’s always the 90 miles) who wants to know less, who wants to be stupider. #bayofpigs #Octobercrisis #CMC #gameofchicken.
9. As self-aware as Ben Lerner’s cipher in Leaving the Atocha Station, who, following the 2004 Madrid bombings, finds the air alive “less with the excitement of a period than with the excitement of periodization.”
10. Sergio, on a walk through the Hemingway house museum: “Americans have an artificial smell, and the Russians stink.” READ MORE >
September 12th, 2013 / 3:08 pm
by Amina Cain
Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013
144 pages / $12.20 buy from Dorothy, a publishing project
1. I am ashamed of what I think about book reviews.
2. “I’m [...] ashamed of what I think about literature—I can only open up to a few people in this way.” So says the narrator of “The Beak of a Bird,” the fourth short story in Amina Cain’s Creature (Dorothy, 2013). For now, I am hovering 40,000 feet above the Earth.
3. My thoughts about texts exist as emotional impressions, and what interests me most as a reader is ambience and affect—words as molecules of emotion, states of agitation, decorative illuminations, background noise. Readerly impressions in my bones are intimate like pages; they are, as in Creature, “the place where [my] life unfolds.” I want to recite my Creature to you, but instead draw inward toward the place where my body’s median axis, its midline, is askew.
4. Preoccupied with atmosphere and feeling as I am, I am ashamed of what I think (or don’t think) about literature, and so I choose not to write about books. But Amina Cain’s Creature is different: Amina Cain’s Creature resides out of harm’s way, although it exists in savage and erotic twilight. “I expressed myself through the violent putting away of a pan.” “Myself, alone, in my bed, is a story.” “Write about the arm when the whole body is being abused.” “We watch something violent on my laptop. It will help me wear this dress.” In this darkness, I read and write and think-along, and feel involved in every sentence. This involvement is key to my wanting to recite my Creature. Involved in it, I am pleased to feel ashamed of what I think.
5. Creature begs to be watched. Passing over one’s horizon of attention, the book is a meditative practice, which is not to say Creature is necessarily a meditation, for a person does not read Creature so much as she suspends it in space. 40,000 feet above the Earth, she observes its sentences, lines of thought that move across the mind, and breathes them in and out. There are momentary pauses of deep calm. It is likely the mind wanders. And as Creature unravels, the body sheds itself.
6. I am ashamed of my physiological responses to literature. See Exhibit A, which I am sorry to describe. In this disgraceful scene, I am hovering 40,000 feet above the Earth reading Creature’s “Attached to a Self.” I am attempting momentary pauses of deep calm. In the midst of this exercise, I cross a passage wherein Cain refers to a Benedictine monk: “The word is supposed to send a person into great silence,” she writes. “Just a little bit of reading is enough.” I suspend the statement in space, let it resonate. My eyes trace the sentence and tear.
7. Am I crying because of the story, someone asks, or because of the space?
8. Am I crying because of the space, I wonder, because this is the space where my life unfolds?
9. And is it really me if I’m not there?
10. To answer these questions for you, let me describe where Creature rests in my body—deep within my thoracic spine, in the middle of my vertebrae alongside photo booth-sized images of unrequited knives. I am conscious of it as I watch my body read. Its language moves and settles. This process of watching—as opposed to thinking—may seem enigmatic. It is. READ MORE >
September 5th, 2013 / 4:51 pm
[Note: This review discusses the entire film, and as such contains many spoilers.]
1. The World’s End is a challenging film that’s already well on its way to being misunderstood. I myself got it entirely wrong on my first viewing, after which I concluded that it was the simplest and weakest of Edgar Wright’s movies to date. After a second viewing, I can see more of the film’s intricate design, and now think it might be Wright’s most complex work, and possibly also his best.
Part of the problem is that I went in with wrong expectations. The World’s End is a very different movie than Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. It’s funny, but it’s not as funny as its predecessors, and I thought that a problem. I wasn’t alone—Anthony Lane, for instance, wrote of it in the New Yorker:
“the patter of laughs [...] is less breakneck than it was before, and the result is strangely sour and charmless by comparison. [...] I cannot imagine returning to it the way one does to ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz,’ hungry for fresh minutiae.”
But this is a film all about returning, and the minutiae are there. They’re just invisible on a first viewing.
2. The World’s End is indeed a soberer film than its predecessors. This isn’t a problem, though, because the film, while comedic, isn’t ultimately a comedy.
Wright & co. do try to alter our expectations. Consider the opening narration, in which Gary King triumphantly recounts a twelve-tavern pub crawl that he and his mates attempted in 1990. Although they conked out nine pubs in, King proudly pronounces the night the greatest of his life.
From there we cut to an unflattering shot of him seated in sweats in a rehabilitation center, decrepit, gaunt, and totally spent. It’s a funny transition, to be sure, but it’s uncomfortably funny, and more than a little bleak—our hero’s a drug addict, something the film doesn’t want us to forget. As others continue speaking, King zones out, lost in his memories . . . only to be replaced by an image of what he’s doubtlessly thinking about: a beautiful shot of a beautiful pint of golden beer, over which Wright applies the title: “The World’s End.”
And for King, that’s true: beer is the world’s end.
3. King begins the film a tragic character, his many flaws all apparent. Only he recalls the past as glorious. Everyone else is glad to have left it behind, and now thinks him mad—a loser unable to function in the world of 2013. King’s biggest mistake, his error, is that he never moved on, never shaped up, never got with the program—he never grew up. As such, he’s treated like a child—as he later cries, complaining about the rehab center, “They told me when to go to bed!”
The message would appear simple: This is going to be a film about learning to mature. “You can’t live in the past, Gary King!”
But what if it turns that out one can? What happens if we take Gary King seriously?
by Gary Paulsen
Laurel-Leaf Books, 1995
105 pages / $6.29 buy from Amazon
1. For my fifth grade class, Gary Paulsen was considered the pinnacle of literary merit. Second only to R. L. Stine.
2. Most people I talk to remember reading Paulsen’s novel Hatchet pretty well, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers The Rifle.
3. The Rifle is about a man who carves a muzzle-loaded rifle out of a tree branch and spends a long time on it. He then sells it to a Revolutionary War soldier who dies of dysentery after killing a lot of British officers. Then an old man buys the rifle. He’s lonely and his life sucks, and the boy who lives across the street’s life is lonely, too. The boy’s dad is a trucker and doesn’t care about him. Then the man’s gun accidentally fires and kills the boy.
4. I lied about that.
5. I think in my memory I joined this novel with another novel that I read that same Summer as a kid. I dreamed an entire subplot about the little boy and his relationship with his trucker dad, writing him postcards and eating ice cream.
6. I think that book was written by Beverly Cleary.
7. She was pretty well liked in my grade school, too.
8. Here’s the real plot of The Rifle:
9. The book is even sadder than I remembered.
10. The muzzle-loaded rifle was made by a dedicated gunsmith and he did sell it to a sharpshooting soldier, but after the soldier dies of dysentery, the gun is stuck in an attic until a guy finds it and sells it to a dude at a gun show. The gun show dude is your stereotypical stand-yer-ground-pry-em-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands- lives-in-a-van-off-the-grid-type dude. This gun guy drinks a lot of beer and the omniscient narrator tells us that later he gets stomach cancer and dies. This stomach cancer guy’s van breaks down and he trades the rifle and an Elvis painting on velvet to a mechanic for van parts. The mechanic takes both the gun and the painting home and places them on his mantel. Then one day, he’s lighting a fire in the fireplace and a spark from the fire lights some old powder in the gun and it goes off and the bullet flies through the house and kills a little boy who lives across the street. Then the novel discusses how the loss of the little boy’s life ruins everyone else’s lives. READ MORE >
August 29th, 2013 / 2:28 pm
City Water Light & Power
by Matt Pine
Cairn Press, 2013
180 pages / $18.00 buy from Amazon
1. I’m in awe of Matt Pine’s prose style. A lake has “the same texture and tone as ink spilled onto silver.” A black dress has “the same cling and quality as plastic wrap on American cheese.” These similes give me goosebumps.
2. The frisson of encountering high style in a world that no longer much values it.
3. City Water Light & Power explores the angst of being young in the city and not knowing the score. It’s about twentysomething Chicagoans figuring out how to survive in body and soul — the alternatives, in this novel, are selling out or breaking down, in bars where salaries are “revealed like flashed genitalia” or in alleys where it’s “spiritually dangerous walking there dispirited after dark.” Your choice is to be one of the manipulators, or someone who walks without a destination — both flavors of desperation.
4. Chicago is a character in this novel. A machine whose workings are dangerously hypnotic.
5. A study of corruption and alienation that gives me that sense of a ruthless and inscrutable society I get from Fitzgerald, say, or Salinger. Matt Pine writes of venality in a tone of innocent fascination — he is sensual, aggrieved, and mystified by ordinary life, in a classic American tradition harking back to the Puritans.
6. The demolition of a dive bar stands for what’s being lost. The bar is called Lewis & Carol’s… perhaps to suggest a world down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass?
7. I like it that this bar seems to be the only thing keeping Jake from becoming an alcoholic – after its destruction, Jake takes to drinking outdoors. Somewhat illogically since the novel acknowledges there are other bars in Chicago – one might even say too much of this novel takes place in bars… But these bars are full of phonies, not like Lewis & Carol’s, which stands for community.
8. Many first novels by men include a dazed and confused main character. In this case, Jake. His job involves talking to imaginary customers. His free time is spent with an imaginary friend, a woman visible just to him, who communicates only through mime and gymnastics and might work better in a movie, a mute hallucinated character being tricky to pull off in a novel…
9. Adrian is a character who success brutalizes. He is seeking the wrong nourishment, acquiring what David Mamet has called “the canting language of the real-estate crowd.” There’s beauty in the process of making ugliness happen, Pine suggests, but it’s a lonely beauty.
10. Jake is a half-hearted preserver, Adrian a developer. Jake on Chicago – “But I wonder what it is we’re wanting after. If it’s really the city, I mean. Do we want more of it, or do we want what it was? I’m sorry. I’m not articulate today. I guess I wonder why we have to fight the city for it to stay itself? Because isn’t that stopping it from being itself? And yet it’s so glorious.” Adrian on Chicago – “What would lure a boutique? How many patios were necessary to make an enclave of patios? Did condos come before cuisine? But then who would move into this wasteland? But why would you open a business where no one lived? It all seemed to leap out all at once, all the parts dependent on all the parts, like a stone archway. But also like an archway, there must be a way to build one.” READ MORE >
August 27th, 2013 / 6:45 pm
The Unknown University
by Roberto Bolaño
New Directions, 2013
766 pages / $39.95 buy from Amazon
1. I’ve a strange attachment to Roberto Bolaño. One of coincidence and timing and love.
2. The Savage Detectives came out in the US six years ago, the same week I decided that—yeah, dammit—I was going to do an MFA.
3. I finished my MFA not too long ago (May-ish), just as the Bolaño Library seems to have exhausted its basement of posthumous manuscripts with The Unknown University, “a deluxe, bilingual edition of all the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” (Or so says the flap).
4. The Unknown University, really, reads more as a manuscript of notebooks. Poems incorporate drawings, caesuras become page-breaks, forms change again and again and again. At first, it reminded me of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, in which every page of the book was in fact a typed page of a notebook’s musings. This feels like that, but rewritten from notebooks to computer and revised.
5. It’s 700+ pages and irresistible to a Bolañophile like me. A short story that recently ran in the New Yorker appears (“Mexican Manifesto”), as does the whole of the novel Antwerp, albeit in somewhat different form (and under the title “People Walking Away”). I didn’t do a full index-to-index comparison, but it also seems the whole of 2008’s The Romantic Dogs appears in a scattering throughout Part Three.
6. Despite these inclusions, though, The Unknown University isn’t a collection of previously-published books, like other “complete” collections can tend to be. (Just above my Bolaño shelf at home are the Collected Lydia Davis and Amy Hempel, which are exactly that).
7. Some such collections, like Jack Gilbert’s or Richard Hugo’s, have a section of “uncollected” pieces that follow the chronological reprintings. The Unknown University is sort of like one big “uncollected” section, but one that the author took the time to fashion into something that can live alone.
8. According to the note from the heirs: “The present edition corresponds exactly to the manuscript we found (with only a few minimal corrections taken off of his computer). Roberto himself dates it to 1993.”
9. These are early writings. An author’s note lists the completion of some sections as early as the 1970’s, when Bolaño was just Roberto, one of the boy-poet idealists he takes so often as subject in his fiction. In several poems he makes reference to his age (typically 26 or 27), which would have been around 1979-80.
10. One could imagine The Unknown University as the texts Bolaño wrote during the time of his writerly maturation, for what many now is the MFA. READ MORE >
August 22nd, 2013 / 11:00 am
1. This is Kristina Marie Darling’s 11th book of poetry; she is not even 30 years old yet.
2. Darling eschews traditional forms of poetry in favor of her own unique formal constraints: the use of footnotes, appendixes, images, definitions, bracketed verse, and erasure poetry. However, in Brushes With, Darling adds a new form to her repertoire: the narrative prose poem.
3. The collection begins: “We were no longer in love. The sky, too, was beginning to show its wear.” From this point forward, readers are plunged into many complex layers of the rubble of abandonment and loss.
4. The footnotes serve as historical commentary on the prose text. This makes for a matrix-like experience. We are reading a person’s intimate words, but we also know that this text has been abandoned, then found, then studied, then put on display. This technique makes the experience of reading the prose poems feel illicit in some way. We are peering into a labyrinth of secrets that are not meant for our eyes, yet are now uncomfortably preserved and public.
5. Even while reminiscing on the relationship before its end, the speaker foreshadows doom: “You told me there was dark matter I couldn’t see. That every star is a dead star.”
6. The imagery, like the one above, proves to be richly complex. All stars are dead; therefore, that which enchants us, that which we wish upon, that which we map out, gaze upon, pray to, is also doomed. In every romantic union, there is something dark that we don’t see coming, yet we should be aware that it’s there.
7. In “Feminism,” the speaker states: “I began to realize the significance of this gesture. What is love but a parade of memorable objects, a row of dead butterflies pinned under glass?” Ouch!
8. The speaker’s take on love is relentlessly jaded, yet she comes to sharp edged truths. What is love but our desire to possess, collect, admire. Yet, in doing so, we must sacrifice the subject’s life.
9. Footnote 18. ‘This statue of the Holy Mother would later be found headless in a tiny museum in northern France.” Once again, we have worship, mementoes, collection, ownership—all leading to destruction. Facelessness.
10. The marriage documented in the book unravels due to affairs. READ MORE >
August 20th, 2013 / 5:22 pm
by Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown, 2012
384 pages / $7.99 buy from Amazon
1. Not many authors could write believably from a child’s point of view and still provide such credibility and license to the narrator. That’s what you need to know most readily to begin this book.
2. Concepts like “TV People” and rain being nothing more than a blurry veil over Skylight–a saddening slap in the face realization for readers that this is really happening.
3. It is striking, the “savant” nature of the little boy – how he can be so well-educated with so few resources, and yet so ill-informed on social protocol and other “real world” mechanisms. It could be argued, though, that he is in many ways better off than a “normal” child.
4. This reviewer recommends reading this book aloud or obtaining an audio copy. Hearing the dialogue between the mother, the child, and Old Nick is especially gripping.
5. It is an incredible struggle not to be angry with Grandma. Grandma’s love for Ma exists but does not inspire.
6. The poem excerpt at the beginning. Yes.
7. The way the child refers to inanimate nouns as personified, proper-nouned entities provides reality to the voice of the child narrator, but also speaks to the attachment any human would have to inanimate things in a situation such as “Room” describes. It’s a very subtle way to calcify the experience for readers.
8. Page 67, “Princess Diana” “Should have worn her seat belt” — one of the funniest sidesteps in conversation throughout the novel, albeit cryptic.
9. The experience of the Indian family and their dog finding Jack in the park elicits severe, literal nausea. For the first time, picturing Jack outside of Room and experiencing what he must look like up next to other humans, other children – pure nausea.
10. There is a distinct failure to understand that radiates through the hospital. As such, the reader will experience a certain kind of rage and a certain kind of advocacy for Ma and Jack. On Donoghue’s merit, this is a great mechanism for roping readers in more tightly, On the other hand, the injustice provokes readers to consider how often and to what degree these situations are marred by “professionals” in our nonfiction world. READ MORE >
August 15th, 2013 / 12:06 pm
“Within every box, I found only compartment after compartment.”
1. Petrarchan is Kristina Marie Darling’s 8th book, published by the ever controversial Blaze Vox Books. (Yikes. Remember that whole thing? I still have love for the Vox, though.)
2. Much in the way she “took liberties with H. D.’s letters” in THE BODY IS A LITTLE GILDED CAGE, Darling uses ekphrasis, careful appropriation, erasure, and the work of Petrarch and Sappho (the latter, via Anne Carson’s translations) to achieve her grand illusion.
3. Kristina Marie Darling’s voice as a writer is unmistakable and unshaken regardless of mode or form. Of this, I am thoroughly convinced.
4. In fact, one thing that has repeatedly struck me about Kristina is how much larger in stature her writing voice is than its author. To be clear, this is not to reduce her as a person, but to exemplify her work as a force. Often, in an effort to amplify one’s voice over the din of modern media, the artist must become a personality first in order to gain potential interest in the work. Unfortunately, it becomes easy for the latter to suffer in the shadow of the former in the race. Darling reminds me that there is still a strong argument to be made as an artist for placing one’s ambitions squarely on the body of one’s art.
5. This is to say that I have no idea whose parties she attends, under which influences, et cetera, but I damn sure know when it’s her voice there on the page.
6. The reader will find in Petrarchan Darling’s familiar signature use of spare narrative and spectral imagery driving a carefully plotted course of marginalia and footnotes. To be fair, it is doubtful that anyone who is unconvinced or maybe even still undecided about her work in general will be swayed by Petrarchan. However, those of us who are believers or even simply interested parties will take comfort in knowing that what is gold still shines.
7. Tangentially, I have been thinking a lot about appropriation and erasure lately. As a writer who uses both at times almost criminally, I think a lot about what constitutes successful employment. After all, as some will invariably argue, can’t anyone do it? The short answer, of course, is yes. But to make a piece of erasure or other appropriation both successful and original despite its sources, I believe what the author chooses not to use, and why, becomes equal in importance to what is used, and how. The author must rely on the source text to some degree, but the artistic voice of the finished piece should stand on its own. Darling’s work—and Petrarchan is no exception—is as fine an example as any to underline these values.
8. I am thinking about corridors—hands and bricks or wood and the long-form sound of feet moving to some god knows where. I think about corridors a lot I think. I wonder if Kristina does too.
9. It is often easy to forget how the author implies a larger body of text with her use of marginalia as sparse narrative, set toward the bottom of the page, soaking up the white space of the specter it has picked apart.
10. Again, the ghostly presence hovering in the frame of the footnoted sections is largely the work of Francesco Petrarch, whose work I am largely unfamiliar with. I should really make it a point to change that. READ MORE >
August 13th, 2013 / 12:09 pm