Thursday, October 18, 2018

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 224 pgs, Pub Jan 1st 2000 by Picador USA (first published 1993), ISBN13: 9780312252564, Lit Awards: Whitbread Award for First Novel (1993)

This first novel by Cusk won the Whitbread Award for First Novel in 1993 and it seems worthy of that distinction. It is less tentative than we would have reason to expect though it depicts a just-new woman carrying a load of insecurities while trying to navigate a large city.

Ultimately Agnes manages to find her way outside the maze inside her own head, recognize the privilege of her upbringing, and to feel something for the difficulties of others, but it is a tough couple hundred pages until she gets there. It is not so much funny as pathetic, and that is because we recognize something of ourselves (and perhaps our children) in her.

I wish I’d had more time to concentrate on this novel, though the reason l didn’t is that I always found time to do something besides read it. Reading about Agnes was uncomfortable. Agnes (what a name!) was so unsure of herself it was painful. I do remember those years but do not miss them. It is a miracle we make it through, though Cusk puts in a couple reminders that some folks nearly don’t, and many don’t come through without damage.

We see the promise of Cusk in this novel in that her seemingly lightweight protagonist manages to discern the outlines of consequential existential questions— about the purpose of life— and this doesn’t change in her later work. Cusk is a heat-seeking missile for “the heart of the matter” and that is why readers eagerly seek out the next installment in how she describes what she has discovered.

Ultimately I was reading this novel at this time is for completionist reasons, but it also strangely dovetailed a major life moment. My oldest brother who’d had a major influence on my life trajectory died suddenly. Preparing his memorial service involved creating a short slideshow—he was a photographer and oceanographer, among other descriptors. He’d taken pictures of me beginning my travels overseas alone at the age of Cusk’s Agnes. Reading of Agnes’ mental circularities, uncertainties, and anxieties reminded me what I’d ditched as soon as I could.

I am having a look at all Cusk’s books to see how she got from here to her adaptation of Medea and the Outline trilogy. I have one novel left, The Temporary, before I will need to circle back to read her later work again. I admire her writing and think her work resonates, particularly for white women of a certain level of wealth, education, and age. That is not to say her later work doesn’t speak to universal experience—I think it does—but I wonder if the humor translates as well. She is easily in the ranks of America’s now dead male writers, Updike and Roth, whose work was claimed by a generation of white men of a certain level of wealth and education.

This early novel feels dated now: it was written twenty-five years ago. Reading about Agnes’s travails reminded me that young women today likely have different experiences with first sex, with boyfriends, girlfriends, even parents. Our relationships have been changed by cell phones and connectedness, and at the risk of seeming out of touch, I venture that the rate of change truly has speeded up. Perhaps everything we really need to learn can, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, be found in our own backyards after all. There is something to be said for getting a firm foundation in a more limited environment before being hit with the world, but perhaps those faced with choice early are better at navigating it. Whatever the case, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Below please find reviews of Cusk’s other work.

Saving Agnes, 1993
The Temporary, 1995 (not reviewed yet)
The Country Life, 1997
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, 2002
The Lucky Ones, 2003
In the Fold, 2005
Arlington Park, 2006
The Bradshaw Variations, 2009
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, 2009
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation, 2012
Outline, 2014
Medea, 2015
Transit, 2016
Kudos, 2018

Monday, October 15, 2018

Titans of History: The Giants who Made our World by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Paperback, 640 pgs, Pub: October 16th 2018 by Vintage (first published June 1st 2009), ISBN13: 9780525564461

This Vintage paperback original published this October is just the kind of thing people slaving away in their individual silos might like to read in snatches to put major figures in history in their proper perspective. I always wanted something like this when I was learning history: ordinarily we look individually at parts of the world. This book integrates history.

Each figure Montefiore chooses to introduce ordinarily gets a page or two. This is just enough to tell the major contributions of figures you may have only heard of but didn’t know why they were remembered. What was so interesting for me was that the history is chronological so we can see widely disparate events, discoveries, inventions with their contemporaneous personages elsewhere in the world, Walter Raleigh was roughly contemporaneous with Tokugawa Ieyasu and Akbar the Great.

In one memorable entry, Montefiore places the Borgias together: Pope Alexander VI and his children, Cesare and his sister Lucrezia. The details of this family are so gruesome—the face slowly destroyed by syphilis and covered with a golden mask—that we wonder their foothold lasted so long and the conditions of society that produced it. Rodrigo Borgia, who eventually called himself Pope Alexander VI, was reputed to be seductively charming in person but that hardly seems enough to sustain a reign of debauchery and vice. Montefiore gives a few clues which the interested reader might pursue to a more rigorous study.

Women, South Americans, and Black Africans get relatively short shrift, but then so have they through time. These are names we for the most part recognize already, giving us a few short details about the lives of each. Isaac Babel and Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov have back to back entries, Babel being noted for his Red Calvary stories relating the brutality of Lenin’s 1920 war on Poland. Yezhov is remembered for the frenzy of his arrests as a secret policeman under Stalin, anticipating the direction of the leader without explicit instructions. “He doesn’t know when to stop,” is how a colleague described him.

In the modern day, relatively few people are singled out, and those are mostly politicians or government leaders. JFK, Gorbachav, Elvis, Saddam Hussein, Muhammed Ali, Pol Pot, Thatcher…there are a few others, but the weighting is clear. In the end this book is grist for the mill. We can argue about what the author has chosen, but we would have to put together a series of arguments. It could be a fruitful endeavor for someone interested in how individuals shape events.

This is dinner party material. Random facts and random choices of famous figures within the range of possibilities can be interesting. The most damning bit would be that a page or two or even three for any major figure is not nearly enough space to explain that person or their effects. But if you just want to quickly understand what a person is known for, this could be a good choice. And it might be good for teens when paired with other work.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy

Hardcover, 144 pgs, Pub July 10th 2018 by Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN13: 9781635571912

Deborah Levy is a woman for our times. She is up to her neck in this moment, stewing like a teabag. One can imagine calming a stressed constituent by sitting her down and handing her a cup…a copy of Levy’s slim new book, a working autobiography, a quiet, private, assessing look at a life which tries to keep the love from leaking out.
“Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century.”
Levy is an adult. If she hasn’t seen it all, she seen plenty enough to make judgments. While she doesn’t “have it all together,” she is confident enough to know that is not always the most salient fact in a well-lived life.

I particularly appreciated the description of riding her e-bike to an appointment with the movie people on a rainy day. She wasn’t aware she had several wet leaves caught in her hair from pushing under the apple tree by her writing shed. The movie people want to make a film of one of her books. She tried to convince them she had a technique to present the past alongside the present without the use of flashbacks. She'd in fact learned it from watching favorite filmmakers.

Within this short memoir Levy treats us to several examples of her no-flashback technique. Each is ingenious, and would be an excellent challenge for students of writing. She is inventive enough to have thought of several ways.

The notion of mother is a meditation topic in this memoir. Levy is a mother, divorced now, with two teenaged girls. Her own mother dies during Levy's period of mourning for her old life, pre-divorce. Thus, she is doubly bereaved.
“We do not want mothers who gaze beyond us, longing to be elsewhere. We need her to be of this world, lively, capable, entirely present to our needs.”
She recognizes motherhood is some kind of impossible condition, open to fulfilling the needs of others while reneging on what one owes oneself.
“When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.”
Just so.

Born in South Africa, Levy travelled to England as a young girl. Once Levy’s mother made a return visit to SA without her; her postcard back to Levy in England sounded to my ear more like sister than mother. The years fell away. She'd visited friends who supported her during the years of political turmoil during the transition form apartheid to democracy, of which she had been an active participant. Moments like these accordion lives—is this not an example of flashback without flashback?

We read on, only to discover more and more instances of the collapse of time. Levy has indeed given us several ways to view history rather than through a distancing lens.

Perhaps my favorite moment of many which worked beautifully was a description of finding something in a store that would suit her mother--but shortly after her mother’s death. She temporarily forgot the death part and brought the item to the counter to purchase. When her mind suddenly kicked into the present from the past, she cried out Oh No No No No and ran from the store.
“At that moment, I came too close to understanding the way Hamlet speaks Shakespeare’s most sorrowful words. I mean, not just the actual words, but how he might sound when he says them.”
These moments come rarely in a lifetime. When they do, we must mark the insight.

I loved this slim volume so full of someone else. Levy is just interesting.

Postscipt: Levy mentions Nadine Gordimer in one description of her mother and I am reminded I’d never understood, or perhaps never had the patience to understand, Gordimer’s writing. She reminds me this may be a good time for me to experience her again.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Lucky Ones by Rachel Cusk

Hardcover, 240 pgs, Pub April 7th 2003 by Fourth Estate (first published 2003), ISBN13: 9781857029123

I feel a bit slapped around by this novel, published in 2003, the year after Cusk's bombshell of a memoir about motherhood, A Life’s Work, had such a mixed reception. Not only do her chapters read as individual, difficult-to-reconcile stories, the sentiment is painful to read. She is not funny: if one laughs, she remarked in an interview, the power is lost. Women and men living together in anything but married bliss: it’s instructive, relatable, hardly comforting.

The angles from which Cusk approaches these stories are not immediately clarifying. I wondered why we were reading about couples or their friends. The view of an older mother whose daughter is living a life outside of the mother’s experience seemed false for much of the chapter, as though she did not capture the older woman’s essence and mechanism: that which makes her tick. Eventually we see something, but we do not feel warm to this armored woman, battling her demons.

Who says a novel has to unroll its delights promiscuously for anyone to partake? The novel is a serious attempt to take on issues of critical meaning to people involved in relationships, perhaps even same-sex relationships, because the dynamic is often the same. After all, most people are still buying a “pig in a poke” when they marry in the sense they often do not know well the person with whom they intend live, and in any case, the relationship changes with the addition of children to the equation.

Cusk of course captures the despair of married women everywhere trying to fit their personalities, skills, and unique abilities into what can feel like the straightjacket of marriage and childcare. But we must now, in this time of #MeToo, acknowledge the point of view of the husband who, no matter what kind of man he was taught to be, also finds himself aghast at the weight of responsibility suddenly thrust upon him when he achieves his majority and marries.

But Cusk wrote this in the olden days: in something like fifteen years we are finally talking broadly, openly, and seriously about the rights of women in the workplace but also about the definition of masculinity, male privilege, and patriarchy. All this openness could be shut down tomorrow, as many have predicted the backlash will come, but the very things that Cusk is talking about so clearly is exactly what we should be internalizing in order to emerge healthy.

Transitions between chapters can be clunky and uncomfortable in direction, but Cusk at her worst is still better than most at their best. The first chapter is set in a women’s prison, and had some startling overlap with Rachel Kushner’s Booker-shortlisted novel this year, The Mars Room, a story of inattentive public defenders and tragic consequences. The very next chapter dropped us in the middle of a winter ski vacation in Switzerland for young professionals just beginning to construct and/or deconstruct their lives.

She works her themes, the moment young women, old women, rich women, poor women, talented women, and educated women clearly see their social predicament. The male partners of these women are not as finely drawn. The character of Martin in “The Way You Do It” could almost be a precursor for her narrator occupying negative space in the Outline trilogy, though she’d not even conceived of the notion then. Victor, the husband of the red-haired Serena, dies of a wasting disease. Colin refuses to speak, having succumbed to an affair, and Mr. Daley complains impotently late in life that his wife had “stolen his soul.”

But Vanessa in “Matters of Life and Death” says her desire for self- expression was thwarted, not by her actual circumstances, but by her fear of what might be. This theme recurs in later novels—a painter cannot paint nor a writer write for the distraction of everyday. The “enemy was not her husband; it was the capacity in herself, of which she was aware, for finding her husband unsatisfactory.”

Also recurring in other novels is Cusk’s tendency to have someone look upon the physical characteristics of a house as proof of something in the character of its inhabitants. She may be pointing to a common tendency in many of us to judge people by the splendor—or not—of their homes. Unfortunately, one cannot simply buy a life, only a lifestyle.

There is a party in this novel, which by now should strike readers with dread at what is to come. Suffice it to say, a great deal of blood is spilled and the circumstances are unclear: there had been an argument shortly before. The outcome is as unsettling as the months preceding the event.

Even in the novels that received less attention and critical praise, Cusk is working hard at expression. One I particularly liked was
“Colin digested Vanessa’s remark with the expression of a dog realising that what he had thought was a stick was in fact a bone.”
Cusk moves on to revisit and refine these themes in her later work but we can see these in-between books are critical parts of her oeuvre, the building blocks for what is to come.

Below please find reviews of Cusk’s other work.

The Country Life
In the Fold
A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother
The Lucky Ones
Arlington Park
The Bradshaw Variations
The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy
Aftermath: On Marriage & Separation

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub July 2nd 2015 by William Collins (HarperCollins UK), ISBN13: 9780007554836), Lit Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir & Autobiography (2015)

I listened to this remarkable story, read by Josie Dunn and published by HarperCollins Publishers UK, with a degree of disbelief. Certain parts of the story agree with what I’d learned already about the lives of North Koreans, the general trend of their escapes, and their orientation in South Korea as refugees. The author was young, seventeen, when she decided to cross the frozen Yalu in winter and go see her relatives in Shenyang, China.

She’d had no idea where Shenyang was—that I actually could believe. And as a privileged (for North Korea) teen, she was accustomed to getting her way or being ignored. Certainly maps were not easily found, just as they weren’t in China, either, thirty years ago. The period in this book covers approximately 2000-2012, a period when Hyeonseo Lee spent ten years in China working then flew to South Korea to request asylum.

Her own path to freedom was relatively smooth; she’d learned to be wary of revealing much about herself from childhood and was not easily deceived. Being young and attractive gave her the benefit of the doubt in China, but she wasn’t able to escape every attempt to corral her into exploitative jobs. She lived on her wits and managed, eventually, to eventually pass as Chinese-Korean. With this identity she was able to procure a passport (and a new name). She lived in China ten years.

I don’t want to spoil the adventure for those who aren’t familiar with her story, but it is a doozy. Her family in North Korea had a good songbun (status or name) which they exploited to bring goods in from outside the country. An uncle actually sold heroin. Her mother brought in all manner of household goods and occasionally methamphetamines! Hyeonseo’s brother began doing much the same illicit and illegal import work, bribing border guards, etc. after Hyeonseo left. Apparently her departure was officially overlooked, perhaps as the result of a bribe.

The story rings true, and she’s told it so many times by now that there are all kinds of suggestive chapter endings which propel one to turn to the next chapter. Apparently Ms. Lee met with President Trump with some other defectors in the White House in January 2018 before the president’s departure to Singapore to meet Kim Jong Un. She has given many talks about her experience and that of her family, including a TED talk I have posted below.

This is a defector story you probably haven’t heard, and you might want to see what everyone is so excited about.

Below please find a 12-minute TED talk by Hyeonsan Lee:

Friday, September 14, 2018

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Paperback, 89 pgs, Pub April 5th 2016 by Copper Canyon Press, ISBN 155659495X, Lit Awards: T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry (2018), Forward Prize for Best First Collection (2017), Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry (2017), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Poetry (2016)

Published in 2016, this is Ocean Vuong’s first full collection. We will never know how a boy emerges, so young, with a talent so great. A poem chosen at random lights deep, protected nodes in our brain and attaches to our viscera. We recognize his work as surely as we appreciate a painting, or a piece of music. He appears a conduit, not a creator.

One of the poems in this collection has a title referencing a Mark Rothko painting. Glancing at it, we know immediately why he pairs it with these words.
Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown, 1952)

The TV said the planes have hit the buildings.
& I said Yes because you asked me
to stay. Maybe we pray on our knees because god
only listens when we're this close
to the devil. There is so much I want to tell you.
How my greatest accolade was to walk
across the Brooklyn Bridge
& not think of flight. How we live like water: wetting
a new tongue with no telling
what we've been through. They say the sky is blue
but I know it's black seen through too much distance.
You will always remember what you were doing
when it hurts the most. There is so much
I need to tell you--but I only earned
one life & I took nothing. Nothing. Like a pair of teeth
at the end. The TV kept saying The planes...
The planes...
& I stood waiting in the room
made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing
into four blurred walls. & you were there.
You were the window.
Rothko's Blue, Green, and Brown, 1952
It was the phrase How we live like water: wetting a new tongue with no telling what we've been through. That phrase stopped me.

In an interview with The Guardian, Vuong says “life is always more complicated than the headlines allow; poetry comes in when the news is not enough.” Vuong won awards for this collection, and gained recognition. He now is an associate professor in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and writing a novel.

In an interview with Lit Hub Vuong explains
“I’m writing a novel composed of woven inter-genre fragments. To me, a book made entirely out of unbridged fractures feels most faithful to the physical and psychological displacement I experience as a human being. I’m interested in a novel that consciously rejects the notion that something has to be whole in order to tell a complete story. I also want to interrogate the arbitrary measurements of a “successful” literary work, particularly as it relates to canonical Western values. For example, we traditionally privilege congruency and balance in fiction, we want our themes linked, our conflicts “resolved,” and our plots “ironed out.” But when one arrives at the page through colonized, plundered, and erased histories and diasporas, to write a smooth and cohesive novel is to ultimately write a lie.”
 Vuong brings with him the possibility of a vision that is articulate enough to share, brave enough to bolster. It's a kind of blessing, a grace note we don't really deserve, his voice.

Vuong’s poetry is available as an ebook from many libraries. He is what we call a ‘literary light.’

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub July 3rd 2018 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published May 17th 2018), ISBN13: 9780802127747), URL, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2018)

There are many wonderful novels long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, but I wouldn’t be sad if the award went to Belinda Bauer for her latest crime novel. Crime is a new category for the Man Booker along with graphic novels, of which Sabrina made the list.

In this novel, Bauer manages to sneak up behind us and deliver a perfectly horrible crime that resounds in the minds of young married couples. And she unveils DCI Marvel, a man with the DNA of every crusty and flawed investigator who works on instinct. I immediately thought of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel, surely a man after Marvel's own heart.

Bauer has exquisite instincts and timing as a crime writer. Even if this book hadn’t been chosen to represent her work, some of her earlier books would have done as well. But this novel is fuller, somehow, with the figure of Marvel and the hopelessly earnest Reynolds, who manages to get everything wrong all the time.

A pregnant woman seeking a call box on the motorway leaves her three children in her stranded vehicle and sets off on foot. After more than an hour, the children are wondering what could have become of her. She’d said it was too dangerous to follow her, but that is what the kids did, only to find an empty call box, the phone off the hook.

Bauer has always had the uncanny ability to put us in the mind of a child, and here she has three to work with. The police release the children to the father who finds himself overwhelmed with his new responsibilities.

Writing an excellent crime thriller is certainly as hard as writing any other wonderful piece of literature, and it seems to me that Bauer has succeeded admirably here. A Goodreads group I follow, The Mookse & the Gripes, posts a discussion in which there is hardly a voice crediting Bauer with creating something unique and complex. I disagree.

Bauer makes her skill look easy, but I’ve read hundreds of crime novels and finding new ways to present a terrifying mystery without boring people who read hundreds of crime novels is not an easy job. It has something to do with characterizations, recognizing what it is in ordinary humans that brings out our capacity for murder, and a sufficiently complex mystery. In this solve, readers are invited to decipher a unique code, and agonize how this story is going to end without someone new getting done.

I listened to this terrific story, marvelously read by Andrew Wincott and available on hoopla®, produced by Dreamscape Media, LLC.