Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee

Hardcover, 336 pages Expected publication: June 6th 2017 by W. W. Norton Company ISBN13: 9780393608816

Don Lee’s novels have always resonated with me and towards the end of his latest, I began to understand why. Lee is resolutely plebeian in his writing: he gives his characters, no matter how wealthy or learned, no place to hide from our judgments of them. The business of living is messy, he seems to say, though some might look like they have an easier time of it, it ain’t necessarily so.

Lee also isn’t snooty about genre: there is a touch of romance hidden within the complexities of the married lives he delivers in Lonesome. People aren’t settled, despite their legal status. The intensely personal and minutely calibrated nature of the characters, however, elevate his art above the ordinary. Reading his work is just fun.

One of the things that Lee does exceptionally well in all his books is give us an idea of what exactly people do in their jobs, and what makes each job an opportunity for creativity and excellence. While many authors might hint at hidden depths, say, in cleaning a celebrity’s suite in a five-star hotel or in laying wall-to-wall carpet in a decaying hovel, Lee takes the worker’s eye view and relishes in explanations of how it can be done elegantly. It’s interesting. Readers develop understandings and sympathies where before there were none. (The government should hire Lee to analyze labor equivalencies in the workplace. We would come out with a far flatter and more just wage structure than we have today.)

At heart, this novel is about the creative process and the winding path each person’s dreams take as their lives progress. Yadin was a musician ever since he can remember, writing songs, both lyrics and tunes, that people want to hear. He sang, too, but experienced such severe stage fright that it began to take a toll on his health. He had to quit touring, and his life narrowed to a pinpoint of casual work & sleep as he tried to cope with his illness. One day, chancing one day upon a few lines of spoken poetry, his capacity for song is awoken again.

Poetry and song: the parallels are many. Those readers who relish language will love Lee’s focus on the way words work to draw us in, to inspire and delight us. In addition, there is something terribly exciting and beautiful about capturing the process of creation. Moments of creative flow described on the page are exhilarating for what similarities they bear to one's own experience. We don’t tire reading of someone who has managed to cobble together something unique from scraps; conversely we yearn for more.

Yadin’s mind was busy with “a thread of melody noodling inside his head” as he lay carpet; he would stop to call his landline and leave a message of the tune so he wouldn’t forget. Later, a few words and phrases burbled up from his subconscious which he’d capture on a piece of masking tape with his Sharpie.

Life is complex, and Lee relishes that complexity, carefully unpicking the tangled threads that got us from happy days of infatuation to a limping marriage, paradoxically featuring both not enough sex and too many children. His characters are irredeemably flawed, all of them, though they are talented enough that others may look to them to lead the way. Their failures are heartbreaking, and are perhaps as much like us individually as any characters in any book.

If I have any criticism of this novel, it is Lee’s two strong female characters. Each is carefully drawn and multi-dimensional, Jeanette being Yadin’s long-time companion and the daughter of his boss. The slow reveal of her character’s history is fascinating in its surprises but one has the sense at the end that here is a woman struggling to free herself from a constricting web of her own making. I personally thought she was capable enough (at her age) to have made a more proactive choice than the one Lee chose for her. In the end, she was not an appealing partner for Yadin.

Mallory, the celebrity folksinger, is familiar to the extent that we feel we may have met her before—her type, certainly. Mallory wanted authenticity in her art and had to settle for less to get by, but she was always looking for that real experience again. She had most of what she needed most of the time, but she was aging out of the business of love songs. Lee may have made her harder, less sympathetic, and less vulnerable than strictly necessary. I bought it all until the end when I thought she would have (at her age) made a different choice.

This novel of sophisticated adult dilemmas gives us confused folks who make one choice as young adults and different choices in the fullness of years. Yadin was completely sure, in his later years, what he wanted. Lee did not tie his novel up neatly but showed us the messy lives of people making choices we don't like. If aspects of this novel had romance-genre undertones, the overtones were richer and deeper and far more complex.

Another GR reviewer made the terrific suggestion that this novel would make a great indie film, and he is completely right. In the hands of the right actors, this is a star-making vehicle. All that unrequited or misdirected love can play out as music.

An interview with Don Lee by Terry Hong on the Bookslut blog shows us how Lee agonizes over the publication process of novel-writing, a phenomenon which is examined more closely in this novel when Yadin writes a couple songs and then agonizes over their method of release. Paste Quarterly has a book trailer featuring an exclusive Will Johnson track of the title song.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Blind Spot by Teju Cole

Hardcover, 352 pages Expected publication: June 13th 2017 by Random House ISBN13: 9780399591075

This book of photographs paired with short essays is due out in the next two weeks. I want to give you ample time to order one for delivery on publication. Teju Cole’s art is exceptional at the same time it is accessible. In my experience, the confluence of these two things happens only rarely, which is how Cole has come to occupy an exalted place in my pantheon of artists. If I say his photography can stop us in our tracks, it says nothing of his writing, which always adds something to my understanding. Today I discovered his website has soundtracks which open doors. And there it is, his specialness: Cole’s observations enlarge our conversation.

This may be the most excellent travel book I have read in recent years, the result of years of near-constant travel by the author. Scrolling through the Table of Contents is a tease, each destination intriguing, irresistible, stoking our curiosity. Each entry is accompanied by a photograph, or is it the other way around?
“I want to make the kinds of pictures editors of the travel section will dislike or find unusable. I want to see the things the people who live there see, or at least what they would see after all the performance of tourism has been stripped away.”
Yes, this is my favored way of travel, for “the shock of familiarity, the impossibility of exact repetition.” It is the reason most photographs of locales seemed unable to capture even a piece of my experience. But Cole manages it. In the entry for “Palm Beach,” his picture is of a construction site, a pile of substratum—in this case, sand—piled high before an elaborate pinkish villa. His written entry is one of his shortest, only three sentences, one of them the Latin phrase Et in Arcadia ego, washing the scene with knowledge of what we are viewing, and what is to come.

Cole calls this work a lyric essay, a “singing line” connecting the places. There is some of that. What connects all these places for me are Cole’s eyes…and his teacherly quality of showing us what he is thinking. It is remarkable, and totally engrossing.
“Human experience varies greatly in its externals, but on the emotional and psychological level, we have a great deal of similarity with one another.”
Yes, this insight, so obvious written down, is something I have been struggling with for such a long time, going back and forth over the idea that we are the same, we are different. Cole tells us that this book stands alone, or can be seen as fourth in a quartet addressing his “concern with the limits of vision.” I want to sink into that thought, in the context of what he has given us, because outside the frame of a photograph, outside of our observation, outside of us, is everything else.

My favorite among the essays, if we can call them such, filled as much with what Cole did not say as with what he did, is the piece called “Black River.” Cole evokes the open sea, Derek Walcott, crocodiles, and white egrets. A tropical coastal swamp filled with crocodiles also had white egrets decorating the bushy green of overhanging mangroves, the large white splashes almost equidistant from one another, the closest they can be for maximum happiness, I like to think, t hough it could also be minimum happiness, I guess. Any closer and there will be discord, like the rest of us live.

The arrival in bookstores of a book by Teju Cole is an event. His pictures makes us look, and his words are like the egrets, spaced for maximum pleasure. Whether or not you read this as a series or alone, make sure you pick it up, just to gaze. You need have no agenda. His magic does not make much of itself. He takes us along for the ride. Bravo!

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

Hardcover, 336 pages Pub April 24th 2012 by Drawn and Quarterly (first published November 16th 2011) Orig Title Chroniques de Jérusalem ISBN13: 9781770460713 Edition Literary Awards Prix du Festival d'Angoulême for Fauve d’or du meilleur album (2012)

This is an appropriate time to take another look at Jerusalem, and Guy Delisle’s book can explain to you the in and outs of what U.S. President Trump is seeing while he is visiting.

Guy Delisle is a graphic artist who accompanies his wife, a Médecins Sans Frontières physician, to hotspots around the world. While in the past he has been able to work as an artist while overseas on assignment, every posting is different, and the one in Jerusalem did not lend itself as easily to sketching outside, teaching in universities, giving shows on his work, and concentrating on finishing his drawings in a systematic way.

The very thing that makes Delisle effective in his role as graphic artist and stay-at-home husband and dad also makes him a frustrating on-the-ground observer. He is almost resolutely non-partisan and non-political. When bombs start to fly in Operation Cast Lead over the holiday period Dec 27, 2008-January 16, 2009 he tells what he heard from his position at home, but he wasn’t interested in being an observer. He also wasn’t interested in interviewing settlers in Hebron when he was asked to do graphic reportage there.

By the end, however, I could see the value in his distanced, uninvolved view. He drew what he observed, without much editorializing. He drew the extreme care some security guards took in checkpoint and airport security work, the difficulties Palestinians had in getting around, working, living, and planning for the future, he drew the wall, and the pushing Palestinians out of their homes by settlers in the West Bank.

Delisle saw the sights Jerusalem had to offer, always on the lookout for interesting or peaceful places to bring his wife and children, or somewhere he could work uninterrupted. Eight months into a twelve-month tour, the pastor of the Lutheran church Augusta Victoria, on the Mount of Olives, offered Delisle a room in which to work. It was quiet and the only distractions were Delisle’s own thoughts, and a large organ which sent vibrations through his space. He found that he’d accustomed himself to grabbing the in-between moments in his hectic daily life, and the peacefulness of the church was made it more difficult for him to complete his projects, paradoxically.

Delisle spent many frames drawing the wall: “It’s graphically interesting,” he would explain. The wall through Jerusalem cut Palestinians off, in some cases, from their school, from their work, from their own land. What I particularly liked was his dividing the chapters by months of the year. Some months had considerable drama, but others reflected his dawning understanding about the situation and his learning to make up his own mind about what might be excusable behavior and what seemed like taking advantage.

Throughout the mostly black-and-white book, a map of Israel with the West Bank and Gaza drawn in chartreuse served to remind Delisle and readers that the amount of space allocated to Palestinians in Israel is very small, and Israeli settlers are pushing them away even still. The violent tactics and language the settlers use, the virulent criticism heaped upon the government and activists by the press, can be shocking to those of us who are not used to such extreme positions. “The vast majority of Israelis vigorously disapprove of the extreme behavior of the Hebron settlers.” It is hard not to respond with derision to statements like these, and it is hard to see that restraint is working to underline the urgency of the situation for Palestinians.

The currents of daily life are portrayed effectively by the end of this thick graphic novel (336 pages), and Delisle’s tone and lack of interest serve his purposes well. Despite his occasional missteps (when discussing Hasidic Jews, for instance), his intentional ignorance gives us and him the opportunity to look at the situation anew.

I ended up ordering Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and also his book Burma Chronicles. He has another, called Hostage, which debuted in English in 2017, translated from the French. Hostage tells the story of MSF employee Christophe André, who was captured in Russia’s North Caucasus in 1997 until he managed to escape months later. Public Radio International has a description here. From that link, we learn
”And the truly surprising end of the story is this: Just six months after he escaped, André showed up at Doctors Without Borders and asked for a new assignment. He stayed on with them for another 20 years.”

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My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul

Hardcover, 256 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN13: 9781627796316

Coming out at this time of year, Pamela Paul’s memoir is reminiscent of a commencement speech, albeit book-length and one just as interesting for the parents as for the graduates. It is a blast to listen to an obsessive reader share her thoughts on books, her travels and travails. Bob is her lifelong companion and record, her Book of Books, the place she can note what she has read. It gives date of completion, and, because Paul tried to read books about the countries or cities she visits or lives, we deduce a sense of location. It is her book of memories then, a record of where she has been.

Paul was the single daughter born into a family of seven sons. Despite the expected in-house torture and rough-housing, her psyche remained remarkably intact, though her parent’s divorce may have had more effect than discussed here. She did emerge as a reader, an introvert, and from a young age wanted to write. In this book she has boldly decided to write about what she’s read in the context of her life, and astonishingly, it is interesting. We enjoy retracing her faltering steps as a burgeoning adult, in which she recalls with uncommon accuracy the embarrassed and confused feelings of a teen.

France plays a large role in Paul’s life. Although her American Field Service (AFS) experience in a small town in suburban France was not as she imagined, it set the table for her next visit and the one after that. Eventually she found a family in France that became a second home, a family that subsequently attended her weddings and met her children. This kind of close long-term relationship defines Paul, I think. We all have trajectories, but not all of us cultivate the path as we go so that it becomes personal, the impact felt on both sides.

Paul’s decision after college to go directly to Thailand without the usual scramble for underpaid work at home was prescient but daring. She’d not get another chance to see that part of the world with any depth, though the China portion of the trip gave me the screaming heebies. It sounded perfectly horrendous, completely uncomfortable, filled with sickness and incomprehension. The China trip was her father’s idea, and it never became hers. The unmitigated disaster of that trip reminds us that we have to own our journey, start to finish, for us to manage it with any kind of finesse.

There was a marriage that lasted a year. The utter heartbreak Paul experienced does not lacerate us: from the moment she begins to speak of her first husband we are suspicious. She is much too happy much too soon. Love is one thing. Blindness is another. In my mind I modify Thoreau to read: beware all enterprises that require giving up a large, rent-controlled flat in New York City...
"…the minute a subject veered from the fictional world, the private world, the secluded, just-us-on-top-of-the-mountain world, into the greater, grittier territory below, the nonfictional world, my husband and I had serious differences…Even when we each happily read those same books about the perfidy of man, we read them in opposite ways…this kind of book contested my essentially optimistic view of the world rather than overturned it…whereas for him, the world really was that bleak, and the books proved it."
Here you have, folks, a political difference so profound it can break nations in two. Ayn Rand’s work became Paul’s personal standard for judging viewpoints. Paul admits--she who practically worships books--that she threw one of Ayn Rand’s books in the trash after reading it, so that no one else would be polluted by its ideas. I laughed. I did the same thing, though I contemplated burning it before I did. In my tiny garage-turned-apartment in New Mexico, I wrestled with Rand’s horrifying vision of a society of go-getters and decided that to burn her book would invest it with too much significance.

I loved reading about Paul’s poor dating experiences after that. She was inoculated against irrational exuberance after her divorce, but she still wanted intimacy. She manages to share with us chortle-inducing instances of “okay, I’ve had enough of that” with some of the men she met later. My favorite might be the time a boyfriend convinces her that he’d been to the Grand Canyon before and so can show her “the best way to see it.” Har-dee-har-har. This memoir is a great example of smart and funny, gifting us many moments of remembering our own worst histories and reinforcing for younger women coming along that our judgment may be the only thing separating us from a much worse time of it.

Pamela Paul is now books editor of The New York Times and no longer has to struggle to find the coin to buy a new book. She is the best kind of editor for all of us because she is has read widely and acknowledges the draw of genre fiction while communicating her admiration for the range of new nonfiction that helps us cope with our history and our future. She is also an interested and informed consumer of Children’s lit and Young Adult titles, which aids me immeasurably since these are not my specialty and therefore necessitate me seeking assistance from a trusted source.

Access to all there is out there comes with its own set of stresses, but Paul has extended her reach by asking some of the best writers in the country to read and review titles in the NYT Book Review, and to talk about their selections on the Book Review Podcast, available each week from iTunes as an automatic download. Her guests and her own considered opinions help to narrow the field for us.

This is a great vacation read, not at all strenuous, yet it is involving. Imagine the unlikeliness of the concept: an introverted reader and editor writes a book about her life…reading…and it is interesting! Totes amazeballs. It occurs to me that Goodreads is one big Bob. I’m so glad Paul put the effort in to share with us: big mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world. It depends what happens after that. See what I mean about commencement?

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Payback Ain't Enough (Payback #3) by Wahida Clark

Paperback, 304 pages Pub April 24th 2012 by Cash Money Content ISBN13: 9781936399116

When I dove into the shelves of a Goodreader who commented on one of my reviews, I noticed she’d read a lot but hardly had a five star read, even on her Favorites Shelf. Wahida Clark was a strong feature and Payback Ain’t Enough was one in a series that rated highest. I wanted to see what made it a stand out.

Wahida Clark is a one-woman storm best known for her Thug series which she began to write while serving a ten year sentence in federal prison for mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. Her stories are romance on steroids, sometimes called Urban Lit, where the women are well-packaged and smart and the men are ripped and dangerous. Clark herself is a natural-born storyteller who can distinguish for us the many voices she packs into her neighborhoods, and she manages to get many twists and turns into a relationship before payday.

These are mean, double-crossing streets and so far as I know could be a fair representation of Detroit, where this series is set. No one ever seems to get tired of trying to get one over on the other guy, though there was a female character, Janay of Georgia, that was looking to leave the set:
"Even though I was thrilled at the possibility of getting out of prison, I wasn't saying to myself, 'Hooray! I am so looking forward to getting back into the dope game.' I was tired of the shit."
Janay got dragged back in when her father put her in charge of his stable while he served a sentence. Family is complicated in this book, and life-threatening.

There was one so-called nice guy, called Six-Nine, who attended a funeral and was described:
"Yo, there go Six-Nine. Niggas behind the wall got mad respect for him. I saw his flicks several times. That nigga gettin’ lots of clean money; see, he was smart. Once he got his big score, he invested it. Dude got stocks, bonds and shit. He’s just too nice and trusting. Like Robin Hood on his side of town. He makes sure everybody eats. At least that’s what they say."
Later we learn that Six-Nine runs an international counterfeiting organization duplicating credit cards and cash. “He once made a million dollars disappear from a dirty politician’s bank account with no paper trail.” Must be where he gets his Robin Hood cred.

The sex is explicit, hot, and frequent, but it sounded real to me. At least two of her female characters said they hadn't slept with anyone for months. Altogether it was pretty exhausting. I got to page 50 before I started skimming.

Wahida Clark has her own publishing company now and two years ago had some twelve titles in publication. She is most famous for the Thug series and the Payback series, individual titles of which have spent time of the New York Times bestseller list. Her work has been optioned for TV and film and her franchise is doing brilliantly.

An interview with Jet Magazine in 2012 tells us Clark was working on a play at that time. That would be a fundamentally different experience for writer and audience, changing her work for the better, I think. Her audience will be sitting there in front of her for a couple hours. That brings qualitatively different demands than a novel. She certainly has the storytelling skill and the understanding.

In 2015 Clark was interviewed by Vice Magazine’s Seth Ferranti. The final question and answer seemed refreshingly direct and is reprinted here:
Do you ever think that street lit romanticizes or even glamorizes crime?

"We try our best to follow personal principles and literary principles that demand that good triumphs over evil all of the time. However, the demand today is for junk food—both physically and mentally.

My husband taught me that it was easier to write books for money than to write books to educate. So of course we took the road for money, in hopes that it would put us in the position to educate. It's a constant grind and hustle. If you are not constantly pushing your business it will remain stagnate. And of course, content is King. Or, in my case, Queen."
Clark is impressive, a recent authorial incarnation of Iceberg Slim. She is now Vice President of Prodigal Sons & Daughters Redirection Services to help young ex-offenders to find their way in a changed society when they get out, and provides aid and direction to those with substance abuse problems.

Below please find a short vimeo interview with Clark from 2014. To my eye, she looks a little exhausted herself, and maybe could slow down and write for posterity now. The thing about money is that it can't buy time. The audience can wait...and will wait, with pleasure.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Hardcover, 448 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Other Press (NY) (first published May 1st 2017) ISBN13: 9781590517826

Mother’s Day was celebrated in the United States this past weekend and this novel could be viewed as a kind of delicious dream fantasy for just that kind of woman--mature, thoughtful, caring women who have been around the block a few times. It introduces us to the intimate and internal lives of Japanese wives and mothers, some of whom were thought to suffer in silence as part of their cultural mystique. The main character is not a mother; Mitsuki is a wife, and the daughter who cares for her aging mother. Her sister Natsuki was beautiful, talented, and made a fortuitous marriage to a wealthy man. There had never been any hint Natsuki would take care of the things that needed doing.

Throughout Part One we experience the calculus a family member must make when an aging relative suddenly becomes unable to care for themselves as independent adults. What makes this particularly interesting to those who haven’t gone through it before is the barrage of decisions that blast apart any privacy a person might reasonably expect, even in a family, and how this affects individuals experiencing the trauma and those trying to help out.

If Mitsuki sounds a little resistant to the demands placed on her when talking to herself at times, she is already the poster child for trying to make dying a positive experience for everyone involved, despite the impersonal nature of hospital care and the uncertainties involved in geriatric health. Complicating the picture of her mother’s illness and death is the fact Mitsuki newly discovers her husband has a somewhat serious dalliance with a younger woman. Bad timing for the husband.

Part Two is in some ways the respite after the storm, and in others a legitimate Part 2 of decision-making and planning for big changes. Mitsuki engages our every sense as she describes her visit, during winter, to a neglected lakeside hotel posing as a fake Swiss villa. She remembers the place from her childhood. Several other people show up at the same time, for an extended ten-day respite before Christmas. When a local psychic, “the sort who bleaches their hair blond and rides a Harley Davidson,” predicts one of the long-stay hotel guests is there to commit suicide in the lake, the attention of hoteliers and guests are riveted.

Mitsuki is there to sort out her options concerning a husband who serially strays, her feelings regarding the difficult time with her mother, and how she can still have a life that is interesting and fulfilling, despite its losses. This part of the novel has many characteristics of the successful mystery novel: a lonely heroine, a villa in decline, an overly solicitous staff, the proximity and possibility of death, a bunch of similarly stranded folks including at least one handsome eligible bachelor. Laced through it all are the experiences, constraints, and history of both westernized easterners and traditional Japanese, endlessly intriguing people with whom we share a bond and yet admire for their exoticism and differentness.

The clarity with which Mitsuki addresses her issues, her deliberate decision-making, her bare honesty to herself about motives and options, her interest in pursuing meaningful engagement is inspiring both to the recently bereaved and to those who have faced these issues, successfully or not. If there is a best-girlfriend reveal to the storyline, it is not unwelcome. While Natsuki sounded wistful and maybe even envious about everything working out for Mitsuki before it actually does, we readers reserve celebration, knowing the odds of the pieces coming together with no errors.

Minae Mizumura studied literature in the United States, at Yale. She wrote this novel in Japanese, and after an earlier novel described in an interview with Bookslut writer Corinna Cliff how the Japanese language became even more beautiful and desirable to her after studying English.
"Nevertheless, now that I have had more experience with both languages, I'm more sensitive to the uniqueness of Japanese. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the language for me is how its writing uses three kinds of signs: Chinese characters -- which mostly function as ideograms -- and two sets of phonograms. The resulting text contains an embarrassment of riches impossible to replicate in other languages. I'll try to explain it. Let's say you are reading a page describing a flower garden. Names of flowers jump out at you. They are rendered in complex Chinese characters that can't help standing out as they are embedded in phonograms much simpler in form. And since flower names in ideograms usually have poetic connotations, looking at the page, it really seems as if you are looking at a garden filled with clusters of fragrant and beautiful flowers."
Mizumura’s experience with English (and French!) culture and language make this a hugely successful crossover novel featuring European, American, and Asian influences in a rich feast. Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary becomes practically an incantation, it receives mention so often. Readers are advised to revisit that work to see how it is used in this case to add an extra layer of depth. J.W. Carpenter's translation is terrifically smooth, so smooth one only rarely pulls back long enough to imagine the work in Japanese.

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