29 January 2016

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

This book will sneak up on you. It seems like a perfectly typical Coming to America story -- a very pleasant one, but totally stock and largely forget-able -- until you suddenly realize that it is a quiet, subtle, but utterly brilliant character study. You have to marvel at Toibin's ability to create this woman who is intelligent, tough, and independent, but whose life never seems to be entirely under her own control. We often admire novels for showing us how a given character is a product of History -- this one presents us with a woman who is trying to find her way among a thicket of social norms and expectations. Not in that dreary, oppressed by sexism and conformism sort of way, but in a far more subtle, and interesting, push and pull of expectation, ambition, convenience, and inertia. So much of your life is barely up to you, even -- or perhaps especially -- the seemingly most 'major' parts of it. The brilliance of Toibin's book is that he manages to illuminate the way that even the most strong-willed and independent person can be carried along by life, taken in unexpected directions.

05 January 2016

An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day, by Alexander Beecroft

When I pledged to post more, you may have thought it was going to be about things that were of interest to you, but this likely won't be, sorry. Not that it's not interesting, it's just rather specialized. But it's good for me to write this stuff out, so here we go. Apologies. Kinda.

A grandly ambitious and highly thought-provoking book. Beecroft's main idea is to use ecology (rather than say, economics) as an analogy for world literary systems, because it allows for greater complexity and a richer sense of different interacting parts. His second key idea is to create a typology of 6 ecologies (epichoric, panchoric, cosmopolitan, vernacular, national, and global), spanning from the very small-scale and local to the global. Interestingly (and this is where things get a bit tricky), these ecologies are really modes of reading or interpretation, though they also sometimes seem to be modes of production -- the distinction gets a bit fuzzy. But these two ideas are in and of themselves intriguing and worthwhile contributions to the field, offering an interesting new framework that may prove useful to people (like me) who are trying to think new models of world literature.

One does wonder (well, I do) about how useful analogies or models _really_ are in literary studies, and I have to admit that I cringed a little when one chapter began explaining why concepts from population genetics are so relevant to understanding literary fields. To Beecroft's credit, he is not so deeply wedded to his framework that he is unable to perceive that sometimes things don't develop the way you'd expect, but it's a tricky negotiation, arguing why a model that is in some ways basically a shaky analogy with limited predictive powers is a useful tool. The opening makes a very generous move, suggesting that various theories from scholars such as Casanova, Moretti, or Pollock are not competing models so much as concrete answers that are applicable to specific moments -- which, to me, again underscores a certain tenuousness, though I certainly don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I realize I tend overly strongly towards deconstruction rather than modeling, so it's very possible that the problem is really just me. But I do wonder if part of what makes literature so fascinating isn't its slipperiness when it comes to models like this; a certain unpredictability that a metaphor of genetic mutation doesn't quite do justice to.

Anyways. The structure of the book is odd, in that although each chapter is on a particular ecology, they all do rather different things. Some flesh out examples, explaining what that ecology is, exactly. Others provide histories of a shift to/from that ecology, or show how this framework affects interpretations of specific texts. The Global chapter, surprisingly, engages in a lengthy speculation about future trends in or possibilities for a global ecology. It's all interesting, though some parts are more persuasive than others, and it's all related, obviously, but it can feel a bit disorienting at times. But this ranging quality also attests to the potential of the framework -- it opens up A LOT of new avenues to consider. Overall, certainly an interesting contribution to the field -- I would really love to hear what other people thought of it...

02 January 2016

My favorites from 2015

I am too lazy to type out the complete list of books that I read this year, and apparently Goodreads no longer makes a lovely visual that I can paste up here (though I can provide a link to what might be one? You might need to be a member of the site though.). But you don't really want the complete list anyhow, right? You might wish I updated my blog more often (and believe me, I do too. And hopefully, hopefully...) But really, you want the good stuff. So, without further ado, and in no particular order, the 10 books I enjoyed the most in 2015:

Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
David Sedaris recommended this a few years ago -- I think he recommends a book every fall, or whenever he's on book tours? and he has reliably excellent taste, so now I slavishly obey. But even amongst his many excellent picks: oh my god. This book is amazing. A detailed ethnography of a family in the Bronx. Teenage pregnancy, drugs, prisons -- a world we often see sensationalized in salacious tv shows, here related with warmth and complexity and just plain humanity. Everyone should read this book.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
I sort of tormented myself by seeing how long I could hold out before launching into Ferrante's famed series, but in the Spring, I finally succumbed. And loved every minute of it. I'm actually just finishing the second one now -- I decided to savor the series. A riveting story of childhood and friendship, it absolutely lives up to the hype. 

Macnolia, A. Van Jordan
A gorgeous, raw, beautiful collection of poems. There is a narrative running through the book about MacNolia Cox, the first African American to reach the final round of the National Spelling Bee, in 1936, with other poems that resonate with some of the themes articulated interspersed. I dare you to read "The Night Richard Pryor Met Mudbone" and remain unmoved. It's wonderful stuff, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.

Mislaid, Nell Zink
I could have sworn that I posted about this (to my horror, it appears that I haven't posted on a single one of my favorites this year. I'll spare you my promises to be better, but know that I'm making them in my head). Particularly interesting in the wake of the Rachel Dolezal scandal and reflections on intersectionality between #blacklivesmatter and the gay rights movement, Nell Zink's story of a white lesbian passing as Black with her daughter in order to escape her gay white husband seems strangely...apolitical. The novel is a comedy first and foremost, and a funny one at that. A bizarre, constantly surprising story that is also a heartfelt, loving exploration of its characters.

18th Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder, by Sarah Tindal Kareem
This is for a highly specialized audience, but I had to include it because I loved it so, so much. A really smart and fascinating account of 18th century fiction that does major work in correcting the long-standing and deeply flawed dichotomy of realism vs. marvelous/romantic fiction. Kareem does an incredible job navigating incredibly dense theories and juxtaposing them with ease and elegance. I wish I had written this book.

Lazarus Project, Aleksandar Hemon
One of the most powerful reckonings with historical trauma that I've ever read (and I've read my share of it). It is tangled, confused, wrenching, and gorgeous.

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
My Barbara Pym love (which started with a Best Of the Year list!) continues. I also read two really great pieces about Pym this year: one in the New Yorker, and an older one from The Awl. Excellent Women has some flaws, but it's a profound meditation on the life of single women; one that stayed with me long after I'd finished it.

Tales of Desire, Tennessee Williams
Sometimes you want a slice of that steamy, sultry, dangerous heat of the South. If you love young Paul Newman movies (and I do), you'll love this collection.

Almost Never, Daniel Sada
This novel could have been written by Beckett, or Flann O'Brien, but it was written by Daniel Sada and set in Mexico. A rollicking, dry, and utterly hilarious story about a man who is caught between his mother, his lover, his fiancee, and his aunt. So funny, and so ridiculous, and so wonderful.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
Another one that had been on the to-read shelf for quite awhile, I finally read it because I was weighing in on a round of the Chicago Reader's Greatest Chicago Book tournament. Another one that absolutely lives up to the hype, and more -- this book tells the story of the Great Migration and its lasting effects on the United States. It is an eye-opening and absolutely devastating account of the racism of the 20th century, and a really profound look at African American life. And the writing is so, so good. Read it.

They not only could have been, but actually were contenders: The Good Soldier Svejk, by Jaroslav Hasek; Can't and Won't: Stories, by Lydia Davis; The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen; Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo; Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf; Blood Child, by Octavia Butler; The Folded Clock, by Heidi Javits; Against World Literature, by Emily Apter; My Struggle, vl 1, by Karl Knausgaard; A Good Fall, Ha Jin.

03 December 2015

Another Country, by James Baldwin

The first third or so of this novel is pure fire. Searing, magnetic prose that loops and dives through the most intimate and unsettling aspects of human experience. I don't know if such intensity could possibly be sustained over the course of hundreds of pages, or if one would want it to. In any case: it isn't. The novel reaches a climax and the latter 2/3 of it is essentially exploring the aftermath. The story becomes somewhat less compelling, and even, it must be admitted, a little tedious. What redeems the novel, and is moreover, actually quite stunning about it, is the breadth of emotional understanding in these somewhat rambling explorations.

People talk about the presumption of white authors writing characters of color, or men trying to persuasively write women, etc* -- well, here is Baldwin thumbing his nose at all of them. The narrator sees deep into the hearts of a diverse cast of characters; male, female, gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, etc, and seems, impossibly, to understand the millions of subtle ways in which their perspectives are shaped by things that people unlike them simply cannot see, let alone comprehend. It is a dazzling piece of emotional intelligence; a real virtuoso performance. I found myself regretting that the story it was put in the service of was not more meaningful, but on the other hand, maybe that was the point -- that much of life's meaning is simply in this strange constellation of people and relationships that is unique to every individual. Relationships that, even as they shape our lives and interactions, are largely opaque, but also, perhaps, ultimately somewhat mundane, and even uninteresting.

*I am slowly working my way through The Racial Imaginary, a collection of pieces on this topic, and it is really really fascinating and worthwhile.

24 November 2015

Palestine, by Joe Sacco

There are a lot of off-putting things about this book. The subject matter, obviously, is no walk in the park, and you can certainly quibble with whether or not it's a balanced account (or what balance means in such contexts); the artwork is borderline unpleasant; and the narrator is frequently awful, openly concerned with his comic first and foremost in ways that frequently seem exploitative or callous, crossing all kinds of moral lines (example: we get three panels showing a guy in a bed; the narrator wants to photograph him and he says no. No mention of whether he agreed to be drawn), and generally seeming like a pretty gross dude.

But he also obviously chose to portray himself that way, and I wonder if he did so precisely to emphasize that any story comes from a particular perspective. Maybe this is one of the book's strengths. It is willing to be unlikable. The narrator is really not the point, but he is unavoidably in the way, and that is part of the point -- that he always will be, and we should be aware of that.

For the most part, the book is a collection of stories from Palestinians, and this seems to be its main goal, really -- an act of witnessing. Towards the very end, it makes some effort to consider the perspective of the average Israeli, and Sacco notes that he himself has come to see Israelis as occupiers and soldiers first and foremost. Again, not redressing bias per se, but actively pointing it out. Overall, the book absolutely attests to the power of the graphic novel as a genre in really incredible ways, and it is a valuable contribution to a larger conversation about Israel and Palestine. I read it because I was wondering if it would be a good addition to two different courses I'm half dreaming of, one on the graphic novel, the other on the idea of war and how it is represented in different cultures and mediums, and I think it would be an excellent choice for both.

03 October 2015

Black Mass

I don't know why I did not expect to like Black Mass. I guess I figured it would be a fairly stock gangster film, with a lot of really awful, brutal violence, and a bunch of stock cliches and braggadocio. And there is definitely some intense violence in it (though honestly, by today's standards a few strangulations and some blood splats might seem tame), and in many ways a lot of familiar tropes and ideas -- but somehow, they don't come across as cliche. This is doubtless in part because of the superlative acting, but I think cinematography also has a lot to do with it. The stunningly gorgeous shots are very intelligently framed and carefully chosen in way that creates a powerful sense of intimacy, creating a tremendous sense of emotional depth. To me, the movie was an impressive meditation on the emotional effects of the gangster lifestyle.

Johnny Depp is predictably mesmerizing as Whitey Bulger -- but he functions as a kind of simulacra that the films circles around. He is aloof, mysterious, and terrifying: everything, it seems, will happen exactly as he decides. He seems to have an iron control over his emotions: all of his words, actions, motions and mannerisms appear deliberate and considered, even when they are deeply felt. Part of what makes him so menacing is an unpredictable quality -- one has the sense of a profoundly violent and utterly ruthless rage that is constantly just beneath the surface, and can emerge at any moment. And yet, he also seems fundamentally unknowable -- perhaps because he is hardly human. Thus, the emotional work of the narrative is dispersed across the supporting cast, all of whom struggle to manage the emotions that arise from their contact with him -- fear, horror, anger, sadness, guilt. No one, this movie suggests, is innocent, though no one is entirely villainous either. The brilliance of the cinematography is that you regularly feel that you are witnessing a private moment where a given character struggles with his/her feelings about what is happening in the immediate vicinity. It is these quiet battles that make this film so impressive, and very much worth seeing.

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, by Kate Evans

It's always nice to see female intellectuals get some recognition, and I am a sucker for graphic novels about Marxists. I found this one especially pleasant, and found the artwork especially lovely.

Although the book feels unbalanced in various ways -- the pacing is odd; occasional narratorial intrusions are not unwelcome but seem arbitrarily scattered throughout; the tone is sometimes uneven -- at its best moments, you get this wonderfully human sense of Luxemburg's (feisty) personality. I especially loved the various nude scenes, hairy legs and all -- a really excellent example of how graphic novels can portray a woman's body in a way that feels intimate without being objectifying or prurient.

As a biography, it is in many ways a conventional, step-by-step account of the woman's life: the author clearly has no compunctions about zooming past the eventful bits. Although there is a nice moment where Evans steps in to say that she will depart from the convention of defining women's lives through their relationships to men, this doesn't seem like a radically new form of lifewriting . As an intellectual biography, it's slightly disappointing, in that you don't really get a sense of a meaningful connection between biography and thought: you don't really see where her ideas are coming from, or how her life experiences influence them. Indeed, it might not be the most effective introduction to Luxemburg's work -- it's a little hard to get a grasp on her ideas, or more specifically, what her particular innovations or disagreements with others were. But the book does give you a clear sense of her overall beliefs, and -- what is especially nice -- quotes extensively from the woman's own writings.

Overall, a very pleasant, and often quite beautiful (in various ways) book.