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Sometimes I Write Things ... About Things Other People Write

By Genevieve Coffey Faculty

There’s not much method to my madness when it comes to selecting books to read on my own time. One minute, I’ll pick up something highly conceptual—like Bulgakov or Haruki Murakami; in the next, I’ll sneak a middle grade or young adult title off my daughter’s shelf—maybe by Markus Zusak or Sherman Alexie. I might follow up with a little classic number that managed to slip through the cracks until now—Oscar Wilde or (somewhat reluctantly) an old Steinbeck. After a bit of nonfiction I’ll generally look for something contemporary and/or escapist—Colum McCann,  Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, or Michael Chabon for example. Then I might hit a manic phase where I’ll shut down for months and only read books about weirdly specific topics like the British Raj or the Merry Pranksters or early manned space flight.

So it goes.

But you can never read a book for the first time again. Most leave a finite impression that diminishes beyond the title. A rare few have incapacitated me for life. I wish I could go back and interrogate 14-year-old Genny within minutes, hours, days of closing her first copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. All I’m left with is a vague memory of paralysis—I couldn’t pick up another book for awhile after that. It was a bittersweet sensation, almost of grief, and it lingered hard until I discovered One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest several weeks later.

For a period during grad school and before the demands of work and family life settled in, I was in the habit of documenting my impressions of a book after finishing it. Generally, I would jot down a sentence or two and move on to the next thing. Sometimes, though, I found myself wrestling with intangibles and needing to write my thoughts out in order to process them. As far as ritual actions go, this was a good one—healthy, even. I wish I had adopted it sooner and cultivated it longer, if only to remember more acutely how I’d been moved by Americanah last summer or Let the Great World Spin five years ago.

These days, I’m as likely to read the cereal box (again) as I am to bury my face in the latest by Kazuo Ishiguro. But I can do a lot of damage with a bit of unstructured time. So in honor of the weekend, I’ve decided to share a few old and new and sometimes only vaguely articulate thoughts about a list of books that have absolutely nothing to do with each other. I’ve tried to include a little something for everyone: there’s literary fiction, popular fiction, a picture book, random titles for smaller people, and more stories that take place in Russia than is altogether necessary.


Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Eugene Yelchin

Wow. The voice is so simple, the details so sparing, and the narrative so succinct that it is easy to be fooled into thinking that—for the sake of its young audience—this will be a sanitized version of Soviet life. It's not.


A Moveable Feast

Ernest Hemingway

I enjoyed this while reading, but I also felt dubious about the way that Hemingway represented himself.

One of his thematic fixations has to do with the way we respond to art—either because or in spite of its creator. And that's my problem: I'm struggling to separate my admiration for the work from my ambivalence toward the author. I don't know enough about Hemingway to be able to determine how intentional this is ... The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to accept that it is intentional and that Hemingway's implied criticism of everyone else's behavior is a set up for how we should evaluate his own. And if this is indeed the case, than A Moveable Feast improves a great deal for me.

But Hemingway's misogyny is too off-putting for me to give him much of a pass. He also seems to lack any sense of irony or self-awareness when he writes about Fitzgerald's alcoholism, even though he is apparently reflecting on their expat years decades after having experienced them. The very few bits of foreshadowing he allows are so ambiguous that they could just as easily be interpreted as a reference to the dissolution of his marriage as they are to the disease that probably contributed to it. The aside that Jean's whiskey might have killed Dostoevsky—had they known each other—is a possible exception, I guess.

I don't know ... Here we have Hemingway developing his own character as he adheres to the principles of mot juste. All he has to do is write "one true sentence," the truest sentence he knows. And I love everything about this idea.

So. Using the truest sentences, Hemingway develops his character as self-deprecating and disciplined. And until he is unfaithful to Hadley, it would seem that his only "flaw" is the shame that he feels in reference to his own poverty—which is no real flaw at all but rather a reflection of his artistic integrity or something. Meanwhile Gertrude Stein is too subjective, Scott Fitzgerald too histrionic, and Ernest Walsh too inauthentic in their approach to the work. Every literary character in this memoir seems to be a foil for Hemingway himself. And while he takes pains to suggest that ALL creators have flaws, he takes few—if any—to acknowledge his own.


Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi

Really ambitious. I think, maybe, that it suffers a bit from what Marcus says about his doctoral work in the end. Three hundred pages aren’t enough to carry the weight of the story ... But probably nothing is.


Ghosts

Raina Telgemeier

I haven't read very many graphic novels, but my six-year-old son was smitten with Telgemeier's illustrations and I remembered listening to an interview with her on NPR some time ago. Turns out that her narrative is gorgeous, her setting just ... perfectly rendered, and her story (unexpectedly) life affirming.

It also offers a beautiful peek into the significance of Dia de Los Muertos. Through her main character, Cat, Telgemeier acknowledges and validates our fear of death while—if not dispelling it—offering an alternative way of looking at it. This is hardly news for those whose cultural narrative has always included Dia de Los Muertos, but I can't think of an equivalent that exists in the stories and traditions within which I was raised. I wish there had been.


Life After Life

Kate Atkinson

Not an easy book to love. I do admire the risks that Atkinson took in puzzling out this story, but I think that Martin Amis pulled off a similarly risky narrative within the same historical framework in Time's Arrow. And I think he did it better.


A Child of Books

Oliver Jeffers

You are NEVER too old for picture books. And Oliver Jeffers is a genius.


Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

Liz Prince

I don't know. I was hoping to find something meaningful about acceptance, especially for kids who are in the very trenches of adolescence. Instead, I felt that a significant portion of the book merely served to intensify the sort of shame I once carried around as a kid.


Look, I was neither particularly feminine nor a hardcore tomboy when I was growing up, and yet I could empathize with nearly all of Prince's experiences here. I especially remember feeling mortified by any type of behavior that could be universally dismissed as "female."

I love the idea that there are different ways to be a girl. And yes, there is cruelty in children. And I worry about that special brand of cruelty that exists in girls because I have a daughter who is neither particularly feminine nor a hardcore tomboy. I want her to know that women can show strength in their sensitivity, that it isn't a weakness. Or it doesn't have to be. That being a girl or a woman does not mean that she is inherently frivolous or cruel. I want her to be a girl in the way that she knows best.

I think Prince gets there eventually. But this  would not have been a comfort to me twenty years ago.


Lincoln in the Bardo

George Saunders

This is a strange cross between Waiting for Godot and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It's about regret and it's about salvation. Most of all, I think, it's about empathy.

My sense is that this book is kind of polarizing. I kind of loved it, though.


The Beginning of Spring

Penelope Fitzgerald

In spite of a sincere fascination with Penelope Fitzgerald (based entirely on my experience of Offshore and on her premise for The Bookshop, which I’ve been meaning to read for at least a lifetime), I have pretty limited experience with her stuff.

In The Beginning of Spring, as in Offshore, she seems to be interested in mining certain ambiguities or liminal spaces that are as recognizable as they are disorienting. It’s not a comfortable reading experience, though this discomfort is very different from the kind one feels when one reads something violent or transgressive. Fitzgerald’s fiction is neither. I find myself wanting to leave her stuff alone as much as I want to analyze it, and The Beginning of Spring is no exception. As a story about near-revolutionary Russia, it seems to be an example of perfect craftsmanship and rightful negligence. Appropriate, I guess. But also lovely.


Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell

The latest in my unending search for quality writing for young people. The voice is outstanding—smart, snappy, and realistic. Rowell doesn't waste time agonizing over whether her characters are likable. They're real. And while I have no particular interest in fanfiction, myself, I loved the ethical dilemma that all this brings up in terms of authorship. An intelligent story about writing stories for those whose understanding of legitimate fiction is evolving with, not ahead of, the Internet.


We the Animals

Justin Torres

I've read some of the less-complimentary reviews and don't necessarily disagree with them. I think it falls short in the pacing—the final, heartbreaking series of vignettes felt only tangentially related to all that had come before. Torres does lay the groundwork in later chapters, but there is still too significant a gap between the narrator's boyhood and the depth of material that follows. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for this type of story. We the Animals had the same sort of sentimental loveliness (in spite of poverty and parental frailty) as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The House on Mango Street. I guess there’s a film adaptation coming out this year, which I look forward to seeing, but I haven’t found any other novel-length fiction from Torres. We the Animals was his debut novel, published in 2011. I wonder if he’s working on anything new these days, or is he sticking to short stories?


The Tragedy of Pudd’Nhead Wilson

Mark Twain

Oh, it’s terrific. Compulsively readable and as unsparing as one would expect. There’s just something unresolved—or not sufficiently challenged—by Twain in terms of the nature vs. nurture debate, here, that feels disconcerting. Twain didn’t accept the argument that a “drop of Negro blood” makes a man indisputably bad. But this story doesn’t refute that argument clearly enough, either. It’s the kind of thing I can’t wait to examine and cross-examine with our juniors.


2666

Roberto Bolano

Don't get me wrong: this is sweeping and sublime and incomprehensible in a way that is, just, staggeringly impressive. It’s also hard to stomach. That Bolano's writing was, at its most basic level, inspired by true events is unthinkable.  Did I "like" this novel? No. But it is extraordinary.


I Crawl Through It

A.S. King

A lot of fuss has been made about the "surrealist" nature of this book. And to be fair, I'm not in the habit of reading this kind of fiction too often. But still. I Crawl Through It came off as a little affected, to me. It might be a little too self-conscious. Like the narrative never moved past a certain awareness of it being an experimental rather than an organic endeavor.

On the other hand, I can think of a number of authors who pull this kind of thing off in a way that, ironically, feels more natural: Tim O' Brian, Haruki Murakami. Kurt Vonnegut. Even A.S. King herself approached a smooth bit of surrealism in Everybody Sees the Ants, I think. If I'm remembering right. And that was a great story.

King is interesting. I'd have liked to see her balance the damaged, parentally neglected, emotionally repressed teen voice with a bit more narrative diversity. Not to invalidate what teens are feeling and experiencing, but to acknowledge that these feelings and experiences—and the ways that young people cope with them—are more complex than I think they're presented here. I was relieved when Gary remarked that Stanzi must be "some kind of humanist" because the alternative was just another two-dimensional representation of suburban cynicism. I can appreciate that maybe Stanzi was different.

Anyway, I'll continue to keep an eye on what King is publishing next.


The Line

Olga Grushin

I love this book so much.


The Rest of Us Just Live Here

Patrick Ness

Hilarious without being snide.  I think too many of us—especially as teenagers—mistake sarcasm for intelligence.  Patrick Ness is too smart to indulge in that kind of thinking.

Anyway. This is an experimental bit of meta fiction, but it's not pretentious. It gently mocks the mainstream YA trend without alienating or attempting to shame the kids who have genuinely enjoyed such stories.  But it's also subtle and smart, and it invites those same kids to sort of graduate from the juvenile stuff and move on. It acknowledges that fantasy tales are safe—and Ness isn't afraid to be sentimental, here. Still, it's time to let them go and face the real world and its perhaps not-so-safe fiction.  

Patrick Ness is an unusual writer. I don't enjoy everything he's published, but I have a great deal of respect for his choices. And his voice is risky and real and significant.


The Crying of Lot 49

Thomas Pynchon

Disorienting, but I assume that’s the point.


The Martian

Andy Weir

This is not the most well-crafted narrative. But  hear me out: Weir delivers the science with such loving detail that I don't really care.

Of course, I’m in no position to verify any of that science—and I have no idea if it is even remotely plausible—but Weir scaffolds the story on legitimate knowledge and what I imagine to be meticulous research. And I have a great deal of admiration for what he’s accomplished. The guy seems brilliant.

Ultimately, The Martian is all plot. Characterization is flat and, to be honest, a little exasperating. I think maybe Weir sought to counter the undemonstrative “nerd” stereotype—or he was overly-influenced by modern superhero stock characters with their habit of delivering verbally ironic badinage—but the result was a bit tiresome. Still, I suppose there’s a certain continuity with the kind of culture that Thomas Wolfe captured once upon a time.


There were some forced allusions to Jim Lovell’s memoir and/or the Apollo 13 film, and too much exposition was delivered by way of dialogue. But here’s the thing: the book was resoundingly optimistic. Weir’s idealism and sincere faith in the goodness of humanity is hard to come by these days. I’ll take it.


The Glass Town Game

Catherynne Valente

I didn’t love it. I’d even say that I didn’t much like it for the first 300 pages. Catherynne Valente’s writing is as weird as it is beautiful, and sometimes the weird just gets to be too much for me.

But then there was that little staged event of a frame narrative ... and the turn (in a CHILDREN’S novel) about the relationship between creature and creator; and the literary truth of multiverse theory; and the sad, complex narrative of little boys everywhere; and the pure righteousness of little girls everywhere; and the nature of authorship and ownership and responsibility and grief.

Also: if ever there was a Terry Gilliam film that demanded to be made, this is it.


The Word is Murder

Anthony Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz takes a popular, kind of pulp-fiction approach to some really cool ideas about the nature of reality and authenticity. It’s pretty great.


The line between artful representation and actual life is constantly called into question here. People and places are routinely described in theatrical terms and their homes resemble set pieces. Some of the suspects are actors by profession. Other characters—including Hawthorn—change their affect according to the demands of the scene. We have actors who may be dramatizing their behavior in real life and betraying their true character on stage. We have real people inserted into the story (Spielberg, Jackson) whose characters are drawn with the exact same conventions as the fictional ones. And we have a narrator that—like all good unreliable narrators everywhere—spends the first part of the novel insisting on the truth of his testimony. Actually, it’s funny: he doesn’t insist on the truth of events themselves as much as he insists on the truth in his telling of them ...

So Horowitz is a legitimate person; we know this because he’s the author and his photo is on the back of the dust jacket. He’s also careful to use verifiable detail about his own public life throughout the novel. But at the same time, he’s a character in that novel. Horowitz the author sets up an obvious conflict between what is fiction and what is reality while Horowitz the character is subjected to all kinds of existential suffering.

It’s not a groundbreaking consideration—the idea that what we offer to the world at large is heavily contrived and that our capacity for self-absorption is pretty appalling. How much of our public lives are a construct that we present to others on a daily basis? For that matter, at what point does that construct emerge distinct from who we are—or think we are? As Horowitz-the-character proceeds through the case and loses more and more control of the narrative, he wonders if we can even tell the difference anymore. But the thing that makes Horowitz-the-author’s stuff so fun is that he has a fresh take on these same old questions: he applies all that highbrow literary angst to a relatively lowbrow genre.

Like I said: pretty great.


Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Benjamin Alire Saenz

I am convinced that if everyone just read this book, the world would be a much better place.


So … what’s next? Here are some titles I‘m hoping to read in the near future:


All the Crooked Saints

Maggie Stiefvater

I’m reading this now, actually. It’s controversial for reasons I’ll wrestle with later. But Stiefvater writes gorgeously about all manner of things, and so far this assessment holds true here as well.


White Fragility

Robin DiAngelo

Hard truth—like reading Malcolm X—but we need to do better.


Some Writer! The Story of E.B. White

Melissa Sweet

I picked this one up “for the kids.”


Devil in the Grove

Gilbert King

A history of Thurgood Marshall’s defense of the Groveland Boys. Timely and, I expect, relevant to our current reality.


Under the Net

Iris Murdoch

I think it’s a novel of ideas, but it involves … shenanigans? Doesn’t seem in line with my impression of Murdoch, so I’m going to check it out.


Bridge of Clay

Markus Zusak

His first book in over a decade. And yeah, I was at Word After Word the day it released.


Lyric McKerrigan, Secret Librarian: Saving the World with the Right Book at the Right Time

Jacob Sager Weinstein

I mean, would you look at that title!


Draft No. 4

John McPhee

I love McPhee’s literary journalism. He writes with simplicity and eloquence and can make any topic compelling. I’ll be taking notes on this one, for sure, as it involves McPhee writing about … writing.

And that happens to bring this blog post full circle and to a fortuitous end. Happy reading!


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