Worth Reading…

Some things (I think are) worth reading:

1. My friends’ new book blog: Take Five. This month, visit them for some summer reading suggestions to hide with in a cool dark room, far from the heat (or alternately to fry with on the beach).

2. This short piece I wrote on Adrienne Rich: The World As It Is: Learning to Read Adrienne Rich. (Also, the other things on JWA’s blog, Jewesses With Attitude, maybe starting with Tara Metal’s piece about Roz Chast’s new graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?)

3. I’m sure someone has told you this already, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s novel, Americanah, is probably as good as its best review says it is.

4. Poetry: Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, Matthea Harvey’s Modern Life, and Peter Redgrove’s Sons of My Skin. Oh and Gwendolyn Brooks. All things Gwendolyn Brooks.

5. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic a few weeks ago.


Why I might read The Sense of an Ending

Why I Might Read The Sense of an Ending

The short answer? Considering it won The Man Booker  (in 2011), it might be more reasonable to wonder why I wouldn’t read The Sense of an Ending. But when it came out, a few friends said they’d been disappointed by it. One friend hated it. For better or (possibly) for worse, I tend to skip prize-winning books written by men in favor of other books written by women. And so I skipped The Sense of an Ending

But now I might read it. I’ve been staying in a house filled with someone else’s library. Like most things here, the books are well-chosen, eclectic and strongly individual: preferences for Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel García Márquez, Annie Dillard, Robinson Davies, and O. Henry prize-winning short story anthologies. There are also several paperback novels by Julian Barnes (who wrote The Sense of an Ending). I finally got around to reading one of them and it impressed me. That begins the long answer. 

"Staring at the Sun" by Julian Barnes

“Staring at the Sun”     by Julian Barnes

Staring at the Sun was published more than 20 years ago, in 1986. Before I checked the publication date, I would have guessed the book was more recent than that. Not that 1986 is so terribly long ago—this book just manages to feel quite contemporary as its story openly and skillfully travels forward from the past. Staring at the Sun follows the life of one woman, Jean Serjeant, beginning with her 1920s childhood adventures caddying for her charming, lonely, oddball Uncle Leslie, following her late-adolescent fascination with Sergeant-Pilot Tommy Prosser, a grounded RAF officer billeted with her family and then her late-WWII marriage to a police officer named Michael.

After twenty years of childless, largely loveless, and in her eyes, fairly typical conjugal partnership, Jean unexpectedly becomes pregnant. When her husband asks her what she plans to do, she replies “Oh, I’m going to have the baby and leave you…But I expect I’ll leave you and then have the baby. I expect I’ll do it that way around.” And leave him she does, raising her son, Gregory, in a state of perpetual flight from one low-rent apartment building to another. Once he is safely installed in self-sufficient adulthood, Jean continues to fly, traveling to China, the Grand Canyon, wherever she can manage, almost always alone. Her observations about the world are keen and intelligent and humorously matter-of-fact and her curiosity is unending. She’s a wonderful protagonist. 

The novel wraps up as Jean Serjeant, now nearly 100 years old and living in a sci-fi-esque, eerily prescient, 21st century (where most information is instantly available via computer and you can apply to speak to TAT, a restricted-use area of the universal database whose acronym stands for The Absolute Truth), after a life spent thinking about how to live, begins to think about how to die. Even this has been made “easier” in the first years of the imagined new millennium.

This book was funny, smart and exquisitely well-crafted. The most compelling part of the novel for me was Jean’s relationship to a man she barely knew, the pilot, Tommy Prosser. As Barnes suggests through the delicate similarity between Jean’s surname (Serjeant) and Tommy’s rank (Sergeant), these characters share a deep, imperfect sympathy. Or at least, Jean shares a deep sympathy with her memories of Tommy Prosser. “I’ll tell you the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he says to Jean one morning in her kitchen, and then he describes for her an ordinary miracle neither of them will ever forget: flying back from France across the English channel one morning at dawn, he watched the sun rise in the east. Aware of how visible his black-painted plane was in the light, he climbed back into darkness and then dropped into such a fast dive that his speed drove the sun back beneath the horizon. As he approached England, it climbed out of the darkness for a second time. Two dawns on the same day. Strange, solitary beauty in the midst of a war full of horrors and loss.

Two dawns—the sort of thing you can’t really see if you obey the prohibition not to stare at the sun, or if you follow other rules that keep you grounded in normalcy. But the moment you disobey, you realize that some facts and impossibilities are little more than matters of popular habit and agreement. This is a book about Jean’s curiosity teaching her to disobey the major rule of her existence (“to obey”) and about everything she sees after that. It is also a novel about the rules that most concern us—you know, the ones about life leading inevitably to death—and how to go about living within them. It’s not a life-changing book, but it was a very good one. Good enough to get me to read something else by Julian Barnes. Like maybe The Sense of an Ending.



The Flamethrowers. A short review in French.

I’m trying to improve my French — that is both my excuse and my apology in advance for my newest use of this blog that I update so rarely and unpredictably. Just to give myself an short, free-form way to work on my expository French, I decided to try and write mini-responses to all of the books I read this summer in French, translate them into English, and post both here. So far, I’ve probably read 8 or 9 books and I’ve managed to write about one. I doubt that I’ll catch up (I never do) but I may keep pace better in July and August than I did in June. Here’s the first one, a short review of Rachel Kushner’s newly published novel The Flamethrowers. Feel free to criticize/correct/be vocally scandalized by the quality of my French. I’d love the help (especially if you know how to correctly translate “salt flats”). Also, I know the English translations aren’t the prettiest either, but don’t let what I’ve written about this book deter you: Kushner’s novel is great and you should read it.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

En Français:

The Flamethrowers est un roman sur la vitesse. Un roman sur le contrôle et ses limites. Sur le temps, et la célérité avec laquelle les moments de nos vies nous passent. On rencontre la protagoniste, Reno, dans les années 1970, quand elle voyage à moto aux marais salants en Utah, pour faire les épreuves de vitesse célèbres. En ce moment, elle est seule—une femme et sa moto—et bien que le roman monte sa vie à New York, son copain, Sandro, ses amis, qui sont pour la plupart les artistes, et un panorama d’Italie dans les années de plomb, c’est quand même un histoire de la solitude. On n’apprend jamais le vrai nom de Reno, surnommé par ses amis à New York City pour sa ville de naissance dans le sud-ouest. Il y a beaucoup de choses qu’on n’apprend jamais dans ce livre ; c’est un roman dans lequel les questions—les questions d’art, d’amour, d’essence, de la vérité—restent ouvertes. On n’a que les histoires, les représentations, et les objets d’art (de temps en temps, les trois sont un), tous les chemins indirects pour comprendre le monde et nous-mêmes.

Suivez la prose électrique de Rachel Kushner, les phrases qui craquent et scintillent avec l’énergie de la jeunesse, du désir, et de la frustration et la fascination de regarder le monde, de regarder vous dans le monde, et de se demander si vos choix changent votre destin. Ce roman n’est pas facile, mais c’est magnifique et il mérite votre effort.

En Anglais:

The Flamethrowers is a novel about speed. A novel about control and its limits. About time, and the swiftness with which the moments of our lives pass us by. We meet the protagonist, Reno, in the 1970s, as she’s traveling by motorcycle to the salt flats in Utah, to ride in the famous speed trials held there. In that moment, she is alone—a woman and her motorcycle—and even though the novel shows her life in New York, her boyfriend, Sandro, her friends who are mostly, like Sandro, artists, and a panorama of Italy during the Years of Lead, this is nevertheless, a book about solitude. We never learn Reno’s real name, just the nickname given to her by her friends in New York, the name of her hometown in the southwest. There are many things we never learn in this book; it’s a novel in which the questions—questions of art, of love, of meaning, of truth—remain open. We have only stories, performances, and art objects (sometimes the three all in one), all indirect paths for understanding the world and ourselves.

Follow Rachel Kushner’s electric prose, her sentences which crackle and flicker with the energy of youth, with desire, and with the frustration and fascination of watching the world, of watching yourself in the world, and of wondering if your choices change your destiny. This novel is not easy, but it’s magnificent and worth the effort.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

I’ve written a few more staff recommendations over the past couple of weeks. Here’s one of them, for Amy Hempel’s collected stories.

When I fall in love with a book, I’m overwhelmed by the need to read it aloud to people. The better the writing, the wider the circle I want to read it to, and Amy Hempel’s stories are so good that if someone loaned me a stadium, I’d take them to the masses.

Then again, I’m not sure these weird, elegant, breathtaking stories are really meant for the megaphone. They’re the stuff of conversation, built of things you accidentally overhear and then can’t get out of your head. Reading them I felt like an eavesdropper, maybe the luckiest eavesdropper in the world.

Just try reading ‘Why I’m Here,’ ‘Nashville Gone to Ashes’ or the one-sentence ‘Memoir,’ and tell me you don’t feel the need to tap someone on the shoulder and say ‘Hey, listen to this…’