Novelist Aleksandar Hemon’s first book of nonfiction in English, The Book of My Lives, begins and ends with an infant girl. In the first instance the child in question is the four-year-old Hemon’s newborn sister, Kristina. “One spring day, Mother stepped out of the kitchen to pick up the phone and left her along with me…I watched the little creature, her unreadable face, her absolute absence of thought or personality, her manifest insubstantiality, her unearned presence. So I started choking her, my thumbs against her windpipe, as seen on television.” [More…]
The ending of “The New Veterans” in Karen Russell’s story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” leaves one with a sense of the limits of fantasy — strange for a writer so deeply dedicated to the imaginative. On its face, the story’s plot is fantastic enough: a masseuse treating an Iraq War veteran named Derek Zeiger finds that she’s able to alter his traumatic memories by manipulating the tattoo on his back, moving pictures and erasing parts with her hands.
After a while, it seems she’s erased his memories too, changing Zeiger’s horrific story into one of triumph. But the masseuse ends uncertain: “Most days, she doubts she helped the sergeant at all. She thinks it’s far more likely that she aggravated his condition, or postponed a breakdown.” Only in her “wildest imaginings” can Zeiger’s story be both true and beneficial, and she doesn’t know which version to chose.
The collection’s title story, which is, as advertised, about vampires in a lemon grove, contains a similar moral. A vampire named (in a characteristic gesture for Russell, who treasures such sparks of postmodernist humor) Clive recalls his years “on the blood,” before he learned from his wife — “the first and only other vampire I’d ever met” — that the old stories about them were lies: “I listened to the village gossips and believed every rumor, internalized every report of corrupted bodies and boiled blood . . . I slept in coffins, in black cedar boxes, and woke every night with a fierce headache.” As in “The New Veterans,” the story’s ending both confirms and belies its myths. For the purposes of narrative the vampires must have a nature to struggle against (“We lift the lemons and swing them to our faces. We plunge our fangs, piercing the skin, and emit a long, united hiss: ‘Aaah!’”) if this is to be more than a comic exercise and lead us to its central truth: that love, like vampiric hunger, is defined by its inability to be satisfied. But the ending again casts doubt. [Read more…]
AT THE END of Matthew Goulish’s The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Essays from the Institute of Failure, the author quotes the second-to-last entry in the journal of the 30-year-old naturalist W.N.P Barbellion, written as he lay dying of disseminated sclerosis in June of 1919:
Rupert Brooke said the brightest thing in the world was a leaf with the sun shining on it. God pity his ignorance! The brightest thing in the world is a Ctenophor in a glass jar standing in the sun.
I have no way of knowing if the Scottish-born novelist and short story writer Ali Smith has read The Brightest Thing in the World, or if she is aware of the existence of W.N.P. Barbellion, born 72 years ahead of her on a point at the opposite end of the British Isle’s North-South axis. But reading her latest book, Artful, the image of that Ctenophor — a creature retrieved from the memory of a dead man — sticks in the mind. For one thing, Artfulis one of those books that, as you open it, expands like jelly in a jar — moving like an accordion, or (to borrow an image from the French novelist Jules Renard) a caterpillar over a leaf. Smith, like Goulish and Barbellion, is also reaching for that thing that survives loss, the pliant, gleaming thing, the brightest in the world. It’s my suspicion that, somewhere in all of this, she may have found it. [Read more…]
IN SEPTEMBER 1966, a reading took place at New York University’s Loeb Center, near Washington Square. Less than two months had passed since Frank O’Hara’s death on Fire Island, and the event took on the flavor of a memorial for the recently departed poet. In his memoir, the poet’s longtime roommate Joe LeSueur recalled listening in shock as Kenneth Koch read a remarkable poem of O’Hara’s, which, until that moment, it seemed no one had ever heard. “We were not only moved by the poem,” LeSueur wrote, “but mystified as well. Why had he kept it a secret?” [Read more…]
Tory, class apologist, snob, born-again Catholic, anti-Semite, admirer of Mussolini and Franco, employer in the mid-1960s of a Victorian ear trumpet, and general Pooterish misanthrope, Arthur Evelyn (“Eve-” like “Christmas Eve”) St. John (“Sin-jin,” like in Mad Men) Waugh (“waw,” as a British person might say “war”) is a difficult man to love. And yet his novels—with one notable exception—have never been out of print. In fact, they are being reissued this very month in print, audio, and, for the first time, digital editions. Just in time for America to revisit Waugh’s warm appraisal of the British upper crust before reigniting our own love of same come January, when Downton Abbey’s third season is set to air.
Waugh’s career is generally divided in two: the satiric and somewhat more cynical work of his early years, and the “Catholic” work of his later, with Brideshead Revisited the purplish dividing line between. He’s lauded for his humor and for the stylishness of his prose, which is precise and elegant even when parroting the idiom of the day (“shy-making,” “wet,” “shaming,” “righto,” and so on). But these plaudits usually come with an asterisk, thanks to Waugh’s snobbishness and dogmatic beliefs. Add to this the fact that he’s been effusively praised by some of the wrong people (Clive James, William F. Buckley) and criticized by some of the right ones (Edmund Wilson, George Orwell), and Waugh’s endurance seems almost surprising. [Read More…]
In his essay “Why Look At Animals?” John Berger mourns the lost reciprocity of human-animal exchange. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, he writes, animals were not just meat, leather, and horn, but “with man at the centre of his world.” As animate metaphors, they could explain the mysterious. As distant relatives, they represented where we had come from and where we would return at life’s end. As separate from us, they were a way for our world to look back.
“Magnificence,” the final installment in Lydia Millet’s interconnected sequence of novels, teems with turn-of-the-century emissaries from this vanishing natural world. The glass eyes of Millet’s bestiary aren’t able to return a look — they are long dead, lost, extinct — yet Millet negotiates a reunion of sorts regardless. In the turmoil of one woman’s middle age, these lost ones become a way of discovering what can be and should be saved in a world where all life, and all hope, is endangered. [Read more…]
It’s tempting to look at the glut of fairy tale material that’s washed up on our pop-cultural shores of late and conclude that the genre is having “a moment.” Adaptations, like waves, are coming in sets: two TV shows, two films based on “Little Red Riding Hood,” two on “Snow White” (a third was canceled in production), two on “Beauty and the Beast,” not to mention upcoming projects like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Tim Burton’s Pinocchio, Jack the Giant Killer, and the “Sleeping Beauty” riff Malificent, in which, in a magical bit of casting, Angelina Jolie will star as an evil queen.
But really these stories have never gone away, nor, despite parental grousing—“Cinderella” has too much housecleaning; “Jack and the Beanstalk” is unrealistic; and do they have to call them “dwarves”?—were they ever in danger of doing so. There have been who-knows-how-many retellings of the classic tales over the past two centuries, many of them by heavy hitters in the artistico-literary sphere. One such, the novelist Philip Pullman—whose own His Dark Materialstrilogy is as unwilling to condescend to the young reader’s supposed delicacy as any Grimm story—has written a timely book of 50 fairy tale retellings, titled simply Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm. [Read more…]
FINISH THIS BOOK
BY KERI SMITH
The London of Zadie Smith’s long-awaited fourth novel, called “NW” after the northwest corner of the city - also the author’s home - is a fluid, mercurial thing. More than a city, it’s a city’s consciousness she’s written here. But while her novel maps its lurches and veerings, it also uncovers a fixedness - the way places never really change except in how, and by whom, they are read. “At some point we became aware of being ‘modern,’ of changing fast,” Smith writes, and yet it is the thing that’s aware - that “we” and “you” and “I” and the rest - in which she’s interested here.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/NW-by-Zadie-Smith-3866733.php#ixzz27DCiUVF3
One interesting thing about a 70-year war is that, for those fighting it, it’s no longer interesting at all. Violence is just another form of monotony. Exhausted and dull of spirit, the soldier tries to keep herself awake “with sex, with hurt, with shocking newspaper articles, sometimes.” This, at least, is Israel’s war as Shani Boianjiu paints it in her elegantly written debut novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” the story of three girls coming of age — if you can call it that — in the Israeli Defense Forces. More than that, though, the 25-year-old Boianjiu, drawing on her own years with the IDF, has written the story of a people’s resignation to living in a world that’s been strange for so long, they can no longer remember how strange it is.
Read more: http://forward.com/articles/162806/life-during-wartime/#ixzz27DByJv5m