The Left Hand Of Darkness, Or: Maybe I Don’t Like Sci-Fi, After All

A25837084.jpgbout halfway through Ursula LeGuin’s classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and about halfway through a snore, I realized that maybe sci-fi wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’d read fantasy as a kid, and now and then read some sci-fi short stories. I gobble up dystopias; anything that whiffs of magical realism is added immediately to my queue. I like dabbling in the fantastical. The real world is real enough, thank you!

But The Left Hand of Darkness is a whole ‘nother ballpark. It’s not fantastical so much as it is scientific. Through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from a different planet, LeGuin sketches out a world wildly foreign from planet Earth. Nothing is comfortable or easy on the the planet Winter, for Genly or for me. First, it’s essentially always winter (hence the name). LeGuin invented a new calendar, and a different name for each day of the week. In the limited inhabitable latitude, two countries with radically different philosophies and societal structures compete. For diplomatic reasons, Genly traverses the border. All that is just accompanies the juicy bit, though, and the one part that made The Left Hand of Darkness an interesting thought experiment.

What makes Winter so unique, though, is its inhabitants. While human, the population isn’t gendered. They are both man and woman. Once a month, during the “kemmering” mating process, they become sex-crazed and shack up with whomever else is in kemmering, be them a partner or stranger. This leads to some situations that seem askew: The king gets pregnant; characters embody both typically “male” and female” traits. LeGuin has fun skewering the notion of gender, and how it boxes us into learned behaviors. Genly flops around, not understanding. A typical man!

To be honest, I picked the book up because I thought it would be juicy (I know! Naive). I wanted LeGuin to really explore life without gender. And for the most part, she did. I guess my big complaint is — there is no sex in The Left Hand of Darkness! The characters, when not in kemmering, are completely subdued and almost behave as if they have zero sex drives. HellLO Ursula, why didn’t you take us into a kemmering sex den? While the rest of us down here are stewing in monogamy and trapped in our bodies, you could’ve showed us an alternative.

As a result of LeGuin’s chaste writing, Genly’s diplomatic trip is just that: Diplomacy. No snogs. No watching alien genitalia shift and morph. No trips to the kemmering houses.

I’ve realized now that sci-fi is more interested in world-build ing than in making out. While I respect the genre, I’m going to retreat to my erotic thrillers, thank you, where authors are more interested in warm-blooded planets than winter.

While I’m happy The Left Hand of Darkness exists as a thought experiment, I can’t deny its effect on me. Alas, it was to snooze.

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“Call Me By Your Name,” Or An Aching Love Story That Will Become An Aching Movie This Fall

418NXgCbb8LI’ll be lucky if I can get Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman out from under my skin at some point within the next year. I’ll also be lucky if my fellow commuters forget that, one Thursday afternoon, my face involuntarily contorted into a sob on the last page of a slim novel. What Call Me By Your Name lacks in pages, it makes up for in sheer psychological depth.

Welcome to the landscape of an all-consuming first love. A kind love that you forgot about after you turned 20, because frankly, that kind of full emotion is almost exhausting to remember. And it’s sad to remember, too — that state of pure awareness can only be sustained for so long.

Elio is 17, and if I could describe him in one word, it would be inflamed. He’s inflamed because of his sudden, unexpected attraction to the American scholar staying at his family’s Italian villa for the summer. And he’s inflamed because he’s realizing that he’s capable of such extreme emotion, emotion so viscous action seems impossible. Essentially: he’s just realized what love is.

Most of the novel is Elio parsing through his own thoughts, squeezing meaning from his David’s daily paths, searching for layers of truth behind innocuous lines of dialogue. He’s a thinker, not an actor. Eventually, after pages and pages spent analyzing passion, he acts. Thank god — now we get some juicy bits involving peaches and unforgettable innuendos.

There’s a lot I love about this novel. Italian villas. Literary crowds. Literary snobs. Sexy sex. Coming of age. Persistent great love that nags and nags throughout a lifetime. The idea of soulmates. The exploration of sexuality, bisexuality, and loving someone for their “core.”

Most notably, I loved the pressing, inespecable presence of time in the novel. Time functions on three levels in the novel. There’s the slow-moving Mediterranean Summer Time that I, having spent summers in Cyprus and Greece, know so well. Waking up with the sun, the mornings stretch, then the afternoon meals stretch, then night turns into a terrain of desire. Sleep’s an afterthought in the long, languid days that seem to go on forever, but when sleep does come, it knocks your sun-drenched body out. 

In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we’ve always known, and not saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.

On the other hand, time is inevitably pulling Elio and David towards an ending. David’s fellowship at the villa lasts only six weeks. Once the boys finally get together (no spoilers) Elio must make a choice. Does he give himself fully to the moment as if there were no ending, or does he stay aware of time?

Contrasted with this furious love affair is Elio’s ten-year-old neighbor, who’s dying of leukemia. Her days in the Italian sun are numbered, and she’s very vocal about the fact, to an off-putting degree. David and Elio are never able to confront their own limited days in the sun with language. Rather, they twist, they ache, they twist the minute hand but it doesn’t slow down. We’ve all been in those time-sensitive love affairs. They’re even more passionate because they have years of passion to cram into days. The roar of a love that can’t live out its due is deafening. It’s sad to think that the little girl won’t ever feel that love.  

And then, finally, there’s Love Time. Just as with the book Americanah, time doesn’t erode the connection between David and Elio, and that’s almost the worst part. The optical illusion of time passing — that circumstances change but people don’t.

Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.

All that praise doled out, there’s also a lot that drove me crazy about this novel. I’m happy I’m not a 17-year-old boy in love for the first time. There were many instances I said, yo, Elio — just go to him! While Aciman’s language is supremely exacting, it’s also maddening. How much time can we spend in the whirling dervish of adolescence? No longer than the number of pages that this book is: That is the absolute maximum.

I also took one large plot detail with a grain of salt. David is 24, and Elio is 17. In a book, I don’t care. But in real life, if my 24 year old boyfriend left me for a 17 year old, I’d be…well — inflamed.

I’m hoping that the movie, which has already garnered praise at Sundance, will strip some of the mental game of one-person ping pong, and inject more searing stares. Yum, Armie Hammer, yum.

Americanah, or The Book That Got Me Blogging Again

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Three months ago, I started a job as a writer. And then, I stopped writing — for fun, that is. In fact, I doubt I’d even be writing this were it not for my long commute. Each day, I’m on the train for about two hours. That means I read voraciously, averaging about a book and a half a week. About 20 books’ worth of ideas have been rattling around in my brain for the past few months. And while I write about the Kardashians and the Best Movies To Watch With Your Boo (for example), I think about my friends between the pages.

So, why did Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie bring me back? Is it because Adichie’s sprawling book was the first to bring me out of myself in a while, to make me feel empathy and guilt and awe? Or could it simpler: That the protagonist, Ifemelu, makes her living as a blogger, and I was jealous? I used to do that too, I thought, and I should do it again.

So, here’s me, talking about Americanah, easing myself back into books.

Here’s the gist. Obinze and Ifemelu fall in love as teenagers in Lagos. But since the course of true love never runs smooth, their paths disperse in far-flung, foreign places. The city count in Americanah adds up: Princeton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, London, Nsukka.

Geography alters Obinze and Ifemelu. By the time they meet again in their 30s, they have to talk through the years— chisel away the calcified history — until they’re strangers no longer.  Something I especially admire about Adichie’s characterization is the notion that still, after all these years, Ifemelu and Obinze are fundamentally the same. Yes, they are enlightened and jaded and burdened by experience. But their chemistry persists because their core essence, the personality traits that cling stubbornly throughout their lives, still remains.

Ifemelu and Obinze’s love story is a very good love story. It’s good in that it’s true: I believe they have what we all yearn for in a genuine way; they’re a good model for love. But that’s not why I’ll remember Americanah — after all, I’ve read other good love stories. It’s their time apart that was more eye-opening than their time together.

Both characters have terribly alienating experiences as immigrants in America and Britain. Ifemelu discovers race, as she says, when she’s first perceived as Black as a college student in Philadelphia (Adichie has said the same thing of her time in America). From her vantage point as an outsider, she’s able to observe race. To process her thoughts, Ifemelu converts her wry observations into blog form and begins a highly successful blog on race in America. Obinze, on the other hand, cleaning toilets in London, doesn’t have time for a blog. His time as an illegal immigrant in London is b l e a k, full of paranoia and green card weddings.

For me, so much of the immigrant’s motivation to move was succinctly explained when Obinze is at a dinner party with well-meaning but completely out-of-touch posh Londoners. Obinze, the son of a professor, had grown up comfortably in Nigeria. There was no pressing need for him to migrate, no blazing gunshots, no famine. And yet: He wanted to go elsewhere, desperately. This passage was the clincher.

“Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

Adichie’s book dealt with two MASSIVE topics, race in America and the influx of migrants in Europe, with such truth. At no point in the book can you read the words and decide to ignore some bits because they’re unpleasant. She makes you face the truth of the book on each page.

Seriously: No one could read this book and think anything but, “Wow. We should take care of immigrants.” No one could read this book and react with anything but tremendous empathy. On so many levels, the book was a major wake up call. I recommend people of all races and backgrounds to read it, absorb it, and let it make you as uncomfortable as possible.

Americanah does what fiction SHOULD do, especially in divisive times like these: It reaches out and says, come, let me teach you what you might not have already known.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Some books I love because I can’t shake them off. I enter into the dense patchwork of prose and emerge altered. I love those books, though sometimes their barbs bristle and make me uncomfortable. Other books I love because they’re beautiful, and that can make up for many other structural foibles. There are other books I love because they are true, and others because they’re indulgent. And yet other books I love because I wish I’d written them.

9780571326105.jpgThen, there are books that I love because they come into my life at just at the right time.

On November 8 of 2016, I happened to be reading the perfect book. I had started it only a week before, heading to the bookshelf to choose the chunkiest paperback I could find for my first morning train commute. The book was called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As a sucker for epic books set in India (of which there happen to be multitudes), this novel had been on my list for a while.

That said, I’m happy I delayed reading the novel for the time of Donald Trump’s election. While on the one hand, I feared that my country was spinning so fast that we were all going to slide off the surface of the earth, I had a book that told me: it could be worse.

In A Fine Balance, the lives of four characters are thrust together when they all briefly stay within the house of Dina Dalal, an independent widow attempting to hold on to her old apartment by running an illegal clothing factory. She employs an itinerant uncle/nephew duo, whose comedic timing and camaraderie is darkened by an undercurrent of caste violence in their hometown. Then, they’re joined by the quiet student studying air conditioning, who feels adrift in the big city and longs to return to his father’s store in the mountains. Or, better put, to his childhood in the mountains, before everything changed.

Accompanying Mistry’s four main characters is a chorus of vivid, fantastic ancillary characters who are just as memorable. There are characters lurking the backstories and memory, usually cloaked in nostalgia. And boy, are there villains. There are villains who raze entire settlements; people with violence in their guts; the erosion of soul that occurs from a prolonged lack of kindness.

 “The human face has limited space. If you fill it with laughter there will be no room for crying.”

The greatest villain in A Fine Balance, however, is everything that is done to the four main characters without their consent. Aka, the economy. As it turns out, no matter how lovely and fantastic your personality is (and they are all so lovely), they are at mercy of external circumstances. And external circumstances in India in the 1970s were just, well, not so great. Mistry’s world is bursting from the seams with detail — Dickensian detail — and that makes the status quo all the more horrifying. The nephew and uncle, for example, are completely bound in by their class and status. It haunts them with violence and injustice for the rest of their lives.

Individualism — people’s personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, what makes them human — is steamrolled under Great Economic Forces. Only in Dina’s confined apartment can the four characters live in a briefly society free from the pressures, assumptions, and that govern the outside world, especially for the poor.

As the best fiction does, A Fine Balance made me get outside myself. It showed me more convincingly than any non-fiction ever could that it could be worse.

 “Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.”

My DT-induced anxiety, while bad, was tempered by this incredibly realistic account of India as it crawled towards independence. As in: my family didn’t face violence for trying to vote. As in: I wasn’t sleeping on doorsteps, or confined to the whims of my demanding older brother, or my home wasn’t being deforested by the British.

In A Fine Balance, being an individual is only possible if you have money. Otherwise, you’re crushed under the wheel of corrupt, conniving, and indifferent bureaucracy.
And what makes the book so damn effective is that in Dina’s apartment, we see these four characters — lambs to the slaughter of the economy — in their full individual glory. I highly recommend reading this book. It’s an exercise in empathy.

For a more in-depth analysis of this incredibly plotted novel, check out this blog post.

Pond by Claire Louise Bennett & Why Likability is Overrated

Let me be honest with you: I struggled to get through Pond. Not because it wasn’t brilliant. It was totally brilliant. In this book, Claire Louise 1-0fuwyaqn8bbil2ihjukppwBennett does what the best writers do with language: reinvent it. She slams together such strange pairings of words together that, while reading, I felt my brain sweat and pant to keep up. It is a thrilling, dark little gem of a book. And yet I struggled to get through it.

Maybe that’s because the book is so deeply rooted in voice, not in plot. The entire success of the novel is predicated on her narrator being entertaining enough to entertain us through perspective, not moment. And it works! In strange, detailed, exacting language, the narrator constructs her world and her body through words. The narrator’s rural Irish cottage becomes enchanted through her unique perspective. It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s utterly genius.

“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.”

But though it’s a thrill, it isn’t a pleasure. And that’s probably my own close-minded fault. It isn’t a pleasure to read because, well, the narrator is — gasp! — unlikable. Sometimes I thought to myself, oh god, if I have to spend another moment in your cold witty grasp I’ll just have to binge an hour of the Kardashians to recover.

Yet the narrator’s “likability” doesn’t get in the way of my judgment of the book. Because guess what? That shouldn’t matter in determining the merits of a book. In fact, I recommend you all to go pick up Pond and read it. Because the narrator isn’t likable, but she’s herself. She’s just a person whose rich, twisted inner life is made penetrable by the page.

“I only wish you could spend just five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.”

There’s such a glaring double standard when it comes to unlikable characters in literature. We delight in Raskolnikov and Holden Caulfield. We gladly skip along journeys with the most curmudgeonly, horrendous men we’d never want to be friends with in real life. And hey, that’s because books aren’t real life. They’re windows into lives that aren’t hours. What a joy to read, if ever briefly, the story of someone who’s brave enough to be unlikable.

Take this quote by Claire Messud, which sums this up quite succinctly: “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?”

So even if I cringed while reading this novel, cringed at a narrator so unabashedly (and occasionally disturbingly) herself, I celebrate her right to exist. I celebrate the idea that a character doesn’t have to be “likable” to land on the page. Put simply: if books were entirely composed of likable characters we would have a lot of boring books.

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

When A Sport and a Pastime was published in 1967, the New York Times Book Review said: “Fiction survives through minor novels like this one.”Reading this book fifty years later, I’m testament to that statement. 

With a reputation in the writing community as a “writer’s writer,” each of James Salter’s sentences reads like an instruction guide for how to write the correct sentence. IMG_3318.JPGWhile reading this book, I experienced a similar sensation to how I felt while reading John William’s novel Stoner, also published in the 1960s. In both of these novels, the prose is controlled and very hemmed in. They wrote before the days of “show, don’t tell.” Williams and Salter tell — and they do it well. “Telling” lends the story even more of an element of control. The novel is, under no pretense, a real life. It’s a controlled narrative.

And the concepts of narrative and control couldn’t be more applicable in the case of Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The novel is technically about the love affair between a young Yale dropout and a French girl. But things aren’t that straightforward in this book, which is just as much about memory & construction & archetypes & the way we mythologize people as it is about romance (and lust). The story is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who, aside from some brief lunches and dinners, is not actually present during the novel’s action. Instead, it’s constructed from his imaginings. As the unnamed narrator simmers and stews in his lonely apartment in Autun, Phillip Dean is driving through the French countryside with Anne-Marie. As the narrator longs for the woman who lives across the street, Dean’s raw sexuality lands him straight into the heart of every woman he encounters. Dean becomes an amalgamation of everything the narrator wishes he was. He is not a real person. But the narrator is. And the narrator creates a warm garret where Dean and Anne-Marie briefly carve out a world — the numbered days of a love affair ticking down with the thuds of a beating heart.  So accurately and perceptively does Salter document the rise and fall of a connection that I questioned the uniqueness of my own experiences! Fiction: to know we are not alone.

“His devotion is complete; he is beginning to sense the confusion that arises from the first fears of what life would be like without her. He knows there can be such a thing, but like the answer to a difficult problem, he cannot imagine it.”

So, in addition to having some lurid and beautifully rendered sex scenes (it turns out the 60’s were pretty racy if you know where to look), the novel is chock-full of philosophy about the act of remembering. To make the story more complicated, the narrator is telling this story from years in the future. In the end, we find that the inspiration of the story comes from a place of memorial.

“Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future.”

I won’t say that this is an easy book to get into, because it’s not. The novel’s written in immediate present-tense, a sea of choppy sentences that convey the exact weather and place and time. Then, interjected throughout this immediacy is the narrator’s long-winded admissions that this whole thing is a dreamscape, a projection of his own inadequacies. Luckily for us — or for me — what I am left with is not the cold, sterile narrator who says no to life. Instead, there’s Dean. Dean in the car, Dean the Jack Kerouac of France, Dean cold and wandering, a sieve to emotion, a life without constraint.

It’ll stay with me, this book. Quietly, yes, but it’ll be there.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The year is 1976. The Lee family is the only Chinese — or, well, half-Chinese — family in their small Ohio town. And for unknown reasons, Lydia, the family’s 16-year-old middle daughter, has just been discovered in the bottom of the town lake.

In Celeste Ng’s slim novel, the backbone of a death isn’t suspense or who-dun-it. Rather, the story is held together by intricate, deep-seeded family dynamics of miscommunication and good intentions gone awry.

everythinginevertoldyou-celestengThat’s because the how of Lydia’s death is tragic, but not much of a surprise. The why — that’s the interesting part. And it’s not just Lydia’s “why,” but her parents’ and her siblings’. In this story, each family member is equally important in shaping the circumstances for Lydia’s death. In a narrative arc that jumps back and forth in time, exploring important moments in each of the characters’ formation, Ng lets the reader in on each characters’ secret yearnings that dictate their choices. The mother who wanted to become a doctor, and is constantly disappointed by her accidental pregnancy that derailed her plans. The father, the son of Chinese immigrants, who wanted more than anything to fit in — and exerts that same desire on his children. The older son, whose dreams of astrophysics (and his whole personality!) are overlooked by his parents, who are focused on Lydia, their favorite. Lydia, who forges a mask of a personalty under the weight of her parents’ expectation. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, who takes to surreptitiously collecting her family’s possessions because they don’t really notice her.

“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”

The catch to such well constructed characters? Each member of the Lee family has a distinct history and personality that dictates all of their actions. While this means the plot flows swimmingly — aka each action makes complete sense, given their history — it also meant that I didn’t buy it. Yes: is was a beautifully, achingly written book. In lyrical prose, it portrayed the pressures of being different and the repercussion of inter-racial relationships — two subjects I can relate to especially. But I also imagined Ng’s characters swerving along a clear-cut track, entirely blinded to the needs of their family members, existing in a bubble. In every instance real-life people could have had a conversation and explained their inner lives, Ng’s characters repress, ignore, pretend. In other words, they felt like characters — not real people.

Maybe I just have too high expectations for people’s communication skills. Maybe the Lee family, each with their hidden lives, is really what many families are like (I acknowledge not everyone has a loud Mediterranean family like I do). But I couldn’t help but think: all of this could have been avoided by a few key conversations. And hey, maybe that’s the point of the book.

While I thought the characters behaved in mechanically cruel way at times, that’s not to say I don’t recommend the book. I totally recommend the book. A family is made up of the same story told through many different lenses. In this book, we see the fractals, the way the life of one person is changed utterly by another. And we see this great tragedy: our intentions, once received, are sometimes stripped of their goodness. Without proper communication, our good intentions can go sour, punch people in the stomach, push girls (inadvertently — I’m not giving anything away!) into lakes.

A Confederacy of Dunces Club, or: How I Know I Have Good Friends

Sometimes my friend Laura listens to the recommendations I give her–and when she does, she’s always happy. What can I say? I gots good taste. I got her hooked on everything from British TV (a Doctor Who fandom to last centuries & Little Britain) and the podcasts she listens on her way home from work (Invisibilia and More Perfect). But nothing has made me happier than when she took my reading advice. On the morning commute we shared together, I watched her bookmark travel further and further into A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

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“Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today’s employer is seeking.” –Ignatius, but also me, super unemployed and that’s why I have time to read 😉 

When I first read A Confederacy of Dunces, there were moments in which I lost control over my body and threw the book across the room in a fit of laughter. But in this case, BOY did it ever. The book caused me to cringe and laugh in such rapid succession that my stomach hurt afterward. It’s the kind of book that can cure you of whatever illness you might have by making you just have SUCH  a good time.

Toole’s book follows the one-of-a-kind Ignatius Reilly, who, when we first meet him, is living in his mother’s hosue surrounded by his own filth, writing a long work about Boethius, a scholar of the Middle Ages that Ignatius personally identifies with. Ignatius sees himself at odds with the rest of his New Orleans community. He’s haughty, arrogant, and lives in a world entirely of his own imagination. His intellectualism has gone awry, sprouting horns of self-righteousness and ignorance towards his own personality and situation. In Ignatius’s perception of reality, everyone else is an “abomination” and only he holds the key to the proper way of existence. We all know people who walk around like that–but no one does it with as much bumbling, outrageous, offensive outbursts as him.

Of course, the narrator is entirely on Ignatius’s side, miraculously. It’s that refusal to acknowledge that Ignatius is a madman on the part of the narrator that makes our OWN discovery of it so, so amusing.

In addition to following Ignatius’s attempts at employment (the guy can’t resist any type of food, and has no idea how a business runs. so guess what happens when he works at a hot dog stand?), we also follow a few other plot lines that end up interweaving. It’s the Tom Jones of the 20th century. It’s a modern romp. Each of the characters is ridiculous, but none so unique and superb as Ignatius Reilly (although his very aggressive New York love interest is a close second). There’s a reason that there are statues crafted in Ignatius’s honor in New Orleans. He’s a character that IS larger than the words that contain him–he comes up in statue form!

This book won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. Unfortunately, Kennedy Toole committed suicide. The book was found in his room by his mother, and she read it and saw the glimmering genius apparent in its pages. She sent it to the writer and professor Walker Percy (he’s also a great writer) and he took it on as well. So even the book itself was published by people passing it on–infectious word of mouth.

I wish more so-called “literary” books, and certainly books as intelligent as this one, could be as unabashedly hilarious. After one reads Hitchhiker’s Guide and Confederacy where is there to turn?

While I want this post to be about A Confederacy of Dunces and that you all should read it, it’s also inevitably about the experience of sharing a book with someone. I’m never more touched than when I tell someone I think they’d like a book, and then they read that book. Laura and I laughed over passages and engaged in a totally old fashioned and delightfully nerdy celebration of the written word. Of course, she might not totally know what she’s gotten into, as I’m devising a whole list of recommendations for what to read next. Once you start reading, might as well keep trying to do as much as you can. 

ESPECIALLY when there are books this good in the world.

Kelly Link: The Best Speculative Fiction Out There (and she is “out there”)

The first time I read Kelly Link, I thought, oh–so this is the American answer to magical realism that I’d been looking for. None of her stories add up in ways that always make sense but they are always satisfying because they don’t go left or right, they go skyward. They make you think, goddamnit, and who the heck wants fiction that colors in the lines when you could have stories that get wonky and play with fairy tales?

magic-beginners

My first Kelly Link collection of short stories. I read it in Orlando, where weird things happen anyway. I feel like people discover her through recommendation, so here I am, recommending her.

When you don’t have to follow the rules of the world, you can talk about the world (and the same issues) in spectacular ways. Link is still discussing the same human condition as, say, Alice Munro, but through a much stranger vessel. That’s why I find reading her stories so captivating. They’re dripping with imagination. They’re not subtle in their wildness, but their brilliance will have you turning over the stories. They’re haunting. Read this one and weep.

“Charley looked like someone from a Greek play, Electra, or Cassandra. She looked like someone had just set her favorite city on fire.”

We read to understand the world, and to understand lives we’ll never have. But books don’t need a huge budget to stretch our imagination like movies do. They just need someone who can look in the corners of what might be possible, and then go live in that weird place for a while. When the author emerges, she’ll have brought a story that only her mind can produce. It’s a little hardened gem of the imagination, and it’s boundless.

A June of New, Dear Friends

I graduated college in May with a diploma in English and a big gaping hole in my life. What was I to do without my friends and my classes and my little routine? Or, should I say, my little life? The day after school ended, I did the only thing I knew to do: grabbed the nearest, epically-long novel I could find and dive right in.

I chose well. I chose a book that was unpleasant and electrifying and kept me coming back for more.  Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life and its cast of vivid and true characters filled the void for a bit. It became a chore reading it, especially once I saw the book for what it was–not the story of four graduates heading out into the world, as it begins, but the psychological portrait of a person deprived from love and exposed to absurdly gruesome horrors at far too young an age.

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A good book stays with me. It blurs the lines between my life and its life. Every time I walk to work through the Garden district of Manhattan, I keep my eyes peeled for Caleb, tall, dark, and evil, whose apartment was in that area in the book.

But I finished it only a few days later. It turns out one mere novel wasn’t enough to satiate me! I needed more characters and buddies to populate my life for a bit. So, I went into an epically-long series: the mysterious and fantastic Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.

neopolitan

thousands of pages of goodness

If Yanagihara’s tome is about male friendships in the modern age, Elena Ferrante’s series is about the enduring power of a female friendship in a much different time and place than my own. Elena and Lila, the two protagonists of Ferrante’s series, become friends in Naples in the 1950s. The story ends in the 2000s, after Lila disappears, and she always threatens to do. Elena defines her own identity based off of who she perceives Lila to be. Essentially, whatever Lila is (bold, dynamic, impulsive, manipulative), Elena is not. However, as we’ll see, their relationship is ever-growing and while they know each other so well, sometimes Elena is so busy projecting her insecurities onto Lila that she doesn’t see Lila for who and what she is.

Sounds pretty much like a normal relationship, right? That’s because Ferrante’s books do something extraordinary, that so many novels fail to do–and why so many novels fail. They describe reality. Ferrante’s characters make real decisions. They do not make choices that an author thinks would be convenient for a plot. Rather, as I moved along the path of Elena’s life, all of her actions fell into place. They built up and up, and her decisions impacted her personality and her personality impacted her decisions. Life!

Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity. Elena Ferrante

I ended June with lots of new friends–and new friendships. There’s Jude and Willem, Elena and Lila. I graduated from college with so many good friends. I’m just starting out like the characters in A Little Life. But reading these books about enduring friendships, seeing them evolve over the decades, makes me excited to see how my own friendships will change in adult life. Is there anything more elastic, forgiving, and necessary than a relationship with a true friend?