7/15/21: Reading and Conversation with Te-Ping Chen

On Thursday, July 15 @8PM EST, Writers & Books will be hosting a free virtual reading and conversation (I’ll be moderating) with the writer Te-Ping Chen. Her first book of stories, Land of Big Numbers (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021) has been acclaimed by the Oprah Magazine, NPR, and Publishers Weekly; it is truly amazing. Everyone should check out her book and please attend! I am super looking forward to it…

Free Registration Link: https://wab.org/event/te-ping-chen-land-of-big-numbers-stories/

Purchase Land of Big Numbers: https://www.ampersandbooks.org/book/9780358272557

booknotes: May-Lan Tan, Things To Make and Break

May-Lan Tan, Things to Make and Break: Stories. Emily Books, 2014

I’m not sure what to do with this collection, which is a 100% good thing. Most of these stories depict disaffected teens and 20-somethings as they try to navigate their own limits in intersection with adulting: sex and drugs are foregrounded, but not fetishized, as the easiest ways to test these limits before the topographical constrictions of home-ownership set in. The prose is at once sharp and blurry, or sharp in its unceasing blurriness, as if the collection’s protagonists are mired in a psychic fog that demands that their perceptual borders be themselves occluded. The remarkable “Julia K.” has a simplicity of storytelling that belies the ritual complexity of the protagonist’s actions and the murky understanding of the tale’s recipient. What is growing on me: the raw, untidy character of the prose that is both declarative (short sentences) and ambiguous, and the ways that sex, drugs, booze, can transcend their own cliches by seeing them as part of the landscape rather than as the excesses of and intruders to that landscape.

booknotes: Michael William Palmer, Baptizing the Dead and Other Jobs

Michael William Palmer, Baptizing the Dead and Other Jobs: Non-Fiction. Bauhan Publishing, 2020

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction (I know, my loss), but have been wanting to pick up Michael Palmer’s debut book in part because I like Michael a lot (disclosure), and in part because, in quarantine here in Western New York, I miss Utah, its colors, smells, peaks; I knew Baptizing the Dead would contain a healthy dose of the natural world. There are a few things I really love about this book. First, I love how this book is closest to memoir, but its 1st person narrator (putatively Michael) doesn’t spend too much time inside his interior. It feels right to me, here, with the narrator exploring/struggling with his LDS background, as well as how that intersects with sex, love, and family, that the narrator keeps it fairly (and beautifully written) simple, insofar as we are given the actions and reactions, and are left to roil around with the complexity of his life; a complexity that accretes from story to story. It’s got a certain iceberg-theory sensibility that sometimes I dislike; here I love. And still, I like it even better when the narrative fractures against the less linear forms the book sometimes employs; as if the narrator’s life is the ship which is wrecked against the jetty, its forms expelled and sharded through the fragmented glossaries the book sometimes favors. Okay, that was a super mixed metaphor, but still – this is a book well, well worth reading.

booknotes: Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus

Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus, Riverhead Books, 2016.

This is the kind of book I want to teach, because it is at once so intensely good and so interestingly flawed. A book that stays with me, with a slightly bitter taste.

What did I love about it? It is so wildly inventive. It retools our topography of the land, making the Southwest/Mountain West into a living entity, putting pressure on our human adaptability and our narratives around how the land evolves, with or without our influence. The language in this book is amazing: the lyric strangeness and unorthodox parts of speech. As someone who wants to integrate the lyric into a kind of realism, it’s really after my own heart. I had the feeling that Claire Vaye Watkins was super-focused on great sentences and lush imagery all the way to the last page. As someone trying to finish a novel, I’m recognizing right now how difficult and time-consuming it is to capture that intensity throughout the book.

And yet…I feel a deep tension in the book between something like weirdness and craft-based conformity. The book is at its best, imho, when it’s weird. The back story of Luz (which is sporadically deployed), some of the chapter structures (a Lincoln in the Bardo-like collective dialogue, a bestiary of alternate creatures) are amazing, and I want more of them. The problem: they feel incidental to the book, pretty bells and whistles, because they don’t fully integrate into plot development and character arc. That, to me, is where the book breaks down, in the tension between the normative conventions of the novel and the innovative worldbuilding, structure, and language. When reading, I often had the feeling that the writer felt pressure to really anchor the novel within traditional craft structures, that, in the end, didn’t really hold up. The momentum of the plot breaks down once Ray returns, the psychological arc of the characters is forced, with a different, more direct tonality. And while the protagonist is a woman, she is tethered to various men, who seem to hold power over her in ways that, while not regressive, still feel like old configurations. Perhaps that’s one of the points here, one shown by zombie shows and other post-apocalyptic media: that old structures eventually crumble in the face of new situations. But if so, then the book is restating, in albeit super-interesting ways, how this fall takes place, when I’d rather see (the book allows us to imagine) alternate possibilities. In this light, it’s a little sad when the end of the book arguably taps into old tropes of female agency, providing a symbolic ending that wraps things up, but doesn’t end well for Luz.

I can’t help but think: what if this book resisted foregrounding the psychological arcs, instead thinking of character as flatter, secondary to the landscape? What if the book refused the ever-intensifying set of explosive plot points? What if – this is Anne’s reading – the book let the earth, the land, the ecosystem occupy its center, rather than the individual humans? The radical ending, here, is not Levi’s large-scale fight that Watkins (I think correctly) refused or the possibly regressive one she embraced (I won’t give it away). Instead, perhaps, the radical ending is the quiet one, involving the long-term formation of new family structures and kinship bonds generated by the exigencies of the land.

To be clear: this book is great. I didn’t want it to end, in part because there’s so much going on in this wonderful world, in each sentence. The plot in the first two-thirds has a real drive to it, and everything feels a bit like a materialization of Burning Man, in an actually burning world. Wonderful, thought-provoking stuff.

booknotes: Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, Pantheon Books, 2019. Trans. Stephen Snyder. This is a really great book. Really great. I was really taken by the slow burn of it, the fairly sparse prose, the way it honestly didn’t go the way I thought it would go. By the end, it takes a tonal turn that I wasn’t ready for, making the book more allegorical, more darker and more solemn, less an inquiry into memory than a resignation in the face of its necessary, inevitable degradations.

It’s less a mode of magical realism than one that takes a speculative premise and builds on it, something like Saramago’s Blindness. The beauty is in the exploration of the ramifications of that premise.

Side note: there’s a certain kind of un-realism common to contemporary Japanese writers in translation – Abe and Murakami come to mind. It feels more like a marketing drive than a national mode of writing…Does the US get a lot of Japanese literary realists (Murakami Ryu, Oe) that I can’t think of off-hand?

booknotes: Jacob Paul, Last Tower to Heaven

Jacob Paul, Last Tower to Heaven, C&R Books, 2019

This is a smart, funny, conceptually sharp, and sometimes sad book that tries, in our current days, to figure out how one can survive collective trauma, notably the Holocaust, without having it turn into parody or soundbite. The protagonist, himself named Jacob Paul, helps make this book deeply personal at the same time it goes on cross-country adventures for meaning and self-meaning. The book feels larger than its plot, forcing us to understand ourselves as possibly dreamed by another, as if it is part of a larger book. I never really thought anyone would have the guts/imagination to mash the Celan/Jabes continuum with an almost Confederacy of Dunces plot and main character, but Jacob Paul has done just that. Last Tower to Heaven is a big, ambitious, and I think very personal beast that kept me engaged and emotionally attuned throughout.

booknotes: Sadie Hoagland, American Grief in Four Stages

This book is amazing. These voice-driven stories, at once harrowing and quirky and elegant, remind us not simply that tragedy is commonplace. Rather than stopping (and potentially wallowing) in a fetishized moment of tragedy, the book mines the complicated ways through which grief and loss drive how we make sense of the world, and write themselves, despite us, into the dna of our behaviors.

Purchase at IndieBound

booknotes: Andrew Farkas, Sunsphere

Sunsphere is a book of many books. You could call them linked stories, almost literally revolving around the Sunsphere itself, or you could call it a novel about the Sunsphere that ranges, a bit like Cloud Atlas, through multiple time frames, multiple universes, multiple characters who come into contact with the Sunsphere. This is not a book about character psychology so much as it is a moving, wonderfully-languaged meditation on the absurdity of how we construct our universes, on meaning and meaning-making itself. The smart and sharp writing utilizes a number of modernist and metafictional techniques, further calling attention to how The Sunsphere, all things to all people, remains elusive, unpinnable. Great book!

Purchase at Small Press Distribution (along with Andy’s other books)