Bloggy Stuff

booknotes: Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People

Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Heads of the Colored People. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

This book, longlisted for the National Book Award, is smart, biting-funny, and at times really powerful. The first story, “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” is a tour-de-force, at once hard-hitting and self-aware – I can’t wait to teach it. Each story, set in California, has a Black, usually middle-class protagonist, drawn complexly, understanding to various degrees of their positionality. One thing I love about this book is the way it acknowledges the racial positioning of different reading audiences. If anything, I wish the book used more of the metafictional techniques used in the first story and alluded to in a later story, “A Conversation About Bread,” which centers on two graduate students debating auto-ethnography.

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.

4/27/20: Review of Two Californias in The Literary Review

Endless thanks to Karin Falcone Krieger for this gorgeous review of Two Californias in The Literary Review. Besides the nice ego boost and the fuzzy feeling when you know the book (especially in difficult times) has been circulating, I’m also starting to treasure the different ways each reviewer approaches the book – which topics are subjects of focus, which stories, which writing lineage the book splays out from. I love the review’s notation of menace underlying the stories, and am touched/humbled by calling the book a “Gen X Thomas Pynchon or low key cousin of David Foster Wallace.” Thanks, Karin!

4/15/20: Review of Two Californias in THE SEM10TIC STANDARD

Thanks so much to R. Leigh Hennig for a glowing spotlight (with the humbling post title “Superiority Through Characterization”!!!) in THE SEM10TIC STANDARD. I admit that I didn’t think I’d ever be favorably compared (or compared at all) to Stephen King! I really appreciate Leigh’s insights into character development in 2C, and especially the ways that he thinks of Two Californias in terms of the horror genre; that horror, or domestic horror, doesn’t intrinsically involve the supernatural or even the superviolent…

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)