Fante Bukowski (volumes 1 & 2)

Noah Van Sciver’s graphic novels about the struggling writer, Fante Bukowski, were a pleasant diversion this morning. He’s a big time loser who, at 23, is berating himself for not having written a great novel. His mom covers his bills until (in volume 2) he pays for a prostitute with a credit card, in addition to buying thousands of copies of his own 6-page zine which he attempts to sell for $8 a copy. The books are peppered with writerly sayings like “For a writer every day is a nervous breakdown” (John Banville) or “The beginning is always today” (Mary Shelley).  Bonus points for jabbing at Dave Eggers writing at an Eggers signing where he says “I’m right here, I can hear you.”

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel

I love Isabel Greenberg’s work. This is an earlier book (2013) but it has the same bones as One Hundred Nights of Hero– layers and layers of story to nestle around you and keep you warm. One tale leads to the next and you’re in deep with the traveling storyteller who weaves stories for his supper. There’s one of an awesome “old crone” who bucks the trend of the elderly slow-shuffling off into the forest when their time to die arrives. Instead, she tells the community that she’ll rid them of the giant who is pillaging and if successful, they must keep her around. To kill him, she invites him to eat some tasty sausages around her bonfire while she tells him stories (which give the sleeping pills time to work on him). When he’s conked out, she saws off his head. Yay for old women!

The Summer Before the Dark

A lackluster title for Doris Lessing’s magnificent book—better options would have been The Journey or An Awakening. It’s a tremendous book tackling the big questions of identity and aging, seen from the perspective of that forgotten character, an older woman.

Kate Brown is a mid-forties woman with husband and four grown children on the precipice of discovery about herself, something that has been sublimated for decades as she cared for her family. She’s given the chance to help an acquaintance of her husband’s by providing emergency Portuguese translation services to a global committee on food that is meeting in London. From there she takes on a summer job for an exorbitant salary and begins to change as she lives on her own in Turkey, taking up a younger lover briefly in Spain, and then recovering from illness hidden away in a stranger’s (Maureen’s) flat in London. The illness is striking—she loses a lot of weight, her clothes no longer fit, her hair starts to grow out of its red dye and her face becomes haggard. Throughout the summer she’s experimented in dribs and drabs with what it takes to disguise herself as an old woman (in order to be ignored) and then flit back into her “normal” self (adored by all).

Working for this Global Food committee, whenever she wants to sit alone and think, she must change her appearance:

It was really extraordinary! There she sat, Kate Brown, just as she always had been, her self, her mind, her awareness, watching the world from behind a façade only very slightly different from the one she had maintained since she was sixteen. It was a matter only of a bad posture, breasts allowed to droop, and a look of “Yes, if you have to” and people did not see her.

This transition is enhanced after her illness and she delights in dressing up in clothes that get her ignored and going out, then in clothes that get her noticed. She even discovers various facial expressions that she never allowed herself to use before:

Kate was now grimacing into the hand glass, trying on different expressions, like an actress—there were hundreds she had never thought of using! She had been limiting herself to a frightfully small range, most of them, of course, creditable to her, and pleasing, or non-abrasive to others; but what of what was going on inside her now, when she was ill, when she was seething and rebelling like an army of ants on a carcass?

The only shortcomings of the book are the usual decent into tangents that Lessing indulges in. The entire section of travel with her younger lover in Spain was dreadfully boring, enduring his illness and travels deeper into the interior. Lessing also insists on including dreams as a way to stitch the story together which I find annoying. Otherwise, a fabulous book detailing this forgotten segment of society—menopausal women!

Hangsaman

Spooky novel from Shirley Jackson about a 17-year-old girl who’s off to college and who loses her grip on reality somewhat, plus the disappearance of her friend Tony. It’s structured in three sections: Natalie on the cusp of leaving for school, at her parent’s house, possibly/definitely assaulted by a friend of her father’s at a party; Natalie at school, discovering that she’s drinking more than reading and that her English prof has married an ex-student but who still has affairs with current students, letters back and forth to her writer dad with advice and assignments; the final section she returns home and can’t wait to head back to school, when she does it’s an unreal unraveling where she and Tony hide from the college, go eat in town hanging in the railway station, then at a diner where a one-armed man asks for help buttering his roll, then they take a bus to the end of the line and Tony disappears.

Nicholas Nickleby

That gaseous old windbag, Dickens, has exhausted me after many weeks of tackling this, his third novel. It brims with the same colorful cast of miscellaneous characters that add a bit of sparkle to the 700+ pages. These are the random bits that delight, like the names of companies as the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.

The story follows the usual lines—a poor widow and her children reaches out to her rich brother-in-law for help, only to find that he’s a scoundrel. Uncle Ralph sends Nicholas out to be a teacher at a ridiculously abusive school where he ends up whipping the schoolmaster and leaving with one of the runaway boys, then ending up acting on the stage under an assumed name to make money for a while. Nicholas’ sister Kate is of course beautiful and pure and angelic, and Uncle Ralph sends her into the various clutches of terrible people in London. The widow mother, Mrs. Nickleby, is a blathering buffoon of the type that Dickens frequently makes women—airheads concerned with appearances and telling endless tales of their former glory. The only amusing part she plays is when she believes that the insane neighbor is in love with her. Caught in their chimney, the old man demands to be sent a bottle of lightning, a thunder sandwich, and a plate of boots to eat.

Miss La Creevy is one of the only female characters that comes close to being interesting in all of Dickens’ work that I’ve read so far. She’s a portrait painter who is an independent, friendly, smart spinster. “Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone for so long. The little bustling, active, cheerful creature, existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidant of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal, nobody’s reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many to whom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form the associations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with the society they could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of the Nickleby family attracted her attention, had made no friends, though brimful of the friendliest feelings to all mankind. There are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poor little Miss La Creevy’s.”

The Middlesteins

Overdosing, or should I say overindulging, in Jami Attenberg lately. This is my least favorite so far, the story of an obese woman whose husband leaves her after a few decades of marriage right as she’s suffering health declines. She’s the star, and supporting cast are the estranged husband, her new lover (Chinese chef), daughter Robin and her boyfriend, son Ben and his wife and kids. Spoiler alert, she dies of a heart attack eating ice cream with the freezer open.

Saint Mazie

Another great read from Jami Attenberg! This one tells the story of Mazie Phillips, a woman who spent most of her life in the “cage” in front of the movie theater she eventually owned in NYC, rescued at age 10 from abusive parents by her sister Rosie along with younger sister Janie. Mazie is adored in the neighborhood but loses her heart only a few times, once to a passing sailor (Captain Ben) who returns to town every year and they meet up, once to the nun Tee whom Mazie cares for as she dies of cancer. She’s well known as the Saint of the neighborhood for taking care of all the homeless and down on their luck people during the Depression. The story is told through snippets of her diary, interspersed with pages from her unpublished memoir, interviews with current Brooklyners and children of those in the story. Well done, an excellent choice for a taste of 1919-1939 NYC life.

Heartburn

Nora Ephron’s book came up as an example of humorous women’s writing so I decided to take a break from serious reading to slurp this up in an afternoon. The narrator is a 7-month-pregnant woman who discovers her husband is having an affair and when she confronts him, he simply says that he loves the other woman. She flees DC for her native NYC, 2 year old child in tow, and tries to make sense of her life. Husband shows up a few days later, not contrite but asking her to come back. She does, and they hang on for a few more weeks, she has the baby early and discovers that he’s purchased an expensive necklace for the other woman while she was recovering from her C-section in the hospital. She sells her diamond ring for $15k and realizes she can walk out now, but not before she tosses a key lime pie in his face. It’s a mediocre book that’s heavy on recipes and light on subtle humor, but a good change from serious brainwork.

All Grown Up

I loved this while reading it, then got annoyed with the constant repeating of information, but finally came around to appreciating her structure. She tells the story of a single woman almost in rounds, the same details being sung over and over about her junkie dad overdosing, her brother making it as a musician before marrying an amazing woman and having a severely disabled daughter they raise in New Hampshire, her mother throwing “rent parties” with a bunch of skeezy old men who insist on putting teenage Andrea in their laps and jostling her, and her own narrative arc of leaving Chicago art school to settle back home in NYC where she grew up on the Upper West Side and now lives in Brooklyn but working in advertising instead of as an artist.

Some of her lines are simply devastating. Throughout, she is wry and funny and real. I was hooked in the first chapter, where she describes her run-down apartment in Brooklyn with a view of the Empire State Building she’d sketch every day:

Still you draw. This is the best part of your day. This is your purest moment. This is when the breath leaves you body and you feel like you are hovering slightly above the ground. On New Year’s, that day of fresh starts, you allow yourself to flip through some of the old sketchbooks. You recognize you have gotten better. You are not not talented. That is a thing that fills you up. You sit with it. You sit with yourself. You allow yourself that pleasure of liking yourself. What if this is enough?

At her therapist she runs through a list of things that she is, besides being single (woman, Jewish, designer, friend, daughter, sister, aunt). In her head she thinks of another list (alone, drinker, former artist, and “the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”) She dates, usually unsuccessfully. About one encounter: “This is not a date; this is an audition for a play about a terrible date.”

She begins to think about making art again.

What if I did just that? That is the thing I love, that is  the thing I miss the most. For so long I have believed I could never catch up, but now I realize there’s nothing to catch up to, there’s only what I choose to make. There’s still time, I think. I have so much time left.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Another gem from British author Elizabeth Taylor (I also read her Angel earlier this year). In this one, Mrs Palfrey is a widow who arrives at a London residential hotel because she has nowhere else to go, her daughter not having invited her to live in Scotland with her, ignored by her grandson, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. It’s brimming with tragic descriptions of how barren life can be for an oldster, how the residents cling to their routine and savor the tiny enjoyments like reading the day’s menu, trying to make time pass as quickly as possible.

One day, Mrs Palfrey slips and falls on the street, and is rescued by Ludo, an aspiring author who lives in a basement apartment where she fell. He cleans her up and gives her a cup of tea before calling for a cab. Ludo slips into her life and Palfrey passes him off as her grandson Desmond, whom the residents have been clamoring to meet. In fact, Ludo is a much nicer “grandson” than her actual one.

The lone male resident decides he wants to marry Palfrey and she is horrified by the prospect. But still, she hints at his proposal in a letter home to her daughter, which sends consternation flurrying at the idea that they might not get her money after all.

Clever, charming book, a delightful treat for an afternoon’s reading.

Seducers in Ecuador

Brilliant novella by Vita, written in 1924 and dedicated to Virginia Woolf, who said “I wish I had written it.” In the collection of Vita’s writing that I’m reading, it’s described as “the most complex and the most highly stylized, the most interesting and the most modernist” of her works.

Arthur Lomax is a nonchalant Englishman whose life is changed when he agrees to join a pleasure-cruise to Egypt. This is where he discovers the joy and transformation of wearing colored glasses, first blue then green and black. The very first sentence gives away a major plot point: “It was in Egypt that Arthur Lomax contracted the habit which, after a pleasantly varied career, brought him finally to the scaffold.”

He loves the effect of the colored glass and refuses to go anywhere without them. “He resolved, however, not to initiate a soul into his discovery. To those blessed with perception, let perception remain sacred, but let the obtuse dwell for ever in their darkness.”

How did he end up in Egypt anyway? He’s sitting beside a man at his London club who mentioned that he was sailing to Egypt the next day and bemoaning the fact that his third guest backed out due to family problems:

“Family ties,” he grumbled; and then, to Lomax, “somehow you don’t look as though you had any.” “I haven’t,” said Lomax. “Lucky man,” grumbled Bellamy. “No,” said Lomax, “not so much lucky as wise. A man isn’t born with wife and children, and if he acquires them he has only himself to blame.” This appeared to amuse Bellamy, especially coming from Lomax, who was habitually taciturn, and he said,”That being so, you’d better come along to Egypt tomorrow.” “Thanks,” said Lomax, “I will.”

A few paragraphs later, Vita introduces the rest of the cruising passengers:

It is now time to be a little more explicit on the question of the companions of Lomax.
Perhaps Miss Whitaker deserves precedence, since it was she, after all, who married Lomax.
And perhaps Bellamy should come next, since it was he, after all, for whose murder Lomax was hanged.
And perhaps Artivale should come third, since it was to him, after all, that Lomax bequeathed his, that is to say Bellamy’s, fortune.
The practised reader will have observed by now that the element of surprise is not to be looked for in this story.

And there you have it—the entirety of the plot line. The rest of the novella flows along these lines, finally ending with Lomax arrested for Bellamy’s death and Artivale not getting the money after all due to a contested will. The seducer of the title is the unknown man who has impregnated Miss Whitaker, causing Lomax to marry her out of pity. Bellamy supposedly has a fatal disease and asks Lomax to help him die, but once the deed is done, his body is exhumed and no disease found.

The Heir

Vita wrote this in 1920 after visiting property that had gone up for sale after the death of one of her acquaintances. It’s a charming quick story of a nephew who inherits a large home and parcel of land from his aunt. Immediately ignored by the lawyers and house agents, Chase finds the sale of the house arranged for him, but then takes a few weeks off work (for an insurance agency) to explore the home and environs. Unfortunately, he falls in love with the house and the local people (who all fall in love with him too). But he has no money, and so the house must be sold. In the end he shows up at the auction and outbids everyone, a ridiculous sum that he does not have. It’s worth it, he feels, and he keeps the servants around, ending the book with the choice between dinner in the garden or inside.

Great Expectations: A Novel

Kathy Acker’s most readable book, according to Chris Kraus’s biography. It’s a great example of her layering technique, collaging with words, expropriating work from other writers (e.g. Dickens), avant-guarding all over the page.

Snuck in bits of her own life between wild careenings of flights of fancy, like her mother’s suicide on Christmas Eve after spending all of her money, and Acker’s own inheritance of wealth from her father.

Acker explains her process: “I wrote so many pages a day and that was that. I set up guidelines for each piece, such as you’ll use autobiographical and fake autobiographical material, or you’re not allowed to re-write. I really didn’t want any creativity. It was task work, and that’s how I thought of it.”

All Passion Spent

Oh Vita, bravo! This is a book I shall recommend to anyone who is experiencing the loss of a loved one, tackling death and absence in such a tremendous way, with a light touch and humor.

We first meet Lady Slane at age 88, her husband of 70 years having just died. Her brood of children includes the usual bores—the over-ambitious first son, the hyper-efficient first daughter, the complaining second son, the parsimonious third son, and the dreamers who were the youngest daughter and son, most beloved by their parents. In the wake of their father’s death, they all gather to discuss what is to be done with Mother, hatching their tedious plan of pawning her off between each of their houses for a few months of the year. Mother (Lady Slane) has other plans. After dumping her only real wealth, the jewels left to her by her husband, into the lap of her oldest son, she declares that she’s taking a house in Hampstead that she noticed 30 years ago and no she does not want anyone going out with her to arrange matters.

Alone, she meets the landlord Mr Bucktrout, and immediately finds a kindred weirdo spirit who tells her “I have few friends, and I find that as one grows older one relies more and more on the society of one’s contemporaries and shrinks from the society of the young. They are so tiring. So unsettling. I can scarcely, nowadays, endure the company of anybody under seventy.” Lady Slane agrees and tells her children that she does not want her grandchildren or great-grandchildren visiting her. “They were forbidden. The grandchildren did not count; they were insignificant as the middle distance.” So refreshing to hear this opinion, especially in this age when grandparents gush unremittingly about their offspring’s offspring.

A friend of her youngest son appears who has known Lady Slane many decades ago in India and they resume acquaintance, whereupon he rewrites his will and leaves millions to her, dying soon after. Lady Slane then donates all the money and art to hospitals and museums, infuriating her oldest children, but her great-granddaughter comes to thank her, saying that this made her less attractive as a marriage option and able to break an engagement she didn’t want. We end with Lady Slane expiring after that conversation.

McGlue

In an interview with The Guardian, Ottessa said she wrote this during her MFA course at Brown, “Looking back I’m astonished that I wrote it, I think it’s an astonishing book.” Indeed it is.

Incoherent, poetic rambling from the mouth of a sick alcoholic (McGlue) jailed for killing his best friend, Johnson. Parts are very very violent, leaving me shuddering. But overwhelmingly you’re drawn into the dream world of McGlue as he frets below-deck of the ship in a haze and ensconced in a Salem jail once he’s on shore. He keeps yelping for Johnson, not believing that he’s dead.

“Right,” I said, but it didn’t feel very right. I didn’t want to make it. I wanted to lie down with it and strangle it and kill it and save it and nurse it and kill it again and I wanted to go and forget where I was going and I wanted to change my name and forget my face and wanted to drink and get my head ruined but I certainly hadn’t thought about making it.

The language is just unstoppable:

I’ve not seen Johnson in too long. He comes and goes in my mind’s eye and still he hasn’t come to my lock-up down here in the boat to cool my nerves, my hot snake brains they feel like, slithering and stewing around, steam seeping through the crack in my head.

And

Me, peddling my legs around Salem like a windup doll looking for a glass teat to suck. “We’ll go,” he said. “I’d even pay my way.” But he didn’t have to try hard to get a job on that ship, and with him me too. Looking like a stowaway I made onto that ship the day of departure with Jonson clearing a path for me, like a prince. “He’s not feeling well,” was his explanation for why I was stained with wine, stumbling, smirking and raising a finger to say something, then forgetting and stumbling on.