What I’m Reading:
What to make of a novel that sings of the most heinous human behavior in the most lyrical language? This is just one of the questions to emerge from this philosophical, and beautifully written novel that weaves grand events from the stage of WWII with the personal history of its misanthropic narrator. William Frederick Kohler examines the world through the lens provided by the various stages of his life: as brow-beaten child, then a student of German culture and unwitting participant in Kristallnacht, then as an invading American G.I. and Nuremberg translator, and finally as historian and author of Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. Gass’s reading of the novel on CD fleshes out the nuances of language in the essayistic passages, dirty limericks, action, and meditative sequences that make up his tunnel: a novel-length prose poem that is by turns hilarious and moving as it plays enfant terrible to clichés of the human spirit.
The Frances of Frances Johnson is forced to decide whether or not to attend the Munson town dance. In other words, Frances faces an identity crisis: going to the dance as all the people of Munson pressure her to do equates with becoming part of “normal” society while not attending, or even more astonishing, leaving town for neighboring Little Munson, is an admission that she’ll always be different, ostracized. A very funny, and sly reworking of girls’ coming of age novels from the ‘50s.
At times, Vacation seems like the kind of novel Beckett would write if he were alive today. Myers follows his wife, whom he thinks is cheating on him, only to discover that she leaves each evening only to follow a complete stranger before returning home. But “what was he supposed to do, let her promenade all over the city in her stockings without him?” Yes, he learns, for “that’s the way it works these days.” It’s a modern romance, in other words, told with the precision of a minimalist sculptor and the right-on timing of a stand-up comic. Chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, and often from the beginning of one sentence to the twist at its end, we, like the characters of Vacation, learn that the closer one looks, the less there is that can be said with any certainty.
Read Katelyn Eichwald’s review of Vacation here.
Under Virga by Joe Amato.
Organized as an abcedarium of the military alphabet—Alpa, Bravo, Charlie—Under Virga takes that language schema designed to facilitate unambiguous communication and turns each letter into a drop of virga: rain that falls but evaporates before it hits the ground. Not that there isn’t real rain. It’s just sometimes hard to know where it’s at, hard to distinguish between the ducks and the decoys. Hard to know if the mass luxury market will create jobs for the masses or destroy the planet first: “We both sip our Starbucks decaf house blend / (she takes Splenda) / our brows deeply furrowed”. This book-length, memoirist poem is a hybrid of class, film and culture critique, a discourse on poetics and their impact on both private and public life. A pleasure to read, one of those book-length poems that seems to do everything.
Take the magical realism of Latin America and crash it into American metafiction and you’d get a book like this: a collage of Lucha Libre wrestlers who ascend into heaven; migrant flower pickers who go to war with Saturn; women with origami organs, and an author who pines for love. Even those of us whose lives don’t hinge on obtaining green cards or other documentation are people of paper this novel suggests, our class differences, nationalities, even our private thoughts constructions of language, paper, and ink.
Europeana by Patrik Ouredníck, trans. by Gerald Turner.
The “great man” view of history recounts the past through the force of its individuals: Napoleon, Hitler…. Now imagine the 20th century as told through its statistics, facts, and patterns. A very different view emerges, one where all inventions—from the bra to mustard gas—are leveled in the march of technical “progress” and the constant effort to “improve man” makes history seem more the result of human nature than human effort, its genocides and other repetitions as inevitable as the seasons.
Still the most profound response to 9/11 in any genre. Written from the perspective of an American who has witnessed the bombing of his hometown, New York, the book emerged from those early days after the attack when all the arts seemed to be a useless play-acting in the face of real people bleeding real blood. Bernstein’s poetics insist that language too is a reality—“War toll tops 100,000?—Get your mind off it, switch to reality TV”—reminding readers that ignoring this fact can be as consequential as a dozen 9-11s. That is, readers both understand and experience at a gut level why close reading, or its lack, has real consequences, especially given the speed with which Official Verse Culture can fill any rhetorical vacuum with its own poetics of “Shock & Awe,” jingoistic journalism, simple-minded patriotism: “Suicide bombers wreck neighborhood.—Time to pitch in!” The individual poems build to the climax of the book’s brilliant, title poem, “The Ballad of the Girlie Man”—a reply to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mocking of “girlie men” who refuse to accept the Official Verse Culture of consumerism and war.
Posted in Book Lists