Novella’s Fall Book Preview

Novella’s given you, our faithful readers, a preview of upcoming movies and TV shows coming this fall. Now it’s time to shine our spotlight on books!

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (pub date: Sept. 5th)

Tracing the past and the present of Mississippi, Ward’s upcoming novel follows a family – Jojo, his younger sister Kayla, and their mother Leonie – as they move toward the state penitentiary after hearing about the release of the children’s white father from prison. Exploring the love and limitations of family in the face of racism and poverty, Sing, Unburied, Sing parallels the likes of Toni Morrison.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (pub date: Sept. 12th) 

Set in an idyllic Cleveland suburb, Ng’s latest novel centers on two mothers and their children: Elena Richardson, who parallels the suburb’s composed order, and Mia Warren, who resists the said order. Soon a divisive custody battle — a result of the Richardson’s family friends’ endeavor to adopt a Chinese-American baby — creates animosity between the two women. Described as witty and wise, Little Fires Everywhere traces the nature of secrets, art, and, above all, motherhood.

Sam Sax’s Madness (pub date: September 12th)

Sax’s debut poetry collection challenges notions of masculinity, sanity, heterosexuality, and normality. Writing about sex, hysteria and lobotomy, and his own experiences with mental health, Sax uses peculiarities in of the language to parallel and contemplate the peculiarities of the human mind.

Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (pub date: Sept 5th)

Smith’s second poetry collection, like his previous work, discusses race, sexuality, power, and politics. It begins with imagining an afterlife for black men shot by the police and traces desire and mortality in relation to the body. A poet and an activist, Smith’s work has been celebrated for its innovative and political voice.

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (pub date: October 3rd)

Set in Brooklyn in the 1930’s, Pulitzer-winner Egan’s novel follows an 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, her father, and a nightclub owner named Dexter Styles, whom Anna learns is critical to her family’s existence. Eight years later, America is in the Second World War and Anna’s father is missing. A chance meeting with Dexter, however, helps Anna trace the complexities and, ultimately, the truth of her father’s disappearance. Egan’s first historical fiction, Manhattan Beach explores the oppositions within and dualities of human existence.

Jermey Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (pub date: Oct. 31st)

Divided into what Dauber refers to as the seven strands of Jewish comedy, the book delves into the ways in which Jewish comedy has approached persecution and diaspora. Examining comedic archetypes along with major Jewish comedians (Philip Roth, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart), Dauber’s work has been described as funny and crucial scholarship of Jewish history.

Han Kang’s The White Book (pub date: Nov. 2nd) 

The White Book, described as “the most autobiographical and the most experimental to date” by Portobello Books, is Korean writer Han Kang’s third publication in English. Starting with a list of white things the author saw in Warsaw (where she completed her writer’s residency), the book centers on Kang’s older sister, who’d died two hours after birth. Paralleling and intertwining imagery of the city and a new life cut short, Kang creates a genre-defying piece of literature, reflecting on life and death and survival.

Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (pub date: Nov. 7th) 

Lieberman writes about the history of vibrators, tracing the changes in the ways in which it has been used and perceived. Starting with the lubricant in Ancient Greece all the way up to vibrators in present day, Lieberman discusses sex toys within the context of various attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, and LGBT issues, presenting sex toys in a new, less clandestine light.

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Novel Ideas: Poems Harrowed by History

It is difficult to say that Molly McCully Brown’s first book of poems, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeblemindedis beautiful. Even at its most expansive, the word seems ill suited for poems rife with such pain and violence. It is harrowing. It feeds us what we’d rather not know and, as if bound, one cannot refuse to receive.

The title of the book refers to a notorious government run residential hospital in Virginia built in 1910. Overseen by eugenicists, the hospital performed more than 7,000 nonconsensual eugenic sterilizations on patients deemed ‘mentally deficient’ from 1920 to 1972. Brown, who lives with cerebral palsy, was raised not too far from the colony. In the opening and the only autobiographical poem she writes: “And by some accident of luck or grace,/ some window less than half a century wide,/ it is my backyard but not what happened/ to my body —” She is no casual visitor — she feels acutely the threat toward her body and therefore also the relief at the absence of actual danger. Time separates the body from being happened on but the space stands as though immutable; as though the space is no longer an organic palimpsest of histories so much as an encapsulation of a specific span of time, actions, pains, violence.

With a poet and a documentarian’s eyes, Brown’s spare blank verses relay the stories bound to the land from the perspectives of patients, doctors and caregivers, priests, and others. In the section, In the Chapel (Spring 1936), the chapel is a place of abandonment and cruelty, of work, and of confinement and strange transcendences. In ‘Psalm’, a patient remembers her baptism:

…………………………..The meek will inherit the earth, but you worry the mute and monstrous
…………………………..will pollute it long before that happens. So you strip me down,
…………………………..hold my head under the water in the basin,
…………………………..count to three, and pray in every language that you know
…………………………..“Dear God, bless this girl. Take her up and let her be the end of it.
…………………………..Put some distance between our bodies and hers. Take her out of our hands.”

And as if in response, on the very next poem a despairing priest wonders, “But, do the children of God really lose/ their eyes in the backs of their heads, and swallow their own tongues in church?” For the parents and the priest, the body is a space God has forsaken — a space that attests to the afeared fickle mind of God and leads them to pray ever more fervently, to have the good sense of building a chapel for the staff in the Colony. Yet, glimpses of faith or transcendence is also found through the body in contrast to the chapel built with “wood pews scavenged/ from bankrupt churches.” For a momentary transcendence, a patient turns to her body and those around it:

…………………………..I’d like to take the hands of the other
…………………………..epileptic girls & lead them
…………………………..up toward the altar,

…………………………..humming & weaving
…………………………..our arms together
…………………………..like chains.

…………………………..[…]

…………………………..As the weeks I’m here
…………………………..grow achingly
…………………………..to months & years

…………………………..I make an outside world
…………………………..of the space between
…………………………..my bones.

…………………………..They did not build
…………………………..the church
…………………………..for us.

The bodies of the patients are long gone in more ways than one. But the chapel, some remnants of it, supposedly still remain, as do the original structures of the Colony. On the same tract of land where the Colony once stood, now stands a much more voluntarily filled and civil service sounding Central Virginia Training Center. Were we to know by whom and where and how and why the word ‘center’ came to replace ‘colony’, we would perhaps have a better idea as to to what extent it is a continuation of the Colony.

Reading Brown’s poem, one is transported to the Colony and the consciousness of many and there helplessly feels as though mountains should have been moved or in the very least the gates opened at the pains inflicted and felt, the in-between-breaths prayers. The poems raise fears that the structures and the land and the space around them perhaps retain the powerlessness the bodies there suffered but could not record.

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In celebration of National Poetry Month, The Novella Team Talks Poetry

Sylvia Plath Reading

The eminent minds behind the public education system deemed it not only reasonable but essential that the public make acquaintance with at least some bit of poetry. The meetings are often awkward, even violent, and, increasingly rarely, a beginning of a beautiful friendship. Whether we like it or not, poetry is a part of our lives in a curious way that encompasses both the personal and collective memories of adolescence and/or — depending on whether poetry is a part of one’s life past university — experiences of daily lives. Even if you hate Shakespeare and Homer, you no doubt know of Hamlet and Odysseus; if not through the works, then through their caricatures and parodies. And this, I like to believe, is not such a bad thing even at the cost of a few exams and essays.

In celebration of National Poetry Month Novella writers share moments from their lives in which poetry inevitable, irreparably took and takes part.

Meg, Contributor

Every year since I was six I have written my dad a Father’s Day poem. If you look at them all at once, it is interesting to see the progression from the classic “roses are red..” format to things that were actually kind of good. The best part is that each poem is a reflection on how he was as a dad that year — some are funny and some are down right rude and are inspired by some serious teen angst. Actually, thats not the best part. The best part is that he has lost all of these poems since but I still continue to write them.

Hoon, Managing Editor 

In my graduating year, I had to take a course called ‘A Major Modernist Writer,’ something that I had been putting away until the very last semester because there were terrible rumors of the specificity and dedication with which these writers of major significance were read, analyzed, discussed, slept on and dreamt of, and, most terrifying, treated as subjects for what should be an interesting and readable paper. Previous courses dealt with the likes of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce, so I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad when I landed on T. S. Eliot. For the next 12 or so weeks, I admired him, sure, but mostly hated him — for his inconsistencies, his being an anglophile, etc. — and took to juvenile attempts at beating the dead man with insults regarding his sexual stupor and his troubled marriage. At the end of the semester, I panicked and wrote a terrible essay and barely passed with a pity and mercy ridden C. The embarrassment, of course, made me despise the poet even more — to the extent that a friend and I fantasized about vandalizing every Eliot book in every library across the city. But the strangest thing is that, five years since, I still think of Eliot’s poems and plays. Sometimes fondly. Often with admiration.

Kimberley, Contributor 

I’d always been fond of writing poetry since I was a child. It started in the third grade when my class was assigned to write a poem about our favourite season. My teacher at the time, Mr. Z, was known for being laid back while still trying to prove to the principal of our school that he was following the curriculum, teaching a sweaty classroom of self-conscious and disinterested eight-year-olds how to count five, seven, and then five lines and make an uninspired haiku. That being said, I became increasingly interested in this assignment and was even chosen to present my poem in front of the class. The date approached for my big reveal and I faked some sort of illness in order to be sent home and avoid any potential mockery from the boys in my class. While the subject matter of my poetry has changed — from heartfelt letters to my high school boyfriend, to all the things I wish I said to that one boy I was secretly in love with all of my University career — my reluctance to show anyone my poetry remains the same. I find that it’s a therapeutic way to get out all of the things I know I would never say aloud, at the same time creating art that I can be proud of for me, myself, and I. Though I don’t imagine I’ll be on any bestseller list any time soon, I’ll hold onto my archive of messily written notes for my memoir. If I can give any advice: write what you want and don’t let eight-year-old boys tell you shit about life.

Chris, Fashion Editor

In the wise words of designer Simon Porte Jacquemus: “Fashion is poetry. It’s a way to tell a story, to say something in this world, because you always send a message with what you wear.” And it’s true, fashion is poetry. Life is poetry. Everything has poetry woven in and out of it. Just in the same way that Jacquemus thinks about poetry, as do I. I remember the first time I was introduced to poetry, not children’s rhymes and couplets, but real hard hitting confessional poetry. I must have been in high school, during my first two years. I remembering browsing Tumblr at the time and coming across a single line from Sylvia Plath‘s poem Daddy. Ever since then, my love for poetry has grown. But I’m here to tell you about something I call my holy trinity of poets. Now poetry, like all art, is subjective. However, for me, there are three poets who are so inspirational and moving. Their names are Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Sara Teasdale. These 3 poets broke boundaries in their respective areas of confessional poetry and lyric poetry. Not only did these women play groundbreaking roles in giving female writers a voice in the literary world, they helped the world understand the raw feelings and emotions that run through a woman’s life on a day to day basis. And that’s something for women today (and everyone for that matter) to look at if they ever feel as if their voices aren’t being heard, or if they need examples of strength to express their creativity and personal stories.

Claire, Contributor

Growing up, I was never a huge fan of traditional poetry. I’ve always liked and understood music as a type a poetry, but whenever we would study traditional poetry in school I would find myself lost and extremely bored. Honestly, at the time I don’t think I really understood what the hell the authors were trying to say. The metaphors and hidden meanings were often lost on me. As I got older, what very little interest in poetry I may have had left disappeared. That is until I stumbled across Quarter Life Poetry. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I am currently dwelling in a quarter life crisis of my own, so maybe that’s why I enjoy this account so much. Or, maybe it’s because I actually understand and relate to the messages being expressed. Whatever the reason, I have one of the biggest social media platforms in the world to thank for slightly spiking my interest in poetry (it’s seriously worth checking out for a good laugh).

Andrea, Contributor

I recently read Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. It’s a collection of poems that string a narrative together to emphasize sexual assault as a problem women face both mentally and physically. It’s so beautifully written and to anyone who needs to find some soul searching poetry, I definitely recommend this.

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Novella’s March Reading Guide for the Avid and the Curious

Take a big breath. Listen, you can dive into your local — but most likely Indigo — bookstore and browse their many but not-diverse-in-any-way-that-matters and suspiciously vanilla sections of suggested — apparently we’re to take Heather’s word for it — readings for days and still not come up with a gem you’ll cherish for years to come for a couple of reasons: a) books organized with the organizational skills of a five-year-old with a corporate mindset aren’t conducive to a good search; b) if you do make it down to a smaller independent bookstore, you’re busy deciphering Joseph or Karen or some Edward’s handwriting in the staff-recommended section, which is, not to mention the efforts at trying to also decipher their personalities and to see whether the mildly indie sounding playlist also belongs to J., K., or E., distracting; c) I have a personal problem with the databaselessness of BMV and their knack for ugly stickers and surprisingly short list of books; and d) new and contemporary books are often pushed aside when the reader in search looks at and is tugged by the poised and attractive cover of a Penguin Classic. If you’re thinking, ‘That’s what online book lists for!’ first, yes, you’re right, but second, they usually peddle the same stuff over and over again. The best way, in my not so humble opinion, to find a book that you didn’t know you were looking for is to spend an hour or two at a used bookstore. But who has time for that these days?

This list of ten books for March is less ‘You have to read these’ and more ‘Consider these books and books that are like these ones in spirit.’ You can easily find excellent essays or stories written by these authors online — I’ve included some links below for you convenience. Read those first before hitting the bookstores. Once there, maybe go straight for the titles mentioned here, or venture with them in mind. Ignore my haughtiness and really try this. It usually works. A reading guide must be a “DIY: Axe” to the frozen sea within us.

Anything by Rebecca Solnit

By this time, you’ve probably been ‘told’ to read Solnit’s excellent Men Explain Things to Me (2014) and frighteningly prescient and necessary Hope in the Dark (2004). Which, if you haven’t, you should. And more to the point, if you have, do continue with Solnit’s essays on diverse subject matters ranging from urban planning and politics to the economy, environment, and the arts. A good place to start is The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, a collection of her essays. Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlasthe latest in Sonlit’s series of atlases that reimagine American landscapes, is another excellent choice.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Perhaps this is my arrogance raised to a preternatural height speaking but I think the number of people who know George Saunders’s name are much higher than the number who have read and appreciate his works. Which is really a shame because Saunders truly tests our capacity for empathy and thereby extends, frustratingly and beautifully, its boundaries beyond what once seemed possible. Which, I must say risking being redundant, is really something we need today. If not convinced, turn to this. His debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, based on the story of Abraham Lincoln and the death of his child, Willie Lincoln, is told from multiple perspectives — including those of the ghost forms of Hans Vollman, a once stupendously well-endowed printer, and a once closeted and now multi-limbed Roger Bevins III. This stylistically unique and often hilarious novel is a good place to continue or start your relationship with Saunders’s works.

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt’s new collection of essays is concerned with subjects ranging from art, the workings of the human mind, and writing to our capacity for and nature of imagination. One of the pleasures of reading Hustvedt, aside from her intellect, writing, and persistent curiosity, is the pleasure of reading someone who is incredibly well-read; her sources include Kierkargaard, Kant, Niels Bohr, and many more.

Autumn by Ali Smith

Dubbed ‘the first great Brexit novel’ by the New York Times, Ali Smith’s latest, Autumn, deals with loving and unusual friendship in tumultuous and uncertain times that was the political climate leading up to the Brexit vote and is still very much the case throughout the world. Daniel and Elisabeth, the central characters, meet when Elisabeth decides to take on the role of family for the dying, 101-year-old man. As an innovating novelist and a chronicler of our times, Smith depicts the two coexisting yet antithetical worlds of their friendship in the elder-care facility and the turmoil outside.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

In Vivek Shanbhag’s novella, we meet a nouveau riche family in Bangalore, India, whose dynamic shifts and turns as its members adjust to a new life, a new perspective. The novella not only harkens back to the best of classic family novels — those of Edith Wharton and Tolstoy — but reaffirms the medium’s capacity to suck in and unsettle readers like a series of short, hard punches. Ghachar Ghochar is the first English language translation of the already acclaimed author’s works.

Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin

In a zeitgeist increasingly dominated by think pieces focused on ‘validating’ individual experiences and once again bringing to light the undertows of a TV show or a celebrity-instance, Jessa Crispin’s manifesto is refreshing and vital to not only thinking about feminism but making its principles and values into reality. The founder of Bookslut writes against a kind of social-media squabbling feminism that creates “not a more egalitarian world, but the same world, just with more women in it.” Crispin shows us a path to the radical space of feminism over the various obstacles and distractions generated by the mainstream.

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

Yoshinobu Mikami, a classic disgruntled investigator, and is wife’s search for their missing child, Ayumi is at the heart of Hideo Yokoyama’s international best seller, Six Four. But like the best of them, darkness or evil lies not solely on the circumstances surrounding the main case. In the process of unravelling the mystery, Mikami tugs at the undertows of the bureaucratic system and complicated and nuanced power relations that shape life, as it does elsewhere, in Japan. The crime is intriguing but the glimpses into the grid of unseen dynamics that flow underneath our daily lives is truly captivating.

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

Don’t read these stories before dinner. In fact, don’t read them before lunch or breakfast either. Try to find a sweet spot between meals where your mind is far from foods because Ottessa Moshfegh, to my and, soon, your, pleasure, writes often about throwing up — the physical act and the quiet, more frequent than one would like to admit, involuntary expulsion of our deepest, darkest, dirtiest thoughts and desires. The scenes come alive and it’d be a shame if you went without your food. But if you had to choose, choose to read this over a meal because stories like “Mr.Wu” and “The Beach Boys” will make you forget about everything outside of their worlds.

The Snows of Yesteryear by Gregor von Rezzori

The Snows of Yesteryear is the type of book one reads on a train going across the beautiful and sad landscapes of a romanticized Europe in between tea and cookies in the afternoon and champagne in the evening. Though the memoir often deals with hardly romantic or picturesque scenes of life, Rezzori’s beautiful writing conveys a feelings of comfort not unlike nostalgia for an imagined past. But behind the quiet misdirection of the narrator and beyond the windows overlooking a quaint town, treaties are signed, enemies are made, and wars rage on. Rezzori’s is a chronicle of the adventures and mishaps of innocence and growing up in times of warfare disguised as a memoir. Since the romanticized plains and mountains of the old countries are far, try it while on TTC. It’s definitely not the same but the writing is still very much excellent.

Citizen — An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

It’s hard to talk about Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem Citizen because it’s difficult — for many and different reasons for many and different people — to talk about race and what constitutes a person in America today. Short-listed for the National Book Award in 2014, Citizen is also an examination of the poetic form and its powers and limits in the world today. It rings true and beautiful and disabuses the reader of idyl perspectives. You can read an excerpt of it here.

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Film Review: A Quiet Passion

Photo credit: IMDB.
Photo credit: IMDB.

In A Quiet Passion, Cynthia Nixon stars as Emily Dickinson. The actor, it must be mentioned, is best known for her role as Miranda on Sex and the City, although she’s invited to push her acting chops a little further here as the physically and mentally troubled poet.

Nixon succeeds absolutely in the lead, playing the idiosyncratic punctuatrix with subtlety and skill that brings the passion of the film’s title inescapably to the screen. In fact, one often wishes that the former TV star had been given a better movie in which to play the part.

A Quiet Passion is not bad through and through. It has virtues beyond Nixon’s performance, such as Jennifer Ehle‘s steady if uninteresting turn as Emily’s sister Vinnie, or the decorous austerity of the period art design. The film’s portrait of Dickinson, paired with that of the world she inhabits, establishes gracefully enough the tragic suppression of the gifted woman in upper crust 19th century America.

But a number of serious problems keep the film from being what it might have. Story wise, it gets stuck between an earnest meditation on Emily’s psychology and an unimaginative, uneventful costume drama. While the second, more hapless half is the better one, the story begins with a totally gratuitous act depicting Dickinson’s youth, and proceeds through a hackneyed first hour devoted entirely to the exposition of Emily’s unconventionality, Emily’s wit, and the fact that Puritans are stuffy.

Nixon plays Dickinson from some time in her twenties (a stretch) to her death at fifty five. But as these three decades pass through the stodgy biopic, their passing goes almost unnoticed, mainly on account of how little has happened and how superficial the drama has remained. A change in makeup might have helped, but then again so would a plot.

All in all, it isn’t quite clear what A Quiet Passion is about. While Dickinson’s poetry is repeatedly referred to, and several scenes include the verse in murmured narration by Nixon, this isn’t really the kind of biopic that concerns itself with the act of art-making, like Amadeus or the Paul Dano bits in 2014’s Love and Mercy. Rather than crazed toiling, Emily’s writing seems the only really easy and natural thing in her life, done by night with the permission of her mildly misunderstanding father.

So what is Emily Dickinson’s struggle? Is it with her social difficulties? With so much of the film devoted to her curious and whimsical conversations with family and close friends, that seems unlikely. Her failing health? No, despite one or two shaking fits that bring the mood down, but don’t really constitute a central storyline. Her isolation? Isolated she is, but by choice, and not to much dramatic effect. Dickinson’s life is clearly an unhappy one, but it’s never apparent what writer and director Terrence Davies, known for The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea, has to say about it.

Part of the problem is tone. While the main concern seems to be with the corrosive unhappiness of the shut-in genius, life in the Dickinson manner of the film is anything but stark, presenting instead an almost sitcom-like revolving door of colourful guests, portrayed flatly and without purpose. Particularly difficult to stomach is Emily’s brash and independent friend Vryling Buffam, who comes onscreen to exchange contrived Wildean witticisms with Emily as if in a poorly directed college production of Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Despite these distractions, the film is, at its core, a meditation on the depths of human misery. As such, it does achieve moments of transcendence: a fantasy sequence here, a slow tracking shot there, a handful of exchanges between Emily and her relatives in which you find yourself leaving the general blandness behind and instead becoming suddenly and authentically depressed.

A Quiet Passion is screening on September 12th as part of TIFF’s Masters section, and is expected to come to theatres across Canada in early 2017.