Books on This Year’s Holiday Wish List

There are no shortage of good books out there. If you are wondering what to gift your book-loving kin but don’t know where to begin, here are some titles at the top of my to-read list this holiday season.

Canadian: The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore is an all time favourite when it comes to short fiction. She is a distinctly Canadian writer, often alluding to her native Newfoundland or to neighbourhoods in downtown Toronto. Her writing is inimitable — matter of fact and freely imagistic. She is interested in human relationships and devises rich emotional worlds that linger invisibly over commonplace settings and events. I look forward to reading her very best in this collection.

Award Winning: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve yet to read Kazuo Ishiguro, but Never Let Me Go seems as good a place as any to begin. Set in dystopian England, it follows the lives of human clones, manufactured for the purpose of donating vital organs to prolong the lives of ordinary citizens. It was short listed for the 2005 Booker prize and included in TIME’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Ishiguro was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

Oddball: Notable American Women by Ben Marcus

I sincerely hope that this strange and wonderful-seeming book finds its way onto my shelf. Ben Marcus experiments with language as he tells the tale of the fictional Marcus family. In the beginning, a young Ben recounts his mother’s rituals as she works to make the world perfectly still; she “chooses not to move, refuses to speak” to eliminate the “wind violence” of words. What’s next, I don’t know, but I’m sure that it’s equally bizarre.

Best Seller: Swing Time by Zadie Smith                                                                                                

Swing Time sits comfortably in the window of nearly every other bookshop and in the hands of café dwellers and subway riders alike. Once, I even saw somebody walking down the street with it, unfazed by the likelihood of tripping or bumping into a stranger or wandering into a burning building. This must be a good book.  It’s a bildungsroman, following two girls who meet in a community dance class. While the friendship between them ends in their early twenties, it is never forgotten. According to the back cover, it’s “a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them.”

Non Fiction: Essays Against Everything by Mark Grief

Mark Greif refers to Essays Against Everything as a critique of the things he does. He looks culture in the face and questions it head to toe; topics range from the overvaluation of exercise, to the hipster, to the concept of Experience. In the preface Greif says, “To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop”.

Novel Ideas: The Stories of John Cheever

John Cheever in Ossining, New York, 1976

John Cheever has not had a good posthumous career. He is not widely read today nor is he regularly included in school curriculums where reputations live and grow; the setting of Cheever’s stories and what it’s come to represent being under general social and cultural scrutiny — and such scrutiny, anachronistic or otherwise, being generally popular —, Cheever’s stories themselves have often come under attack. ‘Cheeveresque’ has become synonymous with suburbia and middle to upper middle class and dismissed as misogynistic or just another dead white male voice. He has, somewhere along the way, become an author an English major is proud to have graduated without reading (the list may very well include some of Shakespeare’s better-known tragedies, T.S. Eliot, Kipling, etc.).

It should be noted that Fitzgerald — Cheever’s immediate predecessor — and Salinger — his contemporary —, whose primary subject was middle and upper middle class America, continue to be a part of the literary lexicon of our time. Jay Gatsby’s ascension to online bibliophiles’ points of reference and continued presence in ‘The Most Beautiful Quote…’ lists would have surprised even Fitzgerald himself, while Holden Caulfield maintains something of a cult status. Cheever the man, while alive, was not prone to scandal and notoriety as the Fitzgeralds were, or did his stories end up in a Southern School District’s list of banned books.

Cheever’s contemporary reputation, whatever remains of it, is largely shaped by Blake Bailey’s long biography published in 2009 that gives in full and lengthy detail the personal struggles of the troubled author; his daughter’s, Susan Cheever, memoir, Home Before Dark, published just two years after his death in 1984, which revealed her father’s closeted bisexuality and his lifelong struggle with alcoholism; and the posthumously published journals and letters that didn’t really paint a brighter portrait of the author but furthered the image of the man in a mire of emotional crisis and financial troubles.  Perhaps the fact that Cheever isn’t read so much today has more to do with the convergences of these factors that define the author outside of his works: mid-century America, suburbia, his bisexuality, his marital troubles, his strained relationships with his children, alcoholism.

Cover of Vintage International Edition of ‘The Stories of John Cheever’ (2000)

But there’s more to Cheever than the sum of the words written about him, as there are more to Cheever’s stories than the most immediate images of swimming pools and backyard barbecues. In them, bright images — or technicolor, as it was for Frank Perry’s 1968 adaptation of ‘The Swimmer’ — turn sour, sooner or later, and in Cheever’s mastery of the form, the souring makes perfect sense. Central to Cheever’s stories are not particularly 20th-century American notions of glamour of living fast and being peculiarly close to violence, the likes of which can be found in Fitzgerald and Hemingway alike. What lurks behind closed doors of Cheever’s well-to-do suburban houses and apartments, and in the crevices of safety and security of social status and wealth is an element of criminality, of venal sins, small in scale but outsized in moral connotations.

In ‘The Enormous Radio,’ Cheever’s 1947 breakout story in the New Yorker, Jim and Irene Westcott, “the kind of people who seem to strike that satisfactory average of income, endeavor, and respectability that is reached by the statistical reports in college alumni bulletins,” brings home a radio that transmits sounds from nearby apartments. After a series of bizarre and Kafka-like instances of eavesdropping and paranoia, Jim reveals to Irene the family’s financial crisis and, to obtain a moral high ground, reminds her of how she stole her sister’s inheritance and how she went to get an abortion as if she were “going to Nassau.”

One of Cheever’s more celebrated story, ‘The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” begins Johnny Hake’s description of his house in an upstanding Upstate New York suburbs: “We have a nice house with a garden and a place outside for cooking meat, and on summer nights, sitting there with the kids and looking into the front of Christina’s dress as she bends over to salt the steaks, or just gazing at the lights in heaven, I am as thrilled as I am thrilled by more hardy and dangerous pursuits, and I guess this is what is meant by the pain and sweetness of life.” Johnny Hake then proceeds to tell us how he was fired from his job, lied to his wife, and resorted to stealing his neighbor’s wallet to make ends meet.

The resolution of this particular story says much about Cheever’s stories in general: Hake’s employer calls him and rehires him. That the reestablished order is tenuous and fragile at best is perhaps what makes the tranquil night of a backyard barbecue as thrilling as stealing. Or perhaps that the tranquility, the contentedness, are themselves stolen. If so, from whom or what? Or more importantly, when will they come back to get it?

In a 2012 essay in the New York Review of Books, Allan Gurganus, who studied under Cheever at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, wrote, “If [Cheever’s] fiction still throws off salt spray and blinding daylight, his company amused, intrigued, specialized in dares. He always wanted to have a good time. ‘What’ll we try for fun now, and next, and…?'” Gurganus’s account of Cheever’s company differs with others that speak to his genuine inability to maintain relationships and of his close bond with his dogs as the only close bond the author had in his life. It’s difficult, and perhaps meaningless, to attempt to understand Cheever the man three decades after his death. But as for his characters, they are indeed full of intrigue, desirous of good times, and also full of darkness, weighted by unnamed remnants from past that, even in grand company, they are alone.

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Non-Beach Summer Reading Guide

One of the things I am not very fond of is a summer reading guide. This is mostly due to the fact that it usually tries to instill in the reader’s mind an image of a picnic on a beach on a balmy day — though it gets no where near balmy until mid-September —,when the long afternoon seems never too full, the parasols always at the right angle, the reader’s life somehow so used to the beach that nothing, not even the shitting gulls or the barely noticeable bikinis, is a distraction and everything is a welcome enhancement of an already perfectly fulfilling experience of reading.

Not that I don’t appreciate the fact that certain seasons call for certain readings. But summer readings should by no means be necessarily easy or conducive to a desperate recreation of a rote image of summer. So I made a list to counterbalance — or to at least spit in the face of —  ‘X number of Books You NEED to Bring to the Beach’ lists. It consists of books coming out this summer, books that talk about traveling, books dealing with the season, and others that are just plain damn good.

Cover of Arundhati Roy’s ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy  Twenty years she made us wait, and now it is here: Arundhati Roy, the acclaimed author of The God of Small Things, returns this June with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. The many stories that make up the novel take us from New Delhi to Central India and the Valley of Kahsmir, from the point of view of an owl to the mind of numerous and varied characters.

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris — The opening sentences of the title story of Joshua Ferris’s first collection of short stories reads, “On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness. And he would say, “Why do this to yourself?” He wanted to keep her from being hurt. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband.” Discord and discontent in coupledom are rampant in Ferris’s stories, which is one of the reasons why his stories are often laugh-out-loud funny. You feel a little bad after laughing, though, which is a good time to take a sip on a summer beer. I should also mention that you can read a few of the eleven stories in the New Yorker if you don’t feel like buying the book.

Gaslight by Joachim Kalka — The 19th century is continually fascinates us and is, we continually find out, never that far away. Joachim Kalka’s essays on the century’s literary minds, serial killers, mad scientists, and more are thought provoking in their relevance to our contemporary zeitgeist. I’ve been looking very much forward to reading Kalka’s first work to be translated into English, and it hits the stands today (though whether it will be easily available in Toronto is another matter).

Cover of Jillian Tamaki’s ‘Boundless’

Boundless by Jillian Tamaki — I first came across Jillian Tamaki’s work on the subway around the time, two or three years ago, when New York City’s MTA started beautifying a number of trains with MTA-inspired posters depicting everyday commute. The details caught my eye. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Tamaki is a renowned illustrator with two successful graphic novels — This One Summer and Supermutant Magic Academy — under her belt. Now she has another book out, Boundless, which deals with the virtual and IRL lives of women (You can read an excerpt of it here). This one’s on the top of my list (the one in my head, not this particular one on page).

Mother Land by Paul Theroux — Domestic tyranny, pettiness, and misery abound in Paul Theroux’s somewhat autobiographical novel about a family of eight — seven children, a mother — in Massachusetts. Other than the more than slightly recognizable tyrannical matriarch, Theroux’s prose is always something to look forward to.

Cover of Darcy O’Brien’s ‘A Way of Life, Like Any Other’

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien — If there is a California novel that I love more than any other, this is it. Darcy O’Brien’s 1977 novel is concerned with a son of famous Hollywood stars whose fame has set. There are green grasses, pools, avocados, ranches, and everything one imagines when one talks about California. But there is much more to this wonderful novel than pretty pictures. You can read Seamus Heaney’s introduction to NYRB’s reprint here.

A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes — Hurricanes, feral children, and pirates make for a great read on a stormy day. And Richard Hughes’s prose makes it even better. I am reluctant to recommend this one because I secretly want to keep it all to myself.

Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan — The final installment in Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich series came out just a few days ago and, with well-timed — well-timed relative to latent backlashes against Hollywood’s yellowface — announcements of Asian actors (Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, etc.) who will be playing starring roles in the movie rendition of Crazy Rich Asians, remains highly visible in any number of bookstores around the city. Usually this isn’t a good sign. But with Kwan’s highly successful and often hilarious books, it is a cherry on top. You can walk in to the bookstore, spot it within ten steps, and leave to read it soon after.

Cover of Catherine Lacey’s ‘The Answers’

The Answers by Catherine Lacey  — No sophomore curses for Catherine Lacey as The Answers, the Mississippi-born author’s second novel, is one of the most highly anticipated and praised novels of the year. Mary, the protagonist, suffers from a number of nameless illnesses and is cured, so to speak, via Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia. Which, if the name doesn’t give it away, is very expensive; Mary answers a high-paying Craigslist job. If you liked Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, run to the bookstore today, because today is its publication date.

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Novel Idea: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal

Darryl Pinckney and Elizabeth Hardwick, photo by Dominique Nabokov

In her 1985 interview with the Paris Review, Elizabeth Hardwick said, “In general I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis.” Gossip and analyze character she does in her 1974 book of essays, Seduction and Betrayal with acuity, humor, and intellect one often does not find in everyday gossip. As Joan Didion points out in her introduction to the NYRB 2001 reprint of the essays, Hardwick seems to have seen no distinction between ‘the real and the literary’ and understood “that the women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are.” Hardwick’s essays on the Brontë Sisters, Sylvia Plath, or Zelda Fitzgerald are as much analysis of their works as explorations of writing as an act of transgression and actualization; they are, it becomes clear, characters in a broader history of women in literature as female characters in literature — Nora and Hedda of Ibsen, for instance — are reflections of women in history.

Hardwick writes of of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, “We may very well predict that [Nora] will soon be laughing and chattering again and eating her macaroons in peace, telling her friends – she is going back to her hometown — what a stick Helmer turned out to be. Otherwise her freedom is worth nothing.” She gives us not only an analysis of Nora as a character on stage, but what Nora is as a dramatized but recognizable extension of reality. Hardwick continues: “Nora’s liberation is not a transformation, but an acknowledgment of error, of having married the man. Her real problem is money — at the beginning and at the end. What will she live on? What kind of work will she do? Will she get her children back? Will she get a new husband? When the curtain goes down it is only the end of Volume One.” Through Hardwick, our concerns as readers of Ibsen are extended beyond the drama.

I can’t quite imagine, when thinking of a cliché image of gossips, Elizabeth Hardwick’s acutely original voice discussing suicide as performance in Plath’s poems; for this, I have in mind the Greek chorus. But I like to imagine how natural and, to a degree, fun it must have been for her to discuss such matters over, say, a light lunch in her Upper West Side apartment. Perhaps the facts that she was, with Robert Lowell and the late Bob Silvers, one of the founders of the esteemed New York Review of Books, was friends with Mary McCarthy, and was acquainted with Billie Holiday influence the way I read and review her essays.

But it is less my admiration for the author of Sleepless Nights and more for the quick and revealing sentences that carry her judgments and ideas — such as, “[Plath’s] fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible” — that make the essays stand out as examples of creative, original, and truly revelatory literary criticism.

Hardwick once wrote in her famous 1959 essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, published in Harper’s, “The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday ‘Book Pages.'” In Seduction and Betrayal, it’s easy to see what Hardwick meant by involvement, passion, character, and eccentricity; she has them all and more to offer her readers. Her scathing review of the Times is humorous but also frightening to one such as myself daring to add on to the conversation. All reviewers — or at least all that one should care to read — should fear adding on to ‘a puddle of treacle’ faced with Hardwick’s work. But good thing she also showed us what to aim for.

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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
………………………… chains.


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

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