22 September, 2022

Five Books I Read This Summer

This summer was good to me; I didn't pass out from the heat, I wasn't bitten by any bugs, and I only got sunburned once. I even carved out a little time, between work and sleep, to read. What's more, the things that I read were of a particularly good variety.

When I learned from The New York Review of Books a few months ago that David Shields had published a new book, The Very Last Interview, reading it right away felt like an imperative. Twelve years ago, his much-praised literary "manifesto," Reality Hunger positively blew my mind. Critics said that The Very Last Interview was the best thing he'd written since. I haven't read anything Shields wrote in those intervening years, but I suspect they could be right.

Similarly to how Shields "wrote" the chapters of Reality Hunger by collaging snippets of other authors' work (flying in the face of what I once considered originality), he compiled The Very Last Interview from questions other have asked him during what seem to be downright torturous interviews. The result is a fascinating, surprising work that examines the nature of notoriety, the responsibility of the interviewer, and the narrow power of inquiry.

Albeit with less fervor, I also wanted for quite some time to read Toni Morrison, especially her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, about young Pecola Breedlove, a black girl who wishes more than anything else to have blue eyes. From its first scintillating pages, I understood myself to be setting off into a dangerous work of literature. No wonder Morrison caught the world's attention! She renders with uncomfortable closeness the details of poverty and decrepitude in which, in mid-century Ohio, several poor black families live. Where I expected a somewhat domestic book told straight, Morrison tipped me right over with her gorgeous, fluid prose. I could scarcely set The Bluest Eye down. When I did, feeling fairly bruised and battered by its unsettlingly beautiful ending, there was little in the way of cozy resolution on offer. All I can see fit to say is that Morrison clearly earned every bit of the praise she received.

Turning from the past to the future, I reached next for another 2022 release, a wonderful, unexpected gift from Emily C., who evidently pays keen attention to the titles of books that I mention in passing. In the hands of a less skillful author, the title of Olga Ravn's The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Cenury (translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken) might be a giveaway of the big story within this small book. Not in Ravn's. What we have here is an expertly written, quietly experimental work of what I'll call literary sci-fi.

In a nonchronological series of numbered reports, the employees of an unnamed organization take turns detailing their interactions with several alien objects aboard the spaceship on which they work. The reports are anonymous. Some are as short as a single sentence. They document, in chilly, disconnected corporate fashion, degrading morale among the ship's human and synthetic workers, until the situation ultimately moves past the point of no return. Ravn's The Employees is space-faring speculative fiction not quite like any other I've read, and I want more.

It's a shame that The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, by British fantasist Angela Carter, didn't feel quite so unique. Until her death in 1992, Carter wrote a breed of high Gothic fiction that lingered in murky dungeons and in the high, crumbling towers of damp castles. What she seems to have been known for was more her substance than her style. It was arguably Carter who first returned fairy tales to their dark roots, retelling the familiar stories of Snow White and Red Riding Hood with unsettling, sometimes nightmarish twists. The Bloody Chamber, from 1979, offers versions of "Bluebeard," "Puss-in-Boots," and multiple different takes on "Beauty and the Beast," each of which infuses the dry old stories with blood and other bodily fluids, and in doing so renders them sometimes all but unrecognizable.

It's Carter's style that I had a hard time with. The first paragraph of one story here, "The Erl-King," contains this sentence about late October, which typifies how she wrote: "There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approach of winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezes it tight." Such ornate verbiage, like the impassable brambles surrounding Sleeping Beauty's castle, impeded my getting into these stories. I read them all, though, and found plenty to admire in this writer's ideas and her willingness to do what poets have always done: make it new.

After reading a couple of Franny Choi's pieces in The New Yorker and Poetry, I sought out her debut collection, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, with only the vaguest idea of what lay in store. The book contains one of those poems, "To the Man Who Shouted 'I Like Pork Fried Rice' at Me on the Street," Choi's response to a man who apparently accosted her on the street with a racist, sexually provocative remark. It's a strong poem, a thoughtful, witty rejoinder to a particularly odious brand of cretinism. I wish the rest of the collection were half as provocative. A dismaying percentage of Floating, Brilliant, Gone is given over to work that feels like juvenilia stuff that I imagine a younger Choi toiling over in great earnest after completing her geometry homework; stuff quite similar to what I committed to a purple crushed-velvet notebook that, mercifully, posterity didn't deem fit to preserve. Choi clearly has talent and a level of introspection that can serve a poet well, and I hope that this first published collection served her well on her journey to grow as an artist and human being.

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