Books I Read in 2015

An Unnecessary Woman- Rabih Alameddine

The Days of Abandonment- Elena Ferrante

Memories and Vagaries- Axel Munthe

Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia- Stephen J. Brodio

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird- Andrew D. Blechman

Iona Moon- Melanie Rae Thon

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids- edited by Meaghan Daum

American Salvage- Bonnie Jo Campbell

The Break- Pietro Grossi

A Devil in Paradise- Henry Miller

Working the Room: Essays and Reviews: 1999-2010- Geoff Dyer

Pan: From Lieutenant Thomas Glahn’s Papers_ Knut Hamsun

Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget- Sarah Hepola

Wild Animals I Have Known-Ernest Thompson Seton

The Watch Tower- Elizabeth Harrower

High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never- Barbara Kingsolver

Trio-Dorothy Baker

The Diver’s Clothes Live Empty- Vendela Vida

Dear Thief-Samantha Harvey

Elizabeth Bishop: Nova Scotia’ ‘Home-made” Poet- Sandra Barry

Who Do You Think You Are?- Alice Munro

Nothing Natural- Jenny Diski

The Pastures of Heaven-John Steinbeck

The Story of the Lost Child- Elena Ferrante

The Last Kings of Sark- Rosa Rankin-Gee

Outline- Rachel Cusk

The Blue Flower- Penelope Fitzgerald

Don’t Let’s Go to The Dogs Tonight- Alexandra Fuller

Agua Viva- Clarice Lispector

A Field Guide To Getting Lost-Rebecca Solnit

All the Light we Cannot See- Anthony Doerr

Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die- Sushila Blackman

The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Short Stories- Leo Tolstoy

Diamond Highway: A Tibetan Buddhist Path in America- Tony Cape

Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast- Mike Tidewell

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia- Joan Chase

Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History- Paul Schneider

The Denial of Death- Ernest Becker

Tuco: The Parrot, The Others and a Scattershot World-Brian Brett

Once Upon A River-Bonnie Jo Campbell

H is For Hawk- Helen Macdonald

The Peregrine- J.A. Baker

The Body Artist- Don DeLillo

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear- Elizabeth Gilbert

10:04- Ben Lerner

A Little Life- Hanya Yanagihara







Books I Read in 2015

Trio- Dorothy Baker

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Just finished Trio by Dorothy Baker. Her other, Cassandra At The Wedding, just devastated me last year. Why, you ask? Second (perhaps) to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, I would call it is the best book on female-to-female relationships I’ve ever read. In Ferrante’s books the two lead characters are best friends, in Baker’s book the two girls are twin sisters, but the themes, quite the same. They both explore the strange landscape of female relationships and their effect on identity.

Baker asks, how do twins feel when they start out exactly alike, only to grow more and more different, and farther and farther apart? What if one of those twins wants to stay closer than the other, what if one is conventional and the other, unconventional in their paths? What then? Ferrante starts, not with twins, but with two whose identities have the same point of origin. They both explore what it might mean for women so close as to be the mirrored, and so different as to be alien. That rollercoaster of need, blinding at times, for a woman to be close to another woman, so that the conflation of their respective identities might act as proof- of individual worth, desirability, purpose and sometimes, of one’s own sanity. How shakey is it otherwise. But also the shock, located in that closeness, that no matter the aping, no matter the point of origin, no one will ever know you completely, or be like you, or understand you. Then the rage, repulsion, and antagonism that comes with the fallout.

I was in love with the whole thing, Cassandra’s brilliant, vitriolic voice, Judith’s placid sweetness, how Baker builds the characters but keeps so many cards close as well. The author melted form ( which I won’t spoil for you) and content so very fine indeed. I would press it upon any smart person I knew (imagining a few dolts who wouldn’t be able to appreciate Cassandra’s acerbic wit or even, god forbid, a story told from not one, but two women’s perspectives). If I hadn’t lent my copy to a friend, I might be reading it a second time right now.

Which brings me to Trio. Now obviously as soon as I finished Cassandra At the Wedding I needed to have everything Dorothy Baker had written. NYRB had republished Cassandra at The Wedding and another Young Man With A Horn, both out of print. I could find two other books she’d written, Our Gifted Son and Trio, also both long out of print.  Got a copy of Trio sent from England, picking that title because of its controversy. Baker and her husband had conceived of it as a play, and the nature of the subject matter, a love triangle between a girl, her older lesbian lover and her boyfriend, has caused riots at performances. I’d also read it was thought of as a ‘pulp’ novel and I wanted to know why. Because it was considered lascivious at the time of its publication in 1943? Or was it the way it had been written, or marketed? This New Yorker article was illuminating, after the fact. I think it was just considered pulp because it was marketed as such. In Trio, the three characters work in various ways to gain power over the others. Having read her later Cassandra At the Wedding, I could see her working out her treatment of power, uncontrollable emotions, vitriol.

Then I must address this. Some have said Trio is homophobic. It certainly isn’t generous to the ‘homosexual lifestyle’, the consequences of which wound everyone involved. And yet, I wouldn’t exactly call it homophobic. As the reader meets the characters at the end of the central relationship, an end which is violent, any early joys of the relationship are barely revealed it at all. What we are treated to is the kind of brutalizing power dynamic that happens at the end of some relationships: blame, anger, adultery, disgust. The central relationship in Trio is characterized by abuses- idol worship and manipulation- rather than love or equality, which, because it is a lesbian relationship under the microscope, seems homophobic.If you imagine love, homosexual, heterosexual or other for that matter, to be delivered on an even plane, then yes, Trio, is rather harsh. The male character is disgusted by what the women have been doing (and he finds it corrupting to some extent) but it isn’t so much the physical but the emotional corruption he is disgusted: the manipulation of teacher over student, elder over youth, sophisticate over naif, cunning over fragile, and woman over girl. If the author’s illustration of the destructive nature of the relationship hinged on it being a homosexual one, then yes, I would considerTrio, and by extension Baker, homophobic. But I have a problem calling it that for two reasons. First, the book is not a-historic. It was written in 1943 at a time when homosexuality was not accepted, and its perimeters salaciously defined. Literature can uplift, emulate or disregard ‘realism’, but Trio is no more, or less real, no more or less homophobic, than life at that time. For the era, Trio is almost progressive. But more importantly, what is most ripe is the misogyny at play, illustrated by the fear and self-loathing battled by both female characters. The women are not free to be lesbians, not because homosexuality is wrong, but  because it corrupts the primacy of male desire. The young female character is ‘used up’, the older female character a destroyer of marriages and other hetero-normative relationships. As the world opens to these women, they are exposed for their fragility, for their desires, for their otherness, and while they do themselves no favours, it is men who finally take them down. This theme is picked up as a thread and examined with more elan and sophistication in Cassandra At the Wedding, with much more satisfying results.

Trio- Dorothy Baker

The Story Of The Books In My Life

This image had plagued me for some time, in particular when I am alone and in front of my library and decidedly contemplative about life. The web of connections, physical and ideological. I’d thought myself to write about it, then I read a passage by Henry Miller in his book The Devil in Paradise and realized he beat me to it, and think his imagery says it all.

“Some day, when I acquire a house with a large room and bare walls, I intend to compose a huge chart or graph which will tell better than any book the story of my friends, and another telling the story of the books in my life. One on each wall, facing each other, impregnating each other. No man can hope to live long enough to round out these happenings, these unfathomable experiences, in words. It can only be done symbolically, graphically, as the stars write their constellated mysteriousness.”

A beautiful, and to my mind, true image and yet henceforth I defy him (as he did to himself) by attempting to write it all out anyway- the connections between feelings, books and friends, in spite of the impossibility, in spite of ourselves.

The Story Of The Books In My Life

On why I am a reader

In my early life I only remember visualizing three things about my impending adulthood. Three things I wished for. I pictured myself in each scenario over and over. No other faces were clear, not some husband or lover or pet. No bridal fantasies, the sound of wedding bells and details of a big white dress. No dreams of power, the presidency or supreme rule, ambitious climbing with the gleam of success in my eye. I can’t remember ever “seeing” myself as a mother- that was more a vague longing tucked back behind real clues to the good life- it seemed as far away and amorous a thought as my travelling the Nile by boat. Unlikely, heavily romantic and within my capabilities if opportunity arose. I mean, if I was in Africa, and a Nile trip was scripted in the journey I’m sure I’d enjoy it, but I still had to get myself to Africa, and that seemed to require a closet, sensibilities and skills I, for unknown reasons, hadn’t acquired. It’s like a I’m waiting for my passport, or at least a temporary work visa, and if I think grimly about it, I’ve been denied a few times already, but with new contacts and some good recommendations, I’m hoping this time they’ll let me in. That’s still how I think of motherhood- as Freud’s proverbial Dark Continent- and I am the Victorian on her Grand Tour approaching it like a terribly curious beast.

So, instead of a wife, or lover, or mother or master, I imagined myself a reader.

First, I saw myself in the stiff seat of the train, holding a book and pausing briefly to look out the window at fields rushing by. I would dream about reading on a trains. The blue grey tweed of the seat, my legs crossed at the ankle and feet hooked on the rest, hands gripping the cracked book in my lap. I saw myself just flipping a page as the train conductor asked for my ticket, and I’d look up and hand it to him, and then look down again to the words. Sometimes I’d see a coffee on the pull-out table, or luggage overhead, but I never imagined quite where I was going, or where I’d been, or why. Only that I was alone, on a train, reading. This thought made me fill with anticipated joy.

Second, there was noise, boisterous noise surrounding my corner table in a restaurant. I’d imagine myself reading in cafes, unknown couples and families and friends and lovers all at their respective tables and I at mine, a glass of wine in one hand, a book raised to my eyes and held firmly by the other. I’d peek over the edge of the book periodically, motioning to the waiter for another glass, or to absorb the hustle of the clients and the cooks and the maitre’d. Some of these visions were set in grander restaurants, where I was lingering over oysters or curling noodles around my fork as my eyes followed the sentences along, hurrying towards the end. I loved the feeling of always having a perfectly weightless volume comforting my interior world, while another heavier exterior world grounded and grazed about me. A duality of being, and not being, the summation of my own personhood.
Finally, a golden library. A novel cocoon. A small room of my own, with floor to ceiling bookshelves on three of the walls, the other painted gold. A window that let in light, reflecting off the gold wall and illuminating all of the spines of the books on all of the shelves. A daybed, with a pillow and an old quilt draped off one side. I’d dream of this room, and my time in it, taking down a book, and laying on the daybed and reading in afternoon light. Even painting the wall gold became part of the dream, and organizing the books on the shelves by genre, and author and publishing date. Sometimes it was winter outside the window and my adult body was covered in a bulky sweater and the daybed had more than one blanket, and sometimes it was fall, as it is now, and the light was especially nice and glittery, to the point of distraction. Always alone, always cozy, relishing the quiet, happy with my book.
I’ve been wondering lately if I should have been more careful, what I wished for. I read on trains, I read in restaurants and cafes, I have a studio, not gold per se, but it has a daybed, and books surround, and I’ve been spending hours in it, curled up, reading. These things don’t just happen sometimes, rare opportunities to live out childhood dreams, they are the bulk of my daily life. I can’t claim much else besides the hours I spend at the bar at Terroni, polishing off a Margarita, my second wine and the last chapter of Murakami, or the first snow fall outside the train window to Montreal, getting heady with Adorned in Dreams. Occasionally it bothers me to think I should have dreamed bigger things, and populated them with loved ones and children. There is a lingering wonder that I might not have to feel the big dark world of marriage and motherhood and career continue to elude me. All that could be mine if I just could imagine it so, if I’d just used my (certainly) active creative visualizations for slightly more encompassing fare. I should have envisioned greater joys than a good book. I didn’t, and I still can’t.
-First published some years ago on LWITBR.
On why I am a reader

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty- Vendela Vida


When I saw Vendela Vida’s new novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty at the bookstore, with credit in my hand and no one’s watchful eyes giving me heat to pick up something edgier, I bought it.I’d read The Lovers a few years back, found it trying and overwrought but I’d pitched this new one as a review anyway, curious about what she might be up to now. What’s more, unless something really calls out to me, I usually let a book sit on my shelf weeks, months, years before actually reading it. Not a week later. But boom, there I was closing the book this morning, not 24 hours after picking it up. There’s something- I consumed it, fast. Why? Would I call it riveting? That’s the stretch. Would I call it suspenseful? At times, though I knew from the beginning how it would go. There were some nice twists. Would I call it smart? It would be fitting that word be used to describe it – by others. For The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty does seem to check off all of the fine points in contemporary literature, So much so it is as if someone were standing over her, reminding her of the pack they’ve made with writing the (successful) new – Dave Eggers say, or maybe the entire McSweeney’s and Believer staffs – tapping the tips of their fingers together and smirking, saying Darling Vendela….hummm, yes…it shall play with genre, say mystery or travelogue…tackle some notoriously difficult voice or form (may we suggest second person perhaps?)…it shall move at a quick clip -showing rather than telling- letting the action speak Ibiza-level volumes about character…locate itself in various locales, both physical and social…try Morocco, or a film set, anything so tuned-in to the Now-ness of now scenes play out like harp strings through a vocoder (Moorish details in interior design are so hot, think of the cover, the display ideas at Indigo! Plus, who doesn’t love a movie star? A wink wink of behind the scenes of “behind the scenes”)…and while everything is moving along swimmingly, hit the reader with something wild, a real left swing, exposing the emotional core of a hidden drama, raw as hamburger meat, something brutal and tragic. Voila, a recipe for success!

Now , unfortunately, when the reader look backs, she’ll see was plotted with a subtle yet scientific precision every four and three-quarters pages since the very goddamn beginning, giving her a ‘Gee whiz, aren’t you smart!’ notion about the work of the writer- but luckily for some this will be a genuine awe inspiring feeling, but for others one of jilt. Is this really what is the path carved out by our brightest and best?

I complained to my writer friend CFP some months ago about this very phenomena in literature, one I think comes directly from the rise in TV and Hollywood endings (though I’ve found it elsewhere and will mention it where later). But Hollywood ending is cheesy, you say, and not smart at all, a Hollywood ending preys on all our most conservative desires – to end up together, to be loved, to win, to be rid of the bad guys, to gain power, be received in grace and understanding, to make out ok. We all know that, and we’ve moved past the Hollywood endings, just look at True Detective! I think we’ve just found more sly ways to achieve the same results, the same self-satisfied smirk of having it all add up without it being too obvious in its adding up. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty sits smack in this camp – taking cues from the hysterical realists without being quite as ludicrous and crass, the author Vida has those perfect links and random characters just showing up in time to carry the plot to its next necessary location. It’s as if Chekov’s Gun is blowing off willy-nilly right under your nose, and you’re supposed to be so pleased with the excitement as to not say that this the smoke (and mirrors) stinks. We continue to avoid the truth of mystery- that there is remains no answer, no clear way to feel at the end.

It’s always rattled me, when clearly smart people who calculate the adding up of something, no matter how disparate the pieces, especially the calculating of the not-adding up element. You follow me? It is like you want a broken pot, but instead of just lifting the thing over your head and giving it a go in the driveway, risking cuts or losing a few pieces in the lawn, you instead decide to laser cut the pot into visually irregular pieces, which are laid out, like a broken pot, but whose pieces could be picked up in some Disneyland swirl of wind and magically fit back together. Oh there’s smarts in the execution of the laser cut, and magic, and money too. Both broken pots, but one with little risk and nothing in the way of real consequences. I’m going to keep up this lame metaphor until I think I write out what I mean.

I said I would mention where I’d seen this before. I think the artist Jeff Wall is a great example of this. Jeff Wall attached such importance to the “not-adding up” in the visual plane, seen in historic avant-garde artists like Manet et al. He sought desperately to achieve the same thing in his own work, his odd tableau’d light box photos. He mining both the field of art history and the field of photography for the clues on how to achieve that most desire effect. But in setting out for a particular visual response from a particular ( well-heeled) audience, his work didn’t actually achieve that avant-garde edge, by an ape or mimicry. For me, this writing style, so done by Vendela Vida in The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty and others is similar. It apes at the edge, without being edgy. It mimics ‘going there’ without ever going there. They laser a pot into brokenness. This is most felt at the end of the book, when you see the lead character wandering into the unknown, striped ( by choice) of every identity ever attributed to her. The parallels to Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky are there, thinly (this could also be another tenet in the recipe for successful ‘new’ literature -ping your predecessors). The Sheltering Sky, however, contains the appropriate lyricism of language and riskiness of imagery required to convey the magnitude of the event- and do not mistake it, the event is the total loss/abandonment of identity, which is itself a metaphor for freedom, but also for erasure and death. Bowles smashes the pot. By contrast, it reads as if the lead character of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty jumps into the unknown but with an invisible safety tab, an escape hatch to use at any time. Vida hints the experience is hopeful, fun, releasing- the character is free, unburdened by the gravitas of this choice. There are no cuts. The poetic imagery of abandonment (nihilism, despondency, the disquiet, the abyssal) is thus whitewashed from the novel, replaced by a busy-body energy, achieved by the writer’s seeming desire to tie it all together- quirky characters and plotting devises popping up right until the end- resulting in a narrative too busy with the vitality in action to bother with the vitality of emotion and consequence. One big laser cut Moorish urn.

Here is the NYT review for another perspective- we share some of the same points though, the difference being Parul Sehgal liked the affects and I did not.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty- Vendela Vida

Tinkers by Paul Harding

“Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.”

~Tinkers by Paul Harding.

When I read that passage last night tucked under covers, it rolled in my head and over my tongue and sank into dark recesses. I wish that I wrote it.

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Survival fiction

First written May 10, 2011, on LWITBR

Looking for something new to read here at the farm I perused the bookshelf and pulled out Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille. Hooked on the first page, it is the account of a woman’s life in the Adirondack wilderness. After a messy divorce in the late 60’s, Anne, then in her mid-twenties, buys a remote piece of land in the mountains on Black Bear Lake, builds herself a small log cabin, and lives there basically for the rest of her life. She is had a PhD in Wilderness Ecology from Cornell which she got while up in the Mountains, and won a World Wildlife Fund Gold Medal for Conservation. I loved the stories of her and her dog Pitzi living alone in a cozy cabin, writing, hiking, skinny dipping and having wild adventures. Got me thinking about my own hermetic longings. Survival and isolation are themes that have always interested me- in life, in literature, in film. As a child I was obsessed with stories of solo hardship, living out years in isolation, making “do”. I’d dream about being a hobo or a hermit, dropped on an island, or left in the middle of nowhere, or traveling cross country with only my quick wits and resourcefulness to keep me alive.
Some time in elementary school I read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell and still I love that book. It’s based on the true account of a Native girl who lived alone on one of the California islands for 30 years in the mid 1800’s. She was left behind after missionaries take the rest of her island tribe; she lived alone, battling wild dogs, earthquakes, tidal waves and years and years of nothing, waiting for someone to come back for her. Birds and sea otters her only friends. She was rescued 30 years later, as a woman in her late 40’s, only to find out the ship that had left some 30 years earlier, with her entire tribe, sunk just off shore. She was the only one left, and when she died the tribe was extinct. A skirt she made of cormorant feathers is in a museum somewhere in California. I loved the depictions of her using whale bones for her hut, and the slow carving of a felled tree for a small canoe, and all the little details of surviving.
When I wasn’t reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, I was watching The Journey of Natty Gann. Back when Disney had its Sunday night movie line up I waited with baited breath that Natty Gann was on. Young girl gets left behind during the Depression while her loving father looks for work; she runs away to find him, befriends a wolf and young drifter John Cusack, wears awesome 30’s pants, rides the trains and many other adventures, and is finally reunited with her father, who thinks she’s dead, at a remote logging camp in Washington State. What’s not to love?
By early Junior High school I thought I’d graduated girl adventure stories but when I read Hachet by Gary Paulsen I was right back where I started. Going to visit his father in Northern Canada by two-seater plane, teen (Brian)is given a hatchet by his divorcee mother. Pilot has heart attack and dies mid-flight, plane crashes in ( of course) remote wilderness, and Brian has to survive for 6 months with only his hatchet, living on turtle eggs, trout and lichen. He learns how to build a fire, hunt, build a fort and everything else with said hatchet. This book was often on junior high reading lists in Canada, you can find it at almost any Value Village or Sally Ann. I have two copies if anyone wants to borrow!
But of course, the culmination of my young interest in all wild things lay in a series of books many are familiar with; if for nothing more than the comic elements in its book-to-film adaptation, starring Darryl Hannah. Grunts and hand clasps and getting on all fours. That’s right, The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, and the others that followed in the collection, The Valley of the Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, and so on.
This was survival story extraordinaire, Cro-magnon orphan girl Ayla saved by clan of Neanderthals, thousands of years ago, enduring harrowing journeys, including rape! A group of friends and I would trade the books, dog-earring the pages that had sex references. So primitive and primal, we’d read them aloud at sleepovers, flush with embarrassment. Good God, I’m still embarrassed thinking about those awkward ‘tween years, just trying to figure everything out.
I thought I’d grown out of those kind of stories, but I guess not. As a child I’d lay in bed thinking about what I’d do to survive if I had nothing. Wild living- gathering water in birch bark bags away from beaver dams, making lean-to’s out of saplings and sod, or more city survival in abandoned places, eating scraps and stealing clothes off other peoples lines. Now I lay in bed thinking about other kinds of isolation, and survival, and imagining new ways to ‘make do’.
Survival fiction