Sometimes I just want to start walking. To pick a direction and continue until there isn’t land to walk on anymore. I’ve had this itch in the soles of my feet for a long time and am usually able to ignore it but sometimes it flares. When I hear of a friend completing the 800-kilometer Camino de Santiago across Spain, for example, or of coworkers cycling across Cuba on their vacation, I can feel it in my feet. And I’m not the only one. Just last year the idea of a woman walking was narrative enough to drive Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Mia Wasikowska in Tracks. You don’t really have to be escaping anything to justify picking up and leaving your life. You might just be the type of woman who is always looking to go.
Emma Hooper speaks to this desire in her debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James. Etta is a woman of 82 living on the Saskatchewan prairie who begins to walk toward the ocean. She has never been to the water and though the Pacific is closer, she goes east. She leaves a note for her husband Otto, promising she’ll try to remember to come back. Etta is accompanied only by a coyote whom she meets along the way and names James. Complicating it all is Etta and Otto’s neighbour and lifelong friend Russell, who decides that if Otto won’t go after Etta, then he will. As Etta walks, Hooper reveals the origins Etta and Otto and Russell’s connections with one another. We learn how the three came together and what they lost along the way.
Near the beginning of Jurassic Park, the scientist played by Laura Dern plunges her arms into a gigantic pile of triceratops shit. When I first saw this, I had a gut reaction: “Ew, no! Don’t touch that! It’s shit!” But as the scene goes on, Laura Dern makes it clear that her character is a professional. She studies shit for a living. This is her milieu. We viewers are—like the triceratops shit itself—in good hands.
The Sellout is a novel about racism. Huge, steaming, stinking piles of racism. Racism so ugly and insidious that you want to shiver and walk away. But as readers we are in good hands, because Paul Beatty is a professional—knowledgeable, passionate, and easygoing. Characters in Beatty’s novel call his protagonist a “race reactionary” and a “race pervert.” But you and I might call Beatty the world’s foremost connoisseur of racism.
The Sellout has a plot, which I will describe for you because plots are an important way to begin a conversation about a story, but honestly, the plot of The Sellout is a shambles. It’s a wreck. Scan any page of The Sellout and, if you’re lucky, you might find a couple of paragraphs with topic sentences that mention the overall plot. Everything else will be the kind of extended, wisecracking riff that has characterized Beatty’s fiction ever since his first foray into prose (he started out as a slam poetry champion) with The White Boy Shuffle. But with The Sellout, surely, Beatty’s style of back-talking his own story has found its apotheosis—if this novel were any more digressive it would crumble like the clumps of lint in your dryer.
NYRB Classics has just released a new edition of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Gass, one of the greatest prose writers of the past century, only has one short story collection, this one, which was originally published in 1968.
Of the five stories, written over the course of a decade or more, three—“Mrs. Mean”, “The Pederson Kid”, and the title story—are among the best you will ever have the chance to read. Masterpieces of language and introspection, the stories have a unique cadence and complete aesthetic that, once you pick it up, carries you, like Beckett, like Faulkner, like Shakespeare (the Murderers’ Row of language lovers), through its idiosyncratic passages to the end.
Gass is, hands down, the greatest living essayist in the English language. He writes essays like poets write poems: not a word out of place, not a phrase unpolished, still thematically taut and as swift and adhering to the logic of argument as any. Continue reading
Jane Franklin raised twelve children, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in colonial America. She lived in poverty for most of her life, stitching bonnets and managing a boarding house to make ends meet. Her brother Benjamin was one of the most successful men of his generation, a printer, postmaster, essayist, inventor, newspaper publisher, writer of Poor Richard’s Almanac, the most famous scientist on the planet, signer of the Declaration of Independence, representative in France during the Revolutionary War, and a participant in the creation of the Constitution of the United States, among many other things. Although their two lives diverged dramatically, they each remained one of the other’s closest friends, or as Jill Lepore puts it in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, “He loved no one longer. She loved no one better.”
By the time I first learned that this book was being written I was already a big fan of Lepore’s (see, for example, her work in the New Yorker), and also already something of a Ben Franklin obsessive. It is a pleasure to report that Book of Ages is a strange and remarkable accomplishment. In less than 270 pages, Book of Ages does quadruple duty. (1) It tells the tale of Jane Franklin, her experiences through the American Revolution, and the views that she developed through her difficult, often tragic life. (2) It explores how Benjamin Franklin’s work was influenced by his lifelong relationship with his sister. (3) Even more, Book of Ages ends up being about the colonial world inhabited by people like Jane Franklin, common folk neither rich, nor famous, nor advantaged, nor fortunate. (4) More still, it is a book about history writing itself. Given how little remains of Jane Franklin’s correspondence, it is fascinating to watch Lepore weave together what does exist into a full narrative.
Across the cover and down the spine of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., young Brooklyn women “bursting with vibrant, almost aggressive good health” are profiled in silhouette, their pixie cuts and power bangs offering a taxonomy of the species, like butterflies pinned under glass. These are the conquests of Nate Piven, our antihero. Nate’s romantic history sounds like a lost verse of “Mambo No. 5”: a little bit of Hannah, Elisa, Juliet, Kristen, Justine, Kelly, Jean, Beth, Cara, Emily, another Emily, and a third Emily. With his frumpy Harvard intellectualism and his overblown self-regard, Nate has collected so many aggrieved ex-girlfriends that they could file a class action lawsuit. But they’ll have to settle for this book.
Adelle Waldman’s debut novel raises a wickedly fun question. Can a woman of Nate Piven’s demographic—Waldman is a young Brooklyn journalist with a book deal, just like Nate and all the sad young literary men he stands for—summon the empathy, imagination, and vocabulary required to turn the hipster Lothario of Fort Greene into a decent, relatable human being? The genius of Waldman’s question is that she wins either way. If Nate turns out to be redeemable, then Waldman will have proved that she is a masterful writer, capable of humanizing the devil himself. If he is unredeemable, then Waldman gets to flay him for her readers’ enjoyment.
City of Bohane is all talk: the sharp-edged slang of street gangs, ominous rumors floating on gloomy bogs; the brokenhearted correspondence of erstwhile lovers. Kevin Barry, author of the story collections There Are Little Kingdoms and the forthcoming Dark Lies the Island, wears his Irish heart on his sleeve—like in this passage, which kicks off a chapter in which an ancient feud is about to engulf the city of Bohane.
Solstice broke and sent its pale light across the Big Nothin’ bogs. A half-woken stoat peeped scaredly from its lair in a drystone wall and a skinny old doe stood alert and watchful on a limestone outcrop. Sourly lit, a cruel winter scene—a raven clan soared and watched for scavenge, and there was a slushy melt to the hillside as the distant sun burned, and a puck goat chewed morosely on a high mound there. […] Surge of the water was all to be heard as Ol’ Boy Mannion stood in the first of the year-turn light on a high bank of the river and pensively urinated into it.
I never watched The Hangover: Part II. I loved the original movie deeply, but was told by multiple sources that the second was a trudging, shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, and what had been so charming and fresh–even in the tired genre of drunk buddy films–lost its appeal with repetition. So with that in mind, let me be the first to ever say: The closest I’ve come to watching The Hangover: Part II was reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
Bodies was the 2012 Booker Prize winner and one of my most anticipated reads after loving, deeply, its 2009 Booker Prize winning predecessor, Wolf Hall. But throughout the novel, I consistently felt as if I’d seen this all before, and that what had been so engaging in the first go round–even in the tired genre of historical fiction–was less so with repetition.
This is not to say that Bring up the Bodies is not worth your time, or anywhere near as bad as the second Hangover was rumored to be. Continue reading
I first read Christopher Hitchens in college, when I was gifted a copy of The Trial of Henry Kissinger. This was in the post-9/11, Bush Administration days when I was reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, marching in rallies, and attending lectures like the one where I picked up a large, yellow, homemade button reading I KNOW KISSINGER IS A CRIMINAL and quickly pinned it to my messenger bag. The childhood naiveté I had recently shed left me vulnerable to Hitchens’ moral confidence and chilled outrage, and I adopted a more adult naiveté, where solutions took the form of boycotting logos, starting zines, going to poetry readings in campus common rooms and calling on the Hague to bring a former American official to trial on war crimes.
My affinity didn’t last. Hitchens had a book out about how Mother Teresa was some kind of monster. This seemed odd, but not damning. My greater concern was Hitchens’ great complaints about Bill Clinton — which I actually could have accepted had they not been followed by his support of George W. Bush, a man who couldn’t match Clinton in competence, intelligence, or even folksiness. And yet here was Hitch, mobilizing a mind fortified by philosophy, history, literature and poetry to defend a dangerously incurious and incompetent president. I gave Hitch’s line on Iraq no quarter because it coincided with the Bush line, and ultimately concluded that Hitchens was someone who didn’t mind a few thousand people dying if it meant that we could forcibly shove The Enlightenment into new acreage. Continue reading