Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.11.2021
Book from: Library

Bloody, meaty, funny, sly, dreamy, sad, longing, gonzo, dirtbaggy. What Kathryn Bigelow’s Western horror movie Near Dark did for vampires, Stephen Graham Jones’ novel Mongrels does for werewolves. (I was delighted and unsurprised to see Jones citing Near Dark as a foundational influence in the afterword.) I treasured reencountering that texture of gritty, snappish, road-tripping familial love. This novel also captures the anxious, dreamy awkwardness of alienated adolescence through a tone that’s very similar to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red: both books have that curious way of looking at things so hard, with such a burning desire to understand, that the gaze splits or slides off to the side, becomes strange and oblique.

So many parts of this book are so nakedly about growing up poor and unwelcome and not-white in the American South that it tugs at your heart. At the same time, the werewolf mythos serves as a kind of appetizing cover story, an exciting distraction—just as it did for the teenaged Jones, who is Blackfeet. (Jones is calculatedly coy as to the werewolf family’s physical appearance, but there are a couple references to black hair, and an unpleasant high school classmate once asks the narrator if he’s “Mexican or something.”) It’s deeply touching to me to honor your sustaining childhood fantasy by turning it into a full novel, and a novel that’s vividly charged with its own darkly joyful mythos: Jones clearly revels in the frequently gory elaborations that he brings to werewolf biology and lifeways.

I couldn’t get enough of the episodic, almost diaristic storytelling, the plangent fragments of memory and the macabrely superheroic exploits. (The more outrageously superheroic bits are explained in a brief exchange of dialogue in the last chapter.) All of this is run through with the anxiety and dread that shape the lives of the impoverished and vulnerable.

In short: consumed with fascination and dread, I read this book way too fast. Sadly, this may have resulted in my breaking its spell more abruptly than would have been ideal. After I finished, the content and style dissociated in my head, and it became too easy to remember the book’s more absurd, cartoonish bits, and less so its quietly fierce, tender tone or earthy, sweaty textures.

In the long run, though, what will stick with me is the way that Jones turned a fantasy into a novel in a way that inevitably points back at the real life that gave birth to the fantasy—and in a way that cries out for readers to recognize and value the loving, chaotic lives of the poor and dispossessed.

Related reviews:
Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.19.2021
Book from: Library

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is one of the most ecstatically beautiful, dream-like, and mournful books I’ve ever read, up next to Lolita. The two work together well in so many ways: the cuttingly yet not wholly satirical paean to the promise of America; the drenching languor and lust; the pathological yet resplendent objectification of beautiful, inaccessible girls. There’s a bit of Poe in there, too: the Gothic obsessiveness, the unreliable narrators.

The novel centers on many of the same themes as Eugenides’ Middlesex, but it’s much tighter, less sprawling, less broadly tragicomic. The single bullet in a revolver loaded for Russian roulette seems like an appropriate metaphor—elusive yet potent.

From a craft perspective, there was so much I admired about this book: sentence after sentence that floats and twists with metamorphic elegance and surprise; image after image of nightmare-dreamish beauty and suffering. (The final paragraph of the book gives me a wave of goosebumps every time I read it.) There were moments where Eugenides’ fabulist or magical-realist leanings put me in the same space as the horror movie It Follows. The queasy, desperate image of Lux Lisbon copulating on the roof of her parents’ house, night after night, blended in my mind with the scene in It Follows where the entity stands naked on a neighborhood rooftop, looming and improbable. The shadow of sex, death, and disorder falls over suburbia.

The book’s narrative technique, Eugenides’ choice of a “we” perspective, whose identity and role become clearer and clearer over the course of the novel, is quietly astonishing, hypnotic, and unnerving. It might be this choice that does the most work to lend the book its ineffable quality. We hear the story of a neighborhood as filtered through a shifting surveillance network, an aggregate view that is ultimately fallible, individual, and selfish, yet by assuming the status of “we” insists on a semblance of omniscience and authority.

This paradox of collective identity seems like the crux of the novel, and Eugenides plays on it in several configurations: through the narrating “we;” through the despairing alliance of the Lisbon sisters; and through the social landscape that surrounds them, the tidy suburbia crumbling at the edges, where the decay and racial tension of neighboring Detroit are seeping through. Every union is imperfect; everything contains the seeds of entropy.

Related reviews:
Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020)

Desultory Annotations for Gerald Durrell’s “The Entrance” (1980)

Gerald Durrell’s infamous Gothic horror story “The Entrance” is the final story in his collection The Picnic and Other Inimitable Stories (1980), which otherwise comprises a series of arch, Wodehousian, semi-autobiographical comedies, centering on absurd mishaps that beset Durrell’s family outings and European travels. (“The Havoc of Havelock” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.) I got turned on to “The Entrance” after seeing a number of remarks about it on the Internet along the lines of, “Durrell, why would you do that to us?!” Obviously I couldn’t pass up experiencing the tonal whiplash for myself.

Whiplash there was! Although, warned in advance, I couldn’t help noting the morbid humor that crops up in his comedies, too—in particular, “The Michelin Man” is highly reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s horror/comedy fiction for adults. (“Lamb to the Slaughter,” anyone?) Durrell himself tries to give ample warning for “The Entrance”: he cushions our arrival with a typically cozy frame story where he arrives at the cottage of a couple of bohemian friends in the south of France, complete with loving descriptions of the wine and truffles they consume. But then—amid an evening storm, the friends produce “a very curious manuscript” whose contents are promised to be “horrid.” There we enter into “The Entrance.”

I was delighted, disturbed, and baffled by the story: so here are my notes and attempts at analysis. Page numbers are from the 1980 Simon & Schuster edition. I welcome any contributions, corrections, and alternative interpretations.

Continue reading Desultory Annotations for Gerald Durrell’s “The Entrance” (1980)

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.28.2020
Book from: Personal collection

In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him. As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share.

The Buried Giant has the slow-motion horror of a nightmare: the confused repetitiousness of the dialogue; Axl and Beatrice’s frailty and tentativeness; the blurred, clouded landscape; the increasing sense of building towards a terrible revelation or shattering. As is typical of Ishiguro, the prose is carefully flat and affectless: an acres-wide, inch-deep pool of water, any ripples almost imperceptible. To be blunt, the prose is boring—and yet I also kept thinking that this was the most entrancingly, sublimely boring book I’ve ever read. I felt like Beatrice in the scene where she’s swarmed by rat-like, life-stealing pixies and nearly subsides into death. Slow-motion horror.

I was transfixed by these outbreaks of folk horror: the woman stroking a rabbit’s fur with a knife in a rain-dripping ruin, the underground beast described as looking something like “a large skinless animal,” the tunnels full of infant skeletons. As indelible as these images are—like Symbolist paintings—they become indescribably more disturbing because of the way that Ishiguro doesn’t describe them head-on. He robs us of a sense of clarity, control—the narrator’s vision is always glancing away, blurring at the edges.

The gradual revelation of mass slaughter that arises from these grotesque suggestions, and the slow topple towards renewed slaughter, is almost unbearably tragic, tearing. Ishiguro establishes his main characters as tragicomically human: vulnerable, bumbling, striving, absurd, valiant, kind. Then he shows us that they are walking towards a point of no return. There will be no reconciliation, no peace for the land, once the Buried Giant rises. Saxons will fight Britons once more; Axl and Beatrice fear the permanent oblivion of an afterlife with no kindness toward lovers. Companionship and love, hard-earned, will fade into another generation of helpless loss and strife. Did it all matter, that they loved? Of course it does: over the course of the novel, we see how much it matters to them, and to us, that these characters loved. But in the eyes of history, it does not.

An oil painting of a small boat with a shrouded standing figure approaching a wooded island under a dark skyThe Isle of the Dead, 1880 version, Arnold Böcklin

Related reading:
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989): review by Emera
The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, by Gerald Morris (2003): review by Emera

Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.17.2020
Book from: Library

It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned… Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

As expected, this was a delicious summer treat – though it didn’t go down without some misgivings. On the whole, Picnic at Hanging Rock is satirical, dreamy, sensuous, and occasionally quite sinister and chilling—mainly in how Lindsay refers to the dark, inscrutable mass of the Hanging Rock brooding in the metaphysical distance behind or beyond the characters ever after the girls’ disappearance, the source of some kind of alien causality.

The book is also quite, quite gay. I was astonished by how Sapphic the movie is when I saw it back in undergrad, but the book is far more explicit than the movie’s languid, soft-focus erotic glow. The novel opens with five pages of the students and the prettiest teacher fluttering over their Valentine’s Day cards and take turns thinking about how much pleasure they derive from gazing at each other’s curls and bosoms and OH MY. Check it—this is from the perspective of Mademoiselle, the French teacher:

The girl’s voluptuous little breasts, her dimples, full red lips, naughty black eyes, and glossy black ringlets, were a continual source of aesthetic pleasure.

It’s also immensely “interesting” that the book’s only two male characters effectively end up riding into the sunset together. It may be that Lindsay largely intends the spiritual bachelorhood of young, wealthy Michael Fitzhubert as tragic: he’s positioned in a love quadrangle with the vanished Miranda (his true love, seen once and never recovered); Irma, the one returned girl (who regards Michael as her true love, but is spurned); and his best mate, the rough horseman Albert (who, finally, is in love with Irma). I found this love-quadrangulation silly as a romantic device, mainly because I found it hard to take any of the characters seriously – a point to which I’ll return later. I think what’s interesting about it is its alienating, distancing effect, the way that these four young people are strangely offset from one another, incapable of moving in the same space. This heightens, of course, the book’s central element of feminine-as-mystery. At one point, Michael even wonders to himself what “feminine secrets” were shared among the girls before they disappeared. Estranged from these unattainable, sometimes uncanny nymphs, Michael and Albert (hairy, tattooed, streetwise, occasionally lounging naked in Michael’s presence…) ride off into the optimism of undefined masculine adventures together.

Let’s return to the problem of how Lindsay handles her characters, generally. I think one of the book’s biggest weaknesses is that Lindsay treats the characters so archly that it comes off as self-satisfaction with her own satirical wit. Any dignity or intelligence the characters might have is often diminished by her heavy-handed descriptions. It doesn’t help that Michael, who is crushingly boring except for how he plays off of Albert, gets to occupy the middle third of the book with an immensely slow, inchoately mopey convalescence sequence. No, thanks. Luckily, Lindsay recovers from there with one of the book’s most climactically disturbing scenes, Irma’s final return to Appleyard College.

Continue reading Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay (2020) E

“The Bear,” by Beulah Amsterdam (2019) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.20.2020
Book from: Personal collection

This story appears in the winter 2019 issue of Ploughshares.

In the dim forest cabin, a brown bear stared at me. He sniffed my suitcase. I froze.

The bear looked at me with his deep black eyes. We gazed at each other. No longer afraid of him, I felt a close connection. I watched as he explored the small, rustic room, pawing at the door mat and the bedside rug…

This opening scene is shortly revealed to be a dream, one which conducts the waking narrator to a reminiscence of a past boyfriend, a bearish Communist and fellow college student in 1950’s New York.

I relish, with a kind of voyeuristic hunger, tales of student/bohemian New York life in the 50’s-80’s, and I love the unsettlingly lucid style of this short, regretful story. As those flat yet flowing sentences accumulate, their deadpan tone an imperfect restraint for the off-kilter emotional urgency beneath, it’s impossible to escape a sense of the weight of the narrator’s presence. I could hear her tranced voice in my head, feel unblinking eye contact. I wish I could spend more time with this strange, melancholy, pure narrator, but the story ends painfully soon, after briefly playing out a teasing contrast between different ideas of visions and the miraculous; which brings us back to the dream of the bear.

This story is such an incredible study in tone. I’d love to find more of Amsterdam’s work.

“The Regimental History,” by Andrea Barrett (2019) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.15.2020
Read from: Personal collection

This story appears in the 2019 fall edition of Ploughshares.

Dear Maurice, this morning it is raining very hard and the wind is rattling our tent, so we can hardly hear each other. Thanks for the news about Albert’s sister, which cheered him. I’m glad the girl helping Aurie is working out (hello to you, if you are reading this! your handwriting is good but you spelled “tonsillitis” wrong. Also, furlough is not spelled “ferlow.”) Vic has been sick with chills and fever but the doctor claims he’s doing better now – good thing, as we hear rumors that we’ll be moving soon. Ezra, on picket duty last week, says the rebs across the Rappanannock are buzzing about and he thinks we may be marching upriver…

I’ve read a good bit of ruminating about the erasures of history (that is, the writing of history), its inescapably flawed and subjective processes, but nothing has made me feel that fact, that human accumulation of errors and losses and misapprehensions, like this lucent, lovely, mournful novella by Andrea Barrett. I’ve been meaning to read her much-awarded collection of historical fiction, Ship Fever, for years, but still haven’t gotten around to it. This introduction to her work will goad me back to that goal.

Over three parts, Barrett lets us glimpse the lives of a set of Civil War characters who are connected by their desire to write the history of a disgraced Union regiment, in which two beloved brothers served. Izzy returns home disabled and traumatized; Vick disappears, presumed a deserter. Through glimpses of their stories, and of relatives and friends who circle around the voids of the brothers’ lives, we witness not only the physical and emotional depredations of war, but the quieter attrition of simply the passage of time. Men who wanted to tell their war stories die ignominiously in peacetime; newspaper accounts distort facts and then are enshrined as true history by later republication. Letters are lost; transcribed accounts acquire unexplained annotations. Intentions to write, to share, to publish are pushed aside by the demands of daily life, deferred and deferred again. The present continually pulls us away from the past – and yet the past never disappears, it cannot be divided away, only diminished, obscured, distracted from.

All of this, Barrett depicts with graceful, transparent, quietly witty prose. She moves easily among snippets of letters and articles; the practical details of post-war life as, say, a biology teacher or a ceramist; and the characters’ interior lives. Above all, the characters feel so present, so true, and so human. You’d like to be friends with many of them, except that they, too, have slipped away in all the decades between then and now.

Related reading: 
Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier (2009): review by Kakaner

Author Event: André Aciman discusses Find Me

Excerpts from André Aciman discussing Find Me, the sequel to Call Me By Your Name. The event was on November 11, 2019, hosted by the Harvard Book Store at the Brattle Theater.

Aciman is very fluent, charming, and sort of artfully self-deprecating.

André Aciman speaks from a podium in a dark theater

On being back in Harvard Square, where he was previously a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature; on nostalgia and the past

On familiar Harvard locations: “…many of which have disappeared, which is what happens when time goes by … many of which have good memories attached, many more of which have bad. If you have been a grad student, you know what I mean.”

“A nosteme is the smallest possible unit of return.” [The etymology of nostalgia is, nóst(os), a return home + algia, pain.]

“[Nostalgia] doesn’t mean that you are not excited about what the future will bring, but it does mean that you can find satisfaction in trying to call back that past. You may not be successful in bringing it back, but you can call it. … The past is always there.”

“Summons up the past and reappraises it or resituates it in the present”

Does he have a spot like Elio and Oliver’s? “There’s a wall, and it is not far from here. I went there this morning, and it still spoke to me. It happened 40 years ago, and the anniversary is coming up because it was in November.”

Civilization and Its Discontents – things built on ruins – “I think this is exactly how identity works… I don’t believe we have a core.”

“I have never had one identity. I have never been one thing.”

Egypt has lost its memory of its Jewish/multiethnic community. “We are rebuilding the Jewish temple, we want you back.” – Egyptian ambassador attempting to woo Aciman back to Alexandria

Continue reading Author Event: André Aciman discusses Find Me

The Bridal Wreath & The Wife, by Sigrid Undset (1920, 1921) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 9.22.2019, 11.21.2019
Book from: Library

This is a review of the first two books in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy: The Bridal Wreath and The Wife. I read the recent translations from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally, after giving up on the original translations by Charles Archer and J. S. Scott, which are self-consciously archaic and expurgated significant passages.

In early 1300s Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter is the eldest daughter of a charismatic, gentle, and adoring father, and a distant, melancholy mother. In The Bridal Wreath, Kristin grows from a quiet child into a quietly fiery – and occasionally cruel – young woman, and thwarts her parents’ plans for her future by flinging herself into a romance with the passionate but disastrously irresponsible nobleman Erlend Nikulausson. In The Wife, Kristin struggles to live with the guilt of the sins that she and Erlend committed in the course of clinging to their relationship, while now striving to lead her new household – where she is initially regarded with derision – with grace and strength. Her fervent embrace of Christianity serves sometimes as a comfort, and sometimes as one of several wedges between her and Erlend. Meanwhile, foolhardy Erlend is drawn further and further into the turbulent politics surrounding the fate of the Norwegian throne at the time, with eventually ruinous consequences for their family’s fortunes.

The way I keep on describing these books (which won the 1928 Nobel Prize) to people is a medieval Scandinavian version of Anna Karenina. They concern themselves with a span of decades in the lives of aristocrats in a severe land, but viewed through incredibly intimate, often stream-of-consciousness renditions of women’s experience in particular. The conflict between personal passion and social responsibility, the torment of guilt, the struggle to understand what it is to live a Christian life, hypocrisy, infidelity, the temptation of cruelty, and the closeness of mortality all weigh heavily on the characters. This all plays out against a medieval setting that is rendered so vividly and naturalistically that it seems as if Undset is reporting directly from that century. (It made a lot more sense to me when I read that Undset’s father was an archaeologist and her mother his secretary/illustrator: she grew up immersed in history.)

How to describe the effect of these books – what is so piercingly compelling about them? The experience of Undset’s cool, fluid, and methodical prose – especially with Nunnally’s exactingly clean translation – is immersive, hypnotic, yet, frankly, at times boring. Even though I love nature writing, for example, I was frequently bored during the first quarter or so of The Bridal Wreath, when Kristin is a child, no obvious narrative stakes have been established, and there are lengthy descriptions of their days amid the fields, mountains, seasonal turns, etc.

But as soon as any emotional stakes have been raised – I can’t think of many authors who can equal the way that Undset writes emotional pain and difficult love. Her distinct coolness is an asset: she has this devastating way of leading you directly into a character’s emotional crisis, and then departing just as the scene barely begins to round off, so that the aftermath must simply be imagined. Or, she mentions devastating revelations about previously beloved characters in a mere one or two sentences, slipping by in the relentless onward march of time. (It “helps” that Undset makes no bones about the closeness of death in medieval times: characters die with great frequency, whether through illness, accident, or violence.)

There are so many moments in the books of purely emotional experience that I feel I’ll never forget – the incredibly cold ending of The Bridal Wreath, or the several heart-rending scenes of devotion between Kristin’s aging parents in The Wife, or Kristin’s pained reflections on how little she understood the depths of her parents’ lives, or their love for her.

Again, I’ll be honest that I questioned several times (out of boredom, overwhelming melancholy, or both) whether I really wanted to finish the series. But Undset’s sort of gentle severity is so uniquely compelling and transportative; again and again, I concluded that I had to see it through, and follow her characters to their ends. I’ll be reading the final volume of the trilogy, The Cross, over the next month or two.

Go to:
Laid Waste, by Julia Gfrörer (2016): review by Emera