My reading lately has been so good! Here are four books I particularly enjoyed:
SoundMachine by Rachel Zucker (Wave Books, 2019)
I picked up this book thinking I was getting poetry, and … I’m not sure what I got, although I loved it, whatever it is. The pieces in this book are poetic but without line breaks; they are essayistic, but not exactly written in straightforward prose. I’d call them lyric essays, a term that mostly fits, except that doesn’t feel right either, maybe only because I think of Rachel Zucker as a poet, not an essayist.
At any rate, this book is a collection of somethings about motherhood, marriage, writing, and voice. They are dark. Zucker describes things like sitting through a doctor’s appointment with one of her sons who is going through depression and is answering questions about suicidal thoughts. She describes fights and misunderstandings with her husband, not feeling heard by her children, not feeling heard by all kinds of people. She writes about the boredom and distress of staying up with the son who can’t fall asleep. She writes about teaching, attending a writing residency, giving literary readings, trying to write, agonizing about writing and not writing, texting with friends, having and not having sex with her husband.
The pieces are also darkly funny. Zucker is not afraid to write about the times she feels ridiculous and maybe IS ridiculous. It takes courage to put these things on the page (and skill to do it well!). I love any writer who explores their dark side and who is willing to look bad, neurotic, selfish, self-absorbed, etc. I feel like I am all of these things a lot of the time, and I appreciate how this writing makes me feel less alone. Reading this book meant reveling in bad feelings in a way that made me feel better.
This isn’t a book I feel I can recommend, not because I didn’t like it, obviously, but because I have no idea how other people might respond to it. Recommending this book feels a little like inviting someone to live inside my brain for awhile, and that’s scary. I’ll just say that I loved reading it and if this kind of writing sounds appealing to you, you might like it as well.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Open Letter, 2021)
This book just won the National Book Award for Translated Literature, which makes me happy, since I liked the novel very much, although I’m also a little surprised, since it’s the kind of quiet novel, arguably a novella, that usually gets overlooked. I haven’t read the other NBA finalists, but I would have guessed that When We Cease to Understand the World would have won, since it seems like a flashier, more obviously ambitious book, and many people I know love it. I like it when prize juries go for the unexpected but nonetheless really great book.
Winter in Sokcho tells the story of a young woman working in a run-down hotel in a town not too far from the border between North and South Korea. Other people hope and expect that she will leave Sokcho in search of a better life, but she doesn’t want to leave her mother behind. She’s in a kind of holding pattern, with a boyfriend she expects to marry but who is obsessed with a potential modeling career in Seoul, and who doesn’t treat her very well.
Into this mix comes a visitor from France, a man who writes graphic novels and who wants the protagonist to show him around, which she does. He holds a particular fascination for her because she is half French (as well as half Korean) and she doesn’t know anything about her French roots. The two of them develop a strange relationship, clearly one of mutual interest, but the nature of the interest isn’t clear. The story revolves around the way this relationship develops and how the protagonist’s feelings about herself and her situation change.
I loved the quiet but intense mood of this book and the glimpses it offers into the tourist perspective on Sokcho as well as that of the local people, those who keep the place running (if barely). The protagonist’s first person voice is both companionable and a little mysterious; she lets us into her thoughts and feelings but with a sense of reserve that, for me, created suspense. Watching her slowly work toward greater self-knowledge is surprising and pleasurable.
Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief by Victoria Chang (Milkweed Editions, 2021)
This book is gorgeous on many levels. The text is made up of letters written to various people — Chang’s deceased mother, other family members, teachers, friends, and even one to silence and one to the Ford Motor Company. Among their subjects are family history, including her parents’ journey from China to the U.S. She writes about the things she can never know about her mother’s life and her inability to learn anything new from her father either, who is still alive but unable to communicate after suffering a stroke. She writes about teachers and classes who taught her about literature and helped her become a writer.
Interspersed among the text are images, including family photos and pictures of documents, most of them turned into a collage: Chang has added snippets of hand-written poetry or other kinds of text and sometimes colors in faces or adds bits of colorful design.
There’s a beautiful melancholy hovering over the book: it’s full of uncertainty and loss, painfully aware of the silences of history, even one’s personal family history. But the letters and the collages, with their mix of image and text, combine into a poignant speaking back to silence. No, we can’t recover what is lost, the book implies, but we can live within loss, come to an understanding of it, and make art out of what is left.
Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun, Translated by Janet Hong (Other Press, 2021)
Lemon is a mystery novel, kind of. There’s a murder and suspects and we slowly figure out what happened, or what probably happened. But it feels like the point of the novel lies elsewhere. Kim Hae-on was killed in 2002. She was 18, the older sister of Da-on, one of the book’s main characters. The novel opens with Da-on imagining the interrogation of one of the two main suspects. But then the story moves forward four years and changes narrators; this time one of Da-on’s classmates narrates, and from there, each of the book’s sections jumps a few years ahead, shifting point of view among three characters. We see the effects of Hae-on’s murder as they develop through the years, particularly on Da-on and her mother, but on the suspects and classmates as well.
This is a short novel that packs in a lot, each chapter updating us on what’s happening with the characters through the years and also looking back and filling in the past. It keeps you on your toes; I almost missed a major plot development because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the right things. What happens with Da-on as she grows older and develops perspective on her sister’s murder is fascinating to watch. This is really a story about grief and guilt and the ripple effects of violence in a community. It’s a quick read, but one with unexpected depths and surprises.
New (mostly) small press books that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. Quotations are from the publisher:
Generations: A Memoir by Lucille Clifton (NYRB): “A moving family biography in which the poet traces her family history back through Jim Crow, the slave trade, and all the way to the women of the Dahomey people in West Africa.”
Subjects in Poetry by Daniel Brown (LSU Press): I haven’t heard much about this book, but it caught my attention because I’m interested in poetry criticism: the book “comprises one poet's attempt to plumb the nature of his art, to ask how the selection of material remains a crucial yet unexplored area of poetic craft, and to suggest the vast range of possible subjects for poems.”
The Everybody Ensemble: Donkeys, Essays, and Other Pandemoniums by Amy Leach (FSG): I’ve been meaning to read Leach’s book Things That Are for ages. This one sounds … well, I’m not sure, but I’m curious to find out: “These short, wildly inventive essays are filled with praise songs, poetry, ingenious critique, soul-lifting philosophy, music theory, and whimsical but scientific trips into nature.”
The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier, translated by Adriana Hunter (Other Press): “About to start their descent to JFK, [airplane passengers] hit a shockingly violent patch of turbulence, emerging on the other side to a reality both perfectly familiar and utterly strange.”
Ganbare!: Workshops on Dying by Katarzyna Boni, translated by Mark Ordon (Open Letter): This book is part of Open Letter’s Polish reportage series. In this case, Katarzyna Boni writes about the 2011 tsunami in Japan: “Boni takes us on a journey through the experience of death and how the living--those of us left behind--learn to grieve.”
In Case of Emergency by Mahsa Mohebali, translated by Mariam Rahmani (Feminist Press): “In this prize-winning Iranian novel, a spoiled and foul-mouthed young woman looks to get high while her family and city fall to pieces.”
Byobu by Ida Vitale, translated by Sean Manning (Charco Press): By a Uruguayan writer and translator, this book consists of vignettes in its hero’s life: “Byobu's every interaction trembles with possibility and faint menace.”
Aftermath by Preti Taneja (Transit Books): This book is part of Transit Books’ Undelivered Lectures series (I’m a sucker for a good nonfiction series): “Contending with the pain of unspeakable loss set against public tragedy, she draws on history, memory, and powerful poetic predecessors to reckon with the systemic nature of atrocity.”
Disorientation: Being Black in the World by Ian Williams (Europa Compass): “With that one eloquent word, disorientation, Ian Williams captures the impact of racial encounters on racialized people--the whiplash of race that occurs while minding one's own business.”
Pilot Imposter by James Hannaham (Soft Skull): This one sounds so interesting: It “draws on an unexpected pair of inspirations--the poetry of Fernando Pessoa and the history of air disasters--to investigate con men, identity politics, failures of leadership, the privilege of ineptitude, the slave trade, and the nature of consciousness.”
New on the TBR
New books acquired (okay, I’ll confess, these are only some of my recent acquisitions):
The Pilgrimage Novels by Dorothy Richardson: this is a series of 13 novels published between the 1910s and 1930s, early examples of stream of consciousness writing. I’m participating in a group read of these books throughout 2022. Let organizer Kim McNeill know if you’d like to participate!
The Ravicka novels by Renee Gladman (Dorothy Project, 2010-2017): I’ve owned the first in this series of four novels for a while, and I decided to get the rest. I’m considering reading these very soon (although I do say that about a lot of books).
Barthes: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler (Oxford University Press, 2002): I’m participating in another Kim McNeill-organized Twitter group read, this time of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. Beginning December 15th — join in if you’re on Twitter and this sounds fun! Jonathan Culler’s introduction to Barthes will be supplementary reading.
Exteriors by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie (Seven Stories Press, 2021): This seems like an excellent follow-up to Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus — I know Ernaux was a huge influence on Elkin: “Taking the form of random journal entries over seven years, Exteriors captures the feeling of contemporary living on the outskirts of Paris.”
Keeping the House by Tice Cin: I was inspired to pick this book up after listening to David Naimon’s interview with the author: “Imagine a cabbage: at its centre is North London's Turkish heroin trade, and the overlapping leaves are the stories of its players.”
The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick by Elizabeth Hardwick (NYRB, 2017): I was in the mood for literary essays, and this was an obvious choice. Hardwick’s essays are amazing.
Nine Moons by Gabriela Wiener, translated by Jessica Powell (Restless Books, 2020): this is a memoir about pregnancy and motherhood.
Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy (Bloomsbury, 2018): I’m listening to this on audio, read by Juliet Stevenson, and it’s fabulous. I’ve read this in print twice already.
The Cormac Report
Just a quick report this time: Cormac got his second Covid vaccine shot yesterday! Yay science! Yay vaccines! I hope you are all safe and healthy and that they develop a vaccine for very little kids very soon!
Have a good week everyone!