Sunday, October 23, 2016

Lit Quick Lit Picks, .4

The Answer, My Friend, to Who Won the Nobel in Literature this year, is Blowin' in the Wind 
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The biggest news to hit the literary world within the last two weeks, as far as I'm concerned, has been the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan - and the reclusive singer's notable lack of response to winning the much heralded award. The decision to award Dylan with the prize was quite controversial. His lack of response to the award has also been controversial, with one member of the Committee calling him "arrogant," while writer Will Self urged him to reject it because of the prize's ties to an explosives and armaments fortune.  

Personally, I find this unexpected and beautiful news. To recognize that literature doesn't have to be confined to the pages of a book breaks new ground and gives the nod to societies (such as Somalia) that have long relied on oral traditions to create and sustain culture and society. I also can't help but wonder (although this may be my American solipsism shining through) whether this is a nod to the racial injustices currently making headlines across the country, especially when you stop to consider Dylan's work. "How many ears must one man have/before he can hear people cry?/ And how many deaths will it take til he knows/ that too many people have died?" Something to consider.

Of course, it would have been cooler if Dylan hadn't snubbed the awards committee. But as I'm an avid Dylan fan (my children heard so many repetitions of "Blowin' in the Wind" during their infancies that they probably know the song by heart without even realizing it), I will give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest that he likely was quite surprised by the award, and probably had some deep thinking to do about his reaction to it.

Speaking of ground-breaking work...
Marvel Comics' latest hero? A mom of five living in Madaya, Syria. They've taken the true story of a woman who has been living with her young children in the besieged city for over a year and made it into a graphic novel/comic book format. I can't tell you how appreciative I am that I found this source, because I will be teaching an online version of Intro to Global Issues and World Affairs next semester and I love using offbeat formats. It's a remarkable story and really brings the reality of living in Syria into focus. By and large, the citizens of Syria are now caught within a maelstrom of horror and violence, in which foreigners have largely taken control of the rebellion, and Assad has the help of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia as he relentlessly works to crush his own society - his own people! - out of existence. All in the name of victory. No one will win this war. But Marvel's "Madaya Mom" does offer us a different and meaningful way of framing and understanding the cataclysm that has engulfed Syria, and gives us the war's true hero: the Syrian family. 

Navel Gazing with Jessica:
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Maria Semple's new book, Today Will Be Different, is almost as absorbing, funny, and attractive as her previous novel (which, let's face it, was nearly perfect). But I am SO over the trend of writing with flashbacks. If I take the book apart and reorganize it to my satisfaction, will anyone report me to the reading police

Now that I've been considering this idea of reorganizing the book, especially within the context of this particular story,  it makes me wonder: would it still be the same book? Would I no longer be merely a reader, but something more substantial? Would it dissolve the already porous boundaries between artist and audience? Producer and consumer? Or is it no different, really, from reading for my own enjoyment and analysis? I can't stop thinking about this. Where does the artistry end and the reader begin? It's so much more difficult to discern those differences than it is most other art forms: ballet, cinema, theater. For a book to really come alive there needs to be a collaboration between author and reader. And the author has no say, beyond the work itself, as to whether and how the collaboration will occur. What shape does the final version of the narrative take? The final draft isn't what winds up in the reader's  hands - it's what winds up in the reader's head. What an act of faith each author makes! 

"Paris is a Moveable Feast": Shakespeare and Company Makes Literary Waves, Again
I have been a die-hard Sylvia Beach fan since I was in college, possibly because she was the first historical figure I "met" who struck a chord in me - another bibliophile! A kindred spirit! When I was attending high school and college in the early 1990s, women like Beach didn't often make the cut in literary or historical discussions, and so I clutched her tight. I was so proud to have stumbled onto her and her legendary bookshop, Shakespeare & Co. (1922-1941) all by myself whilst deeply immersed in the works and biographies of the "Lost Generation" and their modernist movement.  An American, Beach opened a little bookshop in Paris as the Roaring Twenties began, and kept it going until forced to close during the Nazi occupation of France; although Hemingway reportedly "personally liberated" the shop in 1945, it never reopened with Beach at the helm. Her shop and her vibrant personality attracted perhaps the most star-studded list of bookworms in modern history: Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and so many more made Shakespeare & Co. their second home. When Joyce could not find a publisher for his ground-breaking masterpiece, Ulysses, Beach published it herself, in 1922, under the Shakespeare & Co. moniker - and helped change the face of modern literature. She also stocked banned books of all kinds, and allowed patrons to buy or borrow volumes.  

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Sylvia Beach and Ernest Hemingway in front of
Shakespeare and Company, circa 1928

In 1951, George Whitman opened his own bookshop on Paris's Left Bank, and after a few years he renamed it Shakespeare and Co. in honor of Beach; it's been open ever since. Whitman also named his daughter after Beach: Sylvia Beach Whitman took over Shakespeare and Co. in 2004 and continues to run the shop today. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, first, because Sylvia Beach rocks. Secondly, because the shop's motto: "Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise" is one we all could stand to remember in this day and age. And last but not least, because Beach and her shop have been back in the literary news of late with the publication of a new volume dedicated to the history of Shakespeare & Co! Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart dropped on September 26, and contains dozens of essays, poems, interviews, and illustrations that together reportedly create an extraordinary collage of the life and times of literary Paris over the last century.  I can't wait to get my hands on it. If you don't have the money for a hardback, here's a little history of Beach and her shop. I also highly recommend Beach's memoir, Shakespeare and Company, and Noel Riley Fitch's beautiful work, Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, which has been close to my heart and next to my bed for the last 20 years. 

That's all for now! I had hoped to offer you more this time, but then the Cubbies made it to the WORLD SERIES so I'll be jetting home to Chicago for some celebrating this week! #CubsNation 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Book Review: Bite sized Books

Sometimes, all you have time or patience for is a bite sized book. Or perhaps you haven't picked up a book in so long that even the prospect of settling into a long read just creates anxiety rather than relief. With these slim volumes, you'll be back on the reading track in no time! Moreover, you'll probably feel pretty satiated because even though these novels are slim, they each pack quite a literary punch.

I didn't plan to write a review about stellar novellas; I just realized I had very recently read a quartet of quality shorter works and so I had to share them with you. They have nothing in common, really, aside from their brevity. But sometimes an eclectic mix is better - no burning out on a genre or theme. 

I hope you choose to read at least one of these - let me know what you choose! 

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1. Brightfellow by Rikki Ducornet
A slim book that somehow beguiled me into taking it home from the library. And once I opened the cover, I was enchanted; after all, how many stories begin with "The linoleum swells with stories."? And then we meet Stub, a small child, all alone with his thoughts, with his incredible capacity for creating worlds where the rest of us only see the pedantic properties of everyday life. He lives a solitary existence in a tiny rural cabin with his mother and dad. Neither seems to pay him much mind, and so his unschooling continues, rising within his wildfire imaginative mind and sent soaring through a combination of curiosity and little understood desperation. 

Time passes; circumstances change and for a short time Stub finds camaraderie with his caretaker, Jenny, but it doesn't last (although her personal obsession with the literary work of reclusive genius Verner Vanderloon will take root in Stub's own mind), and he soon strikes out in his own, embracing the campus of a small nearby college as his own. Stub's adventures there I'll leave for you to discover, but know that Ducornet imbues the world of this lonely Peter Pan man-child with an evanescent, lyrical beauty. As Stub cautiously flits in and out of the school faculty's social circle, he finds wonder, love, confusion and disenchantment in unexpected corners. 

Although the volume fills only 143 small pages, it exemplifies Salman Rushdie's adage: "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world." The bright innocence of Stub's persona lands in your lap without warning time and again, and his ruminations on any number of topics - from the soul: "They say...they say we each have a bird within us. A bird of breath, a bird of fire. Longing for...release..." to loss of innocence: "It's as if he has seen angels tearing off one another's wings..." - will leave you satisfied that art and creativity continue to pilot our peculiar human existence. 

Ducornet's biggest achievement is that she manages to deliver this work without succumbing to pretension or preciousness. Truly a must read for anyone interested in ripe characters, a bit of introspection, or struggling with the privilege and pain of writing. It's a Holy wafer on the tongue of your overwhelming everyday life. 

2. Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld
Evie Wyld's slip of a book illustrates why the graphic novel format at times truly outshines the traditional format. The main character finds herself obsessed with sharks as a young girl, drawn to and repelled by their mysterious, silent, lethal nature.  As the novel progresses, the shark becomes shorthand for Evie's anxieties and fears related to death and loss of safety - she moves through the world with trepidation, and at every turn, she sees danger potentially lurking. Literally, "everything is teeth." Hands down,this book offers the most vivid and moving illustration of what it's like to live with generalized anxiety disorder that I've ever found in print. 

That's not to say that the work is perfect. Wyld's work intrigued and surprised me, but ultimately left me disappointed. Too much brevity! I wanted more context, richer storytelling, some kind of acknowledgement or resolution of the underlying themes.  But that doesn't happen. This version almost seems like a storyboard for a future, much more developed piece of literature. All the same, its power is undeniable and the work deserves to be read. 

3. Now and at the Hour of Our Death by Susana Moreira Marques
"Our almost instinct almost true: what will survive of us is love." 

I like this publishing house, And Other Stories. They have off-beat, truly quirky and interesting books that you won't find anywhere else. This book is a perfect example. Writer Susana Moreira Marques traveled with a palliative care team to northern Portugal and visited rural patients and their families. Obviously, the book is about those who are dying, but it's much more: its a meditation on life and its legacies; a treasure trove of lives lived; ruminations on the everafter; a quiet window into the love and devotion within families. These themes play themselves out against the backdrop of a way of life that is coming to an end. 

There's an aching kind of beauty that permeates this book, and (especially in the first half) a sort of defiance that I really appreciated. It was almost as though the book created its own five stages of grief, to some degree - opening with defiance and anger ("it took an average of thirty-eight days for a person to die in their home...If you don't want to know the answer, don't ask the question"), urging readers to remember that Death is beyond what man can erase: "Man is not God. Man is not God...we should scrawl this in notebooks, filling page after page. We should be punished for thinking we can control everything, even death...", then moving into a bracing attempt to create a lasting memory of the patients she comes to know through documentation of their lives, and closing with hope: "rather than believe the world ends with each death, believe that, with each birth, the world begins anew." All in all, a wide-ranging, challenging and peripatetic approach to illuminating death and dying. 

4. Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yurri Herrera
I am the first person to admit that my geographical and historical blind spots fall squarely within the purview of Latin and South America. I know the basics, of course, and the native history, but never spent time on the modern histories and cultures of the region. My understanding of Mexican writer Yurri Herrera's powerful slip of a book, then, may be completely off base. But "[y]ou can't dictate how people are going to react to the books you write. It depends on what they're bringing to it when they open it." (Anonymous)

Herrera opens the book with Mexican teenager Makina poised on the precipice of a yawning sinkhole, the end of the world. As she draws back from that edge, she soon finds herself in another uncomfortable position: she is tasked with crossing the border to find her brother in America, and cannot do so successfully without the assistance of the local drug lords. 

The crossing of the border is not only physical, but also spiritual, linguistic, cultural. Confident that she can traverse readily between two very different worlds, Makina sets forth with few supplies and plenty of confidence - or at least bravado.  The resultant journey quickly takes on the aspects of the Odyssey. She descends into the darkness, is raised to light, plunges forth again. The America she encounters is dark, garish, grim - yet also strikingly familiar. And there's that incessant feeling that once you've crossed over into the true Underworld, there's no turning back...

In 107 pages, Herrera fascinates, educates, and titillates his audience. He gives us much more than a griping, precise narrative - there are layers upon layers here, and the end of the world as Makina knows it certainly seems to creep towards her from every direction; darkness (and a brittle brilliance) lapping at her feet even as she finally pads across the good, soft earth to an unknown fate in the final pages of the book. 

This is worth an hour or two of your time; reading it and considering the various possibilities and subtleties left me with a new set of perspectives and ideas. That Herrera is able to tie together themes of love, loss, family, imperialism, and (not) belonging in a profound yet casual approach. Be sure to read the translator's note before you dive in.