The Best American Essays 2017 edited by Leslie Jamison

Bland. Forgettable. These are not engaging essays. At the midway point, the collection putters into its longest piece — The Book of the Dead — which I should like, given it explores the mining towns of West Virginia, the same topic as a great documentary I watched earlier this year. It was intolerable. I skipped the last several pages entirely. Things improved from there, but generally when picking this anthology up, I’m looking for a good deal more than half-good.

These essays focus heavily on politics. The type of politics that shouldn’t need to be political, like race and health care. This is nominally an improvement on past years, where I complained of far too many essays about intensely personal experiences involving dead parents.  There is something tired about 2017. I suppose I’m looking for something exploratory or fresh and not the same litany of institutional misery I’m already reading everyday. 

Anyway, my favorites:

Indigent Disposition by Christopher Notarnicola : A chilling 2nd person narrative account of how we reduce undesirable people to mere bodies. Especially those that are impoverished or in poor health. Notarnicola enumerates the laws pertaining to “indigent bodies” in a specific county in Florida, and the story of a man about to become a body (“you”) and his brother, a self-made lawnmower man. But mostly it’s an indictment of a country and people that simply lets the most vulnerable among them die. Then blames them for it to keep its collective conscious clear.

 

The Reader is the Protagonist by Karen Palmer : Initially the title refers to the classic children’s book There is a Monster at the End of this Book, where the reader is indeed the protagonist as they turn page after page while Sesame Street’s Grover begs them not to. Karen Palmer is reading this to her daughters in a temporary house in Boulder, Colorado after fleeing her abusive ex-husband with her new one. This leads to a staggering coincidence where Palmer gets a job interview at a mysterious publisher, who turns out to contract crime fiction writers to churn out kitschy texts like a A Handbook for Hitmen. Skeeved out, Palmer leaves, only to discover several years later that a woman fleeing from her abusive ex-husband was murdered by his paid man. They found the publisher’s hitman handbook in his car.

What follows is a brief reflection, from both writer and reader on what should and should not be published. There’s no good answer.

 

H. by Sarah Resnick : Resnick’s uncle is a recovering heroin addict. She takes care of him, with occasional help from father, and about half of this long essay is about that difficult relationship. The other is exploring America’s inability, our outright refusal, to provide quality treatment for addicts. Resnick profiles a center in Vancouver, BC where addicts are free to enter and provided state assistance to get their fix: Clean tools, from needles to pill-crushers, a safe space and attendant nurses. Despite its proven efficacy as an avenue to get people clean, most other western nations continue to ignore data in favor of gut feel. Easier on the pride to let people die than let go of the rhetoric on personal responsibility and shame.

 

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A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

Testimony by Charles Reznikoff

Okay. OK. The first thing this book will teach you is that…

…between the years of 1885 and 1915, an enormous amount of industrial accidents occurred in this country. Limbs caught in belts or spools and torn off, bodies crushed by debris or collapsing mine shafts, slick and poorly constructed scaffolding leading to great falls into chasms or machinery or boiling fat.

Also, a whole lot of people, a whole lot of children, were killed by trains.

All of this illustrated in sparse, evocative verse:

“In the good old summertime,”
Ellen, all of fourteen, worked in a steam laundry
as a “feeder”:
put collars through the machine that pressed them.

The feeder sat on a platform,
collars on the small table in front of her;
the lower roller hot enough to iron collars as they were passed through,
while the upper roller pressed down upon them
with a pressure of two hundred pounds;
the heated roller was hollow and revolved around gas jets–
so hot that if a collar stopped on it for a minute
It would be scorched.

Ellen saw a collar with a lap on it–
the buttonhole part lapped back on the collar–
put her hand out to pull it away
and her finger was caught in a buttonhole
and she could not get it out
before her hand was drawn between the rollers–
burnt and crushed as she screamed.

(Typing this extends my appreciation of Reznikoff’s precision. The punctuation is so carefully chosen and communicative of the story’s pace.)

Poetry is not my forte. I’ve read very little of it, voluntarily, in my adult life. Certainly not cover to cover. Testimony may be cheating a bit since it’s almost as much short story as verse, but still: now I read poems. I read several vignettes, which ranged from a few lines to two pages, before bed every night and hoped not to dream of getting my arm caught in a belt (I worked on a belt for a long time…) or my torso rent in half by a runaway mine cart. It became somehow soothing.

Racism is another key factor explored here, some verses illustrating the plight of post-reconstruction blacks, written in a time of segregation without the foreknowledge of the civil right’s movement, still thirty years in the future.

Several white men went at night to the Negro’s house,
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery;
his wife and children ran under the bed
and, as the firing from the guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up,
ran through a side door into the woods.
The Negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the house of a neighbor–
a white man–
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man’s door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted,
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for “unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring”–
the white man’s property.

Only a portion of the “Negro” sections follow this kind of tract. Many, perhaps most involving black people, are about the violence they’re enacting, which is nominally no different than the ones about whites, had not every single passage referred to each man or woman as “the Negro” or “the colored woman”, like they’re another species.

The back of the book references the poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote Paterson, which influenced a movie of the same name I enjoyed a great deal. Williams will be the next point I continue delving into poetry.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

The Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, captivated by mescal and his lust for self destruction, and quite assured that his own fall is synonymous with the rest of the planet’s, meanders throughout Southern Mexico for four hundred pages of drunken fog and misfortune.

This book is frustrating because large swathes of it are boring or borderline unintelligible. Especially those following Yvonne, Geoff’s ex-wife, who continuously returns to her alcoholic ex-husband, who treats her poorly, hoping it will be different this time. Other portions are vivid in their harrowing portrayal of the Consul’s personal madness. There’s rambling streams of consciousness where Geoff argues with himself or perhaps someone else or relives an old memory, only to reveal he was entirely silent or the recollection never happened. An instant or an hour may have passed.

My favorite part of the novel: A lengthy chapter following the Consul’s half brother, Hugh, as he enlists as a sailor simply to prove his privileged family wrong and that he is both a person of merit and grit. Of course, pretending to be a working man doesn’t help, other than in contracting dysentery, and Hugh treats us to a succession of brilliant ideas he’s sure will lead to enlightenment/purpose/a feeling of being learned and famed, but also good. In all cases, he discovers his idea to be faulty, empty. Embarrassment precedes the next attempt at guilt-free purpose. It is a remarkably timeless account.

Reading that Hugh chapter, I thought the novel had turned a corner into greatness. Then my eyes glazed over a few pages into the next chapter.

Taken all together, I can’t say I enjoyed it, yet I am also certain it will remain with me. The feel of it. The jungle, the Consul. Lowry. Imagined in such clarity. Sometimes. 

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

I nearly put this book down after the first few pages. The writing was snappy, stylish, quick. It also pulls no punches and the first chapters reveal a cast of protagonists engaged in brutal violence, seemingly amoral, openly racist, antisemitic, misogynist, you name it.

Ellroy is eager and emphatic to prove his opening sentence, his great thrust:

America was never innocent.

Our heroes, shake down men and corrupt cops and FBI agents on the fast track to losing their conscience, are either terrible people or on their way to becoming so. Murder, torture, corruption. Five hundred pages of it. It’s alleviated somewhat by the fact that these guys aren’t even the worst the country has to offer — the mob and the US government, often-hand-in-loving-hand, are worse. Never innocent.

This book is like six hundred pages. You can’t really do six hundred pages of complete revulsion. Well. I can’t anyway. So what happens? You reach a point, this sort of nadir of disgust, and then you float past it. Embrace it, maybe. America was built on corpses, worshiped corrupt heroes like the coward-womanizer John Kennedy, was in bed with organized crime while endlessly persecuting innocents, so who gives a shit? Stop hating Pete and instead cheer on his massacres. Microwave into the bathtub, alright, great. Burn it to the fucking ground.

It’s hard to say if this is some kind of catharsis or an absolution of responsibility w/r/t the American present. I don’t know.

Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

The Familiar Volume 4: Hades by Mark Z. Danielewski

famililar4This far in, my reviews will become much more specific. Previous entries: One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain.

I’m starting to get worried here. The series has gone from front and center in the new section of Green Apple Books to requiring a kind of sojourn where I have to ask multiple people and look all over for the latest episode. “Looks like there is no review copies this time”, says the clerk. I fear for the series reaching 25 or whatever.

Which is a shame, because Volume 4 is excellent. It finally, finally, begins to get over the issue I had taken in the past few volumes: Too slow. Characters treading water. Hades drives the characters together, develops plot and mystery. Even Shnork, our most aimless character, coughing and driving his cab around for 3 volumes, receives the character development he sorely needed.

Nearly every chapter has some relationship to the greater plot. Anwar is still job hunting, but this thread now takes him down shadowy corporate wormholes. Most of the characters have now converged on LA. Ozgur meets half the rest of the cast, previously isolated. It’s all tense and well connected. Though not flawless. Erstwhile and supremely creepy hitman Isandorno spends most of the book with a mysterious woman, whose identity is heavily hinted at (and it’s intriguing), and then spends his last chapter doing nothing.

Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of teasing — we leave one character with a warehouse full of guns and an idea of what they’re going to do with them. Actually now that I think of it, there’s two characters with cliffhangers involving separate gun mysteries. But with the next volume referred to as the “Season 1 finale”, this feels appropriate, and I’m seriously looking forward to this fall.

The series has flirted with horror and continues to do so. Danielewski achieved notoriety through House of Leaves, of course, and his grasp on spatial horror remains sharp. Xanther’s little sisters are plagued by nightmares (surely the kitten is to blame…), and in one scene, one of them is crying and pointing at a corner, repeating “There is a ladder in the floor.” Instant chills.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

rings-of-saturnW. G. Sebald takes a walk around southeast England and ponders the inescapable decay of the world. Whether caused by humans, like Belgium ravaging the Congo, or through force of nature, as shown by a medieval town gradually eroding and falling into the sea, or weird fixtures of economics, like yet another defunct English town going down the drain after the fishing industry collapsed. Sebald draws a melancholy line through them all.

I love a good book of essays, and while that is not what I expected to find here, that’s what it is. Essays in the true Montaigne-made sense: examining singular topics to give greater insight into humanity as a whole. Rembrandt’s paintings. Portions of Chinese history I never knew of. A biography of Joseph Konrad or a continued adoration of Thomas Browne. Sebald finds trivial reasons to link these and many other topics to his wandering, and dives in it detail, then flutters to a separate topic, going through a nested set of essays several deep, before we return back to England.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht notes that an awe and respect for death is one of the lesser known aspects of achieving happiness. While I wouldn’t be thrilled watching my home or local three hundred year old cathedral plummet into the sea, reading about those unfortunate souls who did, immersing myself in the knowledge that all things must decay, perish, crumble, yes, just like the planetary wreckage that became the real rings of Saturn, eventually leads me to a place of calm serenity. 

The same can’t be said for man-made catastrophe. The sheer amount of people slain by greed and madness in the Congo is incomprehensible. Literally worked to death. Lost to history. That just leads me to despair.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.