Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fires - Raymond Carver (1983)


Fires, a collection of essays, poems, and short stories by Raymond Carver, was published in 1983, the year I was born.  Sometimes, I used to think that I was lucky to live within the lifetime of some of the greatest writers.  Raymond Carver is definitely one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if some people consider him to be overrated nowadays.  Anyways, he passed away in 1988, when he was about 50, way, way too young.  He would have just turned 80 a few months ago.  Fortunately, Milan Kundera is still kicking around somewhere in France at 88.  (Note: I had no idea that The Festival of Insignificance existed until a moment ago.)

The only other American authors that I can think of that are on similar footing are Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth.  I might have said John Updike, but I haven't read enough of him, and he passed away 8 years ago.  Perhaps JCO and Joan Didion belong in that category, but again, not familiar enough with oeuvre.

I don't want to retread too much territory from Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, which made the Best Books list, but I will need to use that as a reference guide for some of the material here to provide background information.  I first became aware of Raymond Carver via a Roger Ebert review of Short Cuts, a Robert Altman film based on a number of Carver's short stories, which was released in 1993, and I first became aware of that film because my older brother rented it from Blockbuster some random night in the early-to-mid 90's.  If you haven't seen it, see it.  If you have seen Magnolia, but not Short Cuts, see it and you will see how badly it is ripped off (yet also improved upon).  While Short Cuts is a great film, and an epic viewing experience, the ultimate power of it does not match the short stories themselves.

Only one of those stories that figures into Short Cuts, "So Much Water So Close to Home," is reproduced in Fires, but the real menace in the story is absent in the film.  It is a much, much better story.  Ultimately it is still somewhat inscrutable, and I will use this review as a way to ask questions, in the hope that other readers may provide their own interpretations.

I think there is a quality of mystery to short stories that people consider "really good"--the type of stories that get published in The New Yorker or The Best American Short Stories of XXXX.  Like, there is an undercurrent of only hinting at something that a reader may miss, whereas in a novel, it's all pretty much going to be in your face.  There's going to be a fair amount of plot, or else the reader is not going to miss the quality that makes it great by the sheer force of the word volume.  But in a short story, it can be like a poem, and maybe this is why I don't care all that much for most poetry-- that quality of inscrutability, or archness, or intellectualism.  Another reason why I don't mind Carver's poetry.  Most of the poems are closer to prose, and most of Carver's short stories only have a slight quality of inscrutability, enough that I can say I love them for the most part.  The only exception here is "The Cabin."  Also, "The Lie."  Actually I like "The Cabin" for the most part, but don't care as much for "The Lie."  But I see I am getting ahead of myself.  We should discuss the book chronologically.

It starts off with the essays, and the essays may actually be the best part of Fires, the part that made it worth publishing (because I believe most of the other material had already been included in other volumes).  This is the first mention of Fires from A Writer's Life:

"Besides the story collection for Knopf, Carver was preparing a new book for Capra Press.  Since At Night the Salmon Move and Furious Seasons were both almost sold out, Noel Young proposed combining them into one volume and adding new pieces to make 'a kind of Carver reader' to be called Fires.  The advance was under $1,000 but Ray wanted to keep his less commercial work in print.  He rearranged the poems and added thirteen that were not in his earlier collections.  He republished the long versions of "Distance" and "So Much Water So Close to Home" from Furious Seasons and also took the opportunity to include "Where Is Everyone?" (from which Lish had carved "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit").
Carver must have realized all this shuffling and reshuffling would confuse even the most earnest scholars.  Whether for his own peace of mind or theirs, in an 'Afterword' to Fires he explains that he'd 'rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than to have to write the story in the first place...I think by nature I'm more deliberate than spontaneous, and maybe that explains something.'  He explained, too, that 'Distance' and 'So Much Water' had been 'largely rewritten for the Knopf book' but neglected to mention that the rewriting had been done by Lish.  'After some deliberation, I decided to stay fairly close to the versions as they appeared in the Capra Press book...they have been revised again, but not nearly so much as they once were.  But how long can this go on?  I suppose there is, finally, a law of diminishing returns.  But I can say now that I prefer the latter [in other words, earlier] versions of the stories, which is more in accord with the way I am writing short stories these days.'" (A Writer's Life, 383-384)

Nothing about the essays, but maybe there's something in there, some passages in A Writer's Life that delves into the background of the essays.  There's certainly something about the essay "Fires," as apparently it made his children hate him, or was viewed as an extremely mean-spirited piece of writing.  Frankly I think it is hilarious and true and heartbreaking, but it primarily concerns how his children are his greatest influence, and "have been a negative one, oppressive and often malevolent" (28), and that he would always find himself in the position of "unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction." (33) It has a certain sort of rambling drunk ramshackle quality, but it's an extremely entertaining and honest piece of writing.

Two of the others directly concern his thoughts on writing and being a writer, one of which is focused on John Gardner, who was his teacher at Chico State College in the summer of 1958.  The other essay is about his father's life.  All four are excellent, but "On Writing" and "John Gardner: the Writer as Teacher" seem to run around some of the same territory.  If pressed, I would have to say "On Writing" is the best of the four:

"I have friends who've told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them--something, some apology for the writing not being very good.  'It would have been better if I'd taken the time.'  I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist say this.  I still am, if I think about it, which I don't.  It's none of my business.  But if the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it?  In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.  I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven's sake go do something else.  There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living.  Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don't justify or make excuses.  Don't complain, don't explain." (25) (underline by me, circa 2001 or 2002)

All of these essays are great because they are imbued with the quality that makes all of Carver's writing special.  The simplicity of its style and clarity, and his ability to beautifully evoke a scene, is perhaps influenced by his desire to "write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense even startling power.  It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine--the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it." (24) I think we should move onto the poems before I run the risk of excessive excerpting.

The next 74 pages or so are devoted to poems, in four sections.  The first section is the most accessible and the best, in my opinion.  "Fear" is not included, but I feel that "Drinking While Driving," "Luck," "Bankruptcy," and "Iowa Summer," are all amongst his best poems.  The second section consists solely of a long poem about an evening with Charles Bukowksi, which seems to mimic his literary voice, or at least further his legend.  The third and fourth are more impressionistic and not as interesting to me (others that are into more naturalistic writing about fishing and the outdoors may like it more), but "Morning, Thinking of Empire" and "Trying to Sleep Late on a Saturday Morning in November" are two of my favorites.  Then you get to the stories, which run roughly 72 pages.  

"Distance" is about a young couple growing irritated by their baby waking up all throughout the night, and plans to go hunting, and co-parenting responsibilities.  The framing device in particular makes the story especially heartrending, with the father telling his adult daughter a story from when she was a baby.  

"The Lie" is so short that I hardly know what to say about it, but seems to be about a quarreling couple, something heard from a friend, purported to be a lie.  It is probably my least favorite in the selection, but its brevity might make it another's favorite, as it is one of several Carver stories that could be seen to influence "flash fiction." It also may or may not be a total ripoff of "Hills like White Elephants" (except that it could be about any number of things besides abortion) by Ernest Hemingway, whom Carver acknowledges as a kind of spiritual forbear in one of the essays.

"The Cabin," however, is generally the more enjoyable of the two mentioned above as "inscrutable."  It is about a man going away for the weekend to a cabin to go fishing, and a menacing encounter with a gang of unruly youths, and his plans and how they change.  If anybody can shed light on the ending (why he decides to leave earlier) I would appreciate it.  Is it just because he got scared during the encounter, and he didn't want anything worse to happen?  Because he missed his wife?

"Harry's Death" concerns the death of a friend, and dealing with the aftermath and how it ripples throughout all of their shared relationships and how it changes his life.

"The Pheasant" is an interesting story about a couple with a fairly large age gap (12 years) and a spontaneous trip from L.A. to Carmel and an unfortunate road kill incident that is revealed to be semi-intentional and other moments of self-sabotage.  For its lightness and strangeness, it is probably my favorite story.

But then, "Where is Everyone?" is pretty great too.  It's definitely not as light, but it is arguably as strange, as it eventually settles onto a thread after going off on a bunch of weird tangents like the narrator's 65-year old mother's dating life, his kids and his casual hatred of them, going to AA meetings drunk because "[y]ou're scared and you need something more than cookies and instant coffee," (177) and his father's death at age 54, drunk in his sleep.  The thread concerns Ross, or "Mr. FixIt," an unemployed former aerospace engineer whom the narrator's wife has a "thing" with after meeting at an AA meeting.  Ross collects old cars and appliances and tries to repair them and .  It is basically a character study on Ross.  But it is also about the narrator and how he wishes him well now.

Then you get to the end, "So Much Water So Close to Home," which must be the longest story here and is certainly the most epic.  This is probably the most "classic" story collected here, because it just seems to be of a more substantial nature.  Perhaps because a lot happens in it, but it is really very simple: a man discovers a dead body while fishing with his friends for a weekend, and they decide to keep fishing for the weekend before reporting it to anybody.  The narrator is the man's wife and expresses her disbelief at how he could do something like that.  She becomes suspicious of her husband and obsessed with the young woman who died, traveling to her wake, and having a scary encounter with a man that may have been her murderer.

There are other Carver stories that I love more, and I hope to review a couple other collections in the near future.  I was taking college creative writing classes a comparatively long time ago, now, and I'm not sure if Carver is still all of the rage and cited quite as frequently as the late 20th century master of short fiction--he had only been gone 12 years then, and 16 years have passed since--but I think he still is, and he's one of the few writers whose entire oeuvre is worth digesting.  I hope to review Beginners soon, which I got for my mother for Christmas in 2015, despite her not having ever expressed any desire to read Carver.  I did the same for my oldest sister with Where I'm Calling From in 2001 or 2002, putting asterisks next to all the stories I thought were worth reading.  Basically I think he belongs in a person's library, and perhaps over the next thirty or so years I will continue to foist upon each family member's shelf a different Carver volume.  I remember thinking Where I'm Calling From as the more essential volume, so Fires is not going in the Best Books list but it is probably the most essential for a creative writing teacher to photocopy and share with students.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness - Jill Filipovic (2017)


I need to start out this review with a confession.  In the past I've exhibited a few misogynistic tendencies, perhaps in part as a tongue-in-cheek backlash to the majority of my female friends who seem to identify as feminists, but more likely as a result of not being "successful" with women.  I watched  I Shot Andy Warhol about ten years ago and thought about writing an anti-S.C.U.M. manifesto, shortly before the phrase "men's rights" could cause someone to be "triggered." This was no doubt a result of the general frigidity that I felt from girls around this time, shortly after finishing college and entering the real world.  My feelings in retrospect are perhaps best summed up (as they often are) by a sketch from Mr. Show.

Girls didn't want to talk to me, and sometimes still don't want to talk to me.  There is something creepy or sleazy about me underneath.  My motives appear one-dimensional.  I am not confident enough.  I am not an alpha male (I am not even a beta male).  I do not make a lot of money.  My facial hair doesn't grow in the right way.  I am shy and do not make good eye contact.  I do not seem interested.  I seem too interested.  I have not, however, told anyone to smile, nor ever engaged in street harassment.  (Except the time my friend and I were drunk in a cab and we thought the girl in the next car over looked like Britney Spears and we tried to inform her of such as she inched away, and rolled up the window.)

Perhaps the reason most of my female friends are feminists and why I have scoffed at "typical girls" in general is, the girls that couldn't bear to waste their time on me haven't properly absorbed feminist values?  Or there is something legit wrong with me.  Probably the latter.  In any case, I think it's the type of girls that really just want to be a stay-at-home mom and have her husband provide for their family that have been most disinterested in me, followed by the girls that are extremely successful in their careers and sense that I would really just prefer to be a stay-at-home dad and have them provide for me and write in my free time.  So maybe I unfairly rejected the entire gender five years ago?  It was an immature position to take, that I could do that sort of thing in retaliation, or out of despair, and not out of a more basic understanding of orientation and acceptance of one's feelings going back to childhood.  It took a very long time to understand that all of these confusing emotions could be tidily ensconced within the "B" of LGBT.

I say all of this in the way of an apology, and to acknowledge that the reason many men treat women the way we do is wrapped up in our own issues that we haven't recognized or resolved.  That, and yes, the societal expectations that this book addresses.

Full disclosure: Jill Filipovic and I are friends on Facebook and went to NYU together.  We have a great deal of mutual friends (24 to be exact) but I am struck by a lack of independent recollection of personal interaction with one another.  We probably met briefly at a party or two.  Regardless, she is the third alum of the Class of 2005 to be featured on FH after Tao Lin (our mutual friend) and Aziz Ansari (we wish).  My short version opinion on the book is this: while it is fantastically written, and quite compelling overall, it is stymied a bit by its semi-clinical stance, teetering somewhere between a law review article and selective memoir.  And this is the right place to start the review for me, as an attorney in practice four years now that would like to leave the profession and write full-time.  If I could be so lucky!  I am not aware of where Jill went to law school, but I am assuming it was a very good one and that she did very well and that she got the Summer Associate 2L gig and made bank at a large firm and was able to retire her loans in short order, but maybe I'm misreading things or being presumptuous.  I'm sure she didn't go to a second-tier school, finish outside the top 50% of her class, and flounder from one horrible situation to the next after passing the bar, all while loans accrue at an outrageous interest rate and effectively become a perpetual burden.  But she earned it, and I applaud her for the decision.

Like the recently reviewed Letters to Felice, I have something to say about the end notes.  In this case, I say they are well-placed.  I also think if they were posted as footnotes on each page like a law review article, they would lose some of their impact.  Some of the sources are not exactly paragons of erudition.  But let's be clear about something in this law review comparison thing: law review articles have a citation for practically every sentence, and this is why their appearance becomes cartoonishly distinct.  The H Spot is sort of like a sloppily written law review article, and I mean that as a compliment.  Nobody likes to read those.  They're a perfect example of doing for the sake of doing, because it's the necessary thing to have on your resume.  Though students and professors may have a passion for the topic they write about, their composition is generally a tedious miserable exercise.  By contrast, The H-Spot is light enough to be read on a beach this summer.  Much of the time, it is very entertaining.  Sometimes it veers into preachy territory, but I was struck by the virtual absence of male-bashing for which feminism is often derided.  Jill opens up about her personal life just enough to give the reader insight into how she came to her perspective on these issues.  Something seemingly innocuous, like female partners in law firms being in charge of ordering lunch, inspires miniature outrage.  Also that most paralegals are female.  I would love to be a paralegal and be in charge of ordering lunch!  Is it a path towards assured financial success and growth?  At a large firm, probably!  But I digress.

The book opens up with an Introduction, which lays out its thesis, which is neatly summarized in the conclusion and its public policy proposal:

"One of the goals of this project was to show that there is no one definition of womanhood, no singular experience of pleasure seeking, and no individual things that will bring happiness for all women, but there are a great many commonalities, and a great many ways to improve the status quo.  My hope is that this book offered a little peak into the overlapping struggles of so many women, as well as the many joys--however unsupported and individualized." (267)

The best thing I can say about this book, I think, is that it made me want to be a better person.  It offers great insight into womanhood and all of its attendant anxieties, and it may cause men (such as myself) who have been insensitive in the past to think twice before making what seems like a harmless joke.  The only real criticism I can make is that "law review" thing mentioned above, and the statistical methodologies employed by the author.  The thing about the internet is that one can find pretty much any source to back up one's opinion, even if it's particularly odious or unreasonable (and just to be clear, this book is neither).  Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I feel like, when you sit down to start a law review article, you write up the position you want to take, and then you find your sources later to back up that position.  Maybe your initial position is informed by everything you have read and digested, but there is still sometimes that lingering feeling of padding by citation, as if you are not quite confident enough just to make an assertion without citation to any greater authority.  In law review contexts, it's because that's just not allowed.  In the context of a book, however, I feel like this book is most powerful (but also most challenging/slightly irksome) when it enters into "manifesto" territory.  I am thinking of Great Books from the past, like The Prince or Utopia, where the author simply writes down their thoughts, damned if anyone agrees with them or not.

Basically, in my opinion, the book is at its weakest when it is relying on statistical methodologies to define happiness, primarily because it makes me feel very anxious and insecure.  There are dozens of passages that made me curse my fate (but then again there are dozens of moments a day, dozens of things I see, that make me do the same), but here is just one:

"This new standard, of marrying an autonomous individual only once you're an autonomous individual yourself, is what marriage researchers call the 'capstone' model: marriage as the final marker of a solid, stable life, as opposed to a cornerstone of one.  Educated young people today see marriage as something they do after most of their other ducks are in a row: they have a college degree, they're working at a stable job, they can afford a wedding [Yes, No, No].  And most crucially, they want to marry someone who is a great match and from whom they derive emotional and sexual fulfillment [Gulp], not simply someone who plays a complimentary role--that is, an employed man looking for a woman who would be a good mother and homemaker, and vice versa.  Americans say a happy sexual relationship is one of the primary things that makes a marriage work, second only to faithfulness; more than 60 percent also agree that sharing household chores is crucial to a successful union [YES].  Of unmarried young people today, about a third say they haven't tied the knot because they're looking for the right person.  About the same number say they don't feel financially ready.
That capstone model means that women and men are marrying later than ever before [thank God], if they marry at all--and many don't.  The most well educated and financially prosperous, [fuck them] though, continue to wed, building their families like the children's rhyme: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. [That's not all, that's not all, Jack is drinking alcohol]." (141, bracket parentheticals mine)

I could do this all day, as the book often caused me to reflect upon my own wretched state.  At the same time, however, I must admit that it felt very "cozy" and comforting at times, because Jill and I are the same age and went to the same school and know a lot of the same people and our experiences are sort of spiritually intertwined to an extent.  Moreover, Jill's own experience as a lawyer-turned-writer give me hope that a happier life is not necessarily a rank impossibility.

This review needs to be wrapped up, and I haven't given an appropriate road map of the territory this book covers.  Basically, there is an introduction and conclusion, and eight chapters in between.

The first is a sort of history lesson, which was one of my favorite parts, particularly when it was revealed that Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist pioneer (and not actually the same person, which made me feel very dumb as a person that loved Frankenstein).  The second is about female friendship, and adequately covers the topic except for maybe not addressing the phenomena of girls going to the bathroom together.  The third will probably become the most infamous in the book, and is about female sexuality and pleasure.  The fourth is about women as mothers, the fifth is about women as wives, and the sixth is about women in the workplace.  The seventh is about female body issues and food, and was another one of my favorites (as a person with an unhealthy diet and a bizarre relationship with food).  The eighth is about the (fading?) tradition of women taking their husband's last name after marriage.

Jill does devote a fair portion of the book to primary sources, interviews she had with women and couples in several different states.  Generally, these are some of the best parts of the book, but there is no more noteworthy subject than Janet.  Janet's story is brutal and outrageous, but also ordinary in many poorer, predominantly black communities.  Her struggle is not uncommon, but the specifics are extreme:

"The one thing that keeps Janet afloat is her children.  The dream, Janet said, is a combination of basic financial stability and that coveted 'balance': that she could both enjoy time with her children and work full time at a job that would actually bring in enough income to support her family.  Both time and money, though, have proven elusive, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she sacrifices one for the other.....She was there when her second daughter walked, but only because she was unemployed.  She had found a new job by the time she had her son, and so she missed his first steps, too.  'When I work, I get up at 4:30 in the morning,' Janet said.  'I work.  And then normally I'd do doubles and get home at about one o'clock in the morning and my babies were asleep.  This is the most time I've ever spent with my kids.  And I've been sitting here thinking about that.  I worked all of these years.'" (202)

It's pretty much a terrible world in terms of the amount of time that people are expected to spend working to make a living, but Janet's case is simply too much.  You hear about people getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, but 3.5?  Insane.  In a way this book is also about the impossibility of time management, and that hit me particularly hard as a person that doesn't think he ever has enough of it and has no spouse or kids to consume it.  Actually, a spouse should help with that time crunch, and the idea of better equality in relationships between spouses and partners is one of the most effectively presented in this book.  While The H-Spot is not necessarily perfect, it is a big-hearted contribution to the world, and one that will hopefully play some small role (if not as large as say, The Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex) in bringing about a more just and equal understanding between the sexes.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London - Lauren Elkin


            I picked up Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London by Lauren Elkin shortly after it was published last year, because I assumed that Elkin’s book was yet another in the subgenre I like to call “European Romance”—a subgenre that, for better or for worse, I find unwaveringly irresistible: the story of a young woman who moves to Paris (or, really, anywhere in France) to begin life anew. Despite the initial foibles that come from reorienting one’s existence in a foreign land, there her life is transformed by finding a new passion (whether it’s for cooking, walking, renovating a crumbling farmhouse, or, most often, for a man), and, aided by a cast of charming locals, she begins to live what Oprah would call her “best life,” but with the style and elegance of la vie européenne. At the end, she stays in France, often with her new lover and/or husband, and usually with a baby on the way. I’ve read more than twenty of these books, and while they’re all repetitive and formulaic, I’ll be damned if I don’t love them, and will read them entirely the instant they meet my hot little hands.
            But Elkin’s book is nothing of the sort. This is hardly the story of a woman floundering in America who decides to run off into the Parisian sunset. Elkin went to Europe with a sense of purpose: first, as an undergrad to study abroad, then as a graduate student to receive her MPhil in French literature from the Sorbonne, then as an adult to live. And while Elkin relays some stories of romantic interludes, the relationships she details are all disasters: men who take her away, and not toward, her “best life,” which, she believes, exists squarely in Paris. A relationship isn’t the solution to Elkin’s problems the way it is in so many of this genre; neither is a new patisserie, or a gorgeous pair of shoes, or an even more gorgeous, if condemned, farmhouse. The purpose of Flâneuse is more complicated than that.
            Elkin’s true love is cities, and, more specifically, walking through them. A native of New York from the Long Island suburbs, Elkin came into Manhattan to study at Barnard, and then went to Paris to study abroad, and then had stints in Tokyo, Venice, and London. In each city she walked—to explore, to get what she needed, and to get to and from work, but most of all she walked to get a feel for the city from the pedestrian’s perspective. What she desired most was to gain that slow specific view that comes only from being on the street, that takes in the height of the buildings and the whir of traffic, but also the small moments that are only visible from the ground—the graffiti hidden behind some stairs, the overlooked monument in the overgrown park, the mother and child holding hands as they sit on a bench, feeding the birds.
But Flâneuse has an explicitly political purpose as well, one that jibes nicely with our culture’s recent rediscovery of feminist critique. “Flâneuse” is the feminized version of the French word flâneur, which refers to “one who wanders aimlessly,” and which came about in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Paris’s medieval narrow streets and alleys were being demolished and redesigned by Georges-Eugène Haussmann with the express purpose of creating the vibrant, walkable, wide-boulevarded city that many of us know today. A flâneur was defined as a “figure of male privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention,” who plunges himself into the city’s street life with the implicit understanding of his dual freedoms: a man walking the street can either command respect, or he can wander anonymously, with few bothering him as he walks (3). A bourgeois male, with the implicit means and privileges of moneyed masculinity, a flâneur could come and go, transforming his ambles into art. A woman, Elkin notes, lacks this ability, by the sheer and natural force that she is a “she.”
A single woman wandering alone with no specific destination or purpose in mind—a flâneuse—is, and long has been, an object of speculation: she is immediately coded as either a prostitute or a beggar. Her body is gazed at wherever she goes; Elkin includes the startling photo of a young woman walking through Florence in 1951, leered at by no fewer than eight men. One blocks her path, another shouts at her with a contorted face, his hands unmistakably grabbing his crotch. It is an experience most urban women know well: street harassment, the practice of being a woman in public, means that you are inevitably made subject to the male gaze, and subject to the probing, hyper-sexualized attacks that men feel comfortable enough to bestow upon any passing woman they deem attractive enough to warrant their attentions.
But Elkin also turns this idea around. “Space is not neutral,” she writes. “Space is a feminist issue” (286). Simply being in public—or, more appropriately, simply being—is a feminist act, because it allows for the opportunity to gaze back, to reclaim space and reclaim structure and (finally) claim the ontological nature of existing on a level equal to a man’s. And so she makes the purpose of her book to detail both the cities she has walked in, as well as the women who walked there before her.
The book primarily is set in Paris, the city that Elkin loves the most. In the four chapters set in France, Elkin writes about other female artists who made the city their home, many of them transplants like herself, and all of them artists as well. Jean Rhys, the writer first known as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was born in the West Indies to a Welsh father and a Scottish-Creole mother, but came to Paris in 1919, at the age of 29, where she wrote stories of tragic women involved with equally tragic men. George Sand, born Amantine Lucile Arurore Dupin, came to Paris in 1831, leaving behind her husband and two children in Northern France to live a life of culture, novel-writing, and a remarkable number of high-profile affairs. Agnès Varda, the Belgian director, screenwriter and actress, came to Paris for university and never left, and her work in the French New Wave, especially with features like Cléo de 5 à 7, gave a pointedly feminist perspective to an otherwise heavily masculine movement in film.
All of these women were, like Elkin herself, given to wandering around Paris, exploring the city entirely by foot, and finding new things about themselves as they discovered new things about the French capital. Within each chapter, Elkin sprinkles in anecdotes about herself—the failed relationships with a couple of men, how strange her suburban family finds her desire to live abroad. In this sense, the book is part memoir, part cultural history, all of it centered around the idea of urban involvement and emancipation, and the benefits of the lifestyle of flâneuserie, with its emphasis on freedom, speculation, and creation.
There is one city where her desire to walk is heavily curtailed, however: Tokyo, one of the most densely-populated human capitals in the world. Elkin follows a relationship to Tokyo, living abroad from the life she had already made abroad, and finds herself miserable there. Tokyo is too big to cover on foot, and the city is strangulated by major highways, too unfriendly and dangerous for pedestrians to traverse by foot. She wanders through her long-term business hotel, wanders through shopping malls, wanders through her Japanese classes, too angry and disappointed both in her failing relationship and Tokyo’s inaccessibility to connect with the lifestyle there at all. She felt “marooned in Tokyo,” traveling back to Paris without her boyfriend, traveling back to New York to visit family, who now thought her exploits were even more strange (152). She eats at a French restaurant but hates the food, tries to find an English bookshop but can’t locate the store, feels compelled to quarantine herself inside. For a woman who prided herself on her urbane lifestyle, Tokyo was a city too much. She leaves both the city and the relationship, and returns to Paris far happier and more free.
There are other interludes—a section about London and Virginia Woolf, a chapter on Venice and Sophie Calle—but these are distractions from Elkin’s larger mission, which is to detail and celebrate the flâneuse’s long-held, if long-unacknowledged, relationship with Paris, the city that created flânerie, and work to expand it to include the rest of the world. As with much of feminist literature, there is the need to write women back into this history, to replace them where they’ve consistently been written out. And Elkin does this, in her literary way. She writes of women who have traveled the globe—Martha Gellhorn; my beloved Joan Didion—but who continue to thirst for to know more, to see more. “I’ll never see enough as long as I live,” Gellhorn wrote to her then-husband Ernest Hemingway in 1943, the year before he sent her a deeply asshole-ish telegram at the Italian front, begging her to return home (“Are you a war correspondent or wife in my bed?”) (266, 250).
For Elkin, these are woman to be celebrated, not scolded, and the remonstrations from their husbands seem silly and jealous to a fault. But, from her own stories, as well as from the biographies of the women she details, it’s clear that there has long been, and long will be, hesitancy and anger directed toward women taking their public place in the world. It is a brave act to put oneself out there into the world and walk, unarmed and alone, through its streets, and Elkin wants to expand the female sex’s mission to take up space, to find a woman’s place in the world, and to allow her the ability to walk within it, through it, and, one day, beyond it.
But this may require as much a change of mindset for the flâneuse as it does for the rest of the world. Elkin closes with a surprising story: the woman in the 1951 photograph in Florence was named Ninalee Craig, but she went by the nickname “Jinx Allen.” She was single and traveling through Europe alone, exploring and meeting friends along the way—the epitome of the flâneuse. And in 2011, when she was interviewed on NBC’s Today Show for the sixtieth anniversary of her famous photograph, Craig said that the image was being vastly misunderstood. As much as modern audiences want to code the picture with patriarchy, chauvinism, and rampant misogyny, “it’s not a symbol of harassment,” Craig said. “It’s the symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”
One final thought: I really hate the picture on the book’s cover. It’s the image of a typical flâneur with his top hat, coat, and cane. But laid over this sketch is a fucking ridiculous pink flowy skirt, transforming a bearded flâneur into a poorly cross-dressed flâneuse. For a book as philosophical and intellectual as Elkin’s, this image feels shitty and cheap, a real underselling of the message inside. A clear illustration of how we should literally never judge a book by its cover but, if possible, read Flâneuse with the dust jacket removed. 
- Emily Dufton

Friday, June 9, 2017

Letters to Felice - Franz Kafka (1973)


Oeuvre rule: I have read "Metamorphosis" and The Trial by Kafka.  As a liberal arts student at NYU, I was somewhat heavily exposed to him.  "Letter to His Father" was also read in the course "The Letter as Literature," and he is casually mentioned by everyone in academia constantly.  He is, in fact, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and one of the most important artists in history, period.  Giving him this designation when his oeuvre is quite small (I still need to read Amerika, The Castle, and some short stories like "In the Penal Colony" and "The Judgment") puts him on similar ground to J.D. Salinger, but it even feels blasphemous to compare the two.  Do not forget that Kafka died at a young age (40), whereas Salinger lived on to age 90.  Kafka's work is classic, everlasting, whereas Salinger's influence may, or may not, be waning.  It is too early to tell with the latter.

So we come to Letters to Felice.  First, some background.  I was offered a review copy of this book in mid-November 2016.  I love Kafka, but I was not sure the book would be for me.  For one, it is a book of letters, and second, I still felt there was more of his fiction to digest.  Yet it seemed like an interesting book, so I requested a copy 8 days after receiving the e-mail.  Then it came quickly, and it is a beautiful book, but I was immediately shocked by its size.  There are 550 pages of letters alone in this volume, to say nothing of the introduction, the end notes, and other appendices.  I took me a long time to read, but I supplanted it with about five other books as they arose.  While I am tempted to name it one of the Best Books, ultimately I must deign to the notion that it will primarily appeal to the academic community.  Still, there are so many classic moments in these letters that there is much to discuss in this review.

Let us start with "Kafka's True Will, An Introductory Essay," by Erich Heller, who also edited this volume along with Jurgen Born.  I needed to read it a second time after finishing the book to try to understand what I had just read.  It begins by discussing Kafka's testamentary wishes, which famously directed that his unpublished writings be burnt.  Kafka had shown this will to his friend, Max Brod, in 1921, and Brod had told him he would not carry it out.  There is brief mention of another will, written in pencil (the first was written in ink--both appear to be holographic) that dictates six stories should not be burnt, though they had already been published.  In any case, had Kafka's wishes been honored, Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle would never have seen the light of day, to say nothing of his diaries, or Letters to Felice.  One imagines Kafka rolling over in his grave, but then perhaps, being secretly pleased that his life's work had not been done in vain.

Kafka's first letter to Felice Bauer is dated September 20, 1912.  The last letter reproduced in this volume was sent October 16, 1917.  Thus, five years, averaging out to 100 pages of letters per year-- yet the first year alone takes the reader to page 320.  Over the course of these five years, Kafka asked Felice to marry him twice.  As the book ends, the reader does not witness the breaking off of the second engagement, but it apparently happened in December of 1917.  

It is very difficult to review a book of letters, and I have not read many books of letters.  I read a book of letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, and that was very readable and entertaining.  Of course, The Sorrows of Young Werther is a beautiful epistolary novel.  But Letters to Felice was not meant to be published, and as noted above, will be unappealing to most readers except those seeking a greater understanding of Kafka's psyche.  It is documentary evidence of his inner state and replete with extreme honesty.

Owing to this difficulty, there are only a few more things I can say about this book.  First, I have put asterisks or smiley faces next to many of the passages in my copy (the benefit of avoiding twerpery), and I will excerpt several of these.  Second, if there is one thing that comes across more clearly than anything else, it is this: Kafka became very insecure and paranoid when Felice did not respond quickly.  He often remarks upon this in his letters, and it led me to feel this was an acceptable practice with texts.  For some reason, I kept imagining Kafka living in the world of smartphones and text messages, and freaking out when Felice would not text him back, and asking, "What were you doing with your time that made it impossible for you to reply?"

There is also the matter of Kafka's profession, which appears to be a claims consultant or adjuster for an insurance company after obtaining his law degree.  Of course this holds great personal interest for me, and it was difficult at times to not want to act like Kafka.  That is, as a writer that makes his actual living (or wants to) in an offshoot of the legal profession.  His comments on his job, and the few times he has to go to court, are hilarious.

Since we are addressing a legal aspect to this book, I have to mention a sincere annoyance of mine, and one thing law journals get right: use footnotes instead of end notes!  There are 27 pages of end notes, and over 500 individual references.  Much like Infinite Jest, it drove me nuts to have to constantly flip back and forth between them, perhaps because I tended to read the book during my lunch hour, with it sat propped in a silver, standing holder, and I would need to flip back, causing the holder to topple over.  Now as terrible as law review articles tend to be, and as ridiculous as they look, what with half of their page being taken up by the text of footnotes, I wish that larger volumes such as this would put the explanatory note on the same page.  This may be a petty thing, but I needed to point it out.  In fact, to mention him again, I do believe Salinger used an occasional footnote or two in Seymour: an Introduction, and kept them on the same page.

I also enjoy his remarks on Napoleon:

"Only last Sunday afternoon Max said to me on a similar occasion: 'You talk like a girl,'  But this is not quite true, for in an excellent collection of Napoleon's sayings (Note 126), which for some time now I have been dipping into whenever I can, these words are recorded: 'It is terrible to die childless,' and he was by no means sorry for himself; friends, for instance, whether by choice or necessity, were not indispensable to him.  He once said: 'I haven't a friend other than Daru, who is callous and cold and suits me.'  And to judge the true depth this man had access to, take this remark: 'He who knows from the beginning where he is going, will not get far.'  So that when he talks of the terror of childlessness, one may believe him.  And I have to be prepared to take this upon myself, for apart from everything else I would never dare expose myself to the risk of being a father."  (134, December 30 to 31, 1912).

There is another passage about Napoleon too, but this review runs the risk of being interminable if I am going to excerpt every entertaining quote.  As a whole, this book is not very entertaining.  The love affair between Franz and Felice is quite mundane.  They met at the home of Max Brod in August of 1912, and they saw each other 2-3 times a year, in a sort of long distance relationship.  In June of 1913, he asked her to marry him, and she remained evasive and did not agree until April of 1914.  In July of 1914 the engagement is broken off in what seems the most dramatic "action" in all of Letters to Felice, the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof.  Yet they remained close, and the next three years seem to pass by in a blur, as they become engaged a second time in July of 1917.  As has already been shown, the majority of this book consists of letters in their first year of knowing one another.  Kafka was a prolific letter writer, sometimes sending off multiple letters a day, and expecting, if not the same depth of effort, at the very least a timely reply.  Again, though, an absurd amount of this book is Kafka being like, "Why haven't you written yet?!"

Along the way, however, there are tons of beautiful quotes, and hilarious observations and confessions.  And my comparison to texting is not totally without precedent.  Felice works for a company that sells parlographs, and Franz offers a list of ideas:

"5.  Invent a combination of telephone and Parlograph.  This really can't be too difficult.  The day after tomorrow, of course, you will tell me that this has already been accomplished successfully.  But it would really be of immense importance for the press, news agencies, etc.  More difficult, but surely quite possible, would be a combination of gramophone and telephone.  More difficult, simply because one can't understand a word the gramophone says, and a Parlograph can't very well ask for clearer pronunciation.  A combination of gramophone and telephone would not be of such great universal importance; it would only be a relief to people who, like me, are afraid of the telephone.  People like me, however, are equally afraid of the gramophone, so for them there is no help whatever." (168, January 22-23, 1913)

 As I flip back through the pages of this book, looking for marginalia, I am struck by the feeling of familiarity with the character of Franz.  He is such a humorous and sardonic fellow!  It is as if his life is a great absurd comedy in which he generally does not want to live, except to write.  A recent co-worker of mine had referred to him as neurotic.  I would describe his style as consciously absurd and pseudo-dramatic.

"I have only just started reading the book; on the whole I stay away from everything, including books.  It is extremely clumsy; but it does manage to produce one distinctive character, of whom for the time being I really don't know what to think.  In any case I am not a critic, am no good at analyzing, easily misunderstand, frequently miss the point, and am left in doubt as to the overall impression." (463, March 1916)

There is really something of a surprise dramatic "twist" in the book, which I shouldn't spoil, but the letters to Grete Bloch merit mention, because they are introduced so fucking ridiculously:

"Grete Bloch and Felice Bauer met probably in 1913.  Their friendship lasted a great deal longer than their relationship with Kafka.  As late as 1935 Grete Bloch, as a refugee on her way to Palestine and finally to Italy, visited her friend who at that time was living with her family in Geneva.  It was then she handed over to Felice some of the letters she had received from Kafka." [While we are on the subject of historical background, allow me to mention that Felice Bauer eventually moved to the United States in 1936 where she lived until she died in 1960.]
"Kafka met Grete Bloch for the first time at the end of October 1913 when, at Felice's request, she went to see him in Prague to act as an intermediary between them.  The following represents all that has survived.  In the third revised edition of his biography of Kafka (English edition, p.241), Max Brod published part of a letter from Grete Bloch to a friend in Palestine; this was written April 21, 1940, from Florence, where she was then living.  In it she says that years ago she had an illegitimate child, a son who "when nearly 'seven years old died suddenly in Munich in 1921.'  If this is correct, the child must have been born about 1914.  Although the father's name is not mentioned it was clear to the recipient, Max Brod's sole informant on the subject, that she attributed the paternity to Kafka." (323)

What!  The editors then go on to say that the tone of the letters to Grete does not suggest that Kafka had an intimate relationship with her--but I'm not quite sure I agree!  It's almost like, he and Felice are going through a rough patch, and all of the sudden Grete comes through, Felice's friend, and Kafka is like, oh damn this girl is pretty special too.

"Once, in Dr. Weiss's company (when she happened to be lively and very friendly toward me), she said jokingly (I had been telling them that you had very much liked the Galley): Frl. Bloch seems to mean a great deal to you.' I could only answer in the affirmative.  I can really say nothing about F.'s attitude toward you, less even than about her attitude toward me." (358, March 7, 1914)

Some of his letters to Grete Bloch seem more lively and interesting to read, as if he does not get bogged down by his feelings of anxiety and paranoia expressed in the letters to Felice.  So there are quotable observations such as this:

"The last of my closer, unmarried, unengaged friends [Felix Weltsch] has got engaged; while I have foreseen the engagement for 3 years (for the outsider, no great perspicacity was required), he and she have known of it for a mere fortnight.  Thus to some extent I am losing a friend, for a married friend isn't a true one.  Anything he is told will be revealed to his wife either silently or explicitly, and the woman in whose head all information doesn't become distorted probably doesn't exist.  Moreover, even if this were not so, one can no longer think of him alone, cannot expect from him that intimate comfort and help, nor even assume the possibility of such comfort or help, for now, whatever happens, one is faced by a partnership.  But apart from the fact that I naturally wish him the best of everything." (349-350, February 19, 1914)

Oh, snap--Kafka dishing it out on people getting married and growing distant!

Here, he writes to Grete Bloch on the topic of her imminent departure from Vienna (which is a city he expresses no great affection for, apart from the Grillparzer Room):

"Incidentally, I don't believe that one's sadness at leaving is due to one having loved the thing one is leaving.  One's sadness is probably due to the opposite.  One feels that the connection are severed too easily, also that others part from one too easily; the superficial relationships which were established in the course of time and which, because they have not been closely examined during that time, almost seemed to represent intimate relationships, now prove to be as insignificant as they actually are.  Sadly one remembers the pseudo-relationships that were formed, and sadly one foresees the pseudo-relationships that will be formed.  Indeed, one needs both freedom and dependence, but each in its own place, and one feels very uneasy on realizing that one has got the places mixed up.  It has often happened to me; it doesn't matter, rejoice with me that you are about to leave Vienna." (397-398, April 26, 1914)

It is not surprising to me that, because I often seem to internally feel something about the book I am reading, and allow it to unconsciously affect my life, I went through my own bouts of paranoia about a significant other not returning a text, and became afraid of commitment, at one point sending the following excerpt in an e-mail:

"But--please listen to me quietly--what I wanted to give you was time to consider carefully your relationship with me--for, to judge from what you have said since Easter (with the possible exception of the first two letters), I was forced to believe (please, Felice, just put yourself in my place for one moment and look at everything in the way I am forced to see it) that I am now able to keep you only be artificial means, by dispatching one letter after another, and thus not giving you time to come to your senses, and thereby urging you in your haste to use old words deprived of their old meaning.  This is not my final word, for with each new letter from you even my strongest convictions begin to waver anew, but if it were so, it would really have been the only way in which you had ever disappointed me, because candor is the one thing I have expected from you at all times.  I wouldn't have been surprised if at some time you had dismissed me, because you could not immediately have known me for what I am, indeed this was impossible; it was almost as though I had approached you sideways and it took some little time before we turned to face each other.  Now of course I don't know what your final decision may be, but only imagine that I can sense it in your recent letters, and the one thing I cannot understand, Felice, is that you yourself shouldn't know how you feel about it.  You must not imagine that all I am saying is due to your letters being short and infrequent; you used to write short letters every now and again and I was quite happy and satisfied.  But your recent letters are different.  My affairs are no longer as important to you, and what is much worse: you no longer bother to tell me about yourself.  So what am I to do?  I could no longer reply to these recent letters, and pictured you at the office on Thursday morning, sighing with relief on discovering that at long last there was no letter."
-Franz (4/26/13)  (246-247)

So yes, I began to feel what Franz felt, and I had a great desire to live his sort of life--to live with my parents (to soften the weight of my soul crushing loans--something that Kafka thankfully did not have to suffer) and work as a claims consultant at an insurance company and to write in all my spare time.  And I began to feel that my life was too complicated, and that I don't do nearly the amount of writing I wish I could.  And I read this book very slowly, as I transitioned into a job which made me very depressed, in part perhaps because I had to commute by car and could not read on the train.  I would stare at the line of cars ahead of me, holding down the brake and hitting the gas erratically.  How much better it was to become lost in Kafka's idiosyncratic mind than to observe and participate in the dull monotony of highway traffic.

The other part of the book that strikes one as most notable is the scene at the Hotel Askanische Hof, which is told circumstantially through letters to Grete Bloch:

"You would be doing me a great favor if you sent me the letter that was so disastrous, for I cannot imagine what was in it that can have been so terrible." (434, July 20, 1914)

"53.  Possibly one of the letters to Grete Bloch between early May and the end of June 1914.  In these letters a number of lines in which Kafka voices strong doubts about the feasibility of a marriage to Felice are underlined in red, probably by Grete Bloch for the purpose of quoting them at the 'tribunal in the hotel' (Askanische Hof).  See Kafka's letter to Grete Bloch of July 3, 1914: 'You needn't have quoted from the letters.'" (568, FN 53)

Signs of Kafka's illness become evident at certain points throughout the text, which includes stays at sanatoriums.  There is an ominous letter near the end where he mentions coughing up blood, but one particular item written while he was in, or about to go into convalescence, struck me.

"Dear Felice, I spoke to him quite frankly, as you would have done, and eh also answered me frankly.  I said 'Why don't you write?  Why are you tormenting F.?  That you are tormenting her is surely quite obvious, from her postcards.  You promise to write, and don't.  You send a telegram "letter on way," but there is no letter on the way; it doesn't get written until 2 days later.  Once in a while and as an exception, a girl might be permitted to behave in this way, it could even be innocent, provided it is in keeping with her character.  But in your case it is not innocent, for your silence can only mean concealment, so cannot be excused.'
He replied: 'But it can be excused, for there are circumstances in which there is little difference between expressing and concealing.  My suffering is fourfold:
I cannot live in Prague.  I don't know if I can live elsewhere, but that I cannot live here is the most definite thing I know.
Furthermore: This is why I cannot have F. at present.
Furthermore: I cannot help (it is even in print) admiring other people's children.
Finally: At times I feel I shall be crushed by these torments on every side.  But my present suffering is not the worst.  The worst is that time passes, that this suffering makes me more wretched and incapable, and prospects for the future grow increasingly more dismal." (456-457, August 9, 1915)

And on it goes.  I was quite confused and wondered whether Kafka was writing about himself in the third person, or what.  It struck me as being the most "unhinged" letter in the book, like seemingly schizophrenic.

There are many other beautiful passages and droll witticisms scattered throughout the text, and if this review has run long on excerpts from the text, it is only because I do not think many readers will actually seek this out for pleasure reading, unless they are writing a paper about Kafka.  It does offer sometimes revealing looks into the creation of his literature, but yes, it is primarily an exercise in repetition and exasperation on the subject of Felice's responsiveness.  Still, it is a beautiful book, and I am glad I read it.  I do not know if, or when I will ever return to it, but I am proud to stock it in my library.



Monday, May 1, 2017

Pissed Jeans - 4/28/17 @ Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL


I haven't been on Facebook as often over the past couple weeks, but I still managed to notice a new concert meme.  I felt like participating in that and adding Pissed Jeans to the list.  This show already famously recreated the same lineup (The Catburglars, STNNG)  from the first time they played in Chicago in 2008.  In 2008, I knew a little about the band, but I wouldn't have gone out of my way to see them.  This was not going very far out of my way, and only cost $10.  Advance tickets were sold out however, so I needed to show up at 9 PM.  I checked the set times after being admitted, probably the 25th person in line or so.  PJ did not go on until Midnight, so I had some time to kill.

I don't write reviews of every concert I see.  I felt the need to do it for Shellac because, even though it was not my first time seeing them, my appreciation for them had deepened recently.  This is also the case for PJ, but additionally in this case, I spent much more.  I spent more than necessary at Shellac because I actually had an extra ticket go to waste, because the girl I bought them from would only sell them as a pair.  It was worth it for me for $45, but perhaps I felt the need to memorialize it because of spending that extra amount.  Here, something similar has happened, as I spent about $60 on the whole experience, and felt terrible the next day (though I think the weather exacerbated my feelings)--but it's not really been about the money.  Here, it is to share all of my awkward experiences with you.  I asked a couple friends if they wanted to go with me, but they all declined or failed to respond.  I didn't know about this show until about 2 PM that day, and I got super excited.

So as mentioned above, I had some time to kill after entering at 9, and I started by having a PBR draft as it was only $3.  I drank it relatively fast and walked around the venue, sat down on the raised stage part and looked at my phone for a while, reading the latest e-mail from a pen pal.  I played the Neo Geo game for $0.25, which was fun even though it was basically like playing an arcade version of Snood.  I left, and went to a fast casual restaurant, Leghorn.  I went back in, and had another drink.  I walked over to my spot on the raised stage from before and watched the Catburglars.  They were primarily entertaining for their frontman, who was hilarious.  For some reason I feel like this was a reunion show?  They played fast, very repetitive riffs, and their singer was somewhat laconic, but then also extremely fierce at times.  For some reason he kind of reminded me of Milo Aukerman?  Anyways I think he is married and a dad now, and the most memorable moment of their set came when he apologized for making sexist and misogynistic statements in the past, and he thanked the people that called him out on it.  Everybody clapped but somebody shouted "booo" and he was like, "Who's boo-ing? Do you really want to be known as less woke than the Catburglars?" In short, they cracked me up and they were fun.

After their set, I went out and bummed a smoke off someone.  He was with his friend, the only real PJ fan in their group of 4, that had advance tickets (on his birthday), and I chatted with them briefly.  They were very nice, a few years older than me probably, but not more than 10, and I mentioned to them about seeing who I thought was Matt Korvette at their merch table and how he left shortly after I saw him, as if seeking to avoid an impending awkward conversation.

Talking about it gave me more resolve, and I saw him there again and decided to talk to him.  I told him an extremely awkward story about a previous experience I had at Empty Bottle, involving Mac Mccaughan, in his place, basically, as the object of all my awkward affection.  I really do love them both, but Mac has truly been an idol of mine for many years now.  Anyways that is what I said when I approached him.  I was like, "Oh man, I idolize you!"  He was super nice, and he was like, "Thank you."  He asked my name and we shook hands.  And I told him this awkward story and maybe I will post it below in the comments if anyone cares, because I have written about it, and his reaction was like, "Oh no, hang in there."  And then I basically apologized for telling the story, because there was really nothing relevant about it, except that it was the second artist encounter, and the first one nearly resulted in a situation oddly related to the name of the second.  As I struggled with whether to say anything else, the second band thundered onto the stage, and I told him I was excited to see them and said goodbye.

I really did not pay much attention.  I think my mind was fixated on how badly I had messed up my opportunity to talk to Matt Korvette.  So I finished a third drink, another PBR draft, and went to the ATM and paid a $2.75 surcharge basically in order to get a t-shirt.  But I only had three dollars left and wanted one more drink.  I also went out to bum another smoke.

There I met Danny, who was not actually the one to give me the smoke, but had also questioned this on-the-spot friend regarding vegetation in Chicago, specifically trees, and to name some different types of greenery, at which point "deciduous" was uttered, and an understanding was reached.  This person left though, and another (Bill) replaced him, as audience to Danny's musings, which were quite entertaining.  He recommended the City Museum in St. Louis, as I mentioned I might take a weekend trip there this summer.  Then he and Bill got going on Black Sabbath, as Bill mentioned seeing Dio at Pop's in St. Louis.  I asked them which were the best Sabbath albums and they both agreed the first one was the place to start and that I should listen to it.  They also said Master of Reality was very good, and then there were 2 later albums--maybe Dehumanizer was one of them?  In any case I listened to these the next day I could not really get into them.  They made me paranoid and kind of scared and sad.  But I had a good time talking to Danny and then I went in and got my last drink and tried to get the best spot I could as the band would be going on in a few minutes.

Setlist as I remember it:
I'm a Man
Boring Girls
The Bar is Low
Have You Ever Been Furniture?
Ignorecam
(Won't Tell You) My Sign
Romanticize Me
Love without Emotion
Worldwide Marine Asset Financial Analyst
False Jesii, Part 2
Half Idiot
Pleasure Race
She is Science Fiction
Encore
Bathroom Laughter
Some other song where MK played guitar

There are more than a few songs I am missing, and this order is totally off.  But I know for sure they played all those songs, and it was awesome!  I had told the birthday guy outside that I would be satisfied if they played "Boring Girls" and he said they would probably play it.  It was fantastic, and here is a video of it, where you can see MK give a girl a dollar from the stage hilariously.

However, I also took video of the first song, which I was impressed to see recreated on stage.  It is worth seeing.  It was a cool way of doing what stands out as one of the more unusual tracks PJ has done.

video



And here is the aforementioned scorcher of an opener:



video





The other highlights for me were "Worldwide Marine Asset Financial Analyst," "False Jesii, Part 2," and "Bathroom Laughter."  So I haven't captured the most rousing moments of the set, but I also felt like an idiot holding my phone up.  I really hate being one of those guys.  It appears that the last two songs are over 100 megabytes and so cannot be uploaded.  The closing song, I swear during that MK said, "This song is for the Chicago Bulls," who had been eliminated by the Celtics earlier that evening.  

After the show, I bought a t-shirt and maybe I will update this one day soon and show the picture of the shirt as I did with Shellac.  Later I regretted getting this t-shirt because I do not think my mom would appreciate it if I wore it to be photographed with her.

In short, I had a wonderful time at the show--but too wonderful of a time.  I paid for it the next day with severe depression, which was probably exacerbated by watching Manchester by the Sea later that evening.  But I have zero complaints about PJ--though on the ride home, ironically, "Slow Drip" by Superchunk came on my playlist, followed by "Human Upskirt" by PJ and I reflected that it was one of the few songs, along with "Cat House," that I would have liked to hear.  But I loved the set, I wish they just got to play for 90 minutes instead of 60--but then maybe you wouldn't have the $10 cover.  Everybody was super nice and polite to me for it being such a hardcore show, except for the one guy that kind of shoved me meanly in the mosh pit.  I highly recommend you see PJ if you ever get the opportunity.  I told their drummer, after getting the t-shirt from him, that I hoped they would be back before 2020 (but if not I understood).  If they ever come back and Matt is available to talk, I will have much more interesting topics of conversation prepared.  

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure (2013)


I recently changed jobs.  My former boss's wife worked in the office with us and served as our personnel manager (on top of another franchise store she managed).  Near the end of my two-week notice period, she came to speak to me on random matters, likely in an attempt to ascertain why I felt leaving their firm for this new one was a good idea.  Of course, everything was extremely polite and friendly, and near the end, she mentioned that she was reading this book.  She made a number of comments on it, and expressed that it was based on a true story.  I felt that, given her enthusiasm, I should check it out and review it as an homage to them.  So first, let me say, my time spent at my previous firm was quite painful and uncomfortable, but in retrospect was not all that terrible.  I had to sink or swim on my own with little oversight.  Sometimes, oversight opens up criticisms.  I didn't need to contend with criticisms from my boss.  Criticisms were primarily made by opposing counsel, judges and clients, and few were leveled at my own performance.  Given the dozens of cases I handled in a little over 18 months, I only had regrets about the way I handled one or two.  This is not the place to write about my legal career, but as I consider this an homage, I felt a word was in order.

The Paris Architect is a work of historical fiction.  It is about an architect, Lucien Bernard, who is commissioned by a rich businessman, Auguste Manet, to design hidden rooms in which to hide Jewish people in the Vichy-era of 1940's Paris.  It is not based on a true story, but Belfoure admits that its basis in fact is transposed from an earlier historical era, when architects designed hidden rooms for priests that refused to join the Church of England [note I am completely wrong about this and it was in fact the reign of Elizabeth I and not Henry VIII and I am confusing Thomas More with more contemporary counterparts].  Overall, my feeling on the novel is that it tells a pretty good story, but is so far from a perfect novel that I can only half-heartedly recommend it.  There are a few scenes in it that are excellent, but a few great scenes do not make a perfect novel.

For example, Belfoure is at his best when he is describing the "dark embrace before death":

"Geiber slid under the stairway, letting it fall back into place with a heavy thud.  Sliding next to Miriam, he fastened two bolts that locked the stairs in place.  He was breathing so heavily he thought he would pass out.  His back was against Miriam's chest, and he could feel her heart pounding.  He moved the bag up by his chest, laid it on its side, and unlatched it.  Miriam placed her arm over her husband's body and tightly grasped his hand.  She hid her face against the back of his head.  For just a fraction of a second, it made him forget about the approaching danger.
Such a warm, comforting feeling, thought Geiber, like they were back in their big bed at home snuggling under the goose down duvet.  It was mostly airless and pitch black in the cramped space under the stairs, but the mattress they were lying on was quite comfortable, and because the stairs were almost two meters wide, the Geibers could fully stretch out their legs.  The underside of the steps was just centimeters from Geiber's face, so he could smell the wood.  They could do nothing now but wait, seconds passing like hours." (108)

He is at his worst with some of the dialogue and character development.  While I think Lucien's "arc" is one of the best things about the novel, almost every single other character is somewhat one-dimensional (however,  I did believe Herzog was interesting, as I was kept guessing whether or not he was really a "stereotypical good Nazi" character).  Lucien's wife, Celeste, shows signs of being one of the more interesting characters.  However, (I am not giving anything away by spoiling this) Lucien cheats on her, shamelessly, and then the reader discovers that she is also having an affair, and then she leaves him, and that's pretty much that.  Lucien does meet someone new, and the story has one of the happiest endings I have ever read.  It's a nice ending and perhaps my suspicious attitude towards that says something about the books I read.

Recently I heard my youngest sister mention that she had been reading The Zookeeper's Wife and then I randomly saw a preview on TV for the movie, and it appeared to have very similar subject matter to this book.  Seizing on this coincidence, I have asked my sister to review that book, and have given her about a month for a deadline, and we will see if it comes off or not.  But then there is even a zookeeper subplot in this book, briefly:

"He was a zookeeper and told his cousin that Professor Trenet could hide for a while in one of the unused cages in the section of animal houses that were completely shut up.  Despite the food shortages, the zoo was kept up during the Occupation, mainly for the benefit of the German soldiers.  The animals ate better than most Parisians.  Now Juliette was living in a concrete den behind the empty lions' cage at the zoo.  It was the enclosed space where the lions slept and ate when they weren't walking around in the cage in front of the public.  Even lions wants their privacy occasionally, thought Juliette.  Out of her savings, Juliette gave Dauphin five thousand francs, even though the man hadn't asked for payment.  If Juliette was found, the zookeeper would be arrested too, so she had insisted." (183)

Now at a brief glance that book does appear to be more based on a true story than this one, and that one came out in 2008.  Perhaps Belfoure merely intended the scene as a brief, knowing reference, or perhaps it is entirely coincidental, but I had to note it.

In any case, I do not know what else to say about this book.  One of the excellent scenes to which I referred earlier involves a hiding place behind a fireplace.  Anybody who has read this novel will immediately know what I am talking about and remember it as quite horrifying.  This sequence is expertly crafted, and to speak more generally about this story (and this has been a very general review and certainly not one of my finest, but the book is due back in about an hour and these past few weeks have been strange, and difficult to find time to write), it's not a bad story.  There are just a lot of cliches within it.  The pacing is pretty fast, and sometimes certain characters or situations get short shrift, but generally, it's a story about getting into bed with the enemy, while outsmarting them and trying to achieve a greater good.  I can't remember all of the books I have read about the Holocaust (obviously Night comes to mind, and a book called Briar Rose that I had to read in high school) but they are always difficult reads.  Night is obviously a classic, and I seem to remember finding more to appreciate about Briar Rose.  Nevertheless, Belfoure creates a few moments of real menace, and the reader should ultimately be satisfied after being first turned off by Lucien, then rooting for him later.  Even though I am glad there is a happy ending, I do not think it is very realistic.  This also reminded me of Inglorious Basterds--in particular, the opening scene. and some of the scenes in Paris.  I would recommend this book to architects that design secret rooms, and people that sometimes feel guilty about their benefactors.  I did not feel it was a complete waste of my time, but it begs the question whether writers should attempt to write about the Holocaust from a speculative position.  There are few survivors left, and those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and all that with the President we have elected and the alt-right (thankfully the sieg-heiling seems to have died down), but this is not the book to cite as a document relevant to our current socio-political atmosphere.  It's a good old fashioned suspense story, and if you don't expect too much out of it, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised.

 




Saturday, April 8, 2017

Interiew: Erica Wright

Not too long ago, I read Erica Wright's novel The Granite Moth.  Afterwards, I asked Erica if she would be willing to participate in an interview as a feature.  She agreed and I cut down the number of questions from 21 to 10.  Her answers are very thoughtful and provide much food for thought.  I am impressed with everything she has done up to this point, and excited to see what she might be able to do in the future.



(1) When did you begin writing The Granite Moth and when was it published?  How was the experience different from writing The Red Chameleon? 

I started The Granite Moth with a three-page, single-spaced outline about underground gambling rings in New York City. When I sat down to write the first chapter, in the summer of 2013, I realized that a float was going to explode and the book would be about a possible hate crime. My outline—of which I was inordinately proud—went out the window. The book was published in November 2015. The main difference between writing this one versus The Red Chameleon was how well I knew the characters. Even though they still surprised me from time to time, I knew how they would react to certain situations.  

(2) How did you go about getting the book published?  Did you send query letters to agents or the publishing houses directly?


For The Red Chameleon, I queried agents and was lucky enough to find Penn Whaling who helped me sale that book and then The Granite Moth to the lovely folks at Pegasus. 

(3) Who are your top five authors of all time?


Wow, tough question. My answer would probably be different next week, but I’ll go with my gut . I’m also sticking with prose instead of making my favorite poets compete: Charlotte Brontë, Salman Rushdie, Jane Austen, Joan Didion, Gabriel García Márquez. Marisha Pessl would probably be on the shortlist, as well, even though she’s only published two novels. 

Note that I asked some follow-up questions in an e-mail and Erica suggested The Moor's Last Sigh by Rushdie and Night Film by Pessl.

(4) Did you write exclusively for a living at the time you wrote The Granite Moth or did you need to work a separate job too?  Is this situation still the same?


No, I balance writing with teaching. I can’t imagine not teaching at all. I would miss my students!

(5) You mentioned that you are currently working on the third novel in this series.  How far along are you in the process?  What is your writing process for completing a manuscript?  More basically, what is your daily writing process?  Do you have a title, or is there anything else you can tell us about the new one?


Thanks for asking about the third book. For now, it’s called The Blue Kingfisher, and I recently finished a pretty major rewrite, cutting a few unnecessary characters and punching up the ending. I’m not a morning person, but I write early in the day, first thing if possible. That way, I prioritize the project. I currently lead a novel writing group through OneRoom, and that’s one of tricks I emphasize—finding and sticking with a routine.

(6) Prior to The Granite Moth, I had only known you to write poetry.  For some reason, this material seems like a far cry from your poems.  What drew you to write about Kat Stone and the world of private investigators?


I was teaching English at a criminology school, and my students were all pursuing what seemed like wild careers to me. They wanted to work for the CIA or FBI. They wanted to be detectives. So I started researching these worlds, so that I could better relate to them during our conferences. I found myself fascinated with crime fighting, undercover work in particular. I wondered what would happen to someone who took on a whole other identify for years. Kat came from that question. 

(7) Has anyone approached you about obtaining film rights to the Kat Stone anthology?


No, but I’ve been watching Jane the Virgin lately and marveling at the talent of Gina Rodriguez. She’d be an amazing Kat. 

(8) Now I knew you in New York, but you live in Houston now.  Have you lived anywhere else in between, and how do they all compare?  I only ask because I'm constantly comparing Chicago to New York, and have come to the conclusion that relatively lower rent is the main thing that keeps me from thinking I will go back.


I never imagined leaving New York City, but I’ve been enjoying my new location adventures. Since 2012, I’ve lived in Atlanta, Gainesville, Nashville, and now Houston. If anybody needs moving tips, I’m available. They all have their unique advantages. The Spanish moss in Gainesville is gorgeous. And Houston is this sprawling behemoth of infinite possibilities.  

(9) I feel like I should ask something specific about The Granite Moth, a question about the story itself.  How did you come up with the idea of building the narrative around an explosion of a parade float?  The narrative seems to go a lot of pretty crazy places, but why did you feel compelled to write about things like the Pink Parrot and the Zeus Society?  And what is gayboy bunny?


I knew that I wanted to start the book at the Halloween Parade, an ideal setting for mischief since it’s a nighttime event and masks are expected. As I mentioned before, the book was original going to be about underground gambling dens in New York City, but when I started writing about the float, I knew it was going to explode. In general, our true interests—what Frank Bidart might call our radical givens—rise to the surface if we let them, and I wanted to explore the possibility of a hate crime. That’s how the Zeus Society entered into the narrative. A “gayboy bunny” is a woman who has several gay friends. It has a more positive connotation than some of the other less endearing terms.

(10) Is Magrelli a character in The Red Chameleon?  Do you think a person's appreciation for The Granite Moth would be enhanced by reading The Red Chameleon?  Do you regard the books as your children, and do you say you are equally proud, and do you have a secret favorite?


With a healthy amount of help from my editor, I tried to make sure that The Granite Moth works as its own book. Kat will be shaking the trauma of her time undercover for awhile, and Magrelli symbolizes that past. He’s a character in The Red Chameleon the same way—he haunts her. I don’t think of the books as children, though I am proud of them. I want each novel I write to be a little bit better than the previous one.