Recently I moved into a new apartment building for people age 55-plus: the generations that grew up with books, not digitalia. Their schooling emphasized reading, which means the building’s shared library is a serendipitous treasure trove.
Carmen Maria Machado creates a dark, dreamlike landscape in her experimental memoir, In The Dream House. Her story of queer domestic abuse, written as a collection of short vignettes, begins as a fairy tale. There’s a monster lurking somewhere, and the desire to sniff out the boogeyman makes you forget you’re even turning pages. Machado’s addition of fairy tale citations adds a semi-lighthearted and humorous touch to an otherwise darker narrative. Machado’s fairy tale monster takes the form of the woman who lives in the “dream house.”
Machado creates a fascinating practice in self-analysis and reader involvement by using all three modes of perspective. She utilizes third person to explain an airy concept, second person to tell the lurid contents of her tale, and first person to speak directly to the reader. The most frequently utilized perspective is the second person, where Machado seems to rip her hand through the spine of the book to touch the reader. Perhaps the most nerve-wracking example of this technique is the section titled “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure” where the reader is given multiple choices of action which all lead to the same abusive conclusion.
No matter how fascinating a world Machado can craft, it doesn’t save her from unnecessary pedanticism. The form of the book, utilizing “The Dream House as . . .” before every vignette quickly loses its original charm. The book seems to drag on unnecessarily long. Once the story loses its driving force of conflict, the reader is ready for it to end. However, these small annoyances did not totally hinder my consumption of Machado’s work. In The Dream House is full of minefields that you don’t expect. By the end of the book, the reader cheers on Machado as she recovers from her time in the “dream house.”
Retiring in mid-February, I foresaw a sedentary future. However, this virus has taken even that to unexpected heights. With my time in isolation (so to speak; I have a family), I’ve been able to read Moses, a fictional narrative based on the biblical figure’s life by Anthony Burgess.
While most know Burgess for Clockwork Orange, that’s hardly his best. He is the primary reason I pursued an MFA after a 15-year absence from school.
Now I recall why I love (and envy) his writing so much. Moses is a bit closer to two of his earlier works: Napoleon Symphony, where he presents his interpretation of the diminutive conqueror’s life while dividing the book into four sections attempting to replicate the pacing of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and Man of Nazareth, a look at the life of Jesus as narrated by a Greek merchant returning from business in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion.
Moses strikes out on its own in several ways, beginning with its structure. A narrative in verse. it reminds the reader of the Greek epic poems. It humanizes its characters—even Ramses. Moses himself suffers from a speech impediment. This is not unexpected for readers familiar with Burgess; most of his characters with outward defects tend to be the only complete person: recall the grotesque minister defending Alex in Clockwork Orange or the narrator’s disfigured sister in Earthly Powers.
But, like all things coming from Burgess, there are lessons to derive from this one. Issues such as free will, individual responsibility, and respect for simply stated (not grandiose and intricate) law are chief among those. This may be one of the easiest books from Burgess to read although I’d still recommend having a dictionary handy since the linguistic “tricks” found in his diction are always entertaining.
Sheltering in place has provided the perfect opportunity to dive into Edoardo Albinati’s The Catholic School, a thorough exploration of the author’s coming of age in a particular Roman neighborhood in the 1970s. More than simple description or reminiscence, the book is propelled by a comprehensive search for explanations—specifically, regarding a gruesome crime committed by a few of the quarter’s well-heeled young inhabitants. The story is itself an unsparing quest to understand the conditions and sentiments and reigning assumptions that made such a thing even conceivable.
This is no straightforward mystery or crime novel, and indeed, readers not fond of philosophical or sociocultural speculation will probably not enjoy what for this reader amounts to delicious intellectual revelry. But if the lengthy and incisive discourses on bourgeois morality and hypocrisy, the nature of violence, the troubling and troubled realities of masculinity, the strange arena that is the family, or religion and politics in Italy, aren’t your bag, all is not lost! The 1200-plus-page behemoth can most certainly be incorporated into that weight-training routine you have time to take up now that we’re all stuck inside.
In Page Hill Starzinger’s Vortex Street, the poet explores many different kinds of loss, to resist squandering what is given. In her revisions of complicated grief, she takes up the subjects of unborn children, the ending of fertility, and becoming an orphaned adult after the death of parents. The fleeting life cycle of a mayfly which only endures for 24 hours is held against the cognitive decline of an aging father. In this act of ongoing “rentrayage” or remaking, the poet turns towards locating the quiet harbor where grief can be held—through the senescent body, its memories, and the exterior dwelling places that anchor us to the past.
Vortex Street by Page Hill Starzinger. Barrow Street Press, May 2020.
Reviewer bio: Shin Yu Pai is the author of AUX ARCS, Adamantine, Sightings, and Equivalence. In March 2020, Entre Rios Books published Ensō, a 20-year survey of her work across disciplines. For more info, visit www.shinyupai.com.
When I go through troubling times, I often reread certain chapters in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It’s the part starting in Chapter 27 where Jane knows that she can’t morally stay at Thornfield Hall any longer and that in order to be true to herself she must leave Mr. Rochester. On her sad voyage away from him, she loses her money and is homeless and starving and yet her connection to nature and to her God is at its strongest. She carries on, not knowing that she will soon happen upon her long-lost relatives and will later reconnect with Mr. Rochester.
What Jane, or Charlotte Brontë, does for me here is to remind me that when I’m in the middle of a crisis I need to remember to connect to my spirituality in a big way, and also to remember that no matter how bad the situation seems, the future can bring change and that I won’t stay stuck forever. To place this in the present situation, it is necessary for me to remember that the suffering brought about by the pandemic will end.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. October 1847.
Reviewer bio: I live in San Francisco, California, and am doing my best, like the rest of you, to stay healthy during the pandemic. Find my website here.
In C.J. Sansom’s seventh addition to the marvellous Shardlake series, we find ourselves in 1549 and once more at the whims of the Lady Elizabeth, a self-possessed and impassioned fifteen-year-old with little hint of teenage naivety. A missing woman reappears and is then savagely murdered. Her estranged husband, a distantly related Boleyn, stands accused of the crime. Matthew Shardlake is sent to Norfolk to investigate and uncovers intrigue at the highest echelons of elite society. While there, he is captured and caught up in a Kett’s Rebellion, a revolt of the peasant classes against greedy land grabs of the local gentry.
Born with a curvature of the spine and an astute and clear-sighted intellect, Matthew navigates the unsanitary conditions and unjust realities of 16th century England in the years after Henry VIII’s demise, leaving an eleven year old boy on the throne and in the midst of a lion’s den of power players. He is a man of his time but the disability which has marks him as an outsider has also engendered an empathetic awareness of the plight of others. His own critical reckoning and that of those around him, crosses the centuries, offering more relevance to modern thinking while remaining plausibly within the realms of 16th century reality and experience.
The intimacy of Matthew’s asides along with the minutiae of his daily tasks enhances the sense we are shadowing this man through each hour of his life, adding to the immersive experience of the reader into his medieval reality. And what an existence it is: political intrigue, civic unrest, religious discord, intensely unequal economic disparity, ruptured innocence, and war crimes. Add to that Matthew’s own reluctant investigations into gruesome murders, the duplicitous doings of the social elite, and the undue suffering of the poor and powerless and we have a meticulously researched novel of such scope and depth that, by god’s wounds, it is often hard to pull oneself back from it into modern life.
Tombland by C.J. Sansom. Pan MacMillan, October 2018.
As a lifelong logophile, I’ve found folks who are acerbic, insipid, and (occasionally) inimitable. However, I’d never thought about the his or hers or theirs aspect of life (or the importance of these words) until reading James Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns.
By analyzing the words that knit together what I’d assumed were the important words of a sentence, one can learn a lot about the sentence’s writer or speaker—his/her personality, truthfulness, social status, and even future behavior. Pennebaker even includes links to writing activities used to analyze traits described in the book. According to the bottle project, I’m likely to attend art shows and avoid blow-drying my hair (guilty on both counts).
With a fairly low reading level required for the activities sections and insight from disparate fields like psychology, politics, and law, this book offers something for everyone in the family. Happy reading!
We can go to Margot Farrington’s The Blue Canoe of Longing (as Seamus Heaney wrote of poetry at large) “to be forwarded within ourselves,” to conceive “a new scope for our mind’s activity”—and that of the heart, as Farrington’s art draws desire out to longing, from the familiar to the exotic, lowly to lofty, in Catskill country poems and Brooklyn city poems.
The pleasure begins in effortless, exacting metaphors that create (for instance) space for the “orchestral silence” of heat lightning, the “rogue shapes” of clouds, the “buffed dominos” of Holstein cows,” the “starlight / beading like solder on a running brook.” Her imaging steadies our gaze on what we seldom glimpse of bird or bush or hill or people, for that matter. Her heart is in the right place, which helps ours get there too.
The poems take on large ecological, cultural, personal and other issues in playing out their dramas. Consider Robbie (“Counterweight”), a farmer pressed by his wife to kill a fox that had taken two of his Bantam roosters to feed her kits. He should kill the fox, but the fox is old, he knows, probably on her last litter. He resolves the small war in him, coming down on the side of the angels: “Pardon was Robbie’s province. / Sharpening, silvering, the old mother would persist / as long as rough gods bid before her fade into the mists / the island made.” And he’d be rewarded with “hatchings and crowings since.”
There should be plenty of crowing and hosanna-singing over Margot Farrington’s The Blue Canoe of Longing. Or maybe better would be paying quiet attention and being forwarded within ourselves, with new ranges for the mind’s activity.
Galaxy “Alex” Stern has been given a free ride to Yale, despite a shady past and nonexistent high school grades. Why? Because she can see ghosts, and one of Yale’s secret societies has use of her unique gift. If that’s not enough to get you interested, how about this: in the first 20 pages, the society Skull and Bones has already opened up a living man’s body to perform a ritual designed to pick winning stocks. That’s just a taste of the incredible creativity that awaits readers as Alex investigates the strange goings-on of the secret societies, searching for answers to a suspicious murder.
Leigh Bardugo’s writing style shifts perspective with ease, moving between two main characters whose fates are intertwined. But what sets this book apart is the incredible creativity. Each secret society in Yale practices a form of magic, with consequences that go beyond the campus. It’s difficult to come up with something new in the fantasy genre, but Bardugo’s twisted imagination succeeds so well that this book is impossible to put down.
About the reviewer: Ken Brosky teaches English, plays guitar, and works in his woodshop when he’s not busy writing. He is short stories have been published in The Portland Review, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. He’s currently represented by agent Sandra Sawicka, and they’re working on a mystery novel.