Life, am I right? It’s been especially catching up to many of us lately in all of our spheres: National. Global. Local. Personal. With so much heartache, I am struggling to find a way through it, to a better place. We all have our own way of dealing with struggles, and soul-searching. My way of soul-searching? Reading, of course. Here are three books that we at Hazel & Wren have reviewed in full before, but are finding new meaning and urgency with recent events. There are so many more, and I hope you’ll share with us what you’re reading in these troubling times.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Full review here. As reviewer Timothy said, “This is poetry as documentary, as news story. At worst, poetry like this can feel dated, but Rankine has a knack for highlighting the stories that need to be remembered and turning them on us so that we see them differently.” Rankine focuses on microaggressions of racism within these pages, and again, Timothy said it best when he wrote: “This is the power of literature, to distill a lifetime of small frustrations into one body that will carry and enact those frustrations on the page.” It’s powerful language, that puts all of the things we hide underneath the surface on the page, where we can’t ignore it.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Full review here. I’ve been struggling in my personal sphere lately, and this book is one I go back to often to gain some perspective, levity, and understanding. It’s a collection that Cheryl Strayed penned under the column “Dear Sugar” for The Rumpus. Sugar responds to life’s chaos and universal questions with zinging humor, brutal honesty, and heartaching clarity. I found it refreshing to bounce between the different columns and questions, between dark depths and light-hearted sass. Each of Sugar’s responses is a glimmering gem that is so spot on that it’s hard to look straight at it without wanting to melt into a puddle of YES. As reviewer Taylor put it: “It is a rare and special feeling when a book can both fill you up and cleanse you.”
A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota edited by Sun Yung Shin
Full review here. This collection of essays from writers of color in Minnesota hits home yet again with the murder of Philando Castile in our state. Please read this, and listen to the human stories told by these talented writers. Absorb the different perspectives, and own up to your own prejudices that arise while reading them. Own up to them, so we can change that way of thinking. From the review: “Each writer is telling their own individual story, and as a composite, this collection provides a larger, more honest and complex picture of race in Minnesota, which we as the reader, start to see with more clarity through each essay.”
Which books am I missing? (There are so many!)
This week, let’s follow a character around as she goes about her day. Let’s assume the below moments are in sequential order… what happens between each moment?
Hope Gangloff, Kristin Schiele, 2015. Acrylic on panel. www.inglettgallery.com
Ana Teresa Fernández, Untitled (Performance documentation). Oil on canvas. www.anateresafernandez.com
Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #58, from 1980.
The Vanishing Kind, Lavie Tidhar’s noir novella recently featured in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is the story of Gunther Sloam, a third-rate filmmaker from Berlin, who is searching post-WW2 London for a past love named Ulla Blau. The frame character through whose voice we get the story is Tom Everly of the Gestapo (at least, that’s who he says he is), and Tom (and/or his men) follow Sloam on the filmmakers London investigations. In this world, the Germans won the war (though there are small mentions of continued but futile resistance happening in America) and London is a city in need of rebuilding. It’s streets are filled with refuse, it’s buildings are in shambles from the war, and it’s people lead lives in the dark—trading illicit goods, working as prostitutes, hiding their identities. This is the London Sloam walks through, and no one here is as they seem: a rare book dealer is both a Jewish man living another identity and a drug circulator using the rare books as a front. A dwarf, wealthier than seemingly anyone else in London, meets Sloam in an abandoned church and reveals that he’s been paying for the German occupation, because “even Nazis need money.”
And yet the strangeness of “The Vanishing Kind” is not in the double lives and secret machinations of its characters—it is in semi-surreal movie logic that runs through this piece like a set of train tracks, guiding the narrative and reader alike. We are introduced to Sloam as a filmmaker, and many of his thoughts are through the lens of film (London is shows as a “city projected like the flickering images of a black and white film”), but the story itself—the characters, the odd coincidences, the villain’s speech and the hero’s resilience, the tidiness of the narrative, the sense that everyone here knows everyone else and the hero is slowly and inevitably nearing the final reveal—all of this is done with a tongue-in-cheek, meta-recognition of its own tropiness (Tidhar has never been shy about Phillip K. Dick’s influence on his work). Sloam should never survive even a few pages of this story, and yet he does, and his response each time is to wonder without purchase or understanding why in the world no one has shot him yet. He’s a man who has been forced to make pulpy films currently living in one of his own, and the illogical logic of these stories pushes him along from inevitable realization to inescapable meeting with little care for his awareness or comprehension. Here, for instance, is Tom Everly, the narrator, describing Sloam:
Of course the obstinate German did not take my advice. I had accused him of being a romantic and I wasn’t wrong. Gunther, for all his battle experience in the Wehrmacht, still insisted, deep down, to think of himself as a character in one of his own cowboy pictures. All he could think about was Ulla Blau’s ruined, once-beautiful face staring back at him from the mortuary slab. I think he believed himself untouchable. Most Germans did, after the war.
In this way, the novella leans on its author’s ethos to pull a reader along—knowing that Tidhar does these types of pastiche, send-up, derivation-with-a-meta-twist stories so, so well is enough to convince a reader during the early stages of the story that what seem to be heavy-handed, overly melodramatic moments in the text (or moments of serious and seriously questionable plot convenience) are in fact intentional—they are Tidhar’s attempts to build the pulp framework in which he is trying to find a story with unironic and genuine heart. And in this he succeeds. The plot ends with Sloam finding Ulla Blau, secret identities uncovered, and, of course, more death. The one who was behind the whole thing all along (spoiler: it was Ulla, obviously) is revealed, and while this seems to be the end of the story, it really isn’t. Anyone who has read a pulp mystery (or even seen a police procedural) will see the reveal that Ulla must be behind the deaths that plague the story, but Tidhar is careful to not stop the story there. Instead, what follows after this reveal is a surprisingly profound connection made between the “how these stories usually start,” “how they usually end,” and the power in understanding your story, understanding your role, and finding agency within those constructions/constrictions. To be honest, I wasn’t ever truly sold on the story until the last page or so, but those few pages managed to give me a new way to understand and appreciate everything else in the novella. It’s a surprising story, one that, like the London Sloam finds himself in, brings you in under false pretenses and only reveals the truth when it’s too late.
What surprising stories have you been reading recently?
This past weekend, the Hazel & Wren staff retreated around a campfire (and coffee) to discuss things big and small. On this Monday morning, the firelight is still dancing in my eyes. Let’s use those sparks for our weekly inspiration.
James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875. Oil on panel. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan.
Thom Chapman, Untitled, 2016. Photograph. www.chapmanphotography.tumblr.com
Andrew Wyeth, Campfire, 1982, from Helga series. Watercolor. Private collection.