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What We’re Reading: May Round-Up

2017 May 4
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by Wren

What We're ReadingMay is when spring really takes hold here in Minnesota, and it’s also coincidentally my (Wren’s) birthday month. Both the spring awakening and the pending mark of a new year for me makes this time of year feel especially magical in its newness and fresh perspectives. Even if it’s not your birthday, I hope this month marks the start of something new for you. Maybe a new habit, a new adventure, or a new book on your reading list. This round-up can help you with at least one of those new things. Happy reading and spring-vibing, folks!

Ice by Anna Kavan (Peter Owen Modern Classic, 2006)
Reviewed by Aaron

Ice is a stuttering slipstream novel that follows a nameless narrator through nameless cities in the face of an oncoming apocalypse. He trails a pale waif of a woman, alternating between parental worry and abusive obsession. Kavan’s prose coyly switches between sparse, realistic description and fantastical phantasmagoria. Ice is an evocative novel about war, trauma, and abuse.

Various works by Louise Glück
Previewed by Liz

I’m reading Louise Glück. I mean her poems from 1965 to 2012. In the poetry world, Glück is practically a household name, and not only because she is a Pulitzer Prize winner, former Poet Laureate, and winner of many other prizes and fellowships. Louise Glück has consistently offered the world poetry that offsets trying loss with image, challenges narrative logic with surprising diction, and speaks to various audiences with simple honesty. Because she looms so large in the tradition of contemporary American poetry, I wanted to go back, and see how her voice developed and changed throughout her career thus far. I’ve only just begun, but I’m already fascinated… some of her earlier works (from The House on Marshland (1975) in particular) feel like an emotional mirror. I’m so interested to see what else I notice as I read on.

We Are All Stardust: Scientists Who Shaped Our World Talk about Their Work, Their Lives, and What They Still Want to Know by Stefan Klein
Reviewed by Taylor 

I picked this book up at a time in my adult life when I just started getting really, really into science, and it was the perfect book to begin my foray into reading more nonfiction—books on history, economics, science, and space in particular. It’s filled with fascinating interviews between Stefan Klein and scientists and experts on their life’s work, with topics ranging from empathy, morality, memory and consciousness, to chance in history, motherhood, animal behavior, and the critical first three minutes of our planet’s existence.

Each interview introduced me to a new topic (and about five books the interviewee wrote or recommended) that I immediately wanted to know everything I could about. I reread a lot of pages while reading, just to be sure I was taking it all in, and because the chapters built off each other very well. Even across a range of topics, each discussion was ultimately about us, as people, and our shared humanity.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Previewed by Wren

After recently finishing 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso (another great, and slim, book to add to your list), I just switched to what might be a challenging read: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. The book is a three-part novella, telling of Yeong-hye’s sudden change to vegetarianism. Yet the story develops in a way that continuously surprises, shocks, and guts the reader (or so I’m led to believe by other reviews and the first handful of pages I’ve read). It’s told from the point-of-view of a different character related to Yeong-hye in each section of the novella. I’m currently in the first section, told from the point-of-view of her bland, kind of awful husband. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye changes, both in her own perspective, and in the perspectives of the three narrators—and in somewhat horrifying situations, including sex, violence, and a retreat from daily life. I can already tell it’s going to be a book that will haunt me after I finish, but nonetheless, I’m eager to sink my teeth into it.

What We’re Reading: What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

2017 April 20
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What We're ReadingWhat It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead Books, 2017)

Have you ever read a book and felt like the author inserted their stories straight into your mind, and you can’t quite shake them after? That’s how I felt after reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. I read this book about a month ago now, but the characters and stories still follow (haunt?) me.

The stories are all told from the perspectives of women. Men play key or supporting roles in some of the stories, but relationships between women—mothers and daughters especially—take the main stage here. The culture of Nigeria infuses many of these stories—some as the actual setting, others as familial/cultural ties. Many of the stories also employ magical realism, which adds to the way these stories stick to you. Arimah suspends reality in the details to achieve the big picture reality, placing her finger on the intuitive truth of the matter.

Some of the most haunting stories are the ones where the main characters seem to fight against their own nature, or their inherited nature/gender/class/grief, all the while circling around the inevitability of it. Stories such as “Who Will Greet You at Home”, which was originally printed in the New Yorker here. This story achingly embodies the way Arimah uses magical realism to suspend reality to better highlight the truth:

Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love. But first, she had to go to work.

As Ogechi crafts baby after baby, our hearts break as we watch in horror the cycles passed on by class and gender. This is what I mean: these stories will latch onto you, not unlike Ogechi’s baby. These stories reveal truths that are sometimes hard to see; yet Arimah tells these difficult truths in such a way—through gorgeous, crafted, precise language—that her reader can’t help but digest them.

Another factor of these unrelenting stories lies in their surprise. Despite some element of inevitability that I described earlier, Arimah still finds moments to flip the reader upside down, disorient, and surprise. An example of this is the opening story, “The Future Looks Good”, which starts with a woman knocking at a door, and the rest of the story backtracks leading up to that moment. The final sentences deliver a swift shock. Yet other stories take their time and don’t upend the reader with surprise, but rather, coax us along with their slow build. With this mix of styles, Arimah deftly balances the danger of over-exerting her reader while calling our attention to difficult, soul-wrenching things.

I had the opportunity to meet Lesley and hear her talk about this book in my role as producer of The Loft Podcast, where she was a guest recently (you can listen to the episode here). One of the things she said that I immediately felt echoed my own experience, was how there was an early point in her career as a writer where she knew what and how she wanted to write, but didn’t have the skill to write it yet. I feel that particular sense of frustration in my own current capacity as a writer. I was talking to my dear friend Timothy (yes! our same dear Hazel & Wren friend and past contributor!) about this recently, who in response sent me this article/video featuring a quote from Ira Glass on success. In it, Glass says, “Nobody tells people who are beginners […] that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, […] It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer”.

Clearly Arimah has found the sweet spot where her work has met up with her taste and ambition to create this magical, haunting, groundbreaking collection of stories. And, my fellow worrying writers: maybe there’s hope for us, too.


Three Things: The Dog Edition

2017 April 17
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This week, let’s study the dog. Here are three pooches to get your pen started!


Álvaro Sánchez-Montañés, Untitled, from Unprepared & Unsorted series. Photograph.


Jasper Oostland, Pug, 2008. Acrylic on canvas.


Anna Ådén, Untitled from Midwinter Night series. Photograph.


What We’re Reading: Jerusalem, Part 2

2017 April 13
by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading

We’re back with another discussion of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, this time dealing with “Rough Sleepers” up to “Atlantic.” Roughly, that’s pages 98-207.

Josh: We open this section with Freddy, a character who, in many ways, exemplifies the class struggles that seem to exist for everyone in this novel. He moves about this worn-down city in his own worn-down way, finding meals and comfort wherever he can. He’s an interesting character to thread into our expanding cast, and one that echoes with the others already presented. There’s the plot element that recursthe builders, but there’s also the way Freddy’s relationships with other people (I’m thinking of his entirely unsexy sex scene with Patsy) swirl around use and abuse of one another, the way people become handholds for one another to stay just above the crumbling foundations of their own lives.

Aaron: But he’s not above those foundations, right? Because Freddy and most of the people he interacts with are ghosts. With this chapter, Moore piles another genre into the book. And with it, he does to time what he’s been doing to space. For Freddy and his ghost friends, time exists all at once, piled together like muck; and interacting with it is, once again, a matter of perspective. And ghost drugs, I guess? Does it mean anything that, to interact with all of time, one has to be dead? Regardless, he’s the one whose feet we saw briefly in the previous chapter, sticking out from under a church gate in the “modern” world. But because he’s unstuck in time, he also meets the 9th century Brother Peter.

J: Yeah! Moore is doing some cool stuff, I think, with introducing or typifying different characters via different genres. It reminds me of China Mieville’s attempts to write a book in every genre, except Moore is doing it all inside his one gargantuan book! It’s cool, and speaking of genres, what about Brother Peter? There’s something here about Moore’s ability to tell about a place through vast stretches of history, but there’s also something here about the great power of Moore’s mythologizing. Here’s a character who has been through much, who’s looking for the mythical “centre,” and who moves through our narrative like a shaping, purposeful force. Yes, we know that something bigger is at stake in the narrative because of Alma’s art show, because of the Buildersbut this brings home the point in a cool, unique way.

A: Between the Freddy and Peter chapters, we’re pretty sure that the Builders are archangels, right? Michael and Uriel, the boss angel and the angel of death, are named indirectly by Freddy. They’re the Builders represented by the cross and the skull. Any guesses on who the tower and dick angels are? There are traditionally seven archangels, but the only other two named (I think) are Raphael and Gabriel. Raphael is a healer, and Gabriel has a trumpet, right? And he spoke the Qur’an to Mohammed? Neither of those seems particularly dickish (unless we’re talking about Raphael the Ninja Turtle).

Or maybe they’re not angels. Maybe they’re something else, and we only think they’re angels because of the wing-like afterimages they leave as they move their arms through time.

Or does all this even matter?

J: Oh, definitely angels. They’ve gotta be angels: beings who have been working on the foundations of this place—apparently the center of space and time—since, well, forever apparently? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I’m putting my money on angels.

How are you feeling about the nigh-encyclopedic style/approach now that we’re 200 pages in? Is it grating on you at all yet? For my part, I’m liking the book a lot, though each time we start a new chapter/character, I feel just the slightest bit of irritation. I want to trust Moore, and I do, but there’s a part of me that remembers the very opening of the book, the art exhibit that’s meant to frame this whole thingand I wonder whether or not the continuous addition of characters and narrative lines and psychogeographical perspectives isn’t, in some ways, onanistic. In other words, stories are shaped things, right? The difference between a narrative and a dictionary is one is shaped by a beginning, a middle, and an end and the other attempts to tell everything about everything; one is curated and the other isn’t. Jerusalem was seriously hyped before publication, and Moore has done enough great stuff that he could publish his holiday card ideas as best sellers. And yet part of me wonders if I’m reading this very unshaped (at least thus far) thing and thinking, “wow, so good,” *because* it’s Alan Moore and I know he’s done great things so I must be not thinking hard enough/reading closely enough if I’m thinking some of this is unfiltered indulgence. I don’t know. What do you think?

A: For real thank you for defining “onanistic.” That’s one of the words (along with epistemological, logos, and many others) that just sit in a compost brain in my head, getting their juices all mixed together.

I actually really like the idea of a dictionary being a story, and I think a lot of decolonizing movements would say that some sense of story—some subjective life narrative—is implicit in the dictionary. Or in a textbook. But I don’t think that’s what you meant, so sorry for saying all that in bad faith.

But I’m all for stories that don’t have shapes or have weird shapes. Don Quixote is a rambling mess with no sense of building action, but I love it. Pale Fire is basically an annotated poem with an index, and it’s riveting. But I also come from a background of reading RPG sourcebooks for fun. They’re hundreds of pages of gazetteer entries, monster stats, maps, and fictional histories, and I used to eat them up as a teen. It’s sort of an emergent storytelling approach? Maybe? Like, Jerusalem is to fiction what Legos are to toys. It’s a box of parts, and it’s up to us to make it “about” something. The chapters jump around, and in doing so, they set bounds for us to talk about perspective or religion or art.

I’m feeling really hipster after writing all that, so I’m gonna go have a drink and play some video games.


J: I agree with everything you say here, and I’ve spent plenty of time enjoying strategy guides and reading through either dictionary-esque texts or just plain old dictionaries. And I like that sort of thing, but a novel still seems different to me. A dictionary is governed by the alphabet, right? And that’s it? It doesn’t privilege one letter over another, it doesn’t build toward anything, and entries are arbitrarily connected. Now sure, maybe you could come along and curate some cool story out of dictionary entries, but there’s no authorial will or effort behind arranging words/entries/etc in any sort of way: the alphabet decides it and that’s it. Pale Fire is incredible, I think, because it seems to be just an annotated poem but it reveals this dark, weird story behind it, the relationship between Shade and Kinbote, how it went wrong, what really happened, etc. That’s a narrative curated by Nabokov, and I’m not sure you get something like that from a dictionary (though I would love it if that existed!).

Anyway, I guess I’m just not yet sold (so it’s good we’re not done with the readthrough!) on everything Moore is giving us. If anything, it feels like he’s thrown out a whole bunch of raw material to the audience with a command of “build whatever you want with that,” which fits into your Legos idea. It’s weird and interesting and I don’t know if I like it yet!

I don’t have any video games to play, but I’ll take after you and have a drink.


Next month, we’re reading to “Hark! The Glad Sound!” Please join us!


Supplemental reading:

Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes

Pale Fire (1962) by Vladimir Nabokov

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Planescape Campaign Setting (1994) by Zeb Cook, et al

China Mieville’s assorted works