Corduroy Books

Books you should be reading. Music you should be listening to.

Antonya Nelson Antonya Nelson Antonya Nelson

by Weston Cutter

Funny Once by Antonya Nelson

 

I realise by doing the following I’m precisely part of the problem and not the solution, but: holy hell does Antonya Nelson deserve more praise and attention. The claim she doesn’t have enough of both is, in fairness, somewhat hard to 100% support: stories from this collection have appeared in the very very best mags (most recently Harper’s), so it’s not like she’s some gooberish nobody, okay, fine, sure, but still: is there a phrase or term for the club of gathering of writers whose work should be much more read and appreciated (and, maybe, would be more read/appreciated if we didn’t like in such quick-quick-do-the-next-thing times? Obvious other candidate from this summer’s releases: Dybek), and then, once that club’s named and identified, can we all go to work getting that club disbanded through the best possible way, i.e. reading those folks?

Here’s why Antonya Nelson’s so great, by the way: her sentences are lithe and charming and conversational (opening at random, here’s page 6: “As was always the case when he and Bonita spoke to each other—neither remotely fluent in the other’s language—the information exchange was crude yet functional.” [there's also this, from later in the same story (which story's called "Literally" and opens the book): "This has been a terrible day," Danny said. "Even though nothing exactly bad happened."]), and so the joy’s linguistic, certainly, but the thing I get from Nelson in spades that almost everyone else doses out in crumbs is the overwhelming humanity of her stories. Maybe that sounds lame-o and blasé. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a trait I cared as much about five years ago, but now, dead-center in my thirties, as someone both trying to make writerly stuff that’s got some humanity and as a reader who’s hankering for humanity in art increases on the daily, Nelson is just it, laying banality raw and gorgeous in her stories in ways I at least am astonished by the first three or four times I read them (truly: in quoting from “Literally” above, I got dragged back in, amazed by the story anew).

There’s a moment in “IFF,” maybe my favorite of the collection, in which the narrator’s mother-in-law (who lives with her [lots of crossed/blended families in here, though even just writing that I'm surprised to admit it, surprised that it even registers—it's not, like, a thing, but it's there]) says “‘It’s the only saving grace of not being a mother,’ she said to me once. ‘I have permission to kill myself. You don’t.'” Amazingly, the story is sort of about (or at least interested in) this mother-in-law’s eventual suicide (which the narrator accepts and understands and just writing this makes it sound weird—in Nelson’s hands the whole idea’s art) but not in some central way: the story’s overtly about a missing daughter in a neighborhood in the desert southwest, and, larger, about responsibilities we have to our families (both of blood and choice). “IFF”‘s a stunning story, of course, but that’s not even very fair because they’re all fucking stunning, they really are. That feeling you get reading, I don’t know, Munro (and Dybek, certainly)? Where basically every story just clicks along and both gives you something and knocks you sideways? Big ditto. Hard to imagine a list of writers whose work puts them deservedly on such a list getting to be longer than a dozen. Can’t be many. Nelson’s one of them. Do yourself the obvious favor here: read her.

Tour the World with Joanna Scott!

by Kati Heng

9780374162337

Joanna Scott’s DE POTTER’S GRAND TOUR

Apparently this week on Corduroy: Books that are revealed in pieces!! I mean, non-linear pieces. Technically every book is revealed page by page, but don’t be a jerk. After “The Lotus and the Storm,” I didn’t even make a point of reading another pseudo-mystery, read-on-to-fill-in-the-blanks, but then came De Potter’s Grand Tour.

The novel starts off around 1902, with the happy life and marriage of Armand de Potter (or, to put it fully, Pierre Louis Armand de Potter) and his young wife, Aimée (fashioned from her maiden name, Amy). The two appear to be the finest types of Americans – educated, proper, with the penchant for traveling in luxury. Of course, Armand makes the large sum of the family’s income from these travels, on which he escorts wealthy Americans and Brits around the world, taking in the sights and “doing the pryamids” and the like. His other source of income is destined to come from his collection, a trove of statues, treasures, figurines and native pieces he has expertly gathered from his adventures.

At least, this is the first glimpse we get of the couple. But life is hardly about the first impression alone.

While Aimée stays back in New York with their young son Victor, news arrives that her husband has been lost at see. Word gets around that he was last seen too close to the railing of a ship; a girl working aboard seems to have seen him fallen off over the edge. No one can say for sure if the man jumped or if the event was purely an accident. Either way, Armand has left Aimée alone with their son to carry on his adventures, requesting simply (although oddly) that should his body be lost and never given a proper burial, his wife should erect a monument in his honor.

There’s a problem, though, when Aimée goes to withdraw funds from their account. It seems their money is gone, or there was never so much in the first place.

I forget exactly where it’s revealed, but of course, Armand is not completely the man he pretends to be. In fact, the man is an immigrant, an ambitious man who arrives in New York in the 1870s, finding his footing and paying the bills through a number of schemes. Over the years, the man de Potter reinvents himself as an aristocrat, a gentleman, a scholar, a collector of rare artifacts, and maybe even a member of the Belgian aristocracy. It’s this remarkable, supposedly world-renowned man that Amy falls in love with while he is working as a French professor in her girl’s school. It’s this man whom the wealthy trust to take them on tours of the world he has traveled in such detail.

Not only is the plot a completely fun, perfect end-of-summer travel and adventure tale, it’s got a rare finesse in the ease of its historical context. If you’ve read a bad historical novel, you’ll know what I mean by this – the author, so desperate to get you in the mindset “HEY THIS IS 19WHATEVER!!” will throw in miscellaneous details that no one cares about to make it seem like they are painting the imaginary world of that 19whatever, only to make you, the reader, so mortifyingly self-conscious to the fact that you are now outside not just the novel, but the author is also outside the novel, and neither of you can get into that time period, so the author desperately is throwing you ropes of events that were maybe very important around that time…. Is this just me? I don’t know, I struggle greatly with historical novels written in 2014. It’s hard for the author to actually convince me we are in that time. But Scott does it, effortlessly. The book flows so easily, you just know you’re in 1900s and she doesn’t have to slam you over the head with it. The work speaks for itself.

Anyway, to summarize after that monster of a ramble I just spewed: De Potter’s Grand Tour is a delightfully witty, clever, perhaps philosophical tale that I really really think you will enjoy.

 

Lotus, Storm, Saigon Falls

by Kati Heng

41pBRI+o1wL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Lan Cao’s THE LOTUS AND THE STORM

Set alternatively between a war-torn Vietnam and Virginia in the mid 2000’s, The Lotus and the Storm tells the delicate story of a family torn apart and bound together forever by the Vietnam War. Balancing between the voices of father and daughter, the family’s secrets, pains and truths too raw to speak of all come to light as they reflect on their homeland and the divided feelings they have about the country.

Growing up, young Mai is aware of the war if only distantly. It’s something her father Minh is heavily involved in as a commander of South Vietnamese troops, and the reason her American friend, a boy named James who introduces her to the music of Mick Jagger, has come to Cholon the sister city of Saigon. Only 9, Mai is hardly concerned with the realities of the war, simply tagging along with her older sister and best friend Khanh as she tries to listen in on her father’s communications.

Minh begins the story hopefully that the South can combat the trouble coming from North Vietnam. He’s even slow to see the signs of approaching disaster as the Americans begin to grow wary of their involvement in the land and more and more of his own neighbors join the Vietcong, a group Minh sees as traitors to the country.

War aside, Mai, her father, her mother and sister are a typically family at this point. There are aunts and uncles adding to the family drama; fights between Minh and an uncle who does not see help from the Americans in such a positive light. Their bonds keep them from each other’s throats, though. Until, Khanh is killed in a fluke by an errant bullet.

So soon after, the family and way of life Mai knows is irreversibly changed.

It’s as if a part of her own soul is buried with her sister. As her family says, Khanh was her first love, taken from her too soon. Mai goes quite, eventually ceasing to speak at all. People fear she has gone dumb; she’s simply given up words, finding nothing that needs to be said any longer.

As for Minh, there’s a haunting question of where the bullet came from. According to his wife, it must have been meant for him. His oldest daughter, instead, was the one buried. It’s a wrong she can never come to terms with. They separate, war and the hope of a peaceful Vietnam becoming Minh’s only obsession; his wife falls in love with an American military advisor, Cliff.

The focus shifts on America, even before all these details are revealed. There, in the mid-2000s, we see a sick and feeble Minh coming to terms with his own inability to care for himself much longer. We see Mai battles the storms inside her, alternating her time between the voices fighting inside her – Bao, the angry, quick to temper spirit that holds onto the hurt of the past and Cecile, a soft voice of a girl, playful, coaxed into speaking by birds. We see Mai fight to keep her family intact, help her aunt get the money she desperately needs, try to understand her uncle and accept the conditions upon which he left Vietnam.

Even though there have been chances, neither Minh or Mai have been back to Vietnam since the two of them fled by U.S. helicopter as Saigon fell.

The story slowly reveals itself piece by piece, never divulging too much too quickly. Why did Mai’s mother stay behind? What became of her? How did Mai, the mute child who refused to talk, grow into the role of a powerful, smart woman?

In a way, the structure is remindful of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things- there’s evidence of a great tragedy that has happened between the narrative, evidence the characters are seeking redemption and explanation, yet, hardly any evidence the end of the novel will bring them healing.

Plot and suspense drives the story more than anything, but there’s not enough praise to be given for Lan Cao’s prose. Simple details bring scenes to life, a piece in the village of Cholon comes to life in my imagination as simply as one from Virginia. Descriptions of the hearty pho, delicately wrapped meats in thin rice paper made me hungry enough to run to the Vietnamese corner of Chicago.

Ultimately though, no matter how beautiful you find the writing, it’s little match for the story. It’s heart breaking, tense, threatening to rip apart at every seem. But in the end, it’s a story of every family’s secrets, their pain and the things they do in an attempt to pull themselves together.

Michel Laub’s THE DIARY OF THE FALL :: Best of 2014, Probably

by Kati Heng

9781590516515 THE DIARY OF THE FALL by Michel Laub

I hate handing out a title like “Best of 2014” so early in the year. I hate handing it out, in general, because now it seems like any of the other books I’ve written about from January to this point are explicitly not the best, but there is no getting around it: Diary of the Fall struck me like no other book has this year. In a just world, it will be studied in schools alongside Elie Wiesel’s Night and Camus. It will be brought up in philosophical debates, when questioning the meaning of human suffering and humanity’s existence. This is not hyperbole.

It’s easy to underestimate. The book is literally the same length as my hand, from wrist to fingertips, and about as wide as my fingers naturally sit. It is easy to mistake for a tabletop book. Please do not make this mistake. The way the story is divided with chapters only paragraphs in length, numbered in the middle of pages, may make you think this is flash, pieces unrelated to each other. Do not make this mistake, either – every piece of the entire story connects together, forming a whole.

The story starts with the story of João’s fall. A Catholic boy in a class filled with 13 to 14 year old Jewish boys, João is teased, told to eat sand, criticized and mocked as the other. His father works as hard as he can as a bus conductor, overtime selling cotton candy in the park to pay for his son’s tuitions, adamant that his son get the best education possible. The young boys do not connect the blue-collar father to the hatred of the son; they are simply, childishly filled with contempt for the boy.

It’s a popular tradition of the boys that, on a young man’s birthday, friends gather around, hoist the boy in the air and toss one two three, and catch him safely. But on João’s birthday, they let him drop.

The fall sets off a chain of events that forever change not just the life of João, but of one of the Jewish boys who was there, who let him fall, who years later, still struggles to make peace with the injustices he committed as a child.

Soon enough, the novel is no longer about this isolated case of prejudice, this case of spite and hate and pain. It evolves into a tale of the most horrifying pains in the world, the unhealing wounds, the cuts that refuse to scab over so easily.

The narrator of the story, an unnamed journalist now in his 40s, decided to switch schools at the end of the year, to join João at his new school, even though it means he will now be the only one who is Jewish. A catalyst is started, with the narrator learning more, becoming more aware of his heritage and what it means to be Jewish in modern times.

Digging into his past, the narrator learns about the obsessive writings of his grandfather, a man who unlike so many, survived the horrors of Auschwitz, who later in life, poured hours alone in his room writing in journals false memories about the way life should be rather than the truth. His family, all of whom died in concentration camps, the horrors of war, are never mentioned. Later, his own father succumbs to Alzheimer’s, his mind failing slowly. His father uses the time he has to record the copious details of his life, the truth he is desperate to pass onto his son, one section sent at a time.

Sorting through his forefather’s works, the narrator comes to terms with his own weaknesses, his own desires to hide the pain, his own need to record the truth, hurt as it may.

I couldn’t believe how knocked away and emotional this all was. It’s like 200 pages, and I feel like a meet an entire family, learned their secrets, cried for each as he suffered from war, from Alzheimer’s, from, as we learn later about the narrator, battles with alcoholism.

I can’t help you if you think World War II stories are overused at this point. It is a subject I will never be able to ‘get over,’ despite never having lost more than maybe a great-uncle to that war. Yet, even the narrator recognizes the exhaustion most people have to these narratives, to the accounts of atrocities suffered at camps, to the horrors humans were put through, worse than any horror film could imagine:

“Would it make any difference if the things I’m describing are still true more than half a century after Auschwitz, when no one can bear to hear about it anymore, when even to me it seems old-fashioned to write about it, or are those things only of importance to me because of the implications they had for the lives of all those around me?”

I understand the holocaust does not represent my pain. I lost no one to the camps. It’s larger, though. It’s a pain that shows just how god-awful humans can be to each other, how long the body can suffer before collapsing into dust, how cruel the world can be and how soon we can stop caring to you talk of your pain.

You might never connect the story of one little boy being dropped by his classmates to the horrors of Auschwitz. These are incomparable in terms of human suffering. Yet, in Michel Laub’s prose, all pain connects, feeds, and tries to understand each other.

This is one of the best books you can read this year, for many years, maybe.

Hair, Hair, Hair.

by Kati Heng

9781620400142 Michelle Lovric’s THE TRUE AND SPLENDID HISTORY OF THE HARRISTOWN SISTERS

Darcy, Bernice, Edna, Manticory, Oona, Pertilly and Idna Swiney weren’t born into wealth, fame or good fortune. There was little of that to be found in Harristown, the small Irish hometown of the sisters. It’s the enterprising spirit of the eldest sister Darcy paired with the magical, flowing waist-length locks of hair, each a different shade from raven black to fairest blonde that pulls the girls out of their small-town, unknown existence. Combining magical realism, just a hint of fairy tale lore and the real real emotions of a group of sisters coming of age, Michelle Lovric’s The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters is a delightful, if sometimes dark, tale of love, family and loyalties.

The story, always transcribed, recorded and told through the voice of middle sister, redheaded Manticory, the sister with the gift of words, starts with the girls as children and young teens, mostly concerned with petty rivalries between twins Bernice and Edna and teasing the runt of the town, Eileen O’Reilly. With only a mother around, their father either dead (Manticory suspects, at the hands of Darcy), a drifter, or as some around the town speculate, a whole collection of different men, it’s no secret that these girls fortunes may well lead to them falling victim to the potato famine sweeping the country. There’ve been too many hungry nights, too many cases of hair nites for these girls to expect much else.

That is, until Darcy comes up with a plan to reverse their meager circumstances. Gathering the sisters, Darcy stronghandedly instructs the girls in the ways of Irish dance, creating routines that focus less on the skills of the footwork than the great reveal when all seven sisters let down their long locks to the oohs and ahhs of the audience. It catches on like fire. Soon, the sisters leave Harristown behind, taking their act to larger stages in Dublin, Venice and beyond.

Soon, the girls align their fortunes with an entrepreneur, skeezy man Mr. Rainfleury, who concocts a worthless hair tonic, marketing it under the guise it will make anyone’s hair grow as long as the Swiney ‘Godivas.’ Then there is a line of dolls with the magical, lengthy hair, more serums, more shows, more more more profits and fame.

The girls grow older – Edna marries Mr. Rainfleury, Pertilly grows plump and plain, Darcy grows greedy and controlling of the sister’s profits, Manticory grows tired of following Darcy’s harsh rules and wasting her intelligence, Idna grows homesick for the comfort of her mother and Harristown and develops, much like a cat, a nervous habit of eating her own hair and spitting it up in clumps. As the sisters enter maturity, the benefits of the Swiney Godivas, the rivalries between the girls come into question, yet Darcy, Mr. Rainfleury and the other men taking stock into the girls refuse to let any of the seven give up the act.

It’s a funny fairy tale, with hints of Rushdie’s magic peeking through a mainly realistic prose and nods to the legacy and legend of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Although this novel doesn’t quite reach the level of the writing of either of the geniuses mentioned before (which, to be fair, is hard hard hard for any author or book to ever reach), there’s much to be hopefully for in anything forthcoming from Lovric, and, if nothing else, exemplifies the perfect way to mix fairy tales and lore with the harsh realities of a nation’s, family’s and culture’s truths.

 

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