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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.

 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot=Damn Near Perfect

by Weston Cutter

            Reliable sources—Laura Miller, Garner the Great—have already heaped tremendous and due praise on David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, so hopefully you’ve noted it and paid attention and done yourself the service of buying/reading the thing. If you haven’t, I can just say this: I read Shotgun Lovesongs in a sort of blissed fugue, unable to believe I’d read anything better this year, and certainly not a better debut novel, and yet here’s WTF, as dynamite a debut as one could hope for and as engaging and enjoyable a read as one could possibly demand, from anyone, anywhere, any time period.

            Some context: I’ve spent a good chunk of this year trying to understand what it is I want from books(/TV shows/movies), not because I’m unclear, but because, at 35, I’m now trying to have maybe a more adult understanding of the work and ingredients and gears at play in the cultural/artistic stuff I draw nourishment from. It may also be because I’m a dad, meaning I’m now keenly aware of the fact that I’m entering a phase during which there’s a slim but real chance I’ll be asked to explain or retaionalize my take on stuff, why something is thus and so and why I give any damns regarding such (I know: chances are maybe more than slim that questions like that’ll arise, but whatever). The obvious stuff—great characters, good conflict, insights offered into general Humanity stuff—is fair, sure, but I’ve been trying to get at more what it is I like. What are the ingredients in art that knock me to my knees? Why does Wallace floor me but not Vollmann? Jorie Graham but, less, Saskia Hamilton? The Replacements but not Husker Du? How come the Walkmen’s stuff is so amazing but Leithauser’s solo’s a groaner? None of this is rhetorical: it may just be the circumstances of my current existence, but it does seem like, at some point, one’s sort of wise to spend some time articulating as clearly as one can just what it is about the things that floor them floors them.

            Which is a roundabout way of saying: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot lights my head up like fucking pinballs, enjoyment-wise. The Good Ingredients are out in full force: The three central characters are clear as hell, real and believable as a stubbed toe. There’s Leila Majnoun, a burning-out nonprofit worker on whom the book opens, in Myanmar, as she’s trying to get a flat of medical supplies through the red tape of a militarized dictatorship; Leo Crane, a sort of flailing and failing trust-funder who happens to be an addict of various indulgences and a paranoid-ish conspiracist; and Mark Deveraux, an earnest Harvard-on-scholarship kid (at which school he met and became great friends with Leo, though they’ve since fallen out) who, through strange kismet, has ended up in a life-coach/advisory role for the CEO of a company that’s basically Amazon+Google+Facebook, and ps Mark’s taken quite fondly to indulgences Leo’s trying to flee. The conflict—basically, the CEO’s company is trying to secure *all* experiences, digitize everything, then charge for access—is astonishing for the nooks+crannies it offers, and for how it—mercifully, wonderfully—doesn’t ever play dumb (an open request to people making any narrative art: trust the person reading/viewing to make the leaps with you. Regarding the stuff above, from paragraph 2, about trying to figure out what makes something [to me] enjoyable or good, nothing’s more astonishing than recognizing that there’s an almost inversely parabolic relationship between the work asked of the reader and the enjoyment offered—if no work’s demanded, the enjoyment’s so limited as to be overlookable). WTF also—again mercifully—pulls off one of the hardest tricks in the sci-fi-ish bag, which is it proposes something that’s a few steps removed from/ahead of current reality but feels so oh, right, sure that you’ll likely have a hard time reading any tech news in the weeks after finishing the book without going wait a second, wait just a second here

            But the Big Deal about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, to me, the insights. That’s not the right word. That feeling of reading, say, Wallace (or some Kelly Link, or some other folks I can’t think of off the top of my mid-week head [Jim Shepard for sure]), where this sort of to-the-side (~plot-insignificant) detail hits so true you’re spellbound? In Jest, that long thing early about the guy trying to quit smoking pot, and the page after page of how he throws everything away and starts all over again, and how if you’ve ever had an imbalanced relationship to any intoxicant you’re just going fuuuuuuuck? That’s what I mean. Here’s how neatly Shafer deploys it: Leo, at some point reminiscing about Mark, makes some mention (I didn’t mark the page, stupidly) about how overly puppy his old friend always was, and how he (Leo) wanted him to realize that the best girls like to work a little, too, they don’t just want to be fawned over? I’m mangling the fuck out of the whole notion and scene (which is, literally, a sentence), but there’s this just tremendously insightful grace Shafer offers, again and again, that’ll knock you sideways. I’ll have an interview with him up soon-ish, elsewhere, and in it I mentioned the first place this sort of thing transpires in the book (this sort of thing: perfect writing capturing an exact sensation in such an intuitive way you’ll likely start thinking in the author’s words), which is on page seven, and which goes: “The menace was present in everything here; it was like walking by a man holding a stick, the man silent, the stick raised above his head.” (describing Myanmar) There’s writing like that in heaps throughout WTF, a bounty of details nailed and sensations given damn near perfect articulation.

            I don’t know. I don’t know how to hype this enough. Garner’s got it right: it’s easily the book of the summer, and it’s smart and funny and hilarious and I read it in two days and would’ve chomped it in one were I not a father and husband. If you’ve read reviews on here before, you know that, often, the books I like most are the ones that almost evade or trump any good review or criticism: they’re wholly themselves, same as any love’s wholly itself, and nitpicking seems as silly as a happy person coming up with something he’d like to go back and change about his life—change nothing. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a glorious read and deserves heaps of attention and praise, plenty of which has already come its way but plenty more of which is due. Do your part, pass it along: this is less a book that needs readers than a book that readers need.

Guns, Outlaws, Daughters

by Kati Heng

9780374117313 BULLETPROOF VEST by Maria Venegas

Maria Venegas’ Bulletproof Vest: The Ballad of an Outlaw and His Daughter is at once a memoir and a biography of probably one of the most fascinating gangster you’ve never heard of. Throughout the pages, Venegas charts the story of her father, an outlaw well known and oft wanted by the authorities of Mexico and Chicago, a man who was said to cheat death time and time again, and how this legend’s life intersects with her own.

Of course, the violent stories of blood and revenge, love and limelight don’t come to Venegas right away. The girl grows up in the same hacienda her father was born in with a vague sense of the danger and the reputation surrounding her father. Even after they move to the United States, to Chicago, it’s normal for Maria and her sisters to hear a row of gunshots go off, whether in celebration or as a threat. The girl’s only a child when she sees the violence firsthand – her father stumbling into the house with a hand trying to hold in the blood, his friend dead in the yard due to, what the newspapers would later report as “an argument over the last beer” (if only it was so simple).

Like so many outlaws, he disappears, leaving behind Maria, her mother and siblings for years. Men might be following him, and the thought that these men might harm his family does nothing to stall his flight.

Understandably, his children grow up hating him, fearing for him, waiting for a call one day saying he was shot in a bar, killed by the roadside, something, so the man that has been as good as dead to them for years can finally be buried.

To be fair, the man tries, sort of. He calls. Even though his children rarely talk to him. Maria herself really has nothing to say. It’s too hard to explain her own life – how hard she fights to get into college, her move to New York, the sacrifices she has too make too young – to someone so distant.

Fourteen years go by with this estrangement and then, Maria decides to visit him.

It’s so strange to watch the tenderness between the two – in the missing years, has her father gone soft? Of course not, the man has still killed again and again. Sometimes, simply because he’s already pointed the gun at another man’s face and after he’s pointed it, there’s no stepping down. Yet with Maria, there’s a newfound role of father in this man. He weakens, shows how much he wants her to stay, lets her into his life, divulges his secrets and the tales of his past. What didn’t work as a little girl-father relationship succeeds as a father-friend.

Of course, the story of her father is still difficult. He’s a man who kills, threatens, hurts and walks away with little to show for it. He’s a man that did abandon her family in times of need. Yet, he’s always her dad, her flesh and blood, and even further, the hero of epic tales and legends throughout the land. Bulletproof Vest never forgets the struggle and the tension between these two versions of her father, the hero and the villain.

Does Not Look Like Catey Shaw

by Kati Heng

24-mark-chiusano-marine-park-stories-2014-07-25-bk02_z MARINE PARK by Mark Chiusano

The term “Brooklynites” has changed. You probably used to know what that meant, but I have no idea what you are picturing. Now, at least for my generation, Brooklynite probably refers to some 20-something that got bored in Michigan and moved to the borough to pursue acting or like, vintage watch repair or some shit. Brooklynite probably refers to someone who lives in Bushwick. Yeah, they definitely live in Bushwick. Wait, what’s the difference between Brooklyn and Bushwick? Aren’t they like, the same?

Let’s face it: there is more to Brooklyn than what we see in Lena Dunham’s Girls, or that now infamous cliché music video “Brooklyn Girls” (or “Brooklyn Boys”) Not to say there isn’t truth to Girls – really, many 20-somethings experiences probably looks just like that. They probably do only run into racial minorities on the bus on the way to another shift at Café Grumpy. They probably never leave Bushwick.

So it’s new, at this point in the cultural flood of violet-haired femmes flooding into the neighborhood, to find a book that focuses on the other Brooklyn. On the babies who grew up there, thought they might leave, then had some kids with a south-side Brooklyn girl and ending up staying. It’s new to read about the lives and times of Marine Park rather than straight-up Bushwick.

And so Mark Chiusano frames his 17 stories about the people of Marine Park. People you know have Brooklyn rolling through their blood by the way they talk about “going into the city” as if the other boroughs are another world. Little kids who go from shoveling your walkway to holding down the jobs your uncle used to have.

Many of the stories revolve around a pair of these boys, Lorris and Jamison, the first-person seer of a good portion of the book. Their experience looks nothing like what I’d expect from binge watching too much Girls – it seems so much more community, so much more neighbor-helping/knowing-neighbor, almost more small town. The boys age throughout these stories, find love, find their niche. While Lorris goes off elsewhere to college, only coming home for emergencies and major holidays, Jamison stays. Something about Marine Park keeping his inside its boundaries.

There’s other characters as well. One a sleaze who sells goods like cigarettes and pills to grade school kids before going home and jerking off with one hand holding a firearm (I KNOW this guy! I know him!) Another a couple who’ve raised their kids in the area, been there seemingly forever and look like they’re going to stay seemingly forever. Another a group of friends that pass herpes around, one to the other to a boy to a girl. All people you probably remember from your own neighborhood, really. While little seems to tie these characters to Lorris and Jamison besides their neighborhood, reading the new characters serves at least to show the other experiences of residents besides that of the young male protagonists.

While I had fun reading through the stories, discovering this new neighborhood, there’s little in terms of heart or juicy sentences that’s really making it stick for me. I had hopes this would like, catch and capture a significant time/area/culture much like Let the Great World Spin, but there’s no comparing. Maybe more than anything, Marine Park can be culturally significant right now to make us remember that, yes, there are real people in Brooklyn that live here and grew up here and don’t look like Catey Shaw.

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