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Why Is This The First Book I’ve Read from Feminist Press?

by Kati Heng

9781558618640

INTO THE GO-SLOW by Bridgett M. Davis

I’ve always hated not having a sister and it’s books like Into the Go-Slow that always reconfirm to me just how much I’m missing out. The story of younger sister Angie’s idolization and parallel horrification at her older sister’s behavior provide such a complex sister dynamic, you’re definitely be rolling your eyes the next time someone tells you “Frozen” is such a deep look at sister relationship.

The novel takes off in 1986, and Angie’s older sister Ella has been dead for a few years. Still, there are pieces of Ella that haunt Angie, control the way she lives her life still. For instance, she refuses to leave Detroit, the place her sister spent most of her life, even as her mother and her other older sister opt for a new life in the south. By the time we meet Angie, she’s taking on her older sister’s obsession with Africa, Fela Kuti, even becoming involved with the same men and women Angie spent her time with.

It’s tragic, though, despite Angie’s following in Ella’s footsteps, Ella’s old friends can’t see it. While Ella was the outspoken life of the party, fuel to any environment, Angie is more likely to stand back and soak it all in. And there are the physical differences as well – while Ella was full-bodied, Angie’s thin frame keeps people from making the connection that the two could have been sisters.

It’s around this time that Angie decides she must follow in another one of Ella’s footsteps. She decides she must visit Nigeria, the place were Ella was killed years earlier, hit by a car while crossing the road. Angie is desperate to meet the people who knew Ella closely, who were with her in the moments before her death.

There’s so much at play at this point. Not only is Angie going to find out about Ella, she’s leaving to find out about herself. An obsession with Africa, their forefathers homeland, a passion for the women of Nigeria and a job as a reporter for an independent Nigerian newspaper were what worked to pull Ella out of a downward spiral; Angie hopes diving into the same, tracing the same trails will lead her to discover more about herself. As her mother heartbreakingly tells Angie: “I think there are a lot of ways to be black in this world, and I think you just need to find yours.”

At this point, there’s already so much I have heard about yet know I’ll never understand. Sure, I have an older brother and know what it’s like to follow in another’s footsteps (literally, every time I had the same math/science teacher following my brother, having to explain that I’m better at writing/art as they gave me that look of shock handing back the first assignment), but from all accounts I’ve heard, this is nothing like following a same-sex sibling. People expect you to look the same, to talk the same, to be the same girl. I can’t imagine having my way carved out before me like that.

What makes it even more complex for Angie is that, despite Ella’s success and joy as a writer during the last few years of her life, so much of her life was spent addicted to drugs, battling the demons of addiction. For so long, Ella was no one to look up to, and even a young Angie realized this. Despite the horrible things her sister would do while high, though, Angie would never distance herself. Of course she saw the flaws and harm Ella’s actions had on the rest of the women in the family, yet, it seems Angie would rather bury that Ella, keep the memory of the thriving, wise Ella in Africa alive only.

And then, there’s the tension of being black in America. That line the mother said really stuck with me: “There’s a lot of ways to be black in this world.” As a white person, I don’t think I’ve ever actually taken a minute to think about what kind of white person I should be. As with most whites, I have a vague pride in my national heritage, but have never truly felt defined or discriminated against because of it.

And then my curiosity is peaked – what are the ways to be black in this world? It seems, coming from this novel, there’s to take on your skin color, to delve into the history and current circumstances of your people, to really connect with your African roots; or to try to move past the racialization of everything, to try your damnedest to live in a colorblind world despite it all, as Angie’s mother and middle sister do. Are these the choices? I’ll never know. Privileged as I am with my white skin, I will never truly have to understand what it means to be black in America, in the world, in life.

Basically this: Into the Go-Slow will teach you something, give you a meaty story about how a person should be no matter their skin color, origins, or past.

Graywolf Is the Best Press in the Country at Present (maybe ever)

by Weston Cutter

Surely you’ve seen what’s been happening with Graywolf Press. You must have. If you’re paying attention you’ve noticed what’s been happening with them this year. It’s not just that Leslie Jamison’s amazing The Empathy Exams was a NYTimes bestseller, though that was a big, big deal (and the book remains among the year’s deepest glories, as good a book of essays as you’re likely to even know how to hope for, and one that casts and interesting light on your [mine, anyway] older favorite books of essays [hard not to read Didion or Sontag or Hitchens or hell even Wallace differently on reading Jamison]).

But then there’s been this fall, and it’s been—well, you’ve seen. You must have seen. There’s been Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra, which I didn’t even get or read but you can still find it making splashes across all sorts of places. No, the thing that’s happened this fall in terms of books has been that Graywolf has released Matthea Harvey’s If The Tabloids Are True What Are You?, and they’ve released Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and they’ve released the might Eula Biss’ On Immunity: An Innoculation, and I at least can’t think of the last time three books have, together, so aptly and sadly and with difficult beauty have perimetered a time (This must happen to everyone, right? How the art you’re into helps demarcate months or seasons sometimes? How last fall, September 2013, because Breaking Bad was finishing, there was this weird charge, at least for me, how the show meddled around my days as well? Maybe it’s just me but I doubt it: I still remember 4/30/96 as the day on which a new Dave Matthews Band, new Bob Mould?, and new Paul Westerberg CD were all released, and Steve and I were there, midnight at Cheapo or wherever, and I know he remembers too).

Anyway: Graywolf. These books. You need these books. Everyone needs these books

            There’s all sorts of reasons you need these books though ultimately all the reasons reduce to because they’re amazing+will make your life better. First—finally—we get some more Matthea Harvey, whose Modern Life and Sad Little Breathing Machine and Pity the Bathtub…are all so great but too far in the rearview: I at least have needed her stuff more now, have needed that for awhile, and If The Tabloids Are True What Are You? is so good I feel like I’ll be sated for a good while. Maybe you saw Handler’s take on it, or you saw it pop up in some other place—chances seem good this was one of those books of poetry that actually got something of a toe-hold. Regardless: you should check this book. Yes, certainly: there’s full-color art, from cut-outs of mermaids with oddly shaped tails (best one: scissors) at book’s start, and there are pictures of tiny things frozen in ice, men and chairs and the like, and that section immediately follows “The Glass Factory” which features things heated to 1000 degrees and the pairing of the sections will just simply make you feel more than you’ve likely felt for awhile while reading poetry, and there’s the enrapturing “Telettrofono” section at the end in which there’s textile art accompanying the poems. There are, also, just poems, with titles, often with accompanying visual art (book’s best poem: “There’s a String Attached to Everything” which starts “The puppet snob is born by being dropped from above.” Other fantastic starts include “My Octopus Orphan” with “thinks his suction cups are radios” and “The Tired Mermaid” which goes: “The Tired Mermaid wishes for once her horoscope would just read: hungover today, stay in bed.”). The thing however about all these things is that they are not, at all, filigree, not streamer-ish add-ons aimed merely at decorating. What Harvey does that no poet’s doing that I know of is starting wherever. It sounds so dumb to even say it. She just begins. When’s the last time you read a poem that starts “They were lonely. I was alone. / Out of those two sentences, // I made myself a home.” That’s the start of “Woman Lives in House Made if People,” and, sure, the Dickinsony echo’s nice, but just look at the confidence of her builds: she just makes poems, she starts them and pushes them into existence. This sounds so silly to try to articulate, but it’s so magnificent, what she’s doing: there’s little that it feels Harvey’s trying to do or make or lead the reader to; the poems just feel there, present, unfussy in their strange splendor. Here’s what I mean: “Game For Anything” starts on p. 100, and it’s brief (“A plane-shaped silence flies / overhead.” it begins), 19 lines, and on p.101 there’s a picture of a miniature TV with a screen of clouds, and then, on 103, there’s a poem that doesn’t have a title—there’s a picture at page’s top, something that looks like a bird moving, and the poem beneath it starts “The sun was dim then done, but after months of treatments, the animals did begin to glow.” So: is that poem part of “Game For Anything”? Is it its own poem with a visual title? Biggest: does it matter?

The great gift Harvey’s offering—aside from, as ever, tremendous poetry obsessed with reaching out, with deep strangeness, with trying to understand the mechanics of our inner and outer enmeshings—is that she dethrones poetry from the weird realm of things meaning and symbolizing to poems just being. I’m not sure how to wave my arms big enough to make clear how monumental this ability, this accomplishment, actually is. It’s a beguiling, beautiful book that speaks not to your head or your heart but to your personhood, your actual walking-around-on-a-gray-monday self. It’s just a stunner.

            But that’s not even everything, because of course after the Harvey there came Eula Biss’ On Immunity, a book just as gloriously written as her first (also Graywolf) collection Notes From No Man’s Land, but a book which felt pressing and urgent even months ago but now, as Ebola spreads and we recognize the fragility of structural, population-level health, feels even more crucial. The book’s central consideration is Biss’ experience becoming a mother and confronting all the questions and concerns about vaccinating her son, and of course the book’s not just the obvious and continually necessary get your vaccinations and ignore the largely proven-incorrect anti-vaccination folks; no, beautifully, Biss actually engages with the idea of vaccination, which idea is (duh) monumentally fraught: how do we help protect our kids, ourselves? How do we adjudicate the varieties of risk? And the writing, good lord: Biss is so patient and probing and holy-hell smart you feel like the thing’s shining on you, giving you something like an intellectual burn as you read. Further, too: she makes and draws connections that will astonish you. Here’s what I mean—this from page 157: “The more vulnerable we feel, sadly, the more small-minded we become. In the fall of 2009, at the height of the H1N1 flu pandemic, a group of researchers began testing their hypothesis that people who feel protected from disease might also be protected from feeling prejudice. The study looked at two groups of people, one vaccinated against the fly and the other not vaccinated. After both groups were asked to read an article exaggerating the threat posed by the flu, the vaccinated people expressed less prejudice against immigrants than the unvaccinated people.” I mean, come on: what are you reading that offers you such startling insight with such grace? What On Immunity is doing is waging an incredibly smart, incredibly calm, incredibly humane (that passage on 157 is on that section’s penultimate page, and here’s how Biss closes the section on 158: “I have doubts that we can vaccinate away our prejudices, or wash our hands of them…But I still believe there are reasons to vaccinate that transcend medicine.” Regardless of your stance on vaccination, certainly you can at least admit that that’s among the most level-headedly honest statements made in the whole history of the battle) campaign not just rah-rahing vaccinations, but rah-rahing thought, deep consideration. Which, of course, is among the real glories of her book: the excitement’s from the thinking as much as the writing or the subject matter.

            And then there’s Rankine’s devastating, almost infinitely sad(-dening) Citizen: An American Lyric. Look at that cover and keep your throat from catching. I don’t know how to write about this book. I’m a white man and by the accident of my birth I’ve lucked away from a life of hatred and pain and anger I literally can’t fathom (I can imagine it, as can any of us who’ve been paying any attention at all over the last two years as Mike Brown was murdered, as Trayvon Martin was murdered, as John Crawford was fucking killed for holding a toy gun at his side in a Wal-Mart in Ohio, as hundreds of other black bodies have been destroyed). Rankine in Citizen is dauntingly effective in addressing, in this her latest “American Lyric,” how this is about black bodies. She writes “And you are not the guy and still you fit / the description because there is only one guy / who is always the guy fitting the description,” (from “Stop-and-Frisk”). She writes “And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer, all urgency leaves the possibility of any kind of relationship as you realize nowhere is where you will get from here.” That nowhere: that’s everywhere in Citizen, that’s (seemingly) everywhere in American life—the nowhere of any location to which we might head, black and white Americans, to try to stop fearing and hating each other. It seems an awfully tall order, to even think of ways we might address or build a bridge toward fixing this toxicity, and while Rankine’s not overtly making some claim for *how* this is to be done, she is, with Citizen, offering a devastating meditation on where we are, and while the book is somehow beautifully gutting (one hesitates to mention beauty at all given the subject matter), it’s impossible not to feel a shock of sorrow that we’re still in such a place, as a country, that Rankine and others need to keep writing, keep addressing it.

Again: all three of those are Graywolf titles, and notice there’s no mention of D. A. Powell’s Repast, which gathers his first three (glorious) books of poetry into one, and it doesn’t mention the great Jeffrey Renard Allen, or Kevin Barry, or the Art Of series which is just mind-blowingly good, or any of the other whalloping titles Graywolf crams into each calendar year. What I’m trying to say is that there’s no one better than Graywolf right now, but, dig: they’ve been doing this for years. If you’re not devouring the bulk of their offerings, you’re missing out on not just some of the best books published, but books that, to my mind, track and articulate and consider the human experience better than any other press’s catalog. They are doing the almost-impossible, in any industry: they’re batting almost a thousand, connecting every time. Pay attention. Look at them go. Long live Graywolf.

Finally, a Review of that new Murakami novel

by Kati Heng

9780385352109

Haruki Murakami’s COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE

Finally, finally back after a no-good-reason break from reviewing, and be glad, because I am here to fill you in on that new Murakami novel everyone has been talking about!

Murakami has, to me at least, begun to fall into the category of artists who make wonderful wonderful creations, yet, many of this creations are unstartingly similar. Murakami’s fiction, the more I delve into the backlogs of it, reads much like a Wes Anderson film – sharp, clean, filled with the same characters from one book to the next, the same set designers decorated the pages.

Recurring themes and characters of Murakami pieces present in this work: A blank-slated protagonist surprised that women find him attractive; a witchy, distant woman; some bit character talking vividly about a dream

Recurring themes and character of Murakami pieces missing from this work: Cats; unexplained life forms; talking creatures; the moon; a fetish-like obsession with women and their clothing

It’s fine enough to say you’ve read Norwegian Wood or 1Q84 and that is all you need from the man. BUT, for those of you who loved those books and wanted them to run on for pages, chapters, decades (myself included), Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is well worth it. Just because you know what a candy will taste like does not mean you shouldn’t eat it.

This story starts off with young Tsukuru Tazaki, colorless in relation to the names of the other best friends in their closely connected clique, Aka (red), Ao (blue), Shiro (white) and Kuro (black). Throughout high school the friends are a perfectly balanced, perfectly inseparable unit, pledging to do as much as possible together, to never date (at least within the group) to avoid imbalance, even to stick together after graduation, going to community college rather than venturing off to separate distant cities. Despite his love for his friends, Tsukuru decides to pursue an education in Tokyo, learning about how to effectively make and maintain train stations, the only avenue that really intrigued him.

Coming home on school break, Tsukuru is shocked to discover his friends no longer want anything to do with him. They refuse to see him, to talk to him, even ask that he not contact them again. Tortured by the rejection and haunted with questions about why it had happened, Tsukuru thus begins his years of pilgrimage.

The novel is filled with longing, melancholy, pain, and isolation, nothing new to the Murakami palate. What’s may make this the saddest of his novels is this: While most of the characters voluntarily isolate themselves, Tsukuru is the first to be brutually rejected, to be forcefully left out of a unit closer to him than his own family.

It hits the boy hard, so much so that for almost a year, all he can think about is death. He shrinks in size, not eating enough. He grows hollows under his eyes that still haunt him years later. He barely gets over it.

Following Tsukuru’s investigation and reconnection with his friends years later, we find out the painful reasons why they did what they did – although, to us, it never fully makes sense – and why they believed it was the only solution.

It can be a hard read at times, living through the mind of a boy being cast out from the only people he really cares about, but ultimately, this may be the most philosophical, the strongest (and, not a slight factor of encouragement) and the fastest-reading Murakami novel to date. Highly, highly recommended.

Gatsby On and On

by Kati Heng

9780316230070Maureen Corrigan’s SO WE READ ON: HOW THE GREAT GATSBY CAME TO BE AND WHY IT ENDURES

So We Read On finds NPR critic and college professor Maureen Corrigan looking a each page, allusion and word of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby with the same hyper-focused, zeroed-in lenses that most scholars reserve for biblical studies or another analysis of a Shakespearean play. The difference here? Corrigan’s writing is hardly as stuffy, much more personal than the usual sterically academic read, thanks in no small part to Corrigan’s sheer, unabashed love for the novel.

Corrigan starts the book talking about the reason why most normal, still-intelligent adults don’t love Gatsby: they got forced into it in high school. Even worse, she says, they may have been introduced in junior high, at far to young an age to understand the satires and complexities of the novel. She admits to not loving it the first time as well, not getting just “why” this was a classic, and completely sympathizes with anyone who felt the same way, which is great for a reader like me who spent too much of my high school first- reading of the trying to remember every characters names (names are the worst things for me to remember, even now) and the colors of all the major objects in the novel, because that’s what a lot of the quizzes focused on back then. Next, Corrigan explains why, if you are one of those readers who fall into that very large boat, you must give the book a second go.

It’s funny – I’m not 100% sure who the target audience may be for this book. Fanatics or skepticals? Just more readers like me who love the lore the book holds and really, have read the book less times than they have read explorations of the history and context of the story? It’s a little hard to think that people already averse to the tale of Gatsby would willingly pick up a 300 page book delving further into that same story, but…. Maybe the best possible audience would be the folks that read it once, didn’t get it, don’t get the reason why this story has been remade into so many movies, taught in so many high school classes and just need to understand why this particular story is so resonating.

Of course, as a professor who has been teaching the story semester after semester to a group of college students (a much better age at which to be introduced to this great novel, she believes), she has plenty of insights into the novel thanks to the maybe hundred times she’s re-read the book. Among her theories and the things she wants you to notice about the book: the important roles water plays in the characters’ lives (especially Gatsby’s); how funny Fitzgerald meant this novel to be; and how, contrary to popular belief, it’s likely Daisy was based less on Zelda Fitzgerald and more on Scott’s first love.

Then, separating her from the strictly library-bound critic academics, Corrigan goes out into the field and really really digs for some new insights. She goes to a 7 hour reading of the entire novel, straight through. She delves into Scottie Fitzgerald (Scott and Zelda’s daughter) and the fight she undertook to keep her father’s papers and documents as an intact collection. She goes to the home of an old and somewhat eccentric collector of Fitzgerald documents and early manuscripts to dig through his personal archives, ultimately leaving with an internal debate over a single word that’s become illegible. She goes to a high school, watching students turn their own interpretations from the novel she loves so much.

Seriously though – if you have any interest in Fitzgerald – or even (and this is the guy I thought I loved more) his, as Corrigan reveals, frenemy Hemingway – be that an adoration for his work, a passing urge to revisit that high school read, or the desire for a little more background info on that Baz Luhrman film you just watched, by all means, check this out. It’s far more fun than the average academic companion.

All Hail Betty Halbreich! All Hail Joan Rivers!

by Kati Heng

9781594205705

I’LL DRINK TO THAT: A LIFE IN STYLE, WITH A TWIST by Betty Halbreich

Three cheers for the tough old broads.

I’ll Drink to That, the new memoir from Betty Halbreich, the 86-year-old woman who’s become famous during her 40 years working as a personal shopper at NYC’s Bergdorf Goodman (shopping’s mecca for the uninitiated) is an utterly thrilling read, written crisply and cleanly by a woman on whom it appears decades of reading Vogue have shaped into a completely gorgeous writer.

I have a strong desire to throw the word ‘legend’ in here, but Halbreich specifically said in the book she hates that word (in relation to herself, at least). Fact is: for so many, Halbreich is Bergdorf Goodman. She’s the star of that 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf Goodman, a look into the cult of BG, how its fans are more loyal to the store than to most are to their alma maters. (She’s also going to be the inspiration for Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, which ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME I cannot wait to see).

From girlhood it seems, Halbreich had a preternatural instinct for dressing herself and dressing herself well. Living a plush life in a rich Jewish community in South Chicago, Halbreich learned early on the importance of well made, lasting clothing. Yet, something her upbringing couldn’t teach her, the girl always knew how to stick out from the crowd. As her mother would say (and I quote loosely), “If the other girl’s were wearing scarfs around their heads, Betty put hers around her waist.”

Flash-forward to adulthood. Halbreich quickly marries an even richer, even-more on-the-scene man with roots in New York City. The fashion is amplified. No longer can she wear the same thing to two different social events. Now it seems, there must be a new dress for each party. The marriage though, isn’t a happy one, leaving Halbreich attempting suicide as it unravels and spending time in a mental institution to sort things out.

Days – literally, days- after leaving that institution, she starts her job at Bergdorf Goodman. Plucky enough to stand up to it’s snottiest customers and honest enough to let a woman leave without spending hundreds on a piece that wouldn’t suit her, Halbreich’s talent is quickly recognized, even though she’s not actually been fulfilling all the duties she should as a salesgirl, seeing as she nearly refuses to use the register. Thus, the creation of her own department, “Solutions,” as they call it. Women come in with a problem, in need of a specific look or piece; Halbreich provides the solution.

You know how there is probably one thing that every person is really actually born to do? It’s so enormously satisfying to read the story of a person who is actually doing, and has been for decades. Halbreich didn’t simply create/found the Solutions department at Bergdorf; she essential is the solution to many a woman’s dressing woes.

From the introduction to the end, Halbreich walks us through the typical days in her shoes (which, I could not help but appreciate, never show toes. FINALLY someone else who understands my deep-seated aversion to flip-flops!!). Woman come in, seek Halbreich’s assistance, leave with wisdom and hints as to dressing, and – but only if they truly find something they look stunning in – leave with the perfect piece. One completely admirable thing about Halbreich: she can tell a woman simply in need of “retail therapy,” not in need of new clothes, from a mile away. She often offers that therapy and keeps the clothes on the rack.

And when there is a woman who truly needs something, Halbreich delivers. I imagine her mind working a bit like a computer system – she seems to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the store, walking through it each day and noting items/designers and pieces that have been moved around. Sort of like a dewy decimal system on clothing, if you need to find something, refer to her. Furthermore, though, she can tell what will suit each woman. Basically, she’s a living breathing Match.com for women and their clothing.

Who are these women, anyway? Everyone from costume designers (she’s help curate looks you’ve seen in Woody Allen’s movies as well as on Sarah Jessica Parker circa Sex & The City) to celebrities to everyday New York City women, sometimes even a bride or two.

Note here, and this is terribly sad yet touching: Halbreich was a great fan (and friend) of Joan Rivers, another one of her loyal customers, and writes freely about her adoration for Joan. It was so strange reading this book in the days after Rivers’ death – unlike the magazines picking up her story as it was hot, Halbreich included this ode to her friend months before she could have known. Timely, yet unintentional, I think this may be the best tribute (even if it wasn’t meant to be) to Rivers I have read so far. And – as a further testament to the women’s mutual respect for each other, Rivers’ blurb on the back of the book is perfect: “”I would trust this woman with my life—closet!”

Anyway, this isn’t a book about fashion, or why Bergdorf Goodman is holy or why you must buy designer (Halbreich herself often relates the desire to cut the tags out of clothes to curb her client’s label obsessions); this is simply a book about a woman who is doing what she was put on this earth to do, who has changed women’s lives and shaped the film and fashion industries by doing it.

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