Corduroy Books

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All The Birds, Singing, All the Time, Please.

by Kati Heng

9780307907769 Evie Wyld’s ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING

Back in college, I had this Canadian writing professor who created some of the most disgusting things you’ll ever read (disgusting, I mean gritty and raw; actually I don’t even think he’d care if I said gross and ended there.) This guy did one-on-one sessions with me that consisted of a lot of me just spouting out how much I love David Foster Wallace. He’d be like, “Oh, you like Wallace? This Canadian author is totally inspired by him, too,” and then he’d give me a book that was like the story of some depressed chick living in Nova Scotia desert who hunts regularly, which, really, were great, but like, I could never relate back to Wallace in any deeper significance than this book also kinda made me sad and really really want to shower.

The point of that deeply personal story: I’ve read some bleak stories and some gross things, not just from “God Bless America, Toliet Bowls are Gross” side of things, and feel completely safe in saying Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing is one of the greatest bleak and icky things I’ve ever read.

The story starts with rough-worn beauty Jake Whyte (WhYte, WYld? I spent the entire book questioning if this was even anything) finding the corpse of a mangled sheep lying outside the British-Island farmhouse she inhabits very much alone. She’s thinking it’s the neighbor kids, just picking on the weird new lady who lives alone, just trying to get shit done like the guys around her do. Oh, by the way, in case you haven’t picked up – Jake’s super rad and not into ‘women’s work’ or being treated as the weaker sex or any of that nonsense.

From there, we get flashbacks into the reasons she’s gone out to the wild all alone, the reasons why she’s so hesitant to let any man give her a bit of help / affection. Years ago and miles away in the rich lands of Australia, Jake had to leave home and school way too soon (I can’t tell you why because, WOW, you’ll want to read it yourself), had to find enough cash to keep herself fed, had to take the types of jobs available for homeless young women, and eventually, had to put up with the excessive control of an abusive relationship. The stuff she goes through is TERRIFYING, even when you know, hey, it’s gonna be okay, she left that guy and left Australia, right? Even in Britian, Jake’s watching her back, and really, you can’t blame her after you read all the junk she’s been through.

Oh, plus there’s a monster. I’m not even referring to the guy she fled the country from (although, metaphors here? MAJOR METAPHORS); like literally, it’s not the neighbor kids messing with her sheep, but a freakin’ MONSTER that’s not a wolf or coyote or anything really known to scientists.

Jeez, this book is good. I mean, it’s DISGUSTING, the things she has to live through (think of Charlize Theron “Monster” gross), but the way Wyld writes it down makes it so worth reading.  I mean, I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the author used “farted” as an adjective to describe that weird sucking sound when you pull your foot out of the mud. That’s not a particularly pretty example of her writing. That’s probably good.

This book isn’t by any means light, but it’s amazing. Oh also, all the books that professor would give me usually ended with the male lead getting killed and/or another woman pregnant and the female lead getting post-partum depression or falling out of love with the father or her children, to the point that I had to put these books down and read Nylon because a girl can only take SO MUCH. Luckily, with All the Birds, you see all the conflict, but you see it resolve. I’m not saying the ending is “happy” (I guess the ending’s up to you to call happy or the most depressing thing ever; I think my reaction was an audible AWWW!), but the drama airs out by the end.

It’s gross, but it’s not gonna leave a bad taste in your mouth.

BOSTON STRONG:: Long Mile Home: Boston Under Attack, the City’s Courageous Recovery, and the Epic Hunt for Justice

by Kati Heng

13570 LONG MILE HOME: BOSTON UNDER ATTACK, THE CITY’S COURAGEOUS RECOVERY, AND THE EPIC HUNT FOR JUSTICE by Scott Helman and Jenna Russell

It’s incredibly hard to write this review, just as this is an incredibly hard book to read. Neither my off-the-mark review nor the difficulty of this book should keep you away, though. Why is it so difficult to write? After all, it’s not an unfamiliar subject. It’s not something I don’t know enough about, especially after reading. Yet, it’s something I haven’t felt as much as so many others.

Of course, tragedies like 2013’s Boston Marathon bombing touch everyone in the nation. We all feel it, to some degree. The degree I felt it may have been little – I didn’t know a single person from Boston ((this has changed since the bombing)), I’ve never been to city, before 2014, I’d hardly even heard of Copley Square.

What I do know a little bit about is running, even running a marathon. Granted, I’ve only ran one, not in Boston, but in Minnesota, but it was enough to understand just how much goes into Marathon Day. You train for months, maybe even a year. You test your muscles, push them to the extremes, reach their limits. You plan weeks ahead how to handle Marathon Day, where you’ll stay the night before, what to eat the morning of, how much you should run the day before, where you can expect your family to be standing. Even for the spectators the day of the marathon is a big deal: lawn chairs are set up, oranges, watermelons, water bottles, candies are bought to be passed out to the runners trooping by. Signs are painted, plans are made.

I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but for me, there were points after the 20 mile mark where I hit that wall, thinking “I just need to stop here,” and realizing, I can’t. There’s a point in the race where you just can’t not get to the end. Your family’s waiting there. Your bags waiting there – cell phone included. Sure, you could stop on the road, but to get home, you need to cross that finish line.

I can’t imagine what it would feel like to hear you’re not even allowed to get to the end because a bomb has gone off.

It’s been a year, and still, the wounds feel so fresh. After all, victims of the bombings are still in rehabilitation, still mourning lost loved ones or lost limbs, still getting their lives back to normal, or at least to a new normal.

I’d have to say, for how fresh the wounds are, Long Mile Home is an amazingly balanced read. Written by two Boston Globe reporters, authors Jenna Russell and Scott Helman keep a remarkable cool under the subject of their book.

Memories of lost ones are apt memorials – recognizing the people for who they were, never resorting to martyring or putting people on undeserved pedestals. Stories from survivors (including Heather Abbott, a woman forced to make the decision whether or not to keep her foot and lower leg, and if not, just how much to let go) and those at the scene (race director Dave McGillivray; surgeon David King, who went straight from finishing the marathon in 3:12:00(ish) to saving lives in the hospital trauma center) are told firsthand, free from hyperbole and exaggerated emotions.

What I appreciated the most – the way authors handled the fact that the bombings were classified as an act of terrorism. Hisham Aidi talked very well about the way, just after the bombings before suspects were revealed and perpetrators were caught, Muslims around the country hoped in the deepest parts of their hearts that the bombers would be some WASP Americans, people tortured by mental illness or the like, rather than an Islmaic extremist acting on their own in last month’s Rebel Music – no true Muslims supported these actions, and they didn’t want the slow-forming scabs of 9/11 to be picked off by an incident like this.

Of course, as we know now, the bombers did unfortunately believe their actions were part of a larger religious cause, they were darker-skinned and had funny, foreign-sounding names, just pulling back the same feelings of hatred from a decade earlier. I truly, truly appreciated the way the authors cast the bombers a OUTSIDERS, boys with little to no connection to the actual religion of Islam, boys in troubled cycles of behavior. They even go on to point out the injustice done once the first videotapes of the brothers were released and internet witch hunts began, vigilantes naming innocents as the causer of the crime.

I don’t know how much more to say – you know the story, although not as well as you will after reading the book. It’s as fair and balanced as Fox News claims to be. It’s an incredibly hard read, mainly to stomach the whole story and all its details. I guess my best advice is to read it slowly, absorb as much as you can, and just pray for healing for the city.

New Non-Fiction: Twain, Twitter and Tsunamis

by Kati Heng

Hey Everyone,

Time for another blow-out, put these all up, quick! post from Kati. Like a fire sale, but with book information.

 

9781594204739

Ben Tarnoff’s THE BOHEMIANS: MARK TWAIN AND THE SAN FRANCISCO WRITERS WHO REINVENTED AMERICAN LITERATURE

I don’t know all that much about the San Fran lit-scene (their noise-rock scene? call me, I’d love to chat), historically or otherwise, but this book gave an AMAZING account. It’s as if you got a press release of what’s happening that season not from a publishing company, but just a city itself.

So who’s it about? Or specifically, who’s these folks featured on the cover?

(1) Mark Twain. Really, inspiring stuff about how this guy was NOT even that well liked or received in America and how he was working at newspapers for much of his life. I think a lot of us (at least me) think this guy writes one book; fame is immediate. Not the case. Cool stuff to here.

(2) Bret Harte. A guy I’d never really known much about before this book; apparently a literary ‘golden boy’ with a little bit of an ego. Celebrated in his time, if not that importnat in the long run.

(3) Charles Warren Stoddard. The poor gay poet type. Really, a guy without a home, or any kind of place to call his own. I would have loved to see a story of how San Francisco SAVED HIM, gave him a refuge and all that, but…

(4) Ina Coolbrith. My new lit-hero and the girl I’m planning to read up on more. Seriously – it’s the 1860′s and this girl is organizing meetings and hanging out with TWAIN and all these other cool guys of lit! She reaches icon status.

It’s a interesting read, if hard at times to get a proper footing in the context. But, if you have interest in writers’ circles, how one author influences another, this will be right up your alley.

images Biz Stone’s THINGS A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME: CONFESSIONS OF A CREATIVE MIND

One of the major points of flack this book is getting: Biz Stone is a “co-founder” of Twitter, but it’s really hard to know what that means. And it’s not a totally unfair criticism; from the sounds of it, this guy was assigned to create a system of leaving status people could update from their phones, like Facebook with limited characters and simpler, and he (and his team of who knows who)  did it. Don’t question how. He did. 

If you can get over that fact, though, Things a Little Bird Told Me is a fun read. It’s the story of this sort-of self-depreciating dork finding his groove in Silicon Valley. Not exactly starting from a dorm room in Harvard, he created Twitter for a paying job (but really? doesn’t the phrase “from a dorm room in Harvard” imply enough proof that poverty is not at stake?) and just grew it from there.

Mixed throughout the story of Twitter’s humble and stumbling beginnings, as well as Stone’s own, are tales of Corporate Kumbaya, or how to work well in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong – that can sound condescending, but it’s totally not. Workplaces need more kumbaya. Offices in general should get along better if they’re gonna blow up like Twitter.

It’s not the most humble book or the most full-picture story like The Social Network may have been, but for fans of Twitter or anyone interested in the way this outlet can spread the news like wildfire, it’s an enjoyable read.

9781594205842 David Pilling’s BENDING ADVERSITY: JAPAN AND THE ART OF SURVIVAL

I’m always a bit hesitant with books that offer sweeping generalizations of an entire group of people, whether it be based on gender, race, age, generation, nationality, etc., ESPECIALLY if the person writing that book is outside the demographic in question. So for this book: David Pilling’s originally a Brit, spent years working/living in Japan, and still acknowledges the impossibility of summarizing a population.

That said, this book’s entirely a compliment to the people. Sure, it points out some aspects of the culture Americans/Brits might think “weird,” but overall, it leans to the fact that Japan is a country of contradictions, of people unwilling and unable to be easily packaged and explained.

Starting with the horrors of the 2011 tsunami that destroyed cities along the coast and set off a horrible nuclear reaction, Pilling explains why yes, the country may be down at the minute, but if the past offers any evidence, this nation is far from out. Think about it – both Germany and this island nation lost WWII; Germany’s never made quite the same economic impact as before the war; Japan’s doing just fine, innovating electronics, cars, etc. like the rest of us aren’t even there.

Basically, I loved this quote Pilling ended on, which really sums up the spirit of this whole thing the way a last sentence SHOULD every time: “Two ‘lost decades’ and its manifold problems notwithstanding, reports of Japan’s demise are exaggerated.”

 

Maggie Shipstead’s “Astonish Me.”

by Kati Heng

9780307962904 ASTONISH ME by Maggie Shipstead

This novel is simply beautiful. I’ve yet to read Shipstead’s first novel Seating Arrangements, so I had little reference or preparation on just HOW GOOD Astonish Me would be, so I hope that’s different for you. The only criticism I need to get out right off the bat (and really, the only criticism I found throughout) is that Astonish Me isn’t a title that’s going to make you excited to pick this book up, and I hate that. I sort of wish that was a working title until she’d found something better suited for the story, but it is what it is. “Astonish Me” as a title tells you next to nothing; the story itself gives one of the most beautiful looks into family and love dynamics I’ve read this year/even longer than that.

Astonish Me starts like a blank slate, introducing characters into it’s world only piece by piece, never more than you can handle at once. Right off the bat, you’re thrown into the perfection-driven world of ballet, meeting two dancers, Joan and Elaine. I had to pause for a minute – I wanted to describe the pair as “two young dancers” – the girls are in their early twenties, after all, but in the world they inhabit, they’re already to the point that’s becoming aged.

Elaine’s a fierce dancer, ready to sell her soul and body over to the company, ready to cut out extras such as outside love interests and the excessive calories found in bread. And Joan – we never truly get a sense of just how good Joan really is; we just hear perhaps her “crowning achievement” is spending a short time as the love interest of the famous Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov – we just know that when it comes time to choose between staying with her passion, performing with her company, or keeping the bundle of cells reaching their way towards becoming a son, Joan choses the latter: to end her life as a dancer and start a new life as a mother.

It’s CRAZY how life works for athletes like this. Think about gymnasts or ice skaters in the Olympics (until dance becomes an Olympic sport, these seem like the best points of reference) – they train their entire lives, which yes, may until be 16 years at that point, but for them, THEIR ENTIRE LIVES to catch a big break like the Olympics or a spot in the chorus of a company, and have what, eight years for a dancer, one Olympic season for a gymnast? This has been their focus forever – no fun on Saturdays, straight to the studio; pouring thousands into pointe shoes, the best instructors, the proper uniforms; no time for non-dance friends, no room for calories. And then at a ripe young age – maybe 25 if you don’t get injured, you just have to leave. You’re too old suddenly. Your body can’t work like the new girls. It’s a world of art I can’t fathom, to realize you’ve peaked before you’ve even fully grown. So yeah, every time I watch the Gabby Douglas’s or the new girls of Alvin Ailey I feel admiration, but also this sadness. What comes next for these girls? What do they do after they can’t do what they’ve been training for for years? Will we remember Gabby Douglas in 7 years time?

Joan moves out of New York, the epi-center of American dance, to Chicago, the home of Jacob, the father of her child and the man that has been devoted to her since middle school. From what we see of their history, Jacob’s spent years pining over Joan, picking her up from ballet practice, rubbing her sore muscles, catching up with her the day after she returns from dates with the most popular boys in school. He’s always been there for her – it’s a no-brainer he’ll start a new life with her and his child, Harry, as Jacob names him, instantly.

As Harry gets older, Joan’s passion for dance never wans. She opens a dance studio in their town where the best and the brightest flock, including her own son and their neighbor’s daughter, Chloe, a wild-at-heart girl and Harry’s best friend. Soon enough, Harry and Chloe’s stories begin to echo that of Joan and Jacob – feelings of love and longing, loyalty, and above all, a passion for their art.

It’s easy enough to say this novel is about ballet; I hope I can articulate it enough to you – this story reads like a ballet. Clean. Controlled. Beautiful. Oh my god, beautiful. Shipstead’s prose feels like, I can’t even explain it, it feels like it’s holding back, not necessarily because she’s scared to make the required leaps, but because she wants you to focus for the moment on the precision, the taut-ness of the sentence at hand. Of course, there are leaps of beauty, moments that you just want to highlight and remember forever, but like a ballet, you can’t fill the thing with it – readers like dancers would get exhausted, and no one would appreciate the grace of a plié if the girl was up their doing leaps and spins for the entire show. Jesus, though – the precision of this piece. It’s utterly incredible.

Best Novel of 2014: Shotgun Lovesongs

by Weston Cutter

            Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs is the best novel that will be published in 2014. I understand that I’m saying that in April, and also in a year in which there are lots of really really great writers who’ve got novels coming, and, sure, maybe there’s a chance one of them punches its way up to Shotgun, but the odds seem overwhelmingly against (maybe to be more clear: there’s a chance that some other novels this year will be better as novels-of-ideas, but none will come close to the heart-rending glories of Shotgun.).

I’m trying to think of what to say about this thing that’ll somehow come close to accounting for the glories this book offers. Disclaimers are in order, I suppose: I’m a 35 year old man from the upper midwest, and I believe deeply in music and friendship, and I believe deeply in the place I’m from. I don’t think this makes me much unique—my own experience tells me there’s lots of us (from small scale [me and my friends] to large [Paul Westerberg, for instance]). That said: the midwest, especially the upper midwest, is absofuckinglutely Floyover Country: when Bon Iver hit, one of the big funs was watching coastal people be amazed that such stuff could come from the glorious, necessary nowhere that is the upper midwest. The place offers itself to being overlooked, which I more and more believe is As Folks Like It: if Westerberg were from Boston or Florida, from a place where people Noticed and Cared Early On, I can’t imagine his stuff would resonate the same. Maybe I’m wrong.

That’s a dark path, of course–trying to think one’s way into what makes any home magic. Let’s instead focus on Shotgun Lovesongs, and one last thing: there are thinky novels and there are heart novels, and there’s not one that’s better than the other. I happen to like heart novels, and so when I say Shotgun Lovesongs is so great, please know I’m talking about a book that makes a (supposedly) grown ass man get sniffly in his kitchen at 1pm on a Friday afternoon as he reads about two friends trying to find their way back to each other. This is me saying: if you’re in love with, say, Nabokov, or someone like that, steer clear.

Okay, still here? For real: get this book. Here’s the story: Little Wing, Wisconsin is the setting, a town that’s just like lots of small upper midwest towns (in Wisconsin, northern Iowa, and southern Minnesota)—a small farming community with empty buildings and high schoolers graduating each year with nothing but get-me-outta-here wings on their feet. Think, for instance, of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where, until real recently, nothing was magic (necessarily), but then along came Justin Vernon, who mapped the place so obvious it can no longer be shook.

Shotgun Lovesongs could, in the most ungenerous read, be considered a novel based on Justin Vernon, except here the guy’s name is Leland (and instead of Bon Iver he conjures a band called Corvus), and plus Lee (as he’s called through most of the novel) isn’t really the center, anyway: there’s Lee, there’s Hank, there’s Kip, and there’s Ronnie, four guys who’ve grown up in small-town western Wisconsin and who, in their ways, are trying to be adults. They’re in their 30s. At the start of the book only Hank has kids but by the end that’ll change. At the start two of them are married and by the end four of them will have been married (that’s written intentionally muddled). None of that detaily stuff ultimately matters though, truly: what matters is that, in Shotgun Lovesongs, Nickolas Butler’s written the truest midwest novel of longing I know of.

Here’s how he writes, by the by, just so you know what you’re signing up for (this is from the book’s first section, which I’ll here argue is the book’s prettiest section [that's not to say I didn't cry at other stuff, but this is the spell-castingest part of the book]): “The invitations to Kip’s wedding were heavy with paper and ribbon and glitter. We carried them from our mailboxes and vehicles into our houses carefully, reverently, as if they held priceless, exquisite news. We vaguely knew the woman he was marrying. Felicia was from Chicago and now worked as a consultant from their new house just outside town. Exactly what or with whom she consulted, we didn’t really understand, though Eddy claimed that it had something to do with pharmaceuticals.” I quote that much so you can not the fall-down musicality of this thing Butler’s made: all those lines sing, each to each, an overlapping chorus of gorgeous as rhymes pick up on kitty-corner rhymes and the whole thing’s this almost bell-like incantation. Trust me when I say: Butler does this throughout. Each chapter’s got pages and pages just waiting for earmarks.

So there’s the overt pretty of the writing, sure, but what of the actual story? Oh lord, here’s where things actually get *better*. Shotgun Lovesongs has the four characters mentioned above, these four dudes, and the book’s an earnest attempt to try to examine what it is to look for a feasable home in your thirties when you’re from crumbling nowheres in the midwest. What’s a good way out? Make a band that hits big and skeedadle as a famous someone? Make boatloads on the Chicago exchange and miracle-mile yourself into some Hancock condo? Stick with the old calling and till your narrow path into the everlasting earth, farming as you go? While Butler’s trying to cast light on those stories, he’s also pulling off this other magic, which is: he’s writing about the friendship–love, let’s admit it–of dudes. Specifically not-supper-communicative dudes. Dudes who feel as real to me as my own shoes (if you’re from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, probably Michigan, and probably S Dakota, you deep-down Know the dudes in this book). To even address the love of dudes like this–to even try to touch it with a ten foot pole–is intensely tough, yet Butler not only attempts but totally, totally illuminates things, making you feel so deeply for these four fictional folks you’ll carry them with you weeks after finishing.

I don’t know what else to say. The book seems to be picking up some momentum, which is great–not that it started with none (the book sold in a bidding war, and the thing had a full-page ad in the New Yorker like three issues back), but, I’m not kidding, this is the book that should take the same track as Visit From the Goon Squad or Beautiful Ruins: smart, moving, glorious books which suck you in and offer so much characer you feel emptily bereft on finishing the thing. You need to read this book, whoever you are. You need to open your life up to this story.

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