Tag Archives: books

Speedboat, by Renata Adler

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(view from Peggy Guggenheim’s window)

Adler, Renata. Speedboat. New York: New York Review Books, 2013.

This novel blows me away. I stole a copy from a rental apartment in Venice last month, trading one of the books I brought from home (which I have tried, unsuccessfully, several times to read); I stole it feeling justified, not short-changing Italy on English books.

How had I not heard of Renata Adler?

Speedboat is knit from fragments, snapshots. They read like postage-stamp-sized essays. And the accumulation of these bits make up an incredibly compelling voice. To my ear, Adler’s prose is no less perfect than Joan Didion’s.

Here are two gems: little windows, little story starts. I could have plucked any paragraph from this book and it would have tasted as sweet, but it was delicious to type up these passages.

From p. 144:

“The clerk of the morgue of this paper is an irascible man. Reporters are always taking his files away, forgetting to sign for them, keeping them, losing them, throwing them away. Over the years, it has made the clerk ill. I signed for a file, took the folder to my desk, and then took it home. Everybody does it. It is against the rules. After four days, I brought the folder back. The clerk of the morgue was incensed. What, he demanded to know, if the man whose file it was had died in those four days; what, in the absence of the file, would the obituary have been constructed from—had I considered that at all? Well, I said, since I had signed for the file, if the man whose file it was had died, somebody could have called me up. I would have brought the folder back. True, the clerk said, but there were questions of another sort. What if, in those four days, a new fact about the man had come to light, a fact that ought quite surely to be added to the file; what, in the absence of the file, was there to add the fact to, what rubric, category, or place was there to put the new fact in—had I considered that at all, had I given it one moment’s thought? I said I had not. The clerk, becoming pale with rage, said he might have to raise the matter with management. People seem to be unhappy in so many different ways. I’ve always liked the wrathful keepers of the files.”

From p. 168:

“When Dan rode his bicycle over a cliff, we all behaved in characteristic ways. We were in Central Park. There was intense competition for calm, for sane instructions. Cover him, take his pulse, call a doctor, get an ambulance, stand back, raise his head, don’t move him, leave him room and air. He had been riding his bicycle at full speed, with a kind of Western-yodel whoop, over the cliff edge. It had been a dare. He was out quite cold. In the rush to help, Jeff and Lee—who are the nicest of us, really—quietly returned all the bicycles, including Dan’s, with its bent frame and mangled wheel, to the store from which we had rented them for the day. Two uniformed men appeared. They told Dan to get up. He opened his eyes. “Lie still,” we said. “Wait for the ambulance.” One of the uniformed men said, “He, man, we are the ambulance.” Dan blinked. He tottered up a steep hill to their car. He sat on a stretcher. They let him sit up, occasionally bumping his head lightly against the root, all the way to the hospital. He mumbled apologies. Ralph’s girl, in a helpless daze of solicitude, held Dan’s shoe in her lap. Situps aside, it is possible that we are really a group of invalids, hypochondriacs, and misfits. I don’t know. Even our people who stay fit with yoga seem to be, more than others, subject to the flu.”

(Ode to the inner critic, Monday)

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Venice (June 2017)

(By Andrea Davis Pinkney, from her book, The Red Pencil. This poem seems to be a sort of ode to the inner critic.)

ERASE

At the red pencil’s end
stands a hard lump of clay.
I do not like its green.
So ugly, its green.

And pointy.

A baby snake’s head.
A thistle’s pricker.

A sick fish,
this green.

My speaking is still in snippets.

I ask Old Anwar,
“What to do with this clump?”

He tries to explain.
“An eraser.”

He shows me how
the baby snake’s head
can fade the red’s bright lines,
leaving smears
on the yellow page,
and green dust in its wake.

“Erase,” he says.
“Why erase?” I ask.
“For mistakes,” he says,
still trying to explain.

Mistakes?
My sparrow
sees no mistakes.

My sparrow sees only what
it sees.

Erase?

To me,
that is the mistake—to erase.

 

Lunch Ticket Interview with Tara Ison

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Tara Ison

My friend Melissa’s interview with the fabulous writer, Tara Ison (whose essays I blogged about here), is up on Lunch Ticket. What a great interview! Read the interview here. Cheers!

(p.s. Not sure I got the commas right in what I wrote above. Not going to overthink it.)

Summer reading’s even sweeter

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Behold a great summer sale at Undertow Publications: Go here!

For just $50 (shipping included) you can get all four of our fantastic 2016 titles:

Meet Me in The Middle of The Air, by Eric Schaller (Starred review in Publishers Weekly)

Almost Insentient, Almost Divine, by D.P. Watt (Shirley Jackson Award Finalist)

Singing With All My Skin and Bone, by Sunny Moraine (“… beautiful terror.” -Gemma Files)

Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3, edited by Simon Strantzas and Michael Kelly (“A triumph!” -Nathan Ballingrud)

A great book for parents & teachers

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Time for another episode of Rebecca Recommends!

I recently read Talk To Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “”Go-To”” Person about Sex by Deborah Roffman. Alongside books like the Robie Harris sexuality books (It’s Not The Stork for ages 4 and up, It’s So Amazing for ages 7 and up, and It’s Perfectly Normal for ages 10 and up), and Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex, Roffman’s book is an excellent, excellent resource for parents who want to encourage healthy sexuality in their kids.

Roffman’s book is about much more than sexuality. Really, it’s about how we talk to children, and what children need from the adult nurturers around them so that they know how to make smart, thoughtful decisions. She talks about what children need, and based on those needs, she describes communication as a five piece suit, composed of 1) affirmation, 2) information, 3) clarity about values, 4) setting limits, and 5) anticipatory guidance.

Soon after I started reading it, I had a conversation about something else difficult (I can’t even recall what it was, but I know it didn’t have to do with sexuality) using Roffman’s ideas, and was able to navigate the awkwardness with grace and honesty. In terms of discussing sexuality, I have my own baggage and tricky spots—and Roffman’s book helped me approach some of those things that previously felt too scary or uncomfortable.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to help guide children toward strong, healthy adulthood.

Clotherings and other silky prose

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The Iron Gates by Margaret Millar

Lately, my daughter has referred to a book we’re reading (The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman) as “silky.” She’s talking about the prose. I had said it’s really good to read aloud, and she said yeah, it’s silky. I agree. And I love the word “silky” to describe prose.

The Iron Gates, by Margaret Millar, is blowing me away for many reasons (great noir fiction, really effective point of view stuff breaking many rules, depiction of broken womanhood, etc.) including that its prose is silky. A few passages I love are below. I’m not bothering with context. You can read the book if you want to—and I hope you will. You might need to hunt on abebooks, or find it at the library, either of which is good for you, anyway!

**

“When she had gone Lucille sat down on the edge of the bed. She was barely conscious. Though her body was upright and her eyes open, it was as if she was almost asleep and her mind in labor and heaving with dreams, little faces, willow fingers, roses of blood, clotherings and a pellet of rice, did you count the spoons, nurse?, hard dead flesh of macaroni, doing as well as can be expected, are these roses for me, for me, for me?

Willow drowned in a tub. Soft dead willow floating hair and headache in a tub.

Superintendent!

How smooth, how dear, how dead. Come Cora Cora, come Cora.

Super—in—ten—dent!

Grape eyes mashed, rotten nose splashed on a wall, I’m sure you’ll love the soup today, it floats the willow, nursie, nursie…

Suddenly she leaned over and began to retch.

Miss Scott came running. ‘Mrs. Morrow! Here. Head down. Head down, please.’

She pressed Lucille’s head down against her knees and held it. “Breathe deeply, that’s right, that’s better. We’ll be fine again in a minute. It must have been something you ate.’

Miss Scott took her hands away, and slowly Lucille raised her head. She knew Miss Scott was there, she could see her and hear her, but Miss Scott wasn’t really there, she was a cloud of white smoke, you could wave her away with your hands, blow her away, she didn’t matter, she couldn’t do anything, she wasn’t there.” (p. 117)

**

“While he was waiting for the attendant he opened the newspaper and read the want ads. Later he would read the whole thing, but the want ads were the most fascinating part to him. He could, offhand, tell anyone how much it cost to have facial hair permanently removed, how many cocker spaniels were lost and mechanics were needed, the telephone number of a practical nurse and what you did, supposing you owned a horse and the horse died.

Bird’s eye view of a city.” (p. 149)

**

“Miss Eustace opened the window and sat down on the edge of her cot to take off her slippers. The last thing she did before she went to bed was to cover Lucille.

Lucille tossed and turned in her sleep under the light blankets that seemed to bind her legs and waist. Her sleeping mind was alive and sentient in her fingers, her nipples, her hips, her thighs, the sensitive palms of her feet; but it seemed to lie caught in a net of words. Miss Eustace my father and my murther flusttering in the aviary tower in vanity all inanity ah night my sweethurt take me out of the dunjuan through the griefclanging door to the godpeace of sir night. She struggled in the web of words, the blankets fell to the floor, and the web parted.” (p. 162)

**

“He stood on the veranda for a moment and looked across the park where the phallic points of the pines were thrust toward the sun. He felt outside time, naked and frail and percipient. Evergreens and men were growing toward decay. Time was a mole moving under the roads of the city and imperceptibly buckling the asphalt. Time passed over his head in a thin gray rack of scudding clouds, as if the sky had fled away and its last remaining rags were blowing over the edge of the world.” (p. 241)

Hooray for Shadows And Tall Trees 7!

Today’s reward for grading student work: Get up and go to the mailbox and see that Shadows And Tall Trees 7 has arrived. Turn to page 205 and see the story you wrote!

(I’m so grateful to have my story “Curb Day” among these pages. Thank you, Michael Kelly. You can buy a copy of this great anthology at Undertow Publications in hardcover or paperback.)

Something important to read

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When I heard about the fabulous Peggy Orenstein‘s new book, GIRLS & SEX, I thought it would be important for me to read because I’m raising a girl. The more I read of the book, the more I believe it’s important for ANY of the following people to read:

  • Those who are raising any gender of child;
  • Those who ever were any gender of child;
  • Those who want to take down mysogyny while encouraging healthy sexuality for all genders.

If you are a person in any of those categories, I suggest you check it out.

Fragment of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

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(Found at Omega, on the ground, or in the water.)

At the Omega Institute in July, I read the fabulous Maggie Nelson’s book, Bluets. I marked a passage on p. 81. I wasn’t exactly sure why, except that something resonated. Today as I typed it before returning the book to my friend Melissa, I see its connection to the work of WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE, and oddly, to a short story I’m working on. But when I marked this passage, I wasn’t even working on the story yet.

This is how it works sometimes.

“202. For the fact is that neuroscientists who study memory remain unclear on the question of whether each time we remember something we are accessing a stable ‘memory fragment’—often called a ‘trace’ or an ‘engram’—or whether each time we remember something we are literally creating a new ‘trace’ to house the thought. And since no one has yet been able to discern the material of these traces, nor to locate them in the brain, how one thinks of them remains mostly a matter of metaphor: they could be ‘scribbles,’ ‘holograms,’ or ‘imprints’; they could live in ‘spirals,’ ‘rooms,’ or ‘storage units.’ Personally, when I imagine my mind in the act of remembering, I see Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, roving about in a milky, navy-blue galaxy shot through with twinkling cartoon stars.” —Maggie Nelson, Bluets, p. 81

Tara Ison’s REELING THROUGH LIFE

 

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When I write about books on my blog, I aim to write smart, insightful posts. I want to sound like someone with important things to say, to say them with wit and economy, to sound casual yet sophisticated. This desire often stops me from writing anything, defeating me before I’ve tried. (The better I know the book’s author, the more pervasive this pattern and my anxiety.) Operationally, it goes like this: Read a (great) book, smile and glow and lovingly put the book on a pile in my office that I will write about some day. Sometimes I do write about the book. Sometimes the book just sits there waiting until I clean my office, and because it seems too much time has passed and no one in the blogosphere really needs or wants my opinion, I put it back on the shelf, and recommend the book to anyone I think would like it.

This dance has become unwelcome and leaves me with stacks of books, shame, guilt. But my inner story (that I am a lazy Literary Citizen, etc.) is no longer serving me, so I’m letting it go. From now on, my intention is to just write something, anything, about the books I want to tell you about.

**

I want to tell you about Tara Ison’s book, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned To Live, Love, And Die At The Movies.

I love this book.

I owned it for months before I read it. Though I was busy, I was also intimidated by the idea of not knowing all the films inside and out, and by how much I admire Tara and her work. Excuses, excuses! (Tara was among the fabulous core faculty at Antioch Los Angeles MFA program when I was there at school, and is an exquisite teacher and human. And since then, she’s become a friend.)

At night when I’m reading, it’s often in the last hour before sleep, and sometimes I’m so tired that I just fade out. I never faded out while reading this book. As I read it, I felt an urge not only to stay up too late, but also to eat the book—it was tasty and decadent and full of unexpected spice.

I know Tara, so I have the pleasure of hearing her voice as I read these essays. I’ve seen some of the films she mentions, not all, but for those I didn’t know, or didn’t quite recall, she gives context in graceful strokes. The experience of reading it was therefor not in the least disorienting. Nor did she overload on context. The balance was graceful and perfect.

Of the million gems between these covers, I marked a section on p. 107 (in “How To Be A Jew”): Tara’s writing about the film The Chosen (which I have not seen).:

“Next up for the boys, a movie house, for some Van Johnson musical confection; Danny is unimpressed, bored. But then the newsreel begins: The ‘Nazi Murder Mills,’ with documentary footage of American troops liberating the concentration camps. Here we go, I think, begin the parade of those brutal, brutal images I have seen so many times by now. Again, really? I do not want to watch them again, I do not want another fix—or want to trigger the need for another fix—but I find myself shaking, my heart quickening. And I realize what is moving me, here, is Danny’s reaction to them. It is his first time seeing these images, and his horror is newborn and unfiltered, uncynical, raw. There are tears in his eyes, his jaw is both tightened and slack, his face seems to lose its shape; he is disappearing into these images, the way I once did, and watching his pain both shames me and reawakens my own. This image of Danny, a fictional character in a fictional movie, does not detract from what’s real, or from what’s true; it brings me back to what is real and true, an essential part of who I am, as a human being and a Jew, and for that I am also grateful.

I will never forget.”

(This, this, is how fiction matters.)

So for anyone interested in how the cinematic image can inform, bend, and shape our lives, I recommend this book. But the book is not just about film. The generosity, the humanity on the page affirms life, makes me feel more human. Tara is willing to air her frailty. While she never seems to obscure a corner of her messy inside story, none of it feels gratuitous. Her acts of humanity in this work are evident and unvarnished. It’s deeply satisfying as a memoir and a study of (capital S) Story.

If you are interested in writing sentences, read this book, because Tara’s sentences will help you learn about writing tight, gorgeous sentences.

And on a larger level: how she weaves film with her life story is a model in hybrid models…the form she’s made feels so inventive. I haven’t read anything quite like this. To me, it seems that Tara has created in these pages a new form.

**

So there it is. I could have agonized and shaped this post more, but instead I’m going to go smile at Reeling Through Life, and then hold it in my hands for a few moments before I shelve it where I can find it when it’s time to reread. (And try not to eat it.)

(And I’m grateful, because I still have Tara Ison’s story collection, BALL, to look forward to!)