Recent reading

My friend Peg Alford Pursell who runs a luminous reading series, Why There Are Words, in Sausalito, has recently started an independent press. She’s been reading submissions to find the first two books, to publish in the next year. (For those of you with manuscripts: The submission period closes September 15, 2016.) Whatever she chooses, will have to serve as the face of the new press, will be seen as its representative work. Then, hopefully, the second year follows, and the new selection process, that will give us a more rounded understanding of what kind of publisher WTAW Press is. A great press, I suppose, is like a great character: always surprising, always engaging.

Peg recently asked me to contribute to her newsletter a list of books that I’ve been reading. Here’s the write-up on some of my favorites.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you haven’t read it yet, do. It’s a funny and poignant page-turner about a popular blogger, Ifemelu, who decided to return to Nigeria after many years in the United States. Commentary on racism, colonialism and globalism, culture shock, family dynamics is held together by a sweet and ultimately satisfying love story.

Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch. This is a book-length poem published a few years after the sudden death of the poet’s adopted son, Gabriel. The tercets of this poem lead a reader through the journey of the young man’s last hours, through his life’s story, through the story of the father’s bereavement. No platitudes apply. This book does not uplift the reader and doesn’t leave her enlightened; the poet doesn’t get a break from his grief; the son’s neurological and mental health issues are portrayed in all their messiness. This book doesn’t make grief interesting—it puts into words what grief is.

Fair Play by Tove Jansson. In Europe (she lived in Helsinki, Finland and wrote in Swedish) Jansson is best known for her comic strip about the Moomin family that started out as a political cartoon and after WWII turned into wildly successful books for children. Fair Play was published when Jansson was seventy-five, and is a collection of stories about the relationship between a comic book author and her partner, a visual artist. Though Jansson was never publicly out as a lesbian, this book provides a fascinating glimpse into her intense creative and personal relationship with artist Tuulikki Pietilä.

In The Price of Water in Finistère by Bodil Malmsten, fifty-five year old author moves from her home in Sweden to Brittany, in France, the Finistère département. Her descriptions of settling in the new place, fixing her house, breaking a garden are intertwined with her memories of growing up in a remote northern village in Sweden. I particularly enjoyed reading about a happy moment in a woman’s life: she has come into her own and is ready to stake her claim in the world. She proceeds with humor and poetry.

Here is another shout-out to My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I first heard of this book through this newsletter—thank you, Peg. I read it and I loved it. It was recently nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and I’m rooting for it. It’s a powerful novel about the long-term effects of poverty and violence.

The Door by Magda Szabo. This novel comes to us from Hungary, and is also, in part, autofiction. The author’s relationship with her housekeeper reads as a thriller, in one breath, from the beginning to the horrifying and gruesome end. What makes this book really work is the complexity of characterizations Szabo achieves. The two main women love and care for each other, but somehow in the course of the narrative these feelings turn against them.

The latest review I published in The Common was of Memories by the early twentieth century Russian author Teffi. By the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Teffi had nearly a dozen books to her name, and new printings of her story collections sold out instantly. With Lenin at the helm of the government, her fame became a liability. Memories opens with Teffi being talked into going on tour to Ukraine, the trip that became her journey out of Russia.

Last but not least, a shout-out to opera. This September, San Francisco Opera is staging Dream of the Red Chamber—based on the 18th Century Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin, adapted to the stage by Davin Henry Hwang of M. Butterfly fame. The novel is an epic series of tragic love triangles and an education about Chinese culture of the era. In the English translation, it runs 2,339 pages long.That’s 2,339 pages of total fascination, people!

Teffi’s Memories

“Teffi, nom de plume of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was born in 1872 into a prominent Russian family. Following in the footsteps of her older sister Maria—poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya—Teffi published poetry and prose from the age of 29. She soon rose to fame by practicing a unique brand of self-deprecating humor and topical social satire. In her 1907 hit one-act play The Woman Question, subtitled A Fantasy, Teffi imagined a world in which a women’s revolution against men achieves a full role reversal. Women come to occupy the prominent political, military, academic, professional, and bureaucratic roles, while men are subjugated to the childcare and household management tasks. Though the play’s ending largely dismisses this scenario and trivializes the feminist cause, through humor, the piece makes the point that bad behavior—infidelity, sexual harassment, excessive drinking, pettiness—is a function of social status rather than of biological sex.

By the time of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Teffi had nearly a dozen books to her name, and new printings of her story collections sold out instantly. With Lenin at the helm of the government, her fame became a liability. Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea opens with Teffi being talked into going on tour to Ukraine (then outside of Lenin’s domain)….”

Read the rest of this review in The Common.

José Eduardo Agualusa’s A General Theory of Oblivion

War. Diamonds and oil and war. If in the United Sagualusatates we’ve heard anything about Angola, it’s likely related to the protracted bloodshed or to the trade in oil and diamonds. The seventh largest country in Africa, situated on the Atlantic coast just north of Namibia, Angola became a Portuguese colony in the 16th century. Fighting for self-government began in 1961 and went on until the 1974 Carnation Revolution and the end of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal led to the country’s withdrawal and, in 1975, Angolan independence. This did not end war in Angola, however….

Ludovica “Ludo” Fernandes Mano—whose true story became the basis for José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel, A General Theory of Oblivion—leaves Portugal and arrives in Luanda, Angola’s capital, months before Independence Day in 1975. She makes the move reluctantly, following her newly married sister, Odete, whose husband, Orlando, an Angolan mining engineer, works for a diamond company. A shut-in since early in her life (for tragic reasons that become clear in the second half of the novel), Ludo occupies her time cooking for the newlyweds and managing their luxury apartment on the 11th floor of a building in the center of Luanda. Life, even before the narrative turns dramatic, is a little too much for Ludo.

My review of José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel A General Theory of Oblivion, in full, appears in The Common.