Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Spoiler-free summary:
Elf Von Riesen wants to die. She’s beautiful and talented; She’s a world-renown pianist with a loving, supportive family, but she would still rather be dead. Unsurprisingly, everyone around her, including her sister Yoli, wants her to live. All My Puny Sorrows tells Yoli’s story as she comes to terms with denying her sister the one thing she truly wants.


I was nervous about this one. I read the description somewhere and knew it would either be really, really good, or abysmal. I was also afraid that if it ended up being fantastic, it would really depress me. To my surprise, All My Puny Sorrows was both fantastic and, miraculously, did not make me want to throw myself off of something. I’m not saying it was a joyful book – it was just too elegant and restrained to make me want to do anything that wasn’t elegant and restrained itself.

Restraint is not a bad thing. Without restraint, this book would be uh.. globular? Is that an appropriate way to describe literature? If I had written this book, I would have been so caught up in the violent, explosive sadness – the incomprehensibility of that type of pain that, well, my book would have been incomprehensible too. Toews takes something too painful to bear and makes it succinct and beautiful without compromising the intensity of the subject matter. The writing is quiet and deliberate. She wraps up something beastly in the tight, measurable confines of distant childhood memories, travel costs, and scheduled hospital visits.

I suppose the above observation ties into the reviews stating that this is not a book about death and sadness, but rather about survival and the idiosyncrasies of life, which, through their improbabilities and quirks and impossible humor, make us want to live. Perhaps this is why, at the end of the novel, I did not feel the widening sense of despair I thought I would feel. Instead, much like the writing, I felt organized and calm – a little sad, yes, but in a systematic, palatable way. Crazy things happen to these characters in the present, but their responses are conservative and humble, often insignificant compared to their reactions of things past. Elf’s grief over her father’s death propels her into a present where her actions and reactions, such as toward her aunt’s sudden death, are muted. The real pain in this book happened long ago.

This brings me to the idea that, through their history, faith, and community, the Von Riesen family possesses some type of innate melancholy. At times I felt that the addition of the Mennonite faith, or, rather, the break from the Mennonite faith, did not matter much to the story. It could be that the Mennonites of my native Ohio are a bit more strict than the ones found in Toews’s story and my expectations are skewed, but the threat imposed by the overzealous, pushy neighbors never seemed present enough. While the Mennonites fictionalized here do admonish the family, and some of the Von Riesens can’t help reverting to the comfortable, but binding ways of their ancestors in moments of crisis (and this I found very convincing), I thought that the consequences for completely rejecting aspects of the society were not realistic. I was put in mind of a family not fitting into a small conservative town rather than a family of misfits disowning a way of life/rejecting an entire set of traditions that were once fought for, and killed over. I felt there should be more guilt hidden somewhere in there (or, is that what the father’s deal was?). Additionally, this lifestyle was so foreign that it deserved more line space; It was something I was genuinely interested in and I was sad that I did not get the time to become better acquainted with it. While the inclusion of the Mennonite faith allowed Toews to discuss the idea of inherited suffering, I wasn’t fully convinced that their family had come from this grief-steeped lineage. But, in the end, compared to the honest characters and the beautiful prose, this wasn’t that big of a problem at all.

Nostalgic, funny and sad, All My Puny Sorrows deserves a place on your shelf.

4.5 stars (Puking in the comfort of your own empty, tidy home, with only a little bit coming out through your nose).

Would now be a good time to mention my new rating scheme? The plan is to mention the “stars” I would have/did award the book on Goodreads (even though I’m not sure if I entirely like this method of reviewing) and then, a la J14 magazine categorizing your most embarrassing moment of all time, include a pukey equivalent of the rating. For example, a really crappy book might merit one star and would be like puking shards of glass onto your groom on your wedding day, in front of the congregation. The best book of all time, which is hopefully a five star book, might make me feel as if I had just puked so gracefully and beautifully that I am imbued with self-confidence, and have now transcended to a new plane of being.

This is not to decry or endorse puking in any way. I am just trying to make the best of my weird URL, chosen in a moment of enthusiastic, but perhaps misguided inspiration.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

CL Bledsoe's Virtual Book Tour - Idioms in Man of Clay

Welcome to Book Puke! Today is the third day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!

“Maybe they do it,” another said.
“They might,” one agreed.
“Mite’s on a chicken’s ass,” another said, promoting several to laugh.
Man of Clay

I grew up in a small town in eastern Arkansas in the Mississippi River Delta. It’s a place that maintains its own sense of gravity, one that’s difficult to break free of. The region could be insular, and generations of this insularity have led to certain peculiarities in stories, beliefs, and in language. I grew up using certain sayings I’ve never heard anywhere else, because of this.
When I was younger, I was embarrassed by these colloquialisms because they revealed that I was Southern, rural, poor, all sorts of unsavory stuff. We’ve all seen cheezy attempts at Southern accents in movies and on TV with trite euphemisms no Southerner would ever actually use, but I thought folks would lump me in with those fakes. (One of the biggest clues to a fake Southern accent I’ve heard is the pronunciation of “can’t,” which in natural Southern speak tends to rhyme with “ain’t.”) When writing Man of Clay, I relied on the natural speech patterns of my family, friends, and neighbors as a starting place to maintain authenticity, even though the novel is set a 150 years in the past. The funny thing is that a lot of the sayings I grew up with date back that long or longer.

One of my favorite sayings is to describe something by saying it, “ain’t much pumpkins.” Pumpkins are considered mostly a decorative squash, and as such, aren’t terribly vital; therefore, comparing something to pumpkins is to say it isn’t of much use or value. A little research shows newspaper usage dating back right around the Civil War era.

My father described a particularly industrious person as “A goin’ Jesse.” It’s difficult to nail down the saying’s origins, but the best theory I’ve heard is that it’s a play on a Biblical story, as many of these sayings actually are. Originally, the saying seems to have meant “to beat or thrash,” and sort of morphed into “thrashing” a particular task. It comes from a line in Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."  So, the “rod,” is lineage, as in the branch of a family tree. But the saying makes a pun on the rod growing from the tree, as a switch. So the rod as a Jesse (think of it like a last name), and he was a real go-getter.

Of course, a couple well-placed sayings aren’t enough to make a convincing character or novel. Authentic language isn’t just about dropping “g’s,” either. It’s more about getting to the heart of the cultural milieu that spawns these sayings. I don’t know if you have to live or have lived in Arkansas to write about it, for example, but I suspect this is the case. This made a real problem for me, because I’m a white, modern guy writing about black slaves 150 years ago. When I wrote Man of Clay, I didn’t want to perpetuate lazy stereotypes in the way they pronounced words, which often leads to presenting the characters as stupid, which is different from being uneducated. My purpose wasn’t to present convincing slave stereotypes; it was to present convincing people. My primary goal was to be respectful and as authentic as possible.

Share some of your favorite local idioms in the comments section of this post!

CL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.

Tomorrow the tour stops at The Next Best Book Club where you can read an interview with the author!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lynn Kanter's Virtual Book Tour

This week, Lynn Kanter is celebrating the release of her new novel, Her Own Vietnam. Click the banner to see the tour schedule. Each day has different content! Book Puke is very happy to be a stop this week. 

This is a photo of me wearing the one uniform I’ve ever owned: the powder blue dress girls were required to wear to work at McDonald’s. It’s 1970. I’m 16 years old. I live in Albany, New York, and I’m dating a boy who’s destined to be a soldier. He’s the first and the last boy I’ll ever love.

Like everyone of my generation, I’ve grown up seeing national leaders gunned down in public. President Kennedy. Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Robert Kennedy. Martin Luther King.

Now in 1970, the Vietnam War is raging both overseas and at home. Already about 34,000 American service members have been killed. More than half of all Americans personally know someone who was killed or wounded in Vietnam. And my older brother turns 18 – the age at which boys can be drafted.

President Nixon orders the military to invade neutral Cambodia, an action so illegal he has to issue the order in secret. In May, the news inflames protests on hundreds of college campuses nationwide. In Ohio, the state’s National Guard kills four Kent State students and wounds nine others as they protest peacefully on their own campus. Ten days later in Mississippi, two Jackson State students are killed and 12 are wounded when local police respond to campus protests by shooting hundreds of rounds into a women’s dorm.

Is it any wonder that 1970 turned me into a political activist?

Or at least it created in me the determination to become an activist. As a high school student, I felt (perhaps wrongly) there was not that much I could do. I marched in anti-war protests, signed petitions, visited coffeehouses where long-haired girls and boys sang protest songs.

In 1970 in my new novel Her Own Vietnam, the main character, Della Brown, had just come home from Vietnam, broken and isolated and feeling older than her 22 years. Something broke in me, too, that year, perhaps something as simple as faith in grownups.

Never again would I assume that the men in power – and they were (and continue to be) almost all men – had my best interests at heart. I realized that it was up to me and those who shared the vision of a nation that cares about all of its people to claim our own democratic power and create change. It would be the women’s liberation movement that forged me into an activist, but the Vietnam War lit the spark.

Almost 35 years later, I’m still at it. An activist is not just someone who’s angry – it’s someone who has hope that things can get better, and the conviction to invest in a future they may not get to see. That’s what 1970 did to me.

Oh, and that job at McDonalds? They paid the girls 10 cents an hour less than the boys – a significant loss when the minimum wage was only $1.45 an hour.

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Lost Orchard (SUNY Press), Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and The Time of Our Lives: Women Write on Sex After 40 (both Crossing Press), and the literary journal Verbsap. Her nonfiction has appeared in Referential Magazine and the anthologies Coming Out of Cancer (Seal Press), Testimonies (Alyson Publications) and Confronting Cancer, Constructing Change (Third Side Press).

Lynn is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.

Monday, November 3, 2014

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

I'm not even going to try to summarize this one. It's about a writer and a fitness instructor who, through the publication of a weird novel, find their paths converging in unnatural ways. I'd borrow the official summary, but I think it gives too much away.

1Q84 is, unsurprisingly, pure Murakami. People are cooking, listening to classical music, having kinky sex, slipping into other dimensions, and looking at birds. Everyone is restrained and lovely and the world is hurtling by, careening out of control. You could really score some points in Murakami Bingo with this one.

You probably know by now that I can't say bad things about stories that include forbidden and possibly unrequited love, mysticism, or sad writers. This really has all the ingredients of my perfect novel. In fact, I was drawn to this story not because I'm generally into anything Murakami does, but because a strange series of synchronistic and tragic events (spurred onward by a possibly imagined cosmic connection) led me to it. I won't get into that though, Just know that I already felt like this was about me before I even knew the general plot, so I might be biased.

This novel is both elegant and unwieldy. It's immensely satisfying and antagonizing. I guess I just feel unsettled, which is exactly how I want to feel. As always, I adore Murakami for doing whatever the hell he wants: adding narrators halfway through the novel, combining them, playing with time and setting in ways that we were told we weren't supposed to, and pulling it all off with a cool collectedness.  

At almost 1200 pages, I do think the novel could have been shorter and retained the plot and general sense of wonder, but I honestly didn't mind or notice the length. Other readers have noted that Murakami tends to repeat himself, examining actions, scenes, and thoughts from multiple angles, leaving absolutely no room for misinterpretation. At times, especially when reading Aomame's chapters, I found this writing style monotonous and frustrating. I already know how Aomame is feeling - she just did or said something that showed us. Or, when strange characters or situations are encountered more than one time (the two moons, Fuka-Eri with her distant demeanor, Ushikawa's weird round head), we have the same description pounded into us again and again, often with the same recycled imagery - yes, I get it, I sigh, this stuff is weird. Stop telling me. But after a few
hundred pages, I began to fall into a natural rhythm while reading - it was actually soothing to be reminded of the weird hue of the second moon, of Tengo's father's sunken eyes. It was like stumbling upon a familiar friend in this giant, imposing world. I was continually reminded of the advice Tengo's editor offers him while he rewrites Air Chrysalis:

When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.

With that suggestion in mind, I began to recognize Tengo's simple and straightforward voice within Murakami's. Part of me would even go as far as to say that 1Q84 is the novel that Tengo is writing in the novel. He's writing 1Q84 in 1Q84 - I guess that doesn't make much sense when I put it that way, but I like this explanation because it's sad. I am telling myself that Tengo wrote it because Aomame was long gone, or was imagined, or had only existed briefly, there in the schoolroom, when they held hands for a silent moment. [I'm sure there are more analytic and thorough blogs out there that explore this idea. This doesn't seem like that far of a leap]. Either way, I do think there is a lot of Murakami in Tengo and Murakami used Tengo to carry the novel through to fruition. How better to describe a chaotic, twisting world than through the eyes of a man who reminds most of a country bumpkin? And Aomame, as we know, is supernaturally similar to Tengo, so she makes a nice, steady narrator as well. And then there's Ushikawa, who was a self-proclaimed fan of Tengo's linear and solid ways. They're all perfect, reliable narrators in a confusing, unreliable world. So, while I was intimidated and sometimes bored, I ultimately enjoyed the length and over-description. For every thing that Murakami explains 50,000 times, there are a hundred things he leaves completely dangling, yawning open, causing us to feel uneasy long after we're through.