Thursday, August 5, 2021

brief book reviews

here are brief reviews of the four books i've most recently read. i have collected a lot of books recently and have slowly been reading some and very quickly reading others.

the bridegroom was a dog by Yōko Tawada (Kodansha): maybe 2 years ago or so tom laplaige recommended i read the emissary by Yōko Tawada because, i think, we had talked about japanese literature on twitter, and i remember tom expressing curiosity/disappointment in me not writing about it for this blog. i liked it a lot, particularly the strange consequences of the apocalyptic setting and the daily minutia and this, i felt, kind of bold anti-American sentiment, or at least setting. i thought it was an interesting book with a lot of cool imagery, and it ends, basically, with this child turning into a fish, kind of. anyway, i found this collection of three stories, kind of like three novellas, from the early-to-mid 90s, for cheap online. across the stories there's this consistently interesting meandering structure, where unexpected things come up and happen, characters are introduced, and how long they last or what they do is unpredictable. i got a lot of kafka vibes, especially in the second story, which is about a mail-order bride showing up in a strange country, never meeting her husband, and trying to learn about the country with its strange quirks from combative, guarded, and selfish people. the third story reminds me of Bernhard, with its more obsessive protagonist, european setting, and emphasis of a second character named Reinhart, but there is a weirdness and playfulness to it, with the protagonist being insane in unique and special ways (rambling about wanting to be 'swallowed' by a mountain) and, interestingly to me, a lot of funny images/scenes involving penises. reading the book, its trappings and style choices and some of this imagery, like the penises, reminds me of my own book in a lot of unexpected ways, which, in a comforting way, made me feel like my book isn't that unique or innovative at all. something in particular i liked is that these stories feature characters who seem unexpectedly angry, rude, and frustrating - even the protagonists are very flawed and selfish in a non-edgy way, which made the reading experience exciting and unpredictable. the imagery and plot for each story hinges on unexplainable, evocative things, but is often written with a lot of humor. for example, the first story begins with a litany of weird, seemingly abusive/traumatic things a daycare teacher does or teaches children, but the emphasis is on how gossip works, how people can bicker over potential explanations, and even trust that they don't know any better; the title story is about a strange 'folktale' the teacher tells her students about a lazy caretaker training a dog to lick a child's ass instead of wiping her herself, and then the child grows up and marries the dog on an island (or something - the story is unclear, in the story); the story then randomly pivots to the teacher dealing with a sex-crazed vampire moving in, and other unexpected things happen. i like the perplexing crassness of various scenes - lots of weird sex and toilet stuff - without seemingly written to be shocking, just bizarre and contemplative, like an image of the protagonist thinking/dreaming about 'rotating' her friend on the beach until he's mostly under the sand, aside from his penis sticking out. each story also prominently features unexplained phenomena, magic, transformations, etc. all set against the normal, selfish, preoccupied modern world, which creates a lot of the humor and intrigue. overall, i think i most liked the confidence she shows to let the stories meander, flow in strange directions, and not feel tidy or overly moralistic. something that stood out to me is that these are explicitly not "i-novel" in execution, and i'm curious more and more about less popular japanese literature especially from the 90s (my previous reading has mostly been limited to banana yoshimoto, haruki murakami, ryu murakami, and some other random, more popular books like convenience store woman and older books like the key and no longer human); feeling more and more sure that someone on twitter would berate me for not knowing about how the CIA made japanese writing known for the i-novel in order to something something something communism.

leave society by tao lin (vintage): tao had the publisher send me an advance copy, which i was excited to get. this is another mostly straightforward autofiction book based on Tao's life, but includes - which i thought was most exciting - several sections which he refers to, in the book, as meta-autofiction, where he writes about writing/planning the book, with jumps between time to create a sense of auspiciousness or wholesomeness, or larger context for various scenes, and also serves as a means of explaining the naming of the sections of the book and stuff like that. the first two thirds focus on the protagonist, Li, traveling between NYC and Taipei, spending time with his parents and their poodle. i knew going into it that there would be a big emphasis on Li learning about health and nutrition and reading books on alternatives to accepted scientific thought, but what i didn't know, and which made the book more exciting to me, i think, is that this is framed around Li's chronic back pain. the pain serves as a key lens through which his past and present are connected, exploring childhood illness and hospitalizations, mental health issues, and family problems, and gives a richer context to the book's larger theme/obsession with 'healing.' i can imagine this book being challenging for some people for reasons similar to his previous autofiction books, in that the character of Li does/says a lot of frustrating, unempathetic, or pushy things, which can lead the reader to feel that the author, tao, is some kind of asshole, but i think the book's strength is in capturing a larger complexity to personal life that a lot of fiction fails to capture and is thus overly simplistic and (ironically) moralizing. i think we all generally think of ourselves as good and correct and like to ignore when we're short-tempered, mean, dismissive, bossy, etc in our personal lives, in small moments that we often move past or recognize and apologize for. this is a thing i also liked in frederick barthelme's books, where characters 'act out' under pressure but then quickly realize that was stupid - i think most fiction tends to require that every interaction build toward some monolithic 'good/bad' characterization, where only the 'bad' characters say mean things and only the 'good' characters show empathy. in this sense i think leave society's focus on daily minutia and research into wellness and experiments with foods/alternative medicines is encouraging and realistic and brings a natural sense of tragedy, to me, at least - by the end, Li still mostly suffers endlessly from physical and mental ailments and struggles to navigate interpersonal relationships. unlike the more grifteresque 'guru' people who promote natural health remedies, tao lets the reality of Li's life speak for itself and doesn't try to insist on having figured everything out from some sort of pedestal, but i can see a lot of people lazily, negatively reading/dismissing the story as some kind of lecture. in this sense this book is similar to his previous books in which the protagonist, suffering a great deal in the modern world, continues to explore new ways to make his life better (cognitive behavioral therapy/self-help tapes, pharmaceutical drugs and nihilistic socializing, alternative medicine/science, calm art creation/learning) in an order that seems relatable and that i've seen in maybe all other people as they age (image here of restless teenager moving to the city and then becoming, eventually, a suburban grandmother with an extensive flower garden). style-wise, tao alternates between simple action-oriented sentences and complex, adjective/adverb-riddled, hard-to-parse-on-first-try realizations/insights into the Mystery - idle speculations or fits of imagination about the world, universe, history, and humanity. these sentences use unexpected verbs and invented/inventive adverbs, but there are also these kinds of word choices in the rest of the text. some favorites include "quarterheartedly" and the when two characters come across the word 'winkle' and start to use it. so there's generally a playfulness and lack of self-consciousness that i like, and, i think, all the discussions of books he's read in the text itself serve some part of the 'plot', which i thought shows a lot of restraint and conscious effort in crafting the story. this is an excerpt of what i sent tao over email after reading maybe half of it (looking over this now i've enjoyed seeing how infectious tao's newly developed writing cadence/style is, in this book, like with his other books): "wanted to say really quickly that i got leave society and have been enjoying it a lot. i've had to get my car's brakes and tires fixed/replaced yesterday and today in a convoluted way, at a mechanic shop 1.2 miles away, needing to go back and forth so we could use the car to help my kid nap, etc., so yesterday i walked about 7 miles total while reading your book, which was a really pleasant and heartening experience... i've felt really impressed by the playful and unexpected word choices, like 'dodder' as a verb, and things like that which made me smile, alongside the general arc about family, memory, and introspection... the discussion of prehistory, history, alternatives to established scientific assumptions, and medicine are really thought-provoking. felt myself feeling curious, intrigued, and excited to think, speculate, and imagine between bouts of reading, especially about alternatives to 'modern society'. reminded me of learning more about childbirth (we're expecting another baby in december), how the western medical establishment arbitrarily and patriarchically dominated childbirth and reframed it as a 'medical procedure', resulting in the unneeded death of tens of thousands of mothers and babies, unneeded trauma, and negative cultural associations with childbirth and femininity (eg cultural assumption that childbirth is painful, violent, traumatic, requires drugs and metal tools, and involves blaming others). so i've also enjoyed reading your book and seeing connections form between my new knowledge and thoughts on childbirth and 'medical' things i hadn't thought much about, and i enjoyed reading your book about walking up mountains and in parks while walking up and down the hill we live on, near trees and flowers. i'm maybe halfway through. thank you for sending me a copy. excited to continue reading it. just got to the part where Dudu cuddles with Li and guards the bathroom door for him, felt emotional thinking about dogs."  the last third or fourth of the book transforms into a love story, focusing in the slow building of the protagonist's relationship with Kai, an editor for an unnamed press, and staying in hawaii for a week together. there was a lot of humor in this section especially, i felt, for example, the recurring bit about Kai rubbing a clay ointment on Li's butt. i never felt bored reading and wanted to continue reading when i wasn't able to, but i imagine a lot of people won't have the interest or patience to enjoy it because of its unique writing style, subject matter, and assumptions about authorial intent/division between author and protagonist. i did really enjoy thinking about a random, generic enjoyer of big press books buying it on a whim and having no conception of what to expect from the book, because it intentionally subverts the vast majority of literary fiction conventions and in this way is unlike any other book i've read. enjoyed realization maybe halfway through that i might show up as a character in his next book.

hehehe by gg roland (clash): bought this as part of clash's indiepalooza bundle, knowing i already liked blake's book, homeless's HOV book, and roland's twitter presence. on a related note, i enjoyed, from a linguistics point of view, how, even though clash is an indie press putting out a lot of poetry books, they specifically referred to this bundle as the 'indie' one in line with, i think, sam pink's, big bruiser dope boy's, and my books, which makes me think they (clash) and potentially many others are (un)consciously using "indie lit" to just mean "post alt lit" or something like that - interesting distinction between their other indie poetry books and these 'indie' poetry books, basically. anyway, this is a book of poems that specifies they were all written 2013-2015 on the back, which is an interesting thing to include in the synopsis and stood out to be as potentially 'explanatory', trying to make sure you know they were written during the tail end of alt lit even though they're published in 2021, because the majority of them are very alt lit in execution to me, in the sense that a surprising number focus on quiet, autofictional relationship and love/alienation thoughts with a lot of 'i want to / i will' phrasing for things, like [paraphrasing] "i will not murder you / i want to touch all of your skin with my mouth". these constitute the bulk of the book, which was unexpected to me, and date the book in this late-alt lit time period - feels like a sort of 'lost' book from this time period, like no glykon's numbskull, and in this sense it is in a way 'cozy' and familiar, but also interesting form a sort of 'archeological' point of view. a few of the poems stand out to me as more wacky/goofy or intentionally humorous with a more contemporary feeling, ranging from self-deprecating one-liners to more inventive and silly imagery (like jerking off onto a robber during a break in). i think these more exploratory/image-based and humorous poems are generally the strength of the book, for me, and i'd be curious to know if these are later additions. the result of having both is that the book seems pitched/framed as more goofy/comedic/dark but reads much more tender and earnest than i expected. i am curious, though, about some of these one-liner goof poems, in the sense that they technically predate a lot of, like, brian alan ellis and homeless-style one line goof poems i'm familiar with, but being published now feel more conventional than unconventional. so i'm curious now to trace back a common ancestor for these kind of poems - seems to be something tao lin, spencer madsen, etc didn't do, but i'm also unfamiliar with a lot of alt lit stuff, especially out of print things, or maybe this goes back farther (haven't read any brautigan, for example). i think overall this shows a lot of promise and i'd be curious to see what he would write right now, or what he'd publish if he had 10 days to write a book, something like that. i think the author bio and photo are great.

family annihilator by calvin westra (expat): i've enjoyed reading calvin's things on the internet and have enjoyed his seemingly earnest enthusiasm for things/people on twitter. this is a novella told in an inventive, i think, three-levels-deep split narrative: the first is about Oen, a writer who starts a cleaning company with his brother and spends time with his girlfriend, the second follows a character named Florian from Oen's story, which is called "Family Annihilator", and the third is made of scenes from the television show that Florian is trying to write, called Family Annihilator. i enjoyed this conceit of embedded, self-referential story telling and i felt like, relative to maybe all other indie lit books i've read in recent memory, the idea of bouncing between storylines chapter to chapter like this is refreshing and novel, especially with the added post-modern layer of the characters being characters in a story in a story. however, my favorite parts where the 'real' layer, about Oen, which emphasizes Oen's relationship with his girlfriend and brother, and is very tenderly written and emphasizes small details in a wistful, mournful kind of atmosphere, featuring really compelling subplots about starting a cleaning company and being with his girlfriend, Lee, while she prepares to give her first big speech at an AA meeting. the second layer about Florian was a little less compelling but still interesting, featuring the character trying to get feedback on his strange television scripts on an internet forum (assuming 4chan) (my favorite part of this layer) and also being in a relationship, but which is also framed by flashback-style chapters about being involved, unwillingly, in some kind of traumatic porn production thing in high school, which is introduced later in the book and informs/motivates the rest of the narrative. i liked that the secondary layer is where most of the bleak, manufactured melodrama lives (the kind you'd expect from a 'normal book') and where you notice more of a mccarthyesque run-on sentence style (which i didn't really care for, in that it seems affected and overly dramatic, but is also probably intentional, to create the 'artifice' of the story being a story, in the book, so i feel conflicted about it), while the main, 'real' layer is calm and full of positivity and optimism and hard work - this feels realistic and relatable, to me, and is what i found most compelling about the book; i enjoyed the simple passages about Oen and his brother cleaning a library and talking optimistically about expanding their business, overcoming the small external conflicts, and the relationship between Oen and Lee, with its focus on being caring, supportive, and vulnerable without artificially crafted conflict. this, i felt, really stood out as the most unique and exciting thing about the book. while reading it, i felt like it's something that, if longer, maybe, and on a bigger press, it could be critically acclaimed and sell many copies (i generally don't think many indie books have 'crossover potential' but this book has a good balance of stylistic hooks and content - not too extreme in its dark themes, not too alienatingly self-aware in its autofictional approach). i would have liked it to be longer, as i think there is a lot of potential development left in each of the stories. this is probably the best book i've read from expat press and i feel enthusiastic about calvin writing and publishing more books.

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