Usually, I cannot abide the claim that a book is “like a love letter to” another book. The expression rarely makes any real sense. And it strikes me as an unnecessarily flowery way to say that one book is like another, or influenced by another, or otherwise responding to another book in some way.
But in this case, there is absolutely no other way to describe The Big Green Tent, the latest novel of contemporary Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, than as a love letter to Russian literature. It is exactly that. It is wonderfully, whimsically, beautifully that.
To read this book is to be stricken around every turn by the ghosts of great writers haunting the pages. It’s as if, in every punctuated pause in the prose, you can hear the whispers of an entire tradition. It is Tolstoy. It is Pasternak. It is Brodsky. If that sounds very masculine, that’s because part of what Ulitskaya is dealing with here is the overall maleness of Russia’s literary history. But there is quite a bit of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva here as well. And her female characters are, in part, a response to the lack of convincing women in the pages of classic Russian literature. (Not only in this book but particularly in previous works like 2002’s Medea and Her Children, one of my absolute favorite books.)
I’m not totally sure why I picked it up in the first place, except that someone from my Book Riot crew had mentioned it was pretty good and that the main character is unlikeable.
Me, I don’t mind unlikeable women characters. Usually the reason that women characters are unlikeable is that a) they are not what we think they should be, or b) they are not what men think they should be. I always give myself permission to drop a book that has a truly unlikeable character at its center (spending too much time with someone you don’t like is a sure way to incur psychological damage) but I will usually pick them up because, often enough, an unlikeable woman is a very interesting woman. In fiction. As in life.
In some reviews, this debut novel by poet Jill Alexander Essbaum is cited as part of the new breed of housewife/mommy books, including recent works like After Birth, Eleven Hours, American Housewife, and Little Labors. But, of course, while there seems to be a surge of women writing about what it’s like to have too many brains and too little time to use them (spoiler alert: it’s like a bottomless jello cup of melancholia), this theme has a long and very rich history.
Boredom is not an invention of the 21st century middle class. Like one of those viruses that have existed since the days of rats hopping hopeful ships to the New World, we seem to immunize it into submission until one day it rears up again. Probably the boredom most famous to our generation is 19th century ennui, that abiding existential syndrome of being a European male. But the boredom of women in the home is something different. Dark and passionate.
Simply walking into the Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal is a terrifically inspiring experience. The combination of soaring windows, reading nooks, and six floors to browse through is enough to get anyone excited about literature.
But one of the library’s greatest features is the basement exhibition space that has housed some truly terrific works in recent years.
Based on an essay of the same title by Argentinian-Canadian Alberto Manguel, the exhibit is brought to life by Robert LePage’s brilliant production company Ex Machina. You can get a glimpse of their beautiful work in the trailer (which is absolutely worth a watch, even if you can’t make it to the exhibit itself).
Beginning in a room modeled on the writer’s own library, you are treated to excerpts from Manguel’s lively text, animated by lighting and other effects. Simultaneously spooky and cozy, making you feel like an interloper and an invited guest, this recreated room perfectly conveys what Manguel’s essay is all about: that a library is both the deeply personal story of your life, as well as a window onto the story of the world.
Lately I’ve been making a point of randomly scanning library shelves. Not because I don’t have a long enough list of books to read (this is, in fact, all the more reason for me to never set foot in a library ever) but because I so deeply miss the experience of randomly scanning library shelves. Do you remember those days? Days when your mom would drop you off in the children’s/YA section of the library (for us it was a whole floor) and you could run about the aisles pensively and carefully move from shelf to shelf, waiting for an appealing binding to jump out and seize your imagination? I think the library was my first experience of freedom, which probably explains more than it should.
It’s just as pleasurable an experience as an adult, particularly because there is none of this accompanying mental calculation that one has to go through in a bookstore. My mental calculation looks like this:
Hmm, how much is this book? Yowza! Is this really what books cost nowadays??? Oh wait, I’m in Canada now so considering the exchange that’s…hmm…no that’s still way too expensive. Should I wait for the paperback? Maybe it makes sense to buy it electronically. Does the library have it? *Thumbs phone distractedly.* 5th in line on the reservation list. That’s way too long to wait. But is this something I really need to own? How could I possibly squeeze it into our shelves? Oh look! Something shiny! *Puts book down, walks away, forgets title until eight months later, hearing an interview with the author on Fresh Air.*
The library is an absolutely zero risk environment. It’s a safe space for people with a book addiction. And so lately I’ve been trying to forget my TBR list completely and simply wander through the shelves, looking at bindings, remembering that first taste of freedom that (unlike adult freedom) comes with zero accompanying responsibility.
And, lo and behold, I find awesome things…
Helen Phillip’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat is so astoundingly smooth. There’s no other word for it. The prose has not a single jagged edge. It has that mark of a perfectly manicured editing job and I know that sounds like a sort of boring endorsement for a book but here, it’s really everything. Because. Being so smooth is how Phillips manages to pull off this feat of landing the reader right into a semi-dystopian-yet-all-too-familiar place.
The novel comes after a book of vignettes and a book for children and precedes her recent collection of stories Some Possible Solutions (Henry Holt, 2016). It tells the story of Joseph and Josephine, newly arrived in the city from what they semi-affectionately, semi-disparagingly call “the hinterland,” which is a combination of suburban landscape and natural scenery. Though they move to the city due to the difficulty securing jobs, Josephine continues to suffer the pangs of soul-wrenching unemployment even in the concrete jungle. That is, until she finds a job entering data from the confines of a depressing, grey, entirely secluded office.
The novel Taduno’s Song, a strong debut by Nigerian writer Odafe Atogun, centers around memory loss of a strange nature. After the famous and politically outspoken singer Taduno returns from exile in order to continue his fight against a military dictatorship and to save his girlfriend Lela from imprisonment, he discovers that the nation he left behind no longer holds any memory of him. While his former friends and enemies remain aware that a popular singer vehemently decried the government before fleeing for his life, and that the regime is looking high and low for this singer, no one is able to identify the stranger who appears among them one day, claiming to be Taduno. Even the name itself means nothing to them anymore.
This loss of memory, in Atogun’s careful crafting, represents more of a collective inner loss, a dramatic shift in the very character of Nigeria. As Lela writes in a letter that mysteriously makes its way to Taduno while still in exile:
“In time to come, should you yield to the pull of your roots, you may be returning home to unpleasant surprises Since you left, very strange things have been happening in Nigeria, and Lagos particularly has changed in a way I cannot describe in words. I must confess, I don’t know exactly what is going on – nobody knows; all I can say is that things are changing drastically here, and the city of Lagos is not the same as we used to know it.”
This paragraph of the letter extends beyond itself, seeming to speak out to exiles the world over and particularly those from the African continent. Something strange is happening, Lela claims. Something not quite identifiable but deeply felt by everyone. It is perhaps even possible to interpret these words as those of the author himself – who still lives in Lagos – to his compatriots who have migrated around the globe.
I’m on a bit of a Rebecca Solnit tear right now. I recently gave myreading notes for The Faraway Nearby, and I’m currently reading Wanderlust: A History of Walking. In between, I picked up A Field Guide to Getting Lost. It’s brilliant, of course. And it’s got that perfect Solnit touch that walks the line between universal and individual, abstract and personal.
But there is one weird section I’ve been struggling with. Every couple of days I think back to how irritated I was when I read it and then I try on different reasons to explain why it bothered me so much. I think I’ve got it. And as I am a big believer that significant lessons may be learned by parsing out one’s own irritations, I wanted to jot it down here.
What follows turns out to be an examination of what intellectual probing (in the particular way of the essayist) may or may not offer the writing of fiction, based on a moment in the book when Solnit offers a somewhat detailed plot treatment of an imaginary novel.
The premise of the book is that there are many ways to get lost. Geographically, mentally, spiritually, etc. It’s also a book about distance: where you are vs. where you’ve been or where you’re going. So, in line with both themes, she begins the essay “Two Arrowheads” with this totally killer passage:
“Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation.”
The beginning of the chapter is a dreamy stream-of-consciousness meditation upon that love (her love of the desert and its “hermit”) and love’s narrative path in general. There are animals, and many changes of color, and when you set that quiet circus into the stark desert setting you get something that seems like a bunch of Chagall surrounded by Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s odd. But fine.
Probably most well-known as the editor and founder of (the alas, soon to be former) Bookslut.com and of Spoliamag.com, Jessa Crispin also reads tarot cards for artists of all sorts. In this book, she provides a very useful history on the practice and goes through the deck in a way similar to most volumes on tarot, explaining the significance of the cards individually and offering suggestions for how to read them when put in play with others.
But she gears her reading of the cards specifically toward navigating the trials and tribulations that come with creative projects. Writer’s block, boredom, lack of focus, structural difficulty, finishing a project, going public with work, the list goes on. (Because there are infinite problems with creative projects…)
“Wait. Tarot?” you say. “But isn’t that a bunch of spooky weird psychic fortunetelling incense-candle-crystal type stuff? How does that apply to creative work?”
Well, okay, I see your point. Tarot readings do seem to be favored by the incense-candle-crystal set. That is a thing. But you know who should really favor tarot? Really? Literary theorists.
If you have ever done any kind of literary interpretation and thought “Gee, this is fun” then get yourself a deck of tarot cards. Really. It’s like hermeneutics poker.