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.
Set in the world of violent conflict arising from divisive attempts by sectarian splinter groups to define and put into practice a fundamentalist form of Islam, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday (Grove Press) can feel all too familiar at times. It echoes the news of kidnapped schoolgirls and the profiles of young men who leave their homes to join in jihad. The political events it refers to – the rigged elections, the coups, the police state – hearken back to recent years when Africa’s terrorist groups were a focal point of the major media outlets, before they ceded their place to the devastating conflict in Syria. Yet this is not a piece of journalism, despite the author’s most famous role in Nigeria being that of scathing political satirist (most prominently with a column in the Daily Trust. In this novel, told through the eyes of a child (then teenager, then young man) who attends Quaranic school in the Northern region of Nigeria, John portrays the rising of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sokoto state, and frighteningly shows how religious idealism and sectarianism lead to violence.
While I have not seen a ton of press about it in the past months leading up to its publication, I do think that it will prove to be an important work. The few reviews I have seen compare it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and, indeed, it deserves this distinction perhaps more so than most books compared to the canonical text). Yet I found the characterization of Dantala and the tension and confusion of the rising conflict between forms of Islam much more similar in tone and content to Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah n’est pas obligé (2000)or Allah Is Not Obliged (2007). While Kourouma’s novel explores the plight of child soldiers in West Africa in stark detail, John’s novel very convincingly deals with the rise of religious sectarianism leading to violence. The effective use of multilingualism and of oral/written forms of communication is a particularly striking similarity between the two, as is the voice of a fearless but woeful young man who is swept along in a conflict over which he has no control. A notable difference, of course, is that Kourouma’s Birahima is forced to join the fighting, whereas John’s Dantala tries to stay away from it.
It is jarring to read violence that is so normalized in the eyes of a child. After he has left school, Dantala takes up with a local group of boys who smoke the ever-present “wee-wee” and work as thugs and promoters for the “Small Party” during election time. They also enforce a kind of street justice among their small community of Bayan Layi. When a boy in their community attempts to steal a jug of groundnut oil, he is severely punished by the group. Dantala recalls: “I like using sharp objects when beating a thief. I like the way the blood spurts when you punch.” It sounds like the observation of a psychopathic killer. Yet it is rather a raw personal detail in the life of a child whose only example is violence.
Rebecca Solnit’s prolific and varied career as a woman of letters is remarkable in its scope. Though I believe she is most often thought of as an essayist, she is in fact many different people, depending on who you ask. To feminists and women in general she is the brilliant champion who introduced the concept of mansplaining in her Men Explain Things to Me. To art historians she is the author of As Eve Said to the Serpent, a meditation on harsh landscapes and the feminine sublime. Sociologists read her reflections on disaster areas, most particularly Hurricane Katrina, in her Hope in the Dark and A Paradise Built in Hell.
To me, she is one of those rare souls who not only understands but is also able to explain the strange and wondrous existence of those of us who live most of our lives inside fictional worlds. That is the thing I have notes about: the way in which The Faraway Nearby so wonderfully captures the inseparability of our own stories from those gained through literature and other arts.
It begins: “What’s your story? It’s all in the telling.” It continues: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment.”
Erika Swyler’s first novel The Book of Speculation has a lot of things to recommend it: a reclusive archivist, mysterious tomes, a jolly antiquarian bookkeeper, mermaids, tarot cards, beach scenes, sibling rivalry, extramarital affairs, and the strange and delicious insanity that comes from loss of employment.
There’s a bit of romance too. Also some love. But those bits are relatively beside the point. The focus is more so on the ties that bind family members through the centuries and the ways in which those ties may be disguised, hidden, or lost along the way.
When librarian Simon Watson receives a mysterious logbook detailing the exploits of a carnival that travels up and down the East Coast of North America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he finds himself on a dangerous quest into his family’s past. His discovery that the women in his family tend to commit suicide, all by the same means – drowning – and all on the same day of the year – late in July with the rising of a red tide – is made more disturbing by his sister Enola’s increasingly erratic behavior. When Enola, an expert tarot reader, comes to visit, bringing along her carnival sideshow of a tattooed boyfriend Doyle, Simon is pushed to discover the hidden meaning behind a string of tragic deaths and to their underlying mechanism before it is too late to save either of the Watson siblings.
It is nearly too perfect that the French word genre denotes both literary genre and gender. For if Scott Esposito’s quietly powerful essays found in The Surrender do not defy genre, they certainly do reveal the plasticity of memoir and then stretch the form to its limits. Somewhat the same could be said for the author’s own exploration of gender.
In this book, the acclaimed critic sets before the reader a “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to inhabit the clothing, the actions, the spaces, and the identity of a woman. Yet instead of forming these facts into a chronological narrative, he rejects the constraints of beginnings, middles, and endings, and bravely allows for the openness of his own story.
There are both fiction and non-fiction books that recount the experiences of trans women. And you should read them. But I have trouble finding resonances between those books and this. The slowly softspoken prose, with its ebb and flow of emotional tides, is something I would be more likely to associate with music or poetry or a certain kind of literary theory. I was reminded less of Juliet Jacques’s Trans and more of Anohni’s (of Antony and the Johnsons) album I Am Bird Girl, or Barthes’s Discours amoureux.
Rivka Galchen: Canadian-born, Oklahoma-raised, New York City-dwelling author of a novel (Atmospheric Disturbances), a collection of stories (American Innovations) and the forthcoming Little Labors (New Directions, 17 May 2016). Her style is something of the whimsically eerie and she is one of those great writer’s writers who likes to be fairly clear (while also a bit mysterious) about what literary influences are swimming around up there in her imaginary.
Here are my notes on a thing – the toilette – in Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations.
The way that Galchen describes the “toilette” – or, what most people think of as getting dressed and making oneself look as presentable as possible – has to be the most perceptive and true depiction I’ve ever come across. There are a few passages in the collection about looking in the mirror or about scaling the odd bumps and curves of feminine territory with the trappings of contemporary style that I read over, and over, and over again. I read them aloud to my husband saying, “Honey! This is IT! This right here. This is what it’s liiiiiike!”