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Author: Lark

READ IT: The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers

The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers, translation by Margo Bettauer Dembo

I just finished re-reading the magnificent 2018 translation by Margot Bettauer Dembo of The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers, published by Virago. What was already a good novel in the original English translation has become an extraordinary novel in this new translation.

The author describes with exquisite and humane detail the insidious beginnings of Hitler’s rise in Germany, from the point of view of ordinary Germans. It’s difficult to describe just how different this novel is from most contemporary literature. It is an ensemble novel with dozens of characters, many of which are present for just a scene, or a paragraph. And yet each has a unique humanity.

The novel does have a hero–an escaped political prisoner by the name of George Heisler–but rather than being the focal point of the story, George, and the escape path he travels through this novel, are like the loom that the real story weaves itself around. The real story here is told in the countless vignettes of ordinary human beings who are just waking up to the threat of National Socialism. They are good people, but they are “good” in ordinary and unremarkable ways. They aren’t heroes as much as they are people reacting to circumstances, moment to moment, almost always surprising themselves, either with their own cowardice or with their own selflessness.

The small choices people make in this time of relative peace, whether to aid an escaped political prisoner or not, whether to ignore the growing terror all around them or acknowledge it, whether to put self-interest before all else or choose some other path–all play out in myriad ways. By the end I had had many chances to ask myself the question “what would you do in that situation?”

Author Seghers was a Jew and a Communist who escaped Hitler’s Germany, and published this novel in Mexico where she was in exile. One of the most interesting characters to me was the only Jewish character in the novel, Dr. Loewenstein, a character who still practices medicine freely in this time in Germany’s history, the mid-30’s, although he is clearly an outcast; he is the doctor patients see only when the other doctors in town can’t help. George Heisler comes to Loewenstein for help with a septic wound, and what is not said between the two men speaks volumes.

What I love most about The Seventh Cross is that it documents the insidious beginnings of unjust imprisonment and paranoia in pre-WWII Germany. Jews in the book are still relatively free but required to wear a yellow star, and the death camps have not yet been built; the victims in this book are the political prisoners, and the camps they are held in are make-shift affairs at the edge of town. Anna Seghers was Jewish and a Communist, an author who returned to East Germany after the war, and although this book was hugely popular in the U.S. just after publication and was even made into a movie starring Spencer Tracy, it fell out of print in English with the advent of the Cold War. Thank you Virago for bringing it back so magnificently.

Read It: LITTLE SCRATCH by Rebecca Watson

Little Scratch by Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson’s new novel little scratch made made me work hard, and I’m not sure it has a ‘payoff’ in a traditional novelistic sense. And yet it has its own rewards, for a patient reader. The language is spiky and fragmentary and the storytelling style approaches its subject–a woman trying to cope with the trauma of sexual abuse–in a manner that mirrors that shattering dislocation.

Many of the pages scan like poetry, which made me want to slow down and read it like a poem. But then I realized that a faster reading pace–the pace of thought–was a much better way to appreciate the novel, and to grasp its meanings. I needed to train myself to read this book.

I also needed to stop questioning what the author is up to, and whether she succeeds. I needed to drop all judgment and expectation. As I read, I kept comparing the novel with other literary experiments with stream-of-consciousness and/or auto-writing, and finding this novel to be relatively artless by comparison, but I just needed to cut it out. I’m comparing it with, you know, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and perhaps a bit with Gertrude Stein, and in all of these authors’ cases their language is no longer surprising…we’ve learned how to read Joyce by now, like the way we learned to hear Stravinsky without throwing rotten fruit at the stage and walking out, When I began the novel I didn’t know how to read Rebecca Watson. By the end. I did, which makes it a perfect candidate for a re-read.



I review on Goodreads and just post the most exceptional reads here on my blog…if you like feel free to link here to see all of my reviews.

Exciting Times! I love this book!

Exciting Times


Oh my goodness. This book is incredibly fine. Now I know what the phrase ‘razor sharp wit’ really means. On a sentence level the novel delivers one perfect zinger after another. Dolan is particularly good at capturing the way men talk to women whom they mistakenly think are not as smart as they are. The dialog is brilliant throughout. You have to understand that this is the kind of story I have very high standards for because the plot is an evergreen plot: young person at loose ends making her way in the world and deciding who to love. And yet it’s so original. I dove right in and read from beginning to end, and now I’m giving thanks that such a book exists in the world—light, sweet, sad, true.



View my reviews on Goodreads, if you like ~ it’s where I like to post all of them, saving the very specialist books for this blog ~

Read it: TYLL by Daniel Kehlmann

Tyll

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann is so entertaining that I struggled at first to understand just how deep it is. I’m not sure what it says about contemporary literature, or about me, that I needed to consciously banish my cynical mistrust of any book that is so delightful to read.

As I read the novel I thought of Falstaff, Shakespeare’s comic-yet-deep repeating character. The character who most reminded me of Falstaff is played by a donkey, a character who appears in many scenes, sometimes for comic value and sometimes for something else entirely.

And now that I’ve brought it up, I realize that I could now write several paragraphs just about the donkey in this novel–how funny the donkey is in a given scene, and then how horrifically the donkey’s fate plays out in another scene. Sometimes this donkey has a name, and its name is Origenes. And like so much in Tyll, Kehlmann invites me to think of the donkey’s name as just a name, and to read on, or alternatively, to ponder what shimmering potentials are added to my reading if I take time to realize “Origenes” is also the name of an itinerant third-century Christian ascetic whose life and fate were caught up in religious disputes not unlike those raging in this novel.

The donkey’s story is threaded throughout this broken, nonlinear novel, and always brings with it some new wonder or terror or sadness or revelation, even though it’s a minor character, like Falstaff. And the thing is, it’s not just the donkey. Every character in the novel is a kind of itinerant bit player, and every one of them–the miller Claus, the Winter King, the expert in dragonology, the little girl named Martha, Tyll himself–has a marvelous and mysterious story to tell, when it’s their time on stage. Kehlmann made them all real for me, sometimes in just a few sentences.

References to Shakespeare plays appear throughout this novel with both historical and thematic resonances. A recurring side-theme is how literature was changing in this period of history that we now call “early-modern.” The play Macbeth makes its way into a scene as a way to reference James I’s rise to power, and Macbeth’s last soliloquy is a good description of how this novel unfurls as you read it:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Okay. I should also add that I found a lot of Lutheran-like philosophy playing out in profound ways–over and over again the character Tyll projects a belief that suffering and uncertainty is worth enduring for the hope of living through it, and that evil is worth fighting, for the hope of the good to come. This philosophy is most starkly portrayed in the late chapter “In the Shaft.” But every chapter seems to have something profound to say about hope, and humanity.

Well, I’m just gob-smacked by this novel. Read it.


here are more of my reviews on goodreads.

three # metoo novels, along with some nonconforming opinions about them

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
His Favorites by Kate Walbert

Somehow His Favorites by Kate Walbert escaped me last year, and it wasn’t until I read a review of the much-reviewed My Dark Vanessa, in which Walbert’s novel was mentioned, that I sought it out. It’s a marvelous, humane novel that perfectly captures the loneliness, confusion, and long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse.

I was overwhelmed by the novel’s narrative power, and by the story told through Jo’s eyes. Every character is so richly drawn. The mentality of being fifteen, and how adults treat a fifteen year old girl, is captured here so vividly. Scene after scene is written with such confidence, in a way that’s both delicate and devastating. Every word seems perfectly chosen, not in a fussy-perfect way, but in a way that one word propels the story forward to the next word, and the next, in support of the story the author wants to tell.

I’m trying to think of another author who achieves such a sensitive balance of inner life and outer realities in their writing, and I come up with Ali Smith. I suppose there is a bit of resemblance to Anna Burns’s narrator in Milkman here, too, in the way I feel the humanity and the heart of Walbert’s Jo, her spirit singing out on every page, even as she is describing such a desperate time in her life. But Walbert is her own voice. This is a perfect little book.

My Dark Vanessa

My Dark Vanessa is also about a fifteen year old girl and her much older abuser, and what Russell tries to accomplish here is complicated–she endeavors to give a sense on the page of how young girls, young victims–can feel, or be made to feel, entirely empowered by the interest of much older men, a misinterpretation of their situation that can lead to complicated feelings in their adulthood, of volition vs. coercion, and of sexual power vs. sexual abuse.

I admire the goal and found the novel interesting if not entirely satisfying. I wish Russell had spent more time reading and studying Nabokov, whose literary presence haunts this novel. I wish she had studied the dark subtlety at work in Lolita, and the way Humbert never quite does more than imply. For me the novel had too many uncomfortable, rapey sex scenes in it. Russell wants us to feel uncomfortable, but to me it felt too much. That’s not necessarily a prurient comment–I think the sex writing is a literary flaw, because there is no way such a repressed character as this narrator would reveal so much, and the graphic frankness in many scenes runs the danger of skirting the border of soft-pornographic territory, which is exactly the territory that the author wants to avoid. 

All that said, there is something powerful at work here. Russell writes a credible first-person account of a child as she is being groomed, and who is unaware of that reality. I admire this aspect of the novel.

And then there is Trust Exercise.

Trust Exercise

To tell the truth, I’m not sure what happened in this novel. The meta fictional jolt that comes between parts one and two made me skeptical, reading forward, whether anything in the novel is meant to be considered “the truth” or whether every section merely presents another fictional construct. Of course it’s all fiction and such mental wanderings in a way just prove once more how tricksy fiction can be. And I believe Choi here is primarily interested in exploring the ways women process their abuse, including denying it happened at all, rather than she is interested in writing a #metoo story. At the end of this novel I’m not even sure who was abused by whom, or how many babies were born. Are all the men in this book ephebophiles? I feel metaphorically violated by this novel, similar to the way Choi metaphorically violates her fictional creations. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The novel upended me. And I don’t believe this novel is meant to be pinned down, even if many of its positive reviewers seem to claim to know exactly what it’s about. It unsettled me. And it left me wondering why I haven’t read more of Choi’s books, which until now have been on my metaphorical shelf of all the authors I mean to read, very soon, along with Francine Prose, Mary Gaitskill, and Cynthia Ozick.

Read it: SEALED by Naomi Booth

Sealed

A woman gets pregnant unexpectedly, just as the world careens toward a the most horrific eco-disaster you can imagine. The writing is great, the emotional landscape is truthful, and I’m going to read everything Naomi Booth writes from now on.

My fondest delight, when it came to my reading experience with this novel, was the birth scene. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say there is a birth scene, since the whole book before then is the story of a ponderously pregnant woman searching for a safe place to give birth, while simultaneously coping with some seriously creepy eco-disaster action.

This birth scene, when it comes, is magnificently done. Ok, it ignores the way that every contraction, in actual birth, is a peak experience of sorts…but even without that explicit kind of veracity, the scene captures the deep-heart horrific truth about birth. It captures what it’s like to have your body taken over by a primal force over which you have no control. No matter how great a woman’s individual birth experience might be (or how great she happens to remember it being, later, when it’s over), every laboring woman comes to understand at some point (unless she is utterly etherized), that her body is no longer hers…and that realization can be momentarily disorienting, or completely terrifying, depending on how you feel in general about experiencing a total loss of control of your body. Naomi Booth nails it.

So at the heart of this eco-horror-fiction Naomi Booth has slyly written the best metaphor for birth-terror that I’ve ever read.

Yeah!

Go, Naomi Booth!

I’m a fan.

on goodreads you can read all my reviews including those I don’t post here.

Read It: THE BOOK OF X by Sara Rose Etter

The Book of X

Here’s why you should read this book: because a musky odor emanates from every sentence, and each word seems meticulously chosen to evoke, mm, something like sanguinarian, or even coprophilic pleasure. This is ruthless, relentless, and visionary writing. The story could well mean more than its superficial meanings, I’m open to it meaning more…something deeply feminist…something deep about the many indignities and pains suffered by any person living inside a female body…but even before I try to ruminate over any possible metaphorical meanings I am filled with admiration, with elation even, for Sarah Rose Etter, and for her clarity of vision, and for the way she dares to be this ruthless in her storytelling. 

Ok, I loved it. Even though I feel a little sick.

People who follow me on Goodreads know that I have a beloved shelf for what I call ruthless books. After reading The Book of X I’m thinking I need a sub-shelf for unabashedly, bravely repulsive books, where I would give this novel a place of honor, along with recently read, much admired novels Three Plastic Rooms by Petra Hůlová, Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz, and Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw. I can’t say whether this is a trend, or whether I’m simply attracted to these wild-and-musky-female-author-breaks-every-taboo type of novel right now, but all of these novels gave me the same mixed feeling of nausea & joyful release.

Also: A big thank you Two Dollar Radio for bringing this novel to the world. This indie press has been busy publishing some of the smartest, scariest fiction out there.

Here are more of my goodreads reviews.

Read it: ULTRALUMINOUS by Katherine Faw

Ultraluminous

I have a bookshelf where I keep the most ruthless of books, the books where writers have written unflinchingly, and Faw’s novel Ultraluminous has a place of honor there.

Reading Ultraluminous is like being thrown into a tornado of dissonance that resolves in a morally ambiguous and yet somehow completely satisfying way. I imagine it takes quite a lot out of a writer, to write so ruthlessly. It’s a disturbing book, and it breaks so many taboos, and part of what i love about it is that it proves to me that words still retain the power to shock.

This is a book written for women, by a woman, and its conclusions are bleak. I feel happy for the men who can read it and enjoy it but in some ways this novel feels more than anything like a #me-too reflection, where the male-on-female abuse is dialed up to its last possible ear-splitting amplitude. Throughout the novel the reader is invited, by the narrative tone, to consider the protagonist an empowered woman, a sex industry worker at the top of her game, even as she is being demeaned and abused in every way possible. It’s okay to her if her johns break a finger or blacks an eye because they pay her extra for it. She comes across as the one in control. Her bravura was seductive to me as a reader. I could easily fall into the notion of her as heroic. I could talk myself into thinking she is in charge of her own life, making big money and living the good life even as she is dehumanized in every possible way.

The violence and objectification that the protagonist experiences don’t escalate from start to finish so I’ve been trying to puzzle through why it reads like a thriller. It could be because the protagonist is trapped in a repeating space where the most horrible objectifications become mind-numbing routine, and as a reader you know this level of nihilism can’t go on forever; that this level of sexual violence eventually won’t stick to a schedule and will begin to bleed out in unexpected ways. So you’re just waiting for some wire to trip. For something to change the equilibrium. It’s a hellish stasis, where the repetition of the protagonist’s scheduled weekly meetings with men becomes a terribly tense read.

Even though the nihilism in the novel is relentless, and even though neither the protagonist nor the author ever gives any hints about what we readers are meant to think about any of it, the novel somehow left me feeling uplifted and hopeful. I’m still trying to work out why. In the meantime though I’m a fan of Katherine Faw, and I’m happy I read her brave relentless and very risky book.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about other novels that similarly took my breath away. Maybe it’s more accurate to say they metaphorically garroted me. Whatever you call it, it’s amazing and wonderful to me that words on the page still have the power to evoke such raw feelings, and I’m grateful to the writers who are brave enough to take us there.

Here are more of my reviews on Goodreads and

Here is a forum where you’re welcome to come join us and talk about contemporary literary fiction.

the audiobook version of the book of dog is still my favorite

Weirdly, for an author who spent hours illustrating her novel, my favorite version of The Book of Dog is the audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne, who gave me the happy experience of hearing my story come alive.

Here is a sample:

The Book of Dog, Ch. 4: “Stella Steals Some Kitchen Shears”

Here is where you can find the audiobook and order it online:

buy on Downpour
buy on Audiobooks.com
buy on Audible (where for some reason it costs twice as much)

The Book of Dog by Lark Benobi

my personal “best novel of 2019”

Optic NerveOptic Nerve by María Gainza

I just opened a discussion thread in my “newest literary fiction” goodreads group, where I asked people, here at the 3/4 mark for 2019, to name the one best book they’ve read this year…

And that gives me a delightful excuse to say over here on my blog how much I loved Optic Nerve by María Gainza.

What a wonderful novel. From the first page, I was immediately and intensely endeared to the narrator of Optic Nerve. I would follow this narrator on any reading journey, wherever she would lead me, because the places she leads me, sentence by sentence and chapter by chapter, are unexpected, wonderful, startling, and humane.

The chapters hang together loosely. There is no plot to speak of. And yet the pieces and digressions come together again and again to become something whole and true.

The novel situates you in the mind of an insightful person, and makes you wiser as she herself becomes wiser. Her epiphanies come to her through the experience of viewing art, and thinking about art deeply. She lets her experience of art reverberate through her life experience.

So, of course I love this novel, because at its core it is championing the idea that contemplation of the arts can be life-changing, enriching, devastating, and above all, an essential part of what makes us human.

To have an entire novel make this case, at a time in the world where there is so much ugliness, and so much attention given to economic utility over aesthetic utility, is a gift.

This is one of the most personally significant books I’ve read since Laurus by Evgenij Vodolazkin.

I spend more time on goodreads conversating about books than I do here on my blog–so here is a link to all of my goodreads reviews.