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Read It: THE BOOK OF X by Sara Rose Etter

The Book of X

Perfection of a kind. 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.

If you decide to read this novel, or to read any of the others I’m mentioning here, I’d love for you to ping me with your review. Something wild unites them all.

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

Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

I have a shelf 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” (so far)

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.

come read some contemporary literary fiction with us!

I co-moderate a group on Goodreads where we read the latest literary fiction together. Come check us out. This month we’re reading The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, and next month it’s The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa.

Newest Literary Fiction’s bookshelf: read
Newest Literary Fiction
257 members

Discover and share your discovery of the most recently published literary fiction. If you love reading novels before anyone else decides they are good or bad; if you love ARCs; if you love hearing about the latest-published novels by authors you know, and by authors you never heard of.

Books we’ve read

Happiness
Heartland
Red Clocks
Freshwater
Refuge
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Pachinko
Cloudstreet
Son of a Trickster
Grief Cottage
Stephen Florida
In the Distance
North Station
Salki
So Much Blue
The Widow Nash
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Borne
Ties


View this group on Goodreads »


On Barbara Pym, the Grande Dame of Unfairly Neglected Writers

Jane and Prudence

I just read my first Barbara Pym novel and was bowled over by its subtle truths. Pym wrote in the fifties, disappeared for a decade; interest in her revived briefly in the seventis and then she slipped from library bookshelves once more. There have been a couple of mini-revivals since then but she always seems in danger of disappearing forever and that would be a shame. The author’s bio of Pym on the back of my copy of Jane and Prudence accuses her of writing primarily about “Anglican spinsters.” The phrase itself seems like it’s from another age, and so does this novel about middle class British women making their way through the immediate postwar years. But that’s what makes it so amazing.

Pym’s women are intelligent and educated, and ambitious in their own way, but they never quite break free of their nineteen-fifties views of what women are meant to occupy themselves with–mainly, the occupation of finding a man to marry. Prudence might rebel against that fate, but she doesn’t rebel in a very serious way. Even if she doesn’t seem particularly attracted to marriage, her ambition goes no further than a series of romantic attachments with men, and she can’t imagine a life beyond the meaning these men give to her life.

Pym’s publisher dropped her abruptly in 1961 and she was out of print for fifteen years, which seems just about right, because her novels had no place in the decade of The Feminine Mystique. But going back to the novels after that turbulent era also seems right, because they capture a post-WWII mood so perfectly, and they are testaments to that time, and that world.

Many Pym readers are reminded of Jane Austen. I also felt that affinity, especially for the deft use of free indirect style, and the subtle bombs Pym crams into each paragraph, critiquing of the middle class and its values. But it’s a darker vision than Jane Austen, because these women know how silly their lives are, and how wasted their talents are, in a world that affords them so few choices. So where Austen’s novels are comedy-of-manners, Pym’s novels are tragedy-of-manners. You feel the loss of what these women might have become, in other circumstances.

Pym is a new and unexpected favorite author for me.

here are more of my reviews on goodreads, where I like to hang out and talk about books…

if you’re looking for a delightful amuse-bouche of a horror story…

The Laws of the SkiesThe Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois

Here’s a lovely little tale about a class of six-year-olds on their first overnight camping trip. Things don’t go quite as expected. This very short novel is relentless, ruthless, and unbelievably cruel to both the reader and the characters alike. It gripped me, and it horrified me, and you should read it, not just because it gleefully stomps on every convention of story-telling, but also because it does so in such a clever, literary, and playfully metafictional way. Great fun. In its execution it reminds me of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games.

here are more of my reviews on goodreads, where I like to hang out and talk books.

Read it: THREATS by Amelia Gray

ThreatsThreats by Amelia Gray

I just reread Threats for the third time, just to see if I can figure out how Amelia Gray does it.

At times the experience of reading Threats reminds me of having a conversation with a schizophrenic person: the grammatical logic is there, intact, but the semantic sense unthreads by the end of each sentence. You know it’s nonsense but still your mind grasps for meaning, and sometimes finds it. In other passages reading Threats was like looking at random patterns on a wall and finding faces there, because our minds are so good at imposing that kind of order on random things. Sometimes a verb or an adjective was so unexpected in a given sentence that I imagined the author playing Mad Libs.

And yet I am so moved by this writing. That is the amazement of this novel for me. This is a novel that nearly obliterates the typical relationship between novelist and reader. Novels usually engage parts of the brain that are rational, logical, social. That’s the kind of exchange between text and reader that novels can do well. Reading Threats was very different. I’m disoriented by this writing. I feel the book leaves me to flounder on my own. But then suddenly I find myself making connections. As I read I have feelings of compassion, recognition, and joy, feelings that may or may not be anything at all to do with the “author’s intent.” I also have the feeling that whatever I decide to feel or imagine is happening will be completely ok with Amelia Gray.

As I read this novel I try to think of literary precedents. “Lenz” by Buechner comes to mind, or in contemporary literature, Remainder by Tom McCarthy. A few reviewers mention that the novel reminds them of Murakami. But in Murakami’s novels any fantastic elements are corroborated by multiple characters, where I feel I can count on a certain mode of reality being the “correct” reality to believe in, within the framework of a Murakami novel. Threats gives me absolutely no framework to count on. No firm ground where I could say “this is really what I’m meant to believe is the ‘real’ for this novel.” The reality you believe in for a few pages is quickly undermined by a new happening. The disorientation is marvelous and though-provoking.

The word “original” is so sloppily used for almost everything that I almost hate to use it, but there it is: This is original writing. It gives me joy just to know that something so new and unexpected can still be written after all the thousands of years we humans have been writing stories.

Read it: An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo

An Orphan WorldAn Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo

An Orphan World is written in a tone that I would call playful, absurd, post-modern, and surreal. The story itself, on the other hand, is ugly, violent, and extreme. Tone and story clash jarringly for me here, making this a difficult book for me to interpret. The novel reminds me a great deal of Chilean-French director’s Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 2013 film “The Dance of Reality,” for the way it combines fantastic absurdity with horrific reality. It’s not a comfortable combination for me as a reader. So this novel is going on my “reread” list, because I feel like I didn’t understand it, and also, that it deserves a more open-hearted reading next time, when I’ll know what to expect.

In some places the scenic renderings are so visceral, and so full of smell and touch and need, that I had that delightful feeling as I read along that we readers get sometimes, too rarely, when we read something unlike anything we’ve read before. There is a father and son in this story who show their love for one another in goofy and particular and touching ways. The sea in this story offers up clocks that still work. A kelp-festooned couch on the beach becomes an absurd and effective representation of the poverty of the main characters. The writing throughout is poetic and pleasingly cryptic, with the exception of a passage that seems meant to bore me, as it demonstrates at length the inanity and emptiness of online sex.

While the story’s thematic undercurrent is serious—homophobic violence, and the degradations of poverty — the tone is so detached and absurd that these serious themes disturb me and unsettle me and distance me from the horrors. I felt little emotion as I read other than delight about the prose, and curiosity and puzzlement and occasional boredom about the story itself, especially when it turned to these darker themes. The second chapter, for instance, describes bodies after a horrific mass lynching. The bodies have been mutilated in what should have struck me as revolting ways, but the tone is so detached and absurd that my feeling was muted.

Maybe that was the point. Lately I’ve been having conversations elsewhere on GR about the way a writer might choose flat affectless prose to get to the truth of horrific themes, rather than trying to amp up the reader’s empathy artificially by writing emotionally. Colson Whitehead in The Nickel Boys for instance writes in a flat tone when describing the most horrific of realities in his novel. The tonal detachment here, though, was in the direction of a exaggerated surrealism, and not in the direction of trying to render a reality that allows readers to experience their own emotions. It will take some acclimation and hence my plan to read this novel again.

all my reviews on goodreads