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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.

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 »


books that slap you around

Most authors want their readers to feel safe enough to turn the next page.

But for some authors, ‘safe’ just won’t do. There are a few brave authors who write books where you will feel more assaulted than nurtured. Books where the view of humanity is bleak, and where the characters don’t care what you think of them.

It’s amazing how often I end up really hating this kind of book and everything about it, only to turn around days or sometimes years later and realize I have never stopped thinking about them.  Reading these books was a transformative experience. They changed my mind and my heart. There are probably gentler ways to wrest readers out of their complacent ways of thinking but just now it feels like authors must make a choice–they must either support a reader’s current ways of thinking, or the must risk losing readers in order to shake them out of their complacency.

Here are some books that shook me. I recommend them all. But maybe not all at once.

ALMANAC FOR THE DEAD by Leslie Marmon Silko

This novel is exorbitantly, lavishly violent. It’s a sordid kind of violence, violence done to and by characters with a pathological level of cruelty. It was impossible to not feel assaulted by it as I read. It jolts me right out of my complacency about the past. This is a novel about Native American genocide, about American genocide. It’s about a holocaust that has been more or less lost to history in terms of its overwhelming magnitude, and where what is remembered has been kitsched over and transformed into popular entertainment. Silko set out to shatter the past as it has been preserved in our collective culture and to replace it with something far more damning and sad.

Much of the writing is staccato, scattered, shattered, and at times nearly incoherent. Silko tells a story of lives brutalized. It’s a story where proper sentences would prettify and thus lie. The stylistic punches built up a level of dread in me as I read. There are scenes of such brutality and lack of humanity that they left me sick. I also frequently felt lost, and irritated by a prose style that felt deliberately blunted and ugly. ANd then I would think: this is right, this is the right way to tell such an ugly history.

Now and then would come chapters of soaring lyricism, interstitially spaced between the chapters of violence and cruelty. They fortified me. They allowed me to keep reading.

It’s maybe my highest praise of a book when I can honestly say “I’ve never read anything like this book before.” And I admire how ruthless Silko is, even though there are passages I wish I could un-read.

 

CULT-X by Fujinori Nakamura

This is a story where human agency is helpless before the crushing weight of history and propaganda. The entire notion of free will is revealed as a sham. I was repulsed by the ugliness of this novel, and by the sexual violence, and by the passivity of the female characters, and by the hopelessness of the story itself.  Some scenes read like infantile sadistic male fantasies. I kept trying to frame these scenes in a literary light. I kept trying to believe these scenes had literary value beyond their face value. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find a scrap of redemptive value in them.

And then I read John Nathan’s review of The Rise and Fall of Modern Japanese Literature by John Whittier Treat, published in the August 16 2018 New York Review of Books. Even though Nathan never mentions Cult-X, Nathan does mention other popular Japanese novels, some of which are still to be translated, and all of which seem as disturbing as Cult-X, or even more so. Nathan’s essay reminded me that Japanese writers are working from inside the horror of their recent history: the madness of unquestioned nationalism, the razing of whole cities by firebombs, the horror of two nuclear attacks, the death tolls from earthquake and tsunami; and then add to these the way any hope for the future has been crushed by the crash of a bubble economy, the rapid aging of the population, and an economy that continues to stagnate and to offer little opportunity for the next generation. Reminded of these things, I discovered that my first reaction to this novel, to reject its nihilism, began to feel like a privileged person’s naive understandings. I could see this novel anew. It’s still not a fun read, but it is a thought-provoking one.

Goat Mountain by David Vann

Goat Mountain by David Vann is the second most ruthless book I’ve ever read. Number 1 in the most-ruthless category is Dirt by David Vann. Numbers 3,4, and 5 on my ruthless books list would also be novels by David Vann.

There is no other author who is so skilled at combining poetry with viscera. The combination is Homeric. It commands your attention. Vann’s novels remind you that life-and-death stories are actually, literally about life and death. Each of Vann’s novels invokes the heightened tension of the best genre thriller, but goes so far beyond that genre-level dread, because the stakes in these books are real, and they are enormous. Vann books make me gasp with their audacity. In my head as I read Vann’s books I hear these questions: Is he really going to write that? And: Did he really write that? and with each of his novels I feel the same wrenching understanding, as I read, that I’m going to be brought to a level of primal violence, a level that I hadn’t been able to imagine being inscribed in language before then.

Goat Mountain is my favorite of Vann’s books because the story is so fundamental and pure. There is absolutely nothing extraneous in its pages. It’s like the last few seconds of a Greek play, in novel form. It’s Oedipus gouging his eyes out. It’s Agamemnon cutting his own daughter’s throat.

It does not surprise me at all that Vann’s latest book, Bright Air Black, is a retelling of the Medea myth. It is a lovely visceral rendition that you should also read, both for its fierce feminism and for the unbeatable scene of Medea scraping her brother’s putrid remains off the deck of Jason’s ship with a wooden spoon.

And it also does not surprise me that in the acknowledgments of Bright Air Black Vann writes “my novels are all Greek tragedies.”

For me it is in Goat Mountain where Vann’s love of Greek tragedy is displayed at its primal and perfect best.

(buy the book of dog by lark benobi)

Robert Repino

Robert Repino, author of the extraordinary novel Mort(e), did me the great favor of reading The Book of Dog by Lark Benobi, and the even greater favor of providing a quote for my book jacket. Here it is:

“Playful and surreal, heartwarming and heartbreaking, Lark Benobi’s The Book of Dog delivers a story of determination and love in a time of despair. Rather than merely raising a middle finger toward the age of Trump, Benobi prefers to slam it with her fist.”

I’ve noticed on Goodreads that there is a lot of speculation among readers about jacket quotes and how they come about. For sure, sometimes blurbs come about when an editor or agent asks authors on their lists to blurb one another. But I’d like to just say that asking an author you admire to read your still-unpublished book is usually a very personal ask. It’s one author to another author. It’s two people who have never met. It’s somebody with an unpublished book reaching out to an established author whose work she admires, and saying something like: “Excuse me, I think you’ll like my book, will you read it and see?”  And if, in spite of all good sense, that author you’ve asked to read your book replies: ‘yes, I’ll read your book,’ and later, ‘yes, I want to say something nice and on the record about your book,’ then that author is giving a tremendous, open-hearted gift, of both time and reputation. Thank you Robert.

On the unique organic pleasure of reading Downdrift: An Eco-Fiction

Downdrift by Johanna Drucker is a book that amazed and delighted me, even though as a cohesive narrative it fails completely. Fail is the wrong word, though, for a goal that is never attempted. This novel doesn’t want to be judged for its storytelling, and it is not so much a novel as it is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-serious thought collage.

As the novel begins, organisms in every ecological niche on Earth have begun to experience the intrusion of human-like characteristics into their behaviors. This change is presented as the opposite of evolutionary progress: to behave in a human way is instead categorized as “downdrift.” 

The story is narrated throughout by “Archaeon,” a unicellular organism that belongs to the Kingdom Archaea, a creature that has (through contact with others of its kind) absolute knowledge of events the whole world over, but that has almost no sense of narrative suspense.

Archeaon explains its sense of narrative timing this way:

Our time scales–yours and mine–are as different as our size and complexity. To me, all of the follies of the animal kingdom are the trivial business of a few seconds of my historical memory. Nearly three-quarters of the earth’s existence has passed in my presence, billions of years. Compare that to the mere millions in which primitive arthropods and other organisms came into being. And you? A blip on the screen, a tweak in the evolutionary chain, a phenomenon of rapid acceleration. I will long outlive you and the changes wrought on this world by your machinations.

What forward narrative momentum there is in Downdrift (and it barely registered with me as I read along) hangs on the stories of a lost cat and a peripatetic lion, creatures that re-appear at intervals in the story, and that seem destined to meet at some point. And they do meet. But that meeting seems beside the point when it happens, because the real delight of Downdrift is not in narrative at all, but in an accumulation of detail, sentence after sentence, that by the end paints a picture of vast ecological disruption.

Another round of salamander antics is taking place in the autumn woods. A big group outing, comprised of extended families and pseudo-families, is underway at the edges of a pool. They have collected food bright as their red bellies or the stark yellow of their spots. The older ones are picking at a few, very few, highly colored bits of fungus and mixing them with all manner of beetles and flies, worms and larvae, spiders and moths and grasshoppers to make a banquet from an ancient recipe. These traditions may also soon be at risk, but not yet.

In a brave choice on the author’s part Homo sapiens barely signifies in this novel at all. At one point coyotes are stealing human babies; at another point Archaeon wryly observes “an outbreak of human shoaling, seepage into the homo sapiens from the minnows and sardines,” an image that carries with it both the idea of humans under stress, as well as the lack of significance that humans and their problems have to this story.

Because this is not the human’s story. The subtitle to Downdrift is “an eco-fiction,” and the novel fulfills the goals of this relatively new genre in a significant way. The novel is a metaphor for the way we value convenience over preservation; the way we prioritize the artificial over the natural; the way we focus on our daily worries rather than the long-term problem of potential ecological collapse. For those who have the willingness to let the a story flow past at its own pace, the novel offers a unique and thought-provoking take on the world and our place in it.

Lark Benobi

(The Book of Dog by Lark Benobi)

The magnificent mystery of Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt


Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt
(English Translation by Owen F Witesman, Oneworld:2018)

Some books leave me speechless at the end. I mean this quite literally. I’m not making a metaphorical “there are no words” comment about the quality of what I have just read. I am instead trying to report a physical phenomenon, a feeling in my throat and lungs that comes only rarely, just after a last sentence is read, and a book is closed, when I’m left with a dazzling void of complicated feeling that renders me mute. After a while the words come back, and my feelings about the book begin to shape themselves into language.

So here is this novel, Oneiron*. In it seven dead women find themselves together in a placeless place, a white void with only the clothes on their backs. At some point they notice they aren’t breathing. Not long after, they realize they are dead. They share their stories. They help one another. They bear witness to the one another’s final moments. These seven women are remarkable only in the way that every human being is remarkable. The stories of their final moments before death are haphazard and sometimes violent and always meaningless. The women have nothing in common, not even a common language. But even so these women make themselves into a caring community, in this strange afterlife, where nothing is ever explained, either to these seven characters, or to the reader. As in real life, the characters, and through them the reader, need to take it on faith that their experiences have purpose.

Oneiron is one of those books that stunned me into silence at the end, and when words did come back, they were from I. Corinthians:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 

Oneiron is not a religious book. God has no place in the afterlife Lindstedt creates. I’m not a religious person. Yet somehow this novel embraces a life philosophy that reminded me of Paul’s teaching. The novel suggests that caring for others–even in the flawed ways these strangers reach out and care for one another after death–is the most vital motivating impulse that gives meaning to our lives.

*from Greek ὄνειρονoneiron, “dream”

 

the politics of art, II: more fiction for ruthless times

(Children of Our Age by A.M. Bakalar, Jantar:2018)

A while ago I wrote about three novels  that I called “the most truthful, most political novels I’ve read” for some time: “Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, The Sarah Book by Scott McLachlan, and Blood of the Dawn by  Claudia Salazar Jiménez.

To that list of highly recommended reads I’d like to add Children of Our Age by A.M. Bakalar. What a book. Where Lish in Preparation for the Next Life wrote about the way undocumented workers are ruthlessly exploited by others, Bakalar’s focus is on those who would exploit them. Her characters are Polish immigrants to London who have just barely managed to scrabble up to a precarious but undeniably middle-class way of life. Their success has many times come at the cost of their humanity: those who have learned to traffic humans, and to treat human beings with the same level of detachment as they would livestock, are the ones who, at least at the beginning of this harrowing novel, are most likely to succeed.

What makes this novel great is the way Bakalar manages to create empathy for all of her characters, even the most ruthless and damaged of them. For example Bakalar writes a scene in which a thuggish violent man stalks, rapes, and strangles a sixteen year old girl. It’s a scene every bit as harrowing as Joyce Carol Oates at her disturbing best, but then, in a surprising coda, Bakalar lifted me out of a knee-jerk repulsion for this character, and left me instead with a feeling of empathy and sadness for what this man had endured in life. Time after time I was plunged into a sense of compassionate understanding for characters that behave in selfish and disturbing ways. It’s quite a ride. The novel offers no easy answers. A lot of bad things happen. And yet somehow I finished feeling compassionate and hopeful.

Some novels perform the important work of shedding light on the ways economic inequality corrodes human endeavor, even in relatively well-off societies. Politically-oriented social realism, with a focus on the working poor, has not been a wildly trendy type of novel for some time, and that’s too bad, because this kind of fiction provides a way into the lives of others, and it’s the kind of understanding we can use more of just now.

– Lark Benobi

(buy The Book of Dog by Lark Benobi)

 

Newest Literary Fiction

I co-moderate a group on Goodreads where we read the latest literary fiction together. Come check us out.

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.If you are a member for three months and haven’t posted a single comment then you might be de-joined but if that’s a mistake just ask to join again.


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 »


my kirkus review

Kirkus is usually one of the first publications to review upcoming books, and my review just came out yesterday, and I’m relieved I got a good read from the reviewer for THE BOOK OF DOG, vs. needing to give myself a pep talk today. Click on the book cover to read the review on the Kirkus site:

Two things about the review made me especially happy. First they did a really great job of summarizing my peripatetic plot. Second, in the “Similar Books Suggested by our Critics” column, they suggested my novel is similar to Mort(e) by Robert Repino, which is an amazing book that you should read right now if you haven’t already.