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Cracked Reality: A Reading List

These days I find myself waking up every morning from anxious dreams where I would not be surprised at all to discover that I’ve been transformed into a verminous insect, or to discover that Trump is president. I never wander far from a news feed. I find myself constantly muttering “could that have just happened?” and “can this be real?” and no one seems able to answer those questions in a satisfactory way.

Fortunately there is a remedy for times when reality is too strange to believe. The remedy is to be found in reading fiction–not as an escape, but as an explanation. Some fiction writers have an uncanny ability to capture a reality deeper than what is in front of your own eyes. These talented writers can give your feelings context and perspective, in a way non-fiction can’t tackle.  They give you the assurance that you are not the only one who feels this way.

Kafka is a go-to 20th century author to describe the cracked-reality feeling I’m talking about, when life is getting stranger and more unreal-seeming all the time. Personally I’m more drawn to the fiction of Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz–see this magnificent and unsettling new translation of Schulz’s stories from Northwestern University Press.

But I’m hoping to spotlight the work of current writers, those who are capturing the anxiety of right-now, and who seem to have thrown out every rule in the book except for their preference for simple declarative sentences.

Today I’m posting a list of works like these, not in any particular order. See what you think. Although some of these were marketed as “horror” they somehow give me solace when I read them. They are unusual and affecting and if you haven’t already you should read them. I’ll be following up with a closer look in the days to come.

  1. Threats by Amelia Gray
  2. Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
  3. The Vegetarian by Kang Han
  4. Ladivine by Marie NDiaye
  5. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  6. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz
  7. Radiant Terminus by Antoine Volodine
  8. Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez
  9. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  10. Remainder by Tom McCarthy
  11. Metropole by Karinthy Ferenc
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Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks was one of those rare, very-pretty-good reads for me. Zumas creates women with lovely endearing individuality and humaneness. I was concerned for their welfare and wanted them to turn out to have happy lives, almost to the degree that I feel about characters in Kent Haruf’s novels. On the downside the characters’s story arcs were not particularly interesting and their reactions to menstrual-related events never strayed much beyond the obvious, with the exception of the mender, whom I adored.

The person who designed this cover should get a medal. Brava–I’m assuming you are a woman–forgive me if you’re not and my admiration for you has grown all the more strong–and shame on Hachette for not giving you a named credit on the jacket you designed.

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Knucklehead by Adam Smyer

I want to say a few things about the novel Knucklehead by Adam Smyer, published this year by Akashic. The novel could not be more timely, and I urge everyone who has found their way to my blog to buy a copy and read it.

The novel is the diary of a black man whose law degree and loving wife and fancy job can’t shield him from a culture where he is continuously demeaned and threatened because of his race.

The writing in this novel is very loose. There is a casualness about the prose that is both endearing and distancing–it’s a style where you never know what the narrator is going to do or say next. In one scene after another the protagonist continues a debate with himself, the debate of his lifetime, about whether this is the time when he’ll resort to deadly violence to solve his problems. From moment to moment he relies on some outward sign that will give him permission to unleash his rage, and you keep expecting him to do great harm to someone, and at the same time you are kind of rooting for him to go ahead and do it, given the horrible things that happen to him, and given how dismissively he is treated even by those who supposedly love him.

The perpetual threat of violence, in almost every scene, was a very uncomfortable place for me to be as a reader, but an instructive one. I finished the book with a terrific headache, and I felt it was exactly the right way to feel about what happens in the story, both in terms of the real historical events it documents, and in terms of the fictional journey the main character takes from beginning to end. The chapter about the 1991 beating of Rodney King that was captured on video–a time when everyone was briefly filled with the hope that finally something would change, now that the evidence of police brutality was there for all to see–is heartbreaking to read given where we are now.

Now that I’ve written all of the above I also want to add that at times this is a very funny book. It’s a remarkable book. You should go in open-eyed and open-minded and see what happens.

Here is a link to the Akashic website where it’s currently $11.95:

Knucklehead

 

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$3.48

That’s how much it costs to print a 228-page book with Ingramspark, the POD part of Ingram, the largest book printer & distributor in the world.  And it costs a little less than that at Amazon’s Create Space.

So the cost for anyone to publish a physical book–a bound trade paperback, that is–is about the same as buying a large coffee at a drive-up espresso bar.

I’ve been mulling that over tonight, because I spent a couple of hours reformatting my book to be in very large print for my friend with poor eyesight. It really did just take a couple of hours. While I was at it, I revised the dedication, to dedicate it to my friend who needs the very large print. And then I uploaded the file, and ordered a copy, and in a day or so I’ll be able to give my friend a unique edition to my new novel.

It gave me all kinds of ideas about individualized books, and what purpose they might serve. Each book published could be made unique, designed for just one reader. Changes are ridiculously simple to do with ebooks, which are ephemeral to begin with–you just upload a new file, and within a few hours the old version is gone and the new version is there instead. (The ease of changing an ebook leads to all kinds of questions about when it becomes a “new work” requiring a new ISBN or new copyright application…it seems people have different opinions, and I’m not sure who would be checking, or how they would know that what was there now is not what was there yesterday).

But I hadn’t really thought about how easy it has become to also print unique, one-off physical books, which would be lasting and could be all different from one another. The entire market for books is still predicated on the belief that the more of a book you sell the better. But maybe one day it’s going to be more about selling one at a time–and each in some way unique. A famous author might do limited editions, like silk screen artists do, where each copy is numbered. Or a thriller writer could change the name of the hero to be the name of the reader who ordered the book.

I don’t think we have begun much more than baby steps toward understanding how POD and digital publishing is going to change what we read, not only online but in the physical book world as well.

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Getting Closer to Publication Date

Hi everybody. It’s time to say good-bye to the early preview I posted of The Book of Dog, complete with its cover I made with post-it notes. I will always love this cover….

…but the book has evolved, hopefully for the better, from the barbaric yawp of a preview I posted at first. So it’s time for now to retire this bootleg preview and to make way for the spanking-new novel to be published by Vegetablian Books this fall. Wow. What a journey. More later but in the meantime here is the latest cover design for THE BOOK OF DOG, Vegetablian Books Edition:

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“Feminist Satire”

At first whenever someone asked me to describe my new book I said it was “feminist satire,” until I realized that to everyone else “feminist satire” means “writing that satirizes feminists,” and not “feminist who is writing satire.” So now I’m on the hunt for more “feminists who are writing satire” and would welcome your suggestions.

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best memoir, 2017

I read over a hundred books this year and now that I’ve come to the end of it I find that Hunger by Roxane Gay is the one book that has stuck with me the longest, and has changed me the most. It’s the one book I want to write about tonight, as my last post in 2017.

I was lucky enough to hear Roxane Gay speak this year when she came to my hometown for a reading. She was warm, empowered, strong, confident, and most of all she felt aware of all these things about herself.  She had a supreme graciousness toward others, and a patience, especially with those readers and fans and people in the crowd that night, some of whom seemed overpowered by their own hurt and in need of someone who would listen to their stories and understand. Roxane Gay was able to listen. She was able to say exactly the right thing.  Her strength and presence were extraordinary.

And then there is this book. As I read it, the strong confident voice I listened to at the reading seemed to completely shrink into a hesitant and cautious voice, one that was afraid of its own conclusions. I believe Roxane Gay when she writes that this book the hardest thing she has ever tried to write. Because what I experienced, while reading the book, is that it was nearly too hard for Roxane Gay to write her story. The writing felt guarded and circuitous and almost stuttering. The strength and confidence I felt from her when I heard her speak fell away toward silence and hurt. And I thought as I read: Where is the strong confident person I saw on stage?

But here’s the thing: Now I’ve come to realize just how strong it was for Gay to write exactly this way about her past.  Maybe she had no choice. Extreme honesty seems to be the core of who she is. The book demands faith and acceptance from the reader at all times. It doesn’t take care of the reader. Indeed it forces the reader to take on the role of patient loving listener. The reader is asked to take care of the writer, rather than the other way around. It’s as if, through the act of reading this book, you’re being patiently guided to become the kind of person who can listen to another person’s trauma, and understand.

The novel feels like a watershed of sorts, written before #metoo, and apart from it, but pointing toward this extraordinary change in our culture, where women in future might begin to get angry and speak out against those who abuse them, rather than feeling shame and punishing themselves and their bodies for what happened to them. So quite unexpectedly and for all the reasons above I find myself tonight realizing that Hunger by Roxane Gay was my personal Book of the Year.

-lark benobi

 

 

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the politics of art: fiction

With Trump in the White House,  journalists are battling to keep words attached to facts, to the point where CNN runs adds explaining why an apple isn’t a banana.

But fiction is immune to Trumpism. It’s a language apart.  And just now fiction can tell truths that non-fiction can’t.

Here are some of the most truthful, most political novels I’ve read–the links will take you to three independent bookstores who deserve your business:

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish should replace The Grapes of Wrath on every high school reading list. A novel about New York from the point of view of the most disenfranchised. A book that is never sentimental, never condescending. One of the best books I’ve ever read.

 

 

 

The Sarah Book by Scott McLachlan taught me more about despair in West Virginia than sixteen billion profiles on Trump voters.

 

 

 

 

Blood of the Dawn by  Claudia Salazar Jiménez– I’ve read of political violence and state terrorism before, but not from within such a female perspective. A woman leaves her family to become a resistance fighter and it occurred to me while reading it that I had read so many times of a man going off to war while the woman stays home with the children, a trope so often repeated that it feels natural, and yet here the woman goes, and she is so much a mother, and her choice feels wrenching and unnatural, part of the terror of the times.

Blood of the Dawn is published by Deep Vellum. The Sarah Book and Preparation for the Next Life are both published by Tyrant.

 


(Pre-Order The Book of Dog)

 

 

 

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