After Birth, by Elisa Albert

Review:

After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother’s Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who’s just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother’s gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert’s first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari’s often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to “grow up,” to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell “stuff” that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there’s a man or not); we’re meant to help each other.

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After Birth, by Elisa Albert

The Animators, by Karla Rae Whitaker

Review:

The Animators - Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators struck a deep chord with me on two levels: as an artist and as best friend to a fellow artist. If you are either, you’ll likely love this novel as I did.

Funny and engaging from the first page, The Animators starts with our narrator, Sharon, in college, where she meets the charismatic Mel Vaught. Both are aspiring animators who are into the same shit and share an aesthetic; both come from poor, rural southern U.S. backgrounds. Many of us in the arts could identify that time when we learn we’re not actually outsiders, that others share our interests; college tends to be a place where we find our tribe.

But this is not a novel about being a college arts student. The narrative quickly brings us to a present where Sharon and Mel have made a successful indie animated feature that centers on Mel’s life. They live together in New York City. Mel drinks and does a lot of drugs; she’s the life of the party. Sharon…is not. She spends a lot of time and emotions angsting over her latest romantic interest, of which there are many.

Tension develops between the two, much of it, from Sharon’s perspective, owing to Mel’s lifestyle. There’s a blowout, followed by a shocking, life-altering health crisis for one of them. It’s a reset that leads them on a path to mining Sharon’s childhood for their next project. This raises very real questions artists face about using their lives in their art in ways that may hurt loved ones. I wasn’t quite satisfied by the resolution to this issue, but I appreciated its being seriously considered.

This book excels at depicting partnerships between women, their working lives as artists, and craft. The prose is engaging, the characters vivid, and there are some heartbreaking and harrowing moments. Even if you’re not an artist or friends with one, I can’t imagine Whitaker’s (first!) novel not winning you over from page one.

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The Animators, by Karla Rae Whitaker

White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Review:

White Tears - Hari Kunzru

It was difficult to read the first half or so of this book because the protagonist (Seth) and his best (and only) friend (Carter) are aggravatingly ignorant of their appropriation of black culture. They’re even more offensive for thinking they’re woke or genuine in their fetishistic consumption of the rarest blues, at least in Carter’s case. Seth is less than sympathetic in his own distinct way; he’s such a follower that he barely has a personality of his own. As little as I could bear the privileged Carter, Seth is consequently even harder for me to care about given that he follows Carter like a puppy. I don’t know what to make of the fact that both have or have had mental health issues. And I don’t know what to make of Seth’s thing for Carter’s sister.

I patiently waited for these guys to get some sort of comeuppance. When it came, it was a whirlwind of genres, a mishmash of past and present, a blurring of identities. Formally, stylistically, this novel took off, grabbing me by the collar. It was hard to put down. I hadn’t known what to expect at the beginning, which is a gift for a reader. I do think at times the cues or signals were overdone; we could have been better trusted to follow the shifts in time and perspective. But what a ride.

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White Tears, by Hari Kunzru

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Review:

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee

It took me almost four months to read Pachinko. As I read, I began wondering about my slow pace. My fall semesters are busier, yes, but I still manage to finish most books in what’s a timely manner for me. It certainly wasn’t because I found the book hard to read in terms of comprehension or engagement. As I got closer to the end, I realized: it was because I was so invested in the characters and storytelling I had to take time to process the intense feelings the novel evoked. There are also regular gaps in time that take place between chapters where characters’ situations change significantly; I needed mental space before diving into the story again. I can’t think of another novel that required this sort of reading from me.

In addition to Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, Pachinko has served to establish that “family sagas” can engage me, or at least when another culture is involved. Through the family portrayed here, I learned more about Korea, but it never feels like a history lesson. Everything comes from the characters. The novel also provokes thought about national and racial identity.

There were moments I dreaded, as with the return of a less sympathetic character, though not in a way that made me dislike the novel or its author. There were moments that shocked me to the point of gasping. There are many scenes that easily and vividly come to mind when I recall my reading, which I finished more than a month ago.

I would love to teach this novel. I have the feeling I may reread it some day, regardless. For me, that’s a rarity, a compliment, and a sign of deep gratitude.

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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

Review:

Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories (Penguin Classics Edition) - Peter M. Coviello, Herman Melville

Well that took me long enough! I’ve been desperate to read some horror, but these Melville stories have been hit and miss, his prose sometimes impenetrable. This is my second encounter with Melville (I read Moby Dick some years ago), and it’s been a while. I was prompted to pick up this collection of his shorter works by recent references to both “Bartleby” and Billy Budd.

I began with “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which turned out to be my favorite. Melville is an excellent comic writer, and this portrait of a law office made me laugh out loud. Yet it’s also incredibly poignant. The narrator is a lawyer who hires Bartleby as a scrivener (a copier); Bartleby joins three other employees, hilariously nicknamed Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut. Bartleby goes about his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to read aloud his copy to proofread, he simply says he “prefers not to.” From this point he “prefers” not to do all sorts of things, including leave when his boss attempts to fire him. The lawyer is non-confrontational and fancies himself a good man to the point where he actually changes the location of his office to avoid dealing with Bartleby (who is also found to be living there) further. Yet the problem of Bartleby persists.

Why does Bartleby “prefer not” to comply with requests made of him? Melville does not offer a black-and-white answer. The introduction likens Bartleby to a Wall Street occupier, someone who occupies spaces of capitalism without using them for that end, but the quote I found most insightful describes Bartleby as a man of preferences rather than assumptions. How much does our daily behavior and actions depend upon assumptions? As with other Melville works, a queer reading of the text is also possible: the relationship between the lawyer and Bartleby involves exchanges and behavior not dissimilar to those made in romantic partnerships.

The stories I liked next best were “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.” The former is a series of sketches by a sailor who has been to the Galapagos Islands; some sketches are more engaging than others. The language in the first few is lovely as Melville describes the hostile, lonely island landscape. The latter is a pair of tales told by the same American narrator, first in London then New England–a lawyer’s club and paper mill, respectively. These are apparently based on Melville’s own travels. I preferred the second piece, which I read as feminist and potentially Marxist. There’s some fantastic prose detailing the paper machine, the women, and their work.

There are five other stories, but the last I’ll mention is the novella, Billy Budd, which Melville was working on at the time of his death. It’s become key evidence for those who feel Melville may have been bisexual or simply held progressive views on gender and sexuality. Billy Budd is a “Handsome Sailor” who is conscripted to serve on a British naval ship. Everyone likes him, as he’s pretty and good-natured. But one (also good looking) sailor envies his beauty and goodness, and it leads to tragedy. The most interesting thing about this tale for me was the fact that this is a story often told about women, to illustrate their vanity, jealousies, and pettiness or cattiness. In this context, in a time after two serious mutinies and during hostilities between Britain and France, such personal jealousy results in catastrophe.

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Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Review:

The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest opens with elderly Ruth fearing she can hear and smell a tiger in her house–in Australia. One of the great pleasures of this book is its unreliable narrator, unreliable not because she’s deceptive but because her mind isn’t what it used to be and may be getting worse. Yet the phantom of the tiger presages what may be a real danger: the arrival of a woman named Frida who claims to be a government carer. Is she, or is she fleecing Ruth?

Ruth’s narration leaves just enough room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about her and Frida. Some things are left diaphanous, but not so hazy as to cause confusion. On top of that, the prose is terrific: distinctive but not overbearingly poetic. McFarlane capture fine states of feeling or consciousness with her language and imagery. I really delighted in reading it.

Not so delightful is the nature of what’s going on, or even the suspicion of it. My grandmother, who died a few years ago, suffered from dementia. She had an excellent aide, but my parents eventually had to put her in a nursing home close to where they live. Even the best of those places upset me, and it was hard for me to see my grandmother–the smartest person in my family–lose herself. This recent experience made it difficult to continue at times.

I also found myself thinking about Frida’s race and physicality–she’s a brown-skinned and heavyset woman. Ruth is tiny and was fair-haired. What’s being said about Frida and race? I searched reviews and finally found one that addresses the issue by referencing the author’s own explanation (in the Sydney Review of Books, here). This explanation satisfied me, though I’m still wondering about Frida’s size.

Finally, it was lovely to see a bit of romance between Ruth and her almost-love from the past, who’s even older than she is. A delicately handled rarity in literary fiction.

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The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Review:

Reservation Blues - Sherman Alexie

This is my first Alexie and not my last. I’m struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it’s packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band’s steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It’s necessarily sad yet not depressing–there’s the humor, and there’s wonder and hope. There’s not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I’ve taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.

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Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie