Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick by Zora Neale Hurston (2020)

A new collection of 21 Zora Neale Hurston stories, including eight previously uncollected.

Book Review: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is an unnecessarily long title (and it's not about golf), but may bring some attention to the eight recently recovered stories within, and the possibility that more undiscovered stories are out there. Zora Neale Hurston seems to be having a second revival (the first began with her rediscovery by Alice Walker in 1975) with the publication of Barracoon in 2018 and now this new edition of her stories. The previous collection of Hurston's short stories from HarperCollins, The Complete Stories (1995) edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., contained 26 works. This new selection has 21 stories, of which eight were previously uncollected, and so contains only half the stories from the 1995 edition. Hitting a Straight Lick contains a variety of stories showing Hurston's wide-ranging talent and versatility: "folklore" stories (she was an anthropologist and folklorist) including a visit from Brer Rabbit and Brer Dog; slice of rural life stories (usually instructional or moral); stories told in a Biblical tone; stories told in bullet points; and her indisputably classic short fiction such as "Sweat" and "The Gilded Six-Bits." Some of the stories seem to be drafts of other stories, some of the same phrases or incidents are repeated in several, and the final story in Hitting a Straight Lick, "The Fire and the Cloud," reads as an excerpt from her penultimate novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain. Most of Hurston's stories were about rural blacks, including her hometown, the all black community of Eatonville, Florida. Little of her work rails against white oppression or concedes that whites were an onerous factor in black life. Hurston's view was that white people were simply a fact of life like bad weather or bad luck. She believed that black culture need not follow white ways, that black people were not deprived or lesser, and that African Americans would be better off going their own way without depending on or grumbling about white people. The villains in her stories are usually other black people, often men. Her career was cut short by her uncompromising independence. One notable element here is how often Hurston writes dialogue in "the idiom -- not the dialect -- of" black people (as she put it). Although it can take a little time to get used to, she felt it provided realism and I believe it followed her training as a folklorist. She let the people speak for themselves. Use of the idiom also provides a stark contrast when the dialogue turns to Hurston's own narration, beautifully and powerfully written. Although I'd prefer a revised "complete" edition of her stories incorporating the new works included in Hitting a Straight Lick, until that day arrives I'm happy to find any recovered fiction by Hurston because we have so little, just four novels, 34 stories.  [3½★]

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante (2007)

The first-person account of a child's doll forgotten on the beach overnight.

Children's Book Review: The Beach at Night is Elena Ferrante's children's book, an odd and unsettled kettle of fish. Not necessarily the sure success that readers depend on from her. The premise here, of a beloved doll forgotten on a beach by a little girl, is intriguing and rich with potential. It's also a palimpsest of the missing doll in Ferrante's The Lost Daughter (2006), in which the missing doll is the catalyst for the torrent of emotion that follows. Here the adventure of the lost doll is the story itself, but is very dark and takes a disturbing and frightening turn that can't be ignored. The darkness reminded me of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the scariness reminded me of The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami, but neither of those had the elements here that will make it difficult for parents and children's story time at libraries. Possibly European children are more mature and are exposed to adult material at a younger age, but American parents would spend more time explaining the language and situations (this is a read-to-your-child kind of book) than on the story itself. Given the scariness, comforting the child may also be required. I can't see The Beach at Night ever being read aloud (without censorship) during story time at a library or book shop. The twist is that the ever-reliable Ann Goldstein apparently translated what is relatively mild language in Italian to English words that would be unacceptable for (American) children in a public setting. Although I've read everything Elena Ferrante has written, I'm not her target audience. So I have to look at The Beach at Night as an interesting experiment, an outlier in Ferrante's body of work, an oddity that isn't quite for children or for adults. But I did love the illustrations by Mara Cerri.  [2½★]

The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers ... by Dana Schwartz (2019)

A tongue-in-cheek introduction to Western white male authors for the millennial hipster.

Nonfiction Review: The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers ... is a novelty, a book no one needs but is amusing, silly, and entertaining. This mild and gently humorous take will raise a few chuckles without ruffling many feathers. Most of the smiles will come at the expense of the humorless, such as those earnest young men who keep telling me I must read Cormac McCarthy (I will! I will!), all in the guise of being written by one of said young men. The target audience for these satirical pieces seems to be those comfortably within their contemporary, politically correct and ironic social media bubble who can happily poke fun at these hapless writers and their acolytes. Most of the information presented in The White Man's Guide to White Male ... is general knowledge, but there was some interesting trivia ("Cormac" is not McCarthy's given name). Dana Schwartz seems most upset by how many wives some of these writers have had, but I'm not sure why she expected the wives to put up with these men for long. It's a short book, well padded with illustrations and cocktail recipes, which can be read in a sitting or even while standing in a book shop. A good gift for that right, literate person in your life. Fun, but not a necessary part of your personal library. In fairness, this book could've been much more pointed about cultural views and attitudes. But then it wouldn't be funny.  [3★]

Friday, January 3, 2020

The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster by Richard Brautigan (1969)

Richard Brautigan's first commercially published book of poetry (at age 33), including new poems and works collected from his earlier alternatively published books.

Poetry Review: The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster collects poetry from 1957 to 1968, including previously unpublished poems. Published the same year as Woodstock, the collection embodies the spirit of the Sixties while capturing personal, emotional moments and predicting the poetry of the future. Richard Brautigan (1935-84) was too late for the Beats, but too early for the hippies. Caught somewhere between he was just himself, one of a kind, and also a novelist (best known for In Watermelon Sugar). While he was not Whitman, Plath (his contemporary), or even Ginsberg (the leading Beat poet), it doesn't matter as it's easy to grow fond of his simple, direct, emotional poetry. Brautigan's work at times resembles what we now call tumblr poetry, Twitter poetry, or internet poetry: "I lift the toilet seat/as if it were the nest of a bird/and I see cat tracks/all around the edge of the bowl." Or, "It's so nice/to wake up in the morning/all alone/and not have to tell somebody/you love them/when you don't love them/any more." The poetry can also be absurd: "Death is a beautiful car parked only/to be stolen on a street lined with trees/whose branches are like the intestines/of an emerald." Or, "There are doors/that want to be free/from their hinges to/fly with perfect clouds." Some are surreal: "a cybernetic forest/filled with pines and electronics/where deer stroll peacefully/past computers/as if they were flowers." Or, "his coffin travels/like the fingers/of Beethoven/over a glass/of wine." Or, "Fish swim between our ribs/and sea gulls cry like mirrors/to our blood." Sometimes they're boldly straightforward and heartbreakingly honest: "I live in the Twentieth Century/and you lie here beside me. You/were unhappy when you fell asleep ... there's nothing/I can do to make you happy/while you sleep." Or, "I had a lot of trouble making/up my mind whether to eat Chinese/food or have a hamburger. God,/I hate eating dinner alone. It's/like being dead." These poems may make you want to write poetry, such as the ineffably sweet "Your Catfish Friend." Rock groups and pop culture of the time get a good mention ("The day they busted the Grateful Dead/was like a flight of winged alligators"). His poems are rare for the time in that they can be read straight through like a novel. Although the reader will still want to read each poem twice (almost all are short), they're immediate and easily accessible. Let me provide some background on The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and break down the contents of this book. It contains 98 poems, of which 38 were previously unpublished and 60 were selected from five of his six earlier books. Those 60 poems are the two-part poem "The Return of the Rivers" from 1957; the nine-part poem "The Galilee Hitchhiker" from 1958; nine poems of the 24 contained in Lay the Marble Tea (1959); seventeen poems of the 22 contained in The Octopus Frontier (1960); and the 32 poems from All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (1967). This collection doesn't include Please Plant this Book,  published in 1968, which consisted of eight poems printed on seed packets, four of flowers, four of vegetables. Brautigan went on to publish three more books of poetry, Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt (1970), Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork (1976), and June 30th, June 30th (1978). Encompassing the first 12 years of his poetry, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster is a perfect introduction to Richard Brautigan, and ends with this: "Spinning like a ghost/on the bottom of a/top,/I'm haunted by all/the space that I/will live without/you."  [4★]

The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway (1926)

The individual comic adventures of two men in rural Michigan.

Book Review: The Torrents of Spring (title stolen from Turgenev) was the first long work by Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) to be published (The Sun Also Rises was published later the same year). Apparently written in 10 days, it may have been intended as a contract breaker, though having it published after the contract was broken indicates that it meant more to Hemingway than simply its use as a negotiating tool. The novella was also meant to be comic, a satire, a parody of contemporary writers, particularly mentor and influence, Sherwood Anderson. His wife and Gertrude Stein thought it mean-spirited, but all artists must at some point break free of their influences to establish their own style and vision. William Faulkner said (in a different context), "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." All writers must figuratively kill their mentors, kill their heroes, at some point they have to abandon the authors that inspired, the models, the writers that they read over and over again, to become themselves, their own person. While The Torrents of Spring may have served that purpose for Hemingway, it did not create an enduring or particularly valuable work and it's his most forgotten novel. Mostly it seems silly, though if the reader's sense of humor inclines that way it may be hilarious. Every sentence in The Torrents of Spring seems to need to be edited, either because it's badly written or because it's nonsensical: "The single moment of spiritual communion that they had had, had been dissipated. They had never really had it. But they might have. It was no use now." This is the parody, but how long can one play a single note. A parody can go on too long and if the original is unknown or not worth parodying, it's the parody that fails, not the original. Here the parody includes references to tired old Europe and vibrant young America, and to many literary figures, though its not always clear what point he's making about them. The episodic plot, such as it is, only serves as a vehicle for the humor and satire. More pointedly, even if meant to be a parody of Sherwood Anderson, it's also reminiscent of Hemingway's own style: "He went out into the night.It seemed the only thing to do. He did it." While The Torrents of Spring is not a book to be avoided, there is little to be missed by not reading it except for the most loyal Hemingway readers who want to scrutinize every facet of his work.  [2½★]

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Incidental Inventions by Elena Ferrante (2019)

A year-long collection of weekly columns in the Guardian written by the author of the Neapolitan Quartet.

Nonfiction Review: Incidental Inventions is a book I was certain to read because I must devour everything Elena Ferrante writes. Had to read even though this wasn't fiction but a series of short essays on a variety of prompts suggested by the editors of the Guardian. Wonderfully, they're written by the same voice that wrote the fiction. The essays mostly fall into two categories: glimpses of her life that often show parallels to the novels, and her thoughts on a host of significant  contemporary issues. Included in the latter is her consistent dedication to daily and practical feminism. Despite her protestations as to the necessity of anonymity to her writing, for those interested these columns provide a great deal of biography and many hints as to where the books originated. Some of these brief rambles fill out ideas from the stories and readers who subscribe to the cult of personality will find many insights into the person who wrote the novels. There are numerous references to childhood, family, and her own life story. All enriched by the illustrations. There are also purely personal confessions. In Incidental Inventions we learn that Ferrante suffers from insomnia, is afraid of snakes, has trouble digesting pizza, that she was once a heavy smoker, that as a child she "was a big liar." All of which (except the last) completely irrelevant to our reading of her books. Incidental Inventions also contains her illuminating perceptions and understanding of a variety of matters important to conversations in today's world. These subjects are subtly expressed in the novels and elaborated on and enunciated in Frantumaglia. Even in these brief essays she's always discerning, enlightening. There is much to treasure seeing her mind at work. She lives life consciously, analytically. These essays appealed to me more than the personal information as I love to see her mind work. I respect Ferrante's position that we only need to know the author through her creations, which is why when she's spilling about her own life it seems contradictory. I don't need to know those things. What does interest me is when she's expressing her opinions. I enjoy seeing a strong, intelligent mind at work, with enough common sense to bring it all down to earth. Her many comments here on literature and writing constitute a graduate seminar on the subject: "All literature, great or small, is ... contemporary." I may not always agree (my exclamation points are not as phallic as hers), but I relish and value what she has to say. The Italian view of things is all too rare in the world. I only wish an American newspaper was cool enough to publish her column as the Guardian was,. I also wonder just how much controversy these columns stirred up with her thoughts on affirmative action and the (mostly hetero) relationship between the sexes. She notes that she refuses to speak badly of other women, even those she dislikes, because she knows the trials all women endure. There was no mention in Incidental Inventions of her outing by an Italian journalist or whether she'd publish again. After the outing and given her feelings about anonymity I was afraid that she might not write again, but I've just learned that The Lying Life of Adults will be released in English in June of 2020 (the Italian edition was published in November 2019). Until then, in this short book there is a seemingly limitless wealth of epigrams to spur and provoke. And for someone who has spent many pages with Elena Ferrante, even the personal information in Incidental Inventions was as enjoyable as news from an old friend.  [3½★]

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)

A man finds that his dreams change the world and so becomes afraid to dream.

SciFi Review: The Lathe of Heaven is short, but has Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) enjoying herself by doing what she does best. She combines an undercurrent of humor with elements that work on a serious and moral level. This kind of gentle, good natured comedy was occasionally seen in Sixties science fiction (see The High Crusade or The Technicolor Time Machine), here with a completely and resolutely average, bumbling protagonist. At first the story seemed somewhat slight, even posed against the backdrop of disastrous climate change (published in 1971 but set around 2010). But the respite of humor fades amidst the darkness, chaos, and dreams become nightmares. Le Guin is willing to address the big issues, watching civilization collapse. In The Lathe of Heaven she looks at the law of unintended consequences: how attempts at social engineering can go wrong, how good intentions can go astray, how nothing turns out quite the way we want it to. How the world may be a mass of misery, but there's no instant remedy in any larger sense and could always be worse. As did Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood's End, she wonders if perfection becomes joyless. She reminds us that humans aren't capable of being God, but making a deal with the Devil provides no answer either. The story reminded of the three wishes of the jinn, when each wish somehow flips from what was wanted and turns wrong (see the movie Bedazzled (1967 & 2000)). As I read I wondered if our protagonist George Orr was a tip of the hat to George Orwell and the story was a nod to Philip K. Dick. The Lathe of Heaven is short, quick, interesting. When finished, the book continued to grow and kept percolating through my mind. Always a good sign in a book.  [3½★]