Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘reading’ category

Almost by accident, I picked the perfect book to entice me back into regularly blogging. I had a very early train ride this morning (to go listen in on a translator friend’s lecture on translating “time” (tenses) from French into Japanese – which was excellent for a nerdy language type like me), and as I raced out the door, I grabbed Ivan Vladislavić’s little book, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories* (Seagull Books, 2014, and which includes a series of excellent illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee). Forty-five minutes later and I almost stayed on the train and missed my friend’s lecture. This tiny little book is very hard to put down and I’ve kept it with me all day, finishing it a few hours ago in a café beside my daughter’s drawing class.

The collection is comprised of ten essays, divided into two brackets of five that embrace the book’s centerpiece: the titular short story, “The Loss Library.”

This very short fiction describes a man guided by a mysterious librarian through the shelves of The Loss Library – a museum arrangement of books that were never written (arranged by the author’s type of death), books that were destroyed, books that were forgotten, and so on. I won’t go into details because it would spoil this wonderfully imaginative story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. It also breaks Vladislavić’s collection so perfectly in half.

The rest of the book’s essays each take one of the author’s unfinished ideas and describe it, annotate it, discuss the research that went into it, as well as muse upon why the idea was never completed. The result is a series of complex and touching reflections upon writerly and readerly inspiration, upon those mysterious synergies of thought and observation that result in the creation or non-creation of art. The essays reach both inward toward and outward from the writer, braiding memory and literature and happenstance. The effect is meditative, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous. My overall feeling is the delight of seeing how an incomplete idea can become fertile ground for a different kind of art and reflection altogether.

I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite from this slim volume – each essay adds something unique to Vladislavić’s evolving perspective. But a single line won’t let me go – I read it this morning about 25 minutes into my train ride, and I was still thinking about it as the sun set outside the window of that small, overheated café:

All fiction is the factual refracted.

The line comes from the essay entitled “Mrs B”, about Vladislavić’s unfinished idea to write something about Mrs. Burden, the wife of the American naturalist W. Douglas Burden. That essay is about so much more than just the transposition of event or fact into fiction – it touches on a variety of issues related to colonialism, on narrative inspiration and the way a character develops or not out of the writer’s mind – but this single idea, and the choice of the word “refracted” has stopped me; in it I can see angles of light, variations of focus, broken perspectives and the multiplying possibilities of deflection. It’s genius and I’ll be considering it for some time to come.

I’ve not read any of Vladislavić’s fiction but am now very intrigued to see what I make of it…

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As keeps happening, this blog has been sorely neglected lately. I don’t want to let it go, but I need to find a way to make it work and keep it going. I’ve never wanted my website to be a landing page with links to my publications – I like writing about books too much, and I like the discussions that still crop up. But I feel scattered these days across several social media outlets and many book conversations are reduced to photos and one-liners. I am as guilty of this as everyone else.

Sigh.

In any case, I am thinking very hard how to keep this book blog running. I find when I am not writing about the books I’ve read, that I forget them all too quickly (I’ve had to comb through various messages and posts to even put this list together).

Here is what I’ve been reading this autumn:

  • Day for Night – Frederick Reiken (a reread)
  • The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
  • The Plains – Gerald Murnane
  • The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  • Push – Sapphire (a reread)
  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene (a reread)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Accidental – Ali Smith
  • Imagine Me Gone – Adam Haslett
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper (reading the 5book Dark is Rising series with my daughter)
  • The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata
  • Kudos – Rachel Cusk

My beloved book group and a novel class I’m teaching this fall have dictated most of these choices, but it’s been a rich reading period nonetheless. I already wrote about a few of these here.

I also read quite a few short stories over the last two months, jumping around between different collections like: David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On, Shusako Endo’s Stained Glass Elegies, Grace Paley’s Complete Collection, Lispector’s Complete Stories, and What We Do With the Wreckage by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum.

For some strange reason I did not finish Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, so I’m going back to that right away.  And I know I read something else while traveling through the US in October but I cannot recall what – hence the need to get back to writing, even a little, about each of the books that I read…

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My second novel, Unfurled, comes out next week, and I’ll be traveling around the US for the next few weeks for some readings and other events, and then back home to Switzerland – if I’m coming to your area, please come and say hello.

Unfurled Events flyer

From The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugrešić

On the third day, we, actors in a silent film, got up and went outside. The sun glared like a spotlight, we walked through Marienplatz dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words. The air smelled of hot wine, cloves and cinnamon, it was Carnival time, the middle of February. We were like actors in a cheap operetta, again surrounded by the requisite stage set. The white sun, like a magnifying glass, revealed every little line on our faces, and we instinctively sought the protection of the icy shadows.

 

From N’avez vous pas froid, Hélène Bessette

Le même jour. Minuit.

As-tu pensé ?

As-tu pensé que certains gens vivent entre le manger et le dormir. Le travail qui permet le dormir et le manger.

As-tu pensé ?

Que certains gens croient ce qui est admis ?

Vivant de la grammaire habituelle.

Sont satisfaits des mots.

Ne posent pas de question. Sont sans question.

Ne répondent pas.

Ne savent ni rire ni pleurer.

A peine rire.

A peine pleurer.

Reading makes me feel alive. Earlier today I looked over the books I’ve read this year and while it was nice to mentally revisit many of them, what I noticed most was how few there actually were and that since November, I hadn’t actually finished a single book. Ali Smith’s Artful is the last book I read start to finish. (It’s excellent, by the way—delicate, clever, surprising.) Overall, I read far fewer books in 2016 compared to other recent years and wish that weren’t so. But there it is.

Luckily, my list of essays and short stories this month has done what I’d hoped it would do—I’m reading again. Indiscriminately, messily, chaotically. All kinds of writers, essays and stories from different decades, even centuries. It’s marvelous and has my brain moving in all sorts of directions. A welcome relief from the news cycle.

I mentioned Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water” in my last post and I doubt anything else I read this month will compare, but several of the essays/stories have been excellent. Katherine Anne Porter (1890 to 1980) is a discovery. How have I never read her before? Her essay “St. Augustine and the Bullfight” made me laugh out loud (her descriptions of people are a delight) but it also had me cringing (her honesty about the human thrill for violence); I will be looking for more of her work. And “Miss Grief” by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894) was fascinating—two writers, one male, one female, and the dynamic between them. Writerly ambitions, public reception, poverty, etc. It definitely made me curious to read more of her work, of which there is plenty. I found this last story in a collection called Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. An inspiring secondhand bookshop find.

Yesterday I read James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” This comes from his collection published in the early 1960s, and while the essay is devastatingly good, it’s also depressing. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it feels as though only the specific details he uses to make his point have changed. America is still a deeply divided country and the same tools are used to maintain the affluence of a few at the expense of the many. Reading Baldwin is a pure pleasure, though. His non-fiction is as vibrant and animated as his fiction.

I’m also now reading three different books: Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (Ivan Morris translation) and Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I’m surprised to be reading so much non-fiction as I don’t usually gravitate in this direction, but these three books are wonderful to dip in and out of, and they couldn’t be more different. An example of three books most decidedly NOT speaking to each other, which suits me fine right now.

Skyfaring is a distraction, but an intriguing and entertaining one. A way to look at the world from a different perspective, and one I will never personally experience. Vanhoenacker is a commercial airline pilot with an unmistakable passion for flying. He writes about what it’s like to crisscross the world at such a great height, and he writes gracefully.

The Pillow Book is a brilliant piece of writing. It feels quaint and archaic, because it is, but it is also fragmented and eccentric in a very modern way. Shonagon is wickedly funny in terms of telling stories and relating “court” life, but she’s also quietly attentive to nature, to people, to life. Her lists are a delight:

 

30. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

 

Dried hollyhock. the objects used during the Display of the Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-coloured material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

Her lists of Hateful Things or Depressing Things are genuinely funny. But she also writes about events or meetings, conversations and anecdotes. There is something silly and superficial about her book—in its discussions of court life and good manners and the like—but it has a serious heart and she is wonderfully sharp in her observations, poetic in her approach.

Finally, I will finish Gillian Rose’s collection of essays Love’s Work this evening and write more about it later. It is fierce. I love it.

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Someone tweeted a marvelous idea this morning – an advent reading calendar. I sipped my coffee and let my eyes wander over the slim titles of someone else’s 25-day reading plan, and I knew immediately that I wanted to do the same. My brain has been anchored in politics and final novel edits for a manuscript that is finally in my agent’s capable hands and out of my mind for a while (hooray!), and so a little nudge to get me reading broadly and haphazardly is very welcome. I love reading with a plan and often follow a thread from one book to another, but sometimes it’s nice to cast a wide net and see what that can spark.

The only book I’ve been able to focus on recently is Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, and it is really lovely, but it’s an escape as well, giving me distance from the planet and very gentle commentary on the human love of height, speed, and flying. It’s a great read but I need more and am not sure where to go.

So here is a list of short stories and essays that I’ve never read, that I have already on my shelves and that I’d like to read over the next 25 days. I’ve deliberately left myself four empty spots* because I’m hoping any of you might give me some suggestions and throw me in wild and varied directions – so what is the best short story or essay you’ve read recently?

* I’ve gotten some wonderful suggestions, but would welcome more…

1 Dec Jane Bowles – A Day in the Open
2 Dec Jane Hirshfield – The World is Large and Full of Noises
3 Dec Phyllis Rose – Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty & Pain
4 Dec James Baldwin – Exodus
5 Dec Katherine Anne Porter – St.Augustin and the Bullfight
6 Dec Anne Carson – Kinds of Water
7 Dec Kate Chopin – An Egyptian Cigarette
8 Dec Constance Fenimore Woolson – Miss Grief
9 Dec Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Lives of Strangers
10 Dec Ada Leverson – Suggestion
11 Dec Charles Simic – Reading Philosophy at Night
12 Dec Olive Schreiner – Three Dreams in a Desert
13 Dec Jamaica Kincaid – Figures in the Distance
14 Dec James Baldwin – 5th Ave, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem
15 Dec Geoff Dyer – Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
16 Dec Rebecca Solnit – Two Arrowheads
17 Dec Sherman Alexie – The Toughest Indian in the World
18 Dec Michelle Cliff – Transactions
19 Dec Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women
20 Dec Jan Carson – Settling
21 Dec Eudora Welty – A Sweet Devouring
22 Dec  Anna Kavan – The Brother
23 Dec  Alice Walker – The Flowers
24 Dec
25 Dec

 

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For two years now, I’ve helped organize a small writers’ retreat in France with two other women. I’m immensely lucky to know the writers Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen, whom I met when we were all three studying for our MFA in Boston over ten years ago. They are both talented, passionate writers and teachers – not to mention being quite a lot of fun to spend time with.

When Fog Island Mountains came out, the three of us had a mini-celebration over pizza in Mystic, CT of all places and got to talking about lives, schedules, writing, and teaching. We are all busy juggling work and writing and families and… none of this is surprising, this is how everyone in (most of) the world now seems to live. Sigh. Constant juggling, constant striving for balance. In any case, we threw ourselves a challenge that day—to manage a week away, once a year, no kids, no spouses, no cooking, just writing, just book talk, just walks in the country. And we wanted to provide this space for other writers, too, especially those in the same kinds of situations.

We founded L’atelier writers’ retreat and workshop within weeks, found a location and set a date.

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A word on the location because we could not have been more lucky—this is a small, rural bed and breakfast in France run by teachers and booklovers. The staff members have pooled their personal libraries to fill the place with books. And when we arrived last year for the first retreat, we were all delighted with the atmosphere—a mixture of elegantly eccentric and charmingly rustic. Think architectural salvage put to very good use mixed somehow with summer camp and the whole thing works. The sheer number of books in all the buildings and rooms that make up this unique hotel create the best ambiance.

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In any case, I’ve just returned from our second annual retreat and am still feeling inspired. It’s a rare indulgence to take a step back from the all-too-often-horrible, always-busy world and just focus on the things I love the most—reading, writing, talking with other readers and writers. It’s also an immense pleasure to hear how other writers approach their work and see their projects develop through conversations with other writers/readers. I’m not a natural teacher because I can be very nervous speaking in front of large groups, but I absolutely LOVE thinking about and discussing how people work through internal questions (both emotional and aesthetic) through poetry and writing and story. This fascinates me.

Last year we were five, this year we were ten. We brought our books, short stories, and poetry to this rural hideaway, we brought our internal libraries (a source of immense pleasure in discussion), we brought our critical minds and our humor. And we worked really hard.

I’ve come to associate the first stanza of Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole” with l’Atelier and I’ll put it here below. There’s a long story why I associate this stanza with this retreat, which I won’t go into… but here it is, because it’s lovely, because it recreates the feeling I have when I indulge this need of mine to take a step out of the world and be quiet and singularly focused for an entire week:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
I am what is missing.

Recently some friends of mine were bemoaning what they called “The Twitter culture” and how people don’t “talk” about much anymore, and I was happy to be able to jump in and say that while I think I know what they mean in a general sense (although not sure I’d agree with it – I think it just depends on the people you’re talking to), in a specific sense I’ve got mostly only good things to say about Twitter. From my view behind Tweetdeck, there is a non-stop books/literature/poetry/writing discussion going on, and I’m privileged to be able to jump in and out whenever the mood strikes.

Yesterday I asked about book recommendations and came away with a lovely long list of books, some I’ve heard of but forgotten to acquire and read, as well as some new-to-me titles that look absolutely wonderful.

I asked for books that were, “shortish, weird, metafictional, and poetic” because I seem to have the best luck with these lately. I love the range of titles that came back, and I think it’s worth sharing the list (which includes a few books I came across when looking up some of the suggested books) and asking for additional suggestions:

  • Ban en Banlieue – Bhanu Khapil
  • Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
  • Bluets – Maggie Nelson
  • Pond – Claire Louise Bennet
  • Hausfrau – Jill Alexander Essbaum
  • Heraclitus in Sacramento – David Carl
  • The Plains – Gerald Murnane
  • Uses of Literature – Rita Felski
  • Mildew – Paulette Jonguitud
  • Karate Chop – Dorthe Nors
  • Theory of Prose – Victor Shklovsky
  • DAN – Joanna Ruocco
  • Things to Make and Break – May-Lan Tan
  • A Book of Silence – Sara Maitland
  • Dans La Pénombre – Juan Benet
  • Tu Reviendras à Région – Juan Benet
  • Suite for Barbara Loden – Nathalie Leger
  • The Laughter of the Thracian Woman – Hans Blumenberg
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Through a friend, I recently discovered the Scottish writer Janice Galloway and her first novel The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989). Sometimes books make their way into your brain at exactly the right time. I had my copy for a few weeks but happened to start reading it on a day when I needed something completely distracting, something that would absorb me fully for a few solid hours. As luck would have it, this was the perfect book for that.

This is one of those books I love writing about because it falls outside of “conventional” writing and so I find it harder to describe, harder to pull apart. The Trick is to Keep Breathing has very little story, its timeline jumps and twists and inverts, it introduces characters at random and with no explanation, and even the formatting runs askew all over the page. All of this makes for concentrated reading. The overall effect is very intense. Since some of those descriptions could sound negative, let me say how much I loved the book.

It is a grief story and it’s also very much an internal monologue/dialogue. I say dialogue because a lot of the book works as a conversation that a woman is having with herself and with the universe. The kind of conversation a person finds herself holding in a moment of pure panic. Except this is panic that lasts, that just goes on and on. And effectively, the narrator, Joy, is writing from a place of deep trauma. I won’t give any details about the root of her trauma because one aspect of the book’s interest is seeing how this is revealed.

Galloway sets up the book to look at this trauma in a unique way. Joy writes:

I can’t remember the last week with any clarity.

I want to be able to remember it because it was the last time anything was in any way unremarkable. Eating and drinking routinely, sleeping when I wanted to. It would be nice to remember but I don’t.

Now I remember everything all the time.

There are two things about these deceptively simple lines. The first is the word “unremarkable” – such an easy word, but in the context of the novel practically shouts. Because of what has happened, life’s easy bits now take up too much space. Eating, drinking, sleeping. These are no longer a given. These actions are now remarkable. And then that last line is, to me, where the book’s entire premise lies. It signals that Joy’s world has lost its sense of order. She states this quite calmly, Now I remember everything all the time. But just imagine the force of this kind of constant remembering. What this really means is that Joy cannot get beyond that “everything” (which is both one single moment and her entire lifetime of memories) and so the next 230 pages take up the task of showing exactly what this actually feels like.

Much of what I’ve read about the book deals with Joy’s experience in clinical terms—this is what depression looks like, for example. The book certainly does do this, and there is a quite eviscerating criticism of health care practices surrounding mental illness to be found in these pages, but I couldn’t help thinking more how The Trick is to Keep Breathing does something much simpler and more profound at the same time. I most admired the novel because it does not shy away from depicting the messiness of strong emotion. And in particular a woman’s strong emotions. There are so many people throughout the book who want Joy to pretend to be handling things better. Who don’t want her emotional overflow. She wants this too, at times. But the depth of her feeling is just too strong. This is highly inconvenient to everyone about her. Especially as she does awkward, dangerous, discomfort-producing things. She puts people off, because she just feels too much. And ultimately she isn’t fit for “society” and must “go away” for a time in the hopes of finding her way back.

Finally, the oddness of the prose suited me immensely. I love this kind of close interior narration, even when the subject is dark and sometimes difficult, and especially because Galloway does such a good job of showing Joy’s erratic movement through thought and feeling. It’s all very raw, and confusing in the best of ways. To finish, here is just a small sample, from one of the novel’s most important scenes:

The first symptom of non-existence is weightlessness.

            The second is singing in the ears, a quiet acceptance of the unreality of all things. Then the third takes over in earnest. The third is shaking.

[…]

            I knew it couldn’t be me.

            I didn’t exist.

           The miracle had wiped me out.

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One of the most useful things I took away from my MFA program was a way to read with an eye on the writing. Maybe some writers do this instinctively, maybe I was doing it a little bit on my own before I became aware of it, but now I work very hard to do this consciously and with each book that I read.

I don’t just mean the larger decisions like POV or tense or structure. I try to keep track of the smaller stuff as well, like how a particular author handles transitions between scenes or time periods or how they might break into a scene with narrative summation, how long they let that summation last and how they get back to the action. I try looking for certain stylistic repetitions and why they might be useful or what kind of decisions an author has made about revelation vs. suggestion. I’ve found that cataloguing these kind of textual details gives me something to go and look at when I get stuck in a scene or an idea and don’t quite know how to work through it.

Sometime last year I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and although this book was intensely gripping I couldn’t keep my writer brain from taking some serious notes about how he sustained such intensity for over 200 pages. First off, structurally, he does not ever give the reader a break. There are no natural pauses in the text, no line breaks and no real time jumps. Each scene moves directly and smoothly into the next, something which makes it difficult for many readers to put the book down. Second, he only allows his main character’s focus to waver from the present action (i.e. to reflect on the past) on three or four very short occasions. So those moments really stand out, like little psychic breakdowns, and are subsequently very powerful. Also, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about any actual violence. His restraint is pretty amazing and I think it pays off. Leaving things to the reader’s imagination in many scenes is much worse. There’s plenty of examples and I should drag out my notes and do a proper post on this book sometime, because in terms of crafting this type of fiction, it’s a goldmine.

So if I ever want to write a novel with a similar intensity I would go back and read The Road about a million times, looking for all these details. I would probably also take out Don Delillo’s The Body Artist and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Another writer that comes to mind is Virginia Woolf. In To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway she writes with a similar intensity, keeping the reader thoroughly submerged beneath the story, although her overall affect is much less “dark”.

I enjoy going through as much fiction as possible this way because it helps me understand what kind of aesthetic I create with my own choices when I’m writing. I like what McCarthy did to establish an intense reading experience so I want to see if some of those techniques apply to my own writing. They won’t always but I hope that examining his choices is one way to develop as a writer.

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