Can’t and Won’t

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis

publication date: 2014
pages: 304
ISBN: 978-0374118587

If I were to write this review in the style of Lydia Davis’s new book Can’t and Won’t, it would look something like this:

A Review of a Book That I Read

I sit here at my laptop; the cheap laptop that I purchased some years ago while I was drunk in an electronics store with my boyfriend who I had been with for many months after we drank several higher-priced beers, and I thoughtfully write this review. My fingers and thumbs tap the hard black keyboard, which has white writing on it – the writing is in the shape of the letters or symbols that appear on screen as I hit the keys.

My mind ponders this book, which is a collection of stories and observations. I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt because I always give books the benefit of the doubt, even if they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. However, I can’t do that with this book because as I read it, as my eyes moved from left to right over the off-white pages in the act of reading, my brain was screaming at me to stop reading, to stop my eyes’ movement, to sleep, to dream, to never wake again; or at the very least to read something else.

I reflect on what others would optimistically call the content of Can’t and Won’t. The author, who I don’t know but I’m sure is personally known by a great number of people, seemed to think of this book as a repository for any wisp of an idea that flew through her mind, much as a good book would be a repository for fully-developed good ideas that the author culled and deliberately chose. Much of this book doubles as a dream journal, with Davis soberly relaying the plots of her dreams, including the two dreams where she went to the bank, which was different but she knew it was a bank, you know how it is in dreams; the dream where she walked through a hallway with a white dog; and the dream where she had a bodyguard.

Perhaps the most maddening portion of this very maddening book, was when Davis spent 15 pages, which was one of the longest passages, and when I say that I don’t mean a hallway but rather an assemblage of words in a book, stating her observations about some cows, in a way that I can only describe as Randy Newmanesque:

They are motionless until they move again, one foot and then another – fore, hind, fore, hind – and stop in another place, motionless again. . . .

They are often like a math problem: 2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or: 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.

Today, they are all three lying down. . . .

At dusk, when our light is on indoors, they can’t be seen, though they are there in the field across the road. If we turn off the light and look out into the dusk, gradually they can be seen again.

Like 17 vacuum cleaners sitting on a showroom floor after the 18th vacuum cleaner has just been purchased, this book sucked.

2/6: many problems

New York Times
Christian Science Monitor
The Boston Globe

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

publication date: 2013
pages: 243
ISBN: 978-0-307-95723-8

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of short stories published by Karen Russell, the author of Swamplandia! In this collection, Russell explores the strength of humanity and her vivid imagination by presenting eight stories from diverse points-of-view.

Russell clearly spent time researching, honing, and crafting her stories. They are peppered with minor facts, such as massage techniques, silkworm biology, and Antarctic geography. Additionally, the often-fantastical settings of the stories are richly and vividly conveyed. After I put the book down, the thing my mind would turn to most in reflection was the settings of the stories. Perhaps the most indelible such setting was found in “Reeling for the Empire,” a story of Japanese young women tricked into producing silk by being turned into silkworms themselves. The setting was a factory cave and in one sentence Russell tells you almost everything you need to know:

One of the consequences of our captivity here in Nowhere Mill, and of the darkness that pools on the factory floor, and of the polar fur that covers our faces, blanking us all into sisters, is that anybody can be anyone she likes in the past.

However, Russell’s intense research and near-universal success at invoking atmosphere was not always enough to create a successful story. In fact, the breadth of the varying narrators and characters’ knowledge about obscure topics sometimes made a story forced or inorganic, as if Russell spent more time researching her subject matter than thinking about her characters or plots. Additionally, many of the stories were just fun ideas she probably should have left as ideas. For instance, “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” was a list of rules for those who want to travel to Antarctica to watch Team Whale beat Team Krill in the Food Chain Games. Kind of an amusing idea but am I really going to enjoy reading ten pages about that?

Russell’s dialogue was also inconsistent. There was a great scene in “The New Veterans” where two adult sisters fight about the responsibilities they shared during their mother’s illness and death. The sisters are petty, ordinary, and a little mean and the dialogue conveys a sense that they’ve had this argument before. But, notwithstanding that excellent bit, much of Russell’s dialogue is contrived.

Some of the stories I would read as quickly as I could just so they would be finished, but others would contain these nuggets of literary gold that I would write down, ponder, and summon to my mind much later. For example, this line from “Reeling for the Empire,”

Regret is a pilgrimage back to the place where I was free to choose.

Or this one from “The Seagull Army descends on Strong Beach, 1979:”

That summer Nal was fourteen and looking for excuses to have extreme feelings about himself.

The stories are not all great, but the good ones are just good enough to be worth reading the whole book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the collection:

npr
New York Times
A.V. Club

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

publication date: 2010
pages: 623 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-679-44432-9

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson documented the Great Migration, or the movement of black Americans from the South to Northern cities from 1915 to 1970. This movement, though relatively unknown, was profound. For example, according to Wilkerson,

In Chicago alone, the black population rocketed from 44,103 (just under three percent of the population) at the start of the Migration to more than one million at the end of it. By the turn of the twenty-first century, blacks made up a third of the city’s residents, with more blacks living in Chicago than in the entire state of Mississippi.

To support her book, Wilkerson used surveys and studies, both old and new; census data; and in-depth interviews with three subjects who made the journey from the South to the North themselves. Wilkerson presented her book as a story about the three subjects, but within a broader framework of movement and change.

This book was packed with wonderful information. Wilkerson was clearly passionate and knowledgeable about the material. The book’s discussion was comprehensive. Wilkerson examined everything from white flight and the courting of black labor by northern industry to race riots and being black in Las Vegas. She explored several topics I’d never thought of, such as the shift in attitude of white Southerners after the Civil War and during Jim Crow:

The planter class, which had entrusted its wives and daughters to male slaves when the masters went off to fight the Civil War, was now in near hysterics over the slightest interaction between white women and black men.

Although Wilkerson was good at presenting research and data, she also excelled at more personal storytelling. She included several anecdotes about recognizable people whose families were part of the Great Migration, such as Ray Charles, Jesse Owens, and Michelle Obama. Also, her exceptional analysis of her three main case studies, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, was somehow both reverent and uncompromising. By the end of the book, I felt like I knew these people. Her discussion at that point had turned less from the broad sketch of the Great Migration to a detailed portrait of her aging migrants. She surprisingly spent her last chapters presenting the indignities and dignity that can be found in old age.

For how good the book was, it was not without flaw. Conspicuously, it suffered from a fault that is seemingly written into every nonfiction writer’s contract: repetitiveness. I don’t know if nonfiction books are usually written as separate articles or thesis papers, or if editors just don’t think readers can keep up, but they are repetitive. Likewise, the chapters had inconsistent formats and typography. More troubling, two or three of her statistics seemed unsound. For example, this statement, which supposedly showed that Southern black migrants had more education than the northern white population:

In Philadelphia, for instance, some thirty-nine percent of the blacks who had migrated from towns or cities had graduated from high school, compared with thirty-three percent of the native whites.

I find that statistic troubling because it didn’t demonstrate as much as she claimed. What if only 1% of Southern blacks moving to Philadelphia migrated from towns or cities and the rest of the migrants hadn’t graduated high school? That would mean 1/3 of a percent of the migrating people graduated from high school, which would support an opposite conclusion than Wilkerson’s.

Those data-based issues were few and far between. Largely, The Warmth of Other Suns is a rich and informative book.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of the book:

New York Times
AARP
LA Times

The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

publication date: 1971
pages: 175
ISBN: 0-380-79185-4

The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction classic, had me hooked from the first haunted sentence:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss.

With that line, Le Guin began an exploration of the mind’s ability to change the world and humanity’s capacity for power. The book, set in Portland in the very near future, followed George Orr, a troubled young man who was mandated to visit psychiatrist William Haber. While visiting Dr. Haber, Orr confessed that he believes his dreams have the ability to actually change reality. The remainder of the book focused on Dr. Haber’s attempts to “cure” Orr, often with disastrous results.

The plot of The Lathe of Heaven was the focal point. Le Guin created an imaginative future touched with just enough realism to be compelling. Her plot, although implausible, did not seem impossible. Le Guin used her plot, which was infused with a sense of dread throughout, to reflect on man’s foibles.

Because this was a science fiction book, which usually concentrate on plot or message, I was surprised by how satisfying Le Guin’s characters were. Her characters were well-crafted and beautifully explained. Here is her account of Heather LeLache:

Why hadn’t she been a detective instead of a goddam stupid third-class civil rights lawyer? She hated the law. It took an aggressive, assertive personality. She didn’t have it. She had a sneaky, sly, shy, squamous personality. She had French diseases of the soul.

There were only a few problems I had with the book. First, my edition, a 1997 Avon Books Trade printing, was riddled with spelling errors. There were so many errors I started to wonder if that was part of the book. Second, the pacing lagged slightly in the second half the book. The third and biggest problem I had with the book was Le Guin’s scattered bouts of preachiness. For example, this statement, which seemingly was placed in the book for no other purpose than its message:

The insistent permissiveness of the late Twentieth Century had produced fully as much sex-guilt and sex-fear in its heirs as had the insistent repressiveness of the late Nineteenth Century.

Despite these minor flaws, The Lathe of Heaven is a thought-provoking and entertaining read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book:

SF Signal
Pop Mythology
The Canary

Y: The Last Man – Unmanned

Y: The Last Man “Unmanned” by Brian K. Vaughan

publication date: 2003
pages: 127
ISBN: 1-56389-980-9

Y: The Last Man is a comic book series following Yorick Brown, a regular guy who just happens to be the last man on Earth. “Unmanned” is the first collection in the series and it encompasses issues 1 through 5. “Unmanned” begins with a normal day: Yorick talking with his girlfriend, war in the Middle East, a young woman in labor. However, after only a few pages, the scenes alter horrifically: all the men are suddenly and inexplicably dead. All the men except Yorick and his monkey Ampersand.

I’ve read only a few comic books and I’ve never finished a series. So I wouldn’t say I am familiar with the style. But “Unmanned” had me hooked from the very first grim and compelling page. The story was interesting and original, which Vaughan and his team took fully advantage of. “Unmanned” explored many issues and oddities concerning gender and power. For example, in one scene the wives of several politicians storm the White House with guns and armored vehicles. While this is happening, Yorick is saying what we’re all thinking: “Are you serious? After all the men died, I thought you guys would be holding hands down at the United Nations or something. When the hell did women get so petty and … and power-hungry?” Y: The Last Man suggests the answer to that question: maybe all humans have the capacity to be petty and power-hungry, just as all humans have the capacity to be gentle and mothering.

Aside from any message Vaughan was trying to send, Y: The Last Man was an exciting read with potent and emotive illustrations. There was a great panel when Yorick is told his father is, in fact, dead. The illustration conveyed the hope Yorick was feeling and how quickly it turned to despair.

The comic also contained humor and lightheartedness, including romance. The only area I thought the series faltered was fight scenes. None of those scenes had any action, movement, or thrill. However, that is not a large portion of “Unmanned” and the rest was compelling.

I would recommend Y: The Last Man to diehard comic readers (although, if you are a diehard, you’ve probably read it already) and to comic newbies.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

A.V. Club
Comic Vine
Pop Critics

The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

publication date: 2001
pages: 374
ISBN: 0-670-03064-3

The Eyre Affair came highly recommended to me by two people. The book follows Thursday Next, a literary detective living in England in 1985. However, Thursday Next’s England is somewhat different from the England we remember. In Thursday’s world, time travel is possible, England has been warring with Russia for decades in the Crimea, and the dodo is a popular house pet. Additionally, literary detectives like Thursday find employment solving crimes against, and even within, classic literature.

For most of this book, I was slightly confused or bewildered. There are several plot devices I think are supposed to be witty and humorous but I just thought they were stupid and pointless. For example, Thursday’s uncle, a scientist, bred worms to slither over the written word and somehow understand it. He names these creatures bookworms or, more specifically, HyperBookwormDoublePlusGood. Additionally, in this universe, the banana is a food invented by a woman named Anna Bannon. Fforde inserts little plot points or tidbits like these for reasons that I did not understand and did not find clever. And, in the case of the banana, this flippant change whitewashed over centuries of history concerning the banana industry.

Another chronic problem in the book is character names. I don’t think of myself as a character name purist or anything, but, as with other books I’ve read since starting this blog (e.g. Artemis Fowl, Black Dagger Brotherhood), I had a problem with the character names in The Eyre Affair. The villain’s last name is Hades. Characters who solved mysteries involving books have names like Paige Turner and Victor Analogy. A large corporation, which sold everything from food and clothes to the news and weapons, is called Goliath Corp. An attractive actress is known as Lola Vavoom. These names might be considered clever; I found them boring and insulting. I felt like Fforde is just using the names as a shortcut for effective character description. An unsavory character’s name is Jack Schitt. It’s like Fforde is saying, “No, trust me, even if you don’t think this Schitt guy is that bad, he’s really bad. I mean, look at his name!”

Notwithstanding the faults I found in the book, which go beyond the few I described above, Thursday Next is a satisfying character. I love that Fforde wrote a female character who still does many of the things male characters do. For example, Thursday generally refers to people by their last names. Additionally, one of the best parts of the book is Thursday’s reflections on her time as a soldier in the Crimean war. During these discussions, Thursday becomes a fully-developed, perfectly flawed character with a past, a present, and a future.

Even though this isn’t my favorite book, some people will like it, including readers of Douglas Adams and literature buffs.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

New York Times
Salon
USA Today

Very Recent History

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City by Choire Sicha

publication date: 2013
pages: 240
ISBN: 978-0-06-191430-0

From the title of this book, I expected it to contain a journalistic report of living in New York City for a year during “the Great Recession.” I anticipated a kind of objective history text that discussed not history, but the near present.

Very Recent History started off that way. The first paragraph, for example, stated something factually true, but maybe not currently considered significant, about living in New York:

One cold night in winter a young man named John walked down a street in the City. It was free to walk on the streets, although to take a public conveyance, such as a subway or a bus, cost money.

Although the book began as I expected, by discussing life in “the City” in an objective and detached way, the bulk of it was inconsistent and jumbled. The book began by discussing several macro and micro aspects of living in the City, including following several “characters,” who were presumably real people. However, a main character, John, began to emerge. As Very Recent History accompanied John in his working and dating exploits, the book became much more about narrating John’s life and much less about overtly examining the time and place in which John lived. As soon as I got a handle on this new, narrative style of the book, Sicha unfortunately injected a third, separate manner of writing. This aspect of the book would discuss something that was happening in John’s life, and then include a paragraph or two about something completely unrelated, such as homelessness, that I guess was meant to elucidate something about modern living.

This aimlessness led to passages that were both confusing and boring. For example, in one passage, the book discussed that John went to a bar called Sugarland, wherein, “It got very flirty, for no good reason. He was drunk. Well, they were all drunk.” Just a few sentences later, Sicha completely changed gears, stating, “It was easier to not have a home in the summer than to not have a home in the winter, due almost entirely to the weather.” Then, only two sentences later, another seemingly random about face and Sicha was discussing the amount of John’s vacation time.

Very Recent History did not contain enough material to be a purely informative, detached, ironic account of “very recent history,” so I understand why Sicha included the narrative portions of the book. I think, however, it would have been more successful if the book had not been framed in the title as a quasi-history book. If, instead, the book had been presented as a narrative account interspersed with observations about modern living, maybe I would have been better able to handle the shifts in presentation.

Another, related problem with Very Recent History was the dissonant changes in tone. Sometimes passages would be written in a dry, almost cumbersome, style. This passage about sexual proclivities, for example:

Sometimes people refused to acknowledge their sexual selves, leading to later trouble with mates. They hadn’t been doing what they wanted, but they hadn’t known it. For instance, many people wanted to have sex with a number of people, but they, by habit or pressure, ended up in agreements that they would have sex with just one person only.

However, other passages were written in a jaunty, childlike tone:

Then it was that time already, winter was coming on, now all the trees were all dead again!

This book attempted to tell us something about the isolation and absurdity of modern living, but was bogged down in the inconsistent narrative.

3/6: more good than bad

The Atlantic
The New York Observer (sidenote: although never explicitly stated, the main character worked at The New York Observer)
Entertainment Weekly