Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is the second mythology-soaked literary account of Hurricane Katrina I’ve read in the last few months, which is odd, and completely unintentional, as I picked this book up only because of good things I’d heard about its author, Jesmyn Ward. The narrative presence of the storm doesn’t even present itself until nearly a quarter of the way through, but the intertextual dependence the narrative has on the many different incarnations that the story of Jason and Medea has taken is quickly realized. The lack of any single authoritative plot with regard to that epic makes it an incredibly nimble framing device, as the reader not only can call on many shapes of the same story, but has no idea just exactly where the novel’s narrative might be compelled to go. Nifty.


Ward has studied with some literary heavy hitters, including my guy Tobias Wolff, and it shows in her prose. The novel is told from the perspective of a young black teen, and while there is nothing so flashy or ostentatious that it rings false, the voice is beautiful, observant and descriptive in metaphor and allusion. It’s quiet and well-paced, building up a narrative and a  linguistic weight as the novel draws closer to its conclusion. There is no flab, no unnecessary sections or lines of thought or plot.


Continuing the theme of coincidence, I came across an essay on the debate about cultural ephemera in fiction, an essay that referenced both David Foster Wallace’s essay “e unibus pluram” -an essay that I had read perhaps a week prior- and this book, a novel that is directly time-stamped as it literally counts the days to Katrina, yet lacks virtually all reference to any work outside of the classics (a mention of Outkast playing on a car radio is the only thing I noticed). While there is plenty of opportunity to isolate the work in time and place, Ward chooses not to, chooses instead to tie it intractability to an ancient epic of no canonically defined narrative. While I must confess to be a bit standoffish with regard to an over-generous seasoning of pop culture references and the like, I think even a more objective reader would agree with me that these choices make Salvage the Bones an even stronger piece.


Blood Meridian

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian about a month ago, and then went back and listened to the audiobook -the Richard Poe/Recorded Books 2007 version. This was definitely a very good idea, and something I intend to repeat in the future. Blood Meridian is easily the best novel I’ve read this year, and it’s the sort of book that is going to require you to give it a slow and studious read. There’s lots of archaic vocabulary that will need looking up, and a fair bit of untranslated and colloquial Spanish that will need translating (my very limited Spanish got me through about 40% of the non-English dialog in this book, so if you’re a casual speaker or have a bit of a background in the language you’ll probably be fine). This is all on top of McCarthy’s typical absence of conventional punctuation and the distinctive voice that some people have a hard time with. On that subject, Blood Meridian is very violent and very gruesome, so if you are inclined to having a hard time with that kind of thing this is really not a book you’ll want to read.

Blood Meridian is sometimes classified as historical fiction, and while there’s certainly a fair bit of real history going on, that history is more a means to an end than anything in and of itself -this period of violent history is just a very bloody sandbox for McCarthy to play in. It’s far bigger than the historical context in which it is set, and deals with some very fundamental questions in a much more intricate and profound scope than I can communicate well in one of these three-paragraph reading logs. Suffice it to say, the violence and the monologues that define this book are interdependent and intractable, and most important, gorgeously depicted. McCarthy’s prose is always the main selling point, but here it isn’t just the whole show, but defining and working in service of the central ideology of the thing. Blood Meridian isn’t a Novel of Ideas, but its powerful immorality falls neatly in line with Garner’s oft-misunderstood ideas on moral fiction. An aside -this book has been criticized for its depiction of Native Americans and, yeah, certain passages read out of context do look pretty bad, but when read within their context and against the same sorts of passages describing the alleged protagonists, a careful reader will find that McCarthy is very much not taking sides with those advocates of Anglo-Saxon/Western European cultural superiority.

Following my close reading of the novel with an extended listening-to of the excellently produced audiobook was a great way to experience this thing. The feeling of listening and knowing when a spectacular piece of prose is coming your way is great, and having already done my research allowed me to easily follow and immerse myself in both the narrative and the sentence-by-sentence writing, a luxury that also offered me a greater sense of the ideological complexity the book offers its more attentive and obsessive readers. I plan to come back to this book. I’ve found its mythological essence sneaking into some of my own work of late, and that’s a good feeling.

Emma Straub’s Other People We Married

Emma Straub is best known for her novels, but I came to her by way of this short story collection, as is my preference with new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered by chance as much as anything. She seems to have received the most attention for her novels -in interviews, this collection is treated more like a footnote than a full-fleshed part of her body of work. Regardless, I enjoyed it. I had some concerns, do to the way some of her books seem to be marketed, that the book would be a bit fluffy. Fortunately, this is not the case.

The “literary” label is a frustrating one. How does one define literary fiction? Is it “moral” in the John Gardner sense, or an existential striving? Is it defined by its removal from sparkling vampires, mommy-porn BDSM Lite, swords and sorcery, or spaceships? I’d like to think it’s a qualitative determination based on the prose itself, but there’s some bad writing that is proclaimed “literary”. I think, unfortunately, it has more to do with the kinds of publishing imprints that take on a piece and the way it’s marketed than anything else. Thus, the definition becomes rather literally useless.

Bringing things back to Straub, her stories are defined by very good sentence-level writing, compelling characters with interesting thoughts expressed well. The stories are ordinary and focus on human interaction, on documenting it and making sense of it. It’s a good read -nothing that’s a revelation, just good writing. But I feel like I don’t have much to say about it beyond “it’s good, I guess”. There’s nothing that transcends. Straub is a very good writer, but I’m not finding myself especially engaged with this particular work.

Recommendation: Give it a shot, or at least pick one or two stories and see what you think.

A Book of Uncommon Prayer

Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.

As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.

The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.

Next Door Lived a Girl

First off, this is an extremely graphic book. There is sexual abuse and violence directed at children, and it is dark and extremely graphic. If you are sensitive to that kind of thing, you should probably take a pass on this book. Even if you are not, you will probably need to sit with your thoughts for a minute, or spend some time watching kitten videos on the internet, or whatever your personal response to distressing literary stimulus is.

Next Door Lived a Girl follows a few months in the life of Moritz, a pre-adolescent boy in a rural German town. The narrative is dominated by the intersection of sex and violence. Moritz is the target of sometimes humiliating sexual advances by older women, including his sister and his mother. His play with his fellow 6th-grade friends is often sexual, as is their rivalry with another gang of slightly older boys. And when the violence kicks up, it too is highly sexualized, either inherently or as an expression of sexual domination. The fact that these are all children at the center of the action, and the discovery of a feral and mentally disabled girl the boy’s age, make all this far more disturbing.

Stefan Kiesbye’s prose is recognizably German -terse and bleak descriptions that remind me of the sentences of Herta Muller, albeit far less figurative. The writing is brutally direct, brutally literal, giving the reader no comfort in the ambiguity of poetic expression. When something horrible is happening, there is no doubt as to the specificity of it. The sentences are short and expository, almost a linguistic revolt against the expansive compounding of the German language, and the close third-person narration provides free indirect characterization of Moritz that reminds you, again and again, that these are children doing these things, having these things done to them.

Recommendation: Read it, but, you, know. Trigger warning. This is very good, but this is some pretty dark shit.

NonBinary Review 8: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

All of the stories, poems and other literary works in Issue 8 of NonBinary Review are connected in some way to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The first section correspond directly with specific chapters, while the work in Part Two connects with the book as a whole. There are excellent stories in both sections: “The Pig”, “The State of the Art of War Against Entropy”, “Burning Pages in Gaza”, “The Cubism of War”, “Interview with Juan Weider”, and (full disclosure) my own story, “AlterMist”.

By using an existing work of literature as a touchstone, NBR curates a unified body of work, and the limitations of the form seem to bring divergent writing styles and expressions together without and kind of homogenization. Like I’ve found with most anthologies, journals, and lit mags, there were a few peices that weren’t for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed most of these pieces.

NonBinary Review is doing some great work. Support indie lit mags! Especially the good ones, and especially the good ones that are good to their contributors.

Recommendation: Buy it! read it! Tell me my words are pretty!