Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Report from the Interior

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The book was a present from my in-laws, who clearly did not give it to me in exchange for a review.)

Report from the Interior, Paul Auster
Read: 12 to 16 March 2014   
4 / 5 stars  

I've not read anything by Paul Auster before, including his Winter Journal that's both a companion piece of sorts and predecessor to Report from the Interior. While the earlier work is an account of Auster's physical state, the title of this unconventional memoir is absolutely indicative of its inward focus, with the author examining himself through memories of childhood (the lens of recollection is, thankfully, not slathered with Vaseline), the movies of his adolescence that have left the deepest impressions, letters to the woman who would become his first wife written during their college years, and a photo album highlighting points of interest from the book's first quarter. While I imagine Auster's fans would derive the most enjoyment from observing this particular author's inner formation, Report from the Interior made for a warm (if not charmingly self-indulgent) introduction to the writer's style and personality.

One of the things that makes a memoir compelling enough to read about someone's else's life is the universality it brings to each memory, how a writer translates a personal experience into the language of ubiquitous milestones. Using the weirdly compelling second-person as his narrative vehicle for most of the book, Auster leads his readers through the awe of one's early years, winding his way from idyllic youth to adulthood's harsh realities, each childlike expectation derailed by adult-sized disappointment becoming a foothold in the uphill battle of dawning awareness. But as he learns that not all people are as trusting as he is or that even heroes are imperfect men, young Paul also inches closer to the person he'll become as the world of literature reveals its secrets with an ever-increasing generosity and as life itself becomes a richer place as he discovers things like dancing with girls, unsupervised days at the cinema and the nonstop rush of New York City.

While each mile marker between youth and maturity is Auster's alone, he zeroes in on the heart of the memory, locating the reason why that particular moment sticks out more vividly than others and addresses the relatable humanity of the moment. He recalls his boyhood idolization of Thomas Edison, the heady rush as degrees of separation dwindle between the two when he finds out his barber also cut Edison's hair and how his own father once worked in Edison's lab, and the acute despair of discovering that Edison himself fired his father for being Jewish: The players and details comprise Auster's own drama but the slap of cold realization that comes with a hero's irrevocable fall is familiar to all who've passed through that checkpoint on their ways to becoming jaded adults.

Auster shares a number of life lessons gleaned through firsthand experience, particularly those that impinge on his developing sense of justice, and the movies that have left the most striking impact on his formative years' memories were his first tastes of life being unfair on a grander scale. Two films (The Incredible Shrinking Man and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) receive special attention for how viscerally Auster's younger self responded to them: Both forced their young viewer to accept that sometimes the hits just keep coming, especially if, like the films' protagonists, one just happens to be an unfortunate victim of circumstance. In a book that relies largely on firsthand experiences, examining the effects movies can have on their audience and hinting at how entertainment like books and film can be an excellent supplement to one's emotional education, as illustrated by the palpable horror Auster felt on behalf of the characters he observed. Letting an observer live vicariously through a fictitiously upended life without suffering through actual consequences cultivates the kind of empathy that comes with living vicariously through a tormented character for the duration of their story.

The letters Auster wrote to his college sweetheart and first wife, writer and translator Lydia Davis, offered a glimpse of the writer as a young man in the cusp between collegiate freedom and adult responsibility, even if they are awash in a young writer's inability to resist the showiness of burgeoning talent and a wordsmith's experimentation with a medium he is on the brink of mastering, even mentioning how his parents won't address a pressing issue in letters because Auster has the advantage over them. But they're an honest time capsule that screams of uncertainty and potential colliding in that desire to experience everything with the exuberance only a university student can sustain.

I've found that one of the biggest appeals that memoirs hold for me is the assurance that other people--successful, decidedly functional people, no less--have experienced and felt things I always wondered if other people went through. Far beyond the general coming-of-age embarrassments and skin-thickening hurdles are those little moments that could either be personal quirks or things no one talks about for one reason or another. This is where writing in the second person best serves the readability of Auster's autobiographical tale, as it's almost comforting to realize that statements like "you would walk around in a state of stunned disassociation" (and a page later, "you have never completely outgrown this tendency to vanish from your own consciousness") and "once you were old enough to compare your situation to that of the other children you knew, you understood that your family was a broken family, that your parents had no idea what they were doing" offer a sense of comfort and belonging, knowing that this is a categorization of things that happened to someone else but feeling like that someone else is acknowledging that they happened to you, too.

Report from the Interior is a quite beautifully written attempt at reclaiming youth's lost relics through vivid recollections, a tribute to the fact that you can't predict what memories will stick around decades later or what details will define them, but that you can make sense of what they say about the individual by wrangling them into a written work.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The joys of finding a new favorite sushi place

One of those rolls is topped with coconut, another with kiwi (which was so damn good it was part of the take-home order we shamelessly added to the night's sushifest).
(Tako, Bensalem, PA)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Not for Everyday Use

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I received this book from its publisher.)  

Not for Everyday Use, Elizabeth Nunez
Read: 5 to 10 March 2014   
4 / 5 stars  

Writing about the death of a parent presents the tempting trap of invoking cheap sentimentality to tug at readers' heartstrings; sidestepping those easy clich├ęs is the mark of a mature writer who knows how to craft a powerful tale with the arsenal of unique details that makes a person irreplaceably dear to their loved ones, illustrating the extent of the void that their passing has created. Elizabeth Nunez's memoir, Not for Everyday Use, takes the four days between the frantic phone call that has her rushing to her native Trinidad from her adopted home in New York to the burial of her mother and couches that surreal blur of emotions and necessary tasks in a past that goes far beyond her own lifespan in a testament to the immortality of personal history and the vivacity of one's heritage.

The third-oldest in a family of 11 children, Nunez grows up with a vantage point perhaps a bit too mired in adult responsibilities at too young an age. While this has imbued her with a strong sense of familial responsibility that remains with her through the present day, she ponders that perhaps a little less preparation for the real world and a little more parental affection might have made her a little more well-rounded in terms of the balance between her emotional needs and passionate determination to succeed. The forced retrospection that comes with death, however, shows that Nunez has long ago reached the point where she can observe her mother and father as flawed but well-meaning individuals separate from their parental roles, appreciating all the good they've done for her and accepting that their lesser moments embody the dueling forces alive in every person.

Indeed, Nunez cannot call forward the myriad roles she plays--daughter, sister, mother, woman, educator, writer, storyteller--without acknowledging that everyone else is a collection of components that are constantly fighting for prominence as different situations call for different personas. As her memoir progresses, the reader gets a glimpse of her vastness of character through all the identities roiling within; the implication is that if she wears so many hats and is pulled in so many directions, her parents and siblings must be, too. As a natural spinner of fictions, Nunez confesses early in Not for Everyday Use that she has a tendency to conflate facts for the sake of bettering the story: This admission makes Nunez immediately believable and even more likable, ready as she is to lay bare her inability to resist polishing reality to fit her narrative standards. But it also hints at her self-awareness and her own flaws while simultaneously underscoring the fact that she recognizes when a story needs no embellishments because of its inherent significance and emotional weight.

Being both an immigrant and a native of a former British colony that is still in touch with the dark underbelly of colonialism's prejudices have put Nunez keenly in touch with the way places leave their own individual impressions on a person just as much as living relations do. Trinidad is as alive as the people influencing Nunez's past and present, its tropical locale adding natural color to her narrative, right on down to her parents' two mango trees that serve as subtle metaphors for their decades-long marriage, having grown indistinguishable from the other save for the flavor of the fruits they yield. But it is not just the local atmosphere that Nunez captures: The class divisions, oppressive Catholicism and slowly shifting gender stereotypes of her home color Nunez's upbringing, especially by contrasting the stifling attitudes of her parents' younger days with her generation's more liberated perspective. Furthermore, it highlights the divide between the judgments cast by different cultures: Many of the Nunezes bear darker skin, the stigma of which they have mostly transcended by living in a class-based society's upper-middle class; in countries like America, their expansive educations, elite jobs and enviable salaries do little to deter strangers from assuming that their generous doses of melanin pin them as thieves, junkies and sub-par parents.

Nunez's inner conflicts are rooted in something much deeper than societies' superficial prejudices, though: She has her own family, her own gender and her religious upbringing to contend with. Reconciling her lofty ambitions, determination to leave the world in a better state than she found it, the maternal desire to be surpassed by both her son and her students in talents and achievements, and her long-held religious doubt with the old-fashioned world in which she was raised fuels Nunez's ongoing battle within herself. Ever the academic, she tackles each issue point-by-point, laying out how she came to each bump in her road via past beliefs and modern understanding, such as resenting a society where mothers were burdened with veritable litters because birth control was a one-way pass to eternal damnation, robbing otherwise strong, motivated women of a life outside the home and leaving her with a lingering sense of feminine failure when her marriage crumbles and she produces only one child.

But Not For Everyday Use is ultimately a celebration of understanding and empathy, as Nunez scrutinizes herself and her loved ones with a curious intensity that betrays her need to examine individuals as fiercely as she loves them. It is a demonstration of both the intellectual freedom her parents encouraged her to pursue and the strength they pushed her to discover---the end result more than justifying the means, well-intentioned but perhaps not always flawlessly executed as they were. It is proof that family doesn't have to be in close proximity to remain close-knit. It is confirmation that blindly extended affection is but a wan facsimile of the kind of love that grows from accepting a person for everything that they are, imperfections and all.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Basal Ganglia

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I purchased the book, albeit wildly discounted during a bizarro binge.) 

Basal Ganglia, Matthew Revert
Read: 3 March 2014   
4.75 / 5 stars  

Sometimes, a quick read highlights the enduring poignancy of a book's message; sometimes it's a matter of a novel being meant as a one-sitting escape into a world that goes far beyond the distance between two covers. And sometimes a book is mercifully quick, not because it's a chore to read but because, like pulling off a practically-grafted-to-your-arm Band-aid, it hurts less just to get it over with so the reader and the tortured characters can all move on as painlessly and as quickly as possible.

Such is the case with Matthew Revert's Basal Ganglia, an ostensibly odd novella that is, at its core, a meditation on the fine line that separates the contended familiarity of marital habits from brewing hostility. Its main (and only, really) characters are Rollo and Ingrid, who began as teenage lovers and are now both consumed with and isolated by the underground pillow-and-blanket fort that Rollo had built to mirror the structure of the human brain and has been indefatigably maintaining for years. With no connection to the outside world, all external conflict has been removed; what unites them in purpose has removed any common enemies that would strengthen their roles as teammates, leaving them to foster alternately resentment and indifference between them. Ingrid soon declares that she wants a child but is reluctant to expose another life to their strange, secluded world, asking that Rollo play his part in the creation of a new life by gathering materials intended for repairing the fort so she can use them to knit their baby.

What ensues is a cautionary tale about all-consuming love: Rollo and Ingrid have reduced the entirety of their world to nothing more than the two of them and the fort, losing sight of themselves as one whole comprising two parts that possess histories and individual identities. The arrival of the baby--a thing that Ingrid protects with such a fiercely believable maternal instinct that I'd find myself worrying about the newborn's safety at certain points--brings their long-suppressed issues screaming to the surface, turning their knitted offspring into a nonliving but tangible thing that becomes the embodiment of the couple's living but intangible hostilities. Both Rollo and Ingrid fear the other will inflict some harm on the baby and damn near tear down their decades-old fort in her efforts to keep the baby from him and his need to know that the baby really exists, as the (still totally inanimate) baby quickly supplants the fort as the ultimate manifestation of their union, only to just as swiftly become the physical representation of the psychological war that has finally erupted between the couple.

One of the things that struck me most immediately about this novella is the gender roles that Rollo and Ingrid assume, not just in terms of their level playing field and strength, but also how they each assume traits of the other's gender to their benefit. Allowing the child to be the tipping point for both characters makes for some of the most overtly effective shattering of gender-dictated stereotypes I've seen in a while, which I think can be attributed to three things: Rollo and Ingrid's individual perspectives receiving equal attention; getting to see how the arrival of a child affects the father just as much as the mother on an individual basis as well as within the confines of a relationship that has shifted focus as it has expanded to include a third; and that both characters possess qualities and characteristics that are presumed to exist almost exclusively within the realm of the other's gender (some examples: Rollo has experienced the joy of creation by way of the fort both he and Ingrid tend to with almost parental obsession and Rollo, unlike Ingrid, begins lactating by the end of the book; Ingrid sprouted a beard before the novella began and assumes the masculine role of the protector in terms of their child). Such atypically balanced and implicitly empathetic regard for gender makes the emotional turmoil of wanting, having and raising children--all of which come with the knee-jerk fear of overwhelming responsibility bitterly feuding with the emotional satisfaction of being charged with the care and protection of a totally dependant being, all wrapped up in a life-changing event--rife with the potential to wreak havoc on man and woman alike.

The yarn Revert spins could be just another take on the familiar tale of a relationship on the rocks and that ill-advised, last-ditch efforts to "fix" years of unacknowledged damage with a baby, but its ability to refashion an ordinary situation into something extraordinary with its offbeat elements (a pillow fort and a knitted child, mainly) keeps things refreshingly focused. There is no fear of childhood scars bringing itself to the forefront because the child in question is made of the same materials as the fort--a fort that is its builder's very own return to the womb (if I knew more about psychology, I'd have something clever to say about the yawning chasm between the part of the body the fort actually represents and that upon which its design is based). Rollo has spent so much time and effort making sure his fort keeps the outside out that he has neglected life inside the fort and is in no way emotionally prepared for a child, either the care it needs or the issues it will inevitably drudge up. The fort is rich in symbolic purpose, demonstrating how two people can work toward a common goal in isolation, underscoring the dangers of living for one obsessive purpose and detailing what happens when a life becomes all purpose and no pleasure.

Basal Ganglia is devastating, fascinating, brutally honest and cautiously hopeful. But most of all, it offers insight and imagination in equal measures, offering both a new take on an old story and compelling characters who breathe oceans of sympathetic humanity into what often err on the side of black-and-white arguments.