#FridayReads for 8/16/13

Friday Reads 3

Carolyn Silviera (Media Editor) finished reading How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran.

I don’t think I’ve read a book this funny since A Confederacy of Dunces. Her collection of memoir-feminist-philosophical story-rant-essays covers the glories, indignities, and surprises of being female. (The glories for Moran are few, but if you read this young enough, her lessons may spare you some of the indignities.) Moran’s voice is deliciously British (and still 99% intelligible) and her tongue is gratifyingly sharp. In between guffaws of surprise and chuckles of recognition, I kept thinking, “Is this really the first time I’ve ever heard another woman say this? Can that REALLY be?” I’d call her her a role model for setting a standard of openness and honesty, but Moran is too human to be called something so antiseptic, and she’s not suggesting you follow in her Doc Martens. But like the women she discusses in her essay on role models, she speaks her truth in the face of great danger (a.k.a. tabloids and Twitter). In my mind, that makes her a hero.

Jaclyn Vorenkamp (Associate Editor) is reading L.I.E. by David Hollander.

If James Joyce had not lived in Dublin, but lived instead in Medford off Exit 64 of the Long Island Expressway, he might have written L.I.E. instead of Ulysses. Your eyebrow is raised, I see, but I find the similarities between the two works striking. The idea of Harlan as Odysseus came to me while reading the L.I.E chapter, that tempestuous journey home in a leaky barque, dodging perils right and left. From there it was just a skip to the idea of Harlan as Bloom in the hallucinatory Sunday Dinner that so resembles Joyce’s Circe chapter in tone, function, format, and placement that a comparison to Joyce’s work was inescapable. L.I.E.’s characters grapple with the emptiness of their lives rather than the hypocrisies of the Church, and the unearned authority of parents instead of occupying states, but the effect is the same: their choices are either to succumb or to escape by means of the only authentic and redeeming virtue—love, in both its carnal and emotional forms.

Written as a close sequence of short, tight sketches, much like the individual frames in a reel of film, the work captures a kind of staccato simultaneity that feels like the way life is actually lived. Harlan and the kids he grows up with wander through the outer reaches of Long Island like Bloom strolling through Dublin. Most of the time nothing much happens: they eat; they meet people; they walk down to the water; they dream of and have sex; they do stupid, dangerous things; they explore the tensions between art and domesticity, agency and emptiness. One event appears unrelated to the next, but once enough random events have accumulated, they coalesce into a world in which adults flounder as desperately as their children, like cockroaches in a glue box, another lie in a world of lies, the only way out not the concrete and asphalt of the expressway, but the love of self that wrests meaning and purpose from the accident of being alive.

Kevin Zambrano (Fiction Editor) is reading HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor).

The unusual title is an abbreviation of a German phrase: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” (“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). For those unfamiliar, Heinrich Himmler led the Nazi SS, and Reinhard Heydrich was his right hand man. Today Heydrich is primarily known as the bureaucratic architect of the Holocaust. He was Hitler’s viceroy in occupied Czechoslovakia, nicknamed the Butcher of Prague, and on May 27, 1942 a Czech and a Slovak assassinated him in what Binet calls “one of greatest acts of resistance in human history.”HHhH is about that act. We see its various causes and repercussions, and the fates of all the players involved.

One of these players is the author himself, who is unafraid to directly address the reader. In these asides, Binet often expresses his opinions and anxieties about turning people and history into characters and narrative. He also discusses his relationship problems, the books he’s reading and films he’s watching, and his love for the city of Prague.

The book is marketed as a novel, and it’s a quick and thrilling one at that, but it’s only a novel some of the time. At other points it’s a meditation on the craft of writing. At still others, a personal essay on memory and obsession. Most of all, though, I think, it is a work of history, told by a writer with irrepressible passion and a bold imagination.