A Sand Book

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A Year in Reading: Daniel Levin Becker

This year, through no initiative or orchestration of my own, I read in twos. I realize this only now, picking out from a hasty reading ledger those books I liked or kept thinking about, and it’s not like I read the twos consecutively, more that little symmetries keep making themselves known as I look back, titles pairing off into smaller dialogues, gonzo breakout sessions with improvised themes. I didn’t read more this year but I read longer, with a better attention span, this being the first year in almost 10 that I read more to read than to keep up with publishing, so maybe this is always happening and I just started noticing. I also have a brain that’s unrepentantly hungry for patterns, so who knows.

But for instance: the bookends of my reading year were The Tradition by Jericho Brown and The Shore by Chris Nealon. The latter is a book of likably freewheeling, breezily erudite “poem-essays,” which is a fair if dampening description; the former is a book of fucking poems, orderly and solemn and very robustly beautiful without any undue ornateness. Brown is formally exacting, yet the depth of feeling in his poems is breathtaking, at times literally; they’re at once messy, wounded and lusty and scared and prideful, and sublimely still, composed. Nealon is an anarchic writer-thinker flirting with the politics of anarchism, but I find a fully formed existential moment in his “tepid intellectual watchfulness,” as he puts it, a visceral anxiety no less visceral for the fact that his only move is to articulate it, piecemeal. Both feel something’s not right in the present, know some things have been profoundly wrong for a long time, and though they sense this at different distances from their lives and bodies they inhabit it equally fully, make it equally person-sized and real. Also The Tradition debuts a fixed form Brown calls the duplex, and it is perfect.

The Organs of Sense is the first novel and second dazzling book by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, a teutonically involuted, toweringly philosophical novel that is by some weird alchemy more fun for being teutonically involuted and toweringly philosophical. It pulls you painstakingly along into a telescoping nest of relations of conversations of recollections of revelations of remarkable psychological extravagance, and all the while the story—Leibniz goes in 1666 to visit an eyeless astronomer, is the elevator pitch—is so engaging and fanciful and sweet, and Sachs’s comic timing so dead-on, that all you see is the timeless folly of people being people. It’s like Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine in that respect, except where that novel burrows deep into a single instant this one expands outward into the cosmos, or a seventeenth-century conception of it. I found The Organs of Sense paired well with Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, published in 2017, another engrossingly human tableau bound in a vaguely forbidding formal armature. (Oh! Telescoping. Just got that. You win again, Sachs.) The armature in this case is a staccato accumulation of run-on monologues that dilate breathlessly on the smallest sensory minutiae; the book’s magic is that this makes it thrillingly lifelike, thrillingly like life uninterrupted, somehow like swimming in a bloodstream. My grandmother, who as a rule brooks no experimentalist literary impulse, told me weeks after reading it that she was still thinking about the one passage that’s like ten pages of disquisition about pouring concrete.

Nina Leger’s Mise en pieces is a patient, thoughtful novel about a woman named Jeanne who keeps a memory palace of strangers’ dicks. The title (cleverly translated by Laura Francis as The Collection) means to cut into pieces but also to install in rooms, as art in a museum, and Leger writes with a kind of curatorial dispassion—but what she puts on display is the received logic of The Novel, structurally and sexually, dissecting and redistributing it into bigger or smaller boxes, objectifying it in the very way we were expecting it to objectify Jeanne. It’s brilliantly subversive but always more curious than militant. I also read a lot of Valérie Mréjen this year, in unwitting anticipation of her English debut, Black Forest in Katie Shireen Assef’s translation. The first thing I sat down with was Liste rose, a series of personal ads assembled from names cut out of a phone book, which turned out to be a good model for the way she works: even in more direct forms of storytelling—about a non-start romance, for instance, or about parents and children—her method is decoupage, fragmentation, intimate and clinical in alternating measure. Black Forest drifts intuitively from memory to fantasy to supposition, sifting through the deaths of loved ones and acquaintances and people in anecdotes and people on Six Feet Under in a way that’s at once cold and sparkling with life. I’m not calling it a memory palace of deaths, but I’m not not. 

I reread Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station early this year—still find it extraordinary, still not wild about how much Adam Gordon reminds me of me—and inhaled a friend’s galley of The Topeka School over a summer weekend. It excites me to watch Lerner at work, processing the present at a rhythm that feels authentically like thought, and even as he widens his scope to include more zeitgeist, more history, more dimensions in his characters and their relationships, I’m spellbound by his knack for the fundamentally introspective work of airing their reasonings and neuroses and inner negotiations, which seem rational and sympathetic until you realize—eventually for me, I assume very quickly for lots of people—that maybe their shit’s been part of the problem all along. I would have called Lerner unmatched in his ability to pull this off compassionately before I read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (also over a weekend, also a friend’s advance copy): a plottier, smaller-scoped novel that nonetheless ends up being an even-handed, piercingly wise referendum on love and marriage and sex and gender. Both books experiment gently with shifting perspective, Topeka deliberately and Fleishman more sinuously, and both feel like classically ambitious attempts to get at the crux of a knotty modern predicament, in this case the meaning and function of masculinity. I’ll be revisiting both, slower, down the line.

After not reading it for several years mostly because I thought the title was boring, I read Marie Chaix’s 1974 memoir-novel Les Lauriers du lac de Constance, then promptly reread it in Harry Mathews’s translation, The Laurels of Lake Constance, just to keep the spell going. Chaix makes Lerner’s and Brodesser-Akner’s perspective jumps look elementary, darting between voices and tenses sometimes from one sentence to the next, not out of formal showiness but to grapple with the multitouch impact of World War 2, and her father’s collaborationist career, on her family. (She herself was born in 1942, and comes into the story as a narrator maybe a third of the way in.) I no longer remember which prepared me for which—as I said, it’s a hasty ledger—but I recognized the same sly chameleonic interiority in Morgan Parker’s second poetry collection, Magical Negro, which tracks a sleepless mind’s path through a world of “Dylann Roof, Burger King, Urban Outfitters.” Parker’s is the cooler, nimbler voice—she sows devastating punchlines like landmines throughout her poems, while Chaix’s prose holds you pitilessly in the moment—but both model, unflinchingly, what it’s like to experience history as a simultaneously abstract and personal affliction. Parker: “And nothing rises up. And horror is a verb.”

I love environmental disaster movies and have an above-average tolerance for immersive theatre experiences, so reading David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth in Paris during a record heatwave—“so intense that a weather map of France looks like a screaming heat skull of death,” according to a Business Insider headline—a headline!—felt about right. His work in synthesizing a massive body of scientific research is admirable; his willingness to lean into its monumentally terrifying conclusions, to use fear and alarm in a way scientists can’t or won’t, is crucial. Some time around then I also read Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’s Rap on Trial, which expands on the excellent work the authors have been doing separately for over a decade cataloguing and decrying the harrowing trend of rap lyrics being admitted as evidence in U.S. criminal cases. May both books shake something loose, though I realize our failing to address the first issue will eventually render the second moot.

Everything about Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems, a diaphanous little volume whose content is most expediently described as “silkworm giving a TED talk,” is strange and lapidary, right down to the obscurely troubling six-word description of how it was initially created: “written nanoscale on clear silk film.” There’s precedent for this kind of exploit—see for instance Christian Bök’s xenotext experiment, which encodes a short poem “into the genome of an unkillable bacterium”—but Bervin, whose previous works include erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Nets) and a sumptuous facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s envelope drafts (The Gorgeous Nothings), is concerned more with materiality than with spectacle. As the difference in titular textures suggests, Ariana Reines’s A Sand Book is mostly what Silk Poems is not: gritty, folksy, squalid and chatty, sexy and gross, aimed with care and craftsmanship at something earthlier and more astral at once. I came away from both feeling better in tune with the intangible, by way of the utterly tactile.

What else? I was grateful for Damon Young’s essay collection What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker and Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir Good Talk, both supremely lucid, good-natured but unsparing inquiries into how race, which is to say racism, gets inside your head to make you question how successfully, how convincingly, you’re inhabiting a pigeonhole you didn’t opt into in the first place. I was enchanted by Max Porter’s Lanny and Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, both of which wrap inventive thickets of idiom and fragment around affecting tales of parenthood and loss. I took a difficult journey with Jeannie Vanasco as she navigates the deceptively prosaic semantic aftermath of sexual assault in Things We Didn’t Talk about When I Was a Girl, and another one with Irma Pelatan, in L’Odeur de chlore, as she maps her body cathexis against a childhood spent swimming in a municipal pool designed according to Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale. Janelle Shane’s futuristic op-ed about feral scooters is hands down the 1300-word sci-fi novel of the year, and—since I’m not about to abandon the pairs conceit this close to the end—the last great thing I read as of this writing was Émilie Faure’s interview, in the biennial high-art review Mémoire Universelle, with world jigsaw-puzzle champion Sophie de Goncourt. She’s a magistrate by day who can put together a 500-piece puzzle in 40 minutes, a pastime which requires, she says with an irresistible lack of guile, “neither agility nor precision. A piece fits, or it doesn’t.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Chung, Brodesser-Akner, Habila, Steinke, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Catherine Chung, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Helon Habila, Darcy Steinke, and more—that are publishing this week.
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The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Tenth Muse: “Chung’s impressive, poignant second novel (after Forgotten Country) explores the intersections of intellectual and familial legacies. Nearing the end of her life but still on the verge of solving the elusive Riemann hypothesis, Katherine is a noted mathematician who did her graduate work in the mid-20th century, at a time when women scholars were still a rarity. As Katherine recounts the highs and lows of her academic and romantic pursuits, she reflects on the various discoveries she’s pursued—both in her field of study and into her family history—inquiries that became inextricable while Katherine was pursuing her doctorate at MIT and learning revelations about her parentage following her father’s heart attack. Having grown up believing herself the daughter of a white father and a Chinese mother, Katherine is stunned to learn the truth of her family history. The stories of betrayal and sacrifice also end up informing her professional work in surprising ways through a storyline involving stolen math proofs. Chung persuasively interweaves myths and legends with the real-world stories of lesser-known women mathematicians and of WWII on both the European and Asian fronts. The legacy that Katherine inherits may defy the kinds of elegant proofs to which mathematicians aspire, but Chung’s novel boldly illustrates that truth and beauty can reside even amid the messiest solutions.”
The Travelers by Regina Porter

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Travelers: “At the emotional heart of Porter’s expansive and ambitious debut lies a particularly dark incident. A young black couple, Agnes Miller and Claude Johnson, are stopped by a pair of white police officers on a road in rural Georgia. It’s 1966, and the tragic events that ensue continue to haunt Agnes more than four decades later. Agnes is just one of more than half a dozen major characters whose often overlapping stories populate Porter’s novel, which freely ranges back and forth through the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Agnes’s husband, Eddie, develops a fascination with the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which he has a copy of while serving in Vietnam, and their daughter, Claudia, grows up to become a Shakespeare scholar. She marries a white Joyce scholar, Rufus, whose philandering father reveals the existence of a secret half-brother late in life. Eloise, Agnes’s foster sister (and eventual lover) from her teenage years is inspired by aviator Bessie Coleman to live a bold and fearless life. These individual stories, among many others, are memorable, but the novel’s sprawling structure and abundance of narrative perspectives engender an emotional distance from all but the most stirring scenes, not to mention a lack of unifying theme or narrative arc for readers to latch onto. Virtually any of the novel’s beautifully written chapters could excel as a short story; collectively, they fall short of a fully realized novel.”
Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Fleishman Is In Trouble: “Brodesser-Akner’s sharp and tender-hearted debut centers on hapless 41-year-old New York hepatologist Toby Fleishman, recently separated from his driven wife, Rachel, and alternately surprised and semidisgusted to find his dating apps ‘crawling with women who wanted him,’ who prove it by sending him all manner of lewd pictures. After an increasingly rocky 14-year marriage, Toby has asked Rachel, who owns a talent agency and makes a lot more money than he does, for a divorce, because she is always angry and pays little attention to their two preteen kids. But then, as Toby is juggling new girlfriends, dying patients, and unhappy children, Rachel disappears, leaving Toby to cope with logistics more complicated than he anticipated. The novel is narrated by Toby’s old college friend Libby (a device that’s occasionally awkward), a former magazine journalist now bored with life as a housewife in New Jersey. Though both she and the novel are largely entrenched on Toby’s side, Libby does eventually provide a welcome glimpse into Rachel’s point of view. While novels about Manhattan marriages and divorces are hardly a scarce commodity, the characters in this one are complex and well-drawn, and the author’s incisive sense of humor and keen observations of Upper West Side life sustain the momentum. This is a sardonically cheerful novel that readers will adore.”

Travelers by Helon Habila

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Travelers: “The plight of contemporary African refugees is the dramatic core of this moving tale. The nameless narrator of the book’s opening (the novel is divided into six sections with different characters, but the narrator connects all of them) is a native Nigerian finishing work on his dissertation, who accompanies his American wife on her art fellowship to Berlin. While she paints, he falls in with a community of students who hail from Malawi, Senegal, and other African nations. Through the characters’ friendships and associations, Habila (The Chibok Girls) relates the stories of a number of asylum seekers who fled wretched circumstances and now face uncertain prospects (among them a former doctor working in Berlin as a nightclub bouncer and a man who escaped with his family from an armed Somalian rebel who was determined to marry the man’s 10-year-old daughter). The narrator comes to know the depths of their desperation himself when, returning from Switzerland, he loses his papers and is deported to a refugee camp in Italy. ‘Where am I? Who am I? How did I get here?’ cries one refugee, summing up the sense of dislocation and loss of identity they all feel, yet Habila never presents them as objects of pity, but rather as exemplars of human resilience. Readers will find this novel a potent tale for these times.”
Roughhouse Friday by Jaed Coffin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Roughhouse Friday: “Coffin’s lyrical account of his eventful initiation into the world of amateur boxing takes readers to southeast Alaska. Unsettled after college, Coffin (A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants) sets out westward from Maine, finally landing in Sitka after a thousand-mile solo sea kayak trip. He tutors at-risk students and, feeling isolated, takes up boxing at the local gym, eventually signing up for a Roughhouse Friday, an event in which anyone can fight for three one-minute rounds. As Coffin measures himself against a motley assortment of local fighters—including a 57-year-old ivory carver and the ‘Hoonah Hooligan,’ a high school legend from a Tlingit village—he confronts his own emotional displacement caused by the childhood divorce of his Thai mother and tough Vietnam vet father, who imparted ideals of manhood through ‘his versions of Arthurian legends.’ In measured, lucid prose, Coffin writes of fight night scenes (‘The fight ring stood in the middle of the barroom, over the dance floor, glowing beneath neon tubes of light’) and of the insecurity of angry young men. He finds that he is losing faith in his father’s heroic myths even as he struggles to embody them; nevertheless, it’s his father to whom he continually turns for answers up until the end. This is a powerful, wonderfully written exploration of one’s sense of manhood.”
Flash Count Diary by Darcey Steinke

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Flash Count Diary: “Simultaneously contemplative and messily visceral, this extraordinary fugue on menopause, a book ‘situated at the crossroads between the metaphysical and the biological,’ centers on the experience of the aging woman. Finding a kinship with killer whales, the only other species that experiences menopause and lives long past the reproductive years, novelist Steinke (Sister Golden Hair) begins with Lolita, the female whale who has been kept in a tiny pool at the Miami Seaquarium since the 1970s, and ends with a trip to Seattle to see Granny, a 104-year-old pod matriarch. In between, Steinke describes the discomfort, panic and isolation that can be caused by hot flashes, sleeplessness, and emotional and cognitive shifts; explores both the frustration and appeal of the cultural invisibility of older women; and considers what it means to develop a sexuality that does not focus on intercourse. She affirms menopause as part of what it means to be female and human, in contrast to the medical view of menopause as a pathology to be treated with hormone replacements and vaginal rejuvenation. Her ability to translate physical and emotional experiences into words will make menopausal readers feel profoundly seen and move others.”
A Sand Book by Ariana Reines

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Sand Book: “The fourth book from Reines (Mercury) is ambitious in its scope and artistic vision, offering a postmodern take on the epic poem. Like some of the major long-form poets who have preceded her, among them H.D., Lorine Niedecker, and Adrienne Rich, Reines inhabits and renegotiates the space of the long poem. This sprawling book in 12 parts considers Hurricane Sandy, the mountains of Haiti, and Twitter, offering conceptually interesting passages and a wholly original response. Despite these strengths, the poems in this volume occasionally traffic in abstraction, failing to ground vague concepts in sensory detail: ‘Many of us had succumbed to quivering/ Idiocy while others drew vitality from careers.’ Throughout the book, Reines’s enjambments heighten the sense of irony that characterizes her approach to the feminist epic. She writes, for example: ‘Nothing she meant to make a big/ Deal of, only some tiny budging/ Of memory.’ The poems operate primarily on the level of ideas, rather than through lyrical language, though the speaker’s deadpan tone does not always succeed in creating the sense of momentum needed to propel the reader through this textual landscape.”

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