The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale

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Leda wants to be linear.   In Jana Casale’s debut, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky, Leda pursues what most women do: to be thin and likeable and smart and happy.  A realistic narrative, the novel mirrors more than it inspires.

Leda is an aspiring writer at college in Boston.  But life gets in the way of her aspirations. She tracks boys and worries about her appearance and goes to parties she doesn’t really want to attend.  She eats two scones in one day. When she falls in love and moves to San Francisco with John for a few years, she hardly writes at all, instead choosing domestic life over the arts.  She and now-husband, John, settle in Boston with their daughter, who remains close to her mother even as she has a family of her own.

Leda first develops through a minute lens, like looking into well crafted shoebox displays of everyday modern life.  For example, she looks at baby booties in a boutique window. “There seemed no greater aspiration than to make a baby’s feet look like bees” (175).  She nicknames her classmate Pinched Bralette. She stages spills at the coffeeshop to gain a cute boy’s attention. The delicious irony of her pursuit of linear-ness at the beginning of the book, that narrow, ardent desire that she hopes will define her life, shines through in her idiosyncrasies.  She’s linear by being complex.

After she marries and the perspective widens to capture broad swaths of time, she becomes more a caricature of herself.  She fails to do the things she sets out to do: she attends a writing group only one time, she loses track of her friends, quits a job, starts to garden but leaves the job to a landscaper, she never does read Noam Chomsky.  She’s happy, though, loved by her own mother, husband and daughter. But there’s something sad about her. She comes to the conclusion that being a woman is lonely. Indeed, she becomes a mere dot, a shadow of the linear self she once imagined.  This is reflected in the writing: once vivid with details illuminating facets of her quirky personality, the prose in the second half serves more to move her from one age to the next. The pacing becomes more abrupt. It’s disruptive.

In the end, Leda rises above her earlier insecurities, all the expectations that come with being a modern suburban girl.  She settles into who she is, a lonely wife who sticks with it and becomes a confidant to her daughter the way her mother was to her.  She’s as comforting as any woman’s good friend. But she carried the promise of being someone worth writing about, someone whose life warranted a story, only to become someone just like the rest of us.  What started out a comedy turns tragedy.  Goodreads

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The Warehouse Industry by William Macbeth followed by an interview with the author

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What is character?  What makes a person stand out?  In The Warehouse Industry by William Macbeth, the unnamed first person narrator’s primary character trait is that he wants not to stand out and be noticed.  Brilliantly developed as a “bad” character, this protagonist satirically dramatizes the Herman Hesse quote at the start of the book: “The dream of death is only the dark smoke/ Under which the fires of life are burning.”

The book begins as the narrator takes a nondescript job in a nondescript warehouse and ends when his employment finishes.  In between, he narrates the misadventures that lead him there. Meandering randomly across various threads in his past, the pacing of the book matches this young man’s demeanor.  He’s “helpless in the face of cajoling,” and has “no intention at all” (47). He has trouble interpreting why others do things. He wanders through life. Not wanting to go to either his brother’s stag party nor his wedding, he goes anyways, carried along by events.  Finally, the threads come together and he willfully acts out despite himself. “We all sacrifice ourselves for ourselves,” he says (120).

Wry irony characterizes this book.  The only named characters are inanimate objects (Duck, Sofa, Invitation), to whom the narrator speaks more than to humans, and The Undertaker and Ratty, villainous friends of the narrator’s brother.  These names become and define these two, whereas, unnamed, the narrator defies labels. The narrator repeats himself often with pithy sayings: “wishing does me no good at all,” “I’m no expert when it comes to…,” “I felt like a ghost.”  Instead of laboring the text, these phrases point to the narrator’s singular purpose and particularity. At a pivotal juncture toward the end of the book, he is both “I” and “you,” noticer and noticed, hero and victim, at once. Satisfyingly unpredictable, the book’s unexpectedness drives the plot with wit and ingenuity.

The overall tone of the book is unemotional and distant, but its effect is full of pathos.  While Macbeth employs rich metaphors that elicit feeling as well as conjure image, he also includes irrelevant details, that the narrator says don’t matter.  The result is a tense combination of tears and laughter. Darkly humorous, this book succeeds in portraying the every man who is no man, The Invisible Man whose strength is in making himself known on his own wayward terms.        

1. I’m intrigued by the Herman Hesse quote at the beginning.  Tell me how he inspired you and what other writers influence this book.

I love Hesse. I think it’s his humanity that inspires me, and that strange mix of intellectualism and mysticism. He looks like a stern university professor, but he was actually a total hippy who wrote things like ‘I wanted to teach people to be conscious of the pulse of the earth and take part in the life of the universe’ and ‘we are … children belonging to the earth and the cosmic whole.’

Whenever I read the novels of Hermann Hesse I am left with the impression that he must have been a lovely man. I imagine him being gentle and softly spoken; perhaps prone to melancholy and sullen moods, but still gentle and softly spoken most of the time. He may not have been of course; he may have been a total pig, cheating on his wife and saying nasty things to his kids, and stuff like that, for all I know. But it’s impressions that count.

I came across the quote in one of his lesser-known books called Wandering, which I found in a charity shop somewhere in Cornwall. I was writing The Warehouse Industry when I read it and those lines just seemed to fit. I can’t imagine the book without them now. They belong together.

The main literary influence on the book was Richard Brautigan. Early attempts to start the novel were too earnest, and not at all funny. Brautigan taught me to write with a lighter touch.

2. The narrator of this book made me think of the profile of the American high school shooters these past few years.  Did you have someone in mind when you developed this character?  Did you intend for the book to be a commentary on alienation or on some other topic?

I had no one in particular in mind, but the character quickly took on a life of his own once I started writing. He is a character defined by his experiences. I guess part of what I wanted to say – not that I want to be to explicit about what I ‘wanted to say’ – was that anyone, given the ‘right’ set of circumstances is capable of doing terrible things.

The book is an exploration of the effects of isolation and loneliness. It is about feeling disconnected from the world around you.

3. What’s your writing process like?  Where/when do you write?  How long did this book take you?

I make my living teaching English to teenagers, and I wrote the first draft of The Warehouse Industry in school exercise books. By the time I was finished it filled eight exercise books, and there were three interweaving narratives: the main one that survives; the story of a tyrant (based on Saddam Hussein) hiding out in a hole in someone’s back garden; and, finally, the life of an imaginary saint. The book was initially called The Tyrant, the Loner, and the Saint. Over two thirds of the first draft ended up being discarded. I wanted to write a short book, so the editing process was quite important. From start to finish The Warehouse Industry took me two years to write.

I write at the kitchen table. Most days I have a half-hour window between putting the kid to bed and falling asleep!

4. Do you have other writing projects in the works?

Yes, several! My second novel is more or less finished. It is a modern day retelling of Matty Groves, the old English folk ballad, set in Tottenham, north London, where I live. It is called Lee Cross: An Unplanned Novel. The idea came to me by accident one day while I was driving to work. I’ve also written the first draft of a sort of dystopian/science fiction novel set on the moon, which is kind of like Waiting for Godot in space. I’m currently writing an epic novel without a plot.

 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is afraid of becoming a parody of himself.  On the verge of fifty, he’s a hipster, an author, a gentleman, but “where’s the real Less?” (33).  He’s described by love, written into existence in wit and tenderness, in a Pulitzer prize winning comic novel, Less, by Andrew Sean Greer.

Escaping his fiftieth birthday and the wedding of his young lover for nine years, Arthur Less embarks on multiple trips that will take him around the globe.  From Mexico, Italy, France, Morocco, India to back home in San Francisco, Less innocently soaks up all his middle-aged life has to offer him, and hopes to finish his rejected novel along the way.  But how can he make his main character loveable and happy when love might be lost to him forever?

The power of Less comes from what he is not.  He’s a series of mishaps, not advances – from almost missing an interview because his literary escort thinks he’s a woman, to missing a flight because he takes an unknown drug, to losing his luggage in India he increasingly threatens to become unmoored.  Greer incorporates his less-ness, his haphazard, naive malleability into his dialogue; characters interrupt him constantly, filling him up with their own wisdom while overlooking his own possible insights. They get sick around him and no one shows up to the Evening with Arthur Less event as his class reunion.  Yet, as his foibles mount, as his self-deprecation grinds him further and further down into almost nothing, he remains the bravest person the first person narrator knows.

Less is as much about writing as it is about Less.  This is not a book about overcoming hurdles or winning love or facing challenges but about being loved.  Arthur doesn’t describe himself; he’s circumscribed by someone who knows him and accepts him despite, and perhaps because of, his faults.  So, too, Greer doesn’t so much craft language as he plays and delights in it. Non-sequitors abound: “I have neglected to mention that he has, on his lap, a Russian cosmonaut’s helmet” (7).  Less’s translated German makes for some funny misunderstandings. The pacing, with two word sentences as well as three line ones, is slightly trippy, and, indeed, the book contains a variety of “trips,” ranging from slapstick accident scenes to nostalgic memory sequences.  

To enjoy Greer’s words is to enjoy Less himself, which is the point, poignantly conveyed, that, writing well is living well.  Arthur isn’t ready to die; he simply doesn’t want to regress into a metaphor. Through a well-versed narrator, Greer sculpts Less into an unforgettable and utterly likeable character, in a novel of the same name.  

Jenny by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Set during a working holiday in Rome, then a disheartening return to Norway at the turn of the twentieth century, Sigrid Undset’s Jenny is one woman’s heartwrenching journey to determine her own fate.

Jenny and art school friend Cesca share lodging while they paint in Italy.  Out with male friends Ahlin and Heggen, they meet another Norwegian, Helge, who, like many others, falls first for the vivacious, capricious Cesca, but later discovers a deep affection for Jenny’s steadfast and more sober love.  When Jenny and Helge both move back to Norway, she meets his unhappy parents. Unwilling to enter into their revengeful lives, Jenny also pities them, endeared particularly to Helge’s father, Gert. She’s torn between the joy she finds in her work, in art, and her pursuit of love.  She leaves Norway for Germany, then Italy again.

For Undset, Italy serves as a sort of alternative universe in which Jenny develops as an artist, in a natural, less rigid environment.  Italy’s idyllic, carefree beauty contrasts with the reality of Jenny’s Nordic Home, her impoverished, forbearing mother and Helge’s dysfunctional family.  Jenny resides in both these worlds, a passionate idealist holding out for one whom she can love wholeheartedly, and who will love her for independent, artistic herself, as well as a frugal pragmatist who can “expect the worst… and reap quite a bit of good from it” (23).  Although much of the novel takes place in Jenny’s head, in her stream of consciousness, she is beautifully drawn as a product of her time and place. She is on the cusp of modernity, of untold freedoms, expansions travel affords, yet still beholden to her own and her society’s principles.

Jenny is a particularly Norwegian tragedy.  It may be set in glorious Italy, but is grounded in Norwegian tradition.  Each of the Norwegian characters expresses his or her views on Norway’s relationship to the past.  Gert is stuck in the romantic period. Helge himself is a historian. Heggen is a critic of women’s rights and a staunch socialist.  Cesca opts for marriage over work. Jenny wants to create something new, to bring beauty to whatever she sees. “Never will we women reach the point where work is enough for us,” she tells Heggen.  She wonders if it possible to succeed in her work as an artist and as a woman, who needs love, who needs to be in relationship.  She embodies the creative tension of her era.

Jenny’s wonderings are never fully resolved.  Jenny doesn’t end, but, rather, becomes a recurring dream that nurtures and torments many women still today.  Undset exquisitely renders a female character in the midst of becoming, without dictating what she becomes.  

Home is Nearby by Magdalena McGuire

It is fitting that Home Is Nearby begins and ends with water.  The opening scene of a carp in the bathtub in the Polish city of Wroclaw is pivotal to the narrator, Ania’s, burgeoning artistic vision.  At the end of the book, on the beach near Brisbane, Australia, Ania commits to a fluid sense of home. The book ends beautifully illustrate the themes of this debut novel: identity and belonging.

Poland declares martial law in 1980, just as Ania starts art school in Wroclaw.  While her widowed father works as a headstone carver in an outlying village, Ania and her avant garde friends put on and document art happenings despite increased surveillance and curfews.  Ania and her boyfriend, Dominick, are both arrested. Under very different circumstances, Ania is released to Australia and Dominick to London.

Like Ania, the book’s writing is heavy on action and light on exposition.  She learns from her father to wield tools and work hard but struggles to assert her own concepts.  She develops as a character mostly by making mistakes and discovering what she doesn’t want to do before settling on more intentional goals.  The narrative moves along through Ania and her friends’ artistic pursuits, lush with descriptions of the feelings various paintings, sculptures, and performances evoke.  Dominick, a writer, spices up the dialogue with his charisma and charm, Malgorzata, Ania’s best female friend, lends a provocative flair, while boyfriends Dariusz and Krzysio a tragic innocence.  Ania’s ability to appreciate each on his or her own terms makes them stand out in well drawn individuality.

Scenes of police brutality punctuate the otherwise bohemian student life, forcing Ania, and the prose, to a headier tone.  In these sections, in prison and as Ania confronts Poland’s political tyranny towards her friends, she comes closer to defining her own vision.  She speaks more about her ideals and herself in these scenes. Instead of bogging down the plot, these more reflective passages bring to light Ania’s power as an artist and woman.  

The well researched novel, attested to by a long list of references in the back, emphasizes persons over politics.  The primary conflict is Ania’s search for her own direction. While she looks up to Malgorzata’s activism and admires Dominick’s bravery as a journalist, she discerns she can follow neither of them entirely.  Distance from Poland provides both space for Ania to discover her path and put Poland’s political situation in perspective. She doesn’t just want to react to its injustices but act creatively.

Although set in a tumultuous time in Poland’s history, Home Is Nearby asks universal questions about the artist’s life.  The setting and well developed narrator, Ania, bring these questions into a poignantly personal focus.  The questions aren’t so much answered as deeply explored through artistic endeavors and relationships. Ania triumphs as a strong woman at home enough in her own skin as to abide multiple homes.     Find the book at Impress Books

How We End Up by Douglas Wells

Sometimes what saves us is also the beginning of our demise.  In How We End Up, Douglas Wells follows Jackson Levee and Hadley and Haley, the nine year old twins he saves from drowning on a Florida beach, from the trio’s near fatal incident into their tragic-comic adulthoods.  The book illustrates that the reverse is also true: sometimes what tries to kill us, saves us, too.

The novel begins auspiciously.  The girls saved, Jackson enjoys a home cooked meal and after-dinner cavorting with their mother.  A poet and English teacher, he writes a poem about the event and includes it in a collection he publishes, which becomes so popular that he, along with the twins and mother, appear on a tv show.  After the show, the book sells like wildfire. Jackson get a new job teaching as a Poet in Residence at a college. He marries the woman of his dreams and has a child.

Meanwhile, instead of growing up to marry princes as they hoped, Hadley gets married to a womanizer and Haley gets depressed.  Hadley leaves her husband and finds works as an exotic dancer, spending her money on drugs and alcohol. Two different girlfriends see Hadley back to health only to end the relationship.  Haley pulls herself out of her funk with therapy and medication, has an affair but ends it when she finds Mr Right, Philip. When Philip returns from a tour in Iraq, disabled and traumatized, he becomes paranoid and violent.  Through it all, the girls and their stalwart mother support one another.

The narrative takes a turn when Jackson and girls are invited back to the tv show for a special edition before the show ends.  At this point, Jackson has been through “the three Ds. Death, Discontent, and Divorce.” Bushmills gin is his best friend. Hadley is sober enough, but hooked on pain pills.  Haley is trying to leave Philip. All at their wits’ end, Jackson invites the girls to stay at his beach condo for a while. Their domestic peace does not last long. The conclusion is open ended; not hopeless, but resigned.

Jackson advises Hadley, who wants to write her way into the future, “just don’t write a fairy tale.”  Douglas Wells’ fourth book is anything but a fairy tale. It is the sordid truth of how they become, not what they turn into.  It conveys the twists and turns of modern life, the mistakes and consequences and the facts over which there is no control save acceptance.  As dismal as the cast is at the end, the book threatens to be about this reflective outlook on life more than about the characters themselves. Jackson is drawn best, developed most through details: the forelock of hair that dangles down his forehead, the books he reads, birds he sees on walks he takes, his lovers’ gestures.  The twins don’t get this kind of thorough attention. However, all the characters have a lasting effect. In a poetic turnaround, characters from the early portion of the book come back in the final chapter to share memories of Jackson, Hadley and Haley.  see author website for links to this book and more!

Freya by Anthony Quinn

Anthony Quinn’s Freya Wyley is wiley, provocative, alluring, sexy, as well as “a right good chap” (119); she promises to become all of the above and more.  Through her relationships and writing career, she forges a life all her own. She is, simply, Freya.  

VE Day celebration in London sets the hopeful tone of the beginning of the novel, where Freya becomes best friends with Nancy Holdaway, with whom she spends the night drinking and dancing.  To Freya’s boxing, swearing, out-spokenness, Nancy is demure, private and soft-spoken. Dashing Robert Cosway attracts both friends at Oxford, where they all meet as first year students shortly after VE Day.  After publishing an expose on a war correspondent she admires, Freya leaves Oxford to begin a career in journalism instead of completing Oxford degrees with Nancy and Robert. After graduation, Freya and Nancy share a flat in London.  Nancy works at a publishing house, writing novels on the side, while Robert and Freya work as colleagues with a London newspaper. When a headline story Robert writes undermines a friend of Freya’s, his career launches forward at the sacrifice of his friendship with Freya.  She escapes the scandal to a newspaper job in Italy.

When she returns to rapidly growing London, she renews friendships with several  illustrious artists. Nat Fane, an unapologetically conceited actor and playwright with a sado-masochistic fetish, is a friend from Oxford.  Another former Oxford friend, chivalrous, mysterious Alex McAndrews, resists Freya’s overtures for romance due to a dangerous secret. Jerry Dicks is a “Soho Jester,” a photographer with a keen eye for portrait and trouble.  Jocelyn Philbrick is Freya’s stalwart editor and boyfriend, until he wrongs her, like Robert. Meeting young model, Chrissie Effingham, ostensibly to do a feature on her, Freya comes to adore her like a mother. Freya and Nancy reconcile slowly over a tragedy in Freya’s life.  These colorful characters and others, as well as city haunts and its music, reflect Freya’s many facets, her preferences and distastes, strengths and weaknesses, ambitions and vulnerabilities, while remaining solid personages each in his or her own right.

Freya sets out to make a splash in the literary world, but, in the end, her piece de resistance is not a piece of writing; not what she says, but what she doesn’t say.  In the final chapters, Freya refuses to publish an article that could damage someone’s future.  Her decision cinches her abiding relationship with Nancy. The novel’s conclusion is that people, not words, get the final say.  Freya’s genius is Freya herself, unapologetic and not to be forgotten in all her modern complexity.  find the book at Europa