Let’s Talk About Book Club

The impossible has happened: I’ve joined a book club. I’ve always been of the firm and sensible opinion that Clubs = EW!, but when someone in my giant apartment complex sent out an email asking if anyone would be interested in starting a book group, I decided to ignore my sophisticated knee-jerk reaction (HA! HA! HA! FIDDLE WHILE ROME BURNS, YOU MIDDLE-CLASS FOOLS! DON’T YOU MEAN YOUR KINDLE GROUP, HA HA HEE HAW HOOOO) and instead do the grown-up thing: I made a Pros and Cons list.

Book Club

Reasons not to join Book Club:

  • We’ll have to discuss books. I hate discussing books. I’m terrible at it. I can give you a decent description of the cover—”The cover depicts a middle-aged woman enjoying some fruit”—but that’s about it. Themes, metaphor, symbolism, I’m rubbish at the lot. Especially symbolism. I’m symbolism-blind. Show me a giant mythological bird emerging from a heap of feathery ashes and I’ll say, “Gosh, that owl’s bum must be hot!” In part, this is because I am dim. In another part, this is because symbolism is stupid. True story: I once heard a Very Famous Author scream at a Very Earnest Student because the student wanted to know why the kitchen cupboards in the VFA’s story were yellow. “They’re yellow because they’re yellow!!!” the VFA bellowed. This has become my standard response in all discussions concerning symbolism—“They’re yellow because they’re yellow!!!” I bellow—and I fear that such a remark at Book Club will be upsetting to all present.
  • We’ll have to discuss not-books. We’ll have to discuss food coloring, curtain whatsits, Mark Bloody Bittman, toddlers, plants, and whatever creepily smooth rectangle Apple has released that minute. I am rubbish at all these conversations. I’m very good at the What Kinds Of Strange Noises Can You Make With Your Mouth? conversation—you should hear my Fshhhhheshsh!—but the only other people who seem to enjoy this conversation are my boyfriend’s ten-year-old nephew and my cats. (Tracey! You are wrong about the types of things that cats are!)
  • The books will be awful. I’ll have to read Wally Lamb. I’ll have to read a touching story about a woman who moves back home to Ballsack, Iowa, after her father carks it in a grain elevator incident. I’ll have to read a touching story about a man who loses his right arm to wasps but learns to love again (but not wasps, obv). I’ll have to read a touching story about a businessman who decapitates a vagrant.
  • When it’s my turn to host Book Club, people will find out I have three cats. Any social progress I have made in the giant apartment complex will be immediately undone. Also, one of the cats is fat and known to be ruthless in her pursuit of pastries. What if this cat blinds one of my guests? Awk.
  • What if I have to do a poo at Book Club? Will I be able to do this in a stranger’s home? Or can I excuse myself—“I think I left the gas on!” (metaphor?)—go home, toilet myself, and then return without raising suspicion?
  • What if I have to bake a pie? What if someone asks me to bring a rice pilaf? I hate cooking. Hate it. Also, my eating disorder (we’ll call it fusspotexia) means there are only three items on my Foods I Can Eat list—rolled oats, Eggo Drizzlers, and bananas—and these delicious foods are seldom served at social gatherings (except at my house, because I know how to party). When I receive an invitation to a potluck dinner, I respond, “Thank you for inviting me to your upcoming potluck dinner. I will not be bringing any food to your potluck dinner, but I also will not be eating any of the food at your potluck dinner, so I believe we will be even vis-à-vis food. See you soon, my friend!” All in all, it is better if I stay inside my home.

Reasons to join Book Club:

  • Maybe someone will finally be able to tell me, once and for all, if it’s true that the security guard sometimes does a wee in the recycling room.
  • Might make a friend? I’ve recently noticed that many of my dearest friends live very far away (coincidence?). Also, I’ve started treating my cats like my dearest friends. In some ways this is not so strange—many people talk to their pets about the day’s events, no?—but in some other ways this is very strange indeed. For example, it is possibly very strange to tell people that one of your cats has signed up for a night class on How To Use Human Cutlery. Long story short: I could probably use a few new pals, especially now that The Colonel will be out on Wednesday evenings.

So I came up with more Cons than Pros, but that final Pro is a pretty big deal: even oat-eating, fur-covered dingbats need a few chums nearby. And thus I find myself responding SURE, I GUESS to Book Club. I will turn up empty-handed, wearing a Nil By Mouth sticker, and ready to offer such bon mots as, “Well, um, I quite liked it.” I will leave in the middle for about ten minutes and return with a relieved smile. “Gas crisis averted!” I will say (metaphor?). And I will try not to make strange noises with my mouth. I expect it will all be quite marvelous.

Shiny New Things

Hope your Monday is merry, Malvernians! I’m sure you’re all anxious to hear news of the impending royal sprog (boy? girl? otter? named Harold? Diana? Steve McTits?). Allow me to distract you with birth news of a non-icky, non-inbred sort: Malvern Books recently gave birth to a page. (Okay, still kind of ew.) Yes, this amenable little blog has slid quietly over to the right to make way for a new home page. The home page might be looking rather… homely at the moment, but we’re working on it, and once the store is open you’ll find all sorts of useful info there, including the boring stuff (our location, hours, and rules concerning the use of remote control helicopters) and the really interesting stuff (new books in store, staff recommendations, events).

And speaking of events, we have a page for that, too. Be sure to check the calendar for details of all our upcoming shenanigans—or, better yet, sign up for our weekly newsletter; the sign up form is over there in the sidebar, waiting patiently to take your email address (which, of course, we will guard with our lives and use only for sensible newsletter purposes). Events are going to be a Very Big Deal at Malvern Books, and we plan on hosting a reading most nights of the week. If you’d like to get in touch with us regarding staging your own performance (preferably of a literary nature, though you’re welcome to try us on your nude yodeling shtick), please do email us. It’s never too early to begin planning your Malvern debut.

Malvern Stage

And an events page needs an events stage! The stage area (pictured above, with the mushroom wood walls) is pretty much done. And no, we haven’t opted for that ironic papery flooring all the kids are pinteresting—we’re just protecting our nice bamboo and marmoleum* while we continue to slap on the feisty blue paint (let’s call the color Malvern at Midnight).

* Marmoleum is the perfect name for a baby otter. Just saying.

Thursday Three #8

In today’s Thursday Three, our weekly assortment of oddities in triplicate, please allow me to recommend to you (forcefully, but with love) three splendid short story collections. And for those of you about to head off on summer vacation, may I also point out that a volume of short stories makes for better holiday reading material than a novel. After all, beachy book time is always less plentiful than you imagine—there are naps to be napped, and so many drowning children to be rescued—and even if you manage to secure for yourself seventeen peaceful minutes, your concentration will be pretty much ruined by the constant urge to scratch at the mosquito bites on your ankles. You’re never going to get through a doorstopper like The Marriage Plot (you’re not missing much), but you can always sneak in a couple of short stories between spells of wilty heatstroke.

Short Stories

1. Prizes: The Selected Stories of Janet Frame. That cover! Lawks-a-lordy, what tosh! Apparently the design process went something like this:

Cover designer: Who do we have here? Janet Something? It’s a lady! Rightio. Ladies get pictures of shoes and legs. Add a dress and some feisty black sandals and we’re done!
Sensible person: Er, but Janet Frame isn’t exactly chick lit. She’s, like, a serious writer. People talked about her as a Nobel Prize contender.
Cover designer: Oh dear. I am completely at a loss now. Possibly I will have to abandon my tired old ways and completely rethink my approach to—oh wait, I’ve got it! I’ll make her legs a bit dirty and wrinkle her dress. Who’s a serious young lady now, hmm?

Ah well, I’ve seen worse. And although the cover may be a tad shite, the stories inside are brilliant. Here’s the opening paragraph of “Prizes,” which first appeared in a 1962 issue of the New Yorker:

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought. One knew of the pit ahead, of the grownups lying there rewarded, arranged, and faded, who were so long ago bright as poppies. One learned to take one’s own deserved place on the edge, ready to leap, not to hang back in a status-free huddle where bodies were warm together and the future darkness seemed less frightening. Therefore, one learned to win prizes, to be surrounded in sleep by a dream of ordinal numbers, to stand in best clothes upon platforms in order to receive medals threaded upon black-and-gold ribbons, books “bound in calf,” scrolled certificates. One’s face became, from habit, incandescent with achievement.

Wonderful, yes? Israeli writer Etgar Keret, himself no slouch in the story-writing department, is a big Frame fan: he nominated her “My Last Story” for his Recommended Reading pick. Frame’s strange, beautiful stories are laced with gloomy nostalgia and the slyly hilarious observations of a weirdo genius. Perfect holiday reading if you’re going on a cruise with a bunch of relatives whom you loathe and feel superior to.

2. Peter Carey’s Collected Stories. One reviewer likens reading Carey’s stories to “being shot by a firing squad of angels,” and that’s a pretty apt description. As an example of death-by-beauty, here’s the final paragraph of “The Chance”:

But I, I’m a crazy old man, alone with his books and his beer and his dog. I have been a clerk and a pedlar and a seller of cars. I have been ignorant, and a scholar of note. Pock-marked and ugly I have wandered the streets and slept in the parks. I have been bankrupt and handsome and a splendid conman. I have been a river of poisonous silver mercury, without form or substance, yet I carry with me this one pain, this one yearning, that I love you, my lady, with all my heart. And on evenings when the water is calm and the birds dive amongst the white-bait, my eyes swell with tears as I think of you sitting on a chair beside me, weeping in a darkened room.

Carey has mastered the essential sci-fi writers’ trick: he presents his unlikely worlds with utter confidence, and we never think to question his logic or doubt his details. He shows us an America where shadows are sold in lavish boxes, and introduces us to an unhappy shepherd who must keep alive a flock of suicidal horses. And in my favorite story in the collection, “Do You Love Me?,” we meet the Cartographers, whose job it is to document a disappearing world where unloved people and places begin, quite literally, to fade away, “like the image on an improperly fixed photograph.”

3. Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance. Or any Lydia Davis short story collection. Take your pick. They’re all brilliant, funny, moving, and sublime. I picked Varieties of Disturbance because it has a fly on the cover, and because it contains the excellent “Kafka Cooks Dinner” (for Milena, naturally), the best Kafka story Kafka never wrote:

I know beet salad would be better. I could give her beets and potatoes both, and a slice of beef, if I include meat. Yet a good slice of beef does not require any side dish, it is best tasted alone, so the side dish could come before, in which case it would not be a side dish but an appetizer. Whatever I do, perhaps she will not think very highly of my effort, or perhaps she will be feeling a little ill to begin with and not stimulated by the sight of those beets. In the case of the first, I would be dreadfully ashamed, and in the case of the second, I would have no advice—how could I?—but just a simple question: would she want me to remove all the food from the table?

It ends with “Someone once said that I swim like a swan, but it was not a compliment.” (You can read the entire story online here.)

It would be impossible for me to overstate how much I admire and envy Lydia Davis’ prose. She is the best. She is just the best. If a literary genie jumped out of a gin bottle and offered me the chance to write like anyone alive, I would say, “Oh, make me Lydia Davis, please!” (And then I would sit down at my desk and write a devastating prose poem entitled “Paul Auster’s Hair.”) Here are two of her stories in their entirety, one funny (because she is the best at funny), and one sad (because she is the best at sad):

The Good Taste Contest

The husband and wife were competing in a Good Taste Contest judged by a jury of their peers, men and women of good taste, including a fabric designer, a rare-book dealer, a pastry cook, and a librarian. The wife was judged to have better taste in furniture, especially antique furniture. The husband was judged to have overall poor taste in lighting fixtures, tableware, and glassware. The wife was judged to have indifferent taste in window treatments, but the husband and wife both were judged to have good taste in floor coverings, bed linen, bath linen, large appliances, and small appliances. The husband was felt to have good taste in carpets, but only fair taste in upholstery fabrics. The husband was felt to have very good taste in both food and alcoholic beverages, while the wife had inconsistently good to poor taste in food. The husband had better taste in clothes than the wife though inconsistent taste in perfumes and colognes. While both husband and wife were judged to have no more than fair taste in garden design, they were judged to have good taste in number and variety of evergreens. The husband was felt to have excellent taste in roses but poor taste in bulbs. The wife was felt to have better taste in bulbs and generally good taste in shade plantings with the exception of hostas. The husband’s taste was felt to be good in garden furniture but only fair in ornamental planters. The wife’s taste was judged consistently poor in garden statuary. After a brief discussion, the judges gave the decision to the husband for his higher overall points score.

* * *

Head, Heart

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

Poetry, K

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

K is for Kaminsky, Ilya

Ilya KaminskyIlya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, former Soviet Union, in 1977. Although his early years were fairly peaceful (largely because his wealthy father was able to secure his family’s safety by bribing state officials), life in Odessa became increasingly difficult following the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. Political unrest, galloping inflation, and the outbreak of war in neighboring Moldova prompted the family to apply for political asylum in the United States. In 1993, the U.S. approved their application, and sixteen-year-old Ilya and his parents moved to Rochester, New York. Kaminsky’s father died the following year.

When he was a child, Kaminsky had written short prose articles for Odessa newspapers, but after his father’s death he found himself drawn to poetry as a way to make sense of the loss. Although he claims he “hardly knew the English alphabet” when he first arrived in the United States, he began to write poems in English. In an interview with the Adirondack Review, he explains this decision:

My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, “Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry!” I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it—no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.

Dancing in OdessaKaminsky’s first poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, was published by Tupelo Press in 2004. It earned accolades from assorted fancy folks—Anthony Hecht proclaimed the volume “the start of a brilliant career,” while Robert Pinsky praised the poems’ “glorious tilt and scope”—and was named Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord magazine. Following the book’s publication, Kaminsky also received the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award in Literature, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.

Kaminsky lost his hearing when he was four (a rare complication of mumps), and he sees a link between his deafness and his desire to be heard: “I speak against silence, and again, against silence, knowing that silence moves me to speak.” In Dancing in Odessa, he speaks not only for himself, but for all those who have suffered dislocation and loss. His poetry is deft, musical, and passionate: it engages with the world and is unashamedly sincere. He is often considered a “political” poet, but Kaminsky simply sees himself as an attentive observer of the world, and is quick to shrug off questions concerning his agenda:

I write about life and death. Some people call that politics. Other people call that life and death. I don’t know why in [the United States] we need to ask each other these questions. Writers in Russia or South Africa or Poland or China don’t, since the answer seems self-explanatory.

Yes, poetry is poetry, an art of language. And, yes, we live in the larger world; our job as human beings is to pay attention to that world. As human beings we are all responsible, as Dostoevsky suggests: “Not everyone is guilty, but everyone is responsible.”

Kaminsky currently teaches English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, and is working on his second collection, tentatively titled Deaf Republic (Poetry has published a selection of these not-quite-done poems). Meanwhile, here are two of my favorite (finished) Kaminsky poems:

Elegy for Joseph Brodsky

In plain speech, for the sweetness
between the lines is no longer important,
what you call immigration I call suicide.
I am sending, behind the punctuation,
unfurling nights of New York, avenues
slipping into Cyrillic—
winter coils words, throws snow on a wind.
You, in the middle of an unwritten sentence, stop,
exile to a place further than silence.

I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my pillow
rushing towards my own training
to live with your lines
on a verge of a story set against itself.
To live with your lines, those where sails rise, waves
beat against the city’s granite in each vowel,—
pages open by themselves, a quiet voice
speaks of suffering, of water.

We come back to where we have committed a crime,
we don’t come back to where we loved, you said;
your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.
I tried to imitate you for two years. It feels like burning
and singing about burning. I stand
as if someone spat at me.
You would be ashamed of these wooden lines,
how I don’t imagine your death
but it is here, setting my hands on fire.

* * *

We Lived Happily During the War*

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

I took a chair outside and watched the sun
                                                        in the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money, in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

* from I Go to the Ruined Place, an anthology of poetry in defense of global human rights

Beside the Seaside

Apologies for the brief silence here at Malvern Books. We thought we’d escape the heat and take a little seaside break. The past few days have been spent paddling, reading, grilling, napping, and Backgammoning. Meanwhile, Operation Build a Bookstore is going swimmingly: the paint is up; the carpet is down; and a zillion books will soon be making themselves at home on our spiffy new shelves. And speaking of bookshelves, our rented vacation spot has a pretty nice set:

Cape Cod

A bit of an improvement from the dingy bach bookshelves of my childhood, which invariably contained seventeen Readers’ Digest Condensed Books and a well-thumbed copy of The Clan of the Cave Bear that fell open at the dirty bits. In contrast, the offerings on this beachy bookshelf include Rilke’s only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids BriggeStephen Greenblatt’s Shakespeare biography, Will in the Worldand Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (which she discusses in this NPR interview). Plenty to choose from, then—but it won’t feel like a proper beach vacation until I nod off in a rickety lawn chair with a Michener in my lap.

Poetry, J

Poetry Month is officially over, but that’s no reason to abandon our arbitrary and occasional Poetry A-Z series…

J is for Jackson, Laura Riding

Laura JacksonLaura Riding Jackson (1901-1991) was a renowned American poet, essayist, and critic. She was also a woman with a hell of a lot of names, and she could occupy any one of a number of spots in a Poetry A-Z series: she was born Laura Reichenthal; was first published under the name Laura Riding Gottschalk; subsequently dropped Gottschalk and went with Riding; and finally adopted Laura Riding Jackson as her authorial name from 1963 onwards. Since we’ve reached J in our poets’ alphabet, we’re going to go with Ms. Jackson.

Jackson was born in New York, grew up in Brooklyn, and was educated at Cornell University, where she first started writing poetry. Her early work attracted the attention of the Fugitives, an influential group of young Southern poets and scholars whose members included Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. They published her poetry in their eponymous literary magazine, The Fugitive, in 1923, and formally invited her to join the group in March 1925. When the group awarded her the prestigious Nashville Prize for poetry in 1924, they praised her “sound intellectuality” and “keen irony,” and noted that her poems were “concerned with profound issues.”

Around this time, Jackson’s first marriage, to her former Cornell history tutor Louis R. Gottschalk, was dissolving. The couple divorced in 1925, and at the end of that year Jackson moved to England. She’d been invited to Blighty by the poet Robert Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson, and she moved in with the couple as soon as she arrived. Although this arrangement seemed to work for a while, it must eventually have become a rather difficult ménage à trois: Jackson jumped out of a fourth-floor window in 1929, nearly killing herself. This drama prompted Graves to leave his wife—quite the literary scandal at the time—and move with Jackson to Deià, Majorca. There they continued to run their small publishing company, Seizin Press, which put out a magazine, Epilogue (1935-1938), and published avant-garde writers like Gertrude Stein. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, the couple left Majorca and lived in England and France before moving to America in 1939. They parted ways shortly afterwards, and Jackson began a relationship with the critic Schuyler B. Jackson.

In 1941, Jackson renounced poetry—she later claimed it was because she found poetry incompatible with truth. She married Schuyler Jackson and they moved to a citrus farm in Wabasso, Florida, where Jackson withdrew from public life. Together, the couple devoted themselves to a new task: producing a comprehensive study of language that was intended to offer “a fundamental re-evaluation” of the way words work. Schuyler Jackson died in 1968, and Jackson continued working on the project after his death; their book, Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, was posthumously published in 1997. It does not sound like a fun read.

Jackson hasn’t had the best press over the years. Virginia Woolf called her “a shallow, egotistical, cock-crowing creature” and William Carlos Williams referred to her as “a prize bitch.” She was blamed for breaking up Graves’ marriage, and she further damaged her reputation by sending lengthy, admonishing letters (referred to as “Lauragrams” by one frustrated reviewer) to anyone she believed had misrepresented some aspect of her life or work. Some critics see this as proof of an egomaniacal need for control, but a more generous interpretation is also possible: how could Jackson refrain from insisting that details matter when she was obsessed with “truth” and devoted her career, first as a poet and later as a scholar, to the notion of “a linguistically ordained ideal”?

Laura JacksonIn any case, it seems a little unfair that so many discussions about Jackson as a writer seem to become messy squabbles over whether she was a homewrecking control freak or a misunderstood (if pedantic) romantic. What matters is the work itself, and there’s no denying that during the first half of her life, Jackson wrote some of the most original, serious-minded poetry of the twentieth century. She was prolific, producing eleven volumes of poetry between 1926-1939, and highly regarded by many of her peers. Berryman hailed her as “the peer of any woman now writing poetry in English” and Auden called her “the only living philosophical poet.” In fact, Graves once wrote the young Auden a letter in which he reprimanded Auden for imitating Jackson’s style. For a taste of her best work, I recommend the series “The City of Cold Women” (1924), published in its entirety in Poetry. Here’s an excerpt:

The Lovers

They come glowing to the gates of the city,
Armed with tenderness,
Resolute to parade
Beneath the windows of the cold women,
With their gifts warm on their shoulders.

The women sit frigidly smiling in their frames,
And their eyes are the eyes of Medusa.
Who but lovers,
Who but unslaked lovers may be starved so?

There is one bird left in the city of the cold women,
Forager of doorsteps,
Cosset of cold women.
It is sweet carrion they scatter to him.

* * *


Are there words thin enough for such thin lips?
Smiles are more tenuous than laughter,
And their only echo is pain.

* * *


The roofs of the city are a bleak mist
Brooding over the sharpness beneath them:
Walls stroked to corners by the hands of the cold women,
Fireplaces for irony.
We shall not wonder at rimed mirrors—
Windows give up their secrets,
Not mirrors.

In the houses of the city of cold women
There are shadows.
They may be children,
They titillate the light so bashfully.

There are tired lilies, propped to apathy.