Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster”

20180916_100653I was reading Jessica Sequeira’s debut novel, “A Furious Oyster” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), when the 30 August London Review of Books arrived in the day’s mail. A book review should reveal something unexpected, but to do that the book under consideration must be heard in a whisper.

I turned to the review of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays; the LRB reviewer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, quotes from Zadie’s foreword:

“‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’”

Later in the review, we might recall that quote and think Zadie is telling us something more, but on the slant, that where she comes from, who she is, who her parents were, the various markings often used for identity, also don’t necessarily serve as “real qualifications”:

“‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’”

That ‘whisper’ is often precisely both unexpected and unheard. The whisper follows no code of style. The whisper comes after the existence of the writer, and describes her essence, her choices, her existential leanings, what she has decided to follow. The whisper is the writer’s breath. The whisper might also be how something is said, and is often paradoxical. The whisper breaks the piece, ruins the lecture, calls from the pit, stops the show. The whisper might be a prayer of praise or a heckle in time with popular opinions.

There’s something else, too, about the whisper; it’s what most of us do who have no real qualifications. And out of all those whispers (the all but silent blogs, the self-published and distributed broadside, the furious but funny poem in the on-line lit-wall), which ones should we home in on? And why would someone whisper when already no one’s listening?

Sometimes, of course, the whisper “goes viral,” bounces and echoes off walls, scampers up trees, drifts through subway tunnels. But who or what is the host for that sometimes poison, at times the scent of lavender? And it’s well known, though often not accepted, the virus does not respond to antibiotics, the stubborn use of which weakens the resistance.

All noise dissipates into whisper, so it should not surprise us that John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ goes briefly viral upon each new discovery. We realize even the Big Bang was a silent singularity. Not only might the world end not with a bang but a whisper, as Eliot almost said in “The Hollow Men,” but the world probably began with a whisper.

A whisper is not a whimper. A whimper is what comes out of a giant mouth at the end of a rant. A whisper is a careful timing of breath, a largo escape, patient. The whisper goes easy and around.

“Although that isn’t quite right either: how to describe something like the voice of a person just out of sight?” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

Hilda Mundy’s voice was far out of sight when Jessica Sequeira brought it back: “I don’t want them to punish me with comments” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, trans. Sequeira, We Heard You Like Books, 2017, 17). “Them,” the “three-dozen readers laughing at the pages of my failure” (17).

The whisper never fails: “I began to hear people whispering things to help me, advice. I don’t know whether those voices were really there or not, but they brought me serenity. They helped talk me through my situation, suggesting new paths, pointing out what I needed to do” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

“I have great respect, in contrast, for the metaphor. This is that” (118). So when we are told Pablo Neruda has ridden a wave of energy from an earthquake or the ocean or some great storm to enter the realm of the living, we believe. “This is my body.” This voice, this word. The metaphor transfigures.

Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster” is diary, memoir, investigation, document, thesis, mystery, love story. Let’s “be clear,” there are “other realities” (55). The reality of the metaphor, for example. “Strong wills work even in the shadows of the afterlife” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, 29). Does every word contain its erotic origin? “How pleasant and suggestive a couple in love is!” (Mundy, 34). “Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time?…Her kisses alternate, soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know, I know. I know, and how I wish I did not” (A Furious Oyster, 38).

“A Furious Oyster” is a story of two famous poets in Chile, Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha, literary adversaries, it seems, but both driven by the sufferings and loves of the people of a place, a land, a geography, a structure, to reach out, to reach. The geography of Sequeira’s book reveals her interests in shapes: “Sometimes at night, I dreamed of these theoretical shapes – the rhombuses, the ovals, the diamonds, the ellipses of sub-arguments within the prose. I kept only one notebook, and the diary of my personal life merged smoothly into the most abstract of notes on these Chilean poets, here and gone before my time” (55). “A Furious Oyster” is also the story of a writer researching, composing, working, in a relationship, watching, listening. And it’s the story of a place, Santiago de Chile.

Sequeira possesses that most unique of minds, the one able ambidextrously to move easily from the hard academic to the soft poet (or is it the soft academic to the hard poet?) within the same shape. The flow of “A Furious Oyster,” its style, is redolent of the Duras of the “Four Novels,” or Lispector’s way of creating mystery while unveiling surprises. I also thought of the modernism of Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin. Jessica Sequeira is a translator, a scholar, a writer. She both understands and comprehends literature. For those of us who can only comprehend, but feel we are indeed also “struck with this thought,” we can only whisper in her shadow that you really should read “A Furious Oyster.”

Out of the Blue Review of Alma Lolloon

A fun and generous review of Alma Lolloon has appeared on Amazon. Here is a link, and I’ve pasted the review below:

by, Rucker Trill


July 4, 2018

Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase
Dear Miss Lolloon – You are no doubt by now growing weary of fan mail after the publication of your eponymous novel, Alma Lolloon, but I just finished reading it, so I must write to tell you how much I liked it.

Right off the bat I thought, hmmm, this is new and unusual given the absence of most punctuation not to mention quote marks so that I knew I was in uncharted waters here, or maybe a better metaphor (I learned that word from the book)would be along the line of separating skeins of different colored yarn after the kittens have been in the knitting basket. But soon enough I got my stride and realized that this is the way things happen in real life – there are no quotation marks there, now are there. And it seems like that’s the way this book unrolls, just like life with the unexpected hidden just around the corner, under the everyday. (Though given your five husbands I wonder if anything about your life is “everyday”.)

I’m no writer myself, but one of the things I liked was how you and your friends talk about the book right there in the book while they’re supposedly hearing the book! I mean whoa! What’s that about? It was like falling into a hall of mirrors or something. I asked a professor who lives down the block about it, and she said you were “meta-texting” and after I showed her a few pages she said you were doing it very humorously, and I confess I laughed way more than once. But like I said, I’m no writer, so who knows.

Now, I don’t knit but I’d love to join you and Curly, Hattie, and Rufa some day for coffee and scones and we could talk more about your book. I could even bring the scones. Maybe some time in August? I plan to be up your way then.

Anyway, I’ve run on too long and I know you’re busy on your next book. I hope it’s a mystery, I really like the mystery part of the book with Jack Rack. (I think you should have married him!)

Best regards, Rucker

 

Notes on “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding”

Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From HidingPure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding, by Lim Lee Ching, with Drawings by Britta Noresten. Introduction by Neil Murphy and Afterword by Jeremy Fernando. Poems Sequenced by Mary Ann Lim. Layout by Yanyun Chen. Paperback edition first published 2017 by Delere Press, Singapore.

 

In a December, 2014 interview with Sara Lau for Obscured, Jeremy Fernando talks about his vision for Delere Press: “We didn’t see the need to have a prescribed look for all our books – we recognize that we are a small boutique press, and we are probably going to remain that way in the foreseeable future. In the end, all we want to do is to create and publish something that shows the artists and the writers’ work in the most beautiful way possible.” “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding” is my second experience reading with notes intended for the Toads in response to a Delere Press work. Of particular note is the press’s intent “to provide a home for text and images that may not have a home otherwise, no matter what its geographical origins.” That the press attempts to do so with hard copy, illustrated texts, choreographed by literary troupe in our digital age is remarkable.

“Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding,” is a collaborative effort to book a collection of poems by a particular writer that becomes more than a sum of its parts. We have, maybe, become too familiar with books of hidden poetry. They line the shelves like butterflies pinned under glass. A poem does not begin like a fallen leaf pressed between pages of a book for bibliographical preservation. A poem begins as a particle, a photon, a piece of light that lands in the reader’s hands, a single note that enters the ears with a breeze, something that bugs the skin with an itch, as in, “something just bit me!” A book cannot preserve that piece of light except in fossilized memory. We may never hear that note again; it has joined the sound ocean waves make. The bug has lit, and we are left the proof of a small rash of the bed bug or lice visit. We jump into a bath of prose to escape the itching.

When I say “to book,” I mean that pinned collection of specimens organized for study. To book is to create a model to look. The helpless reader must imagine the specimen fluttering in a heat of flowers. A poem may try to evade its predators (its digital critics) by hiding in the book:

“Even as it might be chuckling, perhaps always
laughing

                                            le rire du poeme

A laughter from elsewhere,
one that we perhaps cannot yet hear.
Much like the silence of the sirens. Always perhaps
already there,
awaiting us.”

That is from Jeremy Fernando’s “Et tu…A Prayer for Lim Lee Ching,” an afterword to “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging from Hiding.” Other parts of Lim Lee Ching’s book of poetry include an introduction by Neil Murphy (“Lim Lee Ching: Bounded by Beauty”) and eight drawings of birds, spread throughout the book, by Britta Noresten. We are told the poems were sequenced by Mary Ann Lim and the layout composed by Yanyun Chen. All of those collaborators are called “contributors,” and they are given end-space so they too might become familiar to the reader. What becomes larger than the sum of the parts is that collaborative effort that creates emergence. What emerges is poetry from hiding, raising elation, poetry unshackled, flown like paper birds from the garret into a community, a society. Poetry is a question of community more important than mere self-expression.

“The path is not tongue-tied,” Lim Lee Ching says. The path is there and people will walk it. The invitation, the invocation, is clear. But who are these people, these walkers (readers) of the path? “That perhaps is not so much the question, but quite certainly a question,” Fernando says, and “Keeping in mind Paul Celan’s beautiful, haunting, reminder that la poesie ne s’impose plus, elle s’expose. One might even say it opens itself” (93). Opens itself to itself, it’s self-same intuitions, which are its conventions, if you need “criteria” to read by, if mere light proves insufficient. We are on a path.

When I first read “Quick Guide” (48), I thought I was to pick words from the text box on page 48 and insert them into one of the blank lines in the text on pages 49 through 51. I thought the path had come upon a Mad Lib.

“Sometimes a show can be too new for its own good” (49), I suggested to myself, my choices being “first blue dark ripe new fast.” “Mad” is a choice farther down the list, and “sad,” and “bad,” if you want to rhyme. But now I’m not so sure. All the words in the text box are one syllable. There are 78 words in the text box, and there are 60 blank spaces in the text on pages 49 through 51. This is analysis. Am I analyzing a joke here? Is this humor? Of course it is! Let’s get the reader really involved!

“It quickly becomes clear that part of the idea is to use humour to send up some of the ____________ attitudes still dominant in the art world. So, the pleasures of discipline are extolled, the players get their turn and pretentiousness gets a ____________ kicking” (50).

Poetry comes without directions, or it should. Critics may provide some directions, using a kind of rear view mirror to describe the path now behind them. The critic’s notes may prove useful maps; then again, the reader may feel just as lost.

The Poems:

Beginning with “Ode to Everman” [sic], we hear repetition and a counting (accounting of things): cadence, marching, peace and piece, music piece, measured. Every man [who has ever marched, marching in a line, in a poem, to a tune, attuned]. Circumstance, the silence of Beckett (a ringing in the ears). Military “boom time,” “armed,” “beating” (12:13).

Warren Beatty? How’s that for a surprise? Repetitions (‘One at a time”), words connected by sound: “cravat advocate” (14).

“Unloading pomposity one at a time” (14), and again “…your / Penchant for pomposity” (22). Where “Iowa” is monosyllabic: “Impossibility of authenticity” (22).

Numbers as poetic concern, things counted, measured, “Halved too far” (15).

“Cull” illustrates the poet’s task. The poet fishes, on a perch, for a perch. But who are the “armed men”? Look how quickly we can move from river to city:

“Waiting and baiting on the narrowing perch,
The centre holds them still.
A trunk, a branch – of streets and lanes,
Of skinny legs and weathered shoulders” (17).

Suggesting weathered soldiers, readers. Again, a military, a line: “Of fight, of fright, / And frenzied feeding against stained walls” (17). Desire is impotent. Who will teach that?

Then we turn the page to a drawing of a bird, not quite but almost black and white, but more, the feeling of a bird in flight, perhaps in the night, or a fog, or over a grey sea. We resist the impulse to anthropomorphize. But it’s clinging to a small branch. Building a nest? Very few birds fly solo. What a world this must be, to a bird. In any case, to cull is to pick, peck, at words.

“Only the facts remain” of Ryan White, who picked up a “Contagion.” Only our germs remain. You build yourself a bomb shelter against the fallout, but you are yourself a germ, a bug, rising, falling. So much fear. “Only the facts remain” (20). Facts survive. If we’ve lived for any length of time in a refugee camp, we have germs. If we’ve lived any length of time in a bungalow in Des Moines, we have the same germs. We are emergent, emerging – emergence, as writer merges with reader, something more. Is that pompous? Is poetry a contagion? After the poem, what remains?

“Bookmarks” is a longer poem, of which there are several in the book, prose blocks, not non-lyrical, but not lyrics. But not prose, and not blocks, scrolls. We keep to the first word of each line capitalized, giving the line that authority accustomed poetry, but the lines are not necessarily sentences, not in the usual sense:

“Only the words remain to be spoken, the writing to be sung
Of happinesses witnessed and tongues tied
In full contemplation of the idea of ideas” (24).

Who inhabits the space of an idea? “…not…king, colonel or clown, / Nor the realm of whisperers seeking to please” (24).

An idea (ideology is not ideas, Trilling said: Ideas malleable, suitable for poetry; ideology fixed). Idea of order in things (Key West shells, beaches, cocktails, dandy diamond Wallace Stevens). “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Stevens said. No idea except in things (Williams, Paterson, Book I):

“—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!”

I’m in “Bookmarks,” and I’m reminded of Blake (where I left plenty of bookmarks), “Proverbs of Hell.” “Adagia”? Erasmus’s collection of proverbs. In any case, Lim Lee Ching says:

“The source of ignorance may well be reluctant pursuit.”

“The cult of stability and singular meaning
Diminishes ascendant beauty, delight and breath-hope.”


“Persistent therefores are fallacious,
They bind while unleashing the gateward push” (25).

Prayer, cadence, repetition. Whose tongue is tied praying, writing, reading poems? The scat of the song ruins the stutter, but the poet’s many tools are not obtrusive:

“Whispery songs of woven trances,
Of ancient wisemen oozing” (27).

Cadence as old steps (“the fragrance of remembrance”) might lead to disappointment, even depression: “Accord each a place in abjection” (27).

But isn’t time directionless? What does it matter if we are moving forward (in desire, in anxiety) or backward (in memory, in loss). For-word. Back-word. The poet spends time in a backworld, where the citizens speak backward.

“Penance is the province of princes, not poor men” (28), which brings us to T. S. Eliot:

“Here lies the awakening
Of the dispensation of an age,
Dismissing the certainty as one in many
[where]
The faces put on meet the faces within” (29).

Ideology is a “contagion.” Is poetry the antidote?

And again birds, before a song breaks the spell of the litany. Something lonely about the bird drawings. The birds are not in nature, or even in the city, but alone, each its own poem, each drawing its own poem, saying the same thing, but in different expressions. Where do we see these birds? In sky that is like a sea: grey-green; blue-grey; slate; cliff chalk white.

“Song” (34): Blake of the Songs – song, rhyme, cadence, hope, safe, heart, metaphor for what? Can the reader, too, be one of the “players of the heart”? (35).

“faithful” (37), religious or spiritual, sound but abstract images, nothing of the kitchen full of dirty dishes or the toilet in the bathroom in need of cleaning. Not Bukowski here. And I’m still hearing Blake of the Songs. Which is lovely, lyrical, song. I try to remain a faithful reader.

We’ve had our song, now the “Road Rises” as the reader falls. Mix of pop culture with “village.” The “tenderizing songs” of Elvis. And “Plastic Jesus” – the perfect image on the dashboard desires deconstruction, a theory to explain its presence, or disappearance.

Then again I’m reminded of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, but not Stevie Smith or Marianne Moore. Not a statistician. Enjoys punctuation that helps, not simply follows some rule. Writing as accretion, addition. I find something interesting, a two word form, in “Shallowbreath”: “ribboned arches…winded depths…cobbled many…meddled few…celebrated warmth…allayed smokememory…displaced upon…hounded the highroad… …warmed eyes.” We could be in London or Singapore or Dublin. Joycean, that “smokememory.”

A short, lyrical, litany ends, “And then there is you.” Do birds prepare for flight? Always at the ready, never slack, like cats, never napping in clear sight. Are birds keen to fly? “On the station platform prayer beads change hands” (57). Partnerships.

“A Gazal” (58). What gets rhymed, and why, and what gets repeated, and why? For song, for the sake of song in which we have something to keen. Poetry gives form to the broken. What is unbound cannot be broken again.

The poems seem to call on a kind of philosophical muse, hard thought. Yet that thought’s softness comes through in poetic style, the form and shapes, the lines, the breath, the flows repeated and measured. The writing seems logical, in the same way that Kafka may appear logical, or Borges, without dismissing the nonlogical. The first person is not paramount. Others are. And when I appears, it’s Meng Jiang (61). If we continue to break what is broken what do we become? Minerals? Salts?

Little poems of “love and faith” (65). What more can a reader ask for? The reader comprehends the poetry without necessarily every line understanding it.

Nijinsky appears (66). The last time I saw Nijinsky in a poem was at El Camino, around 1969. Stephen Jama passed out a poem he had written, typewriter print on colored paper. Some students got a green sheet, others a yellow, others blue or grey. Never white. “And the world dies, Adonis on its lips,” I think I recall, at the top. And Nijinsky was “dancing a band”? No, dancing I forget what. And there was a “tousled laugh.” I wish I could remember that poem. It’s lost now. I don’t think it ever made it into a book. I wonder who still has their copy. I kept mine for years, then one day without reason tossed them all, along with a box of my own stuff. I was knee deep in the red dust by then, cleaning out the basement, lost in the dust. Maybe it’s poems “belong only to the night” (67). Jama’s assignment was for us to read the poem and then to write a response. Birds in flight.

“What I have written, I have written,” Jeremy Fernando says in his afterword. Would that were true of what I have written. But what I have read, I have read. Fernando attempts to connect writer to reader: where does poetry, that space of water we seem to want to cross, a crossing, from the shore of sleep to the loading docks of day – poetry the ferry full of readers unbound from one shore, paddling for the opposite – what path leads down to the ferry launch? When the poem laughs, is it the reader laughed at? That is a cynical view many hold.

To read is to experience. Any attempt to make some other sense of that experience is a different matter:

“… every try, any trying, perhaps even trial, is not just haunted by misreadings, over-writings, one cannot even underwrite it with the certainty that reading has taken place, that one has even read” (77).

Edna O’Brien’s “The Country Girls”

Edna O’Brien’s “The Country Girls” is the first in the trilogy telling the life and times of Kate and Baba, two girlfriends from country situations who get to the city trying to move away from the tangled mores of Irish family, church, education, and politics of the mid twentieth century. The second in the trilogy is “Girl with Green Eyes,” first published as “The Lonely Girl.” The third, received by critics at the time with the least enthusiasm, is “Girls in Their Married Bliss.”

Kate and Baba must work jobs, find a place to live, take care of themselves, all on their own. So what, we might ask. Those might be good problems to have. Indeed they are, and even better if the girls survive – the attempts to shame, the gentlemen who come into their lives, the petty but deep economic exploitations, trusts and distrusts of one another and their trysts.

“I work in a delicatessen shop in Bayswater and go to London University at night to study English. Baba works in Soho, but not in a strip-tease club, as she had hoped. She’s learning to be a receptionist in a big hotel. We share a small bed-sitting room, and my aunt sends a parcel of butter every other week” (212, “Girl with Green Eyes”).

At the time of their publications, in the early 1960’s, O’Brien’s books were banned, her family shamed. “The Country Girls” is dedicated to her mother, though it’s doubtful her mother ever read it. It wasn’t enough for the Irish censor board to simply ban the books – people burnt them in public shamings, and priests denounced them from the pulpit. It’s doubtful any of them read any of it, except maybe the pages someone said were rife with you know what, and God bless and keep you if you don’t know.

But O’Brien persisted, her work redeemed itself and a generation of girls. “My whole body was impatient now. I couldn’t sit still. My body was wild from waiting” (186, “The Country Girls”).

But redemption might not be sufficient for those who want to write their own lives, who want to be reborn every day: “Not long ago Kate Brady and I were having a few gloomy gin fizzes up London, bemoaning the fact that nothing would ever improve, that we’d die the way we were – enough to eat, married, dissatisfied” (7, “Girls in Their Married Bliss”).

My Penguin paperback copies are all three editions from 1981 (they were originally published in 1960, 1962, and 1964). Many editions have been printed, some with maybe better cover designs.

…from my Goodreads “short reviews of old personal library books.”

Reviews of Alma Lolloon

Another review of “Alma Lolloon” released into the cybersphere, this one by Ashen Venema, author of “Course of Mirrors” and blogger friend. I paste below, and below that, please see the “TinyLetter” opportunity.

Ashen’s Review:

on December 19, 2017
This is fun. Want to write a book? Forget empowering how-to-do courses. Instead, entertain your knitting circle; guaranteed not to be the silent reading audience an author might fantasise about, for good or bad. More, they’re keen to have their characters included in your story.
Do knitters or writers have a plan before they set out to do their craft? Alma, a waitress, determined to write a book about her five husbands has no plan. She shares the process by reading installments to Hattie, Rufa, Anny and Curly, her knitting friends. The knitters frequently interrupt. Hattie, considered to be a writing expert, spouts her wisdom with relish – a book – ha – what makes you think you can …
Alma is undeterred. The first scenes recount the surreal events following the unplanned pregnancy of an American teen. Story or not, the ladies are hooked. They frequently debate the merits of the story, if it is a story, and what the whole point of it might be.
Grammar, speech marks, arc, none of this matters to Alma as she reads to her listeners. They’re obviously entertained by the occasional odd simile, or they wouldn’t show up at the rotating local venues where they meet. ‘Where’s this going?’ they query. ‘But that’s incredulous,’ they exclaim. Stay silent, burst or share and be crucified. Through the sardonic, provoking and lamenting chapters shines Alma’s need to express her unique truth.
Active listeners can be rough, in the understanding, of course, that it doesn’t pay to tell the truth. There are laugh-out-loud moments. Portland’s American lingo weaves through the themes of existential crisis, lost utility and simmering rage, sprinkled with humour and funny lines. ‘My epiphany slowly crawled up the back of my neck, morphed, split, and then two headed to my ears, one each …’ or ‘Rack stood five feet nine inches, nine inches and a half if he would bother standing up straight. Well, Jack Rack is mistakenly shot and the story moves on …
I enjoyed the hilarious discussions on marriage, and on men as occasional providers.
Could it be said that ‘men’ is a category of books?
And then, Alma finds out, there are those who choose a book for its cover.

~~~

My Weekly Tiny Letters

My this week’s Tiny Letter copied below. Would you like to sign up?

Three reviews of “Alma Lolloon” are now loose in the cybersphere:

Bill Currey bound his review in a tweet, to wit:

Bill Currey @williamcurrey
And here I thought I was going to get a Joycean map with footnotes and all to Linker’s Portland! I stumble blindly onwardly towards, if not to summation, at least to termination.

Joe Linker @JoeLinker
Replying to @williamcurrey @PhilippaRees1 and 2 others
Thanks for the review, Bill. Sounds like something Beckett might have said.

And Dan Hennessy posted a review of “Alma Lolloon” to his “Tangential Meanderings” blog (AKA: itkindofgotawayfromyou). Click here to read Dan’s review.

And if you’ve not read Philippa Rees’s review of “Alma Lolloon,” it’s at Queen Mob’s Tea House. Click here.

Bookmark Giveaway!

We’ll be spending the holidays with the grand girls, and for an art project we’ll be making bookmarks for a Joe Linker book.

The bookmarks use standard, toxic free materials, of paper and fabric, thematically linked to the books with original artwork.

If you’d like to receive a complementary bookmark, please send a reply to this tiny letter telling us what book you’d like the bookmark for (Penina’s Letters; Coconut Oil; Scamble and Cramble: Two Hep Cats and Other Tall Tales; Saltwort; or Alma Lolloon), and also include a snail mail address for us to mail you the bookmark. All bookmarks will be sent out by Dec 31st. If you prefer, we can send you an e-bookmark. Reply the same as above but with an email address. What’s an e-bookmark? Not sure, we’ve not made one yet.

You can view the covers of the five books here.

Thanks for reading, Joe

Ashen Venema’s Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey

As we begin our trip with Ana, leaving her teens and moving from a self-renounced medieval privilege to her own renaissance, we get the feeling she has no interest in becoming the subject of some troubadour’s love song or any knight’s lady waiting in a fortified manor house for her man to come home with the meat and mead. She’s interested in neither shame nor honor. The holy grail of “Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey” is a story of one’s own. This is not your mom’s fairy tale.

A medieval mystery play, a miracle play, directed by an evil Preacher, brings Ana a quick and unwanted celebrity. But the Preacher is a vaudevillian, the sacrifice, like the Catholic mass, intended to be bloodless. Fine, Ana wonders, but what was his plan for her if she was not to die? And something about the Preacher, his looks, his bearing, his power to pander, attracts Ana. We don’t always want what’s good for us.

We are on a rogue adventure in a picaresque tale where disguise and subterfuge are necessary and ordinary. Ana dresses as a boy, learns to live off herbs and small animals from her mentor Rheine, and, in the course of their travels and travails, embraces a realism rooted in the fairy tale. For example, now hiding from her mother now searching for her girl disguised as a boy, in the hold of a boat where,

“Far too many horses, mules, sheep, goats, fowl and pets were cramped together with hardly any ventilation. The sickening stench of urine and droppings eventually defeated me. At daybreak I retched and escaped onto the first deck. Bent with pain, I was violently sick over the railing, onto the oars below.” Also realistic is the humor; Rheine says, “I’d an inkling your night would be disagreeable.”

The miracle play motif is picked up by a traveling theater troupe: “Rheine had squeezed my hand on occasions. The irreverence brought to the miracle made us simultaneously cry and laugh with the audience. Humour softened my bitter memory. I told myself that the saint business was a mob dream.”

But we are as quickly brought from a saving humor to a murderous reality: “People and animals thrashed in the water or floated lifeless in the wake of the burning…The men pulled three bodies into their boat and attacked the rest with oars. They pushed the living underwater to their deaths.”

In the space of a few episodes, then, we are caught in our runaway’s fallopian fall from innocence to experience, pushed by a stubborn insistence on an existential rebirthing, from parental expectations to a daughter’s commitment to freedom. The contemporary allegory may have its roots in the counter culture movement of the 1960’s, when costume and disguise, stage renaissance fair updated with hallucinogenic lighting, pretend sacrifice, and children on the run from the neurotic, war damaged psyches of their parents figured out new ways to live and tell the old stories.

In any case, the future is never far behind, where our decisions have consequences. This is time travel, in the form of foil character Cara’s journal: “A handful of us are perched on the flat roof of a skyscraper; I can’t see the faces of the people with me, they are strangers. The tower sways like a ship tossed about in an ocean, climbing a rising wave, only to plummet. The tower tilts. I slide and cling to the leaded rim of the flat roof. There is a sudden lurch.” Cara’s time altered mirrored narrative within a narrative both clarifies and complicates Ana’s predicament as the plot unfolds like a house of falling playing cards. The story’s movement is metallic, its setting competing communes, its joy food and drink, its darkness plague and plundering and penury, beggary and politics. Its themes include independence, movement and flow, archetypal psychological imprints: the quest, journey, river, the map; loveless marriage and surrogate parental forces and mystery births; instinct and intuition, magic, alternates – including love and sex and the confusions one brings to the other.

The writing style moves with the themes. Some of the descriptions are like Hieronymus Bosch paintings, people burning in fires, drowning, children screaming, animals too, faces hiding in the brush. As our heroine prepares for her first kiss, though, the writing changes to the lavender prose of a teen romance novel. An entire chapter is given to what becomes the disappointing epiphany, where the “peeling” of one’s clothes reveals a plush orange that screams when split. She gets used to it, but then the prose turns to the stark realism of relationships: “Naivety is a curse. Crushed like a rose and tossed into the pale remains of a fire, I was of no use, not even as fuel for kindling. I should have asked the river to take me when it offered to.”

There is an economy to the writing that is expedient, efficient. A history of a people and a land must be told, but so must a personal diary be explained. The narration moves from first person to third person without any introduction or worry. The switch is simply necessary to keep the story moving. And our first person has other ways of knowing, of omniscience. Sentience appears as a kind of hallucinogen usually hidden within things. Perception pulls life force from stone, going forth as well as taking in.

How serious is all this? First, it’s great fun. And shouldn’t writing, particularly the writing of a novel, bring pleasure to both the writer and the reader? The risk is a flatness, two dimensional characterizations, an animated film, the artistry of which undercuts its own reality. Myth when expanded usually fills with irony. Second, there are borrowings of form from myth and fairy tale that legitimize the atmosphere of magic and fantasy. But it takes a great leap of imagination to enter an invented world open eyed, to pretend even after all pretense has been lost. But this is the writer’s explanation of things, of life, of a life, anyway, this book. In some purviews, every thing must be explained. So the mechanical pencil might come to explain safe sex.

Of course sex is not to be mistaken for love, or the prostitute would be out of business, but does the withholding of sex from one’s willing marriage partner signify un-love? Ana is consumed by the adults in her life, ignored or suffocated, and suffers from the only child curse, which requires the fantasy playmate so she’s somebody to talk to. From the pretend playmate the child learns mimicry. The playmate passes on the talisman. There is a kind of shorthand to the method that results, again, in a two dimensional telling, even though the attempt is a mimesis of the whole. When does the whole break into parts of sentimentalism, and from there to irony? “My poetry, he [Lionel] said, is devoted to the feminine spirit.” Ana responds, a severe critic: “They were bad poems, overly sentimental.” And this only a few pages from sharing Cara’s poem the reader may find sentimental in its longing to find some meaning in the “void.” Later, Professor Ruskin will fill in the blanks. We must remind ourselves the sacrifice was staged. But even a staged sacrifice has consequences. That’s where the repetition comes from. “It breaks my heart that the feud of brothers should repeat itself into another generation. It’s like a curse.” No, it’s not “like a curse”; it is a curse. The curse is metaphor, allegory – but even the language of the physicists can’t adequately explain what we either see or don’t see. All of creation is just that – an artist’s rendition, a depiction, a deduction.

But the epiphany does come, or comes down, and “she will compose her own song.” A song of one’s own. A myth of one’s own. “I could no longer strangle my voice.” She composes her own poem:

“I’ll kick your ghost
out of here – I’ll make no more
bargains with your fear…”

But have we instead cut a deal with our therapy? The troupe now performs a parody of the miracle, as if we need reminding it wasn’t a real miracle to begin with. “In the shadow of each mask lies desire.” Desire for what? Power? Or to be used by some mad man’s “mad ambitions?” And what’s the ambition, the obsession, all about? We’re back to teen romance, now darkened with a certain amount of experience: “Unsure whether to laugh or cry, I cancelled my response, flattening my lover’s pleasure.” As if he cares, which might be part of the attraction. By the time we get to Batin’s place, we’re ready for the details of the dark side. We come across “Cults of Ecstasy” and the “pit” of “correction.” Are these bridges to the real world?

We continue to meet new characters, travel, encounter new adventures. The book is divided into 29 numbered chapters, each divided into smaller, titled sections. There is a prologue and a short epilogue, and useful lists of characters, and a map and a list of places. The lists contain short descriptions of character and place. Time moves back and forth, like eddies in a river. We fall deeper into the encyclopedic epic. We are not out of trouble yet, as the short section “Cockroaches in the hellhole” makes clear. Ana is saved from a “sickening concoction of smells – rancid fat, stale urine, sweat and rum,” and “broken teeth.” Little Snake is a welcomed if late well-developed character. Cassia appears. We discover what “dissolves a curse,” and what it’s like to make love “truly naked.”

What gives shape to a life drifts off with words. We close the book, glance up, and there we are, again, leaving, looking for something new. Myth is individual experience repeated, over and over again, until it becomes universal and a story everyone understands. Myth is not false news. It’s a way of telling a story.

Course of Mirrors: An Odyssey, by Ashen Venema; 2017, Matador, 377 pages.

Few Notes on “Loving,” Fiction by Henry Green

loving-henry-greenI’ve been looking to read more Henry Green for some time. New York Review Books is in the process of reissuing a collection, introductions to the minimalist titled works by a few of today’s influential critics –  Daniel Mendelsohn, James Wood, Francine Prose, and others. Originally published in 1945, Loving was Green’s fifth book. Other Green titles in the NYRB series, a few more forthcoming in 2017, include the abrupt titles:
Back
Blindness
Caught
Doting
Living
Nothing,
and Party Going.

Loving is literature in a way that many works of fiction are not literature. That is to say it is about language first before it can be said to be about anything else. It might not make a good read for readers who value information and being told things straight up what’s going on. It’s not a page turner. One is encouraged to stay on the page and look again.

The characters include servants and their masters as well as a few animals, including dogs and peacocks. Not much new or different there. Narration is minimal, the book reading almost like drama, the text mostly dialog, but point of view scatters this way and that depending on who’s viewing what where. A bit of children’s book form is suggested by the symmetrical borders of “Once upon…” and “and lived happily…,” and of course the adults often behave like children while the children behave like adults in their ability to stir the plot to action – thinking here of the murdered peacock and its abused corpse and the purloined (or lost and found) ring and its burial, while the one character not taken in by anyone’s childishness is the “reprethent [of] the Inthuranth Company” (133), come to investigate the claim of the missing ring who gets things right but whose authority is undermined by the slapstick speech impediment imposed by the tooth he’s just had pulled.

The setting is a large country estate, a castle in rural Ireland during World War Two. Bucolic enough, but if that sounds pleasant, it’s not so much. Life is a cold and hard working go with much worry and darkness and shut off rooms full of covered furniture, and worries about the close but distant war and what might happen if the Germans invade Ireland, what the Irish are up to, and how the relatives are making out over in beleaguered England. And there are rations and shortages but still plenty of domestic work but real opportunity found only in factories or submitting oneself to the brutalities. Still, not much there either that we don’t find in much literature of the period.

The plot concerns an old butler who dies and a younger one moves in to take his place, a promotion not enthusiastically welcomed by the entire staff, for Raunce promises to issue in some changes and challenge tradition, including insisting Madam call him by his actual name and not Arthur, the name she prefers to call all butlers, regardless of their actual name. Most exasperating is this new Arthur wanting morning tea brought him still in bed and that tea brought by one of the two lovely maids Edith suspicioned of desiring possibly to return Raunce’s inappropriate advances.

The dialog though is what the book is purposefully really about, and the reason for reading that book. Characterization is revealed through dialog, and helps explain the idiosyncrasies of speech and syntax and varied ways of talking employed. As another example of Green’s distinctive but sometimes even peculiar style, he seems to prefer “this” and “that” to the:

“and he took that cushion, ripped the seam open” (130).

Nothing wrong with that, but it appears throughout, in a variety of syntactical shapes, and might strike the ear as odd:

“who took this man’s business card” (131).

But see if you don’t come across that oddness on your own. There are many more examples: “she strode up to that arrow and gave it a tug” (forgot to hold the page; and while I’m at it I’ll add that I’ve resolved this new year to stop marking up books read with marginalia notes and all. Makes the occasional review a bit more difficult though. Ebooks are easy for looking things like that up, but the memory gets not as much exercise. Remains to be seen if the “notes” a la reviews improve or not).

Loving will make a good choice for a book club group, not that I belong to one, but thinking you might, or you could start one, Loving your first book.

Loving, by Henry Green (1945) and 2016 New York Review Books (Introduction by Roxana Robinson).