Recommended Reading: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich

photo 1 (21)I’ve read a grand total of three graphic novels (including Maus I and II and Persepolis 1 and 2), but it seems to me that there’s something about the medium that lends itself to personal histories.

Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel* is no exception. A mordantly funny look at love, online dating, divorce, and growing up, this is tragicomedy at its best. The tone is set on page three: “My sexual awakening was entirely the fault of the U.S. State Department.”

On a book tour in St. Petersburg, Lena reconnects with an old flame, and wonders whether they should try to work things out. Twice divorced, with two children, Lena still isn’t as experienced as she’d like to be in matters of love and sex, and so she decides to try online dating, with hilarious results. The heartbreak comes when she falls for a man offline.

The account of Lena’s dating escapades is peppered with detours into her past, and these were the most interesting segments of the novel, though often far from funny. Lena talks about growing up in the USSR as it teetered on the brink of toppling, and then recounts what it was like to live as a recent immigrant in Arizona in the early 1990s.

Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is a fast read, and refreshing in both its format and its honesty about its heroine’s many foibles and struggles. If you like memoir-like fiction and are looking for a book that stands out from the crowd — and if you like a good Chekhov reference — Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is for you.

What’s your favorite graphic novel? Which one do you think I should try next?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Augustus, by John Williams

“For Octavius Caesar is Rome; and that, perhaps, is the tragedy of his life.”

photo (115)John Williams’s Augustus* is relentlessly brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read.

First published in 1972 to widespread acclaim (it won the National Book Award in 1973), and re-released Tuesday by New York Review Books Classics, Augustus is the third of John Williams’s three novels; the second, Stoner, has been receiving a great deal of critical attention lately. We appear to be in the midst of a Williams renaissance, and I’m all for it.

Augustus is an epistolary novel that chronicles the life of its Gaius Octavius, later Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (or Octavian, or Octavius Caesar), who became the Roman emperor Augustus. Augustus ushered Rome into an era of peace and prosperity after the death of his uncle, Julius Caesar — but not, as this novel makes clear, without great personal cost.

Readers who pick up the novel might want first to brush up a bit on classical Roman history and personages, or watch two of the most entertaining spectacles on Roman history every produced: the star-studded film epic Cleopatra (1963) and the equally star-studded  BBC tv-series I, Claudius (1976), based on the Robert Graves novel of the same name. Cleopatra, which features Elizabeth Taylor in the title role, is simply fabulous (and eminently quotable); Roddy McDowall’s Octavian is cold, calculating, and very young, a sort of icy wunderkind. We are not meant to like him. The Augustus of I, Claudius (played by Brian Blessed), is a jovial, kindly fellow who just wants peace and quiet and a break from his wife’s schemes. (I, Claudius is rather like HBO programming before HBO: sex, violence, top-notch acting, and great source material. It’s Game of Thrones without the dragons. Also, Patrick Stewart with hair: need I say more?)

Augustus‘s portrayal of the man is completely different, because it is only in the book’s brief and final section that we are able to look directly at him, at the way he sees himself. The first two sections are formed by correspondence, diary excerpts, and other documentation from figures who orbit Augustus. The first section chronicles the young Octavius’s rise to power through political acumen, battlefield victories, and strategic marriages; it is a success story, even though its central figure is by no means a saint. The second section delves into the now-emperor’s personal life, with its many missteps and disappointments, chiefly regarding Augustus’s only daughter, Julia.

In both sections, we see Octavius (or Augustus) in profile, as Williams pieces together a collage of the man from portraits by his friends, enemies, and observers. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Marc Antony, Horace, Virgil, Agrippa, Maecenas, Ovid, Cleopatra, Livia, Julia — they’re all in the book, all vivid characters themselves (it’s particularly wonderful to read how seriously Williams takes the female characters). I’ve never seen the epistolary form used to such perfect effect.

Williams’s technical mastery is overwhelmingly good; style, pacing, plotting, and thematic considerations all balanced. His command of the material is unimpeachable (he does acknowledge poetic license with facts and timelines, as necessary).  Each character is identifiable by his or her style of writing, but Williams never caricatures, never attempts to make a person memorable by inflating his or her worst or best characteristics. Livia plots and schemes, to be sure, but she’s not the arch-villainess of I, Claudius; she’s an ambitious and ruthless person, but still a person.

While much historical fiction recreates lost worlds through sumptuous (and enjoyable) description, Williams brings Rome to life through plain but subtle language, evoking the philosophy and outlook of a culture in transition. And since Rome — as a republic and as an empire — was a model for the founders of America, Augustus suggests many parallels and warnings about our own historical moment. (Look for an absolutely killer final line.)

While it is a novel about a poilitcal figure, Augustus is just as interested in the man: the father, brother, and friend who built an empire. In the novel’s last section, an elderly Augustus writes one last letter to an absent friend, reflecting on his life and the choices he made for the good of Rome. In the end, writes Augustus,

I have come to believe that in the life of every man, late or soon, there is a moment when he knows beyond whatever else he might understand, and whether he can articulate the knowledge or not, the terrifying fact that he is alone, and separate, and that he can be no other than the poor thing that is himself. (293)

Augustus is simply not to be missed. Masterful, elegant, erudite, and approachable. A sublime reading experience.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“white desire”: William Carlos Williams’s “Queen-Anne’s Lace”

Queen Anne's Lace_CarolynOliverIt’s August, which means the Queen Anne’s lace is out, which means it’s time for one of my favorite poems, William Carlos Williams’s sexy and gorgeous “Queen-Anne’s Lace.”

You can read the poem here.

Bet you want a glass of iced tea now.

In Brief: Essay Edition

The Empathy Exams: Essays*
by Leslie Jamison

photo (111)Unless you’ve been hiding from all forms of media for the last few months, you’ve no doubt heard the overwhelming praise for this collection of essays, winner of Graywolf Press’s Nonfiction Prize. I am pleased to report that The Empathy Exams deserves all the good press.

In these intensely personal meditations, Ms. Jamison turns her sharp wits on herself, examining her experiences, faults, successes, and privilege as she writes about empathy and how we deploy it. Anyone who’s ever had a difficult experience conveying pain in a medical environment will find material of great interest here, but Ms. Jamison reaches beyond the medical in essays about prison, mining, an extreme endurance race, and the history of artificial sweeteners, among other topics. Her essays vary in length and form, expanding the parameters of the genre and allowing the reader the pleasure of wondering what will come next even as the insights from the previous essay are still being digested. The final essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” is a tour de force, and an absolute must-read.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems
by David Rakoff

photo 5 (2)Last year, I reviewed David Rakoff’s 1997 collection, Fraud, which was in some ways responsible for me being forced to sit through a Steven Seagal marathon, and which is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, so funny that it had me choking with laughter.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2005) finds Mr. Rakoff in a less jocular mood, skewering American consumerism in its many forms. Don’t get me wrong — a society that produces Hooters Air richly deserves skewering, but in these essays, laced as they are with humor, I felt a sense of bitterness, which simply wasn’t what I was expecting, though maybe I should have been, given the collection’s title. Still, essays on edible foraging in Central Park and the zaniness of fashion week are worth the price of admission.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique

photo 3 (7)Tiphanie Yanique’s debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning*, is one of the most unusual and spellbinding family sagas I’ve ever read. Set over six decades in the Virgin Islands, the narrative revolves around two strikingly beautiful, and strikingly different, sisters.

Anette and Eeona are the children of one Captain Bradshaw and his wife Antoinette, two volatile people who keep secrets from each other, their children, and maybe even themselves. Both have high hopes and expectations when the Virgin Islands trade hands from Danish to American rule in the early 1900s, hopes that are dashed. Their children are left orphaned, and when Anette and Eeona begin to navigate their straitened financial and social circumstances, the story takes flight.

Though they’re both bound to love the wrong kind of man, the sisters are different in terms of temperament, tastes, education, and worldview. Heavily influenced by her mother, Eeona longs to escape from the Virgin Islands (and from the responsibility of raising Anette); she’s aware of her beauty’s perilous power, and takes care to isolate herself in many ways. Given her education and upbringing, it’s no surprise that the sections of the narrative written in Eeona’s voice showcase her careful choice of words and formal style.

Anette, on the other hand, is much more open and frank (with other people) than her sister. Her voice is rendered in dialect; she’s warm and funny and curious, open to all kinds of experiences, even if they land her in trouble. While Eeona is wary of love and male attention, Anette welcomes what comes her way, accepting the devotions of three very different, but good men.

What this review can’t convey adequately is the grace with which Ms. Yanique renders her portrait of the Virgin Islands in a century of upheaval and change (war, tourism, protest movements, and a hurricane all affect the characters), and the deft way in which she weaves magical realism into the narrative to explore characters and emotions.  Land of Love and Drowning is a beautiful, vibrant book, and I hope it brings more attention not only to the talented Ms. Yanique, but also to Caribbean literature.

Coming Soon: An Interview with Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“Sometimes the most beautiful poetry can be about simple things, like a cat, or a flower or rain. You see, poetry can come from anything with the stuff of revelation in it. Just don’t let your poems be ordinary. Now, who’s next?”*

O Captain! My Captain!
by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
The arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.


“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: ‘O me, o life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, o me, o life?’ Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”*

–from Dead Poets Society, script by Tom Schulman

In Brief: Recent Works in Translation

Sworn Virgin*
by Elvira Dones
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford

photo 3 (6)In Albania’s mountains, there’s a tradition in which it’s possible for a woman to become a man. If a family loses all its men, to blood feud or war or sickness, a woman can step forward, put on men’s clothing, and live the rest of her life as a man. If, that is, she forswears sex, marriage, and children.

Elvira Dones, an Albanian writer, explores this phenomenon (which you can read about here) in the fictional Sworn Virgin, which was originally published in Italian.

We meet Hana as she’s preparing to leave her life in Albania — and her identity as Mark — behind for a new life in America. The transition is a difficult one in many respects, reflecting the terrible challenge she faced nineteen years earlier, when she became Mark.

At the time, Albania was under oppressive Communist rule, and Hana had left her mountain home, and her beloved aunt and uncle, to study literature in Tirana. For reasons that slowly become clear as the novel progresses, Hana puts aside her hopes and her ambitions, and becomes a chain-smoking, heavy drinking shepherd in a mountain village without modern amenities. And she lives as Mark until she simply can’t anymore.

Ms. Dones has a gift for slowly opening up her characters — Hana, her family, her romantic interests, her cousins who take care of Hana in America. Hana’s decision to become Mark isn’t fully explained until the end of the novel (and for this reason I don’t recommend reading the Foreword until you’ve finished the book), and it’s depicted with care and compassion. Equally compassionate is Ms. Dones’s exploration of how Hana adjusts to becoming a woman again, to gaining her independence, learning English, and navigating American customs as a newly-arrived immigrant. Sworn Virgin is a fascinating novel, and highly recommended.


The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914*
by Béla Zombory-Moldován
Translated by Peter Zombory-Moldován

photo (114)Part of a larger autobiographical work, this slim volume was found, painstakingly edited, and translated by the author’s grandson; it appears for the first time (in any language) thanks to New York Review Books Classics.

The summer of 1914 found Hungarian artist Béla Zombory-Moldován enjoying a holiday with friends. When the war broke, he was summoned for duty, leaving the holiday for home to gather supplies and bid his family and city farewell. Just a few weeks later, Zomobory-Moldován fought in one of the war’s earliest battles, in Galicia, where he and his men had to fashion dugouts in the absence of tools. He was very badly wounded, and returned to Budapest to recover from his injuries and shell-shock; he soon realized that nothing would be the same again.

The Burning of the World was eye-opening for me, presenting as it does an under-read national perspective (Hungarian) and since it recounts experiences on the Easter Front, when I (along with most readers, I suspect) am accustomed to reading memoirs of trench warfare on the Western Front. In addition, Peter Zombory-Moldován’s Introduction gives an excellent thumbnail sketch of Hungarian history and pre-war life, as well as answering the reader’s questions about his grandfather’s eventual fate.

As in many war memoirs, we see the poor decisions of superior officers that lead to senseless deaths, and the quick onset of disillusionment. The memoir has a modernist feel; the author writes in the present tense, and is focused on his own interiority as much as his surroundings. (In one section, his attempt to recover some pre-war spirit in one of his favorite haunts sounds like something from The Sun Also Rises.) Zombory-Moldovan’s descriptions are carefully constructed and highly memorable; he describes shell fire as “the sound of a watermelon being struck with a stick” (44).

The Burning of the World is essential reading for anyone with serious interest in the war, Hungarian history, or memoir. Highly recommended.


So Long, Marianne: A Love Story*
by Kari Hesthamar
Translated from the Norwegian by Helle V. Goldman

photo 4 (6)As we’ve established, I love Leonard Cohen, and I think the rest of the world should too. So Long, Marianne takes its title from one of his most famous songs; the subject of both the song and the book is Marianne Ihlen. Though Leonard Cohen features prominently in the publicity materials, this book is Marianne’s biography (she doesn’t meet Cohen until halfway through the book). Born into a middle-class family in Norway, as a young woman Marianne had a turbulent relationship with the novelist Axel Jensen, traveling with him through Europe and eventually settling on the Greek island of Hydra. The two married, but not long after Marianne gave birth to their son, Axel abandoned them. Leonard Cohen had met the Jensens before their separation and was immediately smitten with Marianne, and soon the two began a love affair that lasted throughout most of the 1960s.

Though reading about Marianne’s relationship with the self-obsessed Axel was often frustrating, I found this book to be an interesting portrait of life lived without the comforting certainties of long-term plans or even everyday routines. Marianne’s self-confidence, as it emerges after her separation and during her relationship with Leonard Cohen, is something to cheer for.

I also loved the details about life on Hydra during the 60s — the market, the local restina, even the weather. When Marianne and Axel arrived in the late 50s, it was rustic, with few foreigners living there; by the time Marianne moved away, Hydra was home to a thriving expatriate artists’ colony.

For Leonard Cohen fans, So Long Marianne features a small selection of previously unpublished material (letters, poems, photographs), and confirmation that yes, Leonard is the kind of man who treats women with kindness and respect, even at the end of a relationship. But we knew that already.

*I received copies of these books from their respective publishers for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my reviews.