‘Trust Exercise’ By Susan Choi

It took me a bit to follow the narrative shifts, even after I’d finished the novel.

Trust Exercise begins with a teenage girl at a high school for the performing arts and how the ups and downs of the experience and moving in and out of acceptance within the drama group (literally, drama; acting, stagecraft, theater, is what they specialize in), but most especially her love for another student. Their time as boyfriend and girlfriend ends relatively quickly, but hangs over it all.

Then, it’s revealed that what we just read was a novel by the now grown girl. It’s revealed by another classmate, who was composited, rather than directly portrayed, the in novel, who complains about that and about how, actually, the drama of those two teenage lovebirds was the swirling center about which everything seemed to revolve in the classroom.

Then, it’s all undone again. The second narration was as fictional(ized) as the first. A visiting group of English students and their teacher/chaperones might never have existed. The drama teacher was not actually gay, but even more predatory (in the novel that is the first part, he may have taken advantage of a male student).

Everything described actually happened. Mostly. Just rarely to and by the same people as in the earlier version.

It’s a brilliant book, but my main feeling is to be grateful I never have to live through high school again (and that our own drama program – I did four years of high school drama – was not nearly so bad).

Somewhat unexpectedly, I realized that this book, which I got from the library for my little one, is also by Susan Choi. I discovered it because a Facebook friend posted a link to books by and about the Asian-American experience for APIA History Month. It’s a beautiful, elegiac book of magical realism for elementary school children.

‘Severance’ By Ling Ma

Severance was well reviewed, and rightly so, but like most contemporary, literary novels, I always feel a slight sense of disappointment. It’s a very, very good novel, but it’s no classic for inclusion in the canon. Which is, of course, not a fair comparison, but one that I always go to. Perhaps why I read so much genre fiction. Less weight on the shoulders of reader and writer.

The obvious comparison here is to Station ElevenSeverance has more to say, but Station Eleven says it better. By which I mean that Na is not really writing any kind of science fiction novel. She is trying to make a point about modern life and the traps of routine and acceptance into which we fall. And she makes it well. Mostly.

The protagonist, Candace Chen, is a bit of tabula rasa, for good or ill. Only in the flashbacks to her childhood does she seem more fully realized, as a character.

But, this novel is about a global, airborne pandemic (albeit one spread by fungal spores). And features people wearing masks and empty office buildings. So… a little on the nose right now.

The Court Of Broken Knives

img_5217This was a difficult one to get into. A young, beautiful protagonist who is, at least initially, a member of a mercenary company that is only mostly shamelessly rips off Glen Cook’s Black Company (here, the unimaginatively named Free Company of the Sword), who happens to be a genetic sociopath. If there is a success here, it is in succeeding in duping the reader into thinking that – because he is good looking (yes, even when we can’t see the person, we are predisposed to think good looking people are better people) and is clearly set up as the protagonist – we are rooting for the good guy. Not that Spark doesn’t give us ample reason to mistrust that instinct (including pretty severe addiction problem – drugs and alcohol – that not infrequently has him puking all over himself).

About midway through, one character actually gives voice to that mistake, albeit inside her own head. Someone so beautiful must be good. And we are dragged along. It helps that the most mistrustful folks, the handful of members of the aforementioned Free Company who survive a bloodbath that takes place about one third of the way through, a portrayed as grimy, not very good looking, and very… human, in an icky and mortal way. So we don’t really trust them the way we do the good looking sociopath.

Admittedly, by around the final third, pretense has been dropped and the ‘hero’ is revealed as tramautized, sociopathic, man-child with never properly explained powers (he’s descended from some kind of god-like and also deranged hero of ancient legend).

I’m making this all sound more literary and successful than it is. Because it’s hard to feel super invested when you really don’t like anybody enough to care too much what happens to anybody and come to the conclusion that, with the exception of one (former) high priestess (who is too damsel-in-distress-y for my tastes), that the moral arc of the universe would be just fine if every significant character to whom the author introduced you were swallowed by a meth alligator.

Bloomsday Forgot

No, it’s not Bloomsday. I missed it.

I forgot about it. Which I do not normally do. In past years, I have been in strange rooms at midnight for marathon readings of Ulysses.

This year, it simply passed me by.

And yes, grappling with COVID and, perhaps more importantly, with racism (andyes, Black Lives Matter, and yes, All Lives Matter is racist in part because you never, ever used that phrase until people started saying Black Lives Matter), meant that I had other things on my mind. More important things, even.

But it passed. And that’s sad.

He is a member of the traditional, white, western canon, but he is also still one of the greatest English language authors in all history and we used to take one day a year to honor and. remember him and, as, if not more importantly, to make literature fun, vital, and experiential.

I won’t live forever, barring some kind of amazing medical advance and don’t know how many Bloomsdays I have ahead of me.

I hope that, at the very least, I remember the next one.

Nine-tenths of the people were created so you would want to be with the other tenth.

– Horace Walpole

Independent Bookshop Week


You can, at least, say that reading Ravelstein makes you want to read more about and by Alan Bloom, who the title character is a not even really disguised version thereof.

I have read little Bloom. And only one other Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift; it liked me not, and while it inspired me to read some Delmore Schwartz, his poems discouraged me from reading more).

But my suspicion is that the only improvement this novel makes on reading Bloom himself (or a proper biography) is that Ravelstein is a much better name, with its towering, gothic overtones. Bloom is too comically joycean to be a really good name anymore, at least on a man.

I furthermore suspect that I would have better, in general, reading neither Bloom nor Bellow, but simply revisiting Isiah Berlin and Leo Strauss.

The book gets even weaker when it drifts from Ravelstein. The narrator, who is, as you might guess, a Chicago writer with too many marriages in a relationship with a much younger woman (intelligent, but not too intelligent; pretty, but not too beautiful; caring; understanding; indeed, the very perfect fantasy young wife of an old man), is not as interesting as he thinks. He is not uninteresting, but a long stretch where he goes to vacation to Puerto Rico, eats a toxic fish, has to be flown back to the United States, hallucinates in the hospital, and nearly dies, is completely unnecessary. Mortality is a theme that runs all through the novel, but this was, as I said, unnecessary. I didn’t read Ravelstein to spend so much time with someone improbably named ‘Chick’ (I kept thinking of Chick Corea).

I first started reading this book in 2004. I remember reading it a bar in St. Petersburg where my friend sometimes worked. I had left a position at an environmental nonprofit because the head of the Florida was a insufferable fool and a bit of a sadist. She wanted my job and pretending to ask permission. I was trying to read a paperback copy of Ravelstein. I don’t know where that copy went or why I decided I had to make another go at it.

‘The Middle Temple Murder’ By J.S. Fletcher

Despite myself, I enjoyed this Edwardian mystery. Despite myself, because it had many flaws. From the piling of coincidences to the protagonist’s name (Frank Spargo; it is just men, or does this sound more like a 1930s American noir anti-hero than an early 20th century London scribblers?), nothing should work. But, overall, it does.

While lacking the special genius of Doyle’s iconic detective stories, the forward movement was continuous and propulsive. So much so, that I felt tired reading about Spargo’s late nights followed by early mornings (but in true English fashion, he never seemed rushed). Like any good detective story, all the major persons on interest are introduced early, without giving the game away (or, at least not too much; why wasn’t our intrepid investigator more suspicious when two people claiming relative disinterest also said they really wanted to see the body?). Except for a small village, I never got a good feel for the setting (though there was a nice description that made the neighborhood around Middle Temple Bar seem, for just a moment, dangerous).


More Flower Fairies

My daughter and I loved reading Flower Fairies of Autumn, so I put the other three seasons on hold a the library. Then, you know, COVID stuff happened and we couldn’t go to the library.

Well, we still can’t go in, but we can stop by and pick up holds and these two were available. We read them at bedtime over a few nights and I want to say again, these are a fantastic way to introduce your children to poetry.


Ordinary Misfortunes

A wonderful, moving work of recreated memory. Emily Jungmin Yoon‘s poems (mostly; there’s a glaring exception at the end) cohere around two related themes: the so-called Korean comfort women, taken by Japanese soldiers; and a Korean-American woman navigating race and gender prejudices (and the predatory gaze of men, mirroring, perhaps, the Japanese soldiers).

She tells, in verse form, specific stories of specific women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army, mixed with prose poems (each one titled Ordinary Misfortunes) focusing on the second theme.

There are some variations thrown in and the final poem, The Transformation, though written as more traditional verse, follows the pattern of the prose poems in subject and theme. However, the opening epigram (In early 2016, thirteen sperm whales beached themselves on Germany’s North Coast, their stomachs full of plastic litter.), while timely important, so bluntly introduces ecopoetics into a book about something else, that it badly jarred me out of the melancholy reverie the rest of the book had settled me into.