Yet another story about flighty artisty girl getting married to a staid boring nice guy. The girl cheats on the guy and of course the guy being a good and kind takes it all in stride. And when she comes to her senses, the husband dies of diphtheria, of the nose all things… All I can say is that I was surprised the author didn’t kill off the wife like it was usual in stories in that era of cheating wives. Anna Karennina kills herself. Madame Bovary kills herself. Tess of the Urbanvilles gets hanged, and the like. I suppose that is the point of the story, Chekhov showing his humanist hand by not making the wife dying some terrible death in punishment for her adultery. A shame thought, the husband was the one who got the shaft.
This story is fairly short and simple. It opens with farmer who has just gained some 300 roubles. His son asks for 15 roubles for his college studies, but the father only agrees to give him 10. THe son, exasperated by his miserliness, leaves in a huff, penniless, determined to never see his family again. But along the way, he runs into a fine lady and she smiles at him, and he smiles back and turns back home. He tells his father off. When he leaves in the morning, the father tells him the money is on table, but it is unclear whether it’s 10 roubles or 15 roubles that the father left for him.
Sometimes the solution to strife is just accepting the terms and parameters of it and moving on. Smile, chin up, and just make a way of it … it’s as simple as that.
The premise is fairly straightforward. The narrator is trying to get back into his wife’s graces by offering to help with her charity project, but reconciliation isn’t so simple because the wife has no desire to change their cold war detente state of affairs.
I’m still not sure what to think of this story. The narrator even though dull and self-important and egoistical, clearly loves his wife. And the wife herself … her childish, teary ways grates on me, so I wasn’t so enthusiastic about the narrator’s hope for marital bliss. But the narrator is trying to ameliorate issues, and the wife for whatever reason isn’t accommodating. By story’s end, the narrator concedes to a huge sacrifice, and even then the wife doesn’t budge.
What to say? Perhaps a lesson on the impossibility of communication between the sexes? Or the impossibility of marital bliss? Or that there are some kinds of rift that can never get fixed? Well, who knows …
Whom we love is as much a statement about those whom we reject. In the glut of romantic fiction out there, a lot of books gloss over the rejection inherent in the romantic love because really why do we want to feel sad for the poor sod when there’s a ooey gooey love to gush over. We gloss it over. We find ways to minimize it. Or we turn the rejected character into an asshole, someone who deserved it, a crazy idiot, or worse, an other.
This brings me back to the book I was reading Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika. The story is much about pure love as it is about the cruel rejection that made the love possible. Warning, there are spoilers. Actually it’s the whole plot summary. Either way you’re warned.
The narrator Tom is a masculine, single, POW, and by default straight. He first bonds with the married Douglas, who is effeminate and mothering. No one in the prison camp really likes the fragile Douglas. Even the self-identified gay prisoners don’t like him. Tom eventually comes to accept Douglas because underneath his fussy mothering ways, Douglas is loyal and honorable.
After a year of being Douglas’ ‘mate'(all platonic), Tom is more open to his queer side. He’s part of a theatre group run by a gay pow. He regularly submits himself to have his portrait drawn by another gay prisoner who ‘studies his face but draws his genitals.’ Then he runs into another british pow, married Danny, who’s a man’s man and is for all intents and purposes straight. Danny is simply more fun. The bond between Tom and Danny is natural, quick, and goes deeper because they both share wounds of childhood traumas. And oh, Danny can’t stand Douglas in the slightest.
Tom rejects Douglas for Danny. Make no mistake, the rejection is cruel and pure aggression. And you know if Tom hadn’t learnt to accept Douglas, he would not have had the capacity to love Danny. The latter half of book is sweet as much as it is bitter, Tom and Danny blossom albeit in their sly not-overtly sexual way while Douglas goes insane.
Throughout the latter half of the book, Tom grapples with his responsibility in Douglas’ demise. Yes every man is responsible for his own heart, but was the rejection necessary for true love to flower? I kept hoping the men would look beyond myopic delineations of his and mine and use the spark of love to forge something more universal. You know like a brotherhood of sorts, but that wish is a fantasy really. When the death, hunger, torture, stare at you daily, the urge to possess something for yourself only is all that there is.
The rejection speaks to the struggle between the feminine vs the masculine that permeates the whole book, and how being masculine means the rejection of femininity. When Tom decides to play Lady Macbeth, the experience almost breaks their relationship as the pair go to absurd lengths to re-affirm their masculinity. The irony is while Tom is more willing to explore the queerer side of himself and Danny much less so, it’s Danny who wants to continue the relationship after the war ends. But Tom is too afraid. He gets married and doesn’t speak to or hear from Danny again until after his death.
A sad book yes, but a real and touching book. Douglas’ tragic end rings through to the last pages when Tom in his older years is trying to find some resolution to his complicity. Not only did he let Douglas down, he let Danny down big time.
It’s sad how it takes extreme circumstances to discover hidden dimensions of yourself, but as soon as the pressure goes away and the situation returns to the mundane, your expanded horizons shrink back and everything resets to a bland and stifling normal. In the end Tom wishes to go back to the Bitter Eden of the pow camp. The possibility of creating a new Eden in the midst of his homely, freer, normal is not one he seriously grapples with, and that’s just sad.
I thought it would be interesting to study the covers of the debut literary titles this year. I’ll give a shout to the three African writers on this list, Helen Oyeyemi, Teju Cole, who both are of Nigerian Descent, and Dinaw Minegetsu, who’s of Ethiopian descent. And surprise, surprise Larry McMurty, yep that one who wrote Lonesome Dove, is releasing something this year. I had had the impression that he was old and dead already.
Best Cover? The Man who Walked Away. The telescopic arrangement draws your eye.
Terrible looking Covers in my humble opinion:
Harlequin’s Million’s. Oh look my twelve-year-old wrote a book.
The Corpse Exhibition and other stories. Might good on hardback, but looks boring on an ebook cover.
One more thing. The cover artist must have been on vacation that week.
Can’t and Won’t. Forget the cover artist. I can haz type.
Faces in the Crowd. Adding a posted note doesn’t make the non descript picture of a subway interior more interesting.
Pushkin Hills. What could be more exciting than an empty chair and table in the middle of a field? And the icky orange for the font?
Nine rabbits. The cover artist was on pot that week.
An Unnecessary Woman. Looks like an ad for a used book.
Which covers do you like best? Which covers do you like the least?
Don’t forget to click on the covers to see the book descriptions on Amazon.
Don’t forget to click on the covers to see the book descriptions on Amazon.
Kinder Than Solitude is a book that I received from NetGalley in exchange for my unbiased review. The story opens with the death of Shaiao, whose poisoning led to her lingering in a vegetative state for twenty years before succumbing. The mystery of her poisoning is connected to a group of three Chinese friends, Ruyu, Boyang and Moran.
The book cycles through the three viewpoint characters between the past when Shaoia was alive just around the time of Tiananmen Square Protests and the present immediately after her death. Although the book is labeled a mystery, it isn’t a traditional mystery because no one’s on a quest to solve the mystery. Instead we get the minute to minute ruminations, tedious conversations, angsty wanderings of the three characters. There’s a lot of angst, a lot of sadness and passivity, and the lot of the reasons cannot be excused away lightly due to tragedy or bad circumstances. The reasons are a lot stupider–the characters are simply unable to see beyond the dark prison of themselves for the light of cheer. Yes, the writing is crisp and Yiyun’s observations are piquant and perspicacious, but really the story is joyless little tale of profoundly miserable characters. And in the end the twist on mystery doesn’t save the book from its drudgery, as the culprit is still whom you expected it to be all along.
Every page has a quotable passage, and not the jejune hallmark offerings either, but highlight a penetrating analysis of the human heart. Either way, the preponderance of resonant observation could not save the lot of dialogue from feeling tedious. Every occasion of dialogue turns into the most dreary interrogation because everyone questions everyone else’s motives over the most trivial things. For instance, if someone said hello, the other person would ask, “why are you telling me hello?” the other would reply, “Are you saying there’s something wrong about asking hello?” and on and on they would go.
Why is this book three stars, not two? The writing. Yiyun Li has talent nevertheless that shines on every page, but dear God the characters …. It felt like such a waste.
Still I’d say you should read Kinder Than Solitude because the profundity of Yiyun Li’s writing is worth it.
by Wando Wande
It was Easter Sunday. Whatever of life and death, sacrifice and the resurrection were subsumed by the festering jubilation in the grocery store. Buy one get one free rabbit-sized bonbons, seventy percent off honey-glazed ham. Perhaps one could prevision death and its runny afterbirth from the scarlet poinsettias gracing the gardening aisle.
The cold and the diarrheic glimmer of beer bottles billowed from the open-faced fridge before Yinka tightening his arms folded on his chest. His bangles felt icy against the scars on his wrists. Something itched, rather wriggled underneath the squamous scars. Ratcheting the cool metal over his wrists, Yinka regretted the short sleeves of his tshirt and the white hairs over his arms and the infinite choices for beer.
And oh yes, beer. Brown bottle, green bottle. Gold foil cap, slovenly monk with apricot cheeks. Yinka reached for the choice of the past seven years: the case of all-American swill refreshing crisp lager. Bruce preferred it and he preferred to prefer Bruce’s tastes. But he thought, Easter seemed an occasion for something different, something of spring, leastways a resurrection for better beer. And what perhaps of the all-Japanese swill or the all-Chinese swill—How now beer from the middle kingdom of el-cheapos?
And it was decided a case of the house favorite. Then he perambulated the aisles, like a whale that had lost sight of the sea and its obviating vastness, no more content, no less disinclined to feel disappointed in himself for defaulting to the familiar.
Perhaps a different brand of mustard? Bruce bought the mustard. Or the organic, natural, non-fluoride, non-sweetened toothpaste? But the regular one with ingredients of unpronounceables looked less frightening. The soft head brush toothbrush should be better than the medium head toothbrush? Bruce preferred the medium head, but wasn’t the soft head better?
The dental conundrums were no more clearer than the conundrum in his back pocket: a handwritten letter addressed to Bruce Cohn. The letter had arrived three days earlier but Yinka held onto it instead of placing it on Bruce’s study desk like he always did.
And in examining the letter again, feeling the ink strokes mark the white envelope, he decided its precise curlicues and the compact loftiness were of a feminine hand. This ‘Chris Winston’ on the sender’s address must be female, which ruffled him.
Why should Bruce, work-twenty-seven-hours-a-day Bruce, received handwritten letters in this age where sharing and caring were worth less than a byte? Unsurprising given Bruce’s lucky happenstances; still, Yinka held fast, in tremulous wondering, to his own letter addressed to Yinka Peter Olubayo. He would like a letter too. It was just as well Bruce would dismiss his want with a pathetic shrug; and therefore Bruce should not mind if the letter came from a bronzed ephebe lounging on a far-off Greek Island—warm sands and warm bodies. But Bruce would not mind; rather Bruce did not care to mind.
Unnerved, he stuffed the letter back into his pocket and slipped to deliberating between soft head toothbrushes and medium head toothbrushes. Analyses were still as muddy when the loudspeaker bleated the last chance for six inch round lemon chiffon cakes at seven ninety nine. Randomly he tilted his gaze over towards the row cakes on display and was immediately and quietly seized by the fact of the day being Bruce’s birthday. He dumped a pair of medium toothbrushes in his cart and trundled to the bakery section.
The assistant looked young, rudely and flippantly handsome as he played with his tongue in his mouth, rounding cheek to cheek in a careless rhythm. The boy reminded him of rich acorns and fluffy moss. Yinka wanted to reach over the glass display and pop those cheeks. Maybe jump over the display—no, bum knee, bum kidneys—and lay the boy’s face over where his cholesterol-clogged heart was. And he would whisper restfully about hog-tying bucks or practicing the loops of a hangman’s noose—no, none of that—Morse code for SOS or SOB.
Rubbing his wrists mindlessly, he mulled the delicate yellow lemon cake inside a glass shelf.
“Sir, you get an inscription on the cake,” the boy said as if celebration was wanting.
How good of you to call me sir. Yinka suppressed the flutter working up his face. Unearned familiarity was always discomfiting, formality comforting, even subtly arousing from the boy now eying him impatiently. Yinka, looking down, contemplated the crisp frosting flowers on the cake. An inscription might read, “Happy Birthday Bruce, love Yinka,”or rather, “Happy Birthday Emu, many more steaks to you, love Crocky?”
The choices felt dry, wasteful. Bruce’s father was a reformed Jew, his mother a reformed Jehovah’s witness. Birthdays, Easter, the cake being this sop to the crisis of spring, Bruce would not understand it or the pleasures of a handwritten letter.
The blare of the loudspeaker again announced the cheapest unbelievable Easter eggs, and Yinka’s senses whittled away in the disorder murmuring away to eggland. The cake sans inscriptions sounded better, or perhaps just the unfrosted cake, even better to leave off the cake and take home the empty box.
Yinka saw the boy’s fingers uncurl over the glass counter like it was surrendering to the Easter din around. A line of a shadow trailed up the short fingers and its hairs up to the arm and his folded sleeve, and to the face, evidently suffering a gaze on him. He must be new here. Yinka decided not to smile or soften; the boy braved to keep up his stare. His face could be more gentle, could be more innocently boyish. And pink grilled around the temples. The eyes, blue as the twilight, as those myriad eyes that flickered and watched him in his dreams like ghosts roused rudely from stupor.
Yinka hoped the boy was docile as his stance presupposed. He was too tired to fight or boast illustrious feats, much less conquer or claim.
His wrists troubled him again, causing him to fidget with the tight clasps of the bangles. There were inscriptions embossed over the dull metal; inscriptions held no meaning, drove no need in him. And yet casting them aside never occurred to him as possibility.
“Cool bangles,” the attendant interjected.
“You like them?” He regretted his too eager reply and quickly blurted, “Titanium. Made of titanium”
“Titanium? Get out of here.” The boy’s smile was the glitter of clear water. “Now, where does anyone get titanium?”
Yinka saw now the squareness of his hairline, and the mole underneath the brow. The boy could be … Francis, truly? The name had the ring of the faint clink of pebble ricocheting down a well. No face fastened to the name, or smell, or touch. But the name had the surety in his mind, and Yinka concluded it had to be this Francis who gifted him the bangles. But that could not be. Or was it Wilson, his physics Ph.D advisor, who was reprimanded professionally for gross sexual misconduct.
“Must have been someone important,” Yinka said noncommittally.
The boy looked more serious. “You want the cake?”
“Since you insist, I shall.”
“Hehe, doing my best to make more money for the Man,” the boy said. “You want an inscription?”
Yinka chuckled. “Sure. ‘Happy birthday Emu, love Crocky.’”
“Man…” The boy guffawed. “Your name’s really Crocky?”
Yinka looked back at the discolored incisor jutting out of the laughing mouth like misshapen stump. And the puns followed with more laughter and feelings warmed expansively.
“Crocky?” The boy repeated to himself, feeling the size and girth of the word. Then he removed the cake from the shelf and placed it on the counter. He raised sharp eyes to him. “Pink, all right for the inscription … Crocky?”
“Green … if you don’t mind.” Yinka’s voice rose a little. “And you don’t get to call me that.”
“Emu sure can.”
“He stuck around in spite of my balding head. You’d have to give me some of those napoleons for free before I might let you …”
“He —I should get this done.” Cake unsteady in both hands, the boy turned away to the table in the shadowy recesses beyond the light display.
Yinka was amused with how fast his eyes narrowed and his cheeks lost their high mien. But it was all right for dreams to last a moment. A flame that flickered for an instant was no less a flame, after all.
The wrists bothered him impolitely now. They felt as if a hot wire were boring down his wrist and piping up his forearm. Yinka examined the clasps of his bangles, the darker-colored scars underneath, the reticule of thickening veins. Something was clawing from beyond the grave of his youth where names were whispers and faces were chimeras ghosting the deep. Whatever was coming, he did not feel ready.
The boy returned without expression on his face and with the cake yellow, blue and green in a clear container.
“Enjoy,” he said, deadpan.
A tub of ice cream and dishwashing soap, completed the groceries. At the checkout counter, conversation plodded about the involuble weather, paper or plastic, cash or credit, if forty is the new twenty-five.
The cashier’s cheeks were thin and her eyes darkly deep. But there had to be something delightful in her because she smiled and chatted and smiled and chatted a lot. Even though she smelled of earthy mushrooms in the forest damp, Yinka could not help but think of her smiles like lipstick on a skull.
“Forty, wow, I have got five more years till then,” she chimed then defaulted to a careless laugh. “Age is all in the mind. My three-year-old son runs me around all day. I feel old and young at the same time. You get what I mean?”
Yinka nodded, fixed his gaze at the automatic doors, open, close, toddler in a tutu, open, close, man gnashing teeth, in search of coffee. And then the burble on anxieties he was the wrong sex to understand. And of course the son.
“Did I tell you, he put a frog in his mouth the other day.” She clutched her breast. “It scared the bejesus out of me. The last time it was a cricket.”
Yinka thought of the crying, the puling, the mewling of the wobbly things. Those wobbly things were supposed to his lottery ticket to meaning, to immortality. Beautiful things want to beget beautiful things. Good things want to beget good things in the transcriptions of DNA and RNA.
Her words floated on him, floated through him, floated away from him. He was rotating his wrists now to wish away the renascent discomfort.
“You have any?” she asked.
Yinka blinked. “Children? Happily … no.” He pasted a smile then took hold of the handles of the grocery bags. “Here’s to remaining thirty-five forever.”
“Thanks.” Her smile wilting on her lips, she dumped the pair of toothbrushes into the bag. “Wish Bruce happy birthday for me.”
“I shall.” Yinka sighed, moved to lift the bags away, but his wrists hiccupped in pain and the bags dropped with a light bang.
The cashier’s eyes narrowed. “You, Okay there? You need a carry-out?”
“ Thanks, no.” I’m forty-five, not ninety. He gritted his teeth as he jerked the bags off the counter in a show of his lusty strength. The pain was definite, like gears turning in the bones of his wrist. Useless hands. Useless body. Futility was on his mind as he glided from the store to pavement to his car. Inside the car, he refrained from starting the ignition, instead wriggling his fingers and clenching and loosening his fists, trying to feel the strings of pain each action effected. Its prickling sounds lulling him, the wind assaulted dust and pollen upon the windshield and flurried the dry leaves onto oil slicks. He looked at the sky maddeningly bright, maddeningly blue, and waited. For what? For how long? The pain called to pain, his worries called to Bruce.
Gently and precisely, he got his cellphone from his pocket. After a glance at its artic blue screen, he tossed the phone aside and wriggled the letter from his back pocket. It felt warm and damp. There was the graceful name again, ‘Chris Winston’.
Bruce always had truculently asserted his right to identify as bisexual. Yinka dismissed his view as droll; after all seven years of monogamy should decide it one way or another. Yes, but they had had seven year now of what exactly?
His pusillanimous thoughts so appalled him that he flung the letter into the grocery bags on the passenger seat and stuck the keys into the ignition.
“Damn it!” Gently again, he cradled his right hand to himself, but burls of discomfort grew wilder in his forearms and his hand flamed. He could see the red roots curled over his digits, stretched and spiraled over his biceps and clawed its pin tendrils up his wattle. In that great revelation of pain, he lifted his eyes to the eastern horizon. His mind, instantly, expanded, warped, sheared—a great tree darkening half the sky, its leaves of magnesium-blue flame, its fruits hanging like massive lanterns during a Chinese New Year. Today was Easter; rather it was spring, and therefore the season of its pollen celestial tide.
The pollen streamed from the east, covered all over rooftops and electric pole, passed through windows, open hands, open mouths—diamond dust, metaphysical dust enthralled his eyes and prickled his skin. But his hands, the inky roots were bulging and pulsating underneath his taut skin, and neural darts harpooning bursting myriad corpuscles in his brain. Light and its variegated hues bled down his vision, and his arms felt like postulating appendages, the air thick and dry in his nose. And lost in a shattering darkness inside his skull, he slumped onto the steering wheel. Then he remembered.
Francis was not Francis. Wilson was not Wilson. The bangle was simple iron, as old as himself.
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