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Sunday , October 18, 2009
The KAT ATTACK Book Club: Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
I fell for this book really hard for a variety of reasons, some of which I'll list here in handy-dandy order of how they happened:
1. Huge portions of this book take place in my neighborhood of Morningside Heights, and it also references my local coffee shop in a way that makes it abundantly clear that the author has spent many, many hours there. Somehow when this happens in a book, this makes me love the place even more and makes me love the book even more dearly, like a circle of gooey affection.
2. It's actually believable that these people live in the NYC that I know, with its rickety-old apartments and idiosyncratic plumbing and non-glamorous kitchens.
3. The way the man loves the woman in the book is sometimes how I suspect that women wish men would love them...meaning that it is about a man finally paying close attention to his beloved and delving into the truth of who she is instead of concocting some image or fantasy about her and then taking her for granted, which is a lot of ladies' big fear.
4. There is a reference to a powder blue pea coat with round buttons that made me want to wear one.
5. It's just a fucking good book and I think some of you out there will enjoy it.
Atmospheric Disturbances begins simply enough: the wife of a middle-aged psychiatrist comes home, and her husband realizes that she has been replaced by a doppelganger, an "imposter," as he comes to call her. Dr. Leo Liebenstein then spends the rest of the book in search of his real wife Rema, unfurling a kind of "extraordinary things happening to ordinary people" journey that involves the Hungarian Pastry Shop, meteorology, Argentina, an enigmatic mother-in-law and a schizophrenic, among many other things. It's all very surreal, sometimes funny, somewhat alienated - and ultimately very moving.
This is the type of book that is usually described as a tour-de-force in some way because it takes such odd hairpin turns and gets marooned in some interesting, though not necessarily vital, intellectual thickets - the language of science permeates the book, and you'll need a little patience to wade through it in parts. But the way Galchen uses that language turns back in on itself, and you realize its inadequacy to describe most mysterious human processes of all: that of love, intimacy and the human heart. That sounds cheesy, but it's true. For all his erudition, Leo was always and remains befuddled by the person he loves most on the earth, and this is his (and the reader's) biggest source of beauty and frustration.
This is a curious book in that it's about intimacy, but not really about "relationships" as we know them in the modern sense - in fact, one can argue that Leo seems to have spent much of his relationship with Rema prior to her "disappearance" not quite relating to her or even understanding her much. The story's heart is really about the idea of the beloved - about having the biggest source of mystery in your life be in the closest proximity to you, about realizing the person you love most is a foreign land, with a language, history and customs that are nothing like your own. No matter how far you travel, you'll never quite penetrate into its inner workings or secrets or mysteries. That Leo remains forever in search of Rema to the end breaks your heart in so many ways because it's both a testament to how much he loves her but also a mirror of the fear that we can never truly be close to those flames that we flutter closest towards.
Atmospheric Disturbances ends on a kind of Mobius strip of perception, a twist that is so seamless that you don't realize that it's happening till you fully understand the point of view upon which Leo interprets the information he gathers and ultimately filters his existence. Because of this, as well as the labyrinthine intellectual contortions and the playfulness of her language and devices, Galchen often gets compared to Pynchon, Borges and Murakami, and definitely if you're into those writers, you'll probably have a deep appreciation for this book. But as much as I love those writers - Murakami especially is one of my most favorite contemporary authors these days - rarely have I ever shut one of those dudes' books and just wept like a baby at the end of my time with it. You know that thing, when you hold a book in your hand and you're crying and going "But he loves her so much!" (I had the same reaction when I finished The Time Traveler's Wife - I'm such a gooey stuffed animal inside, it's embarrassing.) It's a marvel to see the literary techniques and preoccupations mined by the aforementioned hommes grands being used by an awesome (female) writer to such romantic, emotional, plangent ends. (Is it old-fashioned to admit to want to be moved by literature?) This is not to say that Galchen's work isn't intellectually ambitious or conceptually dazzling - because it is. But ultimately this isn't about smarty-pants mental gymnastics or grand epistemological statements - it's that most beautiful of things, an old-fashioned, never-gets-old love story. I'm hoping that Galchen's next work proves to be even more rigorous in terms of actual narrative and old-fashioned storytelling. But I also hope she keeps the keen heart that kept me reading, hoping to get to the core of why you love someone so terribly much that the gravity between you both transcends everything.
Tuesday , June 24, 2008
nogoodforme superlatives: Favorite Beach Reads
The Beatles, by Bob Spitz
First of all, it is important to me that I let all the readers of nogoodforme.com know that my dedication to this blog is so passionate and true that I am actually writing this entry whilst drinking a glass of wine at my 23rd birthday party. To be honest, I really want to go be eating vegan tamales and, like, not updating my blog at my own birthday party, so let's keep this short and sweet. What can I say? I'm predictable. Bob Spitz' definitive Beatles biog, aptly entitled The Beatles, is about the most absorbing book that exists on the planet. It's like a soap opera, only the soap opera stars the four coolest dudes of all time instead of dumb bitches who look like (or are) Eva Longoria. It's about time I re-read this 800-page behemoth of fabulosity (times four, of course). The best part is when you find out that John Lennon was really obsessive and competitive about playing Monopoly. If I could have one birthday wish right now, it would be that John Lennon would show up at my shindig and we'd tag-team all these poor fools into bankruptcy until the sun rose. So yeah, you should totally read this book, maybe even on the Boardwalk. (Laura)
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
Toward the end of summer vacation when I was nine or ten, my mother gave me a copy of Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret and told me, "Read this, and when you're done we'll talk about it." Which was probably one of the most mortifying sentences ever spoken to me at that point in my life: I'd already read the book when my friends and I swapped it around school earlier in the year, and I knew what The Talk was going to be about, and I wanted no part of it whatsoevs. So for the next week or so I re-read Are You There, God?, then probably re-read it again, pretending to take forever so as to delay the inevitable crushing awkwardness as long as I possibly could. Of course, my mom was totally on to me, but I remember thinking at the time I was so clever with my trickery. And finally the jig was up, The Talk went down, and, to quote Angela Chase, "I'm not sure either of us has fully recovered." (Mostly kidding; it was actually relatively painless, I think.)
So, many years later, Judy Blume put out the far less stress-inducing Summer Sisters. It's such a page-turner, trashy and over-the-top yet intermittently lovely, full of teen-girl angst and lust and all that other fiery stuff - which is to say it fulfills virtually all my requirements for the ideal beach read. But maybe my favorite thing about Summer Sisters is that it's set on Martha's Vineyard, a place I used to visit every summer when I was a kid and I'm sort of neverendingly nostalgic for these days. I loved that the hot boy worked at the Flying Horses carousel; if I had my druthers, the Flying Horses would somehow make its way into practically every other story ever written. The other book I almost chose for this entry (Alice Hoffman's gorgeously sad Illumination Night) is set on the Vineyard as well, but that one ultimately lacks the juicy shallowness and big drama of Summer Sisters, and anyway I'm too precious about it to risk getting it all sandy and salty. But when we do "Hiding-under-the-covers-on-the-darkest-of-winter-nights reads" later this year, I'm picking Illumination Night for sure. (Liz)
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis / The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway / Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
I am sometimes a very literal person. When the weather is hot and the sun is relentless and I'm hanging out poolside or at the beach in an almost desertlike or tropical clime, I like to read stories where other people are doing the same. The only difference, though, is that while I'm dozing off or fiddling with my iPod-like device or being a nerd and trying to plan out the next screenplay I have to write, the people in my favorite beach reads are indulging in amorality and aberrant sexual behavior. Somehow I find reading about such antics way more easy to take when my brain is being fried by the total and absolute blaring sunshine. I call this my favorite trio of pretty bad behavior: everyone knows Less Than Zero as a story about 80s yuppie disaffection and malaise, but it goes a little further than that, and is really scary and unpalatable in parts. But something about its apocalyptic depiction of its time and setting is so hypnotic, even in its total trashiness, and it's way better than the unfortunate movie adaptation. (I'm kind of hoping they decide to retackle it and get someone like Francois Ozon to direct.) The Garden of Eden is about a married couple, David and Catherine, who both get involved with a local girl while being glamorous and fascinating in places like the Cote d'Azur and Spain. It always gets ranked on by Hemingway-o-philes because it was published posthumously, but whatever -- those dudes are so busy affirming their manhood they don't realize that it's one of Hemingway's most interesting premises and that Catherine is one of Hem's strongest, spirited female characters. (She's the type of character that would have been played by Angelina Jolie back in the day -- before Jolie became a cross between Beryl Markham and Mother Teresa.) If you're into novels about European expats and love triangles, I'd pick this up. And finally, Play It As It Lays, which deserves so much more than a fleeting mention as a beach read -- it's actually probably one of my most favorite novels ever, a fascinating, chilling story about a failed Hollywood actress essentially having a very slow nervous breakdown. It could be either laborious or soap opera-like, but Didion's bone-clean, elegant prose renders it evocative and even beautiful at times, depicting the decadent corruption of the rich and the shimmering miasmas of material reality. I love this book to pieces, even though I met Joan Didion once and she was really not nice. (Kat)
Friday , June 13, 2008
the nogoodforme Literatus: I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
Gosh, Ladies of nogoodforme.com- is there any realm of culture that you're not qualified to incisively opine about? Well, perhaps modern dance, but besides modern dance: HELLS NO! Since we are all exceptionally intelligent and well-read women of letters, we figured that the natural next step would be for us to venture into the realm of literary criticism. So, please delete bookforum.com from your Bookmarks Bar; you wouldn't be needing that snooty garbage anymore. Everything you need to know about books, you'll learn from nogoodforme.com...
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