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review 2017-07-12 15:02
The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert
The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She's 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn't have long to live.


This is not one of those novels of illness where there's redemption ahead or that's supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say "you can beat this thing" if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it's not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can't.


One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it's clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she's plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn't blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she's able to have any agency during her illness.


If this sounds grim, it's not, or not only! Dahlia's voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it's about gender.


The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I'm always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!

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review 2017-02-16 16:28
Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet
Sweet Lamb of Heaven: A Novel - Lydia Millet

Hm. Hmmm. This is a difficult book to write about as it defies easy genre placement. It has notes of thriller, horror, SF/speculative fiction, and philosophy. I chose to shelve it under "literary fiction" because I don't see a conflict between the literary and genre elements.


Judging by the three-star average rating, most will either love or be confounded by and hate this novel. It took some warming up for me, and I have other quibbles about characterization and writing style. But when I finished the book, I wanted to jump back in and discuss it.


It's a novel of big (and politically relevant) ideas wrapped in a domestic thriller. The story centers on a mom and her young daughter. The mother, Anna, hears a voice. Not voices, one voice, and much of the novel's first quarter or third is spent characterizing this voice--what it is and isn't, if not why it is at all. Then, the voice stops. Anna is relieved but still puzzled. More importantly, she has to get away from her husband, who is revealing himself to be a sociopath. She sets out on her own with her daughter and shacks up at a motel in New England. Her husband doesn't care until he decides to run for a government office. He wants his estranged wife and kid around as political props. Anna resists but is threatened.


Interspersed with events are bits of research Anna has done on the voice--on language and communication across species, flora and fauna, on God and mental health, community and self-hood. She's found a small community at the isolated motel, and they contribute to her understanding. The closer she comes to making sense of things, the more danger she's in until matters reach a breaking point, not felt until she realizes just how much she's been manipulated.


Millet is posing some big questions and making assertions that ring especially true in our new extreme-right and digital environments. I haven't yet sorted through all the implications of the story, but I'm happy for the challenge.

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review 2016-04-27 15:46
South Korea's Ko Un, This Side of Time
This Side of Time: Poems by Ko Un - Ko Un,Claire Young,Richard Silberg

Ko Un is another poet I found while browsing poetryfoundation.org. Many of us (Westerners) have come across Japanese or Chinese poetry, but rarely Korean poetry. That's a shame. The Korean Wave has brought us Korean popular culture--K-pop and drama--and I hope the country's literature rides that wave.


Ko Un is a big deal in South Korea, and translations of some of his many works (over 100 volumes of poetry) have brought him to a larger context. I subscribe to the Dodge Poetry Festival on YouTube, and noticed they have videos of him reading (in Korean, with a translator). He's been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He's also one of those poets who's led quite a life: soldier, zen monk, teacher, political prisoner, and political activist.


This Side of Time, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg, presents poems from three collections. The poems are mostly short, many with the sort of surprise turn at the end that delights or moves. In a way, it's like reading the best parts of longer poems: that shift at the close that brings the whole poem into focus and makes you revisit it. I'm a longtime fan of concision, too, of the highly lyric moment, and these poems are great examples of that. They're often witty, earthy, sometimes sad but not depressing. They offer a deep caring about the world.


An example:


Regular Guy


We trust there is sun

when it's covered by clouds.

We believe in the world

even though we all die.

We believe in this world of trees and grass.


This is a collection you'd be able to enjoy no matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with poetry.


I copied down a couple poems from the book and put them on my brother and sister-in-law's refrigerator when I visited recently; they hadn't yet noticed them before I left. I hope when they did, the poems changed a moment of their day.

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review 2014-05-18 16:53
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Moviegoer - Walker Percy

#60 on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.


This book reminded me of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, with its young(ish) male protagonist adrift and wandering the city (or cities: here New Orleans and Chicago). Binx Bolling is perhaps a few hairs less cynical, but he's preoccupied by a "search" for meaning that bucks expectations of him: expectations of his family, primarily. He does not appear to be comfortable in his own skin or to even know what that skin is. He's certainly not at home in the world. He likes and loathes many people at the same time. I can't even say whether I think he's a "good person" or not.


My favorite thing about this book is its prose and the fine grain of its observations. Many times I identified with Binx as he felt alienated from his family and life generally. I wasn't exactly depressed by this book, but the overarching narrative leaned toward the episodic as Binx wanders around. Its story doesn't have a strong narrative thrust; sometimes I was jolted or confused by shifts in place, and there are a lot of characters to keep straight.


This is the type of book I think I'd appreciate more if I'd read it in a class. I don't feel I completely "get" the book, but I did like the journey for the most part.

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quote 2013-10-23 17:33
Then [Ada and Ruby] argued generally for a mile or two as to whether the world might better be viewed as such a place of threat and fear that the only consonant attitude one could maintain was gloom, or whether one should strive for light and cheer even though a dark-fisted hand seemed poised ready to strike at any moment.

Cold Mountain, pages 191-192; by Charles Frazier

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