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Wednesday Wrecking Ball

The Horse's Mouth is another book I don't know if I'd have bothered with if it hadn't been on a list, but which I ended up being really glad I read. Gulley Jimson is a great narrator, despite being a trainwreck of a human being, somehow simultaneously a bullshit artist and a man without filter. The scenes between Gully and Sara, his ex-wife and ex-model, are particularly good: warm, contentious, sad and cruel. Gulley is cruel a lot of the time in petty, pointless ways, and his random flares of randy, sentimental misogyny are uncomfortably convincing. He can't stay kind for two minutes together, and every time he touches brush to canvas, or chalk to wall, his compulsion to paint gets a little more compelling.

Gulley doesn't have noble goals or a suffering spirit or whatever it is artists are supposed to have; he just gets pictures in his head and in his hands and has to get them out where he can see them. I was impressed by how Joyce Cary was able to draw such a sharp, pervasive, matter-of-fact portrait of a creative drive, without ever falling into the trap of pretending that that drive makes Gulley a Man Set Apart who deserves special clemency, or that his talent makes his rottenness "worth it" in some way, or that he's been driven to cheat his friends because No One Cares About Art Anymore and/or This World Was Never Meant for One As Beautiful as You.

Gulley may fall into that trap sometimes, but that's a different story.

Gulley Jimson is an awful human being who also makes art. When he dies, he leaves a handful of remarkable paintings, some sketches in private collection, part of a mural in rubble, and a pile of unpaid debts. "Was it worth it?" isn't the question. I don't know what the question is, and I couldn't answer it if I did. It's a good book, I think.

I didn't read as many short stories as I intended to read this week, but maybe I can catch up in the next one.

Ixtab Takes a Day Off, by Jennifer Dornan-Fish

The goddess of suicide decides to save a life. Unfortunately, she has no clue how to do that. The language is a little wobbly, especially at the start, but it's good-hearted and funny, and hopeful in the way a good evocation of despair can be sometimes.

Procosin, by Ursula Vernon

Death's granddaughter helps to hide an old possum god from those who would claim his soul. Great narrative voice, very dense and grounded, so Southern you can feel the mosquitoes swarming.

Slamnesia, by Ronald D. Ferguson

The narrator is struck down with slamnesia, a condition in which his own mind is crowded with the memories of others. At first, the main effect of this condition is that the narrator is an asshole to his girlfriend. Later, he embezzles a large amount of money and learns to use his new personalities to his advantage. Then it turns out his girlfriend likes him better with slamnesia because one of the personalities is good in bed. Possibly she has slamnesia, too? I wasn't really sold. A couple of funny moments, some pretty clunky writing.

Folding Beijing, by Hao Jingfang

Beautiful vivid City of the Future story in the Metropolis tradition, with dreamlike visuals and a literal underclass. A messenger risks arrest to sneak a message into the First Space of the wealthy from the massive night city of the waste management workers, in exchange for enough money to send his daughter to a good kindergarten. The mechanism of the folding city was hard to picture, but the details were good enough that it read as a realistic problem of scale, like walking through the gates of an oil refinermey for the first time, rather than a writing issue. Great pacing, suspenseful and heartbreaking and sharp and humane.

Kia and Gio, by Daniel Jose Older

This is a good ghost story, creepy and sad, full of unanswered questions and unsettling images. The best parts for me were the everyday things: Kia working in her uncle's botánica and her memories of hanging out with her cousin before the night of the cockroach men and his mysterious disappearance.

Anarchic Hand, by Andy Dudak

A woman who was cryogenically frozen in the late twenty-first century wakes up in an Antactic slum in the twenty-second, where homeless consciousnesses like her pay "instance whores" for the privilege of controlling a body for a little while. But too much instance-whoring leaves the mind open to further infection by the ghosts the air is rank with. I liked the McMurdo slum a little better than the premise and wished we had a little more of it; I thought both deserved a tighter story with a little less infodumping. Then again, what can you really do if you wake up bodiless in the future, except try to get someone to explain the situation at length?

What I'm Reading Now

Still making my way through My Wars are Laid Away in Books, the Emily Dickinson biography. It's fascinating and a little uncomfortable; Emily is becoming more and more clingy, and she and her brother are both making way too many emotional demands on her brother's fiancée, who is QUITE REASONABLY full of doubts about the wisdom of joining the Dickinson family. I keep whispering, "RUN, Susan!" at the page, though she's probably not going to run. Meanwhile, Emily's brother Austin has finally had a religious conversion, making Emily the last remaining "unchurched" member of her family -- and leading to a flurry of pointed references in her letters to the sting of treachery. I'm cringing and glued to the page at the same time. Oh, and also there's poetry.

The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham is next in line for 99 Novels, and it's all right so far! It's so much lighter and less relentlessly circular than The Horse's Mouth that it probably feels a little frothier to me than it actually is. It's hard to say yet. The author is a character in his own book and the other characters all confide in him or tell him their gossip. It's an interesting approach.

I've been dipping in and out of a book called The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900-1918, and it's ok -- more information than I was expecting based on the very generalized introduction, but still suffers a little from the shortcomings common to dissertations that get turned into books: too little specificity, too much theory, a certain amount of reaching. But there's still time for it to pick up, and I don't actually know whether it was a dissertation or not, and it'll be worth reading even if it stays the same throughout.

What I'm Reading Next

WHO KNOWS. I have so many things stacked up and no viable plan. I thought it would help to put the books I wanted to read next, or finish reading, in a little pile on the floor, but now the pile is a tower and I need another approach. Probably at least Pat of Silver Bush and Mistress Pat, since I'm considering nominating Pat for Yuletide.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 9th, 2015 06:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the short story links! A lot of your summaries sound excellent, and I'm saving them to read later. If you need any more stories, I read this one recently:
The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging by Harry Turtledove. It's hard to explain what it's about without spoiling the best part of it, but it's an alternative history based on a very small change.

You know, I've never had any particular interest in Emily Dickinson, but you are making this biography sound fascinating!

Edited because clearly I'm having trouble with HTML today!

Edited at 2015-09-09 06:31 pm (UTC)
Sep. 9th, 2015 07:48 pm (UTC)
OH. . . when I realized what was happening in that story, I just collapsed all of a sudden like a pile of bricks. Thanks for the link! I'd be interested in your thoughts on any stories that you read.

Emily Dickinson is very different from Jane Austen in a lot of ways, but I think she suffers similarly from a similarly deserved fame. It's really easy to absorb a lot of cultural osmosis stuff and think you've got the general idea. I'm enjoying the biography a lot!
Sep. 14th, 2015 09:33 pm (UTC)
I was spoiled for the twist, which is too bad, because I think it loses a lot of its effectiveness that way. But I'm glad you enjoyed it!

I read 'Ixtab Takes a Day Off", which was very cute but a bit... small, you know? Which is fine, considering how short it is. "Kia and Gio" was good too, but I was a bit confused by some of what happened; it felt more like the first chapter of a novel than a stand-alone story. But I suppose "I want more" isn't really a criticism!

"Procosin" was AMAZING and I really want to read more by the author. I looked her up and she seems to have a few collections of short stories, but no novels. I generally like novels better, but I might pick up some of her stuff anyway. This story was just so good!
Sep. 9th, 2015 07:41 pm (UTC)
I have always vaguely meant to read something by W. Somerset Maugham. Perhaps this should be the one.

I've also always meant to read Pat of Silver Bush, though, and as it's an L. M. Montgomery book, I think it will have to take precedence over Maugham.
Sep. 9th, 2015 07:59 pm (UTC)
Pat can be. . . difficult. She's terrified of change from a very young age, to the point where the rest of the family spends a lot of time tiptoeing around her and hiding things from her until the last minute. A lot of people find her impossible -- a dissatisfied and nostalgic fifty-year-old woman in disguise as a child -- but I found a lot to identify with when I was an actual child. She's ordinary in a way that LMM's heroines are usually not, and the ways in which she's extraordinary are not necessarily appealing.

I think the Pat books are arguably where LMM's struggle with depression is most visible -- I might be wrong; I'm reading them again partly to find out. Emily's Quest has an excellent depiction of depression, while iirc Pat and Mistress Pat don't exactly depict it but are waterlogged with it anyway. And Emily has internal resources that Pat doesn't have.

I'd definitely be interested in what you think, if you do read Pat!

Edited at 2015-09-09 08:05 pm (UTC)
Sep. 9th, 2015 08:06 pm (UTC)
The part where Dean Priest tells Emily her book sucks and she burns it and then falls down the stairs and accidentally stabs herself with the scissors and almost dies and spends the next however-long collapsed in a state of existential ennui, because her writing is terrible and therefore all is grim and drear? I am still so angry at Dean Priest for lying about her book.

Actually I have such mixed feelings about Dean Priest, because I think he's much more interesting than Teddy, and if he wasn't quite so very much himself I feel like he and Emily could have been good for each other. But he is every inch himself and is ultimately rather awful for her.
Sep. 9th, 2015 09:11 pm (UTC)
Dean's so goddamned complicated. He's one of the very few LMM love interests I find at all convincing as a potential adult partner, rather than a boyish crush, but his behavior toward 13-year-old Emily -- saying "I think I'll wait for you" OUT LOUD, not-quite-joking about what Emily owes him -- is so creepy and off-putting. And not just the Seller of Dreams incident, but the way he subtly downplays and undermines her writing for years beforehand.

The worst part is, they are good for each other. Dean is an exciting, intelligent friend who doesn't talk down to Emily (except about her writing) and helps her see herself as part of a much wider world than the world of New Moon and its aunts. And Emily gives Dean the chance to shrug off his misanthropy for a while and be interested in things again. From Emily's perspective, Dean was a good friend; that's both what makes his betrayal so unforgivable and what made it possible for him to betray her as badly as he did. So much of what Emily grows into -- her tastes, her aspirations, her ways of thinking about the world -- is developed out of conversations with Dean, and she trusts him to be honest with her -- which of course he abuses; he frames his dismissal of A Seller of Dreams as painful honesty, as treating her like an adult -- treating her giving up on the one thing she's always know as if it were a necessary rite of passage.

Ugh. Dean. I have too much to say about him 100% of the time.

I think Teddy could have been interesting, or maybe that he's interesting but underdeveloped. The important thing about Teddy vs. Dean is that Teddy takes Emily's writing seriously and doesn't see it as some kind of threat to him. The drawback of Teddy is that he never really comes into focus as a character, especially as an adult. It's a flaw, but it's a flaw with a function: if Teddy doesn't exist too palpably, he can't be a threat to Emily's writing. Which is probably a little unfair to Teddy; he'd be a perfectly serviceable LMM beau if he weren't in the same book as Dean Priest. But I'm not a huge fan of most of the LMM beaux to begin with, so I don't know.

My suspicion is that LMM wanted to give Emily a partnership of equals, but just wasn't sure how to write it, or didn't feel comfortable writing it with any specificity. Valancy Stirling does all right in the romance department, but Valancy isn't a writer. Anne gives up any serious attempt at writing significantly before she marries Gilbert. I think LMM might have hit a snag there.

Sorry for the inevitable wall of text at the mention of Dean Priest, -- though obviously not sorry enough to stop it. :\
Sep. 10th, 2015 01:56 am (UTC)
Never apologize for rambling about Dean Priest! Dean Priest is complicated and requires much rambling in order to understand him. He's so close to being a good friend to Emily, in many ways really is a good friend to Emily - if only he could let go of his jealousy about her writing. But instead he treats it like her other lover and undermines it any way he can. He's much more concerned about it than he is about Teddy.

And like many jealous people, it was his jealousy rather than the thing that he was jealous of that ultimately poisoned their relationship. If he could have supported Emily's writing, I think they could have had wonderful talks about that, as well; it didn't have to be a rival at all, except that he saw it that way.

I'm not sure they would have been good romantic partners - Montgomery is rather delicate about this, but I have the impression that Emily is not at all physical attracted to him - but they could have been marvelous friends for their whole lives, at least. And maybe she would have grown attracted to him if he hadn't been such a jerk about her writing; people change their minds about that sometimes, after all.

Also Valancy Stirling FTW! I love how she just throws off the shackles of her life and runs around taking care of her buddy the fallen woman and proposing marriage to a cute guy. Absolutely the best kind of iddy wish-fulfillment story.
Sep. 10th, 2015 03:06 pm (UTC)
The Blue Castle is so perfect. Even the fact that John Foster's books are kind of terrible is a little bit perfect to me.

And yeah. In some ways, Emily's reasons for marrying Dean mirror LMM's long explanation in her journal for why she chose to marry Ewen MacDonald (who is very different from Dean in most ways) -- they both frame physical attraction as a girlish concern they have outgrown, and their decision to marry a man they don't strictly love love as an act of maturity -- though there's additional irony in Emily being nineteen at the time. (Whether Maud actually felt as much distance from Ewen as her engagement entry suggests is another story, probably a complicated one).

(And Aunt Laura is too well-bred to do more than hint at the problem, of course).

One thing you can say for Dean: by being so irrationally jealous of Emily's writing, he underscores its importance -- a valuable office for a fictional character, a bad one for Emily's life partner.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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