Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I started reading 26a, by Diane Evans. It had some great reviews and also won the Orange Prize for New Writers and was nominated for the Whitbread. I just couldn't get into it, and I've put it aside for now. Although, to tell the truth, as I'm writing this and looking for pictures, I'm reading more reviews, and they are so good! But, the first 50 pages... not so much. At first I wasn't sure if it was a story about actual humans or woodland creatures - turns out it's about a couple of squirrels or something that get reincarnated - I did not get that. Maybe I'll go back to it later - everyone keeps saying it's magical - and I do love magical.

So, after I dropped 26a I picked up Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan. So far, it's really interesting. It's appealing to the art historian in me, because thematically it's about The Image. The main character is a model who was in a car crash that necessitated the reconstruction of her face, so she's going through this struggle of identity. Whereby her "old" face gave her a lot of power, this "newer" less model-ly face doesn't stop people in their tracks. So, through the loss of her image, she's lost her power. Furthermore, having had a change in her image, she's unclear who she really is. She associated her interior with her exterior, see? And now she has to redefine herself. It's giving me a lot to think about in a Lacan/Foucault sort of way. I can hardly put it down.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What is the What

I finally finished What is the What, a new novel by Dave Eggers. Lately I've been reading really slowly and not frequently - it took me about a month to read this book! It's a painful book to read, because of the (beyond) sad events of the story, and it's an important book. People are saying, and I agree, that it's one of the most important books of our time, and that Eggers is certainly one of the best writers of his (our) generation.

The story is about one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, young men who were misplaced due to conflicts in Sudan, who walked hundreds of miles to seek refuge after losing their families and villages to war. It is told in the voice of Valentino Achak Deng, who, despite growing up in these horrors, has a sensitive and kind heart, who's hopefulness and thoughtfulness provide insight into the capacities of the average human being.

What is the What is the result of a collaboration between Eggers and Deng - they met after Deng, along with other refugees were granted a kind of asylum in the United States, and were introduced through Mary Williams (daughter of Jane Fonda), a founder of the Lost Boys Foundation in Atlanta. In Deng's preface, he writes, "I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my own voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation... though it is fictionalized, it should be noted that the world I have known is not so different from the one depicted within these pages."

When I was given the book, I started flipping through the pages, looking for the footnotes and endnotes of Egger's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which I loved. This book has less of the post-modern "trappings" of his other work, but the narrative is ingeniously split between present-day events (Achak being robbed and beaten in his Atlanta apartment) while he addresses, consecutively, his attackers, his Christian neighbors, who don't hear him call for help, the receptionist at the hospital, and so on. This telling of events, of specifically addressing his audience and seeking to share his experiences, is what makes What is the What both so incredibly moving and inclusive, but also elevates the novel to a status that myself and others call it "one of the most important books of our time." Why? Because it recreates events happening a world away (happening today) from something I barely understood to something personal, something the reader will not be able to mentally separate themselves from after reading. (McSweeney's helpfully provides a list of manageable TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO FOR SUDAN).

I've got so much respect for Dave Eggers (and Deng). After publishing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he started McSweeney's and 826 Valencia - a non-profit center to promote writing and provide tutoring for children age 6-18 (and publish their work!) which now has chapters in 6 cities AND the profits of What is the What are going to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, to help aid in the rebuilding of Marial Bai, Achak's village.

I hope you'll be able to read this book too, it's an amazing experience.

Monday, January 22, 2007


I could NOT be more excited! Yesterday, I "released" a book through Bookcrossing, and that very day, someone "caught" it and left a journal entry! It really is a great idea - it promotes the sharing of books (one of their mottos is it is better to give than to reshelve), and it really is exciting and fun. There's a section on the website where you can Go Hunting - you navigate to your city, and you can chase down books that have been recently released. It's kind of like a treasure hunt that includes the whole world. For example, as of this posting, there's a copy of The Da Vinci Code in the Kabul Cafe in Afghanistan. Ok, bad example. There's a copy of しゃばけ in 三条市立図書館2階 学習室, Japan! Go get them!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Book Exchange

Today I had a lovely ladies' lunch in Logan Square at Lula Cafe, and took along a book to leave in the Logan Square Community Book Exchange. I read about it last year in the Chicago Reader, and I thought it was like the greatest thing ever. This guy temporarily removed a newspaper-type box from the street, took it home, painted it, and put it back with books inside. It operates on the take a penny/leave a penny principle, and today it was fully stocked!

I left a copy of Chloe Plus Olivia, a steamy anthology of lesbian fiction. Actually, not all the stories are steamy, now that I think about it, but those are the ones that I remember. (Hmm?) I decided to combine the Book Exchange box with another book-sharing venture that I love -, which is another concept I'm really into - Bookcrossing provides ways for you to track the travels of your books. I first found out about it when I lived in San Francisco, and I was up at my favorite spot - the top of Nob Hill, in the little park around the fountain, and under my bench I spotted a book. Inside the cover was pasted a number (that's the bookcrossing ID) and a link to the website. When you find a book, you can make a journal entry on the website, then the idea is to "release" the book again. You can check out my profile. I've released 28 books. OK, so no one's ever logged on and claimed them, but I keep trying!

Even though I have a huge collection of books I want to keep, I'm a big proponent of sharing books, and I give books away all the time. I love both these methods (the Logan Square box and Bookcrossing) of promoting the sharing of books and providing a way for it to be done creatively, frequently, and easily!

Oh, I really want to make a box for my neighborhood, Andersonville, but I haven't quite got up the courage to essentially steal a box off the street (but then you give it back - everyone wins)!

By the way, next to the book box, someone's put up a "video exchange" box. Before lunch it had a bunch of Adam Sandler VHS tapes, and after lunch they were all gone and replaced with tapes on wine tasting.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

On Beauty

I just reread Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I saw her speak once in San Francisco after White Teeth came out. Somebody asked her what she liked to read, and she said something like she didn't think it was really possible to read a bunch of books and retain them very well, that (if I'm remembering correctly) she just wanted to know one book really well. And she may have said (jeez, I have a terrible memory) that for her that book was Howards End, or perhaps I just made that up. Anyway, On Beauty is an homage Howard's End, which I haven't read myself, but am inspired to read soon.

Like White Teeth, On Beauty has a cast of characters, and no small focus on racial issues and diaspora. On Beauty is the one book of fiction I made time to read during my master's program - and glad I did, because it also focuses on a subject near to my heart: art. Two scholars, one a conservative, black, old school art historian (Monty Kipps) and the other a liberal, white, hard-core theoretician (Howard Belsey), find themselves at odds in the same small-town college. As a liberal myself, naturally I found Kipps for the most part reprehensible, although Smith does go to pains to give him good arguments. The Kipps' are rude to the help and never very likeable.

The extreme views held by both parties (bridged only by the familial matriarchs) offer a fascinating glimpse into the minds of these uber-intellectuals, while at the same time illustrating their foibles (Howard is as worried about premature ejaculation as he is about getting tenure.) Smith is obviously well schooled in art theory, and her analysis of various Rembrandt's work, as well as so-called traditional art history itself, is insightful. Howard contemplates The Sampling Officials of the Draper's Guild:

This is what judgement looks like: considered, rational, benign judgement. Thus the traditional art history.
Iconoclastic Howard rejects all these fatuous assumptions. How can we know what goes on beyond the frame of the painting itself? What audience? Which questioner? What moment of judgement? Nonsense and sentimental tradition! To imagine that this painting depicts any one temporal moment is, Howard argues, an anachronistic, photographic fallacy. It is so much pseudo-historical storytelling, disturbingly religious in tone. We want to believe these Staalmeesters are sages, wisely judging this imaginary audience, implicitly judging us. But none of this is truly in the picture. All we really see there are six rich men sitting for their portrait, expecting - demanding - to be collectively portrayed as wealthy, successful and morally sound. Rembrandt - paid well for his services - has merely obliged them.

Smith elegantly introduces time as a thematic element, using art to make her case - although the characters that appear in the book don't go through radical changes, they do change, and every minute. She writes:

... forty-three years ago, he was an uncultured, fiercely bright, dirty-kneed, enraged, beautiful, inspired, bloody-minded schoolboy who came from nowhere and nothing and yet was determined not to stay that way - that was the Howard Belsey whom the Staalmeesters saw and judged that day. But what was their judgement now? Howard looked at the men. The men looked at Howard. Howard looked at the men. The men looked at Howard.

What initially hit me as a rather oppressive redundancy suddenly became hyper-realism - each second, our perspectives change, because time has passed. As the novel progresses and reaches its stunning ending, this theme is beautifully expressed in one, final, very visual moment that made me really weep to have read such a great book.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Kelly's Top Books in 2006

This year my top favorite books were:
In the Image, by Dara Horn
The World to Come, by Dara Horn
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
A Girl Becomes a Comma like That, by Lisa Glatt

Actually, I'm re-reading On Beauty right now - next up is a book given to me by friend A.: Dave Eggers new book, What is the What.

What were your faves this year?