Eyes (Gass)

People sometimes say that the important thing to notice about some Bob Dylan song is what is left out. I have enough to do with what’s left in, and the same is true for Gass’ stories and novellas in this book. And really, what is the difference between a story and a novella?

I was struck in the review I read that one of the stories was told from the perspective of a chair. More specifically, it is a folding chair used for customers waiting to get their hair cut. At some point, there is a sudden (random?) act of violence, similar in nature to the one in “In Camera,” the best and first story. I suspect I am supposed to know why the violence has occurred, but I don’t. And while I could hazard a few somewhat informed guesses, I don’t really care.

There is much in here about seeing. That explains the stories told from the perspective of inanimate objects. The piano used in Casablanca narrates a forgettable story. But except when he layers in the photographs of “In Camera,” this collection comes across as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing (Seibert)

As anyone who has seen me try can attest, I should be nowhere near even the word ‘dancing.’ So when this book won the Anisfield-Wolf award, I thought, “Great. Not reading it.”

But a respected reader suggested that once I saw Seibert at the awards ceremony, I would change my mind. And though she’s still not forgiven for the whole Paul Beatty incident, she was right about this.

Seibert has swung for the fences here and succeeded. Perhaps inspired by that fact that no one else will tackle this subject for some time to come, he sought to be comprehensive. And he does manage to pack a great deal into 540 pages. His enthusiasm for his subject is as evident as his knowledge. He has clearly done his research, though its evidence never bogs down his prose.

“Writing about music,” someone said first, “is like dancing about architecture.” What then, is writing about dance? These are the parts that I glossed over. This was one of the few times I could see the virtue of an electronic copy of this book, one that could provide links to the performances Seibert mentions. (Instead, I made a list of movies to see as I read.)

What is incredibly admirable here is the way Seibert’s focus on the evolution of tap necessarily requires an examination of the racial implications of every, generally non-linear, stage of its development. The two narratives must be intertwined and Seibert handles them both openly and gracefully. He acknowledges that questions of cultural appropriation are everywhere in his story and he more often asks good and hard (and undecidedly un-PC questions) than he provides answers. His writing is unafraid. And since he’s already captured us with his enthusiasm for and knowledge of his subject, we willingly follow him on this track, too.

The next step is to see what Fred Astaire films I can find on NetFlix and to wonder what Savion Glover is up to these days.

The Seventh Most Important Thing (Pearsall)

If you infer a religious motif from the number 7, you are right. There’s a plot twist here, too, but I don’t want to spoil it, other than to say Myla Goldberg did it better in Bee Season. And that wasn’t the only time I wondered about Pearsall’s, ahem, influences.

The characters are pretty much cardboard, and the plot is fairly predictable.

And I sincerely regret Pearsall’s use of the “magical Negro” character, so ably spoofed by Key & Peele here, even if it was based on an actual artwork and artist.

I enjoyed Pearsall’s, All of the Above, but this one – not so much.

Pearsall’s site

milk and honey (Kaur)

There are a lot of things this book is – On the bestseller list. Well-illustrated. Explicit. Bold.

Here are a few things this book is not: Good. Poetry.

For those who have suffered any kind of sexual trauma, Kaur’s voice will likely be refreshing. Welcome. Needed. This pieces (mantras? affirmations? fortune cookies?) read once daily could, I imagine, genuinely be useful for such people, especially girls and women.

For those looking for poetry? For the well-turned phrase? For the innovative use of form as it relates to content? For the best words in the best order? For thoughts, insights, or ideas that are both inviting and challenging? For art?

Look elsewhere.

There are a few moments that suggest Kaur may have a future – but a very few. More often, her words are pretentious and banal. Even the epigraph and note to the reader are nauseating.

If this book helps some people, great. If it serves as a gateway to more poetry for others, wonderful. If its success allows Kaur to take a break to develop and refine her skills, awesome. Otherwise. . .



About Love and Other Stories (Chekhov, trans. by Bartlett)

I’ve had the good fortune to see a great deal of theatre in my time and one of the first playwrights I swore off of was Chekhov. (The second was Noel Coward.) I just felt like, “Okay, I got this. Enough already.”

Then along came my book club with the suggestion that we consider him first as a short story writer because he’s known as “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived.” And this, from Raymond Carver, not a bad one himself.

I think I only knew of one story before I started in on this collection and that was “The Bet,” which I like. This collection? Not so much. A recipe emerges –

  1. Two people, sometimes known to each other, sometimes not, meet
  2. They talk. A lot.
  3. They talk about Russia, religion, how to live. They tell stories.
  4. End.

I’m not obsessed with plot, but I think something has to happen. Whatever it is people are seeing in this guy, I’m just not getting it.

The Periodic Table (Levi)

I am no chemist. My efforts in high school were absurd (and so was my teacher). But I understood enough to see the chemistry here not just as chemistry – because it was still that. Levi clearly has a high regard for his own vocation as a chemist. But it’s also (and this element was more accessible to me) chemistry as metaphor. The ability to control, transform, analyze, indeed to be rational, when all around you is anything but (i.e., WW2). Science, here, in contrast perhaps to any sense of a deity, is dependable, both in the form of its sometimes monotonous practice and in content. There are rules, laws here – not even a fascist can deny them. Therefore, there is freedom, at least in the mind.

It’s a tough book to classify, which is okay by me. Levi considered it a “micro-history.” I don’t have that category, and since I don’t think it would fit anything else, I did the best I could.

The Book of Daniel (Doctorow)

What’s amazing here is not that this is a great book. I pretty much love everything Doctorow did, with The March being the one exception (so far). What’s amazing is where this book falls in Doctorow’s  chronology of publications – third. I’m so grateful that someone had the vision to see this novel, based on the lives of the Rosenberg children, for the shape-shifting, vicious, incisive masterwork it is. Doctorow shifts tenses and points of view in the middle of paragraphs. He’s got something to say here about America, something that comes off more polished in my memory of his next novel, Ragtime, and there are no heroes here. Nor, really, are there victims. Or perhaps everyone is – most especially the sister, Susan. I have never read such a precise dissection of something so clearly (and deliberately?) a mess. This book is a lesson, too, on how writers can avoid the traps of showing off their research and getting bogged down by exposition. The plot doesn’t move, it careens. Violently. A pinball that has taken on a life of its own. And, as any story of government overreach and citizen rebellion will likely do these days, it resonates, reminds. And warns.