Category: Book Review

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The cover of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Until August", with a stylized photo of the author waving to an audience.

Beautified Words: Reviewing “Until August” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

We listen to the dead; we read their work, listen to their music, teach our children of the long lineage of the humanities. We are familiar with posthumous publication: previously unknown work can come into the public sphere though various ways, including the auction of intimate artifacts. Eventually, it is history that is the heir, and it is upon this premise that large recognition sometimes finds ecstatic work, such as that of Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ten years after the author’s death, the heirs allowed publication of Until August (Borzoi, 2024) in an edition that also includes much commentary and the fascinating reproduction of the manuscript in revision. Categorized as a novel by the publisher, and as a novella in some reviews, the volume itself is a hardbound volume in a slightly odd trim size more often found in poetry and gift books than a work of some literary heft. There’s an interesting interplay between the lightness of the physical volume and the formidable reputation of the author, whose previous works have weightier physical presence.

Perhaps it is detrimental to an individual work to compare it to its siblings, works from the same artist, and reviews of Until August do contextualize this volume, with Max Liu’s commentary more about the circumstances of publication than the text, and ending with this damning conclusion: “Usually, an underwhelming posthumous publication or minor work by a major author…will delight fans. I do not believe this is true of Until August. Gabriel Garcia Marquez knew this and was right not to want it to see the light of day. His family and his publishers should have respected his wishes.” A slightly softer view was taken by Art Edwards, who opens his remarks on how titles can seem “monumental”, how “these titles offered a sense that the heart of literature beat strongly”. After a deeper look into the text itself, Edwards concludes that the work has a “portended tragedy” that is “the kind of pathos” expected of a Nobel laureate. And while the Kirkus review dismisses the work as “a lyrical rom-com”, another for The Guardian makes the assertation that the protagonists’ motivation “isn’t a psychologically complex sating of unmet appetites” and mentions the family relationship of the protagonist, as if the one is a de facto dismissal of the other. […]

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A stylized image of David Sedaris, American humorist and author of "Holidays on Ice". The original photo was taken by Harald Krichel.

Looking A Gift Book In The Mouth: On David Sedaris’s “Holidays On Ice”

Books are the best gifts, of course; however, the giving of a book can be a fraught experience if the recipient is not necessarily a devout reader. Yet there are times when gifts are also a sign of appreciation, a requirement in the social contract. In our times now, certain considerations must be made, and presenting a host with a gift card or a half-vinegar bottle of wine do not make the strong statement of being the most appreciative of the guests, the best guest, discrete but intimate. Books are quite intimate, as any reader who is a real reader knows, and giving a beloved book to a beloved friend is apple-pie-easy. Sometimes, though, the gift must be made to someone not so loved, maybe, someone who endlessly offends sensitivities, laughs loudly while others cringe—then David Sedaris is for you.

The required gift is usually associated with two holidays—the birthdays of friends and Christmas. Regardless of whatever spiritual beliefs a body might have, gifts are expected at Christmas. Fret ye not, good gentlemen, David Sedaris’s Holidays on Ice (1997) will serve you well as the gift book for people you aren’t sure you like. Although Sedaris is enough of a darling of New York City that multiple reviews are hidden behind the New York Times paywall, a review by Alexandra Bowman in DC Theater Arts (Nov. 2022) poses a conundrum—Sedaris as both “someone who writes for highbrow literati and presents himself as one” as well as being someone who presents “commentary on cultural issues [that] left a bitter taste in my mouth”. She further states that “some of the most memorable stories Sedaris told on stage framed women or people of color as the individuals we’re supposed to laugh at.” While some people might hold the view that this is punching down, and certainly cultural shifts effect what is comedic acceptability, Sedaris revealed that his goal is not particularly the social change sought by pure comedians such as Carlin, but motivated by “members of a secret society founded on self-loathing” (Naked, 85). Caustic authors are no surprise to experienced readers, and Sedaris’s pattern of trochaic language gives the impression of simple declarative sentencing. […]

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A stylized image of American Jewish painter Gladys Goldstein working on an art collage.

Feminine Touch: on Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s “Touching the Art”

To be a woman in the modern world is to be an acrobat of social expectations. In contemporary times, gender is such an eager subject that some cultures reveal the biological formations of flesh while the forthcoming infant is still in the womb. Women do have wombs, but a woman is more than her womb. When a woman wills herself to be more than her womb, she runs directly into her culture’s social expectations. For those who were born women, these social expectations are inculcated from the first gulp of air when they are gendered. The processes by which little girls are educated in their gender roles extends beyond dolls versus cars. Recent conversations about readily recalled moments of their girlhood from adult women include an attention to their hair not given to brothers (the pincurl for Christmas), required domestic tasks (Mom and I cleaned, the boys went outside), the presence of dresses and other diminutive replications of gender-specific adult costuming. This is so entrenched in our social expectations that we are surprised at any scrutiny of them.

When a woman wants to be more than a womb, she will bump up against these social expectations, these invisible Rules. Some of the interaction with the Rules will be external—her healthcare institutions, educational institutions, and geography will do much to influence how she moves about in the physical world. Her rights as a sentient being, as a citizen, will include these external interactions. If a woman thinks she can be someplace, it is because she was educated to do so, she was permitted to do so, or she fought to do so. Contemporary culture has stories galore of the first woman to do something, and how now many women can and how girls can aspire. […]

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A scene from Denis Villeneuve's "Dune Part 2".

The **** Must Flow: “Dune Part 2” and the Cult of Frank Herbert

Nothing screams dilettante more than Dune. A mere mention of Frank Herbert’s amateurism is enough to kill any conversation stone dead and infuriate the faithful. What follows is the usual pleading, the usual literary red-herrings about style, intention, politics and, last of all, art. Despite their protestations, people who like Dune don’t actually give a damn about art and what’s more, they resent those of us who do. So let’s repay them the favour.

If you don’t like Frank Herbert then you’re an elitist snob or some sort of fruit (by implication). That’s the thing now: egalitarian tastelessness. Why should you care about Dune? Because other people do—apparently, and often with a kind of religious zealotry reserved for the likes of Ayn Rand. Hell, even at her most table-thumping, Rand is a better prose stylist than Herbert the Hump.

I don’t care to get into the nitty-gritty of Dune and its lore. L. Ron Hubbard at least had a kind of Penthouse hilarity to his fiction. Comparatively, Dune suffers by dint of its own self-serious pretention. Ridiculous non-characters. Condescendingly naked historical allegory. Bullshit fake-orientalism. Someone obviously read Joseph Campbell and snorted a lot of coke. […]

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A black and white depiction of horses running amidst dust, as imagined in Jess Bowers's "Horse Show" (2024). [Featured image via SorcerySoap HocusPocus for Pixabay.]

Standing Horses: Review of “Horse Show” by Jess Bowers

We have forgotten the horse, and in doing so, are erasing our own history: the collaboration between horse and human extends into prehistory, and the effect of horses upon human civilization now extends into the width of our roads, our vehicles, and everything we have built that is predicated on that measurement—in truth, the width of a hitched team, the width of two horses yoked together. It is at our peril that we forget the horse, that we forget what we owe them for our civilization; any document of human history involves movement across land and the most formidable masses of moving humans were collaborating with horses. It’s not just us, although humancentric views are internalized as such.

The equestrian world, of humans and horses together, exists almost as a parallel reality to that which we know prosaically as modern society. Horses are large and require room to move about, they require land which is being erased by endless human rapaciousness, they are fragile and the hard corners of human habitation often are their undoing. Caring for a horse involves the muscles of your body and getting them their dinner before you get yours; it involves insect bites, dirt, feces, and a rudimentary skill as a medic. Horse habitat also involves complex natural ecosystems, and in many places has become the last retreat for too many species of wildlife. […]

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An illustration from Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows", depicting the Water Rat in its nest.

Their First Small Beginnings: On “The Wind in the Willows”

It’s often said that the greatest of children’s literature is accessible to the appreciations of both child and adult alike; appealing, indeed, to that self still sensitive to certain finely-phrased simplicities which ought to remain alive in every reader, of any age. It is literature that respects the child’s intelligence not because it expects every child to be somewhat precocious (and thus capable of understanding high-level metaphor, and/or possessed of a preternaturally large vocabulary) but because it is mindful of the adult that the child will become; the adult whom, in nostalgic fits, will likely look back on the books she enjoyed in her youth with the discernment that maturity normally brings, and then effect a kind of culling, asking of them: Which of you commands similar authority over my intellect and delight as from years ago? Which of you will I find did not condescend to who I was when I had so much yet to read, with little sense of what was good and bad?

Maybe it is that lack of condescension which marks the very best of children’s literature. Despite the obvious, and necessary, limitations set in place for such works, there is a distinction reserved for the book that holds almost nothing back from its young reader, while at the same time nurturing that mind’s naïveté into a fuller awareness of what she might come to expect from more mature art in the years to come. […]

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A stylized portrait of Erich Maria Remarque, author of "The Way Back" and "All Quiet on the Western Front", sitting down holding a cane.

What Comes After: Reviewing Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Way Back”

I had never heard of The Way Back until relatively recently. An acquaintance mentioned that Erich Maria Remarque’s more famous wartime work, All Quiet on the Western Front, had a sequel (of sorts). It seems I’m not alone in that little ignorance, as The Way Back has been greatly overshadowed by its predecessor. While that’s a shame, since it’s an excellent novel in its own right, it’s somehow apt. War itself cannot be ignored – it carries a prurient thrill, no matter how pacifist a slant you put on it – but no such satisfaction can be gotten from its aftermath.

So it’s not surprising that this book has been ignored, just as the ex-soldiers it portrays are overlooked by the civilian world they return to. All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a dedication, to “a generation that was destroyed by the war –even those who survived the shelling”, and The Way B ack is a sequel insofar as it continues to unravel that thread. It is narrated by Ernst Birkholz, who is a kind of kindred spirit to the earlier novel’s Paul Baumer. One of the masses, yet a little too sensitive and observant to be really called an Everyman. […]

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A stylizaed triptych of Joan Didion, author of "The Year of Magical Thinking", in sepia, blue, and orange-red hues.

Where Else Is There? Reviewing Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”

Actor Keanu Reeves, when asked in an interview the question of what happens when we die, truthfully responded with, ‘I know that the ones who love us will miss us.’ Reeves’ response, while honest, was likely not what the audience expected. Many, unless having experienced the death of a loved one, never conceptualize it happening, as it remains a far-off abstraction. As a 19-year-old, I didn’t think about ‘being gone forever,’ or ‘being missed.’ Romanticized in literature, it’s not uncommon for thoughts on death to change over time. From the young artist who wishes to be immortal (often tragically dying young, e.g., Keats, Shelley, Plath, Van Gogh) to the older adult hoping she can easily pass away in her sleep—these perspectives will shift with age.

In March 2012, my beloved orange cat, Apollo, died suddenly while at the vet. He’d had some obstruction in his gut, but in no way did I think my dropping him off that morning would be the last time I’d ever see him alive. Struck with heartache, I called my mom who recommended I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She informed me that this was an excellent memoir on grief and that she’d just read it in her book club. While reluctant to read anything recommended by my mom’s book club given its propensity for convention, I knew of Didion’s work and that she wasn’t the typical MFA writer. So, I placed that book on my mental ‘to-read’ pile and then didn’t think about it until 11 years later. […]