Review: Marcel Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME: SWANN’S WAY – A Graphic Novel by Stéphane Heuet

Adaptation & Drawings by Stéphane Heuet
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Liveright, English reprint ed. July 2015
240 pp, $26.95

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There are few challenges as alluringly counterintuitive as adapting Proust; attempts to do so have produced wildly varying results in a surprising array of forms (heck, there’s even a musical). Much like Proust, comics are a big deal in France (sometimes referred to there as ‘the 9th art’) and a graphic adaptation was, perhaps, inevitable. Whereas literary comic book adaptations tend to be treated with critical indifference in the English speaking world, Stéphane Heuet’s In Search of Lost Time was deemed serious enough to provoke outrage in France: Le Figaro, the popular daily that Proust himself once wrote for, reviewed the first part of the comic under the title ‘It Is Marcel Who Is Assassinated’ – this did not stop it becoming a surprise bestseller.

Heuet’s comic is now available collected and with a new English translation. That it was originally published episodically is significant, as Heuet’s ability improves considerably as the book progresses. The first section of the comic demonstrates its biggest shortcomings: attempts to render thought through visual metaphor feel mechanical (logical in intent; pedestrian in execution) and the sheer volume of text is near suffocating. The book’s blurb describes it as a ‘perfect introduction to’ In Search of Lost Time, but much of the pleasure culled from the book’s opening stems from academic comparison. Continue Reading

Becoming-Citizen: A Review of NATURALISM by Wendy Xu

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Wendy Xu
Brooklyn Arts Press, Nov 15 2015
42 pp, $5 – $15

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Wendy Xu’s Naturalism opens with a dedication: “To immigrant parents.”

That’s one of the most direct statements in the chapbook, and the eleven poems that follow create such a surreal mixture that it’s hard to tell if Xu’s lines “fixed orbit satisfies / my aesthetic need” from “Civil Dusk” are supposed to read as a playful push.

But unlike “surrealism” as it’s typically generated—that is, from an upper-class white male-identifying source—Xu’s surrealism reads as almost documentary. Instead of a surrealism based on “what if” and fantasy, the approach of Naturalism relies on flipping perception of pre-conceived, accepted, or currently understood systems of language. For Naturalism makes you realize how bizarre the “natural” world really feels. It’s how much a hurt can become, how much an everyday phrase can insidiously work and worm through, how much we disbelieve our own beliefs when we begin investigation.

For what is immigration and “becoming naturalized” if not a surreal, nearly-nightmare-fantasy, and totally queering experience? To cross one imagined border into another nation, to “become” natural—as if, pre-citizenship, a human being was “unnatural” before. Think, too, about the axle on which anti-immigration rhetoric rotates: “some people” are “illegal aliens”—not human / instead subhuman, unnatural, Other.Continue Reading

The Best Books for the End of 2015

Year End Reviews Pic


Every year-end ought to be paired with a great book as the weather gets colder. Here’s a list of late fall’s best titles, so grab a copy for yourself and one for a friend, too.

SUICIDE OF CLAIRE BISHOP_carmiel banaskyThe Suicide of Claire Bishop
Carmiel Banasky
Dzanc Books
September 15

This thriller of a debut novel by Carmiel Banasky throws any tired stereotype about women’s fiction right out the window. An exquisite mix of Let the Great World Spin, The Goldfinch, and the indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, The Suicide of Claire Bishop begins in Greenwich Village in 1959 when a wealthy, emotionally cautious Claire sits for a portrait only to find the artist has painted her suicide instead. When schizophrenic West encounters the painting decades later in 2004, he becomes convinced it was painted by the ex-girlfriend who still haunts him. His obsession sets himself and Claire on a collision course with the eerie, mercurial painting ever beckoning them onward.

Banasky has created a trademark theology all her own in West’s unreliable, yet oddly brilliant musings on time travel that pair unsettlingly well with the notion that Alzheimer’s, which has a hold on Claire’s family, is a kind of time travel all its own. Though the story itself is boldly labyrinthine and miasmic, the best part of the novel is the romantic mania that inhabits the prose. Intellectually provocative and elegantly rhapsodic, The Suicide of Claire Bishop celebrates the arrival of an uncommonly ambitious and inventive writer.

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Discovering the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

chagallWhen you’re tired of the same old books but then you discover a new favorite, it’s a major event. It’s like finding liquid water on Mars: wonder and joy and promise where before you’d seen a barren landscape. The big discovery for me this year has been Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), entirely thanks to the beautiful new collection The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). There are Israeli writers I like—Amos Oz and Etgar Keret especially—but Yehuda Amichai I love.

Edited by Robert Alter, Amichai’s original Hebrew has been translated skillfully into English by an accomplished group that includes Barbara Harshav and the late Benjamin Harshav, Assia Gutmann and Ted Hughes, Leon Wieseltier, and Alter himself. They perfectly capture Amichai’s blend of Biblical idiom and playful modernist experiment. I’ll let the poetry speak for itself. Here’s ‘My Father,’ translated by Stephen Mitchell:

The memory of my father is wrapped in white paper
like slices of bread for the workday.

Like a magician pulling out rabbits and towers from his hat,
he pulled out of his little body—love.

The rivers of his hands
poured into his good deeds.

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9780143126874Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy
Joanna Klink
Penguin, 2015
Poetry | $20
80 pages, 6×9 in

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As a stopped clock is right twice a day, so book blurbs are right a few times a year. On the back cover of Joanna Klink’s fourth book, Terrance Hayes declares, “As soon as I finished this beautifully unassuming and assured book, I began reading it again,” and for once this familiar hyperbole turns out to be just; the collection feels so whole and cohesive that on finishing one immediately goes back to read the opening poems with more attuned eyes. Likewise, the jacket copy’s phrase about “a self fighting its way out of isolation, toward connection with other people and a vanishing world” describes the energy of these poems accurately, if a bit melodramatically.

The wholeness and cohesion come about by a variety of means. The turns in the figurative language consistently surprise without ever seeming strange for the sake of strangeness, always mysteriously right:

no light of the fixed stars, no flashing in the eyes,
only heather pared by the dry air, shedding
a small feathered radiance when I looked away,
an expanse whose deep sleep seemed an unending
warren I had been given […]

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Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.19.04 PMfourfromjapanFour From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women is an anthology rooted in a specific time and place. No, that place is not Japan, nor is it the respective eras from which the four poets emerged. The time and place of which I’m thinking is New York City, 2006, the setting in which Poets House and Belladonna* hosted a Festival of Contemporary Japanese Women Poets. As noted by Sawako Nakayasu, this book, then, becomes a commemoration of that event: it crystallizes a collapsing of boundary (America/Japan) while also uprooting our notion of the when of these poems—they are contemporary, but they are now, in 2015, poems almost a decade old.

But this specific time and place does not pose a problem in reading Four From Japan. What is typically seen as limitation instead becomes a “stretching of the surface,” as poet Ryoko Sekiguchi writes in terms of translating oneself. Because there is a context, we can begin our learning of these poets and poems. For all of these poets—Kiriu Minashita, Kyong-Mi Park, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and Takako Arai—concern themselves with the elasticity of language and the variation of form—at the very least, the poems are all activation and possibility. They are borrowers. They unmask plural complications. For none of these poets want you to have a singular idea of “Japan,” “Japanese-ness,” or “poetry.”

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Review: JUVENTUD by Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee
Curbside Splendor Publishing, October 2015
340 pp, $15.95

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Blame radiates outward from the center of Vanessa Blakeslee’s new novel, Juventud, which begins in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, during the conflict between FARC and ELN in 1999. First-person narrator fifteen-year-old Mercedes Martinez blames her drug-trafficking father, Diego, for the death of her boyfriend Manuel, a Catholic peace activist. This assumption propels Mercedes to leave for Florida, and she doesn’t speak to her father again until she returns to Colombia at twenty-eight. When she returns, Mercedes learns her father was innocent in Manuel’s death. She worries Diego won’t allow her to reconcile. Mercedes is at least partly to blame for the disintegration of her relationship with her father, and Blakeslee’s prose (especially the strong sense of place and first-person narration) implicates the reader in Mercedes’ decisions.

“Not all of my choices, but certainly the ones that mattered the most, would have been very different had I not believed my father responsible for Manuel’s murder, had I been open to giving him a second chance. Had I only been able and willing to see the world in shades of grey, rather than black and white.”

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Ann Beattie
Scribner, Aug 2015
224 pages

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Maine, for Ann Beattie in her new collection, is a state of life, and that is the beautiful trick of the title, The State We’re In: Maine Stories. It is both the state, as in the location, and a state as in the way of being. Maine has two monikers, the first being the state’s nickname, “Vacationland,” and the second being the state’s motto, “Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be.” Beattie’s new collection takes the spirit of both throughout the series of “linked” stories.  

The heart of the stories is centered on the small, beautiful details of life in the day-to-day of Maine, such as when Jocelyn meets up with her friends late at night on the beach in “What Magical Realism Would Be”:

Jocelyn laughed and toed a little wet sand toward them. It was their ritual: they’d send some wet sand in the other’s direction, sand like instantly appearing wrinkles, or like a pug dog’s scruff. Angie’s mother had two pugs. They snorted all night and kept everyone awake. Angie could do a very funny imitation of everyone: her distraught mother, talking to the dogs; her father, throwing them out in the middle of the night; the pugs, snorting.

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The Fairytale Redux: On Patrick deWitt’s “Undermajordomo Minor”


imageThe last thing the world needs is another reimagining of the fairy tale. It has been done from every angle: straightforward, post-modern, and (yawn) from the villain’s perspective. So it was with some wariness that I approached Patrick deWitt’s new novel, Undermajordomo Minor, a fairy tale of sorts that follows young Lucien “Lucy” Minor as he seeks his destiny.

DeWitt is the author of two previous novels, Ablutions and The Sisters Brothers. The latter, a sharp and fizzy western, was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker and should have won—I don’t know if I’ve read a better novel since. One of the book’s many strokes of brilliance is its ability to exist on both sides of its genre constraints, both within them and outside of them with a skeptical eyebrow cocked.

In the same way, Undermajordomo Minor is a picaresque, but also a sly send-up of a picaresque. Lucy departs the stifling village of Bury for Castle Von Aux, where he is to become the subordinate of the baron’s majordomo. On the train he encounters a pair of personable thieves named Memel and Mewe who abscond with his pipe and later provide introduction to Klara, who is to become his one true love.

Almost needless to say, Lucy’s post turns out to be not exactly as described. The titular majordomo is a spectral butler in a tattered suit, the baron is nowhere to be seen, and the previous undermajordomo, the unlucky Mr. Broom, has died tragically, though no one will elaborate on exactly how.Continue Reading

Discovering Milton Resnick


Photo courtesy of Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation.

Milton Resnick (1917—2004), was one of the most articulate and interesting of the abstract expressionists. I knew his work, but this past summer I discovered his personal history through a recently completed manuscript, Milton Resnick: Painter in the Age of Painting, by Geoffrey Dorfman, author of the well-received, Out of the Picture: Milton Resnick and the New York School. The narrative contains transcriptions of interviews about the lives of artists of that period. Dorfman’s and Resnick’s sensibilities complement each other perfectly. As Dorfman notes, “There are two voices running through this book: the artist’s and my own.” And the wisdom found here teaches lessons that apply across all the arts.

Resnick was an indefatigable artist, leaving behind ten thousand works on paper and canvas. His paintings are held in the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. He was also an energetic storyteller, relating anecdotes about those he knew, including Willem De Kooning, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. Even his stories about painters who failed or disappeared are riveting. Resnick always keeps his focus on how art is made, what an artist must do to survive, and the struggle to maintain integrity.

What I love about this book is the humor and wit that runs through even the most dire accounts. Dorfman’s record of Resnick’s life is far from hagiography—after all, Dorfman knew Resnick well, and incorporates his failures as well as his triumphs. For instance, Resnick, we learn, “was certainly no art teacher.” One of his painter friends said, “Whenever I brought a problem to Milton, he made it vaster.”Continue Reading