Fore-Side Chats: August Edition
Reader, I slacked off this month. I saturated myself in the divine pleasures of Pokémon Go, Stranger Things, and the Olympics, that holy trinity bent on destroying bookish appetites everywhere. What I’m trying to say is, I read three books in August. They were three damn good books, but compared to last month? Things have certainly changed.
1. Automanias – Sara Tuss Efrik, trans. Paul Cunningham (Goodmorning Menagerie 2016)
Ah, the heady days before the devastation hit. I devoured this chapbook, winner of the 2015 chapbook-in-translation contest at Goodmorning Menagerie, on the first day of August – so quickly, I was tempted to include it in the July wrap-up. The bilingual edition of this book is 28 pages; I finished it and immediately reread it. Paul Cunningham’s translations are captivating, as much so as Efrik’s initial subject matter. As someone whose level of ignorance of the Swedish language has allowed her to believe up until now that two of her most loved films, In Order of Disappearance (Norwegian) and When Animals Dream (Danish), were Swedish, I found myself searching Sara’s text for the original word and delighting in its appearance of precision where the English fell short, clunky and a bit obtrusive. Paul’s own poetic voice is magnificent, and it is clear he has done the best anyone could with the English, but tell me honestly whether you’d rather read about “this Romantic sadist stronghold” or a “sadistromantikens högborg”. This is me, forever swooning over Germanic & Scandinavian languages. Instead of “duplicates”, I want “dubblerats”. I am ready to replace “I’m two girls, or many” with “Jag är två flickor, ihopväxta, förtvillingad.”
2. The Bird’s Nest – Shirley Jackson (Penguin Classics 1954)
Shirley, Shirley, Shirley. You’re not fooling anyone. We all know what dissociative identity disorder looks like, and we know it can’t be ‘cured’. We all know brains aren’t locked up like diaries and that personalities can’t just be squashed together to form one mega-personality. Oh, you wrote this in 1954? And you made Elizabeth the most appealing character in the book, whereas Aunt Morgen and Dr Wright are a couple of lunatics who like to Hulk out in their living room at really inappropriate times (Morgen) and can’t even keep track of the physical whereabouts of their sole patient (Wright)? Okay, maybe we’ll forgive you some of the medical and scientific limitations of your time.
Making my way through the full Shirley Jackson oeuvre has not been a painful journey thus far. She’s a master of her craft, no doubt. While I still treasure We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Lottery; Or, The Adventures of James Harris above all, The Bird’s Nest is a solid addition to her collection. It is fast, it’ll remind you of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (if you liked that book. I liked that book), it’s still a bit creepy and if you were reading it in the 1950s I bet it would have scared the pants off you. But, that one scene where Morgen drinks a whole lot of whiskey and gets up on the table and starts stomping and speaking in tongues and Dr Wright is so personally offended like the dumb little white man he is. Yes. Thank you for that one, Shirley.
3. Swimming Studies – Leanne Shapton (Blue Rider Press 2012)
Oh god, this book is beautiful. Remember Women in Clothes, the collaborative book Sheila Heti had a big hand in that everyone went apeshit over a few years ago? Leanne is the reason that book looked so fucking good. I picked this one up secondhand after following the train of Women-lovers going gaga over that book, and what better time to read a book about a young Canadian female swimmer’s journey to the Olympic trials (twice) than literal days before the Olympic games began in Rio?
From the moment I first saw it, Shapton’s book really appealed to me: as a former competitive swimmer, as a woman, and as a fellow creative person. When you’re in a pool pulling your way through hundreds of laps, swimming for hours a day amongst other writhing teen bodies, it can be hard to see these athletic people around you as potential watercolor painters or textile enthusiasts, or anything besides muscle-bound, over-chlorinated terrors. It’s easier, maybe, to paint yourself as other. But here she was: Leanne Shapton, a woman whose voice was relatable to me in pretty much every way that I consider myself to be an Aquarius—and who competed to represent her country at the highest level of her sport, something I only very barely approximated by qualifying with my high school teams for regionals and nationals.
The art in Swimming Studies, as in Women in Clothes, is exquisite. The watercolors of bodies in water and bodies of water feel so right, as does the middle section in which textual accounts of various interactions with pools and swimming are displayed alongside a spread of Leanne’s personal collection of swimsuits, some used for competition and some for recreation. It’s so good.
So why did it take three weeks to read, after breezing through the first 136 pages in a veritable series of head nods? First, watching the Olympics is really time consuming. You get into the habit of watching the prime time coverage, and soon the fear of missing out becomes really real. Then Jackson and I decided to join the bandwagon and download a little app called Pokémon Go and you know how that goes, suddenly you’re awake in a cemetery hunting for Haunters at 3 am and a police officer is tapping on your car window because you’re spinning PokeStops at rural post offices 6 hours after the postmaster’s gone home for the day. And don’t even get me started on the rabbit hole that is Stranger Things. (One minute, you’re binge-watching 8 harmless episodes, the next you’re glued to an hour-long interview Winona Ryder did with Charlie Rose at 25 for The Crucible and watching Millie Bobby Brown get her head shaved.)
Made it this far? Want more? Check out my other reviews for Real Pants and elsewhere. Leave a comment below and I’ll write up a more focused review of any of the books I read in August. And stay tuned for my September wrap-up, where I’ll most likely be reading more than 3 books (since I’m already on to #4).