My Thoughts on a Few More 2021 Reads

✍️ 🕑 2021 book reviewsfolktales

After my last post on a trek near some Hawaiian lava fields, I doubt many readers are wondering, “what books was Steve reading when he wasn’t hiking?”

Unfortunately for those readers, I’ve gone ahead and decided to answer the question in some detail. This post is on three such books, which I happened to finish in 2021, started reviewing, and kept forgetting to copy over saved quotations… Until now.

The books in question are Sema Kaygusuz’s enchanting short story collection The Well of Trapped Words, Italo Cavino’s gigantic collection of Italian Folktales, and Otessa Moshfegh’s NYC-based contemporary novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

Read on for my budding literary critic thoughts. Or, don’t if you’re not feeling it. You do you.

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The Well of Trapped Words

Sema Kaygusuz is among the most brilliant, talented writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

The stories in Well of Trapped Words are short, but memorable. She has a talent for creating indelible images and characters whose brief depictions suggest inner lives that continue living outside the page. Themes of desire, shame, death, and hidden secrets abound in worlds just magical enough for figs, snakes and ugly feet to hold compelling power. Her stories include bar brawls and perspectives from women and minorities in Turkey. Her descriptions excite the reader’s senses. And, some of her endings include copious quantities of zing.

Maureen Freely’s translation is really fantastic, and I really recommend it.

Here are a couple of quotes that stood out to me while reading it, to give you an idea of the writing style:

Hair could instantly betray a person’s hidden soul; a few clumsy strokes of the scissors in the clammy hands of someone who didn’t know his business, and a face became twisted and lop-sided. And yet it always sprang back from its roots, relentlessly growing until arrested by death.
(Page 85)

On her skin she carries the map of an imaginary country. Its sores never heal. Its sores carry the anguish of a city famous for its hills.
(Page 3)

I spent a long time reading this book, savoring a short story here and there over an extended time. Well and Every Fire You Tend (which I also recommend) are currently the only of Kaygusuz’s works currently available in English. I hope to some day have the tenacity to read more of her works in the original.

If you’re interested in learning more about the author and her story, here’s a podcast featuring an interview with Kaygusuz, which is quite worth listening to.

(And apparently, that podcast may have been the spot that got me hooked on “Waiting Games” and Kate Simko’s electronic work as well… cause I guess it’s the theme song to the podcast and it’s fantastic. Weird how those connections work.)

Italian Folktales

One volume that occupied quite a bit of my leisure time during the pandemic was Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, which got on my radar thanks to former colleague Leah’s recounting of a particular story involving pigs being dragged down to hell.

Unfortunately, the rest of the volume doesn’t quite reach these piggish heights, and any sensible reader could get a sufficient taste of the contents with a mere subset of the stories that splash across its 500 or so pages.

I am not a sensible reader, and I delighted at having a book at hand where I could always read a three-page story that involved someone being transformed when a walnut was broken, cursed giants’ familiars, and a king auctioning off his daughter’s marriage to the person who could perform some senseless death-defying task.

So on the one hand, we have a book that is not particularly good in a conventional sense, and not particularly insightful once the fatigue of repeated motifs set in.

But, we also have a piece of heirloom entertainment with occasionally unpredictable delights, like St. Michael the Archangel’s giant golden boat, or the mockery of Peter’s attempt to heal the ill.

Highly recommended for whoever likes that kind of thing. Not recommended for anyone else.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

I’m someone who prefers to go into things like books fairly blind.

So, I had heard about Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation somewhere (like either in an article of interesting books, or on a shelf, or as part of a recommendation from someone I trust).

I heard the basic premise, and I added it to my “to read” list. And then, after I finished Hummingbird Salamander it seemed like the next thing that appealed to me.

The premise (as I stashed it in my memory): someone embarks on an odyssey with various pharmaceutical substances to attempt to sleep for a year.

I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person. And I figured I was smart enough to know in advance if the pills were going to kill me. I’d start having premonition nightmares before that happened, before my heart failed or my brain exploded or hemorrhaged or pushed me out my seventh-story window. I trusted that everything was going to work out fine as long as I could sleep all day.
(Page 21)

There are a few things that this short premise leaves out.

For one, the setting is New York City in the year 2000. (You can wait for that shoe to drop.)

It is a world of bodega’s, VHS tapes, and superficial art galleries more interested in appealing to wealthy clientele with shock than anything else.

For another, our protagonist is of the completely and utterly unlikeable variety… as are pretty much all of the characters in the book, which incidentally is set in New York City.

When I say the protagonist is unlikeable, what I mean is that she’s a WASP-y only child from upstate, with dead parents and a short stint in a Chelsea art gallery behind her. She’s rude, judgmental, pretentious, and self-assured. A vehicle for the author’s satire. She’s someone prone to saying and thinking things like this (about her “best friend”):

Reva scratched at an itch that, on my own, I couldn’t reach. Watching her take what was deep and real and painful and ruin it by expressing it with such trite precision gave me reason to think Reva was an idiot, and therefore I could discount her pain, and with it, mine. Reva was like the pills I took. They turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away
(Page 113)

There are some elements I liked and some that I liked less… (I could do with fewer ruminations on the superstardom and/or genitalia of a certain Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winning actress.)

But the feeling of being in a lifeless daze was well conveyed. The skewering of the modern art scene, through a side character who puts taxidermied dogs on display in a gallery and makes bank, was, for the most part, well-grounded and quite well pointed.

On the other hand, for depictions of a city where I used to live, and the kinds of galleries I visited on rare occasion, albeit filtered through our heroine, the book delivers.

On bodega coffee:

It was close, and the coffee was consistently bad, and I didn’t have to confront anyone ordering a brioche bun or no-foam latte. No children with runny noses or Swedish au pairs. No sterilized professionals, no people on dates
(Page 7)

On apartment elevators:

I still hadn’t had a single conversation with any of my neighbors—almost four years of complete silence in the elevator, each awkward ride a performance of hypnotized spaceout.
(Page 21)

For me, the whole thing was well-written, but flat and hollow. I think that was entirely the point, but likely not one I needed to spend 208 pages on.

Maybe this is just me, but I feel like there are a lot of other works that capture New York City better. And, I feel like there are also a lot of other works that satire detached rich people, or meaningless avantgarde art.

But, there’s only one book that does those things with such a maddeningly compelling initial premise.

It’s not enough for me to recommend it, but it is enough for me to understand how it compelled critics to write Op-Eds about the importance of unlikeable protagonists.

Thanks for reading!

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