The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

Weirde Sister

By James Gendron.

I ordered Patricia Lockwood’s first book from Octopus Books after reading Priestdaddy and wanting to read more of her work. I’d already read Homelandsexuals. Plus, Octopus Books advertised a chapbook competition in August (since then this has disappeared) that I wanted to submit to so I wanted to read more of what they had published. So I picked this book called Sexual Boats.

When the package arrived it came with a third book I had not ordered. Weirde Sister. Ironically, I liked Weirde Sister far more than the Lockwood book or Sexual Boats.

Weirde Sister is about the Salem witch trials, a kind of imaginary walk from the perspective of a woman later denounced as a witch a burned. It’s vivid and strange. In some ways she truly is a witch, walking into the depths of a lake to do magic at its bottom with out women, but in other ways she is modern and aware of her persecution as prejudiced hunt.

His daughter left to start a new life

In what would eventually become the computing industry

The villagers scattered

The weight of the hail lowered his fields six feet in altitude

He was attempting to flee when a final streak of hail severed his penis

His wounds weren’t fatal but they were very demoralizing

In the sense that the governing morality of our time

Is highly penis-oriented

The style is long sets of punctuation-free, capitalized lines. It is not a style I would expect I like. No rhyme, little rhythm, no sentence structure, just words swaying in the wind, moving through space, with the occasional stanza break. And yet I loved it. I loved the strangeness, the way the real mixed with the fantasy of an actual witch, I loved the humor and the sadness. For a long while I was convinced the author must be a women, though I saw the name ‘James’ on the cover.

Sexual Boats, the book I actually ordered, happens to be by the same author. Weirde Sister is much better.

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Split

By Cathy Linh Che.

I forget where I found this. It came up a couple times in some newsletter or another, so I added it to my cart on Amazon. Then I didn’t buy it for maybe a year. But I finally I was buying more paper for my printer and thought, gotta buy this poetry book eventually.

I read it in Buffalo, NY, when I went with Silas on his work trip. I read it in the hotel one day when I stayed there to do a bunch of work.

The poems are striking and sad, lots of sexual assault and terribleness. I’m not in love with the style, short lines and airy in this way that modern poetry often is, little rhyme or rhythm to hang onto, only stark images spread across the page sparsely. Reminded me a bit of Ocean Vuong, who she thanks in her acknowledgements. But I have yet to fall in love with Vuong’s poetry, either, despite all the buzz.

It was a definitely a set of poems about her, a little window into her world and soul through the lens of her poetic voice. Reminds me of the Mike Birbiglia quote about not liking a comedian: It’s just that I don’t like *you*. You know, your personality. If I were to not like these poems, though I do just not intensely, it would feel like I were not liking *her*.

Oh, man, lots of acknowledgements to lots of people, including some very well-known artists, like Vuong and Sharon Olds. I cannot imagine thanking that many people. I do not think I know enough total, let alone people involved in my poetry. The number of people involved in my poetry is probably close to zero.

Sufjan

By Hannah Larrabee.

Picked this up for two reasons. One, I found Larrabee’s poem Three Body Problem (a broadside) and really loved it, then poked around to find more of her stuff. Two, I’m thinking of submitting a chapbook to Finishing Line Press, who published this chapbook of hers, so wanted to get a feel for what kind of stuff they publish.

I didn’t love these poems as much as I loved her science-y broadsides. But they did have an appeal for me, and I loved the cover art.

Perhaps I should revisit it again. I read it mostly on the bus from Boston to NYC, which will become a staple in my life.

The Wave in the Mind

By Ursula Le Guin.

I came across this book first in Brain Pickings, in which Maria Popova quoted a section about how Le Guin considers herself a man, albeit a poor one, because when she was writing women hadn’t been in invented yet. I became obsessed with this idea and have been working on a short collection of poetry for a chapbook based on this idea — we are men because women have not yet been invented.

Eventually I decided I should read the actual book this quote came from, so I picked it up from the library.

It’s a collection of essays, decently random, many of which Le Guin was asked to put together for anthology or cause or event or came from a speech she had given. I would say the first half was very engaging, mostly to discuss her voice and personal thoughts and history. Her parents were historians or anthropologists and she had a rich upbringing with many guests coming to the house.

But eventually it became boring and I found the last collection of essays, on writing, somewhat trite.

She had some strange, interesting ones. One about how many women win literary prizes — not enough — and one trying to scan (as in poetry-meter scan) various types of prose to see if some prose is more poetic than others, compiling lists of numbers to compare from very small sample sets. Like she was on her way to do some research using computer science-style tools but didn’t have the computer aspect.

Hallucinations

By Oliver Sacks.

Another Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale grab, this is typical Oliver Sacks description of strange and varied problems of the mind and body. Hallucinations can be, of course, visual, but also aural or of feeling someone brush by you or having the sense that everyone is very familiar (or that no one is.)

Hallucinations are under-reported because people are afraid they will be viewed as crazy. It’s true that reporting aural hallucinations can easily get you diagnosed as schizophrenic, though many people have hallucinations (aural or otherwise) that do indicate some kind of psychosis. People who go blind often have visual hallucinations. People often have hallucinations that they recognize are hallucinations. People have simple, patterned visual hallucinations or very intense scenery ones. People hallucinate musical notes, or text. Some people find their hallucinations calming or joyful; others find them disturbing.

 

Priestdaddy

By Patricia Lockwood

I got this book because I love her poetry, so when Patricia came to talk at Papercuts JP in Jamaica Plains about her memoir I went and after the talk I was convinced I should also buy the book. Here’s what I wrote for Boston Hassle about the event:

Patricia Lockwood is a poet pre-occupied with the strange, often the sexually strange. In the small room next door to the bookstore hosting the reading, she wears a trim pixie haircut, a black dress, and large, black earrings that look suspiciously like the tasseled ends of a curtain draw. In other words: too classy to be a poet who wrote a poem about the world gang-banging a deer, which she manages to reference within ten minutes of the event beginning.

Of course she’s not here to read poetry but to talk about her memoir, Priestdaddy. The book recounts her experience living with her parents as an adult, the title referencing the fact that her father is a priest, entering into priesthood with a wife and children through a loophole. She reads a passage in which she converses with a seminarian visiting the house, warning us that her use of a Chicago accent when quoting him has gotten worse and worse as her book tour has gone on. In the passage, we learn that she informs him what it means to be a ‘furry’ and he is glad to come across this knowledge: in the case anyone ever confesses him about such a thing he needs to know to what they are referring. (If you do not know, I suggest looking it up, though: NSFW.)

After she reads the passage, Nina McLaughlin, a local Cambridge author who is also a carpenter and happened to work on my brother’s house, interviews her about the book. They talk about who the book is really about, hint, it’s Patricia’s mother, and how people often comment on the satire of the dialogue of Patricia’s parents in the book–that is all real, she affirms, that is the most real part of the whole book. The room is small and intimate, we are all on folding chairs or standing in the corners and the front row is close enough that they could easily lean forward touch Patricia or Nina, and when Nina asks for questions from audience there is that awkward silence of no one knowing what to say. Patricia calmly open a packet of peanut M&Ms she had stashed behind her water. Someone asks if she wants a Red-bull.

The whole event is strangely conversational, Patricia extraordinarily comfortable talking to us like we are already friends, realizing that she knows people in the audience from Twitter, (she is also well-known for being a Twitter aficionado which you can take as you will,) complimenting an audience member on his podcast about Ethan Hawke (which he started as a project after Trump got elected — as I said, we all became friends.) At the end most of us line up to get our books signed, which includes Patricia drawing an animal of our choice on the front page, an endeavor that turns out to take so much time I almost regret the hilarity of it all. I get a hedgehog with a tail (nope, hedgehog’s don’t have tails,) and no nipples. “I think he’s too young for nipples,” Patricia tells me as I leave, which almost makes sense.

But the book, the book. It shines bright with fantastic imagery, almost every sentence a medallion reflecting light off it, creating something new. Her voice startles me, it is intense and weird and I love it and I loved learning a bit about where it came from, a peek into the life that made her who she is.

Of course it is strange and sad and her commentary on religion and her family is ever so kind, though also cutting. I almost don’t want to write about but live in it a little longer.

I have a similar feeling towards Patricia Lockwood as I do (or did, before I tried to read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men) towards David Foster Wallace: I desperately want to write like her but know that I cannot because I am not her. I must write like myself. I think I just see a piece of myself in her writing expanded out to great volume.

Room For Joy

By Brandon Melendez

I bought this hand-made chapbook from Brandon for $10 on Venmo after I saw him perform at the Cambridge Riverside Fest. He’s clearly a slam poet, or at least be one, with a booming voice and personality. I liked this poems, especially the self-portrait as Pokemon ones, which reminded me of my own strange poetry projects to write poems across a theme.

The chapbook is good, a set of 13 poems, and had heard him perform several. Their layout on the page is so different to the performance.

He had one poem with many footnotes, which had their line breaks denoted with forward slashes, which was strange and I could not figure out how to read.

Moonglow

By Michael Chabon

I read this book because Brad loved it so much. It’s kind of the opposite of My Struggle: My Struggle was an autobiography written as a novel whereas Moonglow is a novel written as an autobiography. The novel is about Michael’s grandfather, except not his real grandfather but an imagined one.

The grandfather has a larger than life feeling. Incredibly hot-headed but also incredibly intelligent. Loyal to the bone. A rough life, a life of getting in trouble, of trying to keep his wife, a Jewess who survived WWII in Europe, together, though her problems span the book. The grandfather is an engineer. He is telling Michael his stories on his deathbed and the stories are never-ending and astounding.

The book is engaging though I pause about halfway through and end up finishing it on a bus to NYC. It’s a great book, but the grandeur of the grandfather bothered me — is anyone really like that? So interesting, so smart, so much drama? It didn’t have that subdued, real feeling of most literary novels that attempt to bring real people into the swing, real people who have long patches of boring life.

Our Sudden Museum

By Robert Fanning

I saw Robert read his poetry at Grolier’s Poetry Shop in Harvard Square. Maryam invited me and we had been meaning to go to reading together. So though it was a gross, winter’s night and biking resulted in spikes of ice shooting into my face, I attended the reading on a Friday evening. It was awkward. Very few people where there; those that were either knew Robert well or knew the Grolier’s staff well. I had never heard of him. I stood around awkwardly, browsing the shelves, so awkwardly that the staffed asked if I was there for the reading. I told her I was.

Many of Robert’s poems were about death — the death of his sister during surgery, his brother’s suicide, and his father’s death. He spoke about each poem before reading it, giving us a context that would be nearly impossible to glean from the book alone. It made the poems feel more alive to understand how intensely personal they were. A little more beautiful.

The first poem he read was actually a funny one, about the ghosts of famous poets making fun of him for going to the gym. But then we got to the rougher ones: the feeling of his sister’s house after she has unexpectedly died; explaining to his son what it means when a ladybug dies; the perspective of the wooden beam from which his brother hung himself. They are rough poems and they feel like eulogy, sometimes, a way to keep his memories alive.

I ended up liking the poems a lot, so I bought the book and took several months to finish it at home. They are not all that good and they seem to lack a theme other than him — his life, his experiences, the things in his head that come together. I don’t especially like that. I wanted a different thread, a different thought of why write poetry other than “I experience things” though I suppose Patricia Lockwood’s books are not so different. Except she has this incredibly distinctive way of thinking and her poems are rarely about themselves. Robert Fanning felt in some ways bland.

However the poems were solid little things and many rang home true. The title is wonderful.

Chemistry

By Weike Wang

I saw that the author was coming to talk at the Harvard Bookstore and I was intrigued by her novel about a Boston-based chemistry PhD student struggling to finish because my sister did a PhD in chemistry at Harvard and similarly found the environment pretty terrible. Chemistry’s main character, whose name we never learn, is Chinese, born in Shanghai but brought to the US with her parents at a young age. She questions why she is even doing chemistry–is it just because of her overbearing parents? But the novel is also¬†about her relationship with her boyfriend, who she will not commit to. She won’t say yes or no to his marriage proposal, she won’t say yes or no to moving with him to Oberlin when he gets a faculty job. She doesn’t feel like his equal. She can’t commit without having career success.¬†She doesn’t want to have a marriage like her parents had.

It’s a short novel. I read it almost all in one go, from when I picked it up at the library around 6pm to when I almost finished it at 9pm. It’s somewhat stream of consciousness, lots of little sections that relate a scene in sparse detail in the first person. But it’s also hilarious with this sharp, dark humor of a woman trying to make sense of herself and the world around her. And of course there is the science, all these little science metaphors, all these little explanations of light, of clouds, of thermodynamics. I immediately felt at home in this book that argon boxes and Nobel’s first invention, dynamite.

A great joke: What do you do with a sick chemist? Helium. Curium. Barium.