book review – ‘go, went, gone’ by jenny erpenbeck

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I’ve enjoyed all of the books of Jenny Erpenbeck that have been translated into English thus far, so when I heard about the pending release of Go, Went, Gone I knew I would soon be reading it. Erpenbeck again did not disappoint.

Blurb (Amazon): Go, Went, Gone is the masterful new novel by the acclaimed German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, “one of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation” (The Millions). The novel tells the tale of Richard, a retired classics professor who lives in Berlin. His wife has died, and he lives a routine existence until one day he spies some African refugees staging a hunger strike in Alexanderplatz. Curiosity turns to compassion and an inner transformation, as he visits their shelter, interviews them, and becomes embroiled in their harrowing fates. Go, Went, Gone is a scathing indictment of Western policy toward the European refugee crisis, but also a touching portrait of a man who finds he has more in common with the Africans than he realizes. Exquisitely translated by Susan Bernofsky, Go, Went, Gone addresses one of the most pivotal issues of our time, facing it head-on in a voice that is both nostalgic and frightening.

This is a book that every single American needs to read. We think of the refugee crisis in Europe intellectually, and we often hear phrases like, “I know how I’d handle that shit.” But we know nothing. We understand nothing. The glory of this novel is the imparting of something as near to experiential knowledge as is possible without actually experiencing the crisis described.

I often read books in translation, and I tend to enjoy differing aspects of books from different places. I adore the beautiful use of language and relationships in Japanese novels; I adore the simple complexity of Chinese literary fiction; I adore the stark yet emotionally potent use of language and action in German novels. Erpenbeck’s writing is masterful, an exquisite use of prose that any lover of language and literature would be remiss to ignore – flawless use of phrase, lyrical, beautiful, and meticulous. I could hardly stand to put this novel down, reading late into the night until I could barely hold my eyes open. Her writing coupled with the story she’s chosen to tell make this one of the best novels I’ve read in 2017.

Our protagonist, Richard, follows a path:
– encounters refugees (and doesn’t even realize it until later);
– considers their plight;
– begins to research their countries of origin and circumstances that might have led them to Germany (I loved this research, this desire to understand and learn);
– begins to listen to the stories of some of the Africans as part of a personal project;
– begins to sympathize, and eventually empathize for these men, feeling their pain and their loss of home and independence;
– his understanding of humankind and even myth (his area of specialty) begins to transform as his experiences and research expand his horizons of knowledge.

Through his grappling with the issues we also wrestle with larger questions of human rights, dignity, purpose, borders, freedom, independence, and sustainability, among others.

The topic of immigration and refugees is critical for us in the US to consider, especially considering the ugly discussions ongoing about the wall and immigration in general. Perhaps living with Richard’s story, for as long as it takes to read, will help position the discussion in terms of humanity rather than only numbers and fears and dollars.


A few excerpts:
“Seen from this perspective, it’s downright ridiculous to measure a transition by the presence of a body. Seen from this perspective, the uninhabitability of Europe for a refugee suddenly stands in direct relationship to the uninhabitability of the very flesh that is given to every human spirit to inhabit until the end of his days.” p65

“Indeed, the law has made a shift from physical reality to the realm of language. The foreigner, who is at home in neither of these countries, is trapped between these now-invisible fronts in an intra-European discussion that has nothing at all to do with him or the actual war he’s trying to escape from.” p68

“But the inhabitants of this territory…are defending their borders with articles of law, they assail these newcomers with their secret weapon call time, poking out their eyes with days and weeks, crushing them with months…” p81

“Must living in peace – so fervently wished for throughout human history and yet enjoyed in only a few parts of the world – inevitably result in refusing to share it with those seeking refuge, defending it instead so aggressively that it almost looks like war?” p241

‘sing, unburied, sing’ and jesmyn ward

I was honored to attend a book signing and reading by Jesmyn Ward at Lemuria Books on September 26, 2017. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’d never read anything by Ward before attending the event. She was on my list of authors to read, I just hadn’t made it around to her yet (it’s a terribly long list). Fortunately for me, I have now.

Blurb for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Simon & Schuster) – In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds. Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop.

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But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.

I don’t have a real review prepared for this novel, but I did want to share just a few things. Ward’s writing is beautiful, and her treatment of material in the book is simply wonderful. The reader finds themselves riding in the car, smelling the scents (both good and bad), feeling the heat, watching the ghosts, alongside the narrators in the novel. The structure, while not unique, is managed by powerfully swapping between two primary narrators with dramatically different points of view, interspersed a few times with a third, very different, narrator. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a study of family dynamics, race, Southern culture, growing up and growing old, the drug epidemic, and more. This novel also contains, near the end, one of the most powerful death scenes I’ve ever come across in all of literature. A definite must-read novel of 2017.


Since her reading in Jackson, it has been announced by the MacArthur Foundation that Jesmyn Ward has been named a MacArthur Fellow and awarded one of the famed Genius Grant for 2017. From what I’ve seen and read, she deserves every bit of the success and recognition. Congratulations!

a few thoughts – ‘always happy hour’ by mary miller

I picked up this book over the weekend just to have something to read, enjoy, and relax. I had no intention of saying anything about it, so I read it differently than I would a book I intended on reviewing – I made no notes, I just read. By the time I was through the first few stories I knew I’d at least like to recommend the book, so that’s what I’m doing today.

Always Happy Hour is a great book of short stories!

I loved her voice…I could easily hear my relatives or neighbors telling stories in the Southern tone captured so wonderfully by Miller throughout her collection. The authenticity of the stories, in this way and others, was refreshing and engaging. I really wanted to pick up the phone and invite both author and narrator(s) to hang out and have a beer! My only observation which might be mistaken for criticism is that the main character is every story is much the same, in a way that made the collection read more like a novel told out of order…but she provided an interesting cohesion to the collection that’s often lacking in a book of short stories.

Buy it, read it, love it – I can’t wait to read more by Mary Miller!


book review – ‘incest’ by christine angot

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I heard about this book on 20 July 2017 and immediately requested an ARC. I received it about 30 minutes later and began reading on my lunch break.

About the book (from Amazon): A daring novel that made Christine Angot one of the most controversial figures in contemporary France recounts the narrator’s incestuous relationship with her father. Tess Lewis’s forceful translation brings into English this audacious novel of taboo. The narrator is falling out from a torrential relationship with another woman. Delirious with love and yearning, her thoughts grow increasingly cyclical and wild, until exposing the trauma lying behind her pain. With the intimacy offered by a confession, the narrator embarks on a psychoanalysis of herself, giving the reader entry into her tangled experiences with homosexuality, paranoia, and, at the core of it all, incest. In a masterful translation from the French by Tess Lewis, Christine Angot’s Incest audaciously confronts its readers with one of our greatest taboos.

It took me about 20% of the novel to decide whether Angot was brilliant or a hack. After a parenthetical conversation with her editor, I knew – she’s a genius. She reminds me of Henry Miller this way, how it can be a bit difficult to discern exactly where she’s going, or even where she is, at any given moment in the text. It takes a bit of reading to catch on the style of this particular novel (I’ve not read her before, so I can’t comment on her other works or even make a comparison), both structurally and content-wise, but once I realized what was happening, I couldn’t put the book down. I read it in three short sittings.

The novel breaks down into about 4 distinct sections [not marked as such in the text, so perhaps it’s better to say that the novel logically separated into 4 sections in my reading], and I’d like to make a few comments on each.

  • 1st section – This portion of the book comprises about the first half of the text. The pace is frenetic and reminded me of listening to someone in the middle of a manic episode, or high on meth (don’t ask how I know), except every word was also beautiful. It was like the smartest person you’ve ever met trying to force out the solution to save humanity with their final breath – intense. Intense is the perfect word for the entire novel, most especially for the 1st and 4th sections (as I’m listing them here). Uncomfortable is another apt description, both for content and for concept. This half of the book is a cyclical narrative of a relationship continually ending but not ending but ending – it is thoughtful, compelling, painfully realistic thought patterns on full display. We’re nearly crazy at the end (of anything, really), complete with racing thoughts, jumbled ideas, paranoia, fear, anger, dismay, and confusion. Angot wonderfully captures the sense of an ending.
  • 2nd section – Here we have a distinct and intentional change, explained to us by the narrator herself. The structure and flow change entirely, though not the overall tone. We’re still watching a woman fall apart, but in a much more clearly diagrammed way. There’s no more cycling, rather a deliberately paced narrative, broken only a few times.
  • 3rd section – Section 3 is clearly unlike the rest of the novel, being a list of mostly (but not entirely) psychology and sociology terms, loosely defined through the narrator’s own understanding and story. It is part of her attempt to understand why she engages with her life in the peculiar way she does.
  • 4th section – The fourth and final section of the novel continues in the vein of part 2, but with more interjecting of the narrative style of part 1. The narrator always calms herself down, however, restates her point, and continues on with a mostly calm and direct accounting of what’s going on. Finally, at about 75% of totality, the narrator directly addresses the title of the novel – incest. She mentions it a few times throughout, but now she tells her story. It’s tough reading. Shame palpable. Acknowledgement of the fact is where she wants to be, allowing it to override fear/shame/hatred/love. Between the brokenness of the the first half and the halting attempts to relate a story too taboo for words, this part of the novel is intense beyond understanding, much less words. You just have to read it.
  • A final note before I end my review of this amazing text…while perhaps not technically a stream of consciousness novel, Incest works better as one than most anything I’ve ever read. Ulysses is the original, but not as mature (heresy, I know); The Waves is the height, but there’s something more honest about Incest. Many try to write (or have tried) stream of consciousness, but this novel, stylistically, is near perfection.

    I would recommend this novel to anyone, especially fans of modern/contemporary literary fiction or experimental fiction. Even from my review it’s easy to tell that the book isn’t for everyone, but I will unabashedly say that the novel is pure, uncompromising, punishing brilliance.


    I got far too involved in my reading to capture many of the quotes I loved, but here are a few I snapped early on…


    book review – ‘lincoln in the bardo’ by george saunders

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    “Though on the surface it seemed that every person was different, this was not true. At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end. We must try to see one another this way. As suffering, limited beings — Perennially outmatch by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”

    One of many beautiful lines from Saunders’ first novel, and newest literary publication.

    Blurb (from Amazon.com) – February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body. From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul. Lincoln in the Bardo is an astonishing feat of imagination and a bold step forward from one of the most important and influential writers of his generation. Formally daring, generous in spirit, deeply concerned with matters of the heart, it is a testament to fiction’s ability to speak honestly and powerfully to the things that really matter to us. Saunders has invented a thrilling new form that deploys a kaleidoscopic, theatrical panorama of voices to ask a timeless, profound question: How do we live and love when we know that everything we love must end?

    Though I certainly have critiques of this novel, I must start by saying I was quite satisfied when I came to its end. Lincoln in the Bardo, simply put, is a very good novel.

    Experimental literary devices and tactics are always welcome to me. I consider that perhaps my favorite forms of modern literature would fall under the wide and under-defined moniker “experimental.” Saunders’ form in this novel qualifies as experimental, in my assessment, both structurally and somewhat conceptually. The struggle I had while reading, however, is that not infrequently the novel structure feels contrived and forced. I loved the idea, but the execution falters. Physically, while a beautifully bound novel, the layout causes issues for the reader — the act of reading was interrupted multiple times by a need to flip around in the text to discover who, at a given moment, was speaking (or being quoted, depending on the chapter). While not necessarily the author’s fault, the reading experience was lessened by what seems to be poor planning and execution on the part of the publisher.

    Though not perfect, I truly loved what Saunders was aiming at with Lincoln in the Bardo. I especially appreciated his use of bardo, instead of purgatory. As a brief instructional, bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth – a state commonly referred to in some Buddhist and Tibetan thought traditions. In the last few pages of the book, Saunders puts the distinction to wonderful use (no spoilers, but marvelously handled).

    I enjoyed the writing in this book considerably more than Tenth of December, the last publication by Saunders. The assembly of stories there, admittedly (by the author) an attempt at being experimental, also often felt forced. Perhaps these two works aren’t the most representative of his ability, seeing how one is experimenting with his usual form, and the other his first attempt at a novel. Nevertheless, there were many beautiful sentences in the book, and my few critiques will not dissuade me from reading more of the author’s work.

    Character development is another strong point of the book. The way their stories were developed and shared, both with one another and with the reader, the way they interacted with one another, the shadow of memory carried by each, though never fully shared or even fully integrated by the carrier – the weaving together of a fairly large cast was deftly managed.

    I only became truly upset at one point in my reading. trigger warning {facetiously typed}: Thomas Havens, character, a slave who proclaimed himself happy with his life, who even contrasts himself with the slaves who had it bad. Havens says that he had “a happy arrangement, all things considered…I was living simply an exaggerated version of any man’s life” (219-220). Why have this fictional character, in a book set in a time when human beings were still owned and where even the graveyards were segregated by race, especially in our current age of consistent attempted white-washing (including emotionally) of our egregious history? Why? [I actually put the book down here, after reading Haven’s words, angry not at his words, per se, but at his existence and inclusion. Needless.] Of course, his own words about his owners later undermine the thoughts he expresses in his brief appearance, but still…why? Having the most dialogue from a slave be in defense of the dehumanizing life he led because ‘everyone has to work and therefore trade time and freedom for necessities and he somehow didn’t really have it so bad’ – this particular decision of the author bothered me a great deal.

    All things considered, Saunders has turned out a book definitely worth the investment of time and money required to enjoy it. No work is perfect, my own falls far short, but Lincoln in the Bardo is, again, a very good book. In comparing critical reviews and awards with reader reviews on sites like Amazon or Goodreads, I think my bottom line sense was felt by many readers – there are problems enough that it’s not a 5 star kind of book, but critical reviews glowed partially because of expectations and past experiences. Regardless, enjoy your reading!

    This particular quote, almost entirely unrelated to the thrust of the text, though included in it, somewhat agrees with me.