Poems about the queer immigrant experience

Book cover of Toska by Alina Pleskova with an illustration of a humanized grey fox wearing stockings, high-heeled boots and pasties. There is blood on the fur around its mouth, a prism with an eye rises from its hand, and a hand with a rainbow trail holds one breast.

Toska by Alina Pleskova

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Toska is a Russian word which, as Alina Pleskova writes in the title poem of this collection, has no equivalent in English. I don’t speak Russian, but read that it’s an unhappiness, a deep sadness or melancholy. It’s sort of akin to the Portuguese word “saudade,” a term for bittersweet nostalgia, something that might have been, which is somewhat well-known in English poetry. Toska is indeed a sad, melancholy collection. Pleskova, as a queer woman and Russian immigrant living in Philadelphia during these tumultuous times, is an outsider in many ways, and her searching lack of belonging pervades these poems.

I bought this collection after hearing Pleskova read the brilliant “Our People Don’t Believe in Tears.” That turned out to be my favorite of the collection. I thought “Take Care” and “Sacred Bath Bomb” were also standouts. I find poems to be more effective on paper, but you can read these through the previous links and, if you enjoy them, give the collection a try. The notes at the back, which explain the cultural references, are helpful in order to fully appreciate the poems.

I enjoyed this collection overall, but did find the consistent tone of despair grueling. I would recommend reading it alongside other things and maybe not taking it all in at once.

Poems with clarity and wit

Book cover for Plain Sight by David Bergman shows a man with a flashlight finding a piece of paper in the forest at night.

Plain Sight by David Bergman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recently saw David Bergman at the Baltimore CityLit festival, at a session about publishing later in life. He was in the audience, and one of the panelists unexpectedly asked him to read a poem. The one he chose, “The Man Who Was Not a Robot,” is a wonderful piece from his latest collection, Plain Sight, that prompted me to purchase the book.

This is Bergman’s third book of poetry, and his first in 25 years. He has Parkinson’s disease, and his poems are tempered and shaped by the specters of aging and disease. He is a great storyteller, writing with clarity, wit, and a very distinctive voice. Reading through these often conversational poems, even though I’d only met him once, I could almost hear him reading them.

Bergman tackles difficult topics head on with humor and grace. A series of “The Man Who…” poems forms the core of the collection, and many are outstanding, including the aforementioned poem, “The Man Who Could Not Smile,” and “The Man Who Knew Wonder.” Other standout poems include the heartbreaking “The Memory Sharer” and the beautiful closing poem, “Grace.”

Overall, this is a thought-provoking, welcoming collection. Highly recommended.

A long journey not worth making

Book cover of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky showing a hand holding a photo of a woman.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Idiot begins with the young Prince Myshkin coming back to Russia after years of treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland. Poor and sickly, he is hoping to see the one distant relative that he knows of. He meets the gruff Rogozhin on the train to Saint Petersburg, who tells him of his love for the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna. The book’s core is Myshkin’s involvement with this couple, with several subplots and countless characters moving in and out of the story.

There’s an interesting concept here, as Dostoevsky, after Crime and Punishment, decided to write a character quite the opposite of Raskolnikov. Myshkin is an innocent man in a corrupt world, almost a Christ-like character. But Dostoevsky doesn’t really do much with this idea. Myshkin wins many people over with his frank honesty, although it’s unclear whether most of them pity him or really admire him. In the end, his followers get him nothing as he gets tangled up in a tragic mess of crisscrossing love interests that eventually lead to his downfall.

The book seems intended to be a critique of late nineteenth century Russian society, although to this modern reader it lacks bite or humor. I also found the characters to be fairly generic, created to express different points of view rather than being fully fleshed out characters.

As translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the prose and dialogue do read easily, but the book still felt like a very long slog. There are several very lengthy scenes with pages upon pages of exposition. There is lots of talk about morality, the Russian character, and philosophies of Christianity, but to me it seemed to be little more than nationalist and religious ranting. Much is made of a painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger. Dostoevsky and his character see this work as confronting and negating Christian faith, but I think Dostoevsky missed the point of this sixteenth century German painting, which was to drive home the suffering that Christ endured, not to imply that Christ wasn’t divine. This misguided, forced argument, to me, represents what is wrong with the novel, as Dostoevsky seems to force actions and opinions on his characters to prove points he wants to make. One way to read this is that he believed their society was hopeless and wouldn’t recognize a Christ-like figure if it encountered it. But in the end, it just doesn’t amount to much more than a yarn.

Making the book even more difficult to read is that there are more than 25 characters to keep track of, each with multiple names. As the translators explain, Russian names are composed of first name, patronymic (from the father’s first name), and family name. Then there are two forms of diminutives used among family and friends–the familiar and the casual or disrespectful. The translators use these as I assume Dostoevsky did, but to this Western reader, keeping track of dozens of unfamiliar names for characters with little to no distinguishing features was extremely difficult.

I did want to love this book. Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite books in high school, and other books with similar approaches are among my favorites, like Don Quixote, The Pickwick Papers, and Being There. But I found this one kind of a mess. Despite an intriguing concept, it just wasn’t worth the time spent on it.

Cogs in the machine

Book cover of The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada showing smoke rising from a trash bin.

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Factory is a surreal, existentialist novel. You might call it magical realism. It’s what you might get if Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Angela Carter were living in contemporary times and collaborated on a project together. The novel follows three people who work at a sprawling factory in Japan. No one knows what the factory actually produces, and none of the three main characters seem to understand their job or how it fits into the broader scheme.

Hiroko Oyamada rotates point of view between the three, and at times it’s difficult to know who’s talking because their voices all sound similar, down to the side remarks they make about others. At first, I thought this similarity might be a fault of the translation by David Boyd, but I came to think that Oyamada did this intentionally to emphasize the lack of individuality of the factory workers. There are strange phenomena that appear to be real, like an ever-growing mass of unidentifiable black birds living outside the factory, and others that may or may not be, like lizards that have adapted to live behind the machines in the factory’s two cleaning facilities, subsisting on bugs, dust, and dryer lint.

Boundaries are thin in this novel. It’s sometimes hard to know who’s talking because of the lack of paragraph breaks in the dialogue. The breakdown of boundaries continues as the novel progresses–between timelines, between characters, between reality and the fanciful.

I found the theme of the factory as a dehumanizing force a bit facile, and without more uniquely drawn characters, it’s hard to feel too invested in them. The end was also abrupt. But I’m a sucker for existentialist novels, and The Factory is a creative and thought-provoking read.

Overgrown kids at play

Cover of Sayaka Murata's Earthlings showing a cute stuffed alien toy.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 1.5 of 5 stars

Like Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman, the main character in Earthlings appears to have some kind of autistic spectrum disorder and fails to understand how to navigate society or relations with other people. In Convenience Store Woman, the characters rant about the rules of society, but the narrator quite enjoys the structured existence of working in a convenience store. Earthlings takes this concept further and depicts a complete removal from not only society but reality. It’s a sort of cousin to Jean Cocteau‘s Les Enfants terribles, but meaner and with less insight.

Murata provides only superficial pop-psych explanations for why her characters have wound up feeling like stranded aliens among earthlings, and delves into little else in this novel in any depth. The goofy, absurdist story, told in a flat, emotionless tone, gives the reader no insight into the workings of society beyond what a typical teen might observe. The characters rage on about being tools and cogs in the Factory, expected to reproduce and to get jobs to support themselves, but like overgrown kids they can think of no feasible alternative. Their solution is basically to mooch off of the society they criticize and the people they can’t stand to be around. It all plays out with graphic violence, turning into what’s essentially a horror story written in the style of a mediocre YA novel.

Once more, I’ve finished a book by this author baffled about all the positive reviews. There is a long history of literature depicting the angst and unfairness of life as a young person in a restrictive society. The topic is also a specialty of the horror genre. This novel gives neither fresh perspective about the structural problems in society nor makes you feel the frustration of it. A cute stuffed alien on the cover and a simplistic writing style don’t mask the fact that there’s less of substance here than in a decent horror novel or movie.

It did occur to me that this book might be satirizing the frustration and empty rage of young people who are angry at the situation they’ve been put in but don’t even attempt to come up with realistic solutions. If that were the case, I’d dislike this book even more, as making fun of the troubles of people who are clearly mentally ill just seems cruel and heartless. Which just about sums up this mean, unenjoyable book.

Under a fluorescent glare

Cover of Convenience Store Woman, with rice ball in form of a smiling woman's head on a plate.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman is a short novel about a woman, Keiko, who finally finds her place in Japanese society at the age of 18 working at a convenience store, where she is told exactly how she is expected to behave. After a difficult childhood, this is a huge relief for her. Now, at 36, she realizes that her family and friends feel sorry for her, assuming that she wants a different job or to get married and have children. She is perfectly happy being a cog in the convenience store machine, but is compelled to try to satisfy society’s expectations.

Like the convenience store Keiko works in, the book is brightly lit, airy, and clear. Murata, who worked in a convenience store herself, drew from personal experience, and life in the convenience store is the most interesting aspect of the novel. Unfortunately, the characters seem as if they were selected from a shelf, thinly drawn and mostly sticking to stereotypes, such as the misogynistic young man, Shiraha, who wants to withdraw from society but seems incapable of anything beyond insulting Keiko and spouting inane opinions about how society is still in the stone age. Keiko seems to see right through him but takes him in because she thinks it will be advantageous for both of them. The result is obvious and tedious, even for a novel this brief.

Closing this book, I was befuddled by all the great reviews it’s gotten. It was a quick read and fairly entertaining in its oddness, but there wasn’t much to it. Reading beyond the brief quotes after I finished (I try not to read full reviews until afterward because they tend to reveal too much), it occurred to me that it’s a sign of a very thin novel when virtually all the reviews mention the exact same points: Keiko hitting a boy over the head with a shovel in childhood, wanting to cook a dead bird she finds, eyeing a knife when her sister’s baby starts crying. The reviewers also all seemed to use “fluorescent” as an adjective to describe the book.

Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s tenth book, was a big hit in Japan, and I can understand its power as a critique of the restrictiveness and expectations of Japanese society. In translation, though, without being steeped in the culture, it comes across as an odd, quirky, almost comic work. I think it was meant to be dead serious, but this is one book that really does seem to get lost in translation.

A trying life, living omitted

Cover of Chéri and The End of Chéri
by Colette, translated by Rachel Careau showing pink roses behind lettering.

Chéri and The End of Chéri by Colette
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having not been familiar with the world of courtesans in early twentieth century France, I was somewhat surprised by the premise of the novels Chéri and The End of Chéri, which were published in 1920 and 1926, respectively. Chéri is a young man whose mother is a wealthy, independent courtesan, and the first novel focuses on his affair with his mother’s fellow courtesan, Léa, who, at almost 50, is about twice Chéri’s age. Chéri and Léa lounge about and make love, and Chéri seems like he would be quite happy spending the rest of his life with his face nestled in Léa’s bosom playing with her pearls. He has no direction and very little personality, but, as we are told, he is very beautiful.

Léa is a more interesting and fully-formed character, as are the other courtesans in his mother’s circle, but the focus is on Chéri, who is entering into an arranged marriage with Edmée, a rich young woman who, for reasons that weren’t clear to me, is willing to put up with his nonsense. Chéri is very unhappy about his impending nuptials, and behaves like a spoiled child, bucking against his fate while doing little to open any other options for himself. I found him infuriating, as I’m fairly sure Colette meant him to be. At its core, Chéri depicts how emotionally fraught and destructive this relationship is for both Chéri and Léa, and it is by far the better of the two novels.

The End of Chéri opens after World War I, six years after Chéri and Léa have parted. Chéri has returned from the front a changed man, but this change is apparent to the reader only in that Chéri can’t rally with his usual bravado when he’s down, and that people keep noting his beauty is now tainted with weariness. The novel amounts to an oddly detached portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder–Chéri’s experiences in the war are only alluded to, with the reason for his malaise placed squarely on his lost love with Léa. The book is a trying grind as he wanders aimlessly in a changed society he no longer understands. Colette focuses on the effects of aging and the passing of time, visiting Léa only briefly. I missed her in the novel almost as much as Chéri did. I also never gained any insight into Edmée, who is now presumably finding emotional satisfaction in her nursing work and her own love affairs.

Both of these novels were innovative for their time–the first in depicting the emotional wreckage of an unusual relationship and the second in focusing on a character with PTSD. However, Colette’s narrow spotlight on Chéri, whose emotional distance frustrates both Léa and Edmée, creates a detached, unemotional experience for the reader. While I found the books interesting in an intellectual sense, they weren’t involving. Colette picked her most boring character for her main one. I wish she had gone into the other characters’ heads more, making Chéri an enigma for us to figure out along with them. That would have made for a truly fascinating pair of novels.

Rachel Careau seems to have done a very thorough, careful job with these translations, so if you’re interested in the later Colette novels, I would highly recommend this edition. if you’re not already a fan of Claudine at School and her other better-known works, though, I wouldn’t start here.

Firmly within belief

Cover of Beyond Belief with title written vertically in blue and John Koethe horizontally in black.

Beyond Belief: Poems by John Koethe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Koethe is a retired professor philosopher as well as an established poet. Beyond Belief: Poems, his 2022 collection, is a set of philosophical poetic musings. These abstract and slippery poems are mostly about time, aging, and the sum of a life. While many were thought-provoking at times, there was little that was vivid or particularly moving in them. As much as I enjoyed some of his thoughts, they are told from something of a detached remove, and the feelings evoked were rarely sustained throughout the long, meandering poems. They came across almost like brief but rambling essays.

That said, there was a warmth and introspection that I did enjoy in this collection. Reading it felt like sitting before a fire with a wise older friend and listening to him impart some of what he’s learned as he reflects on his years on earth.

Poems of the car wash

At the Car Wash by Arthur Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arthur Russell‘s At the Car Wash, recent winner of the Rattle chapbook prize, is an extraordinary chapbook of poems centered around the author’s experiences working at his father’s car wash in the melting pot of Brooklyn back before the current wave of gentrification. Russell lived in both of the areas I did growing up, and his vivid poems bring to life the gritty, rough world of the borough at that time. But their true focus is the author’s complicated relationships with his parents, particularly his hard-hearted businessman of a father.

In form, the poems range from portraits of the people who worked at the car wash, like “Checkout Man” to broader conceptual pieces about the poet’s life’s choices, like “Burning Garbage.” The most powerful poem in the collection is “How to Replace a Toilet,” a grand summing up of the author’s upbringing and work in his dad’s business, with all the mixed feelings it entailed. Told as a how-to guide, it begins: “First, have a father, one who owns a car wash / where he employs poor Black men / preferably those who’ve come north in the Great Migration, / but any poor Black man will do / as long as they have historical disadvantages / that have translated into self-destructive behavior…”

I found this short collection touching, unsettling, and thought-provoking, and read through the entire chapbook in one sitting. Highly recommended. You can purchase it here.

A patchwork creation

Cover of Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, with the letters XXX in foreground.

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In Frankissstein: A Love Story, Jeanette Winterson plays in various ways on Mary Shelly‘s seminal work Frankenstein. Part of it follows Shelly as she conceives of the idea for the book. This alternates with a contemporary section in which a transgender doctor, Ry, falls in love with an AI maverick not so subtly named Victor Stein.

I’ve been a fan of past works by Winterson, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but this book had none of that magic. Winterson throws out all the usual ideas that Shelly kicked off more than 200 years ago about what humans create and why. We still haven’t answered these questions adequately, which is why they have such lasting interest, but Winterson doesn’t advance anything in this book. About the only interesting idea is Stein’s fascination with Ry’s partial transformation of their body and his view that this is a new stage for humanity, where we can alter our bodies to our perceived gender. But like all the other ideas in the book, Winterson does little beyond raising it.

That might be okay if the writing weren’t so inconsistent. In one paragraph, the tense shifted back and forth, but I couldn’t tell if Winterson was trying to disorient the reader or just being sloppy. The cardboard characters tend to speak as if they’re giving each other TED talks, and in times of emotional tension, slip into an overwrought dramatic style that borders on the comical, almost like the actors in a old Carol Burnett skit. Winterson doesn’t use quotation marks, either, which can make it difficult to tell at times what’s dialogue and what’s just the narrator commenting on things.

After all the retellings of how Shelly created her novel and the infinite plays on the novel itself, Winterson uses both to ride the contemporary AI zeitgeist, but adds little that we haven’t read and heard about it over the past few years. There have been countless more thoughtful and entertaining movies, TV shows, and books about AI (Machines like Me, Klara and the Sun, Her, Ex Machina, etc.). If you haven’t already, read the wonderful Shelly novel, which has a thousand times more heart and thought put into it. This feels like it was patched together like Frankenstein’s monster–and maybe that was Winterson’s meta-intent, come to think of it, but it makes for an unsatisfying read.