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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
What We’re Reading
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Only Roz Chast could get me to read about aging, death, and taking care of failing parents. Her new memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, illustrated in her usual snarky style, is not exactly what I can describe as a fun read, but it’s about as honest and sympathetic an account of dealing with her parents’ incredibly difficult last years as one could wish for. Chast is serious in the right places here but also finds the best comic material in inherently dark territory, particularly in her portrayal of her mom and dad’s sweet and unhealthy codependency, the lucid dreaming of the senile, and the absurdities of Senior Living in a Place.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): Mention you are from Colombia to your average U.S. citizen and you are bound to get some careless joke about cocaine thrown your way. A wink about the sugar you put in your coffee; a smirk about a corbata colombiana. As I am about to marry a beautiful woman from Medellín, I can both attest to how ignorant these remarks can be and how they annoy to the bone. I thought a lot about those jokes as I read The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a novel that is set in post-Escobar Bogotá but is haunted by that mad king’s rein. Those looking for the warm hues of Marquez’s coastal Colombia will be surprised to find themselves in the muted streets of the capital, where much of the savagery of the drug traffickers took place. Rather than give a blow-by-blow history of all that transpired, Vasquez allows the mistrust and bitterness of a group of people who have lived through the siege to stand in for the collective scars of a nation. The plot follows the “ever present ghost” of a victim of the drug wars, as his friend, who witnessed his assassination, seeks answers as to why he was killed. The resulting search touches on the many ways Colombians were affected by the violence, summed up beautifully by Vasquez early in the novel: “There is a sound that I cannot or have never been able to identify: a sound that’s not human or is more than human, the sound of lives being extinguished…the sound of things falling from on high…that is forever suspended in my memory, hanging in it like a towel on a hook.” Literature often humanizes events that otherwise come to us as clichés, bringing to the surface what otherwise might stay submerged under the weight of history and the way it has been reported to us. I can’t imagine anyone who reads this novel ever making a joke about Colombia’s white lines again.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): I’ve spent the month slowly rereading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.1 House of Leaves is an academic study on The Navidson Record, a documentary film about a family that moves into a new home, only to discover a number of unsettling spatial discrepancies.3 House of Leaves is a portrait of Zapanò, a reclusive, blind man and the author of an academic study about a documentary film he may or may not have fabricated. House of Leaves is a novel about Johnny Truant, editor of Zampanò’s papers, who is driven mad by the specter of the house. It is a horror novel. It is a love story.4
1 See Appendix A for the transcript between myself and Mr. Ross, regarding sophomore efforts by authors of strange debut novels.2
2 Mr. Vala did not provide us with these records.—ed.
3 Danielewski, Mark Z. Chapter IV. House of Leaves. New York: Random House, 2000. (pp. 24). Print.
4 It also has a lot of footnotes.5
5 And nested footnotes, which I am unreasonably excited by.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): This week, intimidated by the stack of unread books at my bedside (fine: spilling onto my bed), I bummed around the internet, stocking a hypothetical anthology of online fiction. I was taken by Daniel Kowalski’s post-apocalyptic-O-Henry story “Our Meat” in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series, in which Kowalski cutely subverts the common trope of the mysterious cataclysmic event by calling it “The Thing That Happened.” Another favorite was a Kevin Clouther story from his collection We Were Flying to Chicago, on Black Balloon’s blog, The Airship. The story, “On the Highway Near Fairfield, Connecticut,” is a strange, moving (and stopping) story that superimposes one moment over another unexpectedly. It’s hard to explain, even to myself, but that it can be so inexplicable and stay so grounded in the mundane is part of its odd charm.