We find ourselves in a time when questions surrounding American identity — What is “Americanness” and who has the right to call him- or herself an American? — seem to lurk under the daily headlines, taking up a refrain that has been repeated throughout this nation’s history. In some ways, then, this is the moment when a museum celebrating the writer’s role to define American identity is most necessary. Yet it is also the moment when such a project becomes most challenging and fraught.
Before visiting the new American Writers Museum in Chicago (opened May 2017), I wondered how a museum with the stated mission “to engage the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on our history, our identity, our culture, and our daily lives” could deliver on this goal. Even putting aside this contested territory of Americanness, our fractured sense of what constitutes a cohesive “history” or “culture,” how, on a practical level, does one even go about creating a museum to the written word? As a writer, I’d like to believe that words and books are alive and inherently resist being pinned down inside a glass case like so many specimens of rare butterflies.
2016 has seen a wealth of Shakespeare-related programming, performances, carefully timed book releases, and even a special hashtag, all in observance of the 400-year anniversary of the Bard's death in April 1616. Now that the dust of this international ferment has more or less settled, the Toledo Museum of Art offers up its own variation on the theme, with Shakespeare's Characters: Playing the Part. Promising to "bring the beloved writer's works to life," this exhibition engages visitors well beyond the works and their iconic roles, where the characters serve as diverse points of entry into a multidisciplinary exploration of Shakespeare's far-reaching influence.
My review of Catalan modernist Mercè Rodoreda's War, So Much War was selected for publication in the summer issue of The Puritan. The novel, which I call "literary quicksilver" for its defiance of conventional literary forms, was published only three years before the prolific writer's death in 1983 and now appears, courtesy of Open Letter Books, in a "hypnotic" and "incandescent" English translation by Maruxa Relaño and Martha Tennent. Tensely psychological, Rodoreda's deft manipulation of voice serves as a perfect vehicle of expression for the novel's existential themes, foregrounded in this nameless, place-less war which suggests an interior, rather than a geographical, landscape. Yet despite the vague setting, Rodoreda devotees will recognize the author's recurrent pastoral imagery, simultaneously violent and bucolic, and her provocative stream-of-conscious narration peopled with fascinating characters. Explore the enigmatic territory of the self with my review of a welcome addition to the Rodoreda corpus in English.
Today sees the English-language release of Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos' I'll Sell You a Dog (translated by Rosalind Harvey), which I reviewed for The Literary Review. Featuring a curmudgeonly narrator, Teo, who repeatedly disavows writing the novel you are reading, I'll Sell You a Dog is at once an uproarious satire and a poignant meditation upon art, frustrated ambition, aging, and the human need for meaning-making. Surrender to this "riotous ouroboros" of a novel, as Teo, heading a cast of quirky characters, flings you haphazardly through his life story.
In my latest review, I reflect on Quiet Creature on the Corner, from contemporary Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll, recently released in a "stirring" English translation by Adam Morris. A provocative plunge into the "absurdity of human condition" which leaves the reader grasping for some enduring truth, this slim novel is "a play of tantalizing incongruities," a coming-of-age story in which the narrator never fully comes of age, featuring an orbit of characters whose attempts to reach out to one another shroud them in deeper darkness and isolation. Probe this "fascinating, if inscrutable" voice in contemporary Brazilian fiction, with my review at Reading in Translation.
My essay "Portrait of a Pink Lady: Booth Tarkington and the Changing Face of America" examines writer Booth Tarkington's 1918 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, through the author's personal collection of portrait paintings, some of which are now on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's exhibition "A Gentleman Collector: Portraits from the Collection of Booth Tarkington." Using the enigma of a particular painting, Portia in a Pink Blouse, as a jumping-off point, I reflect on the novel's provocative facial imagery: How do the paintings in Tarkington's collection elucidate the themes in his writing but also paint a beguiling portrait of the author himself, "struggling to make sense of the changing face of America?" Read more of my thoughts on The Mookse and the Gripes.
Publication announcements, bookish items of note and the occasional literary musing.