The Nerdy & Random Bookshelf: Vol. 1

Leah Angstman
Aug 8, 2019 · 5 min read

Editor Leah Angstman talks about whatever the huck she’s reading right now. No order. No theme. No rules. Just feverish randomness.

hile my Goodreads Challenge thinks I’m only dismally staying “on track,” in truth I’ve read some 500 Alternating Current Press submissions in the past month, from short fiction to poetry to full-on novels and memoirs, to get the queue caught up; and it looks like it may be a while yet before I can dive back into “the fun” books, i.e. the detailed war maneuvers of dismissed Sixth Coalition generals in the Napoleonic Wars. You know, the fun stuff. But I always have the violent and uncontrollable urge to talk about books, so … here’s what I’ve recently randomly read. Shall we?

Image: Anchor.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

A woman, a journal, and the span of her entire odd life, her odd sister, the pain of grief, and the inheritance of isolation. This book took me five years to finish. It became my constant white whale, and I kept putting it down for the same reasons I kept picking it back up, both with equal weight. It’s a hefty and cumbersome book, dense with purple prose and short on story. The simplicity of the plot lends itself nicely to the “digging in” of Atwood’s amazing sentence-by-sentence genius, and the levels upon levels upon levels in this book can be as beautiful as they are hard to swallow.

The story takes better shape midway through, and I became more invested, but the characters remain cold throughout, which can be a lot to handle for a 544-page book. The dissection of Canada and women’s roles during the world wars, interwar period, and Great Depression, however, is a detailed and enormous slice-of-life that is ultimately worth reading just for the world-building.

In the end, I’m not sure how I really felt about the book; perhaps time will better tell. Some of it was arduous and difficult, and some of it was so enjoyable that I was utterly smitten and lost in it, with Atwood’s insanely gorgeous prose being enough to carry even the most wayward and rambling and uneven book through to the end. Line by line, the work is stunning. As a whole, it’s a bit floundering and hefty, but it comes around in the end. If you feel like tackling the beast, just be ready for it truly to be a beast.

Image: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin

I, of course, approached this one backward, like I do most things. I picked up this collection of short stories that explores place, identity, culture, and self because of all the hullabaloo around A Manual for Cleaning Women, but I have not read Cleaning Women. Based on this collection, I will probably not read Cleaning Women, though I assume it’s better and much more even than is this collection. The moral of the story, of course, is never start your introduction to an author with anything subtitled “More Stories” because it’s essentially like “hey, we found some stuff in a deceased author’s desk; let’s stretch this.”

Evening in Paradise is “leftover” stories published posthumously, and that’s pretty much what it feels like. Very uneven. Pretty repetitious. I got halfway through and felt that almost every story was just some kind of iteration of one that came before it and that I didn’t really need to continue; I definitely got the gist after the first handful. While the prose and detail is pretty solid, the stories are “non-stories,” just slice-of-life anecdotes with zero tension and dud endings where I constantly asked: “What did the characters learn?” “What was the arc?” “What was the point?” “What meaning am I supposed to take away from this?” “How did anyone change?”

The detail and interesting cultural perspectives were not enough to make up for the flat line that ran through these “stories,” and I could never shake that. I didn’t have feelings for the characters. I didn’t have feelings for the environments. I was just left without a lot of thought or feeling at all, from any of these stories; I couldn’t get past this niggle that there was something incomplete about them, the idea of unpolished “leftovers” that the author never got time to edit or reconsider.

But if you like the ultra-autobiographical, often open-ended, rather sad, stories about addiction, motherhood, family, location, and isolation, then you might like this one, and you might have more patience with it than I had.

Image: Penguin Press.

The Invisible Emperor: Napoleon on Elba from Exile to Escape by Mark Braude

The subtitle lays it all out for you. We start with one disembarking and end with another disembarking, and in between is everything you (n)ever wanted to know about Napoleon on the island of Elba.

An excellent microcosm in the grand history of Napoleon and one of the most famous exiles of all time, this book covers in (excruciating, if you’re not into that stuff) detail the ten months the emperor spent in exile on Elba. I’m into the details of names and dates and firsthand accounts, so I found this fascinating, and it shed some light on a part of Napoleon’s life that is often skipped over quickly. Highly recommended for the history nerds who wonder what happened between “then there was the disastrous Russia campaign, then he was exiled, then he came back for the Hundred Days.”

LEAH ANGSTMAN serves as editor-in-chief for Alternating Current Press and The Coil magazine, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, and a copyeditor for Pacific Standard. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Electric Literature, Slice Magazine, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. Find her at her website.

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