New Books Report: S. Yizhar, Min Jin Lee, Jean Thompson, Eliot Katz

Preliminaries and Midnight Convoy and Other Stories by S. Yizhar

Until a package from Toby Press showed up in my mail, I didn’t even know there was a legendary Hebrew language experimental novelist named S. Yizhar who once wrote “the longest work written in stream of consciousness modality in any language”. I’m sure I read the news item when the nearly nonagenarian author died last year, but it wasn’t until I looked at these new volumes that I felt a sense of this writer’s presence.

Both Preliminaries and Midnight Convoy represent this author’s lesser known work. Preliminaries is a late career novel and Midnight Convoy collects his short pieces. I understand from Dan Miron’s introduction that a 1958 tome called Days of Ziklag (the stream of consciousness novel) is one of Yizhar’s signature works, and that many younger Israeli writers have called the novelist a key influence. He seems to have played a similar role in the creation of Israel’s literary consciousness that Palestinian novelist Elias Khoury is attempting to play now with books like Gate of the Sun. He was active in left-wing Israeli politics and served in the Knesset for several terms.

Preliminaries is an impressionistic narrative wash that moves at a stately pace. Early on, an uncomprehending child is stung by a wasp. There are passages like this:

Lines? Colours rather. And the onward movement. All the time. Unfed except by nothingness and the movement of light on a leaf. And so terribly curious was everything around without cease. People less so. And Daddy. Mummy too? Or those curves there and the continuity continuing immeasurably great. And all the time discovering all the time more. And pain. Yes. Because. And lots and lots of don’t want to. And suddenly.

Continue or not? I feel a strange dilemma here. I am intrigued to learn of this writer, but the introductions do such a good job of talking up his signature book Days of Ziklag that I’d prefer to read that one instead of these. I hate backing into any author’s work! But Days of Ziklag does not appear to be currently in print in English. I hope Toby Press will be continuing this series.

Free Food For Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

Min JIn Lee is a young Korean writer from Queens, New York with a charming but bitter realistic voice. Free Food For Millionaires appears to be a Thackeray-esque tale of a vulnerable young woman succeeding in a mean world. In the first scenes, the heroine leaves home after being struck by her father and is betrayed by her boyfriend. Then she maxes out her credit card and the adventures begin.

Continue or Not? I like this author, and I love the book’s street-smart Queensboro flavor. I will be eagerly checking out Lee’s future work, but I did falter over the length of this novel. 576 pages for a debut coming-of-age novel? Thackeray is dead, and readers have day jobs to get back to. I know I would enjoy this book if I persevered, but I ultimately felt it was written for people with more leisure time than I have.

Throw Like A Girl by Jean Thompson

This is a book of short stories that seem to me very much in the classic mold of the modern literary short story. They are sleekly designed, the language is crystalline and the characters waste no time making themselves memorable. If I had any trouble with this collection, it’s just because I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the large amount of short story goodness in the world out there, and unsure how to process it all. Where do I even start?

I’m judging this collection on the basis of two stories. “The Brat” presents a cutely troubled 12 year old girl whose voice strains too hard to be exuberantly youthful. But “Pie of the Month” grabs me with its theme of pastry-toned spirituality and its surprising, almost random (but good) final message. One for two.

Continue or Not? Yeah, I’ll check out at least one more story in this collection. I’m intrigued enough.

When the Skyline Crumbles (sample here) and View from the Big Woods by Eliot Katz

Eliot Katz learned his political and personal activism from his mentor and fellow New Jersey poet Allen Ginsberg, and he still writes angry poems with an unabashedly Ginsberg-esque flow. Eliot is an old friend of LitKicks so rather than “review” his poems I’ll just give you a pleasurable sample:

It is snowing in Athens tonight & Apollo with ice in his beard is having a difficult time singing
About six twin engine miniplanes have crashed coast to coast in empty fields & a Bank of America building
My love, you know that death is both a separation and a permanent glue
You know that I am the son of a patient duct tape expert and the daughter of a wine never allowed to age

One of these books is explicitly political, while the other is set among mountains and trees, catches the flavor of the great American west, but is no less explicitly political for all that, as when he asks the late spirit of Allen Ginsberg, from the top of a gorgeous mountain:

Did you ever think we’d elect a president dumb as GW?

Continue or Not? Hah. I already finished both chapbooks.

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