Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Talk about post-apocalyptic. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and deserves to be highlighted in this blogspace. Apocalyptic and terrifying. Like Rachel Cusk, Bolaño, and the very worst visions of Philip K. Dick thrown together into one nighmarish blender.

I love the oral history format of this book – it’s such a haunting, affecting style. The book is basically a collection of monologues, spoken by people connected to the Chernobyl disasters. The monologues were collected and arranged by the author, who is a Belorussian journalist. I did find myself wondering if the monologues had been transcribed verbatim, or if they’d been rearranged/reinterpreted by the reporter. The speakers of the monologues include children, wives, firefighters, members of the clean-up team. The anecdotes involving abandoned pets were particularly upsetting.

The deaths of loved ones are described in gruesome detail: tumors growing all over the body, eyes pointing in different directions, noses engorged. Resettled children from Chernobyl are teased by others, said to “glow” and nicknamed “shiny”; instead of playing School or Store they play Hospital. Entire villages are buried underground, smashed down by cranes; radioactive earth is buried in earth. Looted houses, abandoned villages, herds of cats and dogs and boars. As the radioactive cloud rises, people stand in the streets in skirts and sandals, selling pies and ice creams and pastries, unaware of what’s happening. People choose to stay, refuse to leave, buy expensive salami, hoping that it would be made of good meat; “then we found out that it was the expensive salami that they mixed contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.” (182) “The frightening things in life happen quietly and naturally,” one voice observes, and that theme is what I found most affecting in this book.

A must-read for the 21st-century. I underlined SO MUCH of this; far too many quotes to choose from to include here. So instead I’ll include a link to an excerpt.

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Sci-Fi Escapism

It’s so humid here in England (i.e. barely humid at all in comparison to the East Coast of the U.S. or Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but after such long bleak winters anything over 20-degrees C is open-toed shoes weather). Perfect for sci-fi escapism!

Eye in the Sky (Philip K. Dick)

Think the multi-leveled world of Inception mixed with the demented bodily fluids of Rick and Morty. I.e., totally whack. Any summary of this book is a bit of a spoiler, but so it goes. Basically, a group of people (a young boy, his conservative mother, an even more conservative old man-military type, a schoolmarm type lady, the African American tour guide, our hero Jack Hamilton, and his potentially undercover Communist wife) are caught in a lab accident. At first, it appears that they’ve been transported to a seemingly parallel universe, one controlled by an Old Testament-like God (who prefers to be referred to by the term (Tetragrammaton) – yes, the parentheses are intentional), complete with biblical plagues, punishment, prophets based in Cayenne, Wyoming, and a very straightforward reward-by-prayer system. However, it turns out the reality of their situation (believe it or not) is a lot more strange. A LOT.

The first-place most insane scene in this book involves this sentence: “The house-creature was getting ready to feed.” The second-place most insane scene involves characters disintegrating into conscious, bloated, wiggling blobs as essential chemicals (certain metallic salts, specific nitrates, iodine and so forth) are eliminated from the world, in the most crazy game ever of who-can-outdo-who, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. It’s hard to explain, but take me at my word: you won’t forget it.

Nobody does it like Dick does, especially in terms of writing about illusions vs. reality. Absolutely mental. What will I do once I’ve read all his books? Kill myself in despair?!

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)

I loved this! Definitely up there with one of my favorite reads of 2017. I couldn’t put it down! It’s a great book to read on a plane (I read it almost in one sitting). Apparently Faber wrote this when his wife was dying of cancer, and has said he will never write another novel again. Very sad.

Overall, this combines quite a few of my interests: aliens, apocalyptic collapse, cats, religion… I thought it was very interesting how thoroughly the book inhabits Peter’s “missionary” perspective. I can’t think of many other books that seem genuinely interested in exploring a religious mentality, as opposed to just criticizing it. The way the novel brings in Peter’s past is also very well done and subtle; what an effective way at conveying backstory without bogging us done in a bunch of flashback scenes. I loved all the scenes with the aliens, and found Peter’s final interaction with them very moving, especially in terms of the aliens-vs-humans theme (the ability to heal, have scars, move forward) . And I loved the letters exchanged between him and his wife, which really were the heart of the book for me.

I found what this book says about love very powerful – how do you stay close while going through very different experiences together, while very far away (in the book’s case, light years)? How do you keep going forward when the world goes to shit? Will future generations even care if they don’t know what things were like before?

A strongly recommended, entertaining read.

The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)

I love me a good book about the end of the world! Apparently this is going to be made into a film by Benedict Cumberbatch – I sure hope they don’t dumb it down. For example, a dumb way of pitching this would be The Road with a pregnant woman. Ugh, pitches, so gross. But I enjoyed this (again, read it in one sitting): it’s well written, short, and easy to read. I definitely kept turning the pages. And there’s a nice checklist of appropriately apocalyptic moments (tin food, radio fragments, flooding, etc). It’s written in a very anecdotal, fragmentary style – vaguely Coetzee-esque – very appropriate for short attention span of the Internet age. And what’s also interesting about this book is the theme of return and rebirth – it’s not “just” about this terrible even that causes everything to disintegrate and fall apart; it’s more looking-forward than that, which is pretty unique.

When I first read this, I wanted to know more about the husband and what he went through, but now that some time has passed I think I’m okay with not knowing. It feels more realistic in regards to relationships – you don’t always know what a persona has gone through, does anybody ever really “know” anybody, etc. Ultimately I like books that don’t describe or explain everything, and despite my occasional craving as a reader to have more narrative satisfaction, despite my initial reaction I now think it’s smarter of the author to deny us that. Kudos to the editors too for not shoe-horning in a boring explanation.

The Hot Zone: the Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Richard Preston)

Not a sci-fi story but shit, it might as well be! Apparently this book was the “inspiration” (in the vaguest possible sense of the term) for that 90’s classic virus film Outbreak. And apparently Stephen King called the opening chapter of this book one of the scariest horror openings he’d ever read. I’d agree with him on that, especially about that scene in the place where the guy starts bleeding… :/ Dark and gripping. As my sister said, I wish there were more books and movies about virus outbreaks… it’s like this weird cathartic need…

The Transmigration of Bodies (Yuri Herrera)

In regards to killer viruses, another book worth quickly commenting on (again, not specifically sci-fi) is The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera. This book combines the majority of my obsessions: apocalyptic plagues, crime fiction, the Mexican border, violence, Latin America, simple dirty prose…. it definitely gets a gold star. I especially loved how an apocalyptic plague is used as a metaphorical stand-in for the violence in Mexico. So brilliant! I find this way of writing about Latin America SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than, like, straightforward storytelling (wow, I love how articulate I’m being right now, but whatever, it’s hot and my brain is mush). I loved the dirty grimey Raymond Chandler-meets-Mad Max crime vibe, particularly in the prose style (what a translation!). I liked the strong women characters, like the nurse Vicky. I loved everyone’s nicknames (the Neanderthal, the Dolphin, the Mennonite – so badass!). I was a bit alarmed by the very graphic sex scene at the beginning, and I’m sure some with weaker constitutions than me could potentially be like “eeeeew exploitative,” but I DUG IT. Like the final story of Álvaro Uribe’s Hypothermia, the sex here is presented as this liberating, powerful antidote to a society that is otherwise falling apart. Bring on the pervey women and men, I say!

A good read, specifically for those who are interested in border/Latin American literature. Short, strange, and beautifully translated.

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Two writing updates

  1. I have a new short story that aired on BBC Radio 4 – you can give it a listen here.
  2. I wrote a personal essay about exotic animal pets in Colombia that aired on BBC World Service’s Cultural Frontline program – you can listen to it here.

    (I REALLY WISH they would correct the spelling of “Columbian,” but what can ya do. My sister says she finds typos in the NYTimes all the time.)

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The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn

Boy oh boy, how could I have not read these books before? I mean, as a kid I read the adapted-for-youngsters versions, one with simplified language and with pictures – thank God for that particular series of kiddie books! Otherwise, I could not claim to know the plot of David Copperfield, Little Women, etc., etc. If I have kids (and if print books are still, like, a thing – and assuming our robot overlords will still permit us reading time), I sure do want my spawn to have copies of that specific kiddie series.

think I’ve read Huck Finn before, for a 2006 class on Literature of the American South. Too bad I retain nothing of what was surely an interesting class discussion :/

I loved these books (am still reading Huck Finn and savoring it). Isn’t it amazing that books written so long ago are still so readable, funny, and enjoyable? Emphasis on FUNNY. I’d forgotten the sharp Orwellian directness of Mark Twain’s prose. Man, no wonder so many kids in middle school are taught Twain; too bad they’re unappreciative! (Or at least I was.)

I wonder if it does take age to appreciate these books. This time around, I was particularly taken with the Peter Pan, Don Quixote-esque nature of Tom and his friends, particularly their obsession with pretending to be pirates. I LOVE characters who are obsessed with reading, and with playing make-believe, and with pretending to be something that they’re not. Don Quixote is even mentioned early on in Huck Finn, during the scene where Tom claims books are important teachers for life: “Don’t I tell you it’s in the books? Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up? … Don’t you reckon that the people that made the books knows what the correct thing to do? Do you reckon YOU can learn ’em anything?” (HF) I LOVE the replacement of ‘teach’ with ‘learn’ in the final sentence, implying that they’re the same thing (I always though so!). And I’m so interested in the book’s obsession with “what the correct thing to do” is … particularly since the main narrative thread of Huck Finn is, obviously, Huck’s changing feelings about Jim.

And major respect to Huck for his fierce loyalty to Tom, claiming that he’d even follow Tom into hell. No wonder Bolaño often cited these two books when discussing The Savage Detectives. It’s fascinating to me that both books deal with the characters “dying” and then being reborn, so to speak. Huck in particular is constantly giving himself new names, new identities, even a new gender (I can smell a thousand dissertations lurking beneath these words…).

Huck is an intriguing character for the ages: a child-man in “the cast off clothes of full-grown men”, neither child nor adult, defined by his freedom and ability to do what he likes:

Huckelberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clohtes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. (38, TS)

Honestly, Huck’s definition of freedom and pleasure is still superbly suitable even for today’s office drone culture: the ability to go where one likes, curse, smoke, own nothing, want nothing. “Tom’s heart ached to be free, or else to have something of interest to do to pass the dreary time.” (44) Sigh. And then there’s Huck’s relationship with Jim, and the way Jim is fascinated with superstitions, signs, and symbols: he is famous for his ability to “interpret,” nothing is ever what it seems on the surface; something always represents something else. SO INTERESTING.

The last thing I want to say is that I had no freaking idea how terrifying the cave scene in Tom Sawyer is- Tom reminded me of a Bolaño character in this section, unafraid to face down the darkness and abyss, to stare death in the face and not quit fighting till the end, and even (this was the clincher for me) RETURN to the cave and RE-DESCEND into its darkness. WHOA. I was awed in general by how Tom Sawyer is consistently defined by his courage, and Huck for being a trickster, a storyteller, a liar. Huck should basically be in an MA creative writing program, you know? I would pay so much money to read an Ali Smith essay written about these two.

And that final passage about the drop of water dripping down in the cave is so beautiful:

That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was “news.” It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history, and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need? and has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come?

It’s like damn, Mark Twain!! DAMN.

The racism in both books hasn’t aged well, obvs – we’ll leave it at that.

It seemed to him that life was but a trouble, at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released; it must be very peaceful, he thought, to lie and slumber and dream forever and ever, with the wind whispering through the trees and caressing the grass and the flowers over the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more. If he only had a clean Sunday-school record he could be willing to go, and be done with it all. (49, TS)

They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever. (52, TS) [Talk about a 2017 call to arms!]

There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. (116, TS)

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Goodbye May

Personalia (Mary Ruefle)

When I was young, a fortune-teller told me that an old
woman who wanted to die had accidentally become
lodged in my body. Slowly, over time, and taking great
care in following esoteric instructions, including laven-
der baths and the ritual burial of keys in the backyard, I
rid myself of her presence. Now I am an old woman who
wants to die and lodged inside me is a young woman dy-
ing to live. I work on her.

The Kookaburras (Mary Oliver)

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage,
asked me to open the door.
Years later I remember how I didn’t do it,
how instead I walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

Poem for Right Now (Catherine Pierce)

In protest I say the word iridescent.
In protest I say the word vesper.
In protest I say that I am in love
with this day, this exact day, this rain
on the thousands of dead leaves
in my backyard and the mourning dove
and the faint growl of the garbage truck
a few blocks over. I am in love with it.
In fucking love. It’s true that now
a mushroom cloud billows behind my eyes
all day. It’s true I fall asleep drafting letters
in my new language of pitchforks.
I know the chopping block is vast. I know
it has room and stomach for everything.
But my tongue and my head are mine.
So in protest I say the word liquefy.
In protest I say the word gloaming.
In protest I will remember how once
my friend and I walked through an alley
in a strange city, and my friend wore
a paper dragon in her hair, and the city
was five o’clock gold all around us.
In protest I say the word dragon.
There are days I’ve carried like candles
to light the rest of my life, and I will not
let the new days snuff them out, though
the new days are trying. Watch me hold
a decade-ago snow night, moon-bright
and silent, right next to my hammering rage.
Watch me house halcyon next to protocol,
lagoon next to constituent. I am trying
to become a contradiction machine.
I am poorly oiled, but every day I creak
awake again. The rain is heavy now
against my screened-in porch,
and the gutter that years ago my husband
patched with duct tape is still holding.
At this point, repaired is more accurate
than patched. It’s still holding, and in protest
I marvel over that. In protest I marvel.
In protest I say incandescent, liminal, charcuterie,
embrace. I think acquiescence is a beautiful word,
too, but in protest I put it away. There are
other beautiful words. Like lunar. Like
resistance. Like love, like fucking love.

“You’re just looking for a way not to be alone,” I told him. But Saul said, “There is no way not to be alone.”

Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions

“People without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.”

Flannery O’Connor, in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (FSG, 1969)

“Reconnecting to art and to writing helps me believe in the goodness of other people. When I prove to myself that I can be empathetic and interested, I become less isolated in the present and far less afraid of the future.”

Stephanie Powell Watts in this week’s Writers Recommend (Poets & Writers, 2017)

“Working hard and faithfully on what you love will pay off and bring quality to your life. Sitting and writing, even on the awful days, is just a glorious thing to be able to do.”

Ralph E. Rodriguez, in Laura Maylene Walter’s “Tell Me I’m Good: The Writer’s Quest for Reassurance” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2017)

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Homo Deus

Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)

Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose… A life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions. (421-422)

Wow, another cheery apocalyptic read! I love it. What else could one ask for these days?

I think I enjoyed Homo Sapiens more, mostly because I found the chapters about the Cognitive Revolution and earliest days of homo sapiens so fascinating. But Homo Deus is still very much a worthwhile read, mainly for the way it looks towards the future. I’ve tended to avoid books like The Shallows because (to put it bluntly) I tend to avoid books that would potentially make me feel depressed about the current state of humanity. BUT what’s commendable about Homo Deus is how he narrates everything in a very calm, detached, observant, and often VERY humorous style. I guess that’s what a regular practice of vipasssana meditation will do for ya!! (Vipassana founder Mr. S.N. Goenka is thanked in the acknowledgements.)

The book has several main theses. One is that the central project of the future of humanity is to “protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.” (23) What dangers does he think are forthcoming? WELL, let me tell you:

  • An obsession with attaining eternal life.
  • The rise of Dataism (a form of data-worship that borders on being a religion, and which he sees as eventually making Homo sapiens irrelevant)
  • The rise of a new super-elite biologically engineered race of humans, mainly consisting of rich people who can afford to pay for genetic manipulation.
  • A class of “useless” people as more and more robots replace jobs.
  • The replacement of consciousness with intelligence.
  • AND SO MUCH MORE

This last one was is in particular, about consciousness vs. intelligence, was very interesting to me. Hell, this whole book was interesting!! But this last point in particular. He talks about how apparently we understand VERY little of how consciousness actually works, in terms of our abilities to make memories and dreams and desires in the brain. And how so far we have been good at building robots who are intelligent, but not conscious. So ultimately, we are gonna have to make a choice – is intelligence more important to us as a society, or consciousness? “It is sobering to realize,” he writes, “that at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.” (362)

ANOTHER BIG FEAR he states about the future (or not fear, but POTENTIAL OUTCOME) is “what will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can almost do everything better?” (370) I.E. BEING OVERTHROWN BY A.I. OVERLORDS. I wondered during this section if he was, like, giving Google and self-driving cars too much credit? Aren’t self-driving cars a bit rubbish? (At least at this point…) But then I think of all those articles you see floating around online making fun of shitty poetry and recipes written by robots. It’s like… it might be bad now… but what about twenty years? Twenty years ago, I NEVER used the Internet, and now I use it EVERY DAY – no joke – like everyone else I know.

He also has a lot to say humanity’s obsession with growth – mainly, is growth always good? He is no critic of capitalism, in fact, he writes “criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. So far it’s been an amazing success – at least if you ignore the potential for ecological meltdown, and if you measure success by the yardstick of production and growth.”  (256) So if it comes down to economic growth vs. ecological stability, what will happen when growth is no longer possible?

My favorite thing about this book was how he linked Very Big Questions About the World with the nuances of the everyday human mind. For example, in terms of growth, he comments that, “Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger tastier.” (23) Such truth.

What else does he forecast about the future? He’s definitely super into the idea of non-organic artificial intelligence, though he calls it less of a prophecy or prediction, and more of a way of discussing our present choices. “You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.” (76) A strong argument for Team Vegan, for sure.

Apart from talking about the future, he also talks about the past – I found his discussion of the rise of modernity and the definition and formation of liberalism and humanism SO INTERESTING, especially since I never took political science or anthropology classes in college that talked about this kind of stuff. Who would have thought liberalism was so closely linked to romanticism, to the idea of an authentic, valuable, unique self dwelling within you? What is Google and Facebook going to do to this notion of the self, if they can predict what you want and who you are better than you can?

Oh, some of his sentences in this book just slay me! Here are a few of the more shining examples:

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing bears are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and aging Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. (33)

It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? (39)

If a crusader Knight had actually been able to sit down to watch Survivor, he would probably have grabbed his battleaxe and smashed the TV out of boredom and frustration. (282)

The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. (320)

Can any human fathom these musical experiences and tell the difference between a whale Beethoven and a whale Justin Bieber? (417)

The wildest dreams of Kim Jon-ug and Ali Khamenei don’t extend much beyond atom bombs and ballistic missiles: that is so 1945. (438) This REALLY made me laugh… darkly…

For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants. (423)

In the twenty-first century out personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. (397)

Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. (401)

A highly recommended read.

 

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Homo sapiens in Northumberland

I spent the bank holiday weekend in Northumberland visiting the coast–very Game of Thrones scenery. Please enjoy the photographs below. 

I still haven’t finished Sapiens but have highlighted copious notes, especially in the first section (“The Cognitive Revolution”), which I have also provided below.

It’s definitely the kind of book that’s both interesting and depressing. Interesting in the sense that it really helps to open the mind up and see the BIG picture of things, like the feeling you get while camping and looking up at the stars late at night. And depressing in the sense that it occasionally sounds like passages that would be spoken vehemently and written into manifestos by the apocalypse-obsessed main character of “S-Town” (a truly excellent podcast; I have one episode left and don’t want end it to end). God.

I guess I had a similar emotional reaction watching the film Homo Sapiens (what similar sounding titles – I even saw a man holding the book Sapiens in the theatre. He kept muttering angrily throughout – did he think the film was based on the book? How disappointed he must have been!).

Sapiens quotes – Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

Chapter 1

The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish. (so “Ishmael“!) 

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. 

Chapter 2

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language… But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting… But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.

Ever since to Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. 

Chapter 3

Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.

Chapter 4

The ecological record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

Chapter 5

[Wheat, rice, and potatoes] domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. (Very Michael Pollan-esque here)

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: to keep more people alive under worse conditions. (Yeah, he gets pretty doom and gloomy at times!!)

Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email… Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

Chapter 6

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.

People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life.’ Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible… Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism (very “The Beach” here, as in the Alex Garland novel… I still like to travel though lol!)

I’ll share more later, maybe…

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Affections

Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún)

This week I started reading the deliciously post-apocalyptic yet super Guns Germs & Steel-like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindwhich I hope to finish soon. I finished Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún last week, but the more I think about it, the more I admire it. It strikes me as a book that must have been very difficult to both conceive of and write–I wonder if that was the case. It was translated by Sophie Hughes, who also translated The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horseanother short, deeply strange and wonderful novella, which would make for powerful re-reading during these troubled times.

Even though Affections bluntly advises us that it “is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Erlt family,” I highly recommend that people still look them up on wikipedia. Even though certain stories that are vaguely connected to the family don’t appear in this book – specifically Nazis helping the CIA hunt down Che Guevara (!?) – still, they are worth knowing. I mean, seriously!! Even Bolaño couldn’t make this shit up.

The story that DOES appear in this book took a while for me to get into – I started the book and put it down at least two times. But once I knew the historical background, that helped a lot. I read somewhere (who knows where, somewhere in the depths of the Internet) that the book was initially a lot longer, but the author cut it down to its bare bones. If this is true, then man, what a brave, badass choice.

Poetic, fragmentary, vignette-like: these are all good terms that could describe the book. Notes I wrote in the margins include: Werner Herzog meets The Mosquito Coast, Aguirre Wrath of God, Death in the Andes.

There’s a rotating cast of narrators: Heidi, the middle daughter; Trixi, the youngest; Monika, the oldest daughter and arguably the main character; and Reinhard, the brother-in-law (you might notice that Hans, the father and the family’s main claim to fame, is absent from that list–an interesting and inevitably significant choice). Monika’s chapters are narrated in “you” style, while Reinhard’s are narrated as though he’s responding to interview questions. We begin with the father’s expedition into the Bolivian jungle in search of a legendary lost city. We end with workers on an isolated and rural hacienda, digging what is mostly likely a grave–for who, we never know for sure (though we certainly have some guesses).

The story in here could have easily been fattened up to 300 pages, but as is, it works as a strange kind of poetry in its thinness. I underlined so many sentences in this book:

It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most. (135)

Maybe to become an adult is precisely this: to be ashamed of your body and its revolts and emergencies… to always fear the worst. (130)

I found nostalgia served a purpose. To feel that life had been worth it and to make the present fuller somehow. (126)

The writing is simple and straightforward, yet haunting. The grave-digging in the final chapter is, in particular, an image that will stay with me for a while.

I loved the theme of feeling out of place in this book, of not quite fitting in. The family eats sauerkraut with their tortillas, yet “on the rare occasions we were obliged to speak Spanish it felt fake.” (16) The maid is taught German recipes because no one really cares for Bolivian food. The sense of place is also well done, particularly with the descriptions of La Paz in the beginning.

There’s a big theme in the book of how to grow into your own person – how to become the kind of person you want to be. The author touches upon this idea in this interview, commenting that “in AFFECTIONS there are characters trying on different masks and disguises throughout the novel. They’re searching for themselves the whole time, and the changes they go through are quite drastic. I suppose the same thing can be said of all of us. We take a while to become ourselves, to accept who we are or can be.”

Monika’s sections especially deal with this theme:

Was this what becoming an adult was? Taking decisions and responsibility for the things you do or stop doing? … At twenty-one, can you call yourself an adult? At twenty-one, can you feel that living, when all’s said and done, means belonging to yourself, and that everything that came before was a kind of dream? Why try to forget it if it was a reasonably happy dream? … Increasingly, you feel that your life can fit into a single sentence, or at least a few. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it. (62-64)

Alongside this narrative thread concerning personal growth and development, there’s also the concurrent theme of BIG (macro?) history, which Heidi reflects on during the jungle expedition in the opening chapter:

Part of the route had been cleared centuries ago by the Incas. It was terrifying to think of it, it was fascinating and sad. It was all of these things, too, to realize that we were lost in the heart of a foreign country, so far from home. The expedition had only just begun and it was easy to lose perspective, to forget that what we were doing day in and day out was all part of a bigger plan. (23)

Indeed, how do you maintain perspective when you tell a historical story? What details do you focus on? Is the “bigger plan” what matters? The book focuses more on the development of Trixi’s smoking habit than it does on Monika’s development into a revolutionary guerrilla. The nationalist revolution, in which Indians gain the right to vote, and armed conflicts in the mines are referred to only passingly. Who’s to say what are the things that make up a life? Who gets to tell history, and what experiences do you focus on when you’re narrating it?

I think most people might find this book challenging if they know little about Latin American history. But if you’re interested in guerrilla stories, or Latin America of the 60s, this is a highly recommended read. To me, it worked as a fascinating example of a different way to narrate historical fiction: in a highly sparse, fragmentary style, rather than detailed and sweeping.

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Some contemporary Latin American fiction

Fever Dream (Samantha Schweblin)

I’ve been dying to read this book for ages (I’ve loved her short stories for years). Hence, it’s become yet another book purchased in my never-ending, uncontrollable kindle-addiction.

This novel has been highly acclaimed, deservedly so, and I eagerly await to see if it ends up on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The plot is difficult to describe. It appears to be a (psychic? imagined?) conversation taking place between a hospitalized woman in a coma and a young boy sitting on the edge of her bed. The question of how she ended up there, and what her connection is with the boy, is what propels the narrative forward. Here’s the opening:

They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
Earthworms?
No, another kind of worms.
It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.
It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
Why?
Because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.

As you may have guessed, the novel is deeply strange and hallucinatory. Almost a horror story. You definitely read it more for the mood and the suspense, than for specific answers. If you like books where everything is explained at the end, then this is not for you. The prose felt very cinematic to me, which makes sense, given the author’s background in screenwriting. As a reader, you are keep turning the pages due to the most base of desires: you want to find out what happens next. But be forewarned: the answers will not be specific. I’ve become less patient than I used to be with novels that withhold information and don’t explain everything, but I feel like the answers for this one are there, if you’re willing to stop and think.

The other hook in this book is the hypnotic repetition of certain phrases. Like “the worms” in the opening passage. Another is the search for “the important thing.” An obsession of a rope or “rescue distance” between a mother and daughter is another–or the time it would take the mother to rescue the daughter from danger:

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.

“The worms” — what is up with that? Aliens? An ecological disaster? They seem to be connected with creepy white spots and flakey pink skin. And crippled distorted children. An “Invasions of the Body Snatchers” motif. That one scene with the can of peas, a brand the mother would never buy, is SO freaking disturbing. Who would have thought?

I want to read this again.

Multiple Choice (Alejandro Zambra)

What a great book! So sad, so funny. It almost read like a book of poetry at times. I liked the Reading Comprehension questions the best, maybe because they were a bit longer, so there was more to unpack. But yeah, you can definitely pick out some themes from this: death, getting old, cancer, children, angry children, angry parents, bad fathers, bad marriages, divorce (I had no idea it was illegal to get a divorce in Chile until 2004–2004!!!!)… Good stuff. Highly recommended. Definitely a great example of a book that’s “pushing the form,” “exploring the potential of writing,” etc.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (Horacio Castellanos Moya)

What an angry, bitter book. I LOVED IT. I want to get coffee with the narrator. What does that say about me?

This book was famously written in the 90’s by Moya, in an attempt to imitate the style of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (who I’m not familiar with). The narrator of the book is Edgardo Vega, who addresses Moya directly throughout the narrative in an angry rant. Nothing escapes his withering gaze: car thieves, plane rides, men wearing sombreros picking their noses, chubby women wiping sweat off their necks with towels that they then squeeze out, mosquitos, “sluggish servants,” writing culture, master degrees in business, “diarrhea-inducing beer,” a touristy seaport, pupusas, newspapers, the lack of arts and culture (his description of this really made me laugh).

Some of his most scathing moments are in reference to:

  • the city of San Salvador (“one of the filthiest and most hostile cities, a city designed for animals, not human beings, a city that converted its historical center into a garbage dump“)
  • bus drivers (“It’s incredible, Moya, the bus drivers have been pathological criminals since birth, criminals converted into salaried bus drivers, said Vega, they’re guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war and now they’re recycled as bus drivers… It’s terrifying, Moya, an experience that’s not recommended for cardiac patients; no one in their right mind could travel every day on a bus in this city, one would have to be permanently and sadistically degraded in spirit to travel every day with these recycled criminals who drive the buses”)
  • the university campus (“I couldn’t imagine anything so disgraceful, it seemed like a refugee camp in Africa: crumbling buildings, a ton of overcrowded, infested wooden constructions, and defecation in the hallways of buildings that were still standing, human defecation in the University of El Salvador’s hallways”),
  • and the country itself (“I’m completely sure that this country is out of sync with time and the world, it only existed when it was a bloodbath, it only existed thanks to the thousands who were assassinated, thanks to the criminal capacity, the people of this country have no possibility of demonstrating their existence in the world.”)

As Moya writers in the afterword, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I had fun writing this novel, in which I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador… with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.” (86) The public reaction was intense–a friend’s wife threw the book out of the window in rage against the book’s rant against pupusas. And more seriously, while working as a journalist in Guatemala, Moya’s mother received threatening phone calls, which prevented Moya’s return to El Salvador country for years.

There are so many passages I could choose as gems from this book. Though some people might not see the point of this book (it’s basically an angry, bitter rant), I find a lot of value in it due to its ANGER. And the prose is mesmerizing and FUNNY: long sentences that build and build and build. Moya NEEDED to write this, and in turn, it needed to be read.

What taste the people of this country have for living in fear, Moya, such a morbid taste for living terrorized lives, what a perverted taste for the terror of the war turned into the terror of delinquency these people have, a pathological, morbid vice to make terror their permanent way of life. (75)

Ways to Disappear (Idra Novey)

I loved this book!

Beatriz, a famous Brazilian author, climbs a tree with her suitcase while smoking a cigar, thus disappearing from the lives of her family and the Brazilian literary scene. Her Pittsburg-based translator journeys to Brazil in order to track her down and meets with a man with a trash can tattooed on his neck, who claims that Beatriz owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars, money she borrowed to fuel an online poker addiction. And that’s just in the first eleven pages!

This book moves quickly, with the momentum of a bullet. I loved the news stories and dictionary entries it provided, and the descriptions of Beatriz’s books (I always love plot summaries of books that don’t actually exist).

I loved the descriptions of Brazil: “When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeao International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in. Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the stick sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.” (10)

I loved the interactions between Emma and Beatriz’s children, and how during Emma’s visit, “the living room would begin to reek of those American sunscreen lotions with an excess of zinc.” (14)

I loved the themes of translation, creativity, and foreigness:

“At first, all she could do was stare at the wall and feel futile, but that was something. Wasn’t the despair of feeling useless central to the modern human condition? Wasn’t that what Don Quijote was all about?” (82)

Obrigada. Emma thanked him, hearing the Yankee clang of her accent in a way she hadn’t heard in years. She’d learned the language too late to ever get the r’s right. Every time she spoke it was unavoidable: she released a fleet of mistakes.” (131)

“For so long, she’d willfully sought the in-between. She’d thought of herself as fated to live suspended, floating between two countries, in the vapor between languages. But too much vaporous freedom brought its own constraints. She now felt as confined by her floating state as other, more wholesome people were to the towns where they were born.” (164)

The ending was a bit sad, but I suppose I don’t know how else the novel could have ended. Overall, this reminded me of Ali Smith, in terms of its joyous celebration and attention to language. I’m definitely very much inspired by the quick way it kept the plot moving forward, and its short chapters. One of my favorite reads of the year so far.

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Our Friends From Frolix 8

Ours Friends From Frolix 8 (Philip K. Dick)

‘God is dead,’ Nick said. ‘They found his carcass in 2019. Floating out in space near Alpha.’

‘They found the remains of an organism advanced several thousand times over what we are,’ Charley said. ‘And it evidently could create habitable worlds and populate them with living organisms, derived from itself. But that doesn’t prove it was God.’

‘I think it was God.’ (45)

My dear friend Philip K. Dick. He never lets me down. I’ve had an exhausting few weeks of travel and work, and while things are a little calmer now, it’s still not completely over. But that’s okay. We can deal. Especially with help from good old Philip.

Our Friends From Frolix 8 is definitely one of the finer Philip K. Dick books I’ve read (and only $5.95 when purchased at the Strand in New York, bonus). You have a futuristic society organized by men’s abilities–Old Men, trapped in dead-end, deadbeat jobs, the super intelligent New Men, who rule over society in a hierarchical, inaccessible order, and the Unusuals, who have psionic and telekinetic abilities and exist alongside the New Men in an an uneasy compromise. You have a Christlike leader of a revolution, Thors Provoni, returning to Planet Earth after years spent exploring the outer galaxies on his ship The Grey Dinosaur. And best of all, you have Morgo, the ninety-ton Godlike protoplasmic slime from the titular planet Frolix 8, who’s accompanying Thors on his mission to create a new world order. What is it with Dick’s obsession with sentient slime-molds? I LOVE IT.

‘Let me tell you a legend about God,’ Morgo said. ‘In the beginning he created an egg, a huge egg, with a creature inside it. God tried to break the eggshell open to let the creature–the original living creature–out. He couldn’t. But the creature which He had made had a sharp beak, constructed for just such a task, and it chipped its way out of the egg. And hence – all living creatures have free will, now.’

‘Why?’

‘Because we broke the egg, not He.’

‘Why does that give us free will?’

‘Because, dammit, we can do what He can’t.’ (78)

There are so oh so relevant modern themes in this novel, from surveillance, to what the world would be like if ruled by a paranoid, arrogant, verging on insane individual, to the role of God and religion. I love Dick’s depiction of the bohemian revolutionary underclass; he is so good at evoking that deadbeat Berkeley culture of pillheads. He hasn’t been that successful at writing interesting female characters in the past, but the sixteen-year-old Charley manages to be both complex and feisty in a non-annoying way. And I found myself genuinely moved by this moment near the end:

‘To a better planet,’ Gram said, and drank the cupful down. ‘To a planet where we won’t need our friends from Frolix 8.’ (190)

Thank you, Philip K. Dick, for existing.

In terms of travel + readings, here are some photos! They are out of order, but I’m too tired to try to figure out how to fix it. So here we go :D

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