April Books

The above image basically represents April and the first half of May for me. Oh man, this show is breaking my fucking heart! As my sister said, “I think I need to find a happier hobby/interest at the moment.” Thank God for the books, which I’ve enjoyed rereading very much, but which I will not recap here because what would be the point. As my sister texted, “I keep thinking about how the Harry Potter series literally ends with the words, all was well. God what an optimistic hopeful ending *weeping face*

Apart from hundreds of pages of raping and wenching in George R.R. Martin, I’ve also fortunately managed to read the following:

Motherhood (Sheila Heti)

This is a good book to read as a young woman when you’ve reached that point in your life where you make flippant comments in conversations with friends like “so yeah, if I’m barren, I’m totally, like, just going to adopt four border collies.” I loved how this book’s ultimate message wasn’t to divide mothers and non-mothers, but to bring them together and examine what they had in common. And I thought using the coins as a way to structure and move the narrative along was very innovative and interesting. Apparently the first draft of this was 750,000 words long – damn!!!

The Leopard (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa)

This book is a good one to read on an airplane to Sicily, because the man sitting next to you will immediately start making conversation with you about whether or not you’ve seen the film, it was filmed in the village where his family is from, his aunts and uncles appear in extras in one of the scenes, but he’s not from that village and hasn’t been there in years because he grew up in Libya, his father was a photographer, he was put in a POW camp in Kenya by the British, did you know what the British did to the Kenyans? It was not good! But he was recognized by a British soldier in the camp who saved his life in a scene eerily reminiscent of The Pianist, and then his family was deported from Libya, he hasn’t been back since, he remembers driving around in a truck in the sand dunes with his father and how strange and lovely that was, all that sand reaching out into nothing for miles.

The Shape of the Ruins (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

If I still had the brain power to make thoughtful, analytical, highly literate in-depth posts that focused on one book (as opposed to being a broken empty shell of a human being who can barely string a coherent sentence together) this is definitely the book I would most want to focus on! Man, this book encapsulated the majority of my favourite things: conspiracy theories, Colombian history, autofiction… too bad my kindle version of this crashed and none of my highlighted passages saved. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to read it again!

The Border (Don Winslow)

I loved The Cartel but this was a bit silly. Just too… cutely linked. but I have a lot of respect for Winslow’s passion and anger. This series is basically Insight Crime: THE NOVEL. The Cartel definitely remains the best in the trilogy – I think because it’s the book that focuses the most on the little side stories and supporting characters, the moments that are most unexpected and rewarding.

I also just wanted to say the kindle version of this was SO EXPENSIVE! UGH! But I had NOTHING to read in the airport and was desperate.

The Living (Anjali Joseph)

While I was on my way to the shop I had a smoke. I felt done in, like I’d been crying for days. I thought to myself something I often thought at that time when anything went wrong, whatever it was, and then when it stopped, at least for a bit: Well, that passed the time. And then I’d laugh, really laugh, because no one else would have understood. (46)

Definitely my favourite book of the month, along with the Vásquez. What a quiet, wonderful surprise this was. There are probably a thousand passages from this I would like to share.

I thought this was very quiet, beautiful, and impressively strange. It reminded me of Knausgaard in the sense that it’s about how life is lived, about how nothing really happens, and how that could make you feel kind of ennui-ish and frantic. And I liked how the two parallel novellas didn’t forcefully try to impose any links between the characters and their lives (apart from the fact that they’re both shoemakers); you can draw your own conclusions about how they are connected.

Things would get better. That Friday I was walking home, a beautiful sunny afternoon. Ahead of me down the hill the cathedral spire was pale gold in a blue sky. The world had never had any problems. I thought, everyone has something, something they need from other people. Some people just want to be loved. Some want to be admired. Some people just need to know you don’t need them to be any way other than they are. I was calm, except when I wasn’t. I felt good. I’m learning, I thought, as I walked into the sunshine. (60)

Yeah, the more I think about this book, the more I admire it. I think captures something that is SUPER difficult to depict in fiction – the experience of LIVING: the day in, the day out experience of it – the horrifying existential pain and agony and beauty and joy of it. As a bonus, one of the novellas was set in my current neighbourhood!

That part of my life was gone. I was too tired to put everything in order. Just the summer, and petrol, grass, hot air, the smell of disappointment, a disappointment you couldn’t explain. (219)

 

McGlue (Ottessa Moshfegh)

Eek, what a read. I would say this is for serious Moshfegh stans only and not for the casual reader browsing Waterstones for a light comforting beach read that will make you feel really good about life and all the decisions you’ve made; you’re really being your best self; you’re productive; you’re using your time well; you’re kind and compassionate and people like you and say nice things about your personality behind your back. NOPE! This book… will NOT comfort you. Seriously though, Golden State Warrior-esque points to Moshfegh for displaying some serious range! A common theme in her work seems to be addiction, and the desire to GET OUT YOUR HEAD and ESCAPE, due to the TORMENT and TORTURE of being trapped with your thoughts. Clearly themes that absolutely no one can relate to, because we’re all stable and happy under 21st-century capitalism.

If you want to read a book in which (SPOILER) someone literally tears the brains from their skull (SPOILER END) … this is for you.

Googling reviews of this book also reminded me of what a great interview subject Moshfegh is. God, what a queen! I love this quote of hers:

My mind is so dumb when I write. Each story requires a different style of stupidity. I just write down what the voice has to say. I use my intellect in the final stages of editing, when I stand back and get thoughtful about what the story actually is and what a stranger’s experience of it might be. At that point I can separate myself from the voice and “intellectualize” if necessary. But I must wait until the very end to deal with the story on that level. If I try to process what I’m writing while I’m writing it, the work gets stiff, meaningless, forced, and then dies. I’m not saying I don’t get ideas. I obsess about the work when I’m not at my computer. But that’s just more stupidity. I don’t know how the mind works, but isn’t there a part of it that deals specifically with reason and sense? The brainy asshole of the mind? The nerd on the dance floor in a tweed jacket, drinking sherry, constantly parsing and analyzing and judging and shaking his head, making faces? That asshole is my intellect. He’s a really shitty writer, as you might imagine. I don’t rely on him when I’m composing. He goes to bed and has a little wet dream about how smart everyone will think he is when the story’s published. What a douche bag!” 

Or this:

“When a narrator acts as a kind of ruler of his own fictional reality, stomping around from paragraph to paragraph, expertly addressing the story without any self-awareness, or too much self-awareness for that matter, it gets solipsistic. There’s nothing to be discovered there. It’s all surface. That sort of writing is exclusionary because it sets the reader at a far distance from the narrator. There’s no room for feelings or having instincts about the emotional underbody of the story. It’s all just information and style. “Look at me writing so well!” It’s like talking to a complete asshole who’s trying to sell you a photo he took of himself in a tuxedo. Don’t ask me for an example of this kind of writing. This is all theoretical. I’m just chewing the cud here.

The Godfather (Mario Puzo)

Is it bad of me if I say this is one of the best books I read last month? Seriously, I could not put it down! I devoured it in one day on the couch. I feel like you could use the opening chapters to teach students how to manage 3rd person POV. I like how it’s a very “American” story…. a story of power and decay…. a lot of this is probably/definitely sexist though, so it goes… seriously, though, what is up with the sideplot that follows a woman who gets an operation to make her labia less big??? (or was it her vagina? It was never actually clear to me!) WHAT… WHY…. WHY IS THAT IN THIS NOVEL…..?

Therapy (David Lodge) [reread]

One of my favourite books of all time! God, I think this is the character who most resembles me IRL. I relate to their existential crisis and deep sense of despair WAY too much. A really brilliant and classic novel that uses humour to examine a question we can all relate to – how do we be good people and live good, meaningful, purposeful lives?

And that’s it for April! Thanks April… it’s been real…

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March Books


*The Mars Room (Rachel Kushner)

I can only know myself, if I can know anyone. I can only judge me.” (pg. 272)

My two favourite books this month had the word “room” in the title – how ’bout that!

I thought The Mars Room was an incredibly powerful read – angry, propulsive, raging. I’d never read Kushner before, but I now BADLY want to read her previous two books. Something about her writing really clicked with me – the incredibly readable style, the energy, the Savage Detectives-esque focus on the madness of youth. This book was also a really helpful example for me, in terms of the kind of fiction produced by a very deliberate research project carried out by an author over a number of years. I’m fascinated by fiction that has a very strong basis in fact, and I don’t think this is going to change any time soon.

Overall, this is deeply intelligent, passionate, and deeply-felt book. This quote by the author (from a post-Booker nomination interview) is also good food for thought:

“Here is what I say: art must be made with a pure intent, and a commitment to genuine risk. The thing created must be smarter than the person who made it. My book is smarter than I am about one particular thing, which I didn’t understand until after I made it, and that one thing is this: there are many who acknowledge that those who’ve gone to prison have been born without luck, and that bad luck can shape a person, unfairly. That is not so difficult.”

Kudos (Rachel Cusk)

A super satisfying conclusion to a deeply interesting trilogy that I’m sure people will be writing PhD theses about for years to come (I’ve written about Outline and Transit VERY briefly here). The basic premise of Kudos remains the same: the narrator has no interiority, but is there as am empty vessel, listening to conversations of the people she encounters. The setting this time around is in (what I think is) Greece, for a conference and literary festival. Themes in this book include thinly veiled references to Brexit, the purpose of narrative, authentic literature, the trauma of divorce and raising children, the value of privacy and invisibility, cruelty, and freedom. The first conversation, on the plane about the family dog, was my favourite.

After seeing Rachel Cusk speak and read in person, there is no doubt in my mind that she is a deeply intellectual person who takes writing very seriously. Considering she’s published something like 10 books (memoirs and novels) before embarking upon this trilogy, it’s a very encouraging sign: a sign that older women have a lot to contribute to art and society, and that we don’t have to be so fucking obsessed with youth all the time, and that your career as a writer can grow and fluctuate and change if you remain open to taking risks.

“A degree of self-deception, she said, was an essential part of the talent for living.” (pg. 34)

“Writing was what generally kept her from going down that road. When she wrote she was neither in nor out of her body: she was just ignoring it.” (60)

“I don’t always please you, I said, but I am just as real this way as the other way.” (136)

“It is patience and endurance and loyalty – rather than ambition and desire – that bring the ultimate rewards.” (170)

Exposure (Olivia Sudjic)

I can’t seem to find my copy of this at the moment which is unfortunate because it definitely had quite a few quotes I wanted to share. Anyway, this book was on the syllabus of one of the classes I was teaching this semester. It’s essentially a short essay that begins with the author’s experience on a writing retreat on Brussels, trying to work on her second novel, and it delves into reflections on anxiety and auto-fiction, with references to some of her favourite “talismanic” writers (Ferrante, Heti, Lispector).

I have major respect for this essay in the sense that it’s attempting to broach a topic that basically EVERY young woman writer I have ever taught or worked with seems to experience – that of anxiety, a fear of being judged. In contrast to Adele (a book discussed below), which is heavily critical of bourgeois experience, this one confronts it face on: the luxury of being able to go on a writing retreat. In that sense, it’s a very gutsy move to me: the author is writing about her (very) personal experience, what she knows best, putting herself in a risky, vulnerable position. It reminded me of Elif Batuman’s advice at the end of this essay: Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. 

*The German Room (Carla Maliandi)

My other favourite book of the month, tied with The Mars Room. Oh my god, this book is amazing! Do you ever find yourself in one of those reading funks where you just pick up book after book and sigh, because it all seems so wearisome? Well, this book was EXACTLY what I needed. Thank God for Charco Press!

The plot of this book is very simple (and dare I say it, Magic Mountain-esque). An Argentinean woman in her 30’s travels to Heidelberg in Germany, the city where she was born and lived for five years as a child when her parents fled Argentina due to the dictatorship. Her time in Heidelberg involves meeting a lot of strange and funny characters and this is what creates a lot of energy and momentum in the book. This was a reading experience in which I literally had NO IDEA what was going to happen next, which made it very exciting and fun. The translation is extremely well done, in the sense that it’s very readable and brisk. There’s also one moment in the first 25 pages that is genuinely very SHOCKING. Basically I liked how this was a book where a lot of things HAPPENED (the psychic, the Japanese woman having a nervous breakdown… I coud go on and on). It also helps that the chapters are all relatively short and move at a brisk pace.

I really related to the narrator, a woman in her 30’s feeling a bit lost (lol) and like her life is in shambles. I really connected to her feelings of just wanting to RUN AWAY and TEAR APART your stable, perfect life (don’t worry, I’m not going to do this myself, I’m just sayin’!) vs. figuring out what it means to be an adult and be responsible for your actions and their consequences. I really loved the melancholy, regretful tone that came through at times. It’s a relatively simple plot but one that I think a lot of people can relate to – what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to live? How do you avoid having a shitty life, one in which you feel bloated and tired all the time and everything is an impossible struggle?And how do you figure that out if you don’t really know who/what you are? (An Argentinean woman born in Germany, etc.)

I also really loved the theme of communication and translation in the book – there are so many languages and identities present here (German, Argentinean, Japanese, Turkish, Hungarian, Albanian…).

I absolutely loved this.

“Something suddenly became clear to me: I didn’t want to buy a set of coffee mugs ever again, or straighten pictures on the wall, or decide where to put the rug that looks rustic but isn’t. I don’t want to go to the plant shop and ask which ones like sun and which are houseplants. I don’t want to choose the fabric for the curtains, or the colour of the bedspread, or the size of the bookcase. I’d rather live like a refugee forever, sleeping in other people’s beds, having coffee out of strange mugs, mugs that I didn’t choose and that I don’t care about because I don’t even remember the name of the street of the house I woke up in.” (pg. 21)

“It’s annoying and funny at the same time. I look around the room, they’re experiencing what they’ll remember in the future as the best time of their lives, their student years, their foreign adventure far away from their parents. In ten years they’ll probably be exhausted, they’ll have kids, good jobs, and they’ll look back fondly on those days in Heidelberg, days they’ll never get back. But I don’t belong to this group. Even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere. (pg. 23)

“A happy exile, an exile you don’t want to return from, isn’t exile.” (pg. 27)

“Here the time passes in a strange way and nothing is the same. How much longer will I be able to disappear from the internet too, from the lives of others? How much longer will the e-mails continue to pile up, their demands for explanations? A forgotten person is like a dead person, and no one wants a dead person to show up in the world of the living. (pg. 43)

(I think this section encapsulates one of the main themes of the book)“[She says] ‘We’re all masses of chaotic little particles, little leaves blown around by the wind. You want to go east but the wind blows you west. You want to go north but the wind pushes you south. It’s not up to us.’ The Tucumano says he thinks the opposite is true, that everything, absolutely everything, depends on us, that we’re victims of our own decisions. His entire life he’s seen the direct consequences of his own actions.” (pg. 83)

My Sister the Serial Killer (Oyinkan Braithwaite)

This was an extremely entertaining read and VERY good fun, and exactly the book I needed during a very busy month. I usually pay no attention whatsoever to book covers but I really liked this one, with the bottle of cleaning liquid on the back. In terms of content, I loved the depiction of the sisters’ relationship, and I thought the ending was risky but well-earned (really, it couldn’t possibly have ended in any other way). I really must read more Nigerian writers!

The Large Door (Jonathan Gibbs)

This book was written by a UEA graduate and published by a new independent publisher based at (and founded by) UEA. The story follows Jenny Thursley, a linguistics lecturer in her 40’s who returns to Europe for a conference in Amsterdam, where she is expected to deliver a keynote speech for her mentor. Taking place over 24 hours, I was reminded often of David Lodge (the book jacket cites Iris Murdoch as an influence – I really must read more of her… someday… someday soon). I loved the limited setting of this (the fact that I recently visited Amsterdam helped), the limited time frame, and the humour most of all (especially the bits about procrastination, something that EVERYONE working in academia can relate to). Is independent publishing becoming like Netflix, in the sense that works that would have been produced by major studios/publishers in the 70’s-90’s are basically now receiving a more “limited” release? (I can’t believe that Cuarón, Scorsese, and the Coen brothers have ALL turned to Netflix to fund their next films, not to mention the fate of poor Alex Garland.. In any case, long live independent publishing and its support of unconventional, fresh stories such as this one.

My favourite passages were these two, about teaching (as someone who is still very much in the beginning of her teaching career and still has a lot to learn, they had an especially strong resonance for me):

“Learning is all about the growth of the self, and teaching is about enabling that growth. The teacher is invested in the person that the student is becoming, and the student wants to share a sense of that person with their teacher, to show what they have learned – for how do you test your growing self except by exposing it to love or blame? […] There has got to be something more going on than just the mark scrawled at the bottom of the essay, or entered on the computer. The pleasure taken in shared awareness of personal development, the shared joy of someone seeing their chosen self emerge: this is the gift of eros.” (146)

“To be a good teacher meant being both passive and active. It did not mean to call upon knowledge, but to generate the feeling for knowledge, and then to control that flow of feeling in the room, to be able to respond to and control the power of those feelings in other people.” (151)

Adele (Leïla Slimani)

Another book that was EXACTLY what I needed of a month of crushing Brexit and Mueller BS. Maybe I should start reading more crime novels – there is definitely a need in my daily schedule for books that are escapist and entertaining! My favourite thing about this was how “badly behaved” Adele was. And yet the book also tried to be very fair and balanced (I was pleasantly surprised when I reached the section narrated by her husband).

I suppose you could technically classify her as a sex addict, but wasn’t she also just, like, rebelling against life? This theme of FREEDOM and BEING A WOMAN and CAN A WOMAN EVER BE FREE is something I’ve been thinking a lot about… themes unpacked by Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (which I’m currently reading, and hoping to finish later today). It also helps that I’ve gotten really obsessed with Joni Mitchell’s back catalogue, and the meaning and nature of freedom, being on the road, and making art are three classic themes of her songs that I’ve discerned so far.

Anyway, if I was going to give this book a cheesy blurb I’d say something along the lines of “‘Girl on the Train’ for the thinking, liberated woman.” It’s definitely a book that often expresses fear against the constraints of “bourgeois” life – the materialism, the idea that there is a standard you must live up to. And yet isn’t railing against the bourgeois the most bourgeois thing ever…? In any case, I like to think that the book DOES end on a note of optimism and hope for Adele, but that’s just me… you’ll have to read it yourself and see what you think…

“She looks at them and realises that her life will always be the same now. She will look after her children, worry about what they’re eating. She will go on holidays to places that they like, try to find ways of entertaining them every weekend. Like bourgeois mothers the world over, she will drive them to their guitar classes, to the theatre, to school, constantly seeking activities to ‘elevate their  minds.’ Adele hopes that her children will not be like her.” (22)

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Notable Books of 2018

Here are some notable books I read in 2018 that I didn’t write about on this blog (not ordered in any way).

A Separation (Katie Kitamura)

Wow, how could I not have read this book earlier? This is one of those books that really blew me away. Like Rachel Cusk mixed with Patricia Highsmith and a wee bit of JM Coetzee. Apparently was blurbed by Knausgaard (as a huge K fan, this is a big stamp of approval for me). I’m not going to summarise the plot because I went into reading this book completely blind and I feel like that was a huge benefit. Within the depths of an author-crush obsession, I also read her previous book, Gone to the Forestwhich was also deeply weird and rich and uncompromising. I love discovering books like this because I feel like they offer the kind of blueprint for the kind of career I want to have myself (god willing!).

Resistance (Julián Fuks)

Holy god, did this book make me cry. Again I don’t want to summarize it too much because going into it blind felt like a huge benefit to me. I’m still not even sure if it’s fiction or non-fiction (auto-fiction, maybe? That’s a trendy term, right?). The one thing I’ll say is that I thought this was an extremely powerful examination of sibling relationships, and it made me realize how few books there are out there that examine this. Elena Ferrante made female friendship A Thing To Write About – will sibling relationships be the next big deal?

The other theme in this book that really stuck with me is the parasitic, inherent cruelty of writing about your family. Is changing the truth the only way an author can morally represent challenging material?

Overall, I think this book does a really incredibly job of examining how violent political history affects families and individuals throughout time, in a really unique and brilliant way.

(FYI I got this book via my subscription to Charco Press, my birthday present to myself last year. I can’t tell you how EXCITED I AM that an INDEPENDENT PRESS is PUBLISHING TRANSLATED LATIN AMERICAN FICTION, IN THE UK. It’s like my Christmas dream came true!)

All Grown-Up (Jenni Attenberg)

This book was recommended on the Twitter feed of Lisa Owens (a super funny and skilled writer in her own right! Full disclaimer: we did the same MA degree together, but I am not a biased bitch!). Like Lisa’s writing, this book was hysterically raw and true. I highlighted so many passages. I’m fully over the whole “I liked this book because I related to the narrator” as an appropriate aesthetic judgement (EFF THAT!), but….: I liked this book because I related to the narrator. I’m also sort of over the whole fragmented novel thing (lol), BUT… I thought the fragmented nature of this book (it’s basically linked short stories) worked really well, and cumulated in a particularly powerful way in the final scene, with the narrator’s brother’s baby.

Here’s to not knowing what the eff you’re doing with your life!

Our Dead World (Liliana Colanzi)

This is one of the best short story collections I have ever read, no joke! I loved the Philip K. Dick influences. I’ll keep this brief: if you love short stories, definitely check this out.

The Idiot 

This is one of those books that really stuck with me, that I found myself thinking repeatedly about over the course of the year. And the more I think about it the more impressed by it I am. Basically, this book stands out for how FUNNY it is. Like, CONSISTENTLY. Probably every other sentence is funny! Do you know how hard that is?? Writing humour?? From the very first page, when the narrator holds up an ethernet cable and asks, “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” – I was hooked. I also loved how, like life, this book has very little plot and no resolution. A must-read for you 90’s kids (you know who you are…).

Books written by people I sort of know IRL that I loved:

Ponti (Sharlene Teo) – I did a creative writing MA the same year as Sharlene but never had a chance to read an excerpt from Ponti. I loved how uncompromising this book was in terms of not offering any resolutions for the characters (just like real life!), and the snarky acerbic tone of the prose. There were so many sentences in this I found absolutely hysterical (the one about “fucking earnestly to Adele” stands out the most).

Demi-Gods (Eliza Robertson) – Besides being a superbly talented writer, Eliza is also an astrologist who read my tarot cards and offered soothingly prescient advice for me when I was basically having a nervous breakdown. THANK YOU, ELIZA! But still, I say this from an unbiased place: Like Ponti, Demi-Gods is ones of those brutally uncompromising books that makes me grateful that weird and uncommercial feminist art can exist in today’s world. I don’t mean to sound like I’m giving an Academy Award speech but I AM SO GRATEFUL I GOT TO STUDY AT AN INSTITUTION W SO MANY TALENTED WOMEN…

The Water Cure (Sophie Macintosh) – This was nominated for the Booker and is fully deserving. I loved the raw achey prose of this. Is it bad if I related to the main character Lila in, like, a really hardcore way? Apparently she has a new book coming out next year too – YASS.

Other books I loved this year, that I did write about:

Clock Dance (Anne Tyler)
The Devil’s Highway (Gregory Norminton)
Sight (Jessie Greengrass)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh)
Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enriquez)
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mendel)

Book I did not “get” this year:

Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday) – this book got rave reviews in the U.S. but I found it really hard to connect with – is it because I’m not a Philip Roth fan? (I sort of loathe him TBH…) Anyway, if you’ve read this and loved it, would love to hear your thoughts!

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Books of 2018

These are the books I read in 2018. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I loved a lot. I read 77 books.

DECEMBER
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (JK Rowling) [reread]
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (JK Rowling) [reread]
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (JK Rowling) [reread]
Gone to the Forest (Katie Kitamura)
*A Separation (Katie Kitamura)
Lullaby (Leïla Slimani)
The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai)
The Chronicles of Prydain #1-#5 (Lloyd Alexander)
Call Me By Your Name (André Aciman)
The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann)

NOVEMBER
Ponti (Sharlene Teo)
The Secret History
 (Donna Tartt)
Standard Deviation (Katherine Heiny)
*Resistance (Julián Fuks)

OCTOBER
The Sword of the Sprits Trilogy (John Christopher) [reread from childhood]
Winter (Ali Smith)
*Clock Dance (Anne Tyler)
Ghost Wall (Sarah Moss)
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
Die, My Love (Ariana Harwicz)
*Sight (Jessie Greengrass)
*The Devil’s Highway (Gregory Norminton)

SEPTEMBER
The Iliac Crest (Cristina Rivera Garza)
Snakes and Earrings (Hitomi Kanehara)
Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday)
Devotion (Patti Smith)
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) [reread; childhood fav]
The Essex Serpent (Sarah Perry)

AUGUST
Lost Empress (Sergio de la Pava)
Normal People (Sally Rooney)
You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote)
Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney)
***Watership Down (Richard Adams) [reread]

JULY
*My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh)
Convenience Store Women (Sayaka Murata)
Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman) [audiobook]
A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)
*All Grown Up (Jami Attenberg)
Being Dead (Jim Crace)
Born to Die in Medellín (Alonso Salazar)
The Dog Stars (Peter Heller)

JUNE
Missing (Alison Moore)
As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) [reread]
Madame Zero (Sarah Hall)
Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Ingrid Rojas Contreras)
The Crow Road (Iain Banks)
The Water Cure (Sophie Mackintosh)
Dark Entries (Robert Aickman)
Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto)

MAY
*Our Dead World (Liliana Colanzi)
*The Idiot (Elif Batuman)
The End (Fernanda Torres)
The Naked Woman (Armonia Somers)
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling) [audiobook]
Kensington Gardens (Rodrigo Fresan)

APRIL
Reputations (Juan Gabriel Vasquez)
Kokoro (Natsume Soseki)
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Haruki Murakami)
***The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro) [reread]
The Stone Sky
(N.K. Jemisin)
The Obelisk Gate
(N.K. Jemisin)

MARCH
The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (Haruki Murakami)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith) [reread]
Our Endless Numbered Days (Claire Fuller)

FEBRUARY
*Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enríquez)
Wishful Drinking (Carrie Fisher) [audiobook]
Devil’s Day (Andrew Michael Hurley)
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (Patricia Highsmith)
Such Small Hands (Andrés Barba)
Nutcase (Tony Williams)

JANUARY
Now and at the Hour of Our Death (Susana Moreira Marques)
Reservoir 13 (Jon McGregor)
Dying: A Memoir (Cory Taylor)
The Wonder Spot (Melissa Banks) [reread; one of my all-time faves)
The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) [reread]
*Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mendel)

To see books read from 2009-2018, click here.

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Italian book tour photos!

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Peru

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Clock Dance & Winter

My annual seasonal depression is slowly but surely kicking in – why do I feel so tired all the time, I text my sister, and she responds, Because winter is coming. Oh, the equatorial child in me can never truly be squashed out – I should have brought my SAD lamp up from Norwich!

How fitting, then, to have read two books this week by two of my lifelong favourite female authors, two books about time passing, about the importance of rituals to acknowledge the passage of time, about how the seasons turn, turn, turn. Two established female novelists, two writers I’ve been reading for decades (one since I was eleven/twelve, one since I was twenty-one).

“I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?”

“Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still.

“I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”

She thought that over.

“But…” she said.

He waited.

“But… is that enough?” she asked him.

“Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.

(Anne Tyler, Clock Dance)

I wonder if there’s a tendency to take mid-career writers for granted – to under-appreciate them. I don’t really know anyone else who reads Anne Tyler – sometimes I wonder if she’s seen as untrendy. All I know is that I find Anne Tyler deeply, profoundly comforting. Do I believe that the quirky, eccentric neighbours in Clock Dance are this friendly in real life? Probably not. But what does that say about me?

There was an odd little silence. Then Willa said–she couldn’t help herself–“What do you live for?”

“Well, one thing is that when you’re old, everything takes more time. Bathing, counting out my pills, putting in my eye drops… you’d be amazing at how much of the day a person can fill that way.”

“Ah,” Willa said.

Although this was not much use to Willa. She was still very quick on her feet.

“But sometimes it feels so repetitive. You know? Like when I’m getting dressed. I’ll think, These same old, same old colors; I wish I had some new ones. But there aren’t any new ones, anywhere on earth. Or vegetables: same old vegetables. Come suppertime and there’s spinach, or there’s tomatoes, or there’s corn… Why can’t they invent some new vegetables? It seems I’ve used everything up.”

“There’s broccolini,” Cheryl said suddenly. “That’s a new vegetable.”

(255-256)

I LOVED reading this book. The structure is shockingly experimental! We start out with three major incident’s of Willa’s life (all of which are spoiled on the book jacket summary): the night her mother disappears for 24 hours, the day she gets engaged, her husband’s death in a car accident. And then we jump to the longest section, in which Willa is unexpectedly invited to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter (whew!). I found this fascinating – the extreme jumps through time; the way we see Willa change and grow. Definitely as I get older, the themes in Tyler’s fiction (am I a good person? Have I done anything with my life) resonate all the more strongly with me.

This is definitely the kind of book that will remind you to call your grandma more often.

“I mean, sometimes when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I try the opposite approach: I widen out my angle of vision till I’m only a speck on the globe.”

“Well,” Willa said, “but doesn’t that make you feel kind of… puny?”

“I am puny,” he said. “We all are. We’re all just infinitesimal organisms floating through a vast universe, and whether we remembered to turn the oven off doesn’t make a bit of difference.”

That he considered this to be comforting made Willa laugh.

(259)

“That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.”  (Ali Smith, Winter)

Winter was definitely less of an escape than Clock Dance, as it deals directly with Twitter, the current U.S. president (not named but blatantly present), the isolating effects of technology, and the history of protest in the UK (specifically the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp). This New Yorker review by James Wood gives a really helpful overview of her recent work – I keep forgetting how pun-ny Ali Smith is, and how much puns drive the themes in her writing. I think my favorite pun-tastic riff in Winter was on “to-day”, in the sense of treating it as a verb. How do you day, one of the characters wonders. Is it the same thing as to love?

The environmental themes in Winter also stood out to me – in one of the book’s many Leonara Carrington-esque surreal sequences, one character sees a piece of coastline floating above the dinner table. I’m reminded of her short stories of the rose bush growing in a chest, or the woman who falls in love with a tree. Is this the most pressing theme of our time? How we relate to the non-human, to the natural world around us? Can the human and non-human exist together in an ethical way? Will embracing interdependent relationshps with nonhuman nature save us?

The world is completely fucked, the new Brazilian president is probably going to destroy the Amazon rainforest, and my Vitamin D levels are super low and getting lower, but I’m glad these two writers are still working. Models to emulate.

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Die, My Love


Die, My Love (Ariana Harwicz)

It’s Week 4 of the teaching semester and Week 6 of my Magic Mountain book club, and I am kind of/sort of/maybe starting to feel the tiredness kick in? It probably mainly has to do with me going to London this weekend for a wedding, which was VERY fun – the bride and groom’s first dance was to an Aphex Twin song! Very cool, and nice to catch up with people. However, being in my thirties has made spending the night in hostels increasingly less appealing to me – I’m talking to YOU, Italian ladies, who somehow thought it was appropriate to talk to each other at 4 in the morning, thus inspiring everyone else in the room to hiss and screech at them!

Along with my weekly intake of Thomas Mann (Knasgaard, I have put aside for now – I’m saving him for a long plane journey), it’s been fun to read some shorter books. This article (which is seriously probably the most fascinating pieces of literary criticism I have ever read!) inspired me to (re?)-read Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” series – they’re SO GOOD! I can’t believe I’ve never read them before! Or have I?! I distinctly REMEMBER seeing his books lying around the house in Colombia, but they belonged to my older brother, and he only had the first and fifth one, so maybe I never got around to reading them because I didn’t see the point of starting a series and not finishing it…? I definitely read SOME of the first one, at the very least. Anyway, I have REALLY been enjoying them – a terrific discovery.

And then there’s Die My Love by Ariana Harwicz, which is definitely in the territory of ADULT FICTION. And for very specific adults too – I would definitely NOT give this to any expectant or new mothers!!

This was a fascinating book to read after having finish Jessie Greengrass’ Sight – they make for interesting counter-balances. While the style in Sight is very essayistic, Die My Love is more like a hot, sweaty monologue. This was probably my favorite thing about the book – it reminded me of Mary Ruefle, in the way that sentences jumped from one topic to another so rapidly. The paragraphs are long, but the chapters are never more than three pages. And at barely over a hundred pages total, this is one fast read. It’s almost like a book of poetry, or a collection of monologues, or stream-of-consciousness angry rants. But it’s not boring or annoying at all, mainly due to the crazed voice, which I found absolutely HILARIOUS (in a very dark way).

The story follows a foreign woman (Argentinean? We’re never told), living in rural France (also never specified – I’d have NEVER guessed it was France without the blurb on the back). She’s newly married with her long-time partner, with a newborn son. And she finds herself wondering: “How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of these two individuals? What was I going to do? … I dropped the knife and went to hang out the washing like nothing had happened.” (1)

And so we see that she is slowly losing her grip. Or maybe she’s having a reasonable response to the disarming situation she’s in, that of being in a foreign land with a newborn child. She’s constantly comparing herself with other mothers, judging herself, and having strange fantasies like walking through the patio door glass: “I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish. Here we are, all three of us together for a family portrait.” (3) The frenzied, raw energy reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Darkly provocative stuff, but I honestly found the darkness of it (and sheer outrageousness at times) very funny!

Themes throughout include nature, human vs. animal, desire, what does it mean to have different selves (wife, mother, daughter). I underlined SO many sentences in this. And there were some sequences (like when they hit a stag with the car, and the dog licks the remains off the bonnet, and they christen the unnamed dog Bloody) read almost as slapstick; they seemingly come out of left field.

Highly recommend this. Here are some quotes I underlined (so hard to choose! These are just from the first thirty pages!):

We don’t hold hands either, we’re always pushing the buggy or carrying the baby instead.” (5)

Why won’t he stop crying? What does he want? You’re his mother, you should know. But I don’t know, I say, I haven’t the faintest idea...” (6)

You all have your dark side. But I’m thinking about pacing up and down with the baby in my arms, hour after hour of tedious choreography, from the exhaustion to screaming, screaming to exhaustion. And I think about how a child is a wild animal, about another person carrying your heart forever.” (6)

How does a wild boar ejaculate?“(8)

I organise his action figures in order of their arrival in our lives.” (9)

Why do we women ask our husbands what they ate? What the hell are we hoping to find out by asking what they ate? If they’ve slept with someone else? If they’re unhappy with us? If they’re planning to leave us one day when they say they’re going out for an ice cream?” (10)

If I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will.” (11)

Personally, I think if your husband or father beats you up it’s your call to tough it out.” (12)

If I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.” (13)

I’m one person, my body is two.” (15)

I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance.” (15)

“I’ve built up so much rage that I could drink until I have a heart attack. That’s what I tell myself bu tit’s not true. I couldn’t even down half a bottle. My days are all like this. Endlessly stagnant. A slow downfall.” (16)

Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things. Spiders appear in the sink as I’m having my morning coffee, and they drown as soon as I turn on the tap. The stronger ones manage to resist for a while, folding into themselves like tight little flowers. They’re the ones that provoke me to run the hot water to destroy them. The flies’ turn comes when I’m spreading the quince jelly. They’ve been following us around since prehistoric times and it’s about time they died out.” (29)

Some people need to be able to see the ocean, but I need to be able to see a firearm.” (33)

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The Devil’s Highway & Sight

My, what a busy, busy week that was! Very Richard Scarry-esque. BUT, I did get to read two amazing books!

Image result for the devil's highway norminton

THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY (GREGORY NORMINTON)

Uff, reading this the day after the UN report on climate change was released was MUY, MUY fuerte. This had been on my to-read list for a while due to the intriguing set-up: three timelines, ancient Britain, modern Britain, and futuristic Britain. An ancient Briton boy encounters a Roman solider, a traumatised war veteran confronts an archaeologist, and a band of feral children make their way through a burning landscape, a world set aflame through (presumably) global warming (this section is narrated in the first-person plural – very cool). And throughout there’s reflections on the definition of human progress, the relationship with the landscape, what it means to be British, violence and kindness, migrants and displacement, the appeal of terrorism and jihadism, the changing nature of human spirituality, from earth-focused to book-focused… I was reminded of Cloud Atlas and The Buried Giant. This… was exactly my cup of tea!!

The three narratives are literally “connected” by the Roman road that gives the book its title, The Devil’s Highway. As one character comments, “One place is lots of places if you just wait long enuf.” It’s all very cleverly done. It reminded me of what first fascinated me about linked collections – how scenes in different timelines can echo each other. The way a flint tool reappears, for example. Or the different ways we spend our time (like hunting and foraging vs. stacking groceries at the co-op). It all becomes quite powerful – a scene near the end involving blind people had me in tears. And I NEVER cry when reading!! (Though it’s happening more frequently lately – Station Eleven also had me weeping). What’s especially impressive is that this book is SHORT. Barely 200 pages! I find this INCREDIBLY impressive – that the book has been cut down to the bare, naked essentials.

I found the historical part particularly fascinating. The way the Romans viewed the Britons, as savages who used wood and mud, while the Romans brought roads and progress. The presence of feminine gods, the relationship with animals, the importance of physical objects like sticks and stones… all very Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The far-off past is as alien as another planet, innit.

This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

She can understand the allure of cutting your own path. Who wants to follow a straight official route when everything in nature loops and circles?” (55)

What’s the point? If everything gets buried again?”
The girl shrugs. “It’s progress,” she says. (123)

Had he such a thing to lose: an essence that survived death? If so, could it rise from any bonds that earth could make for it? His enemies, every one of them, had a soul. The young fanatics chasing him: so long as he could stand and manage a stick, he would not hesitate to kill any that came his way. There would be no honour in it: they were not worthy adversaries. Yet the druid that found a calling for them, an exalted purpose. Who, in their stultified tribe, had done the same? Only violence stirred the blood. It was a spring that never ran dry. Perhaps that was why the empire existed, pushing ever outwards to keep the rage of its young from turning against home.” (180)

Image result for sight jessie greengrass

SIGHT (JESSIE GREENGRASS)

Jessie Greengrass is probably one of my favorite contemporary writers now working. God, we are blessed to have her in our midst! I loved her short story collection, and Sight, her first novel, is filled with so many gems. I underlined so many sentences I don’t even know where to start!

Sight, similarly to The Devil’s Highway, is a “broken” novel in the sense that it doesn’t exactly follow a straight path. We have a first-person narrator, a young woman trying to decide whether or not to have a child (though we know very early on that she does, so this definitely isn’t a will-she-or-won’t-she plot). We see memories of her mother’s death, childhood summers spent with her analyst grandmother, and visits to museums with her partner. And interspersed throughout are these sort of mini-essays (or “digressions,” as the author herself has called them), about significant moments in medical history. The discovery of X-rays. The first Caesarean. And the years Anna Freud spent in analysis with her father.

This is another short book – 200 pages. Short books FTW, baby! I don’t have a kid (obviously), nor have I been in the position of having to nurse a parent (yet… no comment :((( ), but nevertheless I found the passages about these two “life milestones” incredibly affecting. The book continuously discusses how having a child is like having an extension of yourself, and yet, the child is definitely “not” you, and that the definition of adulthood is moving away from one’s parent, which can feel like a horrible irony. “Growing up,” the narrator says, “is a solitary process of disentanglement from those who made us,” (58) an the scenes where she and her mother clean the house after her grandmother’s death is a vivid depiction of this. What does it mean to grow up, to become an adult? How do we “see” inside ourselves, understand ourselves? How is it possible to we can be so hidden from ourselves, that we can possess so little understanding about why we do the things we do? (Man, don’t get me STARTED on this…!) What can the past tell us about ourselves; what can we learn from it; and how do we protect those we love (like our children) from it? How do we balance the routine of a long, meandering, domestic days and try not to be feel frantic about the BIG PICTURE? Is the only way to know something is to live it?

There’s an amazing clarity in the writing here – I was reminded of Knausgaard’s essay writing, and Ottessa Moshfegh at times (namely due to the surly humour, which really MAKES the book). It was so freaking nice, as a young woman, to read a book about motherhood that is thoughtful, balanced, and reflective, as opposed to being all like CHILDREN = LOSS OF ARTISTIC FREEDOM FOREVER. God, this was such a good read. Can’t wait for her next one.

This is what we all do, after all, this striving to make sense.” (103)

I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both. The thought of it makes me surly and resentful.” (62)

What are we if not a totality of days, a sum of interactions.” (85)

[I read] because the act of reading was a habit, and because it was soothing, and, perhaps, from a lifetime’s inculcated faith in the explanatory power of books, the half-held belief that somewhere in those hectares upon hectares of printed pages I might find that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness, allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath.” (36)

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Random poems for a tough week

What a tough week for women! I donated to RAINN. And I read a lot of poetry online, which I hadn’t done in a while. Here are some I found that I liked:

A Whole New Poetry Beginning Here
(Adrienne Rich)

This is what I am: watching the spider
rebuild — “patiently”, they say,

but I recognise in her
impatience–my own–

the passion to make and make again
where such unmaking reigns

 

Everything is Everything
(Gabrielle Bates)

Things seem to come naturally to people
that don’t come naturally to me.
At fifteen I knew how to be a parent
but not a sibling. My mirror neurons
are so overactive, I move my lips
when Homer & Marge kiss.
To speak even gibberish after sex
is to ruin something. This morning I forgot
to write my daily affirmation 15 times.
Now I’ll never destroy white supremacy.
Alexa, play Blessings by Chance the Rapper.
Alexa, is it raining? If you’re recording this
please tell the 45th president I wish he’d die.
Tell anyone who will listen. My exile outfit
is already in a pile, gray on the gray floor.
I zipper it off in bed & step out naked.
When I open the fridge, its cold gust
hits my skin; I open too & it leaves me.
Cleanliness is close to godliness & I
am the opposite of both. My husband left
a single egg with a note. I’m sorry, darling.
A track meet happened yesterday.
Good luck, brother. Outside the rain pauses,
sunlight hits the TV in a quick gash,
& I kiss the egg. We could all be kinder.

 

MORNING EN ROUTE TO THE HOSPITAL
(Maggie Nelson)

Snow wafts off the little lake
along Route 66, momentarily encasing the car

in a trance of glitter

Live with your puny, vulnerable self
Live with her

 

SOUP IS ONE FORM OF SALT WATER
(Heather Christie)

I am making borscht   please do not laugh at me

I seem to have ruined my soul           the quality of

television programming grows stronger all the time

soon we will live in the ocean             we will all return

to the ocean    my hands are bright pink        like I

have been applauding you for hours              my love for

you is louder than I know       I saw a show last night

there were four thousand brides left in Iceland        I

was laughing   but it was not funny    the brides

looked embarrassed   and cold          I must not wash

anywhere but a tidepool        I must use a starfish to

scrub at my hands      I am writing this to say           I am

not leaving you forever           I am going to get better

and then I’ll come home

 

Sorrow Is Not My Name
(Ross Gay)

–after Gwendolyn Brooks

No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbour sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.

–for Walter Aitkens

 

Break Up
(Jody Porter)

State, you have been reckless with my heart
and these endings hurt. I cannot trust again
your wheedling face and pillow talk.

What about those honey days?
Those tended gardens and bread for all?
State, I feel like a fool.

I trusted you and you sold my walking shoes
to someone who only taxis.
So thanks.

State, I’ve killed the children we would’ve had together
and buried them with my passport.
Don’t call.

 

As I believe I’ve stated before, I’ve been reading The Magic Mountain with an online book group. Here’s a tangential rant I went on in the email discussion:

This is a bit of a tangent, but something that’s really been helping me get through this week and all the horrible, awful news coming from the U.S. about the treatment of women, is the idea of using CARING as an antidote to VIOLENCE and HORRIBLE THINGS IN THE WORLD. I was really affected by how women everywhere were just SO UPSET by the Senate hearings, but in a way it also made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one – feeling connected to others, like I’m not alone, is a really helpful way to fight depression for me (my meditation app also encourages this!). My favourite Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says the same thing, that the role of “caring” needs to be more emphasised in society (rather than, say, making money or growing businesses) – and what with A.I.s taking over jobs, we need to turn a switch in our brains and rethink what we see as “valuable work” – namely, raising children! Should be paid! BECAUSE IT IS WORK! But love is such a weird thing in contrast to work, because you can give out an infinite amount of it, something capitalism would find very confusing.

Ugh, fuck last week. Stay well, friends.

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