Feast of the Innocents

Feast of the Innocents (Evelio Rosero)

This was a challenging book for me to read. I kept putting it down and not wanting to pick it up again. Some of that might have to do with the chaotic, rambling style, in which sentences are very long and we jump frequently from viewpoint to viewpoint. It wasn’t until after page 150 or so (so more than halfway through) that I really started to “get” it. So this might not be the best introduction to Evelio Rosero’s work (the unrelentingly bleak yet monumental The Armies still takes the cake, followed closely by the darkly satirical Good Offices). But if you’re interested in Colombian literature or Latin American history, then this is definitely a worthwhile read.

I found the themes of this book moving and compelling, especially the deeper I got into the book. The book opens with a doctor dressing up in an ape suit in preparation for the famous Carnaval de Blancos y Negros in Pasto, a scene that reminded me of the opening sentence of Rosero’s Good Offices (“He has a terrible fear of being an animal, especially on Thursdays, at lunchtime.” What a hell of an opening sentence, right? Themes of human vs. animals, civilization vs. barbarity seem to be common in Rosero). Anyway, with this scene we meet the doctor, who is a bit of an unlikeable character. His marriage has basically descended into mutual loathing, and he’s obsessed with writing a book that exposes Simón Bolívar as a tyrant and a coward, a book he’s gotten nowhere near close to completing. However, he is presented with the opportunity to build a carnival float that will depict Simón Bolívar’s atrocities in the Pasto region, both the massacres and the sex scandals. However, the building of this float catches the attention of local Marxist students, to whom Bolívar is an important revolutionary icon… As their leader puts it (in reference to a massacre directed by Bolívar), “If Bolívar shot them or used sabres or pikes on them, it was because they deserved it. Bolívar cannot be called into question.” (183)

It was fascinating to read this book shortly after reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, another book concerned with representations of Colombian history (intriguingly, Feast is set the year before Solitude was published, in 1966). The doctor’s justification as to why he wants to tarnish Bolívar’s reputation in so public a fashion are eerily reminiscent of the insomnia plague that descends upon Macondo:

It’s the memory of the truth, which struggles to prevail sooner or later. By correcting the error of the past, speaking out against it, you correct the absence of memory, which is one of the main causes of our social and political present, founded on lies and murder… it’s our duty to dot the i’s if we don’t want to sin by omission. (98)

García Márquez also often writes about carnivals and festivals, and it would be interesting to contrast him with Rosero’s depiction, in which the festival is frequently emphasized as an event where people are disguised and hidden, the carnivalesque as a drunken and dizzying force of life (they’re also dizzying sections to read, at times overwhelmingly so!!).

If life was a vale of tears, as his grandparents had maintained, he did not want to live in it, and if life was a macabre circus enjoyed only by a few madmen–as they had also maintained–he intended to go mad the years remaining to him, who knew how many there would be. (208)

The parts of the book discussing the perception of Simón Bolívar as a cowardly tyrant were also extremely interesting to read, at times disturbing. However, there were a lot of names and battles listed in these sections, and I kind of wish I’d been reading this book with wikipedia on hand (I read most of it on a train) so that I could look them up. I wouldn’t be surprised if other readers found themselves feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed during these sections. I wonder if the confusion was intentional, to emphasize to murkiness of history, or something. I also wish there’d been an author’s note at the end discussing the research he’d used (specifically, I’d love to know if the oral testimonies shared by certain characters in the book true or fictional). Because while reading them, I was definitely like, is this TRUE? I just looked at wikipedia, and apparently, YES: Karl Marx apparently DID wrote a highly critical biography of Bolívar, which I find astonishing (Marx’s book is a big plot point in this novel).

In a way, I’m almost proving the book’s main point, which is that the perception of Bolívar as anything other than a liberator and hero is NOT a mainstream view in Colombia. As another character puts it (a university professor who shares the doctor’s views), “Upon this dreadful error the building of our nations began: a lie is worth more than the truth; a gimmick, a stab in the back: the end justifies the crimes.” (111) Hell, my school was named after him. Anyway, I sure wish I knew more about the Latin American wars for Independence after reading this. And it was fascinating to be presented with a view of Bolívar completely different than the one I was raised with.

So after we get these long sections discussing these negative views of Bolívar in history, that’s when the book really started to pick up for me, specifically with the introduction of Rodolfo Puelles, my favorite character (is his shared name with Rodolfo Walsh a coincidence?), a young wannabe poet who wouldn’t be out of place in Bolaño’s universe. Puelles belongs to a group of young people who are shaken by the recent death of revolutionary priest Padre Camilo Torres, students who are now “considering abandoning their degrees and heading off into the mountains of Colombia, to the guerrilla war, which had not yet officially begun but was already a great hope.” (123) As Puelles puts it, “Was it so important to finish your degree, or better to take up arms, go into the mountains and educate the rural masses?” (186)

There was a terrible sense of dramatic irony–almost brutally so–reading about the poet and his student friends and their obsession with Cuba, in light of everything we know now about what resulted from so many years of civil war. The doctor sees them merely as “faddish revolutionaries,” (215) but with the benefit of present-day history we know better. Or as Puelles later realizes, “Revolutionary enthusiasm was a powerful force, the elation was immense, but the muffled messages issuing from the mountains gave rise to doubt; something bad could be going on, Puelles thought, something harmful about the way things were advancing, in how devotion and effort were being used or abused.” (189)

This section of Feast emphatically reinforced to me how key the intersection between politics and literature was to a specific generation of young Latin Americans, almost tragically so. The way Rosero uses the young poet character was deeply compelling to me: basically, without giving anything away, Rosero introduces someone who ends up being one of the most important characters more than halfway through the book, a very risky move.  What ends up happening to this poet evoked SO much for me in terms of Colombia’s history with violence and youth that I found it personally very moving, almost difficult to endure.

As if invoking otherworldly forces, Rodolfo Puelles took refuge in poetry and from the whole of his memory chose the words of William Blake, clung to them as if they were a plank floating on the ocean: “Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead.” What’s more, hadn’t he read in some great Russian novel that you can kill and rob and, nevertheless, be happy? Where had he read that? And he repeated to himself over and over that he was a poet, above all and in spite of it all, and that no matter what, he was light years away from those pigs, I’m a poet, that’s what I am, come what may. (202)

Another provocative aspect of the book is its depiction of women and sex. I’m sure some people would find it offensive. Personally, I found it liberating. The wife and daughter characters (Primavera and Florencia) were, to me, very clearly the strongest and most determined characters in the book, the ones who are most capable of enacting agency (I especially liked the way the daughter took revenge on the little prat that threw flour on her). IDK, maybe I’m completely misunderstanding it, and they’re actually, like, oppressed by their sexuality, or sociopaths in the making. But what impressed me was their bad-assness, especially after frequent depictions of women on the receiving end of violence and oppression (not just in this novel, but in The Armies–that brutal ending!!). It felt to me like Rosero was compensating for that, somewhat. It also can’t be a coincidence, surely, that the doctor’s specific branch of medicine is gynecology? A job where you’re “looking” at women in the most intimate of ways? In some ways the fact that the main character is a doctor is key to the novel’s plot: how does the doctor diagnose the sickness of Colombia, the violence that plagues it, and its treatment of history?

Overall, I’m glad to see Rosero’s work continue to get translated. I really want his early books to get translated (I’ve only read Señor que no conoce la luna, and it was a trip). It would be fascinating to discuss this novel alongside García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, or even Chronicle of a death foretold. This book has made me rethink certain things I’ve always taken for granted, which is a terrific thing for a novel to have accomplished.

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Rereading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

WARNING: This contains spoilers!

  1. Things have a life of their own… it’s simply a matter of waking up their souls. (2)
  2. I find the above cover for this edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude hysterical. When in the book exactly does this moment occur? At what point does one of the female characters have a blue macaw perched upon their shoulders? There’s a reference to macaws during the epic journey to found Macondo, specifically to their “harsh and musky taste.” I guess that cover as it is looks sufficiently “exotic” or whatever. But I suppose the cover from the childhood edition I was familiar with isn’t much better? At least with that one I can vaguely say what scene it’s reflecting! Bah, I like the one for my Spanish edition (which I can’t find online) the best.
  3. I first read this book in Spanish in senior year of high school, something we all looked forward to very much as it felt like a proper initiation–we were finally one of the “older kids”; we would join the club of having read the book we’d spent our entire lives hearing about.
  4. Our teacher had us write little descriptions under the name of each family member in the family tree. So José Arcadio Buendía became el patriarca, José Arcadio of the second generation became el gitano, Arcadio of the third generation became el dictador, and so forth. It was very helpful.
  5. As a project for Art Class, my sister made a diorama of the book, with cartoon drawings of the characters. I liked her one of Rebeca eating dirt the best. I think Rebeca is my favorite character…
  6. Along with spending an entire semester reading this book, senior year (or was it 11th grade? I’m starting to doubt myself… God, my memory) was also the time when we took a class about Colombian history. COLMUNDO. God, so many timelines we had to memorize, so many treaties. Colombian history is intense and fascinating and I wish I’d learned more about it in my youth in a way that didn’t primarily emphasize memorizing dates :/
  7. In terms of vivid writing techniques, García Márquez does a great job of using smells in this book, most memorably with Pilar Ternera’s smell of smoke under her armpits.
  8. There’s lots of little moments in this book that I love in general, like when José Arcadio is stumbling around, looking for Pilar Ternera’s sleeping figure, and he bumps against a man who turns in his sleep and says, “It was Wednesday.” (27).
  9. Or when Úrsula thinks her love-struck sons have worms, and she feeds them a paste till they poop out some rose-colored parasites.
  10. The word “shit” comes up frequently in this book–most memorably near the end, when Úrsula shouts out, “Shit!” and Amaranta looks up in alarm, thinking it’s a scorpion. “Where’s the bug?” Amaranta asks, and Úrsula points at her heart and says, “Here.” :(
  11. The frequency of the word “shit” reminds me of the final sentence of Nobody writes to the colonel. Or the way intestines and shit are emphasized throughout Crónica de una muerte anunciada. In both those books, the frequent references to shit functions as a way to condemn the community’s lack of accountability, of the basic shittiness and lack of justice in the world. I wonder if it’s doing the same thing here.
  12. Reading this book makes me feel hot and sleepy. Like I was in a stuffy room without a fan. But in a good way? García Márquez must have based this feeling on the afternoons of his childhood–I definitely feel like I’m living in a sleepy slow town while reading this.
  13. “The host dust that made everything old and clogged up, and the drowsiness caused by lunchtime meatballs in the unbearable heat of siesta time.” (352)
  14. Who has the saddest fate in this book? Meme, with her shaved head and silence in the Cracow hospital? Paralyzed Mauricio Babilonia? José Arcadio Segundo, traumatized by his survival of the massacre? Kiddie raper/aspiring Pope José Arcadio of the fifth generation, psychologically destroyed by Amaranta’s molestations? Rebeca in her “A Rose for Emily”-like self-imposed solitude?
  15. The characters seem most unique in their deaths, in contrast to their names and lives…
  16. I think reading it this time round, the fate of José Arcadio Buendía (el patriarca) hit me surprisingly hard. Passages like the one below reminded me of the accounts of kidnapping victims I’ve read, in which it’s the passage of time, the blurriness of the identical days, that becomes the most hellish thing to deal with:
  17. “What day is it today?” Aureliano told him that it was Tuesday. “I was thinking the same thing,” José Arcadio Buendía said, “but suddenly I realized that it’s still Monday, like yesterday. Look at the sky, look at the walls, look at the begonias. Today is Monday too.” Used to his manias, Aureliano paid no attention to him. On the next day, Wednesday, José Arcadio went back to the workshop. “This is a disaster,” he said. “Look at the air, listen to the buzzing of the sun, the same as yesterday and the day before. Today is Monday too.” … On Thursday he appeared in the workshop again with the painful look of plowed ground. “The time machine has broken,” he almost sobbed… He spent six hours examining things, trying to find a difference… in the hope of discovering in them some change that would reveal the passage of time.
  18. Santa Sofía de la Piedad is definitely a character who manages to exist without existing (if that makes sense)–she doesn’t get a POV moment until the end, when she departs. At least the author lets her escape Macondo before its destruction, a small gesture of grace towards her sacrifices. This must have been one of the trickiest things about writing this book (among the MANY, many tricky things)–stating the fates of peripheral characters, so that they wouldn’t just disappear.
  19. Is Fernanda with her close-minded ways the book’s biggest villain? Mr. Brown the gringo who brings the banana plantation?
  20. Is the downfall of Macondo due to the treatment of Úrsula as an irrelevant plaything by the children? The death of Pilar Ternera, the oldest character in the book, whose last name sounds like the Spanish word for “tenderness”? Obviously the banana plantation massacre is a key turning point…
  21. “What did you expect?” he murmured. “Time passes.” “That’s how it goes,” Ursula said, “but not so much.” (341)
  22. I found the final hundred pages of the book deeply intriguing, as they’re the ones I never remember quite as well as the others. I’d forgotten that the characters Gabriel and Mercedes represent the author himself and his wife, for instance–they leave Macondo for Paris, and Gabriel is last seen in the imagination of Aureliano Babilonia, writing by night in a room that smelled of boiled cauliflower (those smells again!!).
  23. And I’d completely forgotten about how much time is spent discussing the bookshop owner from Catalonia, and the time spent there by Aureliano Babilonia and his friends. Is this the one form of redemption offered to Macondo? The fact that a few of its residents were able to escape via literature, via the mad energy of their Savage Detectives-like youthful impulses?
  24. Another big theme of the book that sunk in for me is the pointlessness of violence, and the damaging effects of war, seen most clearly through the Colonel, who basically becomes a walking corpse. His actual death feels so cruel (I’ve never understood why it follows the carnival scene). Such a withered husk of a man.
  25. The way this book depicts old age, illness, and decay is also commendable.
  26. Additionally, the way García Márquez writes sex scenes was very interesting to me, specifically how he depicts the passion without ever specifically saying what’s exactly going on in terms of, you know, what body part is where…
  27. I love how the chapter in which the ascencison of Remedios the Beauty occurs is also the chapter about the arrival of the cinema to Macondo. Which is more miraculous?
  28. I also love the unexpected parallels that I’d never noticed before in previous readings, the little mirroring moments of which there are surely many (how many are deliberate and how many emerged unconsciously during the writing?). Like José Arcadio Bunedía’s discovery of the skeleton in armor and the galleon beached inland, and then his son’s discovery during his gypsy travels of the preserved armour of a Crusader within the belly of a sea dragon. Two reminders of never-ending cycles of war and violence. This is the kind of book that makes you an active reader: you don’t just react to the text, you remember it while you read it.
  29. I want to give the insomnia plague passage to my students in order to provoke a discussion about the connection between words and their meanings. Isn’t it interesting how insomnia ties in to the end, in which everyone forgets the massacre, the wars, the Buendías themselves? Is the insomnia plague a subtle political metaphor for the erasure of memories and stories?
  30. I read an essay which García Márquez wrote early on in his career, about how the documentary impulse that characterized many of the early novels about Colombia’s la violencia period was fundamentally misguided, as they become so gory and obsessed with describing the massacres, the wounds, the desecrated bodies, that they cease to be novels at all. What would García Márquez have made of Part 4 in 2666, with its infamous catalog of corpses?
  31. Speaking of Bolaño, there’s an interesting essay to be written about García Márquez’s use of mirrors and history vs. Bolaño’s…
  32. I could go on to 100, but that would be way too cheesy, so I’ll just stop here :) I’ll save it for the next reread…

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Summer Reading + Photos

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The wedding is over.
Summer is over.
Life please explain.

(from “I Don’t Have A Pill For That,” by Deborah Landau)

Summer isn’t over just yet though!! (But I still like that quote…) Even the English weather is (sort of? Sometimes?) supporting me on that front. However: library job is almost over, editing is almost over, 10k race is definitely over (so hot! such hills! Still happy with time, fortunately). A long-awaited viewing of Barry Lyndon is also sadly over (an excellent film, probably the only Kubrick film I’ve seen so far that I’ve enjoyed rather than endured).

Other summer moments:

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“fish” (cod with tomato sauce, Portuguese style) and “chips” (sweet potato)

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Cheese and Pickle (local cats–real names unknown; nicknames are mine!)

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Silbury Hill… NOT Solsbury

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These trees at Avebury Henge apparently inspired Tolkein. There was a man sitting nearby selling CDs for £10 who eventually started playing a marimba.

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Sheep enjoy ancient standing stones, apparently (especially for back scratching).

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The “hellz no summer ain’t over” face

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An excerpt from my childhood Diary :) Some things never change, eh?

I also finished Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgård, which I enjoyed very much. Who doesn’t like childhood memories? Appropriately enough, Boyhood Island ends with a reminiscence of 13-year-olds fondling each other at a party–I suppose there’s no better way to declare childhood officially over with a good ole fashioned middle school orgy.

Knausgård continues to make me sick with suspense during the most mundane, every day moments. For instance, I was so agitated when he had to figure out how to crawl in and out of the house via a garden shed, because he didn’t want to confess to his father that he couldn’t get his house key to turn in the door. I HAVE THE SAME PROBLEM with almost every key, ever! Another tension-filled moment for me was when Karl was trying to find a spot in the woods to kiss a popular (i.e. big breasted) girl–I felt sick with embarrassment for him, when he suggested they try to break a record for the longest kiss (poor girl! Karl makes her hang on for 15+ minutes).

What else happens in this book? Girls (and burgeoning interest in them) is a big concern, obviously. His older brother introduces to punk and other 70’s/80’s era bands. He plays football (I love the part where he finds the missing ball in the bushes but refuses to take credit for it; it’s almost sublime). He is constantly teased for being girly, and harassed under his father’s reign of terror (which in this book is all the more poignant, especially the scenes with the father and grandmother, since after Book I we know what’s coming for them). There’s no sequence in here as memorable as the house cleaning in Book I, or the children’s birthday party in Book II, but all in all an excellent read. Onto Book 4!!

Two quotes I typed up:

“And that was how my childhood was: the distance between good and evil was so much shorter than it is now as an adult. All you had to do was stick your head out of the door and something absolutely fantastic happened. Just walking up to B-Max and waiting for the bus was an event, even though it had been repeated almost every day for many years. Why? I have no idea… Every day was a party, in the sense that everything that happened pulsated with excitement and nothing was predictable.” (264)

“Time never goes as fast as in your childhood; an hour is never as short as it was then. Everything is open, you run here, you run there, do one thing, then another, and suddenly the sun has gone down and you find yourself standing in the twilight with time like a barrier that has suddenly gone down in front of you. Oh, no, is it already nine o’clock?” (140)

While in the Avebury Henge neighborhood, I also read The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. Hallucinatory, strange, and gothically funny–she writes like a darker version of authors I loved as a child, like Phillipa Pearce or Judy Corbalis. I’d have given The Vet’s Daughter 5 stars on goodreads if it weren’t for the bit-of-a-bummer ending. I’ve read three of her books so far (Sisters By a Riverwhich I still think is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworthsand look forward to greedily gobbling them all. I love discovering new authors with extensive back catalogs.

Right now I’m reading White Tiger on Snow Mountain by David Gordon (who wrote The Serialistanother book I absolutely loved. He left a comment on this blog, which needless to say is a marked highlight in this blog’s puny little life). White Tiger is a short story collection, and so far it’s been making me laugh hysterically (cathartically, even). For instance, here is the opening passage of the first story (the Paris Review-published “Man-Boob Summer”–how about that title?)

I was spending some time at my parents’ place that summer. I was thirty-eight and out of ideas. I had finished my midlife crisis graduate degree a bit early, and after turning in my thesis, I promptly fell into the utter despair that comes from completing a long, difficult, and utterly pointless project. I was deeply, profoundly in debt, ruined really, and had no idea what I would do next.

Legendary!

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Pond

Pond (Clare-Louise Bennet)

My first day as a volunteer in Tijuana ten years ago, I spent the afternoon painting white lines on a basketball court. It was a task assigned to me by Martin, the beady-eyed Austrian volunteer who was working at the parish. It felt so peaceful at the time, shuffling up and down that court, mechanically dabbing a paintbrush. I didn’t need to focus on or think about anything else. I had fled from my undergraduate college in Portland, where I’d turned in all of my papers that semester extremely late. In contrast to a semester that had caused me to write things in my journal like “I feel like butter scraped over too many pieces of bread” (quoting LOTR, naturally), the act of doing something so simple, so straightforward, as painting a dirty court felt like a kind of magic to me.

I thought of this moment in Tijuana, and of all those afternoons spent in the Boys & Girls Club playing UNO or scraping gum off the underside of desks, while reading Pond. In this book, the narrator finds a similar refugee, as she spends a great deal of time deriving pleasure from small, simple actions. Much of the book consists of descriptions of eating oatmeal in the mornings, gathering firewood, weeding, going for country lane walks, and taking out the compost. “That’s right,” the narrator thinks while burning what she refers to as “evil-looking” holly during Christmas: “suffer, damn you to hell.” (146) Or during her frenzied, indiscriminate weeding: “Perhaps I really hate all this stuff and it is a very normal and human thing to wish to crush it.” (140) So yes, she is that kind of person: the kind of person I’d love to be best friends with, basically.

This is a novel that isn’t a novel. Or maybe it’s a collection of stories that aren’t really stories–more like flash fiction or prose poems. Essentially, this book is an example of my favorite thing in the world: the novel-story hybrid. The narrator is a woman living by herself in a shabby, rural cottage. We never learn her name. We assume she is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, since she refers to the Atlantic Ocean and to Dublin. We know that she has dropped out of a PhD program, where she has written thousands of words for an unfinished dissertation. She refers to different friends, some who may be lovers; one is married with children. In one paragraph she discusses a phone call with her father and their conversation about his “new,” younger family. That’s pretty much it. How she supports herself, how old she is, how long she’s been out here, living in this cottage, we never learn. This is a novel (and I keep calling it that, because it definitely read like a novel to me, with a clear arch and journey experienced by the character) that is very resistant to naming things, to pinning things down.

I was initially afraid that I wasn’t going to like this book, based on the description on the back cover and my own high expectations.What if I just wasn’t smart enough for it? What if I found boring, ranty, pretentious, overly lyrical and philosophically inaccessible?  Thankfully, the book is none of these things, saved by its engagingly readable style, deliciously dark humor, and above all else (for me personally, at least) the hysterically relatable misanthropic worldview. This is the kind of narrator who says things like the following: “I like worms and have no problem picking them up, which is unusual and thus gives me a clear advantage in certain situations because it means I can fling them at people if I feel like it and that never fails to cheer me up.” (26)

Or this: “What a sexy and beautiful thing it is to look at someone and decide suddenly and for no reason at all that I will for a while give them the cold shoulder.” (49)

Or this: “I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk.” (55)

Or this (my personal favorite): “One has to have illustrated links with the fair to middling ranks of reality I should think in order for something like Christmas to really work out otherwise it just seems odd and sort of accusatory.” (147)

Actually I take that back, I like this one the best: “In any case, gigantic joints of meat notwithstanding, there’s not much room in a Baby Belling oven so I should think the possibility of comfortably shoving one’s head into it is pretty slim.” (90) (Is it just me or is this hysterical?!)

(I could go on and on, but will stop there!)

The title of the book comes from the story “The Big Day,” about a party that the landlady is throwing. The landlady places a damp piece of wood with the word POND scrawled across it, next to the pond in question, which infuriates the narrator to no end:

One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go. (41)

This is the kind of passage that I would like to give to my undergraduate students and say something like “hurrrr ok the signifier vs. the sign in this passage discuss ok go.” Basically, I love how the narrator feels like naming things is crude and insufficient. This specific story ends with her throwing an item away into the Pond, something she never specifically describes but wants to get rid of fast: “a broken, precious thing. I dropped it into the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible.” (51) What a classic, invaluable technique—the not-naming makes the thing so much more intriguing.

One needs to be careful with names,” (84) the narrator says in another story, in which she is reading an apocalyptic novel about the last woman alive on earth (apparently this book really existsThe Wall by Marlen Haushofer—I must track it down and read it!). The apocalyptic feel of Pond was something else I very much enjoyed and appreciated, even though the narrator herself is not that isolated (she bikes to a store to buy expensive cheeses, and even throws a party herself). I loved the sense of retreat in this book, how there’s only a few references to texting; it’s obviously a contemporary book but at the same time feels quite timeless. It is a very anti-instant gratification book—anti-Instagram, anti-Twitter, anti-humblebrag, anti-resume culture. The narrator refers consistently to her “persistent lack of ambition.” (166) “It’s quite true,” she says languidly, “I don’t do anything really,” (133) which is an apt description of the book itself. It doesn’t “do” anything in the sense of a traditional, satisfactory plot or journey, but it is this not-doing that makes it valuable and interesting. Talk about an antidote to the kind of permanently judgmental culture described here!

So what’s up with this narrator? What is she running from (if anything)? In the last few stories, there are many references to a monster, a rising sense of terror, to a feeling that reappears from time to time “just to remind you, perhaps, what you are living with, even if you almost always forget.” (154) Forget what? In one of the most striking stories (see how I refer to them as stories even though I consider it a novel? TAKE THAT boring straightforward out-of-date genre considerations!!), the narrator is passed by a young man in a field, and imagines what it would be like to be raped by him. Did something happen to her? Is that almost a too easy explanation? Can’t a woman just want to hide away and like, chill, without it being the result of something traumatic? Even so, there definitely seems to be something there in the last few stories to me, which helps the book feel like it’s traveled towards something, even though whatever “it” is ultimately (thankfully) remains unnamed. “Sooner or later,” the narrator thinks, “you’re going to have to speak up,” (154) and one of the cool things about this book is that you feel like it goes on living even after you’ve finished it, that its complete story can’t quite be contained by its pages, that the narrator isn’t going to allow us to see what happens to her next. “I just don’t know if I’ll ever get the hang of it if you want to know,” (172) she says at the end, while contemplating a trip to Brazil or Bail, but somehow, that feels heartening rather than worrying.

Basically, I think this book is an incredibly achievement, and should be taught on contemporary literature courses for the next bazillion years, alongside Knausgaard and Thoreau. I have been waiting for YEARS for a book written by a woman to be as acclaimed as the ones written by Sebald and Teju Cole and so on, and with Pond I thus feel officially satiated.

Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream… So even though it sometimes feels as if one could just about die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive. (112-113)

Some other quotes I liked:

It was very nice I must say to every now and then take a break from cobbling together yet another overwrought academic abstract on more or less the same theme in order to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out. (25)

I’d sit at my desk from time to time, but that was all over with. That’s right, I’d thrown in the towel at last. It hadn’t worked out. I stopped doing what I wasn’t really doing. (25)

A lack of enthusiasm for a project makes me very clear-headed indeed. (44)

I don’t understand the past—I don’t understand the way the past is thought about, I don’t know why but it makes me wild with anger, to hear the ways the past is thought about and made present. Enforced remembrance is, I think, a most stultifying thing. (46)

The large-scale changes were in fact of no interest to me at all; it was the small things that remained constant which sort of attracted me. (47)

[While describing the dark green, porous bathroom walls] It was as if I might actually be able to glide my hands and arms and the rest of me so far into the wall and enter some other place that requires small sharp weapons and a hunk of kick-ass cheese. (134)

Even looking away was looking. (164)

I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things, it feels fatal for one reason. (165)

Once a word was written it was quite irretrievable, as if abducted. (154)

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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, review, short stories, women writers

Two Story Collections

Hot Little Hands (Abigail Ulman)

Along with Anna Metcalfe’s Blind Water Pass (written by a fellow PhD-er, this is an excellent, extremely relevant collection about migration and borders, very Lydia Davis and Kafka-esque), Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands is one of the strongest short story collections that I’ve read this year. Thematic links are young girls, sex, Australia, Russia, San Francisco, and not knowing what to do with your life. This is definitely the kind of book I would buy for my female friends.

Here’s a brief commentary on each story:

“Jewish History” – I really enjoyed this one. Kind of like “Mean Girls” written by a melancholy Emily Gould. Very powerful closing sentence. I liked the narrator’s perspective, a Russian girl in Australia who doesn’t quite speak English yet, and the oblique yet effective way the story conveyed this.

“Chagall’s Wife” – the first of many “mature” young girls that appear in this collection. Man, none of the girls in this book would have wanted to be friends with me in middle school; they’d have found me such a hopelessly boring square. The girl in this story runs into one of her teachers at a coffee shop, spends the afternoon with im in an art museum, before the story concludes with them going to the movies. Basically, us readers feel very, very nervous during the entire story about what’s going to happen next. I love the interrupted, in-the-moment, suspenseful ending (quite a few of these in the book).

“The Withdrawal Method” – the first of three stories in the book about Claire, a twenty-something finishing her PhD in film studies in San Francisco, playing in a band and “flailing around” (as one might say). In this story she has an abortion. I liked these three linked stories a lot; they add up to a pervier, more punk rock version of The Wonder Spot.

“Warm-Ups” – possibly my favorite in the collection. It’s also possibly the darkest. It’s about thirteen-year-old gymnasts who go to the U.S. for a performance (not going to say more than that). What a heartbreaking, gut-twisting ending. This story uses slow build-up of dread very well.

“Same Old Same As” – another great story, with a divisive lead character. Ramona is in therapy and starts telling everyone that her stepfather has sexually abused her, enjoying the attention that she gets from her classmates. It’s an ambiguous story right till the end and is definitely one that would challenge readers who need to “like” a main character. I found it very honest.

“The Pretty One” – the second story with Claire, about her relationship and break-up with a younger man. I like how she found solace working in her dissertation (lol). Kind of like The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, with a lot more drinking (wow, that’s the second reference to Melissa Banks that I’ve made so far…). I found the descriptions of San Francisco hipsters listening to bluegrass music, juice cleanses and too many facial piercings painful to read. I found the ending a bit too sweeping, like it was trying to sum everything up, but isn’t that what the fall-out of relationships is sometimes like?

“Head to Toe” – maybe the strangest story for me. Very understated. It’s narrated in a distant style: “this happened, this happened, this happened,” with little interiority of the two main female characters. Two sixteen-year-old best friends grow tired (as in existentially so) with their partying lifestyle. They return for a week or so at the horse camp they used to attend as children. The story ends with them returning home and then going to a guy’s house where one of them has porn-style sex while listening to Kanye West. This was a story that made me go “what?” but I definitely kept turning the pages, with a sense of trainwreck fascination.

“Plus One” – my other favorite story in the book. Twenty-two-year-old Amelia can’t finish her collection of essays, so she decides to get pregnant with her gay friend instead. This story made me think of Lorrie Moore and Jenny Offhill. What a devastating ending. This is another story I found extremely honest.

“Your Charm Won’t Help You Here” – I won’t spoil it, but basically this story describes why Claire ends up having to leave San Francisco. I found it compulsively compelling. I’d love to know how the author did research for this one.

All in all I would highly recommend this book and await the author’s next work with great interest.

Lovers on All Saints’ Day (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

I bought this book at The Strand in New York, where it had a different title than in the UK (The All Saints’ Day Lovers–what’s up with that?). At one point in the final story of the collection (which I’ll talk more about in just a bit), the main character watches the weather report on mute, and thinks about the upcoming news: “The one o’clock news was part of Oliveira’s routine, his day incomplete without the most recent scandal from the Assemblée Nationale or the images of the dead in Algiers, more or less sophisticated forms of violence that vindicated his desire to leave, to hide away from the world.”

I find the phrase “more of less sophisticated forms of violence” very interesting, and perhaps key not just to the collection overall, but to Vásquez’s other novels, which also approached violence as a main theme. Vásquez writes in the introduction to this book that he was inspired by Tobias Wolff, in that “a book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other,” which perhaps explains many of the eerie repetitions. In these seven stories we see the same scenes or images reoccurring over and over again: hunting trips with large groups of men, rural settings in France and Belgium, love affairs gone wrong, exile (both emotional and physical) and yes, shocking moments of violence (usually at the end). Are the intimate, emotional, personal-level forms of violence we see in these stories unsophisticated forms of violence, in contrast to the “sophisticated” scenes that tend to broadcast on television, make national news? And yet it’s these unsophisticated forms of violence, the kind that take place between lovers, that tend to impact us all, regardless of class, geography, etc. It’s this idea of emotional violence as a unifying force, more than anything else, which links this book in my head to Vásquez’s other works, especially The Sound of Things Falling.

The majority of these stories begin sloooooowly and build up to killer endings (a patience-based form of pacing similar to many of Bolaño’s works). The ending of “The Solitude of the Magician,” for example, makes a simple pencil have an emotional impact that you just plain would not believe. “At the Café de la Republique” is another standout, in which a  husband and wife reunite six months after separating, and the husband decides he wants to get back together (an medically inexplicable lump in his jaw is a major factor in his decision).

My favorite story by far was the aforementioned final one, “Life on Grimsey Island,” the darkest and one of the longest. In this story, a man whose father has recently died meets a veterinarian, whom he agrees to drive back to her home in Paris. During their journey (which is, believe it or not, full of unexpected twists and revelations) she tells him about the titular island north of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets: “so no one is afraid, no one feels the horror of having a fear of the dark.” It runs the risk of being a heavy-handed metaphor (dark = death, light = love + connection, etc.), but in the end, the story earns it, devastatingly so.

At another point, the main character stands in front of a map: “He approached the map on the wall and looked for Iceland. It was a violet-colored country. France, where he still was, was saffron red. Portugal was green, an intense green similar to the color of the van … Rootlessness had no color, however. It makes no difference to live in one place or another and being born here or there was an accident. One was a chameleon, countries and people mere scenery.” Oh boy, talk about a passage that one can relate to…

Overall, I’m impressed by Vásquez’s understated writing style, and his ability to show how violence and greed can split people’s lives open irregardless of the promise of love.

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Filed under books, colombia, review, short stories

The horror, the horror

What is going on with the world? England leaving the EU? Colombia’s peace talks successful (this is obviously a good, amazing thing, but will it work)? Orlando attacks? This Saturday I sat in on some free community writing workshops taught by two wonderful PhD colleagues, at the library where I work, and one of them told me that there was a man at the library entrance patting people on the shoulder congratulating them on England’s liberation. This poem I read on twitter by Audre Lorde has been really getting to me:

IF YOUR NAME IS ON THE LIST

If your name is on the list of judges
you’re one of them
though you fought their hardening
assumptions went and stood
alone by the window while they
concurred
It wasn’t enough to hold your singular
minority opinion
You had to face the three bridges
down the river
your old ambitions
flamboyant in bloodstained mist
You had to carry off under arm
and write up in perfect loneliness
your soul-splitting dissent
Yes, I know a soul can be partitioned like a country
In all the new inhere old judgments
loyalties crumbling send up sparks and smoke
We want to be part of the future dragging in
what pure futurity can’t use
Suddenly a narrow street a little beach a little century
screams Don’t let me go
     Don’t let me die Do you forget
     what we were to each other

O, what to do… I’ve been telling myself that losing myself in horror novels is not only helping me with my dissertation, but with coping with the world in general.

Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin)

Great suspenseful story. I would definitely teach this to undergrads as an example of a tightly plotted book that fills you with well-planned dread. I wish the guy with missing fingers (who shows them the apartment) had been in the movie. It was the kind of unsettling detail that made this book such a pleasure to read (Rosemary’s craving for raw, red meat was my other favorite).

It was interesting to notice how closely the film and book were related (even in terms of the characters’ wardrobe). It was also interesting to consider how so much of the story depends on Rosemary’s perspective: on her naivitie and essential goodness as a character, and how that becomes a kind of downfall at the end as she decides that instead of throwing herself out the window with her child, she is going to be a “good” mother. So much of the book is people telling Rosemary what to think and what to do. Is this final gesture at the end the closest thing she expresses as agency? Her point of view is also crucial to the story as it’s also what generates suspense in the narrative: we know more than she does, and are with her every step of the way as she figures it out. A valuable writing lesson.

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty)

I wasn’t crazy about this book but it was hard to tell if that was simply because I’d seen the movie first (like most people) and found the visual way it represents horror a lot more nightmarish and impacting. The main thing I have to say about this book/film is that I will never forgive my middle school religion teacher for screening this for us–what the HECK were you thinking??

There were a few bits of this book that I didn’t find compelling to read (the looooong dialogue scenes at the beginning between the mother and the director; wise choice of the movie to cut these out. I guess in the book they were meant to set up his character more). There was also that weird subplot about the Swiss butler’s drug addicted club-footed daughter that was like… ok, I can see why the movie cut that too. I did like reading the priest’s research into all the different black masses and satanic rituals throughout history (how much of it is historically based? Crazy that most of the rituals basically sound like insane orgies).

It’s interesting that so much of this book + movie is about people doing things to Regan’s body, particularly in the medical diagnosis scenes. A classic horror motif, I suppose: obsession with the abjection of young women + girl’s bodies. I also found an interesting parallel between The Exorcist and 2666’s desecration scenes. In The Exorcist the question about who is committing the desecration is clearly linked to the other mysteries at the heart of the novel (who is possessing Regan? Who killed Burke Dennings?)–the answer to these questions are all the same: the demon is the one responsible. In 2666, though, the desecration of the church serves as a distraction to the main mystery of the novel.

All in all, this was a fun read. The crucifix scene is WAY more graphic than in the movie (thank goodness they didn’t film THAT…).

The Loney (Andrew Michael Hurley)

This was an extremely atmospheric, moody horror (gothic…?) novel that I enjoyed reading very much–definitely my kind of “fun” summer read. It’s full of deeply creepy moments, like when an ancient jar shatters, only to reveal it’s full of fingernail clippings and matted wads of hair. The North of England setting is brilliantly described (and coming from someone who tends to skim over descriptive passages, that really means something). Creepy details constantly make us nervous throughout: a girl’s face glimpsed through a window, words scratched in the wall, trees blooming before their time, stories of the Devil’s long ago visit, beheaded effigies found in the wood.

The plot is also brilliantly set up: a withdrawn young boy travels with his family and other congregation members to visit a Catholic shrine, in the hope that it will cure his brother’s muteness. A well-done epilogue lets us know that in the future, the brother will be an infamous Christian orator. And so that becomes the main question that drives the reading experience, the thing that makes us keep wanting to turn the pages: how does his brother regain his speech? And what are the consequences?

Books like this help because they’re not just a fun distraction, they also make me feel like I’ve learned something. So do live PJ Harvey concerts. In the meantime… I’m going to keep reading, keep writing, keep planning.

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A few poems

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Maggie Smith

***********************************************************

Station Island – XII (excerpt)

and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike  your note.’

Seamus Heany

***********************************************************

And It Came To Pass

This june 3
would be different

Time to draw lines

I’ve grown into the family pores
and the bronchitis

Even up east
I get by saying goddamnit

Who was that masked man
I left for dead
in the shadow of mt. shadow

Who crumbles there

Not touching anything
but satin and dandelions

Not laid his eyes
on the likes of you

Because the unconnected life
is not worth living

Thorntrees overtake the spot

Hands appear to push back pain

Because no poet’s death

Can be the sole author
of another poet’s life

What will my new instrument be

Just this water glass
this untunable spoon

Something else is out there
goddamnit

And I want to hear it

C.D. Wright

***********************************************************

Isn’t there something

Isn’t there something in me
like the dogs I’ve heard at home
who bark all night from hunger? Something
in me like trains leaving,

isn’t there something in me
like a gun? I wanted to be
loud squirrels, around the trees’ feet,
bees, coming back & back

to the wooden porch,
wanting something–and wooden planks,
wanting something. To go back into
a tree?

Jean Valentine

***********************************************************

Are all the things

Are all the things that never happened, OK?
–The wide river at dawn, the hippo’s lifted face
–The slow, violet curtains of Antarctica light
(Hide you under the shadow of their wings)

And all the things that came–
The awful, and then love on earth, OK?
my own friend?          where you are?

Jean Valentine

***********************************************************

Lo Fatal

Dichoso el árbol, que es apenas sensitivo,
y más la piedra dura porque ésa ya no siente,
pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo
ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.
Ser, y no saber nada, y ser sin rumbo cierto,
y el temor de haber sido y un futuro terror…
¡Y el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto,
y sufrir por la vida y por la sombra y porlo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,
y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos,
y la tumba que aguarda con sus fúnebres ramos
y no saber adónde vamos,
ni de dónde venimos!…

Ruben Dario

***********************************************************
My Life Was the Size of My Life

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
It rode elevators, bullet trains,
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.
It ate, it slept, it opened
and closed its hands, its windows.
Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.
There were times my life and I made jokes together.
There were times we made bread.
Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from

Jane Hirshfield

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How Should A Person Be?

How Should A Person Be? (Sheila Heti)

How should a person be, indeed? Is there ANYONE who wouldn’t be interested in the potential answers to this question?

I already know that this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2016. It may be the best book I’ve read this year so far, period. Like many books I love, it contains the following pleasing qualities: humor, a complete lack of traditional plot, discussions of art and art-making, and women who don’t like men explaining things to them.

It is difficult to summarize this book (another common quality of books I enjoy). Reviewers have described it as semi-autobiographical (the narrator and the main character share the same name, occupation, and background details, and even have the same real-life friends, kind of like Borges writing about Bioy Casares in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). The novel has also been described as a play on the self-help book (I guess because of the chapter titles, ranging from “What is Freedom?” to “How Great It Is To Be An Adult”), or even a Knausgård-like, meandering narrative (even though I think it was published before he got famous). It also includes real-life e-mails and transcripts of conversations, which gives it a strange metafictional quality.

The main characters in this book are Sheila (a playwrite) and Margaux (a painter). What do they do? They hold competitions for making the Ugliest Painting Ever. They meet Keanu Reeves. They go through a brief phase of taking too many drugs. Sheila struggles with writer’s block, contemplates the fallout of her marriage and moves briefly to New York. Some people might find the drifting, self-absorbed characters in this book totally annoying (the narrator especially), and that’s okay. I personally thought it was hysterical. Isn’t art wonderful?! The way it can be subjective, and how different people can like different things?

In the opening passage, the narrator doesn’t beat around the bush, delving right into the book’s central question:

How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life… By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts thatI am the most famous person alive–but not talk about it too much. (2)

Would it be TMI if I reveal that I’ve encountered people like this? People who aren’t really interested in writing, but are more interested in being Writers, with a capital W? (These people are few and far in between, thank god, and none were encountered at my graduate school!) But yeah. That has definitely been a strange part of my life in the past four years… of dealing with this idea that people want ATTENTION and FAME and GLORY and ACCLAIM and (yes) MONEY from writing, rather than the satisfaction of a job well done.

Let’s get real: I am happy as a claim that my book is being published and blessed beyond belief. But I also feel wary. When I feel myself freaking out about this kind of literary life, the Writer life, the kind of life that has absolutely nothing to do with the act of writing itself (so thoughts like WHAT IF MY BOOK GETS PUBLISHED AND NO ONE GIVES A FUUUUUUQ AND MY PARENTS SAY AWKWARD THINGS ABOUT IT??) I just remind myself of my literary heroes, like Bolaño, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka. Punching myself in the face and telling myself DON’T BE A DUMB DICKHEAD is also helpful ;D

This was one of the themes in this book that I found fascinating–that of Being An Artist as opposed to Making Art. Sheila (the character, and apparently the author as well, when this novel was being written) struggles throughout to finish her play. In contrast to Sheila is Margaux (apparently a successful Canadian painter in real life, to whom the book is dedicated):

Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be. She never talked about galleries or went on about which brands of paint were best. Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics–which seemed more straightforwardly useful… Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix. (17)

Yeah. I am a fan of the Margaux school of thought, in terms of gettin’ it done. Early on in the novel Margaux is involved in a competition with another painter, Sholem, a competition that involves painting the ugliest painting ever, a process which Sholem describes as something that made him feel “like I just raped myself.” This attempt to paint ‘ugly’ on purpose leads to some interesting discussions:

Sholem was saying that freedom, for him, is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants, just whatever images he has in his mind. But that’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing. (19)

I love this idea–that of the importance of taking risks, and having something come out badly. As Margaux says near the end, “Better to have your failure right in front of you than the fantasy in your head.” (240) Or as Sheila is warned at one point (in terms of people who are obsessed with perfection):

In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful… The answer for them is to build on what they have begun and not abandon their plans as soon as things start getting difficult. They must work–without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked. (84-85)

I highly recommend this book to fans of Jenny Offhil, Miriam Toews and Lorrie Moore. I love books like this, that do something so unusual and unexpected.

Here are some other quotes I enjoyed.

We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time. I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. (3)

I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one. I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain. (27)

I am writing a play. I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it only saves three people, I will not be happy. If with this play, the oil crisis is merely averted and our standard of living maintains itself at its current level, I will weep into my oatmeal. If this play does anything short of announcing the arrival of the next cock–I mean, messiah–I will shit into my oatmeal. (87)

You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything. (98)

I sat there with the book on my knees, moving carefully through the pages, like a beautiful, anxious, pregnant young mother studying for her medical school exams. (189)

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Filed under books, fiction, review, women writers

Hot Milk


If this book was an art film, I’d definitely turn to my companion during the end credits and say something along the lines of “What was up with THAT?” But in a good way, of course!

I love the unusual, sweaty, sexy language and setting of this book. Freud would definitely have a field day with this. The narrator of Hot Milk is Sofia, a 25-year-old drop-out of her anthropology PhD program, who now works at a coffee shop serving artisanal espressos. She has traveled to southern Spain with her invalid mother Rose, who suffers from a mysterious and unpredictable paralysis of the legs and is seeking out the help of a famous doctor. The seaside town where they’re staying has been invaded by dangerous jellyfish, their neighbor has a tied-up dog who won’t stop barking, and the famous doctor Gómez and his mildly alcoholic daughter-assistant Nurse Sunshine seem to provide more questions than answers for Rose and her daughter. Sofia herself seems strangely adrift, so used to helping her mother that she often adopts her mother’s limp when she walks by herself (see what I meant about Freud?).

This is essentially a book in which you need to accept its mysterious, sultry, unpredictable mood. Hallucinatory is a good word to describe it; shimmery and hypnotic are others. You never know what is going to happen next, and that is a feeling I love. This is the kind of book in which Sofía is instructed by Dr. Gómez to steal a fish from a market, or you get sentences like “We dressed as if there wasn’t a dead snake in the room,” (123) and it makes perfect sense.

What I enjoy most about Deborah Levy are her tremendous sentences, her offbeat and surprising perspective that makes her view the world in a new way. “Whiskery langoustines” at an outdoor market are described as “the professors of the ocean.” (77) While looking at the galaxy screen saver of her smashed laptop, Sofia observes that one of the constellations “looked like a calf. Where will it find grass in this galaxy? It will have to eat stars.” (126) Unfinished hotels are “hacked into the mountains like a murder.” References to the European financial crisis are constant: “My lips were still cracking. Like the economies of Europe. Like financial institutions everywhere.” (135) I found these references to contemporary Europe the most interesting, especially when Sofia touches base with her long-gone father, and compares herself to a creditor coming to reclaim her debts.

What to make of this? What’s up with the sensually purring white cat who gives birth to kittens in the end? Is the Hot Milk of the title a reference to the coffee shop where Sofia works? What to make of the eerie open ending, those final sentences comparing the jellyfish drifting like refugees? What about all those moments in which Sofia feels like she is turning into a monster, Medusa-like (medusa is also the Spanish word for jellyfish). I haven’t touched on Sofia’s affairs with the beach shack nurse (who seems to be the narrator of strange, disjointed stand-alone chapters in which he is watching Sofia and having the same dreams as her), and the Spanish woman who likes to wear men’s shoes. Is the novel ultimately the story of Sofia’s coming-of-age, of journeying from girl to woman?

In the end I’m really not sure (I hope someone writes a dissertation about it and finds out for themselves), and I also don’t care. I loved letting this book wash over me like too-hot water from a bathtub. I also liked how the main character was sexy and alluring, yet also thoughtful and intriguing. Much like the often-naked Kitty in Levy’s previous novel Swimming Home (which was also fantastic and deserving of a reread), I like how Levy gives us these female characters with interesting minds who also often don’t wear clothes, as if she’s daring us to deal with a female character who is often sexy, vulnerable and exposed, yet also the driving force and ultimately most powerful figure in the novel.

Yes, some things are getting bigger, other things are getting smaller. Love is getting bigger and more dangerous. Technology is getting smaller, the human body is getting bigger, my low-rise jeans are cutting into my hips which are round and brown and toned from a month of swimming every day but I am still spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?

I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap. (202)

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The Vegetarian & Human Acts

The Vegetarian and Human Acts are two recently translated books written by the South Korean author Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith. Both novels are haunting, unusual, obsessed with eating, violent to the point of being disturbing, and subject to much acclaim. The Vegetarian was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Human Acts receives similar critical accolades.

The Vegetarian was in many ways a much less accessible novel to me than Human Acts. I definitely want to read it again. Told in three sections, The Vegetarian follows Yeong-hye, a young, recently married woman who begins to have blood-soaked, disturbing nightmares (narrated in oblique, italicized sections, the only section in the novel in which we have direct access to her thoughts; the rest of the time we see her through the eyes of people like her husband and sister). Her decision to stop eating meat and embrace a more “plant-like” existence puts her at odds with the strict social codes of her husband, family, and society. And I mean AT ODDS. Is Yeong-hye’s act of rebellion something to be admired or to be eyed warily (I couldn’t help but think of the conversation scene with the priest in the Bobby Sands movie Hunger, or the finale of Into the Wild)? Is her protest anti-capitalist, or even anti-modern life? Is her suffering a form of release? Don’t even get me started on what this book is potentially saying about the male gaze…

Overall, The Vegetarian is dark, beautiful, and disturbing read. It felt deeply allegorical in a way I couldn’t quite grasp with only one reading. I like how it’s a mystery story in which the essential question (why is the main character starving herself?) is never answered.

In terms of Human Acts, I finished it today and it is definitely one of the most intense, violent books I’ve ever read–maybe even a runner-up to Blood Meridian. Human Acts focuses on the events before, during, and after a series of anti-government protests known as the Gwangju Uprising, an event I’d never heard of (guilty as charged :/). The book, then, is very much about violence, or “human acts” of the decidedly negative kind.

I like the set-up of this book: it’s a novel told in different voices, almost like an interlinked collection. My favorites were the ones narrated by the torture victim and the dead boy (yes, that should give you an idea of what this book is like…). The epilogue narrated from the point of view of the author is also clever, as it invites us (the readers) further into the world behind the novel and why it was written.

All in all, you better come to this book emotionally braced. Reading Human Acts made me understand the meat vs. vegetarian imagery in The Vegetarian a lot more. There is SO much imagery in Human Acts comparing the massacred corpses to “butchered lumps of meat,” (181) or moments in which acts of eating are compared to either a hunger for life (89) or terrible sense of shame and disgust. (76) An essay comparing the two novels would be fascinating. In my personal opinion, Human Acts ends on a rather more optimistic note than The Vegetarian, but at that point I was so numb by the rape-shooting-torture scenes that it was hard for the tiny uplifting moment to to sink in and make me feel anything other than completely and utterly bummed by the relentless cruelty of humans against each other.

Human Acts constantly asks if there is such a thing as a human soul, or if “to be degraded, damaged, slaughtered–is this the essential fate of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?” (140) Ironically, the chapter narrated from the point of view of the dead boy’s soul comes off as much more vivid and alive than the ones narrated from the emotionally dead survivors, as the soul longs to feel a hot potato “juggling” in his mouth, or to eat watermelon without spitting out the seeds. (60) Ultimately, I think the strength of this book emerges not just from the brutality of its images, but in the clarity and precision of its language, the specificity of its details (like the aforementioned potato and watermelon). Now that’s good writing AND translating.

Here are some other sentences I liked:

“The thread of life is as tough as an ox tendon, so even after I lost you, it had to go on. I had to make myself eat, make myself work, forcing each day down like a mouthful of cold rice.” (195)

“If life was the summer that had just gone by, if life was a body sullied with sweat and bloody pus, clotted seconds that refused to pass, if life was a mouthful of sour bean sprouts that only served to intensify the hunger pangs, then perhaps death would be like a clean brushstroke, erasing all such things in a single sweep.” (129)

“She had no faith in humanity. The look in someone’s eyes, the beliefs they espoused, the eloquence with which they did so, were, she knew, no guarantee of anything. She knew that the only life left to her was one hemmed in by niggling doubts and cold questions.” (101)

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