Never Stop Reading: I Must Give So I Can Live

“We never stop reading, although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain.”

It feels good to end the month on a high note! Yesterday Laura and I got dirty from digging her garden, walked down Alberta St., drank a lot of coffee, had Happy Hour at the Tin Shed, and wandered into a music instrument store. Laura has her heart set on getting an oud but alas, her quest has been a bit hard-going. I’m pretty sure I’m going to get a keyboard, because it’s a) cheaper than a banjo and b) I already know how to play it, you know? Sometimes, laziness does play the winning card.

I’m pretty excited about June and the summer in Portland. The Boys & Girls Club is closed for the next two weeks for summer maintenance and to get ready for summer programming, so that’s been a nice little break, albeit a bit boring (there’s only so much dusting one can do without getting bored). Right now it’s so unbelievably hot in the house I’m not sure how much more of this getting-caught-up on silly computer stuff I can take, but I’m sitting in front of the open window where there’s a nice breeze so I’m gonna give it my best shot.

How I Became A Nun by Cesar Aira

This is the weirdest book I’ve ever read in my life. I can definitely see why the Bolaño rave is on the front cover. The back cover summarizes the book as “a modern day ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ that begins in cyanide poisoning and ends in strawberry ice cream.” That’s probably about as good as a summary you’re going to get.

It’s also important to mention that although the main character has the same name as the author, it’s never clear whether the narrator is male or female (she appears as a female more often than not). The NY Times book review focuses on this gender ambiguity quite a bit, viewing it as the key unspoken part of the novel: namely, more than anything else, this book is about a girl trapped in a boy’s body. I don’t know if this interpretation is what Aira intended, but it definitely makes for an interesting reading.

I liked the first chapter, involving said cyanide poisoning. The last chapter, involving a kidnapping, is quite Fargo-esque. The main word I would use the describe this book is “surreal.” Or maybe “dream-like.” What’s up the section involving the main character’s friendship with a boy who likes to play dress up with a plastic nose and his grandmother’s teeth? What to make of the character’s inability to “read” when he/she rejoins kindergarten, after his/her extended hospital stay? What does the title refer to? (The NY Times book review thinks it’s a reference to Spanish picaresque novels.) What to make of this book, period? Damn, I’ve never read anything quite like it, and it’s doubtful that you have either. It’s pretty damn cool to read contemporary fiction like this.

Rating: Read This Book Before You Die

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

I OWN I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?

(William Cowper, Pity for Poor Africans)

How could we do without sugar and rum? I mean, we like sugar and rum, right? We like our little comforts. They make our lives easier. We don’t need them on the level as we do, say, shelter and food and warmth, but they sure do make our lives a lot better and a lot more comfortable. And when it’s our own ease and comfort that’s at stake, it gets very, very trick when we start considering where that comfort comes from, and at what cost.

This is just one of the questions asked by this very powerful, well-written book. Toni Morrison kind of reminds me of Tori Amos, in the sense that they can both pump out these absoultely brilliant masterpieces with an ease that would be monumental and earth-shattering for any other author. This book reads as a very effective companion/prequel to “Beloved.” There’s a lot to like here: the Faulknerian narrative, the poetic language, the history of early European settlement and the beginnings of slavery on U.S. soil, some Bruce Springsteen-worthy imagery of a man’s dream house rising on a hill above the Virginia fog, a New World-esque motif of a girl struggling to fit into and get used to her shoes. Themes dealt with include debt, freedom, family, and ultimately how “to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.”

This book made me think a lot about Power and how I use Power in my everday life. There’s this essay by George Orwell called “Such, Such Were the Joys,” in which he describes how his experiences at prep school were his earliest experiences of fascism. Blind Justice being dealt out arbitrarily, for no rhyme or reason that you can see. Sometimes I feel like I’m teaching kids about Facism at my job. “Line up, it’s time to go to meeting!” “But why?” they ask. “Why can’t I just run around screaming? Why can’t I just throw things on the floor? I don’t like him, why do I have to stand next to him? Why? Why? Why?” It all must seem very silly, these exercises in How To Be A Socialized Polite Human Being I’m responsible for implementing, day in and day out. I think in the end, as Tori Amos sings on her new album, “I must give so I can live.” A good mantra. You get what you give. You can use power (over yourself and over others) wisely, for good rather than for evil. You can be aware of it and the consequences of abusing power. It can make you appreciate, above all else, your Freedom, all the more so if you’re a young woman.

Anyway, in the end I think the less you know about this book, the more you’ll enjoy it, because that’s one of the things I really appreciated: having no idea where the story was going and being constantly thrilled and awed by the skillful writing and plot development. Damn Toni, you write like a motherfucker, and you put us all to shame. It’s the kind of book you put down and stare into space for a while after turning the last page. Highly recommended.

Rating: Read This Book Before You Die

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

A very memorable, powerful book that asks the very difficult but important question: what is the relevance (if any) of literature to Real Life, especially when said Real Life involves political turmoil? (Specifically a military coup when people are being tortured and killed in basements while literary salon-like parties of the intellectual elite are taking place upstairs.) Is it brave and wise to read Thucycides and Plato when a democratically elected president is being overthrown, or just hopelessly stupid and out-of-touch? With this novella, narrated by a Jesuit priest who gives classes in the history and aesthetics of Marxism to Pinochet after the coup, I can see why Bolaño liked “How I Became A Nun” after reading this book. Oh, Bolaño. You make my life so much better. More than anything else, Bolaño has shown me that truly great literature has a strong connection to the relevant, to what is going on the world.

Rating: Read This Book, Bolaño Fans

Last Evenings on Earth by Bolaño

Amazing. Simply amazing. A must-read. Bolaño makes me feel happy to be alive, and how can a book be anything other than amazing if it makes you feel that way? Bolaño’s characters fuck, drink, swear, travel, smoke, live in exile, feel homeless and above all else readreadread and writewritewrite. Standout stories include the title one (a contemporary interpretation of Borges’ “El sur” ), “Mauricio (‘The Eye’) Silva” (which reminded me of “The Ministry of Special Cases,” in the way it serves as a eulogy for the victims of the “disappearences” in Chile and Argentina), “Enrique Martin” (scary and disturbing, and more than a little Phillip K. Dick-esque), “Anne Moore’s Life” (one of the few Bolaño pieces where the main character is female), “Vagabond in France and Belgium” (I liked the ending: “But she doesn’t hang up.”) and “Dentist,” which contains the closest manifesto of Bolaño-esque fiction that he has perhaps ever written, as well as the following extraordinary sentence: “We never stop reading, although every book comes to an end, just as we never stop living, although death is certain.” Oh, it just makes me want to sigh happily and hug myself with blissful, satisfied, sated contentment.

(The NY Times book review of this book is particulary well-written and makes for a good introduction if you’ve never read any Bolaño before.)

Rating: Read This Before You Die, If You Know What’s Good For You

Nazi Literature in the Americas by Bolaño

The kind of novel Borges would have written, had he written a novel. Basically, this novel is an encyclopedia of fictional fascist right-wing writers; mostly from Argentina, some from the U.S., Germany, and Chile. Apparently Bolano told an interviewer, “(Its) focus is on the world of the ultra right, but much of the time, in reality, I’m talking about the left…. When I’m talking about Nazi writers in the Americas, in reality I’m talking about the world, sometimes heroic but much more often despicable, of literature in general.” A very interesting take. Overall, the book’s “gimmick” got a little much for me after 150+ pages. All of author’s names started to blur together in my mind. I was slightly confused when I realized that the last chapter is basically the same story as “Distant Star;” I’d be interested in knowing which one he wrote first (I assume this one, as it’s much less fleshed out and detailed as DS). I’d recommend this only to Bolaño fans because I can see how it might be tough going for someone who isn’t used or into this kind of intensely referential writing (think of the footnotes in “House of Leaves” times 190 pages). The NY Times has another really good, well-written review for both the Bolaño fan and novice; it makes the interesting point that had the Nazis won World War II, this book could very well be true, you know? History is all about the point of view; in the case of this novel, it’s from the loser’s, which creates poetic irony but also makes it a little disturbing when you consider how it could all so easily be true.

Rating: Read This Book, Bolaño Fans and Followers of Borges

First Stop in the New World by David Lida

I read this book in a day. I’m very impressed with myself (as well as slightly horrified by how much time I spend per day commuting). I heard of this book when Corey and I met the author on the plane back from New Orleans; he was very nice and I am very pleased to say that I enjoyed this book very much! It’s the kind of book I wouldn’t mind writing myself someday: a nice balance of tone, a journalism and literary hybrid. Man, it sure did make me miss Mexico… those sizzling street tacos, mmmm. This book is about as informative and in-the-know as you’re gonna get about the D.F. Lida interviews politicians, the richest inhabitants of the city, glue-sniffing street kids, crack-smoking cab drivers, newspaper vendors, artists and more.

I liked how he made use of Octavio Paz’s “The Labyrinth of Solitude” when discussing Mexican culture and Mexican behavior. The use of “masks”, both personal and cultural, is pretty central in Paz’s essay, and it makes me think of what masks I use in my life. In terms of my cultural/racial heritage, I’m mostly British and Portuguese, with some Irish and German thrown in there. I’m basically a child of Empire. I was inventing this theory with Corey on the Max about how maybe historical and cultural baggage can have a subconscious effect on your own self-perception. Maybe that’s why Searching and Self-Absorption and Who-Am-I can be understood as Stuff White People Like: we’re all carrying around this weighty historical guilt from facilitating or implementing imperialism and colonialism. This is a really badly articulated argument that was formed when I’d had a few beers, so apologies for that. Anyway, all this reminiscing about Mexico makes me all the more pscyhed to see Luis Alberto Urrea at Powell’s books on June 3rd. (The Devil’s Highway is a really powerful, great work of investigative journalism.)

Rating: Definitely Read This If You’re Interested in Mexico City/Mexico


Filed under Bolaño, books, Rio Plata

2 responses to “Never Stop Reading: I Must Give So I Can Live

  1. Orange, Squashed By Dirty Boot

    this blog is out of control and makes me want to erase my blog out of shame and failure!!

    will write a real comment tomorrow when I'm not stupefied with ajiaco.

  2. julikins

    noooooo don't erase your blog! get a goodreads account! (how many times must I insist?)

    ajiaco sounds damned good right now.

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