“nobody knows what the future holds, it’s bad enough just getting old”

I read this column by Oliver Sacks recently and can’t stop thinking about it. It pretty much broke my heart. I can’t get the last paragraph out of my head: “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.” It’s the kind of Big Question that tons of thinkin’ and contemplatin’ will do pretty much nothing to solve.

Today’s gray rainy sky isn’t doing much either for my general Abraham Lincoln-esque melancholy and moodiness–God, does it ever make the humidity of the East Coast seem like a far and distant memory! This was a VERY emotional and intense summer for me (high school friends from Colombia getting married! Going back to Mexico! A very intense six weeks of summer school work!) and it has frankly been a relief to slip back into the habits and routines of England, even when it’s all tinged with the nostalgic, sehnsucht, saudade knowledge that I will (probably; most likely) be leaving again soon. For good? Who knows. Who knows anything? If you know something about anything could you please tell me? ;D

I’ve enjoyed my time here in England very much, but all things must end. I’m feeling pretty ready to leave but obviously have a few things to take care of first before that can happen (like, oh, IDK, submitting my PhD, DUHHHHR). In the meantime I’m glad to see that the library has gotten their purchasing act on over the summer and has some books in stock that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time. God, reading!! What would I do without you?!

All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

I don’t know if I’m going to do a good job at explaining the effect that this book had on me…maybe it’s the main reason I feel so moody and emotional this morning. Or maybe it’s the fact that I was up until midnight last night finishing it because I couldn’t put it down. Reading this book made me feel like I couldn’t breath. I actually read some parts out loud incredulously to myself because I couldn’t believe the cathartic rawness of the dialogue, while my cat blinked at me incredulously. It’s turned me into a shitty movie critic, wanting to exclaim stuff like “I laughed! I cried!!” It’s hard to articulate the urgent pain of this book, the black anguish that is only made palatable by the Lorrie Moore-like humor. This is the kind of book where I think it’s absolutely essential to know the autobiographical underpinnings of it… I don’t know if I would have maybe read it quite the same way if I’d taken it as “pure” fiction. The only other book I can think of that came close to having a similar effect on me was the equally brilliant Legend of a Suicide by David Vann.

I don’t know. I guess what I find most powerful about books like this one or Legend of a Suicide is that I feel like they’re “teaching” me how to live in face of one of the most spectacularly awful scenarios I can imagine…. and the “lesson” that this book seems to be teaching (or at least what I got out of it) is that humor, writing and reading can be an absolute lifeboat in face of all the dukkha that Buddhists like to rant about. After the narrator’s father steps in front of a train (and this is not even a spoiler considering the rest of the book, believe me,) “he had seventy-seven dollars on him at the time and we used the money for Thai takeout because, as my friend Julie says about times like this: You still have to eat.” (48) You still have to eat, indeed: talk about taking Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” to the ultimate level!

The voice of the narrator is above and beyond what makes this book worth reading. Listen to her response to a therapist’s advice: “When my father killed himself I went to see one and he suggested I write my father a letter… I thanked the therapist and left thinking but my father is dead now. He won’t receive this letter. What’s the point? Can I just have my one hundred and fifty-five dollars back to buy some Chardonnay and a bag of weed?” (115) Or her reaction to her mother’s question: “How are you, sweetheart? she asked. What have you been up to? Having unprotected sex with your mechanic and researching ways to kill your daughter. Not much, I said. Doing some work.” (203) I kept laughing out loud SO many times while reading this book, and considering the subject matter, that’s really saying something.

The other commendable aspect about this book is the pace. As the narrator herself reflects, “Now I’m learning something. Go into hard things quickly, eagerly, then retreat. It’s the same thing for thinking, writing and life. It’s true what Jason said about cleaning a septic tank.” (243) The attitude of going into hard things “quickly” and “eagerly” is a fair assessment of the book itself: it comes off like the ultimate cleaning of the dirtiest septic tank ever. The pace helps with the intense subject matter: the book moves fast, speckled with believable moments and memorable supporting characters. Even though the setting is fairly limited (the majority of the scenes take place in a hospital, and by far most of the conversations in the novel take place between just two characters), this book still reads very quickly, never dragging or feeling stagnant.

Even the narrator’s mother comments reflexively on the challenge of writing a book about “sad” topics: “Okay, she’s sad!” she says at one point about a book. “We get it, we know what sad is, and then the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which our protagonist is sad. Gimme a break! Get on with it!” This book definitely focuses more on the “getting on with it” then the million-and-one descriptions. Ultimately, the biggest question of this book (why does the sister want to die?) is ultimately never answered. Is it a suicide gene? Genetic? A historical burden from their grandparents being massacred in Russia during the revolution; a sort of hereditary violence that cannot be cast off? The pressure from being “perfect”? Self-absorption? The narrator doesn’t know. Nobody knows anything, except that “she wanted to die and I wanted to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”

“If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.” (219)

This book made me rethink about how I want to live my life. That’s really all I’ve been trying to say.

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)

This was another great book to read, albeit not as intense for me as All My Puny Sorrows. I know a few people (okay, two) who didn’t like this book because “it wasn’t as good as Never Let Me Go” or “I don’t like fantasy” or “it was sooo flatly written.” To each her/his own, of course, but fie on all that, I say. Fie on it! Because BOY, can Ishiguro write killer devastating endings that make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the teeth!!

All in all, even though I know (two) people who ho-hummed at this book or even downright sniffed at it–I loved it. I totally respect that Ishiguro has written a follow-up to Never Let Me Go that is completely, radically different (as are all of his books from each other, I suppose)–in terms of voice, subject matter, tone and even genre. Do you know how hard that is to do?! To write so many books that are SO different from each other?? Not that I know what I’m talking about, but still…

All in all, I didn’t love this book as much as Never Let Me Go, but its message still hit me pretty hard. The dialogue is a bit stilted at times (how many times can the main character Axl use the word ‘princess‘ in reference to his wife?) but I eventually figured it was intentional. Some people have said that this is the most ‘Japanese’ of Ishiguro’s books and I’m thinking maybe it kind of is? Again… not like I know what I’m talking about… but maybe people are saying that because of the detached language? IDK, I’m basing this comment off a wikipedia entry for The Tale of Genji so don’t take me too seriously.

What you SHOULD take seriously is that the message of this book is pretty heartbreaking, if you let it hit you the right way, if you let it get under you skin. And yeah, thin-skinned person that I am, this book hit me hard. You gotta let it in.

Is this a story about religious fundamentalism? The chapters narrated by the young Saxon boy most emphasized this for me, especially in this killer final sentence in his section: “His mother was gone, most likely gone beyond all retrieving, but the warrior was well and waiting for him.” Yup, the figure of the mother (compassion and fertility and empathy) is dead; long live the warrior who tells him to hate all Britons for the rest of his life and basically be a mindless killing machine. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers.” So is the buried giant the inescapable cycle of violence? The forces of history that crush ordinary people like Axl and Beatrice underfoot so that their moving love stories are forever lost in the shadow of legends like Arthur & Merlin & dragon slaying?

Or is this a story about old age and forgetting? (I read a review somewhere that claimed it was a parable to Alzeheimer’s, which I can kind of see.) In Never Let Me Go the narrator relished her memories and spent the entire novel remembering/reliving her past. In The Buried Giant, characters can’t help but forget due to an eerie mist that has settled over the land, and at times find themselves wondering “is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” Is it not better, indeed.

I also love how the legacy of Gaiwan, Arthur and Merlin are played with in this novel–maybe I’m crazy, but it made me think of the Iraq War and ISIS. “How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold forever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery?” Rather than a “fantasy” novel I would call this a “mythological” one… or even allegorical… It was really hard not to read this and interpret everything as a parable, even though I was never quite sure it what it was a parable of. I was okay with that uncertainty, though.

I just hope that if they make this into a movie, they don’t change that final scene. Thank God for books and reading and funky Vampire Weekend songs to help fight off the ravages and brutality of time and life and saudade and dukkha and everything!!

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2 Comments

Filed under books, death, review, women writers

2 responses to ““nobody knows what the future holds, it’s bad enough just getting old”

  1. Nice review of All My Puny Sorrows. You mention that there is no resolution to the “why” with respect to her sister’s suicide. With mood disorders, “why” is not necessarily a question that submits to logical answers. The suicides in this novel, of the narrator’s father and sister, are real, drawn from the author’s life. The question here becomes not why but how and should someone assist in an act that is so desperately desired. A gut wrencher.

    • julikins

      thanks for the comment! I agree that “why” in reference to the book’s themes is a question that can barely be asked, let alone answered.

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