Monthly Archives: January 2018

Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 (Jon Mc Gregor)

I assigned this book to my students to read and it seems like they all enjoyed it very much. Quite few of them were from the area where it’s set, so it was especially interesting to hear that they found it absorbing and realistic (and I’m sure it would be validating for Mr. McGregor).

I definitely think this should have won the Man Booker prize instead of George Saunders, in terms of being a book that’s “pushing the boundaries of the form,” etc. I suppose one criticism of it (that I heard from my students) is that it gets a bit boring at times, and it becomes hard to tell all the characters apart. BUT… I would argue that as in Knausgaard, there is a reason for this effect. If the book becomes boring, it’s because LIFE is boring.The everyday is boring. You know? Cyclical, repetitive. Everything decays and fades away, crumbles into nothing. And if people seem interchangeable, it’s because we all are, in a way. And it also seems to be an important point that the “big” moments of the book are narrated in such a defused way, alongside descriptions of badgers mating and birds building nests and sheep wandering away and the weather, so that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss them.

I went to a talk Jon McGregor gave about the writing process of this book and it was one of the most fascinating talks about writing I’ve heard in years. Basically, long story short, he wrote the book by keeping two folders: one filled with descriptions of nature, the other of people. And then he tried to mash them all together. It was one of those talks that make you feel reassured about writing. And it was also just deeply interesting to hear someone talk about their process in such a detailed way – especially in terms of how dependent it is on restriction of form, like those crazy Oulipo writers who wrote whole books without using the letter ‘E’. And in terms of how much of the ‘writing’ turned into organizing – trying to figure out the structure.

I highly recommend reading this in one sitting – don’t walk away from it for a long time and then pick it back up again.

Most of all, I liked how this book tried to focus on what it means to be a person – what it means to be alive in a quiet everyday sort of way.

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Now and At the Hour of Our Death

Now and At the Hour of Our Death (Susana Moreira Marques; translated by Julia Sanches)

Death begins long before we fall ill, with neither suffering, nor drama, nor a single memorable occurrence. (23)

Another book about death. Is this my theme for the year?! I read this in the waiting room of a medical clinic (don’t worry, I’m fine) – maybe not the best place for this sort of reading :/ Considering the topic, it’s delicately, sensitively written.

The book is divided into two sections: the first very poetic and abstract, the second more akin to testimony. I enjoyed both very much and would probably choose the first one as my favorite – I really admire fragmented works in this style, a lá Barbara Comyns’ Sisters by a River. Part One follows the author as she accompanies a palliative care team, as they work in extremely rural Portuguese villages, the kind with a chapel, communal oven, eight lived-in houses, and no café, grocery, post office, town hall, or bus stop.

And yet, the surest metaphor for death is war: a person struggling in bed for years and years until their breathing is finally mistaken for moaning. (25)

In this section the author meets with various families, with various family members in varying stages of death. The section is narrated in fragments, breaking off abruptly, sometimes never longer than a sentence or two:

In the cemetery: a photograph and at times no more than a name. Names may survive, but they were never what made us unique. (33)

It becomes quite affecting, especially when the author notes that “death is chiefly a physical process” – beds, diapers, morphine, gauze, tubes, needles. “There is little that is literary about death.” How, then, to reconcile “literary” stories about death like the famous Ivan Ilych? How to write about death when there are no dramatic moments, just the sick suffering until they have no strength left? Her response seems to have been via the form of this book, via these poetic reflections and then the next section, which is built primarily on testimonies. I found the married couple who’d lived in Angola as farmers the most interesting. And then you have a daughter agonizing over her father: “What was going through his head? What does someone who’s dying think about? Does he believe he’s going to die? Does he belive it all the time? Is it a constant thought? Isn’t it? Does he try to kid himself? Does he try picturing what everyone else’s life will be like? Does he think about what he’s going to lose?” (107) Super fuerte … you really feel for her.

Overall, this was an intense read. It made me want to get in touch with my Portuguese heritage.

 

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Dying: A Memoir

Gosh. What a painfully simple yet intense book. Death. UGH. Written when the author was in the advanced stages of melanoma cancer, Dying is a memoir divided into three parts. The first is arguably lo más fuerte, with her reflections on the questions she most often gets re: dying (does she have a bucket list? Has she considered suicide? Has she discovered religion? Does she have regrets?). The first part examines her parents’ lives, and deaths. And the third focuses on the earliest memories of her childhood. At 150-odd pages, it is not very long, yet does a lot.

I wanted to read this book as… a sort of self-help manual, maybe? Does that make sense? Does thinking about dying help us figure out how to live? It meant a lot to read that she found writing to be so valuable. As Cat Marnell said recently on le Twitter, your (creative) work is the only thing you have any control over! Yay for work!

I also liked the parts where she quoted T.S. Eliot, and mused about the strangeness of time, of how life can be simultaneous, in the sense that she could be both a young girl and a dying woman at the same time (reminding me of this Mary Ruefle poem).

Oh, it’s so hard to live meaningfully and attentively, isn’t it? The days I feel I’ve frittered away! Fritter, fritter, fritter. Hours and minutes wasted away like corn fritters, zucchini fritters… IDK what other kind of fritters there are for this senseless metaphor. What does a time fritter taste like? Can you hold time in your mouth? What does it feel like? Is it ever too late for any of us?

Basically, this book made me feel sad but also moved. A necessary and powerful read.

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The Wonder Spot

I can’t believe I’ve never written about The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, one of my all-time faves! I usually re-read it once a year, when I go to my parents’ place for Christmas. It’s definitely one of those books for me that I can pick up at any time – never-fail comfort food.

I think what really makes this book for me is the humor. So many great one-liners! My current favorite is: I sat there and tried to get my personality back. (98) Along with Lorrie Moore and Sheila Heti, I think Melissa Bank ranks waaay up there, in terms of funny female American novelists. Now that I’ve (finally, at long last) read John Cheever, I can’t help but see his influence in here too, what with the whole East Coasters drinking in the city / making margaritas in the New Jersey summer house thing. God, East Coast life – so exotic to me! I’m still not exactly sure what or where the Hampton’s is…

Oh, and then there’s also all those killer observations about relationships:

  • I felt I needed to pretend to be a better person than I was so he’d keep loving me. This was hard because it made me hate him. (113)
  • I knew I was supposed to say I was sorry, but I’d already used up my I’m sorry allowance for the day. (130)
  • I sometimes said ‘I love you’ to Josh because I was afraid I didn’t; toward the end, I hardly said it at all, and when I did it meant, ‘I wish I loved you.’ (173)

The other thing that makes this book for me is its theme of being a young woman, trying to figure out your place in the world, trying to figure out who and what you want to be. It captures that “lost,” searching feeling beautifully. Or as my hippie dippie Jungian self-help book calls it, The Wanderer in the Cocoon  years. There are definitely QUITE a few passages underlined in this copy that wincingly remind me of the wild wastelands that are one’s early twenties (and yah, early thirties too!):

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that my grades and test scores over the years were anything more than individual humiliations; I hadn’t realized that one day all of them would add up and count against me… I’d already figured out that not understanding my failings was another one of my failings. (67) [UFF!]

One thing I noticed re-reading this, this time around, was the theme of female friendships. I can’t believe I’d never really noticed that before, how there’s three chapters (out of eight) that are focused mainly on Sophie’s relationship with a girlfriend rather than a man. I also found the parallel between Sophie and her older brother really interesting – the way they could never quite settle on a career (or person) that they love and are committed to, but how they both ultimately ended up being okay with that. It’s the open possibility of the “night in shining armor” that she finally embraces at the end.

I’ll also always love the structure of this book – how it’s basically a short story collection. Man, those sneaky publishers! I found it fascinating this time around how in some chapters (specifically the next to last one, “The One After You”) we get these drawn-out, explicit explanations of events that occurred earlier in the book, as though the chapter is a stand-alone story, meant to be read in isolation. So crazy! It definitely helps to create the sense that each chapter is its own stand-alone little universe. It also helps that some MAJOR life events (the death of her father and ex-fiancee, specifically) are completely glossed over. I remember reading in an interview online that Bank did this because she found it so hard to write “about” those events, so she just didn’t, thus creating a sense that Sophie’s life is bigger than what the book permits us to see; there are things going on offscreen that we don’t get access to

Man, I love this book. Almost thirteen years since it came out, though… I wonder if she’s working on another one?

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Goodbye 2017, Hello 2018

I read 63 books last year, which doesn’t sound that “bad” to me, but it definitely felt like a slow year in reading for me. This was mainly due to how busy I was, which unfortunately resulted in significantly less time for both reading and blogging. So I need to figure out what I want to do with this blog, moving forward – it seems a shame to let it go to pot a bit during its 10th-year anniversary. Maybe I’ll experiment with posting more frequently, but with much shorter entries. Vamos a ver.

If I had to choose my favorite books of the year, they would be the following:

Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún) – People will be discussing this book decades to come. Calling it now!

Necropolis, Return to the Dark Valley, Night Prayers (Santiago Gamboa) – yes I know I’m cheating by including three at once!

Before by Carmen Boullousa – This is one of the most incredible books about childhood I’ve ever read, and I really regret not writing a full post about it. I read it when I was in Colombia, in August. It reminded me of Sisters By the River by Barbara Comyns, another one of my favs.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (Jessie Greengrass) – Just to be completely forthcoming, I met Jessie at a short story festival in October, and she was the NICEST person. One of her aunts gave me some extremely strong flu medication, which seriously saved my life. Her short story collection is one of the best I’ve read in recent years – I’m kind of glad I didn’t read it before meeting her or else I would have been extremely starstruck. Her writing reminds me of Anna Metcalfe’s in Blind Water Pass – very simple, readabe, but almost fable-esque. Lots of strange stories about lonely, isolated people. Check it out. I’m also very excited to read her novel, which I believe comes out soon.

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World (Nell Stevens) – A lot has been written about this book online, so I won’t say too much about it, except that I really enjoyed reading it while on a writing retreat of my own (though definitely not one as intense as the author’s!). It’s one of those very funny, warm books about writing that makes you feel less alone.

How to Murder Your Life (Cat Marnell) – Honestly? This was probably the best book I read this year. Whenever I was stuck somewhere with no book and the battery on my kindle dead, I’d take out my phone and read this on my kindle app (for the longest time  all I had downloaded on my phone was this book and MR James – ha!). I must have reread it four or five times at this point, and it doesn’t get old. I find her voice so singular and engaging, and yeah, I also like the message in this book that there “is” no perfect, there is no clean.

The Book of Emma Reyes (Emma Reyes) – Another book I highly regret not reviewing! Along with Before, one of the best books about childhood I’ve ever read. A lazy way to describe this book would be a Colombian Angela’s Ashes, due to its depiction of extreme poverty- but yeah, that’s a SUPER lazy blurb. I’ve never read anything quite like it – perhaps the fact that it comes in the form of letters she wrote to a close friend has something to do with it. The strangeness of her memories! And of course, reading about early 20th-century Colombia was very enjoyable for me. Another regret I had was that I was sent this book to blurb and I DIDN’T READ IT IN TIME, WAAAH. Oho well!

Outline and Transit (Rachel Cusk) – Rachel Cusk was one of those authors I kept hearing people talk about but who I never actually had time to sit down and read. Well, I find her writing absolutely fascinating, namely in the way she eschews plot so bluntly and focuses primarily on dialogue and interactions between people. There’s something I find quite inspiring about it. The third novel in her trilogy comes out this year and I’ll definitely be hitting the ‘reserve’ button in my library account for that.

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber) – a good book to have read in a year when it felt like the world was falling down, all around us. I love sci-fi! Though is it more accurate to say what I like is ‘literary’ sci-fi? Lol… genres…. hooooo caaaarrreeesss

The Force (Don Winslow) – This was definitely my ‘guilty pleasure’ read…. I read this on a single sitting on the train (one of my many, MANY train rides this year) so that is definitely a testament to something. It reminded me of The Wire, in the way it tackles such ambitious, contemporary themes about the U.S.: police violence, drugs, corruption. And I really liked the muddled morality of the hero – it’s definitely a testament to the effectiveness of Winslow’s writing, that I felt so twisted up and anxious inside about what would happen to him, and what he would do.

I also loved Exist West, the last book I read that year. Sometimes (u know how it goes) you read a book that’s gotten lots of good reviews and been nominated for lots of prizes and a tiny little part of your brain is like “what if it’s overrated” … but I must say, Exist West deserves all of the praise it’s gotten and more. Incredibly empathetic and relevant. It’s very successful at putting you in the shoes of people who might otherwise just be considered faceless in news stories. It’s narrated very simply, almost like a fairy tale, but the themes are extremely contemporary (technology, surveillance, migration, what makes a nation). Major respect to the author for tackling such important themes in such an ambitious way. I think it helps that rather than “tell” a message, the book simply tells the story, in an almost detached way. A great book to read at the end of a shit year (in terms of world politics).

Books that I just didn’t “get” were Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders – I really liked the ending though) and First Love (Gwendoline Riley). The latter, especially, seems to have really struck a chord with people. I really want someone who loved it to “explain” it to me!

In terms of reading goals this year, I’m traveling to Japan this spring, so I’m hoping to read more books by Japanese writers before I go, and throughout the year.

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Station Eleven

Could this be one of my favorite books of the year? It’s definitely a strong start!

First off, I need to say I was in tears at the end of this. Now that NEVER happens. Even though I am a pretty sensitive person, when I read I am an ICE QUEEN. So if a book I’m reading makes me crack a smile, or tear up, let alone WEEP HELPLESSLY – that definitely means something. Maybe the global events of 2017 have left me a shattered emotional wreck, but I’d prefer to give the book credit for such an effect on me!

I found the themes of memory and forgetting in this book so powerful. The character who keeps a museum of now useless objects (iphones, high heels, debit cards) was probably my favorite, and the one I most related to. The concept and themes here! When the absolute “worst” happens… when everything collapses and everything you love is lost, gone forever… what do you take with you? What do you leave behind? What is valuable? What role does art play in this kind of world? One character has a phrase from Star Trek tattooed on her arm: Survival is insufficient. It becomes a mantra, of sorts, for the book itself, which overall does a really lovely job of mixing high art with so-called “low” art (comic books with Shakespeare, most notably).

The plot and structure of the book is fascinating – I definitely spent a few hours googling interviews with the author to read comments from her, about how she did it. The structure, for me, seemed incredibly complex (apparently she relied a lot on Excel in terms of keeping the timeline organized). There’s a LOT of characters, a lot of jumping around in the chronology, and a lot of things (in terms of “events” in the plot) going on. And yet it all ties together, beautifully so. You might not think that focusing on a famous actor’s love life would tie in with a post-apocalyptic Shakespearean troupe’s struggle to survive… but it does.

I imagine this is a book that some apocalyptic literature fans would read, and feel disappointed, mainly due to the lack of focus on the “collapse” part. But that’s what I found so rich and intriguing – the focus on life afterwards.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m obsessed with it!

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Books of 2017

These are the books I read in 2017, according to my Goodreads account. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I enjoyed the most. I read 63 books.

DECEMBER
Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)
A Pale View of Hills (Kazuo Ishiguro)
The Girls (Emma Cline)
*Necropolis (Santiago Gamboa)

NOVEMBER
*The Force (Don Winslow)
La Belle Sauvage (Philip Pullman)
The Lauras (Sara Taylor)
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King)
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (MR James)
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (MR James)
Demi-Gods (Eliza Robertson)

OCTOBER
Daisy Miller (Henry James)
*Return to the Dark Valley (Santiago Gamboa)
First Love (Gwendoline Riley)
*An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (Jessie Greengrass)

SEPTEMBER
Return to Howliday Inn (James Howe)

AUGUST
An Artist of the Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro)
*Night Prayers (Santiago Gamboa)
The Player of Games (Iain M. Banks)
*Before (Carmen Boullosa)
Flesh and Bone and Water (Luiza Sauma)
Bleaker House: Chasing my Novel to the End of the World (Nell Stevens)
Anything is Possible (Elizabeth Strout)
In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult (Rebecca Stott)
*Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Svetlana Alexievich)
Transit (Rachel Cusk)

JULY
The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)
*The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir (Emma Reyes)
Eye in the Sky (Philip K. Dick)

JUNE
The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)
The Hot Zone: the Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Richard Preston)
The Transmigration of Bodies (Yuri Herrera)
Outline (Rachel Cusk)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
Sympathy (Olivia Sudjic)
The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)
Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain)

MAY
Earthly Possessions (Anne Tyler)
The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame)
*Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Yuval Noah Harari)
*Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)

APRIL
*Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún)
Ways to Disappear (Idra Novey)
The Evening Road (Laird Hunt)

MARCH
The Schooldays of Jesus (JM Coetzee)
On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan) [reread]
*Fever Dream (Samantha Schweblin)
Lincoln at the Bardo (George Saunders)
Sandman Vol. 1-2 (Neil Gaiman) [reread]
*Revulsion (Horacio Castellanos Moya)
*A Life of Adventure and Delight (Akhil Sharma)
Multiple Choice (Alejandro Zambra)
Our Friends From Frolix 8 (Philip K. Dick)
Going Solo (Roald Dahl)

FEBRUARY
The Stolen Child (Lisa Carey)
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider (Ishmael Beah)
Homesick for Another World (Otessa Moshfegh)
*How to Murder Your Life (Cat Marnell)

JANUARY
1984 (George Orwell) [reread]
*Swing Time (Zadie Smith)
Nineveh (Henriette Rose-Innes)
*The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro) [reread]

To see books read from 2009-2016, click here.

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