Category Archives: Ali Smith

Notable Books of 2016

Here are some notable books I read in 2016 that I didn’t have a chance to discuss on this blog:

Annihilation trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

I read this trilogy while I was sick on my deathbed with the worst flu of my life during my Christmas holidays and it was definitely good escapism. I miss reading sci-fi, and this trilogy cured the itch for now. I first became interested in reading this trilogy when I read a profile about the author in the New Yorker. Overall, it’s very innovative sci-fi. The first book, Annihilation, would most likely be the most beloved among the readers, with its short length and succinct premise, the slow creepy build up of everything that had to do with the Crawler (even the name gives me shivers), the sense of mystery surrounding Area X, and the reserved reticence of the narrator.

There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout all three books, like when a scuttling sound is heard on the roof, or a plant that won’t die is discovered, or when the videos of the failed expeditions into Area X are watched. I like how ballsy the trilogy is in terms of not explaining everything, even if it meant I was confused or frustrated sometimes with not getting all the answers. But the more I think about it, the more I admire the book’s refusal to give me what I want. Please, Lord, don’t let the HBO adaptation dumb it down. I especially liked all the different perspectives in the book, and its overall (potentially anarchist?) message about nature.

I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)

I first heard of this book because I read an interview with the author on (where else?) the Internet. The interview was basically a scathing rant that I found hysterically funny, so I read this book to find more of the same. In that sense the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s basically a howl in the dark. Reading this for character or plot is not the best mindset with which to approach it. I read it because I enjoyed reading sentences like “Miley Cyrus’ songs were about the same six subjects of all songs by all pop stars: love, celebrity, fucking, heartbreak, money, and buying ugly shit” (264) or “Arcade Fire was a Canadian band which experienced minor popularity in the early 2000s before transforming into a market commodity that aging parents used as a theoretical reference point with their Internet addicted children.” (275) LOL.

This is the kind of book in which Twitter is described as “a mechanism by which teenagers tormented each other into suicide” (130), the Internet as “a wonderful resource for sexism, abusing the mentally ill, and libeling the dead” (196) and as a way “to create content based on inflamed emotion for the sake of selling advertisements,” (212) and Instagram as “the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate… Mostly, Instagram’s users uploaded photographs of things on which they’d either spent money or wished to spend money.” (76)

I dug it.

This book reconfirmed my belief that I do not want to live in the Bay Area.

Other brutal satire moments:

“On the Internet, you could be right. On the Internet, you could be wrong. You could love racism. You could hate racism. It didn’t matter. In the end, everything was just money.” (211)

“Expressing concern about racism was a new religion and focusing on language rather than political mechanics was an effortless, and meaningless, way of making sure one was seen in a front-row pew of the new church. They prayed not from any hard earned process of thought or genuine faith but because failing to bow and scrap before the shibboleths of the moneyed political Left might hurt their job prospects. And poor job prospects meant less money to buy consumer electronics built by slaves.” (212)

“The illusion of the Internet was the idea that the opinions of powerless people, freely offered, had some impact on the world. This was, of course, total bullshit.” (213)

“Global warming and climate change were the methods by which the human species, plagued by guilt and unacknowledged depression, committed suicide. The mechanisms of this suicide were eating too much beef, operating too many electronics and driving too many cars.” (184)

“I am moving back to Los Angeles where gentrification barely works because everything is a hideous strip mall and there is nothing worth destroying!” (270-271)

The Friend Who Got Away (ed. Jenny Offill & Elissa Schappel)

A good collection of non-fiction essays that at least three different people in my PhD program recommended to me (IDK if Elena Ferrante is making female friendships a hot topic for literature or what, but anyway, I finally got round to reading it this year!). It felt a little East Coast, private college, Brooklyn writer heavy at times, but what can you do. It made the essay set in Jordan really stand out. The pieces that most stood out to me were “End Days” by Jenny Offill (religious childhood friend), “Toads and Snakes” by Elizabeth Strout (very powerful tale of a long term friendship fading), and “Want” (about a copycat friend). The essays two estranged friends wrote about each other were also a cool concept. I would definitely recommend this to people.

Autumn (Ali Smith)

A fun, fast read. It was a unique read in the sense that it’s interesting to read a book that was written very quickly, about such a recent moment (the Brexit election). So it was very trippy to read a chapter set in November 2016 in November 2016 (!). I will always like Ali Smith, especially how she always attempts to do different things with her books. I liked the surrealistic dream sequences in this one. One thing I will say is that I was glad before reading this that I knew the following: 1) it is the first book of a planned four-book sequence, each named after a season (otherwise I think I would have found the ending a bit underwhelming and “whaaaaat?”), and 2) one of the main plot threads of Autumn follows an undiscovered woman artist from the British Pop Art period–it’s explained near the end who she is, but if I hadn’t known before that she was going to feature, I would have found her sections in the novel confusing. Overall, I enjoyed reading this. The sections where the main character is trying to fill out a passport application are particularly memorable, in a painful “have I ever been there” kind of way.

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)

Definitely a stand-out of the year–hallucinatory, hypnotic, and strange. A man lives alone on a west-country moor and is stalked by a mysterious beast–gripping stuff. I am definitely going to read Kingsnorth’s previous novel, The Wake, which is apparently a precursor to this one.

I liked the disorienting way we jump between dreams, visions, and the present moment–basically, Beast is a book in which you are never sure if what is happening is “real”, and if that kind of thing frustrates you, this may not be a good choice for you (it was for me, though!). I liked how the style of the book reflected the content (it reads almost like a free verse poem at times). I also liked the slow way that the beast’s horror is unveiled–very rewarding for me. And I liked all the Stone Age, The Dark Is Rising imagery, mixed with apocalyptic doom. This book made me want to wear a wolf skin, speak to ravens, run on the moors naked, and drink the blood of my enemies.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)

What a great story collection! I loved The Serialist and I loved this one too. The five star stories (discussed below) truly elevate it to an exceptional collection that I enjoyed reading very much. It explores similar themes as The Serialist: writers, writing, genre, horror, growing old, losing love… if you are a fan of funny, readable writing a la Lorrie Moore or Roberto Bolaño, then I recommend this book.

Stories that stood out to me included the opener, “Man-Boob Summer,” and not just because of its excellent title. I related to the main character a lot, an aimless postgrad, and the simple scenario explored by the story (he goes swimming in the pool of his parents’ apartment complex and gets a crush on the lifeguard). A very melancholy ending.

The second story, “We Happy Few”, was also one of my favorites in the collection. This one explores themes of addiction and recovery as a recently fired teacher gets a job escorting an up-and-coming addiction memoir star, trying to keep him clean and off drugs before his appearance on Oprah. The satire in this story about the writing-as-entertainment world is pretty killer. I also liked how the story explores questions of why we write, and who for. Also, the way the ending jumps forward in time is brutal, and really makes the story.

“Today I am remarkably healthy, considering. I do yoga (stiffly) and run (slowly). I eat vegetables and fold the laundry. I water my neighbor’s plants. I even quit smoking. But I didn’t write a word. I tried at first, but I couldn’t get started. Then I took a break. Then I decided it didn’t matter anyway. The world wasn’t weeping for my unwritten books. Now when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a teacher.” Or: “I proofread legal documents.” Or: “I hand out jalapeño hummus dip at Trader Joe’s.” I say to myself, mostly: “I’m alive, motherfucker.” What else do you want?” (20)

“I read to disappear and carry books like spies carry cyanide in their teeth.” (103)

I think my very favorite story was “I Think of Dreams”–WOW. Again, the use of time at the end (in terms of the abrupt flash forward) makes this story BRUTAL. What a lesson. Basically, two teenage boys take acid on a camping trip and things are never the same. I read this story with my mouth falling open. The title story is another star of the collection. You’ll never think of sexting the same way after reading this. Poignant and horrifying. And then you have “Literature I Gave You Everything and Now What Am I?”–what a title, right? I liked how the narrator of this story is such a jealous, petty asshole. The plot follows his attempts to write in a coffee shop that becomes occupied by a writer’s group that he finds extremely annoying. The final story is (I think) the longest, “The Amateur”, a layered story reminiscent of Borges and Bolaño in which the narrator listens to a story told by a man he meets in Paris, a story that takes a decidedly unexpected turn. A highly recommended collection.

“Hence the most important question facing any young writer may well be: How often should I masturbate and when? (It also brings up the second most important question: How much coffee should I drink? But here the answer is clear: As much as you can without dying.)” (235)

Best author I discovered this year was Alex Garland (Coma and The Beach, both great novels, what a shame he has moved away from fiction-writing into filmmaking). In terms of my new Ferrante-Knausgaard (i.e. author I read obsessively), I think Barbara Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths) might be the strongest contender for 2017.

Books I read this year that I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would were El Sicario by Charles Bowden (while the concept of having a book constructed solely out of a sicario’s words was interesting, the book would have benefited from more contextualizing paragraphs to break up the monotony of the voice), and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (I liked the memoir elements of this book, but the literary criticism ones went over my head).

Onwards and upwards to 2017! I am now about the same age (if not a bit older!!) as Adrian Mole in The Cappuchino Years, except I have no illegitimate children and have yet to be comissioned to write a book based on my reality TV show, which I consequently fail to turn in and have to hire my mother to ghostwrite for me. There’s still time!! :D

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Filed under Ali Smith, apocalypse, books, non-fiction, review, short stories, women writers

Book reviews + catch-up

Oh, my book reading has felt so scattered this year! So all-over-the-place, so sporadic. I accept, accept, accept this. I’ve been back in the U.S. for Christmas & family time for four days now. What happened in November/December?

I went on a six-day badass trip to India.

My old kindle broke because I either a) stepped on it, b) brutally abused it by carrying it around in my backpack and tossing it around everywhere without considering that I should be more careful, or c) the warranty expired, and as soon as the warranty of any electronic object expires, it is time for said object to break.

I work in the library downtown now, ten years after I got my first library job in 2005 back in Portland. I shelve books, wear a black lanyard around my neck that identifies me as a helpful staff member, do many fancy things on the computer and meet World War II veterans.

Kobe Bryant retired via a poem, and it made me think about how 15 years ago, I was a huge Lakers fan and watched the games obsessively with my dad and brothers. I’d even stay up super late at night to check the scores online, follow it play-by-play in the painfully slow Yahoo updates, and tell my sister about what happened as we walked to school the next day, me blurry-eyed and fuzzy from lack of sleep while she, bless her heart, pretended to be interested. We both played on the basketball team in middle school. I played center because I was so tall; my nickname was ‘Mona’ (‘Blondie’) even though I never really thought of myself as blond, and I have maybe never felt so blond or so tall in my whole life as I did back then. We won the championship at least once, my senior year of high school; we would travel to tournaments in cities far away in the mountains (where I’d be incredibly cold at night) or the coast (where I’d be incredibly dehydrated and sunburned during the day). I once ate an enormous cheeseburger before a game despite my coach’s stern expression and felt horribly sick afterwards. The injuries I have gotten while playing basketball include a sprained ankle and a dislocated knee that has dislocated at least twice since then and still clicks when I go up and down the stairs. I still sometimes have dreams where I’ve missed practice, failed to defend the attacker, missed the game-winning shot.

I worked on my PhD and went to a conference in York.

I started watching Twin Peaks to help me with my dissertation (Bolaño was a big fan).

I lost my passport and had to pay a fee in order to travel to the U.S. for Christmas.

I started reading Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents, Valerie Luiselli’s Story of My Teeth and Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t, but kept losing them in my room beneath piles of papers and dirty laundry, or when they fell into the abyss-like gap in between my bed and the radiator.

My cat was told to lose weight by the vet.

I read Middlemarch obsessively and am still nowhere close to finishing.

I spilled coffee all over my library copy of Bolaño’s The Unknown University and left it on my windowsill for weeks, afraid to return it.

I taught a class about literary theory to young students in a rural English village (town? hamlet?).

I went to London and saw this exhibition by Ai Wei Wei.

And I folded over the upper-right corner of the page where this passage appears, from Ali Smith’s new collection of short stories:

Meanwhile, in my sleep, the freed-up me’s went wild.

They spraypainted the doors and windows of the banks, urinated daintily on the little mirror-cameras on the cash machines. They emptied the machines, threw the money on to the pavements. They stole the fattened horses out of the abattoir fields and galloped them down the high streets of all the small towns. They ignored traffic lights. They waved to surveillance. They broke into all the call centres. They sneaked up and down the liftshafts, slipped into the systems. They randomly wiped people’s debts for fun. They replaced the automaton messages with birdsong. They whispered dissent, comfort, hilarity, love, sparkling fresh unscripted human responses into the ears of people working for a pittance answering phones for businesses whose CEOs earned thousands of times more than their workforce. They flew inside aircraft fuselages and caused turbulence on every flight taken by everyone who ever ripped anyone else off… They  marauded into porn shoots and made the girls and women laugh. They were tough and delicate. They were winged like the seeds of sycamores. There were hundreds of them. Soon there would be thousands. They spread like mushrooms. They spread like spores. There would be no stopping them. 

Public library and other stories (Ali Smith)

This collection has a noble goal, that of drawing attention to the current plight of public libraries in the UK, i.e. the cutting of funding and increasing closures. So in between almost every short story, there’s an italicized excerpt from someone (authors like Miriram Toews and Kate Atkinson, and plenty of people I’m not familar with) talking about what public libraries mean to them. A few of these excerpts are quite moving and memorable (like Toews’, and the final one by Sarah Wood) butI’m afraid most are pretty skimmable and similar-sounding. That doesn’t take away from the nobility of the cause, though, but I personally found myself racing through most of them in order to get to the fiction.

Anyway… I will always love reading Ali Smith. My favorite stories are the opener, “Last,” (which is maybe the most Ali Smith-esque story in the collection, with its abrupt, unexpected ending and beautiful lack of closure, involving the narrator’s encounter with a woman locked in a stationary train), “The beholder” (with the oh-so appealing plot of a rosebush growing out of the narrator’s chest), and “The human claim” (a story about credit card theft, Google maps and D.H. Lawrence). “After life” is also wickedly bad-ass with its contrast of modern technology with early silent films, and maybe the most outspoken story in terms of social commentary.

It’s also interesting to me that a lot of these stories blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, or even assuming the form of an essay (especially “The poet”), which is something she played a lot with in Artful. Is this where the future of the short story lies, in the blurring (or even erasure?!) between these two genres? Who knows. All I know for know is I love these sentences, these phrases, like the one in which “a work of art” is transformed into “a work of life,” a moment that (when I read it on the page) brought tears to my eyes, because yes, I am sentimental like that, and yes, I need to be reminded of it sometimes.

Purity (Jonathan Franzen)

I only just finished this today but still want to post about it. I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen for fourteen years now and still find him just as enjoyable. Even though somewhere along the way it somehow became “uncool” to like him…? IDK. All I know is that I’m finding this novel as delicious to read as Middlemarch, and that’s a gut feeling I trust. In the same way I ignore Kanye West’s presence on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed (and indeed, Kim Kardashian in general) so that I can continue enjoying and appreciating his music, I also ignore whatever it is about Jonathan Franzen that people don’t like. I could probably do some google research to try to find out… so it goes. Life is too short to be a hater. I WILL say that I remember absolutely nothing about Freedom, other than random things like the scene where the guy saves a ring/piece of jewelry from his poop, or the fact that it dealt with birdwatching. I have a feeling that Purity will stick around in my memory a lot longer, though.

There are so many things about this book I enjoyed… the contemporary themes (journalism! The Internet! Surveillance! Nuclear warheads!). The darkly dislikable characters (no one can write a bitter couples fight like Franzen can). The hopping across time and geography (1980’s Germany, 21st-century Oakland, Bolivia and Texas). The grumpy old man attitude towards the Internet and technology, the private sphere vs. the public. The oh so Franzen-esque scene where hope is gained from watching a few brown sparrows frolic in a bush, or from a game of tennis (a possible David Foster Wallace homage?)… because in this effed up world, what other places is one meant to look for hope?

Just like with Kanye West, I look forward to the next work, and the next deliciously, classically Franzen passages:

With every different keyword he entered with his name in every different search engine, he was no longer content to read the first page or two of results. He wondered what was on the next page, the one he hadn’t read yet, and after he’d looked at the next page he found yet another page. Repeat, repeat. There seemed to be no limit to the reassurance he required. He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self. The eyes of the world, even the eyes of his followers, didn’t matter for their own sake, in the physical world. Who even cared what a person’s private thoughts about him were? Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable, and readable way that data did. And since a person couldn’t exist in two places at once, the more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death. (492)

Pip nodded, but she was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? (539)

A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård)

Believe the hype. It took me months to finish this book (mostly on trains, planes and buses) but it was well worth it. I am definitely going to read the second one (I don’t know about the third, but we’ll see!).

What is so badass about this book?

  • It is really long.
  • It goes on for PAGES and PAGES about incredibly mundane, every day things (Karl is a teenager. Karl tries to get drunk. He tries to go to a party. He tries to kiss a classmate. He listens to 80’s music on cassette tapes). And yet somehow it is INCREDIBLY GRIPPING and COMPELLING. I found this way more of a page turner than The Bone Clocks, or indeed any Dan Brown-esque novel ever (not that I’ve read that many :p). This book is like the embodiment of that classic Virginia Woolf quote about the “appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner.” And then BOOM, something big in life hits you, violently disrupting the repetitive banality. The “something big” in this book happens to be the father’s death. The scene of Karl and his brother cleaning out his incredibly nasty, alcoholic-ravaged house is one that I will never forget.
  • Karl is ruthlessly self-dissecting of himself and his family, in a way that reminded me of George Orwell at his best in his non-fiction. “Brutal” is a good word. “Deliciously acerbic” is another.
  • Is this a novel? Non-fiction? WHO KNOWS? WHO CARES.
  • Just like life, there is no plot. Rather, it’s one event after another. I had no idea how bored I was with artificially-constructed, conveniently comforting, mainstream plots until I read this book. I honestly barely noticed its absence until I reached the end.
  • It deals a lot (and very seriously) with death. Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is an excellent comparison.
  • The writing style–specifically the readability, his fearlessness in using clichés and stating things very simply and openly. As this review in the New Yorker puts it, “where many contemporary writers would reflexively turn to irony, Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naïve or awkward.”
  • It would make a really good Werner Herzog film, especially with Herzog himself narrating the passage below:

But when I was twenty-four I saw life as it was. And it was OK, I had my small pleasures too, it wasn’t that, and I could endure any amount of loneliness and humiliation, I was a bottomless pit, just bring it on, there were days when I could think, I receive, I am a well, I am the well of the failed, the wretched, the pitiful, the pathetic, the embarrassing, the cheerless and ignominious. Come on! Piss on me! Shit on me too if you wish! I receive! I endure! I am endurance itself! (300)


Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)

This book made me rethink my life. Isn’t that nuts? What the heck do me and Thomas Hardy have in common, anyway? Him a 19th-century English novelist, me a 21st-century gal? I originally read this book because I saw the movie and loved it (especially the soundtrack), and ended up loving the book for its ability to connect with me across time, space, geography. Nobody can write a killer ecstatic nature scene like Hardy. And kudos to him for representing all of his characters so fairly. I had the feels particularly for Boldwood, putting up with the dreaded “let’s just be friends?” moment.

Those killer details! His feverish anxiety continued to show its existence by a galloping motion of his fingers upon the side of his thigh as he went down the stairs. (Apologies for the lack of page numbers–I read it on my now defunct kindle!) The cloth of the tent… became bulged into innumerable pimples such as we observe on a sack of potatoes.

The quippy observations that would be oh so helpful for any Modern and Forthwright Woman! Insights straight out of Ferrnate!

When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

Once I felt I could be content with nothing less than the highest homage from the husband I should choose. Now, anything short of cruelty will content me.

Taylor Swift should read this book.

 

Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns)

So this is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not just one of the best first-person narrators…. or books about childhood…. or books about frolicking in the English countryside as a child (which will forever be  a favorite topic of mine, thanks to the formative experience of reading novels such as Tom’s Midnight Garden and Goodnight Mr. Tom in my youth). Get it straight: ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS EVER, PERIOD. Even Emily Gould put it on her book club list.

I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to spoil it. And also in many ways this book feels indescribable, a singular reading experience I have never had before in my life. Basically… read this. I’m never going to forget it.

The Story of the Lost Child (Elena Ferrante)

A decidedly satisfying conclusion to Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. Things are wrapped up in ways that don’t feel trite, and the final pages end basically in the only way possible, linking beautifully with the very first volume.  I’ve learned so much about both writing and reading from these books. About how more than anything else, its characters and their relationships with each other that truly grip me in fiction. About history–the linking of the personal with the political (it sounds so cliché, and yet is so true). The tense urgency of her prose, the way her sentences rush on, tumbling into each other. The painfully true observations of the difficulty balancing family life with work, especially as a woman. The shadows of mothers and daughters; the complicated relation with and notion of home. And reigning high above it all is the complexity of Elena and Lila’s friendship, unforgettable and unsurmountable.

I can’t wait to reread all four of these books again.

Lila is right, one writes not so much to write, one writes to inflict pain on those who wish to inflict pain. The pain of words against the pain of kicks and punches and the instruments of death. Not much, but enough. (pg. 309)

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, fiction, review, women writers

Some poems; one quote

Body, Remember

Body, remember that night you pretended
it was a film, you had a soundtrack running
through your head, don’t lie to me body,
you know what it is. You’re keeping it from me,
the stretched white sheets of a bed,
the spinning round of it, the high whining sound
in the head. Body, you remember how it felt,
surely, surely. You’re lying to me. Show me
how to recognise the glint in the eye of the dog,
the rabid dog. Remind me, O body, of the way
he moved when he drank, that dangerous silence.
Let me feel how I let my eyes drop, birds falling
from a sky, how my heart was a field, and there
was a dog, loose in the field, it was worrying
the sheep, they were running and then
they were still. O body, let me remember
what it was to have a field in my chest,
O body, let me recognise the dog.

                                              Kim Moore (amazing poet + reader!)

*

Song

I am stuck in traffic in a taxicab
which is typical
and not just of modern life

mud clambers up the trellis of my nerves
must lovers of Eros end up with Venus
muss es sein? es muss nicht sein, I tell you

how I hate disease, it’s like worrying
that comes true
and it simply must not be able to happen

in a world where you are possible
my love
nothing can go wrong for us, tell me

Frank O’Hara

*

My Young Son Asks Me

My young son asks me: Should I learn mathematics?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That two bits of bread are more than one
You’ll notice anyway

My young son asks me: Should I learn French?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That empire is going under.
Just rub your hand across your belly and groan
And you’ll be understood all right.

My young son asks me: Should I learn history?
What for, I’m inclined to say. Learn to stick your head in the ground
Then maybe you’ll come through.

Yes, learn mathematics, I tell him
Learn French, learn history!

Bertold Brecht

*

The Sensual World [excerpt]

I was not prepared: sunset, end of summer. Demonstrations
of time as a continuum, as something coming to an end,
not a suspension; the senses wouldn’t protect me.
I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth—

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive

Louise Glück

*

Le Livre de Ma Vie

I love you.
But who is the I
and who is the you?

Mr. Potato Head
Mr. Potato Head

Please accept the pressing in
of your eyes.

Here are your glasses.
A book for the evening.

In the book a person
is smiling at you.

Smiling and smiling
like a mother over a baby.

Remove the pipe from your mouth
and smile.

Help me behave,
weeping in the dark earth.

Mary Ruefle

*

Terrible Deer

I am in a hospital bed when I feel an overwhelming pain in my stomach. I am sure I am going to die if I don’t get any help. Nurse! Nurse! I yell, but no nurse comes. There are no signs of any nurses. There are no signs of any other patients. There are no signs that electricity has been invented. There is no glass in the windows. I get up from the bed and walk slowly out into the corridor. Some papers are swept up in a breeze across the floor. Someone please help me! My water broke! My pleas echo in the corridor and then it finally happens. The terrible deer that has been clawing and biting at my insides for years crashes out of me and spills onto the tiles. It then quickly leaps into the night through the window. I can hear it dash through the bushes. I can hear it splash into the ocean. I can hear it tear at the air in the sky. It is the world’s problem now.

Zachary Schomburg

*

“From my mother: grace under pressure; the uses of mystery; how to get what I want. From my father: how to disappear, how to not exist.

I was born free, I’ve had the time of my life and for all we know I’m going to live forever.”

Ali Smith, The Accidental

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Filed under Ali Smith, poetry

Best Books of 2014

I read 101 books last year!! I feel proud of this but I’m not sure if I will set that kind of specific goal for myself again (i.e. read x number of books in 1 year). I found myself reading a lot of short books (Rodrigo Rey Rosa was especially great for this) because it meant I could finish them faster and thus meet my “quota,” while long books like Underworld I sort of gave up on (though I did manage to read The Luminaries, Ulysses, and re-read 2666). It was really helpful having a set goal, though. It helped me stay focused and motivated. In terms of Reading Goals for 2015, I want to read more books in Spanish that haven’t been translated (I’m gonna aim for between four and twelve, starting with Juan Villoro’s El testigo) and one book of poetry per month. If I end up reading between fifty and sixty books total for the year, cool.

If I had to choose a single Best Book of 2014, it’d be a tie between Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers. I also have to say all the Cortázar short stories I read this year were amazing and basically exist in a category of their own (i.e. a higher plane of existence the rest of us can only dare to dream of inhabiting). I also loved Dani Shapiro’s self-help book on writing, and Mary Ruefle’s poetry and essays. But here are some other books (ones I haven’t talked about on this blog) that also stood out to me as pretty excellent works of literature.


Under the Skin (Michel Faber)

Well, this book blew me away. I loved the movie and after watching it immediately wanted to read the book, which shocked me by how different it was (as in, COMPLETELY different). But like the movie, I loved how the book was so disturbing, creepy, unforgettable, haunting, insert other exclamatory adjective here. This book is a masterful example of how to pull off an otherworldly narrator. The moment in which the word “Mercy” is scrawled into the ground by one of the characters is one that I think I will never forget; reading it almost gave me goosebumps. What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be human? In terms of sympathizing with characters, should we root for what is alien or for what is familiar? Post-Elizabeth Costello Coetzee would dig this book, I think. So would Jonathan Safran-Foer. I hope those comments don’t make it sound like I’m implying that this book is a parable for vegetarianism, or a cry of arms against mega-scale meat farming. Though it very well could be those things, as well as a commentary on immigration. Who knows? Does it really matter when the writing is this good? I would recommend this book to pretty much anybody who wants to read something exceedingly creepy that will (can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but here we go!) crawl under your skin and refuse to leave.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

Another creepy, spectacular book recommended to me by my friend S. who also recommended Under the Skin and May-Lan Tan to me and has thus pretty much cemented her reputation as someone with exceedingly excellent literary taste. I would love to assign this book to read in creative writing classes. Just look at this opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

That voice!! I was instantly hooked. This is the kind of book that makes you remember why you love to read–you stay up until 2.30am even though you have to get up at 7AM the next morning because you just simply HAVE to find out what happens next. The way this book slowly but surely unveils its weirdness is exemplary. I wish I could extract a mathematical formula that explains how this book crafts suspense and develops its plot so that way I can just copy it myself. I guessed the “twist” revelation of this book early on, but even so that didn’t matter to me; I still couldn’t tear myself away. What truly elevates this book into the realm of the spectacularly weird classic is the unconventional, haunting ending. Is it a victory? A feminist triumph against the demands of society? Or a horrendous descent into madness? The book doesn’t tell, but ends with the chillingly sing-song phrase of “We are so happy.” This book is like the stories you hear late at night at sleepovers in sixth grade but then never, ever forget.

Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. Forget bingeing on Netflix; epic sci-fi trilogies about Mars are the way to go. I read Red Mars several years ago but amazingly still remembered just enough about what happened in it to read this book with relatively little confusion. The one problem I had while reading this is that boy, there sure are a lot of descriptions of Martian geography and landscapes. You can tell that the author did a ton of research and wanted to include EVERYTHING. No wonder the permaculture-loving, Biology-major Burners I lived with in Ecuador in 2008 loved these books. But even though I found myself occasionally skimming the descriptions of rock and crater formations and lichen growths, I still found this book (and its follow-up Blue Mars, which I’m currently reading) utterly, completely fascinating. Writing a dissertation about the representation of history in these books would be da bomb. The main conflict in the series is set up between the Greens–the people who want to “terraform” Mars, or transform it into a livable habitat similar to Earth–and the Reds,  the people who want to keep Mars the same, as untouched and uninfluenced by humans as possible. It’s such a relevant, urgent question, one that reminds me of this classic Radiolab episode (a show that has provided me with infinite small talk fodder for parties). Is it our responsibility to mold Earth the way we best see fit? Or is the world better off without us? This book does what science fiction does best–it raises very contemporary-feeling questions about futuristic societies that function as uneasy and uncomfortable parallels for our own.

School for Patriots (Martín Kohan)

This book was powerfully narrated and is an excellent example of how to write a novel about a fucked up historical period in an interesting, genuinely innovative way, as opposed to descending into some heart-rending classic cliché weepy plot about a Family Torn Apart By Violence and other such nonsense. Too bad the summary on the back cover SPOILS EVERYTHING (if you get this book, DON’T READ THE BACK COVER). Set in Argentina during the Falklands war, this book follows the teaching assistant María, who seeks to win the approval of her supervisor by attempting to catch male students smoking in the bathroom. Her efforts to catch the students leads to her spending most of her time hiding in the stalls, until things cumulate in a climax you may think is predictable, but just you wait–it’s not. The way this book indirectly deals with Argentina’s Dirty War, espionage, conformity and desire for power is masterful. What an amazing lesson this is in the power of fiction to “show” as opposed to “tell.” I learned way more about corruption from this book than any philosophical essay or news article could ever teach me. All in all, this book is a brilliant parable about state-enforced violence, in which much remains unspoken and unsaid, lurking uneasily beneath the surface of things.

How To Be Both (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith! Will I ever not like you? How do you do it? How does writing like this get done? What can I even say about this book? It’s two interconnected stories–one is historical fiction (narrated in a thoroughly modern voice) set in 15th-century Italy with much Shakespearean gender-bending and picaresque wandering. The other story is set in the present day, with all of its glories such internet advertisements, Edward Snowden-inspired fears about surveillance, and child pornography watched obsessively over and over again on ipads. There’s mothers and death. Gender and difference. Time-traveling ghosts. Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is sung;  twin strands of DNA are studied. We think of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, George Eliot and George Sands. We confront classic Ali Smithian questions (yes, like Kafka and Orwell, I am turning Ali Smith into a literary adjective): what does it means to be properly compensated for art? Does art actually do anything in terms of helping us dealing with the world and all its grief-causing horrors? Or does “poetry make nothing happen“? Why do things have to be one or the other? Why CAN’t it be both? My God, what questions! What a book!

The Humans (Matt Haig)

This is definitely the crowd-pleasing, feel-good, comfort-food book on my list, a perfect read for a Saturday afternoon that you want to spend curled up on an armchair drinking tea, not doing anything other else than reading for five hours straight. I read this soon after reading Under the Skin and it felt compulsively appropriate. I find it fascinating that the author wrote this after a severe anxiety disorder (based on the afterword)–it feels SO appropriate. I definitely related to the narrator’s observations about human nature, especially after he read Cosmo magazine and experienced social media. A highly enjoyable read.

Randall (Jonathan Gibbs)

A very entertaining, thought-provoking novel. It reminded me of Bolaño with its parallel universe of artworks and artists, so effectively evoked it was impossible for me to tell what was Real and what was Fake. I loved how this book took risks (such as the final section, which is told from the perspective by a character who has yet to narrate, and its riddle-like final sentence) and yet was well-plotted in a very satisfying way, almost like a detective story. The other big pleasure about reading this is that I know absolutely nothing about contemporary art and this book was a fascinating introduction. I’ll certainly never think about the color yellow in quite the same way again. I especially loved the central question that the book kept circling around: “Is there any art in here, or does it just look like art? And is there a difference?” Food for thought, indeed.

Things to Make and Break (May-Lan Tan)

Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice!! But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read. I can’t wait to see her read in April!

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

This was definitely one of THE best books I read this year–possibly one of the best books I’ve read ever, which is saying a lot. The premise is so simple–a house in Germany that hosts generation after generation of inhabitants–but the execution is simply stunning. While I didn’t always understand what was going on (there were at least two chapters I had to read twice), it didn’t feel like a problem. For me, it was worth it. Considering that hardly any of the characters have names in the second half of the book (most tellingly, the Holocaust victims do), the author does an amazing job of inserting sneaky little signs and telling characteristics that allow us to remember characters from chapter to chapter. The most powerful chapters for me were “The Visitor,” “The Girl” and “The Architect’s Wife.”

Fuck me, this book! The cold, factual narration, such a complete contrast to the emotional devastation that takes place! The way violent, traumatic incidents explode at the end of chapters, shocking you like a punch in the stomach (see, I have to resort to cliché in order to describe it, I’m failing to capture the appropriate words)! The epic themes of Exile, Time, History, Family, Identity! The experiments with time and structure! The hypnotic rhythm of the gardener’s chapters, the way they remind us of the daily tasks of life that are maybe the only things that keep us going and provide continuity in the face of the brutal, unstoppable forces of history. PLEASE READ THIS if you want to experience the absolute nuts, groundbreaking shit that fiction is capable of–a small tiny hopeful light in a dark dark world. Here are my two favorite Mrs. Dalloway-esque passages:

Things can follow one after the other only for as long as you are alive in order to extract a splinter from a child’s foot, to take the roast out of the oven before it burns or sew a dress from a potato sack, but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find these dandelions, these larks.” (pg. 103)

In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.” (pg. 108)

What a book! What a year!!

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, review, Rio Plata, short stories, year in review

Strange Short Stories

Free Love (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith’s first collection of short stories, like most of her work, is a delight and pleasure to read. Compared to her later works, a lot of these stories are fairly straightforward (for her, which is not saying much), but still quite experimental.

What most fascinated me about these stories were the abrupt, unresolved, interrupted endings and the characters’ movements through space and time. There’s a LOT of rule-breaking going on here in terms of what people say (at least in graduate school) about what a short story should be or do. But I guess that’s why you need to learn the basic building blocks of what a short story is—once you know what the rules are, you can BREAK THEM. A lot of the time in these stories, you have no idea what’s going to happen next. In “College,” a girl starts out watching a group of people put up a memorial bench on the college campus attended by her deceased sister, and ends with her catching a random lift in a gas station, heading to Bristol and playing a shoot-em-up game in an arcade. In “The unthinkable happens to people every day,” a man hangs up a phone inside a booth, smashes a bunch of TVs in a store, drives to Scotland until his car runs out of gas and makes friends with a little girl who takes him onto the roof of his house to throw stones in the lake (wow, are these stories fun to summarize). In “Scary” (probably one of the strongest and strangest pieces in the collection), we begin with a yuppie couple’s discussion of homeless people, follow them to a dinner party where the hosts are obsessed with River Phoenix, and end with the female narrator seeing a fox outside her window and then abruptly leaving the house and returning to the train station. My personal favorite in the collection was “To the cinema,” a story about, yes, going to the cinema, and also about the joys of movie going, and how stories change depending on who’s telling it.

In each of these stories, we are denied explanations of characters’ motivations and thought processes; they are not even hinted at; instead we have these giant blank spaces, these unexplained gaps. By leaving these blank spaces in the stories for readers to fill in themselves, Smith shows an incredible amount of trust in us, which is something I really respect and love about her work (it also means that there are a lot of people who would read these stories and just be like, what was the point of THAT, but hey, you need to write the kind of stories that you yourself would want to read, right?). While reading, you are constantly disoriented with no idea what to expect, but everything that happens feels completely appropriate and natural, as opposed to random.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it made me want to set fire to banks and start a revolution. Her writing often makes me feel like that. It’s a good thing.

The Secret of Evil (Bolaño)

The secret of evil is that it’s a secret. Ha! Ha! Ha! Unfortunately I didn’t come up with that myself; I read it in an interview with the translator.

This book is a collection of the files that Bolaño was working on at the time of his death, apparently for a new short story collection. What a man!! How many projects was he working on? A lesson to us all. The editors’ choice for the titular story, “The Secret of Evil,” has a good opening sentence that serves as an apt summary for the other pieces in the collection: “This story is very simple, although it could have been very complicated. Also, it’s incomplete, because stories like this don’t have an ending.” (11)

It’s fairly obvious to any discerning readers which of these pieces are incomplete fragments, though there are quite a few that stand quite well on their own and are as strong as anything else in the Bolaño canon. “Muscles” is the longest story, about a sister and her body building brother who brings home some creepy new Latin American friends (the conflict between Spaniards and Latin Americans is a motif in a lot of these pieces). I don’t know if “Muscles” is finished, but it felt complete to me, even though it ended on an abrupt, interrupted note, as even Bolaño’s polished pieces arguably tend to do. There are other pieces that definitely end on a “what was THAT all about” vibe, like “The Tour” (an anecdote about a journalist’s attempt to interview a singer who disappeared in the 60’s, though I guess the piece is more about the history of the band itself than the journalist), or “Daniela,” which is three pages about the titular character losing her virginity (apparently she is a character from both 2666 and Nazi Literature of the Americas, according to the book jacket).

The first story, “Colonia Lindavista,” feels quite complete, and is about a Chilean family moving to Mexico, and the narrator’s fascination with their next-door neighbors. It almost seems autobiographical—it’s interesting to think about how this could have been a direction pursued by Bolaño post-2666, to write stories that blur the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, a la Sebald. The next story is the title one: a journalist is awakened by a 4am phone call, and an urgent voice demands that they meet to exchange information. I would assume the information in question is “the secret of evil,” but typical Bolaño, the story ends right as they both meet, before either character gets to open his mouth. I guess the implication is that the secret of evil in unknowable, and if it is known to some, the rest of us don’t have the pleasure of hearing it. Gah, sounds accurate enough. Another story that deserves a shout out comes near the end, “The Troublemaker,” about protests against the Iraq war (it’s fascinating to think of what Bolaño would have made of the current state of the world—God, it’s been 10 years since he died!!! Isn’t that wild? God, he didn’t even get to WITNESS the worst effects of the Mexican Drug War, even though he basically predicted them. Maybe that’s for the best—lordy lord).

There are also a few stories about Belano and Lima, that rascally pair from The Savage Detectives, a book I grow more and more fond of in my old age (LOL). The stories that appear here about them made me realize more than ever how that book is about nostalgia, death and the inevitable passage of time more than the riotous revels of youth.

In both this collection and Woes of the True Policeman Bolaño displays an interesting fascination with dicks, sodomy and homosexuality. What was going on with that, huh? I suspect he’s making a commentary on masculinity. I wonder if writing that infamous chapter in 2666 had some kind of effect on him—NO, I’m not saying it made him gay, that is beyond stupid. But I wonder if spending that much time dwelling on what males did to females gave him a more cynical, bitter idea about masculinity, about what men are capable of (is this the secret of evil?). It’s certainly a theme that I noticed here.

What are the other themes or tropes in this book? Violence, chaos, the apocalypse, the end of the world, desperate attempts to take care of children, females being nervous around males, the feeling that something awful any second is about to happen. Probably the strangest story is “The Colonel’s Son,” which is about a character watching an extremely violent zombie movie that he claims is “my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell off my chair.” (19) The story is basically a summary of the movie and the pandemonium that ensues from a zombie-filled world: is this an allegory for Mexico? Latin America? Life in general?

Another fun Bolaño tendency that pops up again here is his love for using literary figures (both real and imaginary) as characters: VS Naipul is the main character in “Scholars of Sodom,” while Julia Kristeva appears in a group of other French intellectuals and writers in “Labyrinth” (in this story, as in others, you are never sure who are the real authors and who are the fictional ones. This is quite a merry game often played by Bolaño, and I would argue that this tendency to blur fake author with real authors is when his membership of the Borges #1 Fan Club becomes most obvious).

I liked this book a lot and felt it was overall quite strong, despite the incomplete pieces. It felt more coherent and like it had more of a vision than Woes of the True Policeman, but maybe that’s just because I’ve been biased and more predisposed to thematically linked short story collections lately.

Quotes from this book that are gems:

[It was] as if you were watching Jurassic Park, say, except the dinosaurs never showed, no, I mean as if it was Jurassic Park and no one even mentioned the fucking reptiles, but their presence was inescapable and unbearably oppressive. (from “The Colonel’s Son,” pg. 20).

Listen: I don’t have anything against autobiographies, so long as the writer has a penis that’s twelve inches long when erect. “The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom,” pg. 72 (I think this quote is going to become my new official philosophy towards #humblebrags, LOL–this terrific essay also appears in Beyond Parentheses and really made me want to reread Roberto Arlt—if there’s another thing I love about Bolaño, it’s the way he makes me want to  read other authors)

Literature brushes past these literary creatures and kisses then on the lips, but they don’t even notice. “Labyrinths,” pg. 63

Artful (Ali Smith)

What a book! What an author! What is this book, Artful, and how to describe it? Is it a novel spliced with lectures? Is it a series of lectures interrupted by stories? My professors would say that this book is playing with form, in a manner similar Teju Cole and WG Sebald (whom I really need to read more of): blurring non-fiction with fiction, a factual academic narrator with a playful anarchic one.

I don’t know if I’d recommend this book to someone who’d never read Ali Smith before (I wonder if their reaction would just be, WTF is this?), but as a fan since 2006, I absolutely loved this book. I’m going to insert a little #humblebrag myself here (WHY NOT, HOW OFTEN DO I #HUMBLEBRAG) and say oh, no big deal, but my copy of Artful happens to be autographed and personally addressed to me by Ms. Smith herself. Yes! Along with David Lodge I now own TWO books autographed by my favorite authors! England, you have been good to me, and what’s even better is that it’s nowhere near over yet.

The book is a collection of four lectures/stories, entitled “On Time,” “On Form,” “On Edge,” and “On Offer and Reflection.” They were all really good but the last two really packed an emotional whammy for me; I was in tears by the last two pages. (The part in “On Edge,” where she talks about Orpheus’ trip to the underworld had the same result.) Smith’s writing often has that effect on me; I often feel emotionally wrenched while reading, like my heart is being wrung out like one of the nasty dirty dishrags in my kitchen. I think this effect has a lot to do with her use of ‘you,’ the way in which one narrator directly addresses another character who remains for the most part offscreen (except for the parts when she comes back from the dead, but we’ll get to that in a minute). I love this style of narrating; it feels very personal (as though you are writing a letter to another person) and the ‘you’ definitely helps to draw you in and feel implicated in the story.

Another clever technique worth commenting on in this collection is the way she has two narrators, but you are never confused about who is narrating or when. One narrator takes care of the fiction side of the story, as she relates her experiences about being (literally) haunted by her former lover; the other narrator is the lecturer (the lectures appear as notes on her desk that are read by narrator #1, so in a way there is really only one narrator in the story: when we read the lectures, we are reading along with her).

I also thought it was really clever the way Smith uusesed Oliver Twist in this book. Even though there are quotes, citations and discussions of sources from all over the place (Antigone, Orpheus, Philip Larkin, Greek films from the 1950’s, Beyoncé’s lyrics to “Halo,” a photograph of four sleeping female avant garde artists from the 60’s, a modern poem about googling—I could go on and on), Oliver Twist is used as an important source in each of the four lectures, and thus serves as a sort of bridge. It also provides the source for the story’s title (Artful–> Artful Dodger. The book never makes this explicitly clear; I figured it out all by myself, HAHA!). I haven’t read Dickens since high school, but I’m now wondering if OT is worth flipping through at some point (IDK about reading the whole thing, probably not this year!).

God, I loved this book. I’d never read anything like it before. It definitely changed the way I think about academic criticism: it definitely CAN be fun and avant-garde, and God knows I got a helluva lot more out of this than some smarty-pants article on JSTOR. What a model to follow. I also loved its tender treatment of grief and mourning; it made me cry in the same way that Cheryl Strayed advice column to a grieving father always inevitably makes me weep cathartically. I love the way the book ends with the narrator signing up for Greek lessons, finishing Oliver Twist, and looking forward to the spring. It’s simple, but hopeful, which is maybe the only way any of us can move forward out of darkness.

Ultimately, I love Ali Smith’s writing because it expresses a profound joy and optimism about being alive, despite all the shitty evil things about technology and capitalism and modernity. I also love her writing because her works are filled with characters who love books, read books, fondle books, use books, and I am unabashedly biased and predisposed to works of fiction that discuss fiction (helloooo Bolaño fandom).

In summary and conclusion, these books are all great. That is all. YAY READING!

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Filed under Ali Smith, Bolaño, books, review

The Whole Story

I love Ali Smith. The first work of hers that I read was a novel called “The Accidental,” for a literature class called “Fiction and Time,” during my semester abroad in England, at University of East Anglia. I’d never read anything like it. I loved it, and list it on my favorite books list on this blog. I went on to read “Hotel World,” which I also loved, in all its “Mrs. Dalloway” canon-like homage, and then I read this short story collection, “The Whole Story,” while I was recovering from a pretty nasty break-up. After finishing two Lorrie Moore collections, I was still in the mood for some good old female-penned fiction, so of course Ali Smith was one first to come to mind. Not only does she remind me how fun it is to read stuff written by women, but how fun it is to read contemporary writers. I really should do it more often, if I can ever get myself back into a stable reading rhythm again… oh well, baby steps, right?

I like the quote that precedes the collection, by a Brazilian author called Clarice Lispector: Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It makes me think of Molly Bloom’s closing monologue in “Ulysses,” and then in turn of the sexy Kate Bush song: “mmmm, yes.” I feel like this quote is relevant to the collection because it seems to be asking when does the “story” truly begin: with the creation of molecules? With prehistory? With the prehistory of prehistory? With the “yes” uttered by God… Sophia… quantum physics… oh man, who knows.

The opening story (called “The Universal Story”–its place at the beginning definitely doesn’t feel like an accident!) is a good way to set up these themes for the rest of the book. The story asks good questions about when does a story truly begin, by using a series of false starts. “There was a man who dwelt by a churchyard. Well, no okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.” (1) And then it goes on from there, to a woman who lived by a cemetery, to a woman who lived by–no, in–a second-hand bookshop, to the life of an edition of The Great Gatsby, to the life of a common domestic house fly, to the customer who comes in to by a copy of the book because his sister is a performance artist building a boat made solely out of editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American opus. Using the Great Gatsby is an appropriate choice, as not only is it a reflection of the book’s closing lines (“beating back ceaselessly into the past” or so on), but it’s also a nice image: a boat made entirely out of books, carrying us away (not to spoil anything, but it unsurprisingly just ends up sinking in the English channel).

Maybe this summary doesn’t make this story sound like much. In this case, I would say that this story is a good example of how it’s not so much what a story is about, but rather how it is about it. I’m really not the kind of person who’s delighted by the trumping of style over substance… in fact, I would say that I’m pretty much over magical realism altogether, unless it is very, very well done. But for some reason Ali Smith pleases rather than frustrates me. She makes reading fiction fun. These stories make me feel good about myself and happy to be alive–I really can’t think of a better reason to recommend her other than that. They’re just delightful. They’re fun to read!

For example, take the story “May,” which has one of the best examples of Smith’s enviable ability to write killer opening lines: “I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom.” (45) Oh man! This may very well be my favorite story in the collection. There’s just so much to unpack here, about nature and technology and alienation and capitalism. One of my favorite parts of the story is also a good example of one of my favorite things about Smith in general: she has this technique where 1) we don’t know the gender of the narrator, 2) the narrator constantly refers to an unnamed “you,” their romantic partner, and 3) the 2nd half of the story is narrated by the subject of the previous narrator’s “you,” so that the new “you” becomes the first narrator. I just find this technique to be a really unique and powerful way of narrator–what is storytelling, if not talking to a “you”? And how awesome is it that the “you” character gets to narrate themselves, at the end? So in this case, after listening to the first narrator expound upon how he/she fell in love with a tree, the 2nd half of the story is from their partner’s perspective, which is even more interesting: how do you deal with your boyfriend/girlfriend, if they claim to be in love with a tree? This is an example of a magic-realism element that is handled quite well by Smith, in a way that is sweet and realistic rather than annoying. What’s so weird about falling in love with a tree anyway? In the story it isn’t treated all too differently than if the character was having an affair with a person. I also like how Smith puts people/tree relationships in context by referring to other stories and myths, such as the one with Daphne, which in turn makes it seem less weird.

Pretty much all my favorite stories in this collection are the ones that use this “you” mid-story switching technique. The one where the narrator is trying to get home on the Tube, and thinks that they see Death (“You know he’s Death because when he smiles, your cell phone goes dead.”). The one called “Believe Me”, which opens with these lines: “I’m having an affair, I said. No you’re not, you said.” (119) There’s other stories, too: the one where the main character is haunted by a band of Scottish bagpipers in full regalia (this is the most magical realism story of the lot). The one about the three Scottish sisters, and their random dead-end jobs working in fast food restaurants or as the coffee-drink vendor on a Loch Ness monster tour ferry. The weirdest story to me is “Erosive,” which is divided in three sections, “middle,” “end,” “beginning,” but still doesn’t seem to have any order: I can’t figure out if this story is about killing ants that are killing your apple tree, what it feels to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, or some weird combination of the two.

My favorite passage in the entire collection comes from “Believe Me,” which reminds me of something out of a Sarah Kane monologue:

“I can read you like a book and because the thing about a beloved book, if it’s a good one, is that it shifts like music; you think you know it, you’ve read it so many times, of course you know it, of course the pleasure of it is in how well you know it, but then you hear in the background, the thing you never heard in it before, and with the turn of a page you see a combination of words you know you’ve never seen before, you thought you knew this book but it dazzles you with the different book it is, yet again, and not just that but the different person you have become, the different person you are now, reading it again, and you, my love, are an excellent book for me, and then us both together, which takes some talent with rhythm, but luckily we are quite talented at reading each other.” (127)

Aaaah! Talk about making my heart stop… man, imagine someone writing that in an e-mail for you, or a text message, or a postcard. It makes my heart hurt just to think about it. I wanna write something like this myself, but for me, rather than for some stupid boy. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to Ali Smith is that she makes me feel inspired enough about fiction that I want to pick up my pencil and start writing again, myself. I’m getting there… it’s like that Buddhist expression: “Wherever you go, there you are.” You have to make YOURSELF the unattainable, idealized “you” that you long for and address and narrate to… you know? It’s like what one of the many, many self-help books I have read in the past two months said: YOU have to make yourself the hero of your own story, rather than some random other person who is supposed to swoop in and save the day and make everything all better with a band-aid and a cookie and a kiss on the cheek. The things that you long that have in a relationship, the qualities that you long to see manifested in other people, are typically the qualities you want to see manifested in yourself. The best thing about this is that YOU CAN DO IT YOURSELF, rather than wait for someone else to do it FOR you!! Like: don’t wait for someone to write a poetic love letter to you comparing you to a well-read book… do it yourself! What an important realization, to think that YOU are that person to whom you are narrating and addressing and directing your life towards… not someone else.

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