Category Archives: books

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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Filed under books, British, nature, review

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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Filed under books, death, non-fiction, review, translation

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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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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Returning to Life

Well Internet… not gonna lie… it’s been a rough couple of months. Good things have happened! Things have been good! But also – hard. REAL TALK! I’ve been sick, the cat’s been sick… I went to Colombia, I came back to England, I turned in my PhD, I got sick with a flu which I still have, I saw Tori Amos perform twice, I went to Manchester, I went to London (several times), I went to Charleston (near Brighton), I went to Cheltenham, I went to Sheffield, my job started up again, I trained for a half-marathon, I hurt my ankle, I moved house, I threw a house party, the cat had a manky eye, the cat kept eating her food too quickly and vomiting it up constantly (a symptom of a bigger problem?), the cat let other neighborhood cats wander in through the cat door and blinked indifferently at them as they ate all her food, (though I suppose this was better than her fighting with them)! The cat door has since been blocked with the cardboard box filled with my great-grandmother’s china; plans to purchase a chipped cat door are underway. I put my books on my new bookshelves, alongside all the books from my grandmother’s now empty house. Books in Afrikaans from my mother’s South African childhood, giants atlases of birds and plants and insects, my grandfather’s hymn books, so many orange and white Penguin paperbacks. The past and present is all jumbled together on these shelves, and maybe that’s the way I like it; maybe that’s the way it should be.

In September I only read one book: Return to Howliday Innpart of the Bunnicula seriesa childhood favorite. Vampire rabbits and cheesy puns–that was about all I could handle. I had the dreaded BRAIN FOG. Not as bad as in 2010, fortunately. But everything felt very hazy and muddled and far away. I felt very tired; my body ached. I wept in offices, often. But I think… maybe? Could they be? Are things… better? The cat still needs be taken in this afternoon for an antibiotic shot (there’s blood in her urine… :( poor puss, please keep your fingers crossed for her). But maybe… things are okay? Is that possible? Is that something we can tentatively, daringly say? Like we’re poking up our heads from underneath a manhole cover?

There are two books in particular (maybe three, depending on how long my energy for typing stays up) that I can vaguely wave at and say, You are responsible for this – for pulling me up and onwards. For returning me to life.

Return to the Dark Valley and Night Prayers (Santiago Gamboa)

It’s good to write in the middle of the storm, although that may not sound very sympathetic to the country in which I live. It may even be immoral, despicable, but it’s genuine. Literature is also written when the streets and running with blood, when the last hero is about to fall, riddled by a hail of bullets, or a child smashes its little head on the asphalt. What is good for writing doesn’t always benefit the defenseless population around it. (“Return to the Dark Valley,” loc 107 in my Kindle)

Now these two books, Return to the Dark Valley and Night Prayers–THESE are what you call NOVELS. I’ve been meaning to read Santiago Gamboa for a while, but as always, my access to untranslated books here in England is complicated (i.e. expensive and impossible). But! He’s had three books come out in translation in quick succession (are there more in the way? I hope so!). He’s from Bogotá, studied in Spain and Paris, has been publishing since 1995.

As I read these books (one in Colombia, one in England), I slowly felt life return to my body and brain. Bolaño is quoted in the epigraph of Dark Valley, and his influence is all over both books, particularly in regards to the highly readable translation. Sweaty sex … grime … drugs … violence … revenge … murder… poets … monologues by crazy Argentinian Nazis and paramilitary priests … Rimbaud… terrorists … a globe-trotting narrative, ranging from Thailand to India to Ethiopia … the question of home … the question of how you forgive and begin again … the question of how Colombia moves forward post peace process… I don’t want to get into the plots too much, because I don’t want to spoil them. Basically, these books were Christmas present for my withered, broken soul. They were exactly what I needed.

At one point in Dark Valley, a character comments that a story sounds like “one of those stories whose aim is to forge beauty out of the ugliest and dirtiest things in life,” (loc 253) which feels like a good description of Santiago Gamboa’s style. I love how fearless he is in terms of playing with genre – REVENGE. CRIME. DRUGS. I ate it up. And yet these books are so strange! They are definitely not commercial. Return to the Dark Valley in particular is very clever in the way it draws you in via its monologue format: characters narrate, stories are told, but you are not sure who they are, or who they are talking to, or for what reason. The way those answers are revealed is one of the biggest pleasures of the book. What would an essay about Rimbaud’s life have to do with a monologue by a conservative paramilitary priest, or a mentally ill Argentinean Nazi claiming to be the son of a Pope, or a young female poet from Cali who is the victim of the most terrible crime a poet can imagine? You’ll have to read this book to find out.

Kafka, who wrote the best literature in the twentieth century, was an obedient citizen. Any life can lead to literature, by the most convoluted and unexpected paths. “Literature is the sad path that takes us everywhere,” wrote Breton. And not only that: in addition, it welcomes everyone, without an entrance test or letters of recommendation. Only what each person carries in his folder. (Loc 3253)

There’s a kind of dignity in continuing to do things that nobody is interested in and nobody celebrates. (Loc 3539)

Oh, young Arthur, what did you expect? Every poet dreams of being acclaimed, which is why the first book is a terrifying moment: to give it over, not to patient and charitable friends, but to the eyes of strangers; a specific and very fragile order of words that has to give way, alone, to… To what? The young man wants his voice to be heard, wants someone to understand him. That is the sublime ambition of anyone who publishes a book and huddles in fear to await a reaction. The anonymous reader is cruel and unfair because that is how literature is; only he who is prepared to take the blows can enter it. (Loc 4637)

Stopping writing is possible, but stopping reading? That is more difficult. On this subject there are, as far as I know, no precedents. Readers who abandon reading? Someone who has read and loved book is like someone who has tried the coolness of water or the pleasures of sex or good food. He may stop cooking, but not eating. (Loc 5235)

Night Prayers in particular took me a couple of tries to get into (see: BRAIN FOG), but once I got through the first chapters, what a read! My favorite thing about this book was its depiction of the years in which President Uribe assumes power, a time I remember very well, and thus it was very enjoyable for me to read. The contrast between the far-left daughter and her more conservative parents was particularly interesting for me. I love the Bolaño-esque style of Gamboa’s sentences (long, rambling, building). I loved the international settings (Delhi, Bangkok, Tokyo, Bogotá, Tehran), and the way time zones made it difficult to communicate, and how living in a certain country can be like living in the future. I loved the sister’s friendship with the old French academic, and their discussions on Colombia as a violent country (“don’t forget,” he tells her, “in the capture of Berlin by the Russian troops, which only lasted a few weeks, more people died than in a whole century of conflict in Colombia, so get the idea out of your head that this is a particularly violent country, because it isn’t.”) (221)

I did not understand the psychedelically narrated chapters entitled “Inter-Neta’s Monologues” – was this the voice of the Internet? I thought it was the sister at first, but at the end it also seems to be the brother? Very mysterious. But it was nice to see this book do something so uncommercial and weird, even if I didn’t understand it.

What was also very powerful about Night Prayers was its depiction of the sibling relationship – how weird is it that we don’t often see this in literature? The love between siblings?

I highly recommend Santiago Gamboa for those interested in Latin American literature and stories about international violence.

Why do you like this country so much? I asked, and he said, well, because it’s mine, why else do you think? I love this fucking country, or rather, if you cut one of my veins what would come out is… Colombia! no more, no less, isn’t it the same with you? and I said, no, what comes out of me is blood.” (255)

For many, to be a Colombian seemed to oblige us to deal with those themes in a particular way, which was why my generation and the ones after us were trying to escape all that, just trying to be a writer, and I added that in our part of the world, being a writer was a highly uncertain and probably unhappy existence because of the helpless state, the neglect and poverty in which most of writers grew old and died.” (168)

You realize you’re a writer when the things that swirl or echo in your head won’t let you concentrate on anything else: neither reading nor watching a movie nor listening to what other people are saying, not even your teacher or your best friend… If you are a writer, the worst thing is not to write. The bad news, given the times we live in, is that you can also tell yourself you’re really fucked.” (98)

The other book that I very quickly want to recommend is the brilliantly titled An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass. Full disclosure: I met Jessie at an event and you couldn’t fathom a more humble, intelligent person (her family members very kindly gave me medicine for my illness, without which I would have been in a LOT of trouble – I was so congested I could only breath through my mouth!). You HAVE to read her book. It is such a strange, sad collection of stories. Lonely people dreaming of other places, encountering the dead, working dead-end jobs, animals dying and suffering. In a work less than 30,000 words, it’ll be clear to you that you’ve never read anything like this (it reminded me most closely of Anna Metcalfe’s stories). They’re more like philosophical meditations, or essays, or even prayers. The short story, too, can heal.


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Sci-Fi Escapism

It’s so humid here in England (i.e. barely humid at all in comparison to the East Coast of the U.S. or Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but after such long bleak winters anything over 20-degrees C is open-toed shoes weather). Perfect for sci-fi escapism!

Eye in the Sky (Philip K. Dick)

Think the multi-leveled world of Inception mixed with the demented bodily fluids of Rick and Morty. I.e., totally whack. Any summary of this book is a bit of a spoiler, but so it goes. Basically, a group of people (a young boy, his conservative mother, an even more conservative old man-military type, a schoolmarm type lady, the African American tour guide, our hero Jack Hamilton, and his potentially undercover Communist wife) are caught in a lab accident. At first, it appears that they’ve been transported to a seemingly parallel universe, one controlled by an Old Testament-like God (who prefers to be referred to by the term (Tetragrammaton) – yes, the parentheses are intentional), complete with biblical plagues, punishment, prophets based in Cayenne, Wyoming, and a very straightforward reward-by-prayer system. However, it turns out the reality of their situation (believe it or not) is a lot more strange. A LOT.

The first-place most insane scene in this book involves this sentence: “The house-creature was getting ready to feed.” The second-place most insane scene involves characters disintegrating into conscious, bloated, wiggling blobs as essential chemicals (certain metallic salts, specific nitrates, iodine and so forth) are eliminated from the world, in the most crazy game ever of who-can-outdo-who, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. It’s hard to explain, but take me at my word: you won’t forget it.

Nobody does it like Dick does, especially in terms of writing about illusions vs. reality. Absolutely mental. What will I do once I’ve read all his books? Kill myself in despair?!

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)

I loved this! Definitely up there with one of my favorite reads of 2017. I couldn’t put it down! It’s a great book to read on a plane (I read it almost in one sitting). Apparently Faber wrote this when his wife was dying of cancer, and has said he will never write another novel again. Very sad.

Overall, this combines quite a few of my interests: aliens, apocalyptic collapse, cats, religion… I thought it was very interesting how thoroughly the book inhabits Peter’s “missionary” perspective. I can’t think of many other books that seem genuinely interested in exploring a religious mentality, as opposed to just criticizing it. The way the novel brings in Peter’s past is also very well done and subtle; what an effective way at conveying backstory without bogging us done in a bunch of flashback scenes. I loved all the scenes with the aliens, and found Peter’s final interaction with them very moving, especially in terms of the aliens-vs-humans theme (the ability to heal, have scars, move forward) . And I loved the letters exchanged between him and his wife, which really were the heart of the book for me.

I found what this book says about love very powerful – how do you stay close while going through very different experiences together, while very far away (in the book’s case, light years)? How do you keep going forward when the world goes to shit? Will future generations even care if they don’t know what things were like before?

A strongly recommended, entertaining read.

The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)

I love me a good book about the end of the world! Apparently this is going to be made into a film by Benedict Cumberbatch – I sure hope they don’t dumb it down. For example, a dumb way of pitching this would be The Road with a pregnant woman. Ugh, pitches, so gross. But I enjoyed this (again, read it in one sitting): it’s well written, short, and easy to read. I definitely kept turning the pages. And there’s a nice checklist of appropriately apocalyptic moments (tin food, radio fragments, flooding, etc). It’s written in a very anecdotal, fragmentary style – vaguely Coetzee-esque – very appropriate for short attention span of the Internet age. And what’s also interesting about this book is the theme of return and rebirth – it’s not “just” about this terrible even that causes everything to disintegrate and fall apart; it’s more looking-forward than that, which is pretty unique.

When I first read this, I wanted to know more about the husband and what he went through, but now that some time has passed I think I’m okay with not knowing. It feels more realistic in regards to relationships – you don’t always know what a persona has gone through, does anybody ever really “know” anybody, etc. Ultimately I like books that don’t describe or explain everything, and despite my occasional craving as a reader to have more narrative satisfaction, despite my initial reaction I now think it’s smarter of the author to deny us that. Kudos to the editors too for not shoe-horning in a boring explanation.

The Hot Zone: the Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Richard Preston)

Not a sci-fi story but shit, it might as well be! Apparently this book was the “inspiration” (in the vaguest possible sense of the term) for that 90’s classic virus film Outbreak. And apparently Stephen King called the opening chapter of this book one of the scariest horror openings he’d ever read. I’d agree with him on that, especially about that scene in the place where the guy starts bleeding… :/ Dark and gripping. As my sister said, I wish there were more books and movies about virus outbreaks… it’s like this weird cathartic need…

The Transmigration of Bodies (Yuri Herrera)

In regards to killer viruses, another book worth quickly commenting on (again, not specifically sci-fi) is The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera. This book combines the majority of my obsessions: apocalyptic plagues, crime fiction, the Mexican border, violence, Latin America, simple dirty prose…. it definitely gets a gold star. I especially loved how an apocalyptic plague is used as a metaphorical stand-in for the violence in Mexico. So brilliant! I find this way of writing about Latin America SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than, like, straightforward storytelling (wow, I love how articulate I’m being right now, but whatever, it’s hot and my brain is mush). I loved the dirty grimey Raymond Chandler-meets-Mad Max crime vibe, particularly in the prose style (what a translation!). I liked the strong women characters, like the nurse Vicky. I loved everyone’s nicknames (the Neanderthal, the Dolphin, the Mennonite – so badass!). I was a bit alarmed by the very graphic sex scene at the beginning, and I’m sure some with weaker constitutions than me could potentially be like “eeeeew exploitative,” but I DUG IT. Like the final story of Álvaro Uribe’s Hypothermia, the sex here is presented as this liberating, powerful antidote to a society that is otherwise falling apart. Bring on the pervey women and men, I say!

A good read, specifically for those who are interested in border/Latin American literature. Short, strange, and beautifully translated.


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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, Mexico, non-fiction, Phillip K. Dick, review

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn

Boy oh boy, how could I have not read these books before? I mean, as a kid I read the adapted-for-youngsters versions, one with simplified language and with pictures – thank God for that particular series of kiddie books! Otherwise, I could not claim to know the plot of David Copperfield, Little Women, etc., etc. If I have kids (and if print books are still, like, a thing – and assuming our robot overlords will still permit us reading time), I sure do want my spawn to have copies of that specific kiddie series.

think I’ve read Huck Finn before, for a 2006 class on Literature of the American South. Too bad I retain nothing of what was surely an interesting class discussion :/

I loved these books (am still reading Huck Finn and savoring it). Isn’t it amazing that books written so long ago are still so readable, funny, and enjoyable? Emphasis on FUNNY. I’d forgotten the sharp Orwellian directness of Mark Twain’s prose. Man, no wonder so many kids in middle school are taught Twain; too bad they’re unappreciative! (Or at least I was.)

I wonder if it does take age to appreciate these books. This time around, I was particularly taken with the Peter Pan, Don Quixote-esque nature of Tom and his friends, particularly their obsession with pretending to be pirates. I LOVE characters who are obsessed with reading, and with playing make-believe, and with pretending to be something that they’re not. Don Quixote is even mentioned early on in Huck Finn, during the scene where Tom claims books are important teachers for life: “Don’t I tell you it’s in the books? Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up? … Don’t you reckon that the people that made the books knows what the correct thing to do? Do you reckon YOU can learn ’em anything?” (HF) I LOVE the replacement of ‘teach’ with ‘learn’ in the final sentence, implying that they’re the same thing (I always though so!). And I’m so interested in the book’s obsession with “what the correct thing to do” is … particularly since the main narrative thread of Huck Finn is, obviously, Huck’s changing feelings about Jim.

And major respect to Huck for his fierce loyalty to Tom, claiming that he’d even follow Tom into hell. No wonder Bolaño often cited these two books when discussing The Savage Detectives. It’s fascinating to me that both books deal with the characters “dying” and then being reborn, so to speak. Huck in particular is constantly giving himself new names, new identities, even a new gender (I can smell a thousand dissertations lurking beneath these words…).

Huck is an intriguing character for the ages: a child-man in “the cast off clothes of full-grown men”, neither child nor adult, defined by his freedom and ability to do what he likes:

Huckelberry came and went, at his own free will. He slept on doorsteps in fine weather and in empty hogsheads in wet; he did not have to go to school or to church, or call any being master or obey anybody; he could go fishing or swimming when and where he chose, and stay as long as it suited him; nobody forbade him to fight; he could sit up as late as he pleased; he was always the first boy that went barefoot in the spring and the last to resume leather in the fall; he never had to wash, nor put on clean clohtes; he could swear wonderfully. In a word, everything that goes to make life precious that boy had. (38, TS)

Honestly, Huck’s definition of freedom and pleasure is still superbly suitable even for today’s office drone culture: the ability to go where one likes, curse, smoke, own nothing, want nothing. “Tom’s heart ached to be free, or else to have something of interest to do to pass the dreary time.” (44) Sigh. And then there’s Huck’s relationship with Jim, and the way Jim is fascinated with superstitions, signs, and symbols: he is famous for his ability to “interpret,” nothing is ever what it seems on the surface; something always represents something else. SO INTERESTING.

The last thing I want to say is that I had no freaking idea how terrifying the cave scene in Tom Sawyer is- Tom reminded me of a Bolaño character in this section, unafraid to face down the darkness and abyss, to stare death in the face and not quit fighting till the end, and even (this was the clincher for me) RETURN to the cave and RE-DESCEND into its darkness. WHOA. I was awed in general by how Tom Sawyer is consistently defined by his courage, and Huck for being a trickster, a storyteller, a liar. Huck should basically be in an MA creative writing program, you know? I would pay so much money to read an Ali Smith essay written about these two.

And that final passage about the drop of water dripping down in the cave is so beautiful:

That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was “news.” It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history, and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need? and has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come?

It’s like damn, Mark Twain!! DAMN.

The racism in both books hasn’t aged well, obvs – we’ll leave it at that.

It seemed to him that life was but a trouble, at best, and he more than half envied Jimmy Hodges, so lately released; it must be very peaceful, he thought, to lie and slumber and dream forever and ever, with the wind whispering through the trees and caressing the grass and the flowers over the grave, and nothing to bother and grieve about, ever any more. If he only had a clean Sunday-school record he could be willing to go, and be done with it all. (49, TS)

They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever. (52, TS) [Talk about a 2017 call to arms!]

There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. (116, TS)


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Homo Deus

Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)

Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choice than ever before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose… A life of resolute decisions and quick fixes may be poorer and shallower than one of doubts and contradictions. (421-422)

Wow, another cheery apocalyptic read! I love it. What else could one ask for these days?

I think I enjoyed Homo Sapiens more, mostly because I found the chapters about the Cognitive Revolution and earliest days of homo sapiens so fascinating. But Homo Deus is still very much a worthwhile read, mainly for the way it looks towards the future. I’ve tended to avoid books like The Shallows because (to put it bluntly) I tend to avoid books that would potentially make me feel depressed about the current state of humanity. BUT what’s commendable about Homo Deus is how he narrates everything in a very calm, detached, observant, and often VERY humorous style. I guess that’s what a regular practice of vipasssana meditation will do for ya!! (Vipassana founder Mr. S.N. Goenka is thanked in the acknowledgements.)

The book has several main theses. One is that the central project of the future of humanity is to “protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.” (23) What dangers does he think are forthcoming? WELL, let me tell you:

  • An obsession with attaining eternal life.
  • The rise of Dataism (a form of data-worship that borders on being a religion, and which he sees as eventually making Homo sapiens irrelevant)
  • The rise of a new super-elite biologically engineered race of humans, mainly consisting of rich people who can afford to pay for genetic manipulation.
  • A class of “useless” people as more and more robots replace jobs.
  • The replacement of consciousness with intelligence.

This last one was is in particular, about consciousness vs. intelligence, was very interesting to me. Hell, this whole book was interesting!! But this last point in particular. He talks about how apparently we understand VERY little of how consciousness actually works, in terms of our abilities to make memories and dreams and desires in the brain. And how so far we have been good at building robots who are intelligent, but not conscious. So ultimately, we are gonna have to make a choice – is intelligence more important to us as a society, or consciousness? “It is sobering to realize,” he writes, “that at least for armies and corporations, the answer is straightforward: intelligence is mandatory but consciousness is optional.” (362)

ANOTHER BIG FEAR he states about the future (or not fear, but POTENTIAL OUTCOME) is “what will conscious humans do once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can almost do everything better?” (370) I.E. BEING OVERTHROWN BY A.I. OVERLORDS. I wondered during this section if he was, like, giving Google and self-driving cars too much credit? Aren’t self-driving cars a bit rubbish? (At least at this point…) But then I think of all those articles you see floating around online making fun of shitty poetry and recipes written by robots. It’s like… it might be bad now… but what about twenty years? Twenty years ago, I NEVER used the Internet, and now I use it EVERY DAY – no joke – like everyone else I know.

He also has a lot to say humanity’s obsession with growth – mainly, is growth always good? He is no critic of capitalism, in fact, he writes “criticizing capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. So far it’s been an amazing success – at least if you ignore the potential for ecological meltdown, and if you measure success by the yardstick of production and growth.”  (256) So if it comes down to economic growth vs. ecological stability, what will happen when growth is no longer possible?

My favorite thing about this book was how he linked Very Big Questions About the World with the nuances of the everyday human mind. For example, in terms of growth, he comments that, “Humans are rarely satisfied with what they already have. The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more. Humans are always on the lookout for something better, bigger tastier.” (23) Such truth.

What else does he forecast about the future? He’s definitely super into the idea of non-organic artificial intelligence, though he calls it less of a prophecy or prediction, and more of a way of discussing our present choices. “You want to know how super-intelligent cyborgs might treat ordinary flesh-and-blood humans? Better start by investigating how humans treat their less intelligent animal cousins. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course, but it is the best archetype we can actually observe rather than just imagine.” (76) A strong argument for Team Vegan, for sure.

Apart from talking about the future, he also talks about the past – I found his discussion of the rise of modernity and the definition and formation of liberalism and humanism SO INTERESTING, especially since I never took political science or anthropology classes in college that talked about this kind of stuff. Who would have thought liberalism was so closely linked to romanticism, to the idea of an authentic, valuable, unique self dwelling within you? What is Google and Facebook going to do to this notion of the self, if they can predict what you want and who you are better than you can?

Oh, some of his sentences in this book just slay me! Here are a few of the more shining examples:

If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing bears are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and aging Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach. (33)

It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? (39)

If a crusader Knight had actually been able to sit down to watch Survivor, he would probably have grabbed his battleaxe and smashed the TV out of boredom and frustration. (282)

The Vatican was the closest thing twelfth-century Europe had to Silicon Valley. (320)

Can any human fathom these musical experiences and tell the difference between a whale Beethoven and a whale Justin Bieber? (417)

The wildest dreams of Kim Jon-ug and Ali Khamenei don’t extend much beyond atom bombs and ballistic missiles: that is so 1945. (438) This REALLY made me laugh… darkly…

For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become oversized ants. (423)

In the twenty-first century out personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. (397)

Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death. (401)

A highly recommended read.



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Affections (Rodrigo Hasbún)

This week I started reading the deliciously post-apocalyptic yet super Guns Germs & Steel-like Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankindwhich I hope to finish soon. I finished Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún last week, but the more I think about it, the more I admire it. It strikes me as a book that must have been very difficult to both conceive of and write–I wonder if that was the case. It was translated by Sophie Hughes, who also translated The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horseanother short, deeply strange and wonderful novella, which would make for powerful re-reading during these troubled times.

Even though Affections bluntly advises us that it “is not, nor does it attempt to be, a faithful portrait of any member of the Erlt family,” I highly recommend that people still look them up on wikipedia. Even though certain stories that are vaguely connected to the family don’t appear in this book – specifically Nazis helping the CIA hunt down Che Guevara (!?) – still, they are worth knowing. I mean, seriously!! Even Bolaño couldn’t make this shit up.

The story that DOES appear in this book took a while for me to get into – I started the book and put it down at least two times. But once I knew the historical background, that helped a lot. I read somewhere (who knows where, somewhere in the depths of the Internet) that the book was initially a lot longer, but the author cut it down to its bare bones. If this is true, then man, what a brave, badass choice.

Poetic, fragmentary, vignette-like: these are all good terms that could describe the book. Notes I wrote in the margins include: Werner Herzog meets The Mosquito Coast, Aguirre Wrath of God, Death in the Andes.

There’s a rotating cast of narrators: Heidi, the middle daughter; Trixi, the youngest; Monika, the oldest daughter and arguably the main character; and Reinhard, the brother-in-law (you might notice that Hans, the father and the family’s main claim to fame, is absent from that list–an interesting and inevitably significant choice). Monika’s chapters are narrated in “you” style, while Reinhard’s are narrated as though he’s responding to interview questions. We begin with the father’s expedition into the Bolivian jungle in search of a legendary lost city. We end with workers on an isolated and rural hacienda, digging what is mostly likely a grave–for who, we never know for sure (though we certainly have some guesses).

The story in here could have easily been fattened up to 300 pages, but as is, it works as a strange kind of poetry in its thinness. I underlined so many sentences in this book:

It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most. (135)

Maybe to become an adult is precisely this: to be ashamed of your body and its revolts and emergencies… to always fear the worst. (130)

I found nostalgia served a purpose. To feel that life had been worth it and to make the present fuller somehow. (126)

The writing is simple and straightforward, yet haunting. The grave-digging in the final chapter is, in particular, an image that will stay with me for a while.

I loved the theme of feeling out of place in this book, of not quite fitting in. The family eats sauerkraut with their tortillas, yet “on the rare occasions we were obliged to speak Spanish it felt fake.” (16) The maid is taught German recipes because no one really cares for Bolivian food. The sense of place is also well done, particularly with the descriptions of La Paz in the beginning.

There’s a big theme in the book of how to grow into your own person – how to become the kind of person you want to be. The author touches upon this idea in this interview, commenting that “in AFFECTIONS there are characters trying on different masks and disguises throughout the novel. They’re searching for themselves the whole time, and the changes they go through are quite drastic. I suppose the same thing can be said of all of us. We take a while to become ourselves, to accept who we are or can be.”

Monika’s sections especially deal with this theme:

Was this what becoming an adult was? Taking decisions and responsibility for the things you do or stop doing? … At twenty-one, can you call yourself an adult? At twenty-one, can you feel that living, when all’s said and done, means belonging to yourself, and that everything that came before was a kind of dream? Why try to forget it if it was a reasonably happy dream? … Increasingly, you feel that your life can fit into a single sentence, or at least a few. The ex-depressive, the quasi-Bolivian. A pitiful sum, whichever way you look at it. (62-64)

Alongside this narrative thread concerning personal growth and development, there’s also the concurrent theme of BIG (macro?) history, which Heidi reflects on during the jungle expedition in the opening chapter:

Part of the route had been cleared centuries ago by the Incas. It was terrifying to think of it, it was fascinating and sad. It was all of these things, too, to realize that we were lost in the heart of a foreign country, so far from home. The expedition had only just begun and it was easy to lose perspective, to forget that what we were doing day in and day out was all part of a bigger plan. (23)

Indeed, how do you maintain perspective when you tell a historical story? What details do you focus on? Is the “bigger plan” what matters? The book focuses more on the development of Trixi’s smoking habit than it does on Monika’s development into a revolutionary guerrilla. The nationalist revolution, in which Indians gain the right to vote, and armed conflicts in the mines are referred to only passingly. Who’s to say what are the things that make up a life? Who gets to tell history, and what experiences do you focus on when you’re narrating it?

I think most people might find this book challenging if they know little about Latin American history. But if you’re interested in guerrilla stories, or Latin America of the 60s, this is a highly recommended read. To me, it worked as a fascinating example of a different way to narrate historical fiction: in a highly sparse, fragmentary style, rather than detailed and sweeping.


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