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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.
  • AND SO MUCH MORE

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

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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Some contemporary Latin American fiction

Fever Dream (Samantha Schweblin)

I’ve been dying to read this book for ages (I’ve loved her short stories for years). Hence, it’s become yet another book purchased in my never-ending, uncontrollable kindle-addiction.

This novel has been highly acclaimed, deservedly so, and I eagerly await to see if it ends up on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The plot is difficult to describe. It appears to be a (psychic? imagined?) conversation taking place between a hospitalized woman in a coma and a young boy sitting on the edge of her bed. The question of how she ended up there, and what her connection is with the boy, is what propels the narrative forward. Here’s the opening:

They’re like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
Earthworms?
No, another kind of worms.
It’s dark and I can’t see. The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body. I can’t move, but I’m talking.
It’s the worms. You have to be patient and wait. And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
Why?
Because it’s important, it’s very important for us all.

As you may have guessed, the novel is deeply strange and hallucinatory. Almost a horror story. You definitely read it more for the mood and the suspense, than for specific answers. If you like books where everything is explained at the end, then this is not for you. The prose felt very cinematic to me, which makes sense, given the author’s background in screenwriting. As a reader, you are keep turning the pages due to the most base of desires: you want to find out what happens next. But be forewarned: the answers will not be specific. I’ve become less patient than I used to be with novels that withhold information and don’t explain everything, but I feel like the answers for this one are there, if you’re willing to stop and think.

The other hook in this book is the hypnotic repetition of certain phrases. Like “the worms” in the opening passage. Another is the search for “the important thing.” An obsession of a rope or “rescue distance” between a mother and daughter is another–or the time it would take the mother to rescue the daughter from danger:

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.

“The worms” — what is up with that? Aliens? An ecological disaster? They seem to be connected with creepy white spots and flakey pink skin. And crippled distorted children. An “Invasions of the Body Snatchers” motif. That one scene with the can of peas, a brand the mother would never buy, is SO freaking disturbing. Who would have thought?

I want to read this again.

Multiple Choice (Alejandro Zambra)

What a great book! So sad, so funny. It almost read like a book of poetry at times. I liked the Reading Comprehension questions the best, maybe because they were a bit longer, so there was more to unpack. But yeah, you can definitely pick out some themes from this: death, getting old, cancer, children, angry children, angry parents, bad fathers, bad marriages, divorce (I had no idea it was illegal to get a divorce in Chile until 2004–2004!!!!)… Good stuff. Highly recommended. Definitely a great example of a book that’s “pushing the form,” “exploring the potential of writing,” etc.

Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (Horacio Castellanos Moya)

What an angry, bitter book. I LOVED IT. I want to get coffee with the narrator. What does that say about me?

This book was famously written in the 90’s by Moya, in an attempt to imitate the style of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (who I’m not familiar with). The narrator of the book is Edgardo Vega, who addresses Moya directly throughout the narrative in an angry rant. Nothing escapes his withering gaze: car thieves, plane rides, men wearing sombreros picking their noses, chubby women wiping sweat off their necks with towels that they then squeeze out, mosquitos, “sluggish servants,” writing culture, master degrees in business, “diarrhea-inducing beer,” a touristy seaport, pupusas, newspapers, the lack of arts and culture (his description of this really made me laugh).

Some of his most scathing moments are in reference to:

  • the city of San Salvador (“one of the filthiest and most hostile cities, a city designed for animals, not human beings, a city that converted its historical center into a garbage dump“)
  • bus drivers (“It’s incredible, Moya, the bus drivers have been pathological criminals since birth, criminals converted into salaried bus drivers, said Vega, they’re guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war and now they’re recycled as bus drivers… It’s terrifying, Moya, an experience that’s not recommended for cardiac patients; no one in their right mind could travel every day on a bus in this city, one would have to be permanently and sadistically degraded in spirit to travel every day with these recycled criminals who drive the buses”)
  • the university campus (“I couldn’t imagine anything so disgraceful, it seemed like a refugee camp in Africa: crumbling buildings, a ton of overcrowded, infested wooden constructions, and defecation in the hallways of buildings that were still standing, human defecation in the University of El Salvador’s hallways”),
  • and the country itself (“I’m completely sure that this country is out of sync with time and the world, it only existed when it was a bloodbath, it only existed thanks to the thousands who were assassinated, thanks to the criminal capacity, the people of this country have no possibility of demonstrating their existence in the world.”)

As Moya writers in the afterword, “With the relish of the resentful getting even, I had fun writing this novel, in which I wanted to demolish the culture and politics of San Salvador… with the pleasure of diatribe and mimicry.” (86) The public reaction was intense–a friend’s wife threw the book out of the window in rage against the book’s rant against pupusas. And more seriously, while working as a journalist in Guatemala, Moya’s mother received threatening phone calls, which prevented Moya’s return to El Salvador country for years.

There are so many passages I could choose as gems from this book. Though some people might not see the point of this book (it’s basically an angry, bitter rant), I find a lot of value in it due to its ANGER. And the prose is mesmerizing and FUNNY: long sentences that build and build and build. Moya NEEDED to write this, and in turn, it needed to be read.

What taste the people of this country have for living in fear, Moya, such a morbid taste for living terrorized lives, what a perverted taste for the terror of the war turned into the terror of delinquency these people have, a pathological, morbid vice to make terror their permanent way of life. (75)

Ways to Disappear (Idra Novey)

I loved this book!

Beatriz, a famous Brazilian author, climbs a tree with her suitcase while smoking a cigar, thus disappearing from the lives of her family and the Brazilian literary scene. Her Pittsburg-based translator journeys to Brazil in order to track her down and meets with a man with a trash can tattooed on his neck, who claims that Beatriz owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars, money she borrowed to fuel an online poker addiction. And that’s just in the first eleven pages!

This book moves quickly, with the momentum of a bullet. I loved the news stories and dictionary entries it provided, and the descriptions of Beatriz’s books (I always love plot summaries of books that don’t actually exist).

I loved the descriptions of Brazil: “When she finally emerged from Rio’s Galeao International Airport, she took in the familiar stink of armpits, car exhaust, and guavas that assaulted her as she stepped out of the baggage claim and the outside air pressed in. Already she could feel her dress adhering to her arms and lower back. After so much winter, the stick sensation, the rising odours were glorious. To arrive in Rio was to remember that one had a body and brought it everywhere.” (10)

I loved the interactions between Emma and Beatriz’s children, and how during Emma’s visit, “the living room would begin to reek of those American sunscreen lotions with an excess of zinc.” (14)

I loved the themes of translation, creativity, and foreigness:

“At first, all she could do was stare at the wall and feel futile, but that was something. Wasn’t the despair of feeling useless central to the modern human condition? Wasn’t that what Don Quijote was all about?” (82)

Obrigada. Emma thanked him, hearing the Yankee clang of her accent in a way she hadn’t heard in years. She’d learned the language too late to ever get the r’s right. Every time she spoke it was unavoidable: she released a fleet of mistakes.” (131)

“For so long, she’d willfully sought the in-between. She’d thought of herself as fated to live suspended, floating between two countries, in the vapor between languages. But too much vaporous freedom brought its own constraints. She now felt as confined by her floating state as other, more wholesome people were to the towns where they were born.” (164)

The ending was a bit sad, but I suppose I don’t know how else the novel could have ended. Overall, this reminded me of Ali Smith, in terms of its joyous celebration and attention to language. I’m definitely very much inspired by the quick way it kept the plot moving forward, and its short chapters. One of my favorite reads of the year so far.

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Our Friends From Frolix 8

Ours Friends From Frolix 8 (Philip K. Dick)

‘God is dead,’ Nick said. ‘They found his carcass in 2019. Floating out in space near Alpha.’

‘They found the remains of an organism advanced several thousand times over what we are,’ Charley said. ‘And it evidently could create habitable worlds and populate them with living organisms, derived from itself. But that doesn’t prove it was God.’

‘I think it was God.’ (45)

My dear friend Philip K. Dick. He never lets me down. I’ve had an exhausting few weeks of travel and work, and while things are a little calmer now, it’s still not completely over. But that’s okay. We can deal. Especially with help from good old Philip.

Our Friends From Frolix 8 is definitely one of the finer Philip K. Dick books I’ve read (and only $5.95 when purchased at the Strand in New York, bonus). You have a futuristic society organized by men’s abilities–Old Men, trapped in dead-end, deadbeat jobs, the super intelligent New Men, who rule over society in a hierarchical, inaccessible order, and the Unusuals, who have psionic and telekinetic abilities and exist alongside the New Men in an an uneasy compromise. You have a Christlike leader of a revolution, Thors Provoni, returning to Planet Earth after years spent exploring the outer galaxies on his ship The Grey Dinosaur. And best of all, you have Morgo, the ninety-ton Godlike protoplasmic slime from the titular planet Frolix 8, who’s accompanying Thors on his mission to create a new world order. What is it with Dick’s obsession with sentient slime-molds? I LOVE IT.

‘Let me tell you a legend about God,’ Morgo said. ‘In the beginning he created an egg, a huge egg, with a creature inside it. God tried to break the eggshell open to let the creature–the original living creature–out. He couldn’t. But the creature which He had made had a sharp beak, constructed for just such a task, and it chipped its way out of the egg. And hence – all living creatures have free will, now.’

‘Why?’

‘Because we broke the egg, not He.’

‘Why does that give us free will?’

‘Because, dammit, we can do what He can’t.’ (78)

There are so oh so relevant modern themes in this novel, from surveillance, to what the world would be like if ruled by a paranoid, arrogant, verging on insane individual, to the role of God and religion. I love Dick’s depiction of the bohemian revolutionary underclass; he is so good at evoking that deadbeat Berkeley culture of pillheads. He hasn’t been that successful at writing interesting female characters in the past, but the sixteen-year-old Charley manages to be both complex and feisty in a non-annoying way. And I found myself genuinely moved by this moment near the end:

‘To a better planet,’ Gram said, and drank the cupful down. ‘To a planet where we won’t need our friends from Frolix 8.’ (190)

Thank you, Philip K. Dick, for existing.

In terms of travel + readings, here are some photos! They are out of order, but I’m too tired to try to figure out how to fix it. So here we go :D

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Homesick for Another World

I leave tomorrow for a weekish-long trip in the U.S., visiting friends and family in D.C., North Carolina, and New York, and launching “The Lucky Ones” in Brooklyn alongside Lisa Carey (who I can’t wait to meet) on February 21st–if you’re in the neighborhood, do come!

It’s sunny today (for now), but the seasonal affective disorder has been strong in me, just like the Force in extremely talented Jedis. I hope it is sunny in North Carolina. England!! What else can I do but shake my weak puny fists at your grey, grey sky?

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh was a good book to read after the Cat Marnell memoir, and a good book to read during February, the roughest of months to me (thank goodness it has such few days!). In many ways, both books have similar themes: the body, women moving through space and the way men look at them, drugs, addiction, how to be good, the meaning of being “better.” I love Moshfegh’s writing (especially this essay, which I find encouraging and authentic) and would definitely teach these short stories in a short fiction class. I find her sentences so dark and twisted and memorable. You could say these stories are “grotesque,” and are obsessed with the body: blackheads, rotting teeth, ingrown hairs, acne. You might also say they have a “dark view” of humanity. IDK, maybe it’s just the lack of sunlight speaking through me, but maybe it’s an accurate view of humanity?? What does it mean to be crazy, the book seems to be asking, or fucked-up or weird… Don’t we all have our problems?

Overall, I really liked the journey these stories take us on, from the first story (“Bettering Myself”) to the last (“A Better Place”). It definitely feels like a trip from self-hatred to a weird kind of peaceful acceptance. Overall, highly recommended, but you should know what you’re in for and brace yourself for an uneasy ride.

Here are my notes on the individual stories, so that I don’t forget what each one was about!

“Bettering Myself” – Definitely one of the highlights in the collection and a strong opener. I really sympathized with the narrator, a teacher with a drinking problem who decides she’s going to quit her job.

Half my clothes, books, unopened mail, cups, ashtrays, half my life was stuffed between the mattress and the wall. (6)

Anything good I could think to do I did. I was filled with hope. I bought new sheets and towels. I put on some music. “Bailar,” I said to myself. Look, I’m speaking Spanish. My mind is fixing itself, I thought. Everything is going to be okay. (11)

“Mr. Wu” – Another standout. One of the few stories not set in the U.S. This piece really highlighted to me how effectively a short story can follow an unlikeable character. It also brings up one of the themes (IMHO) of the collection, that of disgust. I loved the ambiguity of the ending.

The woman had one flaccid hand that reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn. He shuddered and gagged whenever he saw it. He felt sorry for the child, held and fed by that twisted, thin, limp, and red-skinned tentacle. (19)

“Malibu” – Wow, what a sad story. Again, I  really felt for the pimply narrator, and how handsome he kept insisting he was. This story reminded me of the scene in the Cat Marnell book, where she falls asleep during Eyes Wide Shut and when she wakes up the movie has gone on playing on a loop and is back again, on the exact same scene, playing again. In other words, this story made me feel very trapped (but in a good way).

As good-looking as I was, I was scared nobody would ever marry me. I had small hands. They were like a girl’s hands, but with hair. Nobody marries men with hands like that. When I fit my fingers down my throat, it’s easy. My fingers are thin, soft. When I put them down there, it’s like a cool breeze. That’s the best way I can explain it. (41)

He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristics some smart people have. (42)

“The Weirdos” – I think I initially read this in the Paris Review and it was thus the first piece of work of hers that I encountered. It is a CLASSIC, and not just because of the way it plays with that famous Chekhov quote about bringing a gun onstage…

“A Dark and Winding Road” – This may be one of my favorites in the collection and it is also very sad. A married lawyer you could easily imagine voting for Donald Trump goes to a cabin in the woods where he runs into his brother’s hook-up, a girl who’s there to smoke meth (or maybe it was crack). I loved the ending of this one (most of the endings of these stories are very abrupt and ambiguous, just my cup of tea). By the time the narrator in this story says, “Twenty years later, I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to someone else” (87), well, it just about broke my heart.

“No Place for Good People” – Another stand-out. A widower volunteers with a group of mentally disabled men and says things like “You can call them “retarded”–that word doesn’t offend me as long as it’s used the proper way, without pity.” (88) Yup.

“I rarely interacted much with anyone back then who wasn’t retarded. When I did, it struck me how pompous and impatient they were, always measuring their words, twisting things around. Everybody was so obsessed with being understood. It made me sick.” (98)

“Slumming” – A story about a high school English teacher who spends her summer vacations doing drugs in a dead-end town that would have also definitely voted for Trump. She hires a young pregnant teenage girl to clean her house, who eventually starts hemorrhaging. The narrator’s reaction to this really made the story for me, especially in terms of the whole “dark view of humanity” thing.

“An Honest Woman” – This one took forever for me to finish. For whatever reason, I found it very difficult to be inside the main character’s head, a sleazy old man. He has an encounter with a neighbor, the honest woman of the title, but her dialogue felt a little too much like a speech for me. But I loved his obsession with buying discounted vegetables: “He’d been doing it for so long that the very sight of that neon orange discount sticker could make his mouth water.” (139)

“The pale, swollen, spotted hand on the girl’s knee was inert, like a fat, sleeping lizard that could at any moment awaken and claw up her soft thigh.” (153)

“The Beach Boy” – Wow, definitely one of the collection’s highlights. I don’t want to spoil it, as the funnest thing about this story is its VERY unexpected twist. Basically, it’s about an elderly married couple and their days back in New York, having returned from an island-getaway vacation, where the beaches were populated with the titular beach boys, or male prostitutes. Along with “The Weirdos” I think this would be a very interesting story to teach, if only for the scene where the main character pretends to be deaf in a drugstore. This story definitely feels like a turning point in the mood of the collection, perhaps because of its upfront confrontation with death, and the way it questions how well we truly really know anybody, and what does “normal” really mean.

“‘Why tell stories?’ he wondered aloud. “As soon as something is over, that’s it. Why revive it constantly? Things happen, and then more things, inevitably, happen next. So?” (172)

“Nothing Ever Happens Here” – This story follows another young male narrator, this one from Utah, who moves to L.A. and dreams of becoming an actor. I liked how this story wasn’t afraid to stay in the head of someone who is arguably unsympathetic.

“Dancing in the Moonlight” – A man with a shopping addiction buys an ottoman online so that he can try to get a girl at an antique furniture market to fall in love with him. Talk about a parable for America.

“So much of my life I’d been faking my reactions, claiming to myself and others that I liked what I liked because I believe it was good for me, while in fact I didn’t like that shit at all. This woman could see that I wanted to be ruined. I wanted someone… to come and destroy me.” (238)

“The Surrogate” – Hmm, is this the happiest story in the book? I don’t know if I have much to say about this one. It definitely felt like a story that attempted to explore the idea of finding acceptance, via a young woman with an unsightly medical condition who gets a job in which she must pretend to be someone else.

“Life can be strange sometimes, and knowing it can be doesn’t seem to make it any less so. I know I don’t have any real wisdom. I don’t have any wonderful ideas. I am lucky to have found a few nice people here and there.” (261)

“The Locked Room” – One of the shortest stories in the collection, two members of a music school orchestra are locked in a practice room and must plan their escape. The main male character is described by the narrator as “fearless, like he could do anything he wanted to do, even if it was disgusting,” (266) which feels like a nice description of the collection itself. Oh, he also carries around a small knife with him for “mutilating himself,” so there’s that too. And his hand tastes like “baby powder and excrement.” Yup! The final paragraph of this story reads as a prayer of sorts for all the characters in this book:

“But I never did try very hard to please my mother. In fact, I never tried hard to please anybody at all after that day in the locked room. Now I only try hard to please myself. That is all that matters here. That is the secret thing I found.” (272)

“A Better Place” – The final story and another stand-out. A sister and her brother believe themselves to be aliens, and the only way to get back to the place where they belong is through killing someone. Gripping and memorable, this story exhibits an amazing control over voice and a limited, skewed viewpoint.

To end here are two quotes by the author, the first from the essay linked above, and the second from this interview:

Most of the time, I feel pleased that I’m living my purpose on this planet… We make art about our own ineffectuality, and in doing that, somehow we are no longer ineffectual. That’s the good news about being a human: We are creative. We feel compelled to make something new, to forge new paths through consciousness and grow. Nobody is going to save me—that’s how I’ve always felt. It’s up to me. It’s either do or die, and I decided to do. Maybe we’re going nowhere, but I chose to find meaning anyway.

*

I also feel that everything I’ve written has had a predetermined destiny. As author, I’m just figuring out what the correct version of it is, sweeping the dirt off the gravestone, and I know that I’m right when it feels just so, when it’s undeniable. And it can be really hard to sit with something and go through my stupid thinking and make lots of mistakes and go down the wrong road and throw out pages and pages and feel like I’m wasting my time. I’m writing a new novel now, and I’m back where I started a year ago. And I’m not happy. I’m totally depressed as I’m writing this thing. At the same time, it’s a complete joy. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. There’s nothing else more important to me. It’s the joy of living your purpose. So I’m not regretting this suffering. It isn’t a waste of my life.

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How to Murder Your Life

How To Murder Your Life (Cat Marnell)

It turns out my book came out the same day as Cat Marnell’s!! How crazy is that? I remember talking about her during my first week in the MA course. And now here we both are, five years later. Que locura es la vida.

I love me a good addiction memoir and this one certainly did not disappoint, especially with its sordidness. I can’t tell which part was the worst–probably when a friend makes cracked out voice mails she leaves him available for purchase on iTunes for 99 cents. Or maybe all the mice hallucinations (which becomes one of the most interesting motifs in the book). Or when a guy asks her what’s wrong with her messed-up bikini line, and all she can do is mumble out the truth: “Self-mutilation.” Or when she sits on the floor of her crack-den room toasting marshmallows with a BIC lighter.

Basically, I thought this book was raw and amazing. I’ve always loved her writing and find her style so compelling. I especially find it interesting to think about all these campesinos in South America, making the cocaine that ravages the lives of David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, and Cat Marnell–what a strange world. What made this memoir stand out especially to me was its honestly about addiction as an ongoing condition, and something that isn’t easily resolved with the completion of a book.

Another thing I liked a lot is that despite writing a book that is very much about shame and self-hate, she is very much writing in her OWN voice, unapologetically so, and that is something I will always have nothing but respect for, and will always find very inspiring and brave. I’m sure some people will find her tone annoying and self-centered, but I found it witty, sarcastic, melancholic, sad, desperate, and yeah, just plain memorable. She isn’t afraid to tell her own story the way that she wants to, in a way that is authentic and singular to her, and that is something I will always admire in writers.

Haters gonna hate but this book was definitely my cup of tea–it gets a very big punk rock thumbs up.

Some of the parts I liked the most (talk about a distinctive “voice” in writing, amirite?):

“I mean, even writing about this period still makes me want to take a huge blunt full of PCP to the face–and it’s fifteen years later!” (pg. 60)

“Here’s a life lesson for you kids: it’s much easier to go through something upsetting when you’re on drugs. The more intense the drug, the more you forget your problems! It’s basic science, really.” (62)

“My parents were quiet in the car to the airport, but I couldn’t escape the voices in my head. You failure. You disaster. You disgusting girl. The self-loathing was like a radio station between my ears. Loser. You mess. Over time, I’d learn to turn the volume down on SHAME FM, but I could never totally shut it off.” (69)

“Bulimia attracts mice: fact.” (89)

“One morning he woke me up by splashing a glass of ice water in my face–and not even to raise awareness for ALS or anything! Just to be a dick.” (90)

“A wrinkly dog was wandering around–I mean, a really wrinkly dog. It should be illegal for a dog to be that wrinkly! It was the kind that Patrick Bateman slices open in American Psycho.” (92)

“I would go in on a hoagie like I was the monster ripping the head off that little man in the Goya ‘Black Paintings'” (119)

“I’ve had tanning-bed experiences that were more transformative.” (169) [in reference to a rehab stint]

“I’m never going to be okay, I thought.” (217)

“I was lonely. I was pathetic. I was weak. I was a loser. Most drug addicts are.” (240)

“‘Guuh,’ he sort of… gasped, and made a terrible, twisted face as the needle went in. My pussy got so wet. No, I am completely joking. It was the most unattractive thing I’d ever seen in my life! Junkies are the worst.” (246) [I think this was maybe the most extreme part of the book for me!]

“I slept like a clubbed baby seal that night.” (252)

“On the walk home on the Bowerty, I listened to ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ and tried to resist the… ennui that felt like it was about to overcome me like a cloud of poisonous gas. It’s not always going to feel like it does today, I told myself. I absolutely could not give up. I was going to get through this strange, joyless, barren patch. I was going to meet new friends. My ambition would return, too… I pulled on a Marlboro Light. I mean, I just had to be patient.” (256)

“Jesus, swimming was hard! I was out of breath so fast. Must have been all that freebasing with Marco.” (313)

“These ‘how I got my job’ chapters are extremely fucking boring to write, you know. I’m just trying to keep it saucy for all of us.” (319)

“Fucking skinny jeans! They are really contributing to this Adderall culture, I swear.” (341)

“Working out with him is better than heroin–and I’ve done, like, unbelievable heroin.” (360)

“Things could–and probably will–get bad again. Real talk!” (370) [From the afterword]

“I’ve got a hot career, a clear head, and an ice pick in my kitchen in case I need to Basic Instinct a bitch, and nobody fucks with me anymore.” (368)

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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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My Name is Lucy Barton

I bought this book as a Christmas present for my 90-something (and still going strong!) grandmother, but after reading it decided I should get her something, um, a little more cheerful. I LOVE dark melancholy books with very little plot though, so this novel was basically perfect for me. I’d read Olive Kitteridge and loved it, and now My Name is Lucy Barton has firmly placed Elizabeth Strout in the camp of masterful authors I will consistently seek out, read, and feel awed by. There’s no better feeling than ending the year having read an excellent book that makes you feel like you’ve learned something about life and writing both.

What most impressed me about this book is Lucy’s steady, unwavering voice. Oh, and yet there is so much under the surface! Especially in her interactions with her mother. The style is what you would call “Hemingway-esque,” I suppose, but never annoyingly so. The language is so simple, yet so effective: it really builds on you from how understated it is. Excerpts don’t quite do it justice:

I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

*

Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise. But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.

I feel like I learned so much from reading this book about the value of silences, of implied but never shared information. The book is all the more powerful for what we end up not knowing, as it’s directly linked to what Lucy herself chooses deliberately not to share (what she wishes she didn’t even know).

The novel opens with Lucy Barton being hospitalized due to a case of appendicitis. Her mother, whom she has not seen in years, unexpectedly comes to visit her for five days. The mother shares gossip about folks back home in Illinois, and in doing so, reveals not only uneasy details about Lucy’s childhood of extreme neglect and poverty, but also Lucy’s somewhat disturbing dependence on pleasing her mother. I thought this was something the book did very well–making us see Lucy’s (at times painful) desperation in having her mother approve of her. It’s a brilliant evocation of an unreliable yet very human narrator.

There are so many interesting themes and motifs in this book: mothers and daughters. Wives leaving husbands. The legacy of World War II and Nazism (Lucy’s father is a Battle of the Bulge veteran, and refuses to speak to Lucy’s husband, the blond son of a German soldier). Men and war, what it means to be a man. Writing, courage, and ruthlessness. AIDS and 9/11. And then there are disturbing references to things that are never expanded upon. What Lucy calls “the Thing,” her father’s episodes in which he lost control of herself, the times in which she was locked up for hours in her father’s truck, her uncontrollable terror at hearing the word “snake”–we don’t learn much more than these details, but they’re enough to deeply unsettle us. It doesn’t help that Lucy’s siblings seem quite worse off than her: whereas Lucy moved to New York and became a writer, her brother sleeps in a barn next to pigs who are about to be slaughtered and develops an obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books, while her sister complains over the phone about her useless husband and sends Lucy requests for money to pay for yoga classes.

This is definitely one of the best books I read this year, and one I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

 

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