Category Archives: contemporary

May/June Books

Like a lonesome cowboy and a wanderin’ hobo, I will soon be taking my leave of this humble island – for a month, that is. I survived Game of Thrones, I survived the semester, I survived many big editing projects. A childhood friend from Colombia came to visit, as did my sister (her first visit to the UK in thirteen years! As my uncle observed, Granny was only 89 then, as opposed to 102.) And now it is time for the wind to blow the empty husk of my body away *praying hands emoji* For twenty-six days, I shall be like a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive, nobody calling me up for favours and nobody’s future to decide. Blessed be. I don’t know how many more times in my life I’ll be able to take off like this so I’m going to enjoy and appreciate the hell out of it!

What, pray then, did I read over the past month and a half?

Sci-Fi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read two sci-fi books, The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which I read earlier this year). Bottom of the Sky is the more ‘literary’ of the two, a homage to Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, in terms of content and style. I very much enjoy Fresán’s raw energy and enthusiasm, even though I found the main plot (a love story between two guys and a girl) kinda babyish.

Ancillary Sword I arguably enjoyed more. Much has been made out of Leckie’s “experimental” narration, in which gender isn’t specified; everyone is narrated as ‘she.’ This… isn’t that weird? I mean, come ON.

I like the central concept of the trilogy very much – it’s basically narrated from the point of view of an A.I., the central intelligence of an Iain Banks-esque spaceship, who becomes trapped in single human body (to put it very simply). I like the strangeness of Leckie’s narration a lot; she’s definitely created a world that feels very “other” – characters never nod or shake their heads, for example, they always gesture. And I like how Leckie is always specific about what language they’re speaking, what terms do and don’t translate. The themes of Rome-esque empire expansion and colonialism are also very cool, even if a bit heavy-handed at time. So yeah, I would recommend this one, with the caveat that I sometimes find it hard to understand what’s happening on the page – not because of the narration, but because I find myself craving just a bit more BASIC KNOWLEDGE about how things in this world ACTUALLY WORK. Like – how is the narrator able to communicate/watch the other soldiers on the ship, for example, when she’s no longer an A.I.? In this case, it’s like I basically just had to arbitrarily tell myself “okay, I guess this is a rule in this world, she can still watch her soldiers even though she’s no longer an A.I.” without having any idea of the LOGISTICS behind this. Like, can all captains of all ships do this, or just her, because of her A.I. nature? I WANT TO KNOW.

Anyway, I look forward to finishing the trilogy.

Books by people I vaguely know/am connected to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UGH, sometimes I suffer from a terrible ennui of trying to stay ON TOP OF MY READING, especially of books by people I know/am vaguely connected to/want to support, and sometimes it causes me TERRIBLE GUILT. Does anyone else ever feel that way??? There must be a word in Japanese or Icelandic that describes it. But I am not perfect; I am only human.

In any case, I was able to read Your Fault by Andrew Cowan, Mothers by Chris Powers, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal and Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry. Your Fault is written by my former teacher, the first person who ever made me feel truly validated as a writer, like I was someone who had something worth saying, AND FOR THAT I WILL BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL. So it pleases me to say that Your Fault is genuinely a deeply interesting and provocative book: narrated in the second person, with the narrator looking back on his life in 1960’s England, it’s an examination of masculinity, judgement, and shame.

Chris Powers and I share the same publisher, and his debut book Mothers a very strong collection of stories, with recurrent themes of travel and escape. The story set at the wedding in Mexico, in which a guy’s on-and-off secret lover is now the groom, was probably my favourite (who doesn’t love a hot illicit shame-inducing make-out session in the dark, amirite?).  The Doll Factory is a historical thriller set in Victorian England and while historical fiction is not my thing (with the exception of Hilary Mantel), I REALLY enjoyed reading this; it was the perfect book to read during marking season, when I needed something relaxing and enjoyable to wind down with in the evening. It’s dark and Dickens-esque and has a good plot. And Stranger Baby was a poetry collection by one of my favourite poets, Emily Berry, an alumni from the same university as me, and was just as strong and memorable as I expected it to be (my favourite was this poem, which closes the collection).

Other books I read

Okay, now onto the “juicy” stuff. Lord of all the Dead by Javier Cercas was purchased by me (along with three other books – SO MUCH FOR MY BOOK BUYING BAN!!!) at a European-themed literature event, at which Cercas was in attendance. During the talk he spoke about his interest in writing about what truth means – what we want to hear versus what we want to tell, what should be written vs what needs to be written (yes, I took notes on my phone while he was talking – I am OBSESSED with this man, let me tell you. OBSESSED). He talked about how a common theme in his fiction is how to deal with the inheritance of the civil war, and if Soldados de salamis was a vindication of the best past of the country, then this book, Lord of all the Dead, is the acknowledgement of its  worst. The book is about his mother’s cousin, a teenager who joined the Fasicsts at seventeen and died two years later in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. So basically, there’d always been this awkward shadow cast over Cercas’ youth – the fact that the family “hero” had been fighting for the “wrong” side, and had arguably died a pointless death. Can you be noble and pure and still fight for a mistaken cause? How can decent men be drawn to fascism? At the talk, Cercas said, (paraphrased from my notes):

“It’s quite easy to know what to do with the ‘good’ past. But what do we do with the bad past? Conceal it? Invent it? I thought when I was young, I could not deal with it – this family member who was a heroe in famly lore, a young man who went to war to save our family. We are our heritage. I am my family. I am my country. Know it. Acknowledge the complexity. Understand it. To understand is not to justify. To understand is the contrary – it gives you the instruments to not make the same mistakes. If you know your inheritance, you can understand it; you can control it. If not, it controls you and you repeat the same mistake. I write not to be written. I became a writer to avoid becoming the things that wanted to confine me.”

SO INTERESTING, no? The other aspect of the book I found super fascinating was its discussion of heroism. The title comes from the Odyssey, from a part in which Ulysses confronts Achilles in the underworld with Hades. Achilles is described as the perfect man, the ideal hero: someone who gave his life for a bigger cause, and died a “perfect death.” As the Greeks didn’t believe in heaven, Achilles would live on in the equivalent, in everyone’s memory: as man who did what should be done. Ulysses, on the other hand, is a man who grows old – the opposite of Achilles. And so we have two competing viewpoints of masculinity, of what it means to live a “good” life. And in the confrontation with Ulysses in the underworld, Achilles acknowleges that he has made a mistake: I would rather be humble and alive as opposed to lord of all the dead.

Powerful, fascinating stuff. Definitely my favourite book of this reading period.

The Lighthouse by Allison Moore and Nocturnes by the always reliable Kazuo Ishiguro were also two very strong reads. The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012 and published by the always reliable Salt Publishers (ugh, that’s another reading list I can never stay on top of – supporting the indies. THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS IN THE WORLD! TOO MANY! I CAN’T HANDLE THEM ALL!!!). Ahem. Anyway, Lighthouse was a strong read and I think I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Moore’s readable, understated style. The Lighthouse is a very ‘simple’ story on the surface level – the story of a man on a walking holiday in Germany – but it feels like there’s a lot more going on underneath – a terrible sense of dread and tension, an obsession with smells (the narrator’s job is manufacturing artificial scents), flashbacks of a weird quasi-incestuous relationship with the neighbour who becomes his stepmother. I think Moore is going to warrant a PhD thesis overview of her work one day.

I only just finished Nocturnes yesterday, in this weird period where I don’t want to start a book that I’m not going to be able to finish before I leave. I’d never read short fiction by Ishiguro before (are these the only short stories he’s ever attempted?) but I unsurprisingly really enjoyed this. There some very strong stories here, especially the third one, “The Malvern Hills.” I was surprised by the amount of SLAPSTICK and COMEDY in some of these stories (especially the second one) – who would have thought Ishiguro had it in him!!

I liked how most of the stories felt like metaphors for writing – in fact, I’m CONVINCED that’s what they are. The title story, ‘Nocturne,’ about a sax player who gets plastic surgery because his ex-wife thinks that’s what will make him successful, has a lot of interesting bits about what true talent is – what it means to be successful. And the last story, “Cellist,” about a self-professed “virtuoso” cell player who’s actually never touched a cello in their life, was also really powerful – Bolaño-esque in its considerations of what it means to be a “true” artist. The last paragraph, in which we glimpse someone in the future, bitter and twisted, is really affecting. And I like the Gatsby-esque position from which the story is narrated – by a band member who seems to find contentment and enjoyment in his art, even though he’s not super famous or “successful” in a way that mainstream capitalist society would recognise.

So overall, a truly enjoyable collection. I love that Ishiguro’s stories have such heart in them, and that he’s so obsessed with themes like regret and “the life not lived.”

Now I just need to decide what books I’m bringing with me in my suitcase… I might be REALLY strict and restrain myself to my Kindle, and The Makioka Sisters, and maybe one other ‘big’ book I can read on the plane…

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Filed under books, contemporary, non-fiction, poetry, review, short stories

March Books


*The Mars Room (Rachel Kushner)

I can only know myself, if I can know anyone. I can only judge me.” (pg. 272)

My two favourite books this month had the word “room” in the title – how ’bout that!

I thought The Mars Room was an incredibly powerful read – angry, propulsive, raging. I’d never read Kushner before, but I now BADLY want to read her previous two books. Something about her writing really clicked with me – the incredibly readable style, the energy, the Savage Detectives-esque focus on the madness of youth. This book was also a really helpful example for me, in terms of the kind of fiction produced by a very deliberate research project carried out by an author over a number of years. I’m fascinated by fiction that has a very strong basis in fact, and I don’t think this is going to change any time soon.

Overall, this is deeply intelligent, passionate, and deeply-felt book. This quote by the author (from a post-Booker nomination interview) is also good food for thought:

“Here is what I say: art must be made with a pure intent, and a commitment to genuine risk. The thing created must be smarter than the person who made it. My book is smarter than I am about one particular thing, which I didn’t understand until after I made it, and that one thing is this: there are many who acknowledge that those who’ve gone to prison have been born without luck, and that bad luck can shape a person, unfairly. That is not so difficult.”

Kudos (Rachel Cusk)

A super satisfying conclusion to a deeply interesting trilogy that I’m sure people will be writing PhD theses about for years to come (I’ve written about Outline and Transit VERY briefly here). The basic premise of Kudos remains the same: the narrator has no interiority, but is there as am empty vessel, listening to conversations of the people she encounters. The setting this time around is in (what I think is) Greece, for a conference and literary festival. Themes in this book include thinly veiled references to Brexit, the purpose of narrative, authentic literature, the trauma of divorce and raising children, the value of privacy and invisibility, cruelty, and freedom. The first conversation, on the plane about the family dog, was my favourite.

After seeing Rachel Cusk speak and read in person, there is no doubt in my mind that she is a deeply intellectual person who takes writing very seriously. Considering she’s published something like 10 books (memoirs and novels) before embarking upon this trilogy, it’s a very encouraging sign: a sign that older women have a lot to contribute to art and society, and that we don’t have to be so fucking obsessed with youth all the time, and that your career as a writer can grow and fluctuate and change if you remain open to taking risks.

“A degree of self-deception, she said, was an essential part of the talent for living.” (pg. 34)

“Writing was what generally kept her from going down that road. When she wrote she was neither in nor out of her body: she was just ignoring it.” (60)

“I don’t always please you, I said, but I am just as real this way as the other way.” (136)

“It is patience and endurance and loyalty – rather than ambition and desire – that bring the ultimate rewards.” (170)

Exposure (Olivia Sudjic)

I can’t seem to find my copy of this at the moment which is unfortunate because it definitely had quite a few quotes I wanted to share. Anyway, this book was on the syllabus of one of the classes I was teaching this semester. It’s essentially a short essay that begins with the author’s experience on a writing retreat on Brussels, trying to work on her second novel, and it delves into reflections on anxiety and auto-fiction, with references to some of her favourite “talismanic” writers (Ferrante, Heti, Lispector).

I have major respect for this essay in the sense that it’s attempting to broach a topic that basically EVERY young woman writer I have ever taught or worked with seems to experience – that of anxiety, a fear of being judged. In contrast to Adele (a book discussed below), which is heavily critical of bourgeois experience, this one confronts it face on: the luxury of being able to go on a writing retreat. In that sense, it’s a very gutsy move to me: the author is writing about her (very) personal experience, what she knows best, putting herself in a risky, vulnerable position. It reminded me of Elif Batuman’s advice at the end of this essay: Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. 

*The German Room (Carla Maliandi)

My other favourite book of the month, tied with The Mars Room. Oh my god, this book is amazing! Do you ever find yourself in one of those reading funks where you just pick up book after book and sigh, because it all seems so wearisome? Well, this book was EXACTLY what I needed. Thank God for Charco Press!

The plot of this book is very simple (and dare I say it, Magic Mountain-esque). An Argentinean woman in her 30’s travels to Heidelberg in Germany, the city where she was born and lived for five years as a child when her parents fled Argentina due to the dictatorship. Her time in Heidelberg involves meeting a lot of strange and funny characters and this is what creates a lot of energy and momentum in the book. This was a reading experience in which I literally had NO IDEA what was going to happen next, which made it very exciting and fun. The translation is extremely well done, in the sense that it’s very readable and brisk. There’s also one moment in the first 25 pages that is genuinely very SHOCKING. Basically I liked how this was a book where a lot of things HAPPENED (the psychic, the Japanese woman having a nervous breakdown… I coud go on and on). It also helps that the chapters are all relatively short and move at a brisk pace.

I really related to the narrator, a woman in her 30’s feeling a bit lost (lol) and like her life is in shambles. I really connected to her feelings of just wanting to RUN AWAY and TEAR APART your stable, perfect life (don’t worry, I’m not going to do this myself, I’m just sayin’!) vs. figuring out what it means to be an adult and be responsible for your actions and their consequences. I really loved the melancholy, regretful tone that came through at times. It’s a relatively simple plot but one that I think a lot of people can relate to – what kind of person do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to live? How do you avoid having a shitty life, one in which you feel bloated and tired all the time and everything is an impossible struggle?And how do you figure that out if you don’t really know who/what you are? (An Argentinean woman born in Germany, etc.)

I also really loved the theme of communication and translation in the book – there are so many languages and identities present here (German, Argentinean, Japanese, Turkish, Hungarian, Albanian…).

I absolutely loved this.

“Something suddenly became clear to me: I didn’t want to buy a set of coffee mugs ever again, or straighten pictures on the wall, or decide where to put the rug that looks rustic but isn’t. I don’t want to go to the plant shop and ask which ones like sun and which are houseplants. I don’t want to choose the fabric for the curtains, or the colour of the bedspread, or the size of the bookcase. I’d rather live like a refugee forever, sleeping in other people’s beds, having coffee out of strange mugs, mugs that I didn’t choose and that I don’t care about because I don’t even remember the name of the street of the house I woke up in.” (pg. 21)

“It’s annoying and funny at the same time. I look around the room, they’re experiencing what they’ll remember in the future as the best time of their lives, their student years, their foreign adventure far away from their parents. In ten years they’ll probably be exhausted, they’ll have kids, good jobs, and they’ll look back fondly on those days in Heidelberg, days they’ll never get back. But I don’t belong to this group. Even if I crossed the whole world looking for a place to feel at home, I wouldn’t belong anywhere. (pg. 23)

“A happy exile, an exile you don’t want to return from, isn’t exile.” (pg. 27)

“Here the time passes in a strange way and nothing is the same. How much longer will I be able to disappear from the internet too, from the lives of others? How much longer will the e-mails continue to pile up, their demands for explanations? A forgotten person is like a dead person, and no one wants a dead person to show up in the world of the living. (pg. 43)

(I think this section encapsulates one of the main themes of the book)“[She says] ‘We’re all masses of chaotic little particles, little leaves blown around by the wind. You want to go east but the wind blows you west. You want to go north but the wind pushes you south. It’s not up to us.’ The Tucumano says he thinks the opposite is true, that everything, absolutely everything, depends on us, that we’re victims of our own decisions. His entire life he’s seen the direct consequences of his own actions.” (pg. 83)

My Sister the Serial Killer (Oyinkan Braithwaite)

This was an extremely entertaining read and VERY good fun, and exactly the book I needed during a very busy month. I usually pay no attention whatsoever to book covers but I really liked this one, with the bottle of cleaning liquid on the back. In terms of content, I loved the depiction of the sisters’ relationship, and I thought the ending was risky but well-earned (really, it couldn’t possibly have ended in any other way). I really must read more Nigerian writers!

The Large Door (Jonathan Gibbs)

This book was written by a UEA graduate and published by a new independent publisher based at (and founded by) UEA. The story follows Jenny Thursley, a linguistics lecturer in her 40’s who returns to Europe for a conference in Amsterdam, where she is expected to deliver a keynote speech for her mentor. Taking place over 24 hours, I was reminded often of David Lodge (the book jacket cites Iris Murdoch as an influence – I really must read more of her… someday… someday soon). I loved the limited setting of this (the fact that I recently visited Amsterdam helped), the limited time frame, and the humour most of all (especially the bits about procrastination, something that EVERYONE working in academia can relate to). Is independent publishing becoming like Netflix, in the sense that works that would have been produced by major studios/publishers in the 70’s-90’s are basically now receiving a more “limited” release? (I can’t believe that Cuarón, Scorsese, and the Coen brothers have ALL turned to Netflix to fund their next films, not to mention the fate of poor Alex Garland.. In any case, long live independent publishing and its support of unconventional, fresh stories such as this one.

My favourite passages were these two, about teaching (as someone who is still very much in the beginning of her teaching career and still has a lot to learn, they had an especially strong resonance for me):

“Learning is all about the growth of the self, and teaching is about enabling that growth. The teacher is invested in the person that the student is becoming, and the student wants to share a sense of that person with their teacher, to show what they have learned – for how do you test your growing self except by exposing it to love or blame? […] There has got to be something more going on than just the mark scrawled at the bottom of the essay, or entered on the computer. The pleasure taken in shared awareness of personal development, the shared joy of someone seeing their chosen self emerge: this is the gift of eros.” (146)

“To be a good teacher meant being both passive and active. It did not mean to call upon knowledge, but to generate the feeling for knowledge, and then to control that flow of feeling in the room, to be able to respond to and control the power of those feelings in other people.” (151)

Adele (Leïla Slimani)

Another book that was EXACTLY what I needed of a month of crushing Brexit and Mueller BS. Maybe I should start reading more crime novels – there is definitely a need in my daily schedule for books that are escapist and entertaining! My favourite thing about this was how “badly behaved” Adele was. And yet the book also tried to be very fair and balanced (I was pleasantly surprised when I reached the section narrated by her husband).

I suppose you could technically classify her as a sex addict, but wasn’t she also just, like, rebelling against life? This theme of FREEDOM and BEING A WOMAN and CAN A WOMAN EVER BE FREE is something I’ve been thinking a lot about… themes unpacked by Sheila Heti’s Motherhood (which I’m currently reading, and hoping to finish later today). It also helps that I’ve gotten really obsessed with Joni Mitchell’s back catalogue, and the meaning and nature of freedom, being on the road, and making art are three classic themes of her songs that I’ve discerned so far.

Anyway, if I was going to give this book a cheesy blurb I’d say something along the lines of “‘Girl on the Train’ for the thinking, liberated woman.” It’s definitely a book that often expresses fear against the constraints of “bourgeois” life – the materialism, the idea that there is a standard you must live up to. And yet isn’t railing against the bourgeois the most bourgeois thing ever…? In any case, I like to think that the book DOES end on a note of optimism and hope for Adele, but that’s just me… you’ll have to read it yourself and see what you think…

“She looks at them and realises that her life will always be the same now. She will look after her children, worry about what they’re eating. She will go on holidays to places that they like, try to find ways of entertaining them every weekend. Like bourgeois mothers the world over, she will drive them to their guitar classes, to the theatre, to school, constantly seeking activities to ‘elevate their  minds.’ Adele hopes that her children will not be like her.” (22)

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Filed under books, contemporary, review, women writers

Notable Books of 2018

Here are some notable books I read in 2018 that I didn’t write about on this blog (not ordered in any way).

A Separation (Katie Kitamura)

Wow, how could I not have read this book earlier? This is one of those books that really blew me away. Like Rachel Cusk mixed with Patricia Highsmith and a wee bit of JM Coetzee. Apparently was blurbed by Knausgaard (as a huge K fan, this is a big stamp of approval for me). I’m not going to summarise the plot because I went into reading this book completely blind and I feel like that was a huge benefit. Within the depths of an author-crush obsession, I also read her previous book, Gone to the Forestwhich was also deeply weird and rich and uncompromising. I love discovering books like this because I feel like they offer the kind of blueprint for the kind of career I want to have myself (god willing!).

Resistance (Julián Fuks)

Holy god, did this book make me cry. Again I don’t want to summarize it too much because going into it blind felt like a huge benefit to me. I’m still not even sure if it’s fiction or non-fiction (auto-fiction, maybe? That’s a trendy term, right?). The one thing I’ll say is that I thought this was an extremely powerful examination of sibling relationships, and it made me realize how few books there are out there that examine this. Elena Ferrante made female friendship A Thing To Write About – will sibling relationships be the next big deal?

The other theme in this book that really stuck with me is the parasitic, inherent cruelty of writing about your family. Is changing the truth the only way an author can morally represent challenging material?

Overall, I think this book does a really incredibly job of examining how violent political history affects families and individuals throughout time, in a really unique and brilliant way.

(FYI I got this book via my subscription to Charco Press, my birthday present to myself last year. I can’t tell you how EXCITED I AM that an INDEPENDENT PRESS is PUBLISHING TRANSLATED LATIN AMERICAN FICTION, IN THE UK. It’s like my Christmas dream came true!)

All Grown-Up (Jenni Attenberg)

This book was recommended on the Twitter feed of Lisa Owens (a super funny and skilled writer in her own right! Full disclaimer: we did the same MA degree together, but I am not a biased bitch!). Like Lisa’s writing, this book was hysterically raw and true. I highlighted so many passages. I’m fully over the whole “I liked this book because I related to the narrator” as an appropriate aesthetic judgement (EFF THAT!), but….: I liked this book because I related to the narrator. I’m also sort of over the whole fragmented novel thing (lol), BUT… I thought the fragmented nature of this book (it’s basically linked short stories) worked really well, and cumulated in a particularly powerful way in the final scene, with the narrator’s brother’s baby.

Here’s to not knowing what the eff you’re doing with your life!

Our Dead World (Liliana Colanzi)

This is one of the best short story collections I have ever read, no joke! I loved the Philip K. Dick influences. I’ll keep this brief: if you love short stories, definitely check this out.

The Idiot 

This is one of those books that really stuck with me, that I found myself thinking repeatedly about over the course of the year. And the more I think about it the more impressed by it I am. Basically, this book stands out for how FUNNY it is. Like, CONSISTENTLY. Probably every other sentence is funny! Do you know how hard that is?? Writing humour?? From the very first page, when the narrator holds up an ethernet cable and asks, “What do we do with this, hang ourselves?” – I was hooked. I also loved how, like life, this book has very little plot and no resolution. A must-read for you 90’s kids (you know who you are…).

Books written by people I sort of know IRL that I loved:

Ponti (Sharlene Teo) – I did a creative writing MA the same year as Sharlene but never had a chance to read an excerpt from Ponti. I loved how uncompromising this book was in terms of not offering any resolutions for the characters (just like real life!), and the snarky acerbic tone of the prose. There were so many sentences in this I found absolutely hysterical (the one about “fucking earnestly to Adele” stands out the most).

Demi-Gods (Eliza Robertson) – Besides being a superbly talented writer, Eliza is also an astrologist who read my tarot cards and offered soothingly prescient advice for me when I was basically having a nervous breakdown. THANK YOU, ELIZA! But still, I say this from an unbiased place: Like Ponti, Demi-Gods is ones of those brutally uncompromising books that makes me grateful that weird and uncommercial feminist art can exist in today’s world. I don’t mean to sound like I’m giving an Academy Award speech but I AM SO GRATEFUL I GOT TO STUDY AT AN INSTITUTION W SO MANY TALENTED WOMEN…

The Water Cure (Sophie Macintosh) – This was nominated for the Booker and is fully deserving. I loved the raw achey prose of this. Is it bad if I related to the main character Lila in, like, a really hardcore way? Apparently she has a new book coming out next year too – YASS.

Other books I loved this year, that I did write about:

Clock Dance (Anne Tyler)
The Devil’s Highway (Gregory Norminton)
Sight (Jessie Greengrass)
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh)
Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enriquez)
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mendel)

Book I did not “get” this year:

Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday) – this book got rave reviews in the U.S. but I found it really hard to connect with – is it because I’m not a Philip Roth fan? (I sort of loathe him TBH…) Anyway, if you’ve read this and loved it, would love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under books, contemporary, review, women writers, year in review

The Devil’s Highway & Sight

My, what a busy, busy week that was! Very Richard Scarry-esque. BUT, I did get to read two amazing books!

Image result for the devil's highway norminton

THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY (GREGORY NORMINTON)

Uff, reading this the day after the UN report on climate change was released was MUY, MUY fuerte. This had been on my to-read list for a while due to the intriguing set-up: three timelines, ancient Britain, modern Britain, and futuristic Britain. An ancient Briton boy encounters a Roman solider, a traumatised war veteran confronts an archaeologist, and a band of feral children make their way through a burning landscape, a world set aflame through (presumably) global warming (this section is narrated in the first-person plural – very cool). And throughout there’s reflections on the definition of human progress, the relationship with the landscape, what it means to be British, violence and kindness, migrants and displacement, the appeal of terrorism and jihadism, the changing nature of human spirituality, from earth-focused to book-focused… I was reminded of Cloud Atlas and The Buried Giant. This… was exactly my cup of tea!!

The three narratives are literally “connected” by the Roman road that gives the book its title, The Devil’s Highway. As one character comments, “One place is lots of places if you just wait long enuf.” It’s all very cleverly done. It reminded me of what first fascinated me about linked collections – how scenes in different timelines can echo each other. The way a flint tool reappears, for example. Or the different ways we spend our time (like hunting and foraging vs. stacking groceries at the co-op). It all becomes quite powerful – a scene near the end involving blind people had me in tears. And I NEVER cry when reading!! (Though it’s happening more frequently lately – Station Eleven also had me weeping). What’s especially impressive is that this book is SHORT. Barely 200 pages! I find this INCREDIBLY impressive – that the book has been cut down to the bare, naked essentials.

I found the historical part particularly fascinating. The way the Romans viewed the Britons, as savages who used wood and mud, while the Romans brought roads and progress. The presence of feminine gods, the relationship with animals, the importance of physical objects like sticks and stones… all very Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The far-off past is as alien as another planet, innit.

This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

She can understand the allure of cutting your own path. Who wants to follow a straight official route when everything in nature loops and circles?” (55)

What’s the point? If everything gets buried again?”
The girl shrugs. “It’s progress,” she says. (123)

Had he such a thing to lose: an essence that survived death? If so, could it rise from any bonds that earth could make for it? His enemies, every one of them, had a soul. The young fanatics chasing him: so long as he could stand and manage a stick, he would not hesitate to kill any that came his way. There would be no honour in it: they were not worthy adversaries. Yet the druid that found a calling for them, an exalted purpose. Who, in their stultified tribe, had done the same? Only violence stirred the blood. It was a spring that never ran dry. Perhaps that was why the empire existed, pushing ever outwards to keep the rage of its young from turning against home.” (180)

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SIGHT (JESSIE GREENGRASS)

Jessie Greengrass is probably one of my favorite contemporary writers now working. God, we are blessed to have her in our midst! I loved her short story collection, and Sight, her first novel, is filled with so many gems. I underlined so many sentences I don’t even know where to start!

Sight, similarly to The Devil’s Highway, is a “broken” novel in the sense that it doesn’t exactly follow a straight path. We have a first-person narrator, a young woman trying to decide whether or not to have a child (though we know very early on that she does, so this definitely isn’t a will-she-or-won’t-she plot). We see memories of her mother’s death, childhood summers spent with her analyst grandmother, and visits to museums with her partner. And interspersed throughout are these sort of mini-essays (or “digressions,” as the author herself has called them), about significant moments in medical history. The discovery of X-rays. The first Caesarean. And the years Anna Freud spent in analysis with her father.

This is another short book – 200 pages. Short books FTW, baby! I don’t have a kid (obviously), nor have I been in the position of having to nurse a parent (yet… no comment :((( ), but nevertheless I found the passages about these two “life milestones” incredibly affecting. The book continuously discusses how having a child is like having an extension of yourself, and yet, the child is definitely “not” you, and that the definition of adulthood is moving away from one’s parent, which can feel like a horrible irony. “Growing up,” the narrator says, “is a solitary process of disentanglement from those who made us,” (58) an the scenes where she and her mother clean the house after her grandmother’s death is a vivid depiction of this. What does it mean to grow up, to become an adult? How do we “see” inside ourselves, understand ourselves? How is it possible to we can be so hidden from ourselves, that we can possess so little understanding about why we do the things we do? (Man, don’t get me STARTED on this…!) What can the past tell us about ourselves; what can we learn from it; and how do we protect those we love (like our children) from it? How do we balance the routine of a long, meandering, domestic days and try not to be feel frantic about the BIG PICTURE? Is the only way to know something is to live it?

There’s an amazing clarity in the writing here – I was reminded of Knausgaard’s essay writing, and Ottessa Moshfegh at times (namely due to the surly humour, which really MAKES the book). It was so freaking nice, as a young woman, to read a book about motherhood that is thoughtful, balanced, and reflective, as opposed to being all like CHILDREN = LOSS OF ARTISTIC FREEDOM FOREVER. God, this was such a good read. Can’t wait for her next one.

This is what we all do, after all, this striving to make sense.” (103)

I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both. The thought of it makes me surly and resentful.” (62)

What are we if not a totality of days, a sum of interactions.” (85)

[I read] because the act of reading was a habit, and because it was soothing, and, perhaps, from a lifetime’s inculcated faith in the explanatory power of books, the half-held belief that somewhere in those hectares upon hectares of printed pages I might find that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness, allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath.” (36)

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Missing

Missing (Alison Moore)

How nice that would be, thought Jessie, just to make a phone call and pay a fine and get back whatever you had lost. (90)

Oh, I love a good ghost story. And this one has enough deliciousness in spades. An inexplicably broken tea mug. A hairline crack in a window gradually getting bigger. Creaks and sighs from upstairs (if you REALLY want to get the crap scared out of you, listen to this story!).

I read this a while ago, over the summer during Salt Publishing’s campaign to save itself from debt. God, I love independent publishers. Something I’ve really learned over the past six years is how much more varied and interesting the indie catalogue is. Thank God for risk-takers!

I loved the quiet, spooky domesticity of this. Sort of like the monotony of Knausgaard mixed with the creepy atmosphere of Robert Aickman. I loved the main character, Jessie, a translator. I related to her very strongly, especially in her obsession with cooking:

She liked to cook. She found it soothing – the chopping, chopping, softening, boiling down. She cooked more food than she could possibly eat on her own; she made enough to feed a family. What she could not eat, she froze. In her freezer, she had weeks’ worth – perhaps months’ worth – of shepherd’s pie and chilli; she had about a square foot of lasagne, in individual portions, which she took out, one at a time. She blasted them in the microwave. (41)

In the margins next to this, I wrote, IT ME.

I also loved the humour throughout this. God, how it made me cackle! Like the dog’s name, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or this part:

Now that she lived alone, and seeing as she worked at home, and given that she spoke only occasionally to her family, she did sometimes imagine dying in some sudden and unnecessary way – perhaps tripping over the cat at the top of the stairs and landing broken-necked at the bottom – and nobody knowing for weeks. The neighbours or the postman would notice a smell, and after a while someone would come and find her lying at the foot of the stairs, and in the meantime the cat would have been eating her face. She did not know about the dog, whether it would try to intervene or whether it would just join in. (53)

So dark! I love it!

Reading this book reminded me that it’s possible to make great art without a lot of capitalist attention. Don’t get me wrong, this book has done very well! Lots of reviews, etc. But it ties in with the latest passage of Knausgaard that I just read (progress has been slow… I’m still only at 36% on my kindle edition). In this long essayistic ramble (there’s been QUITE a few these in the book so far…!), Knausgaard talks about the human obsession with being seen. This is a long ramble, so bear with me. Basically, he starts out talking about how rather than change his father’s name in the book due to a legal request, he instead removes his father’s name entirely, so that within the novel, his father is basically a man without a name. He them embarks upon a reflection of what names mean to people – how one of the most brutal forms of teasing a children can do is to twist around someone’s name. Somehow, our names feel connected to the core of who we are – of how we are seen and understood by others:

“Apart from material necessities, the most important need of any human being is to be seen. Anyone who is not seen is no one. The worst punishment in old Nordic culture was to be proclaimed fredløs, which is to say cast out from society, forbidden to associate with others… We strive to be seen. And when being seen means being seen by all, it gives rise to an impossible craving, since being seen by all is the preserve of the few.”

He ties this in with celebrity and social media, about how people use their names online not only to denote the core of who they are, but also as an ADVERTISEMENT of their own idea of who they are, in terms of creating a context online for their name, a furnishing, “not unlike the way in which a brand is built up or a pop star constructed.” This is my favorite kind of rant, let me tell you! If I am ever trapped in the corner by a drunken Knausgaard at a party, let me tell you, I am NOT moving.

So as a result from being surrounded by this constant BRAND BUILDING and ADVERTISEMENT that is “abstract” and “image-based”, Knausgaard sees an important role for the novel (drum roll): “what the novel can do,” he says, “and which perhaps is its most important property, is to penetrate our veils of habit and familiarity simply by describing things in a slightly different way.”

This is what I enjoy the most about books like Missing. Quiet books, that are all the more brilliant for how quiet they are. They’re not launched frenetically upon the media stage. They’re not loud. But in their firm and resolute way, they are keeping art alive. When I read passages about a woman obsessively making lasagnes and think, IT ME, god, what a comfort that is! The moment of recognition when reading Missing‘s discussion of how a missing puzzle piece (especially a corner one!) can create such a terrible mood around the house! The reflections of a translator on how bloody hard it is to communicate, on what a responsibility it is to try to say exactly what you mean! The familiarity of reading about someone who leaves notes in the margins of library books and checks them years later to see if anyone has responded! Or the way a man chopping onions is described: “He pressed the back of his wrist to his eyes. He looked as if he were acting in a tragedy.” That moment of oh wow, I never saw it put that way.

And also this idea of breaking out of our “veils of habit and familiarity,” which is very much a theme of Missing. God, I can’t even begin with this! That’s probably why I obsess so much about travel, about escape, because it feels like an “easy” fix, an electroshock to the system to make you sit up, take notice, not sleepwalk through your life but take notice of every moment. It’s so hard, as a self-critical young woman, to feel like I’m living my life the way I want to.

But what can I do, but get up, blast one of my microwave frozen lasagnes, and try to get through the day with as much compassion and attention as I can. That’s the kind of art I want to make, too. Quiet and unassuming, and mine.

“We must not contemplate the world, but act within it. We must not read, and we must not look; instead we must go. Go towards something, perhaps; something whose nature is as yet unknown to us.” (Knausgaard, Loc 7430 – WHYYYY do some of my kindle books not provide page numbers? So random and inexplicable!)

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Oxford and The End

Last week contained a bit of a treat – I was able to go to Oxford to meet one of my favourite writers (more on that soon).

This old building is now a Pret a Manger… truly, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore

I had some time to pop into a museum, where I enjoyed the writing section very much.

And T.E. Lawrence’s robes! Truly, a vintage high school obsession.

“Writing is a way to record facts, ideas, and stories. A reader can understand what you mean without meeting or talking to you.”

I really enjoyed the paintings by this female Japanese artist, who came and lived in England for a while. This was her painting of Stonehenge.

And I loved these rabbits! I hadn’t seen rabbits on Japanese art before (not that I’ve seen that much of it lol).

I also liked this old painting of Oxford’s High Street.

And of course this map of migration of Europe is always topical.

The other fun treat of my week is that volume six of Knasgaard’s My Struggle series, entitled The End, was finally released to my kindle. The last Knausgaard I read was in 2016 – can’t believe that it’s been that long! Here’s where I write about Book One and Book Two – looks like I didn’t write about Books Three and Four, which is a shame, because I really enjoyed them. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the whole lot! Who knows, maybe I’ll re-read them again someday… or Proust?

God, I love Knausgaard. I was ranting and raving about him to N. the other day as we chomped down on our hamburgers. I’m only 29% of the way through The End (god, I’ll be honest, I’m not really looking forward to the 400-page essay on Hitler, but who knows, maybe I’ll sink into it) and I’m sure there’s still a lot more in store for me. But oh, Knausgaard-world! The obsession with death. The mundanity of working with children, shopping. The constant smoking (I read somewhere online that he’s quit, and that he’s also now divorced, and living in London).

The End picks up in 2009, shortly before the publication of Book One of My Struggle. He sends the manuscript to his family members for their approval and is accosted by his uncle, who threatens to sue and contests specific facts in the book. Knausgaard himself ends up wondering what in the book is actually “true”, and what was an assumption of his – had his father fired the cleaner, or had Knausgaard just assumed it? In my head, the fact that the books are called NOVELS should release him from holding himself to a non-fiction, journalistic standard, but whatever, I guess that’s why with auto-fiction things get blurry.

This is probably the most death-obsessed book since Book One. There’s a lot of poignancy in Knausgaard’s interactions with his children, particularly since the entire series has been basically about his father’s death. He wonders constantly how his children will remember him, how they will remember this moment. I particularly loved the passage about Hamlet, and how much he has in common with dead people and ghosts. In a way, Hamlet is more immortal that “living” dead people, who can only live on in the memories of those who knew them (this is a very Coco-esque theme, I’ve just realized). But Hamlet, as a work of fiction, can live on forever. “Does he rise now in his chilly chamber? Does he climb the narrow steps out onto the roof, to the parapets? What then does he see? … What thoughts does he have? Shakespeare told us.

My favorite moment in the book so far is when Knausgaard and his daughter are running a fun run, a sort of race for children. The daughter’s friend keeps stopping and kindly waiting for her to catch up, and at one point trips and bloodies up her leg. At that point Knausgaard urges his daughter to go, go, go, beat her, cross the finish line! And afterwards all the adults are laughing and joking with him: “wow, your daughter just left her friend behind, haha, she really wanted to win!” And Knasugaard is just like… I can never tell them the truth, that it was actually ME who was so obsessed with a four year old girl winning a race that I made her abandon her bleeding, crying friend. HA!

It’s incidents like this one that make me like the “character” of Knausgaard that appears in these books so much. Constantly ashamed and snivelling, full of self-pity and disgust. Almost Dostoevskyian, in a way. Wondering if he’s a good father, and what it means to be a good person. But committed, absolutely, to his writing. And that’s maybe the most interesting theme to have emerged so far in this book. Knausgaard finds himself wondering WHY he has written this series – why couldn’t he just let sleeping dogs lie? Why is he causing so much trouble to his loved ones? Is he really this ruthless? A sort of literary vampire (“brutal and without consideration, self-seeking and egoistic“), exploiting his family? But then he muses upon how during the actual moment of writing, he never once stopped to think, should I do this, should I explore these themes. It was a compulsion; he couldn’t stop himself, and that was what made writing the books different from writing an essay, or an article: it came from pure feeling, emotions about him and his father.

I’ll try to remember how sad I’ll be when this book is finished when I’m slogging through the more “boring” bits… this statement could probably apply to life in general, too.

“Writing was such a fragile thing. It wasn’t hard to write well, but it was hard to make writing that was alive, writing that could prise open the world and draw it together in one and the same movement. When it didn’t work, which is never really did, not really, I would sit there like a conceited idiot and wonder who I thought I was, supposing I could write for others. Did I know any better than everyone else? Did I possess some secret no one else possessed? Were my experiences particularly valuable? My thoughts about the world especially valid?”

“Life was there to be felt, that was what we strove for, but why? For our headstones to say ‘Here lies a person who liked to sleep’?”

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Normal People

Normal People (Sally Rooney)

“One night the library started closing just as he reached the passage in ‘Emma’ when it seems like Mr Knightley is going to marry Harriet, and he had to close the book and walk home in a state of strange emotional agitation. He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that. It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.”

I’m home right now, listening to my wannabe DJ neighbour blast his godawful techno music – not gonna lie, I am NOT going to miss that particular soundtrack after I move. I made my new landlord CONFIRM OFFICIALLY that my new neighbours will be quiet!! N. tells me that one of Natsume Soseki’s symptoms of madness and depression after he moved to England was paranoia and inability to tolerate noise – sure hope I am not going down that road…

Anyway, I’m happy that I was finally able to get around to reading my copy of Sally Rooney’s new novel, Normal People. FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve met the author because we’re both published by the same publisher, were once nominated for the same award, and share a mutual friend. This… is the funny thing about maintaining one’s 10-year-old book reviewing blog. Who reads blogs anymore anyway, right? My minimum expectation at this point is to not be stalked and harassed like I was in fall of 2015, lol. And in 2008 I was definitely not, like, contemplating the “ethical” quandaries of discussing a book by someone I “know” (however tangentially). But isn’t the purpose of this blog (other than to amuse and entertain me – or, in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, to “fart around”) that of keeping track of books that made an impression on me? And that’s exactly what this book did! It made an impression on me! There it is: it moved me.

I’ve been looking forward to reading this for AGES. It’s actually really touching how many people I know who’ve said that they’ve been dying to read this! Is this… what being a Star Wars/Harry Potter fan like? In terms of enthusiastic anticipation? And yet what I found most interesting about this novel were the passages discussing the ‘purpose’ and ‘function’ of art, in a very Savage Detectives-esque vein:

“Everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy. He didn’t know why he had come. He had read the writer’s collection and found it uneven, but sensitive in places, perceptive. Now, he thought, even that effect was spoiled by seeing the writer in this environment, hemmed off from anything spontaneous, reciting aloud from his own book to an audience who’d already read it. The stiffness of this performance made the observations in the book seem false, separating the writer from the people he wrote about, as if he’d observed them only for the benefit of talking about them to Trinity students. Connell couldn’t think of any reason why these literary events took place, what they contributed to, what they meant. They were attended only be people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.”

“Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book was really insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal… Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.”

I found these passages very bad-ass – especially in terms of thinking of literature as valuable because, like football, it doesn’t serve a “utilitarian” purpose in society (assuming you cut out all the related commercial functions… or the consideration of football as a ritualistic outlet for aggression – ok, maybe this wasn’t the best comparison, but whatever, I never claimed to be a great essayist!). But yeah, literature as valuable precisely BECAUSE it is so useless. Useless in the sense that it can be made and given away, by you just writing in your notebook, for no one but yourself. Now that’s a stance I can really get behind. (This piece also very much supports my philosophy, in terms of how The Work Is All There Is. And this piece supports my philosophy about how Art Encourages Uncertainty and Openness, as Opposed to Capitalism)

What I probably found most touching (thematically) in this book was its emphasis on the importance of depending on others. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot – because in so many ways, the novel is a very ‘I’-obsessed form. If you think of the novel as a creation of a voice, a personality, a presence… that’s a very pro-U.S.A. mentality, in a way. To focus on the individual, rather than the group or the community. IDK. These articles (by Viet Thanh Nguyen and a New Yorker piece about Julio Cortázar) provided a lot of food for thought, back in the day when I read them.

Overall, I found this book incredibly thought-provoking, and it’s not often a book makes me feel that way.

“Marianne wanted her life to mean something then, she wanted to stop all violence committed by the strong against the weak, and she remembered a time several years ago when she had felt so intelligent and young and powerful that she almost could have achieved such a thing, and now she knew she wasn’t at all powerful, and she would live and die in a world of extreme violence against the innocent, and at most she could only help a few people. It was so much harder to reconcile herself to the idea of helping a few, like she would rather help no one than do something so small and feeble.”

“No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on other people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.”

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You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)

Yesterday, while N. and his brother played vintage games (such as Street Gangs, and one that involved a knight wandering around a castle, killing bats and snakes), I bought a book on the kindle app on my phone and read it. We’d gone out the night before for N’s birthday, during which I had a very long and interesting conversation with someone about an Indonesian Christian who praised the coming of colonialism (I know…). So the next day I wanted something easy to read, relaxing, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of lounging about, like ya do. So what better choice than a novella filled with VIOLENCE, GRIMNESS, and THE TRAUMA OF AN ABUSIVE CHILDHOOD?

I wanted to read this book because I loved the film (one of the best I’ve seen this year, along with First Reformed and Netflix’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore). The film genre of “Joaquin Phoenix plays a lunatic” is one that I decidedly enjoy, and I also loved how it reminded me of Taxi Driver. The book definitely did not disappoint, though (SPOILER WARNING): the book is decidedly different from the film – most specifically, the book ends MUCH earlier than the film does. The film also gives more dialogue and presence to the kidnapped girl, which is good. I did read an interview with the author somewhere (who incidentally used to date Fiona Apple, and had a song written about him) that he’s writing a sequel – I wonder how similar the sequel will be to the film, or not… if it’s a George RR Martin kind of situation…

I was surprised by how much this book reminded of The Remains of the Day – not only in the sense that Joe, the main character, is somewhat of an robot, but in the sense that (like Stephens the butler) he was deliberately CONDITIONED to be that way (in Joe’s case, by the Marines and FBI). This… is something that fascinates me about masculinity, about young men who are purposefully PROGRAMMED to be mindless killing machines. Or unknowingly allow themselves to be. As Homo Deus would put it, putting the lizard brain over consciousness.

Overall, You were Never Really Here would be perfect to teach in a novel writing or crime course (and indeed, I might very well use it this academic year): it’s very short, very well-written, and very readable. What I found particularly interesting about the book, in contrast to the film, was how much we were able to go inside Joe’s head – whereas in the film, you’re just “watching” him (or seeing his flashbacks). OK, this is a very Basic Creative Writing 101 observation, but it’s true. Joe’s interiority is presented in a very matter of fact, almost deadened way that I often found very funny (because I’m a dark, sick person):

“Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking. All day long, every few minutes, he’d think, I have to kill myself.”

“He was aware that he was not completely sane, so he kept himself in rigid check, playing both jailer and prisoner.”

“Joe tortured himself, imagining what McCleary’s toes must look like. He thought of putting them in his mouth. Joe hated his own mind. He wished he could be put down like a dog.”

Yeah. So clearly, self-hatred and trauma are a big element of this character. There’s something brutally comical about how he approaches every situation so logically, so coldly: “He thought of burning the house down, but he didn’t want to risk killing any neighbours. The house would have to be left intact.” He’s even explicitly compared to a weapon at one point. Is this… the future of humanity? In terms of automation?

Another impressive achievement of this book was its handling of action scenes, or “choreography,” as my students like to call it. Not that I’ve ever tried writing a complicated action scene, but what made the ones in “You Were Never Really Here” compelling (and there are indeed quite a few setpieces) wasn’t just the force of the violence, but these beautiful, unexpected observations, like this one.

You break your adversary’s fingers, you have an immediate advantage. It frightened even the hardest men to have their fingers snapped, and in a fight, like a dance, you often held hands.”

Comparing a fight to a dance – wow! Never thought of it that way before. Playful and memorable.

What was also very interesting to me were the parts where the narrator is just so DIRECT with the reader about Joe. In the sense that it’s the narrator who’s giving us information, as opposed to Joe himself:

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started.”

At his core, Joe was a very angry boy who had never gotten proper vengeance on his father, which is what a boy like Joe needed. Though it’s not always vengeance; sometimes it’s justice.”

So explicit! Some of my students would definitely be like… YO, this is TELLING, not SHOWING. But I think it creates a lot of pathos for Joe. SEE… WRITING HAS NO RULES… U CAN DO ANYTHING…

The last thing I want to say about this book is that there are two VERY interesting moments in which we leave Joe’s head and enter the consciousness of two other characters – this is something we definitely don’t (and indeed cannot) see in the film. I won’t spoil it, but both moments tie in very beautifully with this passage (I know I’m sharing a lot of excerpts here, but I can’t help it):

Joe knew that all human beings are the star of their own very important film, a film in which they are both camera and actor; a film in which they are always playing the fearful and lonely hero who gets up each day hoping to finally strike upon the life they are meant to lead, though they never do.”

These brief forays into the other two non-Joe characters are like sneaky glimpses into these other films – and the idea that everyone thinks they’re the star of their own story, when they’re really just… cannon fodder. It reminds me how I used to feel curious as a teen about the nameless and faceless henchmen who get massacred in films, like those poor dudes getting killed by raptors in the long grass, in that one The Lost World scene.

Overall, this was exactly what I want out of fiction: down, dirty, and readable.

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Nutcase

  Nutcase (Tony Williams)

Tony Williams is an English author who (like Jon McGregor) came to give a talk at the university where I work. His novel, Nutcase, is deeply intriguing, not just because it’s an adaptation of Icelandic sagas (I wish I knew more about them; his talk definitely made me want to know more!), but because of its style. Williams discussed how what made him interested in Icelandic sagas was their lack of interiority, in the sense that reading them is akin to this happened, then this happened, then this happened. A focus on the litany, rather than the emotional. So he decided to write a novel in contemporary Sheffield, written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas. It’s a fascinating experiment – in terms of both reading and writing. It made me think a lot about how so many novels (at least the ones I’m familiar with) are based on interiority, in terms of “showing” us the inside of a character’s consciousness.

Another interesting aspect of Tony’s talk was his path to getting published – no agent, and communicating directly with the publisher (good old Salt! Gotta love their anthologies ;)). It was a good message for the students to hear, I think. And it’s also good to witness how genuinely good art (like Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation) isn’t always coming from the biggest, flashiest sources.

Tony and I and the rest of the staff got dinner after the talk (I always order the exact same thing, a medium rare hamburger, as it’s one of the cheapest things on the menu, but I am thinking of switching to the halloumi salad just for a change). I talked for a bit with Tony’s friend, who he had gone to school with. Apparently (if I’m remembering correctly) one of the parties they hosted (attended?) as youth made its way into the book – I wonder if it was the basis for one of my favorite scenes in the novel, in which a fire is started due to someone burning U2 CDs in a biscuit tin.

Reading this book reminded me of what a deeply exotic and strange country England is to me, still. There are so many little corners and worlds that I just don’t know about, never will know, though this is probably true of every single place I have ever lived (and indeed, maybe feeling not at home is what makes me feel most at home). Whenever I ask anyone where they’re from in England, I rarely know their answer (but maybe English people would have the same reaction? Part of me thinks… no). There’s so much about England I still don’t know, even though I’ve lived here for six years.

I read Nutcase in a single sitting, on my train ride home. Definitely check it out – support independent publishers!

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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