Category Archives: fiction

Die, My Love


Die, My Love (Ariana Harwicz)

It’s Week 4 of the teaching semester and Week 6 of my Magic Mountain book club, and I am kind of/sort of/maybe starting to feel the tiredness kick in? It probably mainly has to do with me going to London this weekend for a wedding, which was VERY fun – the bride and groom’s first dance was to an Aphex Twin song! Very cool, and nice to catch up with people. However, being in my thirties has made spending the night in hostels increasingly less appealing to me – I’m talking to YOU, Italian ladies, who somehow thought it was appropriate to talk to each other at 4 in the morning, thus inspiring everyone else in the room to hiss and screech at them!

Along with my weekly intake of Thomas Mann (Knasgaard, I have put aside for now – I’m saving him for a long plane journey), it’s been fun to read some shorter books. This article (which is seriously probably the most fascinating pieces of literary criticism I have ever read!) inspired me to (re?)-read Lloyd Alexander’s “The Chronicles of Prydain” series – they’re SO GOOD! I can’t believe I’ve never read them before! Or have I?! I distinctly REMEMBER seeing his books lying around the house in Colombia, but they belonged to my older brother, and he only had the first and fifth one, so maybe I never got around to reading them because I didn’t see the point of starting a series and not finishing it…? I definitely read SOME of the first one, at the very least. Anyway, I have REALLY been enjoying them – a terrific discovery.

And then there’s Die My Love by Ariana Harwicz, which is definitely in the territory of ADULT FICTION. And for very specific adults too – I would definitely NOT give this to any expectant or new mothers!!

This was a fascinating book to read after having finish Jessie Greengrass’ Sight – they make for interesting counter-balances. While the style in Sight is very essayistic, Die My Love is more like a hot, sweaty monologue. This was probably my favorite thing about the book – it reminded me of Mary Ruefle, in the way that sentences jumped from one topic to another so rapidly. The paragraphs are long, but the chapters are never more than three pages. And at barely over a hundred pages total, this is one fast read. It’s almost like a book of poetry, or a collection of monologues, or stream-of-consciousness angry rants. But it’s not boring or annoying at all, mainly due to the crazed voice, which I found absolutely HILARIOUS (in a very dark way).

The story follows a foreign woman (Argentinean? We’re never told), living in rural France (also never specified – I’d have NEVER guessed it was France without the blurb on the back). She’s newly married with her long-time partner, with a newborn son. And she finds herself wondering: “How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of these two individuals? What was I going to do? … I dropped the knife and went to hang out the washing like nothing had happened.” (1)

And so we see that she is slowly losing her grip. Or maybe she’s having a reasonable response to the disarming situation she’s in, that of being in a foreign land with a newborn child. She’s constantly comparing herself with other mothers, judging herself, and having strange fantasies like walking through the patio door glass: “I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish. Here we are, all three of us together for a family portrait.” (3) The frenzied, raw energy reminded me of Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Darkly provocative stuff, but I honestly found the darkness of it (and sheer outrageousness at times) very funny!

Themes throughout include nature, human vs. animal, desire, what does it mean to have different selves (wife, mother, daughter). I underlined SO many sentences in this. And there were some sequences (like when they hit a stag with the car, and the dog licks the remains off the bonnet, and they christen the unnamed dog Bloody) read almost as slapstick; they seemingly come out of left field.

Highly recommend this. Here are some quotes I underlined (so hard to choose! These are just from the first thirty pages!):

We don’t hold hands either, we’re always pushing the buggy or carrying the baby instead.” (5)

Why won’t he stop crying? What does he want? You’re his mother, you should know. But I don’t know, I say, I haven’t the faintest idea...” (6)

You all have your dark side. But I’m thinking about pacing up and down with the baby in my arms, hour after hour of tedious choreography, from the exhaustion to screaming, screaming to exhaustion. And I think about how a child is a wild animal, about another person carrying your heart forever.” (6)

How does a wild boar ejaculate?“(8)

I organise his action figures in order of their arrival in our lives.” (9)

Why do we women ask our husbands what they ate? What the hell are we hoping to find out by asking what they ate? If they’ve slept with someone else? If they’re unhappy with us? If they’re planning to leave us one day when they say they’re going out for an ice cream?” (10)

If I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will.” (11)

Personally, I think if your husband or father beats you up it’s your call to tough it out.” (12)

If I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.” (13)

I’m one person, my body is two.” (15)

I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance.” (15)

“I’ve built up so much rage that I could drink until I have a heart attack. That’s what I tell myself bu tit’s not true. I couldn’t even down half a bottle. My days are all like this. Endlessly stagnant. A slow downfall.” (16)

Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things. Spiders appear in the sink as I’m having my morning coffee, and they drown as soon as I turn on the tap. The stronger ones manage to resist for a while, folding into themselves like tight little flowers. They’re the ones that provoke me to run the hot water to destroy them. The flies’ turn comes when I’m spreading the quince jelly. They’ve been following us around since prehistoric times and it’s about time they died out.” (29)

Some people need to be able to see the ocean, but I need to be able to see a firearm.” (33)

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Filed under books, consciousness, fiction, Rio Plata, translation, women writers

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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Filed under contemporary, fiction, photos, review, travel

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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Filed under books, contemporary, fiction, pondering

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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Filed under contemporary, fiction, review, violence

Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Ove Knausgaard)

Some Rain Must Fall (Karl Knausgaard)

I am now officially finished with all the My Struggle books that have currently been translated. What will I read next on long train rides when I’m crammed into my tiny seat, dying to pee but too weary to get up and disturb the coffee-drinking person sitting next to me? Maybe Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy will be a good choice.

This has been a tough year for UK-US-Colombian affiliated people. Not gonna lie. What a hell of a game of Bingo. What a dystopic nightmare. I read the news obsessively, cry, turn it off, call my parents, listen to Tori Amos and R.E.M. songs, cry, feel stupidly helpless, ashamed, enraged, grieving. I went to Stratford-on-Avon for a weekend conference, went for a long walk and saw an owl, which felt eerily prescient, thanks to this poem. My sister sends Leonard Cohen lyrics via What’s App and I read César Vallejo. And I finally finished reading Knausgaard.

Having gotten this far, I can now safely say that a lot of power from these books comes from the chopped-up chronology. The depiction of the father in Book Five–embarrassingly fat, distant, pathetic, no longer a beacon of fear–feels far weightier than it would be if we hadn’t already read of his death in the squalid house in Book One, or his reign of terror in Book Three. Book Two we had the marriage and kids, Book Three was childhood, Book Four teens and early adulthood. In Book Five, Karl Ove moves to Bergen, begins a writing program, and falls in and out of love. Chronologically, this book proceeds so that in the last two hundred pages we race through the aftermath of Book One, and end at the moment where Book Two begins. Book Five is maybe the one that most closely reflects my current age/stage in life: finishing up a writing program, trying to be a writer, trying to look ahead and figure stuff out.

For me, a lot of the power from Knausgaard comes from how mindlessly I can read him. And yet it’s undeniable, the man knows how to build suspense. And so I read on and on, frantic to learn what will happen during the dinner in which he prepares spaghetti carbonara for a date but pours in too much sweet wine, or when he throws out a still-living rat caught in a trap but wonders if it will continue to live on in the garbage, eating the scraps it finds, growing larger and larger, pulling itself along on its little rat arms.

By Book Five the books are dense enough that the details are all blurry in my mind; much of what happens in this book you can easily forget, in the same way you sometimes look up with a dazed look of terror and say Where the hell did the day go? What did I DO today?! Little moments in the narrative stand out: he lives in Norwich with a giant anaconda dwelling downstairs, he lives in a disgusting flat in Bergen, his father grows fat and absent, he works at the radio station, he falls in love, he commits adultery, he interviews authors and writes scathing book reviews, he gets too drunk and cuts his face with glass, he wakes up in prison and bushes, he works in a care home for Down’s syndrome patients, he works suicide watch shifts for the mentally ill, he attacks his older brother, he gets drunk and stamps on a duvet on the floor, shouting “There’s a mink in there!”, he wonders whether he should submit a poem to workshop in which the word CUNT is repeated hundreds of times.

These moments keep relentlessly accumulating: the shopping, the drinking, the trips to drink coffee, the awkwardness of trying to wave down a bartender so that you can get a beer. The books he reads and loves! The albums he listens to! (I particularly liked the Siamese Dream shout-out). And then you have moments in which Karl realizes with a terrifying certainty how short life is, how he musn’t waste it, the danger of what he might become. These moments wouldn’t have nearly as much impact as they do if the book itself wasn’t so long. I can’t think where I’ve read a book where it feels more true to every day, lived experience, in which those tiny moments of illumination are sandwiched in between daily tedium. It’s like that Virginia Woolf quote:

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

I think it’s this balance between non-being and being in these books that is so captivating for me, as well as the author’s unrelentingly honest depiction of himself. The Karl Ove in these books is so helplessly flawed, and yet he keeps struggling on and enduring, trying to be better, trying to change. This raw, unabashed frankness towards his shortcomings reminds me a lot of what I admired about George Orwell’s writing, in terms of its honesty and straightforwardness. For this particular reader, it was hard for me not to root for him, and to wish him well.

Selected quotes I highlighted from my kindle (which sadly does not provide page numbers):

It was such a terrible time. I knew so little, had such ambitions and achieved nothing. But what spirits I was in before I went!

Writing was a defeat, it was a humiliation, it was coming face to face with yourself and seeing you weren’t good enough.

You can write about boredom, but it mustn’t be boring.

I brandished authors’ names the way medieval knights brandished flags and banners.

Such was my experience of reading Naipaul, like reading almost all other good writers: enjoyment and jealousy, happiness and despair, in equal portions.

Everything is woven into memories, everything coloured by the mind… Once we were seventeen, once we were thirty-five, once we were fifty-four. Did we remember that day? 9 January 1997, when we went into REMA 1000 to do our shopping and came out again with a bag in each hand and walked down to the car, put the bags on the ground and unlocked the door, placed the bags on the back seat and got in? Beneath the darkening sky, by the sea, the forest behind, black and bare?

The trivial incidents that make up all lives and can suddenly shine bright in the dusk of meaninglessness.

What my aim was, well, it was to escape from the minimalistic, into the maximalistic, something bold and striking, baroque, Moby Dick, but not in an epic way, what I had tried to do was take the little novel, about one person, where there is not much external action, and extend it into an epic format, do you understand what I mean?

I’m going to listen to the song below now, and try to figure out what I’m going to do next.

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Filed under contemporary, fiction, review

The Cartel

The Cartel (Don Winslow)

This book is utterly gripping and irresistibly page-turning, as well as extremely violent. It provides a fascinating contrast to Bolaño’s 2666, which was written pre-Mexican drug war, but is similarly interested in violence, the visual, and the language and structure of thrillers and crime novels.

This book is a highly commendable achievement: a novelization of the Mexican drug war, weaving fact with fiction, bringing news stories to life. I felt like I learned so much from it, that it really “showed” me things that had previously just been headlines or statistics. Talk about proving the power of fiction. The research for this book must have been no joke (I’m definitely going to explore some of the books he lists in the acknowledgements). Most notably, this novel deserves major respect for how it depicts the most troubling of topics: the existence of undeniable, apocalyptic evil. There are some people in this world who are just plain bad. You can try to analyse it: they want power, they want money, they’re messed up in the head from being militarized in the army, violence is all-consuming and soul-killing, etc. But as a co-worker in Nuevo Laredo once said to me, Hay gente muy malo en este mundo. And that’s just the way it is.

Following the news can sometimes feel like plod. On this day, this happened. This guy escaped from prison. This election, this mass grave, this murdered journalist. The advantage that this book has over non-fiction is that of foresight and form. I’ve always loved Bolaño’s quote from this interview about form vs. plot: “Form is a choice made through intelligence, cunning, and silence, all the weapons used by Ulysses in his battle against death.” Through linking together individual stories in an intentional way that non-fiction wouldn’t be able to do, The Cartel is able to use the form of fiction to make us notice wider patterns and causes, to learn things that we might otherwise not realize from simply reading the news.

While the “I don’t play by the rules” DEA Agent Art Keller and his obsessive revenge-plot with the head gangster is engaging enough, and certainly serves as a way of driving the plot forward, the book’s real strength for me are its supporting characters. The stories of Chuy the child-sicario, Pablo the journalist, the borderland ranch owner taking a stand against the Zeta’s seizure of his land, and  the solo female police chief will stay with me a long time, and are by far the main reason for reading this book. An interesting parallel to The Cartel would be Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels, which similarly try to turn this massive historical event into this very personal, human-level story driven by person-to-person interactions. The Cartel is as deliciously suspenseful as any classic Michael Crichton novel, but what was notable to me were the individual human stories, and how it turned what would otherwise be an atrocity headline into a narrative. 

It’s SO interesting to me that to a certain extent, Bolaño’s 2666 doesn’t do that. The focus in 2666 (at least in the famous Part IV) is on a mass scale, on overwhelming accumulation, as opposed to individual human stories. Bolaño’s fiction is also much more driven by experiences of interruption and suspension rather than narrative satisfaction. There’s a key image at the very end of The Cartel (you’ll know it when you read it–trust me) that emphasizes the “face” of evil being exposed (brutally so). There is undeniably a sense of satisfaction with this ending, despite its terrible violence. It’s the kind of satisfaction that you come to expect (even crave) with thrillers and crime novels–a clear resolution that’s not necessarily happy, but in which major threads are definitely resolved. This is not a clear-cut satisfaction we get from Bolaño, or from authors like Evelio Rosero, whose emphasis is on abrupt disappearances and absences. 

The other strength of the book for me was its analysis of the drug war. I found its discussion of the increasing visualization of violence and atrocities fascinating, in terms of gangs now broadcasting their beheadings and tortures online, and the parallels between Central American narco gangs and ISIS, in terms of online propaganda and recruitment. How it’s not enough to commit a violent act anymore, it has to be publicized and broadcast. I also found it very interesting to read about certain gangs’ movement towards trafficking gasoline and oil (and how this has piqued the interest of the U.S. more than if it were “just” drugs), as well as the emphasis on the trafficking route rather than the product. 

I’ll definitely read The Power of the Dog, the book that was written before this one (The Cartel is apparently its sequel). Overall, this book is an excellent example of fiction’s ability to make the violence we so often skim over in the news digestible and and undeniably memorable, as well as raising important moral questions about the desire for power and how to do what’s “right.” As one narco puts it, “Someone’s always going to be selling this shit. It might as well be someone who doesn’t kill women and kids. If someone’s going to do it, you guys might as well let someone like me do it.” It’s hard to deny that he has a point…

Quotes from this book:

It’s the new face of the narco gang war, isn’t it? They’re becoming media savvy. They used to hide their crimes, now they publicize them. I wonder if they haven’t taken a page from Al Qaeda. What good is an atrocity if no one knows you did it? And maybe that’s the lede on my story. “The crimes that used to lurk in the shadows now seek the sunlight,” or is that a little too “pulp”? (309)

It’s not so much that we’ve now defined the narcos as terrorists, Keller thought, but that there’s more of a psychological leak from the war on terror into the war on drugs. The battle against Al Qaeda has redefined what’s thinkable, permissible, and doable. Just as the war on terror has turned the functions of intelligence agencies into military action, the war on drugs has similarly militarized the police… Certainly, Keller thought, my war on drugs has changed over the years. It used to be all about busts and seizures, the perpetual cat-and-mouse game of getting the shit off the street, but now I barely think about the drugs themselves. The actual trafficking is almost irrelevant. I’m not a drug agent anymore, he reflected, I’m a hunter. (392)

Americans take their strength in victories, Mexicans’ strength is in their ability to suffer loss. (403)

“Post-traumatic stress disorder”? There’s nothing “post” about it. Nothing is over, nothing is in the past. We live with this shit every day. And “disorder”? It would be a disorder if we weren’t stressed. (474)

America’s longest war is the war on drugs. Forty years and counting. I was here when it was declared and I’m still here. And drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and less expensive than ever. But it’s not about the drugs anymore, anyway, is it? (500)

You North Americans are clean because you can be. That has never been a choice for us, either as individuals or a nation. You’re experienced enough to know that we’re not offered a choice of taking the money or not, we’re given the choice of taking the money or dying. We’ve been forced to choose sides, so we choose the best side we can and get on with it. What would you have us do? (511)

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Filed under books, fiction, Mexico, violence

How Should A Person Be?

How Should A Person Be? (Sheila Heti)

How should a person be, indeed? Is there ANYONE who wouldn’t be interested in the potential answers to this question?

I already know that this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2016. It may be the best book I’ve read this year so far, period. Like many books I love, it contains the following pleasing qualities: humor, a complete lack of traditional plot, discussions of art and art-making, and women who don’t like men explaining things to them.

It is difficult to summarize this book (another common quality of books I enjoy). Reviewers have described it as semi-autobiographical (the narrator and the main character share the same name, occupation, and background details, and even have the same real-life friends, kind of like Borges writing about Bioy Casares in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). The novel has also been described as a play on the self-help book (I guess because of the chapter titles, ranging from “What is Freedom?” to “How Great It Is To Be An Adult”), or even a Knausgård-like, meandering narrative (even though I think it was published before he got famous). It also includes real-life e-mails and transcripts of conversations, which gives it a strange metafictional quality.

The main characters in this book are Sheila (a playwrite) and Margaux (a painter). What do they do? They hold competitions for making the Ugliest Painting Ever. They meet Keanu Reeves. They go through a brief phase of taking too many drugs. Sheila struggles with writer’s block, contemplates the fallout of her marriage and moves briefly to New York. Some people might find the drifting, self-absorbed characters in this book totally annoying (the narrator especially), and that’s okay. I personally thought it was hysterical. Isn’t art wonderful?! The way it can be subjective, and how different people can like different things?

In the opening passage, the narrator doesn’t beat around the bush, delving right into the book’s central question:

How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life… By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts thatI am the most famous person alive–but not talk about it too much. (2)

Would it be TMI if I reveal that I’ve encountered people like this? People who aren’t really interested in writing, but are more interested in being Writers, with a capital W? (These people are few and far in between, thank god, and none were encountered at my graduate school!) But yeah. That has definitely been a strange part of my life in the past four years… of dealing with this idea that people want ATTENTION and FAME and GLORY and ACCLAIM and (yes) MONEY from writing, rather than the satisfaction of a job well done.

Let’s get real: I am happy as a claim that my book is being published and blessed beyond belief. But I also feel wary. When I feel myself freaking out about this kind of literary life, the Writer life, the kind of life that has absolutely nothing to do with the act of writing itself (so thoughts like WHAT IF MY BOOK GETS PUBLISHED AND NO ONE GIVES A FUUUUUUQ AND MY PARENTS SAY AWKWARD THINGS ABOUT IT??) I just remind myself of my literary heroes, like Bolaño, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka. Punching myself in the face and telling myself DON’T BE A DUMB DICKHEAD is also helpful ;D

This was one of the themes in this book that I found fascinating–that of Being An Artist as opposed to Making Art. Sheila (the character, and apparently the author as well, when this novel was being written) struggles throughout to finish her play. In contrast to Sheila is Margaux (apparently a successful Canadian painter in real life, to whom the book is dedicated):

Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be. She never talked about galleries or went on about which brands of paint were best. Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics–which seemed more straightforwardly useful… Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix. (17)

Yeah. I am a fan of the Margaux school of thought, in terms of gettin’ it done. Early on in the novel Margaux is involved in a competition with another painter, Sholem, a competition that involves painting the ugliest painting ever, a process which Sholem describes as something that made him feel “like I just raped myself.” This attempt to paint ‘ugly’ on purpose leads to some interesting discussions:

Sholem was saying that freedom, for him, is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants, just whatever images he has in his mind. But that’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing. (19)

I love this idea–that of the importance of taking risks, and having something come out badly. As Margaux says near the end, “Better to have your failure right in front of you than the fantasy in your head.” (240) Or as Sheila is warned at one point (in terms of people who are obsessed with perfection):

In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful… The answer for them is to build on what they have begun and not abandon their plans as soon as things start getting difficult. They must work–without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked. (84-85)

I highly recommend this book to fans of Jenny Offhil, Miriam Toews and Lorrie Moore. I love books like this, that do something so unusual and unexpected.

Here are some other quotes I enjoyed.

We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time. I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. (3)

I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one. I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain. (27)

I am writing a play. I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it only saves three people, I will not be happy. If with this play, the oil crisis is merely averted and our standard of living maintains itself at its current level, I will weep into my oatmeal. If this play does anything short of announcing the arrival of the next cock–I mean, messiah–I will shit into my oatmeal. (87)

You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything. (98)

I sat there with the book on my knees, moving carefully through the pages, like a beautiful, anxious, pregnant young mother studying for her medical school exams. (189)

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Filed under books, fiction, review, women writers

Book reviews + catch-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My cat was told to lose weight by the vet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public library and other stories (Ali Smith)

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

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

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

Purity (Jonathan Franzen)

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

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

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

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

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

A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård)

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

What is so badass about this book?

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

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


Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor Swift should read this book.

 

Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns)

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

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

The Story of the Lost Child (Elena Ferrante)

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

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

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

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

The Sound of Things Falling

I was really affected by this book, to the point that it was difficult for me to finish. I left it sitting on the windowsill by my bed for weeks and weeks. At times, it was painful for me to read. Why was this the case?

Well, I guess it just reminded me a lot of my childhood and Colombia in general, which for whatever reason I’ve been missing a lot lately. I look at old photos and I marvel at the green, the color, the flowers, the yellowness of the sunshine (is it just winter in England that’s been getting under my skin? The temperature was -3 degrees last night!!). When I tell people about growing up in Colombia, I tend to speak in a half-amused tone of voice and say things like When I read non-fiction now about what life was like there in the 80’s and 90’s, sometimes I wonder what were my parents THINKING, raising a family there! It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I know the answer. You raise a family there in the same way you would raise a family any other place. You keep your head down and your nose clean. We got up in the mornings and went to school, and when school was over we came home. “It must have been a very sheltered existence,” said the person who leant me this book, and what else could I do but agree, in the most neutral way possible. What would be the point (especially now) of criticizing it?

This book is, at its essence, a detective story, a mystery about a man name Ricardo Laverde. The narrator is Antonio Yammara, a lawyer who opens the novel by reading in the newspaper about the shooting of Pepe, Pablo Escobar’s infamous hippopotamuses, shot and killed by the army (already discussed and marveled over by me in this blog). The article leads him to a series of reminiscences about past encounters with Laverde, whom he used to play pool with in a sketchy Bogota bar in the mid-90’s. One day Laverde shows up with a cassette tape and asks Yammara for help in finding a place for him to listen to it. Shortly afterwards, Laverde is shot dead on the street by a motorcycle-riding assassin. The driving force of the story then becomes Antonio’s attempts to figure out the story behind Laverde: who he was, what was on the tape, why he was killed. Some of these questions are answered, others aren’t.

There are a lot of things to commend about this book. I think my favorite parts of this book were descriptions of Colombian scenery and well-chosen details, of city versus country life, the distinctiveness of bogotanos. Guavas on the ground half-eaten by ants, soldiers with weapons hanging around their necks “like sleeping animals”, guanabana trees, sandals made from old tires, freshly squeezed orange juice, cicadas and crickets. God, I just wanted to keep a list of it all! I felt at times like I was watching a film or flipping through a book of photos. I also really appreciated the moment in which an American Peace Corps volunteer receives a copy of Cien años de soledad as a gift, and later complains that it’s too hard to read; “everybody has the same name.” (179) It was also fascinating for me to read passages like the one I’ll quote below, summaries of things that were going on in my childhood that I didn’t have the words or knowledge to comprehend at the time: (Alma Guillermoprieto articles are also great at evoking this same feeling in me):

Then came the rest, the other attacks, the other bombs. The DAS one with its hundred dead. That one at the shopping mall with fifteen. Then the other shopping mall with fifteen. A special time, no? Not knowing when it might be your turn. Worrying when someone who was supposed to arrive wasn’t there. Always knowing where the closest pay phone is to let someone know you’re OK. If there were no pay phones, knowing that anybody would lend you their phone, all you had to do was knock on a door. Living like that, always with the possibility that people close to us might be killed, always having to reassure our loved ones so they don’t think we are among the dead. Our lives were conducted inside houses, remember. We avoided the public places. Friends’ houses, friends of friends, houses of distant acquaintances  any house was better than a public place. (263)

Animals are a big motif in this book. So are planes, and accidents. The title refers to the American Airlines plane that crashed into the Cali mountains, killing everybody onboard, the majority of whom were traveling home to see their families for the holidays. One of them was the daughter of my school’s director–I remember making and signing condolence cards for him in my 4th-grade classroom (one of the boys in my class drew a picture of a plane on fire, which the teacher tactfully commented that it might not be the best thing to include).

Vásquez has quite the task before him and he succeeds quite admirably. Any Colombian novelist has two heavy legacies to contend: the long history of violence, kidnappings, cartels, drugs, bombs and shootings, and the magic realism of Gabriel García Marquez. The wikipedia article on Juan Gabriel Vásquez includes an interesting comment by Vásquez on dealing with the latter legacy, in which he states that what makes Gabo’s novel interesting is “the massacre of the banana workers or the civil wars of the 19th century, not in the yellow butterflies or in the pigs’ tails. Like all grand novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude requires us to reinvent the truth.” I TOTALLY agree with this. (This interview with him also contains some fascinating passages.)

I’d recommend this book to basically anybody, especially those interested in seeing a fictional representation of a country attempting to cope with decades of violence. It’s like a post-apocalyptic novel without the apocalypse; instead, the violent “collapse of society” in question isn’t a singular event, but is rather an ongoing legacy. What’s worse, it’s not even a legacy of violence that’s related to ideology (as in the Holocaust, Vietnam War or even 9/11). What is it related to? Arguably, nothing. Or money. Drug running, cartels, landing strips in the jungle, fields of marijuana and coca leaves (the book proposes that campesinos learned the technique and acquired the technology to process coca leaves into cocaine from U.S. Peace Corps volunteers–interesting, but I wonder if it’s true).

Reading this book felt a lot to me like grieving. Page after page I was just left with the most incredible sadness; a deep sense of melancholy. The book ends with a question: Should I try to convince her, tell her that together we could defend ourselves better from the evil of the world, or that the world was too risky a place to be wandering on our own, without anyone waiting for us at home, who worries about us when we don’t show up and who can go out to look for us? (297) This is maybe the only possible way to end a book: leaving us in suspense, unresolved, dangling. What else can you do, right–how do you answer unanswerable questions?

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April

April has been an interesting month. No, not cruel in the least, just… interesting. What’s happenned?

Well, I went to Idaho to visit a university there, and decided that in the end it wouldn’t be the best place for me. And so, it looks like in the fall I am moving to England, to do something I put on my Things to Do Before I Die list that I first wrote in 2007 while tramping around my first solo traveler journey in Mexico. I am pretty excited. I feel very certain that this is a good choice for me.

What else has happened? I reread Mario Vargas Llosa’s Los cachorros in Spanish (ahh, memories of middle school and los escandalos of reading a castration scene…) and Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. Right now I am slowly but surely reading my way through two big heavy books: The Case for God by Karen Armstrong and The Stand by Stephen King. So one dense history of religion and a #1 best-selling horror novel abut a killer plague and the end of humanity (two of my favorite subjects).

IDK why I dig apocalyptic fiction so much. Sometimes I wonder if it has the same effect on me as classical Greek tragedy, providing a cathartic release. Oh BAM, I think, reading a scene in which someone coughs in the back of a movie theater, y’all infected now! Too bad suckers! A kind of “not me, them” sort of release. Maybe by writing or reading about these horrors on the page, it makes us feel like we’re better prepared to deal for them in real life. Not that I think that an army-made killer virus is going to break free anytime soon, but still.

Uh….. OK. I guess that’s pretty much been my April. To end this post, here are some photos from Idaho and a piece I wrote recently in my writing workshop. The prompt was Clouds gathered.

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IDAHO

Clouds gathered. She unlocked the gate. I had just arrived in Idaho ten minutes ago, and I had no idea where I was going to go from here.

“Did you bring your receipt?” she asked. “or something at least showing that your scholarship money was deposited?”

My OCD was making it hard for me to not want to jump over every crack in the driveway leading us up the long college lawn. “Yeah, I have it,” I said, trying to make my voice sound casual. My only hope was that it was in the knotted Safeway bag in my backpack, along with my speeding tickets, and not at the bottom of my tote bag with the squashed orange.

“I talked to some of the other students and there should be someone who can put you up for the night.” She was fumbling with a big yellow key that she pulled from a long elastic band on her waist. The door looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie, and when I craned my neck back and looked up, I could see shadows of gargoyles shaded against the sky.

“That’s awesome,” I said. “Great. Thanks.” My goal was to sound as robotic as possible. This was the only grad school I’d been accepted to, besides the one in Norway with free tuition. I was trying to play it cool with her, the Department Head, make it seem like I was holding a lot of cards close to my chest, when in reality all I was clutching was a ripped cloth tote bag from New Seasons leaking squashed orange juice.

“I’m glad you made it here on time to attend the thesis defense,” she said as we walked down the cool hallways. Her footsteps sounded so loud that I wanted to ask her to speak up. My red Converse shoes squeaked with every step I took like an annoying little animal.

“What are the defenses like” I asked, pretending to be looking at the posters on the walls. “Is it really OK if I sit in?”

“Mm, it should be. We usually don’t bring out the flame throwers until the end.” I waited for the laugh and Just kidding, but it didn’t come.

I’d driven six hours to get here. Idaho! I hadn’t even known where Idaho was until I looked at a map. I hadn’t told my boss that I was leaving, let alone that I had applied to grad school.

I was trying to get a fine arts degree in performance sculpture. It had been my side hobby for years. More specifically, embalming had been. I loved picking all the mutated animals out of the gutters and river beds—the yellow fish with no internal organs, the three-eyed cats, the ooblek frogs that disintegrated into a pile of green gloop if you squeezed them too hard. My lifelong goal had been to catch one of those rats that were smart enough to build carts to carry their cat-fighting weapons, but I had yet to find a way to penetrate their walls and barricades. I’d spent two years combing the paths in the canyon where the canal had been dug, miles away from the big whites houses that all the French and Chinese and British business owners lived in. I’d embalmed them, put them in different positions, uploaded photos to my tumblr account and there it was, my creative portfolio. Was it good enough to get me an MFA? Idaho seemed to think so.

“I’m really excited for you to meet Boston,” the Department Head said, pushing open a rickety dark brown door with a clenched fist.

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Filed under Dear Diary, fiction, graduate school, writing