Category Archives: non-fiction

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster

Talk about post-apocalyptic. This is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and deserves to be highlighted in this blogspace. Apocalyptic and terrifying. Like Rachel Cusk, Bolaño, and the very worst visions of Philip K. Dick thrown together into one nighmarish blender.

I love the oral history format of this book – it’s such a haunting, affecting style. The book is basically a collection of monologues, spoken by people connected to the Chernobyl disasters. The monologues were collected and arranged by the author, who is a Belorussian journalist. I did find myself wondering if the monologues had been transcribed verbatim, or if they’d been rearranged/reinterpreted by the reporter. The speakers of the monologues include children, wives, firefighters, members of the clean-up team. The anecdotes involving abandoned pets were particularly upsetting.

The deaths of loved ones are described in gruesome detail: tumors growing all over the body, eyes pointing in different directions, noses engorged. Resettled children from Chernobyl are teased by others, said to “glow” and nicknamed “shiny”; instead of playing School or Store they play Hospital. Entire villages are buried underground, smashed down by cranes; radioactive earth is buried in earth. Looted houses, abandoned villages, herds of cats and dogs and boars. As the radioactive cloud rises, people stand in the streets in skirts and sandals, selling pies and ice creams and pastries, unaware of what’s happening. People choose to stay, refuse to leave, buy expensive salami, hoping that it would be made of good meat; “then we found out that it was the expensive salami that they mixed contaminated meat into, thinking, well, since it was expensive fewer people would buy it.” (182) “The frightening things in life happen quietly and naturally,” one voice observes, and that theme is what I found most affecting in this book.

A must-read for the 21st-century. I underlined SO MUCH of this; far too many quotes to choose from to include here. So instead I’ll include a link to an excerpt.

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Filed under apocalypse, non-fiction, review

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

Homo Deus

Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A highly recommended read.

 

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Filed under apocalypse, books, history, non-fiction, review

Homo sapiens in Northumberland

I spent the bank holiday weekend in Northumberland visiting the coast–very Game of Thrones scenery. Please enjoy the photographs below. 

I still haven’t finished Sapiens but have highlighted copious notes, especially in the first section (“The Cognitive Revolution”), which I have also provided below.

It’s definitely the kind of book that’s both interesting and depressing. Interesting in the sense that it really helps to open the mind up and see the BIG picture of things, like the feeling you get while camping and looking up at the stars late at night. And depressing in the sense that it occasionally sounds like passages that would be spoken vehemently and written into manifestos by the apocalypse-obsessed main character of “S-Town” (a truly excellent podcast; I have one episode left and don’t want end it to end). God.

I guess I had a similar emotional reaction watching the film Homo Sapiens (what similar sounding titles – I even saw a man holding the book Sapiens in the theatre. He kept muttering angrily throughout – did he think the film was based on the book? How disappointed he must have been!).

Sapiens quotes – Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

Chapter 1

The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish. (so “Ishmael“!) 

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. 

Chapter 2

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language… But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting… But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.

Ever since to Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. 

Chapter 3

Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.

Chapter 4

The ecological record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

Chapter 5

[Wheat, rice, and potatoes] domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. (Very Michael Pollan-esque here)

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: to keep more people alive under worse conditions. (Yeah, he gets pretty doom and gloomy at times!!)

Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email… Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

Chapter 6

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.

People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life.’ Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible… Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism (very “The Beach” here, as in the Alex Garland novel… I still like to travel though lol!)

I’ll share more later, maybe…

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How to Murder Your Life

How To Murder Your Life (Cat Marnell)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bulimia attracts mice: fact.” (89)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under books, non-fiction, review, women writers

Notable Books of 2016

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

Annihilation trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

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

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

I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)

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

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

I dug it.

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

Other brutal satire moments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn (Ali Smith)

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

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)

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

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

White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dealing With the Everyday

My Struggle 2: A Man in Love (Knausgaard)

Here are some things I spend a lot of time doing:

  • The dishes
  • Feeding the cat, washing the cat’s bowls
  • Doing laundry, hanging laundry, putting away laundry
  • Cooking enormous amounts of lentils or soup, putting it in freezer
  • Picking clothes off the floor of my bedroom and putting them on my bed
  • Biking to the library for work and paying £2 for porridge because I left the house too late to have breakfast
  • Spending money online on train tickets, hooks for the wall to hang up the clothes I leave on the floor, yoga class, organic hypoallergenic cat food, meditation course, library fines.
  • Buying food to fuel myself, a never-ending process that often feels like the scene in Titanic where the sweaty dust-smeared Irish men are shoveling coal into the constantly hungry, never full burners.

This is my life (or at least what I’m willing to say about it on the Internet ;p). This is my banal, my everyday, what tends to absorb and take me over. This is mainly the stuff that occupies my mind on a daily basis rather than the BIG QUESTIONS that I’m not even going to write out here because I don’t feel like having a panic attack right now, thank you very much!!! :D

But this everyday stuff is very much the concern of A Man in Love, the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. In other words, the book is interested in balance between the mundane and what he calls “the sacred,” which for some people might appear as religion, but for him seems to mostly appear as the act of writing.

What happens in this book? He goes to his daughter’s birthday party. He comments on the difference between the Swedish and Norwegians. There’s extended flashback sequences to when he met and fell in love with his wife, had his first child. He struggles to write a novel about angels. He fights with the crazy Russian neighbor lady who may or may not be a prostitute. He suspects his mother-in-law of secretly drinking out of the alcohol bottles on top of the fridge.

If someone had told me four years ago that I would have found this kind of stuff irresistibly compelling, I would have laughed hysterically. But good god, did I ever. I turned the pages with the frenetic urgency of a Michael Crichton novel. How on earth did the author achieve this? I suspect that it’s partly due to the style: it’s very clearly written, reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, with flashes of black Herzogian humor that (just like with Volume I) I found absolutely hysterical. I suspect another reason that I found it so fascinating and compelling is due to a perverse fascinating of reading things that I found so familiar, yet had rarely seen covered in such intense detail. There are just so few books that actually pay attention to these moments, you know? The rituals of making the morning coffee, the commute, the hangover, the dinner party. And yet this is what life is for so many of us. Every once in a while we have The Moments that novel climaxes are made of. But most of the time I’m wiping spilt coffee off the counter.

Needless to say I can’t wait to read Volumes III-VI (once all the translations have been released, of course! I believe 1-5 have come out in English so far).

There are many, many quotes that I highlighted while reading this book, but here are a select few:

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. What was the problem? … perhaps it was the prefabricated nature of the days in this world I was reacting to, the rails of routine we followed, which made everything so predictable that we had to invest in entertainment to feel any hint of intensity? Every time I went out of the door I knew what was going to happen, what I was going to do. (67)

…with Dostoevsky there were no heights, no mountains, there was no divine perspective, everything was in this human domain, wreathed in this characteristically Dostoevskian wretched, dirty, sick, almost contaminated mood that was never too far from hysteria. That was where the light was. That was where the divine stirred. But was this the place to go? Was it necessary to go down on bended knee? (72)

I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminised, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside of me. (90)

Life. Getting through it, that was what I was doing. (134)

It is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it. (271)

I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about the book I’ve written, I don’t give a shit if it wins a prize or not, all I want is to write more. (457)

This was my life. This was what my life was. I had to pull myself together. Chin up. (498)

Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not bloody believe you are somebody. Because you are not… You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience. This was the only true bloody thought I’d ever had. (516)

I managed to write the five pages a day I had set myself as a goal. But I managed, I managed that too. I hate every syllable, every word, every sentence, but not liking what I was doing didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. (589)

Animals (Emma Jane Unsworth)

Talk about a contrast to Knasgaard! There’s no shortage of decidedly less domestic everyday moments in this book: two best female friends run around Manchester, do drugs, flee from dealers, drink a LOT of wine, wake up from a LOT of soul-crushing hangovers, try to write a novel about a priest with a talking pig, and even ponder religion in a few discordantly intriguing passages. Yes, there were definitely moments in this that struck painfully true chords with certain instances in my own 30-something life. In this interview, the author cites the picaresque novel as an influence, and also calls Animals an “anxious” book, both of which I can definitely see. Overall, I enjoyed the raw cathartic energy of this book, the drive and energy of the prose. I’d rather something be interesting and different, rather than poetically perfect and polished. I also liked that the protagonist was still drinking in the end, and that her journey as a character didn’t necessarily equal complete 100% sobriety. The focus is ultimately on the friendship between the two girls (women?), and this was something I very much appreciated. I love books that are unapologetic and unashamed, something this book had in spades.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Óscar Martínez)

So you have the everyday reality of Knausgaard and Animals, and then you have this. Holy ***ing shit. This book has been on my to-read list for years, and even though I haven’t finished it yet (still have two chapters to go), boy, does it provide some brutal perspective. Even Bolaño didn’t delve into darkness this apocalyptically bleak. In brave, uncompromisingly stark prose (captured extremely well by the translation), the book delves into subject matter similar to the film Sin Nombre, that of Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. (focusing primarily on “la bestia” of the title, or the freight trains barreling across Mexico, with migrants clinging on).

As said before… this book goes to some dark places. I think the chapter set in a brothel on the Mexican-Guatemalan border was maybe the most difficult for me. So many brutal moments. We touch upon an expression often used by migrants: cuerpomátic, the body as a credit card (most especially the female body), buying you a little safety, a little bit of cash, the potential that your travel buddies won’t get killed, a more comfortable ride on the train. We learn about the myth of the bra tree–a desert tree draped with bras and panties of migrant women raped by bandits, the underwear kept as trophies (Martínez depressingly clarifies that “I refer to it as a myth not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s not one tree but many.”) (164) It’s a world where talking about the narco’s fees is as common as talking about the rise in the price of tortillas.

I’ll be honest… I read books like this one, and on one hand I’m grateful, blown away, amazed by reporters like Martínez doing this kind of work in the world, bringing these kinds of issues to light. Another part of me is like… oh my god. Me and my stupid, silly, little life. How dare I complain about anything, ever? What am I supposed to do in face of this? How am I supposed to live, to act? What can I do to help, what can I do to make a difference, what can I do that matters, whatcanidowhatcanidowhatcanido. And yeah, I’ll say it: there’s a certain amount of bleak hopelessness too. How did things get this bad? Why did this happen? How can there be a turning point, ever? Is this the kind of world we’re going to live in? Is it like Bolaño’s “Police Rat,” are we all eternally damned, is there no turning back?

Rather than hopeless, though, it might be more accurate to say that this book comes off as brutally realistic. This is the way things are. Never-ending violence as everyday. This is the banal, mundane reality that many, many, many people are living in, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that fact. I really, really don’t.

(It’s worth saying Martínez has a new book out, which needless to say I am highly interested in reading.)

We’re walking among the dead. Life’s value seems reduced, continuously dangled like bait on a fishing line. Killing, dying, raping, or getting raped–the dimensions of these horrors are diminished to points of geography. Here on this rock, they rape. There by that bush, they kill. (37)

The unspoken question becomes evident. How is it possible that the kidnappings are still happening when the local governments, the countries of origin, the media, the Mexican government, and the US government all know exactly what’s going on? … Everybody knows, nobody acts, and the kidnappings continue. (103)

 

 

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Filed under books, Mexico, non-fiction, review, women writers

Madness, Rack & Honey / Art & Fear

I love Mary Ruefle. I kind of want to BE Mary Ruefle. Or at least my idea of her, which involves living in rural Vermont, reading sixty-something books a year, loving Emily Dickinson, criticizing technology in interviews, writing poems like this one or this one or this one, and generally not taking things too seriously. I don’t even write poetry!! I also HATE East Coast winters!!! And how could I ever become so wise and gracious? Can I bring myself to re-read the Greeks and make intelligent-sounding statements about them? At least I strongly identify myself in this passage, which Ruefle quotes as an example of what her relationship with reading is like:

“Although I steeped myself in an incredible amount of reading material, it merely expanded the void, fattened the darkness inside the cactus. Nothing was born from there… Despite that, I read more and more, growing endlessly fatter of soul until I could not move because of my weight. Just as the mouth takes in food, my eyes avidly devoured everything. No doubt my brain was swelling up from its morbid, chronic hunger. Even after I came to that cottage, my daily task (more even than studying for the university exams) was to continually browse among books like a crazed sheep.” (Kurahashi Yukimo, “Ugly Demons,” quoted by Ruefle in the lecture ‘Lectures I Will Never Give.’)

It’s not often that you encounter a writer that makes you feel like they GET you in a deeply personal way. Or like you get them. I still know nothing about poetry. I have nothing super articulate to say about her style or themes or methods. But I DO know that from a deep gut-level–like we’re talking intestinal fauna here–I loved, loved, loved her book of Collected Poems, and will probably rank her alongside Rodrigo Rey Rosa as my favorite literary discovery for the year. Madness, Rack and Honey, her book of non-fiction essays (or collected lectures, I guess) also helped push her up high in the rankings.

What I love most about Mary Ruefle is the way she writes: a stream-of-conscious, out of breath way that nevertheless magically ends up feeling connected as opposed to nonsensical or random. Take her poem “The March,” for example. We go from blue peas, to the clock, to meadow grasses, to a body wanting to drop, to the definition of genius… on and on until somehow it all ends up making sense. A painting depicting all the images in the poem in the order that they occur would be absolutely whacko. The person who introduced me to her poems this summer compared her writing to those times you end up on youtube, and then 15 minutes later you are somewhere completely different and you have, like, no idea how you got there. I think this feeling as expressed through literature is pretty groovy. I love hybridity and fragmentation in general, I guess. I also love people who successfully balance mystical wonder with gritty realism. That’s kind of what I want to do in my own every day life…

There are a lot of gems in Madness, Rack & Honey, a book of collected essays–oops, I mean lectures. I so want to steal her style for my dissertation. I love how many quotes she uses, for example, and the way she sprinkles them so liberally (almost Reality Hunger-style) throughout the text. I loved this James Salter quote in particular–Here then, faintly discolored and liable to come apart if you touch it, is the corsage I kept from the dance–and the way she equates it to the “secret” that is at the heart of all poetry. Fuck, I love that!! The truth of poetry as a crumbling corsage!!

I also love how in her lecture about poetry and the moon, she launches into a long tangent about what happened to all the American astronauts once they returned to earth (they all became mystics, basically). Most memorable to me was the reclusive Neil Armstrong, specifically his answer to the question of how he felt knowing his footprints might remain undisturbed on the lunar surface for centuries: “I hope somebody goes up there some day and cleans them up.”

I love the way she compares sentimentality in poetry to a kitten–the “human feeling” that insists we may be moved by it, because poets ultimately are people who are moved by EVERYTHING (what a great justification for being overtly-sensitive and getting teary-eyed when watching early 90’s family films! Not that, uh, that has ever happened to me…). She also pleasingly goes on to insist that if we fail to be moved by the kitten,  then something is terribly wrong. ROCK ON.

I love her straightforward, quote-worthy sentences, like “In the end I would rather wonder than know” (“On Secrets”)  or “When anyone asks me how my love-life is, I cringe” (“On Sentimentality”), or “The more I think the more bewildered I become” (from her title essay–though now that I’ve just checked, it’s actually a quote from Charles Darwin!).

I love the conclusion of her lecture “On Fear“: “What has life taught me? I am much less afraid than I ever was in my youth–of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked.”

I love the lecture “My Emily Dickinson,” a rumination on her relationship with Dickinson, Emily Bronte and Anne Frank (because what else would describe the kind of feelings you have towards the authors you love other than a “relationship”?).

And I love, love, love the entirety of her essay on reading, in which she confronts the very real Bolaño-esque fear that at some point, every reader reaches a juncture in which they must accept that there are simply too many books in the world to read in their remaining lifetime, and at some point you need to decide at which point you start being picky with your time and start re-reading.

I could go on and on, but I feel like my attempt to summarize my fondness for Ms. Ruefle is already (perhaps appropriately) starting to fragmment. One last quote, then, from the title essay, which is maybe one of the most pleasing mission statements about writing I’ve ever read:

The only purpose of this lecture, this letter, my only intent, goal, object, desire, is to waste time. For there is so little time to waste during a life, what little there is being so precious, that we must waste it, in whatever way we come to waste it, with all our heart. (137)

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This book was great. I’m glad I bought it and I highly recommend it. In the spirit of Reality Hunger, (i.e. I am leaving for Morocco tomorrow, have limited time to finish this blogpost and thus must resort to the quickest, most efficient way of writing it possible…!), here are all the quotes that stuck with me. There are a lot:

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward… Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself. (2) <– This to me was the ultimate message of the book… if you’re going to make art, you need to be A-OK with uncertainty. AAAAAH!

In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself. (3)

When you act out of fear, your fears come true. (23)

It’s the ballad of the cowboy and the mountain man. (42) <– I liked this quote in particular–it’s in reference to the need for community vs. hermetic solitude. Overall, I feel like I’m a rugged mountain man who needs to hang out fairly regularly with the other hermits chilling by the river.

Habits: they allow confidence and concentration. They allow not knowing. They allow the automatic and the unarticulated to remain so. (62)

Not many activities routinely call one’s basic self-worth into question. (65) HA! HA! HA!!!!

Healthy artistic environments are about as common as unicorns. (71) HA HA HA AGAIN

Occasional competitive grousing is a healthy step removed from equating success with standing atop the bodies of your peers. (72) <— LOOOOOLZ once more

What we really gain from the artmaking of others is courage-by-association. Depth of contact grows as fears are shared—and thereby disarmed—and this comes from embracing art as process, and artists as kindred spirits. To the artist, art is a verb. (90) <– Love this too, a very pro-grad school argument for me.

What is worth doing? (94) <— What indeed?!

While good art carries a ring of truth to it—a sense that something permanently important about the world has been made clear—the act of giving form to that truth is arguably unique to one person, and one time… No one else will ever be in the position to write Hamlet. This is pretty good evidence that the meaning of the world is made, not found. (106) <– Love this definition of truth.

Making art is about self-expression… a need to complete a relationship with something outside yourself. As a maker of art you are custodian of issues larger than self. (113) <–It’s interesting how similar this is to religion!

It’s a simple premise: follow the leads that arise from contact with the work itself, and your technical, emotional and intellectual pathway becomes clear. (113)

Artists come together, in the knowledge that when all is said and done, they will return to their studio and practice their art alone. Period. That simple truth may be the deepest bond we share… Only in those moments when we are truly working on our own work do we recover the fundamental connection we share with all makers of art. The rest may be necessary, but it’s not art. Your job is to draw a line from your life to your art that is straight and clear. (115)

Art is hard because you have to keep after it so consistently. On so many different fronts. For so little external reward… In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot and therby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice. (118)

 

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Still Writing

What a lovely, inspirational book! I really appreciated its honesty, and its gentle, helpful tone. The way it’s divided in readable, short segments. The non-sentimental way it blends memoir with advice. Its direct confrontation of relevant 21st-century struggles (the internet! Self-hatred! Monday mornings! Self-scheduling! How to make routines, form habits!). It’s definitely something I’m going to pass from hand to hand among my graduate school cohorts. I love writing-themed non-fiction, I love self-help written in incredibly kind, compassionate voices, and this book combines the best of both worlds.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go to the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know, right this minute, the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? … Can it wait? It can almost always wait. 

Sit down. Stay there. It’s hard–I know just how hard–and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn’t get any easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it. (10-11)

What I do know–what I’ve spent the past couple of decades learning about myself–is that if I’m not writing, I’m not well. If I’m not writing, the world around me is slowly leached of its color. My senses are dulled. I am crabby with my husband, short-tempered with my kid, and more inclined to see small things wrong with my house… If I’m not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts. (13-14)

We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. What we’re doing isn’t easy. We have chosen to spend the better parts of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts and obsessions and concerns… And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of the Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she’s a child she loves very much. Sweetheart, she’ll say. Darling. Honey. That’s all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You’ll try again tomorrow. (81)

This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: The Internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything, it’s the opposite. One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer was like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key we can remove ourselves and take a ride on a log flume instead. (159)

The agony! The nagging sense of what might have been! There is always someone who, at this very moment, has more. More acclaim, more money, more access, more respect… I see this even when I watch my son with his middle school friends. There are girls in full bloom–girls who are the envy of their classmates, girls who are at this moment as pretty and popular as they will ever be. Boys who’ve had growth spurts and are practically shaving, who are envied by the smaller boys and wonder when–and if–they will ever grow. Observing them, from the sidelines of ball games and dances, I want to jump up and shout: This isn’t it! You think this is it, but it isn’t! your whole lives are ahead of you with ten thousand joys and sorrows. Of course I say nothing. My son would kill me. But I think about this–about myself and every adult, writer or not, who makes the all-too-human mistake of comparing one life to another. (216-217)

When I first learned of Buddhism’s eight vissictudes–pain and pleasure, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute–I was taught that it is unskillful–that gentle Buddhist word for fucked up–to compare. We will never know what’s coming. We cannot peer around the bend. It is our job to pursue our own dharma and covet no one else’s. (217)

I also liked this list by the poet Jane Kenyon that she quotes at one point (207-208):

Be a good steward to your gifts.

Protect your time.

Feed your inner life.

Avoid too much noise.

Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.

Be by yourself as often as you can.

Walk.

Take the phone off the hook.

Work regular hours.

Disable the Internet [Shapiro’s addition]

I also liked her quotes from the Gnostic Gospels (If we bring forth what is within us, it will save us. If we do not bring forth what is within us, it will destroy us) and the Bhagavad Gita (Better is one’s own dharma through imperfectly carried out than the dharma of another carried out perfectly). (201)

Oh, and this oft-quoted quote by Martha Graham also makes a lovely appearance (118):

It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. 

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Reality Hunger

I read this book a while ago, but I found it so interesting that I think I’m going to write a post about it anyway.

Reality Hunger is roughly the literary equivalent of a Girl Talk album: it’s assembled from quotes and passages from a variety of different sources (interviews, texts, articles, god knows what), and then pasted together into a fragmentary collage, divided into 26 themed sections (with titles like “mimesis,” “books for people who find television too slow,” “trials by google,” “it is much more important to be oneself than anything else,” and so on). At the end of the book, right before the footnotes that provide the original sources, the author invites us to read the main text without looking at the footnotes, or to even take a box cutter and remove the footnotes altogether—“your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.” (209) I have to say that the first way I was reading this book—flipping back and forth between the footnotes and the main text—quickly grew exhausting and tedious. So did skimming the footnote section before reading each chapter, so that way I would at least know who got cited, if not what specific quote. I most got into the flow of the book when I stopped bothering with the footnotes altogether, and just looked at them at the end. So for what it’s worth, Shields was correct in his observation that constantly referring to the footnotes would be disruptive for the reading experience. Still, it was cool to learn if a quote was by Sebald, Herzog, Terry Gilliam, etc.

What I most found interesting about this book were his comments about fiction vs. reality. His argument that artists should have the right to “appropriate” anything is—how can I put this nicely—not really that interesting to me. I’m like, whatever, people can do whatever they want. I would personally not be super cool with someone plagiarizing my work, unless it was maybe part of a Girl Talk-type project—or if it was someone, like, Jay-Z. But whatever, I’m bored to tears with this topic already.

Onto what I DID find interesting: the titular “reality hunger,” or a craving that people have for “raw” material—“seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional.” (3) So yeah, reality TV, Cloverfield-Paranormal Activity type films, etc. Capitalism implies and induces insecurity in us all, via the constant invasion of people selling us things and making us feel shitty about our never-good-enough insecure forever-crappy selves, thus making us want to overcompensate by constantly projecting these illusions of “OMG I’m so happy and successful! My relationship is so great, my life is just the bomb, look at my online projections of my Self and be jalous of me!!” So even these supposedly “true” representations of reality are not really true—IT’S ALL JUST PROJECTIONS. Which is why it’s good to have gutsy books that completely SHATTER that narrative into tiny little pieces, books like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, which “takes us down into the deepest levels of human insecurity, and there we find that we all dwell.” (44) HECK YES! For Shields, (or actually this quote is from Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own), “contemporary culture makes pilgrimage impossible. Experience is always secondhand, planned and described for one’s consumption by others in advance. We’re doomed to an imitation of life.” (182) So no wonder in face of all this constant fabrication everyone goes crazy when a gritty black and white video of the Jay-Z-Solange elevator fight leaks. Ugh, no wonder folks want to disappear into the wilderness, Into the Wild style, in search of something “pure” and unfiltered.

So yeah, for Shields fiction and reality always walk hand in hand together, like buddies at summer camp. I really liked his observation about Tina Fey’s imitation of Sarah Palin—about how if it hadn’t been so closely based on the actual transcripts, on reality itself, then it wouldn’t have been as funny/unsettling. Truth really IS stranger than fiction, and is sometimes even harder to believe. He sets up the truth-fiction relationship quite well in the passage below, which reminds me of similar things that García Márquez has said about journalism (the actual quote is from Bonnie Rough—arrgh, I just can’t help myself, I HAVE to cite the actual source!!):

Nonfiction writers imagine. Fiction writers invent. These are fundamentally different acts, performed to different ends. Unlike a fiction reader, whose only task is to imagine, a non-fiction reader is asked to behave more deeply: to imagine, and also to believe. Fiction doesn’t require its readers to believe; in fact, it offers its readers the great freedom of experience without belief—something real life can’t do. Fiction gives us a rhetorical question: “What if this happened?” (The best) nonfiction gives us a statement, something more complex: “This may have happened.” (6)

The other topic that I found interesting were his comments on the relationship between literature and truth. I find this FASCINATING and wish I could read a whole book on the topic (in fact, I’m probably going to have to). I loved the passages discussing the early form of literature—about how books that now form the canon of Western literature (the Bibile, the Iliad) were understood to be true accounts of actual events, and how early novels by Defoe and Fielding were passed off as “real” accounts. “The origin of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality.” (13) This forms a big part of Shields’ argument—that fiction now needs to return to this hybridity, that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction are no longer as distinct as people once thought (Sebald is the classic example; he also cites Naipul, whose A Way in the World has been sitting sulkily unread on my bookshelf for months).

For Shields, all the technical elements of fiction (third person, past tense, linear plots) are basically lying to us, creating a false sense of reality through the implication that the universe is a stable, ordered, coherent place, where one event unequivocally follows another. This illusion (or bald-faced lie) is why Shields says he is so “bored” now with the traditional realist novel, and why he thinks the future lies more in the hands of peeps like Sebald—writers who both confront the “real” world directly via documentary-style prose, and yet still mediate and shape it in the manner of fictional novels (Bolaño and Borges arguably do something very similiar in their own work). Shields would probably be down with this hotshit Norwegian dude Knausgard too, whom I haven’t read but whose books are lining the front shelves of every Waterstones here and who even Zadie Smith (who I always thought of as this very classical, traditional, realist straightforward writer) is apparently a fan of.

I can definitely see the sense in what Shields is saying, in terms of being “bored.” Even Zadie Smith with her last book (NW) took a route that was arguably much more fragmentary as opposed to here are my main characters, here’s the plot, here’s their journey & resolution, lol the end. NW was a book that dealt very much with the fragmentary conception of the self, which is another theme Reality Hunger touches upon. Are you just always a fiction of yourself, projecting yourself onto others? If facts don’t constitute truth (“I am this, I do that, I am loved by so-and-so,” then what IS true? How can you know anything if you don’t know the truth about yourself? (These anxieties remind me of Keith Ridgway’s wonderful Beckett-esque article for The New Yorker, about the glories of always being doomed to fail.)

All in all I found this book quite fascinating and could go on for ages, typing up all the quotations that I found intriguing… but I think I’ll stop there. OK, a few more:

Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped-up revelation. Life, though—standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the web or a declining relationship, hearing that a close friend died last night—flies at us in bright splinters.” (113, Lance Olson)

“I don’t know what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. A great book allows me to leap over the wall: in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness, I feel less alone.” (141, David Foster Wallace!)

The urge to connect bits that don’t seem to belong together has fascinated me all my life.” (112, Sebald)

Life isn’t about saying the right thing; life is about failing. It’s about letting the tape play.” (54) (Jonathan Goldstein, on This American Life)

In the end I recommend this book as it raises extremely interesting questions about highly relevant, contemporary ideas. I don’t really care for his call-to-arms for artists to suddenly become, IDK, nothing but chains of infinite uncredited references, but the rest of the book is interesting enough that I’m fine with selectively letting that argument slide. Shields is an undeniably passionate reader and lover of literature, two qualities that I will always respect and be biased towards in criticism.

For my own future reference, here are some books Shields recommends: David Markson’s This Is Not A Novel, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel (haha, so he’s a big Markson fan then!), Kundera’s Immortality and The Book of Laughing and Forgetting, Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, McElwee’s Sherman March, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.

 And on a final note, here’s the current always-hit-replay Girl Talk song that I’m hoping will get me through my marathon (!!!) in Edinburgh on Sunday. Especially the last minute. Heck, let’s be honest, I’m probably just going to have Girl Talk on repeat the whole time, assuming I can get away with using my ipod there. AAAAAAH!!!!

 

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