Category Archives: non-fiction

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)


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.


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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Reviews Catch-Up

Wow, big surprise, I am way busy in graduate school. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had time to read for pleasure, though.

The New York Trilogy (Paul Auster)

Boy is this a mindtrip of a book! It’s actually three books in one: City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room, all detective stories. City of Glass is about a writer of mystery novels (of course!) who gets mistaken for a detective (who just happens to be called Paul Auster) and gets sucked into a case involving a young man who was locked up as a child by his father for years, the tower of Babel  and the authorship of Don Quixote. WOW. I know. Ghosts sounds like it features the cast from “Reservoir Dogs,” because all of the characters are named after colors. The main character is Blue, a detective who used to work for Brown. Blue is paid to follow a man called Black who seems to do nothing but sit in his apartment, write and read Walden all day, and while watching him Blue graduallygets more obsessed with and sucked into Black’s life. The Locked Room is possibly the most straightforward of all three works: it features a first-person narrator (another writer! only of magazine articles, though) who learns that not only did a childhood friend disappear, but that this friend also produced a mountain of fictional work, apparently with the Kafkaesque intention to never publish it. Under the narrator’s oversight the work is published to great critical acclaim, he starts getting mysterious notes and that’s when things start getting whacky.

Well, I just loved this book. It reminded me of Ricardo Piglia, Bolaño and Onetti, the three literary Latin American greats, thrown into a blender to make a delicious Paul Auster smoothie. Ghosts is especially Onettian, as the main character is someone who “does nothing, who merely sits in his room and writes,” (172) so reminiscent of Brausen in La vida breve. Did Bolaño ever read New York Trilogy? It was published in the 80’s; he must have. I’m just going to pretend like he did because the thought of him doing so makes me really happy.

I liked this book because I wanted to keep reading it, I couldn’t put it down, and it was a fascinating blend of literary criticism, philosophical pondering and good old fashion page-turning. The first story, City of Glass, is probably the work that most thesising graduate students pant over, what with the whole “Paul Auster as a character” thing. As a bonus, it also features a villain who wants to recreate the tower of Babel, in the sense that he wants to restore the original connection of language to God and truth as opposed to arbitrary signs–I mean WOW, how can you be a graduate student and not dig that?

I’m sure that there are lots of ways that these three stories are connected that I didn’t notice on a first reading (this is definitely a book I plan on reading again). All three stories deal with the nature of language, the question of authorship, and the relationship between signs (or clues) to reality. Another link is that the main character in Glass (Daniel Quinn, same initials as Don Quixote) is mentioned in The Locked Room as a detective who was hired to search for the missing childhood friend (he never actually appears as a character). There’s also a little red notebook that tends to travel around. In one particularly real mindtrip of a moment in The Locked Room, the narrator refers “the two books that came before it [this story], City of Glass and Ghosts. These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about.” (294) Wow, when I read this sentence, my little head exploded. So, like, the writer in The Locked Room is the author of City of Glass and Ghosts? Eeeeeee!

I’m really excited to read this book again in a year or so. Check out this Piglian paragraph (what a weird sounding adjective–Pigliaesque? Whatever, reminiscent of Piglia is all I mean):

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists the telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books of this battle or that bridge–none of that tells us very much. We all want to be told stories, and we listen to them in the same way that we did when we were young. We imagine the real story inside the words, and to do this we substitute ourselves for the person in the story, pretending that we can understand him because we understand ourselves. That is a deception. We exist for ourselves, perhaps, and at times we even have a glimmer of who we are, but in the end we can never be sure, and as our lives go on, we become more and more opaque to ourselves, more and more aware of our own incoherence. No one can cross the boundary into another–for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself. (248-249)

The Third Reich (Bolaño)

Wow, imagine my surprise when I learned that The Third Reich is an actual board game. Whodathunk? My brothers only ever played Axis and Allies.

This book was pretty interesting. It’s not Bolaño’s best (how could it be if he left it at the bottom of a desk drawer, where apparently it spent 20 years before being discovered posthumously?). Honestly speaking though? I would be pretty happy if I could eventually write a novel on the level of this one.

This book is about a German named Udo who is obsessed with playing a strategy board game called The Third Reich (the way this obsession affects his relationship and his attitude towards the world reminded me a lot of video games and the Internet in general). Anyway, Udo goes on holiday with his girlfriend at a beachside resort in Spain, where his family used to go when he was a little kid. The atmosphere and events that unfold in the book feel like the descriptive sentences you’d write on the back of a novel to try to get the reader intrigued, full of mystery and foreshadowing. They befriend another German who disappears while windsurfing. They start hanging out with two local louts with the oddly biblical names of the Lamb and the Wolf. Ominous references are made to the husband of the hotel’s owner, sick and never seen. With all this in the foreground, el Quemado then appears, the owner of a pedal boat business, rumored to be Latin American and whose body is covered with mysterious burns that occasionally give off a mossy sheen. Udo and el Quemado start playing the Third Reich together and that’s when **** gets real.

A lot of this book is pure atmosphere. Not that much happens, so that minor incidents (feeling sick from drinking a cup of coffee or calling a friend and receiving no answer) feel monumental. I could have done without the 3+ page descriptions of how the counters were moved around the board but that’s just me; I’m sure any buff of World War II history would have loved it, and those pages were necessary to fully reveal the depth of Udo’s obsession (I just didn’t feel like reading them is all).

I really enjoyed reading this book. Will Bolaño’s 2pac-like output continue after this?! Is this the very last work of his we hope to get? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when that day comes, I’ll be a very sad little reader indeed.

Seek: Reports from the Edge of America & Beyond (Denis Johnson)

Boy, did I like this book a whole lot. Boy, am I really getting into Denis Johnson. He takes you on a helluva ride throughout this book: Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Montana, Alaska. My personal favorite is the piece on the hippie festival in Oregon, which also coincidentally contains my three favorite sentences in the book:

– I’ve brought a couple hundred dollars in my pocket because . . . I don’t care what they say, I’ve never seen anybody trade dope for anything except sex or cash.

– I who have had so much of peace and so much of love, I have never really believed in either one.

– I said I’d split it, but I only gave him about a quarter. Less than a quarter. Yeah. I never quite became a hippie. And I’ll never stop being a junkie.

Yeah. The opening and closing pieces on Liberia are also extremely strong and the main reason for reading this book. I’ll never forget the first time I read the closing piece on Liberia, “The Small Boys’ Unit,” in my non-fiction class in 2008. I don’t know if I’ll ever read anything again in my life that more closely resembles a descent into complete and utter hell.

My favorite thing about this book is how completely unafraid Johnson is to reveal himself as this less than perfect person. At one point in regards to Liberia, he makes the following confession (which almost sounds like an understatement in light of everything that came before): “My assignment in Liberia was over. As far as I could see at the time and as far as I can see now, I accomplished nothing… I’d come to this place and I was not whole enough or real enough to accept its terms.” Another similarly, unforgettable moment of candor takes place when Johnson comes thisclose to screaming racially charged epitaphs at the Liberians around him, despite the fact that “my parents raised me to love all the earth’s people.” It’s moments like this one in which Johnson achieves an Orwellian level of brutal, unflinching honesty. It’s hard to read, but it’s even harder to look away.

The Hour of the Star (Clarice Lispector)

Well, this was one of the strangest and most interesting books I’ve ever read. And I like to think that I’ve read my fair share, ya know what I’m sayin’?

Ali Smith quoted the opening paragraph of this book at the beginning of one of her short story collections, and now that I’ve read Star I can definitely see why Smith found this book so appealing. It plays with language, the role of the narrator and reader in that innovative, unexpected and utterly delightful way I’ve come to expect from Smith, in which you are consistently surprised and never sure where you are going or what’s going to happen next.

This book is a story-within-a-story: our narrator is Rodrigo S.M., a somewhat bougie, overtly self-conscious tormented artist who wouldn’t be super out of place with the young crowd in The Savage Detectives. He’s attempting to write a story about Macabea, a poor girl from an urban neighborhood in Brazil. The details Rodrigo provides us about her are select and few: she’s a virgin, she likes Coca-Cola, she’s ugly and often ill, she’s a terrible typist. Argh, now that I’m trying to do it, I realize how difficult this book is to summarize. I think this is a work where its greatness and intrigue comes primarily from HOW it treats its subject matter, rather than WHAT it’s about (if that makes any sense). I am definitely going to have to read this again (it’s very short, 86 pages in my edition!).

This book (similarly to Bartleby & Co.) made me very interested in how the figure of the AUTHOR is depicted in fiction. I’m sure there are many masters theses out there about how the structure of the narrative is paralleled with the creative process in Lispector herself. The contrast between Rodrigo and his invented character of Macabea is fascinating, not just because he’s rich and male and she’s poor and female (though that’s a big part of it). Just like in the works of Ali Smith, the words on the pages of this novel aren’t just words; they’re living, breathing people; they’re universes, they’re worlds. By figuring out how to write a story, are we attempting to figure out how to live our lives? How do we deal with the ultimately ineffable mysteries about our characters and ourselves? Does writing (and living) lead to breathtaking awe or heart-sinking despair? These are just some of the questions this book left me with.

Also, maybe this is cheating, but this book felt all the more poignant to me when I learned that it was the last book Lispector wrote before her death from cancer. Apparently she didn’t know she was sick at the time that she wrote it, but it still made the book’s last sentences all the more beautiful and moving to me (in the same way I feel moved by Mrs. Dalloway’s celebrations of life and being alive):

Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?
Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.

Bartleby & Co (Enrique Vila-Matas)

This was another interesting book that is hard to summarize. Again, the narrator is a writer, but one who doesn’t write. Instead of writing he obsessively catalogs and researches what he calls “writers of the no,” or writers who (for whatever reason) started writing and then stopped (like Rulfo and Rimbaud), or in some cases never wrote at all.

I honestly couldn’t tell which books in this novel really exist and which ones don’t. I don’t really want to know. This book is more like literary criticism or an essay than a novel (there’s not really a plot to speak of)–it reminded me of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature of the Americas or Ricardo Piglia. I can definitely understand why some people wouldn’t be into this, but I totally dug it (admittedly I am a giant nerd). Just like The Hour of the Star, this book seems to be an essay and exploration about the creative process and the nature of writing, via an examination of the act of NOT writing. Fascinating!

My one comment is that I wish SOMETHING had happened to the narrator. There are little hints of plot development throughout the text: we learn he’s a hunchback, he loses his job, a homoerotic relationship is implied, there’s always the question of his own writing hanging over the text… and then the book just ends. Which is OK. I still think it’s very clever and fascinating. I just wanted a leetle eensy-weensy bit more. Otherwise I don’t really understand why all those little hints of info and character/plot development were included in the first place… I guess it did keep me interested and made it easier to read, so I didn’t feel like I was reading a bunch of footnotes or flash mini-essays by Mr. Vila-Matas.

Irreguardless this is definitely another book I would like to read again, along with other works by the same author. Here’s to pleasure reading!

I live like an explorer. The more I advance in the search for the labyrinth’s centre, the further away I am from it. I am like the explorer in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony who does not understand the meaning of the designs the officer shows him: “It’s very clever, but I can’t work it out.” (147)

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I enjoyed reading this book, even though it got a bit repetitive and depressing at times. I’ve never read “Guns Germs & Steel,” despite receiving it as a present (TWICE). Do I get points for that? Anyway, this book is very readable, quite well written and extremely well organized. I felt like I was reading a power point presentation at times, but in a good way. I never felt lost or disoriented. Kudos to Diamond; his outlines must be sharp as tacks.

My favorite chapters were the ones about Easter Island and Greenland, which coincidentally were the two societies in which the author himself seemed to find the most intriguing. I also really liked the chapters about the modern day collapse of societies like Rwanda and Haiti. (In Haiti’s case, I still don’t really get how they “chose” to fail–uh, like, how is it a “choice” to be colonized and deforested by the French?). I liked how when things were getting monotonous with yet another analysis of the region’s soil, the author would throw in the occasional unexpected and fascinating random fact, like how archaeologists use petrified cave rat poo to learn lessons about past extinct cultures. I also liked the random personal life interjections Mr. Diamond would occasionally include, like how he supports to Boston Red Sox’s Dominican Republic pitcher.

Overall, I don’t know yet if I share Mr. Diamond’s “cautious optimism” about human population explosion, deforestation, rapidly decreasing natural resources, etc. I feel like the dad character from Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” would be super into this book. To be honest, this was the kind of book that I had to keep putting down and walking away from because there were just some tough truths to read in there. I didn’t finish the big businesses chapter because I couldn’t take it, but I did manage t make it through the chapter that was about WHY people decide to do things that are basically biologically suicidal . Or as one of Mr. Diamond’s undergraduate students apparently put it, what did the inhabitants of Easter Island think as they were cutting down the very last tree? Anyway, this book made me really, really glad that I’m selling my car.

The other thing that was interesting about this book to me was the tension between environment vs. individual decisions. At what point is it kind of like oh, this society is doomed to fail because the soil really sucks, and at what point is it about the individual’s choices? Like, did the Viking colonies in Greenland collapse because the Vikings stubbornly insisted on keeping cows and not eating fish (?! pretty unbelievable right?!). Diamond seems to insist that it’s a combination of the two factors (individual decisions and environment), but in the Vikings’ defense, I can’t imagine a worst place in the world with a more inhospitable environment to live in other than Greenland.

This individual-versus-environment question was a big reason for why the Greenland chapter was so interesting to me. I haven’t read GG&S, but that book to me seems to be more about emphasizing how the ENVIRONMENT determines your situation, whereas this book had more of an emphasis on individual choices. What is this implying about postmodernism, I wonder? That we’re all caught up in this crazy messed up system we didn’t choose, but on a tiny individual scale our actions still matter? Is that really true, or is that just a comforting illusion, to pretend like our teeny tiny individual choices can really make a difference? I wonder…

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Addiction Literature

There are certain things I try to do regularly, in order to better ensure my emotional, mental and spiritual health:

  • Keep a gratitude journal, in which I write down 3 things I am grateful for at the end of each day.
  • Meditate and freewrite for 5 minutes per day.
  • Try to get enough exercise.
  • Make a long list of good and kind things I can do for others, from the simple (thanking people via email) to the complicated (signing up to volunteer at an event). It is in giving that we receive, etc. So instead of feeling lonely or depressed, I can look at this list and try to do one of these things for comfort, as a way to help myself feel better.

All this results in something like that Linda Gregg poem I love so very much: I’m not feeling strong yet, but I am taking good care of myself. Ideally these actions are more like guides or signposts as opposed to harsh dictator-like orders. I don’t want my life to feel like this endless to-do list, like the only thing that makes me worthwhile is what I end up doing. I want to know that I’m good for being ME, not just for what I DO. But just like everyone else in the world, from time to time I experience intense bouts of moodiness, melancholia & depression, but I can usually bounce back pretty well if I focus on doing the things that I know will make me feel good.

I have a lot of good things here that help me with that. There are some times when I look at this little life that I have built for myself in Portland and it feels like something I can marvel at. I’ve done a really good job at making friends with lots of different groups of people (even successfully combining them at times!), getting out and about, doing work that is important and connecting with writing communities. My job is fulfilling and meaningful and keeps me busy but not overwhelmed. I’ve worked (am working) hard on my writing and it’s come a long way in the past two years, I think. I also think the past two years I’ve done a really good job of learning (am still learning!!!) the most important thing at all: how to depend on and take care of myself, and all of the self-care that entails. Portland itself often feels like that David Whyte poem to me: This is the temple of my adult aloneness, and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life.

I also have a lot of good things coming for me. July 10th is my last day as an Americorps member (ever!). July 11th, I’m driving to Berkeley. July 12th to August 4th, I’ll be working my summer job. Then I get to spend some time with friends in San Francisco, visit my grandparents, hopefully go to Yosemite. At some point I drive back to Portland so that I can do my meditation retreat from August 16th to the 26th. And then the next two weeks are completely unscheduled. I can go to Crater Lake, Opal Creek, Yellowstone. I can visit my best friend in Chicago. I can be a bum, basically, until I fly to England on September 10th and begin what I guess you would call THE NEXT CHAPTER.

(I am really excited about that, obviously.)

This idea of self-care might explain why I’m so into non-fiction books about addiction. I’ve spent the past two years working really hard to learn how to take care of myself, and in a lot of ways (ironically enough!) addiction memoirs feel like effective “How To” manuals on how to do just that. In the past few weeks I’ve skimmed through/read Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Bill Clegg, crack), Lit (Mary Karr, alcohol), The Night of the Gun (David Carr, cocaine and alcohol) and Tweak (Nic Sheff, crystal meth, son of the author of Beautiful Boy). Ultimately, Beautiful Boy still gets my vote for overall best addiction memoir (I also have good memories of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again, but rereading it might give me a different impression).

Portrait of an Addict wins for Best Portrayal of the Addiction Experience. The excerpt that appeared in the NY Times magazine still feels to me like the strongest piece of writing among all these works. I liked reading this book because it doesn’t fuck around with what it’s like to be addict. You want your crack and you want it now, and you’re going to be crawling around on your hands and knees trying to sort the crumbs from the carpet fluff in order to get it. My favorite parts of this book were the ones that felt like Day in the Life of a Crack Addict, i.e. like the magazine excerpt. The author really doesn’t mess around, you are there with him, every step of the way, on his journey to get more, more, more, more, more. It feels like complete and total hell. I don’t really know how I feel about the other sections in the books, i.e. the flashbacks to his childhood and how traumatizing it was that he couldn’t control his bladder (oh boy, does that remind me of my day job, working with kids!). At least these sections were written in a very poetic style, so they didn’t detract too much from the overall narrative. All in all I would say that this is a very strong work.

Out of all of these books, I think I enjoyed reading Lit the most. This is surprising because I REALLY didn’t think this would be the case. To be honest, I still haven’t actually read every word of it. I skimmed to the part where she starts drinking and read/skimmed/skipped around from there.

I didn’t think I would like this book for the same reason I didn’t think I would like Eat Pray LoveI thought I would find the author whiny, self-entitled and narcissistic. This didn’t happen. On the contrary, I would call Lit the Eat Pray Love of addiction memoirs. In the same way that Eat Pray Love came to mean a lot more to me the second time I read it, like REALLY read it, I suspect Lit will have the same effect if I eventually sit down to attentively read every word.

So basically, I liked Lit because of the tone the author used. She reminds me of what Tobias Wolff and George Orwell have said about writing non-fiction: you can’t be afraid to show yourself as shitty, weak or afraid. You’re not always the hero in your own story, you know? Sometimes you’re the bad guy. Mary Karr won points for me for not being afraid to look critically at herself, into the so-called abyss. At the same time, she has this wise, compassionate yet ball-busting tone that reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s the same kind of gentle but realistic tone I would like my own future self to use when talking to my younger self someday.

The other great bonus about this book is that it contains a scene in which the author dates David Foster Wallace. Some google fu also revealed to me that she apparently was a big influence on Infinite Jest. YES!!!! Yet another reason to read this book again, this time with feeling!

Talk about not being the hero of your own story. The Night of the Gun is interesting because David Carr adopts a different technique than the other authors mentioned here: he treats his story like a traditional work of journalism, so the big emphasis in this book is on verifying facts, interviewing sources and compiling information. It works pretty well, and I definitely ended up reading a lot of sentences word-for-word as opposed to just skimming or speed reading.

The other big thing this book deserves praise for is for avoiding the “went to rehab, now everything’s okay” trap. I really liked the sections in which Carr openly commented on the typical structures of “recovery stories”: I had a beer with friends. Then I shot dope into my neck. I got in trouble. I saw “the error of my ways.” I found Jesus or twelve steps or Bhakti yoga. Now everything is new again. (177) This kind of open commentary and clearly expressed awareness on the typical (even boring) structure of addiction narratives is refreshing when compared to books like Tweak that treat the stops along the way like they’re a Really Big Deal.

I also really liked the parts of the book in which he reflects upon the nature of memory, and of memoirs as a form of creation myth. To me, this book is interesting because it’s about acknowledging darkness: as humans, we all have these deep evil impulses within us, and sometimes it seems like some of us are just better at controlling them than others. Carr tells one anecdote about a friend of his who, after smoking crack for the first time, immediately said “no” to the second hit, because he knew that it wouldn’t lead anywhere good. In contrast, Carr (or any of the authors listed in this post) said yes, and then yes again, and again, and again, and again. It makes me wonder if it’s really as simple as JUST SAY NO, or if it’s all just genetic, or maybe deep at heart we would all be raving crackeads if we could. Living from moment to moment, pleasure to pleasure, thinking about nothing else except the next moment of gratification, like in those nightmarishly hypnotic final pages about the epic Demerol binge that closes Infinite Jest. It sounds like complete and utter hell.

Tweak, I am sorry to say, I did not really enjoy. It had a lot to live up to as the companion/shadow work to Beautiful Boy. But I still think that even if I hadn’t read his father’s book, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this one. This book made me think of that apocryphal story about the Beatles, about how the first time they smoked pot or took acid or whatever, Paul McCartney wrote all these lyrics down that he was convinced were really super genius, when they were actually not even that good. I wonder if the same thing happenned to the author here. I think it’s really good if the author was able to use writing as a way to get through/over his addiction. But I really didn’t find the story in Tweak very compelling, at least not the way it was told here. A lot of the book is written in this very speedy, rambling On the Road type style. I didn’t really dig it. Am I biased because I maybe secretly wanted Beautiful Boy II? IDK. All I know is that this book felt like one episode after another, buying, using, selling, having sex with whacked out chicks, in a sketchy house, on a sketchy street, with a sketchy dude… I mean, I guess the life of a drug user is episodic in nature, so maybe the book is very accurate in that sense, but it honestly didn’t make for a very compelling read for me. I got bored after 100 pages and put it down.

“Yeah but except so how can I answer just yes or no to do I want to stop coke? Do I think I want to absolutely I think I want to. I don’t have a septum no more. My septum’s been like fucking dissolved by coke. See? You see anything like a septum when I lift up like that? I’ve absolutely with my whole heart thought I wanted to stop and so forth. Ever since with the septum. So but so since I’ve been wanting to stop this whole time, why couldn’t I stop? See what I’m saying? Isn’t it all about wanting to and so on? And so forth? How can living here and going to meetings and all do anything except make me want to stop? But I think I already want to stop. How come I’d even be here if I didn’t want to stop? Isn’t being here proof I want to stop? But then so how come I can’t stop, if I want to stop, is the thing.”

–Infinite Jest

Here’s one thing that all of these books made me think about: what is it that creates that fine line? What is it that separates me from the heroin junkie on the corner, or from any of the authors in these books? Because I want things too, you know, in the same way that we all do. We all have desires. Oh man, sometimes I even want things very, very, very badly, and I get really, REALLY upset if I don’t get them. My world gets all thrown up into a twist if I’m not getting this supposed thing that I supposedly want oh so very badly. But you know what, maybe living isn’t about about getting what you want all the time. Maybe the ultimate goal of life isn’t just to seek pleasure or to be happy or to avoid pain. What it means to live a good life is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and I don’t really know if I buy into that whole Aristotelean thing about pleasure being the way of the good, or whatever it was (freshman year feels like a really long time ago).

So what DOES make a good life? And how do you live it? Well, according to most of these books the answer seems to be the following: you literally take it one day at a time, and you lean on these corny mantras (like “one day at a time”) as though they’re a life raft. When I read sections like that, maybe it’s weird, but I feel really comforted. I think things like Oh, OK. So that’s one way, then. This is a way that you can live your life. 

It’s like when I obsessively devour these books, what I’m really looking for is a manual on How to Live (not just “How to Survive”). Don’t we all want that, in the end? To live as joyfully and as meaningfully as we can, as opposed to feeling like we’re barely surviving, hanging on by a thread? And I guess one answer is that you just have to take it one day at a time. Try to be kind and forgiving towards yourself; after all, you’re all you’ve got. Don’t waste your time on people in your life who aren’t good for you and make you feel bad. Even if you’ve done bad things in your life that you feel bad about (like almost kill your infant twin daughters by leaving them in a freezing cold car overnight so that you could go into a house and smoke crack), the least you can do now is forgive yourself. Instead of waiting till you feel good in order to take action, act in a way that you know will lead to good feelings later (maybe that’s the definition of faith). Have faith that if you keep at it, and don’t give up, the good feelings WILL come.

Good things are coming soon. Every thing and every feeling ends. Better days lie ahead. At the end of my suffering there was a door; at the center of my life came a great fountain. (Louise Gluck)

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The Case for God

In April I read two books about religion. One was Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge; the other was this one:


The Case For God (Karen Armstrong)

This was a longish (330 pages), fairly dense book on the history of religion that I nevertheless really enjoyed reading. Philip K. Dick would have liked it too, I’m sure. I decided to read it after two completely unconnected friends mentioned it, and I’m really glad I did. My brain definitely feels a lot bigger.

I wanted to learn more about religion, because after reading Infinite Jest I’ve been interested in a really long time with the idea of how AA-type groups can help you cope with addiction (i.e., life in general, because aren’t we all addicts in one way or another?). In Infinite Jest, Wallace talks about the idea that you need to give yourself up or over to this concept of a “bigger picture”: it doesn’t even have to be a god or anything, it just has to be an acknowledgement that there is something out there that is bigger than you and all your petty little pains, wants and desires. I find this idea really interesting, that maybe a solution to our constant pain is recognizing that there IS a bigger picture, that there IS something larger out there than just your day-to-day “I want this, I want that.” It’s like sometimes when I’m really stressed out, I try to think about that part in “The Tree of Life” where the universe is expanding, and them I’m like, oh, OK, so now I’m here.

The part of Armstrong’s argument that I found most interesting was her contention that religion isn’t something that you have, it’s something that you do. Throughout the book she emphasizes that practical, concrete actions are essential to fulfilling religion’s purpose, which is to help us grapple with the pain and mysteriousness of life. She makes religion sound like any other practice, like yoga, or sitting down at your desk and writing in your journal, or the 12-steps of AA groups. Just like with anything, if you want to get good at it, or to understand its benefits, you need to actually DO it on a regular, committed basis.  “You had to engage with a symbol imaginatively, become ritually and ethically involved with it, and allow it to effect a profound change in you.” (321) She talks about how this was a lot easier in the older, premodern forms of religion, with their emphasis on rituals, sacrifices, and other concrete actions that really made you feel like you were participating in something.

Another part of Armstrong’s argument that I really liked was her emphasis on the fundamental mystery and unknowability of the figure or force that people like to call “god.” She points out how ridiculous it is when people speak of God as though it’s something that they know intimately, like they can speak of what God “wants” us to do and what God “is.” It’s like, hello? How the heck would you know that?

She also argues that this understanding of God (as a kind of giant, all-knowing, overseeing Father in the sky who intervenes directly in our affairs and gives a crap about what we’re doing) is a modern conception of God that the earliest theologians would have found very bizarre. Basically, Armstrong is a proponent for the earliest Jewish, Christian and Islamic mystics’ conception of God, in which it’s something that we’ll basically never be able to understand or put into words: “He is not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we can understand. We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.” It’s an appealing Borges or Onetti-like conception of truth as ambiguous, not something we can put into words. This is why “do you believe in God?” is ultimately a pointless and useless question: how can you give a good answer to a question that is so poorly phrased?

My favorite parts of the book were the beginning and end chapters. I really enjoyed the opening chapter set in the Lascoux caves in France with their cave paintings, and her discussion of why religion might have developed and what the point of it was. One interesting thing she writes is that the cave paintings might have arose out of a sense of “guilt” that people felt for eating the animals, and so the paintings became a way of honoring them. Anything that connects nature to religious feeling is A-OK with me; I am a big fan of nature as a gateway to transcendence and deeper understanding. Armstrong also talks about how the paintings might have even developed into a ritual, a way for people to recognize that when they ate the animals, they assumed their qualities (sounds like Catholic mass, no?). This ties in to the idea that the purpose of any kind of religious feeling is to speak of or point towards human potential: what we are capable of, if we let ourselves be our most compassionate, kindest, connected-to-nature selves. So the point of religion is NOT to be like “I’m right and you’re wrong,” or “do this and don’t do that,” but to instead help keep the bigger picture in mind, so that you’re not tied down or drained by your petty, day-to-day existence of pain and sorrow.

I appreciated all the comparisons of religion to art, and how they’re disciplines that arose for similar reasons, as “an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life.” (8) It makes sense to me that in the same way that you can’t use scientific language or processes to explain or understand the effects of art, the same thing would apply to religion. Armstrong says that this is where the fundamentalists all get it wrong: they try to use the language of science to explain the benefits of religion, when they’re actually two radically different disciples with different purposes. She also says that it is this version of religion that all the high-profile anti-religion intellectuals rail against (Hawkins, Hutchins, etc), as opposed to the more mystical kind.

She uses two Greek terms (hearkening back to my college humanities class or AP English) to discuss this scientific vs. religious language conflict: logos vs. mythos. So basically logos is the language or science and reason, and a pragmatic form of thinking that helps us figure out how to function effectively. Mythos is the opposite, the language of religion and art, what helps us find meaning and sooth grief. She also talks about the emphasis in mythos on stepping outside of yourself, of wearing somebody else’s shoes, and then connects this with the universal idea of compassion that you find in the major religion. This made me think about an idea that comes up in yoga or Buddhism a lot, about destroying the ego, or to step outside this desperate conservation of self. This also makes me think about the benefit of looking at a painting or a photograph, or watching a play, or reading a book, or listening to a song: for that one moment, you are not yourself. You are absorbed in the work. You have stepped outside of yourself and your little brain, if only for that moment.

The end chapters talk about the history and development of the atheism movement in Europe and the United States, which I found very interesting because I basically knew nothing about it. I liked how Armstrong didn’t shy away from all the horrible evils that have come out of religion; as an ex-nun, I am sure she knows what she’s talking about and has reflected upon religion’s dark side for a long time. I also liked her discussion of modern physics, and how it’s moving more towards a language of “yeah, there are things in the universe that we can’t explain” (i.e. string theory) as opposed to this Enlightenment-era language of “we are capable of comprehending and knowing EVERYTHING.” It seems like a huge characteristic of our modern times is accepting that WE REALLY DON’T KNOW, and that things are a huge, huge mystery.  I like the scientist that she quotes who says “In my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion,” and that we basically just need to be OK with living in a state of unknowing with “astonishment and delight” rather than fear. I feel like this is good advice for life in general: be OK with the mystery, be OK with not knowing what is going to happen or why things are the way there are. Again, this points back to religion’s (and art’s) fundamental purpose: NOT to believe in this or that god, but to search for transcendence, training our minds and hearts to stay fixed on the big picture, and live our lives in a way that is joyful, awake and involved, as opposed to just numbly going through the motions.

This was a really good, informative book to read and I sure did learn a lot. It got to be a bit hard going through the middle: sometimes it feels like Armstrong is getting too textbooky, citing every philosopher or theologian ever (though I’m sure she’s barely grazing the surface). But all the painstaking detail definitely makes you feel like you are going on a journey, an amusement park ride of sorts through the history of religion. I liked the Denys section, for example. I’ve already forgotten about Luther and Aquinas but I know they were really big deals. Its discussion of the importance of myth in human society and the development of the self made me want to read Bill Plotkin again, or even Joseph Campbell (I found a moth-eaten edition of Hero With A Thousand Faces in the downstairs bookshelf last night).

Some other interesting religious-related things I’ve read recently include this Salon interview with Karen Armstrong (I like it when she bitch slaps the interviewer for his “chauvinistic Western view”, LOL), and this Dan Savage segment of a This American Life episode, who basically sums up my own feeling about religion: “If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe. But I’m not that kind of person. Shit.”

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Just Kids

“In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos–the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, and yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Often I’d sit and try to write and draw, but all of the manic activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.

Robert had little patience with these little introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.”

– pg. 65, Just Kids

One of the main messages I got out of reading this book is in the quote above. The other is that making art is HARD WORK. And if you wanna “make it” (however you definite that), you are gonna have to be willing to work hard. You have to commit to it. You have to be willing to take the time and do the work. You have to be willing to not break your Seinfeld chain.

A lot of this book is about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s suffering while living as young and broke aspiring artists in New York City in the late 60’s and early 70’s. OK, obviously it’s not all just suffering, but let me tell you, this book made me not want to complain about my life anymore. Especially when Smith writes about getting up at 6am to catch the train for her job at a bookstore, where she would work until 7pm and then walk home (to save subway fare), and THEN write poems on the typewriter or paint and draw till midnight or 1am. Repeat six days a week. I tell you, this makes me feel bad about coming home from work and complaining that I’m too pooped to write ****-ing cover letters for hippie writing residencies.

I really enjoyed the specific details that Smith evokes about moving to New York as a young broke kid: scavenging broken furniture off the sidewalk, stealing books. I especially liked the descriptions of Patti’s cooking specialties, like lettuce soup (dissolved chicken bouillon cubes with wilted lettuce leaves floating on top). Still, poverty is no joke, my friends. At one point Robert resorts to hustling–please, God, let me get financial aid in grad school so as to avoid such desperate measures.

Patti Smith is an excellent writer and deserves all the acclaim she’s gotten. Her language is poetic but never pretentious. She has this amazing way of putting these very complicated, intense ideas in simple sentences. One good example of this is the big quote chunk above; another is the last section about Robert’s death: “Why can’t I write something that would awake the dead? The pursuit is what burns most deeply.” (279) She also does an amazing job of structuring the book: she does a great job of balancing her story with Robert’s, especially in the first chapter about their childhoods. I always felt like she knew exactly what she was doing, and that she knew exactly what she wanted her book to be about. Basically, it’s a tribute–to youth, to Robert, to that initial excitement when you’re first getting hit by that artistic spark and drive.

Out of all the chapters, the one titled “Just Kids” (about their early days living in New York) was my favorite. The next one, “Hotel Chelsea” went on for a little too long for me. There were a lot of sections that felt like “oh, and then we went to this bar or this restaurant, where we met so-and-so person.” Some of these moments were pretty cool, like when Allen Ginsberg buys Patti a cheese and lettuce sandwich because he thinks she’s a skinny young boy and he’s trying to pick her up. Some of it could maybe be perceived as name-dropping (though I don’t think it is).

All these references to literary and rock-and-roll figures has a function, though: it drops us right in the middle of a very specific time and place. We’re in New York in the 70’s, where Andy Warhol’s groupies have catfights in the bar, Bob Dylan’s manager is a grinning flirt; the deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are news headlines and Charles Manson is the talk of the town. It did make me wonder what the contemporary version of this kind of intense immersion into an artistic network would be… I’m not sure if there is one. I certainly don’t see myself bumping elbows with Jonathan Franzen or those other boys if I move to New York.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I think my favorite thing about it is the compassion, love and tenderness that Smith shows to her younger self and Robert. She recognizes their youthful mistakes and naiveté while still being compassionate. They are, as the title says, just kids.

Reading this book reminded me of when I read Bob Dylan’s Chroniclesway back in early 2010 (two years ago, what?!). That book was what helped me decide to focus more on creating art, which led to me signing up for a writing class, which led to, well, a lot of other things. We’re still chuggin’ forward.

I’d like to end this blog post with another quote about being a youthful artist. Before that, I would like to say that for the record, I think my absolute favorite Patti Smith songs are “Gloria,” “Ain’t it Strange” and “Pissing in a River.”

“I don’t have a lot of advice to give. The one thing I would say to a young writer who wanted counsel is to be patient. Time, which is your enemy in almost everything in life, is your friend in writing. It is. If you can relax into time, not fight it, not fret at its passing, you will become better. You probably won’t be very good at the beginning, but you will become better, and eventually you may actually become good. But it doesn’t help to be afraid of time, or to measure yourself against prodigies like Conrad or Crane or Rimbaud. There’s always going to be somebody who did it better than you, faster than you, and you don’t want to make comparisons that will discourage you in your work. In fact, most fiction writers tend to graybeard their way into their best work.”

– Tobias Wolff, The Paris Review 2004

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Obama’s Wars

The last Bob Woodward book I read was “State of Denial” four years ago, also one of the first books I reviewed on this blog (four years ago–my God!! I was just a little BABY in swaddling clouts!). 2008 was a U.S. election year. Since 2012 is obviously another one (as evidenced by my father’s rants at the dinner table), it felt like an appropriate time for another dose of Woodward, despite the fact that I really don’t follow U.S. politics that closely–I guess don’t want to get sucked into the vortex i.e. the black abyss of pain, frustration and despair.

I’m glad I read this book. It made me feel super smart. The book is a VERY detailed (as in memo by memo, meeting by meeting) account of Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan, a piece of news I greeted with wearied numbed indifference when it was first flashing across the headlines, back in the day. I think my reaction at the time was along the lines of “oh wow, more death-pain-and-murder in the world, big surprise.

The main thing this book made me think about is that politics and international relations (much like shrimping in Forrest Gump) is TUFF. I would not want to do it. Ever. Not even if you paid me a bajillion dollars. I do not see myself reading 66 page reports every night and then trying to decide to send off a bunch of young people for either death or PTSD in the Middle East.

Another important thing this book made me think about is (to put it bluntly) how much I hate war. From the way Woodward presents it, he makes it seem like the U.S. military was basically totally OK with have an increased military presence in Afghanistan, with NO specific objective about what they’re trying to achieve or a timetable for withdrawal. Like, are you kidding me? Are you seriously–effin’–kidding me. See, now I’m getting all upset; I knew it was a mistake for me to try to review this book. But can somebody honestly tell me what would be the point of hanging out in Afghanistan FOREVER with no GOAL?? That would be like me taking the kids out to recess and just being like oh yeah, we have no plan, no objective and no timetable. I’ll tell you what would happen if I did that consistently–I WOULD BE FIRED.

God, now I’m getting all worked up. Now I’m remembering that story on NPR I heard when I was driving back from Seattle at like 3am, after the Tori Amos concert. The story was basically “Iraq War: THE REVIEW!” The conclusion was basically that Iraqis are unsafer, unhappier and hate the U.S. more than they did under the rule of Sadam Hussein, and the U.S. has spent billions–BILLIONS!!!—of dollars in order to achieve. It makes me sick, it really does.

The last thing I have to say is that for what it’s worth I am glad that Obama is in office. Can you imagine if we’d had some pushover president in office who was like “oh sure military, let’s just do whatever you say!  I won’t question, contest you or challenge you at all! Sign me up!” Boy, it would be horrible to have a president in office be like that!! ….. oh wait, I just remembered eight years of my life.

I know progressives criticize Obama a lot and that people are, like, unhappy with him for being kind of a wimp for imagining that he could actually get along with the insanity that is the Republican party. But man oh man, this book really made it seem like he was in just this IMPOSSIBLE situation. Trying to deal with Afghanistan sounds to me like trying to clean up a carpet where somebody vomited, took a dump, set themselves on fire and then blew themselves up, with no soap and a really crappy sponge. And that is basically the situation that Obama is in, cleaning up Bush’s party. To his credit, he is quoted by Woodward as saying “I can’t let this be a war without end.” So thank you for that. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Forget this, now I’m all agitated. Now do you see why I can’t follow politics too closely?! My last comments about this book are the following:

– Woodward’s gossipy observations about the president of Afghanistan is basically manic depressive made me both LOL and feel intensely depressed.

– Biden honestly comes off as the most sensible person in this book. His constant insistence to focus on Pakistan was the smartest thing that anybody says. Biden, run for president! Bring your motorcycles and hot babes with you! (Go read an article about Biden on the Onion if you don’t believe me…)

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Filed under books, non-fiction, politics, pondering, review


At some point in your life, you begin to wonder if perhaps there is more to life than another round of success (or failure) at the Standard Game of Security Building—the pursuit of your personal selection of career, material possessions, physical safety, comfort, social and sexual relations, and economic position. (47)

This book (Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche by Bill Plotkin) was an interesting one to read at the end of the year. My sister got it for Christmas and I have been skimming through it myself these past few days. I’m really going to have to get his other book, Nature and the Human Soul, the one Cary Tennis recommended. These are some of the things that I found interesting about this book:

– I liked the book’s emphasis on myth-making (particularly of the Joseph Campbell kind), storytelling and archetypes. I loved it when he used a scene from Star Wars to illustrate an example of Jung’s Shadow (hint: it’s the scene in The Empire Strikes Back). It made me want to re-read Jung: A Brief Introduction and actually take notes this time so that way I can actually remember concrete information about his theories. I liked Plotkin’s definition of archetypes as a representation of “the patterns and possibilities of being human,” and how we will all embody each archetype (some more than others) at each point in our lives. As I’ve said before, this idea of fragmentation and many, separate selves that are somehow all cohesive really appeals to me. Case in point: Tori’s American Doll Posse album, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I also liked how Plotkin argued for the ego to be reassigned “as an active, adult agent for soul, as opposed to its former role as an adolescent agent for itself.” (36) My ego DEFINITELY feels like an adolescent most of the time.

– My favorite part of the book was Plotkin’s discussion of specific archtypes, such as the Wanderer (seeker of adventure), the Wild Child (sensual creativity), the Nurturing Parent (does exactly what it sounds like!) or the Lone Solider. The latter particularly freaked me out because I wrote quite a few short stories this year that were about soldiers doing exactly what Plotkin says is the archtype’s purpose: an ally who protects you during childhood, but who needs to be told that the war is over, the battle is over and they can leave, they can go home. This archetype reminds me of another great mantra from Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, in which you picture walking away from your pain, sadness, anxiety, depression etc. like a soldier laying down his arms and walking away from the battlefield. Just listen to this:

Common Loyal Soldier survival strategies include harsh self-criticism (to make us—the ego—feel unworthy and thus ineligible for Wild Child actions that might bring further punishment, abandonment or criticism); placing our personal agenda last, other codependent behaviors (e.g. caretaking, rescuing, enabling) to stave off abandonment; pleasing but immature and inauthentic personas; partial or complete social withdrawal (to minimize social contacts); adopting an unpleasant or downtrodden appearance (to protect us from criticism); restricting our range of feeling by encouraging us to always be in charge, busy, angry, ruthless, withdrawn, and/or numb; and suppressing our intelligence, talent, enthusiasm, sensuality and wildness by locking up these qualities in an inaccessible corner of our psyches. (92-93)

That’s a long passage but I wanted to type it all up so that I could remember it, because it was definitely the section of the book that impacted me the most in terms of its “whoa… I learned a lot from just reading that” factor.

– I also found the book’s emphasis on the theme of descent (as in the mythological hero’s descent into the underworld, a la Innana) very interesting. I agree with Plotkin’s POV that we live in a culture that “protects us from the hardships and dangers of the descent.” One of the main reasons that I liked his discussion of descent is because I’ve been thinking a lot lately (as I’ve said before) about depression and addiction (thanks again, Infinite Jest and Shame the movie!). I read this transcript online about a depression-themed radio episode that was really fascinating and that I highly recommend, especially its discussion of depression not as something as an excess of feeling (i.e. sadness) but more like something that’s the ABSENCE of feeling. The idea of needing to stumble through the darkness in order to get to the light appeals to me. It makes me feel like it has a purpose, and that you can emerge triumphant at the end.

– I really related to the book’s criticism of contemporary culture. Not to sound like a crotchety old fart George Orwell type… but it really gave voice to a lot of things I’ve been rolling around in my mind, on and off, for the past three-four years. Such as how we live in a culture and world in which “everything is more or less predictable and where most people emulate getting the greatest socioeconomic rewards,” as opposed to meaning and mystery. He quotes a lot from a book with the pretty incredible title of My Name is Chellis, and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization. Check out these gems:

“The Western worldview says, in essence, that technological progress is the highest value and that we were born to consume… The most highly prized freedom is the right to shop… Competition, taking, and hoarding are higher values than cooperation, sharing and gifting…. Western lifestyles that revolve around a constant barge of anemic distractions may be, in part, ways of self-numbing so as to minimize the pain of that loss… This way of life becomes an addiction. The more we live this way, the more alienated we become from something deeper and more meaningful, and the more we need this way of life to keep us from experiencing that alienation.” (91)

I really dug how he brought up addictions (AGAIN!) here, specifically in Plotkin’s point that we seek “distractions” to hide the feeling that something essential is missing.

–       I liked the book’s emphasis on the role of nature in healing the soul. I don’t think I’m going to undertake a “wilderness setting” anytime soon (i.e. hiking out all by myself to get lost on purpose and fast for four days…), but it was definitely good to read this around New Year’s, as I can now be more fully committed to my intention to go hiking more often. I have a car and six-seven months (?) left in Portland—it’s truly now or never! Plotkin also relates nature to adventure, another core value of mine and something I love having in my life. Case in point: I’m so excited to be heading off to L.A. tomorrow to spend New Year’s with my beloveds!

–       I liked how the book’s main message that the best way you can help yourself (and thus in turn help the world) is to find out what it is you have to offer it: “It’s not possible to save the world by trying to save it. You need to find what is genuinely yours to offer the world before you can make it a better place. Discovering your unique gift to bring to your community is your greatest opportunity and challenge. The offering of that gift—your true self—is the most you can do to love and serve the world. And it is all the world needs.” (13) Or as another anonymous quote puts it, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted and behold, service was joy.” (40) It made me feel like YES… my passion CAN be my work, eventually. They don’t have to be separate! As long as I trust my “vision with a task” I am good to go-go.

Crossing that threshold into your uncharted future is an act of great courage and self-compassion, and it changes your relationship to life in a fundamental way. It embodies your willingness to employ a new form of risk-taking, to consciously choose growth-stimulating, soul-nourishing conflicts, to live through the accompanying anxiety, and to accept your life as open-ended and unpredictable. Passing through that door commits you to living in the present in a way you never before have. (60)

– I also thought it was a nice touch in the book to have all the quotations from Rilke poems scattered throughout. God, what an intense guy. This was the best of the lot:

You are not surprised at the force of the storm—
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees’ blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit;
now it becomes a riddle again,
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you knew
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

As long as we’re posting poetry I wanted to go ahead and share the poem that I’ll most likely be transcribing in all of my friend’s Christmas cards this year. This is called “In a Tree House” by Hafiz:

Will someday split you open
Even if your life is now a cage,

For a divine seed, the crown of destiny,
Is hidden and sown on an ancient fertile plain
You hold the title to.

Love will surely bust you wide open
Into an unfettered, blooming new galaxy

Even if your mind is now
A spoiled mule.

A life giving radiance will come,
The Friend’s gratuity will come –

O look again within yourself,
For I know you were once the elegant host
To all the marvels in creation.

From a sacred crevice in your body
A bow rises each night
And shoots your soul into God.

Behold the Beautiful Drunk Singing One
From the lunar vantage point of love.

He is conducting the affairs
Of the whole universe

While throwing wild parties
In a tree house – on a limb
In your heart.

Here are some reading and writing related intentions for 2012 (assuming the apocalypse is survived, of course!)

Reading – I thought about making a specific list, as in Books I Want To Read, but attempting to do so just made me feel unhappy and frenzied. I like reading in my life to be spontaneous and uncontrolled. I like reading what I want when I want to, not because I feel like I HAVE to. Nevertheless here are some intentions:

  • Read some of the science fiction books and maybe even some of the fantasy ones from this list, er I mean flow chart.
  • Read some of the Bolaño recommended books. Read more Latin American ones in general.
  • Read some more big, classic books: The Pale King, the new Murukami, Moby Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow. Maybe even Philip Roth. Hell, I read Rabbit Run, why not?
  • I might even be able to finish reading all of Philip K. Dick’s novels… can I do it? Is it possible?! Time will tell!
  • Read some contemporary writers, the kind who are published in Tin House and do interviews on NPR and OPB.


  • My main intention for 2012 is to work on cultivating a more spiritual-like devotion to the practice of writing.
  • Continue finishing pieces, submitting them, applying for residencies and grants, etc. I did this at least once a month for every month in 2011 except for November, I think (I still have three days to go in December… haha!). Go me! Mm… maybe I can bump this up to TWICE a month in 2012, minimum?
  • Go to grad school! (!!!)
  • I would also like to write more here in this space! It is really very useful! Case in point: ALL of the Philip K. Dick books I read but didn’t review; it would be a shame to have them all just fade into a blur in my mind. I’m going to try to aim for once a week, with the understanding that sometimes this means the entries won’t be super well written or coherent, but oh well, in this case it’s the intention that counts. It’s my blog and I can do what I want with it…. 8D

Goodbye 2011... otherwise known as "The Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab."


Filed under advice, depression, nature, non-fiction, poetry, pondering