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July Books

In New York I read The Makioka Sisters on L’s couch; I meet my new U.S. editor; I walk something like 10-20 miles a day; I go to a Korean spa, a stand-up comedy routine, a ‘Ninja Sushi’ restaurant in Manhattan. The Makioka Sisters is an epic Tolstoy-esque novel about four sisters in pre WWII Japan; at times it reminds me of Anne Tyler. At one point a marriage suitor is turned down due to his tendency of muttering to himself, a tendency L shares. I tell her, You would be rejected for marriage in pre WWII Japan, and she says, don’t I know it!

In Oregon I visit my older brother and I read Hillbilly Elegy on his couch. I complain about its conservative worldview. My dad and brother have an intense conversation about it. “What do these people want?” my dad keeps asking. “They can’t just cut down all the trees and shoot all the game. And rule of majority is the definition of democracy.” My brother tells us about the local highway that was adopted by the local self-armed group. It’s just like in colombia, he says. The Democrats are gonna need to arm themselves. Crazy talk, my dad says, crazy!

In Mexico I read Luiza Sauma’s Everything You Ever Wanted and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, both on my kindle, at night in the AirBnb. They are both very good books. It is good to be back in Mexico. There is a lot going on.

In Oregon, again, I re-read Terry Pratchett’s The Truth for something like the tenth time in my bedroom. I think it’s my favourite Discworld book after Feet of Clay and Men at Arms. Long live the free press! One of the swift fledglings nesting in the chimney falls down and gets stuck in the fireplace. I pick it up while wearing yellow kitchen gloves and throw it back up the chimney, as per the Audubon Society’s suggestions. It survives. All hail nature!

I read CJ Hauser’s Family of Origen on the flight back to England. It is a great Anne Tyler-esque family novel about sibling relationships. I teach two workshops for a summer school translation class. A panelist during one of the events talks about the rise of “influencers” in the Instagram book world, a world that is deeply mysterious to me, but if it’s something you enjoy, knock yourself out, I ain’t mad. I think about all the blogs I used to read in 2007-2010 (God, who was that guy doing American Studies at Yale? I was obsessed with him!), how they made me want to go back to school to study writing/literature. And now I guess you write reviews because people send you books for free/pay you to. What a dinosaur age.

The last book I read in July is John Williams’ Stoner, in one sitting in my UK bedroom while suffering from terrible jetlag. It’s the kind of book that’s been reviewed and raved about so much I was predisposed to disliking it, or to talk about what a jerk the main character is, but guess what? I loved it and it’s my favourite book I read that month. I love how it’s about a life that may seem like a failure, so pathetic and insignificant, and yet there’s also maybe a teeny tiny chance that it’s not so bad either. An unheroic, unimportant, unnoticed life, like most of ours.

“It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny WAS there, and would be there.”

“He had an image locked somewhere within him like a shamed secret, an image that was ostensibly of a place but which was actually of himself. So it was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study… It was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

“Love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

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Italian book tour photos!

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Peru

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Segovia Weekend

I was in Segovia this weekend for a literary festival. Very swag.

I was last in Segovia when I visited my sister in 2006 – I remember we missed the bus, and had “cochinillo” for lunch, and took photos of its little piglet face. I’m looking at the photo album on facebook right now – god, isn’t the ancient digital past a trip?

I had fun at the festival but I also suffered from SEVERE ANXIETY. This doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it is VERY, VERY hard for me to get the sneering voice out of my head, whispering harsh things to me: “you don’t deserve to be here… they made a mistake inviting you… god, everyone is so embarrassed for you right now, why are you so embarrassing? they really regret asking you to come…” God, it’s exhausting! Sometimes I am strong enough to fight this off (getting older helps – seriously, fuck being in your 20’s!), but this weekend, I just couldn’t. I was emotionally worn-out from the move, I think. Overall, I still had a great time and am happy I went (HUGE thank you to the unbelievably gracious and helpful festival organizers), but I want to be honest about my experience and not project the false message that my life is all like Thrills and Chills. Sometimes, it is like this, and that’s okay. And I know for a fact I’m not the only sensitive, early-career artist who experiences this sometimes! BUT. Despite my anxiety, I really enjoyed getting to know the other authors (especially the Czech writer in the taxi, telling me about her wild teenage years, and the other author on the panel with me, who is a SHINING STAR, or the East London poet, who performed a piece about a Syrian mermaid). And I loved meeting the Cuban choreographer – one of the events I did was a “baile literario,” in which I read texts and then she lead the crowd in a dance. BOY, was the audience participation stellar!! You get 5 stars for enthusiasm, Segovia!

I was also able to read the first 60 pages of The Magic Mountain for my sister’s online bookclub – she is OBSESSED with the Magic Mountain, and that’s putting it mildly. We’ll be reading 60-70 pages a week for the next three months – like when I read Infinite Jest, this is a really fun way to read long books! I find that it lets me enjoy it, and read other books at the same time. I’m already fantasising about what we can read next – The Tale of Genji?

It is maybe NOT the best idea to be reading THREE giant books at the same time, though, as I’ve found myself doing… HOWEVER, I have made it past the agonisingly agonising close reading of the Celan poem in Knausgaard and have found myself tearing through it once more! I’ve reached the part where he examines the early days of Adolf Hitler’s youth, which has been surprisingly relevant to the first 60 pages of Magic Mountain. It’s FASCINATING stuff. Knausgaard delves deep into Hitler going against his father’s wishes for him to become a civil servant, insisting on becoming an artist (painter, writer, opera composer, despite being unable to write music!). His obsession with the opera, and theatre, and how this later linked in with how he turned Germany into a theatre, expressing cohesion, identity, and authenticity. It is VERY Bolaño-esque – the way this mental fascist was obsessed with the idea of the beautiful, eternal, and cohesive in art – art as something that elevates, something that has supreme position in society. He contrasts Hitler’s idea of art with Kafka – Kafka’s diary, full of its angsty moans and bowel movement descriptions, is something young Hitler NEVER would have written. And yet who became an artist?

Knausgaard sees Hitler’s failure as an artist linked to his inability to put more of his ‘self’ into his art; he was more obsessed with this idea of being ‘great’ (which he later, big surprise, projects into his politics). It is potentially controversial, in the sense that he tries to be balanced in his portrayal – he discusses how Hitler was orphaned at an early age, beaten by his father, repeatedly failed to get accepted into the Academy (so much of his early life is basically about him being a LOSER, a BUM), produced shitty amateurish artwork (but what 16-19 year old doesn’t, Knausgaard asks), was a shitty annoying friend who ranted and complained about everything to his long-suffering roommate (Knausgaard quotes extensively from the roommate’s diary, a truly valuable resource). And yet what doesn’t result is sympathy, but interest and fascination. It’s important to understand how something like the Holocaust could happen, and it’s important to understand the man behind it.

I’ve highlighted so many passages in this section, it’s hard to only share a few!

“Who would not wish to be a part of something greater than the self? Who would not wish to feel their life to be meaningful? Who would not wish to have something to die for?” [I don’t actually know if I would die for anything, TBH…]

“We live our lives surrounded by commercial goods, and spend great swathes of our waking hours in front of screens. We conceal death as best we can. What do we do if out of all this a yearning for something else arises? A realer reality, a more authentic life?”

“This is the reason I write, trying to explore the connections of which I am a part.”

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Little Women

I am in Sheffield. Or we are, if you count the cat (which I really should). This is the 4th time she’s moved with me in six years. Oh, Puss! What a role model you are to me, with your curiosity and courage! Sure, you are hiding under the bed right now, but you did sniff around and meet a few of the new housemates! You just understand the proper balance between “me time” and “exploration!”

I have been finding Knausgaard tough going in these tough days. Para decirlo de simple… el man me esta aburriendo. I’ve found solace in googling reviews online and discovering that no, it’s not just me finding the EXTREMELY CLOSE READING of the Celan poem slow going. Reader, I skipped to part three, which is focusing more on the Knausgaardian stuff I enjoy (i.e. incredibly long descriptive passages about making coffee and smoking). But I will go back and finish reading part two. Especially since he apparently, at one point, compares Instagram users to Nazi Youths.

What I’ve REALLY been enjoying reading (other than texts in preparation for this year’s courses) is none other than Little Women, by Louis May Alcott. Man, what a book this is! I can’t believe I’d never read it before! As a child I did read a “babyish” version of it, i.e. Little Women redux, with an illustration on every page. Let me tell you, that illustrated kids’ series is basically responsible for me reading ALL of the classics! So many books I can have “claimed” to have “read!” David Copperfield… The Three Musketeers… A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court …. (to be fair I did end up reading this for real in high school…). If I have kids, I’m definitely tracking them down again. And if I don’t have kids I probably will anyway.

I wanted to read Little Women because a while back, Anne Tyler (one of my all-time favorite writers) said in an interview that she tries to reread Little Women once a year, and has probably read it at least 27 times. This made me think of that Mary Ruefle quip, in her essay about reading new books vs. re-reading – how at some point, when your time on earth is becoming more, um, limited, you are faced with the decision of reading new fiction or just re-reading the ones you know you already love. I was recently confronted with this issue when reading a recently published book that I just plain did not GET. Reader, I skimmed the last half. Which is something I normally NEVER do. But life is too short. And besides, Little Women was waiting for me.

There’s something especially lovely about reading Little Women – a decidedly old-fashioned, untrendy book – during these troubling times. Gosh, am I going to turn to classic fiction to help soothe my mind? It helps the classics tend to be a) very affordable b) easily accessed in libraries (not that I’ve sorted out my library card yet; it’s on the list). In Little Women,I can definitely see the Anne Tyler-ish influences – the big families, the urgent chatty energy, the humour. Oh man, the humour! This book is FUNNY – I had no idea!

Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo’s nineteen hairpins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable, but, dear me, let us be elegant or die. (29)

“Don’t use such dreadful expression,” replied Meg from the depths of the veil in which she had shrouded herself like a nun sick of the world. (41) — SICK OF THE WORLD! How often have I felt this!

“Go and eat your dinner, you’ll feel better after it. Men always croak when they are hungry.” (135) — SO TRUE.

And when Beth is crying over her dead canary, and Amy says hopefully, “Put him in the oven, and maybe he will get warm and revive” – I CACKLED. Oh, and Aunt March’s parrot, that keeps viciously attacking Amy? Comedy gold!

Jo, as many have clearly and accurately attested, is the most interesting character – artistic, clumsy, outspoken. “Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid. What it was, she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her, and meanwhile found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, read, and ride as much as she liked.” (44)

Gosh, who could not relate to her? What I found VERY interesting is how often she wishes she could have been a boy, a man – “If I was a boy,” she tells Laurie, “we’d run away together, and have a capital time, but as I’m a miserable girl, I must be proper and stop at home. Don’t tempt me, Teddy, it’s a crazy plan.” (248) And Wikipedia (obviously the prime source of any background info) says that the author herself frequently declared this as well – that she was a “man’s soul” in a woman’s body. Que interesting, no? I remember that Jo gets married in Part II to someone who’s not Teddy, which already feels like a pretty daring move on the part of the author, considering how well they get along in Part I.

I could do without the frequent Christian moralising about “Him above”… and Beth really is quite wishy washy, isn’t she? But there is something to be said for the book’s value system – about appreciating what you have, rather than wishing you were someone else, and where somewhere else, and had something else. There’s also some good-ole fashioned Protestant work ethic thrown in as well, with frequent quips about the values of “a useful life” – “go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace,” etc. And you know what? There is some truth to that. I know that when I’ve been REALLY depressed or down in the dumps, having something to focus on can really help!

All in all I’m astonished at how modern and readable the language in this is, if not the morals (it pretty much is a “marriage plot” novel, isn’t it?). I’ll be sad when it ends, but then again, Knausgaard’s The End is still calling my name…

‘If only we had this,’ or ‘If we could only do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many things they could actually do. (50)

It does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, doesn’t it? (97)

He was in one of his moods, for the day had been both unprofitable and unsatisfactory, and he was wishing he could live it over again. (163)

“If life is often as hard as this, I don’t see how we ever shall get through it.” (220)

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Oxford and The End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goodbye May

Personalia (Mary Ruefle)

When I was young, a fortune-teller told me that an old
woman who wanted to die had accidentally become
lodged in my body. Slowly, over time, and taking great
care in following esoteric instructions, including laven-
der baths and the ritual burial of keys in the backyard, I
rid myself of her presence. Now I am an old woman who
wants to die and lodged inside me is a young woman dy-
ing to live. I work on her.

The Kookaburras (Mary Oliver)

In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to stride out of a cloud and lift its wings.
The kookaburras, pressed against the edge of their cage,
asked me to open the door.
Years later I remember how I didn’t do it,
how instead I walked away.
They had the brown eyes of soft-hearted dogs.
They didn’t want to do anything so extraordinary, only to fly
home to their river.
By now I suppose the great darkness has covered them.
As for myself, I am not yet a god of even the palest flowers.
Nothing else has changed either.
Someone tosses their white bones to the dung-heap.
The sun shines on the latch of their cage.
I lie in the dark, my heart pounding.

Poem for Right Now (Catherine Pierce)

In protest I say the word iridescent.
In protest I say the word vesper.
In protest I say that I am in love
with this day, this exact day, this rain
on the thousands of dead leaves
in my backyard and the mourning dove
and the faint growl of the garbage truck
a few blocks over. I am in love with it.
In fucking love. It’s true that now
a mushroom cloud billows behind my eyes
all day. It’s true I fall asleep drafting letters
in my new language of pitchforks.
I know the chopping block is vast. I know
it has room and stomach for everything.
But my tongue and my head are mine.
So in protest I say the word liquefy.
In protest I say the word gloaming.
In protest I will remember how once
my friend and I walked through an alley
in a strange city, and my friend wore
a paper dragon in her hair, and the city
was five o’clock gold all around us.
In protest I say the word dragon.
There are days I’ve carried like candles
to light the rest of my life, and I will not
let the new days snuff them out, though
the new days are trying. Watch me hold
a decade-ago snow night, moon-bright
and silent, right next to my hammering rage.
Watch me house halcyon next to protocol,
lagoon next to constituent. I am trying
to become a contradiction machine.
I am poorly oiled, but every day I creak
awake again. The rain is heavy now
against my screened-in porch,
and the gutter that years ago my husband
patched with duct tape is still holding.
At this point, repaired is more accurate
than patched. It’s still holding, and in protest
I marvel over that. In protest I marvel.
In protest I say incandescent, liminal, charcuterie,
embrace. I think acquiescence is a beautiful word,
too, but in protest I put it away. There are
other beautiful words. Like lunar. Like
resistance. Like love, like fucking love.

“You’re just looking for a way not to be alone,” I told him. But Saul said, “There is no way not to be alone.”

Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions

“People without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.”

Flannery O’Connor, in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (FSG, 1969)

“Reconnecting to art and to writing helps me believe in the goodness of other people. When I prove to myself that I can be empathetic and interested, I become less isolated in the present and far less afraid of the future.”

Stephanie Powell Watts in this week’s Writers Recommend (Poets & Writers, 2017)

“Working hard and faithfully on what you love will pay off and bring quality to your life. Sitting and writing, even on the awful days, is just a glorious thing to be able to do.”

Ralph E. Rodriguez, in Laura Maylene Walter’s “Tell Me I’m Good: The Writer’s Quest for Reassurance” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (2017)

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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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Our Friends From Frolix 8

Ours Friends From Frolix 8 (Philip K. Dick)

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

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

‘I think it was God.’ (45)

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

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

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

‘Why?’

‘Because we broke the egg, not He.’

‘Why does that give us free will?’

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

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

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

Thank you, Philip K. Dick, for existing.

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

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September news

MOVING DAY (even if it was only upstairs in my current house) was a good excuse to finally take inventory of and organize my books, which previously had been double-stacked in the shelf, stacked precariously high in a skyscraper-fashion on the desk, stacked on the windowsill, and even sadly stacked on the floor due to lack of space.

MOVING DAY (even if it was only moving upstairs) was a good excuse to finally take inventory of and organize my books, which previously had been double-stacked on the shelf, stacked precariously high in skyscraper-fashion on the desk, stacked on the windowsill, and even sadly stacked on the floor due to lack of space.

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The “after” photo! Brand new huge bookcase on the left means all of the books now have a home, plus extra space.

Prior to moving I spent a few days in Berlin and liked how this random stack of concrete blocks reminded me of the way my books had previously been stacked on my desk. Was this a bunch of construction materials or a work or art? Who knows...

Prior to moving I spent a few days on holiday in Berlin, where I liked how this random stack of concrete blocks reminded me of the way my books had previously been stacked on my desk. Was this a bunch of construction materials of a work or art? Who knows…

I also got to spend a few days in Berlin + Potsdam, which involved lots of cycling and currywurst.

Holidaying also meant lots of cycling and currywurst, both in Berlin and Potsdam.

It was nice to spot some familiar faces in the bookshops!

It was nice to spot some familiar faces in the bookshops!

I also loved this little phonebooth library. I really wanted to go inside but there was already somebody there…

And now it's nice to be back in Norwich, despite the stupefying humidity.

And now it’s nice to be back in Norwich, lolling around despite the stupefying humidity.

In other news:

  • I had a story read on BBC Radio Three, as the interval to a South American orchestra! This was a very niche (as a friend said) and very cool (if surreal) experience. The link is here for the next 18 days.
  • On October 11th I’ll be at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with two other authors (Kate Hamer and Sally Rooney), both of whom I’m very excited to meet. Attending the festival is also an exciting prospect as I’ve always found Gloucestershire to be one of the prettiest areas of England, even if I always got terribly carsick in the back of my parents’ car as we drove around visiting family friends who lived there, way back in the days of my childhood summers abroad. Oh, and Knausgaard will apparently be there too (!).

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