Category Archives: review

April Books

The above image basically represents April and the first half of May for me. Oh man, this show is breaking my fucking heart! As my sister said, “I think I need to find a happier hobby/interest at the moment.” Thank God for the books, which I’ve enjoyed rereading very much, but which I will not recap here because what would be the point. As my sister texted, “I keep thinking about how the Harry Potter series literally ends with the words, all was well. God what an optimistic hopeful ending *weeping face*

Apart from hundreds of pages of raping and wenching in George R.R. Martin, I’ve also fortunately managed to read the following:

Motherhood (Sheila Heti)

This is a good book to read as a young woman when you’ve reached that point in your life where you make flippant comments in conversations with friends like “so yeah, if I’m barren, I’m totally, like, just going to adopt four border collies.” I loved how this book’s ultimate message wasn’t to divide mothers and non-mothers, but to bring them together and examine what they had in common. And I thought using the coins as a way to structure and move the narrative along was very innovative and interesting. Apparently the first draft of this was 750,000 words long – damn!!!

The Leopard (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa)

This book is a good one to read on an airplane to Sicily, because the man sitting next to you will immediately start making conversation with you about whether or not you’ve seen the film, it was filmed in the village where his family is from, his aunts and uncles appear in extras in one of the scenes, but he’s not from that village and hasn’t been there in years because he grew up in Libya, his father was a photographer, he was put in a POW camp in Kenya by the British, did you know what the British did to the Kenyans? It was not good! But he was recognized by a British soldier in the camp who saved his life in a scene eerily reminiscent of The Pianist, and then his family was deported from Libya, he hasn’t been back since, he remembers driving around in a truck in the sand dunes with his father and how strange and lovely that was, all that sand reaching out into nothing for miles.

The Shape of the Ruins (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

If I still had the brain power to make thoughtful, analytical, highly literate in-depth posts that focused on one book (as opposed to being a broken empty shell of a human being who can barely string a coherent sentence together) this is definitely the book I would most want to focus on! Man, this book encapsulated the majority of my favourite things: conspiracy theories, Colombian history, autofiction… too bad my kindle version of this crashed and none of my highlighted passages saved. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to read it again!

The Border (Don Winslow)

I loved The Cartel but this was a bit silly. Just too… cutely linked. but I have a lot of respect for Winslow’s passion and anger. This series is basically Insight Crime: THE NOVEL. The Cartel definitely remains the best in the trilogy – I think because it’s the book that focuses the most on the little side stories and supporting characters, the moments that are most unexpected and rewarding.

I also just wanted to say the kindle version of this was SO EXPENSIVE! UGH! But I had NOTHING to read in the airport and was desperate.

The Living (Anjali Joseph)

While I was on my way to the shop I had a smoke. I felt done in, like I’d been crying for days. I thought to myself something I often thought at that time when anything went wrong, whatever it was, and then when it stopped, at least for a bit: Well, that passed the time. And then I’d laugh, really laugh, because no one else would have understood. (46)

Definitely my favourite book of the month, along with the Vásquez. What a quiet, wonderful surprise this was. There are probably a thousand passages from this I would like to share.

I thought this was very quiet, beautiful, and impressively strange. It reminded me of Knausgaard in the sense that it’s about how life is lived, about how nothing really happens, and how that could make you feel kind of ennui-ish and frantic. And I liked how the two parallel novellas didn’t forcefully try to impose any links between the characters and their lives (apart from the fact that they’re both shoemakers); you can draw your own conclusions about how they are connected.

Things would get better. That Friday I was walking home, a beautiful sunny afternoon. Ahead of me down the hill the cathedral spire was pale gold in a blue sky. The world had never had any problems. I thought, everyone has something, something they need from other people. Some people just want to be loved. Some want to be admired. Some people just need to know you don’t need them to be any way other than they are. I was calm, except when I wasn’t. I felt good. I’m learning, I thought, as I walked into the sunshine. (60)

Yeah, the more I think about this book, the more I admire it. I think captures something that is SUPER difficult to depict in fiction – the experience of LIVING: the day in, the day out experience of it – the horrifying existential pain and agony and beauty and joy of it. As a bonus, one of the novellas was set in my current neighbourhood!

That part of my life was gone. I was too tired to put everything in order. Just the summer, and petrol, grass, hot air, the smell of disappointment, a disappointment you couldn’t explain. (219)

 

McGlue (Ottessa Moshfegh)

Eek, what a read. I would say this is for serious Moshfegh stans only and not for the casual reader browsing Waterstones for a light comforting beach read that will make you feel really good about life and all the decisions you’ve made; you’re really being your best self; you’re productive; you’re using your time well; you’re kind and compassionate and people like you and say nice things about your personality behind your back. NOPE! This book… will NOT comfort you. Seriously though, Golden State Warrior-esque points to Moshfegh for displaying some serious range! A common theme in her work seems to be addiction, and the desire to GET OUT YOUR HEAD and ESCAPE, due to the TORMENT and TORTURE of being trapped with your thoughts. Clearly themes that absolutely no one can relate to, because we’re all stable and happy under 21st-century capitalism.

If you want to read a book in which (SPOILER) someone literally tears the brains from their skull (SPOILER END) … this is for you.

Googling reviews of this book also reminded me of what a great interview subject Moshfegh is. God, what a queen! I love this quote of hers:

My mind is so dumb when I write. Each story requires a different style of stupidity. I just write down what the voice has to say. I use my intellect in the final stages of editing, when I stand back and get thoughtful about what the story actually is and what a stranger’s experience of it might be. At that point I can separate myself from the voice and “intellectualize” if necessary. But I must wait until the very end to deal with the story on that level. If I try to process what I’m writing while I’m writing it, the work gets stiff, meaningless, forced, and then dies. I’m not saying I don’t get ideas. I obsess about the work when I’m not at my computer. But that’s just more stupidity. I don’t know how the mind works, but isn’t there a part of it that deals specifically with reason and sense? The brainy asshole of the mind? The nerd on the dance floor in a tweed jacket, drinking sherry, constantly parsing and analyzing and judging and shaking his head, making faces? That asshole is my intellect. He’s a really shitty writer, as you might imagine. I don’t rely on him when I’m composing. He goes to bed and has a little wet dream about how smart everyone will think he is when the story’s published. What a douche bag!” 

Or this:

“When a narrator acts as a kind of ruler of his own fictional reality, stomping around from paragraph to paragraph, expertly addressing the story without any self-awareness, or too much self-awareness for that matter, it gets solipsistic. There’s nothing to be discovered there. It’s all surface. That sort of writing is exclusionary because it sets the reader at a far distance from the narrator. There’s no room for feelings or having instincts about the emotional underbody of the story. It’s all just information and style. “Look at me writing so well!” It’s like talking to a complete asshole who’s trying to sell you a photo he took of himself in a tuxedo. Don’t ask me for an example of this kind of writing. This is all theoretical. I’m just chewing the cud here.

The Godfather (Mario Puzo)

Is it bad of me if I say this is one of the best books I read last month? Seriously, I could not put it down! I devoured it in one day on the couch. I feel like you could use the opening chapters to teach students how to manage 3rd person POV. I like how it’s a very “American” story…. a story of power and decay…. a lot of this is probably/definitely sexist though, so it goes… seriously, though, what is up with the sideplot that follows a woman who gets an operation to make her labia less big??? (or was it her vagina? It was never actually clear to me!) WHAT… WHY…. WHY IS THAT IN THIS NOVEL…..?

Therapy (David Lodge) [reread]

One of my favourite books of all time! God, I think this is the character who most resembles me IRL. I relate to their existential crisis and deep sense of despair WAY too much. A really brilliant and classic novel that uses humour to examine a question we can all relate to – how do we be good people and live good, meaningful, purposeful lives?

And that’s it for April! Thanks April… it’s been real…

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March Books


*The Mars Room (Rachel Kushner)

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

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

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

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

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

Kudos (Rachel Cusk)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exposure (Olivia Sudjic)

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

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

*The German Room (Carla Maliandi)

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

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

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

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

I absolutely loved this.

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

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

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

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

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

My Sister the Serial Killer (Oyinkan Braithwaite)

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

The Large Door (Jonathan Gibbs)

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

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

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

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

Adele (Leïla Slimani)

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

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

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

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

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Notable Books of 2018

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

A Separation (Katie Kitamura)

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

Resistance (Julián Fuks)

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

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

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

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

All Grown-Up (Jenni Attenberg)

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

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

Our Dead World (Liliana Colanzi)

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

The Idiot 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book I did not “get” this year:

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

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Clock Dance & Winter

My annual seasonal depression is slowly but surely kicking in – why do I feel so tired all the time, I text my sister, and she responds, Because winter is coming. Oh, the equatorial child in me can never truly be squashed out – I should have brought my SAD lamp up from Norwich!

How fitting, then, to have read two books this week by two of my lifelong favourite female authors, two books about time passing, about the importance of rituals to acknowledge the passage of time, about how the seasons turn, turn, turn. Two established female novelists, two writers I’ve been reading for decades (one since I was eleven/twelve, one since I was twenty-one).

“I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned that has helped me,” he said. “Shall I?”

“Yes, tell me,” she said, growing still.

“I broke my days into separate moments,” he said. “See, it’s true I didn’t have any more to look forward to. But on the other hand, there were these individual moments I could still appreciate. Like drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Working on something fine in my workshop. Watching a baseball game on TV.”

She thought that over.

“But…” she said.

He waited.

“But… is that enough?” she asked him.

“Well, yes, it turns out that it is,” he said.

(Anne Tyler, Clock Dance)

I wonder if there’s a tendency to take mid-career writers for granted – to under-appreciate them. I don’t really know anyone else who reads Anne Tyler – sometimes I wonder if she’s seen as untrendy. All I know is that I find Anne Tyler deeply, profoundly comforting. Do I believe that the quirky, eccentric neighbours in Clock Dance are this friendly in real life? Probably not. But what does that say about me?

There was an odd little silence. Then Willa said–she couldn’t help herself–“What do you live for?”

“Well, one thing is that when you’re old, everything takes more time. Bathing, counting out my pills, putting in my eye drops… you’d be amazing at how much of the day a person can fill that way.”

“Ah,” Willa said.

Although this was not much use to Willa. She was still very quick on her feet.

“But sometimes it feels so repetitive. You know? Like when I’m getting dressed. I’ll think, These same old, same old colors; I wish I had some new ones. But there aren’t any new ones, anywhere on earth. Or vegetables: same old vegetables. Come suppertime and there’s spinach, or there’s tomatoes, or there’s corn… Why can’t they invent some new vegetables? It seems I’ve used everything up.”

“There’s broccolini,” Cheryl said suddenly. “That’s a new vegetable.”

(255-256)

I LOVED reading this book. The structure is shockingly experimental! We start out with three major incident’s of Willa’s life (all of which are spoiled on the book jacket summary): the night her mother disappears for 24 hours, the day she gets engaged, her husband’s death in a car accident. And then we jump to the longest section, in which Willa is unexpectedly invited to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend’s daughter (whew!). I found this fascinating – the extreme jumps through time; the way we see Willa change and grow. Definitely as I get older, the themes in Tyler’s fiction (am I a good person? Have I done anything with my life) resonate all the more strongly with me.

This is definitely the kind of book that will remind you to call your grandma more often.

“I mean, sometimes when I’m feeling sorry for myself, I try the opposite approach: I widen out my angle of vision till I’m only a speck on the globe.”

“Well,” Willa said, “but doesn’t that make you feel kind of… puny?”

“I am puny,” he said. “We all are. We’re all just infinitesimal organisms floating through a vast universe, and whether we remembered to turn the oven off doesn’t make a bit of difference.”

That he considered this to be comforting made Willa laugh.

(259)

“That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.”  (Ali Smith, Winter)

Winter was definitely less of an escape than Clock Dance, as it deals directly with Twitter, the current U.S. president (not named but blatantly present), the isolating effects of technology, and the history of protest in the UK (specifically the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp). This New Yorker review by James Wood gives a really helpful overview of her recent work – I keep forgetting how pun-ny Ali Smith is, and how much puns drive the themes in her writing. I think my favorite pun-tastic riff in Winter was on “to-day”, in the sense of treating it as a verb. How do you day, one of the characters wonders. Is it the same thing as to love?

The environmental themes in Winter also stood out to me – in one of the book’s many Leonara Carrington-esque surreal sequences, one character sees a piece of coastline floating above the dinner table. I’m reminded of her short stories of the rose bush growing in a chest, or the woman who falls in love with a tree. Is this the most pressing theme of our time? How we relate to the non-human, to the natural world around us? Can the human and non-human exist together in an ethical way? Will embracing interdependent relationshps with nonhuman nature save us?

The world is completely fucked, the new Brazilian president is probably going to destroy the Amazon rainforest, and my Vitamin D levels are super low and getting lower, but I’m glad these two writers are still working. Models to emulate.

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The Devil’s Highway & Sight

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

Image result for the devil's highway norminton

THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY (GREGORY NORMINTON)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for sight jessie greengrass

SIGHT (JESSIE GREENGRASS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Missing

Missing (Alison Moore)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So dark! I love it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oxford and The End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being Dead

It was a quiet week. I went to Sheffield on Wednesday and saw the house I’ll be moving into. I went to a barbecue on Sunday and brought the hosts a potted succulent as a housewarming gift. We talked about how difficult it is an artist to make time, to use time. Is it pretentious of me to call myself an artist? It feels like a form of self-protection. But I also agree with it. Also at the BBQ, I met someone who’d traveled to Colombia, and when I said I’d grown up in Cali, his face changed and he said, “Oh. I felt really unsafe there.” (This happens, often.) N. and I watched a Japanese film, The Great Passage, about the editors of a dictionary. Life is very quiet and slow and still. September lurks like a beast on the horizon. I am trying to keep my head down and my nose clean. But time passes, constantly, and I fret and worry.

Being Dead (Jim Crace)

There was a book I read earlier this summer that’s been on my mind: Being Dead by Jim Crace. I’ve read one other Crace novel (Quarantine – apparently I read it both in Colombia and Ecuador). Being Dead is very much a book about time – namely, the end of it. I don’t remember how I first came across it – maybe in my research about 2666. Because there are passages through Being Dead that very clearly parallel Bolaño’s famous style:

Their bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first. Claudaus maximi. A male. Then the raiding parties arrived, drawn by the summons of fresh wounds and the smell of urine: swag flies and crabs, which normally would have to make do with rat dung and the carcasses of fish for their carrion. Then a gull.” (36)

The plot follows a married couple, Joseph and Celice, two zoologists. In the opening chapters, they are brutally murdered in a random, senseless act, by a madman carrying a hunk of granite (the chapter narrated from his perspective is not one I’m going to forget anytime soon). Their bodies lie on the beach for six days. And so death – and the beetles, and the gulls, and the maggots most of all – sets in.

[The beetle] didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time. It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets. He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions. He wanted to escape, and to feed. That was his long-term plan, and his hereafter.” (37)

(After rereading the passage above, part of me is kind of like… but AREN’T beetles afraid of death, in the sense that they want to instinctively avoid it? Lol what do I know)

In college and high school I flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a biologist. My grades were never good enough (despite taking the class, I didn’t dare take the AP Biology exam), but I’ve always loved the subject. For “Career Week” (a week we had to spend working somewhere), I even interned with my dad’s friend Tony, an entomologist. Though I think I mainly chose to do that because I didn’t know how to do an internship with a fiction writer, which deep down inside is what I wanted to be. But whatever, as if the busybody Career Counselor was going to let me get away with that! Rest in peace, Tony! You were the best!

“Zoologists have mantras of their own: change is the only constant; nothing in the universe is stable or inert; decay and growth are synonyms; a grain of sand is stronger and more durable than rock.” (81)

During and post-college I mainly dated scientists (both medical, social, and biological – LOL “scientists” is really stretching it, let’s be real – most of them were BUMS and ABUSIVE LOSERS. BUMS, I tell you). I think I’ve channeled that love of biology mainly into listening to Radiolab, for now. But! I love being outside. I vaguely flirt with notions of “learning about the local plant and wildlife” (though after living here for six years, I am moving, again). I do feel, though, akin to Tori Amos and the film Mother!, that it is within the natural world where our salvation (and our destruction) lies. Maybe this is just the result of getting older, of seriously asking myself questions like do I WANT to bring a child into this world, like that poor guy at the beginning of First Reformed.

In this sense, this was a worldview that Being Dead very much champions. That this world is what IS – it’s what we have and it’s what we are. That’s it. There is nothing else. Nothing.

‘Anyone who studies nature must get used to violence. You’ll have to make yourselves companionable with death if any of you want to flourish as zoologists.’ She meant that fear of death is fear of life, a cliché among scientists, and preachers too. Both knew that life and death are inextricably entwined, the double helix of existence. Both want to give life meaning only because it clearly has none, other than to replicate and decompose. Hard truths.” (40)

I did find this interview with the author extremely interesting, especially in his discussion that the book was a response to his father’s death – specifically, his atheist father’s insistance that there be no ritual after his death whatsoever. The Crace family just got on with their lives. Which was deeply unsatisfying to little Jim Crace. And so (as he says in the interview), Being Dead was his attempt at creating a sort of response, a non-religious ritual for facing death. And consequently that ritual is… accepting that decay, and change, and death is inevitable, and constant, I suppose. You’d think this realisation would make me get off my butt and, like, go RUN THROUGH A FIELD, but whatever.

Whatever philosophical claims we might make for ourselves, human kind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology. We’ll not be missed. [Insects] might not have a sense of self, like us. Or memory. Or hope. Or consciences. Or fear of death. They might not know how strong and wonderful they are. But when every human being in the world has perished, and all our sewerage pipes and gas cookers and diesel engines have fossilised, there will still be insects. Take my word. Flourishing, evolving, specialising insects.” (86)

I won’t say too much more about the book, except that even though it’s a bit slow in parts (I liked the corpse chapters way more than the ones focused on the daughter, because I am morbid), it is an extremely impressive achievement, in terms of structure and theme. Some people might find it a bit cold, icy, distant, but this kind of style is what I just plain ate up. I plan on reading more of him.

Zoology was a far kinder companion that cosmology. How much more heartening it was to contemplate and bring about the capture of a bladder fly, like some great god, than to view the huge and distant streakings of the sky. How greater than the death of stars was this wet universe, its grains of sand and liquid films, its mites and worms too small to see but swimming, feeding, dying, breathing in massive miniature. These tide pools were a meditation, too.” (75)

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Filed under books, British, death, review

You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under contemporary, fiction, review, violence

Beowulf

I’m at N’s family house for a few days while he gets his car fixed, a sort of mini-retreat, mini-vacation. N’s grant is taking him to Japan for three months in the fall, to research Soseki’s archives and eat lots of omurice. I’ve rented a room in Sheffield for that same period because I spent so much of last academic year being sick (did I have the Australian flu? Was it spending so much time on the train?) – I need a break from the commute, and without N in Norwich I want/need a change of scene. If someone had told me in 2012 that I would still be in Norwich, six years later, my jaw would have slowly but surely dropped open. I like Norwich a lot, though. Am I staying in England, now that my PhD is finally finished? I miss my parents – they’re getting older (my mom has a milestone b-day coming up), and I want to spend time with them. I don’t know how they do it – travelin’ round the world like a couple of youngsters. I guess it helps that they don’t buy plane tickets that involve two stops!

One of the nicest things about staying at N’s house is the opportunity to examine his bookshelves (not a childhood bookshelf, unfortunately, more like university era). The antique book his grandfather bought in Japan in the 1950’s. The 2005 Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook he bought when he was trying to decide between teaching English there or in Japan. And his Oxford MA books. So many editions of Chaucer! So many Icelandic tales! (I had no idea Iceland had such a rich literary history *embarrassed shrug*) And the Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney, which I pulled from the shelf since it seemed like a nice follow-up to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had this year (though it was technically auditory, as it was an audio book – God, does Neil Gaiman have the most soothing voice!). As a bonus connection, Gaiman was apparently involved in writing the screenplay for that weird Beowulf movie in which Angelina Jolie is kinda (digitally) naked but kinda not.

I read the Introduction first which immediately spoiled the “plot” in the second paragraph. Fine by me! I’m the kind of person who still googles movie spoilers (but only of films I plan on NEVER seeing, such as the new Star Wars, which I tend to end up watching on airplanes anyway). N. tells me about how in his Oxford class on Beowulf, he was the only non-Oxford alumni, and thus the only student who hadn’t already read it in the original Old English. He had to teach himself Old English! (It sounds very strange when read aloud) He also tells me about how the only copy of Beowulf was almost destroyed in an 18th-century fire (how many other works of literature have been lost in such random ways? A truly Bolaño-esque question), and how a lot of Beowulf critics sneer at Heaney’s translation for taking “liberties” to be “accessible” to the “layman.” To this I say: Thank you very much, Seamus! And a big, big thank you to whoever wrote the line notes in the margins, helpfully providing clarifying explanations of the text (the ones about genealogy were especially helpful: The Danes have legends about their warrior kings. The most famous was Shield Sheafson, who ruled the founding house.)

As an absolute novice with no knowledge about epic poetry whatsoever (um… is this an epic poem? :O), I thought this translation was absolutely fantastic. Very readable and stark and lovely. In the introduction Heamey talks about how he was inspired by the men of his Irish family, how a simple sentence like “We cut the corn today” could feel incredibly solemn and weighted with meaning. And hence his decision to translate the first word of the poem as “So,” as opposed to “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend,” “listen,” etc. God, isn’t translation nuts? N. told me that the original Old English word for “ocean” is technically “whale road,” which I think is so beautiful! But not exactly layman speak, so makes sense that Heaney didn’t include it.

What a strange ass story this is! Here’s a list of things I found strange (contains spoilers):

  1. Grendel is killed REALLY quickly. Like… in the first third of the story!! I thought Beowulf was ABOUT Beowulf vs. Grendel! What on earth is going to happen next, I wondered.
  2.  Answer: stories within stories! Isn’t it nuts how this is such a common theme of ancient poetry? And yet in contemporary fiction it’s like “lol u r so experimental.” Reading the Introduction first was very helpful in this regard, as it helped me be prepared.
  3. Beowulf is… kind of a dick? He brags about swimming through the ocean with his sword and armour (UM, not possible, she says snarkily). And after killing Grendel’s mother, he CHOPS OFF Grendel’s head when Grendel is already dead, just to bring a trophy back. Not very sportsmanlike!
  4. Beowulf is basically the story of a life – the contrast between a young warrior, and then a warrior past his prime, at the end of his days. Did not expect this!
  5.  The balance between warrior heroic culture and Christian morality. OK, I sort of stole this observation from N., who wrote an essay about it for his Oxford degree (ermagod, so smart rite). Basically… there is this weird juxtaposition throughout the poem between Beowulf being obsessed with his honour, his legacy, his name, with dying a “good” death as a hero, and between characters jumping in and saying “Oh it’s all thanks to the Lord that this was able to happen!” The written version we have of Beowulf was transcribed just as Christianity was an up and coming religion, but the ORIGINAL version of Beowulf was almost certainly pagan. So it’s almost like the story can’t decide what it wants to be. Because if you believe in Jesus… why would you care so much about your name existing with honour, when going to chill with J.C. in Heaven is supposed to be the most important eternal reward? It is… weird. But as Heaney says in the introduction, it is this contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty, that helps make Beowulf a work of art. I like this idea, that something is more artful when it ISN’T cohesive, when it has these jagged, rough edges.
  6. Parts of this poem are really very beautiful! Especially the parts about death. There’s a big theme of “money and power will not make you happy.” This makes me feel better about my churchmouse income bracket.

All in all, I feel richer for having read this. Ancient stories, man. Why does everything always have to happen in three’s? Can’t wait fo Elon Musk to write an algorithm that explains THAT :/

I also feel incredibly grateful for my university education, and the background it gave me in the classics, even though I certainly wasn’t the best student at the time.

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Filed under books, classic, pondering the future, review