*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)