Category Archives: travel
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.”
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’?”
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.”
“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)
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
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.
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.
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.
The ecological record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.
Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution
[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.
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…
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.
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 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…
Holidaying also meant lots of cycling and currywurst, both in Berlin and Potsdam.
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, 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 (!).
Just like three years ago I went to Spain, the south this time, I lost my passport for the second time in seven months, I miraculously found it, my friends are the most amazing people ever, I ate bread every day, I read The Beast by Óscar Martínez and My Struggle 2: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (both amazing, excellent, I will review them soon), I came back to England, I’m working on my edits, I’m working on my PhD, I have a few weeks left of teaching and marking before summer, I still work in the library but no longer in the outreach office, I have a part-time gig marking papers online for extra cash, I told my landlord I would stay in this house for one my year, my cat got into a fight and had to wear a cone for ages but has now recovered, I went hiking in Thetford Forest, it was extremely sunny today, I am ready and waiting for summer, summer, summer, summer!
(Here are some photos, and two poems:)
To My Twenties (Kenneth Koch)
How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman–
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten-year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another–and water!
I’m still very impressed by you. Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For the moment in any case, do you live now?
From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend
X—- N—-, who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time! In you I marry,
In you I first go to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies. I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living. I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.
You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were midmost
Most lustrous apparently strongest
Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy.
What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how best to use it
You weren’t a genius at that.
Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.
in soul by any means,
whether climbing the water tower
drunk or coked or driving
to the frozen lake on mushrooms
to throw up as the ice breathed my skin in and out.
I can offer no more literal
description of pilgrimage
than seven black pills
and holding my hand
over fire when pain
as the extent of the world was perfect clarity.
If not my overturned dog
moaning at the wanderings
of my fingers across her teats
and just a beer shared with my wife
as two girls across the street
in t-shirts etch their thoughts
with sparklers into the air
is the life I want of all
possible miracles, I promise
to remember how to roll a joint
while steering with my thighs.
How to stand in one corner
of a room while looking at myself
waving back at me. How to have
a mouth but no brain, to sell oregano
to men with guns, to fall asleep
in the middle of a room
like babies do, with my ass
in the air and face on the floor,
to wake in this posture
with sunlight washing my skin
and go out for coffee and a slower
life. How to say yes like a river
jumping off a cliff.
Taipei (Tao Lin)
I haven’t technically finished this book yet (have one more chapter to go) but still wanted to write about it here. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time since the Internet exploded with reviews about it around a year ago, comparing Lin to Bret Easton Ellis (whom I’ve never enjoyed) and calling him the first author to accurately represent the Internet-addicted, Adderall-taking age (which piqued my interest more… I was intrigued by the idea of someone attempting to depict “the age we live in” without turning it into a morality tale). Another interesting fact is that Lin’s agent apparently is Bill Clegg, whose crack-smoking memoir I read two years ago during my addiction memoir binge (eew, “binge” feels like an inappropriate word to use in relation to addiction-themed literature… but oho well).
I approached Taipei with the same eerie fascination with which I approached Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again and Clegg’s book–the mindset of “wow… life is so simple when you’re an addict. Everything boils down to just one thing.” What is interesting about Taipei is I don’t know if any of the characters would identify themselves as addicts. They’re not constantly taking MDMA or LSD because they NEED it–it’s more like it’s just something to do. Also, I haven’t reached the end yet, but I highly doubt that the main character is going to change his lifestyle. It’s almost like the kind of novel that Cat Marnell in her heyday would have written–a book where the characters don’t repent from their hedonistic lifestyles, but instead keep moving numbly, emptily forward.
Also, maybe I’m just a really sick person, but I find Lin’s style absolutely hilarious–not break-into-laughter funny, but definitely shaking my head at certain sentences. Here are certain passages that appealed to my black, bleak sense of humor:
Matt said he drove a rental car without a plan to Maine and ate seafood in a restaurant alone, did other things alone. “It was really good,” he said, and briefly displayed a haunted and irreducibly unenthusiastic expression before reaching for chips. (59)
He rolled over and gathered a blanket into a cushiony bunch, which he held like a stuffed animal of a brain. (130)
“Do you sometimes feel like it sucks–to just, like, live in the world?”
“What do you mean?” Paul said slowly.
“Like, that the world can’t provide us with enough to satisfy us.”
“No,” said Paul after around ten seconds, and covered his face with his hands. “I mean… the world is good enough, based on evidence, because I haven’t killed myself. Like, if I killed myself… I could say the world is bad, on average.”
“Like definitively,” said Alethia.
“On average,” said Paul through his hands. “Since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in.” (127)
Technology is also a big theme throughout this book: lots of references to outer space, characters using their MacBooks to film themselves, stalking exes on facebook, reading Wikipedia, feeling like an endless series of open browsing windows. I’m sure lots of people are going to choose this book for their future dissertation topics about technology and alienation and stuff:
Paul laid the side of his head on his arms, on the table, and closed his eyes. He didn’t feel connected by a traceable series of linked events to a source that had conveyed him, from elsewhere, into this world. He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it digressed and was continuing ahead in a confused, choiceless searching. (67)
To be frank, I find it amazing that I can read this book without being bored–how does Lin do it? Am I just predisposed to be interested in this kind of story, in which people close to my own age wander around doing random things, like buying kale and toilet paper at Whole Foods or going to parties in New York? Why am I so captivated by its complete lack of affect, as opposed to bored?
One thing that helps is that there’s a lot of dialogue. The other thing is that for all its lack of affect, a lot of “things” (i.e. events) do take place in the book–there’s even a Las Vegas wedding. We’ll see what the last chapter is like, but for now my favorite part so far has been the MDMA-infused tour that the main character and his Vegas bride take of the first McDonalds ever built in Taipei, in which they maniacally examine the posters and visualize the models as futuristic Chicken McNuggets or Cameron Diaz’s children. Good lord.
Once You Break A Knuckle (D.W. Wilson)
I enjoyed this book a lot and thought it was very moving, beautifully poetic and powerfully written. The author is an alumni from my beloved graduate school institution and boy, can you tell that he worked like heck on these stories. Que ejemplo. My favorites were the ones that were linked (there were quite a few too–I wonder why this wasn’t marketed as a linked collection?) or the ones set in childhood. There’s lots of moments of brutal, unexpected violence in these stories, most memorably in the one involving a rope swing (ugh, see if I don’t take notes of individual story’s names, then they just inevitably fade forever into the ether). I feel like I learned a lot about the Experience of being a Rural Canadian Man from reading this–i.e., being gay would be really hard. And I liked how a lot of these pieces focused on characters’ every day lives–going to work, the bar, hanging with the family, etc. I was also really impacted by this sentence in the title story: “Once you break a knuckle, you will break it again.” Uff, talk about a sentence that sums up the legacy of familial abuse and violence. Simple but straightforward–there’s a lot going on underneath that sentiment. Que fuerte.
Bark (Lorrie Moore)
I love Lorrie Moore! I loved this book! I was underwhelmed by her last novel, A Gate at the Stairs (its political themes felt too gimmicky and forced–to be fair, I might have to give it another shot; I was going through a REALLY rough time when I read it). But with this book I am officially back in the Lorrie Moore as Goddess Fandom club. Who else is so funny? So kind? Who else makes something that is so hard (humor) look so easy? She still officially remains one of the two authors who’s literally made me laugh out loud (the other being Terry Pratchett). I also think she did amazing job of balancing political and social commentary in these stories–the references and themes never feel heavy-handed or forced. The endings of these stories are also incredible, real sucker-punchers, so unconventionally unresolved and unsatisfying. My favorites are “Debarking” (LOVE THESE CHARACTERS; I could read a whole book of with them, seriously), “The Juniper Tree” (surprisingly poignant and moving, an interesting twist on the ghost story) and “Thank You For Having Me'” (I love that the collection ends with a story set at a wedding! What a way to go out with a bang!).
Some of my choice fave sentences (definitely so many to choose from; this is just skimming the surface):
“I said, ‘Are you on crack?’ And he had replied, continuing to fold a blue twill jacket, ‘Yes, a little.'” (181)
“She had always chosen the peanut allergy table at school since a boy she liked sat there–the cafeteria version of The Magic Mountain.” (183)
“The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding.” (187)
“‘Bummer,’ said Ira, his new word for ‘I must remain as neutral as possible’ and ‘Your mother’s a whore.'” (11)
“He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like ‘Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins?’ or ‘I’ll bet God really loves butter.'” (14)
“He wished this month had a less military verb for a name. Why March? How about a month named Skip?” (22)
“‘I would never time travel without a pen,’ he said.” (43)
“The menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things–cheeks, tongues, thymus glands.” (41)
Ahh, Lorrie Moore. We’re so lucky to have a writer like her in the world.
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (Lucy Corin)
I am sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy this book very much, despite being very excited about its concept. One hundred micro-stories about apocalypses (as well as a couple of similarly themed full-length short stories)! One of my favorite subjects in the world! So why didn’t I get into this? Why did it end up leaving me cold? I think… I am maybe just not the target audience (IDK who would be, though–someone who is a bigger fan of experimental flash fiction/prose-poetry than I am?). It simply wasn’t my cup of tea. I also might have had expectations that were way too high–the reviews I’d read were glowing, and I loved the title as well as the concept (or at least the idea of the concept, I guess–the execution was a different story). So yeah–reading this book made me feel fuzzy and alienated. I was also really bothered by the full-length story “Madmen” for reasons that I won’t get into here, but to say the least, I would never, ever, ever want someone who is suffering from mental illness to read this story. Like… it is kind of offensive? Or maybe I am just too sensitive? But I thought it was gimmicky and icky, like a bad George Saunders knock-off.
I respect this book’s experimental nature, though. And there were a few of the short apocalypse flash pieces that I liked, though I can’t say there were any that I loved. And there are definitely none that I can remember off the top of my head, three weeks after having finished it. This book made me respect Lydia Davis all the more–writing this kind of experimental, short-short fiction is VERY hard to do without leaving the reader feeling cold or alienated. Or maybe feeling alienated is an inevitable consequence of the form? Maybe I just need to read more flash fiction and get more familiar with it? IDK, it’s true that even with poetry, I tend to like stuff that is more readable/easy to understand/reminiscent of straightforward prose (like Raymond Carver, Bukowski, Robert Bly), rather than stuff that is more trippy and weird (though I definitely like reading that from time to time too… just in small doses). Who knows. But again, kudos to the author for taking a big risk with this book and trying something that is decidedly new.
The Good Cripple and The Pelcari Project (Rodrio Rey Rosa)
Still loving Rodrigo Rey Rosa. I have another book or two of his waiting for me in the library this weekend, yay. He’s the perfect author to binge read: I LOVE SHORT NOVELS!
So yeah, neither of these two books were as good as The African Shore but I still enjoyed and was highly impressed by them. The Pelcari Project especially is extremely eerie–something out of a surreal nightmare, a Kafkaesque riff on the mad scientist story, told mainly through salvaged diary entries. This book in particular is a terrific example of how to write about the horrors of Central America in the 1980’s in a way that is very memorable, risky and innovative. The Good Cripple also deals with violence and is probably the most “conventional” of the three Rosa books I’ve read so far. It’s a fast read that provides several unexpected twists for what you think is going to be a classic revenge story. Instead, you’re left with uneasy questions and no reassuring conclusions. Overall, both books read as allegorical commentaries on the violent culture of Latin America, and I’m probably going to have to think about their themes and ideas in a lot more detail over the coming weeks…
That’s good for now… just for fun, here are some photos of Epic Edinburgh Marathon Weekend (!) that I’ve stolen from other amigos’ social media accounts, since Lord knows where my camera cord is. Continue reading