Category Archives: travel

Goodbye May

Personalia (Mary Ruefle)

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

The Kookaburras (Mary Oliver)

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

Poem for Right Now (Catherine Pierce)

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

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

Anne Tyler, Earthly Possessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under music, photos, poetry, quotes, travel

Homo sapiens in Northumberland

I spent the bank holiday weekend in Northumberland visiting the coast–very Game of Thrones scenery. Please enjoy the photographs below. 

I still haven’t finished Sapiens but have highlighted copious notes, especially in the first section (“The Cognitive Revolution”), which I have also provided below.

It’s definitely the kind of book that’s both interesting and depressing. Interesting in the sense that it really helps to open the mind up and see the BIG picture of things, like the feeling you get while camping and looking up at the stars late at night. And depressing in the sense that it occasionally sounds like passages that would be spoken vehemently and written into manifestos by the apocalypse-obsessed main character of “S-Town” (a truly excellent podcast; I have one episode left and don’t want end it to end). God.

I guess I had a similar emotional reaction watching the film Homo Sapiens (what similar sounding titles – I even saw a man holding the book Sapiens in the theatre. He kept muttering angrily throughout – did he think the film was based on the book? How disappointed he must have been!).

Sapiens quotes – Part One: The Cognitive Revolution

Chapter 1

The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish. (so “Ishmael“!) 

Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. 

Chapter 2

The truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language… But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting… But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.

Ever since to Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees, and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations, and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. 

Chapter 3

Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all the result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, aeroplanes, telephones and computers. This environment gives us more material resources and longer lives than those enjoyed by any previous generation, but it often makes us feel alienated, depressed and pressured.

The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.

Chapter 4

The ecological record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.

Part Two: The Agricultural Revolution

Chapter 5

[Wheat, rice, and potatoes] domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa. (Very Michael Pollan-esque here)

This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: to keep more people alive under worse conditions. (Yeah, he gets pretty doom and gloomy at times!!)

Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email… Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.

Chapter 6

History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.

People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism. Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life.’ Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible… Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism (very “The Beach” here, as in the Alex Garland novel… I still like to travel though lol!)

I’ll share more later, maybe…

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Filed under non-fiction, photos, quotes, travel, update

September news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other news:

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

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return to spain

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:)

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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.

Oath to my former life (Bob Hicok)
It used to be enough to be bigger
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.

 

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Medellín Fiesta del Libro / Book Festival

Thanks to a grant from my beloved host graduate school institution I got to spend the past three weeks in COLOMBIA, tierra de mi alma y corazón. I fly back tomorrow via Madrid... at least I won't have a 12-hour layover this time (!). I still have 40% of

Thanks to a grant from my beloved host graduate school institution I’ve had the opportunity to spend the past three weeks in COLOMBIA, tierra de mi alma y corazón, specifically in Medellín.

Fortunately some things in Colombia never change, like the Tintin sundae at Crepes and Waffles (beloved restaurant chain of many childhood birthday celebrations).

Fortunately some things in Colombia never change, like the Tintín sundae at Crepes and Waffles (beloved restaurant chain of many childhood birthday celebrations).

These Mr. Bean advertisements were definitely new for me though. AY QUE RICO indeed.

These Mr. Bean advertisements were definitely new for me though. AY QUE RICO indeed.

Besides eating ice cream and drinking Mr. Bean-endorsed tintos, my main purpose in Medellín was the following: to be present at a talk with Mexican writer Jorge F. Hernández about borders and short stories.

Besides eating ice cream and drinking Mr. Bean-endorsed tintos, my main purpose in Medellín was the following: to give a talk alongside Mexican writer Jorge F. Hernández about borders and short stories, for the Medellín Fiesta del Libro y Cultural (Book & Culture Festival).

This was an amazing event and I highly recommend for anybody to attend should they ever be in Medellín in September. There were talks by Colombian authors Evelio Rosero, Hector Abad and Pablo Montoya (among others), as well as Anne Mcclean (whose translations of Rosero I've enjoyed very much).

This was an amazing, extremely well-organized event. If you are ever in Medellín in September I highly recommend that you atttend. There were talks by authors like Evelio Rosero, Hector Abad and Pablo Montoya (among many, many others), as well as Anne Mclean (whose translations of Rosero I’ve enjoyed very much).

Best of all there were book stands set up EVERYWHERE. Comics books, used books, art books, Random House books, Penguin books, independent publisher books... this vampire-priest one in particular caught my eye ;)

Best of all there were book stands set up EVERYWHERE. Comics books, used books, art books, Random House books, Penguin books, independent publisher books… this vampire-priest one in particular caught my eye ;)

There was also great artwork and poster displays set up, which my terrible photography skills have completely failed to properly capture. Cortázar! Cervantes! García Márquez! All of the great ones and more! My sister got me a Franz Kafka mug which is basically, like, the best present for me that anybody could ever possibly get. I got a Borges bookmark for myself.

There were also tons of great artwork and poster displays set up, which my terrible photography skills have completely failed to properly capture. Cortázar! Cervantes! García Márquez! My sister got me a Franz Kafka mug which is basically, like, the best present for me that anybody could ever possibly get. I also treated myself to a Borges bookmark.

These displays were particularly striking: selected passages from Colombian novels, illustrated by artists in a glass display case. This one is of Evelio Rosero's Los Ejércitos (

These displays were particularly striking: selected passages from Colombian novels, illustrated by artists in a glass display case. This one is of Evelio Rosero’s Los Ejércitos (“The Armies,” a book that truly deserves its own post on this blog someday soon).

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I was also very moved by these displays, scenes of Colombian citizens confronting the legacy of the armed conflict. I believe these photographs were affiliated with Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum of exhibits dealing with the civil war.

The talk itself went very well IMHO... :) As a Virgo on the introvert-extrovert spectrum I am not and never will be a huge fan of talking in front of large groups of people, but fortunately the atmosphere was very informal, which I very much appreciated. It was especially great to meet Jorge F. Hernández and the talk convener, Octavio Escobar. Really, really cool guys. Jorge especially had the audience in stitches :D Google 'em!

The talk itself went very well IMHO… :) As a Virgo on the introvert-extrovert spectrum I am not and never will be a huge fan of talking in front of large groups of people, but fortunately the atmosphere was very informal, which I very much appreciated. It was especially great to meet Jorge F. Hernández and the talk convener, Octavio Escobar. Really, really cool guys. Jorge especially had the audience in stitches :D Google ’em!

And now it's back to England tomorrow. Why does time go by so fast? Why does it go by so slow?

And now it’s back to England tomorrow, sadly without this copy of La broma infinita… I fly via Madrid… but at least I won’t have a 12-hour layover there this time, a truly godforsaken experience that I do not recommend. I also still have 40% of My Struggle: Volume 1 to finish on my kindle, and have just purchased A Little Life as backup, just in case.

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Filed under colombia, photos, travel, update

Moar Boooks

taipei

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

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Camina conmigo

I went hiking for two weeks in Spain! Specifically the coastal route (camino de la costa) of the Camino Santiago (St. James’ way) in Northern Spain. It was amazing and also one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done. I walked around 250 km in 10 days. I barely read or wrote the whole time (apart from journal entries and whatever I could find available in the albergues/hostels). It was great. In the hostels, I read Virginia Woolf’s debut novel The Voyage Out, Murakami’s short story collection After the Quake, and The Kite Runner. Today (back in Norwich) I read Balancing Heaven and Earth, a memoir by the Jungian scholar, Robert A. Johnson. Here are some quotes and some travel photos:

For the methods by which she had reached her present position, seemed to her very strange, and the strangest thing about them was that she had knot known where they were leading her. That was the strange thing, that one did not know where one was going, or what one wanted, and followed blindly, suffering so much in secret, always unprepared and amazed and knowing nothing; but one thing led to another and by degrees something had formed itself out of nothing, and so one reached at last this calm, this quiet, this certainty, and it was this process that people called living. (Woolf) (pg. 306)

I now believe that loneliness occurs when our lives are somehow missing one-half of a pair of opposites–being or doing. We can be very busy and surrounded by people yet still feel intense loneliness because our lives are dominated by ‘doing’; there is insufficient time for attentive solitude with our thoughts and feelings. I know many people in this situation, surrounded by others and yet suffering from intense loneliness. We often try to address this problem with still more doing, such as calling up a friend, going out on the town–anything to get rid of that painful feeling of separateness–but all to no avail. This is the loneliness of a life filled with doing, and I have found that most intelligent people in the West today have far too much doing with little or no time for being. When your life is filled with too much doing, the only cure for loneliness is a strong dose of solitude. (Johnson) (pg. 46-47)

Instead of asking what is good or what coincides with our personal interest, ask what is whole-making; what is needed for wholeness in any situation… This requires realigning yourself each day, each hour and each moment. (101)

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Dharma Bums

This was a really nice book to read while traveling nonstop for a month through California and Oregon (my big farewell to the West–oops I mean LEFT–coast). I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this book so much if I hadn’t been on the move so much myself, but there it goes. I was surprised by how much this book both reminded me of The Savage Detectives, especially in passages like this one:

“Then I suddenly had the most tremendous feeling of the pitifulness of human beings, whatever they were, their faces, pained mouths, personalities, attempts to be gay, little petulances, feelings of loss, their dull and empty witticisms so soon forgotten: Ah, for what? I know that the sound of silence was everywhere and therefore everything was silence. Suppose we suddenly wake up and see that what we thought to be this and that, ain’t this and that at all? I staggered up the hill, greeted by birds, and looked at all the huddled sleeping figures on the floor. Who were all these strange ghosts rooted to the silly little adventure of the earth with me? And who was I?”

Overall this book made me feel happy and excited and appreciative of my wandering, rambling youth. It’s kind of like a Buddhist “On the Road.” It was also fun to read a book in which Gary Snyder (most famous alumni of my alma mater!!) is one of the main characters. The best parts of this book made me feel like a happy smiling Buddha sitting on the edge of a hiking trail, surveying the sunrise as I think back pleasantly about my weekend getting crunk in San Francisco.

My one complaint about this book is the treatment of the female character, Rosie, who ends up killing herself (sorry for the spoiler, but whatever). The narrator’s reaction to this seemed a bit cold to me and it kind of irked me–I guess he was just a typical macho male not able to deal with his feelings? Whatever, I think Kerouac is famous for not being super great at writing female characters anyway–I guess he just couldn’t cope with the Feminine Mystique. One of these days I’d like to write a book or story in which FEMALE characters do Kerouc and Cassady and Ginsberg and Into the Wild-type things. Why should the boys have all the fun, right?

In the spirit of travel and adventure, here are some select photos of my own epic Summer of Fun, taking me from Berkeley & the Bay Area, to Morro Bay and Sebastapol, to Ashland and Bend and beyond.

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Ema la Cautiva: Boredom and Indifference

How do you make literature out of boredom and monotony?

That was the question I found myself asking, over and over again, while reading Cesar Aira’s Ema la Cautiva (“Emma, the Captive”–there’s something about the English translation of the title that doesn’t feel quite right). Not because the book itself was boring (it’s hard to be bored when you never have any idea where the hell it’s going), but because it seemed to be about boredom more than anything else. I still have about 20 pages left to go, but I doubt that anything too earth-shattering is going to happen, which feels like a strange thing to say about a book in which a girl is kidnapped by Indians in the Argentinean pampas, after having been taken out there to live in a penal colony.

Apparently this was one of the earliest books that Aira wrote, back in 1981, and it definitely feels like a work that was produced early on in a writer’s development. At 200 pages, it’s much longer than 70-something page How I Became a Nun and The Literary Conference, and the surreal, dreamlike humor of the latter two is also distinctly missing. I definitely missed their crazy, crackling energy here; Ema reads much more like a turgid, slurpy opium-induced hallucination.

So what happens in this book? There’s a lot of marches across harsh Argentinean landscapes. Characters drift in and out (I especially liked the Indian guy named Bob, for obvious reasons). There’s a lot of smoking and playing of dice, by both Argentineans and Indians. There’s the occasional philosophical discussion about time, history and money. I liked how the Indians were depicted as bored as modern suburban families, retreating to their bougie lakeside getaways; it was definitely a fresh twist.

Is this book a parody of nineteenth-century adventure novels? What to make of the paper coins that a character starts printing in an attempt to stave off boredom? Or Ema’s transformation into a prosperous zookeeper of birds?

I don’t know what to make of this book. On the back there’s a quote by Aira in which he summarizes the book’s themes, addressing the reader as  “Ameno lector ” in the best Jane Eyre fashion. He explains how he came up with the idea for the novel: paraphrased, when he was very poor and working as a translator of Gothic English novels in which English women traveled over oceans to California to drink tea, he came up with the idea of writing una ‘gótica’ simplificada, a simplified Gothic novel. Y al terminar, he writes, resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo, había creado una pasión nueva, por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas: la indiferencia. ¿Qué pedir? ( “And in the end it turned out that Ema, my little self, had created a new passion, which can replace all the others in the same way that money is exchanged for all: indifference. What else could you want?”)

Is this Ema’s “passion” in the story? Indifference? There certainly are a lot of moments of her raising and lowering her shoulders in response to another character’s statement or question. It’s intriguing that he calls Ema “mi pequeña yo mismo,” “my little myself,” which reminds me of Flaubert’s similar obtuse statement of Madame Bovary, c’est moi. (I just realized that Madame Bovary is also called Emma. Hmm…) Is Ema meant to represent the closest figure resembling an artist in this story, in her attempt to collect and display pheasants, for no discernable reason other than that they’re beautiful? I don’t know how to interpret Aira’s claim beyond that.

Ema's faisanes. Good to know that they're a type of animal that actually exists.

So what am I left with in the end? Well… there’s a lot of descriptions of animals and nature, zoology and geography.  I had to keep looking up the names of the animals online in Spanish-English dictionaries; I’m still not sure if the ones I couldn’t find actually exist or not.The landscapes gradually grow more and more bizarre, with Ema moving from the pampas to the small fort to the Indian settlement to an Edenic lakeside until she eventually ends up in this insane land of ice and snow.

It’s hard for me to recommend this book, namely because it was so hard for me to read, but I definitely feel like there’s quite a bit to unpack here. I probably shouldn’t have read it when I was jetlagged and sick with the flu; I think I’m going to have to give it another chance another time. Ultimately, this book will remain lumped together in my mind with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the movie The New World, in the sense that it’s in the same genre of Young Girl trying to make sense of the new universe she finds herself in.

Speaking of The New World, the opening and closing Wagner song from “The Ring” is one I’ve been trying to play to myself a lot in my head lately, particularly when I feel that all is bleak and lost. There’s just something about the scenes of “Rebecca” frolicking in the English countryside that fills me with hope, like maybe it’s still possible to still see the world as a beautiful place.

I don’t know. I need to start (re)cultivating that ability to marvel at the world, instead of feeling like I’m bogged in and drowing in the same-old, same-old of day in and day out of dreary sameness (or sama-sama, as they say in Bahasa in Indonesia). I don’t know how much of this feeling of mine has to do with the fact that it’s winter, and that it’s grey and cold and snowy and icy day in and day out here in England, and it’s dark every day at 4.30pm. And yet I’m not excited at ALL about heading back to Portland on Sunday, since I feel like what’s waiting for me is more of the same wetness and rain and cold and darkness until freaking March.

So… I don’t want my life to be a like a novel that’s about boredom and indifference. So to end on a more positive note, I did go to Norwich on Monday in order to meet with my old creative writing professor, who gave me some nifty points of advice, including the following (because I just love advice):
– Let self-cricicism guide you.. it is important to cultivate that ability to be critical about your work.
– Write about what you know… what is most interesting to you?
– Read Elif Batuman’s critique of US Creative Writing programs in the London Review of books.
– Don’t worry about anything. Read a lot. Read critcism as well. Read the best critics.
– What is staying with you the most? What is your material?
– Read V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street.

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Ringing in the new

A New Orleans antique bookshelf

Happy 2010 everyone!! Right now I’m at home in Portland, snuggled in my sister’s bed listening to the sounds of The Two Towers drift in from the living room. I’m trying to remember/figure out how to use a Mac again, after months with my clunky Toshiba, whose battery no longer charges and instead just dies immediately seconds after I unplug it. I guess it’s keeping in theme with in with the new, out with the–whatever.

It feels like I’ve been pretty much on the move since coming back from Mexico. I just got back from visiting Corey’s family in New Orleans. The good news is I now have a two-week space to breath and have a little space here in Portland before embarking upon the next step of the next journey, which is sure to be here before I know it. More on that later, for shure.

But I finished Wings of the Dove (finally, finally, finally!) on the airplane flying back from Denver today. I have The Ambassadors from my mom, an excellent translation of War & Peace from my sister and a book on organic gardening from the 1970’s from my boyfriend. I have a long list of books I plan to read at the coffee shop in Powell’s during my “time off”. Books about environmentalism and radicalism and gardening and nature and all of the things that I missed about PDX that those movie critics of Avatar probably would see as more left-wing propaganda. There’s also all the books belonging to my sister and mother and dad, lying around on the floor and bedside tables and scattered across the house, like random clues to a secret treasure hunt: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, A Lexicon of Terror, Salvador, all of my dad’s old-looking books about Tibet. A small part of me actually feels a bit frantic and anxious, like: where am I going to find the time?! Oh, it’s so hard to balance reading and doing (though I guess you could argue that reading is a form of doing, or acting).

Anyway, in order to ring in the new year on an “adventure awaits!” note (and also because I think that the note that you begin with will reflect the note that you end with–well, ideally, anyway), here are some photos of my most recent excursion:

These old-looking photos are of some items from the private collection of Corey’s childhood neighbor, who collects Civil War-era antiques as a hobby. This one is a Confederate soldier belt buckle, with a bullet still in it. Do you think this could have saved somebody’s life?
I don’t think “japs” or “nips” could be used in screamingly bold text in today’s headlines

$100 Confederate state bill–it was the size of a graduate diploma!
King Cake– besides being quite tasty, whoever finds the baby has to throw the next party

Lake Pontchartrain–the 20-minute barrier between Corey’s parents’ house and New Orleans
At the NOLA zoo bathroom, apparently the 2nd-biggest in the U.S. after San Diego’s (the zoo, not the bathroom)

Baby orangutan! It had been rejected by its mother… kind of sad…
two (or is it three?) monkeys
“pongid” was one of Corey’s earliest nicknames for me
At the Louisiana-themed exhibit

the Loup Garou, or Cajun werewolf. Pretty interesting.

This amazing spider monkey was trained by zookeepers to stand (using its tail as balance) and catch grapes… or maybe it was really the monkeys who had trained the humans…
His little friends standing eagerly below.
We rang in 2010 in style in downtown New Orleans

farmers market!!
Biking along the Trace, a bike trail behind Corey’s mom’s house that runs for miles, kind of like the Springwater Corridor in Portland

Gotta love the Cajun hairstyle
We also visited a nature reserve with Corey’s mother, where we saw a ton of wildlife (mostly birds like woodpeckers and thrushes) and plenty o’ plants.
100% genuine swamp

This little tree growing out of a nursing log felt like a powerful metaphor for something
We even found some mushrooms, like these honey mushrooms!
The stinkhorn mushroom smells just like how it sounds, like catfood
A lot of trees that had been felled by Katrina were still on the ground, like this giant magnolia. I never knew they could get so big!

Woodpecker holes

And that, my friends, is New Orleans…

 

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