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April Books

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

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

Motherhood (Sheila Heti)

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

The Leopard (Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa)

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

The Shape of the Ruins (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

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

The Border (Don Winslow)

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

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

The Living (Anjali Joseph)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

McGlue (Ottessa Moshfegh)

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

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

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

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

Or this:

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

The Godfather (Mario Puzo)

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

Therapy (David Lodge) [reread]

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

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

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Books of 2018

These are the books I read in 2018. I put an asterisk (*) next to the ones I loved a lot. I read 77 books.

DECEMBER
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (JK Rowling) [reread]
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (JK Rowling) [reread]
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (JK Rowling) [reread]
Gone to the Forest (Katie Kitamura)
*A Separation (Katie Kitamura)
Lullaby (Leïla Slimani)
The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai)
The Chronicles of Prydain #1-#5 (Lloyd Alexander)
Call Me By Your Name (André Aciman)
The Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann)

NOVEMBER
Ponti (Sharlene Teo)
The Secret History
 (Donna Tartt)
Standard Deviation (Katherine Heiny)
*Resistance (Julián Fuks)

OCTOBER
The Sword of the Sprits Trilogy (John Christopher) [reread from childhood]
Winter (Ali Smith)
*Clock Dance (Anne Tyler)
Ghost Wall (Sarah Moss)
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
Die, My Love (Ariana Harwicz)
*Sight (Jessie Greengrass)
*The Devil’s Highway (Gregory Norminton)

SEPTEMBER
The Iliac Crest (Cristina Rivera Garza)
Snakes and Earrings (Hitomi Kanehara)
Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday)
Devotion (Patti Smith)
The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett) [reread; childhood fav]
The Essex Serpent (Sarah Perry)

AUGUST
Lost Empress (Sergio de la Pava)
Normal People (Sally Rooney)
You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote)
Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney)
***Watership Down (Richard Adams) [reread]

JULY
*My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh)
Convenience Store Women (Sayaka Murata)
Norse Mythology (Neil Gaiman) [audiobook]
A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness)
*All Grown Up (Jami Attenberg)
Being Dead (Jim Crace)
Born to Die in Medellín (Alonso Salazar)
The Dog Stars (Peter Heller)

JUNE
Missing (Alison Moore)
As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) [reread]
Madame Zero (Sarah Hall)
Fruit of the Drunken Tree (Ingrid Rojas Contreras)
The Crow Road (Iain Banks)
The Water Cure (Sophie Mackintosh)
Dark Entries (Robert Aickman)
Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto)

MAY
*Our Dead World (Liliana Colanzi)
*The Idiot (Elif Batuman)
The End (Fernanda Torres)
The Naked Woman (Armonia Somers)
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling) [audiobook]
Kensington Gardens (Rodrigo Fresan)

APRIL
Reputations (Juan Gabriel Vasquez)
Kokoro (Natsume Soseki)
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Haruki Murakami)
***The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro) [reread]
The Stone Sky
(N.K. Jemisin)
The Obelisk Gate
(N.K. Jemisin)

MARCH
The Fifth Season (N.K. Jemisin)
Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (Haruki Murakami)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith) [reread]
Our Endless Numbered Days (Claire Fuller)

FEBRUARY
*Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enríquez)
Wishful Drinking (Carrie Fisher) [audiobook]
Devil’s Day (Andrew Michael Hurley)
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (Patricia Highsmith)
Such Small Hands (Andrés Barba)
Nutcase (Tony Williams)

JANUARY
Now and at the Hour of Our Death (Susana Moreira Marques)
Reservoir 13 (Jon McGregor)
Dying: A Memoir (Cory Taylor)
The Wonder Spot (Melissa Banks) [reread; one of my all-time faves)
The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) [reread]
*Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mendel)

To see books read from 2009-2018, click here.

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Early summer / late spring

Typing this out on my phone, painstakingly slowly, as it’s only just occurred to me I can use my phone to post. I killed my laptop of five years (2013-2018, RIP) when the feeble cap of the water bottle I bought in Buenos Aires came off and leaked all over my backpack. Everything was wet, except for my paperback copy of Rodrigo Fresán’s “Kensington Gardens” which I’d bought in the B.A. Feria de Libros. Talk about the magic of literature triumphing over technology! What’s even funnier is that my LAST laptop (2008-2013, RIP) died in the exact same way, at the exact same age, due to a puny water bottle in Philadelphia. Those were the days I still used that plastic cat tote bag I bought in Fred Meyer, even though it had melted in Indonesia and had never been the same since, and left black streaks on my clothes and arms whenever I used it. I wonder what happened to that tote bag – did I throw it away? I will get another laptop soon, in the U.S.

It’s sunny in England today and my friend L. is visiting from California. L. and I met in 2006, when I was studying abroad here for a semester. I last saw her in 2012, when I was road-tripping through California and she took me to see the giant redwoods. That was the summer before I moved to England to start my MA program. Now she’s here six years later, the weekend I’m set to pick up my PhD from the printers, so that I can hand it in on time for the June 1st deadline. “You’re like my little Life Transition angel!” I told her, and she laughed.

Not that a very big transition is happening for me, anyway. The last book I read was Enif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” which I absolutely loved, and was pretty much the perfect book for me. How could I not like a book about an 18-year-old wannabe writer, a Bildungsroman in which nothing is leaned? 18- now that’s a year for transitions! I kept texting my sister passages – she’s on a bus on the East Coast right now, on her way back to her college reunion. You can see one such blurry photo below. Aren’t my technology skills impressive?

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It’s been a busy week. I went to London twice and Sheffield once. In Sheffield I read an excerpt from my novel, published in the MA student-run anthology. In London, I went to a reading of this book:

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It was a fascinating event and I enjoyed it very much. I got to meet one of my favorite short story writers, the Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi, and one of my favorite translators, Sophie Hughes. Even though I ended up spending twelve hours on trains in two days it was worth it; it’s not often I’ve seen events like this publicised in England. I particularly loved the panel’s discussion of how to write about violence – violence that’s everywhere, like vapor. I furiously scribbled down notes in my battered
notebook.

I have a backlog of posts saved in the “drafts” folder that I’ll try to get around to posting in the next few days. Books on my kindle I need to finish: Puig’s “Kiss of the Spiderwoman,” and a nonfiction book about Colombian human rights workers. I have so many books with just twenty pages unread that I need to finish! Library books checked out: 3. Library fines: Significant. Book I might read next: Iain Banks’ “The Crow Road.”

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Two writing updates

  1. I have a new short story that aired on BBC Radio 4 – you can give it a listen here.
  2. I wrote a personal essay about exotic animal pets in Colombia that aired on BBC World Service’s Cultural Frontline program – you can listen to it here.

    (I REALLY WISH they would correct the spelling of “Columbian,” but what can ya do. My sister says she finds typos in the NYTimes all the time.)

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Happy UK Publication Day!

Happy UK Publication day to “The Lucky Ones“!

🇨🇴🍃🐰💉🎂

Everything in the world feels awful and like it’s going up in flames, but fuck it, I’m proud I wrote a book that is pro-welcoming of EVERYBODY, of all backgrounds and circumstances. I like how one of the final sentences is the following:

“If a party was held tomorrow, everybody would be invited, nobody made to wait on the other side of a locked door.”

Fuck locked doors! Come one come all–that’s my motto (and I think it becomes the book’s too). Here’s to rebelling against fascism, hate, fear, and ignorance. My god what a time to be alive. Time to get to work.

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Armadillo Man

I’m very excited to have “Armadillo Man,” a short story from The Lucky Ones, up at Granta! Check it out.

screenshot-granta-com-2017-01-24-17-02-56

(And check out that photo… as my sister said, “Armadillos are hairy?!” Apparently so…

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The Secret History of Costaguana

The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

Colombia is a play in five acts that someone tried to write in classical verse but that came out composed of the most vulgar prose, performed by actors with exaggerated gestures and terrible diction.

It took me three attempts to read this book in full but I’m so glad I did. It’s definitely very rewarding. A knowledge of Joseph Conrad and of Panama-Colombia history would be useful, though that being said it was fun to read this and have no idea what was true and what wasn’t (I definitely want to know if the anal abscess story is true!).

What can a famous novelist have in common with a poor, anonymous, exiled Colombian?” With this opening question, the book is propelled forward, and as readers we remain curious throughout as to how the narrator, Colombian exile José Altamirano, ends up encountering and sharing his lifestory with the rising writer Joseph Conrad, who goes on to use Altamirano’s story as the basis for his novel “Nostromo.”

In telling us about how he came to meet Conrad, Altamirano also ends up telling us about his journey to Panama at age 21 to meet his estranged father, who is working as a reporter. The tale is digressive, as Altamirano informs us at varying points about how his mother and father met via Simón Bolívar and Manuelita Saenz’s love affair (I loved the throwaway comment about Saenz meeting Herman Melville; can this possibly be true?? Probably not, but that’s what makes fiction so delicious), and how his father came to be excommunicated and exiled thanks to a mummified Chinese railway worker’s hand. This digressive style is one of the book’s real pleasures, and encompasses one of its main themes: that of everyday life versus History, or as Altamirano puts it, how “the small incident had been obliterated by the Big Event.” As Altamirano tells us the story of his family, he is also telling us the story of the Thousand Days’ War in Colombia, of Liberal-Conservative fighting (The regular massacre of compatriots is our version of the changing of the guard: it’s done every so often, generally following the same criteria as children at play (‘It’s my turn to govern,’ ‘No, it’s my turn’), and of how the U.S. came to secure both Panama’s independence and a hundred-year lease on the canal zone (I remember feeling embarrassed when learning about this in middle school, and likely had to resort to apologetically insisting to my classmates that “I’m half-British, not all gringo, don’t resent me, please!!”)

There are traces of The Informants and The Sound of Things Falling here with the father-son theme, as Altamirano’s father becomes famous for publishing enthusiastic journalism about the Panama Canal, journalism that is far more fiction than factual (it’s hard not to see echoes of contemporary events here). It’s interesting to contrast the father’s writing about reality vs. Conrad’s fiction: which is a more “true” version of Colombian history? Or as Altamirano puts it at one point, “There are good readers and bad readers of reality; there are men able to hear the secret murmur of events better than others.”

Other echoes with Vásquez’s novels include the impossibility of keeping your loved ones safe (Yes, yes, yes, we’re safe, no one can touch us, we have stationed ourselves outside of history and we are invulnerable in our apolitical house) and the form and style of rhetoric. On this latter point, Anne McClean’s translation (as is per usual for her) deserves heightened praise, for translating the book into such a readable and engaging style.

Part of what made this book a bit hard for me was all the names, but at a certain point I was just like “well, I’m just going to keep reading and not be too fussed if I don’t know who everyone is,” and that ended up working really well for me. Overall, what I admired most about this book is the angle it took towards writing historical fiction, with its focus on juxtaposing, interconnected stories that underly the bigger ones:

Stories in the world, all the stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exists on their own… Here is a humble revelation, the lesson I’ve learned through brushing up against world events: silence is invention, lies are constructed by what’s not said, and, since my intention is to tell faithfully, my cannibalistic tale must include everything, as many stories as can fit in the mouth, big ones and little ones.

A big theme throughout is the story of individuals versus that of Big Historical Events, and what gets forgotten as opposed to remembered. One of my favorite sections that best exemplified this was one that focused on a single rifle and who used it. Although the novel comments early on (and very knowingly so) about the mechanisms of magical realism (this is not one of those books where the dead speak, or where beautiful women ascend to the sky), the rifle section stands out not only for its examination of how do objects “speak” to us, and its haunting question of “what do rifles know of us?”, it is also serves as a sad eulogy (among many) about the constant presence of violence in Colombian history. “It is 9.30 when its shot perforates the right lung of Miguel Carvajal Cotes, chicha producer; it is 9.54 when it blows apart the neck of Mateo Luis Noguera, a young journalist from Popayán who would have written great novels had he lived longer.” At another point, Altamirano says “The things we don’t see tend to be the ones that affect us most,” and it’s passages like the rifle one–where the book tried to show us who and what often gets lost/ignored/”disappeared” from history–that affected and impressed me the most.

All in all, major respect for this book. Another fine addition to the author’s canon, and highly recommended for all lovers of historical fiction (especially Borgesian-style). There is much food for thought in here.

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A few poems

Good Bones

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Maggie Smith

***********************************************************

Station Island – XII (excerpt)

and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike  your note.’

Seamus Heany

***********************************************************

And It Came To Pass

This june 3
would be different

Time to draw lines

I’ve grown into the family pores
and the bronchitis

Even up east
I get by saying goddamnit

Who was that masked man
I left for dead
in the shadow of mt. shadow

Who crumbles there

Not touching anything
but satin and dandelions

Not laid his eyes
on the likes of you

Because the unconnected life
is not worth living

Thorntrees overtake the spot

Hands appear to push back pain

Because no poet’s death

Can be the sole author
of another poet’s life

What will my new instrument be

Just this water glass
this untunable spoon

Something else is out there
goddamnit

And I want to hear it

C.D. Wright

***********************************************************

Isn’t there something

Isn’t there something in me
like the dogs I’ve heard at home
who bark all night from hunger? Something
in me like trains leaving,

isn’t there something in me
like a gun? I wanted to be
loud squirrels, around the trees’ feet,
bees, coming back & back

to the wooden porch,
wanting something–and wooden planks,
wanting something. To go back into
a tree?

Jean Valentine

***********************************************************

Are all the things

Are all the things that never happened, OK?
–The wide river at dawn, the hippo’s lifted face
–The slow, violet curtains of Antarctica light
(Hide you under the shadow of their wings)

And all the things that came–
The awful, and then love on earth, OK?
my own friend?          where you are?

Jean Valentine

***********************************************************

Lo Fatal

Dichoso el árbol, que es apenas sensitivo,
y más la piedra dura porque ésa ya no siente,
pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo
ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.
Ser, y no saber nada, y ser sin rumbo cierto,
y el temor de haber sido y un futuro terror…
¡Y el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto,
y sufrir por la vida y por la sombra y porlo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,
y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos,
y la tumba que aguarda con sus fúnebres ramos
y no saber adónde vamos,
ni de dónde venimos!…

Ruben Dario

***********************************************************
My Life Was the Size of My Life

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
It rode elevators, bullet trains,
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.
It ate, it slept, it opened
and closed its hands, its windows.
Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.
There were times my life and I made jokes together.
There were times we made bread.
Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off our clothes on
our tongues from

Jane Hirshfield

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Still Writing

What a lovely, inspirational book! I really appreciated its honesty, and its gentle, helpful tone. The way it’s divided in readable, short segments. The non-sentimental way it blends memoir with advice. Its direct confrontation of relevant 21st-century struggles (the internet! Self-hatred! Monday mornings! Self-scheduling! How to make routines, form habits!). It’s definitely something I’m going to pass from hand to hand among my graduate school cohorts. I love writing-themed non-fiction, I love self-help written in incredibly kind, compassionate voices, and this book combines the best of both worlds.

Here are some of my favorite passages:

Here’s a short list of what not to do when you sit down to write. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go to the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination. Do you need to know, right this minute, the exact make and year of the car your character is driving? … Can it wait? It can almost always wait. 

Sit down. Stay there. It’s hard–I know just how hard–and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn’t get any easier. Ever. Get used to the discomfort. Make some kind of peace with it. (10-11)

What I do know–what I’ve spent the past couple of decades learning about myself–is that if I’m not writing, I’m not well. If I’m not writing, the world around me is slowly leached of its color. My senses are dulled. I am crabby with my husband, short-tempered with my kid, and more inclined to see small things wrong with my house… If I’m not writing, my heart hardens, rather than lifts. (13-14)

We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. What we’re doing isn’t easy. We have chosen to spend the better parts of our lives in solitude, wrestling with our deepest thoughts and obsessions and concerns… And so, when the day turns against us, we might do well to follow the advice of the Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein, who talks to herself as if she’s a child she loves very much. Sweetheart, she’ll say. Darling. Honey. That’s all right. There, there. Go take a walk. Take a bath. Take a drive. Bake a cake. Nap a little. You’ll try again tomorrow. (81)

This may be the most important piece of advice I can give you: The Internet is nothing like a cigarette break. If anything, it’s the opposite. One of the most difficult practical challenges facing writers in this age of connectivity is the fact that the very instrument on which most of us write is also a portal to the outside world. I once heard Ron Carlson say that composing on a computer was like writing in an amusement park. Stuck for a nanosecond? Why feel it? With the single click of a key we can remove ourselves and take a ride on a log flume instead. (159)

The agony! The nagging sense of what might have been! There is always someone who, at this very moment, has more. More acclaim, more money, more access, more respect… I see this even when I watch my son with his middle school friends. There are girls in full bloom–girls who are the envy of their classmates, girls who are at this moment as pretty and popular as they will ever be. Boys who’ve had growth spurts and are practically shaving, who are envied by the smaller boys and wonder when–and if–they will ever grow. Observing them, from the sidelines of ball games and dances, I want to jump up and shout: This isn’t it! You think this is it, but it isn’t! your whole lives are ahead of you with ten thousand joys and sorrows. Of course I say nothing. My son would kill me. But I think about this–about myself and every adult, writer or not, who makes the all-too-human mistake of comparing one life to another. (216-217)

When I first learned of Buddhism’s eight vissictudes–pain and pleasure, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute–I was taught that it is unskillful–that gentle Buddhist word for fucked up–to compare. We will never know what’s coming. We cannot peer around the bend. It is our job to pursue our own dharma and covet no one else’s. (217)

I also liked this list by the poet Jane Kenyon that she quotes at one point (207-208):

Be a good steward to your gifts.

Protect your time.

Feed your inner life.

Avoid too much noise.

Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.

Be by yourself as often as you can.

Walk.

Take the phone off the hook.

Work regular hours.

Disable the Internet [Shapiro’s addition]

I also liked her quotes from the Gnostic Gospels (If we bring forth what is within us, it will save us. If we do not bring forth what is within us, it will destroy us) and the Bhagavad Gita (Better is one’s own dharma through imperfectly carried out than the dharma of another carried out perfectly). (201)

Oh, and this oft-quoted quote by Martha Graham also makes a lovely appearance (118):

It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even need to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others. 

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Choice Quotes from Kafka’s Journals

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“Great antipathy to ‘Metamorphosis.’ Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow. It would have turned out much better if I had not been interrupted at the time by the business trip.” (January 19th, 1914)

“What an effort to keep alive! Erecting a monument does not require the expenditure of so much strength!” (March 9th, 1914)

“What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me.” (August 6th, 1914)

“The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first. There seems no hope that this newborn thing, still incomplete and tender in every joint, will be able to keep alive in the completed organization of the world… However, one should not forget that the story, if it has any justification to exist, bears its complete organization within itself even before it has been fully formed; for this reason despair over the beginning of a story is unwarranted; in a like case parents should have to despair of their suckling infant, for they had no intention of bringing this pathetic and ridiculous being into the world. Of course, one never knows whether the despair one feels is warranted or unwarranted. But reflecting on it can give one a certain support; in the past I have suffered from the lack of this knowledge.” (December 19th, 1914)

“Just now read the beginning. It is ugly and gives me a headache. In spite of all its truth it is wicked, pedantic, mechanical, a fish barely breathing on a sandbank.” (February 9th, 1915)

“Insoluble problem: Am I broken? Am I in decline? Almost all the signs speak for it (coldness, apathy, state of my nerves, distractedness, incompetence on the job, headaches, insomnia); almost nothing but hope speaks against it.” (October 7th, 1915)

“You have the chance, as far as it is at all possible, to make a new beginning. Don’t throw it away. If you insist on digging deep into yourself, you won’t be able to avoid the muck that will well up. But don’t wallow in it. If the infection in your lungs is only a symbol,… then the medical advice (light, air, sun, rest) is also a symbol. Lay hold of this symbol.” (September 15th, 1917 – the first entry he made after the medical confirmation of his tuberculosis)

“The strange, mysterious, perhaps dangerous, perhaps saving comfort that there is in writing: it is a leap out of murders’ row; it is a seeing of what is really taking place.” (January 27th, 1922)

“More and more fearful as I write. It is understandable… The only consolation would be: it happens whether you like or no. And what you like is of infinitesimally little help. More than consolation is: You too have weapons.” (June 12th, 1923 – final entry)

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