Category Archives: update
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…
Many things are happening very quickly. HERE IS THE FINAL UK COVER of “THE LUCKY ONES”. The talented people at Faber were able to turn it into a gif–how, I don’t know. I don’t know how to post it as a gif here, but I think if you click on this link, you will be able to see it. Anyway, I love it. Via this link you can also read “Lucky,” the story that opens the collection.
Thanks to the kind assistance of generous people, I also now have a professional website. Ideally I will be posting book related events and news in that space from now on, so that way I can save this blog strictly for the function it’s had since 2007, that of reviewing books that I’ve read.
But for now I have these two forthcoming events:
I’ll be reading at the Swimmers Christmas party in London this Thursday, which will be a fun way to visit London before I leave for the U.S.
And on February 23rd (so this is super early notice lol) I’ll be reading at UEA Live, which will also serve as my Norwich launch.
In terms of my personal reading, I have to read 12 books this month if I want to achieve my goal of 8o books read this year, which I don’t anticipate being a problem unless something unexpected happens, as I usually have lots of time to read during the Christmas holidays (the cruelly long bus and plane rides also help). I’m definitely looking forward to reading people’s Best of 2016 round-ups and writing my own… I already have a good idea of what books are going to end up there but time will tell…
I have been very busy with edits recently (both for the collection and the dissertation) and have thus sadly had less time to read for pleasure than I would like. Hopefully this will change soon. However, I did go to Cheltenham last week for the literature festival, as part of Faber’s proof party. This was my first festival-type reading in support of The Lucky Ones. I’d done a similar reading before, in support of my pamphlet The Tourists at the Daunt Books festival a few years ago, which was good preparation for an introvert like me. I was on a panel with Kate Hamer, author of The Girl in the Red Coat and the upcoming The Doll Funeral, who was so kind and full of advice about Everything. Her partner gave my traveling companion a business card for his mole-killing company–how cool is that? How does one get into mole-killing? #FutureGoals
I obviously have a lot of Thoughts and Feelings about having finished the book (to put it mildly), but I guess all there is to say is that I worked on it as hard as I could, it feels very personal to me, and I’m glad I’m working on the next one.
I look forward to posting more book reviews soon…! For now, here’s another poem by the great Mary Ruefle that I read recently:
Having been blown away
by a book
I am in the gutter
at the end of the street
in little pieces
like the alphabet
(mother do not worry
letters are not flesh
though there’s meaning in them
but not when they are mean
my letters to you were mean
I found them after you died
and read them and tore them up
and fed them to the wind
thank you for intruding
I love you now leave)
Also at the end of the street
there is a magnolia tree
the white kind
after it blooms
so the tree winds up
in the street
Our naked shivering bodies
must be at some distance
missing us come back
come back they cry
put down that book
whenever you read
you drift away on a raft
you like your parrot
more than you like me
and stuff like that
you always were a bore
but I loved you more
than interesting things
and in your honor
I’ve felt the same about myself
and everyone I’ve ever met)
I like to read in tree houses
whenever I can which is seldom
and sometimes never
The book that blew me away
held all the problems
of the world
and those of being alive
under my nose
but I felt far away from them
at the same time
reading is like that
(I am sorry I did not
go to your funeral
but like you said
on the phone
an insect cannot crawl
Here at the end of the street
the insects go on living
under the dome
of the pacific sky
If Mary and Joseph
had walked the sixty miles
to Bethlehem vertically
they would have found
in the outer pitch of space
it would have been cold
a long night
in the dark endless
and when they began to cry
the whole world would think
something had just been born
I like to read into things
as I am continually borne forward
in time by the winds like the snow
you were perfect in every way
like a baby
please tell brother
the only reason
we never spoke
was out of our great love
for each other
which made a big wind
that blew us apart)
I think I am coming back
I feel shoulders
where a parrot could land
though a tree would be
as good a place as any
You cannot teach a tree to talk
Trees can say it is spring
but not though bright sunlight
can also be very sad
have you noticed?
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 (!).
The wedding is over.
Summer is over.
Life please explain.
(from “I Don’t Have A Pill For That,” by Deborah Landau)
Summer isn’t over just yet though!! (But I still like that quote…) Even the English weather is (sort of? Sometimes?) supporting me on that front. However: library job is almost over, editing is almost over, 10k race is definitely over (so hot! such hills! Still happy with time, fortunately). A long-awaited viewing of Barry Lyndon is also sadly over (an excellent film, probably the only Kubrick film I’ve seen so far that I’ve enjoyed rather than endured).
Other summer moments:
An excerpt from my childhood Diary :) Some things never change, eh?
I also finished Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgård, which I enjoyed very much. Who doesn’t like childhood memories? Appropriately enough, Boyhood Island ends with a reminiscence of 13-year-olds fondling each other at a party–I suppose there’s no better way to declare childhood officially over with a good ole fashioned middle school orgy.
Knausgård continues to make me sick with suspense during the most mundane, every day moments. For instance, I was so agitated when he had to figure out how to crawl in and out of the house via a garden shed, because he didn’t want to confess to his father that he couldn’t get his house key to turn in the door. I HAVE THE SAME PROBLEM with almost every key, ever! Another tension-filled moment for me was when Karl was trying to find a spot in the woods to kiss a popular (i.e. big breasted) girl–I felt sick with embarrassment for him, when he suggested they try to break a record for the longest kiss (poor girl! Karl makes her hang on for 15+ minutes).
What else happens in this book? Girls (and burgeoning interest in them) is a big concern, obviously. His older brother introduces to punk and other 70’s/80’s era bands. He plays football (I love the part where he finds the missing ball in the bushes but refuses to take credit for it; it’s almost sublime). He is constantly teased for being girly, and harassed under his father’s reign of terror (which in this book is all the more poignant, especially the scenes with the father and grandmother, since after Book I we know what’s coming for them). There’s no sequence in here as memorable as the house cleaning in Book I, or the children’s birthday party in Book II, but all in all an excellent read. Onto Book 4!!
Two quotes I typed up:
“And that was how my childhood was: the distance between good and evil was so much shorter than it is now as an adult. All you had to do was stick your head out of the door and something absolutely fantastic happened. Just walking up to B-Max and waiting for the bus was an event, even though it had been repeated almost every day for many years. Why? I have no idea… Every day was a party, in the sense that everything that happened pulsated with excitement and nothing was predictable.” (264)
“Time never goes as fast as in your childhood; an hour is never as short as it was then. Everything is open, you run here, you run there, do one thing, then another, and suddenly the sun has gone down and you find yourself standing in the twilight with time like a barrier that has suddenly gone down in front of you. Oh, no, is it already nine o’clock?” (140)
While in the Avebury Henge neighborhood, I also read The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. Hallucinatory, strange, and gothically funny–she writes like a darker version of authors I loved as a child, like Phillipa Pearce or Judy Corbalis. I’d have given The Vet’s Daughter 5 stars on goodreads if it weren’t for the bit-of-a-bummer ending. I’ve read three of her books so far (Sisters By a River, which I still think is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths) and look forward to greedily gobbling them all. I love discovering new authors with extensive back catalogs.
Right now I’m reading White Tiger on Snow Mountain by David Gordon (who wrote The Serialist, another book I absolutely loved. He left a comment on this blog, which needless to say is a marked highlight in this blog’s puny little life). White Tiger is a short story collection, and so far it’s been making me laugh hysterically (cathartically, even). For instance, here is the opening passage of the first story (the Paris Review-published “Man-Boob Summer”–how about that title?)
I was spending some time at my parents’ place that summer. I was thirty-eight and out of ideas. I had finished my midlife crisis graduate degree a bit early, and after turning in my thesis, I promptly fell into the utter despair that comes from completing a long, difficult, and utterly pointless project. I was deeply, profoundly in debt, ruined really, and had no idea what I would do next.
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.
I have a short story in the New Yorker this week! It’s called ‘Honey Bunny’ and it’s about cocaine and childhood memories, among other things. It was influenced by Silvana Paternostro’s memoir My Colombian War—I haven’t written about it here, but it’s a book that had a great personal impact on me, as you’ll be able to see if you read it, which I highly recommend.
I also did a Q&A which you can read here. More and more I’m starting to see that watching ‘Narcos’ might be inevitable…
(I also just want to say that I LOVE the photo for the story!)
The Lucky Ones is the short story collection that I’ve been working on for the past three years. It’s going to be published! By Faber in the UK!! And Spiegel & Grau (a Random House imprint) in the U.S.!! And Atlas Contact in Holland!! OMFG!!!
There are no words. So here’s a Bolaño picture that I love (mainly for the fuzzy jumper!):