Category Archives: women writers

Little Women

I am in Sheffield. Or we are, if you count the cat (which I really should). This is the 4th time she’s moved with me in six years. Oh, Puss! What a role model you are to me, with your curiosity and courage! Sure, you are hiding under the bed right now, but you did sniff around and meet a few of the new housemates! You just understand the proper balance between “me time” and “exploration!”

I have been finding Knausgaard tough going in these tough days. Para decirlo de simple… el man me esta aburriendo. I’ve found solace in googling reviews online and discovering that no, it’s not just me finding the EXTREMELY CLOSE READING of the Celan poem slow going. Reader, I skipped to part three, which is focusing more on the Knausgaardian stuff I enjoy (i.e. incredibly long descriptive passages about making coffee and smoking). But I will go back and finish reading part two. Especially since he apparently, at one point, compares Instagram users to Nazi Youths.

What I’ve REALLY been enjoying reading (other than texts in preparation for this year’s courses) is none other than Little Women, by Louis May Alcott. Man, what a book this is! I can’t believe I’d never read it before! As a child I did read a “babyish” version of it, i.e. Little Women redux, with an illustration on every page. Let me tell you, that illustrated kids’ series is basically responsible for me reading ALL of the classics! So many books I can have “claimed” to have “read!” David Copperfield… The Three Musketeers… A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court …. (to be fair I did end up reading this for real in high school…). If I have kids, I’m definitely tracking them down again. And if I don’t have kids I probably will anyway.

I wanted to read Little Women because a while back, Anne Tyler (one of my all-time favorite writers) said in an interview that she tries to reread Little Women once a year, and has probably read it at least 27 times. This made me think of that Mary Ruefle quip, in her essay about reading new books vs. re-reading – how at some point, when your time on earth is becoming more, um, limited, you are faced with the decision of reading new fiction or just re-reading the ones you know you already love. I was recently confronted with this issue when reading a recently published book that I just plain did not GET. Reader, I skimmed the last half. Which is something I normally NEVER do. But life is too short. And besides, Little Women was waiting for me.

There’s something especially lovely about reading Little Women – a decidedly old-fashioned, untrendy book – during these troubling times. Gosh, am I going to turn to classic fiction to help soothe my mind? It helps the classics tend to be a) very affordable b) easily accessed in libraries (not that I’ve sorted out my library card yet; it’s on the list). In Little Women,I can definitely see the Anne Tyler-ish influences – the big families, the urgent chatty energy, the humour. Oh man, the humour! This book is FUNNY – I had no idea!

Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it, and Jo’s nineteen hairpins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable, but, dear me, let us be elegant or die. (29)

“Don’t use such dreadful expression,” replied Meg from the depths of the veil in which she had shrouded herself like a nun sick of the world. (41) — SICK OF THE WORLD! How often have I felt this!

“Go and eat your dinner, you’ll feel better after it. Men always croak when they are hungry.” (135) — SO TRUE.

And when Beth is crying over her dead canary, and Amy says hopefully, “Put him in the oven, and maybe he will get warm and revive” – I CACKLED. Oh, and Aunt March’s parrot, that keeps viciously attacking Amy? Comedy gold!

Jo, as many have clearly and accurately attested, is the most interesting character – artistic, clumsy, outspoken. “Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid. What it was, she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her, and meanwhile found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, read, and ride as much as she liked.” (44)

Gosh, who could not relate to her? What I found VERY interesting is how often she wishes she could have been a boy, a man – “If I was a boy,” she tells Laurie, “we’d run away together, and have a capital time, but as I’m a miserable girl, I must be proper and stop at home. Don’t tempt me, Teddy, it’s a crazy plan.” (248) And Wikipedia (obviously the prime source of any background info) says that the author herself frequently declared this as well – that she was a “man’s soul” in a woman’s body. Que interesting, no? I remember that Jo gets married in Part II to someone who’s not Teddy, which already feels like a pretty daring move on the part of the author, considering how well they get along in Part I.

I could do without the frequent Christian moralising about “Him above”… and Beth really is quite wishy washy, isn’t she? But there is something to be said for the book’s value system – about appreciating what you have, rather than wishing you were someone else, and where somewhere else, and had something else. There’s also some good-ole fashioned Protestant work ethic thrown in as well, with frequent quips about the values of “a useful life” – “go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace,” etc. And you know what? There is some truth to that. I know that when I’ve been REALLY depressed or down in the dumps, having something to focus on can really help!

All in all I’m astonished at how modern and readable the language in this is, if not the morals (it pretty much is a “marriage plot” novel, isn’t it?). I’ll be sad when it ends, but then again, Knausgaard’s The End is still calling my name…

‘If only we had this,’ or ‘If we could only do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many things they could actually do. (50)

It does seem as if the more one gets the more one wants, doesn’t it? (97)

He was in one of his moods, for the day had been both unprofitable and unsatisfactory, and he was wishing he could live it over again. (163)

“If life is often as hard as this, I don’t see how we ever shall get through it.” (220)

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation

I am back from two weeks in Colombia, which were not exactly two weeks of rest and relaxation. But I have my new laptop, finally! I also had lots of time to catch up on reading – I’ve finally caught up with my “reading goal” (SNORT) after being behind it for most of the year. Oh wait, I just checked and I’m still one book behind. Not that it matters. Not that anything matters, amirite? Haha, maybe I’m just feeling the effects of the novel I just finished, or I’m still stupefied from jetlag/general travel exhaustion. I thought I’d beat the jetlag, but I think what’s really made me tired was all the transfers that my v. cheap tickets involved. That or the two teens sitting behind me on one flight playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire on the in-seat console for nine straight hours, poking and prodding the back of my seat with their over-enthusiastic fingers. Or the heatwave, which seems to have finally ended. Anyway.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (Ottessa Moshfegh)

If I were an annoying, pretentious book reviewer (which I clearly am, OBVIOUSLY!), I would call this A MILLENIAL CLASSIC. Or maybe A CLASSIC OF THE MILLENIAL ERA sounds better? But seriously, I found something so deliciously liberating and relatable and ANTI CAPITALIST in this novel about a woman who decides to sleep her life away, in an attempt to achieve a metamorphosis of some sorts. An emergence from a cocoon, etc.

I initially thought this book was only going to take place in her apartment (man, that would have been a challenge! A novel where a character never leaves the room and never interacts with anyone? Could it work? I guess it would be very “experimental”), so I was pleasantly surprised to see her interacting regularly with her best friend, her shitty ex-boyfriend, and even venturing outwards from time to time, as the result of an extremely powerful sleeping pill that causes her to sleepwalk, sleep-shop, sleep-club, etc.

I really loved the narrator in this – it’s truly her voice that makes the book, i.e. her complete lack of interest in anything other than sleeping. I kept laughing at how callous she was towards her best friend.

Some of the most powerful passages come near the end, when the narrator is in a museum looking at art (she studied art history, worked in a museum before deciding to hibernate, and tellingly wonders early on in the book if she should have been an artist, had she had the talent). It’s a long passage, but I’m going to type up the whole thing, because I like it (especially the description of painting as a ‘distraction’). Looking at the paintings, she wonders about the artists:

Did they want more? Could they have painted better, more generously, more clearly? Could they have dropped more fruit from their windows? Did they know that glory was mundane? Did they wish they’d crushed those withered grapes between their fingers and spent their days walking through fields of grass or being in love or confessing their delusions to a priest or starving like the hungry souls they were, begging for alms in the city square with some honesty for once? Maybe they’d lived wrongly. Their greatness might have poisoned them. Did they wonder about things like that? Maybe they couldn’t sleep at night. Were they plagued by nightmares? Maybe they understood, in fact, that beauty and meaning had nothing to do with one another. Maybe they lived as real artists knowing all along that there were no pearly gates. Neither creation nor sacrifice could lead a person to heaven. Or maybe not. Maybe, in the morning, they were aloof and happy to distract themselves with their brushes and oils, to mix their colors and smoke their pipes and go back to their fresh still lifes without having to swat away any more flies.” (286)

People will be writing dissertations about this book, I think, and what it says about “modern life” and “women in fiction,” etc.

Other quotes I liked:

“Since adolescence, I’d vacillated between wanting to look like the spoiled WASP that I was and the bum that I felt I was and should have been if I’d had any courage… I thought if I did normal things – held down a job, for example – I could starve off the part of me that hated everything. If I had been a man, I may have turned to a life of crime. But I looked like an off-duty model.” (35)

“Having a trash chute was one of my favorite things about my building. It made me feel important, like I was participating in the world. My trash mixed with the trash of others. The things I touched touched things other people had touched. I was contributing. I was connecting.” (115)

“I could think of feeling, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even locate where my emotions came from. My brain? It made no sense. Irritation was what I knew best.” (137)

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Filed under books, consciousness, review, women writers

The Wonder Spot

I can’t believe I’ve never written about The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank, one of my all-time faves! I usually re-read it once a year, when I go to my parents’ place for Christmas. It’s definitely one of those books for me that I can pick up at any time – never-fail comfort food.

I think what really makes this book for me is the humor. So many great one-liners! My current favorite is: I sat there and tried to get my personality back. (98) Along with Lorrie Moore and Sheila Heti, I think Melissa Bank ranks waaay up there, in terms of funny female American novelists. Now that I’ve (finally, at long last) read John Cheever, I can’t help but see his influence in here too, what with the whole East Coasters drinking in the city / making margaritas in the New Jersey summer house thing. God, East Coast life – so exotic to me! I’m still not exactly sure what or where the Hampton’s is…

Oh, and then there’s also all those killer observations about relationships:

  • I felt I needed to pretend to be a better person than I was so he’d keep loving me. This was hard because it made me hate him. (113)
  • I knew I was supposed to say I was sorry, but I’d already used up my I’m sorry allowance for the day. (130)
  • I sometimes said ‘I love you’ to Josh because I was afraid I didn’t; toward the end, I hardly said it at all, and when I did it meant, ‘I wish I loved you.’ (173)

The other thing that makes this book for me is its theme of being a young woman, trying to figure out your place in the world, trying to figure out who and what you want to be. It captures that “lost,” searching feeling beautifully. Or as my hippie dippie Jungian self-help book calls it, The Wanderer in the Cocoon  years. There are definitely QUITE a few passages underlined in this copy that wincingly remind me of the wild wastelands that are one’s early twenties (and yah, early thirties too!):

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that my grades and test scores over the years were anything more than individual humiliations; I hadn’t realized that one day all of them would add up and count against me… I’d already figured out that not understanding my failings was another one of my failings. (67) [UFF!]

One thing I noticed re-reading this, this time around, was the theme of female friendships. I can’t believe I’d never really noticed that before, how there’s three chapters (out of eight) that are focused mainly on Sophie’s relationship with a girlfriend rather than a man. I also found the parallel between Sophie and her older brother really interesting – the way they could never quite settle on a career (or person) that they love and are committed to, but how they both ultimately ended up being okay with that. It’s the open possibility of the “night in shining armor” that she finally embraces at the end.

I’ll also always love the structure of this book – how it’s basically a short story collection. Man, those sneaky publishers! I found it fascinating this time around how in some chapters (specifically the next to last one, “The One After You”) we get these drawn-out, explicit explanations of events that occurred earlier in the book, as though the chapter is a stand-alone story, meant to be read in isolation. So crazy! It definitely helps to create the sense that each chapter is its own stand-alone little universe. It also helps that some MAJOR life events (the death of her father and ex-fiancee, specifically) are completely glossed over. I remember reading in an interview online that Bank did this because she found it so hard to write “about” those events, so she just didn’t, thus creating a sense that Sophie’s life is bigger than what the book permits us to see; there are things going on offscreen that we don’t get access to

Man, I love this book. Almost thirteen years since it came out, though… I wonder if she’s working on another one?

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Homesick for Another World

I leave tomorrow for a weekish-long trip in the U.S., visiting friends and family in D.C., North Carolina, and New York, and launching “The Lucky Ones” in Brooklyn alongside Lisa Carey (who I can’t wait to meet) on February 21st–if you’re in the neighborhood, do come!

It’s sunny today (for now), but the seasonal affective disorder has been strong in me, just like the Force in extremely talented Jedis. I hope it is sunny in North Carolina. England!! What else can I do but shake my weak puny fists at your grey, grey sky?

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh was a good book to read after the Cat Marnell memoir, and a good book to read during February, the roughest of months to me (thank goodness it has such few days!). In many ways, both books have similar themes: the body, women moving through space and the way men look at them, drugs, addiction, how to be good, the meaning of being “better.” I love Moshfegh’s writing (especially this essay, which I find encouraging and authentic) and would definitely teach these short stories in a short fiction class. I find her sentences so dark and twisted and memorable. You could say these stories are “grotesque,” and are obsessed with the body: blackheads, rotting teeth, ingrown hairs, acne. You might also say they have a “dark view” of humanity. IDK, maybe it’s just the lack of sunlight speaking through me, but maybe it’s an accurate view of humanity?? What does it mean to be crazy, the book seems to be asking, or fucked-up or weird… Don’t we all have our problems?

Overall, I really liked the journey these stories take us on, from the first story (“Bettering Myself”) to the last (“A Better Place”). It definitely feels like a trip from self-hatred to a weird kind of peaceful acceptance. Overall, highly recommended, but you should know what you’re in for and brace yourself for an uneasy ride.

Here are my notes on the individual stories, so that I don’t forget what each one was about!

“Bettering Myself” – Definitely one of the highlights in the collection and a strong opener. I really sympathized with the narrator, a teacher with a drinking problem who decides she’s going to quit her job.

Half my clothes, books, unopened mail, cups, ashtrays, half my life was stuffed between the mattress and the wall. (6)

Anything good I could think to do I did. I was filled with hope. I bought new sheets and towels. I put on some music. “Bailar,” I said to myself. Look, I’m speaking Spanish. My mind is fixing itself, I thought. Everything is going to be okay. (11)

“Mr. Wu” – Another standout. One of the few stories not set in the U.S. This piece really highlighted to me how effectively a short story can follow an unlikeable character. It also brings up one of the themes (IMHO) of the collection, that of disgust. I loved the ambiguity of the ending.

The woman had one flaccid hand that reminded Mr. Wu of a large prawn. He shuddered and gagged whenever he saw it. He felt sorry for the child, held and fed by that twisted, thin, limp, and red-skinned tentacle. (19)

“Malibu” – Wow, what a sad story. Again, I  really felt for the pimply narrator, and how handsome he kept insisting he was. This story reminded me of the scene in the Cat Marnell book, where she falls asleep during Eyes Wide Shut and when she wakes up the movie has gone on playing on a loop and is back again, on the exact same scene, playing again. In other words, this story made me feel very trapped (but in a good way).

As good-looking as I was, I was scared nobody would ever marry me. I had small hands. They were like a girl’s hands, but with hair. Nobody marries men with hands like that. When I fit my fingers down my throat, it’s easy. My fingers are thin, soft. When I put them down there, it’s like a cool breeze. That’s the best way I can explain it. (41)

He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That’s a characteristics some smart people have. (42)

“The Weirdos” – I think I initially read this in the Paris Review and it was thus the first piece of work of hers that I encountered. It is a CLASSIC, and not just because of the way it plays with that famous Chekhov quote about bringing a gun onstage…

“A Dark and Winding Road” – This may be one of my favorites in the collection and it is also very sad. A married lawyer you could easily imagine voting for Donald Trump goes to a cabin in the woods where he runs into his brother’s hook-up, a girl who’s there to smoke meth (or maybe it was crack). I loved the ending of this one (most of the endings of these stories are very abrupt and ambiguous, just my cup of tea). By the time the narrator in this story says, “Twenty years later, I still felt that the good things, the things I wanted, belonged to someone else” (87), well, it just about broke my heart.

“No Place for Good People” – Another stand-out. A widower volunteers with a group of mentally disabled men and says things like “You can call them “retarded”–that word doesn’t offend me as long as it’s used the proper way, without pity.” (88) Yup.

“I rarely interacted much with anyone back then who wasn’t retarded. When I did, it struck me how pompous and impatient they were, always measuring their words, twisting things around. Everybody was so obsessed with being understood. It made me sick.” (98)

“Slumming” – A story about a high school English teacher who spends her summer vacations doing drugs in a dead-end town that would have also definitely voted for Trump. She hires a young pregnant teenage girl to clean her house, who eventually starts hemorrhaging. The narrator’s reaction to this really made the story for me, especially in terms of the whole “dark view of humanity” thing.

“An Honest Woman” – This one took forever for me to finish. For whatever reason, I found it very difficult to be inside the main character’s head, a sleazy old man. He has an encounter with a neighbor, the honest woman of the title, but her dialogue felt a little too much like a speech for me. But I loved his obsession with buying discounted vegetables: “He’d been doing it for so long that the very sight of that neon orange discount sticker could make his mouth water.” (139)

“The pale, swollen, spotted hand on the girl’s knee was inert, like a fat, sleeping lizard that could at any moment awaken and claw up her soft thigh.” (153)

“The Beach Boy” – Wow, definitely one of the collection’s highlights. I don’t want to spoil it, as the funnest thing about this story is its VERY unexpected twist. Basically, it’s about an elderly married couple and their days back in New York, having returned from an island-getaway vacation, where the beaches were populated with the titular beach boys, or male prostitutes. Along with “The Weirdos” I think this would be a very interesting story to teach, if only for the scene where the main character pretends to be deaf in a drugstore. This story definitely feels like a turning point in the mood of the collection, perhaps because of its upfront confrontation with death, and the way it questions how well we truly really know anybody, and what does “normal” really mean.

“‘Why tell stories?’ he wondered aloud. “As soon as something is over, that’s it. Why revive it constantly? Things happen, and then more things, inevitably, happen next. So?” (172)

“Nothing Ever Happens Here” – This story follows another young male narrator, this one from Utah, who moves to L.A. and dreams of becoming an actor. I liked how this story wasn’t afraid to stay in the head of someone who is arguably unsympathetic.

“Dancing in the Moonlight” – A man with a shopping addiction buys an ottoman online so that he can try to get a girl at an antique furniture market to fall in love with him. Talk about a parable for America.

“So much of my life I’d been faking my reactions, claiming to myself and others that I liked what I liked because I believe it was good for me, while in fact I didn’t like that shit at all. This woman could see that I wanted to be ruined. I wanted someone… to come and destroy me.” (238)

“The Surrogate” – Hmm, is this the happiest story in the book? I don’t know if I have much to say about this one. It definitely felt like a story that attempted to explore the idea of finding acceptance, via a young woman with an unsightly medical condition who gets a job in which she must pretend to be someone else.

“Life can be strange sometimes, and knowing it can be doesn’t seem to make it any less so. I know I don’t have any real wisdom. I don’t have any wonderful ideas. I am lucky to have found a few nice people here and there.” (261)

“The Locked Room” – One of the shortest stories in the collection, two members of a music school orchestra are locked in a practice room and must plan their escape. The main male character is described by the narrator as “fearless, like he could do anything he wanted to do, even if it was disgusting,” (266) which feels like a nice description of the collection itself. Oh, he also carries around a small knife with him for “mutilating himself,” so there’s that too. And his hand tastes like “baby powder and excrement.” Yup! The final paragraph of this story reads as a prayer of sorts for all the characters in this book:

“But I never did try very hard to please my mother. In fact, I never tried hard to please anybody at all after that day in the locked room. Now I only try hard to please myself. That is all that matters here. That is the secret thing I found.” (272)

“A Better Place” – The final story and another stand-out. A sister and her brother believe themselves to be aliens, and the only way to get back to the place where they belong is through killing someone. Gripping and memorable, this story exhibits an amazing control over voice and a limited, skewed viewpoint.

To end here are two quotes by the author, the first from the essay linked above, and the second from this interview:

Most of the time, I feel pleased that I’m living my purpose on this planet… We make art about our own ineffectuality, and in doing that, somehow we are no longer ineffectual. That’s the good news about being a human: We are creative. We feel compelled to make something new, to forge new paths through consciousness and grow. Nobody is going to save me—that’s how I’ve always felt. It’s up to me. It’s either do or die, and I decided to do. Maybe we’re going nowhere, but I chose to find meaning anyway.

*

I also feel that everything I’ve written has had a predetermined destiny. As author, I’m just figuring out what the correct version of it is, sweeping the dirt off the gravestone, and I know that I’m right when it feels just so, when it’s undeniable. And it can be really hard to sit with something and go through my stupid thinking and make lots of mistakes and go down the wrong road and throw out pages and pages and feel like I’m wasting my time. I’m writing a new novel now, and I’m back where I started a year ago. And I’m not happy. I’m totally depressed as I’m writing this thing. At the same time, it’s a complete joy. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. There’s nothing else more important to me. It’s the joy of living your purpose. So I’m not regretting this suffering. It isn’t a waste of my life.

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Filed under books, contemporary, review, short stories, women writers

How to Murder Your Life

How To Murder Your Life (Cat Marnell)

It turns out my book came out the same day as Cat Marnell’s!! How crazy is that? I remember talking about her during my first week in the MA course. And now here we both are, five years later. Que locura es la vida.

I love me a good addiction memoir and this one certainly did not disappoint, especially with its sordidness. I can’t tell which part was the worst–probably when a friend makes cracked out voice mails she leaves him available for purchase on iTunes for 99 cents. Or maybe all the mice hallucinations (which becomes one of the most interesting motifs in the book). Or when a guy asks her what’s wrong with her messed-up bikini line, and all she can do is mumble out the truth: “Self-mutilation.” Or when she sits on the floor of her crack-den room toasting marshmallows with a BIC lighter.

Basically, I thought this book was raw and amazing. I’ve always loved her writing and find her style so compelling. I especially find it interesting to think about all these campesinos in South America, making the cocaine that ravages the lives of David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, and Cat Marnell–what a strange world. What made this memoir stand out especially to me was its honestly about addiction as an ongoing condition, and something that isn’t easily resolved with the completion of a book.

Another thing I liked a lot is that despite writing a book that is very much about shame and self-hate, she is very much writing in her OWN voice, unapologetically so, and that is something I will always have nothing but respect for, and will always find very inspiring and brave. I’m sure some people will find her tone annoying and self-centered, but I found it witty, sarcastic, melancholic, sad, desperate, and yeah, just plain memorable. She isn’t afraid to tell her own story the way that she wants to, in a way that is authentic and singular to her, and that is something I will always admire in writers.

Haters gonna hate but this book was definitely my cup of tea–it gets a very big punk rock thumbs up.

Some of the parts I liked the most (talk about a distinctive “voice” in writing, amirite?):

“I mean, even writing about this period still makes me want to take a huge blunt full of PCP to the face–and it’s fifteen years later!” (pg. 60)

“Here’s a life lesson for you kids: it’s much easier to go through something upsetting when you’re on drugs. The more intense the drug, the more you forget your problems! It’s basic science, really.” (62)

“My parents were quiet in the car to the airport, but I couldn’t escape the voices in my head. You failure. You disaster. You disgusting girl. The self-loathing was like a radio station between my ears. Loser. You mess. Over time, I’d learn to turn the volume down on SHAME FM, but I could never totally shut it off.” (69)

“Bulimia attracts mice: fact.” (89)

“One morning he woke me up by splashing a glass of ice water in my face–and not even to raise awareness for ALS or anything! Just to be a dick.” (90)

“A wrinkly dog was wandering around–I mean, a really wrinkly dog. It should be illegal for a dog to be that wrinkly! It was the kind that Patrick Bateman slices open in American Psycho.” (92)

“I would go in on a hoagie like I was the monster ripping the head off that little man in the Goya ‘Black Paintings'” (119)

“I’ve had tanning-bed experiences that were more transformative.” (169) [in reference to a rehab stint]

“I’m never going to be okay, I thought.” (217)

“I was lonely. I was pathetic. I was weak. I was a loser. Most drug addicts are.” (240)

“‘Guuh,’ he sort of… gasped, and made a terrible, twisted face as the needle went in. My pussy got so wet. No, I am completely joking. It was the most unattractive thing I’d ever seen in my life! Junkies are the worst.” (246) [I think this was maybe the most extreme part of the book for me!]

“I slept like a clubbed baby seal that night.” (252)

“On the walk home on the Bowerty, I listened to ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ and tried to resist the… ennui that felt like it was about to overcome me like a cloud of poisonous gas. It’s not always going to feel like it does today, I told myself. I absolutely could not give up. I was going to get through this strange, joyless, barren patch. I was going to meet new friends. My ambition would return, too… I pulled on a Marlboro Light. I mean, I just had to be patient.” (256)

“Jesus, swimming was hard! I was out of breath so fast. Must have been all that freebasing with Marco.” (313)

“These ‘how I got my job’ chapters are extremely fucking boring to write, you know. I’m just trying to keep it saucy for all of us.” (319)

“Fucking skinny jeans! They are really contributing to this Adderall culture, I swear.” (341)

“Working out with him is better than heroin–and I’ve done, like, unbelievable heroin.” (360)

“Things could–and probably will–get bad again. Real talk!” (370) [From the afterword]

“I’ve got a hot career, a clear head, and an ice pick in my kitchen in case I need to Basic Instinct a bitch, and nobody fucks with me anymore.” (368)

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Filed under books, non-fiction, review, women writers

Notable Books of 2016

Here are some notable books I read in 2016 that I didn’t have a chance to discuss on this blog:

Annihilation trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer)

I read this trilogy while I was sick on my deathbed with the worst flu of my life during my Christmas holidays and it was definitely good escapism. I miss reading sci-fi, and this trilogy cured the itch for now. I first became interested in reading this trilogy when I read a profile about the author in the New Yorker. Overall, it’s very innovative sci-fi. The first book, Annihilation, would most likely be the most beloved among the readers, with its short length and succinct premise, the slow creepy build up of everything that had to do with the Crawler (even the name gives me shivers), the sense of mystery surrounding Area X, and the reserved reticence of the narrator.

There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout all three books, like when a scuttling sound is heard on the roof, or a plant that won’t die is discovered, or when the videos of the failed expeditions into Area X are watched. I like how ballsy the trilogy is in terms of not explaining everything, even if it meant I was confused or frustrated sometimes with not getting all the answers. But the more I think about it, the more I admire the book’s refusal to give me what I want. Please, Lord, don’t let the HBO adaptation dumb it down. I especially liked all the different perspectives in the book, and its overall (potentially anarchist?) message about nature.

I Hate the Internet (Jarett Kobek)

I first heard of this book because I read an interview with the author on (where else?) the Internet. The interview was basically a scathing rant that I found hysterically funny, so I read this book to find more of the same. In that sense the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s basically a howl in the dark. Reading this for character or plot is not the best mindset with which to approach it. I read it because I enjoyed reading sentences like “Miley Cyrus’ songs were about the same six subjects of all songs by all pop stars: love, celebrity, fucking, heartbreak, money, and buying ugly shit” (264) or “Arcade Fire was a Canadian band which experienced minor popularity in the early 2000s before transforming into a market commodity that aging parents used as a theoretical reference point with their Internet addicted children.” (275) LOL.

This is the kind of book in which Twitter is described as “a mechanism by which teenagers tormented each other into suicide” (130), the Internet as “a wonderful resource for sexism, abusing the mentally ill, and libeling the dead” (196) and as a way “to create content based on inflamed emotion for the sake of selling advertisements,” (212) and Instagram as “the first social media platform to which the only sane reaction was hate… Mostly, Instagram’s users uploaded photographs of things on which they’d either spent money or wished to spend money.” (76)

I dug it.

This book reconfirmed my belief that I do not want to live in the Bay Area.

Other brutal satire moments:

“On the Internet, you could be right. On the Internet, you could be wrong. You could love racism. You could hate racism. It didn’t matter. In the end, everything was just money.” (211)

“Expressing concern about racism was a new religion and focusing on language rather than political mechanics was an effortless, and meaningless, way of making sure one was seen in a front-row pew of the new church. They prayed not from any hard earned process of thought or genuine faith but because failing to bow and scrap before the shibboleths of the moneyed political Left might hurt their job prospects. And poor job prospects meant less money to buy consumer electronics built by slaves.” (212)

“The illusion of the Internet was the idea that the opinions of powerless people, freely offered, had some impact on the world. This was, of course, total bullshit.” (213)

“Global warming and climate change were the methods by which the human species, plagued by guilt and unacknowledged depression, committed suicide. The mechanisms of this suicide were eating too much beef, operating too many electronics and driving too many cars.” (184)

“I am moving back to Los Angeles where gentrification barely works because everything is a hideous strip mall and there is nothing worth destroying!” (270-271)

The Friend Who Got Away (ed. Jenny Offill & Elissa Schappel)

A good collection of non-fiction essays that at least three different people in my PhD program recommended to me (IDK if Elena Ferrante is making female friendships a hot topic for literature or what, but anyway, I finally got round to reading it this year!). It felt a little East Coast, private college, Brooklyn writer heavy at times, but what can you do. It made the essay set in Jordan really stand out. The pieces that most stood out to me were “End Days” by Jenny Offill (religious childhood friend), “Toads and Snakes” by Elizabeth Strout (very powerful tale of a long term friendship fading), and “Want” (about a copycat friend). The essays two estranged friends wrote about each other were also a cool concept. I would definitely recommend this to people.

Autumn (Ali Smith)

A fun, fast read. It was a unique read in the sense that it’s interesting to read a book that was written very quickly, about such a recent moment (the Brexit election). So it was very trippy to read a chapter set in November 2016 in November 2016 (!). I will always like Ali Smith, especially how she always attempts to do different things with her books. I liked the surrealistic dream sequences in this one. One thing I will say is that I was glad before reading this that I knew the following: 1) it is the first book of a planned four-book sequence, each named after a season (otherwise I think I would have found the ending a bit underwhelming and “whaaaaat?”), and 2) one of the main plot threads of Autumn follows an undiscovered woman artist from the British Pop Art period–it’s explained near the end who she is, but if I hadn’t known before that she was going to feature, I would have found her sections in the novel confusing. Overall, I enjoyed reading this. The sections where the main character is trying to fill out a passport application are particularly memorable, in a painful “have I ever been there” kind of way.

Beast (Paul Kingsnorth)

Definitely a stand-out of the year–hallucinatory, hypnotic, and strange. A man lives alone on a west-country moor and is stalked by a mysterious beast–gripping stuff. I am definitely going to read Kingsnorth’s previous novel, The Wake, which is apparently a precursor to this one.

I liked the disorienting way we jump between dreams, visions, and the present moment–basically, Beast is a book in which you are never sure if what is happening is “real”, and if that kind of thing frustrates you, this may not be a good choice for you (it was for me, though!). I liked how the style of the book reflected the content (it reads almost like a free verse poem at times). I also liked the slow way that the beast’s horror is unveiled–very rewarding for me. And I liked all the Stone Age, The Dark Is Rising imagery, mixed with apocalyptic doom. This book made me want to wear a wolf skin, speak to ravens, run on the moors naked, and drink the blood of my enemies.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain (David Gordon)

What a great story collection! I loved The Serialist and I loved this one too. The five star stories (discussed below) truly elevate it to an exceptional collection that I enjoyed reading very much. It explores similar themes as The Serialist: writers, writing, genre, horror, growing old, losing love… if you are a fan of funny, readable writing a la Lorrie Moore or Roberto Bolaño, then I recommend this book.

Stories that stood out to me included the opener, “Man-Boob Summer,” and not just because of its excellent title. I related to the main character a lot, an aimless postgrad, and the simple scenario explored by the story (he goes swimming in the pool of his parents’ apartment complex and gets a crush on the lifeguard). A very melancholy ending.

The second story, “We Happy Few”, was also one of my favorites in the collection. This one explores themes of addiction and recovery as a recently fired teacher gets a job escorting an up-and-coming addiction memoir star, trying to keep him clean and off drugs before his appearance on Oprah. The satire in this story about the writing-as-entertainment world is pretty killer. I also liked how the story explores questions of why we write, and who for. Also, the way the ending jumps forward in time is brutal, and really makes the story.

“Today I am remarkably healthy, considering. I do yoga (stiffly) and run (slowly). I eat vegetables and fold the laundry. I water my neighbor’s plants. I even quit smoking. But I didn’t write a word. I tried at first, but I couldn’t get started. Then I took a break. Then I decided it didn’t matter anyway. The world wasn’t weeping for my unwritten books. Now when people ask what I do, I say, “I’m a teacher.” Or: “I proofread legal documents.” Or: “I hand out jalapeño hummus dip at Trader Joe’s.” I say to myself, mostly: “I’m alive, motherfucker.” What else do you want?” (20)

“I read to disappear and carry books like spies carry cyanide in their teeth.” (103)

I think my very favorite story was “I Think of Dreams”–WOW. Again, the use of time at the end (in terms of the abrupt flash forward) makes this story BRUTAL. What a lesson. Basically, two teenage boys take acid on a camping trip and things are never the same. I read this story with my mouth falling open. The title story is another star of the collection. You’ll never think of sexting the same way after reading this. Poignant and horrifying. And then you have “Literature I Gave You Everything and Now What Am I?”–what a title, right? I liked how the narrator of this story is such a jealous, petty asshole. The plot follows his attempts to write in a coffee shop that becomes occupied by a writer’s group that he finds extremely annoying. The final story is (I think) the longest, “The Amateur”, a layered story reminiscent of Borges and Bolaño in which the narrator listens to a story told by a man he meets in Paris, a story that takes a decidedly unexpected turn. A highly recommended collection.

“Hence the most important question facing any young writer may well be: How often should I masturbate and when? (It also brings up the second most important question: How much coffee should I drink? But here the answer is clear: As much as you can without dying.)” (235)

Best author I discovered this year was Alex Garland (Coma and The Beach, both great novels, what a shame he has moved away from fiction-writing into filmmaking). In terms of my new Ferrante-Knausgaard (i.e. author I read obsessively), I think Barbara Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths) might be the strongest contender for 2017.

Books I read this year that I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would were El Sicario by Charles Bowden (while the concept of having a book constructed solely out of a sicario’s words was interesting, the book would have benefited from more contextualizing paragraphs to break up the monotony of the voice), and The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (I liked the memoir elements of this book, but the literary criticism ones went over my head).

Onwards and upwards to 2017! I am now about the same age (if not a bit older!!) as Adrian Mole in The Cappuchino Years, except I have no illegitimate children and have yet to be comissioned to write a book based on my reality TV show, which I consequently fail to turn in and have to hire my mother to ghostwrite for me. There’s still time!! :D

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My Name is Lucy Barton

I bought this book as a Christmas present for my 90-something (and still going strong!) grandmother, but after reading it decided I should get her something, um, a little more cheerful. I LOVE dark melancholy books with very little plot though, so this novel was basically perfect for me. I’d read Olive Kitteridge and loved it, and now My Name is Lucy Barton has firmly placed Elizabeth Strout in the camp of masterful authors I will consistently seek out, read, and feel awed by. There’s no better feeling than ending the year having read an excellent book that makes you feel like you’ve learned something about life and writing both.

What most impressed me about this book is Lucy’s steady, unwavering voice. Oh, and yet there is so much under the surface! Especially in her interactions with her mother. The style is what you would call “Hemingway-esque,” I suppose, but never annoyingly so. The language is so simple, yet so effective: it really builds on you from how understated it is. Excerpts don’t quite do it justice:

I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

*

Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise. But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.

I feel like I learned so much from reading this book about the value of silences, of implied but never shared information. The book is all the more powerful for what we end up not knowing, as it’s directly linked to what Lucy herself chooses deliberately not to share (what she wishes she didn’t even know).

The novel opens with Lucy Barton being hospitalized due to a case of appendicitis. Her mother, whom she has not seen in years, unexpectedly comes to visit her for five days. The mother shares gossip about folks back home in Illinois, and in doing so, reveals not only uneasy details about Lucy’s childhood of extreme neglect and poverty, but also Lucy’s somewhat disturbing dependence on pleasing her mother. I thought this was something the book did very well–making us see Lucy’s (at times painful) desperation in having her mother approve of her. It’s a brilliant evocation of an unreliable yet very human narrator.

There are so many interesting themes and motifs in this book: mothers and daughters. Wives leaving husbands. The legacy of World War II and Nazism (Lucy’s father is a Battle of the Bulge veteran, and refuses to speak to Lucy’s husband, the blond son of a German soldier). Men and war, what it means to be a man. Writing, courage, and ruthlessness. AIDS and 9/11. And then there are disturbing references to things that are never expanded upon. What Lucy calls “the Thing,” her father’s episodes in which he lost control of herself, the times in which she was locked up for hours in her father’s truck, her uncontrollable terror at hearing the word “snake”–we don’t learn much more than these details, but they’re enough to deeply unsettle us. It doesn’t help that Lucy’s siblings seem quite worse off than her: whereas Lucy moved to New York and became a writer, her brother sleeps in a barn next to pigs who are about to be slaughtered and develops an obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books, while her sister complains over the phone about her useless husband and sends Lucy requests for money to pay for yoga classes.

This is definitely one of the best books I read this year, and one I will be thinking about for a long time to come.

 

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Pond

Pond (Clare-Louise Bennet)

My first day as a volunteer in Tijuana ten years ago, I spent the afternoon painting white lines on a basketball court. It was a task assigned to me by Martin, the beady-eyed Austrian volunteer who was working at the parish. It felt so peaceful at the time, shuffling up and down that court, mechanically dabbing a paintbrush. I didn’t need to focus on or think about anything else. I had fled from my undergraduate college in Portland, where I’d turned in all of my papers that semester extremely late. In contrast to a semester that had caused me to write things in my journal like “I feel like butter scraped over too many pieces of bread” (quoting LOTR, naturally), the act of doing something so simple, so straightforward, as painting a dirty court felt like a kind of magic to me.

I thought of this moment in Tijuana, and of all those afternoons spent in the Boys & Girls Club playing UNO or scraping gum off the underside of desks, while reading Pond. In this book, the narrator finds a similar refugee, as she spends a great deal of time deriving pleasure from small, simple actions. Much of the book consists of descriptions of eating oatmeal in the mornings, gathering firewood, weeding, going for country lane walks, and taking out the compost. “That’s right,” the narrator thinks while burning what she refers to as “evil-looking” holly during Christmas: “suffer, damn you to hell.” (146) Or during her frenzied, indiscriminate weeding: “Perhaps I really hate all this stuff and it is a very normal and human thing to wish to crush it.” (140) So yes, she is that kind of person: the kind of person I’d love to be best friends with, basically.

This is a novel that isn’t a novel. Or maybe it’s a collection of stories that aren’t really stories–more like flash fiction or prose poems. Essentially, this book is an example of my favorite thing in the world: the novel-story hybrid. The narrator is a woman living by herself in a shabby, rural cottage. We never learn her name. We assume she is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, since she refers to the Atlantic Ocean and to Dublin. We know that she has dropped out of a PhD program, where she has written thousands of words for an unfinished dissertation. She refers to different friends, some who may be lovers; one is married with children. In one paragraph she discusses a phone call with her father and their conversation about his “new,” younger family. That’s pretty much it. How she supports herself, how old she is, how long she’s been out here, living in this cottage, we never learn. This is a novel (and I keep calling it that, because it definitely read like a novel to me, with a clear arch and journey experienced by the character) that is very resistant to naming things, to pinning things down.

I was initially afraid that I wasn’t going to like this book, based on the description on the back cover and my own high expectations.What if I just wasn’t smart enough for it? What if I found boring, ranty, pretentious, overly lyrical and philosophically inaccessible?  Thankfully, the book is none of these things, saved by its engagingly readable style, deliciously dark humor, and above all else (for me personally, at least) the hysterically relatable misanthropic worldview. This is the kind of narrator who says things like the following: “I like worms and have no problem picking them up, which is unusual and thus gives me a clear advantage in certain situations because it means I can fling them at people if I feel like it and that never fails to cheer me up.” (26)

Or this: “What a sexy and beautiful thing it is to look at someone and decide suddenly and for no reason at all that I will for a while give them the cold shoulder.” (49)

Or this: “I rarely acquire any enthusiasm for the opposite sex outside of being drunk.” (55)

Or this (my personal favorite): “One has to have illustrated links with the fair to middling ranks of reality I should think in order for something like Christmas to really work out otherwise it just seems odd and sort of accusatory.” (147)

Actually I take that back, I like this one the best: “In any case, gigantic joints of meat notwithstanding, there’s not much room in a Baby Belling oven so I should think the possibility of comfortably shoving one’s head into it is pretty slim.” (90) (Is it just me or is this hysterical?!)

(I could go on and on, but will stop there!)

The title of the book comes from the story “The Big Day,” about a party that the landlady is throwing. The landlady places a damp piece of wood with the word POND scrawled across it, next to the pond in question, which infuriates the narrator to no end:

One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, one becomes attuned to the earth’s embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable. As if the earth were a colossal and elaborate deathtrap. How will I ever make myself at home here if there are always these meddlesome scaremongering signs everywhere I go. (41)

This is the kind of passage that I would like to give to my undergraduate students and say something like “hurrrr ok the signifier vs. the sign in this passage discuss ok go.” Basically, I love how the narrator feels like naming things is crude and insufficient. This specific story ends with her throwing an item away into the Pond, something she never specifically describes but wants to get rid of fast: “a broken, precious thing. I dropped it into the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible.” (51) What a classic, invaluable technique—the not-naming makes the thing so much more intriguing.

One needs to be careful with names,” (84) the narrator says in another story, in which she is reading an apocalyptic novel about the last woman alive on earth (apparently this book really existsThe Wall by Marlen Haushofer—I must track it down and read it!). The apocalyptic feel of Pond was something else I very much enjoyed and appreciated, even though the narrator herself is not that isolated (she bikes to a store to buy expensive cheeses, and even throws a party herself). I loved the sense of retreat in this book, how there’s only a few references to texting; it’s obviously a contemporary book but at the same time feels quite timeless. It is a very anti-instant gratification book—anti-Instagram, anti-Twitter, anti-humblebrag, anti-resume culture. The narrator refers consistently to her “persistent lack of ambition.” (166) “It’s quite true,” she says languidly, “I don’t do anything really,” (133) which is an apt description of the book itself. It doesn’t “do” anything in the sense of a traditional, satisfactory plot or journey, but it is this not-doing that makes it valuable and interesting. Talk about an antidote to the kind of permanently judgmental culture described here!

So what’s up with this narrator? What is she running from (if anything)? In the last few stories, there are many references to a monster, a rising sense of terror, to a feeling that reappears from time to time “just to remind you, perhaps, what you are living with, even if you almost always forget.” (154) Forget what? In one of the most striking stories (see how I refer to them as stories even though I consider it a novel? TAKE THAT boring straightforward out-of-date genre considerations!!), the narrator is passed by a young man in a field, and imagines what it would be like to be raped by him. Did something happen to her? Is that almost a too easy explanation? Can’t a woman just want to hide away and like, chill, without it being the result of something traumatic? Even so, there definitely seems to be something there in the last few stories to me, which helps the book feel like it’s traveled towards something, even though whatever “it” is ultimately (thankfully) remains unnamed. “Sooner or later,” the narrator thinks, “you’re going to have to speak up,” (154) and one of the cool things about this book is that you feel like it goes on living even after you’ve finished it, that its complete story can’t quite be contained by its pages, that the narrator isn’t going to allow us to see what happens to her next. “I just don’t know if I’ll ever get the hang of it if you want to know,” (172) she says at the end, while contemplating a trip to Brazil or Bail, but somehow, that feels heartening rather than worrying.

Basically, I think this book is an incredibly achievement, and should be taught on contemporary literature courses for the next bazillion years, alongside Knausgaard and Thoreau. I have been waiting for YEARS for a book written by a woman to be as acclaimed as the ones written by Sebald and Teju Cole and so on, and with Pond I thus feel officially satiated.

Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream… So even though it sometimes feels as if one could just about die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive. (112-113)

Some other quotes I liked:

It was very nice I must say to every now and then take a break from cobbling together yet another overwrought academic abstract on more or less the same theme in order to set down, so precisely, how and where I’d like my brains to be fucked right out. (25)

I’d sit at my desk from time to time, but that was all over with. That’s right, I’d thrown in the towel at last. It hadn’t worked out. I stopped doing what I wasn’t really doing. (25)

A lack of enthusiasm for a project makes me very clear-headed indeed. (44)

I don’t understand the past—I don’t understand the way the past is thought about, I don’t know why but it makes me wild with anger, to hear the ways the past is thought about and made present. Enforced remembrance is, I think, a most stultifying thing. (46)

The large-scale changes were in fact of no interest to me at all; it was the small things that remained constant which sort of attracted me. (47)

[While describing the dark green, porous bathroom walls] It was as if I might actually be able to glide my hands and arms and the rest of me so far into the wall and enter some other place that requires small sharp weapons and a hunk of kick-ass cheese. (134)

Even looking away was looking. (164)

I don’t want to be in the business of turning things into other things, it feels fatal for one reason. (165)

Once a word was written it was quite irretrievable, as if abducted. (154)

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How Should A Person Be?

How Should A Person Be? (Sheila Heti)

How should a person be, indeed? Is there ANYONE who wouldn’t be interested in the potential answers to this question?

I already know that this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2016. It may be the best book I’ve read this year so far, period. Like many books I love, it contains the following pleasing qualities: humor, a complete lack of traditional plot, discussions of art and art-making, and women who don’t like men explaining things to them.

It is difficult to summarize this book (another common quality of books I enjoy). Reviewers have described it as semi-autobiographical (the narrator and the main character share the same name, occupation, and background details, and even have the same real-life friends, kind of like Borges writing about Bioy Casares in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). The novel has also been described as a play on the self-help book (I guess because of the chapter titles, ranging from “What is Freedom?” to “How Great It Is To Be An Adult”), or even a Knausgård-like, meandering narrative (even though I think it was published before he got famous). It also includes real-life e-mails and transcripts of conversations, which gives it a strange metafictional quality.

The main characters in this book are Sheila (a playwrite) and Margaux (a painter). What do they do? They hold competitions for making the Ugliest Painting Ever. They meet Keanu Reeves. They go through a brief phase of taking too many drugs. Sheila struggles with writer’s block, contemplates the fallout of her marriage and moves briefly to New York. Some people might find the drifting, self-absorbed characters in this book totally annoying (the narrator especially), and that’s okay. I personally thought it was hysterical. Isn’t art wonderful?! The way it can be subjective, and how different people can like different things?

In the opening passage, the narrator doesn’t beat around the bush, delving right into the book’s central question:

How should a person be? I sometimes wonder about it, and I can’t help answering like this: a celebrity. But for all that I love celebrities, I would never move somewhere that celebrities actually exist. My hope is to live a simple life… By a simple life, I mean a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in. I don’t want anything to change, except to be as famous as one can be, but without that changing anything. Everyone would know in their hearts thatI am the most famous person alive–but not talk about it too much. (2)

Would it be TMI if I reveal that I’ve encountered people like this? People who aren’t really interested in writing, but are more interested in being Writers, with a capital W? (These people are few and far in between, thank god, and none were encountered at my graduate school!) But yeah. That has definitely been a strange part of my life in the past four years… of dealing with this idea that people want ATTENTION and FAME and GLORY and ACCLAIM and (yes) MONEY from writing, rather than the satisfaction of a job well done.

Let’s get real: I am happy as a claim that my book is being published and blessed beyond belief. But I also feel wary. When I feel myself freaking out about this kind of literary life, the Writer life, the kind of life that has absolutely nothing to do with the act of writing itself (so thoughts like WHAT IF MY BOOK GETS PUBLISHED AND NO ONE GIVES A FUUUUUUQ AND MY PARENTS SAY AWKWARD THINGS ABOUT IT??) I just remind myself of my literary heroes, like Bolaño, Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka. Punching myself in the face and telling myself DON’T BE A DUMB DICKHEAD is also helpful ;D

This was one of the themes in this book that I found fascinating–that of Being An Artist as opposed to Making Art. Sheila (the character, and apparently the author as well, when this novel was being written) struggles throughout to finish her play. In contrast to Sheila is Margaux (apparently a successful Canadian painter in real life, to whom the book is dedicated):

Margaux worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew. Though she was happier in her studio than anywhere else, I never heard her claim that painting mattered. She hoped it could be meaningful, but had her doubts, so worked doubly hard to make her choice of being a painter as meaningful as it could be. She never talked about galleries or went on about which brands of paint were best. Sometimes she felt bad and confused that she had not gone into politics–which seemed more straightforwardly useful… Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix. (17)

Yeah. I am a fan of the Margaux school of thought, in terms of gettin’ it done. Early on in the novel Margaux is involved in a competition with another painter, Sholem, a competition that involves painting the ugliest painting ever, a process which Sholem describes as something that made him feel “like I just raped myself.” This attempt to paint ‘ugly’ on purpose leads to some interesting discussions:

Sholem was saying that freedom, for him, is having the technical facility to be able to execute whatever he wants, just whatever images he has in his mind. But that’s not freedom! That’s control, or power. Whereas I think Margaux understands freedom to be the freedom to take risks, the freedom to do something bad or to appear foolish. To not recognize that difference is a pretty big thing. (19)

I love this idea–that of the importance of taking risks, and having something come out badly. As Margaux says near the end, “Better to have your failure right in front of you than the fantasy in your head.” (240) Or as Sheila is warned at one point (in terms of people who are obsessed with perfection):

In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful… The answer for them is to build on what they have begun and not abandon their plans as soon as things start getting difficult. They must work–without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked. (84-85)

I highly recommend this book to fans of Jenny Offhil, Miriam Toews and Lorrie Moore. I love books like this, that do something so unusual and unexpected.

Here are some other quotes I enjoyed.

We are all specks of dirt, all on this earth at the same time. I look at all the people who are alive today and think, These are my contemporaries. These are my fucking contemporaries! We live in an age of some really great blow-job artists. (3)

I felt like I was the tin man, the lion, and the scarecrow in one. I could not feel my heart, I had no courage, I could not use my brain. (27)

I am writing a play. I am writing a play that is going to save the world. If it only saves three people, I will not be happy. If with this play, the oil crisis is merely averted and our standard of living maintains itself at its current level, I will weep into my oatmeal. If this play does anything short of announcing the arrival of the next cock–I mean, messiah–I will shit into my oatmeal. (87)

You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything. (98)

I sat there with the book on my knees, moving carefully through the pages, like a beautiful, anxious, pregnant young mother studying for her medical school exams. (189)

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Dealing With the Everyday

My Struggle 2: A Man in Love (Knausgaard)

Here are some things I spend a lot of time doing:

  • The dishes
  • Feeding the cat, washing the cat’s bowls
  • Doing laundry, hanging laundry, putting away laundry
  • Cooking enormous amounts of lentils or soup, putting it in freezer
  • Picking clothes off the floor of my bedroom and putting them on my bed
  • Biking to the library for work and paying £2 for porridge because I left the house too late to have breakfast
  • Spending money online on train tickets, hooks for the wall to hang up the clothes I leave on the floor, yoga class, organic hypoallergenic cat food, meditation course, library fines.
  • Buying food to fuel myself, a never-ending process that often feels like the scene in Titanic where the sweaty dust-smeared Irish men are shoveling coal into the constantly hungry, never full burners.

This is my life (or at least what I’m willing to say about it on the Internet ;p). This is my banal, my everyday, what tends to absorb and take me over. This is mainly the stuff that occupies my mind on a daily basis rather than the BIG QUESTIONS that I’m not even going to write out here because I don’t feel like having a panic attack right now, thank you very much!!! :D

But this everyday stuff is very much the concern of A Man in Love, the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle series. In other words, the book is interested in balance between the mundane and what he calls “the sacred,” which for some people might appear as religion, but for him seems to mostly appear as the act of writing.

What happens in this book? He goes to his daughter’s birthday party. He comments on the difference between the Swedish and Norwegians. There’s extended flashback sequences to when he met and fell in love with his wife, had his first child. He struggles to write a novel about angels. He fights with the crazy Russian neighbor lady who may or may not be a prostitute. He suspects his mother-in-law of secretly drinking out of the alcohol bottles on top of the fridge.

If someone had told me four years ago that I would have found this kind of stuff irresistibly compelling, I would have laughed hysterically. But good god, did I ever. I turned the pages with the frenetic urgency of a Michael Crichton novel. How on earth did the author achieve this? I suspect that it’s partly due to the style: it’s very clearly written, reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, with flashes of black Herzogian humor that (just like with Volume I) I found absolutely hysterical. I suspect another reason that I found it so fascinating and compelling is due to a perverse fascinating of reading things that I found so familiar, yet had rarely seen covered in such intense detail. There are just so few books that actually pay attention to these moments, you know? The rituals of making the morning coffee, the commute, the hangover, the dinner party. And yet this is what life is for so many of us. Every once in a while we have The Moments that novel climaxes are made of. But most of the time I’m wiping spilt coffee off the counter.

Needless to say I can’t wait to read Volumes III-VI (once all the translations have been released, of course! I believe 1-5 have come out in English so far).

There are many, many quotes that I highlighted while reading this book, but here are a select few:

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change nappies but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it, and always had done. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle, because of course I wanted it, but I failed, the longing for something else undermined all my efforts. What was the problem? … perhaps it was the prefabricated nature of the days in this world I was reacting to, the rails of routine we followed, which made everything so predictable that we had to invest in entertainment to feel any hint of intensity? Every time I went out of the door I knew what was going to happen, what I was going to do. (67)

…with Dostoevsky there were no heights, no mountains, there was no divine perspective, everything was in this human domain, wreathed in this characteristically Dostoevskian wretched, dirty, sick, almost contaminated mood that was never too far from hysteria. That was where the light was. That was where the divine stirred. But was this the place to go? Was it necessary to go down on bended knee? (72)

I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminised, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside of me. (90)

Life. Getting through it, that was what I was doing. (134)

It is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it. (271)

I don’t give a shit about you, I don’t give a shit about the book I’ve written, I don’t give a shit if it wins a prize or not, all I want is to write more. (457)

This was my life. This was what my life was. I had to pull myself together. Chin up. (498)

Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not bloody believe you are somebody. Because you are not… You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then at least you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience. This was the only true bloody thought I’d ever had. (516)

I managed to write the five pages a day I had set myself as a goal. But I managed, I managed that too. I hate every syllable, every word, every sentence, but not liking what I was doing didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. (589)

Animals (Emma Jane Unsworth)

Talk about a contrast to Knasgaard! There’s no shortage of decidedly less domestic everyday moments in this book: two best female friends run around Manchester, do drugs, flee from dealers, drink a LOT of wine, wake up from a LOT of soul-crushing hangovers, try to write a novel about a priest with a talking pig, and even ponder religion in a few discordantly intriguing passages. Yes, there were definitely moments in this that struck painfully true chords with certain instances in my own 30-something life. In this interview, the author cites the picaresque novel as an influence, and also calls Animals an “anxious” book, both of which I can definitely see. Overall, I enjoyed the raw cathartic energy of this book, the drive and energy of the prose. I’d rather something be interesting and different, rather than poetically perfect and polished. I also liked that the protagonist was still drinking in the end, and that her journey as a character didn’t necessarily equal complete 100% sobriety. The focus is ultimately on the friendship between the two girls (women?), and this was something I very much appreciated. I love books that are unapologetic and unashamed, something this book had in spades.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Óscar Martínez)

So you have the everyday reality of Knausgaard and Animals, and then you have this. Holy ***ing shit. This book has been on my to-read list for years, and even though I haven’t finished it yet (still have two chapters to go), boy, does it provide some brutal perspective. Even Bolaño didn’t delve into darkness this apocalyptically bleak. In brave, uncompromisingly stark prose (captured extremely well by the translation), the book delves into subject matter similar to the film Sin Nombre, that of Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. (focusing primarily on “la bestia” of the title, or the freight trains barreling across Mexico, with migrants clinging on).

As said before… this book goes to some dark places. I think the chapter set in a brothel on the Mexican-Guatemalan border was maybe the most difficult for me. So many brutal moments. We touch upon an expression often used by migrants: cuerpomátic, the body as a credit card (most especially the female body), buying you a little safety, a little bit of cash, the potential that your travel buddies won’t get killed, a more comfortable ride on the train. We learn about the myth of the bra tree–a desert tree draped with bras and panties of migrant women raped by bandits, the underwear kept as trophies (Martínez depressingly clarifies that “I refer to it as a myth not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s not one tree but many.”) (164) It’s a world where talking about the narco’s fees is as common as talking about the rise in the price of tortillas.

I’ll be honest… I read books like this one, and on one hand I’m grateful, blown away, amazed by reporters like Martínez doing this kind of work in the world, bringing these kinds of issues to light. Another part of me is like… oh my god. Me and my stupid, silly, little life. How dare I complain about anything, ever? What am I supposed to do in face of this? How am I supposed to live, to act? What can I do to help, what can I do to make a difference, what can I do that matters, whatcanidowhatcanidowhatcanido. And yeah, I’ll say it: there’s a certain amount of bleak hopelessness too. How did things get this bad? Why did this happen? How can there be a turning point, ever? Is this the kind of world we’re going to live in? Is it like Bolaño’s “Police Rat,” are we all eternally damned, is there no turning back?

Rather than hopeless, though, it might be more accurate to say that this book comes off as brutally realistic. This is the way things are. Never-ending violence as everyday. This is the banal, mundane reality that many, many, many people are living in, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that fact. I really, really don’t.

(It’s worth saying Martínez has a new book out, which needless to say I am highly interested in reading.)

We’re walking among the dead. Life’s value seems reduced, continuously dangled like bait on a fishing line. Killing, dying, raping, or getting raped–the dimensions of these horrors are diminished to points of geography. Here on this rock, they rape. There by that bush, they kill. (37)

The unspoken question becomes evident. How is it possible that the kidnappings are still happening when the local governments, the countries of origin, the media, the Mexican government, and the US government all know exactly what’s going on? … Everybody knows, nobody acts, and the kidnappings continue. (103)

 

 

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Filed under books, Mexico, non-fiction, review, women writers