Category Archives: women writers

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

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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Book reviews + catch-up

Oh, my book reading has felt so scattered this year! So all-over-the-place, so sporadic. I accept, accept, accept this. I’ve been back in the U.S. for Christmas & family time for four days now. What happened in November/December?

I went on a six-day badass trip to India.

My old kindle broke because I either a) stepped on it, b) brutally abused it by carrying it around in my backpack and tossing it around everywhere without considering that I should be more careful, or c) the warranty expired, and as soon as the warranty of any electronic object expires, it is time for said object to break.

I work in the library downtown now, ten years after I got my first library job in 2005 back in Portland. I shelve books, wear a black lanyard around my neck that identifies me as a helpful staff member, do many fancy things on the computer and meet World War II veterans.

Kobe Bryant retired via a poem, and it made me think about how 15 years ago, I was a huge Lakers fan and watched the games obsessively with my dad and brothers. I’d even stay up super late at night to check the scores online, follow it play-by-play in the painfully slow Yahoo updates, and tell my sister about what happened as we walked to school the next day, me blurry-eyed and fuzzy from lack of sleep while she, bless her heart, pretended to be interested. We both played on the basketball team in middle school. I played center because I was so tall; my nickname was ‘Mona’ (‘Blondie’) even though I never really thought of myself as blond, and I have maybe never felt so blond or so tall in my whole life as I did back then. We won the championship at least once, my senior year of high school; we would travel to tournaments in cities far away in the mountains (where I’d be incredibly cold at night) or the coast (where I’d be incredibly dehydrated and sunburned during the day). I once ate an enormous cheeseburger before a game despite my coach’s stern expression and felt horribly sick afterwards. The injuries I have gotten while playing basketball include a sprained ankle and a dislocated knee that has dislocated at least twice since then and still clicks when I go up and down the stairs. I still sometimes have dreams where I’ve missed practice, failed to defend the attacker, missed the game-winning shot.

I worked on my PhD and went to a conference in York.

I started watching Twin Peaks to help me with my dissertation (Bolaño was a big fan).

I lost my passport and had to pay a fee in order to travel to the U.S. for Christmas.

I started reading Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents, Valerie Luiselli’s Story of My Teeth and Lydia Davis’ Can’t and Won’t, but kept losing them in my room beneath piles of papers and dirty laundry, or when they fell into the abyss-like gap in between my bed and the radiator.

My cat was told to lose weight by the vet.

I read Middlemarch obsessively and am still nowhere close to finishing.

I spilled coffee all over my library copy of Bolaño’s The Unknown University and left it on my windowsill for weeks, afraid to return it.

I taught a class about literary theory to young students in a rural English village (town? hamlet?).

I went to London and saw this exhibition by Ai Wei Wei.

And I folded over the upper-right corner of the page where this passage appears, from Ali Smith’s new collection of short stories:

Meanwhile, in my sleep, the freed-up me’s went wild.

They spraypainted the doors and windows of the banks, urinated daintily on the little mirror-cameras on the cash machines. They emptied the machines, threw the money on to the pavements. They stole the fattened horses out of the abattoir fields and galloped them down the high streets of all the small towns. They ignored traffic lights. They waved to surveillance. They broke into all the call centres. They sneaked up and down the liftshafts, slipped into the systems. They randomly wiped people’s debts for fun. They replaced the automaton messages with birdsong. They whispered dissent, comfort, hilarity, love, sparkling fresh unscripted human responses into the ears of people working for a pittance answering phones for businesses whose CEOs earned thousands of times more than their workforce. They flew inside aircraft fuselages and caused turbulence on every flight taken by everyone who ever ripped anyone else off… They  marauded into porn shoots and made the girls and women laugh. They were tough and delicate. They were winged like the seeds of sycamores. There were hundreds of them. Soon there would be thousands. They spread like mushrooms. They spread like spores. There would be no stopping them. 

Public library and other stories (Ali Smith)

This collection has a noble goal, that of drawing attention to the current plight of public libraries in the UK, i.e. the cutting of funding and increasing closures. So in between almost every short story, there’s an italicized excerpt from someone (authors like Miriram Toews and Kate Atkinson, and plenty of people I’m not familar with) talking about what public libraries mean to them. A few of these excerpts are quite moving and memorable (like Toews’, and the final one by Sarah Wood) butI’m afraid most are pretty skimmable and similar-sounding. That doesn’t take away from the nobility of the cause, though, but I personally found myself racing through most of them in order to get to the fiction.

Anyway… I will always love reading Ali Smith. My favorite stories are the opener, “Last,” (which is maybe the most Ali Smith-esque story in the collection, with its abrupt, unexpected ending and beautiful lack of closure, involving the narrator’s encounter with a woman locked in a stationary train), “The beholder” (with the oh-so appealing plot of a rosebush growing out of the narrator’s chest), and “The human claim” (a story about credit card theft, Google maps and D.H. Lawrence). “After life” is also wickedly bad-ass with its contrast of modern technology with early silent films, and maybe the most outspoken story in terms of social commentary.

It’s also interesting to me that a lot of these stories blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, or even assuming the form of an essay (especially “The poet”), which is something she played a lot with in Artful. Is this where the future of the short story lies, in the blurring (or even erasure?!) between these two genres? Who knows. All I know for know is I love these sentences, these phrases, like the one in which “a work of art” is transformed into “a work of life,” a moment that (when I read it on the page) brought tears to my eyes, because yes, I am sentimental like that, and yes, I need to be reminded of it sometimes.

Purity (Jonathan Franzen)

I only just finished this today but still want to post about it. I’ve been reading Jonathan Franzen for fourteen years now and still find him just as enjoyable. Even though somewhere along the way it somehow became “uncool” to like him…? IDK. All I know is that I’m finding this novel as delicious to read as Middlemarch, and that’s a gut feeling I trust. In the same way I ignore Kanye West’s presence on Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed (and indeed, Kim Kardashian in general) so that I can continue enjoying and appreciating his music, I also ignore whatever it is about Jonathan Franzen that people don’t like. I could probably do some google research to try to find out… so it goes. Life is too short to be a hater. I WILL say that I remember absolutely nothing about Freedom, other than random things like the scene where the guy saves a ring/piece of jewelry from his poop, or the fact that it dealt with birdwatching. I have a feeling that Purity will stick around in my memory a lot longer, though.

There are so many things about this book I enjoyed… the contemporary themes (journalism! The Internet! Surveillance! Nuclear warheads!). The darkly dislikable characters (no one can write a bitter couples fight like Franzen can). The hopping across time and geography (1980’s Germany, 21st-century Oakland, Bolivia and Texas). The grumpy old man attitude towards the Internet and technology, the private sphere vs. the public. The oh so Franzen-esque scene where hope is gained from watching a few brown sparrows frolic in a bush, or from a game of tennis (a possible David Foster Wallace homage?)… because in this effed up world, what other places is one meant to look for hope?

Just like with Kanye West, I look forward to the next work, and the next deliciously, classically Franzen passages:

With every different keyword he entered with his name in every different search engine, he was no longer content to read the first page or two of results. He wondered what was on the next page, the one he hadn’t read yet, and after he’d looked at the next page he found yet another page. Repeat, repeat. There seemed to be no limit to the reassurance he required. He was so immersed and implicated in the Internet, so enmeshed in its totalitarianism, that his online existence was coming to seem realer than his physical self. The eyes of the world, even the eyes of his followers, didn’t matter for their own sake, in the physical world. Who even cared what a person’s private thoughts about him were? Private thoughts didn’t exist in the retrievable, disseminable, and readable way that data did. And since a person couldn’t exist in two places at once, the more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death. (492)

Pip nodded, but she was thinking about how terrible the world was, what an eternal struggle for power. Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it? (539)

A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård)

Believe the hype. It took me months to finish this book (mostly on trains, planes and buses) but it was well worth it. I am definitely going to read the second one (I don’t know about the third, but we’ll see!).

What is so badass about this book?

  • It is really long.
  • It goes on for PAGES and PAGES about incredibly mundane, every day things (Karl is a teenager. Karl tries to get drunk. He tries to go to a party. He tries to kiss a classmate. He listens to 80’s music on cassette tapes). And yet somehow it is INCREDIBLY GRIPPING and COMPELLING. I found this way more of a page turner than The Bone Clocks, or indeed any Dan Brown-esque novel ever (not that I’ve read that many :p). This book is like the embodiment of that classic Virginia Woolf quote about the “appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner.” And then BOOM, something big in life hits you, violently disrupting the repetitive banality. The “something big” in this book happens to be the father’s death. The scene of Karl and his brother cleaning out his incredibly nasty, alcoholic-ravaged house is one that I will never forget.
  • Karl is ruthlessly self-dissecting of himself and his family, in a way that reminded me of George Orwell at his best in his non-fiction. “Brutal” is a good word. “Deliciously acerbic” is another.
  • Is this a novel? Non-fiction? WHO KNOWS? WHO CARES.
  • Just like life, there is no plot. Rather, it’s one event after another. I had no idea how bored I was with artificially-constructed, conveniently comforting, mainstream plots until I read this book. I honestly barely noticed its absence until I reached the end.
  • It deals a lot (and very seriously) with death. Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is an excellent comparison.
  • The writing style–specifically the readability, his fearlessness in using clichés and stating things very simply and openly. As this review in the New Yorker puts it, “where many contemporary writers would reflexively turn to irony, Knausgaard is intense and utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties, unafraid to appear naïve or awkward.”
  • It would make a really good Werner Herzog film, especially with Herzog himself narrating the passage below:

But when I was twenty-four I saw life as it was. And it was OK, I had my small pleasures too, it wasn’t that, and I could endure any amount of loneliness and humiliation, I was a bottomless pit, just bring it on, there were days when I could think, I receive, I am a well, I am the well of the failed, the wretched, the pitiful, the pathetic, the embarrassing, the cheerless and ignominious. Come on! Piss on me! Shit on me too if you wish! I receive! I endure! I am endurance itself! (300)


Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy)

This book made me rethink my life. Isn’t that nuts? What the heck do me and Thomas Hardy have in common, anyway? Him a 19th-century English novelist, me a 21st-century gal? I originally read this book because I saw the movie and loved it (especially the soundtrack), and ended up loving the book for its ability to connect with me across time, space, geography. Nobody can write a killer ecstatic nature scene like Hardy. And kudos to him for representing all of his characters so fairly. I had the feels particularly for Boldwood, putting up with the dreaded “let’s just be friends?” moment.

Those killer details! His feverish anxiety continued to show its existence by a galloping motion of his fingers upon the side of his thigh as he went down the stairs. (Apologies for the lack of page numbers–I read it on my now defunct kindle!) The cloth of the tent… became bulged into innumerable pimples such as we observe on a sack of potatoes.

The quippy observations that would be oh so helpful for any Modern and Forthwright Woman! Insights straight out of Ferrnate!

When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

Once I felt I could be content with nothing less than the highest homage from the husband I should choose. Now, anything short of cruelty will content me.

Taylor Swift should read this book.

 

Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns)

So this is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not just one of the best first-person narrators…. or books about childhood…. or books about frolicking in the English countryside as a child (which will forever be  a favorite topic of mine, thanks to the formative experience of reading novels such as Tom’s Midnight Garden and Goodnight Mr. Tom in my youth). Get it straight: ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS EVER, PERIOD. Even Emily Gould put it on her book club list.

I don’t want to say much more because I don’t want to spoil it. And also in many ways this book feels indescribable, a singular reading experience I have never had before in my life. Basically… read this. I’m never going to forget it.

The Story of the Lost Child (Elena Ferrante)

A decidedly satisfying conclusion to Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. Things are wrapped up in ways that don’t feel trite, and the final pages end basically in the only way possible, linking beautifully with the very first volume.  I’ve learned so much about both writing and reading from these books. About how more than anything else, its characters and their relationships with each other that truly grip me in fiction. About history–the linking of the personal with the political (it sounds so cliché, and yet is so true). The tense urgency of her prose, the way her sentences rush on, tumbling into each other. The painfully true observations of the difficulty balancing family life with work, especially as a woman. The shadows of mothers and daughters; the complicated relation with and notion of home. And reigning high above it all is the complexity of Elena and Lila’s friendship, unforgettable and unsurmountable.

I can’t wait to reread all four of these books again.

Lila is right, one writes not so much to write, one writes to inflict pain on those who wish to inflict pain. The pain of words against the pain of kicks and punches and the instruments of death. Not much, but enough. (pg. 309)

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, fiction, review, women writers

“nobody knows what the future holds, it’s bad enough just getting old”

I read this column by Oliver Sacks recently and can’t stop thinking about it. It pretty much broke my heart. I can’t get the last paragraph out of my head: “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.” It’s the kind of Big Question that tons of thinkin’ and contemplatin’ will do pretty much nothing to solve.

Today’s gray rainy sky isn’t doing much either for my general Abraham Lincoln-esque melancholy and moodiness–God, does it ever make the humidity of the East Coast seem like a far and distant memory! This was a VERY emotional and intense summer for me (high school friends from Colombia getting married! Going back to Mexico! A very intense six weeks of summer school work!) and it has frankly been a relief to slip back into the habits and routines of England, even when it’s all tinged with the nostalgic, sehnsucht, saudade knowledge that I will (probably; most likely) be leaving again soon. For good? Who knows. Who knows anything? If you know something about anything could you please tell me? ;D

I’ve enjoyed my time here in England very much, but all things must end. I’m feeling pretty ready to leave but obviously have a few things to take care of first before that can happen (like, oh, IDK, submitting my PhD, DUHHHHR). In the meantime I’m glad to see that the library has gotten their purchasing act on over the summer and has some books in stock that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time. God, reading!! What would I do without you?!

All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

I don’t know if I’m going to do a good job at explaining the effect that this book had on me…maybe it’s the main reason I feel so moody and emotional this morning. Or maybe it’s the fact that I was up until midnight last night finishing it because I couldn’t put it down. Reading this book made me feel like I couldn’t breath. I actually read some parts out loud incredulously to myself because I couldn’t believe the cathartic rawness of the dialogue, while my cat blinked at me incredulously. It’s turned me into a shitty movie critic, wanting to exclaim stuff like “I laughed! I cried!!” It’s hard to articulate the urgent pain of this book, the black anguish that is only made palatable by the Lorrie Moore-like humor. This is the kind of book where I think it’s absolutely essential to know the autobiographical underpinnings of it… I don’t know if I would have maybe read it quite the same way if I’d taken it as “pure” fiction. The only other book I can think of that came close to having a similar effect on me was the equally brilliant Legend of a Suicide by David Vann.

I don’t know. I guess what I find most powerful about books like this one or Legend of a Suicide is that I feel like they’re “teaching” me how to live in face of one of the most spectacularly awful scenarios I can imagine…. and the “lesson” that this book seems to be teaching (or at least what I got out of it) is that humor, writing and reading can be an absolute lifeboat in face of all the dukkha that Buddhists like to rant about. After the narrator’s father steps in front of a train (and this is not even a spoiler considering the rest of the book, believe me,) “he had seventy-seven dollars on him at the time and we used the money for Thai takeout because, as my friend Julie says about times like this: You still have to eat.” (48) You still have to eat, indeed: talk about taking Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” to the ultimate level!

The voice of the narrator is above and beyond what makes this book worth reading. Listen to her response to a therapist’s advice: “When my father killed himself I went to see one and he suggested I write my father a letter… I thanked the therapist and left thinking but my father is dead now. He won’t receive this letter. What’s the point? Can I just have my one hundred and fifty-five dollars back to buy some Chardonnay and a bag of weed?” (115) Or her reaction to her mother’s question: “How are you, sweetheart? she asked. What have you been up to? Having unprotected sex with your mechanic and researching ways to kill your daughter. Not much, I said. Doing some work.” (203) I kept laughing out loud SO many times while reading this book, and considering the subject matter, that’s really saying something.

The other commendable aspect about this book is the pace. As the narrator herself reflects, “Now I’m learning something. Go into hard things quickly, eagerly, then retreat. It’s the same thing for thinking, writing and life. It’s true what Jason said about cleaning a septic tank.” (243) The attitude of going into hard things “quickly” and “eagerly” is a fair assessment of the book itself: it comes off like the ultimate cleaning of the dirtiest septic tank ever. The pace helps with the intense subject matter: the book moves fast, speckled with believable moments and memorable supporting characters. Even though the setting is fairly limited (the majority of the scenes take place in a hospital, and by far most of the conversations in the novel take place between just two characters), this book still reads very quickly, never dragging or feeling stagnant.

Even the narrator’s mother comments reflexively on the challenge of writing a book about “sad” topics: “Okay, she’s sad!” she says at one point about a book. “We get it, we know what sad is, and then the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which our protagonist is sad. Gimme a break! Get on with it!” This book definitely focuses more on the “getting on with it” then the million-and-one descriptions. Ultimately, the biggest question of this book (why does the sister want to die?) is ultimately never answered. Is it a suicide gene? Genetic? A historical burden from their grandparents being massacred in Russia during the revolution; a sort of hereditary violence that cannot be cast off? The pressure from being “perfect”? Self-absorption? The narrator doesn’t know. Nobody knows anything, except that “she wanted to die and I wanted to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”

“If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.” (219)

This book made me rethink about how I want to live my life. That’s really all I’ve been trying to say.

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)

This was another great book to read, albeit not as intense for me as All My Puny Sorrows. I know a few people (okay, two) who didn’t like this book because “it wasn’t as good as Never Let Me Go” or “I don’t like fantasy” or “it was sooo flatly written.” To each her/his own, of course, but fie on all that, I say. Fie on it! Because BOY, can Ishiguro write killer devastating endings that make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the teeth!!

All in all, even though I know (two) people who ho-hummed at this book or even downright sniffed at it–I loved it. I totally respect that Ishiguro has written a follow-up to Never Let Me Go that is completely, radically different (as are all of his books from each other, I suppose)–in terms of voice, subject matter, tone and even genre. Do you know how hard that is to do?! To write so many books that are SO different from each other?? Not that I know what I’m talking about, but still…

All in all, I didn’t love this book as much as Never Let Me Go, but its message still hit me pretty hard. The dialogue is a bit stilted at times (how many times can the main character Axl use the word ‘princess‘ in reference to his wife?) but I eventually figured it was intentional. Some people have said that this is the most ‘Japanese’ of Ishiguro’s books and I’m thinking maybe it kind of is? Again… not like I know what I’m talking about… but maybe people are saying that because of the detached language? IDK, I’m basing this comment off a wikipedia entry for The Tale of Genji so don’t take me too seriously.

What you SHOULD take seriously is that the message of this book is pretty heartbreaking, if you let it hit you the right way, if you let it get under you skin. And yeah, thin-skinned person that I am, this book hit me hard. You gotta let it in.

Is this a story about religious fundamentalism? The chapters narrated by the young Saxon boy most emphasized this for me, especially in this killer final sentence in his section: “His mother was gone, most likely gone beyond all retrieving, but the warrior was well and waiting for him.” Yup, the figure of the mother (compassion and fertility and empathy) is dead; long live the warrior who tells him to hate all Britons for the rest of his life and basically be a mindless killing machine. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers.” So is the buried giant the inescapable cycle of violence? The forces of history that crush ordinary people like Axl and Beatrice underfoot so that their moving love stories are forever lost in the shadow of legends like Arthur & Merlin & dragon slaying?

Or is this a story about old age and forgetting? (I read a review somewhere that claimed it was a parable to Alzeheimer’s, which I can kind of see.) In Never Let Me Go the narrator relished her memories and spent the entire novel remembering/reliving her past. In The Buried Giant, characters can’t help but forget due to an eerie mist that has settled over the land, and at times find themselves wondering “is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” Is it not better, indeed.

I also love how the legacy of Gaiwan, Arthur and Merlin are played with in this novel–maybe I’m crazy, but it made me think of the Iraq War and ISIS. “How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold forever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery?” Rather than a “fantasy” novel I would call this a “mythological” one… or even allegorical… It was really hard not to read this and interpret everything as a parable, even though I was never quite sure it what it was a parable of. I was okay with that uncertainty, though.

I just hope that if they make this into a movie, they don’t change that final scene. Thank God for books and reading and funky Vampire Weekend songs to help fight off the ravages and brutality of time and life and saudade and dukkha and everything!!

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Filed under books, death, review, women writers

Women Writers Are the Best

The following library books are currently sitting on my shelves: The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, Lila by Marilynne Robinson, When Mystical Creatures Attack by Kathleen Founds, God Help the Child by Toni Morrison. As special guests I also have 10:04 by Ben Lerner and The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. Subconsciously or not, I’ve been reading a lot of books by women this year. Is this even worth commenting on? Is it genuinely “out of the ordinary” for me in terms of my reading habits? Do I really want to make the effort and look at my reading lists from previous years and “tally up” the gender balance? The answer to that question is “no, I am lazy.” BUT needless to say this year I have genuinely been enjoying pigging out on the gluttonous diet of fantastic books by contemporary women writers: Hilary Mantel, Jenny Offil, Jenny Erpenbeck… It’s a trend that I want to keep going until the end of the year. Here are some fantastic books I’ve read recently that happen to have been written by women, books I feel so excited about I can’t NOT write about them:

The First Bad Man (Miranda July)

Wow, did this book blow me away. HIGHLY recommended. I liked her short story collection, but wasn’t the world’s #1 biggest fan of it. Her films were also A-OK (especially the talking cat, and the sense of melancholy). However, this book is really something else: the brutality and emotion of it is like a drop-kick in the face.

The narrator of The First Bad Man is Cheryl Glickman, a woman in her 40’s who works for a woman’s self-defense non-profit. She harbors a crush on a board member named Philip who is pursuing an affair with a sixteen-year-old girl. Cheryl also believes she has a karmic connection with a soul called Kubelko Bondy, who reappears in the bodies of newborn babies that she randomly encounters in grocery stores, on sidewalks, etc. All this makes the novel sound much “quirkier” and contrived than it really is, but believe me, the emotional authenticity is there. The plot of the novel basically begins when Cheryl’s bosses ask (demand?) that Cheryl host their twenty-year-old daughter Clee. Clee is a blonde bombshell with enormous breasts who watches TV all day, drinks giant bottles of Diet Pepsi, never bathes, eats Thanksgiving-flavored microwave meals and has a terrible foot odor problem. She is also physically abusive and begins beating Cheryl up. And then…

“And then” is the part that is hard not to spoil but it is also the point in which the book becomes gloriously, deliciously risky and weird. I LOVE reading books like this one, or A.M. Homes May We Be Forgiven, books that just throw ALL CAUTION TO THE WIND and just write WHATEVER regardless of the fact that some people may find it tasteless or gross. It’s a section that’s hard to summarize… um, so essentially to defend herself from Clee’s punches, Cheryl begins re-enacting scenes from the self-defense videos released by her non-profit. And slowly but surely the “roleplaying” potential of these scenes get more and more interesting, but not quite in the way you might expect. It’s a section of the book that raises fascinating 21st-century questions about consent, love, boundaries, communication and how to be an adult in relationships (especially in the light of books like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, two books that my high school students this summer sneeringly call “abusive” and dangerous to society). It’s not just a kinky S&M question–how do you “self-defend” yourself from love and the inevitable pain that follows?

Sometimes I looked at her sleeping face, the living flesh of it, and was overwhelmed by how precarious it was to love a living thing. She could die simply from lack of water. It hardly seemed safer than falling in love with a plant. (213)

What I loved most about this book were the humorous sentences, similes I’d never read before that made me shake my head in awe and snort in delight. I found this one particularly memorable: What would be the emoticon for ‘Carry me to your penthouse and tend to me as a husband?’ (pg. 90) The book also deserves praise for being so readable; it’s almost a literary thriller: a lot of things HAPPEN, major events, in almost every chapter, which keeps the pace brisk and gripping. The novel also did a good job of tying threads together in a satisfying way, so items or characters from early scenes (like Richard the homeless gardener and the snails he asks Cheryl to order) end up having a big emotional payoff. I loved the overall message of this book (at least, the message that I got out of it): that it’s okay for a woman to be “everything.” Motherly and sexual, needy and loving, ugly and brutal. We can be many things all at once, and that’s okay. Also, I don’t know the last time I read such a moving ending: yeah, some people might find it sentimental, but I thought it was an absolute stroke of genius.

There were some things in this book I could have done without. Cheryl’s relationship with her therapist, for example, was something I never quite “got.” I guess the therapist and her Secretarylike relationship with her boss was supposed to be a contrast to Cheryl and Clee? I really didn’t need the scene where the therapist invites Cheryl to pee in an empty carton of Chinese food rather than use the elevator to go up to the bathroom, though–that was probably the one moment that took me out of the novel’s “reality.”

But in the end who cares? I love the final paragraph in this NYTimes review of the book, with its emphasis on loving messy, flawed brave books rather than scared shitless shiny perfection. I’ll take a jagged, wild book like this any day over anything that’s smooth or comforting. Like any modern woman, shouldn’t a modern book deserve to be all things at any time? Gloriously perfect AND flawed?

But as the sun rose I crested the mountain of my self-pity and remembered I was always going to die at the end of this life anyway. What did it really matter if I spent it like this–caring for this boy–as opposed to some other way? I would always be earthbound; he hadn’t robbed me of my ability to fly or live forever. I appreciated nuns now, not the conscripted kind, but modern women who chose it. If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have? (220)

The Days of Abandonment; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Elena Ferrante)

Much has been written about Elena Ferrante and her Neapolitan novels online (including myself, albeit badly & sloppily, LOL). I came to her by way of James Wood and have subsequently recommended her to my mother, sister, sister’s book club and probably many, many other individuals.

Let’s start with The Days of Abandonment, a stand-alone novel. This book follows the simple premise of what would it be like to be “the abandoned woman,” the one who is “known to be left” (as Sharon Olds puts it in one of her poems). I remember feeling “left” in college. Oh, to be dumped at twenty years old! There’s nothing quite like it! Especially with the extremely jolly existence of social media. How miraculous to look back at it now and feel so distant, the memories of library weeping and obsessive livejournal and facebook stalking. That is both the miracle and brutality of time: the fact that things that can feel SO emotionally important and raw to you at one point can after a certain number of years feel like… well, nothing.

This novel very much focuses upon the “raw” period of a break-up, beginning with the scene in which the husband of Olga (the main character) announces that he is leaving her. From them on it is all intense emotional territory, as Olga reflects upon the stories of lost love she heard from her mother, neighbors and books, stories about how “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything, female stories of the end of love, what happens when, overflowing with love, you are no longer loved, are left with nothing.” The woman-who-lost-everything figure that Olga remembers from these stories is referred to as a “poverella,” an unhinged, emotional figure who would strike an icy chord of fear in the hearts of all my ex-boyfriends: “The poverella was crying, the poverella was screaming, the poverella was suffering, torn to pieces by the absence of the sweaty red-haired man, and his perfidious green eyes.” Initially, Olga is resolved to not follow in the “poverlla’s” path: “Don’t act like the poverella, don’t be consumed by tears. Don’t be like the women destroyed in a famous book of your adolescence.” In an extremely self-reflexive statementOlga reflects upon the abandoned, Madame Bovary-like heroines she read about in the novels of her adolescence:

These women are stupid. Cultured women, in comfortable circumstances, they broke like knickknacks in the hands of their straying men. They seemed to me sentimental fools: I wanted to be different, I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife with her lost love at the top of her thoughts. I was young, I had pretensions. I didn’t like the impenetrable page, like a lowered blind. I liked light, air between the slats. I wanted to write stories full of breezes, of filtered rays where dust motes danced. And then I loved the writers who made you look through every line, to gaze downward and feel the vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno.

What ends up being ironic is that The Days of Abandonment is definitely NOT a book about one of these “invincible” characters (which is not to say that Olga herself is not resourceful). There is no “light” or “air between the slats” and “breezes” in this book. A key sequence in the novel’s second half has Olga literally trapped in her apartment by a double-lock that she herself has installed, a hysterical sequence that could almost be a slapstick comedy sequence in a mainstream Hollywood film but in this book turns into a suffocating nightmare. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that had as big of a physical effect as this one did: at times, I felt like I was having trouble breathing as I frantically clicked the turn-page button of my kindle. This is a sign of great literature, I think: when it makes you feel physically sick while reading (haha!).

The other primary emotions conveyed by this novel are Olga’s gradually increasing disgust and rage: against her husband, his new lover, her friends, her downstairs neighbor, her own children, and all those with “the satisfied faces of those who do nothing but fuck.” Boy, would my 20-year-old bitter college self have connected with that line!! These sentences, so savage and blunt! “To blow away the past as if it were a nasty insect that has landed on your hand.” “My husband had rolled up the sense of my beauty into a ball and thrown it into the wastebasket, like wrapping paper.” “I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping…  No matter how much I washed, that stink of motherhood remained.”

Profanity and crudeness plays an important role in this book. As Olga puts it to her husband, “I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife ? Fuck you! What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?” There is a cruel fascination when reading these scenes: you feel like a spy, an eavedropper, a witness to a terrible break-up in a public space. Olga is normally the person that you feel sorry for from a distance, someone who makes you raise your eyebrows and press your lips together, someone your ex-boyfriends would fearfully call “the Glenn Close character from that stalker movie.” Here, though, you are inside her head, witnessing and experiencing without narrative distance, and as a woman writer myself, there was a genuine sense of liberation to that–an “oh that’s right” sense of recognition. She’s the kind of character that John Cheever and John Updike would have written disparaging stories about in the 50’s, but through Ferrante, the figure of the “damaged, abandoned” woman finally gets her say. And boy does she say a lot.

We are occasions. We consummate life and lose it because in some long-ago time someone, in the desire to unload his cock inside us, was nice, chose us among women. We take for some sort of kindness addressed to us alone the banal desire for sex. We love his desire to fuck, we are so dazzled by it we think it’s the desire to fuck only us, us alone. Oh yes, he who is so special and who has recognized us as special. We give it a name, that desire of the cock, we personalize it, we call it my love. To hell with all that, that dazzlement, that unfounded titillation. Once he fucked me, now he fucks someone else, what claim do I have? Time passes, one goes, another arrives.

This is a brutally powerful book that I will likely never forget, and that I recommend to pretty much everyone.

The Neapolitan novels have a much grander and more ambitious scope than Abandonment (especially since you’re not trapped in an apartment with a character for 50+ pages!). While the first story in the trilogy, My Brilliant Friendfollows the story of Elena and Lila in childhood, The Story of a New Name follows them through the early days of marriage and coming-of-age, while Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is firmly grounded in university years, adulthood and motherhood (two very big “‘hoods” indeed). All novels are set in Naples and can be seen as “Big,” “Ambitious,” Jonathan Franzen-type books in the sense that the small-scale stories of the characters (their relationships, their goals, their families) are closely intertwined with the bigger story of Italy in the 1960’s onwards.

The focus is definitely on Elena and Lila, though, and this is what makes the series so pleasurable and powerful to me. I can’t remember the last time I read a book this affecting and realistic about a close female friendship… if ever. Emily Gould? Judy Blume? See, I’m straining here. The relationship between Elena and Lila is definitely at the heart of the novel–the way they both love and need each other is contrasted with their fear and jealousy, their attempts to both help and sabotage each other. Elena especially struggles with the feeling that Lila is truly the “brilliant” one of the friendship, and that if only Lila had had the same educational opportunities as Elena, it’d Lila who was the famous writer, not her. As Elena herself puts it, when reflecting upon Lila’s troubles, “This is the life that could have been mine, and if it isn’t, it’s partly thanks to her.”

The social context of Italy shines through especially in Book #3, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, particularly through Lila’s wretched job at a sausage factory. Many of the same themes from The Days of Abandonment, especially that of women being defined by men, are also present. What I love most about this series, though, is that is is a book that you feel rather than read; it is something you live through and experience rather than witness. Elena and Lila are passionate, fierce characters who make mistakes and hurt each other and are all too human and familiar, and this more than anything is a mark of great writing.

The End of the Story (Lydia Davis)

Yet another brutally honest book about the end of a relationship. How many times have I typed the word “brutal” in these reviews?! Ouch, ouch, ouch. There were so many moments while reading this book that I thought “THIS IS ME.” So many folded-over pages to mark memorable passages that it bordered on book vandalism. At one point I even inhaled my breath sharply in self-recognition, as though I’d been stabbed.

This is an utterly unique, devastating novel with no plot–the closest thing it has to a traditional structure is the narrator’s obsession with a disintegrating love affair. If The Days of Abandoment is about raw in-the-moment emotions, this book is more focused on distance, organization, and analysis. Even the narrator’s lover remains fairly anonymous by the book’s final page (we never learn his name). The lack of affect and emotion in this book! And yet somehow it still makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut! The numbing repetition that can’t help but remind you of your own paralyzingly negative, self-defeating thoughts! The ruthlessness and bluntness with which the narrator observes her motivations! The dark, dark humour!

Like Davis herself, the narrator of this novel is a translator, and is obsessed with what she calls “the dry, precise voices” of the editors of the dictionary she uses–a razor-sharp, dictionary-like precision that is reflected in the style of the novel itself. I had so many “oh god, this is ringing true” moments while reading this… the way she relives/replays moments of their relationship in her head, her dependency/obsession with drinking, the way she won’t get dressed or shower until she feels “thoroughly ripened.” (22) (What a way to describe depression-induced body odor: “ripened!”) The terrible barbecue she and her lover host with too many guests and not enough chicken, the way they become “frightened” by the guests’ hunger. The invasion of her house by insects at the end, the way she saves a moth from drowning “so that it could continue annoying me. But for all its persistence and energy it would not live much longer anyway.” (216)

There are WAY too many quotes that got me while reading this, so I am going to be really ruthless and only type up a few here… the weird thing with Davis is that the power of a lot these quotes is lost without the context, IMHO… her prose is definitely dependent on a build-up, cumulative effect and don’t work too well on their own. But here are a few:

Another thing that bothered me more acutely now was the way I changed when I was with him, into a person I did not quite recognize, even though I told myself I did not have to be the same… I would often play the part of a person I hardly recognized and usually did not like, and the more uncomfortable I was, the nastier this person became. I wasn’t even playing a part, really, since I did not do it deliberately… It was not a different person who appeared at these times but a side of myself that did not appear when I was alone or with other friends, one that was flippant, condescending, self-centered, sarcastic and mean. To be all these things was quite natural to me, even though I did not like them.” (102)

I could not always do what I had to do. For instance, I could not always do even a small cleaning job, and I stepped in my own messes. Once it was a wide smear of tomato pulp I had left on the kitchen floor. I was walking around in my socks talking out loud to him. I stepped in the tomato pulp, and instead of changing my sock I lay down on the bed and read a story, a quiet, well-written, but dull story about deer hunting, while my damp foot, hanging off the edge of the bed, grew colder and colder.” (160)

What did boredom mean then? That nothing more would happen with him. It wasn’t that he was boring, it was that I no longer had any expectations for this companionship with him. There had been expectations, and they had died… what had once been so complete was now so incomplete.” (131)

“I didn’t have him, but I had this writing, and he could not take it away from me.” (197)

Just like all the others, I highly recommend this book. Long live women writers!

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Filed under books, review, women writers

IFFP Panel and updated reviews

Everything’s exhausting (<– the best way to utter this sentence is to sing it to the tune of that Lego Movie song). It’s only been exhausting lately, though. Just that time of year. And what’s good is that very, very soon this exhaustion will be done once Easter break starts. Lisbon!! I’m ready for you… not so much for your half-marathon (LOL) but definitely for your infamous custard desserts, which are obviously going to be the best way for me to get in touch with my Portuguese ancestry :D

Something that is definitely AWESOME rather than exhausting is that this year I am on the Shadow IFFP jury! This is an informal group of happy blogging folks who love reading translated & international fiction. We are going to read ALL of the books on this list (with the same kind of BRING IT ON attitude with which one decides to clean all the things). We are then going to select our own shortlist (which will most likely be different from the official one) and then before the real winner is announced we’ll have a top-secret vote/Hunger Games fight-to-the-death and crown our very own 2015 IFFP Prize Shadow Champion. This is a completely unofficial endeavor; there is nothing in it for anybody rather than reading tons of good books, talking about them, discovering new authors and hopefully promoting high-quality translated fiction along the way (you can read all about the other panelists here).

Um, I am also going to be honest and say that I am probably not going to to read EVERY single book on the list by the time the shortlist is announced sometime in mid-April… (sorry Knausgaard, you are probably not going to make the cut… but I totally want to read you someday! I promise!!) BUT either way I am super excited and can’t wait to get started with Murakami tomorrow. I’m also looking forward to Can Xue and Tomás González (a Colombian author I’d heard of but have never read).

In the meantime, here’s an update on some books I’ve read lately in what so far has been a relatively s.l.o.o.o.w. reading year for me… something that is hopefully going to change (!). Before I get started, let me just say that there are TOO MANY GOOD BOOKS in the world. I could have easily given all of the books below an asterisk (which represents excellence) on my reading list–I’ve basically had to refrain myself from actually implementing my usual ranking system or else every book I’ve read so far this year would have one and my list would look totally whack…

My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante)

Well, I just gobbled this book down like I was bingeing on Netflix. **** TV! Read books!! I’m currently reading the sequel (The Story of a New Name), but as much as I love being immersed in Naples-world I’m probably going to have to put it aside for now due to all the other reading I have to do (see IFFP news above).

There were several reasons why I found this book (and am finding its sequel) so addictive. The first is the complete and utter pleasure of being sucked into a world that I know absolutely nothing about–I’ve never been to Naples, am obviously not part of the generation of any of these characters, so when I read this book I am basically in a WHOLE NEW WORLD a la Aladdin. THIS is what the very best fiction can do: suck you into an unfamiliar universe that is utterly absorbing. The world-building and level of detail here is comparable to that of a well-done fantasy novel, and I obviously mean that as a big, big compliment.

I also love this book’s ambition– we start out small, with a Judy Blume-esque friendship between two young girls, and then slowly but surely the scope of the novel gets bigger and bigger, taking in the society that they are living in as a whole. Capitalism, communism, and the brutal lack of choice these women are faced with are just a few of the Big Themes this extremely well-executed book grapples with. Let me tell you, as a 21st-century female this book made me feel privileged as hell, especially in terms of the choices I’ve been able to make in regards to my education.

This novel has so much going for it. The prose is very straightfoward and easy to read. The characters are incredibly rich: forever surprising you, full of mystery and contradictions. This adds to one of the biggest pleasures of the novel–you’re constantly trying to figure people out, their motivations, their true selves vs. the roles they must play in society (some of these people would fit right in with Game of Thrones, matching wits with the very best of the Tyrells and Lannisters). Similarly to Game of Thrones, the cast in this book is massive–just listing their names and professions takes up a good 4-5 pages at the beginning (this sure would be one expensive HBO series).

The other thing this book does extremely well are Killer Pay-offs–devastating moments in the book that happen after long build-ups, which make you realize how much you have emotionally invested in these characters. There’s the wedding scene at the end, when you realize that the titular role of the “brilliant friend” has been brutally reversed. Or the fate of a pair of shoes. Or a teacher’s reaction to an old pupil’s visit. Ufff I could go on but I don’t want to spoil anything.

This book served as a strong reminder to me that one of the main reasons I read is for well-developed and interesting characters. Give me characters who want something, who are flawed and complex, and I’ll hang out with them all day. Best of all–there are still TONS of Elena Ferrante books in the world left for me to read!

The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)

“A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”

This book (and sentences like the one above) pretty much broke my heart. It’s the only book I’ve read on the IFFP list, but I am already (foolishly) thinking it will most likely make my shortlist. The premise is simple, could even be summarized in cheesy phrases: What would happen if this happened and not that? What would the road not taken be like? What if all the roads not taken by a character were all narrated as a single storyline?

From this premise, we thus get a single character who lives many lives, dying and living repeatedly in various incarnations: as an infant who dies in her crib, as a teenage girl in pre-World War II Austria, as a communist intellectual in Moscow, as an old woman in reunified Germany. The ambition in terms of geography and history in this book is stupefying. On a very personal level, I also find this theme of what-might-have-been, what-could-be absolutely gut-wrenching. What keeps us whole in face of the brutal forces of history? How do we keep going? Is something like a complete set of Goethe books (which plays a key role through the novel) enough compensation? With this book and Visitation I now officially bow down to the altar of Erpenbeck, forever and ever.

The Serialist (David Gordon)

Love, love, loved this. Stayed up till 2AM reading it. A Bolaño-esque romp through New York with vampires, trashy sci-fi and pornography, as well as a good dose of Silence-of-the-Lambsesque serial killers, unsuccessful writers-as-detectives and good ol’ page-turning classic plotting fun. The chapters are all super short, which helps makes this book feel like it just flies by. The style is easily readable as well (my kind of writing! No flowery or lyrical prose for me; I’m all about being prosaic). The hysterical scene of Brooklyn hipsters giving a reading in Chapter 20 is alone worth the price of admission. Oh my God, the satire! The convention of ‘expensive jeans, ironic vintage T-shirts and interesting glasses‘, and references to 90’s cartoon shows! (pg. 73) It’s all too painfully familiar for my generation, and a convenient reminder of why I could never live in New York…
I also loved the part in which the narrator contemplates organizing a brigade of writers, like during the Spanish Civil War, in order to help combat crime: ‘I had an image of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem, dressed in matching windbreakers and parked outside my building with flashlights, waiting for Squad Captain DeLillo to call in on the walkie-talkie. ‘Right,’ I said. ‘A gang of armed neurotics. We’d all shoot ourselves or each other.” (pg. 189) LOVE IT. Bolaño would approve.

I keep mentioning Bolaño… I guess because this novel reminded me of something the Bolaño character says in Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis: I read everything, even bits of paper blowing down the street.” This attitude of complete and utter openness to anything and everything is (for me) not just a literary stance, but a political one. A vital one. An essential attitude towards life, an openness and willingness to anything and everything. For me, the willingness to read everything–bits of paper, detective novels, trashy murder mysteries–isn’t just an attitude towards literature, it’s a lifestyle.

I could say more on that theme but I won’t for now. Instead, I thus heartily recommend this book to anybody who loves reading in its purest form, as utter escapism–reading as fun, as a joy. Here are my favorite quotes, which I can’t help but share:

‘Why do we read? In the beginning, why do we love the books we love? For most, I think, it’s travel, a flight into adventure, into a dream that feels like our own. But for a few it is also escape, flight from boredom, unhappiness, loneliness, from where or who we can no longer bear to be. When I read, the words on the page replace the voice in my head and I cease, for a little while, to be me, or at least to be so painfully aware of being me. These are the real readers, the maniacs, the ones who dose themselves with fiction the way junkies get high, the way lovers adore the beloved: beyond reason.

This kind of reading, ironically, precedes all judgement. Objective criteria don’t enter in, any more than with love. (I say ironically because it is these very readers who, having fallen for books, become scholars, critics, editors–in other words, snobs–while maintaining their secret vice.) Genre fans–vampire lovers, sci-fi geeks, mystery addicts–are a kind of atavistic species, a pure but anomalous breed. They still read like children, foolish and grave, or like teenagers, desperate and courageous. they read because they need to.’ (139)

‘But of course we have only one world, this dark and knotty one, and the truth we find when we look too deep is rarely pretty. Unlike in books, where we are all fearless seekers, in life, most of us would rather not see too clearly.’ (259)

The Scatter Here Is Too Great (Bilal Tanweer)

An enjoyable read. This is a linked collection which acts as a hybrid between novel and short story collection–it’s probably more on the novel side, as I feel most of the pieces would lose something essential if they were read on their own. The book is narrated in multiple voices–traumatized ambulance drivers, young children, aspiring writers, a teenage girl–who are connected by a central event, a bomb blast on a bus in urban Pakistan.

Overall, I liked the stories narrated from the kids’ point of view the best. The strongest for me was the final one, in its haunting, hallucinatory romp through a city labyrinth in search of a man called the Bird of Death–it reads like Kafka and Borges had a baby, and how could I not love a child like that, right? In terms of basic plot points, by the book’s end I was still confused about how the father (Baba) died, but I suspect it was in there somewhere and I just missed it. I also really liked the subtle understatement of the narration, and how we never actually see the moment of the bomb blast itself. There is a lot about this book that is resistant to neat categorization and commercialism–a refusal to tie up loose ends, to turn the book into a nice pretty comforting narrative full of cute Crash-like coincidences. I respect that a lot–the resistance to make things feel complete. Here’s to chaos and fragmentation!

Young Skins (Colin Barrett)

This is one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve ever read (it’s deservedly already appearing on lists like these). I could read stories like “Calm With Horses” all day (fortunately it’s novella length). In these stories we see garbage-filled yards, Alsatians accidentally swallowing wasps, distant fathers working in mines, brutal Irish young adulthood, and pubs, pubs, pubs. The endings are for the most part understated and open. The language is straightforward and to the point. I loved the theme of having stories narrated from the POV of right-hand men, the silent hulking bodyguards who are usually only treated as background material in most gangster, hard-knock-life type films. Strong stories include the aforementioned “Calm With Horses,” “The Clancy Kid” (which opens the collection and has a fantastic scene of a crown-wearing kid guarding a bridge; what a way to evoke Irish mythology, history and the loss of childhood innocence in one go) and “Diamonds” (love the rehab theme). The unexpected switch of perspectives at the end of “Stand Your Skin” and “Kindly Forget My Existence” are also incredible and serve as excellent examples of the kind of gut-punch gesture that the short story form is capable of. My God, there are so many good books to read in this world, and this is definitely, definitely, definitely one of them.

 

Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill)

Fuck the plot, as Edna O’Brien said. What I try to capture as a writer is the feeling of being alive, of being awake. Because of this, I’m more apt to follow the wisp of a thought or a half-glimpsed image than chart a sequential series of events. But I absolutely believe in momentum. Momentum is not plot, but it has that same quality of urgency and forward motion, I think.

The quote above is from Jenny Offill’s interview with The Paris Review, and I think it captures a lot about what I enjoyed about this book: the momentum. It’s like an avant-garde, fragmented Lorrie Moore–the humor plays a HUGE role in making a book this “experimental” (whatever that means) work. The plot is simple: a girl and a boy meet, get married, have a baby, go through relationship trouble. What really makes this book exemplary, though, is the execution: it’s narrated in short, often disconnected sentences that form fragmented vignettes–almost like prose poetry. It reminded me of Renata Adler, though I found this book a lot more approachable and enjoyable than Adler–I guess I will always be an old-fashioned plot person at heart. But the style makes sense to me in terms of the content–what relationship is whole rather than fragmented, right? What better way to narrate a long-term love story other than in little moments?

Besides love & sorrow, there’s also bedbugs. And part-time jobs that involve astronauts. There’s fun facts about Buddhism and random quotations. There’s reflections on marriage + art (especially in terms of being a woman & mother). It also deserves to be said that the reading list on Offill’s website (of books that helped inspire her novel) looks absolutely stunning, not least for the inclusion of Mary Ruefle. Overall, this book was good for my soul, and  chances are it’ll be pretty damn good for yours, too.

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Filed under books, review, short stories, women writers

Art and Revolution

I really enjoyed this book. It was given to my sister by her friend in Oakland. I’ve never read Alma Guillermoprieto before, but apparently she’s the Latin American correspondent for the New Yorker, a publication I wish I had the $ to subscribe to (even more so now that all their fiction and poetry is subscription-only).

A lot of this book hit close to home for me. I loved Alma’s younger-self narrator: her constant self-critcism, her dislike of her ignorance about politics and Latin American affairs, her love for art, her low self-esteem, her poor choices in men. Even the section where she contemplates suicide is charming. To me, Dancing With Cuba isn’t a good book just because it’s a snapshot of a very specific time and place, or because I learned a lot about Cuba while reading it. More than anything, I liked this book because it powerfully captures the feeling of what it’s like to be young and confused and enamored of art and completely lost in your life.

I really liked the theme in this book about the relationship between Art and Politics. The description of all the delegation of poets and intellectuals coming to Cuba to fiercely debated such as question reminded me of the section in The Savage Detectives, in which one of the main characters gives up art in order to go fight in Nicaragua. There an El Salvadorean poet in Dancing that sums up the dilemma with the following query: “Do I write sonnets or devote myself to studying peasant revolution?” (263) It reminds me of similar questions raised by Bolaño, or of the life of Rodolfo Walsh. It’s a question that young-Alma struggles with quite a bit. My question is, is it possible to combine the two? (Maybe fact that she ended up as a journalist, writing about Latin American politics and writing very openly poetic, subjective memoirs, proves that it is!)

There were lots of interesting questions raised in this book. I liked the part where she talks about stillness vs. consciousness, in terms of modern dance. Apparently in the Merce Cunnigman style of modern dance, the key concept is stillness: “the quiet that things and beings achieved when they have no consciousness of themselves, when they simply are, without intention or aim. Consciousness, however, was Fidel’s key word–self-consciousness, class consciousness, revolutionary consciousness–an in Cuba a human being without aim or intention was inconceivable, unless of course he was a vago–a slacker–who, as Fidel began proposing around the time, deserved to be thrown in jail.” (94)

What is the point of the aritst or intellectual in society? This question is asked again and again. Should they be thrown out into the sugar cane fields, put to work that’s actually productive and useful, work that is concretely measurable via statistics and units? There’s another interesting section that I can’t find right now, in which she talks about how the communist conception of an economy treats it as a machine, as opposed to a living, breathing organism that is affected by lots of different systems, as opposed to a strictly input-output mechanism. I really like this parallel, and think that it would be useful to apply it to a lot of different subjects (I’ve heard similar ideas discussed in trainings I’ve received for one of my non-profit jobs). It really feels sometimes like the knowlege of humanity is moving away from the conception of life as a mechanism, and more towards life (and people, and relationships, and social justice, and so on) as a living, breathing organism, composed of and balanced by many different systems…

I heartily approved of the narrator’s treatment of Fidel, as well as most of the Revolutionary rhetoric that fills the book. I first picked this book up with slight apprehension, mostly due to the subtitle, A Memoir of the Revolution: Oh no, what if this is filled with Fidel love? Thankfully, it’s not, and when it is you can very clearly see how the author is making a point about how seductive that kind of “Viva la Revolucion!” talk can be. As one of the Cubans says early on in the novel, if it weren’t for the Revolution, a lot of Cubans would feel like they had nothing to live for, no purpose in life. I mean, how would you feel if you had to leave your job at the hospital or the university and go cut sugar cane in the fields para la causa for hours and hours, if you had an inkling at the back of your mind that la causa was very, very troubling and problematic?

I also liked Alma’s discussion of Che. I think she does a good job of summing him up and being approrpriately intimidated, repulsed and fascinated by him. Her reaction was similar to mine after reading his massive biography last year, in the sense that good-bad judgements aside, what Che’s life boils down to is that not many people can live like that. They really, really can’t.
 
I’d like to read more of Guillermoprieto’s work, for sure. Here are some other works mentioned in this book that I’d like to check out at some point:
– the film Memorias del subdesarollo
– Poesia en movimento: Mexico 1915-1966 (ed. Octavio Paz) 
– Mario Benedetti poetry
Paradiso by Jose Lezma Lima

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Self-Help

I finally finished a book, for the first time since I read Dave Eggers’ The Wild Things in one sitting on May 10th (according to GoodReads, which I still oh so diligently update, even in these days of sorrow and strife). Yay!

The book in question was the short story collection by Lorrie Moore, Self-Help, which I believe is her very first book. It was a reading assignment from the brand spanking new women-only book club I just joined (we’re meeting at my house next Tuesday!). Self-Help contains the first story I ever read by Moore, the wonderful “How to be a Writer.” (“You’re Ugly, Too” is my other all-time favorite Moore piece, which sets the bar high for stories about pulling little black hairs from your chin.) Even though I first read it yonks ago, all the way back in one of CTY’s nerd camp summer sessions, it still contains the best advice about writing I’ve read in its gem of a first sentence (“First, try to be something, anything, else.”)

I really liked most of the short stories in this book. My favorites were the ones that follow the same method of “How to Be a Writer,” narrated in the second-person, Choose Your Own Adventure style. The only full length novel I’ve ever read that was narrated in this manner was written by Tom Robbins (“Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas”? Was that it? I remember enjoying it but I would probably appreciate all the extraterrestrial kidnappings and Timothy Leary references now as my post-college self, as opposed to my sixth-grade self). We’ve done some exercises in my creative expressions class, writing in the second person, and it’s interesting to consider what the style does to your writing. It always makes me feel so… I dunno. Like what’s happening in the story is so immediate. The other thing that’s really weird, is that even though the story is narrated as “you,” it’s not like Choose Your Own Adventure, where the characters are completely bland and you can just insert yourself in them–thus replacing the “you” character as “me”, seeing yourself as the deep space explorer, the deep sea diver. In these Lorrie Moore stories, the “you” characters have very distinctive personalities: brothers wounded in the Vietnam war, names like Trudy, mothers that die of cancer and heart problems. So when I read “you,” I don’t really think “WHO ME?”, it’s more like “oh ok this distinct female character who’s being addressed as you.” Anyway… it’s an interesting technique.

God, I just love female authors like Lorrie Moore, Melissa Bank and Ali Smith who can write such cutting and funny and emotionally devastating sentences that just feel so true. Maybe for the next month or so I should try reading only female authors and see what effect it has on my emotional state. Of all the stories in this book, I HIGHLY recommend tracking down and reading the last one, “To Fill.” It is just a killer.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just quote one little bit, from page 138 (it’s not even the best part of the story, but it still made me LOL, and it feels good to LOL these days):

He’s not really interested in what’s inside, complains Amahara. I want a guy who wants my heart, you know? I want him to look for my heart.
You know when he’s fumbling with your breasts? I flutter my eyes at Amahara. He’s looking for your heart. They all do that.
What a bitter hag I have become.
Amahara grins. He’s really into orange.
But what does that mean, into orange?
Like really into it. She smiles enigmatically.
The color?
Yeah. Really into it.
But what do you mean? His car? His hair? Your hair?
His life, she says dramatically. He’s really into it.
Into it, I repeat dumbly, believing I am trying to understand; what is wrong with me, I thought we were on speaking terms, what are speaking terms am I on them with anyone am I from outer space, is she?
I can’t believe, I say firmly, hoping it will pass, that a person could be so into it.
For damn sure, says Amahara.

Love it. I also loved “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Lorrie Moore is the only writer I have ever encountered who possesses such a wonderful understanding of the love that exists in the relationship between a girl and her cat, and I am so, so grateful for that.

I’m currently reading A Gate at the Stairs now (Moore’s latest novel). By currently reading I mean I’ve read the first two pages : ) I think maybe I’ll read some works by Jennifer Egan next; I really enjoyed all her short stories that appeared in the New Yorker and Tin Drum. I have an ENORMOUS stack of library books currently sitting on the shelf that makes me feel horribly GUILTY: The Lost City of Z, Imperial (I should just give up the ghost on this one and return it, seriously), Valis, The Spell of the Sensuous, The Secret Life of Plants, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Eaarth, The Yellow Wind, The Farmworker’s Journey, Anna Karenina, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew and the Heart of the Middle East. Fourteen books!!! My GOD! How many more times will the library let me renew them without impunity? I had to return The Pedagogy of the Oppressed yesterday, which had remained unread for a good two months, and I fear that this is to be the fate of many others……………….

Some random images of what comes up in the google image search for “Self-Help.”

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Filed under books, comfort food, depression, self-help, short stories, women writers