You Were Never Really Here

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You Were Never Really Here (Jonathan Ames)

Yesterday, while N. and his brother played vintage games (such as Street Gangs, and one that involved a knight wandering around a castle, killing bats and snakes), I bought a book on the kindle app on my phone and read it. We’d gone out the night before for N’s birthday, during which I had a very long and interesting conversation with someone about an Indonesian Christian who praised the coming of colonialism (I know…). So the next day I wanted something easy to read, relaxing, perfect for a Sunday afternoon of lounging about, like ya do. So what better choice than a novella filled with VIOLENCE, GRIMNESS, and THE TRAUMA OF AN ABUSIVE CHILDHOOD?

I wanted to read this book because I loved the film (one of the best I’ve seen this year, along with First Reformed and Netflix’s I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore). The film genre of “Joaquin Phoenix plays a lunatic” is one that I decidedly enjoy, and I also loved how it reminded me of Taxi Driver. The book definitely did not disappoint, though (SPOILER WARNING): the book is decidedly different from the film – most specifically, the book ends MUCH earlier than the film does. The film also gives more dialogue and presence to the kidnapped girl, which is good. I did read an interview with the author somewhere (who incidentally used to date Fiona Apple, and had a song written about him) that he’s writing a sequel – I wonder how similar the sequel will be to the film, or not… if it’s a George RR Martin kind of situation…

I was surprised by how much this book reminded of The Remains of the Day – not only in the sense that Joe, the main character, is somewhat of an robot, but in the sense that (like Stephens the butler) he was deliberately CONDITIONED to be that way (in Joe’s case, by the Marines and FBI). This… is something that fascinates me about masculinity, about young men who are purposefully PROGRAMMED to be mindless killing machines. Or unknowingly allow themselves to be. As Homo Deus would put it, putting the lizard brain over consciousness.

Overall, You were Never Really Here would be perfect to teach in a novel writing or crime course (and indeed, I might very well use it this academic year): it’s very short, very well-written, and very readable. What I found particularly interesting about the book, in contrast to the film, was how much we were able to go inside Joe’s head – whereas in the film, you’re just “watching” him (or seeing his flashbacks). OK, this is a very Basic Creative Writing 101 observation, but it’s true. Joe’s interiority is presented in a very matter of fact, almost deadened way that I often found very funny (because I’m a dark, sick person):

“Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking. All day long, every few minutes, he’d think, I have to kill myself.”

“He was aware that he was not completely sane, so he kept himself in rigid check, playing both jailer and prisoner.”

“Joe tortured himself, imagining what McCleary’s toes must look like. He thought of putting them in his mouth. Joe hated his own mind. He wished he could be put down like a dog.”

Yeah. So clearly, self-hatred and trauma are a big element of this character. There’s something brutally comical about how he approaches every situation so logically, so coldly: “He thought of burning the house down, but he didn’t want to risk killing any neighbours. The house would have to be left intact.” He’s even explicitly compared to a weapon at one point. Is this… the future of humanity? In terms of automation?

Another impressive achievement of this book was its handling of action scenes, or “choreography,” as my students like to call it. Not that I’ve ever tried writing a complicated action scene, but what made the ones in “You Were Never Really Here” compelling (and there are indeed quite a few setpieces) wasn’t just the force of the violence, but these beautiful, unexpected observations, like this one.

You break your adversary’s fingers, you have an immediate advantage. It frightened even the hardest men to have their fingers snapped, and in a fight, like a dance, you often held hands.”

Comparing a fight to a dance – wow! Never thought of it that way before. Playful and memorable.

What was also very interesting to me were the parts where the narrator is just so DIRECT with the reader about Joe. In the sense that it’s the narrator who’s giving us information, as opposed to Joe himself:

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started.”

At his core, Joe was a very angry boy who had never gotten proper vengeance on his father, which is what a boy like Joe needed. Though it’s not always vengeance; sometimes it’s justice.”

So explicit! Some of my students would definitely be like… YO, this is TELLING, not SHOWING. But I think it creates a lot of pathos for Joe. SEE… WRITING HAS NO RULES… U CAN DO ANYTHING…

The last thing I want to say about this book is that there are two VERY interesting moments in which we leave Joe’s head and enter the consciousness of two other characters – this is something we definitely don’t (and indeed cannot) see in the film. I won’t spoil it, but both moments tie in very beautifully with this passage (I know I’m sharing a lot of excerpts here, but I can’t help it):

Joe knew that all human beings are the star of their own very important film, a film in which they are both camera and actor; a film in which they are always playing the fearful and lonely hero who gets up each day hoping to finally strike upon the life they are meant to lead, though they never do.”

These brief forays into the other two non-Joe characters are like sneaky glimpses into these other films – and the idea that everyone thinks they’re the star of their own story, when they’re really just… cannon fodder. It reminds me how I used to feel curious as a teen about the nameless and faceless henchmen who get massacred in films, like those poor dudes getting killed by raptors in the long grass, in that one The Lost World scene.

Overall, this was exactly what I want out of fiction: down, dirty, and readable.

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Filed under contemporary, fiction, review, violence

Beowulf

I’m at N’s family house for a few days while he gets his car fixed, a sort of mini-retreat, mini-vacation. N’s grant is taking him to Japan for three months in the fall, to research Soseki’s archives and eat lots of omurice. I’ve rented a room in Sheffield for that same period because I spent so much of last academic year being sick (did I have the Australian flu? Was it spending so much time on the train?) – I need a break from the commute, and without N in Norwich I want/need a change of scene. If someone had told me in 2012 that I would still be in Norwich, six years later, my jaw would have slowly but surely dropped open. I like Norwich a lot, though. Am I staying in England, now that my PhD is finally finished? I miss my parents – they’re getting older (my mom has a milestone b-day coming up), and I want to spend time with them. I don’t know how they do it – travelin’ round the world like a couple of youngsters. I guess it helps that they don’t buy plane tickets that involve two stops!

One of the nicest things about staying at N’s house is the opportunity to examine his bookshelves (not a childhood bookshelf, unfortunately, more like university era). The antique book his grandfather bought in Japan in the 1950’s. The 2005 Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook he bought when he was trying to decide between teaching English there or in Japan. And his Oxford MA books. So many editions of Chaucer! So many Icelandic tales! (I had no idea Iceland had such a rich literary history *embarrassed shrug*) And the Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney, which I pulled from the shelf since it seemed like a nice follow-up to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had this year (though it was technically auditory, as it was an audio book – God, does Neil Gaiman have the most soothing voice!). As a bonus connection, Gaiman was apparently involved in writing the screenplay for that weird Beowulf movie in which Angelina Jolie is kinda (digitally) naked but kinda not.

I read the Introduction first which immediately spoiled the “plot” in the second paragraph. Fine by me! I’m the kind of person who still googles movie spoilers (but only of films I plan on NEVER seeing, such as the new Star Wars, which I tend to end up watching on airplanes anyway). N. tells me about how in his Oxford class on Beowulf, he was the only non-Oxford alumni, and thus the only student who hadn’t already read it in the original Old English. He had to teach himself Old English! (It sounds very strange when read aloud) He also tells me about how the only copy of Beowulf was almost destroyed in an 18th-century fire (how many other works of literature have been lost in such random ways? A truly Bolaño-esque question), and how a lot of Beowulf critics sneer at Heaney’s translation for taking “liberties” to be “accessible” to the “layman.” To this I say: Thank you very much, Seamus! And a big, big thank you to whoever wrote the line notes in the margins, helpfully providing clarifying explanations of the text (the ones about genealogy were especially helpful: The Danes have legends about their warrior kings. The most famous was Shield Sheafson, who ruled the founding house.)

As an absolute novice with no knowledge about epic poetry whatsoever (um… is this an epic poem? :O), I thought this translation was absolutely fantastic. Very readable and stark and lovely. In the introduction Heamey talks about how he was inspired by the men of his Irish family, how a simple sentence like “We cut the corn today” could feel incredibly solemn and weighted with meaning. And hence his decision to translate the first word of the poem as “So,” as opposed to “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend,” “listen,” etc. God, isn’t translation nuts? N. told me that the original Old English word for “ocean” is technically “whale road,” which I think is so beautiful! But not exactly layman speak, so makes sense that Heaney didn’t include it.

What a strange ass story this is! Here’s a list of things I found strange (contains spoilers):

  1. Grendel is killed REALLY quickly. Like… in the first third of the story!! I thought Beowulf was ABOUT Beowulf vs. Grendel! What on earth is going to happen next, I wondered.
  2.  Answer: stories within stories! Isn’t it nuts how this is such a common theme of ancient poetry? And yet in contemporary fiction it’s like “lol u r so experimental.” Reading the Introduction first was very helpful in this regard, as it helped me be prepared.
  3. Beowulf is… kind of a dick? He brags about swimming through the ocean with his sword and armour (UM, not possible, she says snarkily). And after killing Grendel’s mother, he CHOPS OFF Grendel’s head when Grendel is already dead, just to bring a trophy back. Not very sportsmanlike!
  4. Beowulf is basically the story of a life – the contrast between a young warrior, and then a warrior past his prime, at the end of his days. Did not expect this!
  5.  The balance between warrior heroic culture and Christian morality. OK, I sort of stole this observation from N., who wrote an essay about it for his Oxford degree (ermagod, so smart rite). Basically… there is this weird juxtaposition throughout the poem between Beowulf being obsessed with his honour, his legacy, his name, with dying a “good” death as a hero, and between characters jumping in and saying “Oh it’s all thanks to the Lord that this was able to happen!” The written version we have of Beowulf was transcribed just as Christianity was an up and coming religion, but the ORIGINAL version of Beowulf was almost certainly pagan. So it’s almost like the story can’t decide what it wants to be. Because if you believe in Jesus… why would you care so much about your name existing with honour, when going to chill with J.C. in Heaven is supposed to be the most important eternal reward? It is… weird. But as Heaney says in the introduction, it is this contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty, that helps make Beowulf a work of art. I like this idea, that something is more artful when it ISN’T cohesive, when it has these jagged, rough edges.
  6. Parts of this poem are really very beautiful! Especially the parts about death. There’s a big theme of “money and power will not make you happy.” This makes me feel better about my churchmouse income bracket.

All in all, I feel richer for having read this. Ancient stories, man. Why does everything always have to happen in three’s? Can’t wait fo Elon Musk to write an algorithm that explains THAT :/

I also feel incredibly grateful for my university education, and the background it gave me in the classics, even though I certainly wasn’t the best student at the time.

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Filed under books, classic, pondering the future, review

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION (Ottessa Moshfegh)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other quotes I liked:

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

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

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

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Filed under books, consciousness, review, women writers

Early summer / late spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Horror

Such Small Hands (Andrés Barba); Devil’s Day (Andrew Michael Hurley); Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enríquez)

My horror obsession has returned… is it a hangover from four years of reading/writing/thinking about Bolaño? Or maybe because my life in England feels very quiet and small most of the time. Routine-filled. I spend a lot of time by myself, or with the cat. I am working a lot on a writing project and rarely leave the house. I do try to see a friend at least once a week, and I take a trip to Glasgow. I mark student work and submit it. I begin the couch to 10k training routine, again. Sometimes my knee hurts, deep stabbing sharp pains, ancient remnants of an injury from playing high school basketball. I go to the library close to my house and pick up Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba and Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (I return both late, and am fined).

The Barba novel, I’ve wanted to read for some time now. I’ve heard it described as “short” and “intensely creepy”, and it is decidedly both these things. It’s also a wonderful example of a novel narrated (partly) from the “we” perspective, a style I find deeply fascinating. What are other books that do this? The Virgin Suicides? The Buddha in the Attic? To be fair, in Such Small Hands the narration switches back and forth from the “we” perspective and the POV of Marina, a child whose parents are killed in a pretty brutally-described car accident in the opening chapter (this was probably the most memorable part of the book for me, in terms of graphic bodily violence).

Marina is taken to an orphanage (the girls already living there are the “we” voice in the book). They tear her doll apart limb from limb and bury it the yard. So Marina invents another game for them to play, in which the girls take turns pretending to be dolls themselves. None of this is really a spoiler. It’s all pretty unsettling.

I found this book very effective and scary (I also LOVE short novels), but I’m left uncertain as to what it all “means,” not that it matters. Is this basically about the evil of childhood? The afterword by Edmund White makes reference to an incident in a Brazilian orphanage that took place in the 1960’s, on which the book is apparently based. I won’t spoil it (you can find out by googling) but it’s deeply distressing. In this interview the author says he was inspired by a Clarice Lispector short story. His discussion of the purpose of fear in fiction, and of Henry James’ manner of writing about ghosts “as if he were speaking of tables or pencils“, is also pretty memorable.

Andrew Michael Hurley is another author I met via my job, when he came to the university last year to give a talk. I hope if we ever meet again, he doesn’t remember how I almost made him late because I didn’t have my keycard with me and we were couldn’t make it past the locked doors to the elevators, so we had to go down the stairs D: In my defense, I was a BRAND NEW staff member and didn’t know that the doors were going to lock!

Oh, what a good read this was. So immersive. Another book I read in a single sitting, sitting on my boyfriend’s couch while he slept in late in the next room. There are parts of this book that are still so scary for me to remember I can barely stand it. UGH, SO SCARY! Hurley is a master at using the understated and the unexplained when it comes to horror. Basically, anything that ever has to do with dead animals… or references to mysterious satanic rituals undertaken by rich university students… or when someone sees or hears something that someone else doesn’t… that’s it for me. UGH, I can barely even think about some of those scenes even now!

The moral ambiguity of the narrator here is also a really interesting component of the book. In a way, he “wins” – he gets what we wants. But is it really a victory?

Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell) is probably THE best book I’ve read this year so far, after Station Eleven. Holy cow, it’s probably one of the best collections I’ve ever read, no joke. Again, I think this mainly is due to its use of FEAR in the stories. FEAR FEAR FEAR – so much of our lives is defined by fear, isn’t it? I think I respond to strong emotions in writing, and what is a stronger emotion than fear, amirite. Anyway, this collection is full of it, with plenty Shirley Jackson-esque darkness to boot. It’s so fun to discover a new author I instantly know I’m going to be obsessed with. I’ll have to hunt down her untranslated books. For me, highlights  of Things We Lost in the Fire include the following:

  • “Under the Black Water” – one of the collection’s strongest pieces. I haven’t read HP Lovecraft but I would definitely call this Lovecraftian. What with its emphasis on monsters emerging out of the dark water, deformed children, headless pigs in churches, and Satanic rituals… man!! I liked how the horror was linked to destroying the environment, and Argentina’s history.
  • “The Neighbour’s Courtyard” – Ok. So this one of the MOST FUCKED UP THINGS I have ever read. NO JOKE! I told my boyfriend the plot of this story in a bar and I traumatized him and ruined our date D: I LOVE the open, unresolved ending. So brutal. SPOILER WARNING: This is really brutal to read if you’re a cat lover. I think this story is an amazing example of horror fiction, in terms of how deliciously effective the slow reveal of creepy secrets can be.
  • “Spiderweb” – You can read this online via the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20…). What an ending!! I love the theme of disappearances, and how that ties in with Argentinene history in an unexpected and unique way. In a general sense, I also love stories about couples going on vacations. There’s nothing like a holiday to bring out the worst in people! This holiday story is particularly deliciously brutal in terms of how much the narrator hates her husband. Not sure if he (or anyone) deserves his final fate, though… it’s ambiguous but I have some theories about what happens to him…
  • “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt” – This one might be my favorite! I believe it’s the only piece narrated by a male. The ending said SO much to me about violence against women, and what is and isn’t monstrous. The main character is a tour guide, who runs a murder tour in Buenos Aires. He begins seeing the ghost of a famous serial killer. Sounds twee, but believe me… it goes to unexpected places.
  • “The Intoxicated Years” – I love this story! You can read it online in Granta (https://granta.com/intoxicated-years/). It follows a group of female friends over the post-dictatorship years, and their transformation into witchy beings that are either powerful or disturbing. Either way, they’re definitely capable of anything. This story makes me want to cry in parts (nostalgia? Sentimentality?), but I’m not sure why.

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Nutcase

  Nutcase (Tony Williams)

Tony Williams is an English author who (like Jon McGregor) came to give a talk at the university where I work. His novel, Nutcase, is deeply intriguing, not just because it’s an adaptation of Icelandic sagas (I wish I knew more about them; his talk definitely made me want to know more!), but because of its style. Williams discussed how what made him interested in Icelandic sagas was their lack of interiority, in the sense that reading them is akin to this happened, then this happened, then this happened. A focus on the litany, rather than the emotional. So he decided to write a novel in contemporary Sheffield, written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas. It’s a fascinating experiment – in terms of both reading and writing. It made me think a lot about how so many novels (at least the ones I’m familiar with) are based on interiority, in terms of “showing” us the inside of a character’s consciousness.

Another interesting aspect of Tony’s talk was his path to getting published – no agent, and communicating directly with the publisher (good old Salt! Gotta love their anthologies ;)). It was a good message for the students to hear, I think. And it’s also good to witness how genuinely good art (like Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation) isn’t always coming from the biggest, flashiest sources.

Tony and I and the rest of the staff got dinner after the talk (I always order the exact same thing, a medium rare hamburger, as it’s one of the cheapest things on the menu, but I am thinking of switching to the halloumi salad just for a change). I talked for a bit with Tony’s friend, who he had gone to school with. Apparently (if I’m remembering correctly) one of the parties they hosted (attended?) as youth made its way into the book – I wonder if it was the basis for one of my favorite scenes in the novel, in which a fire is started due to someone burning U2 CDs in a biscuit tin.

Reading this book reminded me of what a deeply exotic and strange country England is to me, still. There are so many little corners and worlds that I just don’t know about, never will know, though this is probably true of every single place I have ever lived (and indeed, maybe feeling not at home is what makes me feel most at home). Whenever I ask anyone where they’re from in England, I rarely know their answer (but maybe English people would have the same reaction? Part of me thinks… no). There’s so much about England I still don’t know, even though I’ve lived here for six years.

I read Nutcase in a single sitting, on my train ride home. Definitely check it out – support independent publishers!

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Reservoir 13

Reservoir 13 (Jon Mc Gregor)

I assigned this book to my students to read and it seems like they all enjoyed it very much. Quite few of them were from the area where it’s set, so it was especially interesting to hear that they found it absorbing and realistic (and I’m sure it would be validating for Mr. McGregor).

I definitely think this should have won the Man Booker prize instead of George Saunders, in terms of being a book that’s “pushing the boundaries of the form,” etc. I suppose one criticism of it (that I heard from my students) is that it gets a bit boring at times, and it becomes hard to tell all the characters apart. BUT… I would argue that as in Knausgaard, there is a reason for this effect. If the book becomes boring, it’s because LIFE is boring.The everyday is boring. You know? Cyclical, repetitive. Everything decays and fades away, crumbles into nothing. And if people seem interchangeable, it’s because we all are, in a way. And it also seems to be an important point that the “big” moments of the book are narrated in such a defused way, alongside descriptions of badgers mating and birds building nests and sheep wandering away and the weather, so that if you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss them.

I went to a talk Jon McGregor gave about the writing process of this book and it was one of the most fascinating talks about writing I’ve heard in years. Basically, long story short, he wrote the book by keeping two folders: one filled with descriptions of nature, the other of people. And then he tried to mash them all together. It was one of those talks that make you feel reassured about writing. And it was also just deeply interesting to hear someone talk about their process in such a detailed way – especially in terms of how dependent it is on restriction of form, like those crazy Oulipo writers who wrote whole books without using the letter ‘E’. And in terms of how much of the ‘writing’ turned into organizing – trying to figure out the structure.

I highly recommend reading this in one sitting – don’t walk away from it for a long time and then pick it back up again.

Most of all, I liked how this book tried to focus on what it means to be a person – what it means to be alive in a quiet everyday sort of way.

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Now and At the Hour of Our Death

Now and At the Hour of Our Death (Susana Moreira Marques; translated by Julia Sanches)

Death begins long before we fall ill, with neither suffering, nor drama, nor a single memorable occurrence. (23)

Another book about death. Is this my theme for the year?! I read this in the waiting room of a medical clinic (don’t worry, I’m fine) – maybe not the best place for this sort of reading :/ Considering the topic, it’s delicately, sensitively written.

The book is divided into two sections: the first very poetic and abstract, the second more akin to testimony. I enjoyed both very much and would probably choose the first one as my favorite – I really admire fragmented works in this style, a lá Barbara Comyns’ Sisters by a River. Part One follows the author as she accompanies a palliative care team, as they work in extremely rural Portuguese villages, the kind with a chapel, communal oven, eight lived-in houses, and no café, grocery, post office, town hall, or bus stop.

And yet, the surest metaphor for death is war: a person struggling in bed for years and years until their breathing is finally mistaken for moaning. (25)

In this section the author meets with various families, with various family members in varying stages of death. The section is narrated in fragments, breaking off abruptly, sometimes never longer than a sentence or two:

In the cemetery: a photograph and at times no more than a name. Names may survive, but they were never what made us unique. (33)

It becomes quite affecting, especially when the author notes that “death is chiefly a physical process” – beds, diapers, morphine, gauze, tubes, needles. “There is little that is literary about death.” How, then, to reconcile “literary” stories about death like the famous Ivan Ilych? How to write about death when there are no dramatic moments, just the sick suffering until they have no strength left? Her response seems to have been via the form of this book, via these poetic reflections and then the next section, which is built primarily on testimonies. I found the married couple who’d lived in Angola as farmers the most interesting. And then you have a daughter agonizing over her father: “What was going through his head? What does someone who’s dying think about? Does he believe he’s going to die? Does he belive it all the time? Is it a constant thought? Isn’t it? Does he try to kid himself? Does he try picturing what everyone else’s life will be like? Does he think about what he’s going to lose?” (107) Super fuerte … you really feel for her.

Overall, this was an intense read. It made me want to get in touch with my Portuguese heritage.

 

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Dying: A Memoir

Gosh. What a painfully simple yet intense book. Death. UGH. Written when the author was in the advanced stages of melanoma cancer, Dying is a memoir divided into three parts. The first is arguably lo más fuerte, with her reflections on the questions she most often gets re: dying (does she have a bucket list? Has she considered suicide? Has she discovered religion? Does she have regrets?). The first part examines her parents’ lives, and deaths. And the third focuses on the earliest memories of her childhood. At 150-odd pages, it is not very long, yet does a lot.

I wanted to read this book as… a sort of self-help manual, maybe? Does that make sense? Does thinking about dying help us figure out how to live? It meant a lot to read that she found writing to be so valuable. As Cat Marnell said recently on le Twitter, your (creative) work is the only thing you have any control over! Yay for work!

I also liked the parts where she quoted T.S. Eliot, and mused about the strangeness of time, of how life can be simultaneous, in the sense that she could be both a young girl and a dying woman at the same time (reminding me of this Mary Ruefle poem).

Oh, it’s so hard to live meaningfully and attentively, isn’t it? The days I feel I’ve frittered away! Fritter, fritter, fritter. Hours and minutes wasted away like corn fritters, zucchini fritters… IDK what other kind of fritters there are for this senseless metaphor. What does a time fritter taste like? Can you hold time in your mouth? What does it feel like? Is it ever too late for any of us?

Basically, this book made me feel sad but also moved. A necessary and powerful read.

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The Wonder Spot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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