Tag Archives: science fiction

May/June Books

Like a lonesome cowboy and a wanderin’ hobo, I will soon be taking my leave of this humble island – for a month, that is. I survived Game of Thrones, I survived the semester, I survived many big editing projects. A childhood friend from Colombia came to visit, as did my sister (her first visit to the UK in thirteen years! As my uncle observed, Granny was only 89 then, as opposed to 102.) And now it is time for the wind to blow the empty husk of my body away *praying hands emoji* For twenty-six days, I shall be like a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive, nobody calling me up for favours and nobody’s future to decide. Blessed be. I don’t know how many more times in my life I’ll be able to take off like this so I’m going to enjoy and appreciate the hell out of it!

What, pray then, did I read over the past month and a half?













I read two sci-fi books, The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresán and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (the sequel to Ancillary Justice, which I read earlier this year). Bottom of the Sky is the more ‘literary’ of the two, a homage to Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, in terms of content and style. I very much enjoy Fresán’s raw energy and enthusiasm, even though I found the main plot (a love story between two guys and a girl) kinda babyish.

Ancillary Sword I arguably enjoyed more. Much has been made out of Leckie’s “experimental” narration, in which gender isn’t specified; everyone is narrated as ‘she.’ This… isn’t that weird? I mean, come ON.

I like the central concept of the trilogy very much – it’s basically narrated from the point of view of an A.I., the central intelligence of an Iain Banks-esque spaceship, who becomes trapped in single human body (to put it very simply). I like the strangeness of Leckie’s narration a lot; she’s definitely created a world that feels very “other” – characters never nod or shake their heads, for example, they always gesture. And I like how Leckie is always specific about what language they’re speaking, what terms do and don’t translate. The themes of Rome-esque empire expansion and colonialism are also very cool, even if a bit heavy-handed at time. So yeah, I would recommend this one, with the caveat that I sometimes find it hard to understand what’s happening on the page – not because of the narration, but because I find myself craving just a bit more BASIC KNOWLEDGE about how things in this world ACTUALLY WORK. Like – how is the narrator able to communicate/watch the other soldiers on the ship, for example, when she’s no longer an A.I.? In this case, it’s like I basically just had to arbitrarily tell myself “okay, I guess this is a rule in this world, she can still watch her soldiers even though she’s no longer an A.I.” without having any idea of the LOGISTICS behind this. Like, can all captains of all ships do this, or just her, because of her A.I. nature? I WANT TO KNOW.

Anyway, I look forward to finishing the trilogy.

Books by people I vaguely know/am connected to


















UGH, sometimes I suffer from a terrible ennui of trying to stay ON TOP OF MY READING, especially of books by people I know/am vaguely connected to/want to support, and sometimes it causes me TERRIBLE GUILT. Does anyone else ever feel that way??? There must be a word in Japanese or Icelandic that describes it. But I am not perfect; I am only human.

In any case, I was able to read Your Fault by Andrew Cowan, Mothers by Chris Powers, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal and Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry. Your Fault is written by my former teacher, the first person who ever made me feel truly validated as a writer, like I was someone who had something worth saying, AND FOR THAT I WILL BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL. So it pleases me to say that Your Fault is genuinely a deeply interesting and provocative book: narrated in the second person, with the narrator looking back on his life in 1960’s England, it’s an examination of masculinity, judgement, and shame.

Chris Powers and I share the same publisher, and his debut book Mothers a very strong collection of stories, with recurrent themes of travel and escape. The story set at the wedding in Mexico, in which a guy’s on-and-off secret lover is now the groom, was probably my favourite (who doesn’t love a hot illicit shame-inducing make-out session in the dark, amirite?).  The Doll Factory is a historical thriller set in Victorian England and while historical fiction is not my thing (with the exception of Hilary Mantel), I REALLY enjoyed reading this; it was the perfect book to read during marking season, when I needed something relaxing and enjoyable to wind down with in the evening. It’s dark and Dickens-esque and has a good plot. And Stranger Baby was a poetry collection by one of my favourite poets, Emily Berry, an alumni from the same university as me, and was just as strong and memorable as I expected it to be (my favourite was this poem, which closes the collection).

Other books I read

Okay, now onto the “juicy” stuff. Lord of all the Dead by Javier Cercas was purchased by me (along with three other books – SO MUCH FOR MY BOOK BUYING BAN!!!) at a European-themed literature event, at which Cercas was in attendance. During the talk he spoke about his interest in writing about what truth means – what we want to hear versus what we want to tell, what should be written vs what needs to be written (yes, I took notes on my phone while he was talking – I am OBSESSED with this man, let me tell you. OBSESSED). He talked about how a common theme in his fiction is how to deal with the inheritance of the civil war, and if Soldados de salamis was a vindication of the best past of the country, then this book, Lord of all the Dead, is the acknowledgement of its  worst. The book is about his mother’s cousin, a teenager who joined the Fasicsts at seventeen and died two years later in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. So basically, there’d always been this awkward shadow cast over Cercas’ youth – the fact that the family “hero” had been fighting for the “wrong” side, and had arguably died a pointless death. Can you be noble and pure and still fight for a mistaken cause? How can decent men be drawn to fascism? At the talk, Cercas said, (paraphrased from my notes):

“It’s quite easy to know what to do with the ‘good’ past. But what do we do with the bad past? Conceal it? Invent it? I thought when I was young, I could not deal with it – this family member who was a heroe in famly lore, a young man who went to war to save our family. We are our heritage. I am my family. I am my country. Know it. Acknowledge the complexity. Understand it. To understand is not to justify. To understand is the contrary – it gives you the instruments to not make the same mistakes. If you know your inheritance, you can understand it; you can control it. If not, it controls you and you repeat the same mistake. I write not to be written. I became a writer to avoid becoming the things that wanted to confine me.”

SO INTERESTING, no? The other aspect of the book I found super fascinating was its discussion of heroism. The title comes from the Odyssey, from a part in which Ulysses confronts Achilles in the underworld with Hades. Achilles is described as the perfect man, the ideal hero: someone who gave his life for a bigger cause, and died a “perfect death.” As the Greeks didn’t believe in heaven, Achilles would live on in the equivalent, in everyone’s memory: as man who did what should be done. Ulysses, on the other hand, is a man who grows old – the opposite of Achilles. And so we have two competing viewpoints of masculinity, of what it means to live a “good” life. And in the confrontation with Ulysses in the underworld, Achilles acknowleges that he has made a mistake: I would rather be humble and alive as opposed to lord of all the dead.

Powerful, fascinating stuff. Definitely my favourite book of this reading period.

The Lighthouse by Allison Moore and Nocturnes by the always reliable Kazuo Ishiguro were also two very strong reads. The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012 and published by the always reliable Salt Publishers (ugh, that’s another reading list I can never stay on top of – supporting the indies. THERE ARE TOO MANY BOOKS IN THE WORLD! TOO MANY! I CAN’T HANDLE THEM ALL!!!). Ahem. Anyway, Lighthouse was a strong read and I think I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Moore’s readable, understated style. The Lighthouse is a very ‘simple’ story on the surface level – the story of a man on a walking holiday in Germany – but it feels like there’s a lot more going on underneath – a terrible sense of dread and tension, an obsession with smells (the narrator’s job is manufacturing artificial scents), flashbacks of a weird quasi-incestuous relationship with the neighbour who becomes his stepmother. I think Moore is going to warrant a PhD thesis overview of her work one day.

I only just finished Nocturnes yesterday, in this weird period where I don’t want to start a book that I’m not going to be able to finish before I leave. I’d never read short fiction by Ishiguro before (are these the only short stories he’s ever attempted?) but I unsurprisingly really enjoyed this. There some very strong stories here, especially the third one, “The Malvern Hills.” I was surprised by the amount of SLAPSTICK and COMEDY in some of these stories (especially the second one) – who would have thought Ishiguro had it in him!!

I liked how most of the stories felt like metaphors for writing – in fact, I’m CONVINCED that’s what they are. The title story, ‘Nocturne,’ about a sax player who gets plastic surgery because his ex-wife thinks that’s what will make him successful, has a lot of interesting bits about what true talent is – what it means to be successful. And the last story, “Cellist,” about a self-professed “virtuoso” cell player who’s actually never touched a cello in their life, was also really powerful – Bolaño-esque in its considerations of what it means to be a “true” artist. The last paragraph, in which we glimpse someone in the future, bitter and twisted, is really affecting. And I like the Gatsby-esque position from which the story is narrated – by a band member who seems to find contentment and enjoyment in his art, even though he’s not super famous or “successful” in a way that mainstream capitalist society would recognise.

So overall, a truly enjoyable collection. I love that Ishiguro’s stories have such heart in them, and that he’s so obsessed with themes like regret and “the life not lived.”

Now I just need to decide what books I’m bringing with me in my suitcase… I might be REALLY strict and restrain myself to my Kindle, and The Makioka Sisters, and maybe one other ‘big’ book I can read on the plane…

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Station Eleven

Could this be one of my favorite books of the year? It’s definitely a strong start!

First off, I need to say I was in tears at the end of this. Now that NEVER happens. Even though I am a pretty sensitive person, when I read I am an ICE QUEEN. So if a book I’m reading makes me crack a smile, or tear up, let alone WEEP HELPLESSLY – that definitely means something. Maybe the global events of 2017 have left me a shattered emotional wreck, but I’d prefer to give the book credit for such an effect on me!

I found the themes of memory and forgetting in this book so powerful. The character who keeps a museum of now useless objects (iphones, high heels, debit cards) was probably my favorite, and the one I most related to. The concept and themes here! When the absolute “worst” happens… when everything collapses and everything you love is lost, gone forever… what do you take with you? What do you leave behind? What is valuable? What role does art play in this kind of world? One character has a phrase from Star Trek tattooed on her arm: Survival is insufficient. It becomes a mantra, of sorts, for the book itself, which overall does a really lovely job of mixing high art with so-called “low” art (comic books with Shakespeare, most notably).

The plot and structure of the book is fascinating – I definitely spent a few hours googling interviews with the author to read comments from her, about how she did it. The structure, for me, seemed incredibly complex (apparently she relied a lot on Excel in terms of keeping the timeline organized). There’s a LOT of characters, a lot of jumping around in the chronology, and a lot of things (in terms of “events” in the plot) going on. And yet it all ties together, beautifully so. You might not think that focusing on a famous actor’s love life would tie in with a post-apocalyptic Shakespearean troupe’s struggle to survive… but it does.

I imagine this is a book that some apocalyptic literature fans would read, and feel disappointed, mainly due to the lack of focus on the “collapse” part. But that’s what I found so rich and intriguing – the focus on life afterwards.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m obsessed with it!

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Sci-Fi Escapism

It’s so humid here in England (i.e. barely humid at all in comparison to the East Coast of the U.S. or Colombia’s Caribbean coast, but after such long bleak winters anything over 20-degrees C is open-toed shoes weather). Perfect for sci-fi escapism!

Eye in the Sky (Philip K. Dick)

Think the multi-leveled world of Inception mixed with the demented bodily fluids of Rick and Morty. I.e., totally whack. Any summary of this book is a bit of a spoiler, but so it goes. Basically, a group of people (a young boy, his conservative mother, an even more conservative old man-military type, a schoolmarm type lady, the African American tour guide, our hero Jack Hamilton, and his potentially undercover Communist wife) are caught in a lab accident. At first, it appears that they’ve been transported to a seemingly parallel universe, one controlled by an Old Testament-like God (who prefers to be referred to by the term (Tetragrammaton) – yes, the parentheses are intentional), complete with biblical plagues, punishment, prophets based in Cayenne, Wyoming, and a very straightforward reward-by-prayer system. However, it turns out the reality of their situation (believe it or not) is a lot more strange. A LOT.

The first-place most insane scene in this book involves this sentence: “The house-creature was getting ready to feed.” The second-place most insane scene involves characters disintegrating into conscious, bloated, wiggling blobs as essential chemicals (certain metallic salts, specific nitrates, iodine and so forth) are eliminated from the world, in the most crazy game ever of who-can-outdo-who, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t. It’s hard to explain, but take me at my word: you won’t forget it.

Nobody does it like Dick does, especially in terms of writing about illusions vs. reality. Absolutely mental. What will I do once I’ve read all his books? Kill myself in despair?!

The Book of Strange New Things (Michel Faber)

I loved this! Definitely up there with one of my favorite reads of 2017. I couldn’t put it down! It’s a great book to read on a plane (I read it almost in one sitting). Apparently Faber wrote this when his wife was dying of cancer, and has said he will never write another novel again. Very sad.

Overall, this combines quite a few of my interests: aliens, apocalyptic collapse, cats, religion… I thought it was very interesting how thoroughly the book inhabits Peter’s “missionary” perspective. I can’t think of many other books that seem genuinely interested in exploring a religious mentality, as opposed to just criticizing it. The way the novel brings in Peter’s past is also very well done and subtle; what an effective way at conveying backstory without bogging us done in a bunch of flashback scenes. I loved all the scenes with the aliens, and found Peter’s final interaction with them very moving, especially in terms of the aliens-vs-humans theme (the ability to heal, have scars, move forward) . And I loved the letters exchanged between him and his wife, which really were the heart of the book for me.

I found what this book says about love very powerful – how do you stay close while going through very different experiences together, while very far away (in the book’s case, light years)? How do you keep going forward when the world goes to shit? Will future generations even care if they don’t know what things were like before?

A strongly recommended, entertaining read.

The End We Start From (Megan Hunter)

I love me a good book about the end of the world! Apparently this is going to be made into a film by Benedict Cumberbatch – I sure hope they don’t dumb it down. For example, a dumb way of pitching this would be The Road with a pregnant woman. Ugh, pitches, so gross. But I enjoyed this (again, read it in one sitting): it’s well written, short, and easy to read. I definitely kept turning the pages. And there’s a nice checklist of appropriately apocalyptic moments (tin food, radio fragments, flooding, etc). It’s written in a very anecdotal, fragmentary style – vaguely Coetzee-esque – very appropriate for short attention span of the Internet age. And what’s also interesting about this book is the theme of return and rebirth – it’s not “just” about this terrible even that causes everything to disintegrate and fall apart; it’s more looking-forward than that, which is pretty unique.

When I first read this, I wanted to know more about the husband and what he went through, but now that some time has passed I think I’m okay with not knowing. It feels more realistic in regards to relationships – you don’t always know what a persona has gone through, does anybody ever really “know” anybody, etc. Ultimately I like books that don’t describe or explain everything, and despite my occasional craving as a reader to have more narrative satisfaction, despite my initial reaction I now think it’s smarter of the author to deny us that. Kudos to the editors too for not shoe-horning in a boring explanation.

The Hot Zone: the Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus (Richard Preston)

Not a sci-fi story but shit, it might as well be! Apparently this book was the “inspiration” (in the vaguest possible sense of the term) for that 90’s classic virus film Outbreak. And apparently Stephen King called the opening chapter of this book one of the scariest horror openings he’d ever read. I’d agree with him on that, especially about that scene in the place where the guy starts bleeding… :/ Dark and gripping. As my sister said, I wish there were more books and movies about virus outbreaks… it’s like this weird cathartic need…

The Transmigration of Bodies (Yuri Herrera)

In regards to killer viruses, another book worth quickly commenting on (again, not specifically sci-fi) is The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera. This book combines the majority of my obsessions: apocalyptic plagues, crime fiction, the Mexican border, violence, Latin America, simple dirty prose…. it definitely gets a gold star. I especially loved how an apocalyptic plague is used as a metaphorical stand-in for the violence in Mexico. So brilliant! I find this way of writing about Latin America SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING than, like, straightforward storytelling (wow, I love how articulate I’m being right now, but whatever, it’s hot and my brain is mush). I loved the dirty grimey Raymond Chandler-meets-Mad Max crime vibe, particularly in the prose style (what a translation!). I liked the strong women characters, like the nurse Vicky. I loved everyone’s nicknames (the Neanderthal, the Dolphin, the Mennonite – so badass!). I was a bit alarmed by the very graphic sex scene at the beginning, and I’m sure some with weaker constitutions than me could potentially be like “eeeeew exploitative,” but I DUG IT. Like the final story of Álvaro Uribe’s Hypothermia, the sex here is presented as this liberating, powerful antidote to a society that is otherwise falling apart. Bring on the pervey women and men, I say!

A good read, specifically for those who are interested in border/Latin American literature. Short, strange, and beautifully translated.

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Filed under apocalypse, books, contemporary, Mexico, non-fiction, Phillip K. Dick, review

Our Friends From Frolix 8

Ours Friends From Frolix 8 (Philip K. Dick)

‘God is dead,’ Nick said. ‘They found his carcass in 2019. Floating out in space near Alpha.’

‘They found the remains of an organism advanced several thousand times over what we are,’ Charley said. ‘And it evidently could create habitable worlds and populate them with living organisms, derived from itself. But that doesn’t prove it was God.’

‘I think it was God.’ (45)

My dear friend Philip K. Dick. He never lets me down. I’ve had an exhausting few weeks of travel and work, and while things are a little calmer now, it’s still not completely over. But that’s okay. We can deal. Especially with help from good old Philip.

Our Friends From Frolix 8 is definitely one of the finer Philip K. Dick books I’ve read (and only $5.95 when purchased at the Strand in New York, bonus). You have a futuristic society organized by men’s abilities–Old Men, trapped in dead-end, deadbeat jobs, the super intelligent New Men, who rule over society in a hierarchical, inaccessible order, and the Unusuals, who have psionic and telekinetic abilities and exist alongside the New Men in an an uneasy compromise. You have a Christlike leader of a revolution, Thors Provoni, returning to Planet Earth after years spent exploring the outer galaxies on his ship The Grey Dinosaur. And best of all, you have Morgo, the ninety-ton Godlike protoplasmic slime from the titular planet Frolix 8, who’s accompanying Thors on his mission to create a new world order. What is it with Dick’s obsession with sentient slime-molds? I LOVE IT.

‘Let me tell you a legend about God,’ Morgo said. ‘In the beginning he created an egg, a huge egg, with a creature inside it. God tried to break the eggshell open to let the creature–the original living creature–out. He couldn’t. But the creature which He had made had a sharp beak, constructed for just such a task, and it chipped its way out of the egg. And hence – all living creatures have free will, now.’


‘Because we broke the egg, not He.’

‘Why does that give us free will?’

‘Because, dammit, we can do what He can’t.’ (78)

There are so oh so relevant modern themes in this novel, from surveillance, to what the world would be like if ruled by a paranoid, arrogant, verging on insane individual, to the role of God and religion. I love Dick’s depiction of the bohemian revolutionary underclass; he is so good at evoking that deadbeat Berkeley culture of pillheads. He hasn’t been that successful at writing interesting female characters in the past, but the sixteen-year-old Charley manages to be both complex and feisty in a non-annoying way. And I found myself genuinely moved by this moment near the end:

‘To a better planet,’ Gram said, and drank the cupful down. ‘To a planet where we won’t need our friends from Frolix 8.’ (190)

Thank you, Philip K. Dick, for existing.

In terms of travel + readings, here are some photos! They are out of order, but I’m too tired to try to figure out how to fix it. So here we go :D

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Best Books of 2014

I read 101 books last year!! I feel proud of this but I’m not sure if I will set that kind of specific goal for myself again (i.e. read x number of books in 1 year). I found myself reading a lot of short books (Rodrigo Rey Rosa was especially great for this) because it meant I could finish them faster and thus meet my “quota,” while long books like Underworld I sort of gave up on (though I did manage to read The Luminaries, Ulysses, and re-read 2666). It was really helpful having a set goal, though. It helped me stay focused and motivated. In terms of Reading Goals for 2015, I want to read more books in Spanish that haven’t been translated (I’m gonna aim for between four and twelve, starting with Juan Villoro’s El testigo) and one book of poetry per month. If I end up reading between fifty and sixty books total for the year, cool.

If I had to choose a single Best Book of 2014, it’d be a tie between Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore and Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers. I also have to say all the Cortázar short stories I read this year were amazing and basically exist in a category of their own (i.e. a higher plane of existence the rest of us can only dare to dream of inhabiting). I also loved Dani Shapiro’s self-help book on writing, and Mary Ruefle’s poetry and essays. But here are some other books (ones I haven’t talked about on this blog) that also stood out to me as pretty excellent works of literature.

Under the Skin (Michel Faber)

Well, this book blew me away. I loved the movie and after watching it immediately wanted to read the book, which shocked me by how different it was (as in, COMPLETELY different). But like the movie, I loved how the book was so disturbing, creepy, unforgettable, haunting, insert other exclamatory adjective here. This book is a masterful example of how to pull off an otherworldly narrator. The moment in which the word “Mercy” is scrawled into the ground by one of the characters is one that I think I will never forget; reading it almost gave me goosebumps. What does it mean to be merciful? What does it mean to be human? In terms of sympathizing with characters, should we root for what is alien or for what is familiar? Post-Elizabeth Costello Coetzee would dig this book, I think. So would Jonathan Safran-Foer. I hope those comments don’t make it sound like I’m implying that this book is a parable for vegetarianism, or a cry of arms against mega-scale meat farming. Though it very well could be those things, as well as a commentary on immigration. Who knows? Does it really matter when the writing is this good? I would recommend this book to pretty much anybody who wants to read something exceedingly creepy that will (can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but here we go!) crawl under your skin and refuse to leave.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

Another creepy, spectacular book recommended to me by my friend S. who also recommended Under the Skin and May-Lan Tan to me and has thus pretty much cemented her reputation as someone with exceedingly excellent literary taste. I would love to assign this book to read in creative writing classes. Just look at this opening paragraph:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

That voice!! I was instantly hooked. This is the kind of book that makes you remember why you love to read–you stay up until 2.30am even though you have to get up at 7AM the next morning because you just simply HAVE to find out what happens next. The way this book slowly but surely unveils its weirdness is exemplary. I wish I could extract a mathematical formula that explains how this book crafts suspense and develops its plot so that way I can just copy it myself. I guessed the “twist” revelation of this book early on, but even so that didn’t matter to me; I still couldn’t tear myself away. What truly elevates this book into the realm of the spectacularly weird classic is the unconventional, haunting ending. Is it a victory? A feminist triumph against the demands of society? Or a horrendous descent into madness? The book doesn’t tell, but ends with the chillingly sing-song phrase of “We are so happy.” This book is like the stories you hear late at night at sleepovers in sixth grade but then never, ever forget.

Green Mars (Kim Stanley Robinson)

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. Forget bingeing on Netflix; epic sci-fi trilogies about Mars are the way to go. I read Red Mars several years ago but amazingly still remembered just enough about what happened in it to read this book with relatively little confusion. The one problem I had while reading this is that boy, there sure are a lot of descriptions of Martian geography and landscapes. You can tell that the author did a ton of research and wanted to include EVERYTHING. No wonder the permaculture-loving, Biology-major Burners I lived with in Ecuador in 2008 loved these books. But even though I found myself occasionally skimming the descriptions of rock and crater formations and lichen growths, I still found this book (and its follow-up Blue Mars, which I’m currently reading) utterly, completely fascinating. Writing a dissertation about the representation of history in these books would be da bomb. The main conflict in the series is set up between the Greens–the people who want to “terraform” Mars, or transform it into a livable habitat similar to Earth–and the Reds,  the people who want to keep Mars the same, as untouched and uninfluenced by humans as possible. It’s such a relevant, urgent question, one that reminds me of this classic Radiolab episode (a show that has provided me with infinite small talk fodder for parties). Is it our responsibility to mold Earth the way we best see fit? Or is the world better off without us? This book does what science fiction does best–it raises very contemporary-feeling questions about futuristic societies that function as uneasy and uncomfortable parallels for our own.

School for Patriots (Martín Kohan)

This book was powerfully narrated and is an excellent example of how to write a novel about a fucked up historical period in an interesting, genuinely innovative way, as opposed to descending into some heart-rending classic cliché weepy plot about a Family Torn Apart By Violence and other such nonsense. Too bad the summary on the back cover SPOILS EVERYTHING (if you get this book, DON’T READ THE BACK COVER). Set in Argentina during the Falklands war, this book follows the teaching assistant María, who seeks to win the approval of her supervisor by attempting to catch male students smoking in the bathroom. Her efforts to catch the students leads to her spending most of her time hiding in the stalls, until things cumulate in a climax you may think is predictable, but just you wait–it’s not. The way this book indirectly deals with Argentina’s Dirty War, espionage, conformity and desire for power is masterful. What an amazing lesson this is in the power of fiction to “show” as opposed to “tell.” I learned way more about corruption from this book than any philosophical essay or news article could ever teach me. All in all, this book is a brilliant parable about state-enforced violence, in which much remains unspoken and unsaid, lurking uneasily beneath the surface of things.

How To Be Both (Ali Smith)

Ali Smith! Will I ever not like you? How do you do it? How does writing like this get done? What can I even say about this book? It’s two interconnected stories–one is historical fiction (narrated in a thoroughly modern voice) set in 15th-century Italy with much Shakespearean gender-bending and picaresque wandering. The other story is set in the present day, with all of its glories such internet advertisements, Edward Snowden-inspired fears about surveillance, and child pornography watched obsessively over and over again on ipads. There’s mothers and death. Gender and difference. Time-traveling ghosts. Miley Cyrus’ ‘Wrecking Ball’ is sung;  twin strands of DNA are studied. We think of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, George Eliot and George Sands. We confront classic Ali Smithian questions (yes, like Kafka and Orwell, I am turning Ali Smith into a literary adjective): what does it means to be properly compensated for art? Does art actually do anything in terms of helping us dealing with the world and all its grief-causing horrors? Or does “poetry make nothing happen“? Why do things have to be one or the other? Why CAN’t it be both? My God, what questions! What a book!

The Humans (Matt Haig)

This is definitely the crowd-pleasing, feel-good, comfort-food book on my list, a perfect read for a Saturday afternoon that you want to spend curled up on an armchair drinking tea, not doing anything other else than reading for five hours straight. I read this soon after reading Under the Skin and it felt compulsively appropriate. I find it fascinating that the author wrote this after a severe anxiety disorder (based on the afterword)–it feels SO appropriate. I definitely related to the narrator’s observations about human nature, especially after he read Cosmo magazine and experienced social media. A highly enjoyable read.

Randall (Jonathan Gibbs)

A very entertaining, thought-provoking novel. It reminded me of Bolaño with its parallel universe of artworks and artists, so effectively evoked it was impossible for me to tell what was Real and what was Fake. I loved how this book took risks (such as the final section, which is told from the perspective by a character who has yet to narrate, and its riddle-like final sentence) and yet was well-plotted in a very satisfying way, almost like a detective story. The other big pleasure about reading this is that I know absolutely nothing about contemporary art and this book was a fascinating introduction. I’ll certainly never think about the color yellow in quite the same way again. I especially loved the central question that the book kept circling around: “Is there any art in here, or does it just look like art? And is there a difference?” Food for thought, indeed.

Things to Make and Break (May-Lan Tan)

Fabulous language, melancholy tone. Like a demented, more emotional Miranda July. Summarizing the plots feels like a disservice–characters fall in love with stunt doubles, listen to Iron Maiden, participate in bizarre crucifixion rituals in the woods, have filthily rude hot sex, stalk a boyfriend’s exes based on nude photos, go on dates with couples dying of cancer. Ehh, see? I can’t do it justice!! But this is definitely one of the strongest contemporary short story collections I’ve read. I can’t wait to see her read in April!

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

This was definitely one of THE best books I read this year–possibly one of the best books I’ve read ever, which is saying a lot. The premise is so simple–a house in Germany that hosts generation after generation of inhabitants–but the execution is simply stunning. While I didn’t always understand what was going on (there were at least two chapters I had to read twice), it didn’t feel like a problem. For me, it was worth it. Considering that hardly any of the characters have names in the second half of the book (most tellingly, the Holocaust victims do), the author does an amazing job of inserting sneaky little signs and telling characteristics that allow us to remember characters from chapter to chapter. The most powerful chapters for me were “The Visitor,” “The Girl” and “The Architect’s Wife.”

Fuck me, this book! The cold, factual narration, such a complete contrast to the emotional devastation that takes place! The way violent, traumatic incidents explode at the end of chapters, shocking you like a punch in the stomach (see, I have to resort to cliché in order to describe it, I’m failing to capture the appropriate words)! The epic themes of Exile, Time, History, Family, Identity! The experiments with time and structure! The hypnotic rhythm of the gardener’s chapters, the way they remind us of the daily tasks of life that are maybe the only things that keep us going and provide continuity in the face of the brutal, unstoppable forces of history. PLEASE READ THIS if you want to experience the absolute nuts, groundbreaking shit that fiction is capable of–a small tiny hopeful light in a dark dark world. Here are my two favorite Mrs. Dalloway-esque passages:

Things can follow one after the other only for as long as you are alive in order to extract a splinter from a child’s foot, to take the roast out of the oven before it burns or sew a dress from a potato sack, but with each step you take while fleeing, your baggage grows less, with more and more left behind, and sooner or later you just stop and sit there, and then all that is left of life is life itself, and everything else is lying in all the ditches beside all the roads in a land as enormous as the air, and surely here as well you can find these dandelions, these larks.” (pg. 103)

In the end there are certain things you can take with you when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music.” (pg. 108)

What a book! What a year!!

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Filed under Ali Smith, books, review, Rio Plata, short stories, year in review

Genius Children’s Literature

Sometimes I think I would be happy if for the rest of my life I was forbidden to read anything other than children’s books. That isn’t really true. But sometimes it feels like it could be. Here are some works of children’s literature that are also works of genius:

Watership Down (Richard Adams)

Oh my God, it really doesn’t get any better than this. It really doesn’t. The movie is equally genius and highly recommendable. In terms of the movie, what does it say about U.S. versus English kiddie films, if in the U.S. stories like Beauty and the Beast, the Little Mermaid and Pocahantus becomes love stories with happy endings, while in England a bunch of cute cuddley rabbits turn into this:

Yeah, that just about sums it up. Except no, it really doesn’t!! This book is so much more than that! Here are just some reasons why this book is genius:

1- It creates an incredibly rich, Tolkein-like universe by giving the rabbits their own vocabulary, religion and myths.

2- The way it invokes Joseph Campbell and mythology in general (like the hero’s journey, the descent into darkness in order to gain knowledge, the role of the seer, etc.)

3- The comparison of rabbit society to early primitive humans, especially in the role of storytelling and oral tradition, and how that helps them cope with and make sense of traumatic, violent experiences.

4- The environmental message, which basically consists of how humans are destroying the planet. Or as one rabbit puts it at one point (Captain Holly, to be specific–ha! ha! ha! That’s right, I knew without needing to check!!): “There’s terrible evil in the world and it comes from men. Men will never rest till they’ve spoiled the earth and destroyed the animals. They destroyed the warren just because we were in their way. They killed us to suit themselves…”

5- The parallels with contemporary politics and culture. Is General Woundwort’s warren a commentary on fascism? (This is particularly strong in the movie, where the rabbits from his warren all have blue eyes, in stereotypical Nazi Germany style). Is Cowslip’s warren a commentary on modern humans who are fat, lazy and completely alienated from nature and their original purpose? I found the passages about Cowslip’s warren and the way they invented these weird rituals and symbols for themselves ESPECIALLY fascinating in the context of all the books I’ve read about religion this year, in terms of how religion helps humans cope and make sense of their experiences.

This list is just skimming the surface of how deep the waters run in this book, of course. Watership Down is an absolute classic and one of the best ones ever written, and I’ll fight anyone to the death (Bigwig-versus-General Woundwort style) who dares to contradict me.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien)

This book is genius, I tell you. GENIUS. The movie is also really good but I can’t find a good version of it on youtube. It’s weird how the movie invents a crazy subplot about this magic red stone, which is how Mrs. Frisby ends up moving her house because, like, she has a really pure heart or something? I can’t remember. But anyway, the point  isit’s weird how the movie ended up with this big magic subplot, because the book is ALL about the science. Did you know that NIMH actually exists?!

Reading about how this book was written sent me down a rabbithole of research that eventually led me to discovering the behavioral sink experiment, a research study involving mice that apparently inspired this book. It is some CRAZY stuff. It is so fascinating to me that I cannot stop myself from summarizing: basically, this scientist built this mouse utopia, in which they would have all they would ever want or need in terms of food, water and lack of natural predators (paralleling the existence of most modern humans). The only thing that was limited was available space. Initially the mouse population exploded, but then some really weird things started happening:

Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers… Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Elsewhere, cannibalism, pansexualism, and violence became endemic. Mouse society had collapsed.

I highlighted the parts in bold because oh, I don’t know, they reminded me of something.

That was a long digression, but anyway, this is a great book. Similarly to Watership Down, it has another very pro-environmental, anti-human destruction message that I am not embarrassed to admit that I found very powerful. I also found the scene in which the rats invade a library (not included in movie) very moving:

What I liked best was history. I read about the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and Romans, and the Dark Ages, when the old civilizations fell apart and the only people who could read and write were the monks. They lived apart in monasteries. They led the simplest kind of lives, and studied and wrote; they grew their own food, built their own houses and furniture. They even made their own tools and their own paper. Reading about that, I began getting some ideas of how we might live.

We wondered. If rats had stayed ahead, if they had gone on and developed a real civilization–what would it have been like? (pg. 133-134)

Another big difference between the book and the movie that I’d forgotten about is that in the book, JUSTIN DIES (or at least it’s strongly implied that he does). Wow, was I bummed!! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then I am sorry for you, and I urge you to take steps to amend this situation.

Z for Zachariah (also by Robert C. O’Brien)

Not only is this book a genius work of children’s literature, I think it could easily be considered a classic in the post-apocalyptic novel genre, period. No matter how many times I read this book it never gets old. It’s suspenseful and tightly plotted (even though I’ve read it SO many times it still makes me feel so nervous and tense when I read it, like the jittery wiggling around kind of nervous–this is why I can never read suspense novels). It is also still extremely relevant and contemporary. Like I said, a work of genius.

The Dark is Rising series (Susan Cooper)

These books are still the main reason I want to visit Cornwall (apart from the fact that it’s Tori Amos’ ‘hood, of course). Apparently the second one got turned into a movie (?!) that sounds absolutely DREADFUL. Thank God my radar missed it.

These books are genius for the way they seamlessly combine Arthurian legend, Celtic mythology and English & Welsh history with a rocking and rollicking kid’s adventure story. Most of the plots in these books involve QUESTS to solve riddles and find things like swords and chalices and golden harps. Who doesn’t love a quest, especially when your only clue is a rhyming poem?

I especially loved these books when I was young because I loved the idea of getting trained or taught to be a wizard (who knows, if Harry Potter had come out just a few years earlier, would I have been an obsessive Harry Potter fan? As it was I think I was a leetle too old for them–I liked them, but I was never SUPER into them). When I was really little, I always had this secret daydream about learning how to be a Jedi Knight. Basically I just wanted to dress in black and move things with my mind and cut stuff up with a cool glowing sword. Oh my God, I just had the thought that maybe that’s why I’ve been getting into meditation this year, because it’s my adult substitution for Jedi Knight Mind Training. Gaaaah! Craziness!

Anyway. So there’s no Jedi Knights in the books but you do get the Old Ones who are like immortal wizards. My favorite of the five books in the series is…… hmmm, that’s a tough one. I guess it’s a tie between the first and second (Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark Is Rising respectively). Over Sea, Under Stone is good because it’s basically a straightforward detective story–there’s virtually no magic, which makes it a somewhat interesting introduction. The Dark is Rising is cool because it’s all about wizard training, oops I mean Old Ones training–whatever, same thing. I think David Mitchell (in a recent NY Times interview) encapsulated this book’s appeal better than I ever could:

Many children are natural fantasists, I think, perhaps because their imaginations have yet to be clobbered into submission by experience. When you’re 10, there is still an outside chance that you might find Narnia behind the wardrobe, that the fur coats could turn into fir trees. The state of childhood resonates with life inside a fantasy novel. If you have no control over how you spend large chunks of your day, or are at the mercy of flawed giant beings, then the desire to bend the laws of the world by magic is strong and deep. I don’t mean that kids can’t distinguish fantasy from reality — the playground bully will clarify the matter gratis — but fantasy offers a logic to which kids are receptive, and escapism for which kids are hungry.

These books made me very fond of England when I was a child, and as I re-read them recently, that same fondness glowed like a tiny little fire in my shriveled expat’s heart. England! What a crazy country! I went for a walk for today, for example (NOT a hike, which is called a “trek” here in England–nope, here what you do is WALK, homeboys), and I stumbled onto a field filled with–wait for it–DONKEYS and SHETLAND ponies wearing pink and purple coats that said things like COTTON CANDY and CANDY CANE in delicately stitched white cursive letters. It was the single most amazing moment of my life, basically. And the best thing is that it’s not even that far from my house, so it won’t be too difficult for me to return with apples and carrots. Ponies!! I love ’em. England; what a crazy country, with their Welsh myths, Arthurian swords and Old Ones-Jedi knights.

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Imaginative Literature

I am sooooo behind on all the books I’ve read this year that I haven’t written about. So, so very behind. Here is a desperate and somewhat futile-feeling attempt to catch up and check in with what I’ve been reading lately:

The Seamstress and the Wind (Cesar Aira)

Another rollicking tale by Cesar Aira. OK, how shall we go about summarizing the plot of this one. The novel opens with an author (or character…?) called Cesar Air, sitting in a Parisian coffee-shop, lamenting the difficulty of writing a novel that he intends to call The Seamstress and the Wind. I’m guessing that this is a different Cesar Aira than the mad scientist who tried to clone Carlos Fuentes in The Literary Conference, or the hermaphrodite child Cesar Aira poisoned by ice cream in How I Became A NunOr maybe they’re one and the same. Who knows? Who am I to say, or even complain?

It’s funny. When authors insert themselves as characters into their own works, it doesn’t tend to annoy or bother me. I loved it when Kurt Vonnegut did it in Breakfast of Champions, which I believe was the first time I ever encountered such a technique in a book. I remember his self-portrait at the end moved me to tears. I’m also a big Borges fan, obviously. To be honest, the only example I can think of in which Author-as-Character annoyed me is in Tom Robbins novels (it’s hard to explain why this is so, since I don’t remember his books too well… maybe it just didn’t feel genuine to me, too gimmicky, as opposed to like it had an actual purpose to the plot).

Anyway. The Seamstress and the Wind is another short little novel (like the other aforementioned Aira works), 134 pages and divided into 24 short little bursts, that purports to relate an incident from Aira’s childhood. Cesar and his friend were playing hide-and-seek, and his friend was mistakenly thought to have hid in the back of a truck heading out into the desolate wastelands of Patagonia. His friend’s mother Delia, the titular seamstress, hysterically orders a local cab to follow the truck, bringing along the wedding dress that she’s been frantically working on to finish for the local school marm’s wedding. This sets the stage for the tale of how the Wind ends up falling in love with Delia, as well as the story behind a mysterious little blue car trailing behind the cab, the birth of a hideously deformed Monster that reaches out of its mother’s womb with “pale blue little fingers”, and a poker game in the most unlikely of settings. Among other things.

I think this would be a good introductory novel for someone to read, if they had never read Aira before. All of his trademark qualities are here: his playful approach to autobiography, the way he integrates reflections upon the act of writing into the development of the novel itself, his use of folk-tale, fairy tale and science fiction elements, his Calvino and Kafka-like flourishes.

What I love most about reading a Cesar Aira novel is the following: YOU SERIOUSLY NEVER KNOW WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT. Thankfully, this is thrilling rather than frustrating (to me, at least). It never feels to me like Cesar Aira is being like, “Oh, OK, let’s have this character build and drive a car made out of prehistoric armadillo bones JUST FOR THE HECK OF IT.” (Yes, said armadillo car does appear.)  Even if that’s what he’s doing, i.e. making characters do things just for the heck of it, as opposed to because it’s something that the plot demands…. it never really feels that way. His novels always (shockingly) feel like they fit together, like the path his characters are taking is really and truly the one best path for them to take, as opposed to something he randomly pulled out of thin air in order to make his book seem quirky or weird. It amazes me that for novels that are so spontaneous and free-flowing, they nevertheless still feel remarkably well-structured and planned.

It also interests me how Aira deals with resolution and conclusion, in terms of satisfying the reader. He literally ends the novel in its climatic scene. Like, literally IN THE MIDDLE of the climatic scene. We are given no hints as to what will happen or how it will be resolved. It would be like David Foster Wallace ending Infinite Jest on the page where Hal Incandenza and Don Gately finally meet each other after 990 pages of being apart (not that that actually happens in Infinite Jest either… haha, that’s more like an example of a so-called frustrating ending!). I guess a better example would be if Shakespeare ended with the scene where Macbeth and Macduff start fighting. Or if LOTR ended with Frodo and Sam standing on the edge of Mt. Doom.

However… this deliberate avoidance of climax surprisingly did not annoy me. Incredibly enough, it made sense and felt appropriate in the context of what came before in the novel. It ties in, I think, to Aira’s discussions throughout the book concerning the themes of memory and forgetfulness. I don’t think I’m going to be able to connect the two (thwarted climax + forgetfulness) in a super articulate way, but I will try. The novel opens with Aira in the aforementioned Parisian cafe, trying to write his novel, talking about a dream he had in which everything fit perfectly together and everything made sense, but when he woke up he’d forgotten it all, and all he was left with was a sense of loss. He goes on to connect this idea of forgetfulness with his “theory of literature”:

“Taking control of forgetting is little more than a gesture, but it would be a gesture consistent with my theory of literature, at least with my disdain for memory as a writer’s instrument. Forgetting is richer, freer, more powerful…” (5)

I wonder if Aira is talking about IMAGINATION here, and connecting the idea of forgetfulness (Loss –> Emptiness –> A Space you can fill in with whatever you want!) with creativity. The wind seems to represent this creative, willful quality throughout the book, as something that can just suck you up and whisk you away  into a radically different universe (the wind as a metaphor for the novel is a subject for another term paper, methinks). Right before the novel ends, Aira talks a lot about forgetting as as act of loss: “In loss everything comes together. Loss is all-devouring… To lose is to forget things in cafes.”  (127) So, by deliberately withholding the climax from us at the novel’s end, is Aira trying to represent the act of forgetting, in literary form? Is he daring us to fill it in with our own delightfully whimsical imaginings, much in the same way as he fills in the blank during the rest of the story?

Anyway. I highly recommend this book if you’ve never read Aira before and are looking for an entry point. This and The Literary Conference, I think, are good places to start. Heck, nevermind, they’re all great! That is to say, the 6 works I’ve read so far out of the 70 that’s he’s published… O_O

Clans of the Alphane Moon (Philip K. Dick)

Another good one by Dick (honestly, do I ever say anything different?). The concept behind this novel is intriguing: what would an abandoned colony on a faraway planet look like, if it was inhabited solely by patients from the mental institution?

One of the novel’s most delicious treats is how Dick slowly reveals the different clans that the patients have divided themselves into on the titular Alphane Moon, based on their respective illnesses. It was pretty clear to me early on that the Deps were the depressives, for example, but the Mans and Pares (manics and paranoids) were more intriguing. Making the schizophrenics the poet-religious visionary class was another really clever move on Dick’s part.

Anyway, this is another Dick book that I would happily recommend to pretty much anyone. For example, one of the main characters is a telepathic slime mold–yes, that’s right–with the name of Lord Running Clam (YES). If that does not make you want to read this book, I don’t know how else I can help you.

There are parts of the book, especially near the end, where it feels just a wee too frenetic at times: so many different characters and storylines, how are they supposed to integrate?! For the most part Dick is successful, though I feel he kind of forgot about the psychic girl, whose main power consisted of turning back time for five minutes (making her particularly popular and successful at road accident death scenes). So yeah, the ending of the book reminded me of some kind of zany comedy in which everybody was running around with really fast music playing. But whatever. I would still recommend this, based on Lord Running Clam alone.

Dr. Bloodmoney (Philip K. Dick)

One of the better Dick books I’ve read. I actually might even go so far as to recommend this one as one of his classic Must-Read novels. I think this could easily be mentioned in the same breath as his more famous ones, such as Ubik, Electric Sheep and A Scanner Darkly. How funny that it never gets mentioned. Anyway, I thought this book was pretty brilliant. It contains all the genius flashes of black Dick humor that I just simply adore.

I will never get over how brilliant Dick is at taking simple, mundane situations and then building upon them until they are twisted and dark and unforgettable. Basically, this book is a post-apocalyptic novel, talking about life on what was once the West Coast of the U.S., but what makes this book a treasure are the deliciously twisted details. Take the little girl in this book, for instance. Everyone thinks she has an imaginary friend she pretends is her brother, and then we eventually learn that her so-called “imaginary” friend is actually a wizened old man (!) growing inside of her, parasite-style, a result of the nuclear fallout. Talk. about. seriously. disturbing. (If you think about how traumatized Philip K. Dick was throughout his life due to the death of his twin sister at birth, this storyline becomes even more creepy. I think I would love to write an essay one day about how doppelgängers, twins and mirror images are treated throughout Dick’s work. Heck, being a twin myself, how could I resist?).

The other characters populating this post-nuclear fallout, collapse-of-civilization world are equally memorable. The armless and legless guy (Hoppy Harrington) doesn’t just have one of the best names of any of Dick’s characters, he’s also one of the most well sketched out. He would make a seriously evil villain, as well as an interesting topic of discussion for how Dick treats the theme of mechanization of human beings. All in all this novel is classic–CLASSIC, I tell you!–vintage Dick. Usually post-apocalyptic novels are so boring. Brilliant, but boring. Murakami said it best when he was talking about “The Road” in that recent NY Times interview: it’s a good book, well-written, but it’s, well, kind of boring. The apocalypse happens and then you just kind of walk around trying to avoid getting eaten by people. Anyway, this is one of the best examples of a post-apocalyptic novel that I’ve ever read, simply because it is so fun and entertaining to read. I was hugging myself in delight during some passages, simply because I had absolutely no idea where the were going or what on earth Dick had on store with me. Reading this book was one heck of a ride and I would seriously recommend it to just about anybody, even folks who are new to Dick.

My favorite part of the book is when Stuart (one of his main characters) is being taught how to play chess by his friend who’s dying of radiation sickness, and Stuart has to keep asking “Which way does the bishop move again?”, all this shortly after eating a dead rat raw. Again, if this doesn’t make you want to read this book, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s Vintage Dick. Love it. Love the book, Love Dick, love, love, love.

I love Cesar Aira and Philip K. Dick books because they feel like Steve McQueen or Werner Herzog movies, only on pages instead of on film. Their images and language thrill and excite with with their newness and bravery, even if they aren’t always 100% successful. I feel like they are doing what Herzog talks about in this classic quote:

I have often spoken of what I call the inadequate imagery of today’s civilization. I have the impression that the images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. They are limping and dragging themselves behind our cultural evolution… What have we done to our images? What have we done to our embarrassed landscapes? I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs… One must dig like an archaeologist and search our violated landscapes to find anything new.

Aira and Dick are literary archaeologists. For sure, for sure.

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God as the Book of the Universe?

I sure am liking reading Philip K. Dick a whole lot. I just finished The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, up next are Radio Free Albemuth and The Man in the High Castle. After that I might take a sci-fi break, or who knows, I might finally get around to that copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars that has been blessing my bedside table for the past month (or maybe I’ll just reread Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan).

I read this passage last night from Transmigration that I sure liked a whole bunch, sitting on the couch next to my dad while he watched Blade Runner (talk about appropriate! I just watched it a month ago, right before beginning my Dick binge, or else I’d have watched it with him). The passage in question is from pages 729-732 in my hardcover Library of America edition, and I’m going to share parts of it in excerpts here. Basically, the narrator is talking about an experience she had, staying up all night in incredible pain from an infected tooth, drinking and reading Dante. The narrator was definitely my favorite thing about this book: she’s female (which I suspect is rare for Dick), and I totally dug her over-educated yet down-to-earth Berkeley hippie stoner chill throughout the novel’s shenanigans.

I especially like this quote in light of this blog’s so-called theme that I am never super bueno about articulating, that of the connection between experience and reading. I think it has some sentences that are really beautiful and moving. Here goes:


All these books that Tim forever reaches for, especially in moments of crisis. Everything worth knowing can be found in a book; conversely, if Jeff [Tim Archer’s son and the narrator’s husband] is important he is important not as a person but as a book; it it books for books’ sakes then, not knowledge, even, for the sake of knowledge. The book is the reality. For Tim to love and appreciate his son, he must–as impossible as it may seem–he must regard him as a kind of book. The universe to Tim Archer is one great set of reference books from which he picks and chooses as his restless mind veers on, always seeking the new, always turning away from the old…

I am no different, then, from Timothy Archer. To me, too, books are real and alive; the voices of human beings issue forth from them and compel my assent, the way God compels our assent to world, as Tim said. When you have been in that much distress, you are not going to forget what you did and saw and thought and read that night; I did nothing, saw nothing, thought nothing; I read and I remember; I did not read Howard the Duck or The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers or Snatch Comix that night; I read Dante’s Commedia, from Inferno through Purgatorio, until at last I arrived in the three colored rings of light… and the time was nine A.M. and I could get into my fucking car and shoot out into traffic and Dr. Davidson’s office, crying and cursing the whole way, with no breakfast, not even coffee and stinking of sweat and bourbon, a sorry mess indeed, much gaped at by the dentist’s receptionist.

So for me in a certain unusual way—for certain unusual reasons–books and reality are fused; they join through one incident, one night of my life: my intellectual life and my practical life came together–and having done so they never completely came apart again. If I believed in God, I would say that he showed me something that night; he showed me the totality: pain, physical pain, drop by drop, and then, this being his dreadful grace, there came understanding… and what did I understand? That is is all real; the abscessed tooth and the root-canal irrigation, and, no less and no more.

I read the Commedia through to the end that night and then shot up the street for Dr. Davidson’s office, and was never the same again. I never changed back into what I had previously been. So books are real to me, too; they link me not just with other minds but with the vision of other minds, what those minds understand and see. I see their worlds as well as I see my own. The pain and the crying and the sweating and the stinking and cheap Jim Beam Bourbon was my Inferno and it wasn’t imaginary; what I read bore the label “Paradiso” and Paradiso it was.

God save me from another night like that. But goddamn it, had I not lived out that night, drinking and crying and reading and hurting, I would have never been born, truly born. That was the time of my birth into the real world, and the real world, for me, is a mixture of pain and beauty, and this is the correct view of it because these are the components that make up reality. And I had them all there that night, including a packet of pain-pills to carry home with me from the dentist’s, after my ordeal had ended. I arrived home, took a pill, drank some coffee and went to bed.


What are the memories of very concrete experiences that I’ve had, reading very specific books? I’m going to have to chew on that for a while. For now the first thing that comes to mind is my AP English teacher reading aloud Addie Bundren’s chapter from As I Lay Dying and thinking “holy damn, can that Faulkner write.”

For reference this is the final canto of Paradiso that Dick quotes in the novel:

“I beheld leaves within the unfathomed blaze
Into one volume bound by love, the same
That the universe holds scattered throughout its maze.
Substance and accidents, and their modes, became
As if fused together, all in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple flame.”

After quoting this passage, Dick (or the narrator, I should say) then goes on to quote a commentary on this passage (i.e. an interpretation of what Dante means), made by a C.H. Grandgent:

God is the Book of the Universe.

How very Borges!

Dick has another quote in this passage that I also liked, by a Greek tragedy writer (possibly Aeschylus; the narrator never specifies):

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

Que intense!

Other things I am learning about, via the lens of Dick:

– the Essenes
– the Dead Sea Scrolls
– the definition of Gnosticism (my father claims that Dick discusses this in a similar manner to Lawrence Durrel in The Alexandria Quartet, though I have absolutely no memory of this. Maybe my high school brain just couldn’t absorb it at the time).
– the nature of madness
– the Torah and its emphasis on words
– the importance of specific Hebrew vocabulary in the Bible, especially the use of the word “I” in reference to God as it makes Yahweh (aka old school Old Testament God) of “I am that I am” fame a distint conscious “I” as opposed to a word meaning something like “the forces of nature” or “the will of the universe”.
– the importance of bathing in ancient Jewish sects
– scrolls being found in jars deep in caves by sheepherders. “How can they be preserved for that long?” I asked my dad. “The desert,” he replied. Makes me want to watch Lawrence of Arabia again.
– the theory that Jesus and his disciplines ate some kind of mushroom to be found in the caves of Israel
– the theory that Jesus WAS a mushroom. Apparently this is something that is actually REAL and does not just spring from the Dickian universe.
– what would it mean if the universe was created by a totally fucked and crazy force/thing, a la His Dark Materials trilogy?


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“The Empire Never Ended.”

“[Philip K.] Dick is a species of Kafka manifested by lysergic acid and rage.”  (Roberto Bolaño)

I have been on a Phillip K. Dick binge this past week. Thanks to this trusty black hardcover Library of America compilation, I’ve chomped my way through A Maze of Death, VALIS (a re-read of a classic), and I just finished The Divine Invasion. Only The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is left and then I’ll have finished the volume.

Reading Phillip K. Dick makes me feel like a crackhead. He makes me feel like Christian Bale’s character in The Fighter: jumpy, twitchy, bug-eyed, sweaty forehead, fidgeting constantly, a barrage of words in a thick accent. He makes me feel paranoid and twitchy, like I’m hearing voices in my head, like I want to say things to my friends and co-workers that will make them feel uncomfortable and furrow their brows in concern for my mental health and well-being. He makes me feel like I’ve taken too many amphetamines.

I had to pull two nighters in a row last week (a self-inflicted punishment I hadn’t experienced since ye college days of yore) thanks to an intense envelope-stuffing session for one of my jobs. It was crazy how no sleep makes you feel. It’s crazy how you can walk around and talk and drive on two hours of sleep in two days. It made me feel like a Phillip K. Dick character.

His books have also been giving me crazy dreams. I had an Inception-type one last night, in which I’d dreamed that I was banging myself against the bed, trying to wake myself up from another dream I was having, and when I finally woke up in Real Life (whatever THAT means) it honestly took me a couple of seconds to realize that no, it had been in the dream where I was banging myself against the bed like that, not in Reality. I also had this INSANE dream the other week in which I was watching a reality TV show based on the premise of Chopped (a Food Network cooking show I watched WAY too many episodes of during the envelope stuffing sessions. Watching it made me feel guilty, but then again it provided the basis for this dream, so at least something useful came of it). Anyway, so the premise of the reality show I was watching in this dream was that contestants were judged on the quality of their dreams. Similarly to Chopped, they were given a basket containing something: random assorted items. Other times they were made to experience something weird and intense (my memory is sketchy here). Then they had to go lay down on these flat beds and dream about it. The four judges provided intense, rapid commentary (“I see that he’s going for the quick two minute cat-nap…. She’s going for the full twenty minutes, will she reach R.E.M.?”). Then during the judging portion, the judges assessed the dream according to how well they helped the dreamer digest their experience, as well as by their narrative quality (“It felt a bit disjointed to me… I don’t feel like it really helped you make sense of what happened.”).

I attribute this dream 100% to Philip K. Dick’s influence and saturation on my brain.

I just love reading Philip K. Dick. He makes me want to clap my hands together and whoop in delight. To me, he just embodies the best thing about reading: escapism and imagination. The stuff he comes up with just boggles my mind. I think Borges is truly the only other comparable peer. There are just so many moments in his books (especially these three I’ve just read) in which I just shook my head in a “How does he come up with this stuff?” style.

One of the many things for which I am most grateful is the way Philip K. Dick reminds me that This Reality Is Not All There Is. It’s a feeling I get sometimes at the end of a REALLY freaking good yoga class, the kind that makes me so sweaty my toes tingle, and it’s like all my resistance has just been wrung out of me like I’m a wet towel, and I lap up all the Rumi and Hafiz-influenced quotes that the teacher reads out of her little hardcover notebook, about how God is the surf and human beings are just shells tossed by it. It’s the feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in the India chapter of Eat Pray Love, of just wanting to be reminded that we are MORE than just these little neurotic human creatures, fretting about our bad habits, fretting about our jobs, our graduate school applications, our chewed-down nails and procrastination, our concerns that we are developing a glucose addiction thanks to the copious amounts of honey and Adobe sweetener we feel like we absolutely need to add to our herbal tea (or maybe this is all just me, haha). It’s the feeling (reminder?) that there is MORE to this world than our puny human selves. I am not a religious person by any means at all but this is definitely something I fervently believe. It’s a big universe out there and there is some WEIRD STUFF out there, a lot of it involving infinity and quantum mechanics. Not to mention that it is likely that time is an illusion and that everything is going to happen already has, in the style of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. Let’s leave it at that for now.

ANYWAY… on that quasi-mystical note, I especially liked/appreciated these three novels (A Maze of Death, VALIS, The Divine Invasion) for the way they deal with intense theological questions. The presence and the nature of God is a huge theme in these three books. For me, this elevates the books beyond the mere realm of science fiction, and into philosophical exercises similar to Borges.

But beyond this very intense nature-of-God stuff, what makes me love Philip K. Dick is how funny and human he is. Take this very first sentence, from A Maze of Death: “His job, as always, bored him.” What a PERFECT way to start a science fiction novel. Yes, the spaceships come later, as well as the interplanetary exploration and the nature of God (here called “the Mentufacturer”), but this sentence is so grounding. It grounds us in something very real, something we can all relate to. “His job, as always, bored him.” It’s a Kafkaesque detail. It’s just like what Borges said about fantastical writing, that in many ways it needs to be more realistic than traditional realism. You have just got to have these very realistic, down-to-earth details that ground you, or otherwise the fantastical story is not going to captivate you. It will slip through you fingers into the “Why should I care about any of this?” realm and become Lord of the Rings/Simarillion speeches (yes, I was not able to finish LOTR. I made it partway through the first part of The Two Towers and gave up. Sorry, Tolkein. I am grateful for the movies and find them a perfectly acceptable Hollywood commercial distillation). But through the details, Philip K. Dick makes us care. Maybe if Aragorn had bitched a little more I could have given more of a crap about the fate of Middle Earth. If only other LOTR characters like him had been given the same loving and realistic characterization as the ponies…

Anyway, I love Philip K. Dick, I love writing, I love fiction, I love art, and I love passages such as this one from VALIS that nearly make me pee from laughing:

(Background: Horselover Fat is the main character from Valis, and is basically Philip K. Dick himself–“Horselover” is the Greek translation for the name Phillip, and in German “Dick” means “Fat.” In this passage he’s talking to Maurice, one of the psychiatrists at the mental institution:)

“Let me just say one thing,” Fat said.

Irritably, Maurice nodded.

“The creator deity,” Fat said, “may be insane and therefore the universe is insane. What we experience as chaos is actually irrationality. There is a difference.” He was silent, then.

“The universe is what you make of it,” Maurice said. “It’s what you do with it that counts. It’s your responsibility to do something life-promoting with it, not life-destructive.”

“That’s the existential position,” Fat said. “Based on the concept that we are what we do, rather than, We are what we think. It finds its first expression in Goethe’s Faust, Part One, where Faust says, ‘Im Anfang war das Wort.’ He’s quoting the opening of the Fourth Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Faust says, ‘Nein. Im Anfang war die Tat.’ ‘In the beginning was the deed.’ From this, all existentialism comes.”

Maurice stared at him as if he were a bug.”

“Like a bug.” LOVE IT. Or how about this from The Divine Invasion. I just love the main character’s reaction to the prophet Elijah’s (here called “Elias”) speech about the upcoming apocalyptic battle between God and Satan:

” [excerpt from a MUCH longer paragraph I am too lazy to type completely out] … We must be the world’s information source, speaking in all tongues. We will be the tower that originally  failed. And if we fail now, then it ends here, and sleep returns… rust will rule and dust will rule–not for a little time but for all time and all men, even their machines, for all that lies ahead.”

Gosh,” Herb Asher said.”

CLASSIC. What better way to react to a speech about the impending apocalypse? It’s these little moments that make or break Philip K. Dick for me, and every time he comes THIS CLOSE to losing you with very intense fantastical headtrips, he brings you back with these little human moments. “Gosh.” “Maurice stared at him as if he were a bug.” His job, as always, bored him.” “Mental illness is not funny.” (from VALIS)

Thank you Philip for your prophetic madman rants, your Berkeley LSD-scene infused ramblings, and for generally making this world a better place to live in…

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Mad Scientists

I just finished The Invention of Morel, an Argentinean novella. I was very happy and pleased to learn that the author, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was a very close friend of Borges’. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that Borges was a huge Bioy fanboy: he writes the introduction to Morel, and Bioy is the friend who appears in Borges’ wonderful story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Now that I’ve finished it (only 103 pages, yay) I think more highly of it than I did when I was actually reading it, if that makes any sense. While I was reading it I was just kind of impatient to find out what would happen next, and now that I’ve finished I’m like “wow, OK, lots o’ layers to unpack here.” The plot concerns a fugitive, pursued by police for reasons that are never specified, who flees to a deserted island with an abandoned museum rumored to be inhabited by ghosts. A random mysterious group of tourists arrive, and while hiding from them he falls in love with a woman in the group. While trying to win her affections he discovers that the reality on the island is not as it seems, and that’s when things start getting trippy.  The wikipedia article claims that Morel was an inspiration for the computer game Myst, which I unfortunately remember finding very boring and tedious–ha ha!

Morel is neither boring or tedious, though I did feel like the protagonist was a little thick-headed at times (that feeds into one of his many theories though, that he is an inmate in a psychiatric hospital imagining the whole thing!). Morel reminded me a lot of Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference, in the sense that while reading it you are just carried away by the sheer inventiveness of the author. You are completely immersed in a carefully constructed, perfectly logical world, logical in all its surreality and absurdity. I got the same feeling reading this book as I did when reading Kafka, all the way back in sixth grade (OH! How I was inspired and moved by Kafka!), or more recently by a collection of short stories (none longer than 4 pages) that a friend gave me for Christmas, The Girl on the Fridge. I like it when authors remind me of mad scientists in laboratories, furiously mixing up potions of plots and stirring mysterious ingredients and flights and fancy together. There are certain authors who are just great at this: Cesar Aira, Phillip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Borges even… I’ve come to (re)discover that I really like fiction that’s wildly imaginative and inventive. It’s fun to read, and I imagine that it’s fun to write as well. There’s just something very liberating about it: it is a “story” in the very best sense of the word. Like Gary Shteyngart says in this interview (I also recently read his Super Sad True Love Story, another good example of an author-as-mad scientist book!), it is necesarry for literature to be entertaining just as much as intellectual.

Anyway, the other thing I thought was funny about finishing this book is that it is an appropriate continuation of the Mad Scientist theme of my past few days. On Friday at the elementary school where I work we had Family Movie Night and showed “Despicable Me,” a craptastic animation film about a mad scientist that the kids and parents nevertheless enjoyed, so there ya go. And then at my new writing group this morning (yay writing group!) I wrote a silly little piece inspired by the film, specifically by the yellow sponge-like characters. I don’t claim that this story is particularly good, but it was fun to write, to just heedlessly charge from one thing to the next, inventing one crazed frenetic detail after another. I dunno, a lot of the fiction I’ve written since graduating from college has tried to be very realistic, when a lot of the stuff I wrote in high school or early on in college reads as very imaginative, free-wheeling and heedless to me now. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision at one point or not to stop writing that way–I think I was sick of magical realism, and of reading fantastical techniques in novels that just felt very forced and hokey to me. And that was something I didn’t want my writing to be, hokey or gimmicky, by being centered around this fantastical qualities.

But then Borges’s essay at the beginning of Morel provides some comfort, as he argues that it is fantasy novels that are more strict and rule-based than realist fiction, as opposed to the othe way around. In books such as Ulysses or War and Peace, anything can happen, while in an H.G. Wells or fantasy/adventure/science fiction story, what happens has to follow the logic of what happenned before, or the logic of the world and the narrative completely collapses. So in this way a story built around fantastical elements needs to be more adherent to logic and rigidly plotted than a realist novel (this is SO TRUE for Kafka in particular! What would The Metamorphosis be without the specific details?). As Borges puts it in Morel’s introduction:

The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example. . . . In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. . . . The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

So all hail fanastical ridiculous nonsensical messy arbitrary fiction. It gives me lots of feelings I like. Such as: writing is fun! Creativity is good. Art is necesarry. And so forth.

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Filed under Aira, books, fiction, Phillip K. Dick