Said and read – February 2018

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Last month I wrote a little something about the books that had been essential, life-affirming, thought-provoking or somehow became lodged in my head or forced tears from my eyes. Affecting in one way or another. Because my reading hysteria has continued, despite my intention to calm down, I’ve completed a number of, once again, affecting books. (You can keep track of all my reading right along with me.)

What I am finding, overall, is that most books live somewhere in the middle of a scale, whether that scale is 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 (and I hate these kinds of arbitrary ratings). There are concepts or ideas that excite the brain, but the book is otherwise undercooked. There are passages that inflame the passions, making the heart beat faster and breathing shallow – or making tears literally explode from the eyes, or that animate the brain, starting processes of analysis or self-reflection. But even then, these are only passages in books that don’t stand up as a whole against the scrutiny required to call something great.

That said, I know that ‘great’ is entirely subjective. I can’t outright define what makes a “great book”. It is even subjective for one person on two different days. I found (as I often do) that I am a much harsher, less patient critic when I am tired and cranky, so for example, I was not at all interested in how Jonas Karlsson‘s book The Room turned out when I hit the halfway point just before going to sleep one February evening. Sleeping on it, though, I came back, finished the book and found some interesting concepts and connections. It was both annoying and intriguing at the same time. Mostly felt tedious except when the question is raised as to whether there can be a different reality for every person. Can one person see something that no one else sees, and be left undisturbed to experience it that way, even if it is a sign of mental illness?  The questions underscore bigger mysteries about the nature of reality and the ways we work best as individuals, illustrating what it’s like for the many who stumble through a world that looks different to them than to the majority. How do we make allowances for that in a world that operates like an assembly line, dependent on sameness, not questioning and uniformity in thinking and action? Nevertheless, as realistic as the depiction of the deluded, mentally ill, belligerent main character/narrator can be, the arrogant clinging to unfounded and unreasonable theories, self-confidence and sense of superiority reminds me so much of someone I used to know that it became hard to read. Which in a way is the mark of a good book (or at least a vital character)… but not a great one.

I also enjoy small coincidences – where one book randomly happens to mention something I did not expect, and that topic or place is mentioned – completely randomly – in the next book or in a film I watch the same day. For example, I read Leila Aboulela‘s book, The Translator, which was about a Sudanese woman. I didn’t know it was set in dear, beloved Scotland until I started reading. And to my delight (because it doesn’t take much), the very next book I read, Ryszard Kapuściński‘s The Shadow of the Sun, also had a whole passage that involved some young Glaswegians traveling around in West Africa. I expected the book to be about Kapuściński’s travels all over the African continent; I didn’t necessarily expect to be greeted by some young, naive Scots as well. Both engaging books – neither ‘great’.

Derek B. Miller‘s Norwegian by Night was a surprise – but still not ‘great’. I appreciated the details – the Oslo I know, up close, and references to little things like RV 23 and E18 make me think of my interminable slogs between Oslo and home in the Swedish woods. I feels close to home, and that can be comforting.

But the book itself feels too cramped, trying to stuff too much into one single novel: I mean, Holocaust, Judaism, American Jews and their identity and discrimination, Norwegians’ ignorance about Jews and Judaism, Korean War, Vietnam conflict, possible dementia, death, Kosovo, Serbia and the KLA, immigration issues in Norway, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Norwegian-Swedish cross-border issues, and a bunch of other stuff I am not even fitting into my few-sentence appraisal. I appreciated the effort, but it tried too hard. Don’t get me wrong – all of these topics are right up my alley, and in that way I loved reading this book. It was immensely enjoyable for all its flaws. Just much too ambitious in throwing too many ingredients into one dish.

Another interesting but much too overly ambitious book was Dexter Palmer‘s just slightly too-long Version Control. It offers unique perspectives on alternate realities/versions, online dating, big data and the way change and lack of communication, especially in relationships, can defy all our best intentions and promises. (No one, after all, goes into a relationship, full of hope and love, thinking they will fade into lesser and less vocal self-advocates or that they will stop interacting or showing those everyday moments of care that made them fall in love in the first place.) Sadly, for all its deft handling of some of these key emotional undercurrents – of the versions and version control of our emotional selves through the course of a relationship and through life – the book undermines itself with too wide a scope and too much … superfluity. With a tighter structure, this could be at least 100 pages shorter and, in my humble opinion, a much better book.

What I did find great, though, were the following:

  • The End of DaysJenny Erpenbeck (I wish I knew how to explain why I love Erpenbeck’s style so much. This was quite different, but no less engrossing, than her novel, Go, Went, Gone, which was one of my favorites last year.)
  • We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our FamiliesPhilip Gourevitch (Haunting, disturbing… how do things like the devastating Rwandan genocide happen? And how does a country move forward afterwards?)
  • An Unnecessary WomanRabih Alameddine (“Memory chooses to preserve what desire cannot hope to sustain.” Perhaps I loved this so much because I could relate to it in such a visceral way. I feel like I express myself, or at least think, like the antisocial loner old lady who is the center and narrator of this book. Her observations, her sentiments on books, obsession with Pessoa, her observations on translation and the imperfection of the art of translation. Perhaps it is also this connection to Lebanon, which I have been trying to dig into since I was in my early 20s, as much as possible. Everything one reads and hears about Lebanon has been so long tinged by the theme of its long civil war and general unrest that it is hard to find something more general, something that features the war only as a backdrop to life. Regular life continues as the war drags on for an entire generation. I felt something similar in watching the recent TV show Derry Girls, which shows life going on for a regular family with the Troubles in Northern Ireland only as a backdrop. A constant backdrop, but not the main story being told. This might not be for everyone, but I loved it.)
  • So You Want to Talk About RaceIjeoma Oluo (I actually read this in January, but had written about my January reading – stupidly – before January actually ended – and this was a phenomenal book and absolutely must be included.)

Honorable mentions (almost great or noteworthy for particular reasons):

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great MigrationIsabel Wilkerson
  • My Brilliant FriendElena Ferrante (I resisted reading this for a long time, more stubbornly the more I heard about its supposed merits. While I can’t rave at the level that would make me call this a ‘great’ book, I nevertheless found the precision with which the elusive Ferrante has depicted the fickle, painful, precarious back-and-forth-teeter-totter nature of female friendships.)
  • LoveStarAndri Snær Magnason (I appreciated the satirical take on our tech-saturated present and future – and the implication that everything can and probably will go haywire – very Black Mirror-esque. Who are we once we are completely defined by technology and incompetent without it? How do we define life and identity when you can erase your child’s existence and replace him/her with the spare copies you’ve made? Does life and experience matter when you have the opportunity to rewind and start again? What are the ethical considerations and consequences? And even more tellingly for today, when we are actively encouraged to quantify everything about ourselves and our existence – what does capturing every single thing do/mean? What happens when capturing absolutely everything becomes more of a prison than a choice – erasing the chance to make mistakes and learn from them? Andri Snær poses all these questions in an eminently readable and fascinating book, conceptually. It does not always flow as a work of fiction, as it seems to be distracted by throwing as many of these ethical and existential questions up for consideration. Always on the razor-edge of absurdity until you realize it’s so close to reality that it’s truly frightening.)
  • A Replacement LifeBoris Fishman (I could say much more about this novel, but what sticks with me in these times, fraught with fake news and denial of hard facts, is the theme of fact checking: ““Oh, I just hear you every day,” he said. “‘Mr. Maloney, is your bar made of pine or aspen? Can you call the manufacturer?’” “Yeah, I guess it sounds strange from the side.” “Mr. Maloney’s gone his whole life without knowing is it pine or aspen. When has anyone asked him what that bar’s made of?” “What’s your point?” “Does it really matter?” he said. “I guess,” she said, putting down her phone. “But think about it. Maloney’s is in New Jersey. Let’s say they don’t have aspens in New Jersey. I mean, they do—I checked. But let’s say. Somebody happens to know that, they see that wrong, they say, What else is wrong? They lose trust. You can’t give a reader a reason to lose trust.”” Well before now I had thought often of how a hapless error in an otherwise well-researched work can erode the reader’s confidence. Thinking back to my master’s studies, I remember being assigned a rather lengthy book, The System, which chronicled the early Clinton-era attempts to push through universal healthcare in America – and the massive failure that ended up being. Ultimately it seemed quite detailed, but somewhere deep within the book, the writers referred to Congressman Fred Grandy as having been a star in the TV show Gilligan’s Island, which he wasn’t. He was a star in the show The Love Boat. Getting this, such a basic and easily checked pop culture reference, wrong, made me doubt everything I had already read.)
  • The Plot Against America, A NovelPhilip Roth (Definitely one for these confusing, absurd, frightening times in Trump’s moving-toward-fascism America)

Biggest disappointment:

  • Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders (I have no doubt that this was a labor of love, of toil, and as evidence of what can only be termed an original, ambitious and laborious creation, this qualifies. But as a pleasurable read? Not really.)

Worst book:

  • The Lesser BohemiansEimear McBride (I am someone who fights the urge to give up on books because I feel committed once I start, but it was all I could do not to stop reading this shit. I hated it. As you can see above, I usually find something – some angle – in every work that I can relate to, can cite, can appreciate. But this? Fuck no.)

the soup and noodles of compassion

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How important is compassion? Or empathy? Can you “compassion” your way through life? Can you just as readily “compassion yourself out of” experiences and connections? Every time I meet a new person, and they ask me what traits are important or attractive in others, or even what drives me, I can only reply, “Compassion”. I think they are expecting a more glib or easy answer, and “compassion” often confounds the listener. It is almost as though they don’t know what it is or how to talk about it. As time goes by, though, I can’t think of another answer. There are other things that are important to me – empathy, learning – but compassion surpasses them all. And to see the looks on people’s faces when I voice this, you’d think I was speaking an alien language.

Strange, then, to see a number of articles pop up in business press emphasizing the importance of compassion and empathy in leaders (and in innovation). All such articles mention the fact that compassion is sorely and quite visibly absent in most corporate leaders and missions (certainly in practice if not in theory). Perhaps I have been ahead of the curve, even if my commitment to compassion, in practice and daily life, still sees me on the outside looking in. After all, the presence of these traits is rare, and these articles I cite only point to the need for compassion at an executive level, not necessarily the need for compassion in every interaction we have, every action we take. I, for example, shift myself into a place inside to find the compassion each time I am tempted to unleash my inner annoyance, frustration, judgment, crankiness, tiredness, boredom. It’s not that those feelings do not exist. They just need to take a backseat, belt themselves in and let humility and thoughtfulness take the wheel.

The intersection of compassion and corporate life, though, is something else. Something interesting, actually. Lately (as in the last few years), I find myself answering questions in job interviews and professional situations in the exact same way I do when I meet people in other, more social situations.

“What do you think the most important attribute in your arsenal is?”

“Compassion.”

I know I am expected in these moments to talk about a skill or experience that makes me suited for whatever role I’m discussing. But I return to, and ramble about, compassion. This always seems somewhat out of place in the moment, but I continue to push it because it is needed. The fact that interviewers or colleagues give me blank, deer-in-the-headlights stares proves to me that 1. compassion needs to be pushed, and 2. (in interview situations) I don’t want to work in that place anyway.

This idea – letting compassion guide and inform your choices – can make life harder. It’s something of a luxury to be able to choose or not choose with this one principle in mind. I consider, for example, that an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, in which power can accumulate unchecked, leads to corruption at the top, and a culture in which ethics are not valued, and trust becomes non-existent. Responsibility has no meaning. While most of what I have read that ties into my thinking focuses on looking at leaders/CEOs who have been blinded by power and the burdens of bottom-line decision-making, I’d argue that deeply corrupt or flawed leadership has trickle-down effects, and thus poisons an entire organization and its culture. (Hence my not wanting to work in environments in which someone looks at me strangely or rolls out the slow, “Okaaaayyyyy…”-style response to my comment. If the HR department or the hiring manager or future colleagues or current colleagues cannot intuitively understand the link between compassion and the good of/functioning of the company and its culture, I don’t necessarily want to be there to fight against that.)

From HBR.org:

“…the research of neuroscientist Sukhvinder Obhi, who has found that power impairs our mirror-neurological activity — the neurological function that indicates the ability to understand and associate with others. David Owen, a British physician and parliamentarian, has dubbed this phenomenon hubris syndrome, which he defines as a “disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years.”

It is not that every leader lacks empathy; in fact, their leadership role and its responsibilities take a toll on the ability to empathize. The decision-making at the scale and pace at which people in power must do so apparently rewires the brain, making the consequences of these decisions more remote and less human. This rewiring does not have to happen and can be reversed, and compassion is the key:

“While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it. By doing so, we can counter the loss of empathy that results from holding power, and in turn enable better leadership and human connections at work.”

Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, was recently profiled in a Wharton article that focused largely on Nadella’s view that avoiding hubris, valuing learning and embodying empathy lead to success and innovation. Apart from the obvious nods to leadership-style change, i.e. Microsoft’s attempt to shift from “know-it-all” to “learn-it-all”, which is in itself a huge step toward understanding: you acknowledge that you don’t and can’t know everything but that you are always and voraciously willing to keep learning, Nadella credits empathy as a significant underpinning to real innovation:

“This is a quality one doesn’t typically see on a list of top CEO character traits. But in Nadella’s view, empathy is, among other things, a key source of business innovation. He said that although many regard it as a “soft skill,” not especially relevant to the “hard work of business,” it is a wellspring for innovation, since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.”

I can get behind this with relative enthusiasm (I only have so much of it), but I was curious in reading about Nadella’s perspective as to how and why people can only seem to come to a place where they are willing to introduce and admit empathy (and compassion) into all aspects of their lives only after they have experienced their own personal adversity? And even then, do you only empathize with those certain things you can relate to? Moz former CEO Rand Fishkin, who recently departed Moz, posted a farewell-to-Moz, hello-to-SparkToro (his new company) letter, in which he cites empathy as one of the most important/best skills he developed – yes, developed – because, he writes, it does not come naturally.

Can empathy only be felt when you have experienced similar things (while, as the HBR article posits, compassion is more about the intent to contribute to the well-being of others, regardless of your ability to relate to or feel the feelings of others)? Perhaps this depends on how you define and interpret “compassion”, which I think folds thoughtfulness, patience, empathy and this ineffable ‘intent’ into one big fluffy ball. I don’t know that I buy it, and in some way, find it disappointing, if true, that people are only capable of empathy by learning to be empathetic through their own experiences.

Still, any and all empathy, no matter how and when it arrives, is better than none.

 

Image (c) 2018 Naomi/Paddy Litvak

‘your mouth to colonise’

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When first we faced, and touching showed
Philip Larkin
When first we faced, and touching showed
How well we knew the early moves,
Behind the moonlight and the frost,
The excitement and the gratitude,
There stood how much our meeting owed
To other meetings, other loves.

The decades of a different life
That opened past your inch-close eyes
Belonged to others, lavished, lost;
Nor could I hold you hard enough
To call my years of hunger-strife
Back for your mouth to colonise.

Admitted: and the pain is real.
But when did love not try to change
The world back to itself–no cost,
No past, no people else at all–
Only what meeting made us feel,
So new, and gentle-sharp, and strange?

the current

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“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine

“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (more or less the same idea as Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”)

My father gave me only one piece of valuable, if obvious, advice in life, and it happened many years ago. Nothing he said before or after that has been useful or indeed true. Long ago I had a friend – a best friend, whom I loved to pieces. But this friend was also, possibly, the most unreliable person I have ever known. Once, after a particularly harrowing series of experiences that tripped over each other in their increasing lunacy and inconvenience, much of which blew up because of this friend’s inability to commit or follow a plan (and these kinds of debacles happened often enough that I found myself exasperated more often than not), I complained about it to my dad. I never have conversations with my father; the fact that I spoke to him about this indicates the level my frustration had reached. Before I got very far into my spiel of disappointment and anger, he stopped me and said, “Look, if you want to continue with that friendship, if you value the good parts more than you are put out by the bad, you have to accept that this is the way it is.”

I think of this frequently because it’s true in almost all cases with people in our lives. I’ve struggled, like all people, not to be judgmental – not just in the sense that I don’t want to judge other people’s flaws, faults, journeys, decisions or lack of decisions – but also in the sense that I don’t want to attach expectations to their lives and ‘progress’. For example, while I don’t judge an alcoholic in my life for being an alcoholic, for struggling with it constantly, and ‘falling off the wagon’ repeatedly, I also have to let go of any idea that change is required in order to care for him. He tries; he makes incremental steps in a positive direction, but this progress is constantly undermined and undone because after a month, or three months, or some period of sobriety, he slips back into old habits, and the drinking begins again and erases not just the sobriety but the stability he achieves on other fronts in his life (the parts I invest a lot of time in helping him with). It’s always back to square one, and this is inevitably disappointing.

But then I realize: this is its own form of judgment. I have to, if I continue to be a support to this person, discontinue all notions of ‘square one’ and ‘progress’ because, for him, it really is literally one day at a time. (“Self-regulation does not refer to “good behavior” but to the capacity of an individual to maintain a reasonably even internal emotional environment.” – Gabor Maté) I can’t hold these ideas about how he was doing ‘so well’ up as a kind of yardstick, measuring how far he has moved forward from last week or last month because it can all be wiped out in minutes. It’s that precarious, and no one hates himself more than he does when it all goes awry.

Life (and its series of relationships) is defined by, as we are aware, our choices. The alcoholic chooses to drink, even if there is something that drives him to do it that is beyond his control. My friend from years ago chose somehow not to be reliable, or at least not to be reliable for me. I choose, for example, to be (hopefully) an enduring friend, even to those who may not ‘deserve’ it (if I were tallying up some sort of score card). I choose to eliminate any notion of a score card or insistence that friendship always be a two-way street. I have written about it many times – there is often an imbalance, but to be a good, compassionate person or friend, it is not about what you get back from the people in your life. In an ideal world, you would not just give and give without getting something back. But it is not an ideal world, and as it happens, you get what you need from other sources.

Life is also defined by our non-choices, which is something we don’t consider much until we get older. I have had many conversations on this topic recently. In my younger years, I actively chose to continue difficult friendships, even when they were painful. I chose to believe in things that I knew were doomed. But each choice concealed a non-choice. I didn’t choose my own comfort at every turn. I didn’t choose to pursue or complete specific actions, which let outcomes float aimlessly toward wherever the current pulled them. I have been carried by life’s current to places I would not have consciously chosen if I were trying to make a plan.

Sometimes this path has been enlightening and joyful, and sometimes quite painful. And often leads to considerations of the paths not taken, by chance or by choice and all the infinite possibilities those paths pose(d).

 

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

shaping life

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As Much as You Can
Constantine Cavafy
And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social events and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Original

Όσο Mπορείς
K.Π. Kαβάφη
Κι αν δεν μπορείς να κάμεις την ζωή σου όπως την θέλεις,
τούτο προσπάθησε τουλάχιστον
όσο μπορείς: μην την εξευτελίζεις
μες στην πολλή συνάφεια του κόσμου,
μες στες πολλές κινήσεις κι ομιλίες.

Μην την εξευτελίζεις πηαίνοντάς την,
γυρίζοντας συχνά κ’ εκθέτοντάς την
στων σχέσεων και των συναναστροφών
την καθημερινήν ανοησία,
ώς που να γίνει σα μια ξένη φορτική.

Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

“If I must go mad, let it be dignified”

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A brief moment near the end, pleading to feel “like wood” reminds me obliquely of DH Lawrence’s “Elemental”.
Where I’ll Be Good

Michael Ryan

Wanting leads to worse than oddity.
The bones creak like bamboo in wind,
and strain toward a better life outside the body,
the life anything has that isn’t human.
Feel the chair under you? What does it want?
Does lust bend it silly, like a rubber crutch?
Tell a tree about the silky clasp of cunt.
It won’t shift an inch. It won’t ache to touch.
Let me not cruise for teens in a red sports car,
or glare too long at what bubbles their clothes.
Let me never hustle file clerks in a bar.
Keep me from the beach when the hot wind blows.
If I must go mad, let it be dignified.
Lock me up where I’ll feel like wood,
where wanting won’t send me flopping outside,
where my bones will shut up, where I’ll be good.