Said and read – May 2018

Standard

Like last month, I didn’t get as far this month as I’d have hoped. I was rushing to finish two school assignments to close out the term (and launch into the final thesis), which of course meant I was reading a lot of stuff about development/relief work while trying to come up with a plausible topic for a thesis. But there was some good reading during May, and here is the random collection of thoughts on that. In fact this really does not qualify as “thoughts” – it’s more of a list without any reflection (beyond what I did in my head).

You can also find out what I was liking, thinking, reading in April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

mitchell4

Thoughts on reading for May:

*FactfulnessHans Rosling et al

Ah, the late Hans Rosling gave us one last gift – this book that is so sorely needed in these times of factlessness. Some hope – the world is actually getting better. It’s just very hard to see. But the numbers, as much as they can be manipulated, do tell us a nicer story.

*The View From Flyover CountrySarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior has been one of the most “factful” and insightful voices of reason since the early days of Trump’s rise. For people who have no understand of middle America and how the Trump phenomenon came to be, Kendzior’s collection of essays puts it all into perspective

*Each Happiness Ringed by LionsJane Hirshfield

Poetry. Beautiful poetry.

*Skinned – Selected PoemsAntjie Krog

More poetry. I don’t think anyone who has ever read this blog imagines that I love anything more than I love poetry.

mitchell3

Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*The Hummingbird’s DaughterLuis Alberto Urrea

When I started reading this one, I had no idea what to expect; it was a random library choice. It took a while to grow on me but I came to enjoy it a lot.

Without any connection to formal religion, I do feel bound to try for “the selfless practice of love, of good, of service” (as cited below). I am struck by those who claim to be “most religious” who have nothing but hatred and violence in their hearts, and have to dehumanize other groups of people to such a degree to be able to feel that way.

“For God,” she preached from her porch, “religions are nothing, signify nothing. Because positive religions are generally nothing more than words—words without feeling. Religions are practices that focus on the surface of things, that affect only the senses, but that fail to touch the soul, and fail to come from the soul. For that reason, these words and practices fail to reach our Father. What our Father wants from us is our emotions, our feelings. He demands pure love, and that love, that sentiment, is found only in the selfless practice of love, of good, of service.”

*Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media  Suzanne Franks

Somewhat connected to my studies, I enjoyed reading about the way disasters and subsequent aid efforts are reported, what gets attention and what doesn’t and how mystifyingly complex it is.

“The configuration of aid, media pressure, NGOs and government policy today is still directly affected, and in some ways distorted, by what was—as this narrative reveals—also an inaccurate and misleading story. In popular memory the reporting of Ethiopia and the humanitarian intervention were a triumph of journalism and altruism. Yet alternative interpretations give a radically different picture: that the reporting was misleading and the resulting aid effort did more harm than good. This book explains the event within the wider context of international news broadcasting, especially by the BBC, and looks at the way it has influenced the reporting of humanitarian disasters in subsequent years.”

mitchell2

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The CircleDave Eggers

This book made me sick – in that good way where you feel moved (whether in a positive or negative way). I was moved by that creepy, crawly disgust that comes over you when you’re sitting in a huge room full of brainwashed people. And you think, “My god, am I the only one who thinks we’re being indoctrinated into a cult?”

“There’s this new neediness—it pervades everything.”

“So many people who don’t want to be found but who will be. So many people who wanted no part of all this. That’s what’s new. There used to be the option of opting out. But now that’s over. Completion is the end. We’re closing the circle around everyone—it’s a totalitarian nightmare.”

*A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind – Siri Hustvedt

This was a difficult book to get through. Some of it was very engaging; some was difficult, but in the right frame of mind, it’s incredible. Perception and context, of course.

“Nevertheless, the larger point that may be extrapolated from Plassmann’s experiment and countless others, which often remains unsaid, is instructive: There is no pure sensation of anything, not in feeling pain, not in tasting wine, and not in looking at art. All of our perceptions are contextually coded, and that contextual coding does not remain outside us in the environment but becomes a psycho-physiological reality within us, which is why a famous name attached to a painting literally makes it look better.”

*The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual EconomyPeter Temin

A key analysis for our fraught times.

“A dual economy exists when there are two separate economic sectors within one country, divided by different levels of development, technology, and patterns of demand. This definition reflects the use of the Lewis model in the field of economic development, and I adapt it in this book to describe current conditions in the United States, the richest large country in the world. This is less paradoxical than it sounds because the political policies that grow out of our dual economy have made the United States appear more and more like a developing country.”

mitchell1

Coincidences

*Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineGail Honeyman

For the entire week before reading Eleanor, SD was overdosing on semi-recent episode of Law & Order: SVU because he wanted to watch one of his man-crushes (Raúl Esparza) in action. He was especially interested in finding out whether Esparza’s sartorially smart ADA Barba wore his vest (waistcoat in UK English parlance) properly, i.e. with the bottom button left unbuttoned). He was delighted to discover that the “sexy bastard” did indeed don his waistcoat exactly as prescribed.

One wouldn’t think that this kind of detail would surface again in the same week. But as it happens, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was offered up to me after spending months on the library waiting list. I didn’t really have expectations and didn’t know what the book was about. It’s not exactly my normal reading fare, and I don’t have my finger on the beating pulse of contemporary popular fiction. I, in fact, knew nothing at all about it (except maybe that Reese Witherspoon had scooped up the film rights, which, yeah… tells me nothing about the book. Or maybe it does).

I started reading and almost immediately, the titular character echoes exactly the same things SD and I were just talking about:

But last night, I’d found the love of my life. When I saw him walk onstage, I just knew. He was wearing a very stylish hat, but that wasn’t what drew me in. No—I’m not that shallow. He was wearing a three-piece suit, with the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened. A true gentleman leaves the bottom button unfastened, Mummy always said—it was one of the signs to look out for, signifying as it did a sophisticate, an elegant man of the appropriate class and social standing. His handsome face, his voice . . . here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as ‘husband material.’

Indeed, a few pages later, one woman character called another “hen“, and I realized, to my surprise, that this book is Glaswegian through and through. SD is a Glaswegian (and I’m an ‘honorary’ one), and almost no one else (other than Scots in certain parts of Scotland) refers to women as “hen”.

SD and I stumbled across so many of these random coincidences – talking animatedly about some (often obscure) detail only to have it pop up again and again in the ensuing days. (Strangely, we had only the day before I read this discussed how Smirnoff vodka is not top-shelf stuff, and yet SD encountered a lot of customers when he worked in bars who turned their noses up at much nicer vodkas for some reason. And what happens in Eleanor? I had only intended to purchase two bottles of Glen’s, but the promotional offer on Smirnoff was remarkable. Oh, Mr. Tesco, I simply cannot resist your marvelous bargains. And that’s ultimately why I mention this book… the strange coincidences that overlap my own conversations and experiences. (The book, too, acknowledges the delight of such serendipities):

I shook my head, and was about to discard the newspaper when a small advertisement caught my eye. The Cuttings, it said, with a logo of a bullet train hurtling along a track. I noticed it because the answer to twelve across in yesterday’s crossword had been Shinkansen. Such small coincidences can pepper a life with interest.

But did I like the book? I love that its canvas is Glasgow without being painfully obvious like many books that make a show of being set in a specific place, going over the top with ‘local’ details, as though it’s necessary to prove the writer was there. I’m thinking here of Douglas Coupland‘s overreach for authenticity, for example, in Microserfs; some people find the level of detail engaging; locals reading his books will nod in agreement with the accuracy, but he always goes a little too far, right over the thin line of what is clever, coming across as artificial. In Coupland’s case, as in most cases, I find it smug. I feel a need for something more subtle – like Honeyman’s use of Glasgow).

The book, though… I have mixed feelings on the book itself and on how the character of Eleanor Oliphant comes across and develops. It’s not bad at all; perhaps it is just not quite my style. I can buy into the lack of self-awareness or lack of worldliness in which Eleanor has cocooned herself. But after spending more than half the book creating this well-meaning, but not pleasant and mostly deluded (or at best uninformed) character, I don’t quite understand how, seemingly suddenly about three-quarters of the way through the story, this awkward woman who plowed through the world following her own routines, saying everything that came into her mind and judging everyone harshly with little or no self-reflection, is questioning, self-aware, confronted by a moment of clarity about herself and her delusions.

I am not saying this is not possible, nor am I saying that there is not character development leading to this (Eleanor starts to change, slowly, seeing that the world is bigger and offers more possibilities than she had allowed herself to imagine. She becomes more social and starts to live, all the way through). But the suddenness of her being slapped in the face by reality does not feel earned or quite realistic. We might have gotten there at some point. But how does she go from blind and deluded certainty about something outlandish to instantly waking up to one’s complete disconnect from reality? Is the suddenness intentional? I don’t know.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

Happily (!) I didn’t hate anything enough to include something in the ‘disappointment’ category.

Images by SD 2018

voices rise

Standard

Georgia Dusk
Jean Toomer
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,

A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill
Their early promise of a bumper crop.

Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low
Where only chips and stumps are left to show
The solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,
Race memories of king and caravan,
High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

Their voices rise . . the pine trees are guitars,
Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain . .
Their voices rise . . the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars . .

O singers, resinous and soft your songs
Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

different or with a different love

Standard

The Letter
WH Auden
From the very first coming down
Into a new valley with a frown
Because of the sun and a lost way,
You certainly remain: to-day,
I, crouching behind a sheep-pen, heard
Travel across a sudden bird,
Cry out against the storm, and found
The year’s arc a completed round
And love’s worn circuit re-begun,
Endless with no dissenting turn.
Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen,
The swallow on the tile, Spring’s green
Preliminary shiver, passed
A solitary truck, the last
Of shunting in the Autumn. But now,
To interrupt the homely brow,
Thought warmed to evening through and through,
Your letter comes, speaking as you,
Speaking of much but not to come.

Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

Photo by Eric Welch on Unsplash

sing a song of

Standard

I Knew I’d Sing
Heather McHugh
A few sashay, a few finagle.
Some make whoopee, some
make good. But most make
diddley-squat. I tell you this

is what I love about
America – The words it puts
in my mouth. The mouth where once
my mother rubbed

a word away with soap. The word
was cunt. She stuck that bar
of family-size in there
until there was no hole to speak of,

so she hoped. But still
I’m full of it – the cunt,
the prick, short u, short i
the words that stood

for her and him. I loved the thing
they must have done, the love they must
have made, to make
an example of me. After my lunch of Ivory I said

vagina for a day or two, but knew
from that day forth which word
struck home like sex itself. I knew
when I was big I’d sing

a song in praise of cunt – I’d want
to keep my word, the one with teeth in it.
Forevermore (and even after I was raised) I swore

Nothing – but nothing – would be beneath me.

double deep and cold

Standard

For J.

Shadows
Henrik Nordbrandt
I have been thinking so much about you
and have written so much about you
without knowing precisely who you are.
I have slept in so many rooms
without having you at my side
and there are so many houses I have moved into
and out of again without you.
There are so many cities where I have not met you.
There are so many things I’ve worn out
or lost on my way to you,
and so many possibilities I have wasted,
so many lives, your presence, here and now,
makes me feel I have squandered,
so that now I cannot see you as other than
the spring light that occasionally brushes your cheek
or makes the glow in your eye burst into flame
leaving the shadows double deep and cold.

Original

Skygger

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 22.56.01.png

nothing

Standard

Nothing
Julia de Burgos
Since life is nothing in your philosophy
let’s drink to the fact of not being our bodies.

Let’s drink to the nothing of your sensual lips,
which are sensual zeroes in your blue kisses;
like everything blue, a chimerical lie
of white oceans and white firmaments.

Let’s drink to the nothing of the material demand
that sinks and rises in your carnal desire;
like all flesh, lightning, spark,
in the true unending lie of the universe.

Let’s drink to nothing, the very nothing of your soul,
which races its lie on a wild colt;
like all nothing, perfect nothing, it’s not even
seen for a second in a sudden brief starburst.

Let’s drink to us, to them, to no one;
for this always nothing of our never bodies;
to everyone, at least; to everyone, so much nothing;
to bodiless shadows of the living who are dead.

We come from not being and march toward not being.
nothing between two nothings, zero between two zeroes,
and since between two nothings nothing can be,
let’s drink to the splendor of not being our bodies.

Original

Nada

Como la vida es nada en tu filosofía,
brindemos por el cierto no ser de nuestros cuerpos.

Brindemos por la nada de tus sensuales labios
que son ceros sensuales en tus azules besos;
como todo azul, quimérica mentira
de los blandos océanos y de los blancos cielos.

Brindemos por la nada del material reclamo
que se hunde y se levanta en tu carnal deseo;
como todo lo carne, relámpago, chispazo,
en la verdad mentira sin fin del Universo.
Brindemos por la nada, bien nada de tu alma,
que corre su mentira en un potro sin freno;
como todo lo nada, buen nada, ni siquiera
se asoma de repente en un breve destello.

Brindemos por nosotros, por ellos, por ninguno;
por esta siempre nada de nuestros nunca cuerpos;
por todos, por los menos; por tantos y tan nada;
por esas sombras huecas de vivos que son muertos.

Si del no ser venimos y hacia el no ser marchamos,
nada entre nada y nada, cero entre cero y cero,
y si entre nada y nada no puede existir nada,
brindemos por el bello no ser de nuestros cuerpos.