“They say when you’re lonely you start to lose words.” –Weather – Jenny Offill
Previous book reports: 2021 – April/May, March, February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for June 2021
In last month’s belated rundown on reading, I cited some of what Johann Hari has written about how we, in some part, misunderstand depression. At least insofar as it manifests as a disconnection, or a loneliness. He wrote: “Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”
And it may be in this way that we, as Jenny Offill writes in Weather, lose words. What use do we have for words as we recede further into ourselves, with ever more tenuous connections to other people? Eventually, if those connections snap, what use do we have for language?
I cannot say I have experienced ‘loneliness’ during the lengthy restrictions of the pandemic, but I do feel my connections hollowing out. Perhaps my vocabulary will follow.
*Modern Death: How Medicine Changed the End of Life – Haider Warraich
“But as medicine strengthened our ability to live, it started to encroach on people’s right to pass.”
My favorite book in June was probably also the most difficult. Read very soon after Katie Engelhart‘s book,The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die, this book took a deeper look at the medicalization and hospitalization of death, and how death itself has become harder to come by.
“We have delayed death but have also made getting there more difficult. Nothing encapsulates the diverging directions we have taken better than the complicated story of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR as it is commonly known as. Akin to being the antihero of modern medicine, CPR is at once a reminder of how far we have come and a reminder of how much we have left behind.”
We see reminders of modern medical ‘miracles’ all the time, such as the cardiac event on the football field at the Euro 2020 tournament. Danish player Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest on live television. And was revived, and survived. But just as medicine has ushered in miraculous ways to preserve life, it is as though we have never stopped to consider to what lengths we should go to preserve life if that life lacks any meaning or quality. This book, others like it, and the broader “right to die” movement examine these challenging questions.
“Physicians found themselves in a situation they had never been in before at any point in history. With medical advances in just about every specialty and field, it seemed that medicine was finally beginning to translate dreams into reality. They had striven to buy their patients more time since the inception of their profession, but no one had anticipated what the long-term outcome of these advances would be.”
“This to me was emblematic of how in many ways modern medicine has come full circle. We started out doing everything we could to avert death, knowing that death was the enemy. In every medical decision and every megatrial, the only outcome that ever mattered was mortality. Along the way, though, in our pursuit to at best delay death, we have seen outcomes emerge such as vegetative states which are in many ways more horrendous and unnatural than even death.”
“If death has changed from being an indisputable binary fact to a contentious amorphous idea, life remains ever more complex and harder to discern. Physicians deal with life and death, but they rarely cross the chasm from the simple and concrete to the complex and abstract. We have enough difficulty differentiating sick from not-sick.”
*Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig – Mark Essig
“The world learns this lesson again and again but never fully absorbs it. Though the pig’s cleverness has been noted at least since Roman times, it seems that each era must make the discovery anew.”
Waiting in the parking lot for dose one of my long-anticipated Covid vaccine, I read the majority of this book on the humble pig. And strangely it was one of the best books I read in June, although I can’t quite explain why. Maybe just because the western relationship with the pig is such a mixed bag; maybe because we never quite coexist with the idea of pigs’ intelligence, or become, as Essig writes, quite comfortable with the omnivorous nature of pigs. If an animal will eat anything, without discernment of any kind, surely, it can’t be clean, pure or good for human consumption.
“The problem of the pig seems especially relevant today. At a time when choosing food is more complicated than ever—when buying a pork chop raises thorny questions about the environment, public health, workers’ rights, and animal welfare—it makes sense to take a look back at what has been, for several thousand years, the most controversial of foods. Why do pigs provoke feelings of disgust? Why have so many people rejected pork? The answers to those questions lie deep in the past, tangled up in the biology of people and pigs, in shifting environmental and economic conditions, and in the ways people find meaning in the foods they eat.”
The book, of course, takes a uniquely western viewpoint, claiming that “the Chinese character for “home” is formed by placing the symbol for “pig” under the symbol for “roof”: home is where the pig is”, which of course sheds an entirely different light on how pigs are viewed in different societies.
*A whole bunch of poetry
Yes, I won’t list it since this blog is mostly comprised of poetry. Day in and day out.
Other interesting stuff
*Weather – Jenny Offill
“Funny how when you’re married all you want is to be anonymous to each other again, but when you’re anonymous all you want is to be married and reading together in bed.”
I want to like Offill’s writing, and I kind of do. But her writing feels like someone has scribbled down random feelings and thoughts on post-it notes and then cobbled them together as a series of their jumbled reflections on their life. It’s kind of bite-sized, making Offill easy to read, even if the fragmented subject matter isn’t always easy itself. I’ll grant that it’s different from most of what I read. But that doesn’t necessarily make it “good”.
*Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History – Florence Williams
“…it’s just as likely the female drove these developments, through lactation and the unique demands of the human infant. Just suppose for a moment, gentlemen of the academy, that breasts evolved because she needed them, not because her club-wielding cave man did.”
An interesting book discussing the human breast from all angles, from cosmetic enhancement, to lactation and to cancer, and more.
“Breasts confer both. Unlike any other organ we have, breasts do most of their developing well after birth. In other complicated organs, such as the brain, the penis, and the testes, the basic architecture is laid down at birth. But the breast has to fully build itself out of nothing during puberty. Even then, it’s not done. The gland grows new milk-making structures under the influence of pregnancy hormones. Once an infant has weaned, a switch flips somewhere and the gland shuts down and shrinks. The breast must construct and then deconstruct itself over and over again with each pregnancy. It’s like Caesar’s army, making a camp city and then breaking it down on its relentless march across Gaul. Even if a woman never gets pregnant, her breasts pack and unpack a little bit each month just in case.”
*Postcolonial Astrology: Reading the Planets through Capital, Power, and Labor – Alice Sparkly Kat
“Through astrology, we are funny, sincere, and vulnerable. We use astrology to see each other.”
I thought this would be more engaging than it was. It’s not that there was nothing to keep me reading (I will, after all, stick with a book even when it means little to me). It just wasn’t a favorite.
“My motive in writing this book is to ask the question: if astrology is just as speculative as race, can we make it more responsible? Can we use Western astrology to respond to the West? The word “responsibility” has the word “response” in it. Responsibility is possible when response is possible. Race and how we construct it have not been responsive to the needs of communities around the world. Rather, race has mainly existed as a paradigm propagated by the West and used to describe the rest of the world. While race science has been central to the establishment of the modern institution, astrology has been regarded by most as a pseudoscience. As a pseudoscience, astrology is a communal practice and a silly one. It follows not only the old adage of “as above, so below,” but also “as below, so above.” The latter adage means that not only do the wider cultural contexts that we project onto virtual images, such as the stars, dictate what meanings we are able to construct from the world, but also that by changing our collective behavior, we are able to change what we see in the stars by changing ourselves.”
I did not expect that I’d find a serious book tying astrology to capital, power and labor, but this book does do so.
“The golden age is never something you find yourself in the middle of. It always shows up in reminiscences, in the golden years of one’s life. The golden age, then, is not an experienced reality but a type of eye or viewing—a type of memory.”
“Multiculturalism is not neutral. Multicultural empires exist at the expense of Indigenous sovereignty. “Natives” cannot be multicultural, while “nationals” can. The multicultural empire is oriented toward power. Multicultural empires often frame power as representational while simultaneously wielding power through surveillance. Multiculturalism, because it describes difference in terms of race, is also a theater game that is controlled by its orientation toward the white gaze because race is a vocabulary of being controlled by white power. Visibility as power, or race, reveals some things while hiding others.”
Not great reads
*God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law – Marci A. Hamilton
“Ridding society of religion is no answer, and therefore the United States must grapple with religion at its worst as well as its best. God vs. the Gavel argues that the right balance is achieved by subjecting entities to the rule of law – unless they can prove that exempting them will cause no harm to others.”
I wanted this to be much more interesting and engaging than it was.
*Walk Through Walls: Becoming Marina Abramovic – Marina Abramović
I actually had no expectation that this book would be interesting. And it really wasn’t. I am not into performance art, nor reading about the love affairs of performance artists, so this didn’t do anything for me.
I note the book now only because it struck me as quite fascinating that Abramović only got a driver’s license at the age of 62. I reflected the other day that I just passed the 30th anniversary of having my driver’s license… and it occurred to me that I don’t think I would try to learn to drive now if I hadn’t when I was young. So the idea that a 62-year-old woman would do something quite so… brave (and yes I think it’s brave) gave me a moment to consider. What would, could, should I do now that I have been too afraid to do?
*Coming Through Slaughter – Michael Ondaatje
“Our friendship had nothing accidental did it. Even at the start you set out to breed me into something better. Which you did. You removed my immaturity at just the right time and saved me a lot of energy and I sped away happy and alone in a new town away from you, and now you produce a leash, curl the leather round and round your fist, and walk straight into me. And you pull me home. Like those breeders of bull terriers in the Storyville pits who can prove anything of their creatures, can prove how determined their dogs are by setting them onto an animal and while the jaws clamp shut they can slice the dog’s body in half knowing the jaws will still not let go.”
Ondaatje is hit or miss for me, and this book was a definite miss. I got no enjoyment from picking my way through it.