Said and read – July 2018

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It seems I only managed to read 23 books in July, even though it felt like more. But there were many skipped days; many days when reading seemed out of my grasp and more of a grim prospect. Why? I don’t know. Was it the unrelenting heat that didn’t let up for more than two months? Was it other concerns? Was it the length or other demands of the material I did read? I can’t answer these questions. I can say that though I enjoyed most of the things I read in July, I wasn’t as immersed in my reading – perhaps because there really were more things taking my time and focus.

Many things I read brought my late grandmother to mind. Seeing as how she is the one who instilled a near-obsessive love for reading, it seems appropriate.

Dig further into what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating in June, May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

Thoughts on reading for July:

Highly recommended

*Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern RelationshipsChristopher RyanCacilda Jethá

The last book I read in July, Sex at Dawn was certainly the most engrossing. While I didn’t find its organization to be entirely logical, it was full of such fascinating information that … well, organization be damned. It was hard not to devour this book in one sitting. One might argue that it’s just because this book is about sex, which automatically makes it more titillating than anything else. But no, it’s more that this book uses scientific inquiry/discovery, evolutionary biology, anthropology and a broad range of studies in multiple fields to question the western (and highly American) approach to sex, which is to tether it to moralizing and, moreover, monogamy.

Some observations are particularly relevant at this point in history, i.e. things we’ve been indoctrinated to perceive as ‘instinctive’ or ‘natural’ are conditioning:

“Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions—conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. This is key to understanding sexuality in the modern world.”

And who doesn’t want to see almost primitive drawings of the great apes that illustrate their penis and testicle sizes?

*Homeland and Other StoriesBarbara Kingsolver

I am not usually a short story kind of person, but Kingsolver’s collection had a few deeply poignant stories. And even the most surface-level among them had resonance. Kingsolver breathes life into her characters, even in a brief story; she makes their dialogue (both verbal and internal) so true to reality, even when they express things that are difficult to capture (and she makes it seem so effortless).

“It’s frightening, she thinks, how when the going gets rough you fall back on whatever awful thing you grew up with.”

“You know what I think? Immortality is the wrong reason,” she said, and suddenly there were two streams of tears on her shiny cheeks. “Having a child wouldn’t make you immortal. It would make you twice as mortal. It’s just one more life you could possibly lose, besides your own. Two more eyes to be put out, and ten more toes to get caught under the mower.”

“A friend of mine, new to extramarital sex, said she loved how condoms kept everything neatly packaged up, but I didn’t. I knew I would wake up in the morning missing the stickiness, proof that someone had needed me in the night.”

*The Collected Poems of Audre LordeAudre Lorde

It’s Audre Lorde. It’s poetry. Do I really need to say more?

“A woman measures her life’s damage
my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock
tied to the ghost of a black boy
whistling
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster
like little mirrors of despair
their father’s hands upon them
and soundlessly
a woman begins to weep.”

-from “Afterimages

*Collected Poems, 1974-2004Rita Dove

from “Parlor”

“We passed through on the way to anywhere else. No one lived there but silence, a pale china gleam, and the tired eyes of saints aglow on velvet. Mom says things are made to be used. But Grandma insisted peace was in what wasn’t there, strength in what was unsaid. It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind.”

Poetry, of course.

I loved this thought: “It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind”. I loved that the grandma in the poem said it because it made me think… my grandma would have said something similar (probably likening reading to a room you enter only in your mind, opening an invisible door to imagination). Also, it made me immediately think of a book I read some time ago – The Room by Jonas Karlsson. Was the main character mad/insane because he believed he was entering a room that no one else could see?

Good – really good

*Boy, Snow, BirdHelen Oyeyemi

Not having enjoyed the only other book of Oyeyemi’s I read not too long ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Boy, Snow, Bird… but I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know until after I read it that it was inspired by the Snow White fairy tale and taken as a departure point from there. Looking back on the book now, it’s quite clear – the obsessive relationship each character has with mirrors (‘mirror, mirror…’) and her (in)ability to see herself clearly (or at all) in the reflection is a clue.

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.”

I can’t describe what I found as engaging as I did with this book – I felt that the characters were rich and intriguing, and this is probably what guided me through. There are bits that feel underdeveloped (e.g., the somewhat abrupt and almost inexplicable shift to ice-queen evil stepmother – this is not really explained fully by the birth of the stepmother character’s own child; also the end-of-story reveal about the stepmother’s father’s identity – it’s not shocking but seems to be delivered in a bundle, quickly, all of a sudden, and that doesn’t feel in keeping with the rest of the storytelling and its pace).

I think the treatment of identity, shifting identity and “passing” (whether it’s passing within another race, another gender, as another person when you move to a community as a complete stranger, and particularly taking on the title and identity of being a mother) are important and fascinating aspects of how this book is written.

*The End of the Affair & The Quiet AmericanGraham Greene

For many years, I’ve intended to read Graham Greene. In my reading frenzy of the last two years, I tried a few times but couldn’t find e-books until now. I started with the two best-known (to me) because both were made into relatively well-received films some years ago. Neither film could delve as deeply into some of the more philosophical aspects covered by the books, but both films were decent representations of the stories and their characters.

“To me comfort is like the wrong memory at the wrong place or time: if one is lonely one prefers discomfort.” –The End of the Affair

While both books held my attention, I think The Quiet American struck me as more powerful at the time of reading – perhaps because the questions of faith in The End of the Affair were tedious to me; perhaps because the objectification of the Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American took on a fascinating edge as I compared it against real-life developments in the lives of people around me. Who knows?

“‘But she loves you, doesn’t she?’ ‘Not like that. It isn’t in their nature. You’ll find that out. It’s a cliché to call them children—but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them—they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like—just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, Pyle, it’s very secure—she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.’” –The Quiet American

While TQA does not exactly rob the female character of all agency (she does make choices), her voice is not heard as an active part of the story. Two men claim to be in love with her and fight for her in their own ways – but neither can possibly know her. The older, more cynical of the two (the book’s narrator and anti-hero) knows he cannot know her and acknowledges and accepts the transactional quality of their relationship. The “quiet American” (Pyle) meets the woman one night and claims, after having shared a virtually wordless dance (they don’t speak any of the same languages) that he is completely in love with her and wants to marry her. (I’ve seen variations of this ‘insta-love’ played out among people I know, particularly in cases with these non-communicative dynamics at play – when lust is essentially the only factor the lovesick individual can be relying on.)

On an entirely different note, The Quiet American is set against a backdrop of post-colonial Vietnam – the French are leaving and the Americans are rolling in. The titular quiet American is the… all-American/pro-American, naive, anti-Communist, black-and-white type who sees none of the nuance of the culture or the conflict, i.e. insisting that the Vietnamese “don’t want Communism”, not seeming to grasp that many Vietnamese – like people in any country – aren’t for or against ideologies. They just want to live.

“‘They don’t want Communism.’

‘They want enough rice,’ I said. ‘They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.’

‘If Indo-China goes …’

‘I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does “go” mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans. And remember—from a buffalo’s point of view you are a European too.’

‘They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.’

‘Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?’

‘You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?’

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘we’ve brought them up in our ideas. We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut. We deserve to have them cut. I wish your friend York was here too. I wonder how he’d relish it.’

‘York Harding’s a very courageous man. Why, in Korea …’

‘He wasn’t an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk’s flagellation.’

…They didn’t answer: just lowered back at us behind the stumps of their cigarettes. ‘They think we are French,’ I said.

‘That’s just it,’ Pyle said. ‘You shouldn’t be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism.’

‘Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife. I’ve seen a priest, so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old cup—a wooden platter. I don’t believe in God and yet I’m for that priest. Why don’t you call that colonialism?’

‘It is colonialism. York says it’s often the good administrators who make it hard to change a bad system.’

‘Anyway the French are dying every day—that’s not a mental concept. They aren’t leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians—and ours. I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven’t a liberal party any more—liberalism’s infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists…” – The Quiet American

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Cancer Ward/Раковый Корпус Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I reread Cancer Ward after about 20 (or more) years, and this time read it in English and Russian. When I read it in English so many years ago, I found it engrossing but, as with all translations, wondered what nuances I was missing. Just like with Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, which I reread a few months ago, I found that the sentence structure in translation is very different. There is usually such clean simplicity in the Russian – that’s not to say it is simple language or prose. Rather, it just isn’t the verbose and over-egged English translation that marks most translation of Solzhenitsyn that I’ve read. Not that I want to go about attempting to translate anything myself – more power to those who take on such labors professionally. It’s just a blessing to be able to read the originals myself and compare the two.

“It was simply that we grow dull with the passing years. We grow tired. We lose all true talent for grief or for faithfulness. We surrender to time. Yet every day we swallow food and lick our fingers—in this respect we are unyielding. If we’re not fed for two days we go out of our minds, we start climbing up the wall. Fine progress we’ve made, we human beings.”

Coincidences

*CompulsionMeyer Levin

Once upon a time, my family moved into a house that had some hideous wallpaper adorning the walls of the extra bathroom. Apart from its obvious yellowing from age and being in a household of heavy smokers, it featured depictions of classic cars from the teens and 1920s, one of which was a Stutz-Bearcat. I don’t recall any longer what some of the other motors were, but the Stutz is fresh in my memory because every time my grandmother came to visit and went into that bathroom, she would emerge to tell the story of how infamous murderers Leopold and Loeb were, in part, caught because of their Stutz-Bearcat.

I am not sure how many times in my life I heard the story of the 1924 crime in which two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, conceived of committing the “perfect crime” and then kidnapped and killed a young boy with whom they were vaguely acquainted. At some point I saw a film called Compulsion, which told the story of the crime, the ensuing investigation and the eventual trial that spared both Leopold and Loeb from received death sentences (thanks to their attorney, the famed Clarence Darrow). I didn’t know at the time (I must have been in high school) that the film was based on a fictionalized account of the crime and trial, also called Compulsion, written by Meyer Levin. I also had no idea that Levin’s book served as a kind of template/model for later true-crime writing that came later, e.g. Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood. I eventually also saw a low-budget indie, Swoon, which dramatized the Leopold and Loeb story, and focused on the fact that the two men were involved in a homosexual relationship, which is something that the film version of Compulsion ignored and the book dealt with to some extent but, given the time of its publication, homosexuality was still widely referred to as some sort of sickness, mental illness or perversion.

It’s only recently that I decided to read the book – and found it to be a fascinating and more detailed look at the case and how it unfolded. I am sure my grandmother would be thrilled.

*Dangling ManSaul Bellow

Something about how the main character in this novella reacts and has increasingly violent, disruptive and unpredictable outbursts (“I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I know I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely.”) feels too familiar – reflections of all the people I have known (there have been too many) who throw fits about seemingly nothing and overreact to everything. It’s always frightened me, but it has come to anger me as well.

“Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code. And it does admit of a limited kind of candor, a closemouthed straightforwardness.”

While I can feel compassion for those who are clearly struggling with something – probably some form of mental illness – it always feels oppressive to live in the shadow of these kinds of people. In that sense, if it’s not mental illness that drives them to behave this way, it’s a way of being that robs others of their sense of security, safety and comfort and plants within them such fear that they never trust or can never, by extension, truly experience intimacy in their lives.

Reading this I was not as interested in the main character/narrator as I was in his wife and her inner life, about which, of course, we learn next to nothing. (Not unlike how I always want to dig deeper into Sonia in Crime and Punishment.) How does the narrator’s wife choose to stay with him, support him and live on edge all the time, never knowing when one of his outbursts is going to create a scene, turmoil in their lives (e.g. getting them kicked out of their house) or ultimately add to her already heavy burden?

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*White TearsHari Kunzru

Recommended to me, I was hoping for something… else. I don’t know what that something else is/was, but it wasn’t what I got. It’s not that White Tears was bad – there are some compelling thoughts in it about cultural appropriation, about authenticity, exploitation and privilege. But I felt at times that it was just too taxing to read about these unlikable characters whose only identities (as was the point, I suppose) were intertwined with this endless search for this (artificial/non-existent) pinnacle of the real, the authentic… to the point of complete madness. However, poking fun at hipsters is always welcome.

“When you are powerless, something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened. For you, it happened, but somehow they remember it differently, or don’t remember it at all. You can tell them, but it slips their minds. When you are powerless, everything you do seems to be in vain.”

Free: Hit the nail on the head

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…rambling… trying to sort through some thoughts and feelings… all seems trivial given the state of things in the world, but i can’t change the running commentary in my head…

Some days, you are just going along, getting stuff done, and someone reaches out after ages – years even – and says/writes something offhandedly that strikes a nerve, hits the nail on the head… and it happens to come at a timely moment. It might not have registered at all any other time – and in this case not all of it does – but the fear and the preference for being alone stuff certainly does. But it also prompts thoughts that finally move you beyond the confines of the walls you’ve lived inside and how you had been thinking but didn’t realize as well as ways you’ve defined yourself and let yourself be defined, even unconsciously.

“I know you are a nice person, but for sure many people would say you are wild, weird, lonely, and maybe more weird. But I know you are just protecting yourself from suffering and especially from men that can wish to play with you. You are genuine, you dare to say things, maybe much more with family, unknowns or friends than with your own partner. You would love to share, but are too much on the defensive as you are scared of bad endings.

I believe you have everything to scare a man. Intelligence, intellectually independent, financially autonomous; either you attract men who want to play with you and very quickly you kick them out of your life, or I’m so sure that so many will run away from you as they cannot reach you. They are too macho and only want to have power on you, but they do not understand that you are not a weak woman, so they run away or you get rid of them.

I was wondering what can be wrong with you. It happened to me to think you were probably too selfish, too independent and really too wild. But I’m sure you are not. This is what people can see from your outside. That is not you at all, you are just tired of wasting your time with stupid men and prefer to stay alone.” -French guy

These impressions from someone who never knew me that well – but apparently knew me better than I imagined – made me mope around a bit. Yeah a lot of this stuff is true – I recognize the pattern (and have been stuck in this “going through old papers and being struck by patterns” mode of late), but there is a bigger picture that I do suddenly see. I have known, of course, as I am relatively self-aware, that I am defensive, that my brain erects walls for me that I am not even aware of any more it’s become so automated, and that I prefer to stay alone … but only partly for those defensive reasons. I prefer to stay alone because I like to be alone. It is, most of all, my way of being free – and living most authentically (Camus), even when it is painful. And to want to not be alone – it takes something tremendous and almost otherworldly to make me want it.

I have occasionally tried to tell myself that being with someone else – the right someone else – might enhance who I am (and who they are). But more often than not, being with someone else, it is frustrating, and I end up suffocating the part of me that I like most – the part that probably attracts others to me in the first place. (I have witnessed this same syndrome in friends when they pair off and find themselves miserable and wonder what happened. This is what happened: You inadvertently kill the free person that you – and they – love(d).) You don’t mean to; you just do. Is it possible, if you are this kind of person, to be with someone else and keep that free person alive and forgo subsuming yourself and your needs somewhere within or beneath theirs? If so, I have not yet figured out how.

This carefree, spontaneous, open person who takes risks and action and moves forward no matter what can become stifled, bogged down in things that are not even mine, completely without conscious realization. It just happens. I have written about it before (both the caretaking side that takes control and agonizes before the eventual and the inevitable indifference monster comes calling as well as the seeming one-sided nature of these things, as evidenced in the mismatch among people’s words, actions and obvious priorities. And of course the “fuck-yes test”, which I think I would benefit from returning to again and again to remind myself) without fully appreciating what I was stating. Here and here and here and here and a whole lot more.

Half of me is an inveterate caretaker with nothing or no one to care for (which I guess is why it is so easy to shift from just being generally supportive to letting emotions be overrun by caring about someone else when they are going through unpleasant and confusing stuff). In another person’s worries, cares, indecision and flight from or fright of whatever is going on in their own lives and heads, the me who lives freely becomes too wrapped up in the minutiae of caring about them, trying to make sure they are not drowning, absorbing their doubts and worries. This part of my nature – the stable caretaker – takes over and becomes hesitant, reserved, emotionally idle – “always afraid to say more than it meant” (Auden, “The Letter”) or afraid to say too much, not being able to take it back. Too careful.

Nothing wrong with any of it except that when I take on that role, I become someone else, someone I do not like very much, especially if it starts to consume me or become the primary focus of the interaction with the other person. The marshmallow of my well-hidden insides starts to melt while an almost passive-aggressive, gooey pain seeps out of my pores. And it’s no one’s fault. Not the other person’s. Not mine. It just is: On the surface a feeling of being like – or fearing being like – an auxiliary but subjective amateur therapist who will offer true and deep understanding and care, along with observations, advice and opinions. Underneath, it is clear that I perform these tasks – willingly and lovingly – despite knowing with a reasonable amount of certainty (and simultaneously fearing and wishing it were not so) that I am merely a stepping stone to whatever comes next in a person’s life. I may be a one-woman transition team.

And it’s this deepening realization on being free (and what it means to me) and the role(s) I play in other people’s life dramas that relieves me of recent little agonies, confusion and worries, that frees me finally from the definition I had lived by but had never actually defined.

I have a choice (and somehow never felt like I did). Both of these parts, conflicting or not, are equally part of me. With or without doubts, I don’t relish the idea of looking back on my life and thinking I had abandoned either principle: my freedom or care/love/compassion. It may be difficult to strike, as all balances are, but is it not worth “a little hour or more/To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came/To soothe a time-torn man…” (Thomas Hardy)?

“In any situation, no matter how confining, you have a choice. To believe you do not, is to choose not to choose.”

“If we seek to lose ourselves in the world, we are eluding. We are seeking a diversion from knowing ourselves or tending our own soul.”

“We must choose to live in this world and to project our own meaning and value onto it in order to make sense of it. This means that people are free and burdened by it, since with freedom there is a terrible, even debilitating, responsibility to live and act authentically.” -Camus

Photo (c) 2008 Jon Mitchell.

Handlingsfrihet – invented freedom and voice

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and let the pleasure we invent together

be one more sign of freedom

-Julio Cortázar – “A Love Letter

(“y que el placer que juntos inventamos
sea otro signo de la libertad.”)

When he told me I had complete “handlingsfrihet”, I was exhilarated. At least for that brief moment. With him, I knew it was just fantasy and would never come to pass. Total liberty and freedom to do whatever I wanted was possible only in our shared imagination in those very limited moments.

In reality, the only place I have complete control, artistic license, the freedom to choose and speak is in using my voice. I could hear my true voice somewhere inside but never really pushed it into the world with any degree of authenticity. As soon as I consciously decided to write something (other than a letter, a school paper), all kinds of artifice and “trying to make things sound good” clouded the basic premise of the writing and the core idea of what I wanted to express. Still, the voice was there. It was just muffled under layers of my own doubt.

Even when I was young, teachers and influential adults around me told me I would be a writer. Teachers in whose classes I was never a student even referred to me this way. I don’t know where the reputation came from nor how it spread. By the time I was a confused adolescent, I had convinced myself that all these adults were praising my writing only as a means to bolster my self-confidence, not because there was any truth to it. I felt cheated, mistrustful and misled. In my own dorky academic way, I rebelled – I could not live up to the expectations they had created (I thought) and did not want to be told what I was. I took language classes but steered clear of explicitly writing-focused courses (journalism, creative writing, etc.) and never looked back. My life ever since has still been all about writing – academic, corporate or what have you. But the practice of writing a short story every day, as I had done effortlessly when I was 13, was and is long gone.

These days I think a lot about writing and freedom and how, for me, they are intertwined. I can only escape from the unhealthy misery I feel right now if I embrace writing as a rope with which to climb out of the space I am increasingly feeling trapped in.

Handlingsfrihet will be mine, one way or another. (Baking and recipe posts coming soon.)