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. It 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.)

Constructing category – Ugrešić

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“Do we have any other choice? We wanted freedom, we got the freedom of a game, and we even thought the game was the freedom to just clown around. We wanted individual freedom and achieved the freedom of imitation.” -Dubravka Ugrešić, Karaoke Culture

In a long ago period during which I spent my life devoted to studying the (parts of the) former Yugoslavia – its history, its literature, its music, its politics, its divisions, its being knitted together haphazardly and unraveled again, its personalities, I naturally read everything I could get my hands on from writers there. Naturally this included the modern ‘classics’ like Krleža and Andrić (which, now how can we place geographically, and do we need to? As most writers and residents of former Yu will tell you, you may have been born in what is now Croatia, or Bosnia, but you had relatives from all over and these divisions were more artificial – and often economic – than political or ideological) but also contemporary fiction and poetry along with the slew of critical thinking and journalistic angles on the breakup of the Yugoslav union. I don’t want to be as crass as saying that this exercise – that the reaction to and observing of the war – ‘separated the wheat from the chaff’ in terms of writing ability. But in looking at the breadth of it now, I read Dubravka Ugrešić’s writing – whether essays or fiction – with joy, with attention, not being able to put the books down until I finish. Meanwhile, some of her contemporaries, notably Slavenka Drakulić, I still read (whether descriptions of life in Yugoslavia before its end or perspectives on its demolition) but not with as much zeal. Perhaps it is a matter of style or tone, but Ugrešić (for me) is the better writer by far.

It would also be crass for me to say something about how Ugrešić may have written about the dissolution of Yugoslavia and what the world did or did not do in response, may have written about the experience of leaving, may have written about the peri- and post-war damage to her own career that came at the hands of supposed friends and colleagues who didn’t approve of her criticisms or at least who chose to remain silent so as to not make waves – but her writing never felt forced, like she felt she had to unveil all of these things as a self-exploitative act. (What else could a writer of the place and time do, though, than write about what they saw, what they knew?)

She has always been keenly aware, and keenly vocal, about forging an identity as a ‘writer’ without the adjectives that are inevitably attached. Many would argue that we need to know that she is a woman from former Yugoslavia, who left during the war, and thus she will always travel through literary circles as THAT woman, with THAT voice and THAT perspective. But do others get saddled with this, in equal measure, responsibility and limitation?

My point was, though, that Ugrešić always feels relevant and transcends geopolitical events in a way that, for example, I don’t find Drakulić does. But then, Drakulić has made a career on writing about geopolitics and the issues inextricably tied to the former Yu. It’s not that this is not valid, it is just that I prefer Ugrešić’s writing. And I don’t feel that there is any reason we should lump them together; I choose these two writers – and lump them together – primarily because I started reading them both at the same time. They are contemporaries, and both left Yugoslavia as it fell apart – Drakulić to Sweden and Ugrešić to the Netherlands. In the cases of both women, they left largely because they were denounced by the Tudjman government in Croatia as “witches” (along with a handful of their contemporaries) and began getting threats that were not related to the war itself but to the frenzied, unquestioning nationalism that rose up on all sides in the convoluted breakup. One could argue that Croatian nationalism was never too far under the surface for many.

I’m not out to malign Drakulić – in fact, this is not meant to be about her at all. She’s fine. I like her. This instead is meant to ask why, at least in superficial treatments of a writer like Ugrešić, we veer toward easy categorizations. We put her into a specific box, representing a specific country, region, gender, point of view. Is it that we just cannot understand things unless we categorize and contextualize them? I guess labels are required – or else how would we discover these writers? On a larger scale, how could we find anything? We have, as Ugrešić herself has written about at length in Karaoke Culture, access to more information than ever – but we are also more deeply beholden to the technologies that allow us to find/discover all this information. We have some modicum of control – SEO and keywords and all those little tricks, but ultimately a search engine is going to be the gatekeeper, and our search terms are the terms of victory or surrender. Without categorization, I either discover Ugrešić – or I don’t.

Constructing the category

Ugrešić has written about this at length elsewhere: the construct of a ‘category’ in which certain writers, from certain places, will always live. In Karaoke Culture, she specifically writes on “the profitable exotic” – the exilee, who is all the more interesting by adding on other sub-categories, such as Croatian, ex-Yugo, post-communist, woman, etc. But then she asks: is everyone subject to these same categorizations? (In a search engine, sure – but in terms of framing the context or lens through which the reading is filtered and interpreted?):

“Exile is literally a change of context. Exile implies the personal experience of every exilee, which would be difficult to subsume under terms that are stubbornly endorsed by literary critics from both worlds, the writer’s home base and the host environment. The terms—émigré, immigrant, exile, nomad, minority, ethnic, hybrid literature—discriminate, but they are also affirmative. With these terms the home base expels the writer, while the same terms are used by the host environment to relegate the writer to an ethnic niche, and at the same time affirm his or her existence. The home base makes assumptions of monoculturalism and exclusivity, while the host environment make assumptions of multiculturalism and inclusivity, but both are essentially working with dusty labels of ethnicity and the politics of otherness. Even if I were to write a text about the desolation of frozen landscapes at the North Pole, I would still be chiefly labeled as a Croatian writer, or as a Croatian writer in exile writing about the desolation of the frozen landscapes at the North Pole. Reviewers would promptly populate the frozen wasteland of my text with concepts such as exile, Croatia, ex-Yugoslavia, post-communism, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Slavic world, Balkan feminism, or perhaps Balkan eco-feminism, while journalists would ask me whether I had the opportunity while up in the frozen wasteland to run into the Yugoslav diaspora, and how I perceived the situation in Kosovo from that frozen vantage point.”

“…an English writer writes his or her version of a visit to the North Pole, Englishness will not likely serve as the framework within which his or her text is read. This attitude of the host environment to writer-newcomers springs from a subconscious colonial attitude—just when the larger literary world is doing its best to reject this—in a market which relishes any form of the profitable exotic, what with the always vital relations between the periphery and the center.”

“The real center of power is America, or rather Anglo-American culture, whose cultural domination marked the twentieth century. We are still looking to that center with equal fascination today. Anglo-American culture is the dominant field of reference, while, at the same time, it is the most powerful, if not the most just, mediator of cultural values. In other words, if certain Chinese writers are not translated into English, it is unlikely that any Serbian or Croatian reader, with the exception of the occasional sinologist, will ever hear of them.”

And will any of this mean anything at all one day in the not-too-distant future when culture – all culture, not that divided by geopolitical lines – is something akin to the fast-food, digitized “karaoke culture” Ugrešić observes, or that, for example, tv shows like Black Mirror threaten? This is a topic I will come back to.

Lunchtable TV Talk: Black Mirror

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It was not that long ago that I finally got wrapped up in the existing episodes of the genius, twisty, unsettling Black Mirror. And then it was announced that it would be back as a Netflix production. I won’t ramble about what made Black Mirror genius – it entertained at the same time as being terrifying, thinking about how we’re probably only a step away from the kinds of invasive technology that disrupted, destroyed and in many case ruined the characters’ lives in the effectively standalone vignettes presented in the few episodes that exist. All the “conveniences” that we embrace without thinking how they expose us and monitor us 24/7, not at all unlike the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales that is 1984. But in a world where people volunteer to put every minute detail of their lives on (reality) TV in the name of some kind of misguided fame, can I be surprised?

The other thing that surprised me was learning that Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror’s creator/writer, also co-wrote the Sky1 police-drama spoof, A Touch of Cloth, starring the dazzlingly clear-spoken Scot John Hannah, actor and would-be proprietor of the John Hannah School of English. Who would have guessed?

Jumping screens: Gilmore Girls and Southcliffe

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In no logical world would any person put the gratingly annoying but occasionally clever Gilmore Girls into the same sentence as the raw, four-part UK drama, Southcliffe. But after I force fed myself seven seasons (excruciating 22-episode seasons!) of Gilmore, I had to watch something else – something with more depth. I turned to Southcliffe, and impressive though its performances are (a whole host of good actors, such as Shirley Henderson; Rory Kinnear of Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror; Eddie Marsan of loads of good stuff, although lately he’s been in the constantly improving Ray Donovan; Anatol Yusef, who was great as Meyer Lansky in the late, great Boardwalk Empire…) its central story (told in non-linear fashion) is too dark and too close to the reality of our world, filled as it is with random gun massacres.

I’ll never be able to explain what propelled me forward with the Gilmore viewing. It was one of those “I started and can’t stop til I finish” things. I can think of no other word than “grating” to describe it. The fast-moving conversational virtues and onslaught of often rare cultural references aside, dialogue was stilted, people’s reactions over the top, behaviors usually aspirational rather than what would happen in reality and… well, it’s just annoying. A full “town” of weirdos (they were supposed to be, I guess)… but if you lived in a town as sleepy yet quirky as Stars Hollow, would you be as close knit as this? Sally Struthers and her grating, horrifying voice – that alone is enough to smash your TV! And that is just for starters. Right? Lauren Graham is someone I’ve really tried to like, but after forcing myself to watch this and Parenthood, I’m pained to say that she still annoys me. And as Rory, Alexis Bledel comes in a close second. And Melissa McCarthy… I’ve never seen the appeal because I don’t find her funny or entertaining in anything she has done, and Gilmore was no exception. My favorite part was seeing weird stuff like Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach show up as a guitarist who wants to join a little high school band in the show. Or seeing a young Rami Malek, surprise star of surprise summer hit, Mr Robot, in one episode. In fact, when you go back and watch virtually any tv show from years past, especially ones that lasted as long as Gilmore did, you will be surprised by familiar faces.

I’ve had a rough couple of weeks lately, and I have focused on work and sucking these shows up obsessively. I started looking at real estate and found a place I want to buy because I feel like having a fresh start with a fresh view. But in the absence of being able to swing that, I go on… just finishing up the final episode of Southcliffe now.