Said and read – April 2019

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April has been restorative – as the onset of springtime usually is. The gradual introduction of more light into every day makes such a difference even though, until the last few years, I never used to be someone who cared about darkness.

I still have not achieved the same reading pace as the past two years, but I hit 100 books read in 2019 as April ended (about 28 in April). I suppose if I were to tally up all the other things I do in my life and in other people’s lives, this would seem more remarkable.

“Insight” (haha) into what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for April:

April reading was a strange mix of things – some university related and most things that were available as e-books from the library. This means that I may make a dent in a lot of books that I (or someone) feel(s) I should read, but they might not be anything I’d have jumped at. I’d say April has been defined by Joyce Carol Oates mostly because she has been beyond prolific in her literary output, and most of the oeuvre is available at the library in digital form. I have over the years read an Oates book here or there without plowing through everything she ever wrote – first because there have always been too many of them and too few of me and second because, while I often appreciate her style, I find I need a break and something different before coming back to her. It’s often overwrought, but it depends on the book and on my mood.

When I think of Oates I think of a penfriend I had in my youth, a Hungarian woman whose words and tastes (as expressed in letters so long ago) still echo. Many of her impressions have stayed with me, despite how long it has been since we were in contact. She, like many Hungarians I have known, had a cynical, if not judgmental, disposition and seemed never-quite-satisfied with anything. In her case, I recall her disdain for Dublin when she moved there from Budapest, dismissing it as “provincial”. I had at that time never been to either city, so it seemed a rough assessment. I later realized she was right (and she had certainly been living in Dublin when it was far more provincial than now). I recall some of the more sharp criticisms she wrote about her perceptions of how I came across in letters, as I did take them to heart. She wrote at least once about her admiration for Joyce Carol Oates; this too stuck in my mind even if I did not follow through on exploring Oates’s work until years later.

In the case of another Hungarian woman I know, pretty much everything that came out of her mouth was an untempered, unmitigated negative comment on everything around her, e.g., her fellow Hungarians, the fact that I ate jam on bread at breakfast. In fact, you should have seen her recoil in horror when she realized she was going to have to spend three weeks with me as a roommate. (I know I can be quite negative myself, although I tend to think I temper it with humor at times, and balance it with reason, evidence or the ‘bright side’ as well.)

Both women, though, were wells of intelligence, and once you knew them and were in their confidence, you could not have asked for a dearer friend.

None of this has anything to do with Joyce Carol Oates and nothing to do with writing about reading.

Highly recommended

All by Joyce Carol Oates:

*A Widow’s Story

This nearly broke my heart while on a flight to Glasgow. Maybe because it was a personal story and didn’t feel as detached as Oates’s style can.

But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.

*Patricide

*Evil Eye

*The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Good

*Walking the Black CatCharles Simic

Poetry, of course.

*Bless Me, UltimaRudolfo Anaya

The rest of the summer was good for me, good in the sense that I was filled with its richness and I made strength from everything that had happened to me, so that in the end even the final tragedy could not defeat me. And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.

Adding this to the to-read list reminded me a lot of being in high school, as I seem to recall that this book was an option on the reading list in a world literature class I hastily joined in my final year. I had already completed more than enough English credits to graduate but had a free hour during my final semester. It turned out to be a big mistake because most of the rest of the people in the class were individuals who had somehow not passed English at some other point in their academic careers. We had an assignment, for example, to write haiku, which most people in the class didn’t understand. And ones who managed wrote about their worship of tanning beds. In any case, why do I recall this book from a list of many? I suppose I remember the things I didn’t read more than the things I did. And reading it, although it had nothing to do with high school, reminded me so much of… what high school English teachers wanting to share “multicultural” literature assigned that I can’t help but to have been transported back to the early 1990s.

*FiguringMaria Popova

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

What makes a person “the same” person across life’s tectonic upheavals of circumstance and character? Amid the chaos and decay toward which the universe inclines, we grasp for stability and permanence by trying to carve out a solid sense of self in our blink of existence. But there is no solidity. Every quark of every atom of every cell in your body had been replaced since the time of your first conscious memory, your first word, your first kiss. In the act of living, you come to dream different dreams, value different values, love different loves. In a sense, you are reborn with each new experience.

Having read her site, BrainPickings.org, faithfully for many years, I can only express a kind of gratitude. Popova’s style has nudged awake feelings in me when I thought they were numbed forever, I could not help but be inspired and definitely had to get this book. Popova’s singular and thoughtful voice, eloquence and competence in weaving stories from what must only have been a string of dull facts, bringing historical events to life, shine through in this work as well as her incomparable way of putting complex feelings and observations into words.

Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only “for a time”? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite—like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.

Few things are more wounding than the confounding moment of discovering an asymmetry of affections where mutuality had been presumed.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*EmbassytownChina Miéville

It felt like being a child again, though it was not. Being a child is like nothing. It’s only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth.

A book of language and science fiction, this book, like much of Miéville, is engrossing and difficult to describe. I won’t say every Miéville hooks me, but they are all interesting regardless of whether I like them or not. In this case, I liked.

“I admit defeat. I’ve been trying to present these events with a structure. I simply don’t know how everything happened. Perhaps because I didn’t pay proper attention, perhaps because it wasn’t a narrative, but for whatever reasons, it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it.”

*The OtherDavid Guterson

“The early leader in a half-mile race rarely finishes first, but he wants to have had the experience of leading—that’s part of it—and he’s perennially hopeful that, this time, things will be different in the home stretch.

I can’t say I actually enjoyed this book, but it was nevertheless interesting. Guterson has an elegant way of creating characters and breathing life into them. I also appreciate the setting here (Washington state scenes), so much so that I’d argue that the Pacific Northwest setting is its own character.

*Naive. SuperErlend Loe

My existence is developing some distance from itself. Perspective. Perspective is one of those things one ought to be able to purchase and administer intravenously.

Caught up in the media whirlwind of the Pete Buttigieg moment, I, like everyone else, heard the story of Buttigieg learning Norwegian simply to be able to read more books by Erlend Loe. I’d never read Loe in English or Norwegian, so I started with this, until now apparently the only one translated into English. I didn’t find anything ‘special’ about it that would cause me to learn Norwegian if I didn’t already know it, nor anything that would necessarily lead me to seek out more Loe works. That said, there is something deceptively simple and direct about Loe’s prose that is probably appealing.

This is a completely different life. People must think I’m a dog owner in New York. That I live here and have an apartment and a dog. That I pick up dog turds like this one every day, before and after work. It’s a staggering thought. Seeing as I’m not a dog owner in New York, that also means everybody else could be something other than what they seem to be. That means it’s impossible to know anything at all.”

I suppose it is fittingly cynical to state as an aside that everything about Buttigieg seems designed to be politically appealing, as though every action he has taken has been a cynically strategic move to position himself as a political leader, but in a robotic, “I followed the handbook” kind of way. It seems as though every story that has been planted in the media has painted him as a hope-driven, anti-Trump, and yet I cannot shake the feeling that so much of what I am seeing is so by design. (We all do things in our lives by design, or think we do, and we all do things to appear a certain way, of course, but this is to an extreme.) The biggest standout is Buttigieg’s having gone into the military when he didn’t need to to be deployed to a conflict that is both supposedly over and has been judged as an unnecessary and destabilizing failure. But the handbook says military service plays well with X part of the base and might mitigate objections to his being gay or being the son of a Maltese immigrant or being relatively inexperienced in national politics. I don’t want to pick it all apart, but it just feels like a packaged cake and frosting mix: too sweet, a little too easy.

Coincidences

*Hag-SeedMargaret Atwood

Not a coincidence per se, but the premise of Hag-Seed is a retelling/take on Shakespeare‘s The Tempest. Why I find it sort of coincidental is more comparative. That is, Helen Oyeyemi has reimagined many fairy tales and symbols in her work, such as Gingerbread and Boy, Snow, Bird, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Atwood’s take on The Tempest is entirely novel, and when I look at both Atwood and Oyeyemi’s attempts, the richness of Atwood’s characters feels lived-in and real; there is something that always feels artificial in Oyeyemi’s characters, and I wonder if this is intentional.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*GingerbreadHelen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s work is always hit or miss for me. In some books, such as Boy, Snow, Bird, I am immediately drawn in, and in others, like Gingerbread, I find that I just wanted it to end. Strangely, reading about the process of the book’s creation in interviews with Oyeyemi is far more interesting than the book itself. Something comes from the experience, but it’s not the book itself providing that experience, making it something of a disappointment.

*The Good EarthPearl S. Buck

I read The Good Earth when I was in high school and remembered it so differently from how I felt about it now. It did indeed still evoke feelings, but mostly angry ones of hating the main (male) character and wondering exactly how Pearl Buck decided to offer such a condescending colonialist take on something she could not possibly have understood as an outsider. It reads now so much as the impressions of someone on the outside projecting their surface-level misconceptions onto an entire people.

months – january

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January
Charles Simic

Children’s fingerprints
On a frozen window

Of a small schoolhouse.
An empire, I read somewhere,

Maintains itself through
The cruelty of its prisons.

mystery to himself

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In the Snow
Charles Simic
Tracks of someone lost,
Bleakly preoccupied,
Meandering blindly
In these here woods,

Licking his wounds
And crunching the snow,
As he trudges on,
Bereft and baffled,

In mounting terror
With no way out,
Jinxed at every turn,
A mystery to himself.

human-faced flies

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St Thomas Aquinas
-Charles Simic
I left parts of myself everywhere
The way absent-minded people leave
Gloves and umbrellas
Whose colors are sad from dispensing so much bad luck.

I was on a park bench asleep.
It was like the Art of Ancient Egypt.
I didn’t wish to bestir myself.
I made my long shadow take the evening train.

“We give death to a child when we give it a doll,”
Said the woman who had read Djuna Barnes.
We whispered all night. She had traveled to darkest Africa.
She had many stories to tell about the jungle.

I was already in New York looking for work.
It was raining as in the days of Noah.
I stood in many doorways of that great city.
Once I asked a man in a tuxedo for a cigarette.
He gave me a frightened look and stepped out into the rain.

Since “man naturally desires happiness”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas,
Who gave irrefutable proof of God’s existence and purpose,
I loaded trucks in the Garment Center.
A black man and I stole a woman’s red dress.
It was of silk; it shimmered.

Upon a gloomy night with all our loving ardors on fire,
We carried it down the long empty avenue,
Each holding one sleeve.
The heat was intolerable causing many terrifying human faces
To come out of hiding.

In the Public Library Reading Room
There was a single ceiling fan barely turning.
I had the travels of Herman Melville to serve me as a pillow.
I was on a ghost ship with its sails fully raised.
I could see no land anywhere.
The sea and its monsters could not cool me.

I followed a saintly looking nurse into a doctor’s office.
We edged past people with eyes and ears bandaged.
“I am a medieval philosopher in exile,”
I explained to my landlady that night.
And, truly, I no longer looked like myself.
I wore glasses with a nasty spider crack over one eye.

I stayed in the movies all day long.
A woman on the screen walked through a bombed city
Again and again. She wore army boots.
Her legs were long and bare. It was cold wherever she was.
She had her back turned to me, but I was in love with her.
I expected to find wartime Europe at the exit.

It wasn’t even snowing! Everyone I met
Wore a part of my destiny like a carnival mask.
“I’m Bartleby the Scrivener,” I told the Italian waiter.
“Me, too” he replied.
And I could see nothing but overflowing ashtrays
The human-faced flies were busy examining.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

late september

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Late September
Charles Simic
The mail truck goes down the coast
Carrying a single letter
At the end of a long pier
The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then
And forgets to put it down
There is a menace in the air
Of tragedies in the making

Last night you thought you heard television
In the house next door
You were sure it was some new
Horror they were reporting
So you went out to find out
Barefoot, wearing just shorts
It was only the sea sounding weary
After so many lifetimes
Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere
And never getting anywhere

This morning, it felt like Sunday
The heavens did their part
By casting no shadow along the boardwalk
Or the row of vacant cottages
Among them a small church
With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close
As if they, too, had the shivers

Photo by Pope Moysuh on Unsplash

tell her

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The Message
Charles Simic
Take a message, crow, as the day breaks.
And find the one I hold dear,
Tell her the trees are almost bare
And the nights here are dark and cold.

Learn if she lights the stove already,
Goes to bed naked or fully dressed,
Sips hot tea in the morning, watching
Neighbors’ children wait for a school bus.

Tell her nothing fills me with more sorrow,
Than the memory of seeing her
Covering her face with her hands
When she thought she was alone.

Help me, bird, flapping from tree to tree
And calling in a voice full of distress,
To some fond companion of yours
You’d like to see flying by your side.

“time’s invisible penitentiary”

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Serving Time
Charles Simic
Another dreary day in time’s invisible
Penitentiary, making license plates
With lots of zeros, walking lockstep counter-
clockwise in the exercise yard or watching
The lights dim when some poor fellow,
Who could as well be me, gets fried.

Here on death row, I read a lot of books.
First it was law, as you’d expect.
Then came history, ancient and modern.
Finally philosophy—all that being-and-nothingness stuff.
The more I read, the less I understand.
Still, other inmates call me professor.

Did I mention that we had no guards?
It’s a closed book who locks
And unlocks the cell doors for us.
Even the executions we carry out
By ourselves, attaching the wires,
Playing warden, playing chaplain

All because a little voice in our head
Whispers something about our last appeal
Being denied by God himself.
The others hear nothing, of course,
But that, typically, you may as well face it,
Is how time runs things around here.

signs of the times

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Signs of the Times
Charles Simic
For a mind full of disquiet
A trembling roadside weed is Cassandra,
And so is the right
Of a boarded up public library,
The rows of books beyond its windows
Unopened for years,
The sickly old dog on its steps,
And a man slumped next to him,
His mouth working mutely
Like an actor unable to recall his lines
At the end of some tragic farce.

elusive something

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That Elusive Something
Charles Simic
Was it in the smell of freshly baked bread
That came out to meet me in the street?
The face of a girl carrying a white dress
From the cleaners with her eyes half closed?

The sight of a building blackened by fire
Where once I went to look for work?
The toothless old man passing out leaflets
For a clothing store going out of business?

Or was it the woman pushing a baby carriage
About to turn the corner? I ran after,
As if the little one lying in it was known to me,
And found myself alone on a busy street

I didn’t recognize, feeling like someone
Out for the first time after a long illness,
Who sees the world with his heart,
Then hurries home to forget how it felt.

scribble

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Illegible Scribble
Charles Simic
These rags the spirit borrows
To clothe itself
Against the chill of mortality.
O barbed wire of crossed-out words,
Crown of thorns,
Camp meeting of dead wall reveries,
Spilled worry beads,
Fortune-teller’s coffee dregs,
My footholds in the abyss.