by Dorianne Laux
In the room where we lie, light stains the drawn shades yellow. We sweat and pull at each other, climb with our fingers the slippery ladders of rib. Wherever our bodies touch, the flesh comes alive. Head and need, like invisible animals, gnaw at my breasts, the soft insides of your thighs. What I want I simply reach out and take, no delicacy now, the dark human bread I eat handful by greedy handful. Eyes, fingers, mouths, sweet leeches of desire. Crazy woman, her brain full of bees, see how her palms curl into fists and beat the pillow senseless. And when my body finally gives in to it then pulls itself away, salt-laced and arched with its final ache, I am so grateful I would give you anything, anything. If I loved you, being this close would kill me.
“By making one’s reading public, it becomes performative – by default – and that is not to everyone’s taste. We read a book; we tell other people; they infer what they will. What alters the meaning of the transaction is context. There is a substantive difference between recommending a book to a friend in conversation and publishing an illustrated recommendation on the Internet. But why keep that enthusiasm bottled up? Why hoard it?” –Andy Miller, essay, Boundless
I haven’t been bottling up or hoarding my renewed passion for reading, and I have never cared about the reactions. But I had also never really considered that anyone would have a reaction – at least not as strong a reaction as Miller describes. More on that later…
May did not start off by yielding much time for reading, and what reading I did ended up feeling like a chore. I continued on the tear through Joyce Carol Oates territory, as I did last month, and quickly tired of her style, which – prior to this extensive reading – I had somehow believed to be more wide-ranging than it proved to be. But once I started, much like with hated television shows or unpleasant experiences, I could not stop. I just have to complete the mission and see how it turns out (even if I am reasonably sure that it will turn out exactly as badly as the entire journey has gone). I also, for some reason, wasted a lot of time reading works by the Marquis de Sade – something I had thought I would do in high school; having now read them, I think they read as the complete vulgarity that would provoke much-craved shock value… in high school.
I knew that I would have limited time and thus did not want to invest in picking up books I was truly excited about (perhaps these kinds of books can wait for a bit of summer holiday), and instead took e-books from the library that held no meaning or excitement for me at all. And it’s in this way that I thought my reflections from May reading would be as lacklustre as the things I ended up reading.
But toward the latter half of the month, things started to pick up (coinciding, I suppose, with loads of two and three-hour flights I had to take, which always lead to uninterrupted concentration for reading and absolutely no other distractions or things to do instead). May, then, didn’t turn out too badly in terms of reading; I’ve come closing to catching up to the pace I prefer (approximately one book per day) without going overboard.
Anyway, previous Said and Read blog posts to see what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for May:
“No matter what the grief, its weight, we are obliged to carry it” –Dorianne Laux
Sometimes reading feels like a distraction in which one can lose herself completely to escape everything else. We may, as Dorianne Laux has written, be obliged to carry our grief, but does that mean we must face it? When one has a world of books to insert oneself into and feed on, one need not face any reality all the time.
““I am not satisfied with it, either, Reuven. We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves.” I was quiet. “Six million of our people have been slaughtered,” he went on quietly. “It is inconceivable. It will have meaning only if we give it meaning. We cannot wait for God.”“
It was a random choice to pick up Potok’s The Chosen, but it inspired me enough to get My Name is Asher Lev. Both are steeped in the unfamiliar but fascinatingly rigid worlds of Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, and the personal/identity conflicts that come about both within these communities and navigating outside of them.
I don’t really have my own words to describe why I loved this. I like Frans de Waal in general; I love animals – and as naive as these descriptors sound, I don’t think it needs more embellishment.
I don’t think we can deny the intelligence of animals, and we do so only out of some weird need to feel superior. Intelligence, we must recognize, exists in so many different ways that we as humans are too arrogant sometimes to realize or even understand. Indeed there are kinds of cognition that certain animals have that we as humans never needed to develop because they would be irrelevant to our experience and environment (“Cognitive evolution is marked by many peaks of specialization.“)
“Every species deals flexibly with the environment and develops solutions to the problems it poses.“
“But what about skeptics who believe that animals are by definition trapped in the present, and only humans contemplate the future? Are they making a reasonable assumption, or are they blinkered as to what animals are capable of? And why is humanity so prone to downplay animal intelligence?“
Again and again, de Waal posits that our ‘tests’ of intelligence, instead of proving that an animal does not understand the problem we want it to solve proves that we do not understand the animal. Reimagining tests often produces very different results (and this is probably true when testing intelligence in people with different kinds of cognitive ability/strength).
“Researchers concluded that they just didn’t get the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t get the elephant. Like the six blind men, we keep turning around and poking the big beast, but we need to remember that, as Werner Heisenberg put it, “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
This book, too, informed much of what I was doing in my psychology studies, including interesting thoughts on the “theory of mind” concept that dominates much of developmental psychology. As de Waal points out, can we eliminate the idea that animals (or small children) hold a theory about the minds of others? But this terminology, as he argues, makes the whole enterprise entirely scientific and disembodied. Even completely formed adults don’t contemplate that they grasp the mental states of others at an abstract level – so it ends up further questioning and assigning attributes that are meant to conclude that the lack of “rational evaluation” in perceiving something like theory of mind equals a lack of intelligence.
Good – or better than expected
Atmospheric, vividly claustrophobic and terrifying.
I had never read Nick Hornby and mostly got from his writing what I expected – a quick read and a hearty helping of manchild BS. I was ‘rewarded’ with having my expectations met, particularly in the book A Long Way Down, which just felt… sloppy? It had one redeeming thought amidst describing the criss-crossing of the lives of a diverse suicidal group who end up not … ending it.
“The guy who jumped had two profound and apparently contradictory effects on us all. Firstly, he made us realize that we weren’t capable of killing ourselves. And secondly, this information made us suicidal again. That isn’t a paradox, if you know anything about the perversity of human nature.” (from A Long Way Down)
Having nothing to compare it to, especially since my Hornby knowledge is mostly based on film and television adaptations, I got exactly what I expected. Which, I guess, was kind of disappointing (because one hopes that their low expectations will be exceeded).
Thus when I read Juliet, Naked, I expected more of the same but was somewhat surprised to find that the book was slightly more engaging and its characters slightly more alive. Am I alone in picturing the single-minded obsessive but otherwise unmotivated Duncan, despite his clearly being English, as some variation of Rainn Wilson? No idea why he came to mind. Side note: I guess I never knew until I just Googled Wilson that he’s from Seattle, which is itself a mecca for a lot of obsessive music types like Duncan. Perhaps because this book was told largely from the point of view of a put-upon, tired, supportive-to-a-fault girlfriend who finally breaks free of the boyfriend’s near-lifelong obsession with a somewhat obscure musician who disappeared into the mythology created by those obsessive fans who try to keep them alive via obsessive internet forums, it was more relatable than much of Hornby’s catalog.
When the girlfriend finds her voice, calling Duncan out on the fact that he wouldn’t have a personality at all were it not for his obsession with this phantom musician, we begin to see some of the pains of the kinds of halfhearted relationships that outlive their efficacy, if not their use (even the dead relationships that live too long – one-third too long, if you believe Ayelet Waldman – have some use to us), and never quite reach one’s aspirations. It hits home in its discussion of the never-had conversations about having children and the suppression of some very strong desires because one partner has put the other to sleep, as Hornby phrases it.
In this book, in fact, Hornby captures best of all the distance we grow to feel from ourselves, our feelings and our own lives – the way things we should feel become symbolic and abstract, whether because we have insulated ourselves or have been self-centered – we end up at the same place:
“Anyone can say they haven’t done anything. Today I learned that I am going to be a grandfather. As I don’t really know the pregnant daughter in question—I don’t really know four of my five children, by the way—I was not able to feel joyful. For me, the only real emotional content of the news was the symbolism, what it said about me. I don’t feel bad about that, particularly. There’s no point in pretending to feel joy when someone you don’t know very well tells you she’s pregnant, although I suppose I do feel bad that various decisions I’ve made and avoided have reduced my daughter to the status of a stranger.“
I have not enjoyed previous meanderings into Waldman’s writing, but this book used aspects of World War II as a backdrop, which is generally a storytelling draw. Here Waldman has woven together a contemporary story with a historical one, and it’s through the historical detail that she pulls you in:
“The wealth of the Jews of Hungary, of all of Europe, was to be found not in the laden boxcars of the Gold Train but in the grandmothers and mothers and daughters themselves, in the doctors and lawyers, the grain dealers and psychiatrists, the writers and artists who had created a culture of sophistication, of intellectual and artistic achievement. And that wealth, everything of real value, was all but extinguished.“
Waldman does have something of a gift for dialogue that casually casts out nominally philosophical, hard-won, life-experience-style gems:
““I am developing a theory of relationships. Would you like to hear it?” “I would.” “It’s called the Principle of One-Third. Each and every love affair lasts for precisely one-third longer than it should. If you’ve been together for three years, then the last year was a waste of time, more pain than pleasure.” “And if you’ve been together for thirty years?” “Shame about that last decade.” He laughed. “Okay, then. What about a week?” “You should have gotten out midmorning on the fourth day. I’m telling you, the theory works for every relationship. The only problem with the Principle of One-Third is that it’s only once the relationship is over that you know how much time you’ve wasted. You don’t know that the last decade was pointless until you’ve been with someone for the whole thirty years. And you definitely don’t know that your husband will start fucking an ERISA lawyer in year ten until you get to year twelve and realize that the last four were a farce.”“
““Sort of. We lived together, but we went to different schools. He went to Boston University. I went to Harvard.” “You are smarter than he is.” “I got better grades, that’s all.” “This is something so curious to me about women. If it were Daniel who went to Harvard he would say, ‘Yes, I am smarter.’ But because you are a woman, you say only ‘I got better grades.’ ” “You think that’s gender related?” “Men are more confident than women.” “Maybe some men are more confident than some women.” “Maybe most men are more confident than most women.” “Okay,” she said. “I think I can give you that.”“
Certain words are ruined for me.
Whether it is the hypochondriac repeating words like “agony” and “excruciating”, stripping them of all meaning, or the overenthusiastic reader who strikes gold in some concept he has never heard of before and therefore overuses. I think here of a guy I met who constantly referred in his own writing to the djinn/jinn, leading me to think, knowing what I knew of this particular guy, that he either just read a bit of Salman Rushdie or read/watched American Gods. I can no longer, in my intolerance, see or hear those words again. Each time the word “djinn” turns up anywhere, I am reminded of this man and how readable were his motives, how transparent his immediate influences. But he is not unusual in this.
We all learn things and come to love them and cannot help ourselves from repeating them to death. Or maybe we latch onto things we never thought we would care about because someone we love loves them. By extension we come to love or care about them. I am trying to figure out where the line is – where does it pivot from someone loving or learning about something sincerely into someone overusing, performing ‘fandom’ or love, showing off? As Andy Miller describes about sharing his passion for reading, it can come across as ‘performative’; he also writes in his book (discussed below), which is the perfect encapsulation of the more charitable interpretation I wish I were always capable of ascribing to repeat offenders: “When we find a painting or a novel or a musical we love, we are briefly connected to the best that human beings are capable of, in ourselves and others, and we are reminded that our path through the world must intersect with others. Whether we like it or not, we are not alone.”
I cannot describe or see the performative pivot, but I can always feel where and when the turn comes.
Using the word “pivot”, incidentally, makes me think both of a former colleague who kept pronouncing the word as PIE-vot, as well as a newer (and very young) colleague citing an episode of Friends and Ross’s forceful, impatient instructing, “PIVOT! PIVOT!” when the characters were attempting to move a couch (which is what we were doing in the office – it was a fitting use of the reference).
Strange to think of the enduring – even fervent – popularity of Friends. All these youthful colleagues streaming it obsessively and telling me about it like they’ve discovered something new. I finally understand how my Boomer parents and their ilk felt when kids tried to introduce them to music from the 60s (or newer music that was blatantly mimicking 1960s-era originals). There’s validity in remembering and even enjoying some of Friends, but so much of it is outdated – not in the sense that you look at it and think you’re watching a relic of a bygone era, but so much of the homophobia and archetypal tropes feel insensitive and painful – they did then, too, but it was not as “done” to say so then. I recently read a thoughtful take on this in the award-winning Everywhereist blog – all about Monica’s imperfections, but most of all her history as a ‘fat girl’.
Geraldine (that’s the Everywhereist, don’t you know?) hits the nail on the head:
“The fat girl inside of me really wants to go,” Monica says. “I owe her this. I never let her eat.”
The audience laughs, but it is a singularly heartbreaking sentiment. Monica is a chef, constantly surrounded by food she will never touch. It’s a modern-day Greek tragedy. The idea is never said explicitly, but it is there: that no matter how kind and loyal and giving you are, fatness will make you an outsider, fatness will make you weird and flawed. And even if you lose the weight, you can’t get rid of that.
As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, our cultural obsession with female thinness “is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” Monica suppressed a part of herself that was never problematic to begin with. And she genuinely seemed less joyous as a result.”
Thank you, Geraldine. Thing is, though… this particular discrimination is just as accepted and encouraged now – as well as being mined for throwaway but cruel laughs – as when the show originally ran. I am sure there are a lot of people who watch Friends reruns and take away the same kind of feelings Geraldine put into words. But there are a whole lot more who never thought about this at all, and still won’t.
“I don’t think it’s going to pivot any more” “You think?“
Why am I awkwardly pivoting from how words get ruined to how TV shows get ruined to the complete lack of compassion we feel, how inured we are to the experiences of people we see and judge only based on what is right in front of our faces? Especially when this is ostensibly a description of why The Satanic Verses surprised me by being enjoyable? I wish I had an expert way to weave into words all the threads that connect this in my mind, but it remains a roundabout that can’t be sewn into a wearable garment. Incidentally I dreamt last night that I was going to “fix” a pair of tights and rapidly ran them through a sewing machine, essentially making one of the legs unusable. That’s a bit how I feel about having introduced all this information into what has turned into absolutely nothing about The Satanic Verses.
“I know what a ghost is, the old woman affirmed silently. Her name was Rosa Diamond; she was eighty-eight years old; and she was squinting beakily through her salt-caked bedroom windows, watching the full moon’s sea. And I know what it isn’t, too, she nodded further, it isn’t a scarification or a flapping sheet, so pooh and pish to all that bunkum. What’s a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.“
I suppose the only real connection I can make is that I have tried to read The Satanic Verses and other Rushdie works many times over the years. I kept coming back but it was never compelling enough. And it has haunted me (i.e., unfinished business).
Finally it stuck this year, and I suppose that’s the pivot here – and ties together all this senseless rambling, if loosely. One can see something, like Friends, or words, or one’s overly enthusiastic/performative way of using them, in one way at one juncture – and in entirely another way – later, with more experience and compassion. That’s how I approach my reading here.
Not being versed in any kind of religious teaching, nor being religious, I don’t really know what I’d consider “offensive” about this book. It’s filled with sex – that’s all I can think of. I cannot reflect analytically about this book, but I found it enjoyable, and a few passages thought-provoking, if only because they reminded me so much of people in my life and their own experiences.
“The avalanche of sex in which Gibreel Farishta was trapped managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ. By the time of his illness he had all but forgotten the anguish he used to experience owing to his longing for love, which had twisted and turned in him like a sorcerer’s knife. Now, at the end of each gymnastic night, he slept easily and long, as if he had never been plagued by dream-women, as if he had never hoped to lose his heart.“
But then, it also seems like a work that garnered a lot of unwarranted attention (certainly more than it would have received without the fatwa issued against Rushdie), exerting an outsized cultural influence and reach to which the actual work can never live up. I wonder if, in that sense, Friends somehow enjoys more cultural currency – well, certainly it does since it’s made for the masses, but even in its undeserved but potentially lasting cross-generational potency and legacy, it outlives the infamy/notoriety of a solid book that misses ‘greatness’.
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
Reading anything by Lakoff always sets my brain on fire. When I think about how intertwined metaphors are with our existence, and how we are producing them unconsciously, I reignite so many intellectual paths never-followed from my youth, but also – at least briefly – consider language on a deeper level. This, too, has informed a great deal of the psychology study I’ve done in the last year.
“Today we know that metaphors are by no means a matter of “language and language only”. Metaphors structure our everyday cognition, our perception of reality. They are a matter of thought, they are a matter of language, and they are a matter of actions.“
What are ‘metaphors’ (literally)?
“Let me tell you, then, what is written across busses in Athens, “metaphoroi”. The word “metaphor” stems from Greek and literally means, “to carry things to another place.” Metaphoric cognition, thus, means that we resort to elements from one cognitive domain—commonly one that we can directly experience in the world—in order to reason about another cognitive domain—commonly one that is more abstract.“
I could easily ramble about this, but it’s perhaps better to limit writing on this subject to how little the average person thinks about how linguistic framing and selective metaphoric use shapes the way we think about things (and can thus be manipulated). Lakoff has argued that conservatives/Republicans (whatever you want to call the right) have used this to their advantage, and the left has struggled because they haven’t mastered this framing.
“In the US, for instance, conservatives do a great job of implementing their own frames in public debate, while progressives lag behind in terms of proactively framing issues in terms of their worldview. Moreover, progressives often negate the frames that conservatives use. They constantly get caught up in arguing against conservative ideas. And they lack a well-functioning communication infrastructure that ensures adequate, moral framing of issues across progressive groups on a daily basis. Conservatives are just much better organized when it comes to these things.“
Perhaps a bit of a dramatic title, I discovered this book by accident while browsing the online library. Zora Neale Hurston has always been something of a mystery – a staple of American high school reading lists with her classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, undeniably one of the greats to which I can return again and again, Hurston herself feels elusive. Even after reading this book that chronicled the friendship and falling out between two of the Harlem Renaissance‘s central figures, Hurston and Langston Hughes, Hurston feels distant. As much as is made of Hughes’ distance and keeping people at arms’ length, it is still Hurston who feels mysterious. She remains the force one wants to know about; her work endures, both within literature and anthropology. During her lifetime, she fell from favor, perhaps because she refused to embody the anger and resentment her contemporaries exhibited toward white people; because she refused the ‘fight’ without accepting the idea of being ‘lesser than’. She didn’t write about race and discrimination or being black in relation to a predominantly white society – she wrote about life and what she observed, in many cases in all-black communities. This voice was unique, and has finally been recognized as such, even if it didn’t fit the narrative for what black writers were “supposed to” produce. Hurston didn’t do anything according to what anyone expected:
“Moreover, what Zora’s black critics failed to grasp was the reason behind Zora’s lifelong practice of minimizing the resentment of African Americans in her work. It was a simple one, really: “Bitterness,” as she put it in Dust Tracks on a Road, “is the graceless acknowledgment of defeat.” Zora recognized that those who are bitter and resentful are seen by themselves and others as victims, and the very existence of victims justifies, in a real way, the acts of the victimizers.”
It is hard to imagine a time when wealthy, well-heeled, socialist Norway was the hard-up, impoverished farmer/fisherman cousin to Sweden. While not everyone suffered terrible privations, Norway was only ushered into the era of ‘too much’ in recent decades. Hamsun’s chronicle of experiencing hunger – both figurative and literal – is gripping.
A quick but engrossing read – as usual taken in while flying here or there. As the narrator attempts to keep a roof over his head and keep himself fed while making a “living” (you could never really call it that) while submitting articles for a few kroner here, a few kroner there, one gets a sense of how much he will give up for his work – and exactly what phases of delirium and want someone starving will go through. Its vivid characterizations of feelings and perceptions, filtered through this hunger, bring both the mental state and the scene to life.
“The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me. I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show?“
“Must it be, that what makes for man’s happiness becomes the source of his misery?“
I didn’t really enjoy this book, but it was filled with thoughts I found myself nodding along to and wanting to quote. Most notably, which I immediately used elsewhere:
“People would have fewer pains if—God knows why they are made this way—their imaginations were not so busily engaged in recalling past trials rather than bearing an indifferent present.“
Or, as I often wonder why people are obsessed with wanting to live forever, particularly when they are obsessed with youth – and the longer they live, the further they get from this mythical youth – and the more poor is quality of life. But does quality of life truly matter to most other than as a slogan?
“When I observe the restrictions that lock up a person’s active and probing powers, when I see how all activity is directed toward achieving the satisfaction of needs that in turn have no goal but to prolong our miserable existence, and that all reassurance about certain points of inquiry is only a dreaming resignation, since one paints with colorful figures and airy views the walls within which one sits imprisoned“
After all, we are essentially cogs in wheels and not at all aware of the lack of freedom we have – and we would not know what to do if we found it:
“I don’t know what it is about me that attracts people; so many like and attach themselves to me, and it pains me when our paths coincide for only a short stretch. If you ask what people are like here, I have to say: like everywhere! The human race is a monotonous thing. Most people work most of the time in order to live, and the little freedom they have left over frightens them so, that they will do anything to get rid of it. Oh, the regimentation of mankind!“
“The trick is to keep reading.”
I had pretty much thought I was done with May reading when my friend, Mr Nichols, he of deeply impeccable taste, sent a link to an article (cited above) about one man’s ‘excessive’ reading and how “something so innocuous can provoke such a range of strong responses”. Andy Miller shares in essay form how he feels compelled to redact the number of books he has read because it seems to provoke disbelief, anger, accusations of all kinds, and much more. Mr Nichols said it reminded him of my monthly collection of random thoughts (yes, this very post and its predecessors) on my own excessive reading (which has mostly generated the ‘wow! that’s shocking!’ response from people and very little of the anger or accusatory rhetoric Miller has experienced, although I suspect if I were actually known by anyone and this experiment of mine had more visibility, the negativity could get ugly).
I thanked Miller for sharing his relatable experiences; he thanked me and stated that he is glad not to be alone in this. He definitely isn’t – there are loads of us out here.
But me being me, Miller’s essay was not enough. Reading it through on my phone while waiting for a bus on a sunny but windy Oslo day, I knew I must get the book. Getting into the book was even more of a delight because immediately, Miller starts off sharing that he had modest ambitions in getting back into reading but then could not stop. I could have written this myself: three years ago when I came out of an embarrassingly long non-reading coma, I thought 26 books was a reasonable goal for a year (even if I continue to say that it’s not about quantity – because it isn’t). My own journey is completely devoid of theme or goal, but the non-existent endpoint is… not being able to stop.
I did attempt a kind of theme last year – still limiting myself to 26 books (which I blew through within the first month of the year) – but insisting that they must be in non-English languages. The only reason I note this is because Miller starts off his own journey with Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, which is a book I read in English translation for the first time over 20 years ago and have since reread and gifted copies of to all kinds of people. But the idea that I should attempt it in its original Russian crossed my mind more than once. I abandoned this idea quickly in favor of simpler Solzhenitsyn prose in tackling Russian. (Miller, incidentally, also reads Anna Karenina during this period of reviving his passion for reading, reveling in its “like the real world, only better” quality; it is one of those I am making my way through in the original – it’s just taking a long time.) I am not sure I will ever again have the wherewithal even to even think of Margarita in this way. Miller gets it right: the book is difficult and absurd, very difficult to dive right into and stick with, but with patience is transcendent. When he noted that he didn’t know what “Komsomol” was when he started reading, I realized that there is the additional layer of difficulty if one isn’t already ‘indoctrinated’ to the Soviet/Russian period and its institutions. I luckily had that going in, but would this have proved to be a barrier otherwise? I consider this as I think of all the people on whom I’ve forced this book. But, as Miller writes, those readers who follow through do not need the definitions and minutiae of institutions; this book endures because “words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one. Which you don’t get from Dan Brown.” So true.
In fact there are so many strange parallels in this book that it’s as though it’s an alternate version of what I could have written myself. From the travel to East Germany as the teenage human embodiment of the dour nature of the country itself to skipping Bukowski because it was the go-to for a certain type of male reader and, indeed, reading more than one (which I’ve done) would be a waste of time because they are like carbon copies of each other. In my case, strangely, I bought a bunch of Bukowski for an East German guy with whom I had a Russian class in college. Seems like a lot of crossed threads there. I actually ended the school year by buying books for my professor and the other person in my class – I just don’t remember which books I bought for them. It was years before I bothered to read Bukowski myself – I don’t mind being able to say I read him, but it’s still time I am not getting back.
It also delighted me to see that someone else is nerdy enough to write ‘fan mail’ to a writer. Miller wrote to Michel Houellebecq; I did so a couple of times last year, but not to the writers one would expect. I don’t engage much with bestsellers and mainstream/popular fiction (even if there is nothing at all wrong with it); even if I do, I don’t imagine that those writers need more praise piled on. No, instead, I wrote, for example, to a professor who studies teeth through the lens of evolutionary biology (I loved and learned so much from two books he wrote) to profess my fascination for his work/field; he wrote back thanking me because I guess, as he wrote, I made his day. I don’t imagine that such diligent and passionate researchers get much recognition or fan letters from outside their discipline, so I was pleased to contribute that little bit because -seriously- TEETH!
And it further delighted me to read (bold text is mine), despite my own proclivity for the convenience of e-books (I still love the real thing so much more, even if I’ve mostly eschewed collecting them as I move from country to country):
“I accept that this story illustrates that it is technically possible to buy a copy of Moby-Dick on what passes for the high street. It might also be advanced as further evidence of the adaptability of the book. But to me it demonstrates how marginal good books might become in the future. Surely Moby-Dick deserves to be something more than just a sliver of content on a screen? I feel much the same when I see books piled up on pallets in big-box stores, like crates of beer or charcoal briquettes, and I am shocked to be reminded that there is nothing intrinsically special about books unless we invest them with values other than ‘value’ and we create spaces in which to do it.
Reading is a broad church. But it is still a church.“
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
I have already stated above that I hated my Joyce Carol Oates and Marquis de Sade readings. I read a lot of things this month that bored me (Bright Lights, Big City, for example), but nothing worth capturing here at any further length. Oh, no… I despised Chuck Palahniuk‘s Beautiful You; not that I expected otherwise. It was beyond stupid – felt like the scribblings of someone who thought maybe he could put one over on everyone. That is, let’s write something outlandish and exaggeratedly sophomoric and see if someone is dumb enough to publish it.
For the Sake of Strangers
No matter what the grief, its weight,
we are obliged to carry it.
We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength
that pushes us through crowds.
And then the young boy gives me directions
so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,
waits patiently for my empty body to pass through.
All day it continues, each kindness
reaching toward another – a stranger
singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees
offering their blossoms, a retarded child
who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.
Somehow they always find me, seem even
to be waiting, determined to keep me
from myself, from the thing that calls to me
as it must have once called to them –
this temptation to step off the edge
and fall weightless, away from the world.
Life is Beautiful
and remote, and useful,
if only to itself. Take the fly, angel
of the ordinary house, laying its bright
eggs on the trash, pressing each jewel out
delicately along a crust of buttered toast.
Bagged, the whole mess travels to the nearest
dump where other flies have gathered, singing
over stained newsprint and reeking
fruit. Rapt on air they execute an intricate
ballet above the clashing pirouettes
of heavy machinery. They hum with life.
While inside rumpled sacks pure white
maggots writhe and spiral from a rip,
a tear-shaped hole that drools and drips
a living froth onto the buried earth.
The warm days pass, gulls scree and pitch,
rats manage the crevices, feral cats abandon
their litters for a morsel of torn fur, stranded
dogs roam open fields, sniff the fragrant edges,
a tossed lacework of bones and shredded flesh.
And the maggots tumble at the center, ripening,
husks membrane-thin, embryos darkening
and shifting within, wings curled and wet,
the open air pungent and ready to receive them
in their fecund iridescence. And so, of our homely hosts,
a bag of jewels is born again into the world. Come, lost
children of the sun-drenched kitchen, your parents
soundly sleep along the windowsill, content,
wings at rest, nestled in against the warm glass.
Everywhere the good life oozes from the useless
waste we make when we create—our streets teem
with human young, rafts of pigeons streaming
over the squirrel-burdened trees. If there is
a purpose, maybe there are too many of us
to see it, though we can, from a distance,
hear the dull thrum of generation’s industry,
feel its fleshly wheel churn the fire inside us, pushing
the world forward toward its ragged edge, rushing
like a swollen river into multitude and rank disorder.
Such abundance. We are gorged, engorging, and gorgeous.
Sometimes, when we’re on a long drive,
and we’ve talked enough and listened
to enough music and stopped twice,
once to eat, once to see the view,
we fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it’s what we don’t say
that saves us.
I remember sex before my husband
as a vague, vagrant landscape
of taller, darker men, all thick hair
and hands, the full lips of the rich past.
And sometimes, when I’m taking a sidewalk
full tilt, my heels chipping
the glittering cement, I feel their eyes,
their sweet lost fingers
tugging at my clothes — the one
who fell behind just to watch me walk,
to see me as a stranger might,
then caught up to catch
a handful of my hair, turn me around,
pull me back into his body’s deep folds.
They all come back, tenacious
as angels, to lean against me
at the movies, the beach — a shoulder
or a thigh pressed to mine, lashes
black and matted, and always
naked, clean and pure as souls slipped
glistening from the body’s warm wick,
like my husband’s fingers when he dips
into me, then lifts them
to his face, heavy with glaze, the leaves
crowded against our window, shivering.
Graveyard at Hurd’s Gulch
His grave is strewn with litter again,
crumpled napkins, a plastic spoon, white
styrofoam cup tipped on its side, bright
half-moon of lipstick on the rim.
I want to scold her for the mess she’s left,
the flattened grass and squashed grapes,
but I’ve seen her walking toward the trees,
her hollow body receding, her shadow
following behind. I’m the intruder,
come not to mourn a specific body
but to rest under a tree, my finger tracing
the rows of glowing marble,
the cloud-covered hips of the hills.
I always take the same spot,
next to the sunken stone that says MOTHER,
the carved dates with the little dash between them,
a brief, deep cut, like a metaphor for life.
Does she whisper, I wonder, to the one
she loves, or simply eat and sleep, content
for an hour above the bed of his bones?
I think she brings him oranges and secrets,
her day’s torn and intricate lace.
I have no one on this hill to dine with.
I’m blessed. Everyone I love is still alive.
I know there is no God, no afterlife,
but there is this peace, the granite angel
with the moss-covered wings whose face
I have grown to love, her sad smile
like that sadness we feel after sex,
those few delirious hours when we needed nothing
but breath and flesh, after we’ve flown back
into ourselves, our imperfect heavy bodies,
just before that terrible hunger returns.
If This Is Paradise
“The true mystery of the world is the visible” – Oscar Wilde
If this is paradise: trees, beehives,
boulders. And this: bald moon, shooting
stars, a little sun. If in your hands
this is paradise: sensate flesh,
hidden bone, your own eyes
opening, then why should we speak?
Why not lift into each day like the animals
that we are and go silently
about our true business: the hunt
for water, fat berries, the mushroom’s
pale meat, tumble through waist-high grasses
without reason, find shade and rest there,
our limbs spread beneath the meaningless sky,
find the scent of the lover
and mate wildly. If this is paradise
and all we have to do is be born and live
and die, why pick up the stick at all?
Why see the wheel in the rock?
Why bring back from the burning fields
a bowl full of fire and pretend that it’s magic?
After Twelve Days of Rain
I couldn’t name it, the sweet
sadness welling up in me for weeks.
So I cleaned, found myself standing
in a room with a rag in my hand,
the birds calling time-to-go, time-to-go.
And like an old woman near the end
of her life I could hear it, the voice
of a man I never loved who pressed
my breasts to his lips and whispered
“My little doves, my white, white lilies.”
I could almost cry when I remember it.
I don’t remember when I began
to call everyone “sweetie,”
as if they were my daughters,
my darlings, my little birds.
I have always loved too much,
or not enough. Last night
I read a poem about God and almost
believed it–God sipping coffee,
smoking cherry tobacco. I’ve arrived
at a time in my life when I could believe
Today, pumping gas into my old car, I stood
hatless in the rain and the whole world
went silent–cars on the wet street
sliding past without sound, the attendant’s
mouth opening and closing on air
as he walked from pump to pump, his footsteps
erased in the rain–nothing
but the tiny numbers in their square windows
rolling by my shoulder, the unstoppable seconds
gliding by as I stood at the Chevron,
balanced evenly on my two feet, a gas nozzle
gripped in my hand, my hair gathering rain.
And I saw it didn’t matter
who had loved me or who I loved. I was alone.
The black oily asphalt, the slick beauty
of the Iranian attendant, the thickening
clouds–nothing was mine. And I understood
finally, after a semester of philosophy,
a thousand books of poetry, after death
and childbirth and the startled cries of men
who called out my name as they entered me,
I finally believed I was alone, felt it
in my actual, visceral heart, heard it echo
like a thin bell. And the sounds
came back, the slish of tires
and footsteps, all the delicate cargo
they carried saying thank you
and yes. So I paid and climbed into my car
as if nothing had happened–
as if everything mattered–What else could I do?
I drove to the grocery store
and bought wheat bread and milk,
a candy bar wrapped in gold foil,
smiled at the teenaged cashier
with the pimpled face and the plastic
name plate pinned above her small breast,
and knew her secret, her sweet fear,
Little bird. Little darling. She handed me
my change, my brown bag, a torn receipt,
pushed the cash drawer in with her hip
and smiled back.
Rushing around these days preparing for an intense next (at least) six months, I feel a sense of premature loss. I know that I will be unable to continue reading as much or at the furious pace I have maintained for the last (almost) two years. This may, in fact, even be the last of these recap posts that I put together for a while because I simply doubt that I will have the time, nor will I have read enough to make these recaps worthwhile. This is not to say that they have been worthwhile in a wider sense (as in, useful to anyone but me). Indulgence at its finest. And now, I shall not have time to indulge in quite this way.
Knowing that this moment of bittersweet “parting” from leisurely, if voracious and greedy, reading was coming to an end, I spent most of August trying to work my way through things I’d begun reading and hadn’t finished, and through the list of books I’d already purchased but hadn’t seen fit to dive into yet. As of August 20, when I started drafting this, I had read 32 books, which is a good bit more ambitious than July’s 23 books. I hope to finish at least 10 more before the month ends (done). I don’t necessarily place stock in keeping a running tally on this, and it is not about quantity, as I keep having to explain to people. It’s just so satisfying to keep devouring such different writings from all over the world. Just this month, to note the diversity, I swung from Novica Tadić‘s spare poetry to Ousmane Sembène‘s Xala, both loved, from the complete Martha Quest/Children of Violence series by Doris Lessing (which I mostly disliked, wanting to kill Quest by the end, but nevertheless persevered) to non-fiction about hormones…
I don’t really know how much or what kinds of things I will find time to read, as I will be up to my eyeballs in formal study. That said, I am still the kind of weirdo who gets distracted looking for one thing – a poem I thought was written by Irving Feldman but was actually written by Michael Ryan that references semen – only to stumble on a good many clinical studies on semen quality, and I was drawn to/nearly obsessed with reading all those studies and their outcomes. And why? Who knows? Why was I so obsessed with teeth last year (and still)?
How difficult will it be to feel as though I am (if temporarily) giving this up?
Thoughts on reading for August:
I don’t have words for this, for William Stafford. Unrivaled beauty, poetry… the only book I read in August to which I gave a five-star (of five) rating – without reservation.
Laux’s poetry often sets me on fire. I have to read the work again and again, and find my throat has gone dry.
Good – really good
While I didn’t love White is for Witching, it – like Boy, Snow, Bird (which I loved last month) – delivered unusual characters that kept me in the story and unable to stop until the end. I think that’s what I enjoy about Oyeyemi – characters and character development.
“White is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do.”
It was one of those nights when I found myself revisiting the poetry of Tomaž Šalamun – probably my favorite poet from Slovenia – when I was reminded of Andrej Blatnik. For me, these are the true exports of Slovenia – not a certain “be best” First Lady.
I was charmed by Blatnik’s ability to write a complete short story in often only a few words. Not perfect but quite arresting in its way.
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
Poetry – poetry – poetry. Usually the poetry I read makes it into the “highly recommended” (must not miss) category, but this month I read a lot of solid poetry that is nevertheless nothing I want to revisit and don’t necessarily think anyone else needs to either. But poetry is very personal, if you like it at all, so it’s not really for me to say.
I don’t think I ran into any coincidences this month… at least none worth noting.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
*The entire Children of Violence series – Doris Lessing
It probably isn’t so much disappointment because I had no expectations, but by the time I finished reading Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, I wanted to kill Martha Quest and all the other characters populating these books. Still, I could not quite not finish… I also cannot say what it is about them/this series that I hate so much. Not that there are not flashes of what the Nobel committee must have seen when they gave Lessing her Nobel for lit – although who can trust that institution these days? Some timely and timeless observations:
“He went so far, carried away by the official in him, as to make various sound remarks about the unsuitability of danger for women. She thought he must be joking; nothing is more astonishing to young women than the ease with which men, even intelligent and liberal-minded men, lapse back into that anonymous voice of authority whenever their own personal authority is threatened, saying things of a banality and a pomposity infinitely removed from their own level of thinking.” – from A Proper Marriage