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.)

into the friendly fray: uses, excuses and replacements

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Randomness on friendship…

What day passes without my reflecting on friendship and its concomitant challenges? Friendship is not so challenging any more, now that I am a seasoned old lady, but I think back to when every slight felt like a lashing, and I was too insecure or scared to call people out on their bullshit. (And when I did, it was often a disaster.) It is now whatever I decide it is. It’s a little bit like when people tell you that you can’t control other people’s reactions or behavior, but you can control yours.

Not that I put all the bitter bits away when I reached legal adulthood. The game goes on as long as one lets it. But perhaps now that I am this wizened, though not unwise, hag I can more easily accept the frailties and failures of all people. We are, after all, just people, mostly trying to do our best. I can’t count how many times I’d heard and hated this expression in the past, which seemed ready-made and packed with excuses: I did my best. But now, having blinked my way through enough days, enough experiences where I didn’t reach my potential or didn’t fulfill expectations I’d set and thus disappointed others (and how many times have I disappointed others without knowing it?), I feel a certain measure of compassion for those who employ this phrase, even when it is used with nonchalant insincerity.

I do still wonder if people know how to be friends; it seems like the most natural thing in the world, to meet, discover and bond with people, forging strong connections with some and transient or momentary connections with others. Because we don’t formally learn how to be friends, or learn how to treat other people with care, and instead do so by inference, can we ever really say we did the best we could? Or… is that all we can truly say?

Occasionally, vivid memories bubble to the surface; nostalgia burns and makes one long for the ability to cut through the overgrown fields of the past to return to specific moments, which always include the blinding, shining specter of some friend or other. For me, it is almost always one single person, T, a friend about whom I have written at length (which does not even begin to convey the amount of time I’ve spent thinking and dreaming about her). I don’t have any control of how much my subconscious mind dredges her up, even after 19 years passing without a single word or contact. Most days, most moments, she is completely absent from my mind, and the more time passes, and the longer my life, so far removed from that adolescent whirlwind in which we spun together, goes on in some entirely different context, the more remote she becomes.

But those memories we form in youth, so packed and powerful, bursting bright and flavorful, exist so indelibly that very little that has happened since competes in intensity. And the triggers, especially through the increasing sentimentality of age, mine every step, exploding in emotional outbursts. I can’t explain why the heart rate ratchets itself up ever so slightly every time I hear, see or experience something that I wish I could share with her (or could have shared with her). Here I mean everything from the recent TV show Derry Girls, which is something we would have died to watch as girls, to seeing and meeting all these bands and musicians that we adored, to planning St. Patrick’s Day baking and thinking about how insane we became about St. Patrick’s Day (who knows why?). The selectivity of my nostalgia makes me imagine that she’d feel as thrilled at being touched by these memories as I am. But this selectivity censors out the whole ‘drifting apart’ segment of the relationship, and all the empty and silent years that have happened since our last conversation.

A series of events kicked this latest reverie into motion. First, I’d seen the aforementioned Derry Girls. Next, out of nowhere, I got an email from a Polish exchange student (JK) we’d had at our high school. She and I had been friends and had been partnered up on various projects during her stay in the country. I had somehow forgotten that her presence, and my teachers’ enthusiasm about pushing the Polish girl and me together, had irritated T. I suddenly recalled T commenting, “Of course they let you be with JK because you study Russian, but no one else will get a chance to be friends with her” as if it were somehow my fault. (And I know – as if studying Russian has anything to do with the girl being Polish, but I imagine that in my teachers’ minds, it did.) By this point in our friendship, in our lives, in that end-stage of public education, I think T had felt academically blocked by me in so many ways (at least that is the only conclusion I can come up with? Now I am making assumptions), but I still don’t get it. So much of what happened and who we became was formed by what others (i.e. people, friends, teachers) assumed about us, sometimes pushing us together when we did not want to be, and other times creating situations that should not have been remotely adversarial but became that way. T is not the last friend who has tried to subtly undermine me, either out of envy or insecurity or whatever, but she is the only one who has stuck with me emotionally.

That’s not to say that it was surprising. Very early in life, I learned that friends are fickle, and people are often jealous, have a short attention span, or easily grow apart. Does that mean that I accepted those things? No, that came much, much later. All the many times I cried inconsolably as a kid, my mother kept telling me, “This won’t help you now at all, and you won’t believe me, but kids don’t know how to be real friends.” She was mostly right. It didn’t stop me from crying, but it certainly made me feel tougher later on when friendship didn’t withstand time or change.

“She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?” My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

I recently read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which I had long been resisting (always have to buck the popular trend, of course). It was no great literary work, but its ability to slice right to the heart of conflict in female friendships affected me immediately. Ferrante’s ability to convey the teeter-totter nature of our fragile friendships made me surrender my resistance to the book, at least. Most of all, the push-pull feeling of envy we get about our friends’ accomplishments and achievements, their loves and attention they get. That is, we envy them at the same time as being happy for them. We love and seethe at the same time.

We constantly change places – one friend leading the way and the other worrying furiously that she will fall behind. How many times did this happen between T and me? So many times I went off on all kinds of strange and new musical paths, and each time, T felt left behind and left out until she finally “caught up”. How many times did she acquire things and travel places that I could never have afforded to have or to go? I remember when she spent an entire summer abroad, and I was happy for her, but I was filled with envy, knowing that I was not going to be able to go anywhere – in truly, overly dramatic teen fashion, I was sure I was NEVER going to be able to go anywhere. When she sent me a letter telling me she was homesick, unhappy and wished she were home with friends for the summer, I felt a tiny pang of glee that it was not all magical as she had hoped. But the bigger, more gracious part of me, felt my heart ache for her, wanting to do anything in my power to ease her feeling of being out of place. I jumped into action and wrote what I thought was the most brilliant, funny and reassuring letter ever and posted it immediately. And it helped her. It cemented our friendship. But is there that intense a friendship without these stakes?… The taking turns, unwittingly, at being the leader, with all the normal acceptance and suffering that that entails… always with the distractions (other friends, unknowing competition, growing apart). With the fickle way of one minute wanting to spend every waking and sleeping moment together, and the next repelled, finding yourself feeling completely left behind, but not knowing how to voice it without making yourself look weak, unequal and vulnerable.

A tribute to her: she was always a lot better at making her feelings known and clear; when she felt left behind, she said so. And I felt warmer toward her for her honesty and willingness to be vulnerable. I think, at least when it came to her and her alone, I felt a need to maintain some ‘coolness’ – ha! as if I could even pretend to have a shred of that – never admitting until so much later – that I’d felt just as remote at times, that we had both slipped in and out of these roles, always returning (at least back in those early days) to a world of mostly just the two of us – in which we were the most important parts – “I no longer felt that she inhabited a marvelous land without me” (Ferrante). But then, just as Ferrante shrewdly points out, there’s none of that warm togetherness without a pinch of the sense that you’re gaining ground … “Or maybe it was only that I was beginning to feel superior.” That is the delicate balance.

These things have been mummified for so long in me that it was strange to have the tomb reopened without warning by this book and other smaller triggers. I am reminded that things change – I have changed – when I am confronted by a (former-ish) friend I made in adulthood but with whom I’ve had a relationship fraught with ambivalence. It would be fair to say that we are not really friends now. We were once very close, and then everything came to an abrupt end. This end happened to coincide with the end of some rather big needs for her, leading me to believe that I had been convenient and then a casualty once I was no longer needed. For once, maybe because I was by this time an adult, I decided to confront, and she confirmed that she had backed off and regretted that it appeared as though she had used me (but she didn’t deny it, even though I am sure it was unconscious, even if she did). Having the confirmation or closure or whatever you can call it, I felt content – it’s the not knowing that makes things difficult. We have had extremely limited, sporadic contact – very cursory, surface level – over the last decade. Nothing I could call ‘friendship’. And then she turned up recently, asking for a favor. Not a big favor, and nothing really taxing. But all I could do was laugh, comparing how things had been left and how they were, very momentarily and casually, resumed. With need. And now it was up to me to determine how to feel about or interpret that need – do I feel used? Or do I decide that I can be the casual acquaintance I am and happily help?

The funny thing is… it can hurt, but when you figure it out (“it” here being friendship), you can walk away, or you can just accept the form the friendship takes and the role you play (or not).