Said and read – May 2020

Standard

“Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realized. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”” Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

Image by S Donaghy, April 2020

We’re heading into another month of a pandemic that more and more people choose to ignore as though it’s over, while tensions simmered and civil unrest exploded, like a pressure cooker. It occurs to me more clearly than ever that the problems, addictions, insanities, lack of control that defined people’s lives before the various levels of quarantine not only remain but become outsized, as though studied under a microscope. If you are an aggressive, angry person prone to lose your temper, all of this feels likelier to boil over in these pent-up conditions. If you are an addict, attempting to run from yourself and the pain and anxiety that ail you, there is no worse time than being trapped in your home, alone with your thoughts.

I suspect we’re in for many more months of uncertainty; people’s anger at having made sacrifices (particularly in the face of loss) while their ‘fearless leaders’ did not leads to deeper and more fractious divides. People’s anger at the ineptitude of a federal government and its refusal to act at all during a pandemic, coupled with increasing anger about the abundant inequalities of the criminal justice system (e.g., how many black people must be murdered by police before something changes?), has made clear the brokenness of the United States, long in the making, a catastrophic implosion precipitated … protests, riots, and … what more? We don’t yet know the outcome, but it hurts to say that I fear things will go on being exactly the same or worse.

So, I read. I read so much that I find it difficult to find time to catalog my thoughts on the previous month’s reading. But I try. Each month I only capture here the things that struck me in some way, but this is never a complete rendering of all the things I’ve read.

I’ve ended up finishing these ramblings so far into June that it’s already my birthday; therefore, I’ve lived to pulse ocho for another year.

Here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

Highly recommended

*The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

“Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” –The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

I dreamt of writing something thoughtful about John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I found, however, that I become too frustrated and angry to properly formulate thoughts. The fact that this was written in 1869, followed by very slow change, almost immovable thinking, and a continued cultural conditioning about women’s inferiority, infuriates me. On reflection, there are material differences between what women could do in 1869 and now, but the underlying value assigned to women, their bodies, their experiences, their contributions continues to be underestimated, if considered at all. I urge careful reading and re-reading of this. And then reflect on the age-old arguments on nature and nurture. That is, recognizing the “eminently artificial” nature of women created by “forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”, and the assertion that women, being physically weaker, are somehow unequal to men, and for it to be otherwise would be “unnatural”, although “unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.”

“If anything conclusive could be inferred from experience, without psychological analysis, it would be that the things which women are not allowed to do are the very ones for which they are peculiarly qualified; since their vocation for government has made its way, and become conspicuous, through the very few opportunities which have been given; while in the lines of distinction which apparently were freely open to them, they have by no means so eminently distinguished themselves. We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule; though many of them have occupied the throne in difficult periods. It is remarkable, too, that they have, in a great number of instances, been distinguished by merits the most opposite to the imaginary and conventional character of women: they have been as much remarked for the firmness and vigour of their rule, as for its intelligence.”

*Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

“My own lived experience was the guide here, and all I needed was a willingness to meet it, to allow myself to ask certain kinds of questions and be willing to hear the answers that might follow, no matter how disconcerting those answers might be. This, then, was the real test of faith—not whether I was willing to change my beliefs but, rather, whether I was willing to give language to that which I had already begun to experience as truth.” –Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

Much like Ruttenberg as a young woman, I was never religious. I’ve never actively claimed to be an atheist, but because I don’t believe it’s possible to know (which is why we call it faith) for certain, religious and spiritual questions have rarely engaged me in more than a cursory and academic way. But faith and religion are powerful markers of identity and community, making them inspirational topics for thought and research, but also fascinating in grappling with the grittiest questions about oneself. I continue to come back to the big questions myself, particularly in terms of how I’ve lived and how I want to live, and this is tightly wound with ideas of community, isolation (self-imposed or societal), intention and compassion.

“What religion changes is not just our identity, our relationships, our politics, our sense of what the world is and how we move in it, but also, potentially, every small decision that we make. What religion changes, if we let it, is not just ourselves, not just our smaller home culture, but the world as a whole and the power structures that run it.”

Throughout my life, despite not being Jewish, I have been drawn time and again to progressive interpretations of Judaism and, for inexplicable reasons, I identify with this particular faith more than any other. Ruttenberg herself outlines succinctly exactly why it speaks to her, and it happens to apply just as well to me (and probably to many others who choose to be Jewish, whether they are actively embracing the faith into which they were born or adopt it much later as a conscious and conscientious choice):

“I can find a lot of different ways to explain why I was drawn to Judaism. There’s a strong ethical tradition, but also a tremendous awe for the transcendent. It’s a faith that is comfortable with debate and a diversity of opinion—of five thousand legal disagreements recorded in the Talmud, only fifty or so are settled on the page, leaving open the possibility that the “right” answer isn’t so obvious.”

This sense of needing to know about and experience Judaism has grown over time, and it has only been in the last few years that I have recommitted to exploring this feeling more seriously. I started this journey half-jokingly, half-curious in my youth, attending various courses at a Reform synagogue near where I grew up. But I didn’t take it further until recently, when I started studying psychology, then the psychology of religion, and then theology in the context of peace and conflict.

And while I frequently jest that I would like to become a rabbi, it would certainly help if I were first Jewish.

And before taking any conversion-related steps, I needed to dive deeply into the literature and truly understand what I feel and might want to be a part of. Happily, somewhere in this neverending journey, I stumbled across a lengthy reading list compiled by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and I’ve been making my way through it. This particular book, her own, was on the list, and I found that the rabbi had undergone a spiritual transformation herself, during which she dabbled in atheism and studied philosophy, and voiced many of the same complaints I’ve always had about my own academic aspirations, e.g. “I found that I was perfectly capable of unpacking Hegel or Hobbes, but that it just wasn’t all that much fun once the big ideas became too abstract, too disconnected from human lives.”; “Religious studies, on the other hand, was philosophy and anthropology and literature and history all rolled up in one.” This is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that has driven most of my scholarly and life choices. Where some might see a dilettante who can’t commit (and I do self-flagellate on this), I see someone whose curiosity cannot be contained. Where some might see a lack of willingness to dive deeply into the minutiae of one thing, I see someone who cares more about the human and person-centered roots of almost every discipline. It’s always about getting back to humanity.

When it comes to religious faith and practice, it can be deeply individual, particularly when its nascent and uncertain. And yet in some ways, at some point, it may become very public (if you begin to practice in a community). This can pose a barrier, but again, it is about getting in touch with humanity.

“Thomas Merton talks about the “tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which [those new to religion] feel about praying publicly . . . The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think that you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.”

First you must decide whether your pursuit is satisfying a curiosity or is actually driven by something deeper. Then, should you decide that it’s deeper, you must overcome the idea that you’re an impostor, that you’re “doing it” or “believing” wrong. And finally when you can start to let down the walls, softening yourself to hear and accept answers you needed to hear — but only after doing the sometimes painful and arduous work of waking up truly.

“Years down the road, I would learn how hard it could be to follow my intuition, to feel whatever was buried deep within my fettered heart, to try to meet God without denial. But I would discover that fear and pain were a hundred thousand times better than this unconscious sleepwalking through parties and distraction—that even when it was harder, I would prefer to be awake, and alive. But that was all later.”

Perhaps most powerful here, and there were a lot of resonant ideas, was Ruttenberg’s call to action, which aligns with so much of what I’ve been reading (and writing about here): transformation and change, social justice, community, and the detached ways we live today. We can defy the way our culture aims to commoditize humanity, innoculating us against the idea that our community and true spirituality can feed us in ways that consumerism and individualism cannot.

“The dominant culture depends on our sense of isolation. As long as spirituality remains an individualized, personal experience, chances remain good that the inherently revolutionary potential of religious work will sit forever inert and untapped. That is to say, those who practice their spirituality without community are much less likely to demand change in and upheaval to the status quo, or feel that they have the power to do so.”

“More often than not, the places where it’s necessary to mobilize for transformation in religion reflect our contemporary understanding of morality and compassion.”

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“Real, evidence-driven analysis, they believed, would overturn one of modernity’s most deeply held principles: that science will tell us which individuals and groups are naturally smarter, abler, more upstanding, and fitter to rule. Their response was that science pointed in precisely the opposite direction, toward a theory of humanity that embraces all the many ways we humans have devised for living. The social categories into which we typically divide ourselves, including labels such as race and gender, are at base artificial—the products of human artifice, residing in the mental frameworks and unconscious habits of a given society.”

“…in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. Culture, as Boas and his students understood it, is the ultimate source for what we think constitutes common sense. It defines what is obvious or beyond question. It tells us how to raise a child, how to pick a leader, how to find good things to eat, how to marry well. Over time these things change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. Yet there is no more fundamental reality in the social world than the one that humans themselves in some measure create.” –Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the people within the field and the cultures to which they belong. At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti, which ring true through American society today:

“FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WHO SERVED as the U.S. minister and consul-general in Haiti, once said that tracing the country’s history was like following a wounded man through a crowd: you just needed to follow the blood.”

“The key to understanding zombies, Hurston concluded, lay not in finding a secret potion or in debunking another people’s mythology. It was actually believing in them. Felix-Mentor wasn’t a person who was said to be a zombie. She wasn’t a make-believe one, like her fictional counterpart in a Hollywood film. She really was one. If you could twist your brain into seeing that fact, then you had taken a giant step toward seeing Haiti—and most important, its spirituality—from the inside.”

“A woman disappeared—conveniently, for her brother and her husband—and then reappeared and started causing trouble until she was put away in a mental institution, cowering, distraught, wordless, no longer herself, alive yet dead. Religions survive not because people love the faith of their fathers but because they help us navigate the world as we find it.”

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

““Gods always behave like the people who make them,” Hurston wrote in her notes from Haiti. A boisterous spirit could say the thing a peasant couldn’t. A person mounted by a loa could curse a field boss or a pith-helmeted American. Possession by unseen forces, escaping into a kind of death, could be a way of being truly, deeply alive, especially in places where it was hard to speak the truth in any other way. That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.”

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” –The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

I can’t explain why, but this book almost immediately had me in tears. I think it’s attributable in part, once more, to the inevitable dilution of historical events. Things that were intense, painful, sweeping — things I can’t even describe in words, such as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s — have become anodyne footnotes accompanied by inoffensive elevator music. I was a child during this epidemic, but watching it unfold affected me at such a fundamental level that I still cry uncontrollably watching footage of protests juxtaposed with images of the march of slow, excruciating and senseless death. As I say, I was a child. I can’t begin to imagine what this period was like for people most affected by it, those like Schulman and her community in New York at the height of the crisis.

“Bizarrely, this very day is the twentieth anniversary of AIDS. Decontextualized by palm trees, I listen. The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic that was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s book deals mostly with the gentrification process — but not just the material gentrification we can see in cities like New York, but rather a brainwashing of sorts: the gentrification of the culture, and the gentrification of the mind. It is woven into the institutionally sanctioned happiness-industry culture we are a part of in which we willingly become a part of a herd and ignore what we give up to be a part of that — both on an individual level and as a society. Individually we — this is truer for some than others — may, for example, as Schulman writes, come to expect that one’s “teacher does not remember them, even after intimate direct conversations in class about their lives and work” because somehow the individual is not important enough to remember, particularly if they have always been part of a marginalized group. Societally, we find ourselves acting against the community and its interests because we are encouraged and incentivized to participate in a culture that endlessly craves manufactured happiness and comfort — and the only way to achieve this, according to the rules of this society, is to compete or step on someone else, or in some cases, merely tolerate injustices that we see but don’t speak out against.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS struggle, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Autobiographically, the AIDS experience may be where I came to understand that it is a fundamental of individual integrity to intervene to stop another person from being victimized, even if to do so is uncomfortable or frightening.”

“Gentrification culture makes it very hard for people to intervene on behalf of others. The Nasdaq value system is and was a brutal one. Being consumed by it and being shut out of it are both deadening and result in distorted thinking about private sectors, economic and emotional. Gentrification culture is rooted in the ideology that people needing help is a “private” matter, that it is nobody’s business. Taking their homes is called “cleaning up” the neighborhood. ACT UP was the most recent American social movement to succeed, and it did so because AIDS activist culture of the 1980s was the opposite of Gentrification culture.”

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

“A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only “universal” but also “race-free” risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.” –Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

This is a unique moment to survey Morrison’s work on literary criticism and African-American literature. She calls out the “polite” color blindness of the dominant cultural system and exposes it as a thick layer of white paint that has for so long covered over necessary calls to consciousness, assessment and action. Today it is embodied in Black Lives Matter, and this must be named, seen, and understood by those who cannot understand it because the responsibility rests with them, i.e., the most dangerous being the white liberal self-proclaimed “ally” who nevertheless never questions and furthers systems of what Morrison refers to as “intellectual domination”.

“Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

Violence against black bodies is the most immediate emergency, of course, but as a reflection of a comprehensively racist system, we must also dig into things as esoteric as literary criticism to understand the depth of the problem.

“Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. What is fascinating, however, is to observe how their lavish exploration of literature manages not to see meaning in the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy—an informing, stabilizing, and disturbing element—in the literature they do study. It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts.”

*Pale Colors in a Tall Field: PoemsCarl Phillips

Poetry, of course.

*The FallD. Nurkse

More poetry. Always poetry.

*The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

My life was a story, dry as pages. Seems like he should have known/enough to like them even lightly with his thumb/ But he didn’t. /And I have to admit I didn’t much like the idea/of telling him how.” –The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

And yet more poetry. Every day is poetry.

Good – or better than expected

*Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

All I can say about Never Enough is that it balances the author’s own experience with addiction with the neuroscience behind addiction. It reinforces what much of science and social science instructs about addiction: addiction often escalates when faced with a lack of acceptance and community – seeing no alternatives or no possible way out – in a judgmental society that criminalizes addiction and in which some substance abuse (particularly alcohol) is second nature and not seen at all as abuse or troublesome (until it is). Grisel’s account states:

“Though there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began a few months after the ghost-in-the-mirror episode, when my father inexplicably changed course and took me out for my twenty-third birthday. Federal agents, friends’ deaths, expulsions and evictions, physical withdrawal, and myriad other tragedies weren’t enough to propel me to change; instead, it was human love and connection. My father’s willingness to be seen with me and to treat me with kindness split open my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had.”

She never claims that this turning point made her choice easy, but it was about choice — and it required connection and compassion to reach that stage. Having some meaning seems to be a deciding factor for many addicts, which is backed up by work from both Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Carl Hart, who also specialize in addiction. A unique part of the book is that it covers different categories of drug and in some cases proposes ways we might mitigate some of the pitfalls of use — that is, make alcohol-free spaces more common, find ways to cope with and treat pain, see others with compassion and look at what can be done rather than what cannot.

“So, who’s to blame for the epidemic of addiction? The truth is no one is to blame, but we are all responsible. Our collective shadow supports addiction because we must have a scapegoat even as we deny, or embrace, the many strategies of escape we employ ourselves. We support the tools of addiction, including pathological individualism that leads to alienation, widespread and enthusiastic endorsement of avoidance, and a smorgasbord of consumptive excess and self-medication. Though any search for a cause (or a cure) is bound to fall short, one source of this epidemic is our unwillingness to bear our own pain, along with our failure to look upon the suffering of others with compassion.”

*Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

“The triumph of exchange values over experiential values changed the world both for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, with the commodification of goods, land, and labor came an end to the oppression, injustice, and wretchedness of serfdom. A new concept of freedom was born, along with the possibility of abolishing slavery and the technological capability to produce enough goods for all. On the other hand, it prompted unprecedented new forms of misery, poverty, and potential slavery.” –Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

After reading Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist last month and continuing to think about the up-and-down waves of collapsing capitalism, Varoufakis’s simplified take on economics and capitalism would be a good addition to the basics, boiled down to the simple premise: ““My reason for writing it was the conviction that the economy is too important to leave to the economists.” This is much the same argument that guided the research and thinking behind Doughnut Economics.

“Today’s economic experts are not much different. Whenever they fail to predict properly some economic phenomenon, which is almost always, they account for their failure by appealing to the same mystical economic notions that failed them in the first place. Occasionally, new notions are created in order to account for the failure of the earlier ones.”

How far removed from human life and needs can economics — ostensibly the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, which are produced, distributed and consumed by people — get?

“With time, I recognized something else, a delicious contradiction about my own profession that reinforced this belief: the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real, existing economy out there. This is precisely the opposite of what obtains in physics, engineering…”

Very much aligned with the questions I continue to ask myself as I make reading and study choices: what are my values, what are society’s collective values? And Varoufakis does the same, hitting the nail right on the head — we live in a time in which experience holds no value, and everything is commodified and assigned a market value. People fall right into this — from assigning a salary, fair or not, to their time and labor (which do, in fact, belong to them) to turning people themselves into products and market experiments (how can we influence consumers, how much can be extract from them either in the form of direct consumption or in the data they generate and unwittingly share with us)?

“Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynical person is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Our societies tend to make us all cynics. And no one is more cynical than the economist who sees exchange value as the only value, trivializing experiential value as unnecessary in a society where everything is judged according to the criteria of the market. But how exactly did exchange value manage this triumph over experiential value? The commodification of everything…”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

“If Gandhi despised one thing more than cowardice, it was cowardice wrapping itself in the mantle of nonviolence.” –What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

No stranger to controversy, Finkelstein provides analysis of the tenets for which Gandhi is best known globally… not diving too deeply into the more controversial and troubling aspects of Gandhi the man. Finkelstein focuses squarely on Gandhi’s words and their constant contradictions, emphasizing Gandhi’s predilection for action over consistency of expression. While other readings I’ve highlighted here suggest that inconsistent expression is a hallmark of the dictator, I doubt anyone would claim Gandhi had dictatorial aspirations, even if it seems he had a control-freak streak (and preoccupation with sex and attempting to control it). In fact, according to Finkelstein, Gandhi’s commitment to acting on non-violent resistance came from the need to throw off colonial chains and rulers, not to grab power for himself once these occupiers were successfully resisted.

“Gandhi devoted the whole of his adult life to organizing the powerless 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent. He aspired in the first place to end the British occupation of India, but he also recoiled at the prospect of a corrupt clique of native Indians replacing the foreign occupiers.”

“He was convinced not only that the old world could be extirpated and a new world be brought into being nonviolently, but also that unless it was done nonviolently, the new world would hardly differ from the old world it superseded.”

Finkelstein attempts to show that Gandhi was not passive, and did not advocate being passive. He in fact would advocate violence if and when there were no other alternative.

“The real Gandhi did loathe violence but he loathed cowardice more than violence. If his constituents could not find the inner wherewithal to resist nonviolently, then he exhorted them to find the courage to hit back those who assaulted or demeaned them.”

The unfortunate problem here is that one cannot rely on the judgment of an individual that there “was no alternative”. We can see, despite the very different conditions and circumstances, that a number of police officers in the United States justify murder because they claim to have had no other recourse, and felt that their own lives were threatened. Never mind that they are in positions of power, authority and are armed. I use this example only to illustrate the subjectivity of the perceived alternatives.

Finkelstein also explores the limitations and contradictions of Gandhi’s teachings, which makes this book a worthwhile endeavor.

*Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

“All animals need time, experiences, practice, and failure to become mature adults.” –Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Oh, adolescence.

“It seems tragically counterintuitive that the most vulnerable and underprepared individuals would be thrown into the riskiest possible situations. But facing mortal danger while still maturing is a fact of life for adolescents and young adults across species.”

Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers explore the fraught period of human and other species adolescent period, which is fascinating overall but a few key points stand out, in particular the question of what happens to humans once old risks are eliminated, when there is capacity to manage more than just basic survival.

“What happens when brains and bodies that evolved in environments full of predators and other threats find those dangers removed? A similar question was posed thirty years ago by a British epidemiologist who noticed a rise in autoimmune diseases like lupus and Crohn’s. David Strachan wondered what happens to immune systems that evolved in environments with many varied pathogens when the world gets cleaner. The “hygiene hypothesis” suggested that human immune systems, unchallenged in overly clean environments, turn inward and begin to attack their own bodies, mistaking normal tissue for pathogens. Might a similar process be driving anxiety in modern adolescents and other individuals? Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher at the University of Bergen who studies fear, thinks yes. He believes that many modern humans have a “surplus of consciousness” that gets directed into imagining risks.”

“Safer than ever before, with more “brain space” to devote to thinking about risks that don’t pan out, we live in a state of what Svendsen calls “permanent fear.” Permanent fear, believes Svendsen, isolates individuals and creates anxious, lonely societies because “living a life of fear is incompatible with living a life of happiness.””

“Adolescents and adults who seem to have it all still get sad, sometimes even truly depressed. A human being’s internal self-perception can be very different from how others see them. Social experiences during adolescence shape individuals’ views of their status in ways that sometimes continue into adult life. The happiness that might come from success in adult life may be blunted by the enduring effects of social defeats during adolescence.”

Another key point, which seems obvious, but isn’t — based on how critically “sexual compliance” is handled in society. Overt threats are not required in a world that does not believe women, does not understand the subtlety of covert threats, and in which violence is glorified and some people feel entitled to “take”. That is, as Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers share:

“Sex between two animals that appears to be non-coerced, because physical force is not observed, may actually be coercive in a less visible way if the female has been harassed into submitting. Some males may persistently badger unreceptive females for sex, preventing them from foraging and feeding—a phenomenon documented in dolphins, sheep, quail, and coho salmon. Sexually harassed elephant seals, fallow bucks, and female tortoiseshell butterflies ultimately relent, submitting to sex simply so they can go about their lives. An uninformed observer, who sees no resistance or physical restraint, might not recognize these encounters as the coercive events they are. This is especially true because the intimidation and threats of violence may take place hours or even days before the sexual encounter.”

“Conventional wisdom of the time held that fertile female chimpanzees were choosing the mates they preferred. But Wrangham and Muller realized these females weren’t choosing; they were complying.”

*The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

“The timing of my new mustache—ten days after my wife miscarried, a week after I injured my back in a car crash, and two weeks after my father found out he had inoperable cancer—couldn’t have been better. Instead of talking about Dad’s chemo or my wife’s hospitalization, I could divert all small talk to the thick tuft of facial hair growing above my upper lip. And whenever anyone asked, “What’s with the mustache?” I had the perfect answer, and it was even mostly true: “It’s for the boy.” A mustache is not just a great distraction device; it’s also an excellent icebreaker. It’s amazing how many people who see a new mustache in the middle of a familiar face are happy to share their own private mustache stories.” –The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

I discovered Etgar Keret by accident – happy surprise, entertaining fiction, clear voice. That’s all.

“In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”

*Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

“Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”” –Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

Most of what Sacks produced is worth reading, and while this was not his best collection, I was mostly struck by his references to how public everything is now. Privacy, as we all know, is dead. And now that we lead almost entirely public lives, we have created identities for others to consume, and we create data that makes us consumable. An endless cycle of (false?) identity creation followed by someone mining that false or aspirational identity data followed by someone trying to sell or selling us something based on that data followed by the consumption and use that lends credence and authority to the identity we created for public consumption, reinforcing the whole cycle repeatedly. Do we consider the trade-offs? It is too late to opt out. How do we want to be — whom do we want to be — in this world we’ve created and submitted to?

“Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

*The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

“But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice—all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time—is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you.” –The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

While not surprising, and leaning a bit heavily on the mild shock value of its profanity-inspired title, this book more or less catalogs the complaint I, and many others, have had about the always-booming self-help industry. Not only does it create and inflate unrealistic expectations within the very population (usually vulnerable) that can least afford to sink a bunch of money and misguided hope into snake-oil in repetitive mantra form, it does, as Manson clearly broadcasts, project that “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”. YES.

Sure, I know I’ve been chastised and criticized for my “negativity” pretty much all my life. But I don’t care because I’m content, I’m realistic, I’m pragmatic. I have enough, and I am not on an endless and probably fruitless quest for “happiness”, which has become entirely meaningless because being “happy” has been warped by BS ideas about consuming, having, owning and usurped by the constant need for more. Happiness is different from meaning derived from experience, where I see great value. Manson quotes Albert Camus and Charles Bukowski in an admonishment not to seek out happiness; equating happiness with conformity and need to succeed or perform according to society’s arbitrary standards is probably what Camus, Bukowski and Manson would refer to as “giving too many fucks”.

“Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”

Not giving a fuck is not about indifference; in fact, it is having the fortitude, maturity and strength of identity to be able to stand alone, to weather difficulties and to be comfortable with uncertainty and with being oneself, even if that means going against the rest of the herd (perhaps by trying, however futile it is, to opt out of the always-on public life).

*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

“Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” –Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

An irreverent look at the body once it becomes…uninhabited. Unlike Bill Bryson’s book on the anatomy and functions of the human body, Roach dissects (not literally) the things that may happen to a human body after death.

Yes, irreverent.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with just lying around on your back. In its way, rotting is interesting too, as we will see. It’s just that there are other ways to spend your time as a cadaver. Get involved with science. Be an art exhibit. Become part of a tree. Some options for you to think about. Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

Yes, oddly filled with chicken-adjacent stories.

“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.

The heads have been put in roasting pans—which are of the disposable aluminum variety—for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings.”

“Eventually the taxi pulled up outside a brightly lit fried chicken establishment, the sort of place that in the United States might proclaim “We Do Chicken Right!” but here proclaimed “Do Me Chicken!” The cabdriver turned to collect his fare. We shouted at each other for a while, and eventually he got out and walked over to a tiny, dim storefront next to the chicken place and pointed vigorously to a sign. Designated Foreign-Oriented Tourist Unit, it said. Well, do me chicken. The man was right.”

*Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” –Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

As I ponder throughout this post, history is a moving target, and one experience is not representative of all, or universal, experience. This book manages somehow to be an example both of attempting to fit all of history into a single interpretation while also calling out how a multiplicity of experiences shelter under different umbrellas. After all, a book purporting to be a history of humankind will by necessity take a broad perspective. A dense and fascinating overview, it covers expansive ground, from money to religion, from the pace of change (the social order is in a state of “permanent flux”) to the accumulation of wealth and whether change and wealth have made us happier or more relaxed or “advanced”. It asks questions I wouldn’t (and Harari probably wouldn’t, based on the final words quoted below) expect of a book of this kind.

“But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions.”

Perhaps most appropriate and more specifically, Harari explores the always-controversial (although it should not be) debate (and it should not be one) about determining what is biological and what is “justified through biological myths”. An example here is the tendency to discuss concepts like race and gender in quite general, overarching terms while not completely making them reductive.

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.”

“Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”

I took many points away from this book, but it’s this last point — about the gender hierarchy — that struck me most of all. I find myself getting angrier about gender inequality as I get older, and the historical record justifies this anger. There is no biological basis for relegating women to a position of inferiority, and yet, throughout societies the world over, that’s exactly where women exist.

“How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

*The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

“…and for years the Balkans faded into our collective memories. No one ever said: “Remember the man who filled up the car in Pec?” or, “Remember the field by that cement factory called General Jankovic?”—because the Balkans were peaceful in those times, and we had no compelling reason to think of them.” –The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

I didn’t love this book but tend to read everything about the former Yugoslavia, its breakup, and different “western” takes on “Balkan drama”. I don’t generally buy into a lot of the analysis, but I nevertheless feel compelled to be steeped in it, if only to have close-to-the-skin reminders of what it was like to be there (by “there” I mean Bosnia, not so much Kosovo, as Winchester does) in the post-war period: the “fixers” that would get hired to act as… well, fixers, drivers and interpreters, even though their real jobs were as engineers, students or farmers, the Turkish-style coffee, the mélange of foods (I lived on shopska salad myself), people, styles, a kind of clash of old and new world (a man driving his horse and buggy along the same road down which a cadre of Bosnian politicians gunned their motorcade of brand-new Audi A8s while making a campaign stop), the random marriage proposals from strangers who simply sought an easy exit, intermittent electricity, random security evacuation exercises, and civil sector bureaucracy.

Reading this and similar accounts of the end of Yugoslavia, I can’t help but feel my age, but much more acutely, I feel the squeeze of insignificance… how diluted historical events become with time. I wouldn’t claim that I knew a lot of people outside certain circles who felt concerned about the situation in former Yugoslavia even at the time, but now, with the war well outside the living memory of young adults, I meet many young people who have never heard of Yugoslavia at all and had nebulous notions, if any idea at all, that a war was fought in this place that they associate vaguely (again, if they have any associations whatsoever) with the filming locations for Game of Thrones (Croatia) and coastal holidays.

*Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

“Your credibility arises in part from how your society perceives people like you, and we have seen over and over again that no matter how credible some women are by supposedly objective standards reinforced by evidence and witnesses and well-documented patterns, they will not be believed by people committed to protecting men and their privileges. The very definition of women under patriarchy is designed to justify inequality, including inequality of credibility. Though patriarchy often claims a monopoly on rationality and reason, those committed to it will discount the most verifiable, coherent, ordinary story told by a woman and accept any fantastical account by a man, will pretend sexual violence is rare and false accusations common, and so forth. Why tell stories if they will only bring forth a new round of punishment or disparagement?” –Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

Referring again to the idea that some people (men, white) have unlimited space to tell stories and be believed, few voices chronicle the struggle to be taken seriously, to be heard and to be respected as well as Rebecca Solnit. The ways women’s experiences have been distorted by the collective voice of dominance insisting that women are “crazy” have enabled the control men continue to have over women — and society as a whole. We can read about (and feel) the injustice of this in all kinds of discourse — some even dating back more than 150 years (see The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, listed above), and some much more recent, such as Sapiens, listed below, by Yuval Noah Harari.

“It was a kind of collective gaslighting. To live in a war that no one around me would acknowledge as a war—I am tempted to say that it made me crazy, but women are so often accused of being crazy, as a way of undermining their capacity to bear witness and the reality of what they testify to. Besides, in these cases, crazy is often a euphemism for unbearable suffering. So it didn’t make me crazy; it made me unbearably anxious, preoccupied, indignant, and exhausted. I was faced with either surrendering my freedom in advance or risking losing it in the worst ways imaginable. One thing that makes people crazy is being told that the experiences they have did not actually happen, that the circumstances that hem them in are imaginary, that the problems are all in their head, and that if they are distressed it is a sign of their failure, when success would be to shut up or to cease to know what they know.”

*Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

“Tyrants trust no one, least of all their allies. Duvalier disposed of friends and foes alike, striking down anyone he thought was too ambitious or might develop a separate power base. No one was indispensable.” –Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

We’re living through a time in which we are surrounded by a number of would-be dictators. For this reason alone, a chronicle of the lives of dictators in the 20th century is both timely and instructive. I could list off the present-day dictator wanna-be candidates, and I could list off their slogans. But we don’t need to amplify these names and their dictates further.

The takeaway here is confirmation of the many traits we can associate with and by which we can identify tyranny and tyrants: narcissism, penchant for performance/spectacle, ‘govern’ by slogans, practice and encourage inconsistency, personalize their power (“I alone can do…”), surround oneself with sycophants and ass-kissers and dismiss and discredit anyone who goes against you. The true believers will, like cult members, drink the Kool Aid, no matter what a tyrant does, and for everyone else, who sees the reality, a tyrant will “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity” to ensure that he isn’t credibly threatened by being removed.

Dikötter writes of Mussolini’s regime; sound familiar?:

“People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.”

“For almost two decades Mussolini had encouraged the idea that he alone could be trusted and could do no wrong. He had used the cult of the leader to debase his competitors, ensuring every potential rival in the Fascist Party was edged out of the limelight. Those who remained were united in their devotion to the Duce, sycophants determined to outdo one another in praising his genius. They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all, Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth’ in the words of his biographer Renzo de Felice. He knew that those around him were flatterers who withheld information that could provoke his ire. He trusted no one, having no true friends, no reliable companion to whom he could speak frankly. As the years passed Mussolini isolated himself from others, becoming a virtual prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Venezia.”

*Transforming Glasgow: Beyond the Post-Industrial CityKeith Kintrea and Rebecca Madgin, editors

“Ours is a city which perhaps more than any other of our size, shaped the Industrial Revolution, along with all of the great positive and negative forces that it unleashed.”

I binge and gorge on all things Glasgow – even urban planning and its history. I don’t expect others to care for this in the way I did, so it’s not exactly a recommendation unless you’re obsessed with Glasgow and the post-industrial transformation of once-heavily-industrialized cities.

On the other hand, many works I read this month, and more generally, deal with impoverishment of the urban landscape, de-industrialization with nothing to replace it, meaning that poverty almost inevitably travels hand-in-hand with some of these economic upheavals. Glasgow was once the “Second City of the Empire“, but you’d never know it if you were to witness the parts of the city hammered hardest by poverty and dilapidation that came with de-industrialization and privatization. Photographer Raymond Depardon captured this side of Glasgow in 1980 (it’s worth looking at the photos). To some degree, Glasgow has experienced many of the growing pains and tragedies that other cities have and do – and much of it boils down to misguided attempts at “modernizing” (in Glasgow’s case, people were moved out of the city to live in giant, horrible tower blocks and manufactured “communities” – and in so doing, much of Glasgow’s storied architecture was lost, and more appallingly, communities were torn apart. I’d argue that while Glasgow has not been as deeply affected by the powers of gentrification (essentially a destructive force masquerading as progress) as cities like New York (which is dealt with in Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind above), it is nevertheless a factor in Glasgow’s drive to redefine and reshape itself.

*Where the Wild Cooks Go: Recipes from My Travels in Food and MusicCerys Matthews

Not much to say here except that this was an enjoyable mix of recipes and music from all over the world; a nice tonic for not being able to travel anywhere.

*Salt HousesHala Alyan

“Easier, she thinks, to remember nothing, to enter a world already changed, than have it transform before your eyes. In the palaces, the grandparents must sit in their extravagant rooms, remembering sand. Nostalgia is an affliction.”

A beautiful book – evoking the pain and suffering of human memory and nostalgia.

“Poor innocent things, he thinks. What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.”

*I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned WriterAhmet Altan

“Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have. The prison, the cell, the walls, the doors, the locks, the problems and the people – everything and everyone placing limits on my life and telling me “you cannot go beyond” is erased and gone.”

The pain of memory, the relief of erasure. A different kind of freedom.

“There is a cure for everything. Except longing.”

Turkish political prisoner and journalist Ahmet Altan writes of being imprisoned and the conditions within the country that enabled his imprisonment. Sometimes with humor, fearlessly, and sometimes sparking emotion — both sadness and anger.

“While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on. “Would you like some tea?” I asked. They said they would not. “It is not a bribe,” I said, imitating my late father, “you can drink some.” Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father. My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, “It is not a bribe, you can drink some.” What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead. Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning. During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.”

*The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

“As with so much else, you experience the world that your brain allows you to experience.” –The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

I have never liked the self-satisfied and judgmental Bill Bryson, and some of his books betray these personality defects more than others. I include The Body here in spite of its writer, as I think the book simplified the human body in an engaging way — exploring anatomy through relatable language and analogies. Some interesting language and analogies, even if not new, included:

  • Color isn’t a fixed reality but a perception
  • “The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet. It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, “It’s a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.””
  • “It will not have escaped your attention that the mouth is a moist and glistening vault.”
  • the antibiotic crisis is already here – it’s not a looming crisis
  • ““You can make a real mess of yourself, but you are very likely to survive. Killing yourself is actually difficult.”
  •  “A meta-analysis showed that for older people the risk of a heart attack was raised for up to three hours after sex, but it was similarly raised for shoveling snow, and sex is more fun than shoveling snow.”
  • “It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.” (We’re seeing this now, aren’t we?)
  • “When I met Washington University’s Michael Kinch in St. Louis, I asked him what he believed was the greatest disease risk to us now. “Flu,” he said without hesitation. “Flu is way more dangerous than people think. For a start, it kills a lot of people already—about thirty to forty thousand every year in the United States—and that’s in a so-called good year. But it also evolves very rapidly, and that’s what makes it especially dangerous.”
  • “Two things can be said with confidence about life expectancy in the world today. One is that it is really helpful to be rich. If you are middle-aged, exceptionally well-off, and from almost any high-income nation, the chances are excellent that you will live into your late eighties. The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here.”
  • Your lifestyle is the most likely thing to kill you, and many of the cultural and socioeconomic inequalities facing society now contribute to this. “IN 2011, AN interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
  • “It is an extraordinary fact that having good and loving relationships physically alters your DNA. Conversely, a 2010 U.S. study found, not having such relationships doubles your risk of dying from any cause.”

Coincidences

*Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

“M. sometimes referred to our shared memory palace, where the two of us had invented our own times of day (he always found a different way to bring up “The Invention of Midnight”). The rooms of this building, he said, which contained replicas of the most unremarkable sights, had turned into treasures.”

“This idea of a palace has stayed with me, even if I believe it is too neatly constructed to shed light on the devious ways of memory. Its innocent sleight of hand is only in the amplification of what is remembered, when the truth has so much more to do with hiding and forgetting.” –Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

In asking ourselves questions about who we are as individuals and in relation to others, and how we are woven into, or fraying at the edges of, the wider tapestry of our familial and social circles, and more broadly into society, we may neglect to look at a lot of factors because they seem far removed from our own daily realities. Depending on who we are, these factors could include socioeconomic class, race, gender, our relationship to faith or religion, geography, and our place in the culture in which we live, even if we feel that we are not included in it. These considerations generate deeper questions that, even if painful, begin to free us to find out who we really are – outside the rules of traditional economics, outside the boundaries of consumer culture, outside of our relationships with others.

While Walking on the Ceiling did not delve into any of these questions, its inclusion in this list comes as a kind of meeting point among the uniting themes of the other works that influenced me this month. We are examining and re-examining the stories we’ve told ourselves as cultures and nations, and there’s a reckoning underway: who has the voice and privilege to define and decide what these stories are? Who will re-contextualize incomplete, one-sided histories? Who creates and enforces collective memory and how? For example, as the nefarious US attorney general, Bill Barr, alarmingly stated not long ago, “History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who is writing the history.” Or, as musician Sam Phillips wrote, “History is written to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our fault…”, which inevitably means that someone is on the other side of that equation taking the blame.

For more than two centuries of US history at least, history has been created (yes, created, because it is an interpretation) by those with the loudest voices, ownership, most to protect/lose – power – and this has in many cases become a kind of brainwashing-induced mythology by which Americans define their identities and their so-called “freedom”. But this history is not every American’s story, not every American’s history. Perhaps this is changing now, as at least large swathes of the population begin to confront the ugliness of history and how it continues to pervade, influence and oppress other large swathes of the population who have been systematically disenfranchised, ignored or abused. Even if memory, which underpins what we call history, is perhaps challenging and deceptive, and susceptible to corruption, it still cannot be erased or debased en masse. There can always be a counterbalance to the dominant retelling of the story. If, as Savaş insists in Walking, “…people lived their whole lives telling stories, and by story he meant something like delusion. Everyone, he said, had a story of themselves. They told it again and again, at every chance they got”, we should always have multiple narratives and voices to help define the story – and history, Bill Barr and his ilk be damned.

As a side note, I highlighted this book in the first place as coincidental because it featured the “memory palace” (method of loci) concept that also came up in tv’s Dispatches from Elsewhere.

Biggest disappointment

*The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

“What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

While I didn’t hate this book, my lack of appreciation probably represents a kind of fatigue after reading too much Ferrante in short succession. It’s not even that this book is bad – perhaps it is more my dislike for the shrill and shallow nature of the main character, who comes completely undone when her husband reveals he has been unfaithful and is leaving her. Over the course of the story more hurtful details emerge about the infidelity, and indeed cause the character near-breakdown-level grief.

I think what was remarkable about the book and its characterization this breakdown – filled with angst, regret, anger, jealousy and the whole gamut of (sometimes contradictory) emotions people feel when a relationship ends – is how well it describes what one must confront in the face of such a rupture. Over the course of a long relationship, one doesn’t see clearly how intertwined their life has become with that of the other. And sometimes, as was the case here – that life is not even combined or co-lived but is lost within and subsumed by the life and desires of the other.

When these realizations hit, it’s powerful, painful and starts an examination of the past, when the only way forward is to think instead of the future. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with having merged two lives together, the loss of identity (which I recently highlighted as a theme from tv’s imaginative and unusual Dispatches from Elsewhere) is crushing, all the more because its erosion is so gradual one doesn’t realize it until reality is shaken. Infidelity, as explored by Esther Perel in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is complex: it violates not only the sense of self and security of the “betrayed” (“being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all“), but can also reflect the fragmentation of the “betrayers” identity (“Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves“). Coming to terms with what was thought to be reality versus what actually was can create deep estrangement from…everyone, including oneself, and create obstacles to moving forward.

I didn’t enjoy this book in a standard way, but appreciate that Ferrante has captured in visceral color what it feels like to go through this.

“No, I thought, squeezing the rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. To immediately redo the grammatical tenses.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

*Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Interesting book – but not as interesting as I had hoped. Some interesting ideas here, for example citing Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that intercontinental inequality has more to do with plants, animals and agriculture than with culture. Culture, meanwhile, doesn’t explain everything.

“Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book’s explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspects of culture often emphasized—religion, national ethics, African or Latin values—are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist. Other aspects, such as the extent to which people trust each other or are able to cooperate, are important but they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause.” –Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Said and read – April 2020

Standard

“What would it be like if a Level 4 virus event occurred and the Ancient Rule arrived in the supercity of New York? It wouldn’t take much to produce the Ancient Rule in New York City. A dry virus with high mortality that infects people through the lungs. No vaccine, no medical treatment for the virus. If you take the subway, if you ride in an elevator, you can be infected, too. If the Ancient Rule came to New York City, we can imagine people lying face down on the street or in Central Park, crowds staring and hanging back. People begging for help, no one willing to help. Police officers wearing full PPE gear. People needing ambulances. No ambulances. Hospitals gone medieval. Medical staff absent, dying, overwhelmed. All hospital beds full. People being turned away on the street from Bellevue Hospital. Medical examiner facilities gone hot as hell and crammed with corpses.” Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come Richard Preston

Image courtesy of S Donaghy

What kinds of things defined April for you? Budgets cut, marriages ended, and we wonder… how many of these things were hastened – how many would have happened at all – if we had been distracted by all the things that normally make up our daily lives? Do we live more authentically in an era when we are forced to have no other distractions? Do we succumb to identity crises because so many of us were defined by the things we did that kept us busy? Is it painful that now, perhaps, we face our unvarnished selves for the first time without the filter of all those intermediary people and acts?

Life slowed down in April, affording me the ability to read an unthinkable amount. And as always, it was richly varied – some exceptional, some disappointing, some timely, some timeless.

We remain in the limbo of not knowing where the COVID-19 virus will take us, “guided” by leadership that, at best, leaves much to be desired. During these April weeks, I have – for some reason – read various books about epidemics, pandemics, epidemiology and a variety of other seemingly unrelated topics, such as economics and politics. Before this pandemic, I had rarely, if ever, heard the name “Anthony Fauci“, in much the same way that you don’t expect to be familiar with the names of public servants who aren’t, for example, presidents, prime ministers or cabinet-level ministers. Yet, suddenly, Fauci was everywhere. In a Larry Kramer documentary, and several books I read about the AIDS crisis, the Ebola crisis… and any book that mentions the NIH/NIAID.

In the end everything is interrelated. The more I read, obviously the more connections I find. So many books from both the near and distant past warn us of impending crises of all kinds. It’s hard to read these and know what to do; helplessness is paralyzing.

Here’s what you missed in previous years: 2020 – March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for April:

Highly recommended

“I don’t remember a time when I felt safe in America, but I remember when I thought it was possible I would be, someday. The nostalgia for what never was is a familiar feeling for those born in the opening salvo in the symphony of American decline.” –Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of AmericaSarah Kendzior

*Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of AmericaSarah Kendzior

“One of the most horrific realizations when your government is hijacked from the inside is that there is no official to whom you can turn—because it is rare to find an official who cannot be turned by a corrupt operator. Living for legacy, living for security, living for money—it makes no difference, they are not living for you. There had been a coup, and we were on our own.”

All I can say about Hiding in Plain Sight is that you must read it.

“What Americans rejected in 2016 was not trust but discernment. A criminal can bury the truth in a conspiracy because no one will believe it except those accustomed to parsing absurdities, who are then mocked as insane.”

To understand more about how we got here (in part because “American exceptionalism—the widespread belief that America is unique among nations and impervious to autocracy—is the delusion that paved Trump’s path to victory”) you must also read Kendzior’s earlier book, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

“The only honest line of Trump’s campaign was that America was broken. Trump would know: he helped break it, and now he and his backers sought to capitalize off the wreckage. Trump did not strike me as stupid, like pundits kept proclaiming, but as a master manipulator who preyed on pain like a vulture.”

While you’re at it, you also need to invest time in the Gaslit Nation podcast, also brought to us by Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. Both Kendzior and Chalupa present their hard-won expertise, analysis and insight, which emerge from their backgrounds in academic and journalistic research. That is, the real kind of research – not the “I looked at the internet and found something to support my beliefs” kind we now blindly accept as we devalue education, expertise in specific disciplines, journalistic integrity, historical accuracy and truth. Kendzior’s area of expertise is in authoritarian states/dictatorships (this is, again, simplifying it), while Chalupa is a writer and journalist.

“I took a picture of an anti-Trump protester holding a sign that said THE BANALITY OF EVIL—a reference to Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who said of life under the Nazi regime: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” The Trump rally was a study in how people capable of compassion can turn cruel in response to the rhetoric of their chosen leader or in retaliation to those who dare oppose him.”

““You were right two years ago, but this isn’t going to be Nixon. This is American authoritarianism, and they are going to tell us ‘That’s not possible’ until nothing else is.””

None of what Kendzior has predicted (repeatedly) will seem unfamiliar to you in hindsight. Much of it may seem unbelievable when reflected upon, but we’ve been on the slippery slope, being primed for this nightmare for a long time.

“In 2002, Ron Suskind, a journalist for The New York Times, interviewed a Bush administration official later identified as adviser Karl Rove. Suskind recalls: [Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.””

“This uncritical embrace of authority for its own sake is similar to the excuses given for the refusal of officials to address the attacks on the 2016 election in depth. (The Russians want us to distrust the integrity of the US election process, the pundit explains, therefore we must never, ever question what the Russians did to the election process!) The trustworthiness of a process or person was to be dictated from above by “history’s actors,” not decreed from below by the empirical observations of the masses. What Rove did in that interview—and what Trump does now—was take the ruse one step further, and admit to manipulation openly, not even giving the public the illusion of an honest broker.”

“This is not boldness: crime ceases to be risky when you know you will get away with it. In the twenty-first century, the corporate loopholes that enable white-collar crime double as nooses around the neck of Western democracy. In the Reagan era, Trump’s Republican backers helped devise the dissolution of corporate regulations. In the Bush era, they chipped away at political checks and balances, with the near elimination of accountability as a result. The Republican party provided the structure for an American autocracy enabled by corporate corruption. But it was television producers who gave the future autocrat his most important script.”

I could go on. Instead, you must read the book.

““In fall 2016, I said to a friend, “I don’t know who has it worse—the people who understand what is going to happen, or the people who don’t.” Her answer was simple: “Neither of them: it’s the kids.” For the past four years, I have been taking my children on road trips around America, in the event of its demise. This compulsion began in September 2016, when I became certain that American authoritarianism loomed. National landmarks that I had long taken for granted seemed newly vulnerable to destruction or desecration. It was important to me that my kids see America with their own eyes, and not through mine. I want my children to have their own memories of the United States, so that if they’re confronted with a false version years from now, they can say, “No, I saw it. We had that. This was real. That America was real.””

*Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century EconomistKate Raworth

“…whenever I hear someone praising the ‘free market’, I beg them to take me there because I’ve never seen it at work in any country that I have visited.”

Doughnut Economics would have been an important book about how to think about and reform economics at any time. In this particular moment, which could be a crossroads, it is a vital contribution to rethinking what economics is and can be.

“‘As markets reach into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms, the notion that markets don’t touch or taint the goods they exchange becomes increasingly implausible,’ warns Sandel. ‘Markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket norms worth caring about.’”

“One thing that is clearly coming to an end is the credibility of general equilibrium economics. Its metaphors and models were devised to mimic Newtonian mechanics, but the pendulum of prices, the market mechanism and the reliable return to rest are simply not suited to understanding the economy’s behaviour. Why not? It’s just the wrong kind of science.”

“From this perspective, the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers and the imminent collapse of the Greenland ice sheet have much in common. All three are reported in the news as sudden events but are actually visible tipping points that result from slowly accumulated pressure in the system—be it the gradual build-up of political protest in Eastern Europe, the build-up of sub-prime mortgages in a bank’s asset portfolio or the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

“This should set the alarm bells ringing: in the early twenty-first century, we have transgressed at least four planetary boundaries, billions of people still face extreme deprivation and the richest 1 percent own half of the world’s financial wealth. These are ideal conditions for driving ourselves towards collapse. If we are to avoid such a fate for our global civilisation, we clearly need a transformation, and it can be summed up like this: Today’s economy is divisive and degenerative by default. Tomorrow’s economy must be distributive and regenerative by design. An economy that is distributive by design is one whose dynamics…”

When I took up the formal study of economics more than 20 years ago, I ran into walls  – walls that have grown taller and thicker over time. Mostly this is because, when I started, I was more willing to accept, as Raworth describes it, economics’ “long-established theories”, rather than the more sensible and just “humanity’s long-term goals”. It did not occur to me until I was, as Raworth also describes, deep in the abyss of trying to understand accepted theory, that there might be another way.

“I was so busy getting to grips with the theory of demand and supply, so determined to get my head around the many definitions of money, that I did not spot the hidden values that had occupied the economic nest. Though claiming to be value-free, conventional economic theory cannot escape the fact that value is embedded at its heart: it is wrapped up with the idea of utility, which is defined as a person’s satisfaction or happiness gained from consuming a particular bundle of goods.”

“It was only when I opted to study what was at the time an obscure topic—the economics of developing countries—that the question of goals popped up. The very first essay question that I was set confronted me head-on: What is the best way of assessing success in development? I was gripped and shocked. Two years into my economic education and the question of purpose had appeared for the first time. Worse, I hadn’t even realised that it had been missing. Twenty-five years later, I wondered if the teaching of economics had moved on by recognising the need to start with a discussion of what it is all for.”

How can future economists reclaim and reframe what economic success and progress look like, and espouse a way of “economic thinking that would enable us to achieve” and meet humanity’s needs and goals? Now more than ever, as unemployment numbers reach record territory, and when “full employment” doesn’t reflect the number of people in more than full-time employment who nevertheless live in poverty, how can we redefine economic prosperity to encompass human well-being instead of by impenetrable and meaningless GDP and stock market figures?

“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible became irrelevant, or political suicide.”

“Donella Meadows—one of the lead authors of the 1972 Limits to Growth report—and she didn’t mince her words. ‘Growth is one of the stupidest purposes ever invented by any culture,’…”.

“response to the constant call for more growth, she argued, we should always ask: ‘growth of what, and why, and for whom, and who pays the cost, and how long can it last, and what’s the cost to the planet, and how much is enough?’

I am oversimplifying this book, and haven’t even mentioned its analysis or prescriptions. I would recommend that you read this if you have an abiding interest in economic justice and how we might reverse the trend of thinking about market norms as norms, placing human and societal needs as less important. In a consumer-oriented society, which is where we live, we aren’t taught to question the primacy of the market and its “health”, but this is akin to brainwashing.

This has been clear for a long time, but it takes extraordinary circumstances, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate how exploitative, fragile and short-sighted the current system is. Whom does it serve? Who really enables it? Raworth writes extensively about the invisible and unpaid “core economy” – the labor of the household, of rearing children, etc. This labor has been removed from the equation. During times of crisis (like now), however, the veil is lifted and its supremacy as the foundation of all that becomes possible in the market is elevated – or at least obvious, even if briefly.

“…And since work in the core economy is unpaid, it is routinely undervalued and exploited, generating lifelong inequalities in social standing, job opportunities, income and power between women and men.”

“By largely ignoring the core economy, mainstream economics has also overlooked just how much the paid economy depends upon it. Without all that cooking, washing, nursing and sweeping, there would be no workers—today or in the future—who were healthy, well-fed and ready for work each morning. As the futurist Alvin Toffler liked to ask at smart gatherings of business executives, ‘How productive would your workforce be if it hadn’t been toilet trained?’”

“Why does it matter that this core economy should be visible in economics? Because the household provision of care is essential for human well-being, and productivity in the paid economy depends directly upon it. It matters because when—in the name of austerity and public sector savings—governments cut budgets for children’s daycare centres, community services, parental leave and youth clubs, the need for care-giving doesn’t disappear: it just gets pushed back into the home.”

*IndigoEllen Bass

Poetry, of course.

*Ledger: PoemsJane Hirshfield

Poetry.

*The CarryingAda Limón

Poetry.

*The Story of a New Name – Elena Ferrante

““You’re back,” I said. “Yes.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “I didn’t want you to see me.” “Others can see you and not me?” “I don’t care about others, I do care about you.” I looked at her uncertainly. What was I not supposed to see?”

The Neapolitan quartet of novels offers an extended and intimate view into the life of a friendship and its lifetime of ups and downs. Whether or not you’re impressed, I’ve found Ferrante’s writing so lifelike that it swarms around me before settling and insisting that I immerse myself in the relationship she describes, which is at once personal and unique while also being universal. I’ve written before about the first of the four books and how exquisitely it probes the twists of girlhood/adolescent friendship. I didn’t find myself as sucked in by the subsequent books in the series, but it’s easy to dismiss the exceptionally good because its genius appears to be so effortless.

“She loved him, she loved him like the girls in the photonovels. For her whole life she would sacrifice to him every quality of her own, and he wouldn’t even be aware of the sacrifice, he would be surrounded by the wealth of feeling, intelligence, imagination that were hers, without knowing what to do with them, he would ruin them. I, I thought, am not capable of loving anyone like that, not even Nino, all I know is how to get along with books.”

Good – or better than expected

*The Witches are Coming Lindy West

“When faced with a choice between an incriminating truth or a flattering lie, America’s ruling class has been choosing the lie for four hundred years. White Americans hunger for plausible deniability and swaddle themselves in it and always have—for the sublime relief of deferred responsibility, the soft violence of willful ignorance, the barbaric fiction of rugged individualism.”

On initial reading, I didn’t find West’s The Witches are Coming particularly compelling. I don’t think I rated it too highly on my Goodreads page (I wouldn’t put too much stock in these kinds of ratings in any case. I count myself fickle on this front; what struck me as readable but not terribly insightful later strikes me as offering a striking voice. It’s a matter of mood that determines how everything is received and assessed).

When I read West’s book, I don’t think I was adequately enraged by the world we live in. I live cocooned in a remote self-(near)-exile in a forest. Rage, and the injustices that lead to justified rage, is hard to come by. But as the handling of coronavirus has unfolded, and incompetent white men bungle it, lie about it, and put power above life – particularly those lives disproportionately affected by the effects of the virus – my anger has risen.

It’s impossible to divorce oneself from the reality of how we got here. West channels much of this into her writing here, whether it is in her being “so fucking sick—FUCKING VIOLENTLY ILL” of watching good people be conned or her takedown of the sick lionization of serial killers by white cisgender men, i.e. ““Straight, white, cisgender men love to file serial killers under some darker subcategory of white male genius. It’s easier to be titillated when fear is an abstraction.” (I hadn’t really thought much about this enduring fascination with/analysis of serial killers, but West is absolutely right.)

This concoction of going back to the book to read West’s words and the circumstances in which we now find ourselves… thanks to our own “bootstrap ethos (itself just a massive grift to empower the snickering rich)” that cause me to reassess. We are in deep shit and blithely rolling around in it like we can’t smell it.

*I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV RevolutionEmily Nussbaum

“Yet there’s a level at which I can’t entirely explain my adoration for television, my sense of it as not subject matter but a cause. There was something alive about the medium to me, organic in a way that other art is not. You enter into it; you get changed with it; it changes with you. I like movies, but I’m not a cinephile; you’ll never catch me ululating about camera technique, for better or worse. I love books, but I have little desire to review them. Television was what did it for me. For two decades, as the medium moved steadily from the cultural margins to its hot center, it was where I wanted to live.”

As a would-be reformed television addict who is also uncooperative with myself and the limits I’ve set for tv viewing, I relate to Emily Nussbaum’s writing. Her defense of television as a dynamic art form makes me wonder why I’ve been so obstinate in my pursuit of severing the relationship (healthy or not) I’ve developed with televisual entertainment.

Unlike Nussbaum, I am not a tv critic – I am not a critic of any kind. As Nussbaum declares, though, television is a medium worth evaluating and criticizing. It can delve into questions and debates about values. It can reflect the values (divided though they might be) of a society, and chronicle their changing face. Consider how quaint the Dan QuayleMurphy Brown kerfuffle about single parenthood and “family values” now feels in some ways, given how the shape of our television-like (so-called because so much of it now is not made for TV specifically) entertainment has expanded to become more inclusive and, as stated, has veered away from the limitations and restrictions of network TV screens into new media. (Which has also pushed at least some of network television to become more creative.)

At the same time, though, have we moved so far away from that ‘moral’ debate, when debates continue to rage about (as a starting point) women’s bodies, access to birth control and abortion? Our entertainment is a mirror, and the reflection we see is changing all the time.

“Back when no one believed they were in a Golden Age, Lear shrugged off the way that his native medium had always been “a convenient whipping boy” for American malaise. It was the networks who thought small, he argued, and who were condescending to their viewers: “I’ve never seen anything I thought was too good for the American people or so far above them that they’d never reach for it if they had the chance.” To Lear, TV was still all potential, particularly an untapped potential for variety—it just needed to “replace imitation with originality as the formula for success.” He envisions cross-medium experiments: “How do they know there wouldn’t be as large an audience for a John Cheever or a Ray Bradbury drama as there is for a Norman Lear or a Mary Tyler Moore show?””

Nussbaum has captured here what I have long tried to articulate when people question my devotion to tv viewing. Criticism of other art forms – poetry, literature, cinema – is accepted, respected and “more difficult”. But Nussbaum argues, television criticism is valid and legitimate – and in her case (and this would be true for me, too), she didn’t feel a strong enough desire or pull to dedicate herself to any other field with the kind of rigor needed to be a serious critic or writer.

Nussbaum offered a lot to dig into, but I’ll highlight here (but may discuss elsewhere later) a couple of things I loved.

First, the Law & Order: SVU character Rafael Barba. So sorely missed. (It was a pleasure to see him turn up in a recent episode of The Good Fight):

“None of the new cast members has quite his magnetism, although the Broadway star Raúl Esparza is a major asset as the dandyish ADA Rafael Barba. “Objection!” Barba announces, when someone accuses Benson of being a man-hater. “Argumentative. And ridiculous.””

Second, The Americans.

The Americans refuses to do what similar cable shows have done, even some of the good ones: offer a narcotic, adventurous fantasy in which we get to imagine being the smartest person in the room, the only one free…”

I am still surprised when I meet people who have (inexcusably) never even heard of this. The few people I’ve convinced to watch it always return to me blown away by it, but it is, as Nussbaum explains, “a must-watch and a hard sell”.

The Americans is a bleak show that ends each episode with heartbreak. It’s also a thrilling, moving, clever show about human intimacy—possibly the best current drama out there (at least of the ones I’ve been able to keep up with). Dread is its specialty and also its curse; it’s what makes The Americans at once a must-watch and a hard sell. This is a surprising conundrum because, judging by a plot summary…”

*Lost Children ArchiveValeria Luiselli

“But surely it was not that day, in that supermarket, that I understood what was happening to us. Beginnings, middles, and ends are only a matter of hindsight. If we are forced to produce a story in retrospect, our narrative wraps itself selectively around the elements that seem relevant, bypassing all the others.”

What makes a relationship – a marriage – solid but malleable enough to withstand change? Luiselli explores the difficulties of marriage – or being generous in a marriage in the long-term – and considers the unforeseen, sometimes invisible, ways that connections erode. That’s how erosion works – you don’t know something is slipping away underneath you until you fall. A foundation is slowly worn away, imperceptibly. When that foundation lacks strength in the first place, e.g., if one of your strongest bonds was a work project that ended, what remains for you as a couple? I suspect this happens in celebrity relationships that are reported in tabloids and fizzle out in mere months. How else to explain?

“The thing about living with someone is that even though you see them every day and can predict all their gestures in a conversation, even when you can read intentions behind their actions and calculate their responses to circumstances fairly accurately, even when you are sure there’s not a single crease in them left unexplored, even then, one day, the other can suddenly become a stranger.”

When the close intensity of working together for a brief time sweeps one away, what remains when the project is over? That will, Luiselli seems to argue, be the test.

“Without a future professional project together, we began to drift apart in other ways. I guess we—or perhaps just I—had made the very common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality and a breaking down of all boundaries, instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardians of each other’s solitude, as Rilke or some other equanimous, philosophical soul had long ago prescribed.”

“I don’t keep a journal. My journals are the things I underline in books. I would never lend a book to anyone after having read it. I underline too much, sometimes entire pages, sometimes with double underline. My husband and I once read this copy of Sontag’s journals together. We had just met. Both of us underlined entire passages of it, enthusiastically, almost feverishly. We read out loud, taking turns, opening the pages as if consulting an oracle, legs naked and intertwined on a twin bed. I suppose that words, timely and arranged in the right order, produce an afterglow. When you read words like that in a book, beautiful words, a powerful but fleeting emotion ensues. And you also know that soon, it’ll all be gone: the concept you just grasped and the emotion it produced. Then comes a need to possess that strange, ephemeral afterglow, and to hold on to that emotion.”

An odd overlap: Luiselli writes about a roadtrip throughout the book, and in Kendzior’s aforementioned book, she chronicles her desperate need to share America’s landscapes with her children before they disappear, to bear witness to the America that once was. It’s haunting, in some ways, how these travelogue accounts both create a sense of impending loss, a disappearing world. For Kendzior, it is as vast as the country she has always known as home. For Luiselli, it is the intimacy of family life.

“More and more, my presence here, on this trip with my family, driving toward a future we most probably won’t share, settling into motel bedrooms for the night, feels ghostly, a life witnessed and not lived. I know I’m here, with them, but also I am not.”

*There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition – Jill Jacobs

April was a month to explore Judaism in greater depth thanks to a reading list I found via the Twitter account of Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. I read an extensive list of the recommended books, and this will continue throughout the year. I mention it now  because I enjoyed the way Rabbi Jacobs presented an interpretation of Jewish law and tradition that does not just make room for social justice and alleviation of poverty – but insists on it.

“Within Judaism, support for the poor is understood as an obligation and as a means of restoring justice to the world, and not as an altruistic or voluntary gesture.”

We are living in a moment in which extraordinary need has become immediately apparent. And how are governments dealing with it, as opposed to how they should?

“The task of the just sovereign, whether human or divine, is to establish a system of government that protects the vulnerable.”

One recurring theme in rabbinic discussions of wealth emphasizes the interdependence between the rich and the poor, and the ease with which wealth can turn into poverty.

How is humanity dealing with it?

The concept of tzedek, according to this understanding, extends beyond the basic legal requirements of the state, and beyond the execution of strict justice. Nor is tzedek a divine attribute, beyond human capacity. Again, tzedek appears as a relational term that describes a contract between God and humanity, or between humans of differing social or political status, to establish a system aimed at liberating the vulnerable from their oppressors.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity Esther Perel

“In a world where it is so easy to feel insignificant—to be laid off, disposable, deleted with a click, unfriended—being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all. It shatters the grand ambition of love.”

I’m looking California and feeling Minnesota“…

I’m an armchair/amateur therapist; people who know me will probably attest to this. They tell me their problems; I listen; we talk through it. I don’t offer “advice”, but we talk through options, feelings, motivations. My approach to relationships, intimacy and human ‘mistakes’ and betrayals, in many ways, mirrors the kinds of things Esther Perel explores in this (and other) works. Yet when I’m talking to the more rigid among my acquaintances who see the world in very clear “right or wrong” binaries, I am charged with the dubious misdemeanor of “being very California”.

“As tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies, I prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. Infidelity brings us face-to-face with the volatile and opposing forces of passion: the lure, the lust, the urgency, the love and its impossibility, the relief, the entrapment, the guilt, the heartbreak, the sinfulness, the surveillance, the madness of suspicion, the murderous urge to get even, the tragic denouement. Be forewarned: Addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces. Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.”

I, like Perel, believe we must be realistic; we must be compassionate; we must listen and communicate. Regardless of what choices we make about a relationship in the wake of infidelity, we are not served, clear, being heard, getting closure (or whatever you want to call the peace or answers we seek), moving forward if we don’t deal with it. This is particularly true given the expectations we place on ourselves and on a relationship (and what we commonly think a relationship ought to give us):

“Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, children, property, and respectability—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends, trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot. The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh-so-exciting, for the long haul, with one person. And the long haul keeps getting longer. Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability—all the anchoring experiences. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. Give me comfort and give me edge. Give me familiarity and give me novelty. Give me continuity and give me surprise. Lovers today seek to bring under one roof desires that have forever had separate dwellings.”

A number of the books I have read this month (and tend to read in general) deal with the idea of novelty, and modern life’s many dissatisfactions. The more convenience, connectivity, seeming choice we have, the less content we seem to be… the more “on the hunt” we are. I’ve noticed this most particularly in the world of online dating sites/apps, where the illusion of endless choice creates the sense that one is shopping from a catalog and can simply return what s/he doesn’t find perfect. There’s always something else, something more, something different, and this sense is pervasive – even among those of us who push against these changing “norms” (can we call them that?):

“In our consumer society, novelty is key. The obsoleteness of objects is programmed in advance so that it ensures our desire to replace them. And the couple is indeed no exception to these trends. We live in a culture that continually lures us with the promise of something better, younger, perkier. Hence we no longer divorce because we’re unhappy; we divorce because we could be happier. We’ve come to see immediate gratification and endless variety as our prerogative. Previous generations were taught that life entails sacrifice.”

*Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect PredatorsRonan Farrow

I looked forward to reading this, even though I knew it would make me unspeakably angry (it did). The lengths to which institutions will go to protect predators and the profits and status quo they represent is detailed here. I’d just say… read it.

And, yeah, Matt Lauer is way, way worse and more disgusting than I had ever imagined. The fucking criminal audacity of these men. I wish it were surprising, unusual, anomalous. But no, people like Lauer are just symptoms of a whole system that props up mediocrity, and lets it get away with anything it wants.

Coincidences

There’s nothing really ‘coincidental’ about having read these books. They share themes – epidemics/pandemics and, tangentially related, forensic ecology. All provided a lot of insight and fed my need to understand better, know more (in a broad/general sense). I know plenty of people who are avoiding all types of information because, under the circumstances, they can’t tolerate more. They will actively seek out the barest minimum, i.e. “Am I allowed to go outside? Must I wear a mask?” They don’t want more information or statistics. Therefore, reading these kinds of books, even though they don’t directly deal with the virus at hand (but do liberally mention Anthony Fauci), would be a definite “no”.

*The Nature of Life and Death: Every Body Leaves a TracePatricia Wiltshire

“To me, corpses have ceased to be people; they are repositories of information where nature has left clues that we might follow.”

“No, there is no life after death—but there is always life in death. When you are alive, your body is a mass of beautifully balanced ecosystems, and so it is in death. Your dead body is a rich and vibrant paradise for microbes, a bounty for scavenging insects, birds, rodents, and other animals, some of which will come to your body to feast upon your mortal remains, and some of which will come, like the tinkers and traders exploiting a “gold rush,” to prey on the scavengers themselves. And this too is of significance for a forensic ecologist—for the way a body is being broken down, the kinds of scavengers that come for it, and at what rate, can itself provide vital pieces to the puzzle of who, what, where, and how.”

*Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicDavid Quammen

“To put the matter in its starkest form: Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly. There are three elements to the situation.”

“This elaborate concatenation of life-forms and sequential strategies is highly adaptive and, so far as mosquitoes and hosts are concerned, difficult to resist. It shows evolution’s power, over great lengths of time, to produce structures, tactics, and transformations of majestic intricacy. Alternatively, anyone who favors Intelligent Design in lieu of evolution might pause to wonder why God devoted so much of His intelligence to designing malarial parasites.”

*Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come Richard Preston

“’This is how all outbreaks end,’ Armand Sprecher, the Doctors’ official in Brussels, said. ‘It’s always a change in behavior. Ebola outbreaks end when people decide they’re going to end.’”

This book was, strangely, a page-turner. It was dramatic, high-stakes, harrowing, sad… I can’t speak to its absolute accuracy, but I assume because it was written by a writer/journalist rather than a scientist, it has more novel-like qualities, keeping the reader invested in the characters and the ballooning scope of the disaster they faced. (And Fauci, of course, appears again.)

As a side note, I was a bit disturbed by how the following was written:

“Ever since she had been in college, Lina Moses had wanted to go up against Ebola in an outbreak. This had been her dream for years. Now it was really going to happen. It was a battle of a kind, a public health battle, and the aim was to save lives.” (weird thing to want to do – have happen).”

I have no doubt that the writer meant that this Lina Moses character wanted to face the toughest possible public health challenge, but the idea that someone would wish for an Ebola outbreak (“this had been her dream for years“!?) seems like it might have needed an editor…

Like most books of this type, it serves as an ominous warning. Written before the latest coronavirus outbreak, it cautions that these kinds of outbreaks can run rampant before we are even aware of their spread. Highly contagious, Ebola acts fast, and its symptoms are obvious and extreme. Much more extreme than the reported early symptoms of COVID-19 (and its transmissibility when carriers are asymptomatic). Preston, as writers in all such books do, shines a light on the lack of preparedness for, as we have learned, virtually all of these public health challenges.

“In other words, if the Makona strain hadn’t been stopped quickly, it would have continued improving its ability to spread in humans. It would have become yet more humanized. The world got lucky this time. If the Makona strain had raced into a poor supercity, it would have gotten into many more thousands of people, and gotten many more chances to evolve and change. For a long time after the Ebola epidemic subsided, nobody really understood just how close the world had come to a much bigger disaster.”

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

There were a number of books in April that I felt might be really interesting, and they all disappointed, or I miscalculated. They weren’t necessarily bad, but I had higher expectations.

*How to Feed a Dictator: Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot Through the Eyes of Their CooksWitold Szabłowski

When will we see a chapter here to cover the eating habits and gustatory proclivities of Donald Trump as an afterword to this oddity?

*Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to FukushimaJames Mahaffey

I think I expected something more gripping; something that conveyed in a more vivid way just what atomic accidents portend. Maybe I have been seduced by how well, for example, the Chernobyl story was told in televisual terms. This book was informative, but not what I was expecting or hoping for.

*Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy WorldCal Newport

“I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.”

As I picked this book up, everyone around me was becoming accustomed to the confines of being in lockdown, working from home – potentially sheltering in place alone – or trapped with the entire family – in what may have started to feel like an increasingly small space for an indefinite (both in terms of length of time and the shape of the future). One of the only connections to the outside world, to friends and family, to shopping, to continued livelihood, were the same digital tools and platforms that Cal Newport urges us to reconsider our relationships with.

Maybe my ongoing hermit-like seclusion (and comfort with this) positions me to observe other people’s behaviors and reactions. Maybe prescriptive books of this nature feel unnecessarily judgmental and smug at a time like this. It’s stark right now: choosing digital minimalism was always about having the luxury to choose or not. It requires having the digital smörgåsbord to pick and choose from in the first place. We see more clearly than ever the digital divide when we are involuntarily disconnected physically. Who has the privilege and power to decide whether their kids will be able to go on doing some form of online learning when schools are closed? Who is welcome in the digital/knowledge economy, able to work from home?

In light of our current environment, this book rubbed me the wrong way.

That said, my questions from the introductory part of this write-up poking into identity and personality do tie to one of the central tenets of this book: what are your values? This book asks whether, and how, technology serves those values?

“Once we view these personal technology processes through the perspective of diminishing returns, we’ll gain the precise vocabulary we need to understand the validity of the second principle of minimalism, which states that optimizing how we use technology is just as important as how we choose what technologies to use in the first place.”

*Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and DreamsMatthew Walker

“Accepting that our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia, what can be done about it?”

I don’t know many people who are good sleepers. Insomnia, interrupted sleep, sleep disorders and constant exhaustion (as well as the repeated complaint, often multiple times a day, “I’m so tired”) plague everyone I know. I’m lucky in that I don’t have any such problems, but I wanted to learn more about sleep and had heard that this book was, for lack of a more dazzling word, “great”.

But the fact is, despite the dizzying amount of research conducted on the subject… stunningly little is truly understood for certain about sleep. Sleep offers all manner of benefits for the body and brain, and lack of it is dire for health, upping risk factors for various diseases and disorders. I came to this book hoping for more certainty as to why these things are the case, only to learn that there are no definitive answers. I don’t think I really believed the book would actually “unlock” anything as its title promises. But I hoped for something beyond the “why” (i.e., sleep is healthy; sleep helps you form and retain memories, etc.). I wanted the why behind the why (why is sleep healthy? Why and how does sleep work to empower or enfeeble memory-making?).

The only thing that really piqued my interest was the discussion on the human’s intentional daily routine of “premature and artificial termination of sleep”:

“Compare the physiological state of the body after being rudely awakened by an alarm to that observed after naturally waking from sleep. Participants artificially wrenched from sleep will suffer a spike in blood pressure and a shock acceleration in heart rate caused by an explosive burst of activity from the fight-or-flight branch of the nervous system. Most of us are unaware of an even greater danger that lurks within the alarm clock: the snooze button. If alarming your heart, quite literally, were not bad enough, using the snooze feature means that you will repeatedly inflict that cardiovascular assault again and again within a short span of time. Step and repeat this at least five days a week, and you begin to understand the multiplicative abuse your heart and nervous system will suffer across a life span.”

*Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion Jia Tolentino

“I’ve been thinking about five intersecting problems: first, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale.”

I found myself underwhelmed by Trick Mirror, and again, I think I found it unsatisfying in part because of what society is experiencing right now. It feels indulgent to examine some of the questions Tolentino and the aforementioned Cal Newport spend time obsessing about. Sure, they did all of this in another time – not that long ago, but it may as well have been years – when segments of the population were concerned about the ways in which online/internet life warps our realities, our identities, creating an artificial and commoditized version of ourselves, a shallow but still multi-sided illusion showing different faces to different groups of people while only data brokers and analytics tools (think they) know who we really are.

“Selfhood buckles under the weight of this commercial importance. In physical spaces, there’s a limited audience and time span for every performance. Online, your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end. (You can essentially be on a job interview in perpetuity.) In real life, the success or failure of each individual performance often plays out in the form of concrete, physical action.”

In that sense, Tolentino’s themes are timely. But most of what she has written here feels like it’s been written before, and better, by other people, so hers is a regurgitative exercise of sorts. I wanted to see something new, but there wasn’t much here lighting my mind on fire.

However, credit where credit is due. Tolentino cites Erving Goffman‘s work on theory of identity:

“a person must put on a sort of performance, create an impression for an audience. The performance might be calculated, as with the man at a job interview who’s practiced every answer; it might be unconscious, as with the man who’s gone on so many interviews that he naturally performs as expected; it might be automatic, as with the man who creates the correct impression primarily because he is an upper-middle-class white man with an MBA. A performer might be fully taken in by his own performance—he might actually believe that his biggest flaw is “perfectionism”—or he might know that his act is a sham. But no matter what, he’s performing. Even if he stops trying to perform, he still has an audience, his actions still create an effect. “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify,” Goffman wrote.”

This might not have hit me as hard as it did had I not also watched a deeply affecting video of Sterling K. Brown, in response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, talking about the masks black men wear every day as they go out into the world and are always performing, always being someone else. While Tolentino’s book and analysis address these identity questions in an almost sterile way, e.g., digital personas that e-commerce retailers create to market more effectively.

But it’s much more powerful to apply Goffman’s “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify”. Without being constantly reminded by a Sterling K. Brown, or the seemingly endless string of tragic, horrifying, senseless, unjustifiable deaths of black people, is anyone thinking actively about the crucial ways in which the world is not a stage – but reality, life, in which living, breathing people cannot leave their homes without feeling like this might be the day that, despite my mask, I don’t get to come home again?

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).