Like a twentieth-century dream of Europe—all
horrors, and pastries—some part of me, for all time
stands in a short skirt in a hospital cafeteria line, with a tray, while
in another glittering tower named
for the world’s richest man
my mother, who is dying, never dies.
with one wing
in Purgatory, flying in circles.)
I wake up decades later, having dreamt I was crying.
My alarm clock seconds away
from its own alarm.
I wake up to its silence
at the same hour. The daughter
of the owner of the laundromat
has washed my sheets in tears
and the soldiers marching across some flowery field in France
bear their own soft pottery in their arms—heart, lung, abdomen.
And the orderlies and the nurses and their clattering
carts roll on and on. In a tower. In a cloud. In a cafeteria line.
See, cold spy for time, who needs you now?
O Elegant Giant
These difficult matters of grace and scale:
The way music, our savior, is the marriage of math and antisocial behavior.
Like this woman with a bucket in the morning gathering gorgeous oxymora on the shore…
And my wildly troubled love for you, which labored gently in the garden all through June, then tore the flowers up with its fists in July.
Which set a place for you next to mine—the fork beside the spoon beside the knife (the linen napkin, and the centerpiece: a blue beheaded blossom floating
in a bowl)—and even the red weight of my best efforts poured into your glass as a dark wine before I tossed the table onto its side.
Just another perfect night. Beyond destruction, and utterly unlikely, how someone might have managed, blindly, to stumble on such a love in the middle of her life.
O elegant giant.
While, outside, the woods are silent.
And, overhead, not a single intelligent star in the sky.
one-twelfth of our lives is wasted
standing in a line.
The sacred path of that.
Ahead of me, a man in black, his broad back.
Behind me, a woman like me
unwinding her white veils.
And beyond us all, the ticket-taker, or the old
lady with our change, or
the officials with our food, our stamps, our unsigned papers, our
gas masks, our inoculations.
It hasn’t happened yet.
It hasn’t begun or ended.
It hasn’t granted us its bliss
or exploded in our faces.
The baby watches the ceiling from its cradle.
The cat stares at the crack in the foundation.
The grandfather flies the sick child’s kite higher
and higher. I set
my husband’s silverware on the table.
I place a napkin beside
my son’s plate.
but not tonight.
Ahead of us, that man’s black back.
Behind us, her white veils.
Ahead of us, the nakedness, the gate.
Behind us, the serene errand-boy, the cigarette, the wink-and-nod, the waiting.
Beyond that, too late.
Your Last Day
So we found ourselves in an ancient place, the very
air around us bound by chains. There was
stagnant water in which lightning
was reflected, like desperation
in a dying eye. Like science. Like
a dull rock plummeting through space, tossing
off flowers and veils, like a bride. And
also the subway.
Speed under ground.
And the way each body in the room appeared to be
a jar of wasps and flies that day — but
frightened children’s laughter.
Memory of Grief
I remember a four-legged animal strolling through a fire. Poverty in
a prom dress. A girl in a bed trying to tune the AM radio to the voices
of the dead. A temple constructed out of cobwebs into which the
responsibilities of my daily life were swept. Driving through a Stop
sign waving to the woman on the corner, who looked on, horrified.
But I remember, too, the way,
loving everyone equally because each of us would die,
I walked among the crowds of them, wearing
And how, when it was over, I found myself
with a small plastic basket on my arm, just
another impatient immortal
sighing and fidgeting in an unmoving line.
Our rooster’s name is Ivan.
He rules the world.
He stands on a bucket to assist
the sun in its path
through the sky. He
will not be attending
the funeral, for God
has said to Ivan, You
will never be sick
or senile. I’ll
kill you with lightning
or let you drown. Or
I’ll simply send
an eagle down
to fetch you when you’re done.
So Ivan stands on a bucket
and looks around:
cornflakes in their bowls.
The statues of their fascists.
The insane division of their cells.
of their bibles.Their
homely combs— and,
today, absurdly, their
crisp black clothes.
But Ivan keeps his thoughts
to himself, and crows.
Spontaneous Human Combustion: “Girl, Kissing, Bursts into Flame”
It happened to me. I was there. Out
past the factory, where
whole pleasure could be pried
open with an impulse and a wrench. The strange
cowboy of him, chains
and leather and mascara.
I was a keychain, some patchy fog.
The noise of the neural system seemed
to be coming from the stars.
Oh, the wren brought those kisses down from heaven.
A screech owl brought them up from hell.
O earth, wind, water, this
is a simile not satisfied by fire —
Still, if he’d doused me in kerosene that night
I could not have burned better or brighter.
“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.” –The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma – Bessel A. van der Kolk
Image by S Donaghy
Right up until the 20th of July time seemed to fly. Then, inexplicably, it slowed. There’s no accounting for this shift. Is it that so many other people are on holiday? Is it that the passage of time is an illusion subject to how preoccupied (or not) we are? This slowdown at least afforded me the opportunity to reflect a bit earlier than I have in previous months on the month’s reading. I thought this would make for a more timely book report, but it hasn’t. It’s already almost mid-August. I’ve failed to write about July reading or even read much so far in August.
Previous book reports: 2020 – June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for July:
“One of the most debilitating phenomena of Scottish society is the false notion that to get on you have to get out. English hegemony is so all pervasive in our society that a sign of success and sophistication among some is to attempt to erase signs of Scottishness from their public persona. The implications of such an attitude for Scottish culture are drastic, not to mention wrong-headed. The linguistic tension is often not resolved at one particular time and can be an ongoing choice throughout one’s life.”
By far my favorite book this month. I love this kind of thing. It’s all about the Scots language, its status, its diversity and it use, and how it is essential to the linguistic, national and cultural history of Scotland. Historical and linguistic hostility at its persistent use and existence continues — but the language itself has become a subject of vivid study and much-needed focus.
“If using your first language is classed as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at the teacher, there is little ground for fruitful dialogue. Educationalists often refer to the ‘inarticulate Scot’ as if it were a hereditary disease, instead of the effect of shackling people to one language when they are much more articulate in another. The omnipotent standard of having one correct way of speaking colours our society’s attitude and results in false value judgements about people. These value judgements are made in every sector of society, not just in education.“
“Politics, in support or suppression, are central to the fate of languages. Yet political support at a given time is not in itself enough to guarantee a language’s survival if the historical process which has eroded it has been unrelenting over centuries and has pushed the language to a geographical and psychological periphery in the nation’s consciousness. That is certainly the case with Irish and until recently was certainly the case with Gaelic. The principal reason why Welsh is in a much stronger position than Scottish Gaelic today is that the Welsh had not posed a political threat to the British state for hundreds of years, while Gaelic was the language of the Jacobite forces which almost overthrew the state in the rebellions of the eighteenth century.”
If you’re interested in the way propaganda, linguistic subjugation, politics and other factors convince people their language is wrong, is dying and is not important, this is a great, and entertaining, study.
Being an honorary Glaswegian who thinks of Edinburgh a bit as “England number two”, the passages about Glaswegian gave me particular joy.
“The huge Edinburgh middle class tends to speak Standard English or Scottish Standard English. Scots is there too; a friend who was born and bred in the Southside speaks good Scots, so much so that people presume she is not a native of the city. Edinburgh is so dominated by the values of the middle classes, that working-class culture and speech had very low prestige even among the working class. This has changed in recent years due to the phenomenal success of Irvine Welsh’s brilliant novel Trainspotting and the movie that emerged from it. The Edinburgh dialect now had street cred, but that is something the weejies of the west have always had in abundance. West Central Scots Whereas in Edinburgh the working class are defined by the predominant middle-class culture, in Glasgow the opposite prevails and the professional classes have some of the street wisdom and gallusness of the predominant working-class ethos of the city. The result of this is that almost everyone from Glasgow is recognisably Scottish in speech. In Edinburgh, it is sometimes difficult to tell if someone is Scottish or English by their accent; in Glasgow, that confusion rarely exists. The middle classes may not like the Glasgow dialect but they are influenced by it. Years ago, when I lived in South Carolina, I often heard elderly white gentlemen apologise for the fact that their speech had been influenced by their close associations with the blacks. The inhabitants of Glasgow’s leafy suburbs are in a similar relationship with the speech of the masses. Glaswegian has enormous internal prestige.”
“The ultimate test of a dialect’s worth is its ability to communicate, and there are few more extrovert communicators than Glaswegians.”
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
A fascinating exploration of how trauma visits and expresses itself in a person’s physiology and psychology and can change “the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive”.
Trauma appears to never disappear and the traumatic event (or events) live on, triggered for decades after (and epigenetics indicates that trauma lives on in the genes)… but a complete understanding of this, while continually emerging, is incomplete.
“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”
“Plenty of us are fighting for structural changes, but a firmer solution has more to do with correcting human behaviour in general. No one learns how to be mean at twenty-five. No one actually becomes a hardline racist in their thirties. These are beliefs and behaviours we inherit from our bloodlines, from the people who raised us, and the internet is just another way to put those beliefs to work. The troubling part is not that there are people online who feel comfortable—vindicated and strong—in calling me a cum-bucket. What scares me is that those people go out into the world, holding these convictions secretly or otherwise, and exist around me physically. I see them at the bank and they go to my dentist and I might end up working with them. What they say to me online is the purest distillation of the rage they feel—statements that would get them fired or arrested in real life but get them a moderate fan base or begrudging attention online.“
I didn’t expect this collection of essays to be as engaging as it turned out to be.
I happened to read this book first while sitting in a grocery store parking lot waiting for it to open and then while binge-watching the tv show Shrill. This reading was timely — so much of what the book addresses was being elevated in the popular media — from race and privileged spaces (as Koul writes about all kinds of groups: “All of us struggle towards whiteness”) to chemical skin whitening products in South Asia (“Fair & Lovely is a popular brand of skin-whitener in South Asia, marketed with crummy little ads where a girl gets the guy after she slathers these chemicals on her face and turns into some ghost-like version of her former self. You can buy it for your face or your body, creams to remove “facial discolouration or brown spots,” or to lighten all the skin you have, one big body-wide brown spot.”), from the deceptive idea of Canada as a multicultural haven (“The white majority doesn’t like being reminded that the cultural landscape is still flawed, still broken, and while my entry into something like Canadian media, for instance, hasn’t been an easy ride, it has been made more palatable for other people because I am passable. I’m not white, no, but I’m just close enough that I could be, and just far enough that you know I’m not. I can check off a diversity box for you and I don’t make you nervous—at least not on the surface. I’m the whole package!”) to immigration (“So much of immigration is about loss. First you lose bodies: people who die, people whose deaths you missed. Then you lose history: no one speaks the language anymore, and successive generations grow more and more westernized. Then you lose memory: throughout this trip, I tried to place people, where I had met them, how I knew them. I can’t remember anything anymore.”).
The Shrill parallels come up when Koul writes about the identities we forge online. This opens us up to all manner of abuse, which is something Lindy West, the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, has written about extensively both in Shrill and the more recent The Witches Are Coming, which discusses the MeToo movement in great detail. It’s all on display, illustrated in the tv adaptation of Shrill, in which the lead character, Annie, experiences monumental levels of (violent/threatening) online trolling. Treading similar ground, Koul writes:
“I sometimes try to understand how people formed their identities in eras before the internet existed. What did teenagers do to carve out a sense of self in the world? So often, the people screaming at me online seem to derive their selfhood from being internet aggressors, and the more time I spend on any given online platform, the more my identity is marked by defending myself.”
“We love to talk about the web as if it’s a limitless resource, like the only barriers we put on it are what the government will allow, what money will buy, what manpower can create. But all things built by humans descend into the same pitfalls: loathing, vitriol, malicious intent. All the things we build in order to communicate, to connect, to find people like us so we feel less alone, and to find people not like us at all so we learn how to adapt, end up turning against us. Avoiding human nature at its most pure and even at its worst is pointless. No one deserves your attention, but no one has earned your withdrawal.”
Every message we receive — both online and in real life (as women, but particularly for women of color) is that we are not good enough, in one way or another, and something about us needs to change. We are objects, and that is why the rape culture, which Koul writes about with both clarity and rage, is pervasive. Once women have been objectified, they are easier to surveil and monitor and take advantage of. Rape culture likes to blame women for being in the wrong place, wrong time, wearing the wrong thing, and drinking the wrong amount. It blames the victim (we all know this). Koul points out something that society as a whole doesn’t talk about even if all women know it:
“Surveillance feeds into rape culture more than drinking ever could. It’s the part of male entitlement that makes them believe they’re owed something if they pay enough attention to you, monitor how you’re behaving to see if you seem loose and friendly enough to accommodate a conversation with a man you’ve never met. He’s not a rapist. No, he’s just offering to buy you a beer, and a shot, and a beer, and another beer, he just wants you to have a really good time. He wants you to lose the language of being able to consent. He’s drunk too, but of course, you’re not watching him like he’s watching you.”
It is not an accident. It has all been carefully planned.
“And yet, being surveilled with the intention of assault or rape is practically mundane, it happens so often. It’s such an ingrained part of the female experience that it doesn’t register as unusual. The danger of it, then, is in its routine, in how normalized it is for a woman to feel monitored, so much so that she might not know she’s in trouble until that invisible line is crossed from “typical patriarchy” to “you should run.””
“The mistake we make is in thinking rape isn’t premeditated, that it happens by accident somehow, that you’re drunk and you run into a girl who’s also drunk and half-asleep on a bench and you sidle up to her and things get out of hand and before you know it, you’re being accused of something you’d never do. But men who rape are men who watch for the signs of who they believe they can rape. Rape culture isn’t a natural occurrence; it thrives thanks to the dedicated attention given to women in order to take away their security. Rapists exist on a spectrum, and maybe this attentive version is the most dangerous type: women are so used to being watched that we don’t notice when someone’s watching us for the worst reason imaginable. They have a plan long before we even get to the bar to order our first drink.”
“Every morning the gazelle wakes up knowing that it has to run more swiftly than the lion or it will be killed. Every morning the lion awakens knowing that it has to run faster than the gazelle or it will die of hunger. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle: When the Sun rises, you’d better start running. —AFRICAN PROVERB”
I can’t really tell what it is about Mia Couto’s work that I find so compelling. Something about Couto’s writing style generally draws me in.
“Genito Mpepe was a tracker—he knew all the invisible signs of the savanna. He had often told me: Only humans recognize silence. For all the other creatures, the world is never silent and even the grass growing and the petals opening make a huge noise. In the bush, the animals live by listening. That’s what my father envied at that moment: He wished he were an animal. And far from human beings, to be able to return to his lair and fall asleep without pity or guilt. I know you’re there!”
In Confession, a small (fictional) village in Mozambique, Kulumani, is gripped with fear by a sudden spate of lion attacks on the village women. A hunter is employed to kill the lion, with a writer accompanying the hunter to chronicle the ‘adventure’. But there are other forces at work, and like much of Couto’s writing, lines between the literal and figurative are blurred. Women characters talk of themselves as though they are already dead — or are animals living within human bodies, while the language used to describe how events unfold hint at the possibility that there have been no lions at all attacking women, and perhaps something more mundane, but more horrible, such as men killing women, is happening. No definitive answers appear, but answers aren’t important. It’s more the setting of the scene and realizing what years of civil war and violence have done to the people and the place that make up this work.
Black women are at the core of – and key to – American history. This book explains how. Also included in my “Confront head-on our white racist BS” reading list.
“The skin around his eyes tightened. He shook his head. “Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from their heaven, it is this.””
The story of a boy who, almost by chance, manages to escape slavery on a Barbados sugar plantation. I am not sure what I expected when I started reading this, but it was so much more than I imagined. It was engrossing.
“Death was a door. I think that is what she wished me to understand. She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free. That was the idea that had come to her with the man in white, like a thread of poison poured into a well.”
“I remembered something the Professor had said: “The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. Of course, lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem.”
“The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.”
A young housekeeper is assigned by her agency to clean and care for a mathematician who, due to a brain injury, loses short-term memory every 80 minutes (if I recall correctly). Each day when the housekeeper turns up for work, the whole introduction begins again. At some point she begins to bring her son along to work with her because the professor has insisted, and there develops an unusual kinship among the three. There isn’t necessarily a deep plot here, but it was still engaging.
“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.”
*Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir – Frank McCourt
I didn’t expect to be including Angela’s Ashes among the things I found best during July. By the time I got around to reading it, it had, of course, already hit best-seller lists and been adapted into a film (which I’ve never seen).
It’s one of those things I wouldn’t normally read, but for some reason I did. It’s an easy read in the sense that one can tear through it quickly because it’s that readable; on the other hand, the subject matter is difficult in that it describes abject poverty and people trying to live in the midst of that. What makes it readable and compelling is the fact that McCourt has told it from the perspective of a child. Despite the fact that this is a brutal account of growing up in extreme poverty in Ireland – and misery pervades — it’s in some ways so innocent, such as when the narrator recounts everything from having mustard for the first time (and uses “sangwidge” to write “sandwich”, which is one of those things I’ve always found cute among Glaswegians as well), to, more broadly, the matter-of-fact way of reporting daily realities and speech.
“There are Thursdays when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy? and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God, yes, one, and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the call comes.”
I remember many years ago having a very brief conversation with a Dutch guy, and when I told him a bit about myself and my youth growing up around Seattle, I happened to say a few words about the proliferation of serial killers from the area (both Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway – the Green River Killer come from there). The guy I was talking to flipped out and decided I was “sick” for talking about such things so casually and for knowing so much about serial killers in the first place. It struck me as a strange overreaction, but I didn’t really know anyone else who had an academic interest in serial killers. But this was the dawn of the internet true crime genre — before Michelle McNamara and others like her took to the internet to write about and discuss these cases and mysteries ad nauseam. Through McNamara’s work, I think a lot of people realized that they were not alone.
“The truth, of course, was much weirder: I was foregoing a fancy Hollywood party to return not to my sleeping infant but my laptop, to excavate through the night in search of information about a man I’d never met, who’d murdered people I didn’t know.
Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy’s BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s back.
To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.
The first one, faceless and never caught, marked me at fourteen, and I’ve been turning my back on good times in search of answers ever since.”
That said, I’ve never been that passionate about the subject. I have a passing interest in true crime – and my knowledge of and interest in Bundy and Ridgway were “local interest” stories more than any fascination with rapists and killers. It’s similar to my passing interest in the bizarre story of the Enumclaw animal-sex case in which a bunch of men were having sex with horses until one of the men died. The story is horrible, and I am not interested in the details — it’s just that that was a local stomping ground, so it was of interest when it was an anonymous blurb in the local paper as much as when it became a national story and eventually a documentary called Zoo. I read the stories; I saw the documentary. But I won’t be visiting or starting any online communities dedicated to that or serial murderers.
With all of that background out of the way, though, let’s just take a moment to revel in Michelle McNamara’s glorious voice. Voice is one of the most challenging things to tackle in writing – but she had a distinctive, powerful, clear voice that was recognizably hers. In the parts of the book that she had painstakingly written, the strength of her inimitable voice shone through. Her blog had always showcased this, but writing a book is different. So much more scrutiny, deadlines, expectation. I imagine that some of this pressure and perfectionism is what led to her overuse of the drugs that eventually took her life. And that perfectionism is what made everyone around her miss all the signs that something was wrong. I didn’t know her, but both her writing — and the accompanying documentary about the book and her life — make it clear that she was meticulous. You would only see what she wanted you to see, and if she was even aware of how dependent she had become on various pharmaceuticals, she would have downplayed it (as her husband Patton Oswalt described in the docu).
All poetry. All necessary.
Good – or better than expected
“Clothes are like houses, objects we cover ourselves with and often dwell in so as to create an impression for others and not just for the comfort they provide. My different lives are represented by the different clothes I have worn, as by the homes located in different parts of the city where I have lived. To this day I have my writerly clothes and my lawyerly ones, some from when I started my career thirty-seven years ago – shirts, belts, trousers and jackets.”
A journey through Ramallah in the West Bank – emotional but almost journalistic. I happened to read this at the same time as I watched several Israeli TV shows that inevitably depict aspects of the occupation… and how it is a central function, or determinant, of Palestinian life.
“My jar is now whole again. You can see the individual pieces when light shines through the holes which I failed to fill, but you can appreciate the effort of rebuilding the whole after the disastrous breaking. Perhaps one day this will be the fate of Palestine too. It will become whole again, far more appreciated after going through wars and massacres before being reconstructed kintsugi-style.”
“How extensive has been Israel’s success. This woman who now lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank is working in the department that exercises so much power over us and determines which Palestinian can or cannot live in the city of their birth with their spouse. Not only have we failed to end the occupation, but every year it seems to be ever more entrenched. Almost daily now we hear of killings of young men who attempt to stab Israelis.”
Unusual, brief book delivering a slice of life look at young life in Greenland. Perhaps it’s not perfect – drags on a bit in places, and the stream of consciousness style and point-of-view changes don’t always lend a lot to the story, but it’s a debut novel that shows promise and gives us a glimpse into something we never hear about – life in Greenland.
I will read almost anything I find about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent war and forming of new states. This is a memoir both of the breakup of the country and disintegration of a family told through the eyes of one girl experiencing what became a familiar story as Yugoslavia split and violence ensued. The story itself was very personal but could at times be frustrating.
“‘No one bid the British to come here,’ my mother’s father said. ‘They came because they are covetous and cannot help wanting to fill the world with their presence.’”
A boy grows up in a changing Zanzibar and doesn’t, as a child, understand why his father has abandoned the family or why his mother makes seemingly selfish decisions. He is sent to live with his shady uncle in London, and his life completely changes. He doesn’t get the answers he seeks until much later in life… too late to completely make amends.
“Everything is complicated and questions simplify what is only comprehensible through intimacy and experience. Nor are people’s lives free from blame and guilt and wrong-doing, and what might be intended as simple curiosity may feel like a demand for a confession. You don’t know what you might release by asking a stupid question. It was best to leave people to their silences.”
*Several books by Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua, e.g. Let It Be Morning and Dancing Arabs
I read several books by Sayed Kashua, and in reading about him stumbled on this lovely but heartbreaking letter exchange between Israeli author Etgar Keret and Kashua after Kashua left for a sabbatical in the US.
“You are old when you learn it’s May by noticing that daffodils erupt outside your window. You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed. You are old when the post office delivers your letters into a chair in your living room and picks up your letters going out. You are old when you write letters.”
The best parts of this book were excerpted liberally upon publication and around Hall’s death. But there were nevertheless a few important thoughts that still gave this book something extra. Perhaps it is just that one feels Hall’s observations naturally, inevitably, as one ages: the speed of time but the slowing down of so many of life’s things (and the value of that slowness), the coming of old age, the growing delight of solitude that is interrupted only by those moments when another’s presence brings momentary relief…
“I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.”
“When I was sixteen I read ten books a week: E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Henry James, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck. I thought I progressed in literature by reading faster and faster—but reading more is reading less. I learned to slow down.”
“An athlete goes professional at twenty. At thirty he is slower but more canny. At forty he leaves behind the identity that he was born to and that sustained him. He diminishes into fifty, sixty, seventy. Anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
*A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life – Ayelet Waldman
I have read many books by Waldman – some I’ve liked more than others, but overall there is such a needy quality to her, particularly when she writes autobiographically — like this book. Her insistence on writing about her near-obsession with her husband seems…troubling. This book chronicles day by day her experience with a total of 30 days of microdosing with LSD to see if it would help her moodiness and near-debilitating depression. It seems like it helped, and there are interesting passages in the book about the discovery and possibilities of LSD for clinical use. But the book overall was hard to get through, mostly because of this aforementioned neediness and intense… reliance on one’s spouse for a sense of self-worth (while also seeming to — probably due to depression — behave… badly toward that spouse. I get it — sort of. But I guess it just doesn’t make good reading for me. But it probably is great for someone — as I said, there is a lot of good information here. Just hard to sort it out from the rest.
“I am a person without childhood. Instead of childhood, I had war.”
Children will witness war and suffer just as adults do – prematurely losing the innocence associated with childhood. Alexievich’s ability to bring a variety of people’s recollections and stories to life is remarkable and makes even difficult subject matter easy to read and feel.
“What do I have left from the war? I don’t understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. Strangers saved us. But what kind of strangers are they? All people are one’s own. I live with that feeling, though I’m often disappointed. Peacetime life is different…”
Told from POV of children and adolescents as they realized war was happening, what that meant to them. It’s heartbreaking (as most of Alexievich’s books are).
Davis’s take on the women’s movement and how it has been slowed by the lack of acknowledging intersectional concerns.
“This bears repeating: Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through their social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance. This must have been a terrifying revelation for the slaveowners, for it seems that they were trying to break this chain of equality through the especially brutal repression they reserved for the women. Again, it is important to remember that the punishment inflicted on women exceeded in intensity the punishment suffered by their men, for women were not only whipped and mutilated, they were also raped.”
*Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II – Douglas A. Blackmon
“Beginning in the late 1860s, and accelerating after the return of white political control in 1877, every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life.”
Since the end of slavery, we’ve lived in an era of “neo-slavery” — the creation of a new form of enslavement that is enshrined in the legal system, corporate greed, suppression of black citizenship and participation. Very clear manipulation of the system to engineer continued oppression of an entire group of people and a consistent supply of free labor on which capitalism relies.
“A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man—even a black child—was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged. Millions of blacks lived in that shadow—as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system’s caprice. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War.”
“History, an ornate lady who does not die easily, dresses again and again in new costumes, but keeps telling the same story. History as Dracula, History as the Vampire, the vampiric fate of history, History the Bloodsucker, that great mistress of humanity.”
I think if I had been in another frame of mind when I read this, it would have been one of my favorites of the month. But I read it at the wrong time, and it struck me as dense and fascinating… and worth a second read.
“Conversations about the past are like little confessions, like unburdenings, after which the soul returns to the present on angel wings, fluttery and luminous.”
In Trieste, Drndić grapples with history — examining 20th century events almost like a historian while weaving in storytelling about victims and villains. And sometimes how history is elastic — it is eroded enough that it’s not fully erased. We might be able to trace it and find surprising things hidden in the faded past.
“Haya learns of Tom Stoppard, too. She hears that Stoppard was born Tomás Straussler in the town of Zlin, Moravia, where Bata sets up his famous shoe factory. She learns that until 1999 Tom Stoppard has no clue he is Jewish; then (by chance) he finds out that he is. Tomás’ father Eugene Straussler works at the factory hospital as a physician. Immediately after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, in 1939, Mr Bata decides to save his employees, including the physicians, by sending them off to the branch offices he owns all over the world. The Straussler family relocate to Singapore, but before the Japanese occupation, Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage) leaves with her two sons and goes first to Australia, then to India, while Eugene Straussler boards a ship full of refugees somewhat later. The Japanese shell his ship and with it sinks Eugene. In India, Marta Straussler meets a British officer by the name of Stoppard who asks her to marry him. He gives her boys his last name and together they return to his homeland, England, where they live happily ever after, as if their earlier life had never happened, as if there had never been a family, a war, camps, another language, memories, not even a little Czech love. In 1996 Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage, Stoppard by marriage) dies, and at that moment Tomás, no longer a boy, born Straussler, re-born Stoppard, starts digging through his past now that he is tired of writing plays or now that his inspiration has dried up—who knows?—and time unfolds before him. In the Czech Republic Tomás learns that his grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, cousins, all of them disappeared as if they had never lived, which, as far as he is concerned…”
I think more than I should about the invisible things we do that have incredible environmental footprints. One thing is the constant use of the internet – especially now that we are streaming all of our entertainment. This requires a shocking amount of energy — but it’s not as conspicuous or easy to calculate as the carbon debt we run up when we drive a car or take a flight somewhere. No, much of the physical infrastructure of the internet and what makes it run is hidden from site and euphemistically called “the cloud”. But the infrastructure — and all its energy-thirsty demands still exist. And we’re adding to that consumption every day.
“…the physical things we interact with every day and lots of our daily activities don’t exist in a vacuum—they’re much more connected to each other, to global climate change, and to each one of us than we think. The story of climate change—and all of our stuff—is actually a story about everything: science, health, injustice, inequality, national and international politics, the natural world, business, normal life. Climate change affects everyone constantly, but, until very recently, we usually only talked about it for a few days when some natural disaster happened or a particularly scary report by government scientists came out—if then—before we moved on to something else.”
Schlossberg takes on the less obvious energy and resource guzzlers in this book, looking in some depth at everything from ICT costs to the staggering costs of the fashion industry, among others.
Any book on a superbug or virus… I tend to grab and read them all. I’ve been thinking a lot about antibiotic resistance for years, although this important and ongoing crisis tends to be forgotten and overshadowed when we find ourselves in times of more urgent crises, e.g. coronavirus. But, as McCarthy points out: More than 20,000 people die in the United States each year because of an antibiotic-resistant infection. And there are not enough new antibiotics in the pipeline to keep up with the growing ineffectiveness of the antibiotics we do have. Most tellingly – and this will surprise no one in our capitalist societies – antibiotics are expensive to develop, don’t have a long life (because we wear them out to the point of resistance) and are not money makers. Even with active antibiotic stewardship programs, where infectious disease experts make determinations about antibiotic prescriptions, there aren’t enough antibiotics now or in the offing.
A few crossover points with current events and other reading… McCarthy’s discussion on the shortage of infectious disease specialists makes us appreciate Dr Anthony Fauci even more (he is, of course, mentioned in this book):
“Infectious diseases specialists have become a dying breed in some parts of the country, cast aside by modern medicine. Most doctors are now compensated based on the types (and cost) of procedures they perform, and infectious diseases doctors don’t really perform procedures. Ours is a cognitive specialty, providing expert consultation, and reimbursement schemes haven’t figured out how to keep up with the tremendous demands of the work. The field is experiencing a brain drain, and every year, it gets a bit worse. Specialists still flock to big cities on the coasts, but the middle of the country has been hit hard by the changing economics of medicine. Young doctors are less interested in infectious diseases than their predecessors were, and this presents a problem: once lysin is approved, there need to be specialists who know how to use it.”
Also, McCarthy writes:
“Pharmaceutical research and development has the highest failure rate for new products of any industry, which raises important questions: How far should we go to incentivize the production of new drugs?”
This ties in with another book I read this month:
*Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions — Richard F. Harris
Not only are there limited private funds for certain kinds of pharma research (no one wants to fund research for drugs that won’t turn a handsome and relatively quick profit), but public taxpayer funded research isn’t easy to come by.
“Taxpayers fund medical research – but what good is it, how effective is that spending – if most of the science produced – or how results are interpreted – turns out to be skewed to support the goals of the researchers rather than finding actual answers?”
“The ecosystem in which academic scientists work has created conditions that actually set them up for failure. There’s a constant scramble for research dollars. Promotions and tenure depend on their making splashy discoveries. There are big rewards for being first, even if the work ultimately fails the test of time. And there are few penalties for getting it wrong.”
Similarly, despite peer review, there does not seem to be adequate oversight or rigor (hence the book’s title) required to make research results reliable — and replicable. Replicability of results is a major crisis across the disciplines — as the book highlights, one study with faulty (but “positive”) results can often go undetected when other scientists begin citing those research findings even without testing for themselves to see if they can reproduce the same results or find the same significance.
“There she saw one big problem with cancer research: scientists were not approaching many studies with enough rigor. Each scientist had his or her own way of working, but those were not standardized or often repeatable. That’s the culture of biomedical science today—researchers are individual entrepreneurs, each attacking a small piece of the problem with gusto. Barker says that unfortunately the quality of the work is all over the map—and there’s typically no way to tell which studies you can believe and which you can’t, especially when scientists try to add together results from different laboratories, each of which has used its own methods.”
And this is…well, again, it’s in the title: sloppy at best, and a waste of tens of millions of research dollars at worst.
“Begley said one of the studies he couldn’t reproduce has been cited more than 2,000 times by other researchers, who have been building on or at least referring to it, without actually validating the underlying result.”
Harris lays out the stark choice scientists are often forced to make: reporting rigorous results openly to advance medical science OR do what’s best for their career, which may require secrecy, fudging of results (or willfully deceiving oneself about the results or how to report them). And, as Harris reports, the time to make this choice is now:
“Arturo Casadevall at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shares that sense of alarm. “Humanity is about to go through a couple of really rough centuries. There is no way around this,” he said, looking out on a future with a burgeoning population stressed for food, water, and other basic resources. Over the previous few centuries, we have managed a steadily improving trajectory, despite astounding population growth. “The scientific revolution has allowed humanity to avoid a Malthusian crisis over and over again,” he said. To get through the next couple of centuries, “we need to have a scientific enterprise that is working as best as it can. And I fundamentally think that it isn’t.””
“And so, with the obvious benefits that come from social understanding, you and I and nearly every other human being on the planet have become so well practiced at reading the minds of others that our sixth sense operates almost invisibly. As philosopher extraordinaire Jerry Fodor has written, “Commonsense psychology works so well, it disappears.” Only at the rare times when it is stretched beyond its limits, or is proven to be profoundly mistaken, does its existence come back into view.”
I kind of expected this book to be a surface-level, self-help, best-seller type thing, so I didn’t think I’d invest a lot of effort into reading it. It turned out to be a little bit like what I expected but it dives into much more. First and foremost – addressing the overconfidence people have about their ability to read and understand others (particularly those they are closest to).
“Getting to know someone, even over a lifetime of marriage, creates an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.”
And at the root of this is understanding oneself — Epley writes that the disconnect between what people think about themselves and how they actually behave is one of the most common things found about perceptions of self when studied by psychologists. One of the most prominent studies, though largely seen as unethical by today’s standards, is the Milgram experiments. I’ve written about this SO MANY times before because it comes up in virtually every psychology textbook, course and discussion, whether it’s on experimental design and ethics, about obedience to authority or about the sense of self. It is cited in all kinds of pop culture, including tv shows like Law & Order SVU. You can’t escape Milgram.
And in Epley’s book it is a good illustration of exactly how misaligned our own ideas about ourselves are with what we actually do. In the Milgram experiment, most participants would likely have classified themselves as nice/good people who would never cause intentional harm to anyone else. But the experiment pushed the limits of what people were willing to do if they were being given instructions by someone who appeared to be in a position of authority. More than 60% of participants in Milgram’s study willingly pushed a button that they were told would shock a person in another room (even to the point of death) because they were “just following orders”. We are seeing things play out similarly in society right now — people who love to claim that they would have resisted Nazi terror are at best silent now and at worst buying into patently fascist and dictatorial moves in US politics.
Epley shows time and again, in different ways, that we are not who we say or think we are. One way we all do this is through “the planning fallacy”. Most of us underestimate how long it will take to get things done. Do we really just not know how long tasks take or are other factors at play? We all struggle with this at times, but some people are much more likely to fall prey than others (to my frustration).
“What’s surprising is how easily introspection makes us feel like we know what’s going on in our own heads, even when we don’t. We simply have little awareness that we’re spinning a story rather than reporting the facts.”
Fascinating book that simplifies some of the constructive work the brain is always — and almost effortlessly — doing. And how the effortlessness of that work can fool us until thinking we know a great deal more than we actually know.
*They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers – Roméo Dallaire
I did not “enjoy” this book – in fact it’s very disturbing. But we need to remind ourselves, or in some cases learn for the first time, about the atrocities of the world, of recent history. I know plenty of people who blindly ignore these kinds of things because they don’t want to see the darkness of the world – the true darkness. But how can we prevent further such atrocities if we don’t come to terms with their existence and how horrific they actually are? Recently I had a number of long discussions about ethnic cleansing and civil wars that almost no one seems to remember (Sierra Leone, Rwanda, etc.). The 25-year anniversary of Srebrenica recently passed, and I cannot count the number of people I mentioned it to who claimed never to have heard of it. These are brutal, gruesome events in recent history, but for some, these are relics of a long-distant past… and for others, things that never registered for them in the first place. I find the indifference and ignorance… more than painful.
Biggest disappointment (or disliked)
I could barely get through this. I don’t know why it’s so widely lauded. I could be missing something. I might have read it at the wrong time and not given it enough time to land. But every time I sat down to read, I wanted to give up. And that doesn’t usually happen to me.
You’d have to be totally uninformed to find this book informative. Then again I am constantly surprised by how mysterious people find their own bodies, so how could a partner find another’s body any less so? The book does at least acknowledge that much of this ignorance comes from the misinformation and a lack of education that exist around female bodies, sex and orgasms … both formally and in the media and cultural realm. But I am not sure it delivered on the promise of the title. Does it really explain why its author believes “orgasm equality” matters?
“I’ve often found it curious that when a woman is suffering, her competence is questioned, but when a man is suffering, he’s humanized. It’s a gender stereotype that hurts both men and women, though it lends itself to the question of why there is a proclivity in health care, and in society, to deny female pain.”
I was keen to read this book because the title promised something. There are a lot of voices in the media and even in medicine speaking up about the imbalance between how men and women are treated by the medical system. This ranges from how clinical trials are run to how drug dosing recommendations are made. Because men are always seen as the default, everything comes back to them. On an individual level, there are countless stories of women whose pain is discounted, disbelieved and dismissed. In this story, the writer keeps fighting back. As you discover as you read, she has very little choice but to keep advocating for herself, despite how her life otherwise falls apart.
“…she glanced down at my notepad where I’d scribbled something about the patriarchy of medicine. She pointed to it and just gave me a simple, but bold and resounding, “Yes.” “I think perhaps my biggest take as a woman is that I have so many people come to me who are willing to tolerate so much, or they have tolerated so much,” Dr. Marin began in our discussion of female pain. “Either because no one was willing to listen to them, or just because they thought it was normal, or that was the price of being a woman—that they don’t have to tolerate.””
“The problem with a woman’s “blood” was really not the problem at all: vaginas were the problem. To extrapolate, women’s sexuality was the problem. Women having agency of their bodies was the problem.”
Still, even with all this background, and the timeliness of the theme, I thought this book would be a lot more interesting. Of course I don’t want to criticize the author. I believe in her pain and the ordeal she went through to get diagnosed, to get treatment, to live without pain, and most of all, to be believed. The book probably needed excruciating detail of everything she went through to show how far women have to go to find relief. But I guess I’m hypersensitive to people’s illnesses and propensity to never stop talking about them, which should lead me away from reading books like this. But here we are.