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. I 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.)

Random gum: Halloween 2017

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The Good Goo of Random Gum – Halloween 2017
The Last Toast to the World & Cosmos

So, even though we are a full month out from Halloween, I have been extraordinarily organized and have finished putting together my Halloween CD mix for this year quite early. The mailings have begun going out in the post.

And, as I have written in the note that accompanies the CD, the time has come at last – this will be the last of my random gum CD mixes. At least of the physical, postal-mail variety. As technology has rendered the CD a useless would-be Frisbee, I am looking for another solution for sharing music (other than Spotify playlists at least). I may still send cards/greetings by post because I’m still old-fashioned like that. But continuing this effort is fruitless. It has been a roller coaster of randomness these 13 years that I’ve been making and sending these mixes. And to reflect an end as random as this gum has always been, I’ve chosen fittingly strange and random music.

Although I have not expressed these sentiments in the letter I included with the CD, I do feel like I am shedding a skin – or some kind of layer(s) – again – as though I am preparing for something else. I don’t know what it is. But I have largely left behind my TV addiction, my baking addiction, and now this (and most of my postal letter writing in general). I don’t know why these things no longer interest me the way they used to, except to say that my disconnection from feeling and indeed, often, from actually living, has dissipated. The end of the embargo against living, I suppose, means that new things and new people occupy my time and, more importantly, my heart.

Until I do find a better and personal sharing solution, you can follow me on Spotify and also find the full track listings and descriptions on my blog. Normally I seek out and post the YouTube video of these tracks, but instead… here is the list.

01 Aliza Gabbai – “Mimigdal Shalom”
Israeli pop from the 1960s. Too cute
02 Rola Saad – “Min Bein Alkoul”
Because Lebanon
03 DIANA – “What You Get” …Echo comes back to your lonely room/Said my head, my heart, I can’t take it anymore…
Stuck so much in 2017 on the concept of place – real, imagined; in the world or in the mind
04 Savoy Motel – “Souvenir Shop Rock”
Nashville is for dancing
05 Tindersticks – “My Sister” …Here I am, this is me/I am yours and everything about me,/everything you see,/If only you look hard enough/I never could…
Had this spun up but was unsure til I talked to a Norwegian in the mountains who was listening to Tindersticks. “Our life was a pillow fight…”
06 Trio Esperança – “Filme Triste”
Yummy 50s-60s Brazilian pop. Can you see where we’re going here?
07 Dean & Britta – “Night Nurse” …I am the night nurse, I am the most/I am the visitor, you are the host…
08 Blouse – “1000 Years” …I move the furniture around/And trick you into lying down…
“I would never hurt you/Or disappear/I’ll love you for a thousand years”
09 Jillian & the Giants – “Mr Airplane” …I don’t even mind…
Up in the air. “Here we go again, sure was nice for a little while/That rosy pink glow/turns red hot when you go/Too high into the other side”
10 Aquaserge – “Virage sud”
Vive la France
11 Connie Kim – “Lý Luận Tình Yêu”
Vietnam. The 70s. What more can one say?
12 Snail Mail – “Thinning” …I don’t think there’s anything wrong…
13 The Horrors – “Sea Within a Sea” …So you might say/The path we share is one of danger/And of fear/Until the end…
For J, the sea within my sea – a sea of constant gentle waves interrupted with the occasional giant waves
14 Lindstrøm – “I Feel Space”
For me, it’s Norway meets Chicago
15 Melike Demirağ – “Hasret”
Türkiye!
16 Meshell Ndegeocello, Sinéad O’Connor – “Don’t Take All Night”
For the love of all that is good in the world
17 Weyes Blood – “Names of Stars”
Places like beauty, simplicity and the cosmos
18 U.N.P.O.C. – “Beautiful to Me” …From time to time I think I must be going blind…
The dear, green place that is Glasgow
19 Evinha – “Vou Seguindo”
Year 2000! Goin’ to Rio! (Naomi)… and our ears take us back to some other time (SD: “I’ll get a job some other time!”)
20 Palace Winter – “Soft Machine”
Not frequent that I get to include Denmark (especially with a dose of Australia). “Acting so obscene/Well by all means/Now that you and I are free/And I’m off my knees”
21 Kristin Hersh – “Nerve Endings” …We’re idiotic optimistics/Rubbing salt into my wrists/Till I feel almost nothing…
So far from soft-eject beige
22 Damien Jurado – “QACHINA”
Seattle. “I lost my mind, so I stepped out for a time/Went for a walk on a long road to unwind”
23 Khruangbin – “Ma Be Ham Nemiresim”
Texas, if you can believe it
24 Destroyer – “Hey, Snow White” …When the company goes public, you’ve got to learn to love what you own…
Oh, Canada…
25 Solar Bears – “Cosmic Runner”
Ireland
26 First Hate – “The One” …You treated me so carelessly/You kept imagining the one…
Copenhagen… another Danish set… so much like the 80s
27 Lea Porcelain – “Out Is In”
My sort of cities (Berlin/London)
28 Moon Duo – “Cold Fear”
Portland
29 Monomono – “Tire Loma Da Nigbehin”
Nigeria… and memories of Billy, Travis and me in happening Årjäng
30 Luna – “Chinatown”
Winter 2017
31 Suburban Lawns – “Flavor Crystals”
Sounds sort of fresh but is almost as old as I am; everything old is new again
32 The Breeders – “Fortunately Gone” …I wait for you in heaven/On this perfect string of love…
It’s so good those days are gone. The past, too, is a place. Both distant and near
33 Richard & Linda Thompson – “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”
34 Mary Timony – “Return to Pirates”
Lost in the particular Mary Timony sound. “I cannot love you more/Said the doctor to the whore/I wanna be in the garden of love/Led by a lamb and a little white dove/I know you can/But I don’t think I can/Swim in your river/And sleep on your sand”
35 Miss Universum – “Fertilize” …I need a man, I need him quick/I need his sperm, I need his dick/I do not need to be seduced/I just need to be reproduced…
When I first heard this, I didn’t really expect it to be Swedish.
36 Hand Habits – “All the While”
“Bring me to the deepest pit/You can push me right off the edge/And when I show up in your dreams/You got away with it”
37 Eefje de Visser – “Ongeveer”
Dutched up. Almost convinced Dutch could be pretty…
38 Mark Eitzel – “The Last Ten Years” …Spent the last ten years/Trying to waste half an hour…
39 Aimee Mann – “Labrador”
“Daisy, you/shouldn’t do the things you do/but you’re just so incapable of changing/you lie so well/I could never even tell/what were facts in your artful rearranging”
40 Joel Alme – “The Way We Used to Beg”
Göteborg. “You were a cold hard stone/But how does it feel to be alone”
41 Teleman – “Glory Hallelujah” …However do you haunt me…
42 San Mei – “Until You Feel Good”
Thank you to Travis
43 Mallu Magalhães – “Culpa do Amor”
Gone back to Brazil, yet again
44 Mazzy Star – “Blue Flower”
Kitchen singalongs and traumatic high-school-era memories
45 Wooden Shjips – “Everybody Knows” …The longing for home/We’re only alone…
46 Aamina Camaari – “Rag waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo”
Bet you couldn’t have guessed I’d take us to Somalia?
47 Blonde Redhead – “Where Your Mind Wants to Go” …If it’s not me or you, then why?…
48 Jane Weaver – “The Architect”
Be the architect of your spaces and places
49 The Bombay Royale – “I Love You Love You”
Melbourne
50 Yma Sumac – “Karibe Taki”
51 Feist – “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” …I was so disappointed I didn’t know what to do…
52 Young Marble Giants – “Brand – New – Life”
Cymru am byth
53 Eerie Wanda – “I Am Over Here” …And I found you and we make/Sweetest memories/Now I’m here and you are overseas…
We are the world: Dutch band, Dutch-Croatian singer
54 Hater – “Cry Later”
Malmö
55 Richard Hawley – “Tonight the Streets are Ours”
56 Tennis – “Night Vision”
Can’t listen to Tennis without thinking of Esteban
57 Guided by Voices – “Game of Pricks”
“Prick with fork” – love to my mom and to Naomi
58 The Novacs – “Found”
Airdrie! (The Scottish one, not the weird, middle-of-nowhere Airdrie in the Edmonton-Calgary, Alberta corridor)
59 Haifa Wehbe – “Albi Habb”
もう少し Lebanon
60 The Kills – “Monkey 23”
61 Big Thief – “Shark Smile” …she said woo/baby take me…
“She held us, gunning out 90 miles down the road of a dead end dream
she looked over with her part smile, caught up in the twinkle it could take awhile”
62 Linda McCartney – “I Got Up”
Getting up is also a place, a real place
63 Haley Bonar – “Kismet Kill”
“I was impossible when I was beautiful and now/Cartoon deaths just don’t seem so funny”
64 Blouse – “Trust Me”
Famous last words: “Trust me, I’m the one who loves you”
65 Globelamp – “Washington Moon” …I want a California sun/And a Washington moon…
66 Jessica Pratt – “Bushel Hyde” …Words mean more that they did before/In that other place…
67 Robyn Hitchcock – “Sayonara Judge”
October in Oslo
68 Linda Perhacs – “Chimacum Rain”
Lichen. Lichen. Lichen. Oh, dear T’Pow
69 Amália Rodrigues – “Abril”
I love Amália Rodrigues and was surprised to see that that particular tune was one of the least-ever listened to on Spotify. I decided to remedy that all on my own
70 Life Without Buildings – “Sorrow” …Difficult people slip away…
Glesga Glesga Glesga (Glasgow for those not in-the-know)
71 J&L Defer – “Hard Fiction Road”
For SD: Refer to theme song of Canadian children’s show “The Littlest Hobo” at this time. How’s that for random? Even though this is a band from Winterthur, Switzerland, y’know?
72 Wand – “Melted Rope”
“Desire, I barely thinking/In the dark/And life, life is what you wanted/It’s what you are”
73 Koncz Zsuzsa – “Keresem a szót”
Hungarian. And had to choose… for the name Zsuzsa. Just for Martina.
74 She-Devils – “I Wanna Touch You” …can you read my mind?…
Montréal
75 Kikagaku Moyo (幾何学模様)- “Kogarashi”
Tokyo
76 The Limiñanas feat Peter Hook – “Garden of Love”
To France and beyond
77 Yasmine Hamdan – “Samar – Oriental Skeee Remix”
No escape from Lebanon
78 Cold Beat – “62 Moons” …It’s cold but I don’t mind/I’m accustomed to ice…
The Bay Area…
79 Kerem Güney – “Sicak Bir Sevda”
Istanbul grooves
80 Alvvays – “In Undertow” …You made a mistake you’d like to erase and I understand
“What’s left for you and me?”…
On, on Toronto – pulled in and pulled under
81 The Magnetic Fields – “Strange Powers”
Song is so New York, so Las Vegas, so outer space
82 Cults – “Go Outside” …I think I want to live my life and you’re just in my way…
83 ShitKid – “Sugar Town”
Sweden remakes
84 Santo & Johnny – “Pineapple Princess”
Aloha from this arctic hula doll
85 Sam Cohen – “Kepler 62”
“Strange neighbors as you know/They come and go/They live in a world without you”
86 Imarhan – “Assossamagh”
Algeria/Tuareg
87 Whyte Horses – “The Snowfalls”
Manchester
88 Rana Alagöz – “Vah Bacim Vah Mehmedim”
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks…
89 EL VY – “Paul is Alive” …Nobody stays above/Out in the waves of love…
90 Carla dal Forno – “What You Gonna Do Now?”
Aussie. Transcends
91 Sanisah Huri – “Joget Malam Berinai”
Singapore/Malaysia. I said I’d show you the world, baby. I just didn’t say it’d be through your ears
92 Monument Valley – “Dear John Letters”
93 Lea Porcelain – “The Love”
94 Grizzly Bear – “Mourning Sound” …Let love age/And watch it burn out and die…
“I stare at the face/Looking through my eyes/I move at a pace/That I cannot survive”
95 Marjan – “Kee Seda Kard Mano”
Iran
96 Heavens to Betsy – “Axemen”
Like being in a high school gym pep rally (as in the song) or first miserable year of uni
97 Mia Doi Todd – “Pancho and Lefty”
A pretty version of best-songwriter-ever (and now-near-ubiquitous) Townes van Zandt tune
98 Pridjevi – “Ako Je”
Hrvatska
99 Widowspeak – “When I Tried” …I was more alive when I tried…
100 The Proper Ornaments – “Cremated (Blown Away)”
London. “I would like to be cremated and blown away…”
101 Věra Příkazská, Plzeňský lidový soubor, Lidová chodská, Zdenek Blaha – “Ó radost má”
Czech check. Love to Martina, Anne
102 Cigarettes after Sex – “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby”
“Whispered something in your ear/It was a perverted thing to say/But I said it anyway/Made you smile and look away”. Lovely but also sounds like it belongs in an 80s John Hughes romance
103 Adia Victoria – “Mortimer’s Blues” …Heaven help me how it hurts…
Back to Nashville
104 Patti Smith – “My Madrigal” …You pledged me your heart/Till death do us part…
“We waltzed beneath motionless skies/All heaven’s glory turned in your eyes”

Image by S Donaghy 2017

Cleansed of the past – 2006 in soundtrack form

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