Rushing around these days preparing for an intense next (at least) six months, I feel a sense of premature loss. I know that I will be unable to continue reading as much or at the furious pace I have maintained for the last (almost) two years. This may, in fact, even be the last of these recap posts that I put together for a while because I simply doubt that I will have the time, nor will I have read enough to make these recaps worthwhile. This is not to say that they have been worthwhile in a wider sense (as in, useful to anyone but me). Indulgence at its finest. And now, I shall not have time to indulge in quite this way.
Knowing that this moment of bittersweet “parting” from leisurely, if voracious and greedy, reading was coming to an end, I spent most of August trying to work my way through things I’d begun reading and hadn’t finished, and through the list of books I’d already purchased but hadn’t seen fit to dive into yet. As of August 20, when I started drafting this, I had read 32 books, which is a good bit more ambitious than July’s 23 books. I hope to finish at least 10 more before the month ends (done). I don’t necessarily place stock in keeping a running tally on this, and it is not about quantity, as I keep having to explain to people. It’s just so satisfying to keep devouring such different writings from all over the world. Just this month, to note the diversity, I swung from Novica Tadić‘s spare poetry to Ousmane Sembène‘s Xala, both loved, from the complete Martha Quest/Children of Violence series by Doris Lessing (which I mostly disliked, wanting to kill Quest by the end, but nevertheless persevered) to non-fiction about hormones…
I don’t really know how much or what kinds of things I will find time to read, as I will be up to my eyeballs in formal study. That said, I am still the kind of weirdo who gets distracted looking for one thing – a poem I thought was written by Irving Feldman but was actually written by Michael Ryan that references semen – only to stumble on a good many clinical studies on semen quality, and I was drawn to/nearly obsessed with reading all those studies and their outcomes. And why? Who knows? Why was I so obsessed with teeth last year (and still)?
How difficult will it be to feel as though I am (if temporarily) giving this up?
While I didn’t love White is for Witching, it – like Boy, Snow, Bird (which I loved last month) – delivered unusual characters that kept me in the story and unable to stop until the end. I think that’s what I enjoy about Oyeyemi – characters and character development.
“White is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do.”
It was one of those nights when I found myself revisiting the poetry of Tomaž Šalamun – probably my favorite poet from Slovenia – when I was reminded of Andrej Blatnik. For me, these are the true exports of Slovenia – not a certain “be best” First Lady.
I was charmed by Blatnik’s ability to write a complete short story in often only a few words. Not perfect but quite arresting in its way.
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
Poetry – poetry – poetry. Usually the poetry I read makes it into the “highly recommended” (must not miss) category, but this month I read a lot of solid poetry that is nevertheless nothing I want to revisit and don’t necessarily think anyone else needs to either. But poetry is very personal, if you like it at all, so it’s not really for me to say.
I don’t think I ran into any coincidences this month… at least none worth noting.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
*The entire Children of Violence series – Doris Lessing
It probably isn’t so much disappointment because I had no expectations, but by the time I finished reading Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, I wanted to kill Martha Quest and all the other characters populating these books. Still, I could not quite not finish… I also cannot say what it is about them/this series that I hate so much. Not that there are not flashes of what the Nobel committee must have seen when they gave Lessing her Nobel for lit – although who can trust that institution these days? Some timely and timeless observations:
“He went so far, carried away by the official in him, as to make various sound remarks about the unsuitability of danger for women. She thought he must be joking; nothing is more astonishing to young women than the ease with which men, even intelligent and liberal-minded men, lapse back into that anonymous voice of authority whenever their own personal authority is threatened, saying things of a banality and a pomposity infinitely removed from their own level of thinking.” – from A Proper Marriage
Like last month, I didn’t get as far this month as I’d have hoped. I was rushing to finish two school assignments to close out the term (and launch into the final thesis), which of course meant I was reading a lot of stuff about development/relief work while trying to come up with a plausible topic for a thesis. But there was some good reading during May, and here is the random collection of thoughts on that. In fact this really does not qualify as “thoughts” – it’s more of a list without any reflection (beyond what I did in my head).
Ah, the late Hans Rosling gave us one last gift – this book that is so sorely needed in these times of factlessness. Some hope – the world is actually getting better. It’s just very hard to see. But the numbers, as much as they can be manipulated, do tell us a nicer story.
Sarah Kendzior has been one of the most “factful” and insightful voices of reason since the early days of Trump’s rise. For people who have no understand of middle America and how the Trump phenomenon came to be, Kendzior’s collection of essays puts it all into perspective
When I started reading this one, I had no idea what to expect; it was a random library choice. It took a while to grow on me but I came to enjoy it a lot.
Without any connection to formal religion, I do feel bound to try for “the selfless practice of love, of good, of service” (as cited below). I am struck by those who claim to be “most religious” who have nothing but hatred and violence in their hearts, and have to dehumanize other groups of people to such a degree to be able to feel that way.
“For God,” she preached from her porch, “religions are nothing, signify nothing. Because positive religions are generally nothing more than words—words without feeling. Religions are practices that focus on the surface of things, that affect only the senses, but that fail to touch the soul, and fail to come from the soul. For that reason, these words and practices fail to reach our Father. What our Father wants from us is our emotions, our feelings. He demands pure love, and that love, that sentiment, is found only in the selfless practice of love, of good, of service.”
Somewhat connected to my studies, I enjoyed reading about the way disasters and subsequent aid efforts are reported, what gets attention and what doesn’t and how mystifyingly complex it is.
“The configuration of aid, media pressure, NGOs and government policy today is still directly affected, and in some ways distorted, by what was—as this narrative reveals—also an inaccurate and misleading story. In popular memory the reporting of Ethiopia and the humanitarian intervention were a triumph of journalism and altruism. Yet alternative interpretations give a radically different picture: that the reporting was misleading and the resulting aid effort did more harm than good. This book explains the event within the wider context of international news broadcasting, especially by the BBC, and looks at the way it has influenced the reporting of humanitarian disasters in subsequent years.”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
This book made me sick – in that good way where you feel moved (whether in a positive or negative way). I was moved by that creepy, crawly disgust that comes over you when you’re sitting in a huge room full of brainwashed people. And you think, “My god, am I the only one who thinks we’re being indoctrinated into a cult?”
“There’s this new neediness—it pervades everything.”
“So many people who don’t want to be found but who will be. So many people who wanted no part of all this. That’s what’s new. There used to be the option of opting out. But now that’s over. Completion is the end. We’re closing the circle around everyone—it’s a totalitarian nightmare.”
This was a difficult book to get through. Some of it was very engaging; some was difficult, but in the right frame of mind, it’s incredible. Perception and context, of course.
“Nevertheless, the larger point that may be extrapolated from Plassmann’s experiment and countless others, which often remains unsaid, is instructive: There is no pure sensation of anything, not in feeling pain, not in tasting wine, and not in looking at art. All of our perceptions are contextually coded, and that contextual coding does not remain outside us in the environment but becomes a psycho-physiological reality within us, which is why a famous name attached to a painting literally makes it look better.”
“A dual economy exists when there are two separate economic sectors within one country, divided by different levels of development, technology, and patterns of demand. This definition reflects the use of the Lewis model in the field of economic development, and I adapt it in this book to describe current conditions in the United States, the richest large country in the world. This is less paradoxical than it sounds because the political policies that grow out of our dual economy have made the United States appear more and more like a developing country.”
For the entire week before reading Eleanor, SD was overdosing on semi-recent episode of Law & Order: SVU because he wanted to watch one of his man-crushes (Raúl Esparza) in action. He was especially interested in finding out whether Esparza’s sartorially smart ADA Barba wore his vest (waistcoat in UK English parlance) properly, i.e. with the bottom button left unbuttoned). He was delighted to discover that the “sexy bastard” did indeed don his waistcoat exactly as prescribed.
One wouldn’t think that this kind of detail would surface again in the same week. But as it happens, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was offered up to me after spending months on the library waiting list. I didn’t really have expectations and didn’t know what the book was about. It’s not exactly my normal reading fare, and I don’t have my finger on the beating pulse of contemporary popular fiction. I, in fact, knew nothing at all about it (except maybe that Reese Witherspoon had scooped up the film rights, which, yeah… tells me nothing about the book. Or maybe it does).
I started reading and almost immediately, the titular character echoes exactly the same things SD and I were just talking about:
“But last night, I’d found the love of my life. When I saw him walk onstage, I just knew. He was wearing a very stylish hat, but that wasn’t what drew me in. No—I’m not that shallow. He was wearing a three-piece suit, with the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened. A true gentleman leaves the bottom button unfastened, Mummy always said—it was one of the signs to look out for, signifying as it did a sophisticate, an elegant man of the appropriate class and social standing. His handsome face, his voice . . . here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as ‘husband material.’”
Indeed, a few pages later, one woman character called another “hen“, and I realized, to my surprise, that this book is Glaswegian through and through. SD is a Glaswegian (and I’m an ‘honorary’ one), and almost no one else (other than Scots in certain parts of Scotland) refers to women as “hen”.
SD and I stumbled across so many of these random coincidences – talking animatedly about some (often obscure) detail only to have it pop up again and again in the ensuing days. (Strangely, we had only the day before I read this discussed how Smirnoff vodka is not top-shelf stuff, and yet SD encountered a lot of customers when he worked in bars who turned their noses up at much nicer vodkas for some reason. And what happens in Eleanor? “I had only intended to purchase two bottles of Glen’s, but the promotional offer on Smirnoff was remarkable. Oh, Mr. Tesco, I simply cannot resist your marvelous bargains.“ And that’s ultimately why I mention this book… the strange coincidences that overlap my own conversations and experiences. (The book, too, acknowledges the delight of such serendipities):
“I shook my head, and was about to discard the newspaper when a small advertisement caught my eye. The Cuttings, it said, with a logo of a bullet train hurtling along a track. I noticed it because the answer to twelve across in yesterday’s crossword had been Shinkansen. Such small coincidences can pepper a life with interest.“
But did I like the book? I love that its canvas is Glasgow without being painfully obvious like many books that make a show of being set in a specific place, going over the top with ‘local’ details, as though it’s necessary to prove the writer was there. I’m thinking here of Douglas Coupland‘s overreach for authenticity, for example, in Microserfs; some people find the level of detail engaging; locals reading his books will nod in agreement with the accuracy, but he always goes a little too far, right over the thin line of what is clever, coming across as artificial. In Coupland’s case, as in most cases, I find it smug. I feel a need for something more subtle – like Honeyman’s use of Glasgow).
The book, though… I have mixed feelings on the book itself and on how the character of Eleanor Oliphant comes across and develops. It’s not bad at all; perhaps it is just not quite my style. I can buy into the lack of self-awareness or lack of worldliness in which Eleanor has cocooned herself. But after spending more than half the book creating this well-meaning, but not pleasant and mostly deluded (or at best uninformed) character, I don’t quite understand how, seemingly suddenly about three-quarters of the way through the story, this awkward woman who plowed through the world following her own routines, saying everything that came into her mind and judging everyone harshly with little or no self-reflection, is questioning, self-aware, confronted by a moment of clarity about herself and her delusions.
I am not saying this is not possible, nor am I saying that there is not character development leading to this (Eleanor starts to change, slowly, seeing that the world is bigger and offers more possibilities than she had allowed herself to imagine. She becomes more social and starts to live, all the way through). But the suddenness of her being slapped in the face by reality does not feel earned or quite realistic. We might have gotten there at some point. But how does she go from blind and deluded certainty about something outlandish to instantly waking up to one’s complete disconnect from reality? Is the suddenness intentional? I don’t know.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
Happily (!) I didn’t hate anything enough to include something in the ‘disappointment’ category.