Said and read – December 2019

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I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location.WarlightMichael Ondaatje

December ends, and my reading has not been rapid or fruitful. I had some time off, and halfway tried to catch up on things… but it was halfhearted. I found myself sleeping for 16-hour stretches. There were scholastic readings and a stronger pull to do other things.

I’ve read a grand total of 210 books in 2019 (not sure the final tally is accurate; I’m relying on notoriously buggy Goodreads to keep count). Maybe by the time the day ends this will be 211 – one of my goals this year was to translate a book, and I am nearly done translating a book from Norwegian to English, which would be book 211. But, for one thing, I don’t think I will finish today, and secondly, I don’t think “reading” and “translating” are the same thing. This is only about half of what I’ve read in the last two or three years, which feels a bit like a letdown. But I try to remind myself that it’s not about volume, and life was otherwise so full of activity that reading was an enjoyable, if necessary, third or fourth priority.

Here’s what you missed in the last nearly two years: 2019 – November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for December:

Highly recommended

Remember that. Your own story is just one, and perhaps not the important one. The self is not the principal thing.” –WarlightMichael Ondaatje

*WarlightMichael Ondaatje

I did not have high expectations for this book but found it immediately engrossing. Ondaatje is kind of hit or miss for me, but I don’t know why.  I find it hard to describe my thoughts on fiction – I just know what I like. Providing plot points and describing characters defeats the purpose, so I will simply say that I enjoyed this.

*The TraditionJericho Brown

Poetry, brief and aware.

Good – or better than expected

*The Winds of WarHerman Wouk

A few months ago, thanks to the minor, but altogether modern, not-quite-imbroglio of opening the wrong book within an e-reader, I read quite a bit of The Winds of War. I grew increasingly confused as I ‘tapped’ the pages, thinking I was reading a book about faith and its role in social good for university. I’d read some commentary about the university book claiming that the writer was “not great with women”, which is probably why I kept reading longer than I should have, wondering why the writer would be commenting in the impersonal third person on how attractive someone’s wife was. I persevered, thinking there might appear some ‘moral lesson’. Finally when the prose steered itself into discussing military life, I realized that maybe – just maybe – I had (re)opened the wrong book. Lo and behold….

At first The Winds of War left me cold – not least because I really didn’t like the way its female characters were depicted and didn’t relish having spent 15 minutes during a deadline-heavy day reading its nonsense when I should have been reading something else. Nevertheless, I finally returned to Winds and found it better than I expected. Did I love it – would I recommend it? No. But I don’t feel like I wasted my time.

Oddly the book felt in places newly timely, particularly on its discussion of the history of anti-Semitism. Anti-semitism is not new, and ‘tolerance’ — especially observing what is happening in the world right now — shallow.

“He stroked his beard and spoke deliberately, the classroom note strong. “Well! Your surprise doesn’t surprise me. Young people—young Americans especially—aren’t aware that the tolerance for Jews in Europe is only fifty to a hundred years old and that it’s never gone deep. It didn’t touch Poland, where I was born. Even in the West—what about the Dreyfus case? No, no. In that respect Hitler represents only a return to normalcy for Europe, after the brief glow of liberalism. The hostility simply moved from the Church to the anti-Semitic parties, because the French Revolution changed Europe from a religious to a political continent. If Hitler does win out, the Jews will fall back to the second-class status they always had under the kings and the popes. Well, we survived seventeen centuries of that. We have a lot of wisdom and doctrine for coping with it.” –The Winds of WarHerman Wouk

Oddly I didn’t remember how or why I started reading this, but in writing this stumbled on Wouk’s obit from earlier this year. I guess I didn’t consciously realize he only died this year at 103 years old. Surely that prompted me to add this to my reading list (as well as its sequel, War and Remembrance, and Marjorie Morningstar).

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The New Jim CrowMichelle Alexander

The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.

Nothing in this book comes as a surprise, but put together in one place, how can anyone deny that the criminal justice system is, for all intents and purposes, an extension of centuries of oppression? I can’t read books like this without getting angry, sad and feeling helpless. But such reading – and then trying to act on what is read – is absolutely essential.

EDIT

*How Late It Was, How LateJames Kelman

I forgot to mention this one when I originally wrote this post. I finished it at the last minute and refer to it now only because it’s written in profane, stream-of-consciousness Glaswegian. A strange story but quite alive in the sense that you can, if you’re familiar with Glaswegians, hear someone actually rambling along in this way. It was a controversial choice as a Booker Prize winner some years ago, and I understand why. But I think it’s deserving for the way it captures a character using this unique language. Not that I am an authority on what or who is deserving or not.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s FuturePete Buttigieg

Okay, so I went into this expecting not to like it, and I was not wrong.

When Pete Buttigieg appeared on the world stage a few months back, with a slow but relentless trickle of stories drip-drip-dripping like a leaky faucet about how he’d taught himself Norwegian just to read more books by Erlend Loe and appeared suddenly and quietly at a hospital to act as an interpreter, had volunteered to join the military when he didn’t have to… and so on, it was sort of refreshing at first and an antidote to the unpatriotic and linguistically and cognitively challenged rhetoric of the current US president. Sure, this Buttigieg guy has a lot going for him and appears intelligent and humble, ticking a lot of the boxes required for fresh political talent in semi-liberal America. (Of course Americans don’t care if someone learns multiple languages; in fact, I’d argue that many Americans consider this disqualifying.)

But that’s the thing: I am not the world’s biggest cynic, but my cynicism radar won’t shut off. Every drip from the leaky faucet seems like it was cynically planted just to tick these boxes, and it was done craftily. Not all at once, quieter than the self-aggrandizing bluster of a Trump or even the standard self-promotion of most Democratic Party challengers. The strategy behind the offensive is the slow drip infiltration – starting long before Buttigieg declared an interest in running for president. It comes from all fronts, in many different forms. Perhaps it is no different from how Barack Obama ran a campaign, but we are witnessing this in a different, social-media-saturated, post-Trump world. Everything looks cynical. Furthermore, this was, frankly, a dull book.

Said and read – April 2019

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April has been restorative – as the onset of springtime usually is. The gradual introduction of more light into every day makes such a difference even though, until the last few years, I never used to be someone who cared about darkness.

I still have not achieved the same reading pace as the past two years, but I hit 100 books read in 2019 as April ended (about 28 in April). I suppose if I were to tally up all the other things I do in my life and in other people’s lives, this would seem more remarkable.

“Insight” (haha) into what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for April:

April reading was a strange mix of things – some university related and most things that were available as e-books from the library. This means that I may make a dent in a lot of books that I (or someone) feel(s) I should read, but they might not be anything I’d have jumped at. I’d say April has been defined by Joyce Carol Oates mostly because she has been beyond prolific in her literary output, and most of the oeuvre is available at the library in digital form. I have over the years read an Oates book here or there without plowing through everything she ever wrote – first because there have always been too many of them and too few of me and second because, while I often appreciate her style, I find I need a break and something different before coming back to her. It’s often overwrought, but it depends on the book and on my mood.

When I think of Oates I think of a penfriend I had in my youth, a Hungarian woman whose words and tastes (as expressed in letters so long ago) still echo. Many of her impressions have stayed with me, despite how long it has been since we were in contact. She, like many Hungarians I have known, had a cynical, if not judgmental, disposition and seemed never-quite-satisfied with anything. In her case, I recall her disdain for Dublin when she moved there from Budapest, dismissing it as “provincial”. I had at that time never been to either city, so it seemed a rough assessment. I later realized she was right (and she had certainly been living in Dublin when it was far more provincial than now). I recall some of the more sharp criticisms she wrote about her perceptions of how I came across in letters, as I did take them to heart. She wrote at least once about her admiration for Joyce Carol Oates; this too stuck in my mind even if I did not follow through on exploring Oates’s work until years later.

In the case of another Hungarian woman I know, pretty much everything that came out of her mouth was an untempered, unmitigated negative comment on everything around her, e.g., her fellow Hungarians, the fact that I ate jam on bread at breakfast. In fact, you should have seen her recoil in horror when she realized she was going to have to spend three weeks with me as a roommate. (I know I can be quite negative myself, although I tend to think I temper it with humor at times, and balance it with reason, evidence or the ‘bright side’ as well.)

Both women, though, were wells of intelligence, and once you knew them and were in their confidence, you could not have asked for a dearer friend.

None of this has anything to do with Joyce Carol Oates and nothing to do with writing about reading.

Highly recommended

All by Joyce Carol Oates:

*A Widow’s Story

This nearly broke my heart while on a flight to Glasgow. Maybe because it was a personal story and didn’t feel as detached as Oates’s style can.

But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life and sometimes even unseen? Not for some. For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most.

*Patricide

*Evil Eye

*The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Good

*Walking the Black CatCharles Simic

Poetry, of course.

*Bless Me, UltimaRudolfo Anaya

The rest of the summer was good for me, good in the sense that I was filled with its richness and I made strength from everything that had happened to me, so that in the end even the final tragedy could not defeat me. And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.

Adding this to the to-read list reminded me a lot of being in high school, as I seem to recall that this book was an option on the reading list in a world literature class I hastily joined in my final year. I had already completed more than enough English credits to graduate but had a free hour during my final semester. It turned out to be a big mistake because most of the rest of the people in the class were individuals who had somehow not passed English at some other point in their academic careers. We had an assignment, for example, to write haiku, which most people in the class didn’t understand. And ones who managed wrote about their worship of tanning beds. In any case, why do I recall this book from a list of many? I suppose I remember the things I didn’t read more than the things I did. And reading it, although it had nothing to do with high school, reminded me so much of… what high school English teachers wanting to share “multicultural” literature assigned that I can’t help but to have been transported back to the early 1990s.

*FiguringMaria Popova

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

What makes a person “the same” person across life’s tectonic upheavals of circumstance and character? Amid the chaos and decay toward which the universe inclines, we grasp for stability and permanence by trying to carve out a solid sense of self in our blink of existence. But there is no solidity. Every quark of every atom of every cell in your body had been replaced since the time of your first conscious memory, your first word, your first kiss. In the act of living, you come to dream different dreams, value different values, love different loves. In a sense, you are reborn with each new experience.

Having read her site, BrainPickings.org, faithfully for many years, I can only express a kind of gratitude. Popova’s style has nudged awake feelings in me when I thought they were numbed forever, I could not help but be inspired and definitely had to get this book. Popova’s singular and thoughtful voice, eloquence and competence in weaving stories from what must only have been a string of dull facts, bringing historical events to life, shine through in this work as well as her incomparable way of putting complex feelings and observations into words.

Are we to despair or rejoice over the fact that even the greatest loves exist only “for a time”? The time scales are elastic, contracting and expanding with the depth and magnitude of each love, but they are always finite—like books, like lives, like the universe itself. The triumph of love is in the courage and integrity with which we inhabit the transcendent transience that binds two people for the time it binds them, before letting go with equal courage and integrity.

Few things are more wounding than the confounding moment of discovering an asymmetry of affections where mutuality had been presumed.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*EmbassytownChina Miéville

It felt like being a child again, though it was not. Being a child is like nothing. It’s only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth.

A book of language and science fiction, this book, like much of Miéville, is engrossing and difficult to describe. I won’t say every Miéville hooks me, but they are all interesting regardless of whether I like them or not. In this case, I liked.

“I admit defeat. I’ve been trying to present these events with a structure. I simply don’t know how everything happened. Perhaps because I didn’t pay proper attention, perhaps because it wasn’t a narrative, but for whatever reasons, it doesn’t want to be what I want to make it.”

*The OtherDavid Guterson

“The early leader in a half-mile race rarely finishes first, but he wants to have had the experience of leading—that’s part of it—and he’s perennially hopeful that, this time, things will be different in the home stretch.

I can’t say I actually enjoyed this book, but it was nevertheless interesting. Guterson has an elegant way of creating characters and breathing life into them. I also appreciate the setting here (Washington state scenes), so much so that I’d argue that the Pacific Northwest setting is its own character.

*Naive. SuperErlend Loe

My existence is developing some distance from itself. Perspective. Perspective is one of those things one ought to be able to purchase and administer intravenously.

Caught up in the media whirlwind of the Pete Buttigieg moment, I, like everyone else, heard the story of Buttigieg learning Norwegian simply to be able to read more books by Erlend Loe. I’d never read Loe in English or Norwegian, so I started with this, until now apparently the only one translated into English. I didn’t find anything ‘special’ about it that would cause me to learn Norwegian if I didn’t already know it, nor anything that would necessarily lead me to seek out more Loe works. That said, there is something deceptively simple and direct about Loe’s prose that is probably appealing.

This is a completely different life. People must think I’m a dog owner in New York. That I live here and have an apartment and a dog. That I pick up dog turds like this one every day, before and after work. It’s a staggering thought. Seeing as I’m not a dog owner in New York, that also means everybody else could be something other than what they seem to be. That means it’s impossible to know anything at all.”

I suppose it is fittingly cynical to state as an aside that everything about Buttigieg seems designed to be politically appealing, as though every action he has taken has been a cynically strategic move to position himself as a political leader, but in a robotic, “I followed the handbook” kind of way. It seems as though every story that has been planted in the media has painted him as a hope-driven, anti-Trump, and yet I cannot shake the feeling that so much of what I am seeing is so by design. (We all do things in our lives by design, or think we do, and we all do things to appear a certain way, of course, but this is to an extreme.) The biggest standout is Buttigieg’s having gone into the military when he didn’t need to to be deployed to a conflict that is both supposedly over and has been judged as an unnecessary and destabilizing failure. But the handbook says military service plays well with X part of the base and might mitigate objections to his being gay or being the son of a Maltese immigrant or being relatively inexperienced in national politics. I don’t want to pick it all apart, but it just feels like a packaged cake and frosting mix: too sweet, a little too easy.

Coincidences

*Hag-SeedMargaret Atwood

Not a coincidence per se, but the premise of Hag-Seed is a retelling/take on Shakespeare‘s The Tempest. Why I find it sort of coincidental is more comparative. That is, Helen Oyeyemi has reimagined many fairy tales and symbols in her work, such as Gingerbread and Boy, Snow, Bird, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Atwood’s take on The Tempest is entirely novel, and when I look at both Atwood and Oyeyemi’s attempts, the richness of Atwood’s characters feels lived-in and real; there is something that always feels artificial in Oyeyemi’s characters, and I wonder if this is intentional.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*GingerbreadHelen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi’s work is always hit or miss for me. In some books, such as Boy, Snow, Bird, I am immediately drawn in, and in others, like Gingerbread, I find that I just wanted it to end. Strangely, reading about the process of the book’s creation in interviews with Oyeyemi is far more interesting than the book itself. Something comes from the experience, but it’s not the book itself providing that experience, making it something of a disappointment.

*The Good EarthPearl S. Buck

I read The Good Earth when I was in high school and remembered it so differently from how I felt about it now. It did indeed still evoke feelings, but mostly angry ones of hating the main (male) character and wondering exactly how Pearl Buck decided to offer such a condescending colonialist take on something she could not possibly have understood as an outsider. It reads now so much as the impressions of someone on the outside projecting their surface-level misconceptions onto an entire people.