Said and Read – March 2018

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February and early March were months of grave loss and anxiety. I was only peripheral to the losses, but central to the ‘support offensive’ in all cases. Thus when my reading steered me toward thinking on grief and consolation, it hit nerves (this applies to at least half the things I read).

The last part of March felt a bit like a lonely waiting game, stale waiting rooms in familiar outposts, always with the Kindle in hand because… who knows how long one has to wait anywhere she goes? People often ask me how I manage to read so much, and this is how. I never go anywhere without my fully loaded Kindle. I never know when I’m going to be forced to wait… for some office to open, for a delayed plane, taking a long train journey… even five or ten minutes when my companions excuse themselves to discipline or put their children to bed or take a phone call. Every single minute is one in which I can immerse, for however short a time, myself in some other world, some facts I didn’t know before. I am obsessive in this way, and when I am not feeling like a slug, I tend to the extreme: ultra-productivity and speed.

It is in this way that, as March comes to an end, I’ve read 115 books so far this year. Sure, I am a bit behind on my stated original goal of only reading non-English-language books (or at least reading 26 such books alongside all the others), but I am still making progress on that front as well. Some languages read more slowly than others (for example, I read a very short German-language play, and it took time because, well, German is not actually a language I know. With a background in linguistics and Scandinavian languages and English as well as a rudimentary course called “German for reading knowledge” that was a requirement during my university years, in which I did not learn German for reading – or any other kind of – knowledge, I can piece together the language in written form, spurred on by my late-in-life enthusiasm for contemporary German television (Babylon Berlin, Deutschland 83) and German/Berlin-themed tv (Berlin Station, Counterpart) and my own on/off Berlin-based life).

And that brings me to my reading recommendations for March:

*Betriebsunfall im Olymp” – Roxane Schwandt
Yes, the aforementioned German-language drama mentioned above. If you don’t know/read German, this probably isn’t for you, but it’s a timely, satirical take on the geopolitics of our time and the underlying valuelessness of humanity while at the same time assigning a price tag to the commoditization and automation of life (devoid of humanity). I didn’t know what to expect but was impressed by its incisive grasp on and illustration of the absurdity we live in today.

“Die Freiheit, sich mit der Waffe seiner Wahl umzubringen.”

*One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich/Один день Ивана ДенисовичаAleksandr Solzhenitsyn/Александр Солженицын
Ivan Denisovich might not be the most original choice, but it’s one that I took up in its original Russian (having read it once in English about 20 years ago and skimmed it again just before reading it in Russian this time). It’s fascinating to compare originals to their translations (something I ramble about at length frequently); in this case, many of the sentences in the English translation feel much more convoluted than the somewhat stripped-down and direct quality of the Russian ones. I think this takes away from what is much more powerful in the original – embellishing the simplicity of the language does not add to what is essentially a gritty and brutal story of life in a Soviet gulag. Had I read the original Russian in college when I should have, I’d have seen the unfamiliar word contextualized appropriately and would have learned that no, in fact, “посудомойка” is not a dishwashing machine, as my hapless fellow students and I learned when our Russian instructor laughed at us for thinking such an abjectly foolish and improbable thing.

Translation is a funny thing, and not unlike a form of lying, or at the very least a (wildly) subjective interpretation of something. I’ve long considered its implications, and attempt, when possible, to avoid translations (which isn’t always realistic). This partly explains my drive to read more original-language works this year. Thinking back to the university years, I am reminded of how professors referenced specific “authoritative” translations of specific works; reading Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – which I recommended without reservation last month – this same theme recurs. Its prickly protagonist is a translator and complains about the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of some translations and the particular contexts in which certain translators come to render their versions of the translated reality. What stuck with me was that this narrator uses the well-known Constance Garnett as the primary representation of these failings, and Garnett was always the go-to translation of specific Russian-language works back in college. I often wondered back then about how and why a translation eventually becomes the ‘anointed’ one. Alameddine expresses perfectly how it ends up playing out:

“The memory seems both real and unreal, reliable and tenuous, solid and insubstantial. I wasn’t even two when he died. I must have configured these images much later. Childhood is played out in a foreign language and our memory of it is a Constance Garnett translation.” (from –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine)

*The Master of Insomnia: Selected PoemsBoris A. Novak
Along with Tomaž Šalamun, Novak is one of two poets from Slovenia that I have never been able to get enough of.

“My only home is my throat.”

*Bright, Dusky, BrightEeva-Liisa Manner
I’m a poetry hoarder. What can I say? The lean, spare imagery of Finnish poetry always gets me.

*Giovanni’s RoomJames Baldwin
How beautiful this book is. At once simple and complex, it’s somehow a perfect marriage of so many themes alongside elegant but not overwrought language.

*Fugitive PiecesAnne Michaels
Often my favorite poets, whose work I can revisit repeatedly and always find something new, write prose that I can’t stand. This is true of Marge Piercy, whose poetry is so vital that I can’t imagine a life without having read it, but whose prose books are tremendous labors to get through (with, I must say, no payoff). But Anne Michaels? She extends her command of the language from poetry to poetic prose and weaves such a beautiful and sad story.

Good – really good – but not great

*They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill UsHanif Abdurraqib

“America, so frequently, is excited about the stories of black people but not the black people themselves. Everything is a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote, or a march where no one was beaten or killed.”

*Gjennom nattenStig Sæterbakken
It’s in Norwegian and the final book Sæterbakken wrote before he took his own life. Contemplation on grief and loss. It’s available in English translation.

*Kaddish for an Unborn Child Imre Kertész
Difficult but beautiful reading. For so many reasons.

“common knowledge that we don’t know, and can never know, what causes the cause of our presence, we are not acquainted with the purpose of our presence, nor do we know why we must disappear from here once we have appeared, I wrote. I don’t know why, I wrote, instead of living a life that may, perhaps, exist somewhere, I am obliged to live merely that fragment which happens to have been given to me: this gender, this body, this consciousness, this geographical arena, this fate, language, history and subtenancy”

*Sadness is a White Bird Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Beautifully written story of a young Israeli man, recounting in ongoing-letter format his close friendship with two Palestinian siblings, and his own conflicting feelings about his service in the Israeli military.

“’Does Darwish have any poems that aren’t so political?’ Nimreen took a deep drag, and when she spoke, her voice was wrapped in a cloud: ‘There is nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.’”

*VisitationJenny Erpenbeck
Conceptually interesting but didn’t grab me the way Erpenbeck’s other works have.

*SepharadAntonio Muñoz Molina

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly DepartedLaurie Kilmartin

“REMEMBER: If you are a Late Orphan, check your Old Parent privilege. Yes, you have suffered a loss, but if you had your parent for more than three decades, you still won.”

*IndependenceAlasdair Gray

“A lower standard of living combined with a higher standard of education explains why so many Scottish emigrants have settled successfully abroad.”

Not everyone is going to be into this one; as Gray himself writes, it’s a kind of ‘pamphlet’ by a Scot written for other Scots on the subject of Scottish independence and related matters.

*Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexMary Roach

“It didn’t matter. Testicle madness was in full bloom.”

A somewhat humorous Sunday drive through many different topics as subjects of scientific studies on sex, sexual behavior, response and sexuality. It is surprising how many conversations one can innocently stumble into on the subjects covered in this book – everything from length of ejaculatory trajectory to penile implants.

Coincidences

*The AttackYasmina Khadra
I mention this one because I got about 20% into it, thinking, “This is so familiar. Did I read this before?” And then I remembered that I’d seen a film adaptation, L’attentat. That explains it. I preferred the film for some reason – might just be because I saw it first. But ultimately, I read the book the same day I stumbled on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast that deals with the subject “We All Think We Know The People We Love. We’re All Deluded“. And this is at the heart of The Attack‘s protagonist and how he didn’t know his wife at all.

*We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesKaren Joy Fowler
This is another one that I was speeding my way through without thinking much of it, but I hit a certain point when there’s a surprise/reveal, and I realized I was reading a book some guy told me about sometime in 2016. He had never told me the title or much about the story, but he had expressed with considerable anger about how “betrayed” or “misled” (things he seems to have been obsessed with in every facet of his life) he felt by the story’s twist. Now having accidentally stumbled into the book, which I could have taken or left, I think less about the book itself and more about his ‘bewildering’ (to use one of his choice height-of-condescension words) reaction to it. At the time it seemed awfully reactionary, but in hindsight, so much about him seems that way.

Biggest disappointment

*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisJ.D. Vance
I don’t know what I was expecting. I didn’t find this particularly compelling, maybe because this is in many ways so close to what I can observe in some of my own distant family. Beyond which, I am never impressed or taken in by anything that rests on the conclusion that a hard-won triumph against all odds is only possible in America, “the greatest country in the world”. No, not true. When stories or memoirs go down the lazy patriotism path, I stop paying attention.

Happily, I didn’t hate anything I read this month.

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.)

said and read

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My goal, as stated, was to read 26 non-English-language books in 2018. I am on track, but I didn’t really intend to keep reading other books like a total fiend.  I suppose it’s like when you avoid something over which you have no self-control. (My grandmother might have called this lamentable lack of discipline ‘a potato-chip effect’. She could entirely avoid potato chips, but if she ate just one, she was not able to stop. Then again, my grandmother would also have found this kind of obsessive reading to be intoxicating and its own form of discipline, so I doubt she would have faulted me for it. Books are not, after all, potato chips.)

For nearly a decade I didn’t read much of anything. But crack open a book (or a screen in the case of an e-reader), and I’m done. You can’t pry me away from it. That’s not to say I don’t do anything else. It’s just that I never go anywhere without the Kindle. Every spare moment waiting or riding a train or plane or lying in bed trying to fall asleep is occupied with reading.

To achieve my actual goal I need to read two non-English-language books per month, and I am well into the second of the two. But I guess there must be about 18 other (English-language) books on the go at the same time. I really didn’t anticipate this.

And my one unequivocal recommendation is Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Sure, you kind of have to be interested in Russia, Russian history and non-fiction for this to appeal to you (although she has used several people’s journeys as ways into the story, making it feel more visceral and urgent than a lot of fiction). Several other books have been noteworthy: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal)… because it’s Hrabal. There’s no way to explain why it’s good or worth your time (and it might not be if this style doesn’t appeal to you); The Best We Could Do (Thi Bui), which is not my normal style. I don’t care for graphic/illustrated novels (this is more an autobio than a novel), but this was a moving exception. If you have interest in Vietnam, the refugees who left Vietnam after the long conflict and the way these people adapted in their new surroundings and how their children then adapted, this is a fresh and deeply humanizing take on a familiar story (familiar, perhaps, in a firsthand way to Vietnamese and American people at least).

So far I have not read anything I considered truly bad, but there were a few repetitive time wasters (e.g. a handful of books by comedian Frankie Boyle – not time-wasting per se… more just semi-lazy rehashing of his comedy material mixed with some semi-thoughtful left-wing opinions, and the inane autobio of Lauren Graham, whom I dislike anyway, so I can’t explain why I read it. It may just be an extension of my “hate watching” of certain TV shows, notably and related in this case, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). It could be that I read these because they were readily available as e-books from the library. Yeah, sometimes this potent mix of lukewarm curiosity and convenience/availability will do it. Not just when it comes to books.

in the hundreds

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When 2017 began I set out to read 26 books. I thought this was ambitious because I had essentially abandoned reading for most of the previous ten years. It must have been sometime in the spring, after topping well over 100 books, that I realized I would certainly read a record number of books (record for me, that is). I didn’t consciously set out until later in the year to finish 365 books but crossed that threshold in early-mid December, meaning that I did in the end get to read somewhere between 393 and 400 books (Goodreads, which I used to keep track of the reading, was a bit fidgety and unreliable in recording dates).

I’m a bit stunned by having read so much – feeling some of the material branded on my brain permanently, fresh in my mind since early in the year, while some things were almost forgettable. But it was, as I told a former colleague, enriching. It might not be the greatest accomplishment of the year, and it is certainly the quietest, but it gave each day a new meaning, a fresh story, a new palette on which language was painted in wholly different ways, and of course made, as Firewall likes to say, every day into a school day. In a good way, of course.

I was asked to select my favorite from among these books, but this is impossible. I read from such a wide breadth of topics and disciplines, from literary and scientific materials from around the world, that it could not even be done to say that one single book stood above the others. But among those that I loved, those that I didn’t want to end, those that I learned the most from, those that confounded or stayed with me the longest – making me turn my thoughts to them again and again – here is the rough list in no particular order:

*Advice for a Young Investigator – Santiago Ramón y Cajal

*The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
Was not sure I would include this because I had mixed feelings, although by the end I was convinced/moved.

*The Master Butchers Singing Club – Louise Erdrich
Another one I was not sure I would include. I read most of Erdrich’s books this year and most were middle of the road, but this one stood out for some reason.

*The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon
I read a bunch of Chabon and just like his style (even though it can be quite different in all his writing) and could recommend anything he has written, but this was somehow… the one I liked most.

*Time and Materials – Robert Hass
Poetry, which is not for everyone. This was superlative

*Edwin Morgan: Collected Poems – Edwin Morgan
More poetry; discovered Glaswegian Edwin Morgan this year and loved

*Reality is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity – Carlo Rovelli

*Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

*Go, Went, Gone – Jenny Erpenbeck
Possibly overlooked by many; reminds me slightly of the film The Visitor. Deals with refugee crisis/asylum seekers in Germany with some interesting looks back at how things changed when Germany reunified

*Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
An old one I should have read ages ago but only got around to now. Enjoyed the hilarious absurdity

*The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon
A long book on depression – not sure why I started reading it but it was engrossing

*Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins – Peter S Ungar
Part of my obsession with teeth this year

*Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner
A surprising and moving book

*If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino
A strange one – but the complexity of Calvino’s style makes me want to read everything he writes (he is listed again later/below)

*Broken April – Ismail Kadare
Albanian book that deals with the Kanun/blood feuds, etc.

*Secondhand Time: An Oral history of the Fall of the Soviet Union – Svetlana Alexievich

*The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano
Surprising – not sure why this book (fiction, Italian) stuck with me – perhaps the descriptions of how people fool others and themselves living a version of themselves that cannot possibly be true

*Pretty much anything by Naomi Klein, of which I read all – very timely and important

*A General Theory of Oblivion – Jose Eduardo Agualusa
An unusual one from Angola

*Tram 83 – Fiston Mwanza Mujila
An interesting one from Congo

*The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Probably one of my very favorite ones this year

*A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
Engrossing – just when you think things cannot get worse or more heartbreaking, they do. As my colleague put it “emotional porn” – a form of blackmail

*The Revolution of Everyday Life – Raoul Vaneigem
Abstract-ish philosophy but somehow resonated when I read it

*All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Fiction

*Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
Fiction from the guy who brought us the TV version of Fargo

*The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee
A book on cancer – not uplifting but fascinating

*Karaoke Culture – Dubravka Ugresic
Because I pretty much love all of Ugresic’s observational essay work

*Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America – Mary Otto
More teeth!

*Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
More Calvino, whom I have quoted to death this year

*Pretty much any poetry book of works by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer

*The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
This is one that kept me thinking all year long and to which I will return repeatedly

*A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America – Bruce Cannon Gibney
Brewing the Baby Boomer hate…

*The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Another of my favorite works of fiction this year

2018…

My goal, again, is to read 26 books. The trick this time, though, is that none of them can be in English. I can read books in English, but they won’t count toward the goal.

Free for a storytelling spree

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Another one of those aimless, sprawling collections of thoughts, quotations, snippets floating freely in my brain … all on the vast topic of writing and reading. Thinking about how ideas come to fruition and lead to a story or a storytelling spree of some kind. I know I am doing little more than collecting a bunch of random quotations and thoughts – not doing anything particularly creative myself, and certainly not weaving together a story. But I am, as I write about below, creating new links and networks in my brain… which I guess is part of my process (also noted below).

The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“In the place of the ever-changing cloud that we carried in our heads until the other day, the condensing and dispersal of which we attempted to understand by describing impalpable psychological states and shadowy landscapes of the soul—in the place of all this we now feel the rapid passage of signals on the intricate circuits that connect the relays, the diodes, the transistors with which our skulls are crammed. Just as no chess player will ever live long enough to exhaust all the combinations of possible moves for the thirty-two pieces on the chessboard, so we know (given the fact that our minds are chessboards with hundreds of billions of pieces) that not even in a lifetime lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make all possible plays.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

To write is to embrace a certain freedom and break free from constraints you did not even know were there. Sometimes to write is to buckle down and find your way. Free to write our stories, or some story, we have to find the way to do it – and seize the freedom that allows us to… even if, as Calvino cautions, we shall never live long enough to make ‘all possible plays’.

This can be a considerable enterprise, depending on how you experience writing, the process of writing and creativity. And the how you do it does not even begin to touch the why.

The write way

For some, writing is like giving difficult birth, laborious, long and painful. Or like a marathon, tapping into the reserves of the entire being while also still being a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other exercise.

“Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

For others, it’s almost dissociative, but still subject to much self-doubt and criticism as well as somewhat cynical self-reflection.

“…there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

For others, it’s casual and easy. (I tend to fall into this category but only because most of what I write is not ‘personal’ and I am not personally invested in it.)

No matter what the process is like, or what the results, it’s still a process. Entirely unique to the storyteller. This is true whether the story is a work of fiction that many will read or a technical manual that only a handful will read. Being able to delve into and engage in this process is a kind of privilege, necessarily implying that the abilities and time exist to produce – something.

The process

When I think of the “process” I think of two different things. One is the literal process of sitting down and being surrounded by certain comforts or habits, which many writers discuss. I suppose mine is closest to that offered by Gary Shteyngart: “I write in bed next to a coffee machine.” There are so many other well-thought-out and explained processes (or non-processes), when for some, it’s literally, in the end, just rolling over, grabbing the computer and putting the coffee machine to work. (Admittedly I don’t have a coffee machine next to my bed, but I make cafetiere after cafetiere and bring them with me to the bedside table where I think, read, work and write most of the time.) Each person has his or her routine, largely, I assume, governed by the impulses that inspire or force one to write and by the aforementioned way a writer experiences writing (hard work, escape, etc.).

The second part of the “process” relates to everything that leads up actual creation and development. How do ideas form – how do they grow from embryonic seeds into a multicellular life?

The eyes and ears have it

“There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

This stage can start out in the vaguest of ways. For example, I see something or hear something and jot it down, whether it’s the URL on the side of a van: eloped.se (which I figured would not be about eloping but about an electric moped), or a much fuller vignette. In the case of the URL, it is not that I will write about the URL, the van, or even the misunderstanding/difference in the language but only the fact that some piece of cognitive dissonance jolted me out of the moment, stuck in traffic, to think about other connections and linguistic associations. It’s about keeping the brain working and linking seemingly disconnected concepts together.

The ‘sprout’ of a fuller idea might be planted by a conversation. For example, when someone told me that he ended up with a copy of Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album in every breakup he ever had, without ever having had the album himself in the first place. Now the proud owner of six copies, all of which were relics of relationships gone by, existing on media ranging from vinyl to cassette to CD, representative of the eras of which they – and the failed relationships – were a part. Perhaps a flimsy premise for anything, but certainly a human anecdote to fill in the flesh of a skeletal character.

The read way

Every writer is a reader first.”

The other part of this ‘germinating ideas’ is preparation, however unconscious. It’s sparking the brain constantly to think in different ways, walking down new paths. This is largely done with (excessive) reading. It doesn’t matter if you remember everything you read: “Books also change, via our mental models, the very reality that we perceive.

And this is the whole point. Changing the perception of the world around you, the people around you, taking on understandings you did not have before… and applying this newfound understanding to your own creativity – freely.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -“When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it? In this way, the reading and examining process, too, is like writing. And it’s through this other level of understanding, of seeing the written word presented in many unexpected and unusual ways, defying expectation, that the freedom of creativity is cultivated.

The freedom of creativity

“No one, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion by lies and constraints.”The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

Regardless of what hard work it can be, the ability to create at all confers a form of freedom.

That is, when I reach a stage in my mind when I am ready to finally throw my hands up in the air at the powerlessness of having to tow the line, speak the party line full of marketing gobbledygook and corporate branding BS, of feeling rendered inert by the anodyne ‘voice’ of large corporations – either silencing me from within (restraint at being able to only say so much) or outside (as academics and journalists experience when entities like Google have outsized influence on what they can publish. Don’t be evil, my ass),  I am asking ‘what for’? To go on, continuing down this path of non-creativity forever until self-respect shrivels up and dies a merciful but none-too-early death? No. This is not what I was made for. I was, like many others, made to tell stories. I was not made to censor. I was made to create characters. I was not made to sit silently in offices and nod while someone describes another ‘campaign’ that will lead nowhere.

“Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist? What right does one have to play around with collective memory? Is there any credibility in getting these sometimes-disparate characters in tune? The starting point for all these characters was the thirst in them.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Yes, I live in the real world, and for now, my creativity has to be partly channeled into this environment. And sometimes, strangely enough, reaching this stage of frustration, as described, opens the door to new clarity, a new approach to communicating in different terms, circumventing the “rules” imposed in these narrow frameworks. And isn’t that what true creativity is? Being able to find a completely fresh way to describe or communicate about something?

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

Reading

Standard

“There are many sages, but on the other hand, not one stupid tree.

After writing the most difficult thing is reading.” -from “The Short Year”, Paavo Haavikko

“History is written by the victors. Traditions are woven by the people. Writers fantasize. Only death is certain.” –The Encyclopedia of the Dead, Danilo Kiš

“A knowledge of different literatures is the best way to free one’s self from the tyranny of any of them.” -from On Oscar Wilde, José Martí

…I often claim not to understand addiction (and it’s a subject, much like – inexplicably – teeth – that I am abnormally interested in), but extreme behavior, even of the sort that is not self-destructive, is a kind of addiction. This year, my extreme has found its niche in reading. As I’ve written about numerous times, I dropped reading for many years. When I did not want to think or feel, or manage the fatigue that comes from either, I pushed my passion for reading into dormancy, letting other obsessions take hold (incessant television droning around me, baking industrial amounts of cakes and cookies, working to the point of excessive exhaustion). It’s odd that one can just ignore a passion, pushing it aside as though it were never there, as though it were never something that clutched at the heart and pushed at the back to make one continue to indulge. But it can happen.

As 2016 was coming to a close, many things converged – feeling the new, if deceptive, bloom of love, the influence of accidents, injuries, near or sudden death, the letting go of the grip of all-consuming grief – that made me feel less afraid of feeling again. (Perhaps counterintuitively, it took a handful of new ‘bad’ things to sweep away the persistent influence of old ‘bad’ things, as if the new and old could balance each other out.)

“Sometimes it takes a book to jolt you out of where you are. It doesn’t have to be a great book. Just the right book at the right moment, one that opens something up or exposes you to something new or somehow forces you to reexamine your life.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

And so the books re-opened. And none too soon. Reading does, after all, inform how we see and interpret the world we live in – seeing the patterns repeat, and new patterns form, we can almost feel hope even in the darkest of circumstances. It feels, in fact, as though the literature of the world chronicles the darkness in order to shine a light, however dim. It sounds glib – I don’t much feel like delving more deeply into it than that. But it’s powerful and moving to the degree that I can see every single day why I stopped reading for such a long time (even if I kick myself in regret over all that wasted, lost time). Looking at the world in late 2016, it would be easy to fall into a sense of complete despair: only literature, recounting past tragedies and triumphs, seems to keep despair at bay and illustrate the way toward sanity.

We live in times when, for example, we can see reflections of the kinds of mania and near-repression Azar Nafisi describes in Reading Lolita in Tehran:

“We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology.”

We live in times in which we should feel protective of books and the freedom of consuming information and diverse viewpoints, stories and narratives. We cannot take for granted the availability of this abundance:

“You can’t guarantee things like that! After all, when we had all the books we needed, we still insisted on finding the highest cliff to jump off.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

After all, these riches could be taken from us, lost to our own indifference, confidence in broken systems or traditions and lack of care.

“This is the paradox of the power of literature: it seems that only when it is persecuted does it show its true powers, challenging authority, whereas in our permissive society it feels that it is being used merely to create the occasional pleasing contrast to the general ballooning of verbiage. (And yet, should we be so mad as to complain about it?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

“Literature is one of a society’s instruments of self-awareness—certainly not the only one, but nonetheless an essential instrument, because its origins are connected with the origins of various types of knowledge, various codes, various forms of critical thought.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

And yet books are often the only way most of us will experience so much of the world and the only way we can experience history:

“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”-Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Even if we had endless disposable means and could travel to every place in the entire world, we cannot experience life through the eyes of someone else. The way a writer has perceived, lived and described something is necessarily, forcefully, different from our own experience, even if at the same time as being eye-opening, the experiences s/he describes is relatable to us as individuals in some way. I cannot feel the same outrage as someone experiencing the injustice of another time in history any more than I can feel the same outrage as someone experiencing an injustice that is not perpetrated on me today. As a human I can feel it, feel some form of associated pain, hurt, confusion and anger, but I am not a black man in America; I am not a Jew in 1940 in Europe (or any time); I am not a woman of color or even a woman who lives in most of the places of the world where being a woman is perilous (sure, it’s kind of perilous everywhere, but least of all in Scandinavia); I am not a Native American or First Nations person; I am not yet elderly; I do not have any debilitating handicaps… you get the picture.

Whether visible or not, there are so many ways of being in the world that I cannot – you cannot – no one but the individual can – understand from the inside. No matter how sensitive or tuned in or intellectually astute we are, we cannot experience anything beyond the projection of empathy.

And even empathy seems in short supply. Almost everything I read is an evidentiary chronicle of all the ways in which we are terrible to each other and ourselves. Whether it’s the grinding poverty that kills, mass discrimination, hidden prejudice, self-abuse… it’s brutal to be human.

To read offers the beauty of the big picture, to know all the details as they unfold, to reflect on from a distance. And yet reading offers the opportunity to dissect, to examine, to analyze – and revisit and do it all again later. Books are a window on the world in a macroscopic, cultural and linguistic way but also microscopically, almost scientifically:

“It was beyond that screen of fickle humors that his gaze wished to arrive: the form of things can be discerned better at a distance.” –Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

“As with many beauties of nature, the enchantment of human works can only be retained when viewed from a distance. Analysis is the microscope that brings objects close to us and reveals the coarse weave of their tapestry. The illusion dissolves when the artificial nature of the embroidery and presence of design flaws become apparent to the eyes.” –Advice for a Young Investigator, Santiago Ramón y Cajal

“This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Reading can be a form of resistance. It can also be a form of acceptance.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -from “When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it?

Italo Calvino posits something similar – less about the rigors of reading and rereading and more about the need to read backed by age and experience:

“In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Informed, careful reading is rarely done in a vacuum – brought to bear is the human experience, emotion and individual history and perspective. Also, there is the triangle Calvino describes, and which other disciplines, particularly the sciences, confirm/highlight.

“What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

Scientific investigation, too, is its own form of storytelling, which relies on finding data and then interpreting it, which is not always well understood.

“The confusion between these two diverse human activities — inventing stories and following traces in order to find something — is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.”  “The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli

These disorganized ramblings do not begin to cover everything. In fact, they cover nothing. They touch microscopically on the everything that is reading. The everything that has taken up residence and occupied my every waking moment this year. It can no more be contained in the confines of a blog post than a series of evocative or mind-altering sentences can truly be contained within just one book. Just ramblings, random thoughts, on my revived and enthusiastic appreciation of reading.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Angle of Repose

Standard

“You yearned backward a good part of your life, and that produced another sort of Doppler Effect. Even while you paid attention to what you must do today and tomorrow, you heard the receding sound of what you had relinquished.”

“Routine work, that best of all anodynes which the twentieth century has tried its best to deprive itself of—that is what I most want.”

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner

I have no idea why I started reading Angle of Repose, but I am not sure that any book I’ve read recently captured so perfectly that sense of wishing I could breathe life into my own late grandparents’ stories (or the stories of anyone who has left this life)… longing to bring all the details I never thought to ask to life again, to recreate their individual histories and the story they built together. To have, or at least imagine, all the answers to questions I never thought to ask. This history lost to time, as it is in all families. I was quite unexpectedly moved by this quite long book.

“My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

Perhaps the best of books do this to us – we don’t know what to expect going in, and we are constantly surprised, even when what we are confronted with is quite simple, but beautiful. Angle of Repose is certainly both, the richly historical fiction of the American West coupled with two rather tragic but unsentimental stories (one from the past, one in the present, which was, at the time of the book’s publication, the early 1970s.