As the year ends, I feel compelled to tally up what I’ve done versus what I aimed to do when the year began. Of course life isn’t quite the linear thing that smoothly hands over what we ask for or think we will do, see or accomplish. Even what we want (or think we want) can change so fast, can be led along by circumstance, or a sudden need for dramatic change, that it’s almost silly to do things like set ‘resolutions’. Sillier even than watching 40-year-old, late-night reruns of The Love Boat or Only Fools and Horses, which has been my rough introduction to peri-Brexit Britain. (I certainly didn’t choose the wisest time to put down stakes in that neck of the woods.)
I had no idea when 2018 began that I’d spend half the year in Glasgow, immersed in intensive psychology studies. I also had no idea that I would try to balance that with work/job and the simultaneous completion of a thesis from a previous, almost-finished MA from another university. I had no idea that I would (mostly) have the discipline to follow through on almost all the goals I set for the year, somehow managing not to disrupt them despite the otherwise disruptive nature of the chaos I sprung upon myself by moving from place to place in a more itinerant than normal (for me) fashion.
“That life is not for me. Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow; the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. I don’t know how to germinate, I’m simply not in possession of that vegetable capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement—from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.” –Flights, Olga Tokarczuk
Sadly, there is no new soundtrack for this month. But you can revisit the musical archives that date all the way back to 2004.
On a less physical, hands-on level, though…
I had no idea, at least not consciously, that I would continue to dig deep into reserves of patience I had no clue I had, trying to patch up holes that are completely bottomless. They cannot be fixed.
I had no idea that I would finally try to come to terms with myself as a too secretive person, completely lacking in transparency when it comes to myself. I pretend to be open, but I’m open to you and your problems; I’m listening to you; I am reflecting you; I am flexible to and for you; I am absorbing your misery and anxiety.
But I am not being me with you, and I never have been.
(This “you” is everything and everyone.)
And this, rather than getting better, is getting worse. Much of what I did this year was to try to go against the grain, to stop doing this insofar as I recognized it. I did not succeed; instead I… recede.
Or could I have known that I would continue to love, to love more deeply than I could imagine possible, that being lovestruck, despite its implication of being immediate and fleeting, can continue and deepen? And despite the distance I put between myself – my self – and another? I could not come to trust it all because I have found the physical world is not to be trusted.
Yet others – all others – continue to tell me all the things contained in the vulnerable underbelly of their lives, their pasts, their hidden desires… their urge to share, to confess, to scrape out all the gelatinous globs of all the things they could never, ever tell anyone else too strong to resist, even if in the immediate aftermath they realized, Ah, now things will never be the same.
Knowledge: Reading and thinking
“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” ―
In terms of reading, I read a whole lot more than I set out to read – and a whole lot more than I expected. And in many cases it’s been an elusive and esoteric pursuit. As I’ve written through the year, a great majority of this reading in the second half of 2018 was academic/scholarly/empirical, but there were quite a few other things as well – mostly dominated by poetry whenever possible. (And many of my “lists” of what I’ve read don’t reflect a lot of the academic stuff.)
When 2018 started, I’d set a goal – read 26 books, all of which had to be in non-English languages. I started off strong but first found myself lured into a whole lot of English-language books (novels, poetry, contemporary non-fiction), and then into the required readings from academia (a lot of BS/masturbatory theory, i.e. an academic citing a previous academic, citing a previous academic/philosopher/theoretician, not actual theory on masturbation). In the end I only managed… well, 20 as of 12 November 2018. Still better than I thought, thinking back to spring when I found that reading in Russian again was so slow-going that I’d never make the kind of progress I can make in English. Reading Russian has also become bittersweet – so intense the memories of the time when it was the most important thing in the world to me, and so fresh the knowledge that one of the closest friends I had at the time died two years ago. She had not been in my life at all since 1995, but it still hit me to learn that she is really gone. I read Marina Tsvetaeva, for example, which is something she and I talked endlessly about, in a wholly different way.
In any case, this whole exercise required a re-evaluation of what progress is in this context. What am I doing this for if not for the qualitative experience of living, loving and grappling with languages, words, concepts, constructions, time periods, perspectives that are not even close to my own? In the digestion, interpretation (literal and figurative) and comprehension of these particular reading challenges, reading feels like a new endeavour, different from the much-loved near-obsession I experience with own-language books. Novel and difficult, and truly as worthwhile as I had hoped. Still I set such a goal when I had a fraction of today’s deadlines to meet and ‘achievements’ to unlock.
I’d be remiss not to reflect on these things even though I feel empty of the ability to truly reflect. Outside of my own little world, everything has been so ugly and contentious I can’t bring myself to think about it.
Has November spawned a monster? I’m at the threshold of two major submission deadlines (and several smaller ones) in one study program (by the time I publish, all of this will be submitted) and should be polishing off a master’s thesis in another study program – both of which, it should go without saying, have required time, thought and a lot of reading. I will get through all of this but wonder at my own motivations. Why would I believe this was a good idea?
I am tired, possibly dispirited (which I know is temporary and largely tied to the moment in which I write this… update, yes, in fact, it was temporary… by the time I started to finish this, my mindset was completely different), and even though a couple of things will end in December, new things will start. I will not take the luxury of resting. I feel a certain dread about that. (Tomorrow I will probably feel elated about that.) The momentary dread arises because it’s all quite unknown, less because I don’t get a break. It’s still reading I turn to for “breaks”.
I don’t always read something ‘easy’ – in fact, I rarely do. But it makes me happy, regardless of the subject matter. I don’t think it’s the topic that is uplifting necessarily. And I stumbled across an article from 2015 that nods along with this assertion: reading may contribute to your happiness (I had no idea but apparently there’s something called bibliotherapy, but it’s a fascinating discovery for someone who is delving into psychology and therapeutic approaches to mental health. It’s an awful play on words perhaps to say that I found this particular approach novel).
If you find yourself curious about what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating and all the rest throughout 2018… here’s your chance to find out: October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.
Thoughts on reading for November:
In November I found that I read much more than expected, perhaps something like 50 books. A couple of months ago one of my university classmates got in touch to discuss my blog posts on reading/literature and share his thoughts on reading Russian literature (we were in Russian studies courses together), and this brought many memories of that period in my life flooding back. Actually, it’s truer to say that being back at a university and interacting with people who are young (as I was then) started me on this trajectory, but that ended up being the first of the nostalgia triggers that led me to some unsettling news as November ends.
In September after I’d begun studying, a young woman asked me if I am still in touch with friends from my undergraduate years. I don’t think she realized that my undergrad years are almost as far away from us in years as her entire lifespan so far. It dawned on me that, no, in fact, I am friends now with only one woman from college. I formed a few very close but very brief friendships during that time, which, if I am honest, were, in the sum of it all, painful. One such friendship developed during the same time as/in the course of the Russian studies, and it ended with what I can only now call “ghosting” even if I could see the ways she backed off from me.
When I exchanged a few messages with the guy from the class, it opened the door to this distant past. It made me think of the Russian class, of very detailed memories of that whole period – the foods, the characters, the schedules, particular moments and vignettes, and most powerfully, I remember the fragile, vulnerable nature of a classmate/woman/friend, K, who hid beneath her retiring exterior a fierce intellect and emotional abundance. I wrote a few years ago about a few very specific memories – a day that our very small Russian class took a field trip together to Victoria, BC, Canada – and as those flooded back to me, I found myself revisiting some of the Russian readings, the music from our field trip day (Cowboy Junkies), and finally, today I thought that I’d look K up. I had tried once or twice to find her online in the past, but it seems all the friends from my past who disappear tend to be the types who have absolutely no online presence. As such, I never found K in my previous searches.
Until last night when I did just a small amount of digging and found…
…She died two years ago.
And I was, to borrow a word from someone with whom I shared this, “floored”.
Worse yet, as I was processing this information, I happened to learn that someone else I had just been talking about had recently passed away. Learning about this kind of death – something about someone who is now distant but who was once a vital, important, daily fixture, someone who was once so meaningful – is like immersing one’s entire head in ice water. I am awake, so aware of my limitations and the limitations of time. But is it changing how I do things? Is it making me any less selfish?
“Living’s mostly wasting time/and I waste my share of mine/But it never feels too good/ so let’s not take too long…/I’m soft as glass/and you’re a gentle man/we’ve got the sky to talk about/and the world to lie upon/days up and down they come/like rain on a conga drum/forget most/remember some/but don’t turn none away/everything is not enough/nothing is too much to bear/where you’ve been is good and gone/all you keep’s the getting there” – Cowboy Junkies (covering the late, great Townes van Zandt)… a song that will always make me think of K (1974-2016).
I started reading Hoagland last month (and loved that book also). It turns out that I started reading around the same time that he died (October 2018). I’m going to read the rest of his work in in December. Poetry, of course.
I can’t say enough about how good this book is for challenging American blindness and brainwashing about the world and the American(‘s) place in it.
I’d intended to read Chasing the Scream for over a year; I was going through a phase of reading books on addiction and new takes (scientific and otherwise) on the nature of addiction. Somehow I never quite got to this one until now. It’s extraordinarily well-written in a gripping narrative form, and it ties, strangely, to one of the books I read this month and hated (The Culture of Narcissism – see below). I am not drawing a parallel between addicts and narcissists, if that’s what you’re imagining. No, instead, I think of some points Lasch made in The Culture of Narcissism and see their applicability.
From Hari’s book:
“Bruce came to believe, as he put it, that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social[ly] or culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction . . . because [it] allows them to escape their feelings, to deaden their senses—and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”
“Bruce says that at the moment, when we think about recovery from addiction, we see it through only one lens—the individual. We believe the problem is in the addict and she has to sort it out for herself, or in a circle of her fellow addicts. But this is, he believes, like looking at the rats in the isolated cages and seeing them as morally flawed: it misses the point. He argues we need to refocus our eyes, as if staring at a Magic Eye picture, to see that the problem isn’t in them, it’s in the culture.”
“If we think like this, the question we need to answer with our drug policy shifts. It is no longer: How do we stop addiction through threats and force, and scare people away from drugs in the first place? It becomes: How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid, and where we can form healthier bonds? How do we build a society where we look for happiness in one another rather than in consumption?”
I wish I had been able to read this book a long time ago. Detailed but simplified for the layperson. It is also sad to see the part on practical considerations, e.g., about American health insurance and financial constraints. That is, can you afford your treatment, and whether you can or not, are you one day away from being unscrupulously discriminated against for having cancer? Ugh.
A series of essays/reflections on being black, on prejudice, on colonialism.
“Tu es né ici, ton destin est ici, et tu ne devras pas le perdre de vue. Demande-toi ce que tu apportes à cette patrie sans pour autant attendre d’elle une quelconque récompense. Parce que le monde est ainsi fait : il y a plus de héros dans l’ombre que dans la lumière.”
Good – really good
“There’s no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed.”
Stories of Sarajevo and the diversity of life found there.
“Life is only valuable because you know you have it. Death always finds you unprepared, without tangible proof that you ever lived.”
I loved all the references to the Pacific Northwest (Tacoma and surrounding environs!)
Because poetry, as always. It doesn’t really need much more explanation than that (particularly if you read this blog; I rarely post my own writing on a regular basis, but I post a poem daily).
I can’t really say why I read this or why it makes my list of something I really enjoyed. It probably comes down to how characters and scenes are described, which is the only way a piece of writing comes alive.
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
Technically I finished both of these right at the end of October, so they didn’t make it into my October write-up. These are not necessarily books suited to everyone but they formed part of my thesis research on period poverty and thus were informative and might be useful for people (particularly men) who have no clue about menstruation and the unequal economic (and other) burdens it places on women. Most surprising to me is how many women know so very little about their own bodies and the economic situations of others (i.e., period products are taxed in many countries as non-essential luxury items, meaning that a lot of women struggle to afford them and are often making choices between tampons or food).
This was something that informed my thesis work, but as someone interested in how we communicate about and for social change and justice, this is an essential volume.
Kasparov’s work really speaks for itself. The only issue I had was minor and factual; the book made the mistake of confusing Slovakia and Slovenia, which had nothing to do with the overall content of the book. But a basic fact check or proofread should have caught this.
And there are valid, timely warnings for what we’re going through now.
“Despite the attempt to rebrand the method as “engagement,” the smell of appeasement is impossible to mask. The fundamental lesson of Chamberlain and Daladier going to see Hitler in Munich in 1938 is valid today: giving a dictator what he wants never stops him from wanting more; it convinces him you aren’t strong enough to stop him from taking what he wants. Otherwise, goes the dictator’s thought process, you would stand up to him from the start.”
“When I am asked if Putin was inevitable, this is why I say you have to start ten years before anyone knew his name. By the time Yeltsin made Putin the heir apparent, Russians were demanding stability and looking for a tough guy to stand up to the criminals and to the Western influences they’d been told were damaging the country and their pensions. To prevent Putin, or a Putin, from coming to power, the 1990s would have required a very different script with less appeasement of Yeltsin and his entourage and stronger support for democratic institutions.”
I had seen all the publicity around this book and had no intention of reading it. But one Saturday or Sunday morning, tired of reading social psychology papers and even more tired of the embarrassing, frightening circus that is the contemporary political landscape, I decided to latch onto the bittersweet nostalgia of the Obamas via the former First Lady’s autobio. While it mostly read as expected, the moments around the first Obama presidential victory re-awakened the emotion I felt on election day 2008. I want to scream about our current dilemma/disaster, “How did we get here?” except that I know the answer: we were always here.
This is not exactly a coincidence, but more of a “crossover”. I suppose it’s inevitable that if you’re doing two study programs simultaneously, even if they are in entirely different disciplines, you will stumble across topics and theories that have some applicability (even possibly novel applicability) in the other. I have to say that the vague, esoteric nature of one of my fields has made it more difficult to engage fully with and apply theory adequately, but the much more grounded and detailed nature of psychology studies (and research methods) has helped. I came across Gusfield in some of my psych readings and realized that there are aspects of his work on making private/individual problems public that could be an interesting angle for my other line of inquiry…
I had never really thought about drinking-driving, as he refers to it, in the way he frames it. While I certainly do believe that the individual does have responsibility for drinking-driving as a choice, I can appreciate Gusfield’s analysis that the rest of society has been built in a way that doesn’t offer many choices. (It’s more complex than this, of course, but that’s why the book was worth reading.)
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
I read quite a few independently published books of poetry this month, and most of them were pretty disappointing. I won’t call any of them out because they all offered something worthwhile even if, on the whole, I wouldn’t buy these books again.
Also, I was writing a paper about narcissism and democracy, and found a book that seemed like it might be interesting as background information:
“The narcissist has no interest in the future because, in part, he has so little interest in the past. He finds it difficult to internalize happy associations or to create a store of loving memories with which to face the latter part of his life, which under the best of conditions always brings sadness and pain. In a narcissistic society—a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits—the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.”
I was wrong. It had interesting parts but I suppose I had bigger expectations for it than it could have lived up to and had no applicability to the paper I was trying to write. To find the good points, you’d have to read very carefully and ignore a lot of unsavory moralizing.
It’s my own fault for not looking at anything about Lasch before reading it – he leans heavily conservative on social issues, and many good points are masked by this moralistic tone. For example, he argued that the unshakeable and often unrealistic American clinging to the idea of “Progress” (and its inevitability) makes Americans deaf and resistant to (his) warnings or ideas – but frankly, it, by extension, makes Americans deaf and resistant to all ideas that don’t fit in with this uniquely American and blind construction of the world.
“A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.”
I have always felt a certain ache reading this poem, but oddly had never found a copy of the original Russian until now – and somehow the original wrings an even greater emotional toll from the reader. I notice also that the English translation simply, generically, cites “concentration camp” while the original specifies “Майданек” (Majdanek). Perhaps the generic reference holds more power for those who don’t recognize the name of the camp, but for me at least, the naming leveled a certain kind of realism-gut-punch.
Not waking, in my dreams, my dreams,
I saw you–you were alive.
You had endured all and come to me,
crossing the last frontier.
You were earth already, ashes, you
were my glory, my punishment.
But, in spite of life,
you rose from your thousand
You passed through war hell, concentration camp,
through furnace, drunk with the flames,
through your own death you entered Leningrad,
came out of love for me.
You found my house, but I live now
not in our house, in another;
and a new husband shares my waking hours . . .
O how could you not have known?!
Like the master of the house, proudly you crossed
the threshold, stood there lovingly.
And I murmured: “God will rise again,”
and made the sign of the cross
over you–the unbeliever’s cross, the cross
of despair, as black as pitch,
the cross that was made over each house
that winter, that winter in which
O my friend, forgive me
as I sigh. How long have I not known
where waking ends and the dream begins . . .
Не наяву, но во сне, во сне
я увидала тебя: ты жив.
Ты вынес все и пришел ко мне,
пересек последние рубежи.
Ты был землею уже, золой,
славой и казнью моею был.
Но, смерти назло
и жизни назло,
ты встал из тысяч
Ты шел сквозь битвы, Майданек, ад,
сквозь печи, пьяные от огня,
сквозь смерть свою ты шел в Ленинград,
дошел, потому что любил меня.
Ты дом нашел мой, а я живу
не в нашем доме теперь, в другом,
и новый муж у меня — наяву…
О, как ты не догадался о нем?!
Хозяином переступил порог,
гордым и радостным встал, любя.
А я бормочу: «Да воскреснет бог»,
а я закрещиваю тебя
крестом неверующих, крестом
отчаянья, где не видать ни зги,
которым закрещен был каждый дом
в ту зиму, в ту зиму, как ты погиб…
О друг,— прости мне невольный стон:
давно не знаю, где явь, где сон ..
Sex – A Five-Minute Briefing
He took her through a fire hydrant
And through her mouth an herbarium began to fall
An aquarium of innards shimmered and banked
He threw up with both legs
It snowed and snowed the whole weekend in Iran
He took her
from one end of the train to the other
He ate her organics while the gas fumes
choked his bronchial tubes exhausted from his chase
the way he ate away at her tissues swilled from her loins
and copper seethed in his throat
It snowed and snowed all month from the fog
He lit a smoke
took a break
Later he took her through a plate of glass
through a system of lenses and a condenser
like a bobber began to shake with a gorged tremor
when he took out
his paddlehis drill
It snowed and snowed
Then he even crawled away and yelled SIC HER
began to observe how the others proceeded with her too
Then he remembered a close-up shot from the film Nostalgia
and he took her again through a hyphen this time
It snowed and snowed from the screwdriver to the fine
Drink to the brotherhood! Like a drunken slave
Wrapped for a night in wolf’s clothing.
He rummaged among the fixtures
It snowed and snowed
He took her in a coffin
And like a simple art investigator
he pressed her bone marrow to her stomach
overcoming the sensation of pathos and intestinal smog
he took her without roses
and almost without pride not posing at full height
through anabiosis and converter
And having hunched over her
out of violenceout of tenderness and abuse
he pulled out her soul having taken her the best he
across the Urals Then he closed the gate
trembled until morning in the cold and sweat
prick open the door
but no he never picked grandaddy’s lock
It snowed and snowed from Easter to May Day
A wet snow fell the barge-haulers groaned
And it was unbearably
his Adam’s apple
dropping to his shin
like a pelican with the Pirquet reaction
that doesn’t fit the law of a draftman’s tools
It snowed and snowed he pulled out of the nose dive
A wet snow fell the sky it grew dark
the wind picked up the pond hawked
smoke in the stove pipe untwirled
whistling the opera Don Phallus
It snowed and snowed he came out of the water
Dry like Shchors
And then he took her once more.
секс-пятиминутка (конструктор для детей преклонного возраста)
Он взял ее через пожарный кран
И через рот посыпался гербарий
Аквариум нутра мерцал и падал в крен
Его рвало обеими ногами
Мело-мело весь уик-энд в Иране
Он взял ее
на весь вагон
Он ел ее органику и нефть
забила бронхи узкие от гона
Он мякоть лопал и хлестал из лона
и в горле у него горела медь
Мело-мело весь месяц из тумана
Потом он взял ее через стекло
через систему линз и конденсатор
как поплавок зашелся дрожью сытой
когда он вынимал свое сверло
Потом отполз и хрипло крикнул ФАС
И стал смотреть что делают другие
Потом он вспомнил кадр из “Ностальгии”
и снова взял ее уже через дефис
Мело-мело с отвертки на карниз
на брудершафт Как пьяного раба
завертывают на ночь в вольчью шкуру
Он долго ковырялся с арматурой
Он взял ее в гробу
И как простой искусствоиспытатель
он прижимал к желудку костный мозг
превозмогая пафос и кишечный смог
он взял ее уже почти без роз
почти без гордости без позы в полный рост
И скрючившись от мерзости от нежности и мата
он вынул душу взяв ее как мог
через Урал Потом закрыл ворота
и трясся до утра от холода и пота
не попадая в дедовский замок
Мело-мело От пасхи до салюта
Шел мокрый снег Стонали бурлаки
И был невыносимо генитален гениален
как пеликан с реакцией Пирке
не уместившийся в футляры готовален
Мело-мело Он вышел из пике
Шел мокрый снег Колдобило Смеркалось
Поднялся ветер Харкнули пруды
В печной трубе раскручивался дым
насвистывая оперу Дон Фаллос
Мело-мело Он вышел из воды
сухим Как Щорс
И взял ее еще раз
Awakened by insomnia,
I do not leave my bed.
kindhearted sleep will envelop
This unwanted idleness.
I lie and listen to the street.
There the night is empty and still.
Someone else’s misfortune
Engulfs me suddenly.
in the humming entry way
Beside the radiators;
It no longer hopes
To change its own life.
But I am still full of bravado;
I have no trust in grief;
I do not raise a cry;
I squeeze my heart in my fist.
Не расстаюсь с постелью.
сон добросердный склонится
Над вынужденным бездельем.
Лежу и улицу слушаю.
В ней ночью пусто и тихо…
Но вот на меня обрушилось
Чье-то чужое лихо.
В гудящем подъезде греется
У батарей отопительных…
Оно уже не надеется
Влиять на свою действительность.
А я еще хорохорюсь.
Не доверяю горю.
Крика не подымаю.
Сердце в кулак сжимаю.
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 Денисовича – Aleksandr 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)
“My only home is my throat.”
*Fugitive Pieces – Anne 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
“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.”
“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.’”
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
“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.”
“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.
“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.
*The Attack – Yasmina 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 Ourselves – Karen 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 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.
*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.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.
A White City
My thoughts turn south
a white city
we will wake in one another’s arms.
and hear the steampipe knock
like a metal heart
and find it has snowed.
“Feathers” – disposable, melting feathers – is the only word I can conjure to describe the perplexing, disappointing late-April Swedish weather. It’s not all bad, locked away in semi-seclusion with books and warmth and soup.
Find yourself a reliable soup-maker, people, and this will imbue your life with great satisfaction and nourishment. And when I say “soup-maker” here I am referring to a person who makes soup, not some device that will whip up soup for you. I remember being in Russian class many years ago, and all of the students believed that the word defined as “dishwasher” (посудомойка) in our textbook referred to a dishwashing machine. When a Russian lecturer came to take over our class on a Fulbright fellowship, she laughed and disabused us of this radically foolish notion. Would Russians circa 1992 have had dishwashers (посудомоечная машина) in their homes? How silly we were, she laughed.
There is much beauty in simplicity – and in ironing out the misunderstandings.
Snow, soup, and loud New Order, not unlike a rare snow day in Seattle in my youth – staying awake all night hoping school would be cancelled.
I recalled a nightmare from a few nights ago. In it, I lived in Paris and worked as an English teacher for three French kids. I got through one 45-minute lesson with them, and I was miserable, counting the seconds until the lesson was over. In my mind, I was feverishly thinking about how I could get out of this huge mistake. How did I end up being in that situation and how could I possibly teach even one more lesson when just one was interminably long and hellish?
It made me wonder how I had spent something like half a year teaching kids. What an eternity ago that was (almost 20 years!), and what a horror show.
I also had a dream in which I married someone I had only met the previous week. And we were happy for one week. But then misery came in massive clusters. I am pretty sure I know what that was all about.
And last night I was dreaming in Russian for the first time since I was actively studying Russian. It was a strange mix of things. I was reading and speaking Russian, but I ended up having a conversation with a guy (American) I had known many years ago about a Russian poem I had (in reality, not in the dream) shared with him back then: “The new blast-furnace in the Kemerovo metallurgical combine” by Bella Akhmadulina. (I can’t find an English version of it to share here right now.) I have not read the poem or talked to the guy in question for at least 15 years. Maybe the guy came to mind both because the poem entered my dreaming mind and also because I had been thinking about how he’d been in thousands of dollars of debt because he was making local long-distance phone calls, which seems ridiculous when considered today with the array of tools we can use to call people anywhere in the world basically for free.
Also wondering whether I should reread The Master and Margarita?