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.

The changing workscape: War on meetings & so-called solutions

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…a committee decides, which committee decides, which committee decides, which committee decides…

Well I’m getting paper cuts, my eyes are bloodshot, from watching the tape turn red…

The Pentagon has too much paperwork to start a real war, I wish they’d just send me instead…

Ed Haynes – “I Want to Kill Everybody”

Long gone are the days when idle, if extreme, hyperbolic statements like “I Want to Kill Everybody” go unnoticed. Ed Haynes’s tongue-in-cheek protest song from the late 80s brings me back to a time when this kind of exaggeration – a modest proposal – could be said or sung and accepted in the joking, if frustrated, tone in which it was intended*. No one would call HR and think you were plotting to go postal tomorrow. (And Ed, your theme is as timely as ever. Strangely, there is very little to be found about Ed Haynes online – not even a Wikipedia page. I even have an ex-boyfriend or two with Wiki pages; how can Ed Haynes have almost no online presence, apart from a few CD reviews and listings for live shows he played in Portland, Oregon?)

I thought of good old Ed Haynes’s song, the anthem of my junior high school years, today as I sat in a meeting in which we were introduced to a new timekeeping system. The system exists ostensibly to keep track of projects to find out how much time is really being spent on them in order to better allocate existing resources (or to know where to supplement with additional resources). The presenter expressed the time-saving wizardry made possible with this new tool, which we are to use in addition to the hundreds of other tools piled on other tools where we are supposed to “report” things in the name of increased efficiency. Of course if we are spending half our time filling in reports in various systems, I think our resource problem is that we are spending half our time filling in reports.

Old Ed and his committees deciding on committees deciding, which – fair enough – springs to mind more often than it should in the current workplace, came to mind when the presenter showed a slide that housed several boxes with text in them, explaining how the decision had been made to run with this new system over a year ago… and many workshops, workgroups, task forces and other importantly-named committees met to analyze and discuss and brainstorm. See a problem here?

The company knew (or believed with no sense of irony) that it was underresourced. So, they took a large chunk of said resources and occupied their time with committees and workshops and task forces for months… all to come to the brilliant conclusion that they needed to measure how much time was being used on different projects in order to assign resources better. But what if – just what if – we cut out the years of analysis and internal focus groups and just accepted upfront that we need to implement a system and measure people’s time? Why take a year or more to decide that and then start a whole new process to choose a system for implementation?

The kicker is that most of the groups that work on a project basis today already have some form of time reporting that supposedly addresses these exact kinds of needs. Perhaps this new miraculous tool (and this company falls prey to the snake oil salesman every time – some system or another is a panacea for all our disorganized ills) will give us all the answers! Yes, it might be streamlined compared to the other solutions being used today. But what if they use this tool to collect data but then don’t actually use or interpret the data?

Oh, Ed, please cut the red tape and go directly to war… on meetings and more meetings about potentially useless, time wasting supposed time savers and redundant “solutions” that just create more work for everyone involved.

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*Back in the old days, you could actually say things that would be considered violent threats now. When I was an adolescent and working in the school office, I was walking in the hallway one day, and a kid who had been kicked out of another classroom for misbehaving said something suitably rude: “What would you give me if I let you give me a blow job?” I kept walking, but said, “A serious gunshot wound.” He sulked but nothing happened. Now, of course, I would be expelled from school for making violent threats – even though it was clearly a joke and clearly the kind of sarcastic reply called for in that situation. I don’t necessarily long for the “good old days” but somehow think that the more prohibitive we are with verbal expression, the more bottled up people’s frustrations will be.

Harbingers of Techie Doom – Skipping Humanity

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Circulating on the web is an article called “Young Techies – Know Your Place” by Bryan Goldberg. He contends that it’s a great piece of satire (a point that has been lambasted, in particular by Andrew Leonard at Salon and Jason Calacanis).

It’s hard to sum up concisely all the things that are wrong with the so-called “satire”.

It reminds me a lot of debates about whether athletes should finish school before they go pro – or grab the opportunity when they have it. In those cases, the window and scope of opportunity (and probability of getting injured) indicates that young athletes should probably seize the chance while they have it. You have all your life to go back to school later.

The same could be said of young techies – and we could all embrace the idea that formal education can be had any time (granted, it gets harder to fit into your life as you get older and have more responsibilities, but at the same time, many new high school grads really are not mature enough to invest the kind of money in college that they do and end up wasting a lot of money and dropping out or spending a lot of money and still coming out without a clue about what they want to do). If a person has the tech skills needed and in-demand and can gain valuable work experience – well-paid or not – that’s great. I don’t think anyone is saying that that should not be a personal choice.

However, Calacanis succinctly pointed out the insensitivity and lack of humanity in Goldberg’s argument: “polarization of wealth & unemployment are important issues of our time–not something to be a smug about”.

It is not as though people are not routinely priced out of living in certain cities (this has always been a problem, to varying degrees, in San Francisco, New York, London, Paris). But to laud the ability to drive prices up (rather artificially) not only sounds smug but points out clearly what these young techies may be missing in their makeup: humanity and compassion.

Humanity and compassion cannot be taught in school or in a menial job, but so much of what happens at university, as an example, is sociological learning, analysis, learning to think and process new kinds of information, emotional maturity, character building. A lot of what happens when you work in “menial 8-dollar-an-hour” jobs is a kind of learning how to live a grounded, down-to-earth life. That’s not to say everyone has to do that to understand. It is just that “jumping to the front of the line” and being smug about it – and not at all considering the larger-scale repercussions for all people – of any “revolution” (in this case a geographically restricted tech revolution that is upending real-estate/housing stability) – denies the idea that poverty or becoming one of the working poor is something that could happen to anyone. While it is not particularly likely for many of the young techies, there is something about lacking well-roundedness or lacking the connectedness to a community, that is alarming. Or, maybe it is not their disconnectedness – as much as it seems to be the disconnectedness of the guy writing on their behalf – satirically, as he claims.