Said and read – July 2018

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It seems I only managed to read 23 books in July, even though it felt like more. But there were many skipped days; many days when reading seemed out of my grasp and more of a grim prospect. Why? I don’t know. Was it the unrelenting heat that didn’t let up for more than two months? Was it other concerns? Was it the length or other demands of the material I did read? I can’t answer these questions. I can say that though I enjoyed most of the things I read in July, I wasn’t as immersed in my reading – perhaps because there really were more things taking my time and focus.

Many things I read brought my late grandmother to mind. Seeing as how she is the one who instilled a near-obsessive love for reading, it seems appropriate.

Dig further into what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating in June, May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

Thoughts on reading for July:

Highly recommended

*Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern RelationshipsChristopher RyanCacilda Jethá

The last book I read in July, Sex at Dawn was certainly the most engrossing. While I didn’t find its organization to be entirely logical, it was full of such fascinating information that … well, organization be damned. It was hard not to devour this book in one sitting. One might argue that it’s just because this book is about sex, which automatically makes it more titillating than anything else. But no, it’s more that this book uses scientific inquiry/discovery, evolutionary biology, anthropology and a broad range of studies in multiple fields to question the western (and highly American) approach to sex, which is to tether it to moralizing and, moreover, monogamy.

Some observations are particularly relevant at this point in history, i.e. things we’ve been indoctrinated to perceive as ‘instinctive’ or ‘natural’ are conditioning:

“Modern man’s seemingly instinctive impulse to control women’s sexuality is not an intrinsic feature of human nature. It is a response to specific historical socioeconomic conditions—conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. This is key to understanding sexuality in the modern world.”

And who doesn’t want to see almost primitive drawings of the great apes that illustrate their penis and testicle sizes?

*Homeland and Other StoriesBarbara Kingsolver

I am not usually a short story kind of person, but Kingsolver’s collection had a few deeply poignant stories. And even the most surface-level among them had resonance. Kingsolver breathes life into her characters, even in a brief story; she makes their dialogue (both verbal and internal) so true to reality, even when they express things that are difficult to capture (and she makes it seem so effortless).

“It’s frightening, she thinks, how when the going gets rough you fall back on whatever awful thing you grew up with.”

“You know what I think? Immortality is the wrong reason,” she said, and suddenly there were two streams of tears on her shiny cheeks. “Having a child wouldn’t make you immortal. It would make you twice as mortal. It’s just one more life you could possibly lose, besides your own. Two more eyes to be put out, and ten more toes to get caught under the mower.”

“A friend of mine, new to extramarital sex, said she loved how condoms kept everything neatly packaged up, but I didn’t. I knew I would wake up in the morning missing the stickiness, proof that someone had needed me in the night.”

*The Collected Poems of Audre LordeAudre Lorde

It’s Audre Lorde. It’s poetry. Do I really need to say more?

“A woman measures her life’s damage
my eyes are caves, chunks of etched rock
tied to the ghost of a black boy
whistling
crying and frightened
her tow-headed children cluster
like little mirrors of despair
their father’s hands upon them
and soundlessly
a woman begins to weep.”

-from “Afterimages

*Collected Poems, 1974-2004Rita Dove

from “Parlor”

“We passed through on the way to anywhere else. No one lived there but silence, a pale china gleam, and the tired eyes of saints aglow on velvet. Mom says things are made to be used. But Grandma insisted peace was in what wasn’t there, strength in what was unsaid. It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind.”

Poetry, of course.

I loved this thought: “It would be nice to have a room you couldn’t enter, except in your mind”. I loved that the grandma in the poem said it because it made me think… my grandma would have said something similar (probably likening reading to a room you enter only in your mind, opening an invisible door to imagination). Also, it made me immediately think of a book I read some time ago – The Room by Jonas Karlsson. Was the main character mad/insane because he believed he was entering a room that no one else could see?

Good – really good

*Boy, Snow, BirdHelen Oyeyemi

Not having enjoyed the only other book of Oyeyemi’s I read not too long ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Boy, Snow, Bird… but I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t know until after I read it that it was inspired by the Snow White fairy tale and taken as a departure point from there. Looking back on the book now, it’s quite clear – the obsessive relationship each character has with mirrors (‘mirror, mirror…’) and her (in)ability to see herself clearly (or at all) in the reflection is a clue.

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s.”

I can’t describe what I found as engaging as I did with this book – I felt that the characters were rich and intriguing, and this is probably what guided me through. There are bits that feel underdeveloped (e.g., the somewhat abrupt and almost inexplicable shift to ice-queen evil stepmother – this is not really explained fully by the birth of the stepmother character’s own child; also the end-of-story reveal about the stepmother’s father’s identity – it’s not shocking but seems to be delivered in a bundle, quickly, all of a sudden, and that doesn’t feel in keeping with the rest of the storytelling and its pace).

I think the treatment of identity, shifting identity and “passing” (whether it’s passing within another race, another gender, as another person when you move to a community as a complete stranger, and particularly taking on the title and identity of being a mother) are important and fascinating aspects of how this book is written.

*The End of the Affair & The Quiet AmericanGraham Greene

For many years, I’ve intended to read Graham Greene. In my reading frenzy of the last two years, I tried a few times but couldn’t find e-books until now. I started with the two best-known (to me) because both were made into relatively well-received films some years ago. Neither film could delve as deeply into some of the more philosophical aspects covered by the books, but both films were decent representations of the stories and their characters.

“To me comfort is like the wrong memory at the wrong place or time: if one is lonely one prefers discomfort.” –The End of the Affair

While both books held my attention, I think The Quiet American struck me as more powerful at the time of reading – perhaps because the questions of faith in The End of the Affair were tedious to me; perhaps because the objectification of the Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American took on a fascinating edge as I compared it against real-life developments in the lives of people around me. Who knows?

“‘But she loves you, doesn’t she?’ ‘Not like that. It isn’t in their nature. You’ll find that out. It’s a cliché to call them children—but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them—they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like—just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, Pyle, it’s very secure—she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.’” –The Quiet American

While TQA does not exactly rob the female character of all agency (she does make choices), her voice is not heard as an active part of the story. Two men claim to be in love with her and fight for her in their own ways – but neither can possibly know her. The older, more cynical of the two (the book’s narrator and anti-hero) knows he cannot know her and acknowledges and accepts the transactional quality of their relationship. The “quiet American” (Pyle) meets the woman one night and claims, after having shared a virtually wordless dance (they don’t speak any of the same languages) that he is completely in love with her and wants to marry her. (I’ve seen variations of this ‘insta-love’ played out among people I know, particularly in cases with these non-communicative dynamics at play – when lust is essentially the only factor the lovesick individual can be relying on.)

On an entirely different note, The Quiet American is set against a backdrop of post-colonial Vietnam – the French are leaving and the Americans are rolling in. The titular quiet American is the… all-American/pro-American, naive, anti-Communist, black-and-white type who sees none of the nuance of the culture or the conflict, i.e. insisting that the Vietnamese “don’t want Communism”, not seeming to grasp that many Vietnamese – like people in any country – aren’t for or against ideologies. They just want to live.

“‘They don’t want Communism.’

‘They want enough rice,’ I said. ‘They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.’

‘If Indo-China goes …’

‘I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does “go” mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans. And remember—from a buffalo’s point of view you are a European too.’

‘They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.’

‘Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?’

‘You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?’

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘we’ve brought them up in our ideas. We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut. We deserve to have them cut. I wish your friend York was here too. I wonder how he’d relish it.’

‘York Harding’s a very courageous man. Why, in Korea …’

‘He wasn’t an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk’s flagellation.’

…They didn’t answer: just lowered back at us behind the stumps of their cigarettes. ‘They think we are French,’ I said.

‘That’s just it,’ Pyle said. ‘You shouldn’t be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism.’

‘Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife. I’ve seen a priest, so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old cup—a wooden platter. I don’t believe in God and yet I’m for that priest. Why don’t you call that colonialism?’

‘It is colonialism. York says it’s often the good administrators who make it hard to change a bad system.’

‘Anyway the French are dying every day—that’s not a mental concept. They aren’t leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians—and ours. I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven’t a liberal party any more—liberalism’s infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists…” – The Quiet American

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Cancer Ward/Раковый Корпус Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I reread Cancer Ward after about 20 (or more) years, and this time read it in English and Russian. When I read it in English so many years ago, I found it engrossing but, as with all translations, wondered what nuances I was missing. Just like with Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich, which I reread a few months ago, I found that the sentence structure in translation is very different. There is usually such clean simplicity in the Russian – that’s not to say it is simple language or prose. Rather, it just isn’t the verbose and over-egged English translation that marks most translation of Solzhenitsyn that I’ve read. Not that I want to go about attempting to translate anything myself – more power to those who take on such labors professionally. It’s just a blessing to be able to read the originals myself and compare the two.

“It was simply that we grow dull with the passing years. We grow tired. We lose all true talent for grief or for faithfulness. We surrender to time. Yet every day we swallow food and lick our fingers—in this respect we are unyielding. If we’re not fed for two days we go out of our minds, we start climbing up the wall. Fine progress we’ve made, we human beings.”

Coincidences

*CompulsionMeyer Levin

Once upon a time, my family moved into a house that had some hideous wallpaper adorning the walls of the extra bathroom. Apart from its obvious yellowing from age and being in a household of heavy smokers, it featured depictions of classic cars from the teens and 1920s, one of which was a Stutz-Bearcat. I don’t recall any longer what some of the other motors were, but the Stutz is fresh in my memory because every time my grandmother came to visit and went into that bathroom, she would emerge to tell the story of how infamous murderers Leopold and Loeb were, in part, caught because of their Stutz-Bearcat.

I am not sure how many times in my life I heard the story of the 1924 crime in which two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, conceived of committing the “perfect crime” and then kidnapped and killed a young boy with whom they were vaguely acquainted. At some point I saw a film called Compulsion, which told the story of the crime, the ensuing investigation and the eventual trial that spared both Leopold and Loeb from received death sentences (thanks to their attorney, the famed Clarence Darrow). I didn’t know at the time (I must have been in high school) that the film was based on a fictionalized account of the crime and trial, also called Compulsion, written by Meyer Levin. I also had no idea that Levin’s book served as a kind of template/model for later true-crime writing that came later, e.g. Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood. I eventually also saw a low-budget indie, Swoon, which dramatized the Leopold and Loeb story, and focused on the fact that the two men were involved in a homosexual relationship, which is something that the film version of Compulsion ignored and the book dealt with to some extent but, given the time of its publication, homosexuality was still widely referred to as some sort of sickness, mental illness or perversion.

It’s only recently that I decided to read the book – and found it to be a fascinating and more detailed look at the case and how it unfolded. I am sure my grandmother would be thrilled.

*Dangling ManSaul Bellow

Something about how the main character in this novella reacts and has increasingly violent, disruptive and unpredictable outbursts (“I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I know I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely.”) feels too familiar – reflections of all the people I have known (there have been too many) who throw fits about seemingly nothing and overreact to everything. It’s always frightened me, but it has come to anger me as well.

“Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them. To a degree, everyone obeys this code. And it does admit of a limited kind of candor, a closemouthed straightforwardness.”

While I can feel compassion for those who are clearly struggling with something – probably some form of mental illness – it always feels oppressive to live in the shadow of these kinds of people. In that sense, if it’s not mental illness that drives them to behave this way, it’s a way of being that robs others of their sense of security, safety and comfort and plants within them such fear that they never trust or can never, by extension, truly experience intimacy in their lives.

Reading this I was not as interested in the main character/narrator as I was in his wife and her inner life, about which, of course, we learn next to nothing. (Not unlike how I always want to dig deeper into Sonia in Crime and Punishment.) How does the narrator’s wife choose to stay with him, support him and live on edge all the time, never knowing when one of his outbursts is going to create a scene, turmoil in their lives (e.g. getting them kicked out of their house) or ultimately add to her already heavy burden?

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*White TearsHari Kunzru

Recommended to me, I was hoping for something… else. I don’t know what that something else is/was, but it wasn’t what I got. It’s not that White Tears was bad – there are some compelling thoughts in it about cultural appropriation, about authenticity, exploitation and privilege. But I felt at times that it was just too taxing to read about these unlikable characters whose only identities (as was the point, I suppose) were intertwined with this endless search for this (artificial/non-existent) pinnacle of the real, the authentic… to the point of complete madness. However, poking fun at hipsters is always welcome.

“When you are powerless, something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened. For you, it happened, but somehow they remember it differently, or don’t remember it at all. You can tell them, but it slips their minds. When you are powerless, everything you do seems to be in vain.”

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. It 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.)