You Are At Home Here
I study lungs. I go nowhere.
I gaze at the edge of white mountains. I want to die.
The path goes into money. Now I can occupy a calendar
of authority and give away the tent. They are twisted
into the song, the food, the sea. They are dressed
in white stories. He wasn’t hoarse, who didn’t know,
a stamp healed the window and the wound together.
The motive is beautiful. The elephant is bottomless.
It spins vases and the girls in them.
It spills itself on little cups, a coffee, an airplane
kneels in the overgrown grass. This isn’t my bread.
The bread is all yours. It adorns itself with claws.
Jump into the factory of rough flags
and stretch the edge. Fall asleep with the stretched edge.
In the Tongues of Bells
I decant a blossom. It goes before you.
You’re filled with Uriah. Green, tiny and pressed.
Blueness is a furious cake, a round
cake where yearning sleeps. Are the balls
the balls of the earth? At wells
and fountains? At Atlas’ pillar?
You say that you’d be my property.
You’d lose everything instantly.
I still wouldn’t notice you anymore, injured.
I choose from the thickness. Honey collects
cries. And when the body thickens and you get up
because I dress you, because I congeal you.
I erase you back in the past. I draw
a white flap, shine a white flap.
Textbooks. That’s about all I can say or reflect on with regard to books read in October. My neck and shoulders are crying out similarly (as I’ve dutifully lugged these texts with me all over the place). It’s been interesting, and has informed many of my non-studious discussions, but nothing worth writing extensively about.
I have been pleased, though, that I’ve somehow managed to keep my head above water over the course of October, which will (along with the first half of November) be the most challenging time of 2018. I enjoyed a brief re-connection with a university-era acquaintance who was apparently inspired by this blog to think differently about what he reads, which in turn gave me things to contemplate with regard to how I consume my literature – and why.
Feel free to dig further into what I was reading over the course of the year, which was undoubtedly more interesting than now: September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious. Or follow me on Goodreads to see a list of pretty much *everything* I read.
Thoughts on reading for October:
I read this novel in the course of a couple of short flights, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I had had no idea what to expect. The style was infused by such intensity that I couldn’t stop reading.
“But Marcello, we were all innocent. Don’t you think I was innocent, too? And we all lose our innocence, one way or another. That’s normality.”
Still, Italy isn’t fooling me.
“He observed all these people from under his lashes with urgent repugnance. It always happened like this: he thought he was normal, like everyone else, when he imagined the crowd in abstract, a great, positive army united by the same feelings, the same ideas, the same aims; and it was comforting to be part of this. But as soon as individuals emerged out of that crowd, his illusion of normality shattered against the fact of diversity. He did not recognize himself at all in them and felt both disgust and detachment.“
Good – really good
Perhaps my interests are skewed toward social and economic justice, equality and equality of opportunity, and Sen’s ideas on development and development as freedom are thus especially appealing to my kind of thinking… nevertheless, he makes compelling arguments for these ideals with evidence from within the framework of fairly mainstream and widely quoted/perceived-as-capitalist thinking in the extreme (e.g. Adam Smith: “We have to begin by noting that Smith was deeply skeptical of the morals of the rich—there is no author (not even Karl Marx) who made such strong criticism of the motives of the economically well placed vis-à-vis the interests of the poor.“).
“Development can be seen, it is argued here, as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization.”
And we can see more clearly than ever the way these fundamental freedoms are withheld from the majority, leading the situation in what are often cited as the most prosperous societies:
“Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers—perhaps even the majority—of people. Sometimes the lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. In other cases, the unfreedom links closely to the lack of public facilities and social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programs, or of organized arrangements for health care or educational facilities, or of effective institutions for the maintenance of local peace and order.“
I read several books about poverty, gentrification and the homelessness/housing crises as side effects of unequal economic development and infrastructural collapse in the United States, but didn’t find any of them to be as urgent or in-depth as they should be given the extent of the problem. I suppose Sen’s theories and analysis feels more important, even if it is grounded in theory rather than in the daily-life inability of individuals to pay their rent.
“Daville thought: “The terrible thing is not that we grow old and weak and die, but that a new, younger, different breed comes pushing behind us. This is the essence of death. No one drags us toward the grave, we’re pushed in from behind.””
Andrić just has a way with describing people and scenes that I can’t quite compare to anything else.
“One approaches every parting with a twofold illusion. The person we are parting from—especially when, as in this case, it is likely to be forever—appears to us far more valuable and deserving of our attention than heretofore, and we ourselves feel much more capable of generous and selfless friendship than in fact we are.“
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
As always, it’s poetry that grounds me when I need to reconnect to myself and escape from work or study.
Nothing terribly coincidental although I find trivial tidbits interesting, such as reading about one of the pioneers of psychology/leaders of behaviorism, John B. Watson (who is woven throughout almost all of my current textbooks) is the grandfather of the actress and mental health activist/advocate, Mariette Hartley.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
I don’t think I can characterize anything I read as a disappointment or a source of strong feelings whatsoever. The workload of textbook reading is not exactly pleasure reading, and I am finding some things more interesting than others, but nothing qualifies as something I’ve actively disliked. The whole textbook ‘style’ lacks anything that endears the reader to it, but it serves its purpose.
Kiss the Eyes of Peace
Kiss the eyes of Peace, may it stream down
upon the trees. The sun shines and no longer roars
so intolerably. The soul again hopes to sense its
ribs, the sap. The cold has done me good. If the wind
blows, and I walk and watch the cars, life
brings me back to itself. It would be terrible
not to recognize anyone at the departure.
They’d be too far to touch or
be felt. In the pitch darkness I would not hold the memory
of love. A crust of ice forms on molten lava.
In time I might again be able to slide off. Walk
those roads of dust. Shake the jacket off, if it’s
dusty. There has been too much honey and grace, that’s
all. Too many blessings break a man apart.
Poljubi oči Miru
Poljubi oči Miru, ki naj se razlije po
drevesih. Sonce zunaj sije in ne buči več
tako neznosno. Duša upa spet začutiti svoja
rebra, svoj sok. Mraz mi je dobro del. Če
piham in hodim in gledam avtomobile, me
življenje vrne sebi. Najbolj strašno bi
bilo, ker pri odhodu ne bi nikogar spoznal.
Predaleč bi bili, da bi se jih dotaknil ali
čutil. V črni temi ne bi ohranil spomina na
ljubezen. Skorja ledu se dela čez vrelo lavo.
Počasi se bom morda lahko spet zadrsal. Hodil
po prašnih cestah. Otersel suknjič, če bo
prašno. Preveč medu in miline je bilo, to je
vse. Od prevelikega razkošja se človek razleti.
Rushing around these days preparing for an intense next (at least) six months, I feel a sense of premature loss. I know that I will be unable to continue reading as much or at the furious pace I have maintained for the last (almost) two years. This may, in fact, even be the last of these recap posts that I put together for a while because I simply doubt that I will have the time, nor will I have read enough to make these recaps worthwhile. This is not to say that they have been worthwhile in a wider sense (as in, useful to anyone but me). Indulgence at its finest. And now, I shall not have time to indulge in quite this way.
Knowing that this moment of bittersweet “parting” from leisurely, if voracious and greedy, reading was coming to an end, I spent most of August trying to work my way through things I’d begun reading and hadn’t finished, and through the list of books I’d already purchased but hadn’t seen fit to dive into yet. As of August 20, when I started drafting this, I had read 32 books, which is a good bit more ambitious than July’s 23 books. I hope to finish at least 10 more before the month ends (done). I don’t necessarily place stock in keeping a running tally on this, and it is not about quantity, as I keep having to explain to people. It’s just so satisfying to keep devouring such different writings from all over the world. Just this month, to note the diversity, I swung from Novica Tadić‘s spare poetry to Ousmane Sembène‘s Xala, both loved, from the complete Martha Quest/Children of Violence series by Doris Lessing (which I mostly disliked, wanting to kill Quest by the end, but nevertheless persevered) to non-fiction about hormones…
I don’t really know how much or what kinds of things I will find time to read, as I will be up to my eyeballs in formal study. That said, I am still the kind of weirdo who gets distracted looking for one thing – a poem I thought was written by Irving Feldman but was actually written by Michael Ryan that references semen – only to stumble on a good many clinical studies on semen quality, and I was drawn to/nearly obsessed with reading all those studies and their outcomes. And why? Who knows? Why was I so obsessed with teeth last year (and still)?
How difficult will it be to feel as though I am (if temporarily) giving this up?
Thoughts on reading for August:
I don’t have words for this, for William Stafford. Unrivaled beauty, poetry… the only book I read in August to which I gave a five-star (of five) rating – without reservation.
Laux’s poetry often sets me on fire. I have to read the work again and again, and find my throat has gone dry.
Good – really good
While I didn’t love White is for Witching, it – like Boy, Snow, Bird (which I loved last month) – delivered unusual characters that kept me in the story and unable to stop until the end. I think that’s what I enjoy about Oyeyemi – characters and character development.
“White is for witching, a colour to be worn so that all other colours can enter you, so that you may use them. At a pinch, cream will do.”
It was one of those nights when I found myself revisiting the poetry of Tomaž Šalamun – probably my favorite poet from Slovenia – when I was reminded of Andrej Blatnik. For me, these are the true exports of Slovenia – not a certain “be best” First Lady.
I was charmed by Blatnik’s ability to write a complete short story in often only a few words. Not perfect but quite arresting in its way.
Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof
Poetry – poetry – poetry. Usually the poetry I read makes it into the “highly recommended” (must not miss) category, but this month I read a lot of solid poetry that is nevertheless nothing I want to revisit and don’t necessarily think anyone else needs to either. But poetry is very personal, if you like it at all, so it’s not really for me to say.
I don’t think I ran into any coincidences this month… at least none worth noting.
Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)
*The entire Children of Violence series – Doris Lessing
It probably isn’t so much disappointment because I had no expectations, but by the time I finished reading Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, I wanted to kill Martha Quest and all the other characters populating these books. Still, I could not quite not finish… I also cannot say what it is about them/this series that I hate so much. Not that there are not flashes of what the Nobel committee must have seen when they gave Lessing her Nobel for lit – although who can trust that institution these days? Some timely and timeless observations:
“He went so far, carried away by the official in him, as to make various sound remarks about the unsuitability of danger for women. She thought he must be joking; nothing is more astonishing to young women than the ease with which men, even intelligent and liberal-minded men, lapse back into that anonymous voice of authority whenever their own personal authority is threatened, saying things of a banality and a pomposity infinitely removed from their own level of thinking.” – from A Proper Marriage
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 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.
*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.