Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Books Read in 2011

I've been remiss in posts. But these are the books I read this year, 25, which is way less than my goal. Butttt I read some REALLY good books this year -- Nabokov, Mitchell, McCann, Rosal, and Ondaatje especially!!!

1. Divasdero | Michael Ondaatje (very good) - 11.26.11
2. Blue Nights | Joan Didion (very good) - 11.11.11
3. The Year of Magical Thinking | Joan Didion (reread) - 11.07.11
4. This Side of Brightness | Colum McCann (great) - 10.30.11
5. Boneshepards | Patrick Rosal (amazing) - 10.16.11
6. Coming Through Slaughter | Michael Ondaatje (great) - 10.14.11
7. Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive | Patrick Rosal (amazing) - 10.07.11
8. American Gods | Neil Gaiman (good) - 08.15.11
9. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet | David Mitchell (very good) - 08.01.11
10. Cloud Atlas | David Mitchell (amazing) - 06.26.11
11. The Beauty of the Husband | Anne Carson (very good) - 05.23.11
12. The Madonnas of Echo Park | Brando Skyhorse (good) - 05.03.11
13. Archaic Smiles | A. E. Stallings (very good) - 05.02.11
14. Lighthead | Terrance Hayes (very good) - 04.27.11
15. My American Kundiman (great) | Patrick Rosal - 04.22.11
16. Kamby Bolongo Mean River (very good) | Robert Lopez - 04.21.11
17. Ignatz (good) | Monica Youn - 04.17.11
18. Jesus' Son (reread) | Denis Johnson - 03.27.11
19. Pale Fire (great) | Vladimir Nabokov - 03.25.11
20. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (amazing) | Michael Ondaatje - 03.05.11
21. Room (very good) | Emma Donoghue - 02.19.11
22. L.I.E. (very good) | David Hollander - 02.18.11
23. In the Skin of a Lion (great) | Michael Ondaatje - 01.26.11
24. The Hours (good) | Michael Cunningham - 01.17.10
25. Her Frightful Symmetry (okay) | Audrey Niffenegger - 01.03.11

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I admire Nabokov so much.

I'm sick, so don't have the patience to give this book the in-depth critique it deserves.  Perhaps I'll come back to it later.  [Bonus: Pnin shows up in Pale Fire, as does the name Lolita!  Hee hee!]  In the meantime, my Goodreads review:

I really love love Nabokov, and this was so much fun. Pale Fire took me some time to get through but as soon as I was finished, I started rereading portions of the book. I love books like this, wrapped in mystery that is inherent in the piece itself. I found the Foreward amusing, but didn't really understand it until I'd read through the whole thing. I was really drawn into the poem once I was in it, especially the section with the daughter. And of course the extensive Commentary was both hilarious and infuriating. n I have to say that I found Kinbote so intensely unlikable that throughout, even as I was flipping pages, I wondered how Nabokov had created something that would make me want to keep reading despite how much I despised his narrator AND the fact that we're led to "guess" the secret early on. Perhaps it's just the process of seeing this man's delusion that is fascinating? I have no idea. What I love about this piece is that there are so many pieces of a puzzle that you can extract, even in the final Index! My only quibble was that perhaps the final few lines in the Commentary seem unnecessary, and tell us too much we already know. But I'll have to reread it to see if there's something I missed. Overall, while this wasn't something that hit me on an emotional level (I usually reserve my fifth star because I love a book on a heartbreaking visceral level), this was a pursuit of intellect and play and psychology that I can't resist in a book. Nabokov has never let me down!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Another gem.

I adored Billy the Kid.  Absolutely.  I finished it, googled the life of Billy the Kid, then threw myself back into the book for a second read.  It's like poetry but not.  Or I guess it's partly poetry.  But with a plot.  It feels like a well-wrapped gift, or a puzzle, and the fun part of it is unraveling it.  Reading it slowly and savoring it.  Making sense of things that didn't make sense the first time around.  It feels special in the way that few books do.  I am a huge fan of Ondaatje at this point, and am in love with how he uses his words, but also how he uses form.  It's experimental, but not in a crazy kooky way that sometimes drives me nuts -- it's experimental in a beautiful way, like being carried by a stream and bumping along some boulders and brush and seareeds as we pass.  I can't explain it in any other way.

The book is short -- around 100 pages -- but it is a collection of poems, prose snippets, photographs and even newspaper articles and dime books.  It's at turns hilarious and horrifying, and it flips back and forth through time, so that on the first read, you have no idea what is going on.  It switches point of views, it interviews other people, and it's not always clear what's happening.  But that's part of the fun.  Ondaatje creates a beautifully sympathetic character, and gives us a hilariously reimagined biography of an infamous character.  And I love him for it.

The best books are the ones that I can go back to and reread over and over again and find something new to savor about it.  Those books, for me, usually require some kind of language that I admire and want to roll endlessly on my tongue.  There is something playful yet lyrical about Ondaatje's work.  I also wonder if Autobiography of Red, an absolute favorite of mine, which elicited much of the same visceral devotion that I had with this book, was inspired by this 1970s novel (apparently Ondaatje's first).  I liked this book as I was reading it the first time, loved it as I got towards the end, and now having gotten halfway through a second read, am completely enamored.  These are the kind of books I love but can't even begin to understand how to go about writing.

Love love love.

Monday, February 28, 2011


Been MIA.  It's terrible.  I do have a Goodreads account so I try to give a quick overview of all I read there.  But meanwhile, this blog has been neglected.  I'm sorry.

I'm on a lyrical kick right now, for the sake of my own writing.  Been reading a ton of poetry, and also prose writers who write like poets.  Right now on Michael Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid.   It's combination prose and poem and photographs.  Eclectic and wonderful in so many ways.  Kind of gory, kind of sweeping, kind of funny.

Here's an example of funny:

When Charlie Bowdre married Manuela, we carried them
on our shoulders, us on horses.  Took them to the Shea
Hotel, 8 rooms.  Jack Shea at the desk said
Charlie -- everythings on the house, we'll give you the
No no, says Charlie, dont bother, I'll hang onto her ears
until I get used to it.

Yes, I'm enamored.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Devoured in 2010

I got really behind on keeping up with posts on this blog, and also really behind on my reading.  Twenty-eight is a far cry from my annual goal of fifty-two.  But I blame all my school work.

The book I read this year that changed my life was Autobiography of Red.  Love love love it.  A game changer, as I like to call it, and that doesn't happen often.  Another amazing revelation for me was Colum McCann and poetry -- Jeff McDaniel!

Below, in reverse chronological order:

  1. All Is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost (great) | Lan Samantha Chang (12.26.10)
  2. Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions (good) | Maurice Manning (12.07.10)
  3. The Balloonists (great) | Eula Bliss (11.29.10)
  4. The Housekeeper and the Professor (very good) | Yoko Ogawa (11.20.10)
  5. Great House (good) | Nicole Krauss (11.14.10)
  6. Letters to Yesenin (very good) | Jim Harrison (11.09.10)
  7. Dancer (great) | Colum McCann (11.06.10)
  8. Meadowlands (good) | Louise Gluck (10.25.10)
  9. Never Let Me Go (reread) | Kazuo Ishiguro (10.22.10)
  10. Native Guard (very good) | Natasha Tretheway (09.16.10)
  11. Let the Great World Spin (great) | Colum McCann (09.12.10)
  12. Mockingjay (very good) | Suzanne Collins (08.24.10)
  13. Cosmicomics (great) | Italo Calvino (08.24.10)
  14. Kafka Was the Rage (good) | Anatole Broyard (08.17.10)
  15. One Day (okay) | David Nicholls (08.06.10)
  16. This is Water (great) | David Foster Wallace (08.02.10)
  17. Invisible Cities (great) | Italo Calvino (07.22.10)
  18. Plainwater (very good) | Anne Carson (07.08.10)
  19. Matrimony (very good) | Josh Henkin (06.14.10)
  20. What is the What (good) | Dave Eggers (06.12.10)
  21. One Hundred Years of Solitude (great) | Gabriel Garcia Marquez (06.09.10)
  22. The People of Paper (good) | Salvador Plascencia (06.02.10)
  23. The Splinter Factory (great) | Jeffrey McDaniel (05.22.10)
  24. Civilwarland in Bad Decline (great) | George Saunders (05.16.10)
  25. Autobiography of Red (amazing) | Anne Carson (05.14.10)
  26. Motorman (okay) | David Ohle (03.31.10)
  27. Catching Fire (really good) | Suzanne Collins (01.06.10)
  28. Those Who Save Us (good) | Jenna Blum (01.04.10)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Math and Poetry.

I hadn't heard of Yoko Ogawa at all, but when I came across The Housekeeper and the Professor, I knew I had to read it.  I'm obsessed with stories about memory, and the idea of short term memory is always interesting to me.  This is a fairly short book and I read it in two sittings, but it was really enjoyable.

There's something really beautiful about this story, which is really just a simple one.  What I love about the austerity of this book though is that despite it being a simple book told in clean, simple prose, is that it is still very elegant and poignant, complex in its underlying themes.  I was so engaged by the story, even the math, and I found myself, magically, looking at numbers in a new way, as if I were the narrator herself, being exposed to how the professor looked at numbers.  Ogawa must really love math too, to be able to speak about numbers in such a wonderful poetic way.  It crossed my mind that math teachers should give out this book, to be honest, because it makes us less mathematically-inclined people see the sudden music and poetry inherent in numbers, and that is no small feat.  I also just love how an entire relationship is painted through these little snippets and through the numbers -- how the professor finds comfort in them and so we soon see how the hard complex things that he has trouble expressing are often expressed through his relationship to numbers.

Honestly, I think the term "jewel" is thrown around sometimes, but this book to me felt just like that.  Beautiful and wonderful in a small but substantial way, like a small delectable sweet bean cake held out in the palms of somebody's hand or something.  I will definitely be reading more of her books from here on out.

Also, I apologize if these entries are sloppy -- I've become lazy/busy and backlogged, and now my eyes just hurt but I wanted to bang these out.  :)  Happy Thanksgiving!

The Great House

Funnily enough, I was listening to Nicole Krauss's interview on Bookworm the other day for History of Love, and she made an analogy of a novel to a house.  She said a poem was like a perfect room, while a novel was like an imperfect house that you could inhabit.  I wondered if she kept thinking of a novel as a house, and if, in fact, Great House was also referring to that conception of what novels can be, in some sort of meta way.

I have to be honest -- I had high hopes for this novel, because I really love Krauss and her thoughts and her general aura.  History of Love meant a lot to me when I read it, so I was excited by Great House. Well, while I enjoyed the book, I wouldn't say I loved it.  I think the second half was more engaging than the first, plot and tension wise, and I do think the book has a lot of wonderful ideas and poignant moments, but it definitely didnt move the way History of Love did.  There was something genuine about how she inhabited the characters in that book, whereas here, I didn't always feel the characters were as distinct in their voices.  This isn't to say I didn't find her language beautiful or their characters interesting, but there was something that was a bit oblique in the telling that made this book beautiful and interesting to read, but on a different level than I expected.  By the end I was fully engaged, but the stories didn't culminate in a way I hoped they would.  If anything, this novel was more like interconnected stories, but unlike McCann's Let The Great World Spin, it wasn't a circular connection, but a linear one, which ultimately made it a lot less satisfying.

Still though, Krauss is exploring some interesting ideas about loss, and I liked it, but didn't love it.


After reading Let the Great World Spin, I decided to pick up Dancer.  Originally I was going to hold on to it for later since I try not to read the same authors back to back, but, bored one day, I flipped through the beginning pages, and from there I was transfixed.

This is what I want to say about McCann, who has firmly cemented his place for me as a writer I now love: he blows me away.  He's a smart writer, who tackles all sorts of different subject matter, gets away with writing from POVs who are completely unlike himself (gay Russian dancer?), breaks the rules (multiple POVs, starting in different places than where you end up, doing all sorts of confusing time jumps) but gets away with it, and creates sentences that are completely dazzling.  He amazes me.

What I loved about this book most though, aside from the conceit and the writing, is how closely I could relate it to writing.  I mean, okay, I loved this book first just because I love ballet, but also, to read about Nureyev's passion for dance and the way he approaches mastering it was really inspiring for me and also was extremely relateable for me.  I love when he quotes Nietzche about days without dance, and the way McCann portrays his process.

I listened recently to McCann's interview on Bookworm, and it opened some doors for me in my reading of this book -- to understand it also as a story about the little people who also got a piece of Nureyev, and also of how he became an exile from the one place he wanted to return to, despite having the keys to the doors of all other kingdoms of the world.  I highly suggest listening to this interview after you've read the book.

This entry has come late (I've been so swamped), and so I've forgotten the quotes I wanted to jot down.  But needless to say, I loved this.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oops. My bad.

Suddenly I realized that I never posted about Mockingjay.  Unfortunately, now the momentum and excitement has worn off, so I'll make this brief.

I finished this in one reading (of course), and it didn't disappoint.  Yeah, it lacks the same imaginative excitement as the first one, or even the second, but it's still good and tense and has you flipping pages.  The thing that struck me most though, was the ending.  How somber it was.  How there was redemption but it acknowledged that this was a world forever changed and that Katniss and her friends and family were also changed.  I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say that the hard-earned happy ending is not completely happy, because some regret remains, as do scars.  This is no Harry Potter ending.  I really appreciated this though, the realism of it.  I liked that it ended the best way it could, but was aware that something this terrible could not simply be wiped away.  For that I applaud Collins -- she doesn't talk down to her reader.

Yes.  I loved it.

A spinning planet indeed.

When I first picked up Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, it was with mild interest.  It happened to be in my house (my teenage sister bought it and then realized its content didn't interest her at all), and I saw that it had won the National Book Award.  I've always wanted to read some McCann, but hadn't had the opportunity.  So, without really knowing much of what this book was about, I started reading.

For the first fifty pages or so, I was very iffy.  It opens with a vignette about the tightrope walker, which was prettily written and interesting.  Okay.  Then we moved into a narrative that starts off in Ireland.  I found myself confused, but going along with it, yet as it went on and on, I began to get impatient, because I didn't know what the point was.

I think this here is it though: I had expected a traditional literary novel, one with a clear trajectory or arc or something, and I had no idea what I was in for here.  This second section being so unrelated, I got impatient.  The writing was wonderful, but it felt like a short story, and one I hadn't signed up to read.  So for awhile I would put down the book for days at a time before picking it up again.

Yet the longer I stuck with it, the more intrigued I became.  I started to see, by the fourth piece, that these stories were interlocking, and yet each told its own story.  I began to feel that there was some core momentous issue or event (and not the tightrope walker as is the obvious device, but another event that would only become clear at the end) that these stories were revolving around, like rings around a planet, slowly being revealed, or an onion being peeled or something.

And knowing that, each successive story became more and more important, so that by the time I reached the last sections, I was being blown away.  Each story became more and more resonant, in an urgent, poignant way that I hadn't felt earlier.  This is very novel to me, and something I'm trying to deconstruct for myself as a writer: McCann successfully builds momentum and tension but not through a conventional plot, but somehow through the arrangement of his pieces and what they reveal.  It's incredible.

My favorite section in this whole book though is "Centavos".  Simply beautiful.  I also loved "This is the House that Horse Built" even though it's a very different voice.  It's so heartbreaking despite its rawness.  I think in terms of fitting into the bigger whole, "Tag" and "Etherwest" are weakest, although I enjoyed them immensely.

On a personal note - I have a strange obsession with 9/11.  This book is not a 9/11 book, not in the strictest sense, and yet, it sort of is.  McCann acknowledges that this book is the result of him trying to deal with 9/11.  The final chapter sort of brings that in.  He mentions in an essay at the end of the book that originally he wanted it to end tragically, and yet the more he wrote, the more redemptive it became.  I think I appreciate the book for this, the opportunity for something wonderful and beautiful to arise despite a tragedy, and the pain of the world.  There's something very true and yet hopeful about this.  And yet it's lit in the backdrop of a world utterly changed.  So there's some very complicated things he's examining here, and yet ultimately it seems to show that McCann, at least, is finding some hope for the future.

Other things:

I'm very impressed with how McCann so effortlessly takes on the voices of all the various characters -- from an Irish man to an African American hooker to a Latino teen to an Upper East Side white woman... it's all very convincing, and each voice is unique.  I'm also interested in how he chooses first person for some but third for others.  McCann has gotten away with writing as several different races that he is NOT, and that truly impresses me.  He has complete authority over all his characters.

I loved the writing in this book so much that it prompted me to find a pencil and go through and underline.  This is major for me as normally I refuse to write in my books (unless I don't care for them).  I tab the passages I like with post its, and type them up later.  I hate writing in my books.  But this is the first book in a long time that I've written in, because I could no longer help myself.

I liked so much in this book in terms of the passages, that it'd be impossible to get them all.  But a selection:

Even the worst of what men did to one another didn't dampen Corrigan's beliefs.  He might have been naive, but he didn't care; he said he'd rather die with his heart on his sleeve than end up another cynic.
--pg. 21

This is not my life.  These are not my cobwebs.  This is not the darkness I was designed for.
--pg. 121

You clip a van, you watch your life fade away.
--pg. 127

How great are you, God?  Save her.  Pick her up off the pavement and dust the glass from her hair.  Wash the fake blood off the ground.  Save her here and now, put her mangled body back together again.
--pg. 131

I had begun to think that perhaps leaving the scene of the crime was manslaughter, or at least some sort of felony, and now there was a second crime, hardly momentous, but it sickened me.
--pg. 136

His hand brushed against mine.  That old human flaw of desire.
--pg. 155

He had fallen only once while training - once exactly, so he felt it couldn't happen again, it was beyond possibility.  A single flaw was necessary anyway.  In any work of beauty ther had to be one small thread left hanging.
--pg. 161

Genius, they called it.  But it was only genius if you thought of it first.  A teacher told him that.  Genius is lonely.
--pg. 170

I'm such a fuck-up.  No one's a bigger fuck-up than me.  No one's gonna know that, though.  That's my secret.  I walk through the world like I own it.  Watch this spot.  Watch it curve.
--pg. 202

And all of a sudden - right there, looking out over Central Park - I got a longing for my daughter like nothing else before.  Jazzlyn was eight or nine then.  I wanted just to hold her in my arms.  It's no less love if you're a hooker, it's no less love at all.
-- pg. 213

He said to me once that most of the time people use the word love as just another way to show off they're hungry.  The way he said it went something like: Glorify their appetites.
--pg. 225

I don't know who God is but if I meet Him anytime soon I'm going to get Him in the corner until He tells me the truth.

I'm going to slap Him stupid and push Him around until He can't run away.  Until He's looking up at me and then I'll get Him to tell me why He done what He done to me and what He done to Corrie and why do all the good ones die and where is Jazzlyn now and why she ended up there and how He allowed me to do what I done to her.

He's going to come along on His pretty white cloud with all His pretty little angels flapping their pretty white wings and I'm gonna out and say it formal: Why the fuck did you let me do it, God?

And He's gonna drop His eyes and look to the ground and answer me.  And if He says Jazz ain't in heaven, if He says she didn't make it through, He's gonna get himself an ass-kicking.  That's what He's gonna get.

An ass-kicking like none He ever got before.
--pg. 230

When I was walking back out the courtyard to the pen I felt like someone came and carved my heart out, then put it walking in front of me.  That's what I thought - there's my heart going right out in front of me, all on its own, slick with blood.
--pg. 234

I gave Jazzlyn a bath once.  She was just a few weeks old.  Skin shining.  I looked at her and thought she gave birth to the word beautiful.  I wrapped her in a towel and promised her she'd never go on the stroll.
--pg. 236

New York kept going forward precisely because it didn't give a good goddamn about what it had left behind.
--pg. 247

The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.
--pg. 275

I told him that I loved him and that I'd always love him and I felt like a child who throws a centavo into a fountain and then she has to tell someone her most extraordinary wish even though she knows that the wish should be kept secret and that, in telling it, she is quite probably losing it.  He replied that I was not to worry, that the penny could come out of the fountain again and again and again.
--pg. 277

I know already that I will return to this day whenever I want to.  I can bid it alive.  Preserve it.  There is a still point where the present, the now, winds around itself, and nothing is tangled.  The river is not where it begins or ends, but right in the middle point, anchored by what ha happened and what is to arrive.  You can close your eyes and there will be a light snow falling in New York, and seconds later you are sunning upon a rock in Zacapa, and seconds later still you are surfing through the Bronx on the strength of your own desire.  There is no way to find a word to fit around this feeling.  Words resist it.  Words give it a pattern it does not own.  Words put it in time.  They freeze what cannot be stopped.  Try to describe the taste of a peach.  Try to describe it.  Feel the rush of sweetness: we make love.
--pg. 279

He told me once that there was no better faith than a wounded faith and sometimes I wonder if that is what he was doing all along -- trying to wound his faith in order to test it -- and I was just another stone in the way of his God.
--pg. 284

That was the sort of everyday love I had to learn to contend with: if you grow up with it, it's hard to think you'll ever match it.  I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin because sometimes it's just so comfortable you don't want to have to develop your own.
--pg. 289

I gave them all the truth and none of the honesty.
--pg. 303

Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you're lucky enough to find it, you stay there.  Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who've been around awhile know it's just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it's never even there in the first place.
--pg. 304

Every time a branch of mine got to being a decent size, that wind just came along and broke it.
--pg. 313

I guess this is what marriage is, or was, or could be.  You drop the mask.  You allow the fatigue in.  You lean across and kiss the years because they're the things that matter.
--pg. 319

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building.  One small scrap of history meeting a larger one.  As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later.  The intrusion of time and history.  The collision point of stories.  We wait for the explosion but it never occurs.  The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire.  Things don't fall apart.
--pg. 325

But she likes the fact that he lights up and lets the smoke blow in her direction, that it will get in her hair, that she will own the scent of it later.
--pg. 332

It used to bother her terribly, as a teenager, that her mother and grandmother had worked the streets.  She thought it might rebound on her someday, that she would find herself too much in love with love.
--pg. 333

Listening to these people is like listening to trees - sooner or later the tree is sliced open and the watermarks reveal their age.
--pg. 337

The only thing worth grieving over, she said, was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.
--pg. 339

(From an author's essay at the end)
A book is completed only when it is finished by the reader.  This is the intimate privilege of art.  In fact, it's the intimate privilege of being alive.
--pg. 360

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Calvino does it again.

A friend lent me her copy of Cosmicomics in a book swap, which is the only reason I decided to break my rule of trying not to read an author twice in a short time period.

I'm very glad I did.

This books premise is unique: Calvino takes little snippets of science of the creation of the world, and in turn pulls out beautiful stories based upon these scientific ideas.  The results are enchanting and often startling.  One never knows exactly what Calvino is going to do when one first reads the italicized "science" portion.  A snippet about gravity, or the moon, or the dinosaurs tells nothing about how Calvino will interpret this for us in his piece.

All the stories are breathtaking and wonderful.  I found myself basking in the inventiveness of them, a little thrill of excitement running through me whenever I hit upon what he was doing.  But some of them I liked more than others.

"The Distance to the Moon" is about how people were once able to climb on top of the moon, be sucked in by its gravity and grab cheese from its crevices.  What was wonderful about this was the fact that he didn't just stop there, but also made it a strange story about unrequited love, with the narrator in love with a woman who was in love with a man who was in love with the moon.  It brought to mind the Chinese folktale of the woman on the moon for me.

"Without Colors" told of a world before the atmosphere filtered colors, and within this world, how one boy could love the change and anticipated colors whereas the girl he loved was frightened of it.  Really beautiful, as it made me think about a world washed gray.

"Games Without End" had children playing with atoms like they were marbles.  Really quirky and playful.

"The Dinosaurs" is about a last living "dinosaur" who goes unrecognized by new forms of life who take him in, and the questions for him that arise about the myth of his species.  Made me actually think a lot about history and legacy and how stories are shaped for the people telling them, and may actually have little reflection of truth.

"The Light-Years" is hard to describe.  Basically it's about someone whose actions are seen from light years away, but because of the time it takes for things to be seen, the protagonist is constantly being worried about how he will be perceived millions of years from now.  It raised some interesting concepts for me about how we think about how we're perceived by others.  What if there were a lag time between when you did something and when you could see what somebody's reaction to that action was?

Overall, this book cements Calvino for me as one of my favorite authors to read.  This book is simply wonderful.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

This Greenwich memoir I'm reading.

A friend lent me Kafka Was the Rage, a book I normally probably would never have picked up myself, since I tend to avoid books about the Bohemian life of the artist or like, anything very Beat Generational to it.  Don't ask me why -- it's not that I don't appreciate what those artists in those times must have been living through, but I think it's a little too glorified for my taste, or something.  Plus, I couldn't get through Tropic of Cancer.

But anyway, my friend really likes this book so I'm giving it a try.  I have to say there are parts I like better than others, and it's not really a traditional read for me, although I do find the character of Sherri intriguing.  Anyhow, more importantly, some quotes I liked:

When you look back over your life, the thing that amazes you most is your original capacity to believe. To grow older is to lose this capacity, to stop believing, or to become unable to believe.

I supposed, I said, that love would change me, too, would advance me somehow. Because without that, it's just sex, just mechanics. And while sex is fine - it's wonderful; it can be like flying - it isn't enough. It doesn't explain, doesn't justify the whole business. It can't account for two thousand years of poetry, for all the laughing and crying. There has to be something else, something more. Otherwise, love wouldn't be so famous; we wouldn't be carrying on about it all the time. It wouldn't be worth the trouble.
--[pg. 51]

It might have been the shortest, or the only, way through my defenses, because I had a literature rather than a personality, a set of fictions about myself.
--[pg. 52]

Most people would say that lovemaking is a defense against loneliness, but with Sheri it was an investigation of loneliness, a safari into its furthest reaches.

I thought of Sheri and wondered whether, with all the trouble she gave me, she wasn't better than loneliness. Yet I had been lonely with her too - I saw that now. She wasn't company in the ordinary sense. I was lonely between bouts of desire, between distractions. There was no peace with her. She was like a recurrent temptation to commit a crime.
--[pg. 80]

It takes a while for a betrayal to register. At first you deny it. You say, Don't be silly, or It's not possible. Then there's a dead spot, a silence, a regrouping. After that you go slowly, gradually through the character of the other person. You examine all the evidence against the idea of betrayal and you say, No, it can't be.

We never believe such things until they're over. You need leisure to think about tragedy. Maybe you can face it only in the absence of the person, after the fact. Or you can do it only when you yourself are in despair.
--[pg. 103]

Another thing I've realized, he said, is that it's harder for a Jew to die. Forgive me for falling back on the chosen, but there's a certain truth in the old boast. It's harder for us because we expect more; we need more. How irresponsible, how careless it is to die so soon. IT's such an unintelligent thing to do. We become doctors to prevent death, lawyers to outlaw it, writers to rage against it. But if you're not Jewish, it's different. It may not be quite so bad, so costly. You can die gracefully, athletically, with a thin-lipped smile and a straight nose. A blond death, a swan dive, a cool immersion. You can die without an accent, without dentalizing.


Okay I just finished the book actually. I found a lot of the thoughts therein very interesting to ponder, and especially the last chapter on sex during those times is really interesting. To view how sex itself was exciting because of how secret it was in a lot of ways.

The book ended up abruptly, so I was glad to read the postscript, which explained that he'd died before he could complete his memoir. Sad. But the postscript was very poignantly written by his wife.

Overall, I liked a lot of the ideas and thoughts being presented here. Anatole Broyard seems to me the kind of character I write about often -- on the outskirts of something, trying to tap in, but never quite succeeding. While I didn't love this book, I felt it was a worthwhile read.

Friday, August 6, 2010

So I guess I'm a craft nazi

David Nicholls' One Day is marketed towards me.  It's plot is the kind of sappy maddening romantic drama that girls like me enjoy - boy meets girl, boy and girl spend one night together, boy and girl have poor timing, boy and girl become good friends, boy and girl love each other through the years but somehow never get it together.  The concept is interesting in that it follows these two through the time span of two decades - but with snippets of what their lives are like on the same day each year - July 15.

I really wanted to like this book, if not in some great intellectual high brow literature kind of way, then in the entertaining beach read kind of way.  I picked it up on my little sister's suggestion, and having recently finished Calvino, I was looking for a lighter read.  I had read Love Rosie awhile back which is sort of a similar concept, and you know, for someone whose favorite movie is When Harry Met Sally, kinda seemed like it would be my sort of thing.

The thing is, I didn't dislike the book.  There were parts I liked, very much.  But I found myself bristling often with a lot of the craft elements of the book, and so although part of me very much wanted to know what happened to these two in terms of the plot, I found myself really distracted by other things that made it sometimes difficult to push myself through the book.

For instance, he has this thing where he sometimes uses past tense and sometimes uses present tense.  Within the same chapter.  With only a section break.  Despite it being one linear narrative.  I hate that, so so so much.  And also, while he almost got away with his constant flitting of points of view, the voice never felt completely omniscient for it to not be distracting to me when POVs switched within a sentence or paragraph. Sometimes I felt certain sections to be a bit gimmicky.  And, while I know this was intentional, sometimes Dexter was so unlikable that he bordered on being completely unsympathetic, which is really a problem when you're trying to, I don't know, root for the guy to get the girl.  The cat and mouse chase of their relationship therefore was maddening, and not in a good way all the time.

Ultimately though, because I'm a sucker, when I got to the end, I was a bit touched, and saddened.  It didn't leave me unaffected, so I still thought it was somewhat entertaining, but I did find all of those craft elements so maddening at times that it wasn't always easy to read.  The prose itself is solid, and probably better than your average beach read type novel, though not super literary or anything, so in that sense it was fine, but seriously.  Those POV and tense things were grating on my nerves.

In fact, I feel the strong need to medicate by reading something uber literary next.  My final assessment: overall, not a bad read, good if you're less particular about elements of craft and are looking for something easy.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living a life of freedom

A friend of mine lent me David Foster Wallace's This is Water, a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005.  It's a short little volume, but as with all good commencement speeches, it poses some interesting thoughts, about the nature of how we choose to live.  The idea that the way we control the thoughts in our heads to live better lives, more compassionate lives, more important lives.  To step out of our own self-absorption or our thirst for things that can take over our lives so that we live a life worth something greater than ourselves.  And hopefully in the process save ourselves from being complacent, from madness, and whatever else threatens us in the world.

I don't know, I think I need to read it again to process it, but right now, just want to get these things down:

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious.
--[pg. 112]

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, everyday. That is real freedom.
--[pg. 119-121]

The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the "rat race" -- the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
--[pg. 123]

I probably could wax on this a little more, but I'll leave it here for now. I would recommend everyone to pick it up though. I think I have to read it again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A little backlogged

I finished Invisible Cities several weeks ago.  It was beautiful and dazzling up until the end.  I think this is one of those books that need to be revisited, or perhaps just certain cities revisited.  The very concept of some of these cities - the city that you are always leaving for one, or the one where life is not good (even though it is) for another, or the cities built on stilts, or the city mirrored, or the city that has another city for the dead -- these are little vignettes that I think are worthwhile to pick up every once in a blue moon, to ponder over, to savor.  Little beauties to sit on your tongue and let soak into your brain.  I'm excited to read some of Calvino's other works.  This was really a beautiful and very gratifying read.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Some Calvino.

I'm currently reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.  It's really marvelous.  It reminds me a bit of Einstein's Dreams, in the way each little section is just an imagined world operating on a dreamlike philosophy.  There are so many beautiful parts I want to pull out, but they don't work in isolation.

But some attempts anyway:

Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man's place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had come to be in the place of that man in that square.  By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else's present.  Future not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.
--[pg. 29]

That said, it is pointless trying to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy.  It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
--[pg. 35]

And you know that in the long journey ahead of you, when to keep awake against the camel's swaying or the junk's rocking, you start summoning up your memories one by one, your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles, on your return from Euphemia, the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every equinox.
But what enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words.  The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off... But you would have said communication between them was less happy than in the past: to be sure, words were more useful than objects and gestures...

"...Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else."
--[pg. 44]

There is no language without deceit.
-- [pg.48]

At times the mirror increases a thing's value, at times denies it.  Not everything that seems valuable above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored.  The twin cities are not equal, because nothing that exists or happens in Valdrada is symmetrical: every face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a face and gesture inverted, point by point.  The two Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them.
-- [pg. 54]

Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.
-- [pg.62]

Friday, July 9, 2010

Anne Carson is still a genius anyway.

So I finished the last few pages of Plainwater.  I was very taken by the essay about her brother, however short it was.  It was heartbreaking, really, and made me want to go out and get Nox, which delves into this nebulous relationship more.

Overall, I'd say that while I liked this very much, it didn't have the immediate breathtaking quality that Red did.  I think perhaps there were parts that were too abstract for this fiction writer to grasp at.  Nonetheless, I still plan on trying to get through her oeuvre.  I have Glass, Irony and God lined up somewhere.

To be honest though, Carson's way with words - her faculty with language, her ability to hit on a sentiment just right, her beautiful turns of phrases and imaginative metaphors... I am struck by her genius at times.  I don't just love her, I want to be her.  I want to swim in her words sometimes.  That's all.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

From Anthropology of Water

Almost done with Anne Carson's Plainwater.  I don't love it the way I was immediately taken with Autobiography of Red - I find it harder to digest and I've had to read it slowly and reread several times in order for certain things to sink in.  However, as always, Carson manages to take my breath away with certain turns of phrases, sentiments, analogies.  For the most part, I found that I'm most loving her last essay "Anthropology of Water" and so the quotes I'm about to post are all from there (and mostly from the section titled "Just for the Thrill").

Love is a story that tells itself... I found the kinship between a man and a woman can be a steep, whole, excellent and full of languages.  Yet it may have no speech.
- [pg. 190]

The man who named my narrow bed was a quiet person, but he had good questions.  "I suppose you do love me, in your way," I said to him one night close to dawn when we lay on the narrow bed.  "And how else should I love you -- in your way?" he asked.  I am still thinking about that.
- [pg. 191]

Well language lives in alteration, here I am.  Take two-measure words and press them together like lips of a wound.  Emperor, concubine, fire, paper.  Love too much, love at all.
- [pg. 194]

Enlightenment is not a place, no use rushing to get there.
- [pg. 202]

He looked at the tree and the saw and the ax.  It was something perfectly quiet.  "I didn't think you could do that," he said.  Perfectly quiet.  His hands hanging down.  The tiny ticking kitchen.  The snow-dark morning.  It was draining from him into me.  I had killed him.
- [pgs. 205-206]

The emperor is instructing me in the ten radicals that are the basis of the largest number of words in classical Chinese.  These more important radicals, arranged in the order of their use, are.  Water.  Grass.  Wood.  Heart.  Man.  Hand.  Silk.  Wood.  Advance or Go.  Mouth.  I am wondering why, if he wanted to make love, he paused for tea at all.  The ten most prominent radicals appear in 1,090 words.  Observe the interests suggested by them.  The mere fact that the heart is the basis of one hundred words in a vocabulary of three thousand, he continues, indicates a high degree of moral interest.
- [ pg. 207]

The brush starts out rich and black but gradually dries, until the bristles are moving separately and leaving areas of white exposed to view like sudden bones.
- [pg. 218]

Love comes hungering along the canyon.  It will give you pleasure if you believe it.
- [pg. 221]

I lived blank for many years.  And I learned two things.  Enlightenment is useless and nothing replaces the sting of love, for good or ill.
- [pg. 221]

Well enlightenment is uselss but I find interesting the distinction anthropologists make between an emic and an etic point of view.  Emic has to do with the perspective of a member of the society itself and etic is the point of view of an outsider seeing the society in his own terms.  Lovers - correct me if I'm wrong - insist on bringing the two perspectives together, a sort of double exposure.  To draw into the very inside of my heart the limit that was supposed to mark it on the outside, your strangeness.  But keep it strange.  Those three things.
- [pg. 223]

Life is points on a journey, it seems generally agreed.  Between the apriorities howl strong winds.  Yet the traveler, once in a long while, comes to a place he is sure, without a doubt in his mind, never having seen it before, is the one he was seeking.  He enters.  At first everything inside is so saturated with strangeness it is hard to breathe - but look now: already it is drying from the edges like rainwater in the March wind and he will in fact never after be able to recover that blankness in which he saw it first, the surgery of first look.  That moment of pure anthropology.
- [pg. 224]

Statistics show that woman dream of their fathers 40 percent more frequently than men.  Why not, yes oh why not.  Also that during all sleep states a notably higher degree of hemispheric coherence is demonstrated by female brains than by male.  Why not take all of me.  Neurologists remain uncertain what to do with this data, obtained by accident during experiments with insomniacs.  Take my arms I won't use them, why not oh why not yes why not, take all of me.
- [ pg. 227-228]

Men know almost nothing about desire, they think it has to do with sexual activity or can be discharged that way.  But sex is a substitute, like money or language.  Sometimes I just want to stop seeing.
- [ pg. 228]

It was order that obsessed him and when he began to lose his mind he suffered from this.  He would spend all day making lists, lists dropped form his clothing everywhere he moved.  Late one evening I picked up a book he had been reading.  On the top of the page in pencil, TURN OUT THE LIGHT.  He was always a forceful writer.  The letters had embossed themselves through three pages underneath.
- [pg. 230]

Time has a gender; I suppose you know this.  For example, the first afternoons of a love affair are some of teh longest time in a woman's life.  If there is a telephone in the room, it is better not to look at it.  But even so, you will have a growing sense of the hours of his afternoon running parallel to your own like a videotape on another channel, and feel them slowly rising up, building up, piling up, one by one until seems at last they are all balanced there at the top of the light well and ready to drop - straight down wide open to the night.
- [ pgs. 231-232]

Well every person has a wall to go to, every person has heart valves to cure in the cold night air.  But you know none of us is pure.  You know the anger that language shelters, that love obeys.  Those three things.  Why obey.
- [pg. 233]

It is easier to tell a story of how people wound one another than of what binds them together.  Be careful of this storyteller's tendency to replace precise separate lines with fast daubs of ink.  I know hot to fool your mind so that your eye accepts what it did not see.  A curtain of wash is not a desert.  Where ink bleeds into paper is not an act of love, and yet it is.  See.
- [pg. 234]

15 pages left to read.  Back when I'm done.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Capturing love.

I picked up Joshua Henkin's Matrimony yesterday while trying to kill time at Barnes and Noble, and I was immediately sucked in.  It's such an ordinary story in the sense that it's just about people and relationships, and yet he managed to pull me in immediately.  How do you do that?  As a writer, I'm trying to figure out what the secret is.  Is it his characterizations of the people?  The language?  I don't know. 


The book starts with the beginnings of a relationship in college.  It made me think of my own time in college.  I don't think another relationship is as pure of heart yet as intense as the first real relationship you ever have.  The first time you fall in love.  Reading these scenes make think of my college relationship, and I feel Henkin does such a good job of capturing the complete faith and abandon with which two college kids fall in love.

Also, I really like this, on the words "I love you":

What freighted words those were, reserved for so few people sometimes it seemed they were never to be used at all.  She recalled being a child, four, five, six when she said those words to her teachers and classmates, when it seemed there wasn't anybody she didn't love.  Then a hardening set in, a calcifying of the heart, and you didn't love anyone any longer, or at least you didn't say you did, so that now she couldn't remember the last time she'd said those words to anyone besides Julian, when there were other people she loved, her family, certainly.
--[pg. 78-79, Matrimony]

Good stuff. 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Romantic creatures = leeches

I've been venturing into poetry more recently, and have been introduced to Jeffrey McDaniel, whose poem "The Quiet World" is one of my favorites.  So I've picked up two of his collections.  Today I finished The Splinter Factory.  I love McDaniel's way with words.  His metaphors are surprising but apt, his lines poignant but edgy, and I find myself sighing with affect when I get to the end of many of his poems.  I don't know a lot about poetry so I'm finding it hard to describe exactly what it is about his poetry that gets under my skin and burrows into me, but it does.  The Splinter Factory is really really good, but I especially like "When a Man Hasn't Been Kissed", "The Benjamin Franklin of Monogamy", "The Mirror in Which I'll Be Judged", "The First Straw", "What Year Was Heaven Desegregated?", "The Foxhole Manifesto" and "The Everlasting Staircase".

The thing I like about his poetry is that for a newbie poetry reader like me, I find his poetry extremely accessible.  I highly recommend him.  I absolutely loved loved this collection.