2018 Books, #11-15

11. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, trans. from German by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions, 2011)

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Bronsky, who is German by way of Russia (former USSR), pulls off that very difficult task of creating a convincing, totally unlikeable narrator, who is also compelling, often funny, and eventually even elicits sympathy from the reader. I read several reviews of this book after I finished to see what others thought, and no reviewer contends with the novel as a whole, most are focused on the first half, which is comic and fairly light. The last third or so takes a different turn in tone, and even in writing style. This book illuminated for me the problem with endings, how the right ending isn’t always apparent.  (And how readers are forgiving of inadequate endings if the first half makes enough of an impact. I felt this way about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which won the Booker and got a lot of love a couple of years ago: it was powerful but incomplete. A masterpiece for me is when the ending shines a spotlight on the narrative as a whole. The ending feels absolutely right and is unforgettable.) I still haven’t made up my mind about this book as a whole, the ending seems more appropriate the longer I’ve ruminated on it.

Provenance: I received it as part of my Kickstarter prize for helping fund the awesome Bookselling Without Borders project that promotes fiction in translation in the U.S.
Fate: Passed on to a friend.

12. La perra by Pilar Quintana (Random House, 2018)

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A slim, tense little novella. I think this is the only Latin American novel I’ve read that’s set in a poverty-stricken environment (in Colombia). Quintana handles issues of race and class subtly and deftly. Heartbreaking and difficult to read.

Provenance: Borrowed from my friend Lydia, who works at World Editions, the small press that will be publishing a version in English!

13. Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from Italian by Jenny McPhee (NYRB Classics, 2017, original in 1963)

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This memoir is a slightly awkward blend of Ginzburg’s affectionate memories of her eccentric family, particularly her father, and then the terrible ways fascism and World War II split everything apart in Italy, particularly in her Jewish, highly political household. Although it was grimmer, I enjoyed the second half more, where Ginzburg herself emerges a bit more (though she’s trying to hide throughout it). The premise of the “family lexicon” – the songs and funny sayings that characterized her parents and siblings – are also a major translation challenge, which wasn’t always met. (I wrote more about this here.)

Provenance: Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden (R.I.P.)
Fate: Can’t remember. Possibly still kicking around the apartment, or maybe passed on to a friend.

14. Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (The New Press, 2014)

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Another slim, tense little novella, like a pen-and-ink drawing. In another writer’s hands, there could have been much more back story, but the spare approach works. Merges psychological drama with the traditional murder mystery, almost ironically, I think. It was a good read, but I have to say I didn’t think much about it afterwards.

Provenance: I received it as part of my Kickstarter prize for helping fund the awesome Bookselling Without Borders project that promotes fiction in translation in the U.S.
Fate: Passed on to a friend.

15. The Everything Wine Book: A Complete Guide to the World of Wine by David White (Everything, 2014)

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I suppose this sort of book doesn’t really belong on a literary-type book list, but the completist in me wants “credit” for having read it all, and also I would recommend it! (I’m not counting cookbooks, btw.) I got it because I wanted to understand those complicated French wine labels, which kept me from ever choosing a French wine as I never knew what I was getting into. This is a friendly, not-at-all snobby guide to wine regions, the history of wine, types of grapes, etc. It made me both appreciative and more adventurous with my wine choices.

Provenance: Bought at the clearance sale when the Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden closed (RIP)
Fate: On the keeper shelf!

2018 Books, #16-21

My annual reading round-up of fiction and non-fiction, in my personal ranking, based on how much I enjoyed it, scope of impact on the life of the mind and imagination, and how likely I am to re-read and recommend it. Here’s the tail-end.

16. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Hogarth, 2018)

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Broder is a fantastic, inventive poet, so I was looking forward to seeing what she would do with the novel form, language-wise. It is fantastically smutty, disgusting and really funny at times – all things I appreciated. At its core, this is a story about the despair of compulsion and sex addiction.

Provenance: American Book Center in Amsterdam
Fate: Passed on to a friend

17. Minor Robberies by Deb Olin Unferth and 18. Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape by Sarah Manguso (McSweeney’s, 2007)

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I’m pairing these two short collections of flash fiction together as they came in a lovely little boxed set published by McSweeney’s (together with a third book of flash fiction by Dave Eggers, and no, I didn’t read his!). The Manguso pieces captured small ignoble moments of childhood – lies, envy, mean deeds. The form leads her to a flat, matter-of-factness in the prose, which works some of the time. My favorites in the Olin Unferth collections were her longer stories, which made me think her style is more suited to longer forms.

Provenance: I won this box set at a poetry reading in Bushwick in 2010 on a second date with Dan.
Fate: Unsentimentally donated it to the Boekenzolder; Dan said it was OK, he prefers to be a minimalist.

19. The Godfather by Mario Puzo (1969)

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I picked this up during the Kavanaugh hearings and it was a good way to disappear from this world for a while, an absorbing distraction. I would recommend this book only to serious fans of the films. It proves the hypothesis that mediocre books make great films. It’s a pulpy, sometimes clumsily written book that was cut and shaped into elegant, visually rich cinema masterpiece. At its best it feels like novelized DVD extras of cut scenes. Like for example, Tom Hagen’s back story. At its worst there were what I can only guess were attempts to be modern and racy through multiple descriptions of Sonny’s giant schlong; gratuitous side stories of Johny Fontaine’s Hollywood debauchery; and a truly weird extended description of Sonny’s bereaved mistress’s vaginal reduction surgery, including medical terms (the implication being that her vagina was irreparably stretched out by Sonny’s giant schlong??). However, I will give Puzo due credit for putting his finger directly on what fascinates about the mob: the elaborate rituals and code of honor, the will of some men to achieve power and status despite being born to a marginalized class, coupled with the straight-up murderous violence and crime (and misogyny and racism).

Provenance: A gift from Dan to encourage me to read more fun and lighter stuff.
Fate: In the “to donate” pile

20. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland (Oxford, 2001)

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Admittedly, art theory is a really hard topic to distill into “a very short introduction,” but this book didn’t quite do it. The writing was labored despite attempts to simplify ideas, and I want to say it’s almost outdated given its focus on art controversies of the 80s and 90s. (It was published in 2001).

Provenance: Purchased at Van Stockum bookstore in Leiden (R.I.P.)
Fate: Donated to Boekenzolder

21. The Risen by Ron Rash (HarperCollins, 2016)

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I have mixed feelings about saying harsh things about living writers, but this guy seems to be doing fine, while here I toil in obscurity. So: this book was terrible. I suspect some of his other novels are better – my mom recommended him because she lives in Western North Carolina and he captures life there. (That wasn’t the focus of this particular narrative.) Paper-thin characters, unearned pathos. An alcoholic protagonist – we know he’s an alcoholic because he refer to the fatal clinking of ice in a glass no less than three times in the course of the novel. A fucked-up hippie girl who initiates him into sex, drugs and alcohol and ends up a dead girl. That kind of thing.

Provenance: Lent by my mom, who got it from the library
Fate: Back to the library

Books I abandoned

Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes: A clever cross-section of contemporary Parisian society. I think I fell off because it’s rather bleak, and also includes a lot of French slang, so was slow-going as my French lexicon withered over the years as I mostly just use it for work. This is the first in a celebrated trilogy by Despentes and I hope to get back to it at some point.

Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng: I saw this book everywhere and only read good things about it, but I couldn’t get into it, I only made it about 80 pages in. The 90s references were a little too on-the-nose, the teenagers didn’t sound like teenagers, and there was a kind of emotional distance in the voice that didn’t convince me. I saw some readers on Goodreads compare this to young adult fiction in terms of its style – something to think about (what does this mean?), and maybe that’s what bothered me, the kind of psychological flattening at the expense of the narrative.

The Question

[…]

Why didn’t you just stay home?
         Once you were a carrier of both child and soul
         But when you became a self
                  You bundled them up
         And took them out of the city limits.
You lacked the capacity for carrying so much.

Still, you wanted to rebuild your village
          Out of the pieces that shine and remind you
How safe and happy you were on its park benches
On days of no school.
          Why did you leave your native country
          To become a different kind of being:
          A realist
Who can recognize and classify the pieces of the lost.
          To be the only one!

It’s true they sparkle as they vanish
And finding them lets you know you are credible,
          At home in the world.

Fanny Howe, excerpt from the poem “The Question,” from her book The Lyrics

An acerbic, difficult poem. Why did you leave childhood? Why did you go to the city to participate in its plunder?

Cosmic Rays

“For months, Google had been experiencing an increasing number of hardware failures. The problem was that, as Google grew, its computing infrastructure also expanded. Computer hardware rarely failed, until you had enough of it—then it failed all the time.  … Strange environmental factors came into play. When a supernova explodes, the blast wave creates high-energy particles that scatter in every direction; scientists believe there is a minute chance that one of the errant particles, known as a cosmic ray, can hit a computer chip on Earth, flipping a 0 to a 1. The world’s most robust computer systems, at NASA, financial firms, and the like, used special hardware that could tolerate single bit-flips. But Google, which was still operating like a startup, bought cheaper computers that lacked that feature.” 

Wait, what? This is from a boring New Yorker article about “the friendship that made Google huge” between two programmers. But what about the cosmic rays that mess with computer chips? This point is never returned to. I want to read an article about cosmic rays! What else do they fuck with?

(The article:  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/10/the-friendship-that-made-google-huge)

Image credit: A. Chantelauze, S. Staffi, and L. Bret. From https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/21/16335164/pierre-auger-observatory-cosmic-ray-galaxies-air-shower-particles

The Use of Dreaming

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Science has long understood that REM sleep—the stages of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement, in which most dreaming takes place—plays a vital role in our mental health. The human need for REM is so uncompromising that, when it is inhibited over a long period by excessive alcohol use, the pent-up backlog will release itself in a form of waking psychosis, otherwise known as delirium tremens. For a long time, the scientific establishment suspected that dreams were a superfluous by-product of the REM state. But in recent decades, thanks in large part to the advent of brain-imaging machines, scientists have been able to establish that dreams themselves are essential to the benefits of REM sleep. First, dreams knit up the ravelled sleeve of care by allowing us to process unhappy or traumatic experiences. Typically, during the REM state, the flow of an anxiety-triggering brain chemical called noradrenaline is shut off, so that we are able to revisit distressing real-life events in a neurochemically calm environment. As a result, the intensity of emotion that we feel about these events in our waking lives is reduced to manageable levels. …

Dreams also help us to master new skills; practicing a task or a language in our sleep can be as helpful as doing so when we are awake. And they appear to be crucial in honing our capacity for decoding facial expression: the dream-starved tend to slip into default paranoia, interpreting the friendliest expressions as menacing. Perhaps most alluring, dreams help us to synthesize new pieces of information with preëxisting knowledge, and to make creative lateral connections. The long list of inventions and great works said to have been generated in dreams includes the periodic table, the sewing machine, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be,” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.”

According to Robb, there is a means by which we can harness the visionary and problem-solving capacities of dreaming: the lucid dream. This is the kind of dream in which a person is aware of dreaming, and is able to wield some control over events—to decide to fly, say, or to visit Paris. “Those who master lucidity,” Robb writes, “can dream about specific problems, seek answers or insights, stage cathartic encounters, and probe the recesses of the unconscious.”

Zoe Heller, from this article:  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/10/why-we-sleep-and-why-we-often-cant

Queen Tina Hatshepsut

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Tina Turner feeling an electric tingle of recognition at Ancient Egyptian imagery is solid supporting evidence of past lives. If anyone’s an Egyptian queen reincarnated, it’s most likely Tina Turner. In her own words:

Q: What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a songwriter and musician or contributed to your artistic development?

“One day, I was walking through an airport with Ike when I spotted a book in a shop. It was a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Ancient Egypt,’ and for some reason I felt a spine-tingling, instant connection, especially when I saw a picture of Hatshepsut, one of the first female pharaohs. Then a psychic told me that I had been Hatshepsut in another life. The thought was so empowering! Several years later, Jeannette Obstoj, Rupert Hine and Jamie West-Oram wrote a beautiful song for me, “I Might Have Been Queen,” based on my feelings about my Egyptian past.“

From her “By the Book,” Oct. 18, 2018: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/books/review/tina-turner-by-the-book.html

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Strange machine

“What a strange machine man is!” he said, with astonishment. “You fill him with bread, wine, fish, radishes, and out of him come sighs, laughter and dreams. Like a factory.” 

from Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis 

Be More Like Gertrude Stein

Is my new mantra… This is from a 1934 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece on her:

Miss Stein gets up every morning about ten and drinks some coffee, against her will. She’s always been nervous about becoming nervous and she thought coffee would make her nervous, but her doctor prescribed it. Miss Toklas, her companion, gets up at six and starts dusting and fussing around. Once she broke a fine piece of Venetian glass and cried. Miss Stein laughed and said “Hell, oh hell, hell, objects are made to be consumed like cakes, books, people.” Every morning Miss Toklas bathes and combs their French poodle, Basket, and brushes its teeth. It has its own toothbrush.

Miss Stein has an outsize bathtub that was especially made for her. A staircase had to be taken out to install it. After her bath she puts on a huge wool bathrobe and writes for a while, but she prefers to write outdoors, after she gets dressed. Especially in the Ain country, because there are rocks and cows there. Miss Stein likes to look at rocks and cows in the intervals of her writing. The two ladies drive around in their Ford till they come to a good spot. Then Miss Stein gets out and sits on a campstool with pencil and pad, and Miss Toklas fearlessly switches a cow into her line of vision. If the cow doesn’t seem to fit in with Miss Stein’s mood, the ladies get into the car and drive on to another cow. When the great lady has an inspiration, she writes quickly, for about fifteen minutes. But often she just sits there, looking at cows and not turning a wheel.

Miss Stein always drives, and Miss Toklas rides in the back seat, squealing and jumping, for they say that Miss Stein is the worst driver in the history of automotive engineering. She takes corners fast, doesn’t put out her hand, drives on the wrong side of the street, pays no more attention to traffic signals or intersections than she does to punctuation marks, and never honks. Now and then Alice will lean over from the back seat and honk. They haven’t had any accidents. One writer who visited her had a fake wire sent to him from Paris calling him back, because he was afraid he’d be killed in the Ford.

Miss Stein spends much of her time quarrelling with friends—always about literature or painting. The quarrels are passionate ones, involving everybody, taking hours to get under way, lasting for years (like the one with Hemingway). Nobody remembers after a couple of months exactly what the quarrels are about. The maid at the Stein house in Paris has to be told every day who will be persona grata at tea—it all depends on the quarrel of the night before. Gertrude sits up late, talking, arguing, and laughing; she has a rich, deep, and warming laugh. Afterward she wakes up Alice, who goes to bed early, and they go over the talk of the whole day. Miss Stein has a photographic memory for conversation.

The lady wears astonishing clothes: sandals, woollen stockings fit for a football-player, a man’s plush fedora hat perched high on her head, rough tweed suits over odd embroidered waistcoats and peasant tunics. She also wears extraordinary blue-and-white striped knickers for underdrawers. This came out when she lost them once at a concert given by Virgil Thomson at the Hotel Majestic. She just stepped out of them somehow and left them lying there on the floor. She thought it was very funny and laughed loudly.

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https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1934/10/13/tender-buttons

Biomorphic streamlined forms

From Miró [Calder] took more directly a visual visual vocabulary–the biomorphic streamlined forms, at once abstract and animal, that would be the basis of his art-making for the rest of his life.

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I love this description by Adam Gopnik of something that seems indescribable (Calder’s sculpture shapes). They are suddenly tangible. From his essay on a recent calder biography in the 7 Dec. 2017 edition of The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/how-alexander-calder-made-art-move

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The entire morning passes but I’m already tired of all the old themes. In the afternoon, still we love and are unloved, still we understand no one, still we and our love will die, still reality is hard to admit and harder to escape, still the essential moments are unexpected yet nothing is new, still we were wrong about the past but the future is about to begin, still things make sense, still there is but one reliance.

Sarah Manguso, from Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape