2018 Books, #6-10

6. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit (2004)


A politics of hope. As Solnit so eloquently proposes, this doesn’t mean naive optimism about the future,  which allows for inaction, but rather acting with faith in the unexpected, unrecognized and surprising ways change for the better happens. Eruptions of the people taking power are never predictable, but they certainly weren’t born of doomsayers and “what-abouters” (e.g, the left eating itself). Her philosophy will be important to hold onto as action in the face of climate change becomes imperative.

Provenance: A bookstore, not sure which.
Fate: On the keeper shelf.

7. King Kong Théorie by Virginie Despentes (2006)


This is a manifesto. A declaration of war. A punk text. Despentes on living in a patriarchy, on prostitution and rape, based on her experiences with all of the above. In one essay she delves deep into the psychology and psyche of surviving rape, not the rape itself. It’s profound. I read several interviews with her, and she discusses how getting this book out of her body changed her life. You can feel this in the language itself, how it’s a life-transforming kind of text. There were a few assertions I took issue with, and would be curious to discuss with Despentes herself. For example, her disparagement of anything feminine (with the exception of figure skating and dressage!); her defense of prostitution based on practicing it from the position of being in control of the experience, as a white, educated woman, etc. But you don’t have a balanced discussion with a punk text, you let it stand on its own terms.

Provenance: A bookstore, I don’t remember which one.
Fate: On my keeper shelf.

8. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self by Manoush Zamarodi (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)


I picked up this book because I was a fan of the “Note to Self” podcast it’s based on. I think it suffers from a marketing problem – I wouldn’t recommend it as a “how-to” on inspiring creativity, but more as a guidebook on taking control of the smart phone in your life and living with it consciously and productively. Lots of interesting summaries of research on how smart phones affect social dynamics, deep thinking and deep reading, childhood development etc.

Provenance: Bargain bookshelf at the American Book Center in The Hague.
Fate: Kicking around the apartment

9. The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (Tor Books, 2000)


I read this at Dan’s urging (I don’t read a lot of science fiction) as it’s a book he often thinks about and wanted discuss. The various sci-fi premises are definitely juicy: a scientist discovers a way to traverse space and time to create peepholes into any point in the past or present (the past can be viewed, but not interfered with), and, simultaneously, it emerges that a giant asteroid is on a  fatal collision course with the earth, though the impact is not for several years. Oh and there’s also stuff about a clone. (These aren’t spoilers.) So humanity is fatalistic, nihilistic, hedonistic in the face of its likely end, while also contending with a real view of its history, and a total loss of privacy. Some of this sounds familiar, doesn’t it. There are a lot of prescient points, and some daring conjectures on the real life of Christ, and the relative poverty of great performances of the past.  There’s also a mind-blowing passage that goes back all the way back through the history of life on the planet. I have to say I would have preferred the amazing passages in an essay form, without having to bear through clunky descriptions of characters, wooden dialogue and the slog of a plot (though I guess a lot of other people wouldn’t want to read it then), which I suppose is why I avoid a lot of science fiction. It’s hard for me to choke down bad writing. I can’t drop the critical eye, snob!

Provenance: From Dan
Fate: Kicking around the apartment

10. Motherhood by Sheila Heti (Henry Holt, 2018)


I was just reading up on autofiction and came across Christian Lorentzen’s take on this book in NY Magazine, so I’m presently confusing his insightful, original thinking for my own. To paraphrase his take: the central question of this book—the Sheila character’s agonizing over whether or not to have a child—is a MacGuffin. It’s a way in for Heti the author to explore other issues, like her relationship with her partner, her family history, her mother. Not to say that the question of motherhood isn’t interesting or important (and I’d say it’s more than MacGuffin-level in this novel), but it was perhaps too exclusively the focus of reviews of the book and interviews with Heti. It makes me think it was too narrowly my own focus while reading the book, as I was also ambivalent about motherhood for many years and grateful to hear Heti’s thoughts about this. And then I was ultimately disappointed with how the novel resolved that ambivalence. Lorentzen also makes the important point that autofiction is deceptively simple. It makes you think you’re reading a kind of journal by the author, when really there’s an art and structure underneath. This book therefore merits a second reading from me, where I look at it as a novel with a structure and spanning many subjects rather than a long personal essay on ambivalence about motherhood…

Provenance: Ordered from the American Book Center in The Hague.
Fate: On the keeper shelf

The 2013 Book List, Part III

The stirring conclusion to my 2013 round-up.  I read 21 books, here are Nos. 1-7 ranked not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or made me feel something, or all of the above.



1. Speedboat (1976) – Renata Adler (NYRB Classics, 2013 reprint edition. Purchased at Spoonbill & Sugartown. On the Permanent Keeper shelf, signed by R. Adler.)

New York in the 1970s, a peek into the insomniac consciousness of a journalist, a woman. Fragmented into perfect paragraphs. Paranoia, travels, anecdotes, affairs, drinking, childhood, politics, seen through sharp eyes and vulnerable soul. Brilliant.


2. How Should a Person Be? (2012) – Sheila Heti (Picador, 2013 reprint edition. Purchased at a bookstore. Loaned to a friend.)

Ballsy. I admired Heti’s lack of fear in writing about art & wanting to make art, about sex, about obsession, about being petty, even. Very funny, sometimes. Sometimes annoying, when it aimed for grandiosity, but it annoyed me in the ways I annoy myself. It had the feeling of a graphic novel, maybe because so much of it was written in dialogue.


3. Just Kids (2010) – Patti Smith (Ecco. Purchased at a bookstore. On the Permanent Keeper shelf.)

Second time I read this. A comforting book for the winter. She makes me want to draw, write, make collages, dream, with unabashed enthusiasm. A gentle book, gentle handling of Mapplethorpe’s hustling, episodes of lice, freezing winters, getting jeered on stage, etc., seen through the burnish of nostalgia. She recognizes this aspect, though, that the book is an act of love and therefore gentle about the difficult times. This time around, I noticed many more allusions to rock lyrics hidden in her text, and I admired the writing style – spare & elegant.


4. Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (2001)  – David Bayles and Ted Orland (Image Continuum Press. Passed on to me by a friend, who found it in a book box on the street in Brooklyn. In the art book shelf.)

A second read. Like a voice of common sense in your head, a good talk with a friend: focus on the process, not the final criticism or adulation, keep making stuff, if that’s what makes you tick.


5. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries and Curiosities (2009) – Alberto Angela, trans. Gregory Conti (Europa Editions.  Purchased at B&N, USQ. Kept on the “will possibly re-read or loan to someone” shelf.)

The author worked in documentary TV, and the book gives this feeling, in a good way. Cinematic in its descriptions, a friendly narrative voice takes you on a tour of Ancient Rome from dawn until midnight, taking you through the homes of people of various social classes, the markets, the Senate, the Coliseum, the communal bathrooms… A social history I’ve always wanted to read: instead of focusing on battles and emperors, it brings the daily details of existence to life. A charming translation that retains the feel of Italian.


6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) – Michael Pollan 

Wow was this book good. A lasting contribution. It felt so fresh, even 7 years after its initial publication and all of the hype surrounding it. I like that he went beyond taking an activist, awareness-raising perspective regarding American production, consumption and attitudes towards food (although there are shades of this) and assumed a bigger point view, which includes human evolution, philosophy, ethics and his own personal perspective, which was so open and touching. 


7. Tender Is the Night (1934) – F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Glamorous, escapist stuff… The French Riviera, Switzerland, Paris. A golden couple with a secret.  Americans must have been so obnoxious, actually, taking over struggling post-WWI France. It was the first time I thought this reading Fitzgerald. Laughed at his digs at the British, they are always duds in this book.

Living Naked

Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn’t take them off. Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human.

Most people lead their private lives. They have been given a natural modesty that feels to them like morality, but it’s not–it’s luck. They shake their heads at the people with their clothes off rather than learning about human life from their example, but they are wrong to act so superior. Some of us have to be naked, so the rest can be exempted by fate.

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?