Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment

My Goodreads review starts like this:

This book is amazing because Ferrante is amazing. I love the way she gets into the characters’ heads and tells these gripping stories that are basically just psychological. The action in the story is relational – it is about a woman whose husband leaves her, and the aftermath. I had the feeling that I was actually suffering with her – that I was getting woozy when she was losing it. And yet, at the end, there is a redeeming compassion that I also love.

This is a short review, just to mark that I have finished it, because it is from my 2015 to-do list.

That’s probably enough, although going forward I will hopefully write more insightful or literary book reviews (or not – either is fine, I suppose).

On to the quotes, which are basically my favorite part of reading. I love collecting quotes and sentences. These in particular will show you the depth of feeling in the book.

I like this sentence, which shows the conversational tone the narration takes:

“I don’t know exactly what he said. If I have to be honest, I think that he mentioned only the fact that, when you live with someone, sleep in the same bed, the body of the other becomes like a clock, ‘a meter,’ he said — he used just that expression – ‘a meter of life, which runs along leaving a wake of anguish.'” (40)

In this quote, she is using deliberately maternal language to describe how she supported her husband through his studies and into his professional life:

“I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful. … I had disappeared into his minutes, into his hours, so that he could concentrate. … And now, now he had left me, carrying off, abruptly, all that time, all that energy, all that effort I had given him, to enjoy its fruits with someone else, a stranger who had not lifted a finger to bear him and rear him and make him become what he had become.” (63)

One of my favourite things about this book is the way that the narrator begins to understand that her relationship with her husband was juvenile, in essence, and required her to be girl-like. She has an epiphany about what it means to be adult:

“For Mario I — I shuddered — had never been Olga. The meanings, the meaning of her life — I suddenly understood — were only a dazzlement of late adolescence, my illusion of stability. starting now, if I wanted to make it, I had to trust myself to those two profiles, to their strangeness rather than to their familiarity, and moving on from there very slowly restore confidence in myself, make myself adult.” (124)

And here’s a great couple of sentences from the near-end, which doesn’t really contain a spoiler, but of course feel free to skip this if you want to read the book for yourself:

“I wanted to be me. If that formulation even made sense. Or at least I wanted to see what remained of me, once he was removed.” (183)

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Observations from a year of reading (2015), or a return to blogging?

This blog has been inactive, but I still keep coming back to it.

Last year I did a TinyLetter, which made it possible to write something that went to a lot of people, but was not permanently on the internet, so I could be a bit more personal.

I didn’t do as much reading of books last year; I read a lot of documents for work, and millions of emails (okay, thousands). I didn’t even read on my long holiday in the summer because it was a writing holiday instead. So my list of books read this year is short, and I loved them all:

  • Elena Ferrante (whatever parts of the series I hadn’t read last year at this time, plus Days of Abandonment),
  • H is for Hawk,
  • The Notebook (Agota Kristof, not Nicholas Sparks),
  • Speedboat by Renata Adler (immensely quotable and beautiful but doesn’t have a plot),
  • A huge book of short stories by Grace Paley that I devoured in a gulp in March,
  • Mary Oliver’s new poetry collection Felicity

I think that there will be more, perhaps even books written by men, but I don’t remember.

Oh yes – also:

  • A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is an amazing piece of writing and I can totally support the recognition it has gotten. It’s sort of tough going, though, although it gets amazingly suspenseful at the end.
  • Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which is diaries/manuscripts/letters of Bulgakov – useful for my novel – and also really enchanting.
  • White Guard by Bulgakov, which echoed in my mind when I visited Kyiv in November.
  • Murakami’s The Strange Library, which is like having an elaborate dream during a nap.

I have started and not finished dozens of books, however. Although this is more embarrassing, I think it is a more interesting list:

  • Lots of books about tunnels. I’m sure you know that I would like to write a book about tunnels, and so I have been acquiring and reading parts of them. In fact, a book that belongs on that list above is probably Ernesto Sabato’s book The Tunnel, which is about murder and not really about tunnels, but still pretty good. The other books on this sublist are two books by David L. Pike, who writes about the undergrounds of cities and I think might be my tunnel soulmate.
  • The biography of Tennessee Williams that everyone wrote about in 2014 (by “everyone”, I mean book reviewers in niche publications that I subscribe to).
  • SPQR, which I still believe I will read at some point because Mary Beard is awesome.
  • The Familiar, Vol. 1, by Mark Z. Danielewski. I might be too conservative to read this book, but I will try again sometime. Also it’s really heavy.
  • Multiple – and I mean multiple – books about writing.
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, which I think I can dip in an out of over my life.
  • Slippery Noodles, a history of Chinese food by Hsiang Ju Lin, which is wonderful. I need to read more histories of food. Any suggestions?
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck – didn’t really get into it.
  • Martin Buber’s Between Man and Man – I am always sort of reading this book.
  • Civilizing the Machine, which I have been sort of reading as part of a course syllabus a friend and I are slowly reading through this decade/couple of decades.
  • The Prophets by Heschel.
  • Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit – plan to read this in 2016.
  • The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean Pierre De Caussade, which I heard about on Writer’s Almanac.
  • Shelley’s Frankenstein.
  • Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.

So, no surprise there – this list is a lot longer. I like it that way.

Do you have any observations on reading from your 2015?

Comments on Dokei, a play at The Lion and Unicorn

DOKEI-(Longing)

Last night I went to the opening night of the play “Dokei“, produced by my friend and ex-colleague Michelle. This is a short review because I don’t know a lot about how to write a review for a play.

The play is clearly a unique and compelling piece, partly because of its clear feminist and minority point of view on an interesting period of history. Many people have written about early Dutch explorers in Japan, but usually from the Dutch men’s point of view. This play flips that on its head in a unique way, but not a patronising way.

The acting by Jung Sun den Hollander is impressive as well – she is continually engaging and manages to switch between different ages of the character in a impressive way, and maintains a high level of energy and amusement for the scenes where she is a younger woman. Plus, she is personally impressive: she wrote the play, arranged for funding for it and (by all accounts) has been organised and thorough in getting it to stage.

Overall, a very impressive play, and reminded me I need to get out and see new plays more often.

Thoughts on watching Something, Anything

I just watched my friend Ashley’s film (she is the producer), Something, Anything. Here’s a trailer (hope this works):

Something, Anything – Trailer from Self-Reliant Film on Vimeo.

This is not going to be much of a review, although there are other really fantastic reviews for the film out there (like this one in New York Times). This is really more of a love letter to my friend, and an endorsement of the path and voice that she has found in her life (not just in relation to this film but more broadly).

We met when we shared a room studying abroad, and bonded over a love of poetry, mail from friends, experiences of breakups and her willingness to listen to Dar Williams. I feel completely fortunate to have had her as a roommate in that weird semester in Warsaw, and as a correspondent and sometimes-in-person friend since then.

This film is beautiful and mesmerizing, and I’ve had a really powerful emotional reaction to the journey that the lead character makes in the film. It tugs at something I feel a lot of the time: that my life is too complicated, or I am on the wrong career track, or something more nameless than any of that, and all I really need to do is move to a monastery for 6 months or go to a mountain and watch fireflies. I feel all of these things and do not do anything about them (for a number of reasons: these are not the only things I feel about my life, and I also like to buy a lot of books and be busy and learn things at my job).

The film is not about me, of course. But this is just a review about how I have responded to it. It is a good crystallisation of a positive journey and inner strength. And it manages to pack in an enormous amount of questioning into a script without much dialogue.

So that’s my Sunday rambling for the week, and what I will be spending time to be with, thinking and feeling and musing about … instead of working and preparing for the week ahead.

“Melancholy is the … feeling of distance that separates us from a potential simple world.”

Today I went to “Constructing Worlds”, an exhibition at the Barbican. There’s still a week left of the exhibition, and if you live in London, you should go. Barbican exhibitions are generally a good bet, but I usually have a niggling criticism – some of them are too heavy or too light, but I thought that this one got a great balance.

The subject of this post is taken from this Frieze Magazine article about one of the artists whose work was exhibited at the Barbican, Luigi Ghirri. (One of his images from the exhibition – actually my favorite – is here, where you can see other photos from the exhibition as well.) There is something about his style and technique that really grabbed me. He is not, seemingly, widely written about on the internet – or anyway his Wikipedia page is quite short. But I fell in love with him. I think we have a special bond.

There were so many fantastic photographers, and I took away a small treasure from each of the rooms about them, so I won’t go on about that today. Such arresting photographs with such different style, but all fascinated and interested in photographing space.

I love photography of people, but this exhibition really spoke to how I tend to take take photographs. That is not to say that I should be included in the exhibition – but it just made me realise that there is clearly this history of photography of cities and and spaces and environments at weird angles, or with different view points. I take vacant pictures, with no people in them, that somehow don’t work that well on Facebook sometimes. Now I can say that I am fitting into some kind of a movement or a period or a style of photographing the contemporary urban environment. Probably this comes from leaving Texas (a certain strange architectural and spacial environment – vast and vacant) to go to Poland, Siberia and Central Asia (another strange architectural environment – with their colossal postwar buildings and Soviet ruins). Perhaps my photography style would be less melancholy if I’d started traveling in Europe. Although, looking at that Ghirri quote, maybe not.

So I will leave you with some of my own “architectural photography” from the last few months, none of which is very good and all of which is taken with an iPhone in a sly, surreptitious or fast manner. I would always edit photos like this out of Facebook posts, but I post these now in a sloppy tribute to my new artistic love interests like Walker Evans (you can watch a cool YouTube video about him here) and Luigi Ghirri.

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My year in reading (2014)

This was a year of noticing but not tracking. I spent the last few years relentlessly tracking and pursuing and striving in my cultural life… and getting fewer and fewer returns.This year, 2014, I read a bit less, and more spontaneously – rather than following all of the books that we are “supposed” to like, I explored my own bookshelves.

The bookshelves are really the theme of this year. See, I moved to a new apartment in March, and during the move we spent several weeks living out of suitcases in a slightly unstable life, while the final remodelling was done to our apartment. We have beautiful bookshelves now, but the process of moving in was so traumatic that, for the first time in my life, I was unable to read a challenging book: Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai. I really wanted to read it, but something in my brain snapped.

Here is me on move-in day ….

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… and here is the initial process of sorting out our books:

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Specifically, that is the moment when we realised that all of the books on the floor in that photo would not fit on our shelves. We have done various things – my husband has made more shelves, and we have piles of books in various corners around the house. Now the room looks like this (these are fiction, poetry, philosophy, essays etc. – nonfiction is in the study now):

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Anyway, I have shopped my bookshelves for much of my reading this year. I will start with the pile of books next to my bed, which at some point I have decided I would read (with varying degrees of success):

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So here are some paragraphs about what I have read, not in any particular order – because my reading has been sampling and enjoying, more than accomplishing this year.

I have kept Joan Didion next to my bed for the year because I have a grand plan of writing an essay about her 1960s/70s essays and Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 42. I have not yet written this essay, but I love picking up Joan Didion when I am at a loss for other things to read.

As I said earlier, I have spent a lot of time shopping my bookshelves. This has brought some amazing discoveries, including Madame Bovary (I will come back to this), Martin Amis’s Money, and Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Money and FLLV are of a certain time period and, in a way, a certain type of voice – this exuberant, drugged, somewhat entitled but still critical, male voice. I enjoyed reading both, as it is a genre and voice that I don’t often read.

I read Madame Bovary this year on a trip to Italy and then to a yoga weekend, and it was a great book for travel: you get smug-face reading it (it’s a “classic”) but you enjoy yourself as well. I have a bit less smug-face about the fact that I did actually read this book before, and I do not remember anything at all about it… except when Dr. Bovary cut the Achilles tendon of a patient. I was 13 when I read it last; apparently adultery didn’t leave much of an impression. I think I might have recently sprained my ankle at the time, and so empathised more with the patient.

I took a month off in June to go to my brother’s wedding(s) in Texas and Taiwan, and to go hiking/camping in Spain. The Goldfinch was a superb recommendation for the latter half of the trip. I don’t remember what I read the first half of the trip. At some point – maybe the first part of the trip – I attempted to read The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing), but I did not enjoy it, and I abandoned it. I am pretty sure as well that I took Buber’s Between Man and Man with me to several countries.

On the other hand, the book I had with me on the Texas/Taiwan part of the trip could have been Karl Ove Knausgaard’s third book in his My Struggle series, Boyhood Island. I do find the writing mesmerising, but nothing yet is as good in my opinion as the first one. But I will keep buying them, of course.

I was pretty disappointed in the latest Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It wasn’t bad. It just didn’t seem good. I miss the richness and depth of his earlier books.

I have just finished Decoded by Mai Jia, which is basically a novel about loneliness and cryptography. I read about it in the Economist, which described it in a both appealing and borderline racist manner:

FINALLY, a great Chinese novel. The past 35 years have seen an outpouring of fiction in China, only a small fragment of which has been read overseas.

(The review is more ecstatic after that, but it is a pretty narrow-minded starting point.)

I have delved further into Southern (US) literature, as well. I have picked up and fallen in love with Flannery O’Connor, both before and after I found out that she is not that popular because of her religion. Her stories are incredible, though, and I read half of the anthology in the photo above in about a week. I have also been reading Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! – although I’m not totally sure if I will be taking it on the Christmas trip. I’m gearing up for a US road trip in the Deep South early next year, and I cannot wait to delve into this more.

Finally, my friend M introduced me to the children’s books of Maira Kalman, who I love now, after reading one about Lincoln. Beautiful words and evocative images.

I read almost no nonfiction (besides dipping into Buber), but I loved Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. It opened my eyes to high-frequency trading, and I basically read it on one flight from Ukraine. (I went to Ukraine four times, so the flight length became a unit of time I got to know.)

For the Christmas/New Year period, I have got Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots (she seemed popular this year), Elena Ferrante’s second book in her Neapolitan novel trilogy, Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. One part of me thinks that I can’t take all of these books – plus Faulkner – on the trip. But the main part of me is undeterred.

In terms of long articles I really loved, I recommend so much anything by Rebecca Solnit, and particularly this article “The Art of Arrival”. I also loved Zadie Smiths’ “Man vs. Corpse”. I also really loved New York Magazine’s article about laundry apps and the tech revolution, with this stinging passage:

Looking around at the newly minted billionaires behind the enjoyable but wholly unnecessary Facebook and WhatsApp, Uber and Nest, the brightest minds of a generation, the high test-scorers and mathematically inclined, have taken the knowledge acquired at our most august institutions and applied themselves to solving increasingly minor First World problems. The marketplace of ideas has become one long late-night infomercial.

I will post more if I can remember them, but those are the top three, since they’re what I often talk about and what springs to mind here. I have not been reading the New Yorker as much, but more of New York Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement, with occasional London Review of Books mixed in. (LRB is what my husband intercepts, while I get NYRB and TLS.) The number of random facts I have picked up from these book reviews is too much to count.

I think that’s probably it. I am not counting, as I said, so I don’t know how that compares to the many, many books I read last year – I know it is fewer – but I feel that this year off from all of the noise of literary circles has been good, and I am looking forward to what I will explore next year.

Would love to hear what you’ve all been reading!

Two books I got for free and really loved

I get a lot of free books through NetGalley. I need to figure out a way to request fewer because my stats are sort of bad. But I really want all the books! And I always think I have more time than I do!

So that’s bad. But I do actually start almost all of the books, and I get a feel for them. Some are amazing – I got introduced to Rebecca Solnit and Yiyun Li and Ruth Ozeki on there, and I would not have read them otherwise. In other cases, I try out some of the book and then scrap it – it doesn’t hold my interest, or I find something better. Or I run out of time and then it expires. Etc.

The more I read book blogs, though, the more I think that it is possible – probable? – that people are writing about and judging and discussing books they haven’t fully read. That is actually fine, sometimes. I think it’s particularly fine if you are honest.

So I started two books from NetGalley and actually really thought they were quality – really adding something to the world of literature, so I am going to write about them here. Both, weirdly enough, have the word “corpse” in them, but they’re really different.

They are:

  • The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim. This book is as dark as its black-on-black cover. It is also the first book translated from Arabic from Iraq since the US invasion (I think? it seems to be what is written in some marketing material), and so that darkness suits. There are pointless, “artistic” killings and kidnappings and people hiding in safe houses waiting to die in suicide bombings. It’s very good. (It’s been written about on The Rumpus recently, so you know it’s quality.)
  • Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. This is not as dark as the other, but it is not really light-hearted. It is a new translation of a Russian writer who wrote during the Soviet Union but wasn’t really published. It’s not hard to see why that is. The stories read in translation a lot like a sort of combination of Kafka and Pessoa and Gogol. Beautiful and heart-twisting and very sad. And beautiful.

There are other books that I glanced and did not pick up, and now I regret it, so I have added them to my Goodreads. So I hope that counts for something as well…