Category Archives: Reading

A Drop in the River

IMG_0843The truly timeless tales are those that seem to be telling a localized story but are in fact about something greater, larger, universal. All stories are like a drop in the river of our humanity, but a really good story, to paraphrase Rumi, is not a drop in the river but is the whole river in a drop.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simple able to see any issue from both sides.

Thus begins The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen. Generally, when I write a blog post, I am pretty skimpy on plot details. My logic is: if one hasn’t read the book, why spoil it? and if one has, why repeat or rephrase what was carefully rendered by the author’s own purposeful style and pace? What I like to record for the benefit of my memory as well as for, hopefully, any interested person’s benefit is the effect a book has on me.

Maybe it says more about me than I’d like, but I have to admit that my favorite kind of humor is gallows humor. The narrator of The Sympathizer is just the sort I like and the structure of the novel, in which the narrator is telling the story to one particular person, allows a gullible reader such as myself to feel an intimacy with him. He is amusing, has interesting tales to tell, and unique perspectives to share.

Nguyen, I am hardly the first person to report (he received a pulitzer among many other awards for this book, after all), has written a beautifully affecting novel. The novel begins at the fall of Saigon in 1975, a double agent, The Captain, tells his story in a tone that evinces both a sense of fatalism and chaotic happenstance. From his own heritage to the international conflict at play, nothing is simple, everything is its own opposite. That tension imbues, colors, and complicates everything. Nguyen’s style however, is light.

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilizations, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese may have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity (p 232).

The story weaves its web from the outside in. The sum is not seen until the very end. There is a clarity and power of message that I did not anticipate for at least the first 2/3 of the story, and that….sneakiness is a delight even while it leads to the greater theme which is heart-wrenchingly human, all too human.

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Beauty is Lurking Everywhere

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“The most notable and revolutionary feature of Darwin’s theory of mate choice is that it was explicitly aesthetic. He described the evolutionary origin of beauty in nature as a consequence of the fact that animals had evolved to be beautiful to themselves.”
The Evolution of Beauty, Richard O. Prum

I once came across this wonderful sentence: “Beauty is lurking everywhere.” Damned if I know from where, but I latched onto the sentence, if not the author of the sentence, with a rare tenacity (at least as far as my mind’s usual light grip on factoids is concerned). If I was forced to guess I’d say Shakespeare…but given Shakespeare’s proclivity to produce delicious bon mots by the boat load, that feels like cheating—it’s like guessing a particular invention came from China.

I was prompted today to not be such a terrible blogger (it’s been about a year…) and get back to my purpose here which is to help me not forget all the books I read! And, as well,  make a good reading suggestion for others at the same time. What’s the fun of reading if you can’t share the fun?

So, back to beauty—Richard O. Prum’s fascinating book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us asks the next logical question for a person who believes, as I do, that beauty is indeed lurking everywhere, and that question is: but why?

“Throughout the living world whenever the opportunity has arisen, the subjective experiences and cognitive choices of animals have aesthetically shaped the evolution of biodiversity. The history of beauty in nature is a vast and never-ending story.”

Prum focuses on Darwin’s book which followed Origin of the Species, Descent of Man. Darwin was not satisfied with the problem of beauty which his theory of natural selection could not adequately explain. The peacock’s gorgeous arrayment left Darwin feeling nauseated. Not because of the excessive pulchritude, but because those long ridiculous feathers can not really be much help in survival, not least of all of the fight or flight variety.

What is so wonderful about Prum’s book is his expertise in ornithology, his explanation of the null/ not null practice of data collection and how that suppresses a whole lot of data, scientific bias, as well as his promotion of the subversive nature of what Darwin was really getting at—female empowerment. At times the book feels like a feminist apologia. Why is beauty lurking all around us? Because the ladies like it like that.

“What was so radical about this idea was that it positioned organisms—especially female organisms—as active agents in the evolution of their species. Unlike natural selection, which emerges from external forces in nature, such as competition, predation, climate, and geography, acting on the organism, sexual selection is a potentially independent, self-directed process in which the organisms themselves (mostly female) were in charge. Darwin describes females as having a “taste for the beautiful” and an “aesthetic faculty.” He described males as trying to “charm” their mates…..”

Because this theory, Darwin’s theory of the evolution of beauty, is so hard for some to accept as it throws into disarray the parameters of how evolution functions (fittest, Yes! but prettiest too!), the final third of Prum’s book is more speculative than he, or I, would prefer. But it at least leads in a direction of discovery that says damn implicit/explicit misogyny! our evolution is fascinating, complicated, and positively dripping in implications whether some might like what is revealed or not! Prum is not afraid to apply facts and humor in order to recuperate Darwin’s controversial ideas in the service of science. And I like it like that.

Just Another Lover

“[…], and normality, needless to say, means, purely and simply, dying when our time comes. Dying and not getting caught up in arguments about whether that death was ours from birth, or if it was merely passing by and happened to notice us.”
—José Saramago, Death With Interruptions (79)

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Poor death, she just can’t get it right. But in José Saramago’s lyrical book Death With Interruptions she is a character with whom the reader can not help developing a feeling of deep sympathy. The novel opens when she impulsively decides to suspend killing people which causes endless chaos and palpitations within the government and religious institutions, not to mention the undying and living. The philosophers are the only ones that get any satisfaction from the predicament, as is usually the case, I think.

“It’s called metamorphosis, everyone knows that, said the apprentice philosopher condescendingly, That’s a very fine-sounding word, full of promises and certainties, you say metamorphosis and move on, it seems you don’t understand that words are the labels we stick on things, not the things themselves, you’ll never know what their real names are, because the names you give them are just that, the names you give them,” (76)

Saramago takes his time describing the consequences of death’s whim. The story is told from a narratorial voice of an omniscient we. It’s unnerving. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that when death finally makes a personal appearance as the protagonist heroine of the story, the reader, or at least this reader, is happy for the intimacy.

When death comes to understand the complications that have ensued from her decision to put an end to her work, she resumes her defining job, but with the small added curtesy of notifying each individual with a week’s notice of their impending end. Her endearing attempts to be polite and get it right are not appreciated, alas. But what does death know of the livings’ attachment to life?

“Meanwhile, in her hotel room, death is standing naked before the mirror. She doesn’t know who she is.” (229)

How death comes to be in a naked body standing in front of a mirror is the second half of the story. And it is a love story. Death’s awkwardness and insecurity as a lover is pure Saramago genius, speaking to the awkward insecure lover in us all. Saramago’s scenarios are Borges-like, but his temperament is his own: gentle, unassuming, and heart-achingly sweet.

Death With Interruptions is a tender and moving tale which centers life—life which we of course understand is always already a sort of dying—on love. It is love, Saramago whispers into our ears, that interrupts death.

In the Face of Kitsch

The birds of fortuity had alighted once more on her shoulders. There were tears in her eyes, and she was unutterably happy to hear him breathing at her side (78).
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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Strangely, when I picked the book up off a friend’s shelf, I couldn’t quite remember if I had read it— Kundera’s most beloved novel. But I couldn’t put it down (again?). Thanks to my soveryvery archive I can go back and relive The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (a post, now that I am speaking of not remembering, which I coincidentally titled “What I Remember”—but with Kundera one can never clearly delineate the remembered from the forgotten) and Slowness (in which I posted the excellent Slow Love by Prince to accompany my thoughts which is sadly no longer available for viewing, but you can sing it to yourself while you read if you are so inclined).

Happiness, as Kundera writes, is to repeat: “the sweet law of repetition” (299). The unbearable lightness of the non-repeatable is what leaves us in a state of abject unease. And so I let myself be taken away, repeated or not, inside the weight of love between Tereza and Tomas.

Woven in between that story is the tragic story of political hypocrisy and fakery, or as Kundera names it: kitsch.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!
It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch (251).

In these days where we appear on the brink of a cyclical, reactionary return to the dark and stupid days of authoritarian bleakness, it is the fakery of it all that really rankles me: The forced cheers of political pyrrhic victories, the outright lies and gaudy veneer of those claiming to represent the “real folks.” The intellectual dishonesty and cowardice is sickening at best, deadly at worst.

When I say “totalitarian,” what I mean is that everything that infringes on kitsch must be banished for life: every display of individualism (because a deviation from the collective is a spit in the eye of the smiling brotherhood); every doubt (because anyone who starts doubting details will end up by doubting life itself); all irony (because in the realm of kitsch everything must be taken quite seriously); and the mothers who abandons her family or the man who prefers men to women, thereby calling into question the holy decree “Be fruitful and multiply” (252).

What to do? In this novel, Kundera takes seriously this question. We only live one life. We can not repeat. At this point in time, most of us can choose to shout out against the fuckery of injustices facing our environment and fellow inhabitants—but there is a time looming in the future, and already here for those at the margins, where laughing out loud, shouting, resisting, and fighting against the backward steps, leads to our hastened ignominious erasure.

Which is why I find such solace and sweetness in Tomas and Tereza. It’s not that they describe a perfect love—theirs is full of troubles, pain, and worries, in addition to the crushing political world around them. Their love is a vagabond pushed, or pushing them, farther and farther away from the vacant up-righteousness of kitsch. Tereza nearly lets it go uncredited as love, believing that their love can’t be equal since her love acted as a mission that Tomas seemed incapable, to her, of sharing. But their love is not a mission. It must be. In the end, it’s simple.

“Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions” (313).

It’s an obvious statement to say—we only have one life to live, but this makes it clear to me that there is no mission, there is only each day and hour. The weight of that is freeing. “Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas asks. Reason and love will meet us on the other side of history. It must be.

Meanwhile…

IMG_0566.jpgIt’s been a while. It may be more still while I re-orient, re-work, re-read, and re-assess the fast-moving parts of my life. Meanwhile I read. And bake, of course.

Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience was an amusing look into a man’s account of his own life ironically lacking in much ‘conscience’ but instead, full of complaints, finger-pointing, and laments all culminating in the throwing-off of his psychoanalysis which he declares a dismal failure even “after having practiced it faithfully for six whole months!” (exclamation mark, mine). He is, “worse off than before” (402). The examined life, it would appear, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Translated by William Weaver, Zeno’s Conscience was originally written in 1923. As I read it I thought of Giuseppe Berto’s, incubus written in 1964 which I read last summer while in Rome. It’s nearly inconceivable to me that Berto did not know of Svevo’s book given the similarities. But, then again, we humans are so much alike in our obsessive monitoring of our psyches—which sounds bad until you consider the alternative group of humans who lack any sense of, or responsibility towards, self-reflection and contemplation. At least the former group is trying.

At any rate, thinking of Berto brought me back to Rome (I have always had the habit of connecting my memories to the book or books I was reading at the time). Coincidentally, my reflections on my travels to Rome this past summer were recently published in Smith College’s magazine, Global Impressions. I include the link below.

Although I haven’t written much lately here, I haven’t completely gone away. But the thing I always loved about keeping a blog is that there is no pressure. One can write, one can read—or not. It’s just a pleasurable thing to be obligation-free in relation to my most pleasurable habit: reading.

https://sophia.smith.edu/blog/impressions/2017/03/08/word-on-the-street/

In the Sweet

I have always been particularly attracted by happy lovers and attached to them: Lawrence and Frieda were more than twice as attractive to me together than they would have been separately. 
—David Garnett, from the forward of Love among the Haystacks by D.H. Lawrence

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The concluding book of my trip to Rome this summer was D.H. Lawrence’s Love among the Haystacks. I bought it in an English-language used book store in Trastevere. The book itself was appealing. A yellow paperback of old thick paper stock. It was published by Phoenix Public Co Ltd out of Berne and on the bottom of the front cover was printed, “not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.,” which I read on the tarmac of JFK, so maybe not technically U.S.A.?

During my time in Rome I took many photos. I was alone after all, and through my lens I relished being the observer and used my photos to communicated to my friends at home. When I read the above quote in the forward of Lawrence’s charming book, I realized that I too have always been particularly attracted to happy lovers. The proof was there to see in my photos.

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We were both still. She put her arms round her bright knee, and caressed it, lovingly, rather plaintively, with her mouth. The brilliant green dragons on her wrap seemed to be snarling at me (“Once” 173)

I had not thought I would get to this last book in my plastic bag, but events overtook me. We took off an hour late from Stockholm so landed at JFK at 9pm instead of 8:00. An hour before landing, the airline brought coffee and some packaged bread-like substance to wake us up. I was seated in the middle of the middle of the plane and when the steward reached over to put my coffee on my tray I had a moment of distraction and suddenly the cup was sliding down, off the tray, onto my lap. The hot coffee scalded my legs and I hopped (as much as one can hop while seated and pack like a sardine) and quietly (so as to not wake the baby sleeping in her mother’s arms next to me) cried out “oh! oh! oh!” But what could I do, really? I was trapped in my seat until everyone else was finished and had their trays cleared. So I sat in a literal hot mess for about 30 minutes.

There it was damp and dark and depressing. But one makes the best of things, when one sets out on foot (“A Chapel Among the Mountains,” 115).

Finally, I was able to get up and retrieve my bag. I went to the bathroom, changed my pants for a skirt, asked for a blanket to cover my wet seat and sat back down. It was at this point that I settled in with Lawrence. I thought I might just get a few pages in, but reading is my relaxation go-to.

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His lips met her temple. She slowly, deliberately turned her mouth to his, and with opened lips, met him in a kiss, his first love kiss (“Love among the Haystacks” 98)

I was very much mistaken however, because the night that I landed in JFK was the night that the terminals were shut down due to rumors of a shooter. We sat for hours on the tarmac before anyone even told us what was going on, although, as we all had half-dying cell phones we knew something was up.

The young woman looked at Geoffrey, and he at her. There was a sort of kinship between them. Both were at odds with the world. Geoffrey smiled satirically. She was too grave, too deeply incensed even to smile (“Love among the Haystacks 63).

I ended up reading the entire book. We sat in the plane for just under seven hours. Seven hours. Seven. Luckily, Love among the Haystacks is a collection of endearing love stories. Endearing, that is, in Lawrence’s usual strangled way. Lawrence’s lovers are never fully able to express the raging waters in and between them. Their attempt are often thwarted, frustrated, bitter, and even angry. But when the waters meet—it is sweet.

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All that and a bag of books

Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by the absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.
—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (65)

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I brought Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 with me to Italy. It met all the requirements: it had spent way too much time on my book shelf unread, I had never read Pynchon and felt the need to remedy that situation, and my paperback copy was small and lightweight. This last point was actually the sine qua non of my reasoning as I had a 10 kilo limit on my carry-on and no check-in luggage in order to save a few bucks.

I left Rome at 5:00am on a Sunday morning. I flew out of CIA which is like a domestic airport except it does travel to EU countries. It was the day before fiere which is when the entire country takes a two week holiday. I had the feeling I was leaving in the nick of time as all the local stores I relied on for nontourist-trap foods (read—fruits and vegetables) were closing, but the airport was a madhouse which was lucky for me since the check-in man was so flustered he forgot to weigh my bag.

I didn’t get to Pynchon until I arrived around 11:00am in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was mildly surprised to find myself in Sweden because I had only paid attention to my airline: Norwegian Air, and so had figured I would be going to Norway first before my second layover in Stockholm. Needless to say, traveling produces a lot of anxiety in me and traveling alone is about 17 times harder than having someone to helpfully say, no idiot—we are on Norwegian Air but going to Sweden! Not that it matters much, one airport is like any other, although Swedish airports do sell a bevy of those cute orange horses and I am after all half-Swedish so I recognized my people straight away and was glad I was a proper Scandinavian and had not been tempted to be overly friendly or talk to my fellow travelers commenting about how beautiful Norway was! Lesson learned:look at other info provided on ticket besides flight number. So, it was there in Gothenburg, in a haze of acute travel panic suppression, that I began The Crying of Lot 49. 

Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (13)

I managed to make my connecting flight to Stockholm by sitting patiently in a glass box of a waiting room hoping that the glass wall which was standing between me and my departing gate would magically open. After about two and half hours, it did. I got to Stockholm around 2:00pm and upon disembarking the plane, stood in the middle of the terminal, which was in constant, steady motion with two thoughts in my head: 1) I have been traveling for 9 hours in the opposite direction to my final destination and that is depressing; and 2) Do I want food badly enough to justify torturing my shoulders and back with these over-packed and yes! I admit it and I am sorry! over-weight bags—it was so bad I had a third bag, a cheap plastic bag with five books in it that I figured I could sacrifice if called upon to do so. And I didn’t even buy that much stuff while there—true, I have five children so just buying them little trinkets at the excellent Porta Portese flea market did me in, and then, yes whatever—there were the few books I bought—but I had also LEFT books in Rome too (and that was a project! No one wants free books it seems!). My bags could not fit so much as a sewing needle by the time I was done, so the books were in the sacrificial bag. At least that was the plan. In reality I would have descended into a pit of madness without a book to read all the long hours of sitting and waiting for tubular flying machines to take me to the next sitting and waiting place. So it was a ‘no’ to food.

Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even only a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, planting of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what-all besides, all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or too involved for your nonlegal mind to know about even though you are co-executer, so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond a practical joke. Or you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull (165/6).

And I think that pretty much sums up international travel on the cheap these days. As I mentioned, I have had this book hanging around for years waiting patiently, as books do, to be read. So the fact that I eventually read it in Sweden—or better—in that never-never abstraction and parody-land of international airports—was so brilliant on my part I could not have actually planned it. The craziness of the Pynchon perfected a loop in my head which was struggling mightily to make sense of the mystery, quagmire, and relentless conspiracy to frustrate and discomfort beyond human endurance—that thing we prettily refer to as flying. Trying to solve Oedipa’s puzzle was a highly entertaining and magically perfect thing to do at the moment I was doing it.

By 6:00pm I was on the plane waiting for take-off to New York. I finished The Crying of Lot 49 and decided a little sleep (such as it was crushed between a nice woman and her near tw0-year-old baby on my left and a man and woman who had presumably said goodbye to his mother, perhaps for the last time judging from his tears, to my right). What happen next, I’ll save for the last book I had yet to read in my pseudo-sacrificial book bag.

*photo is actually taken over England on my way to Rome, but since I was in the middle of the plane, on all three flights coming back from Rome, this photo will have to do.