Tag Archives: book

An Inexplicable But Pelagic Hope

This is what I know: people’s hopes go on forever
– Junot Díaz, This is How You Lose Her (72)

45817_10151542606933132_1238016564_n-1This book stared at me for weeks as it sat on the Featured Book wall-display across from the circulation desk I sit behind. I would always stare back at it whenever I walked by. Once or twice I even picked it up, held the spanking new volume wrapped in snapping clear polyester and contemplated reading it. I was already reading a few books, had promised a few others I would read them next, then there’s homework, and jobs, children, applications with their punishing piles of forms to fill that are covered front and back with questions that I cannot answer- I take that back,  I can always at least manage question number one: name. After that, my life simply does not fit into the square boxes. So no, Junot Díaz, I don’t have time to read your pretty little book with deckle edged paper. Stop looking at me. Mercifully, one day the display was changed.

This novel wouldn’t let it go however. I was asked to gather a list of books off the stacks the other day, and there it was again, in the New Reads section. Damn it. I picked it up. For the first time I actually opened it. All of my will power was undone in a page – this is how you read a book in one day. I read the first chapter standing, facing the shelves. Then I got a hold of myself went back to my desk to finish my studying, eat an orange, read a long, interesting article about Jane Austen a friend sent me, and then I read the book, drove home, and read it to the end.

The story is devastating, smart, and tender. The idiosyncrasies of Dominican culture mixed with the peculiar regularity with which people, in this case- Yunior, fuck up their lives is told with verve and nerve. The book is funny, heartbreaking, bleak, but buoyant.

It takes discipline and perhaps the confidence from growing up in a loving home to avoid the urge to insecurely fling oneself heedlessly into what looks like Love, or my favorite non-love description: Camus’ vanity and boredom. One of the fascinating things about the life of Jane Austen was that she knew the requirements of her own heart, and just because she never realized (at least publicly) a true love, she was content to be alone and pour her passion into her art rather than forfeit her need to Love truly. Possibly her heart was set on one man in particular, turning it cold to anyone else—that’s a bit of speculation, but there was that Irish fellow…not enough money, family expectations, blah blah blah, we know the story—in fact we know it well because of Austen’s smart, tender books.  Funny though, how in both cases—Jane and Díaz’s Yunior—they end up alone. Do the reasons matter?

Like Yunior, Elinor in Sense and Sensibility acts recklessly in her love life. The idiosyncrasies of the English class system mix painfully with Elinor’s sensuality. Elinor is rescued from that cowardly rake Willoughby’s renunciation by Colonel Brandon’s adoration—which is so kind of Austen, but still  Elinor, again like Yunior, is a bit wrecked, body and soul, by the experience.

A few years back I resignedly  concluded that there is no reason why I should be hopeful. No reason to assume “things will look up.” No reason, certainly, to think Miss Austen had a firm grasp of real life with her wrenchingly wonderful happy endings. This is How You Lose Her is a story that I love for its full frontal look at reality. Yunior is what one might  call a “dog,” and yet you feel for him. He can’t love because he wasn’t loved at those critical stages of youth: the plasticity of the heart must have an expiration date.  Years go by, and we can’t all have a Captain Wentworth, who has that rare Love that can never bring itself to forsake the lovely object of his ardor: Anne Elliot in Persuasion—my favorite Austen book. I tend to think Persuasion represented Austen’s rewrite of her life, (the article suggested P&P née First Impressions, maybe they all were to some extent, but Persuasion was her last novel…).

Yunior and I would like a rewrite. Instead we get reality, Yunior’s body starts to break under the pressure until the only thing that’s left is his poor calcified heart. Save me! It cries out. save me. 

His heartbreak is long, intense, and perhaps permanent. Maybe the most some can hope for is to get over the disappointment of their own shortcomings. It is enough I suppose to try not to make it worse. At a certain point you stop worrying about going up and simply become determined not go down. Jane Austen found her rather brilliant way to not make it worse and yet, her body too failed her long before it should have— desuetude of the heart devastates too. That, is life. Both Austen and Díaz give the gift of hope and humor against despair and cynicism. Laugh or cry, it’s the battle we wage everyday.

The half-life of love is forever.  – Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (213)

*Painting by my daughter,  Victoria Accardi, oil and embroidery thread (the tattoos are embroidered onto the canvas).

Our Fettle

Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance? – Albert Camus, The Fall

This book ran its course through me over the long, weary, on-going (hence my photo free posts) days of the post-hurricane camp out. We started out trying to fortify ourselves against what was coming. We tackled it cheerily, even with some measure of fortitude. I laughed along with M. Camus:

I confess my weakness for that mood and for fine speech in general. A weakness that I criticize in myself, believe me…my consolation is to tell myself that, after all, those who murder the language are not pure either. Why yes, let’s have another gin. (6)

Oh Let’s! Why not? But as the long, dark, weary hours passed it became increasingly difficult. Nothing to do but contemplate the fettle we are in: something I normally work very hard to avoid.

After all, my dream had not stood up to facts. (54)

Camus’ charm and pithy summations of the state of the world and the truth in people’s hearts goes down easy. He is never too cynical for a little self-deprecating humor at any rate.

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question. (52)

The protagonist in The Fall has simply come face to face with his own disappointment of who he is as opposed to who he imagined himself to be. His fine rhetoric, good deeds and pretty words disguised from himself his true self, and the disillusion is ripe. When he is truly put to the test, to stand up for the love of his fellow man that he prided himself on, he fails. Where his words act as a sort of subterfuge, his actions cry out the truth, and he knows it. That is his fall.

But I will admit to saving my deepest pity for the girl on the bridge that he ignores.  She knows the answer. Whatever test she confronted has brought her to the brink. The confirmation of her answer is felt in the empty air streaming through her fingers as she finds herself alone, falling. How profoundly sad her feeling must have been, because the truth is, at least at that moment, she is truly  unloved. And that is worse than not loving.

Trouble Loves Me

“Isn’t it broken dreams that bend our knees, that make us numb?”  – Sátántangó

The other day someone said to me, “Jessica, what you are trying to do, you can not do.” Well, I thought, that describes my life with frightening clarity.

Let’s Dance…

With that thought in my head, nothing better to do than watch the film, Satantango that I had requested from the library after a fruitless search in their system for a copy of the book.
Belá Tarr adapted the novel by László Krasznahorkai into a seven hour film. I can give Belá seven hours: why not? otherwise it’s just me, Morrissey, and a glass of wine.

“My heart, he thought again and again.” 

All is in the gloaming, half light and rain, in this incredible, meditative film. Maybe someday I’ll figure out what it all means. Tarr uses length to do the same thing that Mark Rothko did with the scale of his paintings: it’s the complete absorption into the artist’s feeling and vision.

The sins we commit against ourselves is the protracted theme stretching across the hours where nothing much happens, because as Tarr says, “nothing really happens as we flee from one condition to the other….all that remains is time.”

“There’s a huge difference between plodding and plodding.”

It’s Csak a gond, a munka (just trouble and work). It seems that way to me too. And all we really want to know is why?

“Regard me as a sad researcher who investigates why everything is as terrible as it is.”

It all makes a circle coming back on itself. Our inertia, and inability to seize…joy, have faith in life, each other and ourselves. I don’t know. I haven’t got it worked out. Perhaps I just feel defeated.

Rhyme or Reason

It’s because her love is artless,
And she, not knowing men are heartless. – Eugene Onegin, Pushkin

If I begin to write in rhyme it will not be my fault. Reading is corrupting, the pattern and rhythm soon invade one’s mind. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is an astounding piece of work. The man wrote in rhyming verse! A novel – in rhyming verse! And perhaps more incredible than that, other people have translated this rhyming verse into different languages. It is a marvel. I read Babette Deutsch’s translation of this devastating tale which is told with exquisite sensitivity and aplomb.

What sort of a man is Onegin? A Misanthrope?:

No syllable of sentiment,
No grace, no flash of merriment,
Lay hid in all the prose they uttered.-
No savoir vivre, no hint of verse;
And when their wives talked, it was worse.

Well, I don’t go in for small talk either, so I can’t hold that against him. But there lies within his core, a certain coolness I abhor (oh dear, a rhyme). But Tatiana is undone completely by her love for him.

For woman is a tender fool,
And love is but the devil’s tool.

It’s painful to witness. And, why? If only we could choose whom we love: command our molecules to paid heed to our senses, not just our sensibilities. I probably should not read Pushkin during my breaks in biology class. But, there must be some molecular explanation for attractions: love, love in the face of hopelessness, the powerlessness to cleave off unrequited love: it’s as if our electrons are fatalists.

‘Complaint will make my pain no less.
He cannot give me happiness.’

Further more, Onegin is a man of inertia. He does not love Tatiana enough to move him to transduction. Later on, when a careless act begins a chain reaction that leads to Lensky’s coffin, there is not enough friction within Onegin to stop it. Does he ever take control of his own life? No. Years later, his feelings are finally pushed along on the wave of societal esteem where Tatiana now finds herself; she is all the more humiliated by his display of wasted dynamic.

Our songs, but are not worth the singing.
Their looks enchant, their words are sweet,
And quite as faithless as their feet.

The absence of love then, is apoptosis: programmed cell death. The cell gets a little messenger molecule that says, “life is not worth living.” Tatiana lives in a state of slow perpetual apoptosis- she deadens herself so that she can live.

This pool we bathe in, friends, this muck
In which, God help us, we are stuck.

And yet, this familiar tale is balanced so divinely on the pen of Pushkin. I think he means to make the reader fall in love with him. Pushkin is a charming flirt if ever there was one. From his hilarious foot fetish of the opening stanzas to the steady interruptions of  commentary on the characters, their actions, and best of all, on his own writing and teasing rhymes.

The frosts begin to snap, and gleaming
With silver hoar, the meadows lie…
(The reader waits the rhyme-word: beaming,
Well, take it, since you are so sly!).

It is a tour de force of storytelling, his pleasure to tell, and ours to read. Pushkin will break my heart as gently as he can, preferably with a glass of Bordeaux in hand and a sweet smile on his face.

I know that life is but a bubble,
My fondness for it is but slight;
I am deceived by no illusion;
But I salute hope’s shy intrusion,

Disguise Incognito

“Do you understand,” said the other,  “that this is a tragedy?”
“Perfectly,” replied Syme, “always be comic in a tragedy.”
– The Man Who Was Thursday,
G.K. Chesterton

all paths lead…

I have mentioned my theory of seduction by authors. Not only by the words placed just so – to get you, sweet reader to open the book, turn the page, bask in the prose, lose yourself between the covers…. but I sometimes also repeatedly come upon an author’s name, book title, a quote, or photo until, thoroughly tempted, I finally read them.

Invariably I love the books that come to me this way- they seem to know me and are unerring in supplicating me to talk to them: there seems to me a certain conversation that takes place between writer and reader something like a…scriptversation that I am partial to.

“It was one of those quite arbitrary emotions, like jumping off a cliff or falling in love.” 

G.K. Chesterton was beckoning me, I mentioned this to John Crowley who suggested I read The Man Who Was Thursday.  It is one of the funniest books I have read in a while. Chesterton’s dry humor sent me into regular palsies of laughter: a hazard when reading in public.
While sitting in the garden of a convalescent home, waiting for my step father whom I drive to physical therapy, my laughter stirred a dozing patient several times. Every time she came to she’d faintly announce “I was dreaming!”

“My God!” said the Colonel, “someone has shot at us.”
“It need not interrupt the conversation,” said the gloomy Ratcliff. “Pray resume your remarks, Colonel. You were talking, I think, about the plain people of a peaceable French town.”

Chesterton’s brilliance is cleverly sprinkled into this tale, which is something of a mystery story- not so much in the detective sense, as that “mystery” is solved to the reader fairly early on, but in the metaphysical sense-

“Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained.”

His writing style is so easy, he effortlessly takes the farcical absurdity of everything and turns it on its head again and again. I was almost too busy laughing to notice that the entire story was leading up to, or rather back to, the original theme: a constant sneaking towards profound circularity. The mystery is disguised as a mystery.

“He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that fine scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.”

All our dreams can be nightmares and all our nightmares, dreams; meanwhile everything is disguised and revealed simultaneously.
Where is the floor? We are our own worst enemy – it’s so true, it’s funny.

” I regret to inform you,” said Syme with restraint, ” that your remarks convey no impression to my mind…It may be my literary fancy, but somehow I feel that it ought to mean something.”

* All quotes taken from The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton

Process of Elimination


I have been reading 18 Stories by Heinrich Böll. The stories are wonderful. All crisply told with a blunt freshness of life at it’s reduced absurdity.

When the passing truck provides the streetcar window with a backround for a moment, I check up on the expression on my face: isn’t it perhaps too pensive, almost verging on the sorrowful? I assiduously erase the remnants of brooding and do my best to give my face the expression I want it to wear: neither reserved nor familiar, neither superficial nor profound.”  – Heinrich Boll, The Thrower-away

I came across this book through the house of mirrors that is the internet, but I am always asking myself how I choose? I wonder if choosing books- a little like life, is not actually, more clearly, about what I don’t choose. The books on the shelf can pretend I didn’t not choose them – I simply chose another, maybe I will choose them next time, maybe someday one of them will fall into my hands in a perfect moment, who knows? But in truth: they know time is precious.

From their vantage on the shelves,  they can see that our lives are often formed by the things we don’t choose. We are not so proactive as we would like to believe. The shape of our stories are more of  a carving away, until one day we are fully formed and we wonder how the hell that happened? I suppose we can ask the books…

“…and it struck him that old people were wrong to talk about the gaiety of youth: when you were young, everything was serious and difficult, and nobody helped you,”   – And there was the evening and the morning…

Heart of Desuetude

“He had heard and read of passion, but had regarded it as something which would never impinge on him, and now here it was…”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

In the third of the Alexandria Quartet series by Lawrence Durrell, (you may recall my earlier posts on the first book Justine, and the second, BalthazarMountolive, the focus of the familiar story is now set upon the idea of power. As the story is seemingly repeated through each new eponymous character the genius of Durrell is really exposed. One begins to reassess the simplest assumptions: what looked like love was mere deception, what looked like an impossible twisted dark corner is true love, true friendship, and affection. Are life and truth so slippery as that? Yes, I suppose it is so.

“Truth is so bitter that the knowledge of it confers a kind of luxury.”  Mountolive

The love of power, the passionate ardor with which it is sought and wielded is examined with some intensity in this story, but it is backlit by a touching friendship and love affair between Mountolive and the mother of Nessim, Leila.  A tragic sort of love crushed by fate and weakness of feeling perhaps… The grunting displays of power  as well as the equally strong attempts to avoid dealing with a position of power, whether that position was sought for or not are shown through personal, national, and vocational relationships. Many people, maybe most, do not actually want to be in charge or deal with the ancillary pressure that a position of power brings; especially as power often devolves into paper pushing bureaucratic horrors.

In the gear up to a writer’s conference that I am participating in starting today (I’m a little nervous, if I focus on Mountolive maybe it will go away, maybe I’ll go away…) but I digress, there were a series of essays that we had to read, each others as well as published works; the one that I loved the most and which reminds me of the themes of Mountolive in many ways, is the one written by George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant. The final line in the story: ” I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”  struck me hard. Sometimes it really is that simple- that pathetic. The acts committed by people in power, acts that wouldn’t have or shouldn’t have occurred and yet somehow seem unavoidable, are so complex. We humans are so strange.

Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.”  Mountolive

The last and final book in this series is Clea. She has been in and out of the first three and I am very curious about her. Durrell is never obvious in which character he will focus on or which perspective. Even from book to book a single character’s life can be revealed and obfuscated in the most interesting and authentic way.

“When you are in love you know that love is a beggar, shameless as a beggar; and the responses of merely human pity can console one where love is absent by a false travesty of an imagined happiness.”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

Sculpture by Eric Ryan, my father.

read what you eat

They stared at eachother without the slightest enthusiasm. “Maybe we won’t have to work together,” Kollberg said. ” We can always hope,” said Grunwald Larrson.

The Abominable Man

gjetost on knacke (crisp bread)

Ah yes, these are my people. My grandfather was Swedish: I like to account for my unapproachable reserve by referencing his DNA. The nice thing about being an American is that there are myriad genes coursing through most of us to spread the blame. A fellow blogger themofman suggest that I look for the book The Abominable Man which I did, and then read, for three reasons:

The title: (it kind of reminded me of Life of a Useless Man by Gorky,  I just like the spirit of titles such as these!)
The country of origin: Sweden
And the fact that it had two authors: Maj Sjöwak and Per Wahlöö which I found interesting. I wonder what the process was like?

I went ahead and read it even though it is of the “Mystery” genre which I do not normally seek out.  I recall the moment at my local library a few years back after I had come to the conclusion that I needed to stop buying books, I was navigating my way amongst the shelves when I noticed that all the walls encircling the rows were sorted separately. They were ALL mystery books. I had no idea this was such a popular genre. There is one inimitable  mystery writer I always read, but he deserves his own post, ode, sticky bun, something…

Not only do I not read a lot of mystery but Swedish mystery? I’ve seen an episode of Wallander and I even watched the movie Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the Swedish version which made me really glad I didn’t read the book). I really do not need serial killers afloat in my mind damaging my already weary pathways. At least watching the movie I could fast forward (which I did) and close my eyes. Yes. I’m a coward. So what?

The abominable man is the victim not the murderer, which is always satisfying. Or maybe the abominable man is everyone- protagonist, antagonist, you , me. There was a dry sense of humor throughout the story that I loved, it seemed to me a combination of a Swedish sensibility and also the fact that the book was published in the 70’s. The one quibble I had was this: even though I understand they were really busy – what with a hot on the trail murder investigation, would it have killed them to get something to eat? I really  love to read about food consumption/preparation especially in foreign books. Never mind- I compensated by eating copious amounts of gjetost while I read (for you non-Swedes gjetost [pronounced kind of like YAY-toast] is a peculiar goat cheese that apparently only a Scandinavian can love, at least that’s what I’m told by the people who meanly reject my beautiful offer of a perfectly shaved slice of heaven).