Last Week’s Reading: Communists! Communists Everywhere!

That time again: some short blurbs about what I’ve just finished reading, as well as a week-themed rating: if Monday is the day we most despise, and Saturday is the day we most look forward to, then this scale represents my rating system:

Monday = “I threw the book across the room (from the free throw line, into the trashcan).”
Tuesday = “I threw the book across the room (then picked it up and reluctantly finished it because I need to know what to complain about most).”
Wednesday = “I (sort of) tossed the book (half-way) across the room (into a bucket of lukewarm water).”
Thursday = “I threw the book across the room (so that I could crawl back to it).”
Friday = “I threw the book across the room (because I saw someone who needed it in their face at that very moment)”
Saturday = “The book threw itself across the room (because I don’t deserve its explosive brilliance).”

I have a lot athletic-like emotions about books, okay?

9781632061157_74a84History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town by Filip Springer
translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye

One would think to use the word “haunting” when talking about a book about the disappearance of a medieval mountain town, But Springer avoids this cliche by focusing almost exclusively on the human memories of the town. From the beginning, when highlighting the 700 year history of the town, Springer draws the reader’s attention to the stone monument on the road between Kupferberg/Miedzianka and Jannowitz/Janowice Wielkie–two stone crosses, one bearing the Latin “Memento”: remember. What begins as a reminder becomes a command as more and more of the town disappears: first a few sons in WWI, then a few more in WWII…then all the German residents evicted as this mountain village becomes part of the region annexed to Poland and occupied by Soviet forces in 1945. The remaining native Polish residents are conscripted to work in the old mines, digging anew when uranium ore is discovered throughout the 1950s. Soon, sinkholes open up under farms, roads, building, pulling the town itself underground. By the 1970s, the entire town is relocated to one crappy apartment complex in a neighboring town. Now, nothing is left of Kupferberg/Miedzianka: its church, manor house, villa, brewery, cemetery and homes, all gone…but for the memories.

Publishing date: April 2017
Publishing house: Restless Books
Rating: Friday – the equity and inequity of memory makes this one all too human

9780802124944_90e361The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Imagine the whole of nothingness. What it means. Its weight. Nothing encompasses everything because it is everything that everything is not. An interrogator tells the narrator, “I can no longer imagine your suffering to be greater than mine.”

Now imagine sympathy. The effort and ability it takes to truly sympathize in the face of nothingness. Nothing calls one to be sympathetic. “I can no longer imagine your suffering to be greater than mine.” In this you have the most human of stories.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read The Sympathizer, (I have one of the first galleys that Grove/Atlantic sent to bookstores–I held onto it for years) but my book club is reading The Refugees later this month, so I decided to pick up the book-I’ve-been-meaning-to-read-but-haven’t-gotten-around-to-it. I’m still stirring this complex, messy, darkly sardonic book in my brain, and I’ll write a longer review of it later this month. In the meantime, I recommend this review by Molly Odintz on the MysteryPeople blog.

Publish date: 2015
Publishing House: Grove/Atlantic
Rating: Saturday – worth all the awards, despite the masturbation into a squid corpse scene.

I love it when two books have an unexpected, simpatico relationship. In this week’s case: communism leading to absolute nothingness. Happy reading!

~jan

Book Review: Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller

If Mary Miller’s last novel The Last Days of California was a love letter to adolescence, her latest work is a series of love letters to arrested development–letters never sent, pushed to the back of the desk drawer. In Always Happy Hour, Miller glorifies life’s unevents: the life that happens between life happenings. The stories […]

via It’s Always Happy Hour at the New & Noteworthy Book Club — BookPeople’s Blog

LWR: Flaccid Drug-Crazed Lady Killers

That time again: some short blurbs about what I’ve just finished reading, as well as a week-themed rating: if Monday is the day we most despise, and Saturday is the day we most look forward to, then this scale represents my rating system:

Monday = “I threw the book across the room (from the free throw line, into the trashcan).”
Tuesday = “I threw the book across the room (then picked it up and reluctantly finished it because I need to know what to complain about most).”
Wednesday = “I (sort of) tossed the book (half-way) across the room (into a bucket of lukewarm water).”
Thursday = “I threw the book across the room (so that I could crawl back to it).”
Friday = “I threw the book across the room (because I saw someone who needed it in their face at that very moment)”
Saturday = “The book threw itself across the room (because I don’t deserve its explosive brilliance).”

I have a lot athletic-like emotions about books, okay?

9781328663795_8e391Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

Translated by Shaun Whiteside

This is either a clunkily written book or a clunkily translated book. Or both. The organization of the book is confusing, constantly going back and forth between the frontlines and Hitler’s headquarters with little transitional material. The cast of characters for the German war effort is massive. I saw no effort to translate those characters for the English language American publication, so it was confusing for an American reader. The subject material is fascinating, but outrageous. In places where I expected to see citations (in some of the conclusions that required support), there were none. In other places where citations were not needed, they abounded.

I am also philosophically opposed to stigmatizing addiction by associating it with fascist murderers. And with dismissing the Nazi atrocities by juxtaposing them with habitual drug use.

Publication date: March 2017
Publishing house: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Rating: Tuesday – keep your salt closeby while reading.

9780425213902Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters by Peter Vronsky

Vronsky’s thesis to counter the public perception that women can’t be aggressive killers. An interesting premise, but his lack of compassion does give me pause. Do I think women can be just as aggressive as men? Absolutely, but Vronsky doesn’t exactly address the “how” and the “why” in his title. He is more interested in categorizing the killers than exploring the individual psychology of his title.

Publication date: 2007
Publishing house: Berkley
Rating: Wednesday – good true crime stories, but not analytical at all.

9781631492181_e6682Always Happy Hour: Stories by Mary Miller

If Mary Miller’s last novel was a love letter to adolescence, her latest work is a series of love letters to arrested development. Miller glorifies life’s unevents: the life that happens between life happenings. The stories are connected through first person female narrators who inhabit roughly the same age and economic bracket. Their voices are distinct, but not distinct from one another’s. Miller develops a new archetype: the single female worrier, the insecure young woman who rejects the wisdom of maturity. The stories in Always Happy Hour compose one large emotional landscape, which might be more relatable than event-based narratives.

Publication Date: January 2017
Publishing house: Liveright
Rating: Friday – join the Sisterhood of the Perpetual Happy Hour


Happy reading!
~jan

LWR: Medical memoirs and Italian political horror, Let Me Tell You….

Testing out the waters with ways to add more content to the blog. Working full time with a disability plus all the professional reading that I do for the bookstore leaves me with little time to do as many full reviews here on my personal blog as I would like. So, here are some short blurbs about what I’ve just finished reading, as well as a week-themed rating: if Monday is the day we most despise, and Saturday is the day we most look forward to, then this scale represents my rating system:

Monday = “I threw the book across the room (from the free throw line, into the trashcan).”
Tuesday = “I threw the book across the room (then picked it up and reluctantly finished it because I need to know what to complain about most).”
Wednesday = “I (sort of) tossed the book (half-way) across the room (into a bucket of lukewarm water).”
Thursday = “I threw the book across the room (so that I could crawl back to it).”
Friday = “I threw the book across the room (because I saw someone who needed it in their face at that very moment)”
Saturday = “The book threw itself across the room (because I don’t deserve its explosive brilliance).”

I have a lot athletic-like emotions about books, okay?

Non-Fiction

9781101981443_59740The Tincture of Time: A Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty by Elizabeth L. Silver

Medicine is like faith, “a collection of interpretations […] rife with conflict.” Doctors interpret data and apply those interpretations to wholly unique circumstances. In this way, medical science is an applied science of a sort. Silver, with precision of language and fullness of thought, chronicles the years she spent inhabiting the uncertain spaces between treatment and trust in this open memoir that tears a heart in two, then mends it to the beating hearts of humanity.

Publication date: April 25, 2017
Publishing House: Penguin Press
Rating: Thursday, for lovers of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, and other humanizing medical tales.

Fiction

T9781631492297_a9341he Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio de Maria
Translated by Roman Glazov

This dark satire aptly invokes the chaos of post-fascist Italy: inexplicable violence from an inconceivable apotheon bulldozes the bodies of citizens; a “Library” which “helped furnish the illusion of a relationship with the outside world: a dismal cop-out nourished and centralized by a scornful power bent only on keeping people in their state of isolation.”; secret individual activity breeds anxiety breeds a shared psychotic insomnia.

Publication Date: February 2017 (out now!)
Publishing House: Liveright
Rating: Saturday, for lovers of psychological political horror à la Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen with a touch of magical realism à la Jorge Luis Borges.

Short Fiction and Nonfiction

9780812987324_1898bLet Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings by Shirley Jackson
edited by Laurence Hyman, Sara Hyman DeWitt, and Ruth Franklin

I love Shirley Jackson. Consistent with shared American school experience, my first introduction to Jackson was “The Lottery” on my school reading list. Unfortunately, I might have been in a “white British writer canon” phase (ugh. I’ve given myself all the requisite lectures, trust me.) which led me to push Jackson off the radar. Years later, I married a film snob obsessed with The Haunting, which led me back to Jackson. (He hosts a book/film club, and I always push hard for a discussion of The Haunting of Hill House and viewing of the film.) This collection of 50 plus previously unpublished pieces–some of which are unfinished–showcase the drastically different modes of writing from her tall tales of small-town psychology to comic family tableau to line drawings that deliver to the reader a searing view into Jackson’s vulnerability as a writer, mother, and wife. Jackson weaves a spell from your nightstand. Just as she intended.

Publication Date: 2016
Publishing House: Random House
Rating: Friday – to be read slowly, over several months, while taking up space on your nightstand.

Bonus Content!

Last week I also finally caught up on The Adventure Zone podcast. I recently restarted playing D&D again–this time with a nearly all-female bookseller crew (somehow Joe always ends up being the token guy) and the World’s Okayest DM™. It’s really important to care deeply about the people you play with and that might have been why I walked away from fantasy role playing 10 years ago (there’s always that one guy…). I love my fellow players so much because we’re all slinging books together by day (and slingin’ Vicious Words by night).

TAZ was recommended to me by my in-character BFF (and OOC work wife). From a player’s perspective, I’d actually murder all of the McElBoys if I had to play a game with them. Fortunately, from the administrative perspective, all of the participants are on the same page–they all have the same goal: to make a damn fun fantasy podcast. Their personalities (for the most part) work well together to progress a story and even create convincing conflict as players and characters. Even if you’re not into D&D, this is just a great comedy podcast with very funny voices…when they remember to use them.

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If this post comes out mid-week, it’s because I got caught in a Google spiral of TAZ fanart.

That’s it! That’s my new series, I guess.

Happy reading, y’all.

~Jan

The Unpleasant Ill

Reading Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red While Disabled

Lina Meruane’s Seeing Red is not exactly autofiction, even though the narrator is a Chilean writer named Lina Meruane, and the narrative is a fictionalized maturation of an event in the author’s own life. While at a friend’s party in New York, aforementioned narrator Lina suffers a mild stroke that leaves her completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other.

“[…] a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was going to retch, and even so […]”

Lina has to navigate through a few major life events which are difficult (but not impossible) and many small, daily life events which become more and more so. She not only has to learn for herself what it means not just to be blind, she has to teach her loved ones as well–when she literally and figuratively can’t see the future ahead of her.

I have read a few reviews of this work, but none from a disabled person. And so. I am not blind. But I have chronic migraines and occipital neuralgia, a persistent pain in my neck and shoulders resulting from nerve damage to my occipital nerve. Neither are permanently debilitating, but only occasionally so. Like Lina’s vision sometimes comes and goes, so does my pain come in waves; I have to manage constant pain by degree. And management of chronic illness has rules.

“[…] admonitions impossible to follow. Stop smoking first of all, and don’t hold your breath, don’t cough, do not, for any reason pick up heavy packages, boxes, suitcases. Never ever lean over, or dive headfirst into water. The carnal throes of passion were forbidden, because even an ardent kiss could cause my veins to burst.”

Do not enjoy luxuries. Do not get sick, do not work, do not move, do not enjoy leisure activities, do not love. To avoid the disaster means living in a prison. Lina not only breaks all of these rules, but she does so with careless abandon. Life is risk.

What healthy people superficially know, but do not understand is that disability is transformative.

“And how was I supposed to know what kind of face I had, when I’d misplaced my lips and my mole, when my earlobes had gotten lost. All I had left were a couple of blind eyes.”

The metamorphic body horror does not stop there. Throughout the novel, fingertips morph into eyes, the eyes of others become delicacies to be devoured.

Lina is no fool. She is aware of the people around her, and they make her curt and resentful. Meruane’s prose (and Meghan McDowell’s translation) contributes to the acridity of the narrator. The prose is composed of short scenes, rather than chapters, with titles that are impressionistic rather than episodic. Entire sentences burn away rather than conclude. Lina resents her family members for discussing her operation as an inevitability without considering that she is trying to discover her blindness. They are trying to repair something broken while she is grieving a loss. Their inability to speak the same emotional language is foretold in a scene in an airplane during which Lina endures a panic attack, making her unable to communicate with a woman even though they speak the same language. Lina eventually lashes out at her mother for packing her suitcase for her when Lina just learned how to pack it by touch. She remembers her older brother’s refusal to be her caretaker when she was younger. Her boyfriend is bombarded with sympathy for his burden by their friends.

The Rumpus review claims “Fictional Lina is not a character anyone will call relatable or even comfortable.” How adorably reductive. I am quite comfortable with fictional Lina; I can relate quite well. Because “fictional Lina” is “real Jan.” Personally, I do not care if Meruane experimented with the emotional brutality of fictional Lina in some sort of cold thought experiment. Factual truths don’t matter when emotional reality is no less true. Or should I not consider that which reflects my own reality to be a “true” story? Claiming this is not a true story erases my true story. It is easy to dismiss a fictional character. But readers are real people, and less conscientiously able to boot. Yes, fictional Lina is unpleasant, caustic, and manipulative. But she is also sincere and independent. Try to get in the mindset of an independent-minded dependent. If it helps, Meruane spells it out: the English title of this book is Seeing Red*; I cannot imagine why a reader would expect a pleasant main character when an on-the-nose metaphor for an angry or hostile person/personality is the title of the book.

Like Lina, I have lived with illness my entire life. “I don’t remember having even a moment of childhood. Not an instant of calm. Not a second when I wasn’t wondering when the hand of tragedy was going to touch me.” Like Lina, I have faced doctors who do not remember my name or condition.

Like Lina, I have a mother who works in a medical profession. My childhood migraines went (officially) undiagnosed until I was nine years old because my mother treated them at home. While she did a great (and selfless and often dirty) job–she never condescended to me or refused to believe I was in pain (unlike, oh, every other adult)–I wonder if I might have a clearer grasp on my pain if I was allowed more doctor visits. To this day, I really don’t know how to talk to a doctor about my pain. I just expect them to know (because she just knew) even though I suffer from one of the least understood neurological disorders. Sometimes helping is helping. Sometimes it is diminishing and infantilizing. “Your help invalidates me, I repeat, giving no quarter to my mother, who is innocent, but also, in a way, terribly guilty.” I forgive Lina for blowing up on her mother. I have done the same. (And our mothers, being our mothers, forgive us.)

Like Lina, I have a brother who refuses to acknowledge my disability because of the burden on himself. Like Lina’s brother, my own brother does not have time for me.

“He was handing in his resignation and they accepted it because they weren’t brave enough to make him be my nurse and my school tutor in addition to having to be my brother which he hadn’t even agreed to. No one had ever consulted him.”

I wished I could be struck blind after reading this. He has his own life. We do not speak. (Unlike Lina, I do not have another compassionate, morbidly humorous sibling.)

Like Lina, my partner is a supportive aid and ally. It comes from pure love. He often gets lauded at work (we both work for the same company) for his sensitivity and consideration for employees’ self-care because “he knows.” Much of the time I am deeply, bone-throbbingly grateful. I never asked someone to love me this much. But I beg him to understand. “You make me feel terribly alone. (But that’s what we are, two strangers brought together by accident in the impossible riddle of illness.)” I am resentful. “He knows” because of me. He gets to be the martyr who adjusts his normal life to my abnormal life. (Keep reading, I will address “normality” in a moment.) Other healthy people can empathize only with his suffering because it is a way that they can express kindness while distancing themselves from the ill.

“It was one thing to theorize strategies of the subaltern and resistance from the margin, and quite another, radically opposed, to empathize.”

Yes, I am grateful for this ally. Yes, I am grateful for this love. Yes, this is a test.

Perhaps this story is a thought experiment on how a different Lina Meruane would deal with a chronic condition–something that may never have become of the writer Lina Meruane. Good for her. Not so for me. But I believe that Meruane understands what it is liked to be watched and to be unable to watch back. The ill not only have to manage our own illness, but also teach those around us how they are supposed to love us. For the ill, illness is normal. What I mean by this is that this illness originated inside of my body. As part of me. It cannot be cured, only managed. As the essayist Susan Sontag wrote

“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”**

Reader, do you think that you, yourself, are not only one doctor’s visit away from standing in my place? Seeing from my eyes?

And yet, we live. And that’s what this is about: not a diseased death, but a differently-abled life. Lina continues to consume literature (books on tape), moves house, travels internationally, initiates intercourse with her boyfriend, navigates hometown avenues by memory for a foreign driver, writes. While I want to advocate for those with chronic illness, I don’t want that the be the only thing anyone ever knows about me. By focusing on the unpleasantness of the character of Lina Meruane, one is metaphorically (forgive me, Sontag) blinding one’s self to Lina’s other life experiences. As Lina’s mother, who removes Lina’s one social visitor, does.

I have spent a lot of time on personal illness, and less time on other dimensions of the book such as the health of nations as depicted in the dual September 11 crises in both the United States (2001 World Trade Center terrorist attacks) and Chile (1973 coup d’etat and overthrow of socialist president Salvador Allende leading to years of military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet)–both events leaving permanent scars on their respective cityscapes. Coincidental tragedies deeply tie both home countries to the narrator, and imply that healing is not underway.

——

*the Spanish title is Sangre en el ojo, blood in the eye. If this has a specific metaphorical or idiomatic meaning beyond the literal translation, I am unaware.

**Susan Sontag, Illness As Metaphor. 1978.

Top Shelf in May: LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren

 

BookPeople's Blog

This review comes from BookPeople Inventory Manager Jan Day

Z-6

Shaking off the dregs of winter, we’ve finally shed our coats and exposed our naked limbs to the sun, shining more on our upturned faces. Sunshine is never more welcome than in springtime. (We haven’t been crushed by those three-digit heat waves that will inevitably arrive within a few weeks.) We share this with plants. Plants and humans both open up during the spring.

Lab Girl, a memoir of green life by three-time Fulbright scholar recipient Hope Jahren, begins in the cold winter of Minnesota where Jahren grew up playing in the lab of her earth scientist father. The cold was not limited to the elements, however; Jahren describes the lack of emotion shown within Scandinavian families which eventually led her to building an unusual familial-professional relationship with Bill, a disaffected loner who became her full-time research partner and (sometimes literal)…

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OUT OF SIGHT/OUT OF PRINT BOOKS: Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers

Kang Sŏk-kyŏng, Kim Chi-wŏn, and O Chŏng-hŭi

So here’s a new thing I’m doing: reviews of out of print books. I love browsing used bookshops. And the treasures I often come up with are brilliant. I enjoyed writing my last review of More Stories from the Twilight Zone and I have a stack of vintage paperbacks that are burning a hole in my TBR pile, so…

First up (second, if you count my last review) is Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers: Kang Sŏk-kyŏng, Kim Chi-wŏn, and O Chŏng-hŭi, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, 1989.

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