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 […]
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?
The 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.
The 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
Let 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.
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.
That’s it! That’s my new series, I guess.
Happy reading, y’all.
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.
This review comes from BookPeople Inventory Manager Jan Day
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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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.
More Tales from the Twilight Zone, Bantam, 1961
by Rod Serling
You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind… a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination—your next stop, the Twilight Zone!
—Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, Introduction
Rod Serling began his career in radio broadcasting, but began writing for television during his college years in the early 1950s. He believed that radio drama never reached its full potential, and he wasn’t going to let television suffer the same fate. After a number of successful scripts for network television, Serling, sick of the sponsor censorship depleting his scripts of political commentary and ethnic representation, decided to create his own show.
Serling was known in Hollywood as the “angry young man.” Mid-20th century America appeared to be whole and wholesome, except to a few visionaries who surveyed the social landscape and noticed the cracks. He was dedicated to telling the stories of the people who inhabited these fault lines. Serling and his Twilight Zone television program offered more than just tales of suspense and conjecture. These are adult fairy tales–if the supernatural entities in question are aliens, mutants, atomic power, social inequality, technological advances, and vast government conspiracies. Serling all but mythologizes mid-twentieth century fears and anxieties through serial tales that are often (like their folk tale ancestors) accessible and moralistic. The Twilight Zone made possible many later phenomena that embrace the new 20th century pop culture mythologies, such as the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That said, because I’m reading these well into the second decade of the 21st century, I will put a 21st century spin on these reviews. Continue reading
“This book is haaaaaaard,” is what I posted on Instagram the day I started this book. Kyung Cho is a college professor who is facing the loss of his home. Then a random act of violence forces his parents, people who he cut out of his life, to move in with him. With his parents comes the painful past he’s been trying to erase–a past that can cost him everything he has, depending on how he chooses to react.
Shelter is the ultimate in fucked up family drama. “Shelter,” in any form, is conspicuously absent from this story. Forgiveness is shallow and impermanent, and though scars have faded over time, the emotional wounds are still very much open. Kyung wants to erase his past, but he faces down the uncertainty of the future. Kyung lives in an in-between, timeless state, but he is at risk of being steamrolled by the forward march of time itself. Jung Yun has written the quintessential Korean-American novel, deftly describing how Korean attitudes of obligation, fairness, and resentment clash and (possibly) overlap American attitudes towards these same ideals. I’m certain that it will become a “discovery” of literature: one of those slow burns that will eventually explode into the landscape of literature over time.
Inspired in part by the stories of Marlene Dietrich in Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast about the hidden and forgotten histories of 20th century Hollywood, in party by my local indie bookstore’s 2015 catalog, (and in part by Dietrich’s smoldering on-screen chemistry with Anna May Wong–no, I don’t mean Clive Brook–in 1932’s Shanghai Express) Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives by Karin Wieland marks the second biography I’ve read this year.
“I am, at heart, a gentleman.” -Marlene Dietrich
While the two women essentially begin on equal footing and from similar backgrounds, the directions of their lives are primarily influenced when they meet two powerful, authoritarian men: when Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg “discovered” Marlene Dietrich and cast her as Lola-Lola in the internationally acclaimed The Blue Angel; and when Leni Riefenstahl went to a political rally where she first laid eyes upon Adolf Hitler. Unfortunately, Wieland focuses on the roles that these two men played in shaping the careers of both women rather than the decisions that both women–who remained independent of men for all of their lives–made about their own lives.
This may be due to the book’s clunky translation, but Wieland’s portrayal of Leni Riefenstahl is contradictory at times. She was a strong-willed woman who sought only to advance her own art (and thus her own fame), but she was a complicated woman. Wieland does not portray Riefenstahl with the same level of compassion or consideration that she does Marlene Dietrich. (Which begs the question, does Riefenstahl deserve equal compassion or consideration? A question that Wieland neither addresses directly or indirectly). Riefenstahl is definitely a product of her environment: while she was not a Nazi party member and did not commit war crimes, she certainly benefitted from the racism that National Socialists made the foundation of their philosophy. Her dedication to her art and the resulting images make things complicated when we consider the eye of the artist. (The actor depicting Riefenstahl’s subject, was often herself.)
Wieland gives plenty of page space to Riefenstahl’s work, as though through her work is the best way to understand her life. Not so with Dietrich. Though Wieland wants to depict Dietrich without judgement, more time is given to her personal affairs and family life than to her films and stage work. The goal appears to be to depict these two seemingly opposite women as having nearly identical qualities that led them to pursue their passions so fervently (albeit in opposing directions). But it takes a careful combing through the text to get at that purpose. Bad translations are unfortunate to read because it becomes nearly impossible to tell whether the work is poorly written or if the spirit of the work is just lost in translation.
Regardless, if you really want a blast in the face of old school Hollywood glamor, just Google image search “Marlene Dietrich.” (If you want a kick in the face, Google “Marlene Dietrich’s legs”).
Better yet, check out her films.
In December I finally subscribed to Austin Kleon’s newsletter. Each Friday he sends a list of 10 things he’s into. Considering that my weekend starts on Friday, that’s excellent reading for the weekend. So, in honor of Kleon and his famous Steal Like An Artist, I’m going to steal from this artist.
I’ll start with the thing that made me start this list:
Austin Kleon’s newsletter and blog. If you don’t follow this guy, you should. He’s great on all his social media platforms, balancing work life and personal life. He also has the most photogenic family ever.
Other Internet Media Things
A few weeks ago Marie Kondo’s second book on organizing came out. Of course, I sell this book (it’s a bestseller), but as an archivist (someone who focuses on collecting) I dislike its emphasis on present-feeling emotions. That’s why I’m glad counterculture exists. In “The Tao of Trash” and “Sifting: Technology, Trash, & Digging for Memories” the New England Media & Memory Coalition examine the arbitrariness of “value.”… Sort of like the arbitrariness of “sparking joy.”
The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee crafts a heart-wrenching tale of three women, all American expatriates living in Hong Kong. Mercy, in her mid-twenties and without a job or direction; Hilary, struck between the two tidal forces of her husband’s midlife crisis and affair, and the stalled adoption of a child; and Margaret, mother of three who literally loses her youngest child on while on a short trip to Seoul. As a chronic list-maker, I’m creating a brand new personal reading list just to put this book at the top: Fiction – The Complex Inner Lives of Women. (I just don’t know where this list will live just yet.) Lee puts into words what would be otherwis unmentionable. It’s beautiful and harrowing and foreign and familiar.
Movies & Television
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). I’m not sure why it took me so long to come to this film, but this is what I want horror to become. This Persian-language American horror film takes place in the fictional Iranian ghost town of Bad City (its name implies the seedy underworld that it depicts). The film’s director, Ana Lily Amirpour, describes it as “the first Iranian vampire Western.” The plot follows Arash, a hard-working young man; Hossein, Arash’s heroin-addicted father; Saeed, a pimp and drug pusher; Atti, a prostitute working for Saeed; The Girl, a music-obsessed loner who stalks those she finds on the streets late at night; and a cat. I especially love the visual of the chador replacing the traditional “Dracula” cape. I have a new favorite fictional vampire. Skateboarding into the night.
The X-Files. People who know me are surprised to discover that I didn’t watch the X-Files when it aired in the 1990s. My parents weren’t into it, so we didn’t watch it. So when a friend (whose taste is impeccable) began live-tweeting her adult re-watch of the series, and I noticed that Hulu Plus has all 9 seasons, I decided to check it out. I’m about midway through season 5 as of publishing this post. If you follow me on Twitter at all, you know that I think Mulder is silly, Krycek is annoying, Scully a goddess, and Assistant Director Skinner is…well, let’s just say I’m into it. #janwatchesxfiles on Twitter.
Last year, suspenders83 took photos of every book she read. To keep things interesting, she scoured second-hand bookshops to find the most unique book jackets and covers out there. This year, she is hand-drawing each cover in her book journal. This is such a cool way to creatively engage with the book-as-object.
readasaurus_rex includes a lot of older fantasy and young adult books in her reading. I love seeing the tattered covers of books that took me to far of places when I was younger being given new life on new social networking platforms.
BookPeople’s In-Store Displays
The return of the Boston Yeti. I am now, and forever will be Texas’s biggest Boston Yeti fan.