It's hard to figure out how to be a person: the first half of June in books

Books read since last entry (This shall be my new format)

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

After Birth by Elisa Albert

The Metamorphasis, In the Penal Colony, and other stories by Franz Kafka

Books purchased since last entry

The Innovaters by Walter Isaacson

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (wait...) (yeah, I bought it for ANOTHER person as a present.  You're next...)

Mislaid by Nell Zink

The Metamorphasis, In the Penal Colony, and other stories by Franz Kafka

Here I am, attempting to write about books more often so that my entries are shorter. I am trying to keep up with the times. Keeping up with the times is a difficult thing to do when you have little to no interest in any kind of new media, and I'm defining new as television up till now. This is probably the least hip thing I could do as a person and cultural consumer, but alas it is who I am. 

I began June (and just wrote May, thanks to several factors including but not limited to the lack of seasons in Southern California, the lack of a schedule at my job, and the lack of people in my life who take time seriously, I no longer understand calendar time,) with two books that come from what is probably my largest 'genre' group, relatively current, relatively literary books by women that deal in the intersections of daily feminist life, culture, and strong narrative. Extra points for books written by women who have a slight academic flare. This includes fiction, nonfiction, essays, memoir, anything good. It excludes overly plotted bullshit and poorly written airport fodder. (Sorry, I'm getting older and thus have less time for crap.)

Favorites in this 'genre' that I am probably making up include: The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, anything by Zadie Smith, Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill, The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum, In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti, and of course, anything by the goddess Mary Karr.

Joining the ranks is Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, a much buzzed about book from the past year or so (really, I don't know time anymore,) which follows the mental trajectory of Elyria, who abdicates her marriage to plod around New Zealand in a state of mad mental times. Earlier in life her sister committed suicide, and she married the professor who is the last person who saw her sister, and she seems to have never fully recovered from either of these incidences. One of the great things about this book is that those sentences pretty much describes what happens, event wise, but the book is so much more thanks to the mental narration and inner anxiety of the narrator. And of course, the excellent writing. As anyone who speaks to me knows by now, I'm so over placing dramatic content above excellence of writing. I'll take a well written story where nothing happens over something dramatic, fiction or nonfiction, any day of the year.

The unfortunate thing about the book, is that it also made me want to abdicate my life (for another city or country, not for death.) This is a feeling that I have often, not just while reading books that feature life-abdicating characters. The problem is, I know that if I abdicate this life I'll have to put in all the effort to build a new one that I will eventually then want to abdicate again, and the whole time I'll need to keep making money. It's not that I mind working, I just mind the circumstances of finding work and how long you have to spend being a new person at work before you are comfortable. Those hours add up quickly to a frustrated life.

Several times in the book, the narrator expresses her desire for her life to become 'small and manageable.' I understand this totally, as one of the perks of my life now is that it is small and manageable, versus the life plan that I am somewhat saving money for (somewhat because I keep having to buy things like food and work shoes and other inescapable expenses) which is large and messy and not manageable at all.

“What's between people is more important than anything in the physical world. This is God, Elyria. Anytime two people can look at each other and talk honestly, that is God.” This quote comes from a dubious hippie character that Elyria meets on her travels, (I have met many of these myself,) but I do think it contains some truth. At least when it's really happening. My question is though, how often do people speak and this is NOT happening? How often are people talking and just not really saying anything, talking and nothing true is there? Probably most of the time, and that is depressing.

Example A – this sentence Elyria speaks (thinks?) about her relationship with her husband - “I wondered whether we were who we thought we were, if we were actually married or just in a continuous situation with each other.”

And there is evidence that the first quote is not just hippie bullshit, rather that it is an eternal truth that the book may hope to expose, when Elyria speaks (thinks?) this later - “what matters is that sometimes sense is made between two people and I don't know if it's random or there is any kind of order to it”

As I was saying about the quality of writing over big dramatic events, most of this book was just really quality insights and paragraphs that eloquently captured life. Such as - “After some time my husband reached over to hold my hand, which reminded me that at least there was this, at least we still had hands that remembered how to love each other, two bone and flesh flaps that hadn't complicated their simple love by speaking or thinking or being disappointed or having memories. They just held and were held and that is all. Oh, to be a hand.” Oh to be a hand! What a sentence.

The book does deal quite significantly in death, not only the sister's death but also the husband's mother's suicide, and how those deaths interplay in the marriage. “I am or we were (or still are) the kind of people who can never quite get away from our losses, the kind of people who don't know that magic trick that other people seem to know – how to dissolve a sense of loss, how to unbraid it from a brain.” Unbraid it from a brain!

But the book also talks about how these upheavals of sorrow aren't all the worst, which I'm going to interpret as an argument for what I also believe, which is that everyone is mostly too focused on life being 'good' and the pursuit of contentment at all costs when really there's a lot of value to feeling the full range of emotions and letting oneself be ravaged once in a while - “because being occasionally destroyed is, I think, a necessary part of the human experience.”

“and in that moment I could think of all kinds of things I would rather be: a string bean plant or a possum who just wanted to crawl and eat, instead of being a person who can't seem to find a way to comfortably live or be in this world.” Same, same.

My next semi hip literary book about womanhood by a woman was After Birth by Elisa Albert, discussing a topic which which I have much less familiarity and interest than the topic of being alone and mental anguish, aka, motherhood and babies. I am giving myself a lot of points just for reading this because I am trying to learn to be less judgmental about the U.S. Culture's obsession with motherhood....even though I am the one who is shamed for not being interested in children. Whatever.

After Birth follows a mother, Ari, who is not adjusting well to life after baby. (Not-well adjusted women, there's a theme.) She is not following the traditional paths of joy and acclimation to motherhood, and finds herself obsessed with the ways in which she doesn't fit into the mother paradigm. Her husband is supportive but can be a dingus (isn't that all men?) and she falls into an obsession-turned friendship with a female poet in residence at the college where her husband teaches, who also has a baby.

I read a fair amount about this book before buying it, not even on purpose (you can probably gather from above sentences that I don't actively seek out reviews on books about motherhood) and I think the reviewer caution should be employed here: no matter how much you love a book, be careful about talking about how intense and dramatic it is as a selling point, because many times it will not live up to that level of intensity and drama. That's not to say a negative thing about the book, the book is what it is, rather, it's difficult for the reader to divorce the 'it didn't live up to the hype' thing, even though the hype is inherently separate of the book.

Re: writing style: After Birth was on point with the narrative details, one of the strongest aspects of the book. However...where is this choppy sentence thing in vogue? Is it supposed to be mimicking thoughts? Whose thoughts? I think in pretty extensive sentences. I'm all for non traditional sentence structure, but the ones that take out necessary words for the sake of it elude me.

“Will's a smart guy. Not smart as in advanced degree; smart as in knows how to be.” Well, that certainly is an important type of smart, one that I am increasingly believing I do not possess.

“It's not until you really talk to someone that you realize how infrequently you actually talk to anyone.” Le fucking sigh.

The book talks a lot about the female body and our relationship to it, which of course I love. It's still so ignored and slighted as a petty topic, which is so frustrating because it's the least petty of topics! These bodies that we LIVE in are still subject to so much objectification and shame, and yet when people try to talk about that it's like snore, women's interest, white feminism -

“Oh-ho, the second wave police are out. Heaven forbid it might be true that female bodies are different. Heaven forbid we admit that living in these female bodies is different. More terrible and more wonderful.”

Some good old technology hating never hurt anyone: “On the train down I'm sitting next to some fifteen year old texting texting texting the whole way. Hate these little girls because they never have to be alone with themselves. Life is going to be so fucking cruel to you, you prissy little bitch.” Ah, to be alone with yourself. How challenging, but how good even in its continual anxiety. And also, the inadvertent theme of maybe every book I ever read, life is going to be so cruel to everyone.

There were so many excellent snippets of the frustrations of womanhood in this book: “I am a female he can't immediately classify.” Right!? Men have such a hard time with me sometimes because I'm not a person who falls into the constant female categories, sex object, caring figure, nice girl. It's like if we're not an accepted concept we don't exist. “Call it low-grade misogyny. It's not extreme-porno misogyny, not I'm gonna rape and kill you misogyny, just plain old run of the mill semi conscious women-are-to-fuck-or-mother misogyny. Fear of the female. Menstrual cycle as mysterious sinister secret, et cetera. Women as doormats and/or commodities and/or hookers, the end. Intuition an absurdity. Life only and always about what we can touch/articulate/own. And me with my insistence on eye contact, my opinions! My candor! My always! Feeling! So! Much!” Word, Elisa, word.  

My next book was not at all in the same category as those books. Kafka is not a woman or current and is maybe hip in the way that people like to make reading old things hip, but not in the same way. There was one similar factor though, the people not knowing how to go about the world in the normal way. It's many of us, apparently.

The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories is the first Kafka I've read since reading The Metamorphosis as a sole story in high school. It is my classic for the month, since I am continually embarrassed by how few of the old great writers I've read. As with last month, I was not disappointed, so I'm forced to believe that I may be becoming better at reading difficult things. Which is good, I think.

Anne Rice did the introduction to this bad boy, and even that contained a few pearls. Of Kafka - “a writer who could teach sheer nerve.” I could use some of that. “One could write from the heart in the most outrageous way....only in one's personal language can the crucial tales of a writer be told. Don't bend, don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion.”

Perhaps the best part of any great piece of writing is individual great sentences, they can represent a great idea but in the purest form it's just a sentence whose words are so wonderfully strung together that you internally gasp. i.e.: “We ran our heads full tilt into the evening.” So simple! So beautiful!

It was interesting rereading The Metamorphosis, because even though I read it probably what, eight years ago? I still remembered a lot of details, which is strange considering that often I can't remember things I read six months ago. It's funny because when I read it in high school, I'm sure that I was looking for some larger allegory or metaphor, because I thought that's what you were supposed to look for in great works of fiction, but luckily over the years I've learned that while that is sometimes true, other times it is not, and that reading things for the pleasure of a story and the quality of the writing and narration is more important than getting all term papery about it.

But really talk about dislocation of the mind and not knowing how to be a person! When you are no longer a person and are instead a bug!

I quite enjoyed the mini stories within stories, which represents more progress because usually when I read flash fiction I'm like whatever. Even comparing the two (Kafka's shorts and flash fiction) feels icky to me so clearly I need to accept that new things are fine and just more visible manifestations of things that have always been done. Anyway, favorites included Before the Law, Eleven Sons, and First Sorrow.  

Sometimes I wonder if things are really phrased humorously or if I just laugh at the strangest things, like this, the first sentence in A Hunger Artist. “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished.” Is that funny? Why did I laugh??

I found A Hunger Artist to be an apt allegory for the life of an artist in general, though since I just dissed allegories I don't know how much to trust myself. “But why shouldn't we admire it?' 'Because I have to fast, I can't help it.' said the hunger artist. 'What a fellow you are,' said the overseer, 'and why can't you help it?' 'Because,' said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer's ear, so that no syllable might be lost, 'because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” Sometimes I think this about art and writing. People are like why do you want to do something that is so difficult to make money in and I'm like well I can't do anything else besides walk in circles handing people food, so.

And speaking once more to the difficulty of living in the world, this gem from Josephine the Singer: “Josephine's thin piping amidst grave decisions is almost like our people's precarious existence amidst the tumult of a hostile world.”

After finishing the Kafka, I moved onto The Innovators, Walter Isaacson's new book which tells the long and complex story of how collaboration created computers. I was going to start talking about it in this entry, but it's quite a large book and thus it will probably take me at least a week to read, thus by the time that my next entry rolls around most of it will be dedicated to the monster. What I will say now: I understand very little technical language, women are awesome and overlooked in history, and I don't think that a machine can replicate a human brain but my human brain can certainly not do math.

In other cultural news, I have converted to podcasts...but the only ones I like are about books. i.e., still a luddite. But if anyone wants to listen to some great podcasts, I am a huge fan of Lit Up with Emily Gould and Angela Ledgerwood and a rotating author every week, and Two Book Minimum with Dan Wilbur and a rotating author and comedian. Also, Inside the New York Times Book Review. I've listened to a few others but alas none of them are quite up to my intellectual standards. Whoops, there it is again.

I'm also trying to stay up on the reading articles game, and here are a few that the people I know might find interesting:

W/r/t After Birth and the children debate, this article discusses the shame around women who choose not to procreate and Meghan Daum's anthology on childlessness, which is currently sitting on my bed.

Shoutout to my favorite book of last month / possibly forever:

My (fake facebook) employer the pope lays it down on climate change:

This short story by Sheila Heti in The New Yorker: