The Neapolitan Novels is a series full of flaws, but only when observed from the wrong angles, from wanting it to be a perfect thing. After all, whatThe Neapolitan Novels is a series full of flaws, but only when observed from the wrong angles, from wanting it to be a perfect thing. After all, what flaws are not worth it in the pursuit of one wild moment, the imperfection of life that pokes out, overwhelms, runs amok the little complicated streets of Naples with a network of underground sewers flowing with cold knowledge. What is not worth it to be able to put down into words something lived, though arranged neatly, but still alive in effect, still raw. How real those moments then become, not just the ones of high drama, the deaths and the arguments, but also the quietly endured ones of slow suffering, of knowing inadequacy, of indecision and hopelessness, of depression in the face of that large and larger world, with its obscure rules that you can sense but never write down.
The heart of the series is in the relationships, not just between Elena and Lila, but between everyone and everyone. The families, the sexes, the adults and children, the city and the country. The boundaries keep shifting as in Lila's worst fears, everything is fluid, pushing and pulling into each other, though nothing is ever forgotten. It is a pressure that builds and builds, the connections get more and more entangled, never releasing its hold, but becoming ever more deep, rich, inexplicable....more
So much better than the first volume, even though I thought the first volume was pretty good! Now Elena and Lila are adults and things get depressingSo much better than the first volume, even though I thought the first volume was pretty good! Now Elena and Lila are adults and things get depressing real quick. What I loved most was how complicated a relationship they had with each other, how they both loved and hated each other, how they competed and supported, how unconscious or subconscious motives drove them to do or not do things. And how, with Lila, things are never how they seem; even though her life was down in the dumps and Elena's seemed from the outside very glamorous and successful, the criteria for judging their stations in life was ever changing, at least in Elena's mind, and she will always be playing catch-up, even when Lila was working in a filthy sausage factory and she was getting a book published. I loved her insecurity throughout, because I could so relate to it, and I loved the portions where she gets to read Lila's version of things, and how she was surprised by Lila's insecurities and how Lila looked up to her. Whereas to us, from Elena's perspective, Lila never doubted, was fearless, unique and fully herself at all times, and, of course, brilliant. I loved the parts that broke my heart, too, the parts that made me have to put the book down, that nauseated me. The long middle section at Ischia was powerful, painful. (view spoiler)[Everything that led up to the horrible episode with Donato Sarratorre was both terrifying and completely believable, and believable too was the fact that she didn't realize the extent of that horror until much later. There is so much real-ness in the way she wrote that part, it's that part of your life that you want to turn away from and never look at again. (hide spoiler)]
When I first read this series, the blurb on the front cover "Nothing quite like it has ever been published" made me laugh at its exaggeration. This isn't a new story, afterall, and plenty of other books are "like" it. However, towards the end of this volume, I began to agree with it at least to some extent. There is something about this book that's unlike any other I've read, and it has more to do with its unique perspective than with style or content. Normally autobiographical multi-volume novels are written by men. Think Proust or Knausgard. And I would think that just because a woman wrote this wouldn't make it that categorically different, after all we're all human. But reading this has changed my perspective, because this book constantly surprised me with a million tiny observations of people (mostly of women, but also some of men) and their interactions that I do not think a man would have ever noticed enough to put on paper, no matter his observational skills.["br"]>["br"]>...more
I grew up rootless, constantly uprooted, moving around from place to place. But at every new school, I always gravitated towards one person I found faI grew up rootless, constantly uprooted, moving around from place to place. But at every new school, I always gravitated towards one person I found fascinating. Someone who thought and acted in mysterious and somehow superior ways; the idea followed me around. There was Bao in kindergarten who closed the heavy car door for me whenever my dad came to pick me up from school. There was carefree Adam who peed on my cat, climbed trees, and rode motorbikes. There was Cecil who was smarter than me in every subject and had a natural ability in all the arts.
But just as I lost what illusions I had of my parents being perfect people, I also lost my obsession towards individual "superior" people. My friends became more real, more prone to error--I began to see their faults. And this was a good thing.
In this book, Elena looks to Lila in the same way. It's a friendship that I can really relate to. Elena's voice is genuine, believable, autobiographical in tone. Writing from memory, as an older woman recalling her childhood, she is able to describe things below the surface the way a child never could, and yet also evoke the mysteries and confusions surrounding childhood. The larger than life-ness of things as they seemed inside of the sober storytelling of an adult.
A graphic geek-out full of historical nuggets and arcana. You'll be lost in these pages for months (at least I was) reading footnotes, not rememberingA graphic geek-out full of historical nuggets and arcana. You'll be lost in these pages for months (at least I was) reading footnotes, not remembering or even caring what they're footnotes of, learning tidbits of useless knowledge, giggling at obscure nerd jokes or visual puns. But in the process you'll also get to know Babbage, Ada, and Sydney, three personalities that really shine through here. Through the eyes of Sydney Padua, we get to know these historical figures not simply from their accomplishments, but from what they COULD have done as well, in alternate parallel universes. Sydney's enthusiasm for these characters infects every page from a mind-boggling amount of research to lovingly drawn expressions. This isn't a stuffy history, it's exactly what history should be: fun, creative, exciting, and getting to know REAL people, facts be damned (I say that but everything here is BASED on fact, it's that she also riffs off of them and is not afraid to go down crazy conjectures that makes this book so unique and personal and not at all a boring history)....more
I was really struck by the fluidity of positions between each person and his role. Mustafa as a free man growing up in Morocco, then as a merchant traI was really struck by the fluidity of positions between each person and his role. Mustafa as a free man growing up in Morocco, then as a merchant trading ruthlessly (including slaves), then his new identity as a slave in Portugal and later in an unfamiliar land, then as one of four survivors, where his survivor status negated his slave status since survival slowly grew more important than the idea of property. The same with Dorantes, it was fascinating to see his relationship with each of the other men change as the expedition wore on, and his illusions slowly fell away, and then when they were rediscovered again and went to New Spain, how the changes that he underwent slowly reversed themselves when he was surrounded by western greed. The novel is immensely moving and well researched, but not without flaws. As some of the other reviews have mentioned, Mustafa (Esteban) is almost too PC of a character, too modern in his open-mindedness. But though this is a flaw in terms of historical probability (he probably was not this enlightened), it didn't make me enjoy the book any less, as I didn't really read it for historical likeliness. He didn't seem like an unbelievable character. Yes, extraordinary and highly unlikely, but not impossible. And he definitely was not flawless, it's just that he learned from his earlier bad behavior (selling slaves, greed, etc.) and did not continue down that path. This book is like an action adventure novel with a soul. There were so many trials and so many emotions: joy, sadness, wonder, depression, anger. And later reading the real events this was based on (although we know almost nothing about Esteban), it seems highly believable that many of these things (or things very much like it) could have happened....more
These are not quotes from this book, just ones I found appropriate to the themes:
"As the day is long and the world is old, many people can stand in th
These are not quotes from this book, just ones I found appropriate to the themes:
"As the day is long and the world is old, many people can stand in the same place, one after the other." -- Marie in Woyzeck by Georg Buchner
"Two MCs can't occupy the same space at the same time / It's against the laws of physics" -- The Fugees in Zealots
Some graphic novels could easily be written down as stories, but this one is truly a graphical experience, in that never before can this type of story be told in this way except in this form. The experience itself is one of quiet observance, the reader feels cut off from the world in which he/she is looking, as if inside of an alternate reality, a doll-house. What you get out of this book depends on your powers of observation, your willingness to connect disparate cues into a narrative, or theme, or emotion. It reminded me of Jenny Erpenbeck's wonderful book Visitation, but even more so, in that here all elements of plot are irrelevant, and time and place become the only actors on the stage....more
Things happen, seemingly for a reason. But often I feel in the dark about these reasons. Often I feel like I'm only getting one tiny slice of the trutThings happen, seemingly for a reason. But often I feel in the dark about these reasons. Often I feel like I'm only getting one tiny slice of the truth, the one that's most convenient and easily accessible to me, given my upbringing, my background, my experiences. Turning to the news won't help. The news only focuses on surface events, "the things that are happening are happening!" it proclaims in bold headlines. But how do I begin to understand the forces behind them? What we need is the news with context. News for dummies, maybe. Except we're all dummmies. How many of us understand the subtle differences between ISIS and Al-Queda? Or even Sunni vs. Shia, beyond the very basics? Instead we turn that part of our brain off and think "terrorist" or "evil". But context is everything, and without it, we see the world only from our own very limited retro-active perspective. How can we continue to broaden that context, continue to see things from a larger and larger world view so that we understand why things happen instead of just that they happen?
History, at least when you're talking about traditionally-taught mainstream history (i.e. history for the rest of us, rather than history in academia), is a specific narrative that gets stronger and more homogenous with each generation simply by the power of repetition. Every story has multiple sides to it, any critical thinker knows this--and yet when we're talking about our own story, the story of humanity, why do we only care for one side of it?
And because we're further from the original events, we just parrot that main narrative that's passed down to us, the one the victors wrote. It's disturbing to me that, as Tamim Ansary mentions in this book, most history textbooks have only one chapter dedicated to Islam, out of maybe 30 or 40 chapters. Nevermind the fact that it is one of the most relevant threads of current events. And even if that were not the case, it is the basis for one of the largest, most powerful and culturally rich empires in history, rivaling the Roman Empire. And even if that were not the case, it is the second largest religion, around 1.6 billion people we are ready to not think about. And even if that were not the case, it is more than a religion, it is uniquely also a community project and a political philosophy.
And yet I understand that impulse not to engage. It's uncomfortable. It's difficult. It's messy and unresolvable. Good resources are hard to find and often conflicting. It's so much easier to look upon these parallel accounts as side-stories, almost inconsequential, subsumed in our own larger story. No, it's not that we deny these narratives entirely, but we look upon them as small parts of our story, rather than something completely foreign. That all past events have progressively lead step by step to our own existence, as if we (the storytellers) are the ultimate goal and purpose of human civilization.
If you want to break out of that pattern, then this book is at least one such parallel story that you could investigate. Ansary focuses on the story-arc rather than mundane details. He is very good at conveying the general sweep of many parallel currents. I learned quite a lot from this book, including etymologies of several words and phrases that apparently have their origins in Islamic history. The first few chapters about Muhammad and the four caliphates are the most straight forward, and it's nice to be able to know not only their names but also have a sense of each one's personality, unique governing style, and personal philosophy. And that's very characteristic of this book. Ansary takes time to familiarize you with the backgrounds, personalities and tendencies of the people he writes about, instead of just what they did and when. Obviously, as there are more and more schisms and offshoots, it's a little harder to do that with everyone who shows up in this grand story. But he does a good enough job most of the time that I was highly engaged and flipping the pages as if I were reading a good mystery.
The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a “clash of civilizations”, if that proposition means we’re-different-so-we-must-fight-until-there’s-only-one-of us. It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting.
History is a narrative, and narratives form our identities, drive our actions. For this reason, Ansary's conclusions are quite significant. He's basically saying that the Western narrative and the Islamic narrative are categorically different. It's not simply that we've left out some events. It's that the understanding of what lead to this moment is driven by two complete different understandings of the world . Thus, when we look at the same current event, we see the causes for this event to be two totally different things. It's like we're a bitter couple, each not hearing the other person in an argument, but only becoming more convinced by our own voices.
"Here are two enormous worlds side by side; what's remarkable is how little notice they have taken of each other. If the Western and Islamic worlds were two individual human beings, we might see symptoms of repression here. We might ask, "What happened between these two? Were they lovers once? Is there some history of abuse?"
Let me start off on a tangent. I've been watching some Reza Aslan clips on YouTube and been really pleasantly surprised by some of his perspectives. TLet me start off on a tangent. I've been watching some Reza Aslan clips on YouTube and been really pleasantly surprised by some of his perspectives. This one for example:
Q: As a historian and scholar, as you read all this, how can you still believe any of these religions?
A: I don't believe in a religion, I believe in God. The only reason that I call myself a Muslim is because the symbols and metaphors that Islam uses to talk about God are ones that I like, the ones that make sense to me. It's not that Islam is more true than Christianity, or Christianity is more true than Judaism, they are all equally true equally valid ways of expressing what is absolutely inexpressible. If you believe there is something beyond the material world, that there is something truly transcendent, then you need some kind of language to talk about it, to make sense of it, that's all that religion is. Anyone who says "I believe in Christianity" or "I believe in Islam" misses the point. Christianity and Islam are not things to believe, they are signposts to God. They are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
It's a simple proposition. You either believe there's something beyond the material world, or you do not. If you do not, fine. If you do, then do you want to actually experience it? Commune with it? Or do you not? If you do not, fine. If you do, then you need some help. You need a way to express what is fundamentally undefinable. And that's all religion does, it gives you a language to express it. Anything more than that and you're missing the point of what religion is. The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said "If you focus too narrowly on a single path to God, all you will ever find is the path."
I love this idea of religion as simply a language. A language that may help some to reach God. As well as a language to commune with other believers. It's a way of making life easier and more meaningful for some, and there's nothing wrong with that, even if it is historically inaccurate and/or technically untrue. And as an agnostic-bordering-on-athiest but one who disagrees with the attitudes of extreme athiests like Richard Dawkins, I find Reza's attitude refreshing. If more people adopted this viewpoint of religion, the world would be a much more relaxed, laid back place to live.
This perspective also comes across when you read his book. It doesn't take many pages to realize that the Jesus we know from Christianity is different from the Jesus of history. But Reza does not say therefore Christianity is wrong. I think the people who are offended by this book are being automatically defensive because that is exactly the claim they think a book like this would be making, whereas the book simply presents a different "knowing" of Jesus. Reza talks about different ways of knowing, to know something factually and historically (which only became a way of knowing things in very recent history, say for the last 300 years or so) or to know something through faith. And each way of knowing is equally valid and can co-exist.
So back on the topic of this book, specifically... It's quite amazing that historians know anything about Jesus (the man) at all. Afterall, there were very few written records of Jesus beyond the four gospels. And the gospels were written decades after Jesus's death by communities of believers--not by the actual Matthew, Mark, and John. (Luke was written by Luke, but he never met Jesus and wrote it more than half a century after Jesus's death). And there are only a few very brief mentions of Jesus from outside sources. On top of that, the concept of historical truth was totally foreign to the people at the time. So even though we may read the gospels now as supposedly what happened when Jesus walked the earth, nobody read it that way at the time when the gospels were written! It's simply a difference in literary convention and cultural understanding that has been lost over time. People back then wouldn't understand the concept of historical accuracy, what they looked for was a portrayal that got at the "truth" of who Jesus was, regardless of whether or not things actually happened that way.
What Reza did here (while standing on the backs of a lot of other research) was to put what little we know about Jesus in the context of ancient Rome, which we do know a lot about. And through this, he is able to make educated guesses on what is more likely vs. less likely in terms of what is written about Jesus in the gospels.
So, yes, I read these chapters with many grains of salt. Some parts I agreed with his conclusions more than other parts, and overall, it was more of a spark to my imagination than a "oh this really was how Jesus was" kind of thing. There is very little certainty here, but I liked that about it.
Even though I found the chapters on Jesus and Jewish/Roman society fascinating, what was even more fascinating were the chapters on the aftermath of his death and resurrection. I remember reading about Saul/Paul in Bible study, but it isn't until now that I realize what a huge influence he had in setting up what we know as Christianity now. Because Paul never knew Jesus firsthand, his interpretation of Jesus was not tethered to any facts whatsoever. (He was basically an egomaniac and crazy-person -- he told people not to believe anyone's teachings but his own, even if it came from the mouth of an angel!). Much of what Paul preached went against what the other apostles (James, Peter, et al) were preaching at the time. And much of what he said contradicted Jesus's own words--probably the biggest one being that Jesus never claimed to be the literal son of God. Son of God was a title that was attributed to many people at the time, kings and such received the title, and it definitely did not mean being actually God himself. Besides Jesus mostly used the phrase "son of man."
Despite these facts, Paul is the real bedrock of the Christian religion, not Jesus! Without Paul's transformation of Jesus's original message, there would be no Christianity today. His (some would say) misunderstanding of the real living Jesus and his re-interpretation of it into a more inclusive, less Jewish, more palatable to Gentiles, "Jesus as literal Son of God" thing made Christianity into a totally separate religion from Judaism. And because of the political landscape at the time, his version of Christianity ended up really catching on:
[when a] group of bishops gathered ... to canonize what would become known as the New Testament, they chose to include in the Christian scruptures one letter from James, the brother and successor of Jesus, two letters from Peter, the chief apostle and first among the Twelve, three letters from John, the beloved disciple and pillar of the church, and fourteen letters from Paul, the deviant and outcast who was rejected and scorned by the leaders in Jerusalem. In fact more than half of the twenty-seven books that now make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul.
I'd love to read a full biography of Paul by Aslan, or someone similar. Knowing Aslan and his views on religion, I wonder if he's ever read Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann. Even though that is more historical fiction/philosophy, I feel like it shares a lot with this book... both value history while also understanding the power of myth, storytelling, and the human imagination. Both vividly recreate a historical place and time and context for reinterpretation of these myths. And Joseph's story has a lot of obvious echoes with Jesus's....more
A charming chapbook and a charming concept. Bernadette Mayer writes a poem for each one of the Helens who live in the town of Troy, NY. The poems rangA charming chapbook and a charming concept. Bernadette Mayer writes a poem for each one of the Helens who live in the town of Troy, NY. The poems range from formal whimsy to experimental. Each poem is accompanied by a photo of said Helen in her natural environment. This book made me smile. I loved the poems where she uses the voice of the Helen she is portraying, you really get a sense of these women and the little town they live in. Playfulness abounds....more
Hélène Cixous Region: Western Philosophy. School: French feminism. Main interests: Literary criticism. [...] "She has published over 70 works; her ficti
Hélène Cixous Region: Western Philosophy. School: French feminism. Main interests: Literary criticism. [...] "She has published over 70 works; her fiction, dramatic writing and poetry, however, are not often read in English" -- Wikipedia
Oh but people! But but but but... people! Wake up! Don't let your lethargic willingness to give in to the maddening inertia of air conditioned rooms filled with post-structuralist slack-jawed graduate students blind you to the fucking truth, man! For we have here one of the greatest (still living!) writers of fiction/fact/creative nonfiction/poetry/poetic essay (whatever this book happens to be, I don't even know). Maybe her academic theoretical work is great also. I have no idea. I've only read this one book. But whatever your thoughts on that are, don't pigeonhole her as an academic or theoretician, because this book is so much more, it's a writer's book, and everything I look for in the best of my reading experience: warmth, humor, sensuality, language, poetry, philosophy, inventiveness, playfulness, emotion, messiness, unruliness, surprise, craziness.
"The word mum still fascinates us, it's a gem, as if we had kept a milk tooth. This can only be said in all modesty. I myself say mum to my son or daughter and we murmur Rimbaud in amongst the broom flowers between fables and seas."
What is this book about? Well, I don't really know. It's about so many things. But on some very concrete level it's about Hélène Cixous opening up a box that she finds in her cupboard. Which I guess goes to show that a great writer can write about anything and make it great. This was not an easy read, but it was so pleasurable that I didn't mind re-reading many passages over again to understand them. Also, I'm sure my understanding is only partial: she alludes to so many other works, as well as personal things that I feel like I'm not even supposed to know.
There is none more cast out by happiness than he who discovers its doorway. On the one hand the subject surpasses the teller. On the other the teller snuffs out the subject upon which he breathes. And yet how can one not want to be surpassed?
I am not saying this book is poetic. Because even though it is, it is also not. Not in that typical lyrical way. It is very down to earth and personal, I just mean that she has a very particular way of saying things that makes me have to constantly catch my breath.
"For me, theory does not come before, to inspire, it does not precede, does not dictate, but rather it is a consequence of my text, which is at its origin philosophico-poetical, and it is a consequence in the form of compromise or urgent necessity. [...] Never has a theory inspired my poetic texts. It is my poetic text that sits down from time to time on a bench or else at a café table - that's what I am in the process of doing at this moment by the way - to make itself heard in univocal, more immediately audible terms. In other words, it is always a last resort for me." -- an interview
I was not surprised when I read that quote. I get the sense even from this non-theory book that she writes in order to think instead of the other way around. For this reason, even though there are many ideas in this book, I would not lump it in with other idea books. Even novels of ideas (like that excellent Mosley book I just finished) seem more like an explication of an already fully formed vision. Whereas for Cixous, the vision is always formed in the writing. The struggle to say what she means is also the meaning of what she says.
This creates a deeply maddening, sometimes repetitive, highly entertaining and insightful struggle as you're reading it. It doesn't hurt that her style, on the sentence to sentence level, is also messy, full of clauses, sometimes ungrammatical, with made up words or words jammed together in playful ways. It's like one big brainstorm of words. It's wonderful, and it's confusing, but it actually makes sense, it's actually crystal clear and enlightening when you follow her thought.
The Serpent Oblivion devours my lions one after the other. Sated. What's left is the Serpent full of lions. When will the Serpent's Serpent come? At the end of death when the dead are dead, says Poe to Baudelaire, the teeth are left. As soon as you are foolhardy enough to think of them, they rise up and bite.
One last note. Please read/re-read these Poe stories before you read this book, as they are referenced at times in minute detail:
This is a book of Jon's writings and sketches from his time in the Spiti Valley as an English teacher in a Tibetan monastery. His personality really cThis is a book of Jon's writings and sketches from his time in the Spiti Valley as an English teacher in a Tibetan monastery. His personality really comes through these pages (let me say here as a disclaimer (ha!) that Jon is a friend), that is, someone who is warm, humble, and constantly searching. I don't know anyone who has followed their dreams as much or as fearlessly as Jon has, and he has MANY dreams (including becoming a lawyer, now). His sketches and paintings are so delightful, his lines charming and full of energy and reverence, that it is no wonder he uses his drawings as a way of connecting with people everywhere he travels, and as a way of transcending language borders:
The miraculous is the sudden cessation of certainty, itself needless to say a delusion.
Change: either it is desired, undesired, or not subject to desire
Cloud forms and mountains both so difficult to draw. In attributes, opposite, in all but size: hardness, stillness, changeability. When we exaggerate, it is grown from a molehill, while dreams are floating vapor in a sky. Climbing a mountain it loses its form but gains another through a fight against gravity: it is personalized. Seeing ships and creatures in clouds our minds grow into them...
I think she's really good at writing about intimacy. Other things she's not as good at. But there were some truly magical moments in the first 100 pagI think she's really good at writing about intimacy. Other things she's not as good at. But there were some truly magical moments in the first 100 pages or so. That said, there is something of this personal myth-making that makes me uneasy... it is both sincere and totally constructed at the same time. Something about how she retro-actively makes everything seem so fated, with all the right coincidences and people coming in at the right times (makes for a great story though).
So many things are romanticized here, not just the love story, which would be obvious, but also the art scene, New York City at that time, the Chelsea Hotel, and the many artists that came and went. This isn't really a complaint, since that is the reason most of us are reading this book to begin with, me included, i.e. we want our romantic notions reaffirmed.
It also satisfied my voyeuristic side to read about what books she was reading/music she was listening to/films she was watching at different stages of her life. Probably if a book were published of interesting people and what media they've consumed at different stages of life, that would be endlessly interesting to me....more
It is 10 years since 9/11 and poetry doesn't matter. But this here is to revive my heart to the common palpitations of dance music, to the crowd who sIt is 10 years since 9/11 and poetry doesn't matter. But this here is to revive my heart to the common palpitations of dance music, to the crowd who sweats my sweat. This is the only poetry book that makes me feel like OK here's a something that actually reflects what it feels like to be half alive in this inexpressibly sad as fuck powerless paralysis of a 2012 where we pretend things matter but they don't they're just fucking status updates! Wow oh god OK this book makes me sad, or rather it just puts me back in touch with why I've been sad without knowing it for ten years, and I can't even say why I just now read it over my lunch break (it's short, read it now, it's free too, download it here) and you know how sometimes, very rarely, you read something that expresses basically everything that is the zeitgeist of what's going on in the moment in the world but nobody talks about it because it is so all-encompassing that nobody can see it enough to express it? Read this fucking book now!...more
is no there there, Gertrude Stein famously wrote in 1937, a sentence that loops back on itself in order to question its own grammar. Maybe what sTHERE
is no there there, Gertrude Stein famously wrote in 1937, a sentence that loops back on itself in order to question its own grammar. Maybe what she meant was that the first there has no antecedent. But the sentence also pushes out, questions the world, questions the idea of a place in time, a time in place, that exists only because it is not here, relatively speaking.
This novel has a similar trajectory. Broken down into four sections titled There, But, For, and The, it tells an abstract story that questions the meaning of those words. Which may seem slight at first (Duh!), except it's not. Like the puns that the child Brooke is obsessed with, the book convinces us that semantics matter, words matter. And what seems an unlikely story about a man who's locked himself into a room is really a story about how we label our world. Which is really a story about how we think about the world. Which is really about if we can even think about the world (or know it).
Because a pun is basically a mislabelling that creates pleasure. A misnomer. And this book has many. Brooke becomes broke. Miles becomes Milo. Gen becomes Jan. Anna Hardie becomes Anna K. And like a good pun, this book is playful and gives pleasure. It is funny,
not in a ha-ha way. More in an aha way. There is always a but, isn't there? Actually there are many buts. Time and place, memory, history, a rhyme that jogs the memory into thinking of a time and place (where a man jogs in place, or does he ride in place, on an exercise bike?), the ostensible seemingness of things versus The Fact Is of things, these were all seamlessly (seemlessly?) weaved into the prose with great skill. But
then there were things that made me roll my eyes: cell phones, CCTVs, surveillance cameras, microdrones, celebrity culture, internet porn were all conspicuously annoying in the story. Yes, these are important things to think about, but do we really need to be reminded of the obvious (Duh!)? Come to think of it, have any of these things ever made it into a novel that wasn't trying to show me the shallowness of modern life? I felt like Don DeLillo was breathing down my back. And
though I loved the first two sections, the last two felt weaker, in the voice of the elderly Mrs. Young and the young girl(y) Brooke ("broke") Bayoude. Brooke was tolerable, adorable even, when she would only be precociously naive about something during a tense dinner conversation. But being entirely in her head by the last section was too much for me. I got annoyed. But
I do like the idea of them. Maybe Smith is suggesting that when our collective language breaks down, when we can't name things as they are anymore but only as they seem, when language is "broken", that somehow it is most alive, and most alive to those who themselves are "broken", or superfluous to society, the very old and the very young. Because language, in the normal world, is
something: a purpose. Communication or business or banter. And when it is functioning it is functional and boring. Like a machine. You're either for us or against us. Zeroes and/or ones.
Old Mrs. Young couldn't talk at first. But when she was finally able to, the words that came out of her resembled involuntary movements she couldn't control. Like her bladder. Animal utterances. Muscle memory. Phrases she knew but didn't mean to say. Like a bird who repeats things that she doesn't understand. But her age is an asset. "The leaving of life, when it came, might well be accompanied by a different seeing" (p. 142). And Brooke, the child, on the other hand, who is yet to find language functional
is also accompanied by a different seeing. She sees words strangely, as a tiger cub does when batting around its first prey rather than eating it. She's curious about language, about the way it works and still fresh to its odd pun-like qualities. Here is where language belongs. Something about history and the long stretched canvas of language that is best kept by the young and the old, the ones who don't matter as much in society, the overlooked ones, the the.
Thus language is made new again through puns and cleverness. You get a sense that if Brooke never completely grows up, but grows older, she could become Ali Smith and write an incredibly clever book like this. The way the storylines connect, the way the wordplay resonates between the sections and the themes, pretty much everything about this novel was clever. But in its examination of words, the novel also examines itself, and the topic of cleverness: what is cleverness for? No doubt a pre-emptive strike against those would-be critics on Goodreads:
Then she asked Mr. Garth did he really think there wasn't anything wrong with being cleverest. Top of Mount Cleverest, Mr. Garth said. Brooke laughed. Then Mr. Garth said slowly: the fact is, that at the top of any mountain you'll feel a bit dizzy because of the air up there. Cleverness is great. It's a really good thing, when you have it. And when you know how to use your cleverness, it's not that you're the cleverest any more, or are doing it to be cleverer than anyone else like it's a competition. No. Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.
i.e. the becomes a, from a specificity to a generality, we lose ourselves in the collective. Cleverness matters only in this regard: to connect. Empathy with the disenfranchised. There but for the grace of God go I.
What kind of ending is that? The lack of an ending. The lack of anything, but a reference to a reference. The part left out of headlines, because it's implied. Area Man Reads Book Writes Review. The part left out is the only part that remains, for Stevens. When you eat an apple, you throw away the core. Man On Dump. No headline has the word the in it, i.e. There is no the there.
Similarly There But For The has a part missing. There But For The WHAT? I want to ask. But the answer would be Exactly! What's missing is the subject of the book, the whole point of it. We're not there at all because we're missing what we're missing, so we're here. The book wouldn't exist if not for the missing ____ at the end of the The.
So the book is about this missing piece, the story without a core, the center will not hold. And by the end of it we've whipped up a lot of cream without anything to put it on. All the pieces connect, but the reader still feels empty, there is no comforting explanation for the mysteries that haunt us (and that's the point). Does it matter? Does it make it less enjoyable? (My answer is no, but your Milo may vary.) We keep waiting for the revelation. The moment of understanding, of purpose. Of of course. Obviously. Of The Duh....more
There is not. It is quiet In the room the plastic house is orange, glowing orange. Sonia says, "Daddy this pillow is not cold enough." It sounds like enu
There is not. It is quiet In the room the plastic house is orange, glowing orange. Sonia says, "Daddy this pillow is not cold enough." It sounds like enush. Daddy there is not. In the quiet.
Dan Thomas-Glass has fallen in that gap between child and child. Something is afresh not there, re etches a future looking back at himself where are clouds which are in the sky, he notes, but this is this. This Sonia and this Kate whom he pre eulogizes the present already a long-ago memory. Lives cast like those shadows in the playground overlapping one on one, and the parts that do not match where do they go? Where does the sweetness go once done? A sea of plastic awaits like the eye of some harm.
Let us wish: for the beach- iest Sundays before burnt skin draws us under, in the shadow of redwood trees a respite we conspire to hold tight, in the shadow of vowel shifts as language invaded language on islands in undifferentiated moments called history then particular for individuals living it--Oh I guess we are no different, if you ask sweet, little larks who flit from branch to branch as evening deepens.
Heather is playing 'house' in this book. I don't mean to imply the domesticity, but the pretend, the imagination, the whimsiness, and the playing of rHeather is playing 'house' in this book. I don't mean to imply the domesticity, but the pretend, the imagination, the whimsiness, and the playing of roles. Often, like an only child, Heather has to play all the roles herself.
Half-Hedgehog Half-Man talk to me I said okay said the tree and it twinkled not like that I said I already know that talk to me about something new you monster it said that was a little better could we try this I said from a different perspective so we swapped places I was still the monster this would be easier if you could see the video in the video there are all these owls like bang bang bang all over the tree which I was now only that might be clearer in writing because I was also still myself half-hedgehog half-man and that could be hard to communicate visually and also my man-jaw was glass
My Enemy I have a new enemy he is so good-looking here is a photograph of him in the snow he is in the snow and so is the photo I put it there because I hate him and because it is always snowing in the photograph my enemy is acting like there are no neighbors but there are always neighbors they just might be far away he is 100% evil and good-looking he looks good in his parka in the snow if you asked he would call it a helmet all he ever does is lie he does not breathe or move or glow he is not that kind of man it is not that kind of snow
Some of these poems work better than others. And it could just be me, but some of the humor is too clever here (on the page), though she makes it work so well when she reads it. ...more
The history of information theory is a history of increasing abstraction. To the point where the meaning of information becomes irrelevant. To the poiThe history of information theory is a history of increasing abstraction. To the point where the meaning of information becomes irrelevant. To the point where the universe itself can be seen as a giant computer, and each of our choices, thoughts, movements become like states in the machine. I loved reading about the African drummers who communicated over long
distances via a tonal drum language with built in redundancy. I loved reading about Babbage and his calculating machine, and to think about it as a kind of steam-punk calculator fantasy world of the future. I loved reading about people decrying the telegraph and the telephone as technologies that will ruin humanity. And to read about the shortening of telegraph messages to save time and money, with phrases like wyegfef which stands for 'will you exchange gold for eastern funds?' which is interesting because here we are in 2012
coming full circle, a form of regression maybe, by using codes like ROFLOL and BRB in our chatboxes and cellphones. And also that the telegraph reminds me a bit of twitter in its shortness. I didn't love reading about Godel and Turing and Shannon, but only because I've read so much about them already in other books just like this one, but it was still interesting enough. I liked reading about genes and the gene code ok, but I really loved reading about quantum computers because I knew next to nothing about them. Something I never thought about before is how a message sent using a quantum computer cannot be intercepted or wiretapped because of Heisenberg's principle
which says that you can't look at a quantum particle without effecting it, so in effect the intercepter cannot go undetected! This blew my mind. I loved reading the more philosophical chapters about how we have too much information for us to ever process, and how we must now deal with it. I loved reading about the library of babel and borges of course, how could I not? I loved thinking about how we have too much information and how everything is documented. "It did not occur to Sophocle's audiences that it would be sad for his plays to be lost; they enjoyed the show". I thought about that and I thought
about how every performance, ceremony, or event that I've been to in the last year or so has been recorded on video (and probably up on YouTube already) and how or whether that took away from the experience, whether knowing something will be archived later makes you pay attention less now, or is it a form of insurance, a kind of just-in-case, which then made me wonder how many times I (or anyone) will ever go and watch those videos again. I thought about the last chapters and how Google and other search engines are our only means of not being completely lost in meaningless data and then I thought about how much power the role of a search engine is, to make sense of the information is also to hold all the power, to control the information, to control what information people see or don't see. I'm looking forward to the sequel....more
A little too 'project'-ey for my taste; that project being 'the soul' in this case; not that there aren't really
Mysteries and corn stand side by side.
A little too 'project'-ey for my taste; that project being 'the soul' in this case; not that there aren't really great parts in there as well (esp. loved Mutability Chorus on p82). I didn't like when he related the body/soul thing to writing/literature. It seemed a bit too myopic.
The terrible thing about being a writer is that it is what I wanted.
About a week ago, I read Maira Kalman's other book The Principles of Uncertainty and loved it. It is full of charming jExpectations! They are a bitch.
About a week ago, I read Maira Kalman's other book The Principles of Uncertainty and loved it. It is full of charming joyful paintings, paintings of all manner of things/couches/hairstyles/hats, lists and photos of people's backs, etc. All strung together in the loosest wandering free-form way possible, which is part of the charm. Afterwards, I read online about her newest book 'And the Pursuit of Happiness':
Inspired by the 2008 elections, artist Maira Kalman set out across these great states with pen and paper in hand to explore facets of American democracy that many Americans only contemplate on the Fourth of July.
So what I expected was this: Maira stops in rest areas and gas stations, painting weird southern ephemera, philosophizes about the South and our history of slavery, suddenly she spots a duck-shaped hat and goes berserk and paints 20 pages straight of this same hat from different angles! Then she gets sidetracked and starts talking about the variety of trees beside the highway, then she follows an old abandoned train track to see where it goes, meets some hillbillies and talks with them about 'America', shoots a few deer, paints them, hitchhikes with a single mom in her yellow Honda civic hatchback to California while painting exquisite reproductions of her right ear as seen from the passenger seat, then paints some lean-tos in Nevada, paints the interior of several houses where she stayed on the floor on her epic roadtrip across the country, people-watches in a mall, paints a well manicured poodle, paints someone's sequined shoes, wonders to herself "Could the meaning of America be sequined shoes?" and there you have it THE END!
Instead, I got: Maira, filled with optimism after Barack Obama's inauguration, decides to write a book about the beginnings of this country. She doesn't do much travelling (though she does some) or meeting of regular people. Instead, she dives into history books and history museums... OK, already not as exciting a concept to me as what I had imagined... but let's give it a shot anyway.
Most of this information is common knowledge about our forefathers. History that seems to brush the surface, history that seems like myth (i.e. what they want you to believe happened). The book is filled with paintings, but most of them are paintings of oil paintings of dead white men. These paintings lack the kind of verve and observation of the paintings in her other book... Because in her paintings of regular people, you can tell by the way she paints them how she feels exactly about this person's nose, or how much she loves this woman's hair, or how the squirrelly quality of that man on the street comes out in full color. Here, we have reproductions that seem stale by comparison. I find posed oil portraits so boring, and though she tried her best, she was basically just reproducing them in this book, without adding much of her own character or interpretation into the mix (there are exceptions, of course).
Later, when she shows real people (like the kids involved in the organic farms) she opts to show photographs of them instead of paintings. Why she decided to paint oil reproductions of Thomas Jefferson while photographing the kids is a mystery to me. It seems like the opposite choice would've produced much better results, with more room for interpretation. We've all seen Thomas Jefferson a million times, in that same pose!
Then, instead of traveling to the little known spots to discover the spirit of what America is now, she goes straight to Washington D.C. What follows are portraits of government workers and congresspeople, sitting in their offices, in their business suits. All pretty boring to me. What's more, it's not like she gets below the surface of who these people are. Example: on one page we see a painting of a woman against a yellow background and the words say "I meet Haeda Mihaltses, the director of the office of intergovernmental affairs." Then the very next page, she tells you of some other people she met. OK... so what's the point of introducing the reader to Haeda Mihaltses for a page if it's not going to be followed up by anything? Who cares? She's some director or other, I didn't need to know that!
I know I've been focusing on the negatives so far, but that is because I was so disappointed. I wanted so much more from this. I don't want to mislead you though: there is a lot of good stuff in here as well. It's just spaced further apart. There is still a number of humorous, witty, quirky things sprinkled throughout. But if you've never read Maira Kalman before, DEFINITELY read The Principles of Uncertainty first, instead of this book!
Also: I found the first half of the book to be much better, visually; it felt like she stopped trying in the last half. Her brushstrokes were less subtle and the detail seemed to go away. ...more