I haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:
- Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
- “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
- Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451
This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”
- The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
- The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
- Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
- Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
- The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
- The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
- Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
- Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
- Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
- Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.
There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.
WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING
- Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
- Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
- Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham
What I plan to Do from Now On:
- No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count tracker
- No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
- Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
- Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.
Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.
I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.
This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.
“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”
Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:
“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:
“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”
Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:
“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”
A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.
Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.
There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:
“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.
As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”
I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:
“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”
The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:
Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination
Be around trees
we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.
Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.
Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi
“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath
“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson
“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill
“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).
“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle
“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne
“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching
Peter Watts’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution is an addition to a longer series including The Island (2009) for which Watts received the Hugo Award for best novelette in 2010, Hotshot (2014), and Giants (2014). The Freeze-Frame Revolution will be published in June of 2018 by Tachyon Publications. These works are certainly part of what would be categorized as “hard sci-fi” for Watts does not spoon-feed his readers, nor spends too much time explaining. He drops his characters in some unusual circumstances, and tries to convey ideas about technology, life, the universe, and the limitations of humanity. It is simultaneously focused on macro scale settings and ideas and on micro details with few characters in a rather condensed space of 185 pages. Given these limitations I think Watts was very successful.
The novel/novella follows Sunday who is part of a large crew (in the tens of thousands) and was trained for this mission, to build a web of wormhole gates through space, making interstellar travel more accessible. Eriophora is their spaceship, and simultaneously used for creating ‘gates’ or wormholes through which they can continue to travel. Of the tens of thousands involved, only a handful of people are awake at a time while everyone else is still suspended in unconsciousness. The gate-building ship is controlled by Artificial Intelligence: the Chimp—who decides who he will wake, and what information it will provide to the awakened ones. The people are awakened only for a few days at a time when they are, which leaves very little room to accomplish anything.
As in most hard sci-fi character development isn’t a priority, and the reader will be left with a lot of questions about the characters, the ‘world,’ and sometimes even the plot. This novella will also leave you with a lot of questions but with the knowledge that there is a certain suspenseful beauty in leaving them unanswered.
The travelling through space and gates has been happening for millions of years, and people have been maybe awake a total of few full conscious years where they have scattered memories here and there from the few times they have been awakened at several time intervals (thousands of years apart). The people grow uneasy about their ‘leader’ and AI: The Chimp and plot against him, which is quite the task when they are only awake one day of every thousand. There are also problems relating to the AI’s relationship to the ship, because they are essentially one and the same. The “consciousness” of the ship is also their home (at least that’s how I read it). We are told for instance:
“Eriophora’s riddled with blind spots: shadows in crawlways and corners, in the spaces behind looming machinery where no one had any reason to put a camera. There are even places—near powerlines whose massive currents swamp the milliamp signals that connect artificial brains to natural ones—where Chimp is blind to our cortical links.”
The thought that Chimp can automatically know what happens on every surveilled location on the ship makes the ship itself unreliable which gives the reader a sense of uneasiness at all times.
I really liked the ways in which Watts presents some ‘dilemmas’ or concerns for the characters which resemble our daily struggles with online personas, and simulated experiences, particularly with the ability to “plug in.” I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions. Here’s an example:
“’I suppose I’m thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every couple thousand years, knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like’– She glanced around—’nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.’
‘Honestly, I don’t understand. Any time you want a—a green forest, just plug in…you can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.’
‘It’s not real.’
‘You can’t tell the difference.’
‘I know the difference.’”
It’s hard to omit these dark philosophical moments from the overall suspense and tension—particularly since the main mission itself: creating a wormhole gate network, has lost meaning for the people involved. I enjoyed very much the dark aspects of this novella. The ways in which Watts has this meaninglessness looming over every one little action of the characters, and the atmospheric tension he creates with the ship, and the crypt, coffin-like places the majority of crew members lie in made this work worthwhile and rewarding.
It’s a work of great talent, and I hope that soon all of his connected works, or “Sunflower Cycle” will be published in a single volume together. Peter Watts has created a sci-fi work of art where every word is refined, and has a purpose. I highly recommend this work to lovers of science fiction.
I spent a few days fully immersed in these two books by Peter Wohlleben. They are both books in the “nature” section, obviously, but they are written in the style of Thoreau’s Walden, which I referred to earlier as my ‘comfort classic.’ I absolutely loved being in the company of Wohlleben and I very much look forward to his next book which will be released this year. I believe it’s called The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs, which will be published in June. It sounds a lot like Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, (a book I also loved) but hopefully it will add a new perspective to the conversation.
The first book written was The Hidden Life of Trees, and it sold quite rapidly. In a way it is rather meaningful because it changed the way we look at trees. He humanizes them by explaining the many ways in which they communicate with each other. I learned so much from this book, and it makes me want to start every conversation with “did you know that trees…” It made me want to learn a lot more about mushrooms and fungi in general. The way he depicted mushrooms as a social network between trees, carrying messages from a tree to another, was absolutely fascinating. The ways trees contain anti-freezing materials by self-lubricating with the essential oils in their branch tips, or the ways they contribute to bee life with their sap and sweet needles, or the function of the roots for a myriad of smaller ecosystems beneath the ground. The fun facts in this book are countless. This book heavily inspired, and informed (and featured Wohlleben in) the documentary Intelligent Trees.
The second book, The Secret Life of Animals was published in 2016 and was recently translated into English from the German, in late 2017. In this book Wohlleben observes the life of the animals on his farm and those in the nearby forests and notes his observations. This book made me want to learn more about ravens, as they appear to be rather fascinating creatures. I particularly enjoyed how much of this book focused on squirrels and their behavior. Squirrels carry their young around their neck, they plant hundreds of trees by accidentally forgetting where they buried their acorns, and they adopt the young of another squirrel if that other squirrel didn’t make it. There was a chapter on the fun animals have for fun’s sake, rather than solely completing a behavior for survival purposes.
Again, both books are wonderful, and they have a cozy feeling to them. It honestly feels as if you are sitting by the fireplace with a grandfather-figure and he’s telling you about the forest, the trees, and the animals he has including his shy horses, his bees, and every other woodland creature. There’s something very Disney’s Bambi and Snow White about the atmosphere of these two books. Although these books are not very science-heavy, Wohlleben draws on studies and research conducted on the animals given each topic, but does not heavily rely on scientific evidence. Many times it really feels like we are learning things only about his own personal animal friends, and we are relying on Wohlleben’s observations. If you are looking for scientific books these are not it, but they certainly are reminiscent of something Thoreau would write. They are not preachy (regarding veganism), but they certainly invoke empathy and understanding regarding the fauna and flora around us. These books deepened my observation skills when walking. I see birds and trees differently now on a walk to and from places, and they forced me to pay attention to more than I would have noticed before. These books are very pleasant, accessible to a wide audience, and cozy. Ideal for nature lovers. Here are some pictures of trees I took after taking a walk recently (on my lunch break at work):
“A woman came to the funeral home looking for a job as a funeral director. When I learned that her dog’s name was Rigor Mortis, I hired her.”
The Life of Death is a memoir written by Ralph R. Rossell who is the owner and funeral director of the Rossell Funeral Home in Flushing (a small town near Flint, Michigan with a population of approximately 8,400 people).
In this work Rossell narrates how he got the family business, and explains terminologies in the death industry from embalmment to caskets, and everything in between. This work is autobiographical and part memoir, part-anecdotes, part non-fiction.
First and foremost I appreciated Rossell’s honesty. Knowing he is a funeral home director I expected him to try and emphasize the goodness of purchasing certain caskets or to hide the ways in which the market profits off of people’s grief. For instance, when it comes to purchasing a casket he writes an entire chapter and in it he says:
“Purchasing a casket can be stressful because it enforces the finality of life…In mortuary school, our casket-sales training course lasted about two minutes. Our instructor walked into the classroom and told us that the way to sell a casket is to go to the casket you want to sell and put your hand on it. Supposedly, this would lead the client to purchase that particular unit; that was it. Thus, the task of training a funeral director in the sale of caskets was left to the middle man: the casket salesman.”
For me personally, this way of laying out facts even if they are ‘secrets of the trade’ or ‘gimmicks’ makes me respect the writer, because I can see that he is not trying to hide anything or convince people that certain companies are better than others, or that one should be obliged to embalm etc. I refrained from looking at what his funeral home offers in terms of eco-friendly services, or options, because as a book reviewer I want to look at this work as literature and judge it only as such.
Aside from the above-mentioned, the main contents of the book brings forward something new, and I enjoyed it immensely: the community. This book is about people. Each short chapter/section focuses on a different anecdote from the 45 years Rossell has worked in the industry. He highlights the humour that can be extracted from concentrated time spent with grieving people in a stressful time. Reading this book felt like I was observing different behaviours and takes on grief, and like I was present to many funerals, which was incredibly humbling and pleasant. The ‘pleasant’ part is a personal investment in the topic, and perhaps other readers will have a different experience. I don’t want to say he puts the “fun” in “funeral” but…kind of. To clarify, he is by no means at any point disrespectful. Rossell acknowledges many times how troubling a time it is when someone passes, and how devastating it is to the remaining living people, but each funeral brings its own story. Sometimes the people don’t fit in the coffin, sometimes no one shows up, sometimes there are very strange requests made, by both the living and the dead. Each of these stories is short, and Rossell extracted the main points of what made them memorable, which makes this book a great read. As a reader I was also able to feel the small-town lifestyle, and the spirit of the small Flushing community.
I read many books on death, funerals, and the funeral industry in the last few years, but this is the first one that uses anecdotal evidence to bring forward the experience of being present at a funeral, and how the people in a small community deal with death. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with the humour levels given the heaviness of the topic. I think when you are in this industry, you simply must have a great sense of humour, or at least be able to see it through the darkness in order to make it out yourself. I received an eARC from the publisher on Netgalley, but I am certainly going to get a hard copy of this book. I will leave you with Rossell’s own concluding words:
“And remember I am the last to let you down”
I recently read Zadie Smith’s Feel Free essay collection, and re-read several times the essay and film review of The Social Network: “Generation Why,” which was published in the New York Review of Books back in 2010. I found similarities between her essay and Jonathan Franzen’s essay/speech “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” which was published in the New York Times a year later (2011), though they both reach for different points. Franzen’s essay is now in the collection Farther Away. They are both linked if you are interested in reading them, though I will be summarizing them, and quoting what I considered valuable in them before I share my experience.
Smith looks at the ways in which 2.0 kids (Millennials, and Gen Y) have been making a new world by having alternate personalities, and alternate versions of themselves in social networks. Her concerns are directed at the strength of our connections, and the fullness of the person we choose to share with others. She writes:
“Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other… ‘You have to be somebody,’ Lanier writes, ‘before you can share yourself.’ But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.”
To Smith there is a sort of façade that one should feel and behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ when one hasn’t quite become a full person, nor is one sharing their full and real, three-dimensional selves, or circulating concrete ideas. She writes:
“..here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves…If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!”
In a NYPL interview following this piece she says that what is lost with the use of this interface is that we become performative in our interactions with others rather than relational.
“The relationship is one way, and you are voyeuristic about other people’s lives… real life is relational, you have to deal with real people. You have to look at people in the eye.”
Smith is both hopeful and self-aware. She agrees that “no generation is more stupid than the one before” and that it will be interesting to watch young people work their way out of this situation.
What got my attention in her analysis of our generation was an observation of people interacting with someone’s Facebook wall after that person had recently passed away, in somewhat simplistic, street-talk. Smith reminds herself that perhaps this person feels the same way as she would, but simply doesn’t have the education or language to express it.
“But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?”
I’ve seen this happen myself and I’ve been an active participant in it. Immediately after the death of someone you’re looking for people to relate to, a form of mouring community, and seeing people post on someone’s wall immediately after it happens is somewhat reassuring, especially when both friends and family don’t always live in the vicinity. However, after several months or years, seeing people continue to post seems somewhat performative like you’re showing others how you continue to grieve. To me, sharing these inner feelings is reasonable, and a part of being human. But I can see that it’s complicated. Smith writes: what’s inside of me is none of your business; and I think this attitude is something we all admire: people who can think and act this way, but find it equally difficult to follow up on it ourselves, and actually stop our hands from typing every little thought, feeling, or frustration. But Smith too shares inner feelings in her long novels. I do it on this platform. Just because hers are disguised as fiction doesn’t make them particularly private. What Facebook does, and what I think Smith is actually disagreeing with is making the trivial important. “Jamie got a haircut today….250 likes.” Not only is the trivial important, it is more valued than a work-hard achievement at times. On my feed I’ve seen a haircut, or a hamburger picture receiving more attention and likes than someone getting their Ph.D diploma, at which point it makes you feel compared. Everything is always one up against the other. He/she/they have more fans, more friends, more support. These ‘likes’ in numbers give a numerical value making it look objectively (and feel subjectively) the haircut was clearly more important today—which can make the-person-working-somewhat-harder-for-longer-periods-on-something’s achievement seem illaudable or unworthy of the respect of one’s peers. These become moments of comparison as the timeline quite literally puts one above the other, and next to each other.
Jonathan Franzen looks at Facebook as an anesthetic. Temporarily feeling numbed into not feeling, or tricking oneself into feeling happy from people’s immediate reactions. He writes:
“The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking…And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.”
Franzen’s solution to handling this fear, instead of anesthetizing it like ‘a patient etherized upon a table,’ is to surrender yourself to something real. He writes:
“my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.”
Both writers seem to narrow in on the fear of “not being liked.” Above I mentioned how a lack of ‘likes’ can make one feel somewhat inadequate or lacking approval—or on the reverse, quite happy/popular on days the reactions and feedback is favourable. Yes, at its bottom line it is a fear of not being liked, but outside of social media, isn’t everything we do in the real world, day to day, for one form of social approval? How many people don’t become doctors, lawyers, and professors for the social respect attributed to those jobs?
“For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.”
“But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable…to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.”
Real life is messy. This two-dimensional world is too cleaned up. Moments of eye contact are irrelevant, your full, whole-rounded person doesn’t come through, you’re afraid of being disliked on a constant basis, thus giving you anxiety, and you constantly compare someone’s highlight reel to your ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments.
I’ve been on Facebook since 2006 (has it been 12 years?) I remember when it first came out and we were just adjusting to the shift from MSN messenger not quite getting the difference between the MSN status (the immediate feeling), and the FB status: an opinion. I remember being terrified when the switch to the “timeline” happened back in 2011 because I had my life laid out in such a way that my past self, my teenage self, was archived in an easily accessible way for the new people to see the old me—a person I no longer liked, a person I no longer wanted to be, and a person I didn’t want others (new people in my life) to have a chance to see. I can hear people say the same responses they give to NSA intrusions: what do you have to hide? Nothing. I’m just not that person anymore, and I don’t want her here. Moments of “this was you five years ago” as I stare at my screen horrified. Moments I’d rather not remember. Facebook picks the numerically important (by likes), or random picture to remind you of a time, when realistically, that wasn’t an important moment to you, nor something you want to recall right now. While I encountered the feelings both Smith and Franzen discuss, there were so many other layers to them.
My first frustration is from the people involved. Facebook to me isn’t made of people with whom I have things in common or share similar interests. Rather it’s made up of the people I happened to live near in high school, accidentally got paired to be near in university, and extended family I happen to have. On that forum, I feel like I am constantly at a high school reunion or at the family gathering. People fighting, disagreeing, bragging, and everything in between. There are moments of mourning, and moments of celebration, and moments of tagging each other in memes and gifs that show ‘dogs who know exactly how you feel about pizza.’ I watched SO MANY movies where Gen X and Y’s ‘biggest obstacle’ was to go to their high school reunion or a family gathering with extended family. On Facebook we live that every single moment. Every day is a high school reunion. I’ve read psych articles highlighting the stress most people have before a high school reunion because it brings back all of your high school self’s insecurities. My bottom line here is that Facebook is filled with people I don’t hang out with, people who don’t share my interests, and people who I don’t necessarily talk to through this forum. It feels like gossip. Did you hear, did you see? Detective work beings. John and Jane had pictures together, now they’re all gone. John deleted them. What happened? Are you going on a date with so-and-so? Let’s ‘creep’ his Facebook and see what we can dig. A reductionist understanding of his top likes, top pictures, etc. It all seemed “fine” until I tried looking at my Facebook the same way. I hardly have any pictures on Facebook with my best friends, my close family, or my real interests. I was mortified by the idea that someone might judge me by the information they find, and the pictures they see.
Thinking this through a few years ago, I decided to be that person who shares little happiness-es often, rather than only the big accomplishments, to remind people there are little reasons to smile. Such as: I found a penny. There’s an apple shape on my apple. I met a squirrel outside, gave it seeds, and now we’re friends. They shouldn’t name condoms Trojan since they lost because the enemy intruded through the wall—literally the opposite of what you want.
After a while I began to feel annoying and above all: I started to make the trivial things more important and I started to feel performative. Like I’m some sort of clown who owes people a smile, entertainment, or humour. You don’t want to make anyone feel sad because you achieved something big, so you focus on the small. Then you complain for making the trivial take priority and become more important. There’s just no winning.
I also (and this is funny) found myself at work (in “the real world”) needing instant feedback from my boss and co-workers. Did you like my assignment? How would you say you reacted to it? What would your immediate commentary be? What GIF would you assign it? Not to mention that mindless clicking of the ‘f’ button has led me to waste countless hours liking pictures of books, and taking time from actual reading.
Then there are the failures in life where you feel like you owe people (a large amount of people) an explanation. I’ve seen countless people explain their choices as if they owed it to us (as Smith puts it: their fans). It only takes one ugly breakup to want all digital traces erased.
And the last thing is this: have you ever met a completely new person with no digital trace? Or no social media? Because I did, and they are fascinating! The Ron Swanson type. I feel like Jane Goodall. It’s so intriguing getting to know someone based on what you see, actually see—and actually communicate. I want to become that person.
I don’t hate Facebook, but I hate my relationship to it. If I can adjust that, then maybe I can go back. But for now, I’m going to pretend that Instagram and probably everything else is not owned by Facebook. I’m okay with it existing, I’m okay with what it has become and could be, but for now, I don’t like how it makes me feel, and my personal relationship to it. It’s something I have to work on. Maybe for a while I’ll try the Franzen method and say it out loud: I don’t care about being liked! I’ll try to find something real and alive to give part of my self to.
Feel Free is Zadie Smith’s most recent collection of essays published by Penguin Press. The collection as a whole feels as if Smith has poked her head out of her isolated writing chamber and is contributing to ongoing conversations. Because these essays have been written over the course of a few years, and previously published individually (for instance one is a film review of The Social Network) some come across as dated, but their essence is still ever-present and relevant. Almost every essay in here either reminded me of another essay I have read, or another speaker I heard, but of course, Smith has an elegant style, and contributes a new perspective. Some of the essays are reviews of books and movies, and her reaction to musicians like David Bowie, or Prince, or Billie Holiday. In all honesty, the musical bits were the least interesting to me. I think that if I had a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with one of my favourite authors, their musical tastes and opinions on musicians wouldn’t be of interest to me. However, Zadie Smith’s recent fictional work Swing Time is about music, and dance, and I can see that for her, this is a very important topic, so I understand why these essays are included. In others, she offers her opinion on topics that are ongoing debates like: do we need libraries? Is Facebook good for us? In the third and last category, if I had to group them, she offers answers to more personal questions relating to her own private experience when it comes to writing, journaling, ideas, and other Smith-specific details.
I would like to unpack a few of my favourite essays in this collection and record what was interesting (to me).
The first essay in the collection “Northwest London Blues” is on the importance of Willesden Library (1894) and Willesden Green Library Centre (1989), which is sprinkled with Smith’s opinions on libraries in general: whether they are still relevant, and what is their role in an individual’s life.
She writes that even though there is a kind of obsolescence to the library as we once knew it, due to the Internet’s all-encompassing information powers, she still sees a need for the space:
“Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library in which I write this, despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their MacBook browsing Google Books.”
“Libraries are not failing ‘because they are libraries.’ Neglected libraries get neglected, and this cycle, in time, provides the excuse to close them. Well-run libraries are filled with people because what a good library offers cannot be easily found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything in order to stay.”
“It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three-dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.”
Perhaps I’ve read more on libraries than most people, but to me Zadie Smith is in conversation with Neil Gaiman’s essay “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming“ and Ray Oldenburg’s essay on “The Third Place” in his book The Great Good Place (All three essays worth your time).
The second essay in Feel Free that got my attention was “Life-Writing” in which Smith explores her relationship with journaling and keeping a personal diary. Though the essay was quite brief, Smith explains her difficulties with keeping a journal. She writes about the ways in which intimate details of her romantic encounters feel far too personal and exposing, and how the Judy Blume character voice made her feel like she had homework, and never felt genuine. She writes:
“The dishonestly of diary-writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts.”
She then tried imitating authors like Virginia Woolf who recorded only literary happenings, which according to Smith lasted only one day because a single meeting with Jeffrey Eugenides took up twelve pages and half the night. She writes:
“Who is it for? What is this voice? Who am I trying to kid—myself? I realize that I don’t want any record of my days….when it comes to life-writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts-and-all, the only thing I have to show for myself…is my email account.”
There’s something so honest in the way she wrote this piece that went far for me. I think we all try to do things because we’ve seen them done by others, or on T.V, or YouTube channels, and refuse to admit when something just didn’t work out for us—because it just didn’t.
Lastly, the third and by far my favourite essay in this collection was “Generation Why?” in which Zadie Smith tears apart our obsession with Facebook, reviews the film The Social Network, tries to find ‘the missing thing’ within us, and concludes with a harsh:
“It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.”
I’m going to hold off on the Facebook discussion and write a different entry for it, because I think she is in conversation with Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (2011)– or at least he is in conversation with her, as her piece was written a year earlier. I would like to write a proper opinion piece on it and link it HERE.
Overall I loved this collection. I think Zadie Smith is a brilliant, Wonder-Woman figure in my life, so I would 100% recommend her essay collection to you. If you doubt whether you should invest time in her long fictional works, or this collection, I strongly recommend listening to one of her commencement speeches, or her interviews—hearing her voice, and her real-life tone, helps in fully embracing her ideas and loving every minute you spend reading her works.
Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”
Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside. Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.
I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:
“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:
“…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”
Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”
“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”
These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?
I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:
“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”
This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.
There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:
“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”
First of all, if you are currently reading this, thank you! A many great thanks to readers who have stuck with me this year, and commented on, or read my reading experience. I really appreciate your bookish company and academic contributions. Also, thank you if you’ve recommended books, audiobooks, podcasts, or stories to me, because you contributed to my reading experience, and honestly, that is the greatest gift.
This year was a very strange year for me, mainly because it’s been a “transition” year. In March I officially started this review/reading journal blog which for the first time held me accountable for my personal reading reflections. I also started to get ARCs for reviews which was exciting at first, but became overwhelming very fast. The truth about early editions for review, is that, as exciting as it is to receive a present in exchange for an honest review, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s a good book. As an early reviewer I have no idea what the book will be like, and because I have promised to give a review, I can’t in all honesty review something unless I’ve fully read it. I chose not to post about any book I didn’t like, which is why you are unlikely to find my negative rants anywhere here (except for monthly wrap-ups). Nonetheless, it means I’ve given hours and hours of my time to books that I didn’t necessarily enjoy all that much. While I was compiling this end of year list, I realized that only one book I got for early review actually made it on the fiction list, which was Ex Libris.
In May I finished University (6 years and 2 degrees later) which led to four months of being on pins and needles trying to get a job in a library. After getting a job in September I then had to move houses three times which was really quite unnerving. Lugging books back and forth, trying to keep my reading going, and at the same time being released from “reading for school” in April to “reading for myself” was very confusing after six years. Sometimes I feel like maybe I enjoyed getting ARCs because they were like school assignments again and that has become my comfort zone. That said, my eye for which books I request as ARCs has also become better. I can see already that books I’m currently reading (to be released in 2018) are far more interesting and right up my alley regarding reading preference. I’m really enjoying Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers: How the World became Obsessed with Time, and Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. Although I have not yet reviewed them, I can tell that they will become favourites. I have a long list of fiction as well, which I think I will enjoy much more than what I previously requested.
On my top lists I will count the books which I’ve personally read in 2017 (which were not necessarily published in 2017). I will also not count re-reads, which I obviously enjoyed before if I’ve returned to them. I did however start reading some books that I enjoyed so much but for some reason they coincided with a stressful time and I couldn’t accord them the attention they deserved, so I’ve temporarily put them aside (even though I predict 4-5 star ratings).
If the title of any of the books below is “clickable” it means I wrote an in-depth review/reflection on it (if you want to read it).
- I read a total of 111 books
- Of these books (42 of them) or 38% were written by female authors, (5) 4% by mixed (particularly short story collections) and (64 books) 58% male authors.
- Categories are: Nonfiction (34 books, 31%), Plays (2 books, 2%), Scifi and Fantasy (22 books, 20%), Academic (10 books, 9%), Poetry (14 books, 13%), Classics (12 books, 11%), General Contemporary Fiction 15%. See pie chart
- Of these initially, 70 of them were bought from Indigo, Amazon, and second hand bookstores. 36 of them were free (friends, ARCs, presents), and only 5 of them were from the library….which we should all realize it’s really shameful (I’m a librarian). Bad Andreea! You can already guess my new year’s resolutions.
- From these books 42 were Digital (Kindle/Overdrive), 69 of them were physical copies, and 18 of them were Audiobooks.
- From the whole 32/111 were ARCs (Advance Reader Copies).
- There are a few cross-overs, and I definitely bought WAY more than 70 books this year. By cross-overs I mean: although 18 were Audiobooks from Audible (which I bought), there’s a chance I also bought the physical copy to follow along and annotate. I also bought books that I haven’t read yet (many, MANY of them). Also, sometimes a book was free like an ARC, library loan, or from Overdrive, and I loved it so much I bought a copy anyway. The things I listed in the breakdown were in the “initial encounter” with the book.
- According to my Audible App this year alone I listened to a total of 61 Hours, or 2 days and 13 hours. (The total since 2014 is 8 days, 2 hrs, and 48 min so this year was definitely my best Audible year so far). I am only 56 hours away from “Scholar” Listening Level. I must add that this year I listened to a lot of podcasts from Castbox, and several audiobooks from Overdrive which have not been counted into my Audible app, so I probably listened to a lot more.
- But Andreea, you may say, the year is not over yet. True. I know my schedule ahead for the next two weeks, and I’m currently in the middle of three really large books. I don’t think I’m going to finish them all this year, just based on my plans for the next two weeks, so I will not be counting them towards the 2017 calculations…also there’s no way I’m redoing all these calculations. It took a while.
Books I re-read this year were (No Particular Order):
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
- Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
- Odd Type Writers, by Celia Blue Johnson
- Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Top 5 Non-Fiction (In Order of How much I enjoyed them)
- Lore by Aaron Mahnke. I spend two continuous months with Mahnke by means of his audiobook, podast, and text. He made the autumn season glorious for me, and this whole experience was just perfect. I gave him five stars. My long review is linked in the title. Definitely my #1 Non-Fiction Read.
- The Readers’ Advisory Service in North American Public Libraries, 1870-2005: A History and Critical Analysis by Juris Dilevko. This book was perhaps the most comprehensive “history of the library” book I’ve yet encountered, and I really enjoyed it.
- The Hermit’s Cookbook: Monks, Food, and Fasting in the Middle Ages by Andrew Jotischky. Exactly what it sounds like: an academic book on monks and food. I loved it.
- The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. A comprehensive, well-researched non-fiction work on the history of the Salem Witch Trials.
- Dark Angel: Mary Ann Cotton by Martin Connolly. The historical account of the “first” female serial killer in Britain.
Bonus: (book I’m currently reading and not really counting in the statistics above, but am REALLY enjoying)
Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection: From Count Dracula to Vampirella by Christopher Frayling. This work is half non-fiction history of Vampires in literature and mainstream culture, and half anthology of fictional works containing vampires. It is very well put together, and I am enjoying all the non-fiction bits just as much as the fiction.
Top 10 Fiction (In Order of How much I enjoyed them)
- The Collector by John Fowles
- Ex Libris Stories of Librarians, Libraries, and Lore
- The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Dumb House by John Burnside
- Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier
- Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
- Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
- The Light Between Oceans by M.L Stedman
- Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Things I learned about Myself:
- I am really bad at maintaining a TBR or participating in Read-alongs. I didn’t read 2/4 books I announced I would for Victober, and I didn’t read 3/4 books I announced I would read for Nonfiction November. I hardly contributed conversations on the Reddit Thread for Infinite Jest, even though it was the only reason I re-read it. I still read Victorian Literature in October, and Nonfiction in November….I just didn’t stick to the list I had prepared. I got very easily distracted by different books. I also find it very hard to read on someone else’s schedule. I tried participating in a few “Goodreads book clubs” and I ended up being unable to do it at either too slow, or too fast a pace (depending on the book).
- I am very much a “mood reader.” This is the reason I buy a lot of my books, even though I’m a librarian. I like to have the foundational texts always around because some days I feel like Tolkien, the next I may feel like it’s a Sherlock kind of day….and I need to have them on hand.
- Some books really upset me (for pretentiousness) and bored me while I was reading them but then I found I couldn’t stop thinking about them after I put them down (Lincoln in the Bardo and Infinite Jest were such examples)
Posts I enjoyed Writing
In the meantime I may still squeeze in a few posts until the year is out, including of course my NEW YEAR RESOLUTIONS in terms of what I hope to achieve with my reading goals next year. I hope you all have a wonderful time in these last two weeks before the New Year! Happy Holidays, and thanks again for reading 🙂
I think I’m a bit young to count any book as “tradition for Christmas” but there are two books and two short stories that I’ve made sure to read as often as I could around the Christmas period. My #1 rule is that the “Holiday Season” doesn’t begin until after Dec 10. Decorating the day right after Halloween is a little unsettling.
Making Christmas all about buying things in high consumerism anxiety, followed by Black Friday videos trending, and making this madness last from November 1 is something that takes away so much magic from Christmas for me. I was recently sent a mini list by Julie Morris, who wrote on the importance of being reflective on the presents you buy for yourself and others around the Christmas period, and the value of reflecting on how those gifts will improve our lives and those of the people around us. Here are some of the recommendations for more thoughtful gifts, if you are looking for ideas. I personally found it to be useful.
- A Yoga Studio Membership. If you’re someone who suffers from stress, yoga is a great way to find relief. Along with easing stress, some of yoga’s benefits include decreased pain, increased strength and weight management. The gift of a studio membership gives you the extra push to get your foot in the door — you’ll be more likely to give it a try when it’s a gift rather than something you bought yourself.
- A Meal Delivery Service. Meal delivery services have become popular in this age of hectic living. According to simplemost.com, meal delivery services are great for those with busy work schedules who may not have time to grocery shop. Meal delivery services are a great option if you want to eat healthy but struggle figuring out what to cook.
- Adult Coloring Books. Adult coloring books are another fad that’s become extremely popular, and for good reason. Adult coloring books have been proven to improve stress and mental health for many people. Don’t forget to ask for a variety of coloring utensils to use in your new books!
- Calendars and Planners. For people who are unorganized and can use some decluttering in their lives, calendars and planners are great options. Planners can help improve time management, increase productivity, and provide enjoyment when you’re able to cross things off your list. Planners are also a great place to put phone numbers, addresses, and emails.
It’s always great to try and improve your life in any way that you can. Asking for gifts that can help, rather than needless knick knacks, is a great way to start on your new resolutions. Consider sharing these ideas to help get your new year on the track.
My #1 Novel for Christmas and favourite depiction of Santa Claus was written by Frank L. Baum: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. This book is amazing. I love the mythological layers added to Santa. In this version he was raised by woodland creatures and fairies. It’s almost a bildungsroman where we get to see how Santa becomes who he is, and how he became immortal. The movie is an excellent adaptation as well.
Then there are these two stories by Hans Christian Andersen
So far I think I’ve read “The Little Match Girl” every year since I was six years old. It’s one of my absolute favourite stories of all time. I love this story so much I started illustrating it:
Then, there’s Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol. Yes, everyone reads it, but it’s pretty darn good. Also, it kind of makes you reflect on the year and the resolutions for the new one. I am the proud owner of many Charles Dickens Christmas stories
Lastly, there are works that are not necessarily Christmas related, but they are personal associations with Christmas. For many, it’s a tradition to watch Harry Potter, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Home Alone, or Elf. Some associate Apple Cider, or Egg Nog with Christmas; particular tastes, and particular smells.
For me personally, Christmas means:
Smells: pine, and oranges
Food: Salata de Beouf (Romanian Dish for Christmas)
Books (non-related to the ones mentioned above): The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Movies I really enjoyed around the Christmas period: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Peter Pan (2003), Little Women, Meet Me in St. Louis and (recently added) Frozen. I also watch adaptations of the three main books/stories mentioned above, or Winnie the Pooh Christmas movies.
Lastly, I absolutely HATE every Christmas song, carol, and/or melody. I think they are so depressing (I’m sorry). I have seen wonderful performers, and family members sing them beautifully, but the melodies themselves put me in such a sad state of mind, I can’ t do it. (Let’s call it a quirk?)
To me, Christmas means the mythology of Santa, the coziness of winter, where the snow is a blanket over dormant parts of nature, and there’s good food, loving family, and a fire place. I want to feel cozy, comfortable, and safe, but I don’t want to experience the layer of sadness that also descends upon Christmas, which comes from the grayness in the atmosphere and from the Christmas songs (for me personally). I know that this is different for everyone and each individual experiences Christmas differently but every year I can’t ignore that there is a general sadness around this time. This feeling turns into optimism and excitement for the new year with plans, hopes, and new dreams. Life is about balance so I guess we need both feelings to get by. I hope that you will have a lovely Christmas time this year and no matter what happens, you get to enjoy at least a great short story!
A few days ago, I came across the Macmillan Collector’s Library editions of various classics. I think I’ll try to get all my future classics in this edition. They are small and portable, a pleasure to hold, have gilded edges, and are accompanied by the most beautiful illustrations. It was upon this occasion that I returned to this sci-fi classic (as I did not yet have it in my personal collection). I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) a really long time ago, and I think I was much too young to appreciate it. This time, I was able to compare it to contemporary science fiction and tease out its ‘Vernian’ elements.
The illustrations in this edition are those completed by Édouard Riou, who worked with Jules Verne on six of his novels and created illustrations for all of them. His illustrations were then engraved by Pannemaker, Gauchard, Maurand (1867).
Simplified Plot: Axel (the narrator) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.
The reason I’m writing on classics here, is not really for “a review” as they obviously do not need one, but I would like to use this platform to keep track of things I found interesting.
While the main three characters on an adventure are men, Verne wrote the character of Gräuben in a very interesting way. Gräuben and Axel have been dating for a while because she immediately assumes he came to visit her again. Even though she cares deeply for him, and wants to marry him, Gräuben doesn’t oppose him going on such a journey, which at this point no one really thinks of as dangerous, rather, they look at it as a potentially foolish undertaking. She doesn’t seem controlling, but she still cares deeply. I also like that in the 1800s, Verne portrays a young relationship as a mutual courship, rather than an obligation. We get right away that Otto Lidenbrock is the ‘old guy who is kind of a misogynist and doesn’t understand women,’ but we also see the narrator and/or Axel does not really stand for that. Lidenbrock says:
“Ah! women and young girls, how incomprehensible are your feminine hearts! When you are not the timidest, you are the bravest of creatures. Reason has nothing to do with your actions.”
To which Axel narrates:
“I was disconcerted, and, if I must tell the whole truth, I was ashamed.”
Verne uses Gräuben as a plot device often encountered in adventure stories: the “I’ll wait for you” girl. The way Rosie Cotton is “the girl back home” for Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, and Penelope for Odysseus, Verne gives Axel a reason, and yearning to return to Hamburg. I think this device is really useful because it doesn’t allow the protagonists to give up hope if things get really bad, or to get too comfortable if the new place is too exciting that they might want to stay there forever.
The Vernian Element
Something that stood out to me reading this sci-fi classic, particularly after diving into many contemporary sci-fi works this year, was how much Verne wanted for everything to make sense, and for it to be believable. Verne didn’t drop you in a random world and hope you pick up clues as you go along, he explained everything with the utmost details in such a way that a skeptic would have scientific and/or academic proof that what he is narrating might actually be true. Then I remembered what Peter S. Beagle mentioned in his introduction to New Voices in Fantasy. He wrote:
“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”
Having seen the action-packed adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I forgot how calm and academic Verne’s prose is. It made me feel safe, and I actually understood what was happening (which was comforting). The first few chapters are full of details on the manuscript and runes. He makes sense of the way Otto and Axel decipher the code. Then, once they embark on this journey everything is planned out realistically. I even looked up how long it takes to get to Iceland from Copenhagen by boat, and it was exactly as long as Verne said it was. The man did his research properly. Once they descend below the Volcano, Verne uses many details from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology Vol 1. and 2, (which heavily inspired Charles Darwin as he himself read volume one on his Beagle Voyage). There are passages upon passages describing the sediments, the rocks, the way they look, feel, or smell. He takes you on a sensory journey along with the three protagonists.
There were also reminders throughout of the kinds of walkers and adventurers from back in the day, when walking miles daily was no big deal. I have to go out of my way to get at least 7,000 steps on my Fitbit every day. The things they do, and the distances they go by on horse, where Hans chooses to walk–and the character of Hans the guide altogether, was absolutely fascinating. He’s kind of a Thoreauvian or Native figure who knows the land and could walk forever. He is connected to all the elements in ways Otto and Axel are not. He can pick up signals from the land, and signs from the sky, wind, animals. I think this time around, Hans’s character was by far my favorite. I also could appreciate a lot of the references. For instance, upon their descend there are references to Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno, which I probably wouldn’t have picked up on in high school.
I really enjoyed this work, if you haven’t read it, by all means give it a go! I must admit that my favourite Verne remains 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I still have to read a lot of his other works.
August has so far been my worst reading month, and it wasn’t due to a “reading slump,” I was just caught up in too many things, the main one being: moving. When you hoard so many books… moving is difficult. Heavy box, after box, after box filled with books…followed by re-organizing. I am still not done organizing them. This is what I had the opportunity to read this month:
Books I Read For Early Review
Acadie written by Dave Hutchinson is a Tor.com novella which is part of the Summer of Space Opera. It was very short, but I enjoyed it. My full review HERE. Acadie is set in the future following protagonist Duke who has been summoned by a group of leading researchers who have created “Kids” a long time ago for the purpose of colonizing other planets. After several generations Kids evolved to be more and more human-like, but their creator Isabel Potter is bent on finding all of them and killing them.
Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry by Konstantin Batyushkov, translated by Peter France. Batyushkov was a contemporary of Alexandr Pushkin’s and was highly admired by him. Batyushkov is studied in Russia as a great pillar of the Russian canon, but is not known so well in the West as his works have hardly been translated. My full review can be found HERE.
Books I Read For Myself
Cheek by Jowl by Ursula K. Le Guin
I had many thoughts on this book and highlighted a lot so I made an individual post/review about it. Full review HERE. In this collection, Le Guin questions why we consider “literary” literature as important, and who decides what that looks like. One quotation from the series that strikes to the core is this:
“I have been asking for thirty years why most critics are afraid of dragons while most children, and many adults, are not”
Earlier this year I reviewed New Voices of Fantasy, and in the introduction, Peter S. Beagle recalls speaking to Le Guin and her saying to him:
“all of us [fantasy writers] feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas—and even our classic clichés—for generations, and selling them back to us as ‘Magical Realism.’”
I think that sentiment comes across strongly in Cheek by Jowl. The dominant essay is on the role and presence of animals in fantasy and children’s literature. If you want to know more about it click on the full review link above.
Time Travel: A History by James Gleick
This book was highly anticipated reading for me. Time is one of the most interesting concepts to me and when I heard that there is a book focusing on time travel I ordered it right away. It is a lot shorter than I anticipated, but what surprised me was the content and structure of it. Gleick focuses on our relationship to time travel in fiction. He begins by explaining that before H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine people didn’t discuss time as a linear concept, something one could go back or forward to. He briefly shows how Einstein’s creation of the fourth dimension in the scientific realm opened up way to a lot of science fiction stories. He then tells readers about the plots of several science fiction works. I wish more time had been spend discussing time with philosophical lines of thought or tapped into something interesting on the topic. I found that it was a bit frustrating just recapitulating the plot of several works that I’ve already read. I still enjoyed it a lot. Again, it was quite short, but all in all enjoyable.
Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald
This book was recommended to me by a friend. With the news being so terrifying on a daily basis I needed a good, easy read that would put me in a pleasant mood. This was that book. When Sara arrives from Sweden to the United States to live for two months with her pen pal Amy she finds out that only a day before, Amy passed away. The town of Broken Wheel is very small, and Sara can’t drive away. Being too proud to admit to her parents that she should have traveled somewhere more crowded, and still in shock with Amy’s passing, Sara decides to stay in Broken Wheel. The book features letters Amy sent to Sara over time about her town, and about books. The more we learn about Sara the more we, the readers fall in love with her. She is Elizabeth Bennet, Matilda, Hermoine Granger, Jane Eyre and all the ‘reading woman character’ merged into one. Again, this is just an easy, pleasant read and it’s one of those ‘books about books’ similar to The Thirteenth Tale, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Among Others, Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, and The Shadow of the Wind (to name a few). What I enjoyed most were the letters from Amy. After every chapter, a letter from the past that Amy sent to Sara is presented to us where we learn what Sara knows about the town, or what Amy told Sara about certain books before. I enjoyed this aspect because it was a reminder of the influence dead people can have on the living even when gone. Their voices continue to exist and we carry them with us in our experiences. Even Sara ponders about death in relationship to books–vessels of ideas. Or letters: written down mementos.
“That night Sara sat in Amy’s library for hours, thinking about how tragic it was that the written word was immortal while people were not, and grieving for her, the woman she had never met.”
Bivald’s description of books, reading spaces, and book-based friendships are really well constructed. I certainly enjoyed it.
Upstream by Mary Oliver
This is a collection of essays written by the poetess Mary Oliver. This book was just a reaffirmation for me of how much it matters who writes the book when it comes to non-fiction or memoir/personal writings. Earlier in the year I discussed reading Spinster at same time as Travels with Charley and while the first had more depth, research, and stronger opinions with vastly more interesting subject matter, I couldn’t bring myself to care as much as I did for the latter because it was written by Steinbeck. I had the same experience here. I never read any poetry by Mary Oliver, so I picked this up as my first experience of her. After a few chapters I didn’t think much of it. I was ready to stop reading it. I then looked up Mary Oliver and read her poetry (or as much of it as I could find). Knowing a little about her, her creative corpus, and that she is a poet turned this essay collection around for me. The wording, the language, and her opinions on transcendental poets, Walt Whitman, and her relationship with nature became so interesting.
“You can fool a lot of yourself but you can’t fool the soul.”
Although I enjoyed it more after knowing Oliver’s poetry, I still wanted more from this collection. For instance, I found it unnecessary to get a biographical introduction of Emerson and Thoreau. I felt a bit spoon-fed at points. I wanted to get more of her impressions, and feelings about these poets’ work, or their relationship to nature, or how she herself relates to nature. I think this collection tried to sound academic and reflective while at the same time being personal and poetic and in the end didn’t manage to accomplish either. There are shorter anecdotes like a dog breaking free from his rope, or the adoption of a little bird with attempts to extract proverb-like endings like: “or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.” For the most part, when discussing other poets or writers, I felt like Oliver was just listing books and poems in a way that was “I read this and liked it” rather than diving deep and discussing it at length. The truth is I feel like I’ve read better nature books lately with essays and opinions that left me in awe. For me, anything by Tristan Gooley, or Andrea Wulf (recent) or things written by medieval monks and botanists like the abbess Hildegard Von Bingen, managed to inspire that love of nature and felt like reading a love letter to nature in a controlled academic way whilst still using personal anecdotes and poetic language than this collection has. Upstream has a few well-written lines that makes you want to highlight and keep from time to time, and those keep you going, but overall it wasn’t what I wanted to obtain from this collection.
Too Many Books at Once
Lastly, I’ve been dividing my reading between several books lately which I am trying to finish. The books are: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, still trying to finish the first book of the Dandelion Dynasty by Ken Liu, and then I went ahead and took out far too many books from the library… I am also currently working on an early review for another nature book called The Biophile Effect. It has been a busy month and I am a little disoriented by how many projects I’ve started and aware that I have finished far fewer.
“I had already noticed the peculiarities of the typewriter, and wrote to the man himself at his business address, asking him if he would come here. As I expected, his reply was typewritten and revealed the same trivial but characteristic defects. The same post brought me a letter from Westhouse & Marbank, of Fenchurch Street, to say that the description tallied in every respect with that of the employee, James Windibank. Vila tout!” – Sherlock Holmes, “A Case of Identity”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s chemistry and print culture knowledge embedded in his iconic character Sherlock Holmes comes from his medical background and hands on experience with the publishing world. The letters exchanged between Doyle and The Strand Magazine’s editor H. G. Smith validate just how detail-oriented Arthur Conan Doyle was when it came to the ways in which his stories were represented in the paper—from selecting his favourite illustrators, to showing concerns for how his work would be perceived by his readers.
In Canada, the largest collection of Doyle’s works can be found on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library –part of the Toronto Public Library system. The idea of a special Doyle collection was conceived in 1969 when a local collector, Mr. Hugh Anson-Carwright sold 200 books from his collection of Sherlock Holmes to the Toronto Library. At the same time, another Torontonian, a “S. Tupper Bigelow, [had] a splendid collection of secondary material –books, pamphlets and magazines about the Sherlock Holmes stories.” The library’s Literature Department purchased the large Doyle collection from Anson-Carwright, the Bigelow collection, and the smaller Mortlake collection. The Collection became accessible to the public in 1971 and continued to grow rapidly since. According to the collection’s current curator, the library back in 1969 could afford to make such purchases based on its allotted budget from donations made by Friends of the Library, benefactors, and/or Sherlock Holmes Specific groups—such as The Bootmakers of Toronto.
Since then, the Toronto Reference Library has purchased secondary material such as “critical, biographical and bibliographic studies” and ephemera such as tickets, brochures and advertisements related to any Sherlock Holmes play, film, exhibit, in addition to literary works that are written by other writers but inspired by Sherlock Holmes (even House M.D featuring Hugh Laurie is such a secondary work because it’s inspired by Holmes).
The Collection itself is composed of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters to the press, specifically to Mr. Herbert Greenhough Smith—whom he always refers to in letters as “My dear Smith.” Doyle traveled across Canada in 1914 (staying mainly in Alberta at Jasper Park) where his wife kept a handwritten journal which is also currently in the TPL Special Collection. Doyle’s notes on fauna and flora (beasts, birds, fishers) of North America, which he saw on his subsequent trips in 1922-1923 on his American Lecture Tour, his notebook on coin collecting, and notes for a speech delivered in Canada, are all part of the manuscript collection at the Reference Library. Equally important are two rough drafts for his literary works intended for publication and/or performance of The Crown Diamond (a short Sherlock Holmes play) and The Marriage of Brigadier Gerrard.
Doyle’s manuscripts have been acquired over time by the library at various auctions in the ‘70s, by means of donations, and from private collectors. In London a significant portion of Doyle’s manuscripts was sold at an auction where the work became instantly scattered—“Christie’s held the sale in London at their King Street location on 19 May 2004.” The Toronto representative at the 2004 Christie’s auction was Doug Wrigglesworth (chair of the Friends of the ACD Collection of the Toronto Public Library and contributor to The Magic Door newsletter). When it comes to a collection like Doyle’s, due to such a large fan-base worldwide, his works are purchases by extremely wealthy collectors at times where libraries can barely stand a chance in the competition. Such collectors appear on mainstream book-selling websites like AbeBooks where they sell either hardcover first editions, or manuscripts for prices that are difficulty to match with a library budget.
The largest collections in North America—besides the Toronto Reference Library—of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works and manuscripts are: The Newberry Library (Chicago, Illinois), The University of Minnesota Library (Minneapolis, Minnesota), and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. In the UK the Portsmouth Library, The British Library, Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, and National Library of Scotland possess most of the largest European collections. There are several smaller libraries in both North America and Europe containing Doyle’s works and manuscripts yet they are not often frequented by scholars as much as the ones mentioned above. Doyle’s papers are extremely divided among institutions, libraries, and wealthy private collectors—making the TPL’s collection incomplete.
If you happen to visit the special library you will come across a small room with a wooden desk, a lovely carpet, and walls lined from the ceiling to the floor with books that have to do with Sherlock Holmes retellings. The rooms have decorations like busts of Holmes, chess pieces shaped like Sherlock characters, and illustrations. The special collections I mentioned above have to be requested in advance from the librarians. If you do access them make sure to follow the instructions from the librarian on how to use them: no pen, clean hands, delicately and carefully.
Letters to Sherlock Holmes
While I was at the library exploring the collection, I was told this anecdote on tour, which I would like to share with you. As it turns out, over time, people from all over the world wrote letters to Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. Little did they know that in London at this address was the location of a bank. The bank received so many letters they hired a secretary to archive these letters, and at times, respond to them. Richard Lancelyn Green compiled some of the best and funniest letters in 1985 and published Letters to Sherlock Holmes. The book is available at the public library and for sale on bookseller websites. This is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud. There are people asking Holmes for his picture, for information on mysteries in their home towns, personal questions like: “I want to buy your violin, how much does it cost?” or “what kind of tobacco do you smoke?” There are letters from children asking him for math or chemistry homework help, people who truly believe he is real, or making inquiries for meeting him.
Here’s an example from one letter:
Dear Mr. Holmes
I often wondered how you met Dr. Watson, and what was your hardest mystery, and have you ever made love to any of your clients?
Sincerely yours, Robert Lawrence (Deer Park, NY, USA)
If you want to have a good time by yourself and laugh, I recommend you find this book and read it. It can be easily done in one sitting so there’s no pressure.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I was very happy when I discovered this library two years ago, so I wanted to know as much about it as possible. If you get a chance, do stop by because the librarians there are some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet, and the room is highly atmospheric. Just being there will make you want to run home and read all the Sherlock Holmes books.
P.S. Sherlock never says “elementary my dear Watson” in the books….but you should know this by now. Here’s a fun article on it.
 Toronto Reference Library. Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. Toronto: Toronto Reference Library, 2015. Print.
In June I haven’t read as MANY books as before mainly because I am participating in a read-along of Infinite Jest with Ennet House (a reading group from Vancouver). More details can be found HERE. I did get a chance to read some other things too as the month progressed.
Books I Read For Early Review
Pillow Thoughts & The Road Between – two poetry collections by Australian Poetess Courtney Peppernell. Both works will be released on August 29 by Andrew McMeel.
Books I Read for Myself
“When She is Old and I am Famous” by Julie Orringer from her larger collection of short stories How to Breathe Underwater. I will be finishing this collection in July, but I read this particular short story in June and it’s wonderful. It’s about a young woman name Mira who is not very good looking or in shape and lives in the shadow of her Model-like, gorgeous cousin Aida.
“26 monkeys, also the abyss” by Kij Johnson from her larger Sci-fi/Fantasy short story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees.
I will be working my way through the two collections above for the summer.
The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
A few weeks ago I started watching National Geographic’s biopic of Einstein which is one season long called “Genius.” The show is based on the biography written by Walter Isaacson Einstein: His Life and Universe. For the first time I was introduced to Mileva Maric who was Einstein’s first wife and quite possibly one of my favourite historical women. She was brilliant, one of the first women at the physics academy in Zurich, and just an overall fierce feminist symbol. I fell in love with Mileva and I wanted to know more. I then discovered Marie Benedict’s book The Other Einstein. Because I have seen the show first, this book read like the first five episodes only from Mileva’s perspective. I went on Goodreads to see what other people thought of this book that came out in October of 2016. Every low rating seemed to be regarding Mileva’s preoccupation with her leg deformity and limp, with the fact that Einstein called her “dollie,” and that it was somehow women’s attempt to shame a brilliant man by making this unknown woman play a larger role than she did. Having been introduced to National Geographic and Walter Isaacson’s biography first, all these things were not shocking, nor a surprise, and certainly not Benedict’s invention with a feminist brush. All those things seem to have been true and Benedict did her research. I loved Mileva, and I love this book because it’s really good, and well-researched. It’s also heavily based on a true story, and it has pulled from the margins a woman that wasn’t that well known. So if you read this, keep in mind that the things that irk you, frustrate you, and annoy you about society in that time, about the academy, the gossip, or Einstein himself, was actually very close to reality and the “novelization” part comes simply from the invention and addition of dialogue.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovich
Nina Sankovich’s sister Anne-Marie dies at the age of 45. The author deals with her sister’s death by throwing herself into a reading project: read one book per day for a year. I found that the author focused more on her life, her struggle, her personal biography and the relationships in her life more than on the books. I think some of the books she read deserved a little more reflection and thought than she accorded. It felt like she was sprinting through this reading list and didn’t even discuss or acknowledge half the books she read. After the conclusion we finally get a full list of all the books (and short stories) she read that year. I wanted to hear more about the books. I appreciated her personal heartfelt attachment and the way she tied in the novels to her life, but I think it would have worked better if that was an “introduction” or “chapter one” and then the rest of the book focused on her reading process, the thoughts she had on each book objectively and subjectively, a little context for the books, quotations she enjoyed. I wanted it to be more about the books is what I’m trying to say. Some reviewers on Goodreads called this “the memoir no one asked for” and while that is a bit harsh—as a reader I’m open to hearing everyone’s story—I think this promised to be a reading journal/experience rather than a ‘coping with grief’ kind of book and so it did become in the end the memoir no one asked for. I encountered a similar problem earlier in the year reading Spinster which instead of talking about spinsterhood ended up as a personal life story/memoir. Maybe we’re more interested in the memoirs and biographies of people we consider “important.” I did appreciate that she read diversely.
Our Numbered Days by Neil Hilborn
This collection plays with the idea of “numbered days” in more ways than one. It explores the theme of death in the form of thinking about death, considering suicide, and manic-depressive illness episodes where this can happen. It also looks at relationships in one’s life whether in love, parents, or friends and how those days are in a way limited or numbered. From time to time Minnesota and snow will make an appearance. The content of this collection is very well put together. There are various kinds of relationships, followed by kinds of mental illnesses, and concluding with a literal death of a grandmother. Every few poems one will begin with several quotations from other poets and well-known figures on each respective topic (time, death, heaven, hope). The poetry is very accessible and it tells things rather than alluding to them through clever use of language. In that respect I wanted more from this collection. However, the things it does tell are pretty memorable and some sentences strike deep. Also, I read this out loud and I found that in the way things were written (sentence-structure-wise) I was almost shouting. It comes across as a forceful rant or complaint bulldozing and demanding to be heard.
Hilborn explores the ways OCD affects romantic relationships, how depression ruins your days, how suicidal thoughts can be preventable by people in a position of privilege. In his poem “Joey” the poet compares himself to a friends who was going through something similar but who could not afford therapy:
“I can pinpoint the session / that brought me back to the world. That session cost seventy-five dollars. / Seventy-five dollars is two weeks of groceries…I wonder how many kids / like Joey wanted to die and were unlucky enough to actually pull it off.”
Here are some lines I enjoyed:
“Depression wasn’t an endless grey sky. It was no sky at all.”
“To Break Something but Being Too Weak; /The Sadness that Comes from Always knowing / exactly where you are.”
“I will lie here forever and sing to you all the things / I stopped myself from saying when we were alive.”
“Though he couldn’t name it, her favorite / color is Bakelite seafoam green”
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Walden is one of my favourite classics and it’s one I return to often. I re-read it this month as my monthly classic mostly because it’s summer and nice out, but also because I haven’t been reading as much this month as the one before and with full enjoyment so I picked it up to get me out of the little slump. I also wanted to brush up on it so I could write an entry on why Walden is my “comfort classic.” Click HERE to read it.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book came up in conversation when I was discussing my read-along project of Infinite Jest. My friend said that one of the characters in the Marriage Plot was based on David Foster Wallace and it’s a “campus book,” so I had to read it. I love campus books as much as island books. The story follows a female protagonist who is an English major and has just graduated from University. I have only read about 50 pages of this book and all I’ve read about was graduation day, parents coming to visit, and some boy dilemmas. I am intrigued by this book and it’s reading quite smoothly but I will do a proper wrap-up at the end of July after I finish all of it.
Book I hated and could not finish
I have never been this frustrated with an author as I am with Paulo Coelho. This is the most selfish book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s selfish in so many ways. First the plot: Coelho, bored with his life, is taking on an adventure with his publicist and decides to go on a train trip across Russia and be all mystical and spiritual. That’s it. Why is it selfish? First he is preying on his readers and taking advantage of them. He knows he did well with The Alchemist, he knows people look to him for advice the way they do to a life coach so he uses this “oriental mysticism” to absorb the reader and try to convince us that he is in fact enlightened. The first 10 pages were actually kind of amazing. It was like candy.
“I began my apprenticeship in magic…grownups have no time to dream…what am I doing here…there exists a parallel universe that impinges on the world in which we live”
and in conversation with his guru or spiritual guide who tells him
“you feel that nothing you have learned has put down roots, that while you’re capable of entering the magical universe, you cannot remain submerged in it”
How lovely right? The first ten pages made me want to highlight and take notes. But nothing he says is original, or interesting. It’s basic self-help book rewording. He uses this as an excuse to go “conquer his kingdom” because he’s special and needs travelling and experience. He then spews lines like “travel is never a matter of money but of courage.” Come on! Then he waves good bye to his wife in Brazil who is understanding about this whole thing for some reason, and lo’ and behold on his train trip he meets a 21 year old (did I mention he is 59) and he basically sleeps with her….but it’s okay apparently because he met her in a previous life. One reviewer on Goodreads wrote: “I don’t know how Coelho’s wife in Brazil can accept her womanizing husband and letting the whole world know about it.” I found this book to be selfish in that it’s a personal journal and he does things that are not so admirable but he paints them in a light of him being so enlightened for doing these things….and he keeps dropping every five lines how well his books are doing. It’s selfish to his readers because they buy his books and admire “his” ideas. It’s selfish to his wife. I would say it’s even selfish to the people he dragged along on this trip, and to that poor 21 year old. I also found that it painted people who are genuinely spiritual in a bad light. I pictured monks face-palming. It’s very self-absorbed… I wish he titled it “a journal entry from my trip and midlife crisis.” This is hardly a novel. I don’t generally review negatively because I research my books before reading them but this book really upset me because I expected something better.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”
Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. Walden was published in 1854.
For the last few years I’ve returned to Thoreau’s Walden many times. Sometimes I read it from beginning to end, sometimes I listen to the audiobook. Other times, I read only a chapter, or the things I’ve highlighted. Themes, excerpts, and the work as a whole especially come to mind when I visit my parents’ home and take a walk around the forest and the local pond. I am trying to figure out what is it about Walden that makes it what I call a “comfort classic”—a classic I re-read to make the world feel right again. This entry is really meant to read like a personal reading journey entry where I log notes and discuss them.
In the first section ‘economy’ Thoreau points out all that is wrong with society, which frankly has not changed, if anything it has only worsened (particularly discussing student debt from the Universities). He points out all that is wrong, and all that we should aspire to be. He writes:
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
The mass is quiet, that is what makes it awful. They have the natural consequence but they do not know how to express this quiet desperation.
“What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be a falsehood to-morrow.”
“One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”
“Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me”
“Are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.”
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Thoreau also mentions how impractical the anxiety to be fashionable is (in terms of clothes, household furnishings and objects).
Earlier I mentioned that certain things have worsened since (like fees, rent, etc). I wonder how Thoreau would react or write about (in the middle class West) people spending the majority of their time on the Internet indoors.
“It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies…birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots…many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box.”
There is something in Walden, particularly in the beginning that strongly reminds me of things I’ve seen or heard recently but figured Thoreau said it first. Most of the discussion of your things owning you was strongly ringing of Fight Club (not the book but the movie).
I think what I like about his writing is that he goes from contemplative and philosophical writing to the mundane and every day speech all in the same sentence. Thoreau wrestles with social constructions that have ones seemed natural and a part of our existence.
I like imagining Thoreau walking, and thinking, and just tapping into some of his thoughts on literature and what he sees, to me, is a very idealized pastoral scene so Walden has become my comfort classic.
If you were to compare what some of today’s styles and trends are: eating organic, growing your own food, travelling and reconnecting with nature, hiking, etc. This sort of ‘hippy’ or ‘bohemian’ lifestyle is often divorced from the intellectual now. I realize that Thoreau did all these things back in the 1840s and combined it with the intellect. His chapters on “reading,” and “where I lived and what I lived for” are imbued with literary references and discussions. It is akin to books like Ex Libris or the genre we all love so much recently ‘books about books.’
“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.”
His every thought is an allusion or a reference to a literary work from antiquity to his contemporaries. Through the voices of other literary giants and describing the sounds around the pond, Thoreau shows how you can be surrounded while completely alone in a contemplative state.
Every section of Walden has its own charm. There are so many YouTube channels for instance focusing on cooking, growing your own things, and budgeting. Thoreau writes about all those things explaining in detail how he did it. I sometimes imagine 19th century readers reading this the same way millions of us subscribe to channels online now. I enjoyed reading about his budget, savings, and spending when it came to building the house and investing in clothing, food, and farm supplies. It’s both personal and distant, it’s doable and also impossible. Most importantly it brings me to a good place mentally because I think about nature, and what the natural realm means.
“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch…I fear the disease is incurable.”
Have you ever thought “I love Steinbeck! I wish I could hang out with him!” If you have, then: READ. THIS. BOOK. This journal/travelogue work is John Steinbeck’s account of his travels across the United States in the 1960s, with his dog Charley, in a trailer that he names the Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse). He describes what he sees, records interactions with different people he meets on the way, and this book is filled with reflective notes on what he thought of certain situation and how they relate to other instances in life or giving his opinion on his immediate reaction. There are a few literary references, and there instances of simple humour (i.e. getting stopped at the Canadian border for “dog reasons”).
I kept thinking that if anyone other than Steinbeck wrote the same travelogue it wouldn’t be that interesting. Although it’s not as high of a thrill as later written travelogues which are now quite popular, this book is interesting BECAUSE it’s Steinbeck. It seems a lot more relaxed than reading Krakauer’s Into The Wild for instance, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys travel literature, travelogues, journals/diaries, and those who love Steinbeck and his work because in the end it just feels like you’re hanging out with him and his dog. Interestingly enough, in 2014 Bill Steigerwald dedicated a lot of time to “exposing” Steinbeck as a fraud for this book and labelled this travelogue as a “fictionalized non-fiction” in his book Dogging Steinbeck. He elaborates on his issues with Steinbeck’s work in his blog.
Regardless, I enjoyed Steinbeck’s work and I thought I would share with you some of my favourite lines:
We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us (page 4)
I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation—a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something (page 10)
It was like starting to write a novel. When I face the desolate impossibility of writing fie hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing (page 23)
Humans had perhaps a million years to get used to fire as a thing and as an idea. Between the time a man got his fingers burned on a lighting-struck tree until another man carried some inside a cave and found it kept him warm, maybe a hundred thousand years, and from there to the blast furnaces of Detroit – how long?…for man has to have feelings and then words before he can come close to thought and, in the past at least, that has taken a long time (page 32)
I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found (page 70)
Edition of book I read is the Bantam Pathfinder Edition and Viking Press, 1961.