34. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

23 Aug

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This book has an almost laughably Scandi and depressing premise: A young writer in the mid 1800s in the Norwegian capital of Kristiania (now Oslo) has fallen on hard times, has pawned almost everything he owns, and increasingly, is starving. He gets a bit of work here and there, but not enough to keep the roof over his head and food in his stomach. Hamsun won a Nobel Prize prize in 1920, and Hunger is almost universally lauded as being one of the first modern “psychological” novels, since it takes place entirely in a first-person POV of a character who is increasingly losing his mind.

(Just a side note on that: I don’t see anything in Hamsun that I don’t see in Dostoevsky…??)

The first time I tried to read it, I was too tenderhearted. The character’s predicament is  vividly and horribly life-and-death. His hair is falling out; his veins are bulging; at one point he tries to eat his own finger. It’s so gruesome I couldn’t bear to read it. But then along came the #20BooksofSummer challenge and I had to pick it up again. This time I tried to approach it from a more distanced perspective and think of the character as less of a real person. Some of his points of biography are the same as Hamsun’s, but the purpose of the story, I knew, was not autobiographical or really intended to be about the horrors of hunger. Instead, Hamsun’s aim was to present a person as a whole, including the passions, appetites, delusions and irrationality. He was trying to show, through his hungry man, a different type of man than the one acknowledged by his time. In this reckoning, the character’s fits, his madnesses and grudges and even the extremely vivid and erotic encounters he has with a woman who catches his fancy, are more important than his hungry condition. With that in mind, I was able to read and even very much enjoy Hunger. Though it was still intense, surreal and a horrible adventure.

10 Books of Summer Challenge: Update

22 Aug

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Here’s an update on my progress on #20booksofsummer:

 

  1. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

2. Rethinking Normal, A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

3. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

4. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna J. Haraway

5. Animal Sanctuary, by Sarah Faulkner

6. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

7. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

8. The Crooning Wind, Three Greenlandic Poets

9. Woman Rebel, The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge

10. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

11. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

To recap, I took the first 11 books on my to-read shelf, from the organized part in the beginning (not the stacks of more-recent arrivals piled in front of the organized part), which, as fixtures on the to-read, are all books that I’ve been passing over or haven’t felt in the mood for in quite some time. Years, in some cases. I don’t think any one of these books had been on the shelf for less than a year, and one at least has been there for three-and-a-half.

What I have learned from this experiment is that books are great even when I don’t like them. At least, the kind of books that wind up on my to-read shelf are. Despite harboring doubts about every book on this list, I have loved reading through them. Even the ones I didn’t “like” were thought-provoking. My reading this summer has been richer and more interesting than when I have the freedom to choose what book I’m in the mood for.

It’s hard not to buy books (though I’ve done OK this summer; I think I’ve added only three to the shelf, which might be a personal record (usually I add many more)), but I plan to keep doing this. My new goal is to read entirely through the to-read shelf, emptying it out for good. When the summer is over I’ll take a new random-ten books. I’m really looking forward to it.

I guess the conclusion is up with challenge and down with personal preference. :)

 

33. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

20 Aug

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The dateline at the end of Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin, reads “—Moscow, 1992” which is enough to make a person familiar with recent Russian history break out in full-body chills. Moscow, 1992. Russian society was fully in the throes of perestroika, chaos, collapse and regeneration. The story in the West has always been that this was a wonderful flowering of democracy, but for many Russians it was a period of lawlessness, hunger, total uncertainty, and the end of everything they’d been asked to believe. Pelevin is a cult figure, the most important Russian writer to emerge from the era. He was 30 years old at the time he wrote Omon Ra, living at a time and in a city of almost unimaginable upheaval. Chills.

The book—which is a masterpiece, I can’t believe I’d never read it—is about a Russian boy in the Soviet Union who dreams of being a cosmonaut, but in Pelevin’s hands it’s dreams themselves that will be under interrogation. Is there any reality to them? For main character Omon (a strange name, itself chosen because of a dream), things are determined not by the outer reality, but by the inner.

As a little boy, for example, Omon realizes that he can be a pilot because he sees some pilots on television and:

“…was struck with a sudden thought…that if I’d just been able to glance at the screen and see the world from the cabin where the two fliers in fur-lined jackets were sitting, then there was nothing to prevent me from getting into this or any other cabin without the help of the television, because flight is no more than a set of sensations, the most important of which I’d already learned to fake, sitting in the attic of the winged hut with the red stars, staring at the enlistment office wall that was where the sky should be, and making quiet droning noises with my mouth.”

He goes on:

“That means, I thought, I can look out from inside myself like looking out of a plane, it doesn’t really matter at all where you look out from, what matters is what you see…”

Of course, latent in the book is the era in which it was written: The channel, as it were, that Russians had been looking at, had just been changed. Are you staring at the enlistment office wall or at the sky? What skills might you need to survive when the two become interchangeable? Pelevin takes a fatalistic approach to the question. Omon reflects:

There’s obviously some strange correspondence between the general outline of a life and that stream of petty events which a person is constantly involved in and regards as insignificant. I can now see quite clearly that the course of my own life was already set, determined before I had even begun to think seriously about the way I wanted it to turn out. I was even given a glimpse of it in simplified form. Perhaps it was an echo of the future. Or perhaps those things which we take for echoes of the future are actually its seeds, falling into the soil of life at the very moment which in distant retrospect comes to seem like an echo out of the future.

He goes to flight school. Nothing is as it seems, in ways too brilliant for me to spoil in this review. Omon’s journey could be called a blistering indictment of the Soviet Union—or at least a profoundly disturbing one, since this is a world in which men’s legs are broken to fit the planes instead of the planes being built to fit the men. But there’s a strain of dry humor or meditative detachment throughout, that says that the author knows you can’t  blister something which was never really there.

I wish I could comment on the book’s end without giving away its punch. I’ll just say it is now officially my favorite closing strategy since Infinite Jest, and references another Russian classic, Moscow—Petushki.

32. Sarah Falkner, Animal Sanctuary

19 Aug

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I bought this book off the Starcherone table at my very first AWP, three years ago, on the recommendation of the publisher, and it has been sitting on the to-read shelf ever since. I should give Cathy at 746Books a huge shout-out for forcing me (I mean, inspiring me) to deal with problems like this.

Animal Sanctuary is the fictional story of Kitty Dawson, a failing and somewhat desperate 1950s female movie-star who opens an shelter for big cats after having acted in many movies featuring animal disasters. Kitty’s story is mirrored by the story of lesbian university student who became her body double while on location during her last film in Africa. The student is seeking a missing girlfriend, with a complicated disaster story of her own.

Despite those improbable events, this book is not plot-driven (which goes a long way towards explaining why it sat on my shelf for so long). The pleasure is much more complex, lying in the tensions and meditations on gender, narrative and otherness that Faulkner sets up with the above characters. The first doubling, of the female ’50s screen star and the big tawny cat in captivity is great. It’s not something I would ever have thought of, but both share a combination of beauty, power and imprisonment. Both are majestic and victimized, sexy and sad. The second doubling, of the lesbian university student, herself doubled in her lover, adds a layer of intrigue: the two girls are looking for meaning, looking for a way to participate actively in their world that feels authentic to them.

The narrative progressed in a self-conscious way, with, for example, a chapter that alternates between sections in dialog between Kitty and her psychotherapist, on the one hand, and the film director and an interviewer, on the other. There are art-grant applications, summaries of scenes from movies, conversation snippets, a chapter of snippets of film theory . The changing texture of the reading experience kept things interesting. And I thought Falkner’s prose was quite good.

The second half of the book focused on the art career of movie-star Kitty Dawson’s son, Rory Dawson.

We meet Rory when he’s on vacation in Mexico with his lover David, an older, more successful, artist. The echo, here is about spectacle populations. The Mexicans are a double for the film-star/ woman/ other, while Rory and David are the doubles for the director/artist appropriating the other. I appreciated another sophisticated doubling, but the Rory perspective, with whom the reader was supposed to sympathize, made me want to tear my hair out.

Rory and David are interrupted in their Mexican vacation by some asshole rich-people collectors, the Whaleys. David explains to Rory that the price of success in the art world is sometimes hanging out with such people (this is true).  But Rory is pissy and horrified at the collectors’ culturally insensitive travel objectives. They want to see touristy things! They hire a car instead of taking the perfectly good bus! No one knows Spanish or cares about really understanding the culture! David colludes with them! He plans a new conceptual piece using a theory-concept (about gift economies) that he doesn’t really understand!

I just found this so irritating. Rory is the son of a movie star. By wanting to make it in the art world, he is setting out to make extremely high end luxury goods for the super-rich, and no amount of ideologically correct bus travel can change that. Moreover, his famous name means that he can insult the Whaleys and get away with it. And of course he does, and in later chapters is an art star himself. His mission (and later the mission of animal sanctuary employees) is to understand the other, see through their eyes, correctly use their shamanistic rituals in his art.

This is an elegant construction for Falkner’s book: She’s setting up oppositions and then trying to bridge them through understanding. I think in terms of what she was aiming for, it was successful. But I personally found the argument frustratingly useless and self-centered. Understanding doesn’t actually do anything, doesn’t change any of the underlying facts of the power dynamics she’s trying to critique.

At one point, Rory lives in a dual-chambered cage with a lion for months, allowing the lion to see him, but he can’t see the lion. Whatever Rory’s intent, only one participant in the piece is there voluntarily, and it’s not the lion! I kept wondering if Falkner’s intent was to make Rory satirically ridiculous, but I don’t think it was.

In the end chapters he comes in for critique by a female art assistant, not for his ideologically correct approach to using indigenous rituals in his art, but for basically being a successful artist and employing her. She’s not making any art of her own—kept too busy at Rory’s—but wants to be an art star herself, and blames Rory and the corrupt art system for keeping her down. There’s a hard-to-pinpoint way that the whole book felt like this to me: Of someone wanting to have their critical cake, and eat it too. I enjoyed the medium, but not the message!

 

 

 

 

 

31. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna Haraway

29 Jul

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This dense academic work, written in the 1980s by a Marxist-feminist History of Consciousness professor at U Berkeley, was lurking on my shelf at #4 in the #20BooksofSummer challenge. It will definitely be the most challenging book on the list.

I was interested because it contains Haraway’s most famous essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” And I’m interested in cyborgs because, well, dear reader, you try to count people walking down the street in New York City, and see how long it takes before you see one who doesn’t have a smartphone in their hand. The phone is the last thing we touch before sleeping, the first thing we touch upon waking. It contains our lovers, our social lives, the photos of our children. We turn to it for entertainment or consolation in an awkward hour. We live in there often better than we do out here. And if you count drugs as molecular prostheses, well, the ship has sailed: We’re cyborgs. Whatever our value-judgements on that, it’s a profound human transformation that seems worth trying to catch a glimpse of as we speed through it.

Haraway was writing in the ’80s, before the emergent technologies had really emerged, so her sense of the cyborg is coming less out of our daily digital reality and more out of the traditions of cultural theory she’s been educated in. Cyborgs, she writes, are “creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted.” Their value, to her Marxist-feminist project, is metaphorical. If I can break this down much more baldly than I think she would (and perhaps inaccurately; I am no expert here, reader beware!), the cyborg as a half-natural, half-created thing is a powerful tool because it helps us understand that seemingly naturalized social categories, like “women” and “race” as not-so-all-natural after all.

This is the old-fashioned stuff of my Brown University education. The first essays in Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women, well before we get to the cyborgs, are about how the academic branch of “social biology”—in particular in the ape studies of the 1950s—has created a story about human beings influenced by narratives of patriarchy and domination, and thus has falsely “proved” a natural order of patriarchy and domination.

If the scientist are all men, for example, and they believe that human societies are run by dominant males, they’ll find that ape societies are run by dominant males. In one influential study (which I remember reading about in college) male-led science teams did a test that removed the dominant male from an ape group, and discovered that chaos and fighting ensued. They concluded that dominant men kept social order. Haraway draws on later woman-headed studies to point out alternative conclusions. Maybe if they’d removed the weakest male, the chaos and fighting would have been worse. We don’t know since they didn’t check, testing instead for what they expected to see. Or maybe with removal of the dominant male, cooperation and negotiation increased and the ape society got more equal and better for all its members. “Negotiation” may have looked like disorder to the patriarch.

Haraway also critiques the language of this old-fashioned science, which suggested that female apes engage in “prostitution” and allegedly trade sex for “status.”  Again, she suggests there may be behavior outside the frame. Could the female ape be seeking pleasure? How does the researcher know her motivations? Summaries of later women-led studies on apes provide plentiful alternative conclusions to the view of human “nature” as being led by dominant males, with whom females trade their sexuality for safety, protection and status.

Again to go broad-strokes, I think that Haraway’s larger point is that proving this ape-study idea of the female false undermines the whole category of female. A “woman” is a moving target, depending on who is seeking her.

“‘Woman’ only exists as this kind of imaginary being, while women are the product of a social relation of appropriation, naturalized as sex. A feminist is one who fights for women as a class and for the disappearance of that class.”

I’m not a Marxist-feminist, so I find that kind of thinking to be going too far. Can we correct our biases and look again at men and women in nature, more carefully? Can we focus less on traits of females and more on activities that are female? (Like, carrying children, giving birth, breastfeeding; I know! I know! Un-PC of me to mention it).

I was also not convinced by the Cyborg Manifesto. Haraway’s contention is that embracing our cyborg reality will be liberating. For the reasons above, and for others, such as that the multi-nature of the cyborg is a good model for political movements that have to simultaneously represent many groups—women of different class and race statuses, for example. It’s a truism of this kind of Marxist-feminist philosophy that people with different experiences can’t be unified. Each experience matters; any movement must honor the particular without trying to universalize.

“Cyborg feminists have to argue that ‘we’ do not want any more natural matrix of unity and that no construction is whole.”

I suppose the cyborg-as-metaphor could be useful in those ways, but in 2016 metaphor seems to be the least of our worries: Let’s talk about the cyborg-as-reality. Who is producing the machine parts? Who is profiting from them? How are they controlling those of us who are ever more dependent on them for our fertility, our sex lives, our social lives, our happiness, our work? If the Marxist-feminist project is to create a society in which no group dominates any other, the cyborg does not, to me, seem like an ally.

The Manifesto ends with a tribute to the futures imagined by some excellent science fiction writers—Samuel R. Delaney, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree Jr. and Vonda McIntyre, among others.

 

 

 

 

30. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

11 Jul

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Oh, this book is lovely.

Claire Bidwell Smith’s story of losing her parents to cancer, a few years apart, in her late teens and early 20s is moving and beautiful, infused through its pages with what good, nice, wonderful people they all were. Despite the teenaged Claire’s tattoos and anger that her parents were sick, the book is rich with how much they loved each other. You don’t read much about happy families, you know? And Smith’s was unlikely. Her father was 55, with grown children, two divorces and a second career as a steel magnate when he met her mother, a Manhttan food stylist (years ago, before it was a rom-com staple!) in her late 30s, also twice-divorced, and in her turn convinced she’d never have children. Claire was adored. “Even at eighteen I already know that she poured all her energy into raising me,” she writes of her mother.

And oh, this book is so heartbreaking.

The Rules of Inheritance came out in 2012, and I bought it new in hard-cover but haven’t read it because I know the author. I had a brief, intense friendship with her during the period that the book covers, a friendship that was interrupted by her several moves and her career change. I think I’ve always been afraid of how painful it would be to read. I knew that though the book is a tribute to Smith’s mother and father, it’s also, mostly, about the terrible grief and loss that she lived with during the time I knew her, a shadow-life I never really saw. “Grief is like another country…. It’s a place,” she writes. In her grief, she drank too much and threw herself into bad relationships and lied to her friends and sometimes went home to hide in the footwell of her desk to sob. She had a car accident, and no one to call afterwards. In her own words, she “can’t shake the feeling that there should be someone else here… some adult, someone more qualified and responsible than me, should show up and take over. But there is no one.” She did dangerous, terrible things because in some magical way she imagined they would bring her mother back. She’s articulate and full-hearted and she brings the reader along in her sorrow.

Here’s a beautiful passage:

Finally I realized that twenty-eight was ten years since my mother died.

I realized that when I was eighteen, it wasn’t just my mother who died but a part of me as well. … It was like, without my mother I couldn’t possibly go on. I couldn’t grow up, become a woman, do things that she would never know about, go places she’d never been, think things I couldn’t tell her. So even right now, there is a part of me that refuses to believe that I am the woman I have become. Except every so often I catch a glimpse. I see it in a passing glance in the mirror, hear it in an accidental laugh. … Suddenly there are these two parts of me, then and now, staring back at each other, wondering where the other came from.

The Rules of Inheritance was such a difficult read, but I think it would be a wonderful book to give anyone confronting the death of a loved one. I also read it with interest as a mother because it was so revealing about the teenage daughter’s psychology in a crisis.

Despite Smith’s losses and her painful years dealing with them it’s always obvious to the reader—though not to her at the time—that she will rebuild herself, make a life, survive beautifully. And she does.

29. Rethinking Normal, by Katie Rain Hill

7 Jul

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The random books on my to-read shelf that I’m now being forced to read by the 20 Books of Summer Challenge turn out to be amazing! I should trust myself (or maybe not trust myself?) more often. Rethinking Normal by Katie Rain Hill was a book I received free at a charity event, in a bag with at least three other transgender memoirs and a lot of teen LGBTQ fiction. I’m not that into teen fiction. I tried a couple of the books from that haul and disliked them, and this one has been unexamined on the shelf ever since. I probably would have eventually given it away, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

Katie Rain Hill was the first openly transgender teen to graduate from high school in Oklahoma. She became a media star whose arc I now vaguely remember, since she had a transgender boyfriend, and the headline “transgender girl dates transgender boy” was of course irresistable. In Rethinking Normal she tells her story, from her happy pre-gender early childhood, through her increasing feelings of dysphoria, depression and despair—over a problem for which she had no name in the early 2000s—to finally her blissful discovery of transgenderism and eventual transition from male to female. There’s such a compelling natural arc to this material, and Hill and her co-author made a true page-turner out of it. Katie comes across as a reasonable, rational and generous narrator, who forgives people who shun her (when they come around), and credits even estranged family members for their best efforts. She’s likeable, and watching her become happy and healthy was really satisfying.

As a mother, I cried at the part where Luke (Katie’s pre-transition name) finally discovered transgenderism on the internet, and immediately went to get his mom to explain to her that this was what his problem was, and this was what he’d been wanting. The mother, poor woman, had been witless with helplessness and fear for years, unable to help her depressed, suicidal small child. (His first suicide attempt was at 8.) His mom was a religious woman in a conservative mileau, and had no affinity for trans issues but she (miraculously!) said, “Ok, if this will help, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I’ll do anything to keep you alive. Make a list.” She admitted later she expected someone to firebomb their house, but she supported him anyway. As a mother, I completely understand that.

I also found this story uplifting for personal reasons. It was great to read a trans story that brought me back to the roots of why I think freedom of gender expression should be a human right. There are lots of people, like Katie, for whom the current categories really don’t fit well. Why shouldn’t it be up to her, or her family, to decide on her own identity? Making little kids like Katie less totally fucking miserable is a worthy goal in a humane society. To me, it’s worth some inconvenience to the majority.  I know trans activists think the bathroom issue is nonsense, but as a woman in her 40s, who has been at the receiving end of about 30 years of creepy behavior by men (not all men, but they’re out there, you know?), breaking down the gender wall in places like locker rooms and bathrooms is sort of a problem. And I don’t think it makes me a bigot to say so, though from the vituperation by trans activists, you’d think any reasonable woman who had her doubts was Satan incarnate. The bathroom issue is inconvenient. It will create scary situations for women. To deny that is ridiculous. I would find the activism a lot more compelling if people would just admit it, and say, “Let’s do it anyway, for kids like Katie.” Her story reminded me of that, for which I was grateful.

I could go on. I also am genuinely freaked out by all the people taking drugs and getting these surgeries because transgenderism is now trendy and considered to be radical…the types who think being trans is undermining the system, and who don’t compute that they’re directly enriching the drug companies, and are signing up to do that forever. The Man is laughing about that one all the way to the bank. But again, Rethinking Normal reminded me that being trans is a matter of life and death for some people, and they’re the ones who matter, not the politics, not the drug companies. Great book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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