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Sunday, December 13, 2015

2015: A (Very Short) Reading List

I was thinking it would be nice to put together a year-end list of the books I'd read and loved in 2015, but that list got too long and complicated by various factors that I had trouble editing out (for instance, I wanted to find a way to include the Twitter account* that gave me the most delight this year), and so I decided rigor was required if I were to do this at all.  What follows is the result of an internal dialogue that you do not need to hear.  This then, is the Very Short List.  These are the books that made my brain and heart bigger than they were in 2014; they are the books that I hope that if you've already read them, you shout, "Yes!" when you see them here; they are the books that if you haven't already read them, you either write them down in the notebook you keep for when you go to your favorite local bookstore, or you skip that and just immediately download it/them onto your e-reader.

For the this-may-blow-your-mind category:
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth.  In an interview with the New York Times, Kingsnorth says, "We are living...through the “age of ecocide,” and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss, which it is our duty to face."  So there's that cheery note.  It's an apocalyptic novel set in 11th century (pre) England in the aftermath of the Danes and William the Conquerer.  It's awful, and it's told in the voice of an awful man who seems to believe he can channel the old gods to save his land.  It's also remarkably difficult to read since Kingsnorth took the trouble to invent what he calls a "shadow language," a mash up of old, middle, and modern english to write the novel.  In one of the most enviable, and potentially biggest labor intensive time-waste risks in recent memory, the whole book is written in a made-up, but linguistically viable, language.  But here's the thing: it's utterly compelling.  The language, and the gore, and that voice combine to create a force of nature.  It is this Nature that emerges as the largest voice with the most to loose.  Word of warning: I bought the e-version of this book, which was a mistake as I could not for the life of me flip back and forth to the dictionary/index at the back of the book, which you need to be able to do--not too often, but often enough that I wished I had it in book form. 

For more apocryphal-nature-stories, but this time sci-fi:
Image from Jeff Vandemeer's Southern Reach website.

I think I've read the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandemeer all the way through three times this year. They were the kind of books that after downloading them on my Kindle, I would buy them in hard copy.  I waited in the difficulty of real waiting for each installment after part one, Annihilation, came out.  I got the date wrong for the third book's release and suffered disappointment for days, checking back repeatedly to make sure I hadn't missed it.  These book are so weird (Joshua Rothman called him "The Weird Thoreau" in his New Yorker article with heavy emphasis on weird.) and so affecting, and by now you are probably thinking I may have gotten a little too obsessive, but it's not me.  It's the books.  Reading them, I had the sensation that, like the characters, I could grasp the difference between the world I knew and the one that was unfolding in front of me, but I could not comprehend what was unfolding in front of me. And it never got normal.  I have since gone back and read most of Vandemeer's work, much of which is not nearly as interesting to me as this series.  It's as if his work took a giant leap in focus and capability, and it's remarkable to see. I keep wanting to cheer for him.  I keep wanting him to write more of this.

Dorothy and Sir Thomas Browne, circa 1645.
CreditNational Portrait Gallery, London
For the how-in-the-world-did-I-not-know-of-this-guy?!?! category
Thomas Browne.  As in the 17th century Sir Thomas Browne, who may be the best writer in the English language, and yet I'd never read him before.  There is a new, but not very enthusiastically reviewed biography out on him this year.  It was through the wonderful John D'Agata anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, howeverthat I just (as of last week) found Browne.  W.G. Sebald loved him, as did Virginia Woolf, and Borges.  He is consistently rated as the author most unread and most passionately adored by other writers.  Like Kingsnorth above, the writing takes a few minutes for your reading mind to calibrate to it, but once it does...brace yourself for the most wide-ranging, beautifully written ride.  Amazon's author page groups the writing--all essays for you.  As for those who point to that nasty business of a witch trial for a reason to not read Browne, I need to read more on this, but given his writing's remarkable broad mindedness in religious matters, I find it difficult to see his hands shoving those poor women into the water to drown.

For the Optimism-and -Romantic-Era-are-not-dead-Long-live-the-humanities category
"Newton" by William Blake.  Source: William Blake Archive. 

This was fueled by reading Curtis White's rampage in The Science Delusion, which connects to other reading this year in Richard Rorty (specifically, "19th Century Idealism and 20th century Textualism"  The Monist Vol 64, No. 2, April 1981) and Donald Davidson, who I love to try to read regularly.  (As a result of reading these last two, I've added Mary Hesse to my need-to-read list).  White's triumphant chewing of the scenery in his book is meant to be a accessible; he clearly wants everyone to think about the way we've thrown culture (especially the arts) under the bus in order to embrace science.  His argument that we are still in the Romantic age of rebellion and love of the individual's relationship to freedom is not new, but it's great to see someone not just championing it so fiercely, but taking it to the people.

For another-rage-against-the-machine book:

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.  If you haven't already read it, and if  you are reading this list to add to your own list of books to read in 2015 and only pick one, pick this one. A National Book Award finalist in 2014,  it's in that genre bending non-category (much like the next writer Maggie Nelson) that I like to call the poetic essay.  It takes up the subject of race as its primary topic, particularly as experienced by middle class black women in the U.S..  Given the project and the times we are in, it's been reviewed by all the heavy hitters, The New Yorker, The Guardian, etc., but Rankine's reading from the work is lovelier. It's a beautiful and sobering book, and yes, so full of anger and heart-break that you will have to put it down at points.  You must, however, pick it up again.  You must.  
Maggie Nelson

For the So-you-want-to-feel-the-force-of-the-Romantic-fight-against-conformity? category:
Maggie Nelson.  I read Bluets earlier this year (twice and then kept dipping into it) and then Argonauts as soon as it came out.  The descriptions in reviews of either book don't do the force of the all out, never hold back beauty of a writing that manages to forge erotics, emotional rigor,  and intelligence with shocking vulnerability, but here's a pretty great interview with Nelson and Chloe Caldwell in Salon.

And-now-for-something-completely-different category:

Drawing from nature … The Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson PR
Moomin!  If you haven't already discovered them, you are in for the best grown-up childhood mashup of surreal joy ever.  The whole series is fantastic.  If you read them in order, you'll see a development in the depth of characterization, but there's no need to read them in order.  I keep them in heavy rotation on my bedside table.  Author Tove Jannson (1914-2001) , a Swedish speaking Finn,  led a fascinating life— raised in an artist colony in Helsinki, she survived the Russian bombing of Finland, and drew satirical cartoons for an anti-fascist magazine before dreaming up the Finn Family Moomin.

In the Books-that-don't-act-like-books category:
This has been one of my top reasons to keep buying material books this year, as opposed to just loading up the Kindle.  From the glow-in-the-dark flip chart, to a

fold out map of world history, to the book-within-a-book of S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, to The Familiar series, which author Mark Z. Danielewski says will reach 27 volumes (Volume 1 was, meh, more experiment than success, but according to a review on NPR, volume 2 gets much better).  My favorite though was a book for which I'm uncertain of either the intended audience or genre.  I'm not sure if it's for young adults or grown ups, if its science or art, or even how somebody convinced someone to spend the money on the really great 3D cover.  If it's a graphic novel (one of the categories Penguin Random House gives it), it's unlike any I've ever seen.  The book is called, Thunder & Lighting: Weather Past, Present, Future by previous National Book Award finalist Lauren Redniss.  Redniss travelled the world to research the book, often sketching on location.  It's beautifully made using two different etching methods, then hand-colored with some pages with little or no text and some that are almost text only (Redness created the font specifically for this book).  Some of the content is biographic (I especially enjoyed the section on Diana Nyad), some science of weather,  some ecology, even politics come into their own section.  This book roams through them all with a curiosity and intelligence that I felt recharged my own.

*That Twitter account is "Evghenia--First person on Mars."  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lisbon Sunrise

The so-called  "25th of April Bridge"
Photo credit: Vitor Oliveira
We are staying at the same hotel as we did the last time we visited  Lisbon.  This has its own subtle pleasures.  First there is the "Do you remember" game in which you not only try to provide the most detailed recollection from the back seat of the cab on the way there, but attempt to spur your partner on to remember things which you cannot.  If they can remember the right detail, it will pull the memory out and sometimes begin a little cascade of things in you that you thought you had forgotten.  For some reason, this feels very good—the mental equivalent of a particularly satisfying stretch, the kind where you make sounds.

Christ the King statue.  Photo credit:
 As part of this game, we sit to eat breakfast in the dark looking out over a view that right now only  lives in memory before it becomes slowly available to our eyes.  From here, we know we will be able to see the waterfront and architectural doubles of Rio de Janeiro and the San Fransisco Oakland Bay Bridge as soon as the sun comes up.  The game intensifies as the light begins to come up, and we race to see who can remember more before reality trumps memory.  What was the name of the firm that built both bridges? (The American Bridge Company)  Where, exactly, is the large statue situated? (Both of us point out into the dark)  What did the young Portuguese woman look like who told us all about these things last time?  And so on.  It's a good way to start a day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A friend recently introduced me to the joys sci-fi writer China Mieville who  has a new collection of short stories out titled Three Moments of an Explosion.  

It is not the book, which I have to get, but Rhys Williams' review in The LA Review of books that brought me to the blog in agitation.  It  raises what I think are some pretty profound questions, not the least of which come up at the end:

More is possible, these stories suggest, more is already out there — but only if we acknowledge that what we have, and what we are, is neither necessary nor proper.

It is in this utter, evangelical conviction, that I hear the echo of Jonathan Edwards crying out in the second Great Awakening to the sons and daughters of the Puritan emigrants:  "You are sinners in the hands of an angry God; " and "This world is but a shadow of a better, truer world that is heaven."

The jeremiac call that I see in so many reviews shouldn't be troubling (at least they work hard at the actual work of a review to provide critical thinking and don't simply provide summary and end with a cursory apologetic on the subjective nature of opinion.) We need clarion calls to re-evaluate the current state of affairs.  We need those calls to point to aid and succor, whether it be found in arts, technology, or some hopeful combination thereof.   

Of course, it is not only reviews that make this claim of another, truer, world:

"Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world," Saul Bellow asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech"There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Pablo Neruda
One of  Emily Dickinson's so called Envelop Poems
(Lifted from this week's Brain Pickings ) 

It is not this questing for a truer world that niggles or even the claim that art is the truest path there.  Anything/anyone that doubts and prods the self's self-satisfaction in the world is a delight.  

William Blake, Red Dragon.  Brooklyn Museum of Art
Rather, it begins with Williams' assertion that our nature is sinful and flawed, "neither necessary nor proper"  and needs to be replaced with a better nature in order to bring about a better world that raises the hair on the back of my neck. One might manage to shrug off the puritanical ideology easily enough; however, Williams makes a fervid argument that this conviction is a radical response to the status quo:  It is not Mieville's writing per se that makes it so potent for this reviewer; it is rather that the writing can be pinned unwriggling to the template of William's revolutionary necessity.  

Against a false sense of ontological security (a trust in the rightness of our identities, ways of life, and understandings of the world) he draws on and cultivates a style of ontological insecurity that is a defining effect of the Weird tradition

To insist that the unstable is a knowable good—a transformational good that will save not just the reader but civilization as a whole—is is the first step to commodifying the arduous work of resistance.  The gratuitous sensationalizing of that work like we see in this review provides the next step.  Still, all of this might be understood to be the very real joy of a besotted reader.  Unfortunately, it does not end there.

The shift in the final paragraph to an assertion that only Mieville understands the current need for resistance to the old order leads Williams to an outrageously condescending stance toward readers:

Yet I also think it is aiming to do something more: It is attempting to be a literature adequate to our times, and it is attempting to create readers who are adequate as well.

Nebuchadnezzer from Andy White's Blog
Though as Williams goes on to articulate just what that, apparently hypothetical, reader would look like, he twins himself to Mievilles'  supposed agenda of creating the ideal reader.  In the end, it is Williams himself, purportedly speaking on behalf of Mieville, who is attempting to re-create the reader in his own image—the ideal reader adequate for the age.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Cloud journal

Koko Head in Oahu

Part of a double rainbow--normal evening event here

Ocean clouds off Waikiki
Nearly cloudless Seoul sky

Where are the clouds for Seoul?


Even with its many mountains, these were the only clouds we ever saw.

Back home


Hawaiian mountain in clouds
From the rainbow inducing clouds of Oahu to the strangely cloud-free sky above Seoul and back again.  With a brief stop home, my internal clock is deeply disturbed.  Heard a travel writer on NPR refer to this not as jet lag, but "place lag," which was lovely.  Especially so as he liked the effect and said the disorientation added to the magic of travel--its undeniable insistence that you are somewhere strange to you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Cloud journal



Driving to the airport saw this shark with flag cloud

Mountain drawn cumulus behind Honolulu

Firework clouds over the Pacific

As this peripatetic life goes, so goes the cloud journal.  One remarkable thing I've noticed in Honolulu is that there are two distinct cloud environments here.  One exists for the mountains and one for the Pacific Ocean.  The mountains draw darker stratus and pile up the cumulus, while the ocean sketches with cirrus.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Cloud journal

Madrid airport

Edge of Madrid with view of foothills

Edge of Madrid

Hiking in the foothills to the sound of a cuckoo bird

Back home in the backyard

"Normal" journaling too often leaves me at a loss.  The impulse to mark something daily, however, remains.  This is especially true right now when I'm traveling so much, so far, and in such a short space of time (Japan, New England, Spain, Hawaii, Korea--all in a two month period.  There's just too much new to process right now.). I found I wanted a daily marker that I didn't have to interpret or read into.  Rather than turn my attention to myself, I've started a daily cloud journal as a way to pay attention to where I am, and the sky's state of being in that place at that time.  This is the first week starting with the airport in Madrid and ending in the backyard at home.  I'm no photographer.  Most of these are shot with my phone.  The idea is just to have a moment each day when I pay attention to the sky.