Monkfish Jowls
To leave this world a wiser place than which I found it

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    Suicide by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn
Topics Covered: Suicide, loss, meaning
In 2011 I read the excerpt from Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait that the Paris Review published. Each sentence in the excerpt felt revelatory to me. Like an entire new world was being offered. Like this:
When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss. In a sandwich, I don’t see what I am eating, I imagine it. My memory is structured like a disco ball. I wonder where the dreams go that I don’t remember. I wish they had sleds for grown-ups. I have read more volumes one than volumes two.
I was pretty excited by it and ran to Prairie Lights to buy the book. They didn’t have it. They did have Levé’s other book called Suicide so I bought that instead.
I started to read Suicide that day, but I didn’t get very far into it. I put the book away. Where Autoportrait seemed to give life, Suicide took it away. Levé himself took his life a few days after sending the manuscript to his publisher, which the back cover of the paperback is eager to tell you.
Last week, Kevin emailed me to say he had read Autoportrait and was thinking of buying Suicide. I said, “I’ve got Suicide. I’ll mail it to you after I read it.” I finished it that day.
The book is addressed to a friend of the narrator’s who has been dead for some time. The friend had killed himself in his house while his wife stood outside, thinking that the two of them were about to go play tennis. There’s the basement where your body lies. It is intact. You’re like a young tennis player resting on the lawn after a match. You could be sleeping. You are twenty-five years old. You now know more about death than I do.
I wanted to argue with the book, but Levé was dead. The effect of the 2nd person narration and the details of Levé’s suicide make this an uncanny read. It’s certainly not a book I plan on revisiting anytime soon, so I’ll put my favorite line here: A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent sequence of actions but a constellation of things perceived.

    Suicide by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn

    Topics Covered: Suicide, loss, meaning

    In 2011 I read the excerpt from Edouard Levé’s Autoportrait that the Paris Review published. Each sentence in the excerpt felt revelatory to me. Like an entire new world was being offered. Like this:

    When I look at a strawberry, I think of a tongue, when I lick one, of a kiss. In a sandwich, I don’t see what I am eating, I imagine it. My memory is structured like a disco ball. I wonder where the dreams go that I don’t remember. I wish they had sleds for grown-ups. I have read more volumes one than volumes two.

    I was pretty excited by it and ran to Prairie Lights to buy the book. They didn’t have it. They did have Levé’s other book called Suicide so I bought that instead.

    I started to read Suicide that day, but I didn’t get very far into it. I put the book away. Where Autoportrait seemed to give life, Suicide took it away. Levé himself took his life a few days after sending the manuscript to his publisher, which the back cover of the paperback is eager to tell you.

    Last week, Kevin emailed me to say he had read Autoportrait and was thinking of buying Suicide. I said, “I’ve got Suicide. I’ll mail it to you after I read it.” I finished it that day.

    The book is addressed to a friend of the narrator’s who has been dead for some time. The friend had killed himself in his house while his wife stood outside, thinking that the two of them were about to go play tennis. There’s the basement where your body lies. It is intact. You’re like a young tennis player resting on the lawn after a match. You could be sleeping. You are twenty-five years old. You now know more about death than I do.

    I wanted to argue with the book, but Levé was dead. The effect of the 2nd person narration and the details of Levé’s suicide make this an uncanny read. It’s certainly not a book I plan on revisiting anytime soon, so I’ll put my favorite line here: A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent sequence of actions but a constellation of things perceived.

    Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers
Topics Covered: loss, police brutality, kidnapping, society, manpain
I must have first heard about Dave Eggers when his first book came out, since I bought the hardcover new in the shop (you know what, I never did read it). But soon after that, I had a fiction-writing class with Curtis Sittenfeld who told us that Dave Eggers was the most brilliant man she had ever met. (Why do I remember this stuff?) Eggers is also known for starting the literary journal McSweeneys, which I subscribed to from 2003-2009. All I remember of that is they put out a stack of mail and called it issue 17 and they published far too many Roddy Doyle stories.
Who even cares about Roddy Doyle?
I read Your Fathers…, Eggers’s newest book, over Labor Day weekend, when I tried to read all the books. I found it on the “new releases” shelf of the library and took it home without knowing about it.
The book is absurd. It’s about a man who kidnaps an astronaut. And then kidnaps a congressman. Then he kidnaps one of his middle-school teachers. Then he kidnaps his mom. Then he kidnaps a cop. And then a beautiful woman he finds on a beach. He does this all in a day or two and keeps them in an abandoned military base.
It’s all told in dialogues between the kidnapper and one of the kidnapped. It makes me think of things I wrote in high school. I used to write dialogues in the margins of my notebooks and they usually had no connection to reality. Anything could happen. Like a man could kidnap an astronaut.
Eggers’s kidnapper thinks that society doesn’t have anything for young men to aspire to (no large-scale missions, the example here is the defunding of NASA). He thinks his generation has been let down by its authority figures (the teacher from his school touches kids; the cop killed the kidnapper’s friend). The kidnapper feels ennui, and assumes that others of his time do as well.
And so—so what? The book takes its title from the book of Zechariah, one of the prophets in the Jewish Bible, which also says, “Be ye not as your fathers.” There’s a lot that we should be doing differently than our fathers, but let us hope that our scope is larger than the one found in this book. And if the ennui of the white male comes from the white male no longer being the center of the universe, then good riddance. Let’s let some other people steer the ship and cultivate a less destructive society.

    Your Fathers Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers

    Topics Covered: loss, police brutality, kidnapping, society, manpain

    I must have first heard about Dave Eggers when his first book came out, since I bought the hardcover new in the shop (you know what, I never did read it). But soon after that, I had a fiction-writing class with Curtis Sittenfeld who told us that Dave Eggers was the most brilliant man she had ever met. (Why do I remember this stuff?) Eggers is also known for starting the literary journal McSweeneys, which I subscribed to from 2003-2009. All I remember of that is they put out a stack of mail and called it issue 17 and they published far too many Roddy Doyle stories.

    Who even cares about Roddy Doyle?

    I read Your Fathers…, Eggers’s newest book, over Labor Day weekend, when I tried to read all the books. I found it on the “new releases” shelf of the library and took it home without knowing about it.

    The book is absurd. It’s about a man who kidnaps an astronaut. And then kidnaps a congressman. Then he kidnaps one of his middle-school teachers. Then he kidnaps his mom. Then he kidnaps a cop. And then a beautiful woman he finds on a beach. He does this all in a day or two and keeps them in an abandoned military base.

    It’s all told in dialogues between the kidnapper and one of the kidnapped. It makes me think of things I wrote in high school. I used to write dialogues in the margins of my notebooks and they usually had no connection to reality. Anything could happen. Like a man could kidnap an astronaut.

    Eggers’s kidnapper thinks that society doesn’t have anything for young men to aspire to (no large-scale missions, the example here is the defunding of NASA). He thinks his generation has been let down by its authority figures (the teacher from his school touches kids; the cop killed the kidnapper’s friend). The kidnapper feels ennui, and assumes that others of his time do as well.

    And so—so what? The book takes its title from the book of Zechariah, one of the prophets in the Jewish Bible, which also says, “Be ye not as your fathers.” There’s a lot that we should be doing differently than our fathers, but let us hope that our scope is larger than the one found in this book. And if the ennui of the white male comes from the white male no longer being the center of the universe, then good riddance. Let’s let some other people steer the ship and cultivate a less destructive society.

    Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Thomas McLintock
Topics covered: loss, madness, philosophers, nature, music
I first heard about Thomas Bernhard while I was living in Florida. I remember Yew Leong told me about reading Old Masters in one sitting and finding it uproarious. That’s the first I remember of Bernhard.
Later, I was part of a small book club headed by translator and poet Michael Hofmann. He gave us five books to read, and we met five times to discuss them. They were all German books, because I, with my two comrades, professed a great interest in German literature. Hofmann had translated Bernhard’s Frost, so he was the one to make my formal introduction to Bernhard. We read Concrete with Prof. Hof, which I don’t remember much of now but do recommend.
I continued with The Loser which is a book about what it’s like to be a fellow piano conservatory student with Glenn Gould, without being Glenn Gould. There’s a lot of despair in not being Glenn Gould, as you can imagine.
This past Labor Day weekend, I thought I would read three books. It was a spur of the moment decision, so I relied on what was on the shelf at the local library. They had one book by Thomas Bernhard—why I thought of him again at that point, I don’t remember, but I checked that one out. Wittgenstein’s Nephew was the first book I finished of the three.
It was also the best. It’s a short book/novel about Paul Wittgenstein, nephew of the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and friend of the narrator. This narrator, named Thomas Bernhard, has a lung tumor. He writes about the time he was in the lung-ward of a hospital while Paul was in the mental asylum just down the sidewalk.
This Thomas Bernhard character also hates nature. “I hate nature because it is killing me.” It’s his tumor that he’s talking about. “I love everything except nature, which I find sinister.”
Nature will kill us all, of course. I’m happy that some find love for it regardless of the fact. I am on the fence: Give me all the books about loving nature, but please let me read them indoors if there are mosquitos.

    Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Thomas McLintock

    Topics covered: loss, madness, philosophers, nature, music

    I first heard about Thomas Bernhard while I was living in Florida. I remember Yew Leong told me about reading Old Masters in one sitting and finding it uproarious. That’s the first I remember of Bernhard.

    Later, I was part of a small book club headed by translator and poet Michael Hofmann. He gave us five books to read, and we met five times to discuss them. They were all German books, because I, with my two comrades, professed a great interest in German literature. Hofmann had translated Bernhard’s Frost, so he was the one to make my formal introduction to Bernhard. We read Concrete with Prof. Hof, which I don’t remember much of now but do recommend.

    I continued with The Loser which is a book about what it’s like to be a fellow piano conservatory student with Glenn Gould, without being Glenn Gould. There’s a lot of despair in not being Glenn Gould, as you can imagine.

    This past Labor Day weekend, I thought I would read three books. It was a spur of the moment decision, so I relied on what was on the shelf at the local library. They had one book by Thomas Bernhard—why I thought of him again at that point, I don’t remember, but I checked that one out. Wittgenstein’s Nephew was the first book I finished of the three.

    It was also the best. It’s a short book/novel about Paul Wittgenstein, nephew of the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and friend of the narrator. This narrator, named Thomas Bernhard, has a lung tumor. He writes about the time he was in the lung-ward of a hospital while Paul was in the mental asylum just down the sidewalk.

    This Thomas Bernhard character also hates nature. “I hate nature because it is killing me.” It’s his tumor that he’s talking about. “I love everything except nature, which I find sinister.”

    Nature will kill us all, of course. I’m happy that some find love for it regardless of the fact. I am on the fence: Give me all the books about loving nature, but please let me read them indoors if there are mosquitos.

    Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami. Topics covered: Love, loss, sea-side resorts, ghosts
Earlier this year I got really into translation prizes. It started with one run by The Independent and the Best Translated Book Award from Rochester University. I’m not sure why, but back in March, when I read the two longlists of books being considered to win, I wanted to read everything in contention. 
This idea might have come from my friend Yew Leong who used to read all of the Booker Prize nominees. One year, the year Hillary Mantel won for Wolf Hall, Yew Leong and I made bets of peanut toasts as to who might win the Booker Prize that year. Neither of us guessed Wolf Hall. No peanut toasts changed hands. 
I didn’t read any of those Booker nominees. I think Yew Leong read them all except Wolf Hall. I could be wrong. Memory, etc. 
So this year, with great fervor, I finished one of the books from those two longlists of translated books. I did start three others, but the one I finished was the wonderful Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase) by Hiromi Kawakami. 
I would really like to talk about that book, which starts with a chapter called The Moon and the Batteries and later two more called Mushroom Hunting I and Mushroom Hunting II, but we haven’t got all day! I loved it and that will have to be enough. 
That’s the long story of how I came to read Manazuru. Kawakami wrote Manazuru five years after Strange Weather… The quirk and fun of the previous book is gone. In this one, a woman, whose husband disappeared one day several years before, is followed by ghosts, especially when she goes to a seaside resort town called Manazuru. She suspects the ghosts know about her husband, and so she asks them about him. They don’t offer up much information. They try to talk her into joining them in the ocean. They say things like, “When you come to Manazuru, give yourself to Manazuru.” 
One of my favorite first lines to a novel is “Why is the measure of love loss?” from Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Is it because without loss, the story isn’t over, and all love has its source in narrative? Then a story about love without loss is thus immeasurable. Oh, I don’t know about that but then why are so many romances filled with kitsch? Make the husband disappear and then you can write about love without being saccharine. 

    Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami.
    Topics covered: Love, loss, sea-side resorts, ghosts

    Earlier this year I got really into translation prizes. It started with one run by The Independent and the Best Translated Book Award from Rochester University. I’m not sure why, but back in March, when I read the two longlists of books being considered to win, I wanted to read everything in contention. 

    This idea might have come from my friend Yew Leong who used to read all of the Booker Prize nominees. One year, the year Hillary Mantel won for Wolf Hall, Yew Leong and I made bets of peanut toasts as to who might win the Booker Prize that year. Neither of us guessed Wolf Hall. No peanut toasts changed hands. 

    I didn’t read any of those Booker nominees. I think Yew Leong read them all except Wolf Hall. I could be wrong. Memory, etc. 

    So this year, with great fervor, I finished one of the books from those two longlists of translated books. I did start three others, but the one I finished was the wonderful Strange Weather in Tokyo (aka The Briefcase) by Hiromi Kawakami. 

    I would really like to talk about that book, which starts with a chapter called The Moon and the Batteries and later two more called Mushroom Hunting I and Mushroom Hunting II, but we haven’t got all day! I loved it and that will have to be enough. 

    That’s the long story of how I came to read Manazuru. Kawakami wrote Manazuru five years after Strange Weather… The quirk and fun of the previous book is gone. In this one, a woman, whose husband disappeared one day several years before, is followed by ghosts, especially when she goes to a seaside resort town called Manazuru. She suspects the ghosts know about her husband, and so she asks them about him. They don’t offer up much information. They try to talk her into joining them in the ocean. They say things like, “When you come to Manazuru, give yourself to Manazuru.” 

    One of my favorite first lines to a novel is “Why is the measure of love loss?” from Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Is it because without loss, the story isn’t over, and all love has its source in narrative? Then a story about love without loss is thus immeasurable. Oh, I don’t know about that but then why are so many romances filled with kitsch? Make the husband disappear and then you can write about love without being saccharine. 

    There’s so much I want to learn. It’s becoming ridiculous. I have 52 items checked out from the library. I have another 19 on hold. And another 20 to put on hold after that. There’s a book on cooking African food. One on cooking eggs. Just eggs! There’s the bread book. Then there’s all of Blake’s poetry. I can’t even read poems! There’s one on street magic in India. There’s Heidegger’s On Time and Being. One on religion called The Sacred and the Profane. And the shelf goes on. 
The one that has my current attention most (beside the bread book) is a history of the eleven rival cultures of North America. It argues the differences between the states of the puritans, the Quaker state of Pennsylvania, and the states of the mid- and deep south, that existed 250 years ago, persist still today. 
According to its author, I come from the midlands, known for its German farmers who rotated crops, bred livestock selectively, and kept their farms tidy and prosperous. 
Scott McClanahan’s Hill William comes from Appalachia. This is where every man was a sheriff, where blood feuds raged just as fiercely as the Appalachians feuded with the Indians, and where vigilante justice had the day. It’s a coarse place and when the colonies first met to decide what to do about the British, they kept any Appalachians out of the proceedings. 
It sounds like a much more hot-tempered place than the one from which I came.
So when Hill William begins with, “I used to hit myself in the face,” I cringe. And when the narrator says, “I knew pretty girls weren’t crazy about guys who hit themselves in the face,” I cringe again. And again: “O my god I fucked up my face. I fucked up my face. I fucked up my face.” And again: “Goddamnit and I had to go and stay at Motel 8 for the night.” 
I didn’t think I would finish reading Hill William, but I did. It won me over, even. There’s something complex brewing underneath the references to Mountain Dew and Superman and Wonder Woman underwear. It deals with child sexual abuse, so trigger warning, but it also weaves that narrative into the therapy that the narrator is going through as an adult. That made it compelling and lifted it above the man-child syndrome that I was afraid that it was going to fall into. 

    There’s so much I want to learn. It’s becoming ridiculous. I have 52 items checked out from the library. I have another 19 on hold. And another 20 to put on hold after that. There’s a book on cooking African food. One on cooking eggs. Just eggs! There’s the bread book. Then there’s all of Blake’s poetry. I can’t even read poems! There’s one on street magic in India. There’s Heidegger’s On Time and Being. One on religion called The Sacred and the Profane. And the shelf goes on. 

    The one that has my current attention most (beside the bread book) is a history of the eleven rival cultures of North America. It argues the differences between the states of the puritans, the Quaker state of Pennsylvania, and the states of the mid- and deep south, that existed 250 years ago, persist still today. 

    According to its author, I come from the midlands, known for its German farmers who rotated crops, bred livestock selectively, and kept their farms tidy and prosperous. 

    Scott McClanahan’s Hill William comes from Appalachia. This is where every man was a sheriff, where blood feuds raged just as fiercely as the Appalachians feuded with the Indians, and where vigilante justice had the day. It’s a coarse place and when the colonies first met to decide what to do about the British, they kept any Appalachians out of the proceedings. 

    It sounds like a much more hot-tempered place than the one from which I came.

    So when Hill William begins with, “I used to hit myself in the face,” I cringe. And when the narrator says, “I knew pretty girls weren’t crazy about guys who hit themselves in the face,” I cringe again. And again: “O my god I fucked up my face. I fucked up my face. I fucked up my face.” And again: “Goddamnit and I had to go and stay at Motel 8 for the night.” 

    I didn’t think I would finish reading Hill William, but I did. It won me over, even. There’s something complex brewing underneath the references to Mountain Dew and Superman and Wonder Woman underwear. It deals with child sexual abuse, so trigger warning, but it also weaves that narrative into the therapy that the narrator is going through as an adult. That made it compelling and lifted it above the man-child syndrome that I was afraid that it was going to fall into. 

    I bought Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene when I lived in Florida, but I put off reading it until now. I first heard of this book from a list of books put together by Donald Barthelme for his students and provided by Kevin Moffett in his article “Donald Barthelme’s Syllabus.” I spent a lot of time looking at that list, and I bought several of the books, although looking over the list again now, few of them ever became favorites of mine. 
I was reminded of Man in the Holocene recently by a blog I found called “Climate Change and Contemporary Fiction (a blog whose title carries more promise than it delivers). That blog calls this book the first climate change novel. And also terribly funny.
It does begin so: “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread.” 
But that, for me, is the best part. 
Man in the Holocene is interesting because it has some features of a personal tumblr: A hundred pages of mixed up confessions and thoughts and oddities and memories. Along with some reblogs: clippings from reference books and drawings of dinosaurs. These are  compiled by a man who is stuck in his house during a prolonged period of rain, with books and crispbread alone to entertain him. 
But Tumblr does what this book does in a more fun way and so this book feels dated. Selah.
But Man in the Holocene does remind me that sometimes the rains do come and wash away everything from the surface. 

    I bought Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene when I lived in Florida, but I put off reading it until now. I first heard of this book from a list of books put together by Donald Barthelme for his students and provided by Kevin Moffett in his article “Donald Barthelme’s Syllabus.” I spent a lot of time looking at that list, and I bought several of the books, although looking over the list again now, few of them ever became favorites of mine. 

    I was reminded of Man in the Holocene recently by a blog I found called “Climate Change and Contemporary Fiction (a blog whose title carries more promise than it delivers). That blog calls this book the first climate change novel. And also terribly funny.

    It does begin so: “It should be possible to build a pagoda of crispbread.” 

    But that, for me, is the best part. 

    Man in the Holocene is interesting because it has some features of a personal tumblr: A hundred pages of mixed up confessions and thoughts and oddities and memories. Along with some reblogs: clippings from reference books and drawings of dinosaurs. These are  compiled by a man who is stuck in his house during a prolonged period of rain, with books and crispbread alone to entertain him. 

    But Tumblr does what this book does in a more fun way and so this book feels dated. Selah.

    But Man in the Holocene does remind me that sometimes the rains do come and wash away everything from the surface. 

    I’ve got Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins" on repeat as I write this. "I’ve been searching for the dolphins in the sea," he sings, again and again. I’m listening to him instead of the song of the locusts. Instead of the chirps of the chipmunks. Instead of the hum of the lawn mower. Instead of the crickets. 
Is it silly to listen to music that’s been crunched and stored on YouTube when there are all of these sounds? 
If not silly, This Fred Neil recording isolates me from the present. Neil recorded “The Dolphins” in 1966 in New York. I’m in Wisconsin, surrounded by lakes. No tall buildings around. No Greenwich folkies. Not even a sea.
This is the ground that David Abram approaches in The Spell of the Sensuous. He quotes Thomas Merton, “The rain surrounded the cabin… Think of it: All that speech pouring down.” He works to find the sensual  in a world driven by reason, by Descartes’s mechanical universe, by lenses that can see things that we cannot see because they are far away or because they are unbelievably tiny. 
This review will never do this book justice, or contain its richness. In one chapter Abram writes about a group of people that lives in a rain forest in New Guinea. Their language shares speech with song birds, so that the birds themselves say “Good morning” when the sun rises. This is so far removed from how many of us perceive the world. Just look at how we treat animals with utter contempt. In another he describes the Aboriginal song lines—the songs that were never written, but were passed down, that sang the world into creation. Those songs created a map of Australia, that would guide one to water and food and teach the way to be in the world. 
Abram sees the alphabet and writing as one of the major breaks between humans and nature. If you are in a place where you see rain as having speech, then many things have language. But the alphabet takes the sounds that interact with the world and are changed by the world, and turns them into abstract symbols. The abstractions multiply. Did humans then become abstractions?  
I first encountered David Abram in an interview he did with Dark Mountain. The video that the article was taken from is online about halfway down this page. In it he says, “Our culture places a primary value on abstractions, on dimensions of the real of which we have no direct visceral or sensorial experience. We are born into a civilisation that straightaway tells us that the world we experience with our unaided senses is not really to be trusted, that the senses are deceptive …” The interviewer adds, “That real reality is this mathematical layer, which you can get at, if you use the right tools to probe beneath the experience of reality.”
This book is serious. Whole chapters are devoted to the phenomenologists Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger has ten pages. But it starts with sleight of hand and magic and household spirits in Bali. That chapter you can read here.  

    I’ve got Fred Neil’s “The Dolphins" on repeat as I write this. "I’ve been searching for the dolphins in the sea," he sings, again and again. I’m listening to him instead of the song of the locusts. Instead of the chirps of the chipmunks. Instead of the hum of the lawn mower. Instead of the crickets. 

    Is it silly to listen to music that’s been crunched and stored on YouTube when there are all of these sounds? 

    If not silly, This Fred Neil recording isolates me from the present. Neil recorded “The Dolphins” in 1966 in New York. I’m in Wisconsin, surrounded by lakes. No tall buildings around. No Greenwich folkies. Not even a sea.

    This is the ground that David Abram approaches in The Spell of the Sensuous. He quotes Thomas Merton, “The rain surrounded the cabin… Think of it: All that speech pouring down.” He works to find the sensual  in a world driven by reason, by Descartes’s mechanical universe, by lenses that can see things that we cannot see because they are far away or because they are unbelievably tiny. 

    This review will never do this book justice, or contain its richness. In one chapter Abram writes about a group of people that lives in a rain forest in New Guinea. Their language shares speech with song birds, so that the birds themselves say “Good morning” when the sun rises. This is so far removed from how many of us perceive the world. Just look at how we treat animals with utter contempt. In another he describes the Aboriginal song lines—the songs that were never written, but were passed down, that sang the world into creation. Those songs created a map of Australia, that would guide one to water and food and teach the way to be in the world. 

    Abram sees the alphabet and writing as one of the major breaks between humans and nature. If you are in a place where you see rain as having speech, then many things have language. But the alphabet takes the sounds that interact with the world and are changed by the world, and turns them into abstract symbols. The abstractions multiply. Did humans then become abstractions?  

    I first encountered David Abram in an interview he did with Dark Mountain. The video that the article was taken from is online about halfway down this page. In it he says, “Our culture places a primary value on abstractions, on dimensions of the real of which we have no direct visceral or sensorial experience. We are born into a civilisation that straightaway tells us that the world we experience with our unaided senses is not really to be trusted, that the senses are deceptive …” The interviewer adds, “That real reality is this mathematical layer, which you can get at, if you use the right tools to probe beneath the experience of reality.”

    This book is serious. Whole chapters are devoted to the phenomenologists Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. Heidegger has ten pages. But it starts with sleight of hand and magic and household spirits in Bali. That chapter you can read here.  

    My nose is itchy. And I’m chewing two pieces of gum. Keep that in mind. 
I am tempted to write some more about Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds. I wrote about it already, yes, but a proper response would be a book. Or a lifetime. 
Instead, I read Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots, a collection of fifty short stories. After reading Terry Tempest Williams, and after reading Flannery O’Connor, I found Dybek’s stories to be missing any vitality. Voice, yes, but what did it mean? What did any of it mean? 
A long time ago I met Carin Besser, who, at the time, was a fiction editor at the New Yorker. She was paid by the university to read stories that had been written by the grad students and then tell us what she thought about them. 
She told me to read Stuart Dybek. I took the advice seriously because she had cowritten a song named Ada that I liked. But not seriously enough to read anything by him. This year, however, FS&G released two books by him concurrently, and I finally took the advice to read Stuart Dybek. 
I see why she said that. I had given her my story Rainbow Fish, which starts normally, gets strange, and then stays strange. “You gain your reader’s trust and then pull the rug out from under them,” she told me. 
This is what Stuart Dybek does again and again and again. Some of the stories in this collection are weird. Some are very weird. One I read twice but I still didn’t get it. 
"He wanted to imagine what the doll would feel in the time to come when she would give birth to the potato," was its last line.
I feel like I could do stories like this all of my life. But surely writing should mean something too?
But this isn’t the book’s major failing. Ecstatic Cahoots feels old, dated, even though it has been newly published. It’s a collection that could have been published in 1962. Women are prostitutes or undressed. They “give happy endings.” Men speak to each other “conspiratorially,” a description Dybek uses at least three times. There’s no internet, or 9/11, or Iraq war, or President Obama either, but its datedness comes most from its worldview. 
"I wouldn’t mind selling my body if somebody’d offer to buy," Britt, a single-mom says at the beginning of the story Transaction. She continues: "It’s not an especially original female fantasy. But besides the fantasy turn-on, there’s something attractively up-front about it. A simple transaction seems honest compared to the bullshit I’ve seen that passes for a quote ‘relationship’ between men and women."
In When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams writes about Nushu script from China. “To look at the script of Nushu is to see bird tracks, crows walking deliberately down a narrow path of snow. This is the secret script of women, used for hundreds of years in the rural villages of Jiangyong.” Nushu “was a way women could speak to themselves outside of the language of men.” 
Stuart Dybek firmly places the women in his stories inside the language of men. 

    My nose is itchy. And I’m chewing two pieces of gum. Keep that in mind. 

    I am tempted to write some more about Terry Tempest Williams’s When Women Were Birds. I wrote about it already, yes, but a proper response would be a book. Or a lifetime. 

    Instead, I read Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots, a collection of fifty short stories. After reading Terry Tempest Williams, and after reading Flannery O’Connor, I found Dybek’s stories to be missing any vitality. Voice, yes, but what did it mean? What did any of it mean? 

    A long time ago I met Carin Besser, who, at the time, was a fiction editor at the New Yorker. She was paid by the university to read stories that had been written by the grad students and then tell us what she thought about them. 

    She told me to read Stuart Dybek. I took the advice seriously because she had cowritten a song named Ada that I liked. But not seriously enough to read anything by him. This year, however, FS&G released two books by him concurrently, and I finally took the advice to read Stuart Dybek. 

    I see why she said that. I had given her my story Rainbow Fish, which starts normally, gets strange, and then stays strange. “You gain your reader’s trust and then pull the rug out from under them,” she told me. 

    This is what Stuart Dybek does again and again and again. Some of the stories in this collection are weird. Some are very weird. One I read twice but I still didn’t get it. 

    "He wanted to imagine what the doll would feel in the time to come when she would give birth to the potato," was its last line.

    I feel like I could do stories like this all of my life. But surely writing should mean something too?

    But this isn’t the book’s major failing. Ecstatic Cahoots feels old, dated, even though it has been newly published. It’s a collection that could have been published in 1962. Women are prostitutes or undressed. They “give happy endings.” Men speak to each other “conspiratorially,” a description Dybek uses at least three times. There’s no internet, or 9/11, or Iraq war, or President Obama either, but its datedness comes most from its worldview. 

    "I wouldn’t mind selling my body if somebody’d offer to buy," Britt, a single-mom says at the beginning of the story Transaction. She continues: "It’s not an especially original female fantasy. But besides the fantasy turn-on, there’s something attractively up-front about it. A simple transaction seems honest compared to the bullshit I’ve seen that passes for a quote ‘relationship’ between men and women."

    In When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams writes about Nushu script from China. “To look at the script of Nushu is to see bird tracks, crows walking deliberately down a narrow path of snow. This is the secret script of women, used for hundreds of years in the rural villages of Jiangyong.” Nushu “was a way women could speak to themselves outside of the language of men.” 

    Stuart Dybek firmly places the women in his stories inside the language of men. 

    Last year I was living in Iowa City and I drove to the co-op. And while I drove Terry Tempest Williams was on the radio reading from When Women Were Birds. After I park, I didn’t leave the car. I kept listening. And I would have kept listening for as long as she was on, until evening, if necessary. 
I `was having my breath taken away by her voice and I didn’t know who she was. 
It was a recording of her reading at prairielights, which you can listen to here. 
Many things happened after that. I left Iowa. I arrived in California. I left California. I moved to Wisconsin. And every now and then her voice would pop into my head.
"There is nothing more demeaning to women than to have a man define the laws that will govern our milk and blood. Milk and blood. Why these two words? Because milk—as in cow as in breast as in semen as in any substance that nurtures and nourishes at once—is at the heart of pleasure. Because we drink deeply. Because we drink deeply out of need and desire. Because blood, as in flow as in menses as in moon as in cycle, means I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she allows a man to enter her, Life could be in the making now.” 
And her voice came back to me when I saw her name on a handout for a class Katrina is taking on nonfiction writing. This time I brought her home and lived with her for a few days.
Williams writes about a peregrine that flew so close to her it cut her face. She writes about playing the songs of the humpback whale to a classroom of children. She writes that she got disciplined for that. She writes about her mother and how she died of tumors caused by nuclear fallout from the bombs the government was testing in what they considered wasteland. Bombs that they knew already worked. 
She writes about wildness.
She writes with great voice and she talks about voice in this book. I remembered how when I was younger the writing teachers would praise my voice. I never thought much about this compliment. “They are only saying this because they don’t know what else to say about this piece,” I thought.
Until I took a Japanese class and my Japanese teachers too said I had a great voice. Then I knew there must be something there to come through in a language I barely knew. 
But Terry Tempest Williams quotes someone in this book. “Once you know that you have a voice, it’s no longer the voice that matters, but what is behind the voice.” 
I saw in that line the reason I’ve hesitated to spool out little stories filled with voice, because there was no point to do so until I became more than just what I was taught. I had to become myself. And to find humility and  seek understanding. 
I’m getting there. 

    Last year I was living in Iowa City and I drove to the co-op. And while I drove Terry Tempest Williams was on the radio reading from When Women Were Birds. After I park, I didn’t leave the car. I kept listening. And I would have kept listening for as long as she was on, until evening, if necessary. 

    I `was having my breath taken away by her voice and I didn’t know who she was. 

    It was a recording of her reading at prairielights, which you can listen to here

    Many things happened after that. I left Iowa. I arrived in California. I left California. I moved to Wisconsin. And every now and then her voice would pop into my head.

    "There is nothing more demeaning to women than to have a man define the laws that will govern our milk and blood. Milk and blood. Why these two words? Because milk—as in cow as in breast as in semen as in any substance that nurtures and nourishes at once—is at the heart of pleasure. Because we drink deeply. Because we drink deeply out of need and desire. Because blood, as in flow as in menses as in moon as in cycle, means I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she allows a man to enter her, Life could be in the making now.” 

    And her voice came back to me when I saw her name on a handout for a class Katrina is taking on nonfiction writing. This time I brought her home and lived with her for a few days.

    Williams writes about a peregrine that flew so close to her it cut her face. She writes about playing the songs of the humpback whale to a classroom of children. She writes that she got disciplined for that. She writes about her mother and how she died of tumors caused by nuclear fallout from the bombs the government was testing in what they considered wasteland. Bombs that they knew already worked. 

    She writes about wildness.

    She writes with great voice and she talks about voice in this book. I remembered how when I was younger the writing teachers would praise my voice. I never thought much about this compliment. “They are only saying this because they don’t know what else to say about this piece,” I thought.

    Until I took a Japanese class and my Japanese teachers too said I had a great voice. Then I knew there must be something there to come through in a language I barely knew. 

    But Terry Tempest Williams quotes someone in this book. “Once you know that you have a voice, it’s no longer the voice that matters, but what is behind the voice.” 

    I saw in that line the reason I’ve hesitated to spool out little stories filled with voice, because there was no point to do so until I became more than just what I was taught. I had to become myself. And to find humility and  seek understanding. 

    I’m getting there. 

    The cicadas are rattling in the trees. I’m having coffee. I finished Bento’s Sketchbook today, but I find myself thinking about something Paul Kingsnorth said in Dark Mountain

    "Build refuges… Ask yourself, what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm?" 

    I understand him to mean the storm of progress, of information, of monoculture. The profaning of the entire world through the absence of meaning. The rise of the profiteer. 

    The profiteer, Berger says, has “small eyes which examine everything and contemplate nothing. Ears extensive as a database, but incapable of listening.” (p. 147)

    That quote comes from the end of this curious book. Berger says he was given a sketchbook and it struck him immediately that it was the philosopher Spinoza’s. He fills it with sketches, with quotes from Spinoza’s Ethics, with monologues on drawing and writing. He tells the story of a Cambodian he meets at the swimming pool they both frequent. He gave her a Japanese ink brush. 

    "The Chinese master Qi Baishe loved drawing frogs, and he made the tops of their heads very black, as if they were wearing bathing caps. In the Far East the frog is a symbol of freedom.” (p. 123)

    I started reading John Berger last year, although I had known of his Ways of Seeing since I was at college. Vi gave me a copy of his book G., but at the time it looked and sounded puzzling to me. I’m still hoping that copy shows up in one of the crates of books my mom has been sending me from my library at her house. 

    I have often been taught that something must change in a story. Characters must change. I now find this blurry with nearsightedness. It’s the reader who must change in a story. What is the point otherwise? Berger asks the same question here. “Where does the story deposit those who have followed it, and in what frame of mind are they?” (p. 71)

    Is there a refuge to be built there? In the story that guides one away from the path of the profiteer, the tyrant, and the bully, and towards the frog on the pond and the peasant in the field? I hear chipmunks rustling in the ferns outside my window now. I’m going to go watch them. 

    This week I read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood for the second or third time. Only it felt like the first time. I would like to think this is because a book, especially a book like Wise Blood, can cast a spell to lock up its heart if the reader is not prepared for the journey.
I’m sure this is not true. I was lazy in the past and Wise Blood caught me now in a less-lazy moment. Wise Blood will shake off the lazies like fleas from a caboose. There’s no fluff. No redundancy. I’m not even sure there’s a line you can skip without getting lost. 
I had read it before because I was in a fiction class that had taught her story A Good Man is Hard to Find. I wanted more by O’Connor and found it in a fifty-cent copy of Wise Blood with a cartoon car and a cartoon floozy and a cartoon Hazel Motes and a cartoon “Church Without Christ” banner on the cover. 
The second time I read it, I did so because Padgett Powell told us to read by O’Connor, “Stories, Blood, letters, and Mystery of Manners.” I don’t think I fully removed myself from the idea that Wise Blood was about a cartoon car and a cartoon Hazel Motes and a cartoon floozy and a cartoon church, however, because I was much confused by all the talk about gorillas and MVSVEMS and potato peelers and some crazy guy named Enoch. 
This time I had Thomas Merton in Raids on the Unspeakable tell me, in his prose elegy for O’Connor, “The key word to Flannery’s stories is probably ‘respect’… Having peeled the whole onion of respect layer by layer, having taken it all apart with admirable patience, showing clearly that each layer was only another kind of contempt, O’Connor ended up by seeing clearly that it was funny, but not merely funny in a way that you could laugh at. Humorous, yes, but also uncanny, inexplicable, demonic, so you could never laugh at it as if you understood." 
In workshop, Padgett Powell told us, “Write like that,” after reading to us from Miss O’Connor’s Greenleaf. I’ve been wondering while reading Wise Blood, whether or not I should write like that. Or even how. I don’t know if I believe in something enough to do that. One thing I noticed, though: The characters are corporeal. In Lee Klein’s essay on Literary Citizenship he says that  he “felt confounded” by Shane Jones’s Light Boxes because the books lack of characterization meant its characters did not engage him. (He goes on to say, “for a while I enjoyed picturing 6’8″ Sixers forward Thaddeus Young as the hero.”)
In Wise Blood, everyone has a shape. In the first paragraph we see Hazel Motes’s train companion: “She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.” I suspect Shane Jones’s lack of character descriptions come from wanting to be relatable to all and not wanting to offend by being particular. I’ve been guilty of this as well, but now I see such choices as being condescending to the reader and perhaps indicative of a writer that doesn’t know what he is saying. 
Flannery O’Connor couldn’t have written any of what she did without a clear sense of herself and a clear idea of the characters that she could measure against others. 
In one of her letters she writes about Enoch from Wise Blood as if he is there with her in the flesh:
"Me and Enoch are living in the woods in Connecticut with the Robert Fitzgeralds. Enoch didn’t care so much for New York. He said there was no privetcy there. Every time he went to sit in the bushes there was already somebody sitting there ahead of him. He was very nervous before we left and somebody at the Partisan Review told him to go to an analyst.” 
Write em like that. Write em so they bleed.  

    This week I read Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood for the second or third time. Only it felt like the first time. I would like to think this is because a book, especially a book like Wise Blood, can cast a spell to lock up its heart if the reader is not prepared for the journey.

    I’m sure this is not true. I was lazy in the past and Wise Blood caught me now in a less-lazy moment. Wise Blood will shake off the lazies like fleas from a caboose. There’s no fluff. No redundancy. I’m not even sure there’s a line you can skip without getting lost. 

    I had read it before because I was in a fiction class that had taught her story A Good Man is Hard to Find. I wanted more by O’Connor and found it in a fifty-cent copy of Wise Blood with a cartoon car and a cartoon floozy and a cartoon Hazel Motes and a cartoon “Church Without Christ” banner on the cover. 

    The second time I read it, I did so because Padgett Powell told us to read by O’Connor, “Stories, Blood, letters, and Mystery of Manners.” I don’t think I fully removed myself from the idea that Wise Blood was about a cartoon car and a cartoon Hazel Motes and a cartoon floozy and a cartoon church, however, because I was much confused by all the talk about gorillas and MVSVEMS and potato peelers and some crazy guy named Enoch. 

    This time I had Thomas Merton in Raids on the Unspeakable tell me, in his prose elegy for O’Connor, “The key word to Flannery’s stories is probably ‘respect’… Having peeled the whole onion of respect layer by layer, having taken it all apart with admirable patience, showing clearly that each layer was only another kind of contempt, O’Connor ended up by seeing clearly that it was funny, but not merely funny in a way that you could laugh at. Humorous, yes, but also uncanny, inexplicable, demonic, so you could never laugh at it as if you understood.

    In workshop, Padgett Powell told us, “Write like that,” after reading to us from Miss O’Connor’s Greenleaf. I’ve been wondering while reading Wise Blood, whether or not I should write like that. Or even how. I don’t know if I believe in something enough to do that. One thing I noticed, though: The characters are corporeal. In Lee Klein’s essay on Literary Citizenship he says that  he “felt confounded” by Shane Jones’s Light Boxes because the books lack of characterization meant its characters did not engage him. (He goes on to say, “for a while I enjoyed picturing 6’8″ Sixers forward Thaddeus Young as the hero.”)

    In Wise Blood, everyone has a shape. In the first paragraph we see Hazel Motes’s train companion: “She was a fat woman with pink collars and cuffs and pear-shaped legs that slanted off the train seat and didn’t reach the floor.” I suspect Shane Jones’s lack of character descriptions come from wanting to be relatable to all and not wanting to offend by being particular. I’ve been guilty of this as well, but now I see such choices as being condescending to the reader and perhaps indicative of a writer that doesn’t know what he is saying. 

    Flannery O’Connor couldn’t have written any of what she did without a clear sense of herself and a clear idea of the characters that she could measure against others.

    In one of her letters she writes about Enoch from Wise Blood as if he is there with her in the flesh:

    "Me and Enoch are living in the woods in Connecticut with the Robert Fitzgeralds. Enoch didn’t care so much for New York. He said there was no privetcy there. Every time he went to sit in the bushes there was already somebody sitting there ahead of him. He was very nervous before we left and somebody at the Partisan Review told him to go to an analyst.” 

    Write em like that. Write em so they bleed.  

    This book is terrific. When I was young, Ursula K. Le Guin’s name, I’m ashamed to say, freaked me out. I’m sure Disney caused this anxiety of mine with their own Ursula. But I’ve hatched. Moved on. Tucked her books into my napsack and squealed with some glee when the sea turtles showed up. 
I picked up The Lathe of Heaven because I’ve been reading back issues of Dark Mountain, a British journal dedicated to ‘uncivilization’. Their manifesto contains items such as, “Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will attempt to step outside the human bubble.” And “We will celebrate writing which is grounded in a sense of place and time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.” 
Their journal is filled with interesting nonfiction. And truly awful fiction. 
But the ideas and opinions in their pages are gold to anyone seeking a narrative outside of the mainstream. Some people think that the answer to the problems that technology and industrialization have brought to us, is more technology and industrialization. Are we to say, “Hurry quick, technology,” while we go through the hottest June on record and the sixth extinction. 
In the first issue of Dark Mountain, there was a suggested reading list. Le Guin was on this list, appearing with John Berger and Mary Shelley. I added several of her books to my reading list. When I popped in at the bookstore, none of those books were there, but this book was. 
And it had sea turtles on the cover. 
And it quoted the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu. 
Being a good Taoist and aquatic-species fanatic, I bought it immediately. I read it on the train in Chicago and stashed it in my satchel while walking around the Art Institute. (I saw the Magritte show, but to be honest, I was there for the Hockney.) 
But the book is good. What is a dream and what is not a dream. It’s sort of about this: “Once upon a time, I Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu.”  
It’s also about the ground shifting constantly below you. How a “problem” can be “solved”, but really it will still be there, in a different form. Or how “solving” one “problem” will lead to other “problems.” I put “solved” and “problem” in quotes because I pretend to be a “good” Taoist. 

    This book is terrific. When I was young, Ursula K. Le Guin’s name, I’m ashamed to say, freaked me out. I’m sure Disney caused this anxiety of mine with their own Ursula. But I’ve hatched. Moved on. Tucked her books into my napsack and squealed with some glee when the sea turtles showed up. 

    I picked up The Lathe of Heaven because I’ve been reading back issues of Dark Mountain, a British journal dedicated to ‘uncivilization’. Their manifesto contains items such as, “Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will attempt to step outside the human bubble.” And “We will celebrate writing which is grounded in a sense of place and time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.” 

    Their journal is filled with interesting nonfiction. And truly awful fiction. 

    But the ideas and opinions in their pages are gold to anyone seeking a narrative outside of the mainstream. Some people think that the answer to the problems that technology and industrialization have brought to us, is more technology and industrialization. Are we to say, “Hurry quick, technology,” while we go through the hottest June on record and the sixth extinction

    In the first issue of Dark Mountain, there was a suggested reading list. Le Guin was on this list, appearing with John Berger and Mary Shelley. I added several of her books to my reading list. When I popped in at the bookstore, none of those books were there, but this book was. 

    And it had sea turtles on the cover. 

    And it quoted the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu

    Being a good Taoist and aquatic-species fanatic, I bought it immediately. I read it on the train in Chicago and stashed it in my satchel while walking around the Art Institute. (I saw the Magritte show, but to be honest, I was there for the Hockney.) 

    But the book is good. What is a dream and what is not a dream. It’s sort of about this: “Once upon a time, I Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu.”  

    It’s also about the ground shifting constantly below you. How a “problem” can be “solved”, but really it will still be there, in a different form. Or how “solving” one “problem” will lead to other “problems.” I put “solved” and “problem” in quotes because I pretend to be a “good” Taoist.