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

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    The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, Translated by Thomas Teal
Topics covered: dogs, snow, ice, lies, eyes, art, boats, siblings, old ladies, introverts, books, the forest floor
A few years ago (or five or six) everyone I knew was reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. A book by Tove about summer! Ah, it must be fun, I thought. I bought the book, but didn’t finish it because of its particularity. I perhaps expected something with a lot of surf and sand and beach umbrellas and got a “six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and her grandmother, nearing the end of hers.”
I forgot about Jansson after that, but lately my friend Amy has been sharing things about her. There were the drawings that Amy had made of Jansson’s cartoon character Moomin and then later a link to the profile that the New Yorker ran called “The Hands that Made the Moomins.” I was intrigued again by these books by Tove, so I got the first book of Moomin comics and her novel The True Deceiver.
Oh God did the Moomin comics make me laugh. (It starts with Moomin’s gigantic moon, seen here.)
And The True Deceiver is a marvel. It doesn’t back away from dramatic tension. There’s a young woman, her dog, her brother, and an old woman, set in her ways, who the two siblings move in with. The brother’s an introvert. The old woman doesn’t like liver. The young woman lies about everything and nothing.

People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. That kept people at a distance, that and the fact that no one had ever seen the nameless dog wag its tail. And the fact that the Kling woman and her dog accepted friendliness from no one.

There’s one point where Katri Kling takes all of the old woman’s clutter out of the house and sets it in a huge pile on the lake outside of the window. She tells her that it will be there until the ice melts. Then it will sink and be gone forever. The old woman looks out on the ice and thinks about rescuing her belongings, but never does. I love that.

    The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, Translated by Thomas Teal

    Topics covered: dogs, snow, ice, lies, eyes, art, boats, siblings, old ladies, introverts, books, the forest floor

    A few years ago (or five or six) everyone I knew was reading Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. A book by Tove about summer! Ah, it must be fun, I thought. I bought the book, but didn’t finish it because of its particularity. I perhaps expected something with a lot of surf and sand and beach umbrellas and got a “six-year-old girl awakening to existence, and her grandmother, nearing the end of hers.”

    I forgot about Jansson after that, but lately my friend Amy has been sharing things about her. There were the drawings that Amy had made of Jansson’s cartoon character Moomin and then later a link to the profile that the New Yorker ran called “The Hands that Made the Moomins.” I was intrigued again by these books by Tove, so I got the first book of Moomin comics and her novel The True Deceiver.

    Oh God did the Moomin comics make me laugh. (It starts with Moomin’s gigantic moon, seen here.)

    And The True Deceiver is a marvel. It doesn’t back away from dramatic tension. There’s a young woman, her dog, her brother, and an old woman, set in her ways, who the two siblings move in with. The brother’s an introvert. The old woman doesn’t like liver. The young woman lies about everything and nothing.

    People sensed that Katri Kling did not trust or care about anyone except herself and the brother she had raised and protected since he was six years old. That kept people at a distance, that and the fact that no one had ever seen the nameless dog wag its tail. And the fact that the Kling woman and her dog accepted friendliness from no one.

    There’s one point where Katri Kling takes all of the old woman’s clutter out of the house and sets it in a huge pile on the lake outside of the window. She tells her that it will be there until the ice melts. Then it will sink and be gone forever. The old woman looks out on the ice and thinks about rescuing her belongings, but never does. I love that.

    The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
Topics covered: loss, conformity, anthropology
I started reading Le Guin earlier this year, after I saw her on a list of writers who provide ecological and spiritual alternatives to the mainstream corporate/consumerist narrative.
With The Telling one could argue that she’s questioning narrative itself. The novel follows an anthropologist named Sutty who has come from Earth to study the people of the planet Aka. But Sutty herself lacks a character arc.
Instead we see Sutty travel from the cities of Aka to its rural villages in search of a culture that is quickly disappearing due to a cultural campaign that impels homogenization. The narrator says: “The government of this world, to gain technological power and intellectual freedom, had outlawed the past.”
The cities have adopted the new ways entirely, but in the villages Sutty visits the old practices are still carried out, albeit in secret. On the wall of a medicine shop, Sutty finds inscriptions written in traditional scripts that detail forbidden treatments. The owner professes ignorance and says the writing is, “Just decorations. Senseless dots and lines.” When Sutty attends an exercise class, someone keeps watch for a monitor so that they can cease their banned movements and begin exercising in state approved styles.
I read some reviews that criticize this book for its lack of a plot, but I wonder if this is an attempt at a new kind of “anthropological” novel. This aspect of the book reminds me of something Christina Nichol said in a Paris Review interview about her novel Waiting for the Electricity which takes place in the country of Georgia:

I had the sense that the traditional Western narrative sustained capitalism in a way—it was all about the hero overcoming the obstacles. This individual, internal quest. I wanted to portray a character where the internal and external were in alignment, because the external was his commitment to his community. To have some sort of schism there seemed so Western to me. So what I was trying to do was to create a voice of community.

    The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin

    Topics covered: loss, conformity, anthropology

    I started reading Le Guin earlier this year, after I saw her on a list of writers who provide ecological and spiritual alternatives to the mainstream corporate/consumerist narrative.

    With The Telling one could argue that she’s questioning narrative itself. The novel follows an anthropologist named Sutty who has come from Earth to study the people of the planet Aka. But Sutty herself lacks a character arc.

    Instead we see Sutty travel from the cities of Aka to its rural villages in search of a culture that is quickly disappearing due to a cultural campaign that impels homogenization. The narrator says: “The government of this world, to gain technological power and intellectual freedom, had outlawed the past.”

    The cities have adopted the new ways entirely, but in the villages Sutty visits the old practices are still carried out, albeit in secret. On the wall of a medicine shop, Sutty finds inscriptions written in traditional scripts that detail forbidden treatments. The owner professes ignorance and says the writing is, “Just decorations. Senseless dots and lines.” When Sutty attends an exercise class, someone keeps watch for a monitor so that they can cease their banned movements and begin exercising in state approved styles.

    I read some reviews that criticize this book for its lack of a plot, but I wonder if this is an attempt at a new kind of “anthropological” novel. This aspect of the book reminds me of something Christina Nichol said in a Paris Review interview about her novel Waiting for the Electricity which takes place in the country of Georgia:

    I had the sense that the traditional Western narrative sustained capitalism in a way—it was all about the hero overcoming the obstacles. This individual, internal quest. I wanted to portray a character where the internal and external were in alignment, because the external was his commitment to his community. To have some sort of schism there seemed so Western to me. So what I was trying to do was to create a voice of community.

    HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor
Topics covered: history, Nazis, Prague, fiction
Kevin told me about HHhH when it came out in English in 2011 and it has been on my to-read list since then. That I finally got around to reading it will surely give the other books on my to-read list some hope…
HHhH is about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (aka HHhH), the Nazi who Hitler put in charge of Bohemia and Moravia after Germany took control. This spectacular feat which involved a tommygun and a rocket launcher was pulled off by two Czech parachutists who were financed by the British.
The narrator is a man who is writing this book, or one exactly like it. He sounds like this: I just hope that however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.
It reminds me of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, one of my favorite novels. In that the narrator is writing the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poems. (It begins: Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.) It’s partially about poetry (What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion), but it’s also about drinking a coffee and beer while writing, the narrator’s love life, and his barn, his fabulous barn. That novel delighted in its discursiveness.
But HHhH’s narrator only gives the bare details of his life, spending most of his time pondering over details like the color of Heydrich’s Mercedes, railing against “the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention,” and talking about how much he loves Prague (without really telling us what is so great about Prague).
This sample of the book at The Millions is a good example.
The meta-narrative wasn’t enough to be compelling to me. And the historical narrative was played too straight: The Nazis were evil and the not-Nazis were heroes. It’s a good song, but one I’ve heard many times before.

    HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor

    Topics covered: history, Nazis, Prague, fiction

    Kevin told me about HHhH when it came out in English in 2011 and it has been on my to-read list since then. That I finally got around to reading it will surely give the other books on my to-read list some hope…

    HHhH is about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (aka HHhH), the Nazi who Hitler put in charge of Bohemia and Moravia after Germany took control. This spectacular feat which involved a tommygun and a rocket launcher was pulled off by two Czech parachutists who were financed by the British.

    The narrator is a man who is writing this book, or one exactly like it. He sounds like this: I just hope that however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.

    It reminds me of The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, one of my favorite novels. In that the narrator is writing the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poems. (It begins: Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know.) It’s partially about poetry (What is poetry? Poetry is prose in slow motion), but it’s also about drinking a coffee and beer while writing, the narrator’s love life, and his barn, his fabulous barn. That novel delighted in its discursiveness.

    But HHhH’s narrator only gives the bare details of his life, spending most of his time pondering over details like the color of Heydrich’s Mercedes, railing against “the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention,” and talking about how much he loves Prague (without really telling us what is so great about Prague).

    This sample of the book at The Millions is a good example.

    The meta-narrative wasn’t enough to be compelling to me. And the historical narrative was played too straight: The Nazis were evil and the not-Nazis were heroes. It’s a good song, but one I’ve heard many times before.

    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.