Reading Marie Kondo and so much more … “The life-changing magic of tidying up”

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Being the aspiring minimalist that I am, I only got the ebook version of Marie’s masterpiece.

My oh my – the world is my oyster and I am allergic to seafood … I have to change. Or: I have to change something.

Over the last few years and months I’ve read tons of books about ADHD, anxiety disorders and mindfulness. One thing I’ve learned is that I can focus and work better in a clean and organized environment. Moreover, I’ve learned that I should streamline as much as possible – what to cook and eat, what to wear, what music to listen to when working/writing/feeling blue, what to read … – and eliminate unnecessary choices so as to save time and energy.  I’m also practicing my own version of mindfulness, using the App Insight timer for meditation and following advices from authors like Ruby Wax and Mark Williams, Matt Haig and Aaron Gillies (to name just a few).

Streamlining mundane tasks and eliminating choices goes hand in hand with decluttering, at least in my little corner of this world. I’ve already started decluttering and discarding months (years?) ago, and though I read Francine Jay’s The Joy of Less early on, in the beginning I didn’t have a system regarding how and what to discard. I just knew I had too much and I wanted to change that. For further inspiration I read Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye Things as well as a German book by Lina Jachmann, Einfach leben. Finally, somewhere along the way to ADHD-reducing minimalism I encountered Marie Kondo and let me tell you: I was not impressed.

Marie and me: no love at first sight

To be more precise: the first time I read The life-changing magic of tidying up I was rather disappointed and a bit irritated. Because when Marie Kondo explained that

The socks and stockings stored in your drawer are essentially on holiday. They take a brutal beating in their daily work, trapped between your foot and your shoe, enduring pressure and friction to protect your precious feet. The time they spend in your drawer is their only chance to rest.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I felt terribly sorry for my socks which was NOT helpful for someone like me who tends to a) feel guilty for pretty much everything (thanks gran!) and b) anthropomorphize A LOT of things which makes discarding stuff even more difficult. But apart from that all these sparks of joy she was talking about did not resonate with me. Therefore I decided that Kondo was not for me and put it aside. Several months later I discovered the wonderful and hilarious podcast By the book in which the hosts Kristen and Jolenta did an episode on Marie Kondo and her bestseller. Listening to it I realized that I may have missed some important points and decided to give her another chance. I even watched an episode of Mario Kondo’s show on Netflix –and finally I saw the light … once I saw this tiny lady jumping through pure chaos while staying happy-go-lucky I finally understood why she was taking her socks on a lovely little holiday every time she puts them in a drawer. She lives in her very own little world, all tidy and organized and full of joy, which seemes strange but wonderful. I decided to give her book another go.

Oh the (sparks of) joy!

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The ebook from a different angle – taking photos of a ‘real’ book is a bit more inspiring …

The second time around it worked MUCH better! I ignored the cheesy bits and adapted Marie’s plan to my needs. After all, I live in a medium-sized European apartment and not a Japanese single flat; it was also not the first time I started a decluttering tour de force, so I focused on my weak spots and paid less attention to those areas that are already well organized.

Following Marie’s plan I started with my clothing. I imagined I would be left with a few T-shirts, some pants and two skirts but it was actually not THAT bad (or good). Since I’ve applied the ‘one in, one out’ rule long before Kondo-ing the shit out of my stuff, looking for the sparks of joy in my drawers and closet was not as fulfilling as I had imagined it to be. I had already discarded a lot of clothes, shoes, and bags before so this time around it was mainly about the spark of joy and nothing more. Still even the second time around it took me more than one round to eliminate all the items that didn’t spark enough joy. I guess I overlooked some less sparkier items and mistook them for great bearers of joy, love, peace, and happiness.
I still have a hard time figuring out what the spark says about my bags and backpacks – I’m not that much into fashion and shoes but I do love me a good handbag (or backpack for that matter). So I decided to disagree with Marie in that life-changing can be seen as a relative term and also describes a “life-long” process of figuring out which bag to keep and which to let go of. After all everything in life is a process, so why hurry?

A few weeks after the big closet decluttering bash I kondo-ed my books. This was a bit easier as I discovered quite quickly whether there was a spark or not. ‘Professional’ books (mainly academic books) did not offer the option of joyous sparks – Foucault very probably wouldn’t give a shit about his potential on the spark-of-joy-o-meter and that’s fine with me – so they were out of bounds. Regarding most of my other books I realized that I have very ‘sparkly’ bookshelves and still prefer books over pretty much everything else – even bags.

Books were the last category I’ve Kondo-ed thus far. I got a list somewhere which tells me exactly what I should declutter next (bathroom items, maybe?) but my main concern was clothes and books. Since I got these done I feel no urgency to tackle any other category soon. I’m not a fan of relying solely on digitalized photos and documents, so while I like to have a digital backup ’somewhere’ (beware of the ADHD brain’s ‘somewhere’), I don’t intend to throw away all my photos or important documents just because Marie or any other minimalist say so.
Furthermore, for me decluttering and discarding has a calming and cathartic effect so I’m in no hurry to empty our apartment in record speed. To me a certain form of decluttering, discarding, and rearranging is a life-long process that changes the way I myself and my life (our life) changes. So while I appreciate Marie’s efficiency, I see no reason to emulate her. I still stick to my ‘one in, one out’-rule, not with books but with everything else, and I apply Marie’s spark joy approach whenever I’m not sure if I should keep or toss a certain item. Both methods are very useful and give me good results.

However, decluttering is not my main issue anymore. I progressed to a more urgent problem I’ve developed over the last couple of months: digital thrifting.
I invest hours in searching for the right piece only to wait several more days or weeks until the price drops so I can finally make my bid. I get a sort of adrenalin rush when days and weeks of observing an offer finally pay off. On a bad day checking my apps and wishlists is the perfect diversion and also leads me to believe that I’m achieving something even though all I actually do is planning to accumulate stuff I don’t need. What was a nice little pasttime became a nasty habit. While in the past I would have had a few beers to drown a shitty day or smoked more ciggies than I should to calm my nerves, I now found a different crutch to help me calm down when I feel a bit blue – cheaper than drinking or smoking, but only slightly healthier. Also totally irritating for someone who is actually all about REDUCING the stuff she owns …. 

But that’s a different story.

Reading: “Rooms” by Lauren Oliver

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I know Minna had a rough start. All those years in that crusty basement practicing piano until her fingers ached and God knows what else. But listen, we all get served a deck with some cards missing. Get up and get on with it, is what I say. I’ve done my reading about all of it: neuroses, psychoses, anxieties, and compulsions, blah, blah. I used to work for the Dr Howard Rivers, of the Rivers Center for Psychiatric Development, for God’s sake. And I’ve seen my fair share of churches and twelve steps.
It all boils down to the same thing: are you going to play the cards you got, or are you going to fold?

This is Sandra talking about Minna (obviously). Sandra too had a difficult childhood, which led to a rather difficult adult life – you may have already guessed that from the way she talks.

But who is Sandra? Or Minna?

Richard Walker is  dead. His estranged family – ex-wife Caroline, daughter Minna, teenage son Trenton and Minna’s daughter Amy – arrives at their former home to sort through his things, look for valuables and collect their inheritance – after all, Richard was a wealthy man. But they are not alone. The old house is haunted by former occupants, Alice, a stereotypical housewife from the 1940s/50s, and Sandra, a raunchy woman in her mid-forties, who tried to drown her difficult childhood and youth in too much alcohol and relationships with the wrong men. The living Walkers hardly recognize the two ghost, only Trenton – who barely survived a near-fatal car crash – senses their presence and sometimes even hears their voices, though he cannot process what he’s actually hearing and fears he’s finally going crazy.

We accompany the Walker family on their trip down memory lane, with each other and on their one.  Each chapter focuses on someone else, mostly told by Alice and Sandra – they intermingle their own stories with the past and present story of the Walker family, which paints an interesting portray of Caroline, Minna, and Trenton and also adds interesting yet spotty insights into Sandra’s and Alice’s lives. I love this technique of telling a story little by little from different perspectives and this is what I really liked about this book – though it did not always live up to the huge potential this technique offers. Oliver knows how to build up suspense so you want to find out how it all ends, even though you may not find every storyline all that convincing… Because this book has its shortcomings, and it actually has quite a few and rather important ones.

For one, a lot of the characters are not all that easy to grasp or likable because they represent a world of cliches and short hints rather than in-depth descriptions or portrayals. That said the question of whether you like a character or not depends on if you sympathize with the stereotype it depicts. Furthermore whether you understand most of a character’s motivation or her/his perspective on something depends on your respective knowledge of said stereotype and the cultural implications it conveys. So Minna, depicted as a surgically enhanced nymphomaniac, beds every guy she meets only because she wants to fill the void she feels deep down inside her with love and attention – or at least sex. This is why Minna is the least interesting or likeable character, because the cliche she represents is of no interest to me (I saw 4 seasons of SATC thank you very much …). Also Caroline and Trenton, both more likable because more tangible for me, represent their respective stereotype just as clearly and obvious as Minna; the same applies to Alice and Sandra. There could be so much more connection with all characters on various levels, but instead it all depends on whether or not you like the stereotypes that are used to depict them in this book.

As it happens I have a soft spot for most of the characters apart from Minna, so I truly enjoyed the book and was curious to find out how it ends, hence I read it in one day. This interest and excitement however did not make me oblivious to further shortcomings of this book, like the fact that on several occasions Oliver hints at something but doesn’t follow through. There is a character who’s presence in the book does not make a lot of sense except for reasons that leave behind the bitter aftertaste of an overtly contructed narrative for the sake of pushing some matters ahead. Also, while we learn that Trenton was in a car accident and nearly died, we never find out what exactly happened – something that I would like to know, especially since the accident is repeatedly mentioned and referred to and seems to be an important part of his story. Amy, Minna’s daughter, seems to mainly be used as a sort of prop whenever its needed regarding the plotline. Alice once mentions that she turned her back on her family when marrying her husband, but she never explains what exactly happens – so why the hell even mention it? For the sake of pushing the clichè of her story even further? 

I imagined lying down with Thomas under a blanket filled with down, talking late into the night, waking up with the tips of our noses cold and the windows patterned with frost.

I imagined that we would be happy together, that together, we would be home.

This is Alice. And [spoiler alert] surprise, surprise: Thomas is not her husband.
Alice’s story was my favorite, maybe because it reminded me of other tragic characters I love, like John Williams’ Stoner or Willy Vlautin’s protagonists. Together with Sandra and Trenton she also get’s the best chance to spread her wings and try to evolve into something more than just another story tableau. You have to see for yourself how this works out for you – I loved her voice, they way she tells not only her own, but also the Walker’s story, and even Sandra’s. She is the oldest and the wisest, the first of them, at least as far as we know. It’s another cliche, maybe, but it also makes her the most sympathetic, at least in my opinion. Sandra too gets a opportunity to develop her story. Her at times vulgar language makes her even more likable, especially when she brings highly delicate issues to the point in her very own way. Thereby she is an obvious opposite to the tight-lipped Alice. Still: another clichè… 

Long story short: it’s entertaining, it’s gripping, and it’s interesting; though it may not always be easy to ignore certain ruptures within the storyline, I really enjoyed this book.

Reading: too many books at once …

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Right now I’m reading about 5 books at the same time – different books for different moods, different mindsets, different levels of mental capacity. As you may have guessed this does not work out very well, meaning it does not look like I’m about to finish a single one of those books anytime soon – apart from Mari Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying up since I’ve already read that once and am absolutely eager to progress further with my decluttering/discarding project, hoping that her “spark joy” approach to discarding and keeping stuff will help me on my journey. But apart from that it will  be pure reading chaos for several more weeks or even months to come.

Well hello old friend – ADD and me

So why am I reading so many books when I know that this is usually not the smartest way to reduce my tbr-pile? Mainly because my ADD seems to be escalating right now and since I don’t take any medication I have to find alternative ways and mechanisms to cope with this situation. But don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with “oh my, I’m such a poor little unicorn suffering from *younameit* so I can’t handle my life”, oh no – I’m fine the way I am, with all the things going on, I’m just not the most efficient and calm person right now. And sometimes I’m annoying myself so much that I have to whine about it a little bit.

6 books and counting … 

Anyway, so there are 6 books going on – not included are the papers and books I’m working on right now in regards to my dissertation (yes, once again back on track, the never-ending saga continues) – as stated before, that’s a bit much. The largest of them all (see photo) is a collection of short stories regarding female detectives (yay for the feminist agenda in every way!) – it is a 900 pages+ volume with a small font and VERY thin paper, so I’m not sure if I will finish it in this lifetime BUT I’m quite sure I will not finish it if proceeding like that. Still, with short stories it’s much easier to put the book away and return to it than it is with a novel like I capture the castle. Additionally I rediscovered my Kindle again – this happens about every 6 months, because in the end the Kindle is just a book too, so it can be forgotten for some time only to be picked up again once I remember that it contains true treasures.

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I forgot this one the first time around … mea culpa!

So with switching from two to ‘just’ one job – a feeling of stability and structure I hadn’t had in ages – the world is my playground right now, and while I’m already in the process of picking up my academic endeavors where I left off months ago, I still feel a bit overwhelmed by leading such a stable and structured life – and having so much time on my hands. This may be one reason why I can’t focus on one or two books right now, and it may also be the main reason my ADD-brain feels like exploding. I’m not actually bad or worse, I’m just a bit hysteric. Since I learned to tackle my issues when shit hits the fan and there’s a lot going on, I now have to strengthen my ADD muscles in regards to organizing myself and developing habits when my days are rather structured and relatively calm in regard to my job.

What now?

Anyway, as I said before, one of the books I’m reading right now is Mari Kondo. Over the last two years I’ve discovered that the idea of minimalism is not just a convenient trend in a (Western) world that is increasingly overwhelmed by itself BUT also works wonders for my ADD – less stuff, less clutter, less dramalamadingdong. Still, while I’m really enthusiastic about getting rid of my stuff, I also know I have to equip myself the best way possible for discussions with my inner post-war grandchild** (“I don’t need THIS now BUT I COULD use it SOMEDAY and I got it from *insert name of dead relative here* so I’m not sure I can be such a heartless bitch and really throw it away, can’t we find some place to store it until we can use it SOMEDAY??”) and that’s why I’m reading Kondo. May her “spark joy” approach work wonders …

So, what is the conclusion of this rather messy post?
I will finish Mari Kondo’s book.
I will proceed with my academic reading ‘plan’.
I will add the occasional short-story from the female detectives book for the next 30 years until a) I can’t decipher the small print any longer or b) the thin pages eventually pulverize.
I will read some more, maybe quitting one book while taking up another. You know the story.

It will get better, quieter, more organized (again) eventually. It always does.

 

 

** “Let’s keep this, we might need it someday” was my grandpa’s guiding principle and something I was brought up with – I still have a hard time acknowledging the fact that his and granny’s way of ‘keeping stuff just in case’ does not work for me.

Reading: “Goodbye Things: On minimalist living” by Fumio Sasaki

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I started reading about the concept (or rather concepts) of minimalism quite a while ago because in the end, I hate clutter. I’m not much of an interior design aficionado, I’m not interested in decorations and I’m all about efficiency when it comes to using the space I have. Though we live in a beautiful and rather spacious apartment, I love nothing more than ‘negative space’ – or, to describe it in non-minimalist jargon: empty space. Being the postwar grandchild that I am (meaning I spent a lot of my childhood and youth with my grandparents, who grew up during WW II), I’m used to ‘save’ stuff for bad days, to not throw away things one could, at least theoretically, still use, and to always make sure that my cellar is well used (aka crammed). That’s what I learned growing up at my grandparents and even though I understand were they came from, I hate that I internalized their urge to not waste a thing while at the same time buying new stuff at a normal scale, so that one day you reach the point when either you move to a bigger apartment or you decide to act against your urges and start throwing stuff away. I cannot tell you how  much I enjoyed my first big clear out adventure a few years ago, pretty much cutting my wardrobe in half. It felt like a huge weight dropping off my shoulders …
Over time I found out that you can do this more extensive, decluttering a lot of various things throughout your house and your life, freeing yourself from a lot of stuff in your life – this new insight of mine is called “minimalism” and produces books, podcasts, and documentaries. It was like I entered a new world, and I’m still loving my time there …

Now, Fumio Sasaki’s book isn’t the first I read about minimalism, but it is the first Japanese book on the topic I read. Though I also read THE Marie Kondo’s “Magic of ..”, I wouldn’t call Kondo a minimalist, but rather a cleaner and organizer. But this is just my impression from her book and may therefore be totally wrong. Anyways, after reading a German book about the topic (which I absolutely love, you may take a look at it here, if you like to read in German) and some other books that are mainly about decluttering, I came across Mr. Sasaki’s book. Being totally minimalistic (and also frugal), I got the e-book and went ahead seeing what I could learn about minimalism from the Japanese point of view.

First: at times I really disliked Sasaki’s voice, he came across as quite patronizing, at least in my point of view. After all, while he provides a good overview over the various aspects of the topic and points out links between certain issues that contribute to a massive overconsumption – be it of material goods or media – and its psychological (and physical) consequences, it’s not that you haven’t heard about this before if you are interested in the topic of minimalism and read some other books. So there’s no need to sound like holier-than-thou. BUT that were just a few passages, otherwise the book is just as good (or bad) as any other …
Second: Apple Inc. surely has one huge fan in Mr. Fumio Sasaki – which is totally fine, and I can understand that especially aesthetes and minimalists prefer iOS devices and apps over Android (or Linux, for that matter), but this is no reason to declare Steve Jobs and Apple as patron saints of Japanese minimalists:

“The American company Apple has an intriguing connection to the minimalist culture of Japan. Many minimalists are fond of Apple products and of Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs. The products that Jobs created always avoided excess. The iPhone only has one button, and you don’t have to worry about being stuck with a lot of extra wires and ports when you buy a Mac. […] And today, the ownership rate of the iPhone is particularly high in Japan, which means that through Steve Jobs, our minimalist culture has been imported right back to our country.”

While Jobs may be the main figure in Apple’s history in the public eye, he was not its sole founder, a fact that one should keep in mind even if you are hugely infatuated with Jobs. Furthermore, I’m not sure if anyone needs his/her culture imported right back by an American (or any huge, exploitative, human rights abusing and tax evading) company, especially not the Japanese, but this is just a side note. Working with Linux, Android and iOS, I can understand that people fall for the shiny, clean and minimalist world of the iPad and iPhone – I did so too. But this was less a question of minimalist design and rather of practicability. But let’s not waste too much time, energy, and focus on the first trillion-dollar company…

I said before that Sasaki covers some important basic issues. Let’s take a look at this:

“But by getting rid of my things, I’ve finally started to break out of that situation. If you’re anything like I was—dissatisfied with your life, insecure, unhappy—try reducing your belongings. You’ll start to change.
Unhappiness isn’t just the result if genetics or past trauma or career trouble. I think that some of our unhappiness is simply due to the burden of all our things.”

“First, there’s information and material overload. For better or worse, globalization has become a key part of our society. All we have to do is take a look at our smartphones to get the news from all corners of the globe. We can buy anything we want online, anywhere in the world. We can watch TV shows from any foreign country, not to mention listen to overseas radio shows.”

These are just two points Sasaki dwells on extensively, and for good reason, since those are main and important aspects of why so many people feel the need to explore the concept of minimalism at all. Interestingly, while pointing out the fact that we live in a world of constant digital information and data overload, Sasaki at the same time loves the new opportunities this permanent accessibility gives us – like working when and wherever we want – which somehow feels like a contradiction, especially since he only focuses on the positive result smartphones and digital connections bring, but not on the possible negative side effects. More than regular cell phones tanks to our smartphones we are constantly available (if choose so) and if we refuse to, we will face the consequences (and yes, I know what I’m talking about, since I’m an avid fan of flight mode or turn my phone off entirely when I work or don’t want to be disturbed – there are times when all hell breaks loose if one is not available just for a few hours …)

Apart from a sort of introductory personal and theoretical background, Sasaki adds 50 tips on how to start and accomplish one’s individual minimalist dreams, which are very interesting and also inspiring, and can be so even for people who already know one thing or two about minimalism and its various forms and interpretations.
So how did I feel reading this book? I felt like I heard a lot of the stuff before, but I still liked the way Sasaki connects the dots and also tells his own story, which makes some of his arguments and statements a lot more understandable. Also, I thought this book gave a great insight into one Japanese interpretation of minimalism, which is not that popular and well-known in Europe (apart from Marie Kondo). The 50 tips Sasaki includes in his book make it a rather manifold compendium of inspirations on how to accomplish your minimalist goals, and I really like that.

If you are new to the topic and want to dip into it, you may want to start with Francine Jay’s The Joy of Less or her blog missminimalist.com  – after all, she is in a way friendlier and more easy-going than Fumio Sasaki. If you already know a few things about the topic but want to gain new insights and perspectives and are looking for ideas on how to handle the deluttering process, than come to Fumio Sasaki. Depending on how you like his style, he will be a great and inspiring teacher 🙂

Reading: “I love Dick” by Chris Kraus

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“To see yourself as who you were ten years ago can be very strange indeed.”

I didn’t know anything about this book, only saw it a few times on Bookstagram (and actually thought it’s a comedy because it sounded funny…) and that was it. So when I read the Guardian’s remark about this being “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”, I had quite some expectations. Long story short: they were not fulfilled. After all, I haven’t read that many books about men and women from “last century”, and I still believe there’s more out there, somewhere, maybe less hyped and famous, but more interesting. Also, this was probably too much of a praise for one author and her book to live up to.

The point of departure for this literary tour de force is an evening Chris Kraus — a 39-year-old, unsuccessful artist who is successful as being a savvy and (self) educated wife of an European academic and intellectual — and Sylvère Lotringer — said French intellectual and academic, her husband — spend with an acquaintance of Sylvère, Dick (who was identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige some time after the initial publication of this book in 1997). Dick seems to be flirting with Chris throughout the evening, and after initially being irritated she feels excited and empowered, enough so to eventually fall in love with him — or is it love? Desire? Obsession? Whatever it is, it initiates a foray into Chris’ past and the his(her)story of male and female artists, thinkers, authors and philosophers in regard to modern feminism and the (art) world.
The people mentioned here – Chris, Sylvère, and Dick – are all real, they exist and are not mere characters in a novel. In what sense these ‘real’ people correlate with the characters in this book is unclear and – to me at least – irrelevant.
Chris Kraus’ I love Dick is not a conventional novel, as you may have guessed by now, but rather something Joan Hawkins in the afterword of the 2016 edition calls ‘theoretical fiction’, which sums it up rather nicely. Chris jumps from the early 80s to the mid 90s to 1992 to 1995 and back; she leaves her husband, only to be with him again in the next passage and then she is with someone else – all this due to the leaps in time throughout the book. And she regularly interweaves theoretical, philosophical, historical and gender perspectives with her own story, the people she knew, read, watched, or heard of. While this at times interrupts the “story”, it was also the thing I liked most about this book. It is full of information about artists, thinkers, philosophers, and authors, male and female, their lives, works, and passions. Still, this constant switching between a sort of actual narration and her theoretical explanations regarding certain topics, often with a feminist background, was at times too much for me to keep up with. Now and then it just took me some time to actually recognize another switch when there was one and I felt confused and lost for the moment; that’s not necessarily bad but it CAN be unnerving…

Most of all, I enjoyed Kraus’ discussion of feminist issues. Doing so, she keeps it open-minded and down-to-earth, elaborating on various problems a lot of female artists and thinkers faced and still face (even today). Quoting the American poet Alice Notley she declares:

“Because we rejected a certain kind of critical language, people just assumed that we were dumb.”

And even in 2018, I can still relate to this quote, in an academic as well as a professional context. Exploring how being a woman and deciding to live independently – be it in a professional, personal, or artistic understanding – can influence our whole existence in all its various facets was interesting and by far the best about this book, at least in my opinion.

But there were also times I simply didn’t ‘get’ her (this was actually quite often…) — I’m rather the down-to-earth and practical kind of person, so some of her explorations into the world of art and theory were simply to abstract for me. Again, this is just me and may be perfectly fine for a lot of other people out there. And since this is a sort of theoretical fiction with a lot of essayistic sections, there is actually the possibility to disagree with the author – see here for yourself (and disagree with me, for that matter):

“The philosopher Luce Irigaray thinks there is no female “I” in existing (patriarchal) language. She proved it once by bursting into tears while lecturing in a conference on Saussure at Columbia University.”

Let me tell you: I too was close to tears last December when I gave a lecture at Columbia University, though not because my female “I” felt misunderstood and lonely within this system of patriarchal language, but rather because of stress, anxiety, and being close to a panic attack. Still, I can understand that one cries while giving a lecture about Saussure (who is very interesting, but also very male, especially in regard to Irigaray’s line of thought) at Columbia; but this “proves” nothing, especially not something the philosopher is/was “thinking”. “Proved” is the wrong term for this, she may have “underlined” or “emphasized” her thoughts about patriarchal linguistics by crying, but it is no “proof”. I’ve read some of Irigaray’s work and she’s much too theoretical and high-strung for me; as long as women still face male (and societal) aggression in a lot of ways every day and everywhere as well as a huge gender pay gap, I personally don’t give a shit about the female “I” in our patriarchal language (though of course I know that this is an important issue too – it’s just a question of priorities, and mine differ from those of Irigaray and like-minded feminists). Though this is just a small paragraph at the end of the book, I found it highly irritating, probably because it is a very narrow-minded conclusion for someone as open as Kraus seems to be throughout the rest of her book.

I love Dick was interesting, confusing, multilayered and at times fascinating. The ‘love story’ of Chris and Dick offers a sort of base on which much more important things are discussed, especially regarding Chris’ self-discovery and her relationship to the world around her. There’s hardly an interaction between the two and the main male voice we hear is Sylvére’s.
Because of the different styles of narration — third person narration, first person narration, emails, letters, diary entries — I had my difficulties getting ‘into’ the story. I read three pages, then I suddenly remembered I had to water the plants, look for the cat, clean some dishes, read/write an email, shave my legs, eat something, drink something, use the bathroom, check on the cat again…you get the picture. I love Dick wasn’t much of an intriguing or captivating reading experience BUT it was really interesting, I learned a lot and I really liked it.

[Under the rubric “things to ignore”: The back cover mentions several ‘fans’ of this book, amongst them the unbearable Lena Dunham, the epitome of ignorant (rich) entitlement. Miss Dunham being “a fan” is definitely NOT something to put on the cover of a book or a good reason to start reading that book (rather to throw it away or burn it) but I got an excellent shit filter and learned to ignore Dunham’s name long ago, at least most of the time. After all, it is not Chris Kraus’ fault that someone in the marketing department felt the urgent need to name-drop a bit too much…]

Reading: “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang

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I’ve seen Han Kang and her work all over bookstagram in the recent months and I always thought “Ok, well, this sounds interesting” but without actually thinking about getting one of her books because my tbr pile is still huge. A few days ago Wonderguy brought me a surprise gift, two books: I love Dick by Chris Kraus and The Vegetarian by Han Kang – this is my guy, who knows what I love: good books! 🙂
I leafed through The Vegetarian and wasn’t even sure which one I should start with, but the moment I read the first few lines of Han Kang’s book I was hooked, so Dick had (has) to wait …
The Vegetarian is divided into three parts with three different narrators. The main protagonist, the vegetarian herself, never tells us her story in her own words. We hear certain things ABOUT her, but never from her.

The first time we meet our main protagonist, Yeong-hye, it is through the gaze of her husband, who complains about his growing irritations with her and her lifestyle changes. He is a charming little piece of shit, which gets pretty obvious in “his” – the first – part of the book. Let me use a quote to demonstrate what I could possibly mean by describing him in the best way possible:

“The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra. When I was a young man barely out of adolescence, and my wife and I were dating, I happened to put my hand on her back only to find that I couldn’t feel a bra strap under her sweater, and when I realized what this meant I became quite aroused. […] The outcome of my studies was that she wasn’t, in fact, trying to send any kind of signal. So if not, was it laziness, or just a sheer lack of concern? I couldn’t get my head around it. It wasn’t even as though she had shapely breasts which might suit the ‘no-bra look’. I would have preferred her to go around wearing one that was thickly padded, so that I could save face in front of my acquaintances.”

Let me tell you: bras are hell. Next to corsets and shoes that are three sizes too small bras feel like shit and I’m positive that some nasty male designer prick created them out of a deep-seated hatred for all womankind. For any male readers: wearing no bra means feeling as light and free as you feel all the time – like, normal. Now of course, some women love bras, some (think they) need them, and some don’t care much about it, wearing a bra when they want/feel the need to and not wearing one when they don’t want to. As I’m part of the last group I definitely prefer my no bra days, and I do understand someone who doesn’t want to wear one because they prefer to be comfortable rather than to abide to society’s idea of a female standard wardrobe. Whatever floats your boat is fine with me, what I wanted to illustrate here is the fact that Mr. Husband is a narcissist piece of shit – I hope I’ve managed to do just that. But let us move on from this “Ode to the braless life”, because this book is about much more than underwear…

Let’s get back to Mr. Husband (isn’t he a delight to be with?): Seeing the world only in relation to how certain things and actions could reflect on him, his main concern is the behavior and appearance of his wife in public, especially when he is invited to join his boss and other managers at a fancy restaurant for the first time. His wife being the braless, introvert vegetarian she is makes him nervous, and sure enough over the course of the evening he feels embarrassed by her refusal to eat meat or talk to the other wives sitting next to her. Feeling like he can’t take this anymore, he calls her older sister In-hye (after having called her mother before to talk some sense into her daughter, to no avail), the efficient one, the successful one, the one who always does what she is supposed to do. Together they stage a family invention, ending in Yeong-hye’s hospitalization for attempted suicide. We’re leaving Mr. Husband right here, because we already spent way too much time on him and his part of the book is about to come to an end anyway.

In the second part of the book, Mongolian Mark, we start to see Yeong-hye through the eyes of her brother-in-law, which seems like an odd choice but over the course of the story it does make sense … I guess. This part of the book is set two years after Yeong-hye’s hospitalization, as she is now reccovering from those past events. Contrary to Mr. Husband, Mr. BIL remains nameless throughout the book, which is a feature I always appreciate, as it somehow opens up the character a bit, at least in my opinion. So, Mr. BIL is am artist, though not one who lives off his art – he lives off his wife. After discovering that Yeong-hye has a mongolian mark above her buttocks back when he carried her to the ER, he developes a deep infatuation for her, fantasizing about including her in a semi-pornographic work of art. Trapped between his growing fascination with his sister-in-law and his ordinary life with his wife and son, Yeong-hye once more serves as a sort of sheet on which his male ideas about her are sketched. She has no voice of her own and the male gaze once again is the only perspective we have. Though it becomes clear that she is adamant about her eating habits and is fragile in a lot of aspects, especially regarding her mental state, apart from that her story is the story of her brother-in-law (though thankfully, this time it’s not a first person narrator …). And since settings like these rarely end well, let me tell you that it does not end well – ‘I’d like you to model for me’ is nothing one should say lightly …

The third and final part is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. Four years older than her sister, she was always the responsible and reliable one, and she is the only one taking care of Yeong-hye when her mind and body deteriorate further once she refuses to eat at all. And only now we finally hear about a childhood lived under the constant threat of a violent father, which in the light of the events told in this books seems to connect some dots:

Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-Ho so much, a boy who went out doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always had taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temperor put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.

So, one thing is clear: this novel has way too many layers for me to comprehend and I will not pretend that I have. While the fact that Yeong-hye suffered physical abuse and beatings at the hand of her father may explain her increasing withdrawal into her own little world and her growing irritation regarding her physical needs and wants, this is only the peak of the iceberg, to put it mildly. I hardly know anything about the Korean society and culture to understand certain symbols and images. I’ve read repeatedly that vegetarianism is not that much of a thing in (South) Korea, still I don’t understand why it becomes SUCH an issue (yeah, I know, artistic freedom and such, but still that HUGE?). I missed out on a lot of things in this book and I hope to discover new layers and insights every time I come back to it. Some books fascinate us even though we know it’s way out of our league. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is one of those for me.

Reading: “Apology for the Woman writing” by Jenny Diski

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Her father’s library in Gournay was the place of escape from her present and from her preordained future. She slipped through the dark panelled door at every possible moment of the day and night, whenever she could avoid being tutored on how to be someone’s wife, some house’s keeper, some child’s mother.

‘I’m not ill, Maman,’ she whispered, still breathing fast, her face changed from dead white and vivid pink to the yellowish pale of parchment. ‘It’s Monsieur de Montaigne. He has ravished me.’
There was a gasp from the three other women, each of whom instantly reassessed their usual picture of Marie in the library.
‘His books … the ones Uncle Louis gave me … they are … extraordinary … I’ve never imagined … they are … remarkable. No, remarkable is too small a word. Nothing, nothing, in all my life I’ve read nothing like these essays.’

Already she was using his name to boost her own work. A devotion to Montaigne’s work would replace the husband she would never have, the quality work she would never produce, and the restricted life she must inevitably lead. So there was something in it for her, as well as for him and his memory. He decided to speak to Francoise about it, and ask her to send a farewell letter to La Demoiselle as if dictated by him. And yes, he knew how close this thought was to a crime against her. A further crime. He would have liked to think that he was not a dishonest man. But he was, after all, a man like any other.

I first heard about Jenny Diski when I read her obituary in the Guardian (read it here). Diski – a passionate smoker – was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in 2014. She wrote about her diagnosis as well as her life with cancer in the London Review of Books (find it here). Jenny Diski died on April 28, 2016. This may sound a bit morbid but her obituary made me want to find out more about this interesting and headstrong woman. After reading some of her contributions in the LBR, I decided to get some of her books, which was not as easy as I thought. I don’t know why – maybe Diski isn’t mainstream enough, maybe it’s not the right time for odes on smoking in trains and the like – but some of her works were hard to find. In the end I settled for two fictional works, the short story collection The Vanishing Princess and the book I will discuss here, Apology for the Woman writing.

Diski’s main protagonist, Marie de Gournay, is a stubborn, passionate, and at times aloof woman, who is in no way interested in following the well-worn paths of her mother and the women of her times and instead devotes her life and existence to the work and (later) legacy of Michel de Montaigne and his Essays. Setting out to become a writer and philosopher herself – something unthinkable for a woman in the French upper-class of those days (sixteenth/seventeenth century) – she eventually moves to Paris (first with her family, years later on her own) to try her luck. Diski portrays Marie as an ambitious scholar, an autodidact who tries to sharpen her intellect with the works she finds in her late father’s library and whatever books her uncle shares with her, but also as a woman with a lack of not only female looks but also features. In this instance, Marie at times seems like a caricature, though later in the book it becomes clear that she is indeed savvy enough to organize her house on a tight budget, so she is at least a bit practical, albeit maybe not in the typical and expected female way of those days.

But back to the first third of the book. After reading Montaigne’s Essays, Marie seems to have found her true calling, namely being one of history’s first “groupies” (in some way) and existing only to promote and support Montaigne’s genius, even though he does not even know her. After falsely believing that he is dead and finding out he is not, she writes him a passionate letter while residing in Paris with her family. He, after reading her flaming words and realizing they are both in Paris right now, imagines a beautiful and devoted young woman and decides that he wants to meet her. So Michel de Montaigne pays Marie a courtesy visit and from then on things go awry, in some way. Marie is not the beautiful young woman Montaigne imagined, still she overwhelmes him with her passion and devotion, pinching herself with her hair pin to demonstrate to him how strong her “love” for him is. After refusing to adopt her and instead offering her the title of”fille d’alliance”, a “daughter of his intellect”, Marie invites Montaigne to stay at her family’s home, the Chateau de Gournay, whenever he feels like it – while Montaigne tries to get away from her as fast as possible.

After suffering from a heavy bout of gout on his way home from Paris he is forced to accept her invitation to Chateau de Gournay. Staying for several weeks, Marie and Montaigne revise his Essays and it is then that she experiences her biggest triumph, seeing how he includes a paragraph appreciating her and her work in his writing. This is what will keep her going to the end of her days. This is what will make her vulnerable and at times ridiculous, even though she does not see it. Apart from the ‘sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll part, she is the perfect groupie and I can only imagine what would have happened had she ever had the chance to meet the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Justin Bieber (and forgive me for mentioning Bieber in one line with Jackson and the Beatles, this is referring to fan devotion, NOT musical genius/importance) …

She also works on her own books and writings as well, though Diski does not focus on this part of Marie’s life and work as much as her fangirling concerning Montaigne (her work is still quite impressive for a woman of her times, writing for nobility and receiving an allowance by Queen Margo, thereby being able to support herself). But everything that is remarkable about Marie as a person – her stubbornness, her ability to teach herself and learn from others and their writing (styles) – makes her work average and uninspired, at least according to Montaigne and Diski. Which may be the reason that Diski never really focuses on Marie’s writing apart from what happened in direct relation to Michel de Montaigne.

After Montaigne’s death, Marie’s wrong (asymmetrical?) self-assessment climaxes when she revises the final edition of his Essays – even though Montaigne’s wife, complying with his last will, simply asks her to find a printer in Paris to keep his memory alive – to her favor. Montaigne’s widow makes it quite clear that she does not appreciate Marie’s additions and revisions and that she furthermore wants her out of her life. From then on, Marie realizes that she indeed overestimated her position in Montaigne’s life and work and that she has to create her own life, if one might say so. Now we get to know Marie apart from Montaigne, Marie on her own, Marie with Jamyn, her maid and one more woman who is capable of so much more than she truly shows. Also, Diski adds an interesting twist to the relationship of the two women, which at times seems like a bit of an uninspired cliché, but more importantly adds an important and interesting layer to Marie’s character.

In the “Author’s note” Jenny Diski calls her work a ‘historical novel’ and explains her fictional Marie and why she chose a certain direction over another. Apart from the main characters and most of their works, this is fictional and not factual, something one should never forget when reading books like that. This is even more important when the author regularly uses a sort of factual, distanced prose that may create the illusion of reading a biography, not a novel. But this is Diski’s strength, and I loved the book for the distance she creates while narrating artificial and longed for intimacy between the various characters. Marie can be annoying at times, her fangirling and the way she never sees how her beloved philosopher at times simply uses her, can be exhausting. But I don’t have to love my main character every single page to appreciate and like a book.
Therefore, even though this book might not be for you, go out there, take a look at her oeuvre and maybe you find some other Diski that is right for you.