Reading: “Enough” by John Naish

John Naish Enough book cover 1

“We drown out the big questions by marching behind the brass band of infinite ambition. It’s a march that apparently need never end: today’s idea of success increasingly involves attaining unprecedented levels of health, power, and celebrity.”

This quote is from 2008. It resonates with pretty much every time frame from the late 80ies to today. But while the consumer culture of the last century was too analog to even imagine, John Naish would probably never have imagined how manifold one could present one’s infinite ambitions on today’s social media nightmares like Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. We are drowning in everyone’s opportunities. We are drowning in various ways to buy happiness. We are drowning in unwanted goods we don’t need any longer because we found something much better. This is as true in 2020 as it was in 2008 when John Naish wrote and published his book Enough – Breaking free from the world of excess.
In eight chapters and one afterword, John does his best to analyze the various ways our capitalist and consumer culture defines the meaning of “enough.” He covers as diverse topics as Enough Food, Enough Information, Enough still, Enough Options, Enough Work and – being the ADHD anxiety depression freak that I am – my favorite, Enough Happiness. You could read this book just like any other, or you only read the topics you’re most interested in, leaving out others you don’t care about. Still, you find a thorough investigation and analysis of how we came to where we are now (or rather were back in 2008).

Information Overload

Take for example Enough Information. Back in 2008, TV news reports were one of the most important news sources the majority of people turned to whenever they wanted to see what was going on in the world. Two years before, amid my mental health tour de force, I quit TV news for good and never looked back. Apart from a short stint in New York where I watched a local news channel due to a minor terror incident I haven’t seen TV news footage in more than a decade. Naish argues similarly, stating that TV news coverage focuses only on the absolute worst while a focus on local news will prove that the world isn’t that bad. He also never owned a TV (I ditched mine in 2012) because, well, absolute overload. Today, with Facebook, Twitter and newspaper apps offering push services, it’s even harder to escape the flood of solely negative 24/7 news coverage.
But ‘information’ doesn’t start and end with the news – even though Naish, who (still) works as a journalist in the UK, could have focused solely on this part of the problem. He also includes the fact that we’re getting much too much information per se throughout our days, be it a text message, WhatsApp, E-mail, or a mention/retweet/like/reply on Twitter/FB/Insta. Even more than in 2008, thanks to our phones we are available 24/7 – and people expect us to be. Have you ever had a discussion with someone because you read their WhatsApp but didn’t reply immediately or within the next hour? Ever had a friend who was angry at you because you didn’t instantly reply to their FB message even though he could see YOU’VE READ IT so why didn’t you reply?
Like what the actual fuck?
Naish covers this topic too, though more regarding text messaging (oh the good ole days without blue ticks when you had to pay good money for verbal diarrhea) and E-mails. He underlines the fact that constant interruptions are not a way to function, work, or live productively:

“It takes about 4 minutes to recover from an electronic interruption and regain your train of thought. So if you have 30 e-mails a day and look up 30 times, that’s 120 minutes of recovery time.”

Think about it. Two hours every day just because of your phone vibrates. It need not be an e-mail. It could be any messenger, Instagram, TikTok, anything no one really needs but your FOMO keeps you alert and active. It costs you valuable time. When I want to avoid distraction at all costs I usually put my phone in flight mode. Actually, I use flight mode rather regularly and it’s one of my favorite features because it keeps the world out and helps me relax and focus on my work, my play, and my life. Do you remember the times 10, 15 years ago when you could use your phone as an alarm clock as well and still TURN IT OFF? Not anymore in the era of smartphones in which your phone keeps you on edge 24/7 while at the same time invading your privacy and possibly even influence your mental health, depending on how well you cope with the overkill of news and social media.

All work and no play …

But enough of digital gadget bashing. Naish has a broader focus regarding how much enough there is on this world – today even more so than 12 years ago. In Enough Work Naish analyzes how we developed from doing our best to sustain ourselves, earning and working only as much as we needed to see the acquisition of stuff we don’t need as more important than time and personal freedom. A society that creates the illusion of consumerism as the main way to express one’s personality and execute personal freedom will never value the luxury of having more than just a certain amount of free time at one’s hands. So people who do not work full-time but prefer to have less money and more time – people like me, depending on my freelance projects – may be seen as traitors by some. We don’t work 8, 9 hours a day so we are not valuable members of society. It’s a scandal we are allowed to take vacations at all. Naish emphasizes this change in perspective regarding work when he writes

“[…] Many people chose to earn only as much as they needed to pay for basic food, clothing and shelter. Why go to work on Monday mornings if you don’t need to? That balancing act was thwarted when consumerism successfully persuaded people that what they really wanted was not more time, but more material goods than they already had.”

The problem is that personal freedom only goes as far as you have sufficient funds. When part-time work earns you enough to sustain a living – which may be the case depending on your education and work experience – then this concept works well. But the moment children, mortgage, credits, cars, and other issues I can’t think of right now entering the picture, it may be less about consumerism as a practice of personal freedom and more about pure survival. So while I personally agree with Naish and have a rather unconventional work biography (which is also a result of my mental health issues), we should never forget that a lot of people all over the world don’t have enough personal freedom to decide how they want to work.

How much is too much?

Still, consumerism is the source for a lot of problems we have been facing for some time now. Enough Stuff and Enough Options both deal with how consumerism and its consequences don’t make our lives any easier in the long run. Too many options cause anxiety in regard to fearing we make the wrong decision and can, therefore, be highly counterproductive. This is not limited to shopping options. Before I decluttered my wardrobe (four times so far …) it often took me up to an hour to find something to wear because I simply had too much. Nowadays, with a much smaller closet, it can also take quite a while because I can be a moody dresser; still, I’m much faster now that I don’t have so much stuff anymore. This may sound familiar to some of you. No matter what, more stuff and more options don’t equal more happiness. It only means you spend more time deciding on something and/or taking care of your things. And it also means you have to work more hours to earn more money to afford more stuff and options. Naish provides a wonderful quote in this regard that I want to share with you to conclude this paragraph:

“Shopping gives you a sense of choice and power which is often absent from the rest of your life.”

One of my favorite chapters is Enough Happiness which deals with the happiness and self-improvement industry that flourishes on the premise that feeling down is a vice we need to get rid of. Don’t get me wrong: I suffered from depression due to my anxiety issues and I still get very VERY low from time to time. I suffer from anxiety and can spend hours imagining the worst outcomes of the most basic situations. I am all for working on the self and not giving in to every little bad vibe that grazes on my frontal lobe. BUT this also became a very lucrative industry. Furthermore, it is simply not realistic to be happy and content all the time. You would either be on drugs or out of your mind to not go through some lows from time to time. That is fine. It is still healthy, even if it doesn’t feel like it. And it’s human. There’s nothing wrong with you. One woman’s pleasure is another one’s plight – that’s life. Naish taking on the happiness industry and its mantra that it will bring you never-ending happiness is an interesting and entraining read. Even more important is that he broaches the subject at all. More often than not this industry exists as a sort shadow society that everyone knows about but hey, as long as no one is hurt, let them improve themselves and don’t talk about it. And that may be right. But it is still important to tackle the topic, to point out that everlasting happiness is a fairytale and that certain lows are indeed just fine. But if it gets worse you should not just go and buy a book and a sound bowl but maybe consider seeing an expert to get professional help – not for eternal happiness, but mental health.

While reading this book I got the impression that Naish was ahead of his time. While 2008, 2009 saw a growing awareness of the dark sides of capitalism thanks to the financial crisis, a lot of his arguments that refer not only to consumerism but also sustainability and environmental issues have become more urgent and therefore present in the media and politics. So even though when reading about the growing distractions caused by cell phones made it clear that some time has passed since this book was published, overall it has lost none of its relevance and poignancy over the last 12 years. So if you want to enjoy a critical reflection on our society of never enoughs, riddled with a charming British sense of humor, get yourself a copy of John Naish’s Enough and find out for yourself when you may want to reach your personal point of having, being, feeling enough – and enjoy it.

John Naish Enough book cover 2

Reading: “An Edited Life” by Anna Newton

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An Edited Life by Anna Newton, published in early 2019.

“Minimalism as [sic] a broad term. It covers a whole spectrum of living with less beliefs, form owning only possessions that you can squeeze into one suitcase, to halving your collection of ‘Now That’s What I Call Music’ CDs that were about to topple off your shelf anyway. At the strictest end it can be very prescriptive. […] So what I’ve come to see as the middle ground is to aim for a more edited life. It’s an ongoing process that embraces imperfections and shrugs off the need for perfectionism, because perfection just doesn’t exist unless we’re talking about Ryan Gosling.”

Anna Newton is a blogger and author from the UK who published her book An Edited Life – Simple Steps to Streamlining your Life, At Work and at Home just a year ago in early 2019. She started out as a beauty blogger in 2010 and evolved into a lifestyle blogger writing about beauty, fashion, home decor, travel, cooking, and (self-)organization. She also has a successful YouTube channel. To be honest, I didn’t know her blog but saw her book on bookstagram (I guess – I’m not totally sure …) and only after reading it discovered her online persona – mea culpa! Being all about a mindful and well-organized life, Anna’s blog is a great source of inspiration for everyone interested in mindful consumption, creative cooking, and conscious beauty. I enjoy catching up with her from time to time, but even more so I thoroughly enjoyed her book and the excellent tips she shares for optimizing one’s organization. And contrary to a lot of books on similar topics, Anna always does her best to keep in mind that different people live different lives – not just couples and families. Therefore she often mentions various ways on how to handle stuff or follow her advice, whether you have family, a partner, pets, live with flatmates, or are on your own.
But enough of the introduction. Let’s take a closer look.

Anna’s take on LIFE, WORK, and HOME

Anna Newton An edited life TOC

Anna’s table of content which clearly shows her main topics.

“A TIDY HOME = A TIDY MIND. If your belongings are in order then there’s less chance of procrastination and physical clutter getting in the way of tasks that you actually need to complete.”

Anna’s book is divided into three main parts – LIFE, WORK, and HOME – and before she starts with the first part, LIFE, she introduces eight key beliefs that are the basis for everything she writes and talks about. I quoted no. 5 because it is one that I agree with 100% and one that becomes crucial every time I feel like I can’t get anything done: off I go decluttering some corner of our home (but you probably already guessed that). These eight key beliefs make a lot of sense and are easy to remember.
Only after sharing these important basic principles does she continue with the first section of her book, LIFE, and starts out with another topic close to my (and probably many others’) heart: planning. She gives analog and digital diaries careful consideration and compares both strategies, pointing out all possible advantages and disadvantages, even mentioning bullet journaling(!). After dealing with scheduling and possible diary types, Anna dives into a topic that has always been shrouded in mystery to me but became much clearer thanks to her: money, budgeting, financial planning.
She not only explains how exactly a budget works, giving examples so mathematically challenged people like me can follow it (after rereading it several times) but also shares tips and advice on how to save some money why that is important. In addition to several other interesting topics and insights, this was one of the most important chapters for me, since I always abhorred keeping an eye on my money more than is necessary. I used to have an idea about how much money I have left and I regularly put something in my saving account but never before have I found the energy to actually keep a budget and track my income and expenses – praise the Lady, Anna’s detailed explanations were eye-opening and even though I am still not on her level of expertise, it’s much better than it has been …

Anna newton an edited life budget

Anna’s suggestions on keeping a budget …


Subsequently, Anna counts self-care, social life, and setting goals as well as planning for your future as parts of editing a LIFE, and there too she shares some good advice as well as practical examples from her own life to underline how to handle your shit.

Part 2, WORK, was especially appealing to me since I work part-time at an office and but the rest of the time at home; Anna, acknowledging that her situation as a freelancer working from home might not be the rule, is careful to include different types of work settings into her considerations. Still, I found her tips regarding how to set up an ideal home office surrounding most helpful and after clearing some more space am now able to work more efficiently. She also makes procrastination a huge topic (speaking directly to me, I guess) and not only shares tips on how to overcome it, but also thorough analyzes regarding WHY we start procrastinating in the first place. Being aware of possible reasons for certain behaviors make it easier to recognize them and consciously work around it. Of course, for most of us this is not the first time we read about possible causes and solutions regarding procrastination, but Anna’s conversational tone – something most blogger authors embrace justifiably as it makes their writing much more appealing to an audience that is used to them talking like a good friend rather than an omniscient narrator or author – and the way she groups, relates and presents those facts still make it interesting to read.

The same goes for the last part of her book, HOME. Those who’ve read other books regarding decluttering, wardrobe organization, and similar topics won’t find anything earth-shattering – something she is well aware of and also acknowledges throughout most of the book – BUT the way Anna shares her own experiences and advises us on how to tackle out clutter and the various rooms we want to ‘edit’ still makes it an inspiring read. She dedicates a part of HOME to the issue of building a capsule wardrobe, something I’ve not read completely since I have not yet reached the point where I want to tackle this issue – still, Anna’s a pro even here (it seems to me) and anyone interested in how a capsule wardrobe works and how you can build your own will find precious suggestions in this part of her book. When sharing her tips on how to keep your home clean she pays tribute to the fact that different people live in different settings again; some live with their family, some live alone, and others live with their partner or flatmates. As mentioned before, Anna is careful to do this pretty much throughout every part of her book – she is always keen to include and address everyone, though of course someone may always feel left out.

The Anna Edit – my résumé

So what was my personal take-away on Anna’s book? I will forever be thankful for her meal plan idea and her thorough advice on how to keep a budget. Meal planning (Anna offers free printable worksheets as pdf downloads) not only made my life a gazillion times easier but it also helped me save a nice amount of money as a result of only having to go to the supermarket twice a week. Budgeting finally gave me a certain grown-up vibe that I didn’t necessarily miss but I am still happy to feel now that I actually know where my money goes. Also, I wouldn’t have felt up to the task of a low buy challenge without seeing in cold print how much money I wasted on stuff I didn’t need (and more often than not didn’t know what to do with once it was mine …).
Anna’s conversational style and special tone made this book a great read and I enjoyed the stories she shared from her life and the advice she gave on the various topics she discussed – always doing her best to include different people and ways of life. Even though this wasn’t my first book on self-organization and a ‘curated life’ (as I like to call it) – it was more like my tenth or so – I would definitely recommend it to everyone interested in improving his or her life in the areas Anna discusses in her book. While I don’t know her that well as a blogger and YouTuber I definitely appreciate her as an author with her own unique voice doing her best to add valuable information and advice to well-established topics.
In my opinion, she does a great job – you may want to find out for yourself 🙂

Reading: “Rooms” by Lauren Oliver

lauren oliver rooms

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 …

so many books 1

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.

so many books 2

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: “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.