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: “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer

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This will be quite a different reading report compared to the ones before; first, Foer’s book is a factual report of how animals, or rather ‘livestock’ is treated in the US and most certainly in a lot of other parts in this world; furthermore, this is not just about reading a book, this is about acting on it: stop eating meat. However, this does not imply everyone who reads this book has to do so, too. This is not the Allen Carr of carnivores, this is a well researched and written report about what eating meat and animal products does to us and our planet, and, most importantly, to all the more or less living creatures we eat.

European readers (like me) may calm their souls by telling themselves that Foer is mainly describing the situation in the US and there are significant differences between the US and the EU. This is indeed so, especially regarding the use of growth hormones and genetically engineered food/crops; this, however, does not mean that the EU is a safe haven for Wilbur (or Charlotte, for that matter). So the fact that Foer focuses on meat production and consumption in his home country should not encourage non-US readers to think what he describes does not apply to European (or international) meat production, for example regarding poultry and battery farms. It’s not like lovely purple Milka cows are caressed to death until they end as tasty steaks on our plate in every other part of the world except the US.

I have never eaten that much meat, mainly because I hate cooking and meat requires a certain amount of proficiency to taste good; I didn’t want to waste money on ruining perfectly fine food, so I’ve mainly stuck to vegetables, rice, pasta, and the like to fuel my body with the energy it needs. Therefore, the decision to quit eating meat after reading Eating Animals was not as much of a challenge as when I decided to quit smoking. Reading that a huge part of what’s wrong with the system Foer describes is the (American) system itself — the bigger the better, the Walmartization of their world — makes me sad and angry at the same time … this complete and utter disregard for nature, the world we live in, and the creatures this planet could support if they were worthy of support and protection.
But I digress; even though discussing economical aspects of animal rights will lead to political issues most of the times, I’m focusing on the US in this context because a) Foer focuses on it, and hey, this post is about his book, at least somehow, and b) I know the US much better than China or Russia (thanks to work, life, and family) and it’s easier to argue about stuff you know than stuff you’ve never even heard of. And while it is definitely not fair to focus my criticism on only one side/country/system, again, this post (and all my ranting) refers to the things I read in Foer’s book, in which Chinese planned economy only plays a very marginal role…so to speak. So bear with me while I try to reach a sane conclusion on why reading a book results in changing my diet.

On a scientific, factual level, no one really matters. People invented religions to overcome this flaw of evolution, but still: we are a random mix of genes and cells (people with a medical background would use better terms to describe this …) and that’s it. But on an idealist, personal level, every one of us matters in various ways — for example if you choose to stop eating meat, become vegan, only eat meat from small producers (you may even know personally), start living plastic-free, give up your Nespresso for something less evil and more sustainable, or stop shopping at Primark, H&M, and the like — there are many different ways we can matter if we want to. And if we don’t want to take certain responsibilities and even begin to matter, we most certainly will not read a book like Foer’s Eating Animals.

Dammit, I just hope this post isn’t too damn self-righteous and moralizing. I’ve been reading about sustainability, fair fashion, green living, and vegetarianism for quite a while now and all my interest and accumulated knowledge up to this date obviously climaxed in this post right here. I mean well and I hope this is evident … because the road to hell is paved with good intentions and to hell we’ll go no matter what, so it might as well be sustainable and peaceful, without being bothered by something online.

Reading: “Don’t skip out on me” by Willy Vlautin

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Horace was alone in the city and he realized that being alone in the city was worse than being alone on the ranch. Because when he was alone on the ranch he had the dream of the city, the dream of what he would become in the city. But now he was there and he was still alone. He was just himself in another place.

‘But I don’t care anymore, Mr. Reese. Every night I’m here, I hope I get run over or stabbed or shot or thrown in prison. That’s how I feel.’
‘I’d be tired too, if I were you,’ the old man said. ‘It’s hard to hate yourself every single day, and it’s hard to try and be something you’re not. Both of those take their toll.’

Have I ever before mentioned my love for Willy Vlautin? One of best authors I’ve read in the last few years? One of my favorite authors ever? Have I not? Shame on me.

So, I love Vlautin’s books. He creates unique characters with very special voices, stories, issues, that affect me deeply, remind me of someone (myself at times), let me explore unknown perspectives and lives and introduces new ways of looking at familiar issues to me—all this in his very own, unique way of telling a story. My first Vlautin was Motel Life, followed by Northline. I highly recommend reading both books if you want to enjoy Vlautin’s full ouvre, the early Vlautin, so to say. Northline also comes (at least it did back then when I ordered the book) with a wonderful soundtrack, a musical gem that is one of my main “work soundtracks” next to Cliff Martinez’ Solaris. Moreover, there’s The Free, another masterpiece by Vlautin. Oh my, you see, mine won’t be a sober, impartial “review”…

We are following the story of Horace Hopper, who wants to become a Mexican boxer, even though he does not have any Mexican roots, but is a half Paiute Indian. He also strongly dislikes Mexican food and doesn’t speak Spanish, still he thinks that the identity of a Mexican boxer is what suits him most. Left behind by his mother when he was eight, he grew up with his grandmother, who tried her best but as the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions… In his teens he started working as a ranch hand on the Reece ranch, where he found a home with the elderly Mr. and Mrs. Reece, supporting them when Mr. Reece’s health and body fail him and giving Mrs. Reece a new reason to live and a purpose in life, which she lost bit by bit after their daughters left the ranch to pursuit their life and luck elsewhere. Mr. and Mrs. Reece are worried about Horace and his plans, wanting him to stay and one day take over the ranch since to them he seems like their own son. But Horace has to prove that he is worth something, that he is worthy of love and attention and respect, even though his mother left him and his father never cared about him. So he will be Hector Hidalgo, and Hector will become a successful boxer, thereby letting everyone know WHO he is and how great he is—even though he is not what he pretends to be. Sounds a bit unhealthy? Like you want to give Horace a hug, tell him he is a great person just the way he is and he shouldn’t waste a present life full of appreciation and love for who he is to let himself be haunted by a past he will never be able to change, no matter who and what he pretends to be? Well, Horace is 21 and he wouldn’t listen to you anyway, as he doesn’t listen to Mr. Reece, and so we are forced to watch another wonderful human being fight the demons of his past.

Reading the quote at the beginning of this post, once again Vlautin’s story reminds me of someone: me. When I was 17, I moved back to the city after having to live with my family on the countryside for two years (I HATED the countryside, still do); I had a lot of shitty teenage drama going on, as we all had at that age, and it’s nothing compared to what Horace is going through BUT I too can remember the moment when I realized that by simply moving back to the city, being on my own and responsible for myself, nothing changed or magically got better; I didn’t become this perfect little butterfly I wanted to be, I was still me, with all my insecurities, fat ass, and shitty thoughts, just somewhere else. This hit me really hard, and I can still remember my desperation when I realized that there was more to improving your overall situation than just moving somewhere or doing something different; it took me quite a few years and gallons of alcohol to find the courage to face the issues that really mattered…
So I do understand Horace, I understand his desperation, his feeling lost and overwhelmed
, not knowing where to go, what to do, whom to turn to. Because Horace feels alone, to him the only person he trusted to turn his luck around, to bring him success, was Hector Hidalgo, and as the story proceeds, Hector (for reasons I won’t mention at this point because you will find out for yourself) might not be so reliable after all. Learning to rely on other people and trust them picking you up and supporting you no matter what you do is hard, and sometimes it comes late in life …

Writing this post took 4 days and several attempts until I thought it’s at least halfway expressing what goes through my head (and heart) everytime I think about Horace and his story. It’s hard for me to write about this book because it was such an intense reading experience. It always is with Vlautin, but this one brought me to tears at the end (though mind you, I cried reading Stoner too, so this can happen from time to time…). Writing about books I like seems much easier than writing about books I love. Anyway, go and meet Horace—don’t skip out on me.

SPOILER ALERT: I will close this post with a quotation of the beautiful and poetic ending of Vlautin’s novel; though it does not give away much, decide for yourself if you want to read it or not…

Mr. Reese rolled him over and pulled him from the bag as tears leaked down his face. He held him in his arms and rocked him back and forth, and the night went along.

Reading: “The Blackwater Lightship” by Colm Tóibín

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“I have to keep convincing myself”, Helen said when they got outside, “that this is really happening. You’re all so matter-of-fact about it, but the truth is that he is dying in there and I have to go and tell my mother.”

Helen’s beloved little brother is dying. This brings the family together again – grandmother Dora, mother Lily, and Helen. While Declan has a seemingly casual relationship with his mother and grandmother, Helen hasn’t seen both for years and didn’t even invite them to her wedding. Her mother has never seen her two grandchildren, her grandmother met Helen’s family – her husband and her two sons – only once.

Reading the blurb (which says something like “forced to listen to each other” and “come to terms with each other”) I immediately thought of something blunt like an alcoholic grandmother, a crack-head mother, and two highly traumatized siblings coping with their past in different ways. The last part rings true in some way, but the first part is highly unimaginative, crude, and – thankfully – bullshit. Blurbs usually do their best to convey stereotypes to sell a book (we recognize the familiar), sometimes the opposite (at least for some readers). But I read one of Colm Tóibín’s short stories in The Book of other People, which I really liked, so I wanted to read one of his books. A bargain box at the local bookseller’s gave me the perfect opportunity to do so.

[Spoiler alert]

Helen’s little brother Declan is dying of AIDS. Assisted by his two close friends Larry and Paul, he spends a few days with his mother and sister at their grandmother’s place, an old house close to the sea, and the arrival of three gay men is reason enough to shake up Dora’s world. Nevertheless, this does not mean we meet the average old lady harboring prejudices against homosexuals; Dora is full of prejudices and resentment, so Declan’s friends are just the icing on the cake, at least in the beginning. Dora adapts to the new situation – Declan being seriously ill and dying – fast and seems to cope relatively well with the coming developments; mind you, the emphasis lies on ‘seems.’ For Lily and Helen, the situation is more difficult, since their relationship is strained at best; coming together again after years of not seeing each other and hardly any contact in the light of something as grave as the son/brother dying is a challenge on multiple levels.

“And why is it that he sent you to tell me?”
Helen stared at the road ahead. When she saw a double-decker bus, she thought about asking her mother to make her own way to the hospital, but it was a thought that she did not entertain for long. She softened and tried to imagine what it must be like for her.
“I think he felt that at a time like this we would all forget our differences,” Helen said.
“Well, I don’t notice any difference in you”, her mother said.
“Bear with me, I’m making an effort,” Helen said. She could not keep the dry tone out of her voice.

None of the two knew about Declan’s infection and illness, and especially Lily feels left out after realizing that Declan’s friends, especially Paul, know much more about his health and how to deal with his illness than any of his family, having accompanied him through the various stages of his HIV infection over the years.

Our main protagonist is Helen; though it’s a third-person-narration, the focus lies on her, her history, her issues, and her incapability to deal with her past. We also learn more about Paul, Declan’s friend, who never leaves his side and is the main force regarding his care (much to Lily’s chagrin). But apart from those two everyone else rather seems to set the stage for Helen and the family’s difficult past – at least this is how I felt. And it’s not that I didn’t like it; I loved it. First, when looking back on her past, Helen does not face a ‘huge trauma’ in the stereotypical way of trauma, meaning abuse and violence or the like. Her turning point was the death of her beloved father when she was 12; much of what follows are conflicts that could happen in a lot of families (maybe I feel that way because of my own background in regard to my mother and grandmother, so I’m sorry if this does not sound as serious and insightful as someone else may see the story). So while Helen’s inner (and outer) conflicts are understandable, one does not have to be awestruck how one person can go on with her life in the light of a past as gruesome as hers.
Second, Paul is wonderful. There’s no other way for me to describe it, he is a compassionate, caring, and thoughtful character, the best friend one can have in general and in Declan’s situation in particular. Larry, Dora, Lily, and Declan add their stories and all this together tells a difficult and sad story that will have no happy ending, but also one that shares a certain hope, though I cannot describe this feeling more detailed. I love being so vague…

Hope can feel good, even if it’s false hope. I read this book in two days, and it only took THAT LONG because I needed some sleep. Tóibín is a wonderful narrator, his stories carry a certain atmosphere I cannot specify, but I feel it whenever I read something by him. Nora Webster is already waiting, but I will take a little break before my next Tóibín. It’s an intensive and wonderful reading experience, one I cannot and won’t take lightly, for the best possible reasons.

Reading:”American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

 

2017-04-22-23-25-06.jpgYes, I know, there is no need for another sort-of-review of any of Neil Gaiman’s books because there are already thousands of highly qualified writings about his work out there. He is a prolific writer, has a wide, diverse and also devout audience (of which Wonderguy is a proud member) and countless different platform—a lot of them highly professional and influential—have already discussed his numerous works. Still, thoughts are free and unicorns are still a thing, so let me reflect on my personal adventure with Shadow, Wednesday and all the other blokes who are setting the stage for a reading experience that was by far not as smooth as The Graveyard Book (my favourite Neil Gaiman book so far, though I have some more reading to do), but still gave me one of my favorite characters.

First off, I have to confess that I do not “like” and therefore hardly read any fantasy novels. I never read the Harry Potter-series (though I always wanted to read something by J.K. Rowling and A Casual Vacancy made that happen, but that’s another story) or Lord of the Rings  and I was surprised to find out that Philip Pullman was NOT in Independence Day (though: kudos to a fellow atheist, may the bridges we burn light our way…). Apart from an occasional Terry Pratchett I am hardly Neil Gaiman’s target audience, which might be a reason why reading The Graveyard Book, with its comparably small cast and fictional world, was ‘easier’ and much more enjoyable to read than American Gods. Another reason might be that Wonderguy told me to read Norse Mythology  before American Gods to be well-prepared and—truth to be told—this sort of preparation pretty much killed my vibe. I am all for some deeper insight into the backgrounds of stories and novels, but my enthusiasm has its limits and Norse Mythology exhausted these: starting with all the ridiculous names I never had a chance of remembering (for e.g. Gullinbursti the boar, Svadilfari the horse, or inanimate objects like a chain called Dromi)  followed by the mind-boggling number of protagonists, I lost track of the stories most of the time and confused everyone with everything except for the main ‘characters’  Loki, Thor, and Odin. [At the risk of sounding indifferent to fascinating historical knowledge: I’m an atheist which in this context means that religious and mythological symbols and/or characters are interchangeable and mostly irrelevant to me; the Norse mythology may be far more colorful than many of today’s religious symbols, stories and myths, but to me, in the end it is just another ‘metaphysical instrument’ for explaining seemingly inexplicable events and experiences while at the same time using this power of illusory knowledge to control the people seeking help and guidance.]
By the time I actually started reading American Gods I was already exhausted regarding the stories and adventures of Odin a.k.a. Wednesday and his various henchmen thanks to the enlightening ‘research reading.’

But Shadow kept me going. Through all the exhaustive dream sequences and fantastic elements which would otherwise rather discourage me to continue reading a book, I wanted to know what would happen to Shadow. Of course I acknowledge and appreciate the immense research work Neil Gaiman must have accomplished for this novel—no one needs me of all people to state that Gaiman is a master of his craft. Moreover, I loved the stories he tells in small subchapters throughout the novel about how the various gods and mythical creatures came to the US; they feature different voices and perspectives which introduce interesting and captivating insights in how myths and ‘gods’ can be created, transformed, and sometimes even killed off. 
Though the book dragged on at times—at least for someone who is not that much into fantasy—there were of course quite a few surprising twist and turns that made it an entertaining read, not only for the sake of finding out where Shadow’s path would lead him. Gaiman is a great author and knows his way around language, which always makes him a great read, even when delving into a genre one usually avoids (yeah, the “one” is me…).
With Shadow, American Gods features a protagonist that seems familiar, even though I cannot thoroughly explain how and why; he reminds me of Bukowski’s Hank Chinaski, various protagonists in war literature (Joker in Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, Walter James in Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, some of the guys in Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried  and Paul Berlin in Going after Cacciato as well as Colby Buzzell’s depiction of himself in the midst of the Iraq War) and probably some others I can’t remember right now. Shadow is the one you want to have with you on a road trip (yeah I know, what a surprising remark considering parts of the book); he is the one you want to ask how to handle the ugly shit—even better, you want him to handle the ugly shit; in short he is the big brother I always wanted. He is THE one invariable in the midst of an ugly and violently changing world—and I’m not referring to the sort of Ragnarok Gaiman describes in  American Gods. Maybe Shadow is in some ways an all-American hero which makes him seem so familiar; maybe it’s something personal in regard to ex-cons in literature, I don’t know. I do know that his character, his story was the reason I finished the book. 

Again, this is in no way a book review; though I work in the field of literary studies, I don’t do reviews here (or elsewhere, for that matter). Literature is art and art has no limits (sort of); different people like different things, that’s all. It’s just another account of my reading experience and reading adventure, this time with Neil Gaiman. It was not the first, it won’t be the last, though it was a difficult one. But it was more than worth my time.