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.

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 Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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Leo had been avoiding his wife, Victoria, who was barely speaking to him and his sister Beatrice who wouldn’t stop speaking to him—rambling on and on about getting together for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. In July. Leo hadn’t spent a holiday with his family in twenty years, since the mid-’90s if he was remembering correctly: he wasn’t in the mood to start now. 

So this is Leo and this will be Leo for the rest of the book, no matter how much he seems to undergo any sort of reformation; people like Leo do not reform, they perform. To an excellence it may even fool themselves at times…

In The Nest we encounter the Plumb family – mother Francie, brothers Leo and Jack, sisters Bea and Melody (in this oder), their late father Leonard Sr., ever-present thanks to his financial legacy called “the nest”, as well as his second cousin George – and a variety of people in their lives, most notably Stephanie, Bea’s former literary agent and Leo’s former lover; Walker, Jack’s husband; Walter and twins Louisa and Nora, Melody’s family…to just name a few. Leo, the oldest brother and the most successful sibling regarding monetary matters, crashed his car while high and drunk getting a handjob from 19-year-old waitress Matilda Rodriguez, whom he picked up at the wedding he attended with his wife and sister. George Plumb, trustee of “the nest” and family attorney, seeks the best possible option for Leo, with his wife Victoria filing for divorce and the New York high society already waiting for a scandal involving Leo Plumb: he pays out Matilda using a huge part of “the nest” and gets Leo into rehab, away from everyone and everything, until the dust settles and no one will even remember who Leo Plumb is. Which seems a good idea – but it’s not, at least not regarding to the rest of the Plumb brood.

Especially Jack and Melody desperately need and count on the money from the “nest.” They would get their share of the trust on Melody’s 40th birthday, which is just months away when we enter the story; now, after George and their mother Francie decided to use the money to get Leo off the hook, their shares shrunk significantly and are not enough to cover the expenses they already made and pay back their debts.
But of course, this book is not only about the money. In the end, it is hardly about money at all, but about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society in a traumatized city full of traumatized people who try to make a living in the best ways possible. And that’s were the magic starts, at least in my opinion. Focusing on the basic themes – moderately rich or well-off white brats going through life more or less aware of a world and people around them; immigrants trying to make it big or at least bigger than their parents in their new home country; people traumatized from war, injuries, 9/11 and its aftermath – we have seen it before (and better) BUT I’m always ready for more if it’s well done (which is totally subjective, of course) and I really like the way Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney tells the stories. There’s a number of characters and a lot of names, so I had my usual problem remembering who is who at times (husbands Walter and Walker, for example), but this happens to me all the time, so it’s nothing special. My ADHD and lack of focus is not an author’s fault, anyway.

Most importantly, at various points throughout the novel, just when you start thinking “hello cliché, no surprise meeting YOU here,” she takes a different direction, not necessarily one that no one would have foreseen BUT one that you would not expect her to go, simply because novels of this category – “light fiction”: funny with some (dark) humor, entertaining, bit of a critical undertone, but overall enjoyable – often choose the easy way out, ‘rewarding’ clichéd expectancies with the appropriate clichés. This rarely happens here, so I really enjoyed spending my time with the Plumbs and the people around them, even though some twists and turns were more foreseeable than others. Besides, some twists seem foreseeable because they are familiar – don’t we all know this ONE SPECIAL friend/family/ex-lover/colleague/acquaintance/asshole in exactly the same situation as Leo, Jack, Bea, …?

So what happens to people spending with money they haven’t gotten yet and, thanks to the overall human incompetence of their oldest brother, will likely never get? They are in a world of shit…so to say. And we are there with them, front row special seats. It’s a composition of different life stories and their various voices, perspectives, and worlds; an enthralling novel and a real pleasure to read. If you want something entertaining, humorous, and diverse to read, check the blurb and if you like it, go for it!

I want to close with a quote I love from the last chapter of the book – SPOILER ALERT – so be warned and continue reading on your own risk, knowing too much too early OR not understanding a thing:

Years later, when the tree had grown and formed the perfect canopy over the rear of the yard, Lila would marry beneath the massive leafy boughs turning red and orange on a blindingly beautiful October afternoon. She would ask Jack to escort her down the leaf-strewn path to her partner. Jack would be good to Lila all her life, showing up whenever she was missing a father. On the day of her wedding when Lila appeared on Jack’s almost-seventy-year-old arm, Stephanie would see Leo at her side and for a debilitating moment would be crushed by the enormity of everything he’d missed.

I love this quote because it is so positive, it is not about the daughter being left behind and missing out, but the father missing all the wonderful stuff that comes with having kids. To me, there is so much love in this small passage, I cried the first time I read it (you may need to read the whole story before even trying to understand my emotional exaggeration…).

 

 

 

Reading: “Autumn” by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland. All across the country, people looked up Google: Irish passport applications.

” As she passes the house with GO and HOME still written across it she sees that underneath this someone has added, in varying bright colours, WE ARE ALREADY HOME THANK YOU and painted a tree next to it and a row of bright red flowers underneath it. There are flowers, lots of real ones, in cellophane and paper, on the pavement outside the house, so it looks a bit like an accident has recently happened here.”

Smith and I had a rough start with her Public Library and other stories, and it didn’t get much better from than on. She has a unique voice, which makes her special in the best and worst possible way; while I liked some of her short stories, most of them contained a lot of literary references (I know, what a surprise considering the title and concept of the book) and casual name-dropping that made it hard for me to follow the story itself, so to say. Of course Smith is a master of her craft also in regard to this name dropping, since she is not only a writer, but she also studied them; so she names all these artists and authors for a reason and it’s not her fault that my knowledge regarding certain literary circles/periods/trends is sketchy at best. Still, I could not get drawn into the stories because a lot of it felt just random.
So much for the short stories – since seeing Autumn all over Instagram, everyone being enthusiastic about it and all, I decided I need to give Ali Smith and me a second chance: Autumn it was.

Not surprisingly it didn’t work out. I liked the novel much better than the stories, because in the end I could see some story-line and I was interested in the Brexit theme, BUT once again I had the feeling we are all over the place in so many different ways.
There are several familiar motifs that work well with each other (of course), but for me they also got lost along the way repeatedly, turning up again, only to disappear once more – a literary to and fro deluxe. For example: I often hoped I would meet a wise and lovely old (wo)man who would take me under (her)his wings and give me a sort of guidance along the rough waters of adolescence and young adulthood – I have seen movies about it (probably, I’m not sure, I don’t like movies), I’ve read countless inspiring and wonderful books revolving around this topic BUT did it ever happen? No, of course not, probably because they are already booked playing “rent-a-gramp” and reading to orphans at the public library.

Now I know that the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is a bit more complex, but it’s still working with the same familiar pattern, which is why I mention it in this context; it’s a wonderful topic and a great theme to work with, but it’s not like one has never seen this before. Same goes for the difficult mother-daughter relationship; nothing new but very well construed, and Elisabeth’s mother is as intriguing in some aspects as she is irritating and sometimes uninspired in others. Elisabeth’s various adventures on her way to a new passport are priceless, and a lot of us will recognize the mysterious ways in which the systems work in their own countries. And of course there’s Daniel, sleeping and dreaming (and more). I could hardly focus on a lot of ‘his’ parts simply because it was, again, all over the place, dream sequences and the like. Again we have a lot of name-dropping and Smith works with several references to the world of art and literature but this works much better in a novel than in the stories, at least in my opinion.

One of the main reason I wanted to read Autumn was of course the Brexit-theme. As someone living in Europe who has visited the UK several times, sometimes even on a sort of regular basis, the fact that they did vote LEAVE only to try to find out what that actually means afterwards, was “surprising” and I was curious to find out how a renowned writer worked with this important event in Britain’s recent history. And these were also the parts I liked most, the parts I read without putting the book down, the parts I still have in mind. Sometimes you see it directly – Elisabeth and her mother describing (and fighting) the fence, the quotes from above, the reference to the murder of Jo Cox – sometimes it’s more subtle, but it’s still there. And anyone living in Europe with eyes to see and an open mind knows we are fighting on all fronts against fear, racism, sexism, nationalism, idiocy, hatred, and politicians who use peoples’ anxieties and ignorance to their own PERSONAL advantage; Brexit is just one very drastic sign that we still have a lot of work ahead of us (to describe it in a positive way; otherwise one might just say “that we will never learn and are not worth the land, air, and nature we’re systematically destroying”).

But I digress, let’s stick to literature, shall we?

Of course Smith is a great writer, no matter if I like her work or not; in some instances literature (art) is not simply a matter of taste, but also of timing. Maybe this is not the right time for Ali Smith and me; maybe this time will never come, who knows. Go ahead, read her, give it a try – no matter if you like it or not, she’s definitely worth your time.