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reading i've done this year so far
Someone recently asked me who my favorite authors were once I claimed to be ‘into literature’ and was embarrassed to find myself reciting only male names – Karl Ove Knausgaard, Dean Bakopoulos, Jonathon Evison, Haruki Murakami, Charles Bukowski…and many of these authors don’t even portray women well. I also realized that in the last few years, my book diet has mostly been in the vogue world of non-fiction and self-help.
I resolved to read more fiction this year, particularly fiction written by women. Some non-fiction and self-help have crept into this list, and there’s a few I read which I’ve omitted altogether. No one wants to hear about how I read ‘The Tools’ and ‘Unwinding Anxiety’ to help understand myself. But this is a good start to the first half of the year.
The Lyrics - Paul McCartney
This one was an excellent gift from my girlfriend. A coffee table book and a light read, The Lyrics is Paul’s oral history of his own works in conversation with Paul Muldoon over the course of several years, with beautiful photographs of original lyrics and of Paul and the circumstances of his life around the time of writing the songs. The Lyrics has a lot of anecdotes I’ve heard before (Yesterday used to be ‘scrambled eggs’, etc.), but even more I did not. The most interesting takeaway for me was that while much of his songwriting is based on creating characters (‘Lady Madonna’ the most obvious example), he insists that many of his songs were written from the perspective of a character. This concept is one he recounts several times, and that I identify with in writing fiction. Paul posits in not so many words that every song has its origins in a deeper truth of your subconscious; to bring it to life and fully flesh it out, you must step outside your life and your own experience to tell a story through the eyes of someone with something else to say. Sounds familiar.
Trust – Hernan Diaz
Okay, okay, male author. I believe I got this one from ‘What To Read Next’, and for that I am grateful – this was one of my favorites so far. The title Trust is a brilliant double entendre, invoking the financial world while also reminding the reader to believe (or not believe?) what they read. In Trust, the stock market – as the backbone and marrow of capitalism - takes on the aura of a mythical, ephemeral force tugged at and manipulated by puppeteers beyond our sight. This may sound relevant to our times, but what makes Trust a great, modern novel isn’t that it’s about money – it’s about truth and perception, and about how every ‘true’ story you read is filtered by the people who tell it. Diaz’s great accomplishment in this book is to inhabit the viewpoints of someone else in each part, and each part being a different format/medium. Who to trust?
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow – Gabrielle Zevin
The front cover of my Kindle version has a blurb from John Greene saying this was “the best book” he’s ever read. I’m not even sure if it was the best book I’ve read so far this year, but I will say that – along with the first part of Trust and most of Sorrow and Bliss – it was one of the few that pulled me into that undertow where the world around you disappears and your eyes just can’t stop inhaling the words on the page. Indie video games are an industry in which the dynamics between collaborators have gone unexplored in pretty much every medium, so I think Zevin stumbled upon fertile ground here. She crafts her own Lennon/McCartney relationship between the two main characters and a platonic love story that I greatly appreciated didn’t need to turn explicitly very romantic. The climactic tragedy felt a little forced and a little out of nowhere (while at the same time being totally predictable?), but I couldn’t stop reading. There’s some prose she writes around this part that is…to die for.
All Our Shimmering Skies – Trent Dalton
Another male author, but I loved Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe, which is apparently now being adapted for one of the streaming services. If that’s the case, then All Our Shimmering Skies surely will be as well, as I think it lends itself to the screen even more than its predecessor. The adaption better have an ace cinematographer – there are a lot of flowery descriptions of the Australian outback, sometimes of literal flowers. As with Boy Swallows Universe, I feel educated on a sense of place and history in Australia after having read AOSS, in this case the Northern Territory during World War Two. It’s also another novel featuring a child protagonist, and Dalton has a way of walking that line between real and speculative by putting us squarely within the magical perception of the world that children maintain. AOSS is very Odyssean (there’s even an enemy with one eye), and at its core it’s a treasure hunt. Often fantastical and never boring, AOSS concludes with a couple of old clichés, but it’s a credit to Dalton that I couldn’t stop smiling while reading anyway: the first, that you can’t take the treasure with you when you’re gone; the second, that the real treasure was within us the whole time. Look for this one to be in movie theaters eventually, mark my words.
Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life – Luke Burgis was one of my original Substack pleasures, and while I remain an unpaid subscriber, I enjoyed some of the free work enough that I sprung for the book he’s written. As someone who gave up social media in 2016, I thought I was far beyond the influence of mimetic desires and scapegoating. As it turns out, I’ve only replaced those screen models with real-life ones. I was astonished to find the source of my thick desires in friends, colleagues, even fictional characters. It also makes sense that actively denying yourself from mimicking a model is a kind of mimetic desire unto itself. Who could have guessed – I’m a hipster! The concept of thick desires is one that will stick with me and ultimately (probably) what drives writing this Substack.
The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki
Ozeki has been the great discovery of my renewed literary cycle so far. The Book of Form and Emptiness is her most recent work and the one I read first. It’s about capitalism and, subsequently, the materialism it breeds within all of us, particularly the lonely, and especially in women. Every passing character in The Book of Form and Emptiness is a delight – from the weed-smoking jazz-playing dad whose passing ignites the story to the homeless old anarchist poet in a wheelchair. The main character is Benny, a boy who develops a schizophrenia in which objects talk to him, born from the hoarding lifestyle of his mother Annabelle, who turns their house into a dragon’s nest of objects from the thrift store. The greatest compliment I can pay this book is that I see Annabelles out in the real world, and while I think they used to make me sad, I’m now filled with a hope that there is a way forward for them to fill the emptiness they have inside.
A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
I went right into A Tale for the Time Being from The Book of Form and Emptiness because I couldn’t get enough of Ozeki’s funny, but tempered prose, and the meditative Buddhist thought espoused in her works. She also plays with form, and in A Tale for the Time Being, one of the forms is the diary of a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl, whom Ozeki inhabits so completely that it’s enough to forget that the other perspective in the novel is a character that is, essentially, herself. A Tale for the Time Being is a bit darker, and Nao’s story seemed a little more desperate than Annabelle’s from TBoFaE. Again though: for every girl I meet who might be like Nao, I’m now given hope that there is a way forward for them to find their own superpower within. (Or as her Buddhist nun grandmother old Jiko would say, your ‘supah-powah!’) The little bit of science fiction lurking just below the surface of this one was a real mind-exploder, too. I told my sister she needed to read this one and she went to the bookstore but all she could find was My Year of Meats, another of Ruth Ozeki’s. I’ll be borrowing it when she’s done.
The Creative ACT: A Way of Being – Rick Rubin
Another non-fiction, but it’s about being creative so I’m including it. I’ve seen Rick Rubin get a lot of brushbacks for some of the stuff he says about “selling out” and such from people like– and I agree with Russell on a lot of it. My education taught me that all art is commerce. But if you take The Creative ACT as a treatise on how to live a life as an artist and not to make a living on art, it is (in my opinion) an insightful culmination of a lot of the habits and methods that I think most artists already know, but would appreciate the signposts towards following. At times it veers toward the Matthew McConaughey school of ‘whoa-dude!’ but, overall, it really encapsulates most of what we know about spiritual creativity this side of the 20th century without being too preachy about it. If you can stomach stuff like: “However you frame yourself as an artist; the frame is too small,” then I’ll recommend this book. If not, well…the plus side to this book is it’s one of the few I got in hardcover this year and it has a gorgeous gray linen cover.
The Novelist as a Vocation – Haruki Murakami
Another non-fiction, this time by one of the writers I had promised to leave alone for now. More of a collection of essays on how to be an author rather than how to write, I found a lot I could relate to in The Novelist as a Vocation, the main item being physical discipline and its intrinsic connection to the fortitude it takes to write essays, with Murakami of course being a famous runner. Other stratagems, like writing without an outline and improvising it along, are kind of anathema to me. Another essay was about how imagination is basically just memory and observation, and from those experiences we create inspiration. I think this boils down to the old axiom of ‘write what you know’, but also expanding what you ‘know’ not necessarily by gaining experiences (he uses Hemmingway as an example of this method), but by being aware of even the smallest details around you and how they might grow into something you can use. Most of all, it was encouraging to hear someone of Murakami’s standing say how to write a novel (paraphrasing here): “Write 1,600 words a day until it’s done and then re-write it several times,” which is essentially what I try and do.
Sorrow and Bliss – Meg Mason
Probably my favorite book so far. Sorrow and Bliss is a dark comedy that traces the course of the narrator Martha’s mental illness through her adulthood to the present and the effect it had on her husband and family along the way. Mason’s prose has a nice way of handling dialogue that skips the banal and arrives in quotations where we learn the most about the characters. She also practices deft switches of tense, at times in the same chapter. Parts of the book span years in just a few pages, yet reveal enough in mere sentences therein such that Martha’s character never seems incomplete. Martha’s hilarious relationship with her perpetually tired-of-motherhood sister, Ingrid, is reminiscent of so many modern women I know, even if distilled to their primary mode of communication being through emojis and gifs. Perhaps what was most endearing (and scary) about Sorrow and Bliss was how much I related to it, especially the mood swings and being mean to people you love. Sorrow and Bliss does end hopefully for Martha, if not joyfully – but that’s what I liked about it. The war can never truly be won; it is only continually waged, with varying degrees of triumph.
Well, so much for more fiction by women. I guess I did get a few in there. I’m thinking of diving into the ‘Neapolitan Novels’ by Elena Ferrante sometime soon, maybe over the summer.
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