Friday, July 8, 2016

when the sick rule the world

Dodie Bellamy's essays have a muscular force. They are all muscle, seamless, shimmering. A Dodie essay is constructed like a snake. A Dodie essay requires that you call her "Dodie" rather than "Bellamy," even if you don't know her. It requires an awkward intimacy. Of course you can get around this by referring to her as "Dodie Bellamy" every time, as if she's a rock star or a corporation, I feel like this would be fine, after all her essays infiltrate your world the way music and products do, stealthily like that, but me, I'm going with Dodie because Dodie Bellamy feels too formal, plus I've already used up a lot of words without talking about the essays. At this point I need to conserve, so: allergies, writing, movies, death, love, Occupy, gentrification, murder. Those are some of the things you can read about in Dodie's new collection, When the Sick Rule the World. Each of these subjects is treated not as a subject but as life: a Dodie essay might have a thing that it's "about," but it's not attempting to attack, contain, or finish that thing, rather the essay's "subject" is a doorway that lets you into life. By "you" I mean you the reader and also Dodie and also me: we're in this together. An essay on steel is an essay on art and impoverishment of all kinds. An essay on loss is about E.T. An essay on allergies is a science fiction story, utopian or dystopian depending on how sick you are. If you could figure out exactly how a snake is constructed, maybe you too could write a Dodie essay, or anyway an essay that had been bitten by a Dodie essay and stricken with some of its vital force. One crucial aspect seems to be transition: an essay's movement depends on how the scales are put together. Somebody once told Dodie that you could improvise a talk just fine as long as you'd worked on the transitions. So it seems that the scales, however shiny, are not the point, rather it's what connects, what makes the scales a skin, and this is what makes a Dodie essay feel at once so breathless and so alive, so unexpected and so true. The final, fantastic work, "In the Shadow of Twitter Towers," is about Dodie's neighborhood in San Francisco, a skin that ripples with mental illness, rent, tech workers, brutality, and the idea of community, among other things, and somewhere in there Dodie remarks that writing students, even those in grad school, sometimes make every sentence a separate paragraph, a practice she likens to the 140-character genre of the tweet, which she considers alien to her own sinuous monster paragraphs, so there you have this opposition between fragmented contemporary form and flowing atavistic Dodie form, yet strangely what I was thinking before I got to that part was how much a Dodie essay resembles my Twitter feed. I was actually thinking that this flowing Dodie essay form, this literary livestream that drags everything in its wake, was the best example I'd seen of a form that expresses what it's like to live in the stream of a feed, in the current of social media. You see the cupcakes your friend baked last night right next to a report of a gang rape, and where's the transition? There's no transition, yet these things happened at the same time. The transition is the problem and Dodie is working on that problem and it's so urgent you can hardly catch your breath. So maybe a Dodie essay really is opposed to Twitter, or maybe it's the answer to Twitter, or what Twitter would be if it had any spiritual power, if a live feed was like a skin you could wear, something that could protect you, a muscle to use, or something that bit you, or something that fed you.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

2016 reading: feast or famine (part 2)

An overview of my second quarter of reading this year (April, May, and June). In part 1 I laid out my approach to categorization, "Feast or Famine"--it basically breaks down like this:

Under FEAST you will find instances of linguistic richness; books of explosive content, stimulating theory, sprawling plot; books to chew on, laugh over, argue about, share with friends; splashy books, blockbusters, culture makers.

Under FAMINE you will find thin books, spare books, books that went under the radar, accounts of indisposition and sadness, books to be sick with, books that feel unfinished, diaries, whispers, and notes.

If I've read the book more than once, it's in bold; if I've written about it, there's a link.

So: three more months of reading...


Patternmaster by Octavia Butler

Nova Swing by M. John Harrison - Volume Two of the Kefahuchi Tract trilogy. If Light was space opera with a hint of noir, this one is noir with a patina of space opera. At its heart lies one of the weirdest and loveliest scenes I've read in science fiction.

The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol, translated by George Henson - Wonderful collection of critical and personal essays (though--as when reading Enrique Vila-Matas, who wrote the introduction to this book--I couldn't help a sigh over the invisibility of women writers, the ease with which they're skipped over, just completely missed like pieces of furniture--and we all know the furniture you're sitting on is the most quickly forgotten. Oh, but Virginia Woolf is there, yes, we can depend on her as usual! Represent.) The first essay, in which the author wanders around Venice without his glasses, is my favorite; another gave me dreams.

Five Spice Street by Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler - Another book from the Patternist series (I read them all). This is the book where the psionic network, the Pattern, comes into existence, the result of a mutation in the human breeding program the immortal Doro has been working on for centuries. It's the story of a rebel monster confronting her Dr. Frankenstein. The pain of human relationships, the unbearable nature of psychic and physical transition, the violence of survival, the link between mind and meat.

Empty Space: A Haunting by M. John Harrison - The conclusion to the trilogy that includes Light and Nova Swing. More shards of time travel, mutation, mystery, and disintegration jabbing at your brain. I want someone to write about this trilogy through object-oriented ontology and also to address the role of the 1950s in terms of gender, cloning, and nostalgia. Get to it!

The Round House by Louise Erdrich - Listened to the audiobook, very well read by Gary Farmer. An Ojibwe boy's coming-of-age story provides the ground where Erdrich examines the conflict between justice and the law.

Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography by Geoffrey Batchen - Fascinating extended essay on the desire to photograph--which of course preceded photography itself--and on the effects of photography on perception.

Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, edited by Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky - Oh, decadence, if only I could understand you! Yet decadence, as several of these essays claim, disintegrates as soon as it is named. Much to reflect on here, especially in Marc Weiner's excellent essay on Wagner, AIDS, and the movie Philadelphia. I still do not understand the politics of decadence.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler - In which Doro--vampire and hero, savior and abuser--establishes his kingdom. By depicting an African who institutes a grandiose human breeding program during the transatlantic slave trade, Butler gracefully sidesteps the moral high ground, entering deeply into an investigation of power and--as always--survival.

Blog Theory by Jodi Dean - Considering leaving the internet? This book will amply justify your decision. Read about how your own drives and emotions have trapped you in the stranglehold of communicative capitalism, and don't forget to share this blog post.

I Want to Get Married!: One Wannabe Bride's Misadventures with Handsome Houdinis, Technicolor Grooms, Morality Police, and Other Mr. Not Quite Rights by Ghada Abdel Aal, translated by Nora Eltahawy - Speaking of blogging...this book grew out of Ghada Abdel Aal's sensationally successful blog about trying to get married in Egypt. Representing both the increasing desperation of unmarried women approaching thirty, and the social system that creates their dilemma, it is heartfelt and hilarious.

Clay's Ark by Octavia Butler - The last Patternist book I read, and my personal favorite. To give birth to something unrecognizable, unpredictable, animal, and horribly gifted... shivers. Also, why is this not a movie?

After Identity: Mennonite Writing in North America, edited by Robert Zacharias - A new, exciting essay collection that plays with the idea of "after identity"--are Mennonites "post-identity" or still chasing "after" it? Standouts: Daniel Shank Cruz on queering Mennonite literature and Jesse Nathan on the question-and-answer structure in Mennonite poetry.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron - Thubron's prose is always a pleasure, but surely this book on Central Asia, written just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, should have been more interesting? Maybe it's the effort to balance the realities of newly-created states with the ancient history of the Silk Road that bogs things down. Maybe it's the fearful harping on Islam, and especially the veil. I don't know, but ho hum.

Chasing the Aral Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia by Tom Bissell - Another big book on Central Asia, another ho hum. Bissell, once a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan, returns to document his trip to the dying Aral Sea. I would have liked to read more about the Aral Sea, which only appears in the final chapter, and fewer generalizations ("In the Uzbek mind..." "In the Russian mind..." "I know the rural mind...").

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman

My Struggle, Volume 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett - For the first time in reading this series, my attention flagged. Somewhere in this volume the narrator declares that nothing has as much power in his life as his terrible father...that's true for me, reading his story. Here we have writing workshops, girlfriends, and his first marriage, but I just want to read about his father again.


Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery by Robert Harbison - A paean to the incomplete. Harbison looks at crumbled buildings, textual marginalia, visual collages, and fragmented film, asking what we find so compelling about the broken, the frayed, and the irrecoverable.

How Fiction Works by James Wood - This little book reads like a series of lectures by a professor who can only express his passion in the most pedantic way. Several good insights; a few bad ones; much dust and creaking.

The Wanderer by Alain-Fournier, translated by Françoise Delisle

The Bridges of Constantine by Ahlem Mosteghanemi, translated by Raphael Cohen - I have actually read this one before, but not in this translation (I read it as Memory in the Flesh--I guess I prefer The Bridges of Constantine to that, but why not "Memoirs of the Body"?--anyway). The new translation is much more readable, and you can feel the waves of despair accumulate in Mosteghanemi's wandering, damaged characters, as they work away half-heartedly at constructing their lives in the wake of Algeria's devastating war for independence.

The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz, translated by Adrian Nathan West - This little book on a post-World-War-II family in Austria is one of the strangest I have read. It creeps up on you, starting out so innocently, with a necklace, and then swirling into dissolution. It is also only a tiny peek--and so far, the only one in English--at the author's huge, bizarre output. Read Kate Zambreno's wonderful interview with the translator to learn more.

Survivor by Octavia Butler - This one certainly belongs under Famine, as it was left out of the Patternist omnibus at Butler's request. It's Octavia's "Star Trek novel," her ugly child. The best thing written about it, that I know of, is by Keguro Macharia. It really is the worst Patternist book, but even bad Octavia Butler is interesting. Can we say that--"a compelling badness"?

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston - There's a lot of travel experience packed in here, but the anecdotal style makes it feel like a notebook. A character called Pam takes many, many plane trips in search of love, friendship, and spiritual renewal. Despite some tough material on Pam's past--she's a child abuse survivor--the book is generally light and funny. A good airplane read.

Bandarshah by Tayeb Salih, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies - The author's last work of fiction: two meandering, disjunctive novels, the start of a proposed (and unfinished) series, published together in English, now out of print. This book really needs to be reissued. Salih's touch is so deft, his evocation of a small Sudanese town so delicate and clear, his exploration of the history of violence so deep.

The Verbal and Visual Art of Alfred Kubin by Phillip H. Rhein

The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson - How is it possible? This tiny book about Proust carries as much emotional and philosophical weight as all of Proust.

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard - Another small masterpiece. The solitude of writing, the wildness of nature, the cruelty of God. And her language. The water is "shattered." Dead spiders are "clenched."

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje - With this one it's hard to say--feast or famine? A rich memoir of family life in Ceylon, yet it has this wavering, hesitant shape, sudden white space, pages torn from a "monsoon notebook." I adore it.

Ban en Banlieues by Bhanu Kapil - "I thought I was writing about an immigrant. I was writing about a monster." Yes I am still rereading this naked, undisciplined, lucent book.

Monday, June 20, 2016

on hospitality

As some of you know, I'm trying to write a book about, among other things, a migration of Mennonites from southern Russia to what's now Uzbekistan in the 1880s. In service to my obsession with this story, known as the Great Trek, I recently went on a Great Trek tour with the company TourMagination, which leads Mennonite heritage tours. We spent ten days following the path of the trek--Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva--ending at Ak Metchet, once the site of a Mennonite village in the old Khanate of Khiva.

To feel history. To walk there. The mosque in the village of Zerabulak stands on the site of an older mosque, where Mennonites once stayed on their way to Khiva. Several Mennonite families lived for a time in the mosque. They were invited to use it for their Sunday services. Some were baptized and married there.

The experience of hospitality. A descendant of the imam of Zerabulak, who once welcomed the Mennonites, welcomed us again. Tea and fruit. Bread and honey. One member of our group read a reflection by Elizabeth Stauffer, who had been part of a previous tour, and asked: Would Mennonites today invite Muslim refugees to use our churches and meeting houses?

To live there, sleep there, worship there? Syrian refugees? Would we?

Over 130 years ago, the Mennonites arrived at Ak Metchet, and still this hospitality doesn't end. A man laid out objects left by the Mennonites for us to look at. An iron, a pitcher, a sewing machine. This, too, this care, this willingness to set these things before us, is a form of hospitality.

We were taken to the khan's palace, where Mennonites constructed beautiful tiled stoves and parquet floors. To be invited to walk there, lift the carpets, touch.

Finally, the proposed "Mennonite Museum," which isn't even open yet. We got to go in, to look at photographs and a model of the Mennonite village. The people working on the museum project have reconstructed Mennonite clothing, working from photographs. Every stitch a gesture of hospitality.

This trip expanded my definition of hospitality, because I experienced it in so many ways. Yes, crucially, there was that first welcome to the exhausted travelers, the offers of food, shelter, money, peace. I don't think you can claim to practice hospitality unless you offer those things. But hospitality can stretch beyond that, too. It is also to care for the history of others. To preserve and share traces of them. To remember.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Russian literature

Last weekend I was at WisCon, where I gave a reading combined with an interactive workshop called "LOVEHATE: Sucking the Marrow from the Bones of Your Problematic Favs." One of my problematic favs is Tolstoy, who abused his wife Sonya and fantasized about killing her in The Kreutzer Sonata. I talked about the influence of War and Peace and Anna Karenina on The Winged Histories, especially the scenes of family gatherings and dances, and read an excerpt from Anna Karenina in which Kitty attends a ball beside the scene of Siski's first ball in The Winged Histories.

This is only one example of the effect of Russian literature on my life, and especially on the Olondria books. The after-dinner walks on the grounds of Faluidhen come straight out of Chekhov. The mellifluously-named estate of Sarenha Haladli is a fantastical translation of Yasnaya Polyana. The colonization of Kestenya is based not only on British and Italian imperialism in Somalia, but on nineteenth-century Russian views of the Caucasus, which I imbibed through books by Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Lermontov. Kestenya is mostly desert, like the Somali territories, but it's also mountainous in places, with bitter winters. Often referred to as "the great plateau," it's a kind of steppe. One Olondrian imperialist complains of its unruly people and climate: "In Kestenya there is no dog that is not a nobleman and no water that is not frozen."

If the giant houses, extended families, and social rituals of nineteenth-century Russian literature appealed to me as expressions of a great cultural empire, the depictions of nomads struck me as the other side of that empire, and as something strangely close to home. With their tents, livestock, clan politics, and resistance movements, the nomads of the Caucasus seemed akin to Somalis. Lately I've been reading about Central Asia, Russia's other exotic other, and finding that outsiders write about people there in a similar way. Of the Kyrgyz, the British travel writer Colin Thubron says: "They could speak their genealogies far back into the patrilineal mist, and that was their country." Personally, I can only speak my genealogy five generations back into the patrilineal mist, but I have ten written down somewhere, so I can brush up before visits with uncles who might test me. The idea of the clan as a powerful nexus of belonging is familiar to me, and has been weirdly entangled with writing since I was thirteen, when an uncle gave me a blank journal inscribed with the daunting prediction that I would become "the best wordsmith of my clan." Still, a clan is not a country. You can't sleep there, and nothing can graze on it. The observation that the clan is one's country, which you can read approximately one billion times in descriptions of Somalis, Kyrgyz, Nogai, Roma, and no doubt many other groups, is both a recognition of an important form of socio-political organization, and a romantic and/or sneaky way of declaring that nomads don't have countries, don't need them, and don't deserve them. This is the idea behind the Olondrian conquest of Kestenya, which leads, in The Winged Histories, to war.

Tomorrow I'm going to Uzbekistan for two weeks. Right now I'm reading Elif Batuman's wonderful book The Possessed, which is subtitled Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, and also contains the best engagement with Uzbek literature that I know of in the English language. Batuman, a student of Russian literature, goes to Samarkand to study Uzbek. While there, she has a recurring dream about penguins. In the dream she's studying the penguin language, and discovers that it has two branches: "one epic-narrative and one lyric-folkloric." This, it seems to me, expresses the entire problem of the novel--certainly the Russian novel, certainly the fantasy novel. How to unite these two languages? Batuman's dream is a nightmare. "I was jerked awake," she writes, "by the pounding of my own heart."

Monday, May 16, 2016

they spoke only about their hypochondria

I've been reading about the visionary Austrian artist Alfred Kubin in Phillip H. Rhein's book The Verbal and Visual Art of Alfred Kubin. Kubin, writes Rhein, met Kafka on a visit to Prague in 1912, but the two "spoke only about their hypochondria."

From Kafka's diary:

September 26. The artist Kubin recommends Regulin as a laxative, a powdered seaweed that swells up in the bowels, shakes them up, is thus effective mechanically in contrast to the unhealthy chemical effect of other laxatives which just tear through the excrement and leave it hanging on the walls of the bowels.

Kubin himself: very strong but somewhat monotonous facial expression, he describes the most varied things with the same movement of muscles. Looks different in age, size and strength according to whether he is sitting, standing, wearing just a suit, or an overcoat.

In his autobiography, Kubin wrote: "I should also have liked very much to provide illustrations for one of Franz Kafka's novels, which touch me so intimately."

Alfred Kubin, The Moment of Birth, 1903

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

reading Octavia Butler in California

The Desert Garden at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA.
Octavia E. Butler's papers are housed in the library.
While reading Octavia Butler in California, I thought:

- that Octavia Butler's prose is spare like the desert

- that you could also say Octavia's prose is carefully economical like people who know they might run out of water

- that California is in many ways an extreme version of the U.S. as a whole, extreme inequality, extreme segregation, extreme incarceration, and that Octavia Butler wrote the stories of these extremes

- that in a dry landscape it is difficult to hide

- that my friend here in California, after reading Parable of the Sower, told me that he understood it in a special way because he drives every day on the 101 Freeway, and explained how it gave him a shock to think of people walking on such a road, of humans overcoming the traffic

- that Octavia Butler was a pedestrian in California and used public transportation, and that I also did this in California for one month but I couldn't keep it up so I bought a car

- that Octavia Butler wrote about power laid bare, something she no doubt witnessed daily

- that there may be a connection between the Patternists and celebrity culture

- that many of Octavia's writings stage what could be called a drama of access--access to power, to knowledge, to pleasure, to resources, to space--and that this is a very Californian drama

- that I drove on the 101 today and will drive on it again tomorrow

- that Octavia Butler's vision of California is completely different from Ursula K. Le Guin's vision in Always Coming Home, in that Octavia's landscape is in no way mythologized or beautiful, rather it is a survival setting

- that Octavia wrote down her goals with a kind of chant in the margins ("So be it! See to it!"), and went on to achieve these goals, and that this combination of hope, determination, self-help, and vague mysticism is very Californian

- that in Patternmaster there is no weather

Saturday, April 23, 2016

guest shelf

I did a guest shelf for Green Apple Books! Stephen Sparks asked me to suggest ten books, and I thought I'd share them...

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake: The second book of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is a Gothic fever dream. No need to read Titus Groan first—you’ll catch up on the plot in the deliriously beautiful opening pages.

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Vampires, pyramids, and superhero conventions: Link’s latest collection shimmers with her unique and unpredictable energy. I didn't know this when I added it to my shelf, but it's also A PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST.

The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford: Welcome to the Well-Built City, the hallucinatory metropolis of this World Fantasy Award-winning novel. Read the first paragraph; you’ll be hooked.

The Drowning Girl: A Memoir by Caitlín R. Kiernan: An intricate ghost story told by a seductively unreliable narrator, this novel is an unforgettable siren song.

Humanimal: A Project for Future Children by Bhanu Kapil: Part history, part memoir, all poetry: Kapil’s meditation on the Bengali “wolf girls” traces the links between humans, animals, and the monsters in between.

Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson: Narrated by a murderer’s animal double, this novel delivers an eerie tale with a weird, breathless lyricism.

Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani: This theory-fiction follows lost archaeologists and ancient gods, investigating an occult substance: oil, the fuel of war in the Middle East. A brilliant and timely work of speculative philosophy.

Event Factory by Renee Gladman: The first book of Gladman’s Ravicka trilogy, this is the story of a linguist in a city eroding due to a mysterious crisis. Poetic and philosophical, it’s a novel of slow disintegration.

Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction, by Leena Krohn, with nine translators: A landmark collection of the Finnish author’s bizarre and marvelous tales, available in English for the first time.

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih: In 2004, the Arab Academy of Damascus named this the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century. Written in the 1960s, this story of doubles, murders, and postcolonial anguish still glows in a superb translation by Denys Johnson-Davies.