People are disappointing. People are fallible. People are real and complex and strange. We stumble in all the ways The Four Agreements says that we do.
I read the book years ago and tried recommending it to those who needed it most. To those who took things personally endlessly, who spread vitriolic poison for the sake of it, who wallowed in their own disappointments. They thought the book was too preach-y. I think it was was too on-the-nose.
Time and time again, I find that there are two sources of comfort: books and animals. Books, because they are worlds, and because they are predictable, even when they are not. And animals, because animals have fewer pretenses than people. But mostly books.
So I have stocked up on books because they bring a quiet, but palpable, happiness, and are not fallible in the mind-numbing way that we, and others, are.
I’ve been feeling antsy, and gulping down books in an effort to squash summery mugginess. In the past two days I’ve breezed through five books–the latter five on my list of seventy books read so far. Three books have stood out.
Published in 1959, its story chronicles pre-colonial life in the south-eastern part of Nigeria and the arrival of the Europeans during the late nineteenth century.
One: Things Fall Apart, a book we’d been assigned to read in high school–one that hadn’t held my attention long enough for me to finish it. By section three, when the white man and his horse had arrived at the African village to convert everyone once over into Christians, I could understand why we had been assigned it. It mirrored Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but with a far more sympathetic and grounded portrayal of the fictitious African society.
By section three, all I could hear in my head was: White Man’s Burden. White Man’s Burden. White Man’s Burden. I kept naively wishing that the African society in Things Fall Apart could remain as it’d been described…before the Christian converts came riding along with their horses, religion, and forceful government. But that would be to rewrite fiction! ….and to rewrite history.
Soviet Daughter provides a window into the life of a rebellious, independent woman coming of age in the USSR, and the impact of her story and her spirit on her American great-granddaughter.
The second: Soviet Daughter, a comic about the author’s great grandmother who’d grown up impoverished amid World War II. The great grandmother had been fiercely independent, the eldest of seven children, a typist, a nurse, and a survivor of the purges. The author occasionally interspersed sections with her own story identifying with her great grandmother, who, like her, was open-minded, political, and embraced the arts.
The book echoed of MAUS, a book about the author’s father’s experiences in the Holocaust. It was a comic that catapulted itself into the ranks of visual literature. I’m guessing MAUS inspired a whole slew of historical biographical comics, such as the one on the atomic bomb in Japan, and then this girl’s great grandmother’s experiences in the USSR. Oh! The sociopolitical fumes of World War II linger….
The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century.
Which brings me to the third book: On Tyranny. It not-so-subtly hinted at the pre-fascist-like tendencies that American politics has recently devolved into. It offered twenty tidbits of wisdom detailing how certain American norms have become vaguely reminiscent of those in Nazi Germany and East European Communist regimes during WWII. Its lessons were sound: investigate, beware the one-party state, be wary of the tendency to comply–as a citizen, as a professional. Why? Because institutions have risen and fallen and lied and slain and led people astray in a similar fashion.
Yet the irony lies in the fact that Americans who might benefit from reading this book, in heeding to the lessons of history, likely wouldn’t read it to begin with. I doubt that the masses–specifically, the subset of the population that tosses around the word “fake news” while consistently turning a blind eye to political lies–would ever pick up this book. Those who would pick up this book–people who enjoy reading about politics, thinking about politics–perhaps might be already aware of these 20 lessons, and might be politically active. Those who need to hear these 20 lessons most wouldn’t even begin to listen….
Those are my 2 meta-cents as I read through it. But I may be wrong. Of the three books, I’d most highly encourage others to read the third book, On Tyranny.
“Chai” means “tea”. So whenever you order “chai tea” saccharine sweet cinnamonmy goodness, you’re essentially ordering “tea tea.”
Steaming redundancies aside, I’m nursing a Chai while reading Sandra Cisneros. It’s the first time, in nearly ten years, that I’m reading her work, since our teachers last assigned House on Mango Street to us as children. Some background on Cisneros–she’s a Latin-American novelist, poet and activist. She oft writes about straddling the cultural in-between of being both Mexican and Chicana; of being the Other Woman; of race and class and living in poverty. Heavy context, good literature.
Unfortunate for us, though, we were too young to know what we were even reading. Most of this flew over our heads. It was also around this time, I remember, when they threw Animal Farm at our small heads scrawny builds as if we knew a thing about WWII. Like we knew which animal meant who or what scenario meant which–an allegory without the lesson is an empty tale. For the longest time I really thought it was just a book about talking animals bickering over tables, feed and inequality.
Now I’m a little older, though, I can better appreciate these books. I can nibble, munch, and digest the literary contents. Allusions don’t fly over my head; the craft doesn’t go unnoticed. Making little kids read meaningful texts is like offering a delicacy they gobble down hastily, without realizing its weight. I’m no longer a kid, but these books are still literary delicacies (that I like to pair with chai).
A few days ago I finished Autobiography of Barefoot Gen, a book about Hiroshima written by survivor Nakazawa Keiji. His survival, as a child, was miraculous–he had stood behind a cement wall, which somehow protected him, which then fell against a tree, which then prevented the wall from crushing him. Despite everything he went through, from poverty to shame to stigma, he went on to depict the horrors of the atomic bomb in manga-form.
Sometimes I marvel at humanity’s incredible capacity for cruelty. It isn’t to say that all of humanity’s terrible–that isn’t true, there is a lot of kindness and goodness–but at the same time, just, well, wow. Trips down history lane tend to reinforce this belief. Ironic, since history’s written by its victors and you’d think they’d want to portray themselves in the best light possible. But between these moments of kindness, of peace and progress and beauty, are undeniable pockets of cruelty you couldn’t even begin to imagine. From mass genocide to strangely cruel punishments to war to sheer greed, it’s alarming what people are capable of. And this cruelty–it’s from the ground up, too, it’s not just victors from high-up who wield power that are evil, but neighbors, too–family, friends, people you thought you could trust.
I think of Art Spiegelman, author of MAUS, who depicted his father’s survival of the Holocaust in comics form. As a child, Art had fallen down and his friends had left him behind. Upon telling his father, his father says that until he’s spent five days locked up in a room with others with no food, driven to the brink of desperation, he does not know the meaning of “friends”. When I read this, one of the first pages of the book, I was confused. Then it quickly dawned on me–ah, yes, the Lord of the Rings-esque brutality that brews beneath the surface of humanity: that’s what he’s referring to.
If I were in some sort of literature class on comics–and I was, but I no longer am–I’d start drawing parallels between Spiegelman’s MAUS and Nakazawa Autobiography of Barefoot Gen. I will anyways. Both depict the horrors during World War II, with one taking place in Germany, the other taking place in Japan. Both stories are told with a combination of text and visual form–in this case, comics. But whereas MAUS is Art’s depiction of his father’s stories, Nakazawa’s stories are his–he had gone through the horrors first-hand. Even so, both descend into depression after writing their stories.
There aren’t many ways you can effectively communicate these experiences without alienating the audience. With most people, they cannot stomach reliving–if only as a third party–the reality of these atrocities. Even with the removal provided by time, space, distance, mental-acrobats, glass museum displays, it can be difficult to (literally) face history. But that’s what makes their use of comics genius. It’s easy, as a viewer, to look at comics, to listen to a story ballooned through speech-bubbles. Comics offer a cartoonish version of reality, where things are distilled into visual and mental palatability. Possible downsides: it doesn’t accurately convey the horror, waters down the experience. But I’d say that Spiegelman and Keiji succeed in toeing the balance between depicting their experiences while keeping the stories, well, “audience-friendly.” Relatively, at least–they’re still horrific.
From a personal bookish perspective, both are really good reads. Not sure if the Autobiography of Barefoot Gen is online, but MAUS Iand MAUS II are (I’ve linked to the pdf for MAUS). If you ever get a chance to read any of them, I’d recommend it, especially if you’re interested in history, WWII, comics or memoirs. Or if you’d like to get a glimpse of the realities of those who lived through these atrocities, hear the stories of these survivors.
Note to self: read, read, and then read some more. Here are some titles that’ve been tacked on the side of my computer screen for some time with the title, author and cursory description. I’m obnoxiously picky, so they’ve all got ratings of >4 on book-review-thingamajigs. Also, they sounded really interesting:
The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe
1973 anthology of journalism
Palestine & Footnotes in Gaza, Joe Sacco
Journalistic graphic novel about Israel-Palestinian conflict
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
Didion’s 1968 collection of essays
Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg
Novel on transgenderism
The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa
A ‘“factless autobiography”, fragmentary life project
Either/Or a Fragment of Life
On human development, aesthetic-ethical, consciousness, philosophy
Quantum and Lotus, Matthieu Ricard
Buddhism meets contemporary science, written in form of dialogue
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
Collection of short stories
The White Album, Joan Didion
Didion’s 1979 book of essays
Kool Aids: The Art of War, Rabih Alameddine
Situated in 80’s, on AIDS epidemic in San Fran, Lebanese civil war
Reading: a method of self-annihilation, also a method of escapism. From what?… probably the world. Normalcy equates to bouts of tragedy punctuated by moments of silence and then yet another tragedy right on the heels of the last until they’re stacked one on top of another and you’re like, well, shit.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot, aka participating “engrossed self-annihilation”, mild escapism, and basic nerdy pleasure. I’ve been burying my nose into books, lots of books–story books, nonfiction books, books-books. (It’s the library card fever.)
I’ve been trying to finish Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, but it has the effect of making real life seem as slow as he portrays. Figured I’d just forgotten how to read. But then I devoured Burrough’s latest memoir Lust and Wonder and blundered on through three more in a week, so I figure that maybe I just wasn’t vibin’ Steinbeck.
Also, it’s official: I’ve fallen in love with Haruki Murakami. I quoted him before I read him and now I get it. Him. Sort of. At least, I can hear his voice, I can paint his scenes and it’s all coming together. It’s like a partially weaved quilt of gradual understanding. My mind picks up on recurring themes in Murakami’s stories: the struggling novelist, the empty one night stands, the natural disasters. Occasionally it’s doused in absurdism. Overall, though, it’s fantastic. Dreamlike. The perfect thing to lose your sense of self with, oh-ho-ho.
Lately writing feels addictive and forced and weighty. Maybe it’s just because most things in my head feel heavy and convoluted so I don’t how exactly how to communicate them. Right now they’re like fragments of not-yet-developed muse in some globbish nascent.
And then there’s that voice lamenting the lack of LIFE LIVED. It’s counting the number of days left, keen drop-outs, creative wanderers. Too little, I’m too damn little, it says. And there’s so many places to be other than my circuitous head but I can’t get out. So I read.
The more of an author’s work I read, the more I grow to understand and see them. The writer, I mean. It’s like slipping on perspective goggles to momentarily view the world from their perspective. As the focus sharpens, you zero in on the writers’ lives dotted with feelings, thoughts, experiences; it forms into a mental collage, glued together by the alphabet, dried by sentiment.
It’s pretty fucking beautiful.
So when I think of Eugenides, I see Detroit, mountains, suburbia and Greece. Harukami, and it’s Japan, missing cats, disappearances and lust. Steinbeck and it’s slow heat, open fields, Salinas Valley. Burroughs and it’s exploitation, oddball psychiatrists, suburban neighborhoods, and mothers who eat wax sandwiches. Worlds, you know. Voices and conversations.
Just to keep track–here’s a list of books I’ve barreled on through the past two weeks (nose buried a million worlds deep):
Lust and Wonder, Jeffrey Eugenides
Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami
After The Quake, Haruki Murakami
The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami
Shakespeare’s Counselor, Charlaine Harris
Poems From Homeroom, Kathi Appelt
The Stranger, Albert Camus
Now at 1AM, I curl up, book in hand. Am currently reading:
The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Marukami (recent obsession)
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow is Enuf
…as memories of other books are tickle-flirt-whisper for me to read and reread: