Just as we are likely to cover the same ground, we encounter the same people we’ve known in past incarnations. […] How this works, I do not know. But I do know that souls come together again to complete unfinished business or to renew bonds of love.
Most of us have had the experience, when meeting someone for the first time, of looking in their eyes and knowing, without a doubt, that we’ve been together before.
“And in that moment, he was finally able to accept it all. In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”
“People aren’t either wicked or noble. They’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together in a vinaigrette of confusion and conflict.”
And our lives are spent revolving around the salad bar.
We may not be able to fundamentally alter what we already have, the original modgepodge of good and bad. But even though we cannot return items to their bins–our greed olives, for instance, cannot be re-dumped back into the olive container–we can actively choose which salad items to add. We have the choice to add more greed olives or generosity peas instead. And that is our free will.
By the time we have reached the cash register, and our salads have been piled mile high by the actions spanning a lifetime, we can see that our salad has been dominated by one flavor or another.
A normal part of the human condition, I think, is not being entirely understood. I don’t think that that’s a good or bad thing; I think it’s just a quiet fact.
After a while, I became tired of trying to understand others, trying to understanding their problems, their perspectives, their feelings. I became tired of absorbing their qualms, their anxieties, their sadness, their distress. I became tired of being near people whose emotions would radiate so far and so wide, I’d pick up on them like a receiver, and then experience them myself. At some point, around 2016, I decided that these feelings weren’t mine–they had to be my utterly depressed roommate’s next door, and I could tell because, when I left, the feelings dissipated. I made a mental block against these types of things, closed myself off to emotional absorption, took my own route, whichever that was, and decided I would feel xyz when xyz was mine.
So maybe it’s not a normal part of the human condition to not entirely understand. But I still don’t think that most people understand each other, even if they pretend that they do. And I think that they don’t because, once people turn around, they rattle off their judgements and assumptions and veiled irritations. Again, normal. We all have our own private thoughts and reactions and whatnot. But interacting with other people in this way becomes, well, the usual, in that I start to remember the complexities and emotional caverns that turned me away from people.
It’s always a little bit sad when I remember why the love reading and writing so much–because it’s a form of unadulterated expression, it’s just human thought, it’s connection that isn’t hindered by awkward pauses or catty assumptions, it just is. And it’s private, and if the reader doesn’t understand, it doesn’t make the writer’s message any less. And the writer can spew and spew, whatever madness or beauty or whatever, and they can do so without millisecond glimpses or that otherpersonly air of concern.
I read a book this evening. Literature. Fiction. It was called Dominicana. It reminded me of Junot Diaz because of its style and themes. Cheating, romance, love and poverty. Moments of betrayal. The Dominican Republic. New York City. Poverty juxtaposed against more poverty. Relative wealth–Americana!
It wasn’t until after I heard Junot Diaz speak that I realized I had read him first. I’d first read his story one morning in 2012. It was hot and summery. I’d woken up sticky and sweaty. His story splayed across the New Yorker website on my small blue iPod touch. I stopped several times mid-passage to absorb the story. I ruminated over his prose over and over and over again. I toyed with the metaphors in my mind: soft literary play doh. When I heard his voice in the auditorium in 2015, reading funny little snippets, it rang familiar. I was there on a news photograph assignment, because I’d heard that he was an author who was a Big Deal. That was also how I ended up photographing Zadie Smith and Adam Grant–I’d never read their stuff, but they were writers, and that, to me, made them glow. Only later did I study their words and the weight of photographing them hit me.
Dominicana was the second story I’d read in a day about immigrant women marrying men in America for some reason or another and, of course, for the implied resources. Money! Escapism. Riches. The expectations. Of leaping to a country with roads paved in relative gold. Financial security. And oh, of climbing the social ladder via men with the means. And then the inevitable quick-tumble of realization, of misery, of loneliness and arguments ensuing. These stories have always existed as quiet whispers of what others may have gone through. Friends’ parents. Friends of friends’ parents. Some divorced. Other stayed together, but were entirely distant. I would rather avoid the narrative in the flesh, but still: it’s intriguing to read about.
Started a reading challenge project mid-spring of 2017. The goal: read 100 books
by summer in a year. I’m inching along, albeit at a slower pace than I’d like. Figured posting the list on my blog would hold me accountable–also, I get to share cool books!
So here’s a list of books I’ve reading; I plan to update every 10 books or so. If you have any book recommendations, I’d love to hear them! 🙂
April 10th, 2019: Oh! I am just about done with this project. It’s taken me two years, and I’m just 7 books away. In looking back, I realize that some stories I have forgotten, while others have burned into my memory. I’ve bolded some of the stories I really loved and remembered.
June 22nd, 2019: I’m done! I finished earlier, but I just didn’t want to–weirdly enough–be done with this project. I’ve finished 100 books in, ah, two years.
- One! Hundred! Demons!, Lynda Barry
- James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
- Here, Richard McGuire
- Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks
- Burned, Ellen Hopkins
- Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy Kaling
- Walking Dead 1, Robert Kirkman
- Walking Dead 2, Robert Kirkman
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelous
- Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur
- Partner Track, Helen Wan
- Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen
- Kafka, R. Crumb
- Project Jennifer, Jill Rosenblatt
- Dignity, Donna Hicks
- Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant, Roz Chast
- Ginny Moon, Benjamin Ludwig
- Autobiography of Barefoot Gen, Nakazawa Keji
- Meow Meow, Jose Fonollosa
- Beautiful Darkness, Fabien Vehlmann
- Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou
- The Skin Above My Knees, Marcia Butler
- Essential Poems (To Fall in Love With), Daisy Goodwin
- Sailing Alone Around the Room, Billy Collins
- Future Tense, Paintings by Alex Gross
- Why Not Me?, Mindy Kaling
- Thirst, Poems by Mary Oliver
- Global Street Art, Lee Boffkin
- Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami
- Vintage Cisneros, Sandra Cisneros
- Have You Seen Marie, Sandra Cisneros
- Woman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros
- The Quiet Eye: A Way of Looking at Pictures, Sylvia Judson
- Blue Nights, Joan Didion
- The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
- This is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz
- The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith
- Love Mad Poems, Rumi
- The Wolves In The Walls, Neil Gaiman
- Forms of Distance, Bei Dao
- 73 Poems, E.E. Cummings
- The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez
- Little Book of Little Stories
- Shoplifter, Michael Cho
- Rick & Morty Comics
- Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides
- Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg
- White Teeth, Zadie Smith
- South and West, Joan Didion
- Dear Dumb Diary
- Stories Julian Tells, Ann Cameron
- Stitches, David Small
- Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom
- Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka
- Pretty: Stories, Greg Kearney
- Night Watch, Malin Lindroth
- Constance and the Great Escape, Pieere Le Gall
- Rapunzel, Paul Zelinsky
- Jane and the Fox & Me, Isabelle Aresenault
- I’ve Loved You Since Forever, Hoda Kobb
- Corduroy, Don Freeman
- Buck, MK Asante
- Chemistry, Weike Wang
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
- Soviet Daughter, Julia Alekseyeva
- Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
- LIFE 70 Years of Extraordinary Photography
- On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder
- Beijing: Imperial and Contemporary
- Abandoned America, Matthew Christopher
- The Polaroid Book
- The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
- Cats, Jane Bown
- The Photographs of Carl Mydans
- Camanchaca, Diego Zuniga
- Creepy Carrots, Aaron Reynolds
- Lies in The Dust : A Tale of Remorse From The Salem Witch Trial
- Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
- Going Into Town, Roz Chaz
- Doodle Diary of A New Mom, Lucy Scott
- The Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel
- From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E.L Konigsburg
- The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Amy Tan
- Interpreter’s Maladies
- Because We Are Bad, Lily Bailey
- Frida’s Bed, Slavenka Drakulic
- Light Filters In Poems, Caroline Kaufman
- Sweet Land Stories, E.L Doctorow
- Hap and Hazzy at the End of the World, Diane DeSanders
- The Pleasure of My Company, Steve Martin
- One of The Boys, Daniel Magariel
- Mary Ann in Autumn Book, Armistead Maupin
- Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
- The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen
- States of Mind, Emilie Guillon
And just like that, Marukami’s done it again– strung me into his worlds of dreams, lust, prose and despair. This time, I didn’t feel as though I was on the cusp reality. Rather, I felt myself grounded in the meadows of Norwegian Wood.
“Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail.
I didn’t give a damn about the scenery that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us together, and then about myself again. It was the age, that time of life when every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a boomerang, to me. And worse, I was in love. Love with complications. The scenery was the last thing on my mind.”
Three summers ago, I first fell in love with his prose. I forget that first title (ah! Sputnik Sweetheart) but never the feeling. I remember sitting up late one night, the color pink burned beneath my eyes, swamped by wooly blankets, confusion and exhaustion. I don’t remember starting Sputnik Sweetheart. I also don’t remember finishing it. Like a dream, where you simply start in the middle, that’s where I found myself, mostly.
She, the main character, had seen her doppelgänger in a room of a hotel and on the top of a Ferris wheel. And the doppelgänger was doing strange things with strange men. And the girl, the real girl, wasn’t sure which was what or what was real. It eventually brought her to a sort of lucid, sustained hysteria. There were always cats in the story. Sometimes they left; other times, they returned. Even in Norwegian Wood, there was a stray cat that appeared, and embedded itself in the background.
Norwegian Wood was more somber. More sober. So excruciatingly detailed that I’m convinced the author experienced it himself. For days, I buried my nose in the book, taking it everywhere with me.
Boyfriend read aloud the last 20 pages to me. He read the last and saddest and darkest pages, occasionally mincing words. (“Keep reading!” I hissed and he shot a look at the door) I let Murakami paint worlds through words.
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.
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 I and 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.
Lately I’ve been thinking of a book I’d read years ago that, upon finishing the book, all I could do was reread the ending and sink into the couch and bawl a little bit.
The book: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. I barely recall the plot, to be honest, but I remember the way I felt: enthralled (cringing at my use of this word, but it’s fitting) by its lurid prodding complexity and numb…. from all the philosophy.
Some themes quotes from the book that resonated with me:
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the neverending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
But where does free will, or lack thereof, factor into it? Steinbeck weaves in the concept of timshel, that man ultimately exercises free will in choosing to do either good or evil:
“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”
On monstrosity as deviation from the norm; on normalcy as deviation from monstrosity. A reference to the monstrous Cathy, whose character was evil incarnate (so much so that critics described her as too flatly evil.)
Interestingly, what Steinbeck describes is a feeling that many sociopaths may have: the unnerving sense that others have something they lack, something internal, a moral compass, a set of emotions, a conscience.
“Just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience.
To a monster the norm must seem monstrous, since everyone is normal to himself. To the inner monster it must be even more obscure, since he has no visible thing to compare with others. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.”
There was no single takeaway from the book, at least, not for me. Its significance didn’t lie in the plot, but the themes. But maybe I say that because I’m not as familiar with biblical stories, particularly the one of Cain and Abel, which the novel recreates between the Civil War & WWI.
At any rate, I highly recommend the book, especially if you’re interested in postwar fiction, philosophy, religion, ethics or literature. Or a book-induced mindfuck.
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:
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
- Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
- Alice, Christina Henry
So there’s that.