Books in Brief: Ducks, Newburyport

I finished Ducks, Newburyport. I started in September 2019 and finished today, four months later. It’s a singular, unique, and amazing work that shows a whole human being in the right now.

I’ve never read a novel that so accurately depicted the sensation of living in an environment where every day brings fresh horrors that don’t directly impinge on our lives, even as they gnaw at our well-being. More powerfully still, I’ve read nothing that so thoroughly acknowledges the toxic mix of guilt and dread that is the bassline of life in Western society amid a climate change disaster that our every action exacerbates.

Thinking Through the Clutter, a book review by Levi Stahl

I’ve never read anything like it. A lot of the time when I began reading it on a given day, I would get overwhelmed in the way the narrator felt overwhelmed, which is why I think it took me four months to read. I read other things during that time, too, because too much of it, especially in one sitting, felt like too much. But there are some passages where twenty pages will go by and you will feel sucked completely out of time and into the narrator’s head.

I have said elsewhere reading Ducks, Newburyport was a restorative, even a reparative experience. I felt healthier for reading it. Each night, incrementally, it was making me better. And it might be because of this I am not really fit to make any grand claims for it: masterpiece, miracle, genius etc., although I am certain it is all these things. What I will say, however, is that like other great works of art, I believe when we reflect back on Ducks, Newburyport we will think it strange that the world once existed without it. This is one definition of timelessness. Not so much that a work of art is perennially relevant, but that we feel it has always been with us, somehow in its newness we recognise it. This is why I picked it up on that Saturday morning, weary and depressed as I was: it was already part of me. 

What we have is a person, a book review by Neil Griffiths

The book deals with a lot of contemporary anxieties, which means it can induce those anxieties by bringing them up. Of particular significance is the amount of attention paid to gun violence. The narrator is in the midwest, and her anxieties over open carry, 2nd amendment people, and the entire narrative of individualized libertarian responsibility for defense is an anxiety I share and think about a lot. Another way of saying this is that if you also feel these anxieties, this will make you feel both saner as you see them reflected in such a fleshed-out person and more anxious as it becomes the subject of the narrator’s thoughts as we follow them.

If you are at all interested in reading this book, I’d recommend you to read it sooner rather than later, as it will feel different reading it in ten years than it will now. But it will be an important and relevant book forevermore.

Books in Brief: The Nocilla Trilogy

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The Nocilla trilogy is strange. It feels familiar in the way the internet does. The first two books are told in a similar style: they present about a page of text in the third person about a person struggling with their relationship to something or someone—typically something, manifested through their relationship with someone. I can’t claim to understand them in any overarching or systematic way. They seem like they present a vision of our relationship to allegory and metaphor while playing in a space that feels similar to 2666, in the sense that if we can’t have a coherent narrative or present a singular story we all rally behind we can still have something. It builds on that, even though the author admits to never having read it, though there is a character who airs out his theorems on clotheslines much like a character in Bolaño’s novel airs out a geometry book on a clothesline. We spend time in both books thinking about what this means to the character and to us as readers, and I’m not really sure we get super far in a way I can set down definitively, though the experience is interesting, if not enlightening.

The last book, Nocilla Lab, is where things change. The form changes suddenly: the first part is a single 64-page sentence. I liked this part a lot, though it was challenging to read because the style of the previous books remained: nearly but not quite verse, but set in prose. I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but it plays with form and representation and metaphor in a way few pieces of media do.

There are parts I don’t like. I don’t like how most of the characters are men, how there’s a kind of universality to the phallocentrism of all the narratives, even the ones about women. I don’t like how in one case, a character offers a terrible description of a fat woman after she chides him for smoking in a non-smoking area. (The author loves cigarettes more than almost anything. This comes through clearly in every book.) This character offers a page of beautiful description and metaphor and inference about how terrible this woman is, how she embodies all that is bad in humanity, &c but does not turn his critical lens on himself and both what he was doing to prompt the rebuke and what his own behavior means in the context of what he’s discussing. Perhaps that’s kind of the point. It’s a good writer that can make me continue to read a book after I loathe parts of a character.

These books are absolutely worth your time.

Books in Brief: Kafka on the Shore

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Kafka on the Shore was one of those books I fought with until about three-quarters of the way through, when the wind was at my back and we started sailing and everything was smooth and beautiful. I started reading it on the recommendation of some friends online, who thankfully didn’t tell me anything about it, other than that if I wanted something light and liked magical realism, I should read it, or if I wanted something dark and moody, I should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. So I chose light.

“Magical Realism” is a frustrating category to slot something into, because it’s never clear what that means in the context of the book. Does that mean that our grip on inductive inference and causality slips a little bit and has some slack to flap around in the wind? Or does it mean that descriptions of things are to be taken more as metaphor and less as objective truth? Or does it mean the author has given up on creating a fully cohesive and linear narrative and is throwing scenes and descriptions and people at the page to try to communicate something they couldn’t communicate otherwise. (As a wise reader once said, Tolstoy had some ideas and tried to explain them to his neighbors, who didn’t understand, so he went off and wrote a book about a lady and train safety to say what he couldn’t say directly.)

Kafka on the Shore falls into the last category here, I think. But that was only apparent after reading most of the book. In the beginning I was frustrated by the protagonist Kafka and his teenage logic and over-reliance on values of toughness, strength, and solitude. I think that was just good writing, rather than some seepage from the author through the page. That relationship continued through most of the book, where someone or something would bubble up and I would get frustrated with their description, or what they said, or how they described something else. (I still think describing Price playing in the background as “like a mollusk in your head” is either a translation error or an artifact of the kind of popular literati writing between 1995–2005.)

Perhaps the first three-quarters of the book are the setup I needed to get in the headspace where the last quarter could do its work, where it does become a world of loose categories and concepts, of nonlinear time, of impressions and scattered paint. If this book makes sense in a way that can be written down and described linearly then I missed that. But I don’t think that’s an important part of the experience of reading it.

All of the following was written before I read the last quarter. It’s still relevant, but I like the book more and have warm and gentle feelings with it. There are still some ambiguities, and some expressions in the face of death and change that I disagree with, or think maybe are against my experiences and lessons with those things, but I liked the book and will more readily some of his other work.

It’s a confusing book. There are rapes abound, but it’s all washed up in this person being a representation of this memory, or maybe not, or whatever, and it’s a big psychosexual mess. In one sense that makes it exciting as a kind of vague representational poem, so I like it for that, but on the other hand, this lady rapes this kid, this kid rapes this other woman in a dream, but it’s real(?), there’s cat murder, but maybe it was metaphorical, or not, and there are embodied concepts that show up as people and act in the world. It’s not a consistent book but it’s not supposed to be. It’s interesting. Some of the descriptions, though, are really… bad. It’s a kind of writing that flourished between 1995 and 2005, and came in the tail-end of that trend: “Prince sings on, like some mollusk in your head.” I don’t understand Kafka’s why, why he’s doing most of the things he’s doing in the book. I very much like the “discussions” with the boy named Crow, and the turn from first-person to second-person in some places. (Nightvale’s The Story of You is one of the better things written this decade.) All in all I enjoyed it and it certainly evoked a reaction in me throughout, where I was talking to the book, asking it what the fuck was going on, expressing disappointment in this or that character, asking the author why this was happening after that happened. That’s a good sign, even if the book didn’t sign to me like a chorus of angels like Moby Dick or Swann’s Way. What I don’t like is the ambiguity between the author-as-character and the author and the character. Kafka’s written as this kind of old soul but is still a petulant little kid. There’s almost no discussion of masculinity or the toxicity present in Kafka’s actions as a man. That’s frustrating, but perhaps it’s an expectation of me and the time we’re in and the place I am in my life, where I look back at myself at that age and think mostly about what an utter fuck I was as a result of those expectations.

Me, rambling before finishing it.

A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros

This is another entry in what I’ve come to think of as “Craig Mod books,” reflections on walking and what that activity does to thought through the body. I initially read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust on his recommendation from that essay and loved it. It treated walking as something with a history, with many purposes in time and in different cultures, and treated those purposes with respect and a genuine criticality that reflected the impossibility of covering as broad a concept as “walking” in a book only a couple hundred pages long.

Books in Brief: Authority

I started reading Authority by Nathan Barry. It’s one of those cheap e-books that’s motivational. But it does get at a point I’ve sucked at: I should teach what I know, and teach what I learn. I’m starting to feel selfish keeping knowledge to myself, as though I’m hoarding it, or when I learn something and don’t share it, or specifically when I don’t reinterpret it through my own lens, that’s when I’m most vulnerable to a kind of guild the educated privileged feel when they encounter someone who doesn’t know that what they do even is something one could do, let alone the specifics of what it is that you do.

I explained skeuomorphism to someone yesterday and got paid to do it. It was fun and easy. I explained it in the context of redesigning a very simple and flat user interface for an educational iPad app. They wanted to have better icons for students who were just starting to read. That makes sense: students might not be able to read what the “Erase” button says. But I had to caution him against his instinct of making it “look like an eraser.” Which eraser, from where, and how do we make that look like an eraser while keeping the rest of the theme consistent. I explained the difference between an iconic representation of something and a realistic representation because they were going to talk to an artist to commission some icons, and I wanted to make sure my app design wasn’t compromised, which tries so hard to be faithful to the physical thing that inspired it.

I could very easily turn around and write a blog post about that. Just to share that little bit of story. Or go deeper, explaining that iconic things ultimately try to evoke affordances, to show what a thing is for, while realistic things focus more on trying to convey the metaphor. Imagine we want an icon to replace a button that says “Erase.” Our choices are between a realistic depiction of a pink gum eraser or a trapezoid with a line underneath it to one side. The former is obvious; we’ve seen erasers before and used them. Their affordances are pretty transparent. As long as I know what to do with an eraser like that, it’s easy to infer what the button does. The trapezoid with a line underneath it, meant to convey the standard gum eraser and its action, mainly dragging across a page to erase, relies on one large hurdle: the user has to infer what the trapezoid is.

If the design is well-done, proportions just so, then maybe it’ll succeed. But children are not the best at focusing in on a single interpretation of an iconic design; this is why our children’s applications tend to have a lot of detail, shading, color, sound, and responsive interactions. I don’t think any of this is necessary. (I see a lot of this as trickery to entice children to stay in your application, a kind of frosting and sprinkles, or as is parroted without much critical thought, “chocolate-covered broccoli.” Make an apple or a carrot. Still sweet, fun to eat with nothing but your hands, more sustainable, and better for those who want to eat more.) To succeed with a minimal design in technology for children indicates good design.

Or not. When I was a kid, in our (Montessori) school we had about fifteen computers scattered about our classroom, for a class of 30 kids between 4th and 6th grade. Many of the tasks we were assigned to do every quarter involved progressing through a series of problems about grammar or arithmetic administered through computer programs written by the head teacher (in QBasic, the language we were all taught to program in). The computers ran DOS on old monitors; they were donations, mostly from professors and business people who upgraded their homes or offices or labs. The school was a non-profit so their donations could be written off on their taxes. The programs were simple things, white text on a black field with color here and there, used to represent and connect to other parts of the curriculum. (I still think about these colors and shapes when I think of the parts of speech; the point of the task, which starts in 2nd grade with big metal manipulatives, is to develop a kind of synesthesia when thinking about a sentence and its constituent parts.) They were simple. But they were engaging enough that we played them on our own time, which at a Montessori school is most of the time. We never dreaded them, and only complained about them in the same way that workers in an office complain about any work they’re expected to do. They were enough. And they’d hold up now, though a four-year-old with an iPad is afforded far more complicated, nuanced, and potentially better learning design and spaces than what we were given with a 5lbs steel keyboard in front of a CGA screen atop an 8086.

Anyway. I wrote about something I know about. It felt good. You should do it too.

Books in Brief: On the Abolition of All Political Parties

Simone Weil’s On the Abolition of All Political Parties talks about how people are pulled either into the light of truth through a sense of unbiased reason, or away into the darkness through the bouts and vicissitudes of passionate desire. But each person’s pull away from the light is in a different direct, and each person’s pull towards it is in the same direction. This is a basic assumption of the goodness of democracy. (If democracy is not good, it is not what we should be practicing. If Hitler had never risen to power but the Weimar Republic still committed the atrocities of World War II through a democratic process it does not make those atrocities somehow less atrocious.) Political parties, on the other hand, serve to focus and align the chaotic desires of darkness and bundle them together into a force with power. It makes no sense, these days, to criticize someone for saying “As a democrat,” or “as a republican,” but these statements are parroted nonsense. It is not interesting or useful to know what a representative’s party stands for when we purportedly elected them for their ability to represent our own or on their views being a close enough reflection of our own. For this and other reasons all political parties should be abolished.

We should replace them with a kind of informal forum, or as she calls them a series of journals, to which one may read or contribute, but to which one would not belong, but orbit, or be a reader of, or a writer in, but never a member, or subordinate, or a parrot of. In that way each person, each representative evaluates for themselves the plans and policies and proposals of the others, asking questions and offering criticism, and each shall cast their votes, when the time comes, in the light of their own reason and the will of those whom they represent.

I basically agree with everything she says. The trouble is that it makes action difficult. One of the ways in which she criticizes political parties is how they develop a binary stance towards or against something, how they drain from the issue all nuance and use propaganda and slander to vie for power. The trouble is that our votes work this way, most of the time. One piece of legislation, arguments for or against. She doesn’t talk about it much, but in an ideal congress there would be a deliberation, proposals sent out and digested, discussion had, amendments made, and the best and most just proposal would succeed. That takes a long time, though. Maybe it should. I don’t know. But I agree with her. And her words are stark and piercing in the firelight of the current political climate.

Books in Brief: The Lichtenberg Figures by Ben Lerner

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The stars will be adjusted for inflation
so that the dead can continue living
in the manner to which they’ve grown accustomed.

– p. 18

Perhaps what remains of innovation
is a conservatism at peace with contradiction.

as the sky transgresses its frame
but obeys the museum.

– p. 22

Ben Lerner’s The Lichtenberg Figures is a bit of a tough book of poetry. It’s a sonnet sequence ostensibly about growing up in the midwest, but it’s frustrated, as many of us were in the early 2000s, with the way the world seemed to work. Reading it now made me almost nostalgic for a kind of frustration that now seems so okay, so naïve, so less harmful to the fundaments of society, rather than to the bodies of people across the world. It’s not funny in the way Patricia Lockwood can be, nor is it particularly melancholy. It’s more abstract than that, more systematic. I enjoyed it, and I’ll need to come back to it and his newer book The Hatred of Poetry.

Books in Brief: The Oresteian Trilogy

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The Oresteian Trilogy is the foundation of tragedy. You need to read it just like you need to read The Odyssey. This was my first time through even though I was familiar with the tropes and scenes through references from other works. The plays are a lot of things, but at its root it’s a metaphor for the ascension of society’s motivation for good from fear of reprisal as embodied in the Furies, to duty (and fear of its retribution) as embodied by Apollo, to a kind of holy rationality, as embodied by Athene and her counsel. It is ultimately a Whiggish work, convinced society moves ever forward in progress towards harmony.

The one thing that shook me as a modern reader coming to the book in 2017, and a reader who knows the connotations of “maleness” and masculinity in ancient Greek and Roman writing, was that in the climactic scene of The Eumenides, Athene says she sides with Orestes, saying that killing a man as his mother killed his father is a worse crime than killing a woman, as Orestes killed his mother, because of “male supremacy in all things”. It’s kind of a shit explanation, especially coming from a woman written by a man.

Anyway, read the book. It’s embedded in many works of tragedy and worth knowing how the building was built these 2400 years later.

Books in Brief: The Peregrine

Read The Peregrine. This book is unique; I have never read anything like it before.

The way Baker uses english is beyond poetic. At first it seems like a put-on: is this book really a journal, without plot or direction, and full of this absurd writing? Slowly my requirement for structure fades in his descriptions of the English countryside, until I am with him under every tree, gazing through the same binoculars, sharing the same hill. His words are the beauty of wildflowers, swaying and shining in the sun, resilient in the gray green rain of spring, and violent as thistle thorns dashed by gale winds.

My god, this book is good. Read it slowly, savor every sentence. Let the book take its time with you. Read it in quiet moments, first in the morning and right before sleep.

Hat tip to But She’s a Girl for the recommendation.

Books in Brief: I Love This Part

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Like most poems, describing this doesn’t exactly work. Just get it. It’s beautiful and captures very well something very important. This interview is a good place to go after you read the book. Read the book first.

Tillie Walden’s other graphic novel, The End of Summer, is on its way to me now. She has another coming out in May.

When I first heard about this book on tumblr it was out of stock on Amazon. Looking back the other day I saw it was in stock, so I ordered. The author herself shipped it to me!