Scattered reading time these days, mostly due to the fact that my brain decided it would rather spend time writing. It is obviously bored with whatever life I have now and thinks we could do better. You go, brain. Living the creative life for the first time in years. Mind you, nothing published has come out of it yet, but I keep telling myself that submitting is an enormously big deal and most people don’t even get to that.
Apart from filling a creative void in my life, writing is one of the few things I need to do to prevent myself from becoming an unpleasant human being (others are reading and running). Writing is both so emotionally exhausting and so necessary. Despite this new Hamilton-esque almost-graphomania, writing is hard and does not make my brain go into the ‘flow‘ mode easily. It takes a while for me to get there, by which time, you guessed it, I am emotionally exhausted and ready to give up. Yet even this exhaustion is not altogether terrible, because there are parts of me I want to exhaust. There are parts of my brain that I want to wear down so that they don’t wake up at four o’clock in the morning and start telling me terrible things. I am temporarily out of commission running-wise, so scribbling is now the primary type of amateur therapy.
I am hoping to get reading back on track with Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, which is a peculiar mix of memoir, true crime, and personal essay. I did not think this book was going to be my cup of tea at all, but Maggie Nelson is so good at self-examination, observation, and putting it all into beautiful words, that anything she writes is hard to put down. The Red Parts is about a reopening of a 35 year-old murder of Nelson’s aunt, an occurrence that plunged her family into grief anew. She documents months in the courtroom as the case is reexamined, during which time she conducts an examination of her own, of her family and how it was affected by this terrible and up until now unsolved tragedy. I love writers who write in the liminal areas, whose books give catalogers nightmares, because that is how my mind works as well. I loved both Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Argonauts as well, although for personal reasons the latter affected me much more deeply than the former. Start with Argonauts if you have never read her non-fiction, but be prepared to find yourself seeking out everything she has ever written, including books you thought were not your cup at all.
Nicolette at Book Punks started a rather brave and possibly unsound quest to read Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis in a span of one year, accompanied by a selection of his novels. You can see the schedule here. A few similarly courageous souls signed up for this, and I am joining the crowd a few weeks late, but early enough to catch up.
In a strange twist of fate, as these things go, I am not entirely unprepared for this journey. Once upon a time I took a rather unusual college course. It seemed to be at odds with the rest of the faculty’s offerings (this was Department of Psychology), and I still can’t easily describe what it was about or why I took it. It is still taught, by the same professor, a fact that doesn’t really surprise me, because it was one of the highest-rated courses on offer, and probably still is. On the surface, it was an attempt to explain how we view the world and the models we use to do it. What it actually consisted of was an overview of everything from neurophysiology to myths to studies on anxiety and fear to Jungian theories to alchemy to the Bible, all tied and brought together in a variety of ways, with assignments that required us to write personal narratives and readings ranging from Dostoyevsky to articles from neuroscience journals. It sounds like a hot mess, but oddly enough, it wasn’t. In fact, it’s probably the only course that stayed with me past college. Maybe we were all drinking Kool-Aid, maybe we were all rebelling against strict reductionist tendencies of the majority of the department, maybe we were genuinely interested in learning something that seemed almost mystical, or maybe the professor was rather persuasive. It was the same course that later led to burying myself in books on Jung and alchemy, and now I am reminded of it again, as it makes my diving into PKD’s Exegesis both oddly familiar and exactly the kind of thing I would want to do.
We are momentarily back to winter here in our nation’s capital, with adorable little snow but also abominably cold wind. I would love to venture out to Capitol Hill Books for their second-Saturday wine and cheese shenanigans, but only if the district magically extends metro service right into my room. So at the moment I am on the couch with a blanket, writing about north sea and whales.
Speaking of writing, I have files in my Google docs I call ‘writingdumps’. They each comprise a month. They are places to write random thoughts, from how I feel about some book I’ve just read to gender woes to whether the medical insurance jumping hoops will be the death of me. They are essentially a diary that I could never successfully keep until I could type it.
I read a couple of blogs whose owners update every day or nearly every day. If I attempted to do this, would anyone read my everyday notes? I doubt there are enough people who’d read my daily weirdness, but I also wonder how my blogging would change if I did it every day. Would it devolve into weather notes and menu listings, or would I start doing something strange yet cool like writing a poem every day? Who knows. It seems like an interesting experiment, but to be honest, I don’t think you need to worry about getting my daily blueness-of-sky updates in your feed any time soon.
In reading news, I have an early copy of Kat Howard’s first novel called Roses and Rot, and you should get ready to be extremely excited about it when it comes out in May. In the meantime, go read her short fiction because it is very, very good. I won’t say much more about the novel because I have not finished it yet (and there’s still a ways to go till it’s out), but I’m loving it so far.
If you could visualize yourself in your perfect reading mode and place, what would that look like? Being completely immersed in an amazing new book, whizzing through it at eighty pages per hour, or slowly savoring some delightfully dense old classic?
I always have this conflicting vision of me either reading five galleys in a day and loving them all, or sitting down with a paper and pencil and deconstructing some truly amazing short story so I can still that writer’s powers. It is quite clear that I cannot do both these modes of reading at the same time. I suppose I can try and do these two things in one day, but that almost never happens. I am not saying that one mode of reading is more important that the other. I occasionally come across some misguided opinion that the only good reading one can do is ‘deep’ and ‘serious’ and ‘thoughtful’, as if there is no thought involved at all in reading some good erotica (quoting Jon Stewart on the subject of books, ‘it’s like a movie you get to direct in your own head!’).
Breezing through upcoming releases for work and doing some reading for what is essentially research seemed like mutually incompatible modes of reading until I came across writer Lisa L. Hannett quoted in Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer (which I only half-jokingly called ‘my bible’ the other day on Instagram): ‘”Frivolous” reading is as important as creative play. Reading for fun, reading to feed your imagination, reading to revel in the childlike wonder of being elsewhere’.
Reading for fun here is the same as reading to feed your imagination, but in my mind, one could easily argue that close, deep reading of something is also the type of reading one does to feed one’s imagination. When I dissect someone’s story, I want to see what makes the author tick and hope that maybe it will also contribute to my own clockwork. Sometimes this dissection leads me into my own direction and helps me make something new (I’m talking about inspiration, not plagiarism).
In the end, I don’t think it matters how one reads, or if one reads more “frivolous” books as opposed to serious ones. Hopefully, it’s all good fodder for fun or work.
Almost forgot to send out this little weekly post. Somewhat slow week for short story reading, and being unable to read much during #Snowgazi did not help, either. But some reading was accomplished despite daily life, so here’s top three short stories for this week (out of six read), with links where applicable:
26 Monkeys And Also The Abyss by Kij Johnson. This one is from 2008, and I read it in her collection At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees. I am yet to read a short story by Kij Johnson that I don’t like or that doesn’t just disturb my mind and soul. This one is not disturbing, it’s a little bit whimsical and also bittersweet.
Returnedby Kat Howard (Nightmare Magazine #28, January 2015). I love the structure and the ending of this gorgeous version of the Orpheus myth. Howard’s short fiction is beautiful, but I am also very excited that she has a novel coming out later in 2016 called Roses and Rot.
I would like to say that I spent the entire time we were snowed in reading. Alas, as I had predicted, those of us who could make it to the store kept it running, if only for a few hours every day. No regrets, particularly since the neighborhood seemed to be grateful that we were open, but the reading time was not plentiful. And so instead of book thoughts, I give you some pretty snow pictures, #Snowgazi 2016 edition. There were some jokes made about how this is just a day that ends in ‘y’ for people in places like Canada, but come on, this was a pretty good snowstorm even by Canadian standards. It clocked in at around 29 inches at Baltimore, 26 at Dulles Airport, and a few people unofficially measured between 25-29 inches here in DC. So yeah, that’s not little, even if you’re in Moscow. Basically we got all of winter, all at once.
This is where I want to get a troika and ride down the streets:
Where we live now (under this bush):
Backyard looking like it’s part of Finland or Russia and giving me all kinds of joy:
I did start Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen, and I got to the snowy part of it just as our snow stopped.
Back to work tomorrow (most of DC is still unable to get around, Metro is spotty and streets aren’t very clear).
We are about to get hit by what is purportedly going to be the Snowstorm of the Century. Everybody in DC is in a tizzy, grocery store is a scene of carnage, snow predictions increase hourly, the workers are going home (see what I did there) at noon most places, and one of the images on the weather channel this morning simply said ‘MOISTURE’ in giant letters over the area. Last time something similar occurred was in 2010. We lived in Bethesda near the Beltway, and that night a car pulled up by our mailbox and sat there for a good while. Eventually we walked up to it to inquire, and found a woman who simply could not get back home to Virginia because there were no roads. She stayed with us overnight. Two years ago we also had a snowmageddon, albeit of smaller proportions. You may remember it from such blog posts as Bookselling in Extreme Conditions. There might be a repeat of that this weekend, stay tuned.
The important concerns of course are as follows: 1) do we have wine and 2) what am I going to read. Wine has been procured, along with other necessities like chocolate and Swedish fish, and here is your snowstorm Jonas reading list:
It’s heavy on snow and weird: year’s best weird stories edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly; Schubert’s Winter Journey by Ian Bostridge, which seems like the book written specifically for a snowstorm; ditto for Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. And new Sjón!
Those of you living in places like Boston and Toronto are probably enjoying this ‘here’s our once-a-year snowstorm, batten down the hatches’ post (I used to live in Moscow, I have a heightened sense of my own snow mastery), so here’s a music video for you so this song can also get stuck in your head every time you turn on the weather channel:
Serge Brussolo’s mind must be a fascinating place. The best and possibly only way to describe his Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, now published in English by Melville House, is weird. It’s probably not the New Weird, seeing how it’s decades old (funny how something published in 1992 can now be described as such), but weird nonetheless. The book is about mediums, people who ‘dive’ into dreams, steal artifacts within, and bring them into the real world as art objects. The quality of this art depends on how dangerous and daring the theft was. Some people bring back enormous sculptures, some bring what might better be described as trinkets.
Here’s why this book is amazing: the imagery. Brussolo is so good at descriptions and details, that when he describes nausea, you feel queasy. He throws a lot of bizarre details at you, and occasionally they miss, but mostly this barrage of sur-reality is incredibly immersive and thus makes you wonder what it’s like to have a mind that comes up with this.
Here’s why I have a problem with it: it has a certain dated aesthetic, mostly in how it treats characters. All women in it are either there for sex or are not particularly nice and at the same time needy. This didn’t really hit me until about halfway through the book because I was just so immersed in the fantastical minutiae, but when it did, it soured the book for me quite a bit. Basically, what could have been a five became a three.
Welcome back to Short Story Sunday! This is where I list a few best short stories I’ve read this week, with links where applicable.
This week has been somewhat light on reading altogether, except for the 24 in 48 Readathon this weekend. I only read a few short stories this week, but the good news is that most of them were excellent:
Lotus Face and the Fox by Nghi Vo (Uncanny # 8, Jan-Feb 2016). Uncanny is probably my favorite short fiction magazine right now. Pretty much every story I read in it resonates with me. The subscription is worth every penny.
Girl In Blue Dress (1881)by Sunil Patel (Fantastic Stories, Jan-Feb 2016). I love flash fiction because it often packs such an impact in just a few paragraphs. It’s a powerful, perfect piece.
Finally, an older story that in many ways is one of the most perfect stories I’ve ever read: A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman (originally appeared in Shadows Over Baker Street anthology and later collected in Gaiman’s collection Fragile Things, which is where I read it; it is now available on his website, hence the link). This story is why I love Neil Gaiman as a short form writer. It is so good. It is good whether you are a Sherlock fan or a Lovecraftian horror fan, or both, or neither. Read it, it’s awesome.
When I was writing a draft of this post, it started with ‘I just listened to the new David Bowie, and it might have broken my mind.’ This was on Sunday morning. Then he died and broke everything in my body, mind, and soul. I rarely mourn famous people. I see announcements, ponder about mortality for a second, and move on with my life. This one was different. I’ve been playing his music non-stop for the past ten hours. I’ve seen all the tributes, I’ve read all the tweets. I’ve drunk all the wine. I might form some coherent longer thoughts about it later, but not right now. The last time I remember being this sad was when I was thirteen, and Freddie Mercury was dead.
I leave this with the most appropriate tweet from Monday morning:
I have finished The Census-Taker by China Miéville, and did not particularly like it. I appreciated the style, but I didn’t enjoy it. It’s as if the entire book were chiseled out of a gray stone, with gray town, gray people, and gray things happening in it. Perhaps it’s the almost complete absence of names (but no, that can’t be it, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation did not have names either), perhaps it’s the length. I always find novellas awkward. They spread out past short story length, but feel half-formed, like dough that has risen but not baked. I might not be able to articulate precisely why I didn’t have fun reading it, but the verdict remains that this was definitely not my favorite Miéville. He has another book out later this year (The Last Days of New Paris), so we will see how I fare with that one. As I mentioned before, my favorite writers are those who are hit or miss with me, because that means they are trying different things. I love Miéville’s writing, and I will definitely continue reading his books.