Readings: Bakewell, Aziz

I feel like I am finally getting my life back. Might even go running today, if all goes well.

existentialistAfter fairly reading-deprived March, I now seem to be devouring books at a steady clip. I have belatedly dived into Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, which is very very good if you are looking for non-fiction. I find myself drawn to these types of ‘group biographies’, wherein a certain time period or theme is explored through lives of several people. In this case, philosophy and existentialism in particular are explored through lives of people who started the whole wonderful mess: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, and a whole host of others. Bakewell does a fantastic job connecting both philosophy and biography elements of the book, so the volume is both a great intro to existentialism and a fascinating look at some interesting lives.

I also finished The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translation by Elisabeth Jaquette). I have woefully enormous gaps when it comes to Middle Eastern literature, so this is filling some of those. The easy description of it would be 1984 mixed with Arab Spring. This is the kind of book reviewers would describe as ‘chilling’, I suppose. It is firmly in the ‘disturbingly true dystopia’ camp. Something called the Gate appears after a failed uprising. The Gate controls all of citizens’ lives, including their access to doctors and healthcare. One must submit applications to have life-saving surgery (which obviously means one does not get said surgery in time to save life). Mind you, the Gate is never open, and so the action takes place almost entirely in the queue that forms in front of it. It is a rather grim little book, but worth reading. Out May 24th.

Readings: alternate formats

I spent a few days dog-sitting for a couple of friends this week, and discovered that walking dogs is great for catching up on podcasts. It was so great, in fact, that I pretty much listened to everything on my list and ran out of audio material. Luckily, I then remembered that I wanted to give audio books a second chance. Audio fiction never works for me — I get distracted for five minutes, and in those five minutes ten characters die and I get confused. So I tried non-fiction, and it worked pretty well. It’s as if someone is narrating knowledge into your brain as you go about some mindless task.

accidental universeI listened to Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe, which came out a couple of years ago and was very well liked by someone at work whose reading taste I trust implicitly. It’s a pretty short book, but Lightman manages to touch upon the latest theories in physics, conflict between science and religion, philosophy, and what technology might be doing to human interactions with the world and each other. The latter was the point where I actually disagreed and even disliked his view of personal technology and its uses. It even struck me as privileged, for want of a better word, to grump about increase in texting and people spending a lot of time online. Sure, it’s annoying when everyone you’re having dinner with is checking their phones every two minutes, but think about any of these: texting allowing easier communication where it was nonexistent or limited before (see deaf community); cell phones allowing people who otherwise would have trouble keeping track of time or organizing their day to have a more scheduled life; online allowing me to find people like myself. And honestly, maybe uploading ourselves to some virtual reality doesn’t sound so bad to those of us who are not comfortable with our bodies. I’m certain Lightman does not think personal technology is solely bad for us, but the way he presents his thoughts on it is rather one-sided.

Before this gets too ranty, let me say that it was a good book to read if you have, like Lightman, a wide array of interests that include both science and humanities and if you like to break your brain by thinking about what conditions brought about life on Earth so humans could sit around and think about what conditions brought about life on Earth.

In addition to branching out into audio books, I also got a couple of e-books to read. I have periods when I remember e-books exist, and then go months without touching a single digital copy (touching it with my uploaded body, duh). I forget e-books are a thing because I get so many physical books. I also forget that advanced copies as e-books are a thing, and a great thing at that because they don’t add to the mountains of reading material in my house. So my e-book downloads this week are as follows: All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Y. T. by Alexei Nikitin (out next April), and The Good Death: Exploration of Dying in America by Ann Neumann. None of these are out till next year, I’m afraid, so I feel like it’s a little early to even talk about whether I like these or not (I’ve read the first one on the list so far),

There are, as always, a whole bunch of books on paper in queue as well. Prepare yourselves, for I picked up my first Star Wars book in many years…

‘Body of a myth’: Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank

PreparingtheGhostMech.inddI don’t generally review non-fiction, but Preparing the Ghost was so odd, so delightfully peculiar, so genre-bending, that I have to talk about it. At its most basic, it’s a story of Harvey Moses, who, in 1874, obtained a dead giant squid from some fishermen and paid them to deliver it to his house. He then draped the squid over his bathtub and got a local photographer to take the first known photo of what until then had been largely considered to be a mythical creature.

This by itself is a kind of story so Lovecraftian and unsettling that it’s enough to give you strange tentacle-filled dreams. But Frank makes it even stranger. His book is a collection of odd facts and, at first, seemingly unrelated connections between events, objects, and people. You learn quite a bit about the giant squid and people who search for it, but you also learn about how calamari came to be an item on American menus, how ice cream gained popularity, and where latex comes from (no, not from a squid). There is an entire part on how much St. John’s changed since Harvey’s time. The book made me look up trips to St. John’s simply so I could take it there and read it while munching on fish and brewis (just one of the words you learn from the book) and gazing at the sea.

Preparing the Ghost is itself like an antique photograph — vaguely disturbing and fascinating, with a complex story behind a single image. I could say that this book is simply a collection of bizarre historical facts, but it is much more than that. It is part history and memoir, but it is also a philosophical study. There is a section on pain and empathy. There are reflections on migration, home, and belonging. There is also a sense of impermanence throughout the little volume. Grandparents die, towns change, squid specimens disintegrate, myths get destroyed.

Preparing the Ghost is, most of all, a study of myth-making and myth-destroying. It is an autopsy report of sorts for the giant squid and its place in our imagination. The fact that the squid was dead and that there was now a photo of it did not make the giant squid any less mythical. Frank’s own obsession with the animal and people who hunted it becomes most apparent towards the end, when the book turns on itself, becomes meta-fictional, with the author questioning his own descriptions of what transpired when Harvey obtained the squid. Frank writes his own myths and, in turn, inspires a whole new wave of obsession (myself included).

I leave you with notes I took while reading this book, because I no longer have sentences that can convey what this book is:

– spaghettical

– campanulate

– ‘while real, can best be captured in theory’

– ‘Newfoundland saw its first road in 1825’

– squid-skinning machine

– tenacious ejaculatory apparati

– auks

– Giant-Squid Erotica

– scapulimancy

– suicidal Newfoundlands

I also leave you with this page from my notes:




‘Our bodies lead separate lives’: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

therouxStrange Bodies is a hard book to review. I loved it, which presents a problem right from the start. I always have trouble reviewing books I love. It’s also fairly genre-bendy and has, for lack of a better description, bits of philosophy sprinkled throughout. I’ll do my  best, and if my best turns out to be terrible, all you need to know is that this book is great and you should read it.

Nicholas Slopen is by all accounts dead. And yet he stumbles into his ex-girlfriend’s shop and gives her a memory stick that contains his story. Written after his death.

Nicholas’s story begins when he is approached about some letters purported to belong to Samuel Johnson. Nicholas is a Johnson scholar and should thus be able to give his opinion on whether the letters are real. They seem authentic, and yet it soon becomes obvious that they are forgeries… (let’s pretend like I am narrating some true crime show)… or are they? The letters are written by Jack, a savant who thinks that he is Johnson. And here’s the kicker: he speaks like Johnson, he writes like Johnson… is he, perhaps, Johnson?

If you are a reader of genre, the mystery of Nicholas and Jack’s existence is not a mystery to you. It is rather hard to spoil this book, seeing how even though what Nicholas is is not revealed directly for a long while, the reader can guess the answer quite easily. There is a twist at the end, and that is easy to keep under wraps, but the idea that you can have consciousness transplanted into a new body permeates the novel.

The book full of strange bodies other than the new Nicholas and Jake. Among them are Vera, who says she is Jake’s sister; Bykov, the voice of reason and somewhat menacing dour Russian bodyguard in one; and Ron Harbottle, Nicholas’ hero and mentor. They are all very much alive and full of their own personalities. This cast is one of the best ingredients of the novel and makes up for some problems with the world-building and the vaguely-described mechanism of consciousness transfer. Consciousness is recreated via the Malevin Procedure (amusingly called ‘secret Soviet technology’ in the promo materials for the book), which involves the mapping of linguistic patterns. Samuel Johnson is therefore an obvious candidate for this operation due to abundance of writings. Distilling your mind from your written works does not seem like a particularly original idea. In fact, it sounds sort of outdated and reductionist. But if you are a book lover who treats every book as a glimpse into its creator’s brain, the idea becomes seductive and sort of cool. I read the second book f Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle soon after finishing Strange Bodies, and he seemed like a great candidate too, because My Struggle is hyper-realistic and incredibly detailed. It seemed like a look into Knausgaard’s mind. 

Strange Bodies is thus part fiction, part philosophy. I am not talking about Ayn Rand-type clue bat-style literature, or heavy-handed Soviet propaganda masquerading as fiction. Strange Bodies is similar to The Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The Tale was also philosophical, mixing Buddhism and reflections on time. Strange Bodies mixes in Soviet Cosmism, the Whorfian hypothesis, and ideas about consciousness and the nature of self.

Strange Bodies hit all the right notes for me with its variety of characters, its reflections on parenting and being in love with your children, and its occasional very spot-on observations about human mind. In fact,  soon after starting Strange Bodies, I jokingly mentioned to someone that it was my brain in book form (so there we go, transfer of consciousness achieved sans ‘secret Soviet tech’!). I already said it reminded me of The Tale for the Time Being, but what it really reminded me of is Bulgakov’s works. And that is the most direct path to my heart any book can take.

Other bloggers have attempted to review this fascinating book, with much greater degree of success. For example, read Larry Nolen’s astute and smart review, or Liviu Suciu’s review at Fantasy Book Critic.