January 2021 Reading Recommendations

Best of what I’ve been reading, from essays to short stories to interviews.

WEEK 4 | 2021

This week, spent as much time reading Eula Biss’ book Having and Being Had as I spent contemplating about it. As the magazine delivery has been having a mysterious 2-week interruption, I’ve been resorting to the pile of unread books, keeping five of them in continuous rotation, among others, my coffee table is carrying the Sensible Life by Emanuele Coccia, La Vie Ordinaire by Adèle Van Reeth, and the one I’m very much looking forward to – Flights by Olga Tokarczuk.

#essay #literature | What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion by Nathan Heller for The New Yorker
I can never resist a good essay on Joan Didion. This time, it hails from The New Yorker, from under the pen of Nathan Heller. The title, “What We Get Wrong About Joan Didion” assumes that there is something misunderstood about her writing. After the recent celebration of Didion and her raise into any literary magazine’s revered contemporary, I am doubtful there is much mysterious left about her. Nonetheless, Heller delivers a gratifying overview of Didion’s work as an essayist and the subtle ever-stylish critic of her time.

#essay #literature | Eccentricity as Feminism by Olga Tokarczuk for The Paris Review
Translated from Polish, this literary review slash love song by the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Olga Tokarczuk analyzes the magical symbolist book The Hearing Trumpet by 20th century painter Leonora Carrington through the lens of revolting feminism.

Tokarczuk’s prose is all but admirable. A few passages from the essay:

“Why do we read novels in the first place? Inevitably among the many true responses will be: We read novels to gain a broader perspective on everything that happens to people on Earth. Our own experience is too small, our beings too helpless, to make sense of the complexity and enormity of the universe; we desire to see life up close, to get a glimpse of the existences of others. Do we have anything in common with them? Are they anything like us? We are seeking a shared communal order, each of us a stitch in a piece of knitted fabric. In short, we expect novels to put forward certain hypotheses that might tell us what’s what. And banal as it might sound, this is a metaphysical question: On what principles does the world operate?”

“Things that are eccentric are by definition “outside the center”—outside long-established norms and all things regarded as self-evident, on the beaten path. To be eccentric is to view the world from a completely different perspective, one that is both provincial and marginal—pushed aside, to the fringes—and at the same time revelatory and revolutionary.”

“All right. So be it. Kitsch is our ocean. All those cyclical processes, menstruations, and recurrent migraines. Mumbo jumbo, healing herbs, and infantile trust in the power of nature. An unhealthy love of animals, sentimentality, the feeding of stray cats. Being overprotective, poking one’s nose into everything. All those flowers in little pots, all those little gardens, the hollyhocks, the rags, the lace, the stitching, the knitting, the romance novels, the soap operas, “women’s literature,” “emotionality,” the accusation of mental weakness that has been pressed on us for centuries. The reservoir of misogynist scripts is immense and seemingly bottomless. In modern times, in a thoroughly patriarchal world, we can only talk about the Goddess ironically, winking like the Abbess in the painting that hangs in the Gambits’ dining room, and with a hidden smirk, half serious, half mocking. Having been actively displaced and ridiculed for thousands of years she can only express herself in this covert way.”

Having and Being Had (2020) by Eula Biss

Eula Biss has a talent for weaving research and poetic essayism with prosaic perceptions from her day-to-day. She also likes to place high bets on her chosen subjects, they’re at once dicey and secure. The subject of her previous book On Immunity – vaccinations – was a daring and dividing choice. As if to keep her adrenaline inflow steadily pumped, Biss has chosen capitalism as the epicenter of her latest book. Having and Being Had is the poetics of consumerism (or is it rather the blues?), and Biss turns capitalism into a fluid metaphor to be sprayed on any modern phenomena lacking a coherent and acceptable explanation.

To unweave the intricate systems of capitalism that she’s a participating member of, Biss combines her personal perceptions with a consultation into the works of economists and anthropologists, thinkers and writers from ancient Greece through to the 21st century. The result is a book of 5-page-long essays exploring the various countenances of life in the modern (that is, capitalist) society.

“Do you think it’s wrong,” a taxi driver asks Eula Biss on a ride home, “to make money teaching 

something that won’t earn your students a living?” Biss, who teaches creative writing at Northwestern University, answers with a “no.” According to her ethics, the service she is doing for her students is teaching them how to find value in something that isn’t widely valued. “And I think it’s a gift to give another person permission to do something worthless.” At the end of the ride, she asks the driver what he thinks of her views and he replies “I think it’s wrong.” 

The book is filled with similar stories of Biss’ life as a member of the consumer society, fragments that leave her confused and induce bittersweet guilt. On a visit to a friend’s apartment with “a new IKEA desk in the living room, which is also the office and the dining room,” her friend asks: “Is this what we do now? We just keep earning money and replacing this stuff with better stuff?” 

One of the pitfalls that also lends the book its credibility is the fact that Biss herself is far from asymptomatic to the allures of capitalism. She has recently bought herself a new house (she tells others that it cost $400,000, embarrassed to have paid $500,000) and accepted a $40,000 advance to buy herself time to write this book. “The spies are artists, I think, or anyone who lives inside a value system that is not their own,” Biss comments. “I want to be a class traitor, but I suspect that I’m more attracted to the romance of treason than reality.”

Reading the book, you may at first feel put off by the description of privileged white upper middle class consumerism. Give its author some credit – by the time you reach the ⅓ of  Having and Being Had, your attention and sympathy have been had.

WEEK 3 | 2021

Not sure if it’s the rainy weather obliging me to take shorter walks or the occasional sun that opens the streams or energy, but this week’s been strong on reading. Finished two books and started on Sensible Life by Emanuele Coccia (found in an architects’ bookstore in French version). Eula Biss’ latest book Having and Being Had is waiting its turn, and Joan Didion’s The White Album is a presence on the coffee table, to be opened at any time.

On Immunity by Eula Biss

#book #literature #nonfiction #essay

Picking up On Immunity by Eula Biss, I was wary of opening a book on the topic of vaccinations considering the times. Yet Biss’ essayistic book was first published in 2014 and turned out to be a stingingly timely exploration of vaccination and its implications on modern society. As Biss observes, having been or accepting to be vaccinated is not only a central question for the individual agent but has overarching consequences to the herd immunity and well-being of our society.

Drawing from sources as divergent as consulting medical researchers, tracing back to vampire myths, down to Susan Sontag’s reflections in Illness as Metaphor, Biss arrives at convincing conclusions. She who has nothing less than her own newly-born son in the game, delivers a moving contemplation on our immutable interdependence and the moral responsibility to raise eyes from the self-reflection in the pond of personal health.

As a review in The New York Times noted, “Biss reports from deep inside the panic.” Needless to add, this reporting has been concealed in fluid reportage and gratifyingly exacting references.

L’anomalie by Hervé Le Tellier

#book #literature #fiction #novel

The winner of 2020 Prix Goncourt and the most “French” (and French) book I have ever read, L’Anomalie tells a modern softcore sci-fi tale of a Paris – New York flight that lands first in March and then again in June. Not just the same plane, but the same passengers, doubled and unaware of the four months having passed.

One of the greatest differentiators of the Anglo-American and European literary tradition is the former’s occupation with the individual while the Europeans dig deep into existential philosophy and unravel the mechanics of social order to see what could happen.

What the book is lacking in its oversimplified and stereotypical characters and occasional terrible jokes that only Frenchmen could make (the US president being given a pen that quickly washes out to sign a t-shirt), it recovers in the passages filled with religious or philosophical argumentation. I also find it essentially French that a book suggesting that we all are projections in a computer game can become the book of the year and win the most prestigious annual literary award, the uncomfortable possibility not being given too much thought. After all, one shouldn’t take oneself too seriously.

WEEK 2 | 2021

Still digging my way through the pile of magazines that arrived during holidays. Also, started reading On Immunity by Eula Biss + l’Anomalie by Hervé Le Tellier + (rereading) The White Album by Joan Didion.

#literature #poetry
Louise Glück, the winner of 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, couldn’t deliver her acceptance speech due to Covid-19. It was published in several outlets, including The New York Review of Books. Her quotations and commentary on how Emily Dickinson’s poetry made her teenage self feel – picked out of the crowd, the chosen one while everyone else is banished yet in danger of being banished too when found out – feel relevant in our age of heightened individualism.

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?

– Emily Dickinson

#bookreview #literarycriticism
The book review in the Times Literary Supplement, Novel cures –
How reading about self-help can change your life
, explores the history of self-help literature asking how to categorize this literary (if one is allowed to use such a sacred word) genre. “Modernists have become implicated in the self-help genre. Beckett’s “fail better” motto is a favourite Silicon Valley mantra, while Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life has become a blueprint for a surprising boomlet in books that read difficult Modernist works through a self-help-tinted lens. It’s the difficulty itself, and the absence of didacticism, that paradoxically draws these readers and writers to pursue the moral core of Woolf and Joyce.”

#shortstory
The haunting ending of Mariana Enriquez’s short story Our Lady in the Quarry, published in The New Yorker, should not come as a total surprise. Soon into the story, its narrator reveals blatantly: “we wanted her ruined, helpless, destroyed.” Not to give away too much, I’ll stop. Read it.

WEEK 1 | 2021

#essay
The most fun essay I read this week came from the Times Literary Supplement, was written by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, and explored the social intricacies of the pun. Read The punning of reason via Times Literary Supplement or via this non-restricted link.

#shortstory
A (literally) short story by Hungarian writer György Dragomán that’s especially enjoyable for anyone with a drop of soviet history in their blood system. Read The Puppet Theatre via The Paris Review or use this non-restricted link.

#shortstory + #literarycriticism
Sally Rooney, hailing from Ireland, is one of the most en vogue contemporary writers – her novel Normal People is a popular Netflix series + her other novel is already waiting its turn to be chronicled on our screens. And reading her is a young-adultish guilty pleasure indeed. Read her short story Mr Salary via Granta.

And if you feel like getting an overly sweet tooth for her writing, cool your affection by reading Katy Waldman’s contemplation on Rooneyesque protagonists’ self-protective irony & reflexivity trap, published in The New Yorker: Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?

#theatre
The latest issue of The Paris Review is dedicated to theatre. And it features a bittersweet excerpt of Claudia Rankine’s play Help that examines the nature of white male privilege – as the NYT put it – from 35,000 feet. Read it via The Paris Review or via this non-restricted link.