Joan Didion’s The White Album, thoughts

Nicole recommended me this book because we happened to be rehearsing and spending a lot of time on the street Didion lived on while writing and living what became this book. I couldn’t imagine how much it would resonate with not only my place, but my lack of place- my own current search and inability to find make sense of my life.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” is the first sentence of Joan Didion’s The White Album. With this one sentence, she launches into a book of essays which enact and are about the “imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” It is also a book about a turbulent time in history… her personal history as well as a look at all the confusion of the American 1960’s (Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, the birth of the Women’s Movement etc.)  … “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself.”
Since the realization of being cheated on/gaslit for the last 11 months, I have written almost every night as a way to try and understand my situation. I have always believed in the power of story and especially after a year of being denied by own, fiction has become a way for me to try and tell my truth, to write myself different endings. Reading about the acute dislocation, confusion, and traumatic loss of identity/society Didion experienced revealed to me the frayed seams of my own life currently and helped me come to terms with the fact that it might be ok if something never makes sense- that closure and confusion can coexist.
In the past 2 months, I’ve stayed on 12 different beds in 5 cities. It may not seem like much to others, but I have never felt such homelessness, such dislocation. I am so grateful to the many people who have taken me into their beds, homes, and hearts… providing safe spaces for me to recover… but that doesn’t change the displacement I feel. And of course, part of the reason for this displacement was the abrupt “loss” of my home… having lived with my ex-boyfriend for two years, I found out about the cheating, and from that day, never lived there again.
Perhaps the most displacement comes from a realization of the misplacement of one’s love. Losing someone who told me consistently he wanted to marry me, leaving the school structure for the first time in 12 years, and deciding to move has left me unanchored. But in the meandering tone of these essays, I sensed an odd catharsis at being unanchored, one I started to embrace while reading… to be unanchored is to be free.
Didion grapples with being unmoored in these essays. Just when you think she might be tying things together in an essay, you’re gutted by the last sentence which only unifies the book in confusion, in an inability to fashion coherence of one’s narrative and time period. The narrative is unnarrative. Her essay about Hollywood demystifies the film world by showing us how “every frame is clouded not only in the accidents and compromises of production but in the clauses of its financing.” While it comes across like a very technical essay full of trivia about the business aspects of Hollywood, it is perhaps the most cynical (and perhaps personal) confession of a loss of belief in narrative, of the fact that “writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.”
I loved this book, particularly the chapter on Women, including essays on the beginning of the Women’s Movement, Doris Lessing, and Georgia O’Keefe. But there is a numbness and wistfulness which pervades the book…as if the whole thing is slightly damp, has weight. She writes, “I remember all the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”
Though I found such hope in the honest of her voice, the one truly hopeful moment in this entire book for me, was when her own detachment and confusion was overshadowed by her observation of the orchid-grower in the last essay. “It seemed to me that day that I had never talked to anyone so direct and unembarrassed about the things he loved.” This quiet observation seemed a way out of the numbness pervasive in the rest of the book. To do away with narrative, to live simpler, to love directly without embarrassment … maybe that is the only difference between living and waiting to die.

Ling Ling




Patti Smith’s M Train, thoughts

“It’s not so easy writing about nothing” is how this second memoir by Patti Smith begins. Turns out, it isn’t so easy for me to read about nothing either. There are certainly books about “nothing” I love- books so isolating they hug you in a kind of loneliness. The nothingness of M Train was hard for me to connect to…it felt too threadbare, precarious, and any semblance of narrative or thought process was hard to grasp. It was also difficult to read because she reminded me of parts of myself I wish were different. You know that thing where sometimes we don’t get along with people who are too much like ourselves…it was painful to read about her lethargy, loneliness, obsession with detective shows, and tendency to routine because it was such a mirror of what my life can be….which is ironic because I picked this book up because it seemed like I would relate to her positively- skimming through, I saw entire chapters about coffee, Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and The Killing, all past and present loves of mine. I must also admit, there was a self-indulgent and navel gazing quality to her writing that I unfortunately recognize in myself.

So why am I writing about this book? Because about halfway through, I saw past the threadbare ends to the substance they used to form, and it broke my heart. Yes, this is a book about nothing, but only because it is a life that is now about nothing. There is no narrative and no thought process to grasp because after the loss of her love Fred Sonic Smith, her life has splintered. The book is aimless, she gets letters to do things and she goes, she has interests and ideas and she pursues them, but always in an almost detached way. It doesn’t seem like pursuing even her own interests and living in her own obsessions gives her any kind of meaning. We get these very brief snapshots of her life with Fred, sprinkled with her wanderings, and her writings about the physical losses and devastations of Hurricane Sandy and the Sendai tsunami amplify the emotional wreckage of her life after Fred. Her friend asks her to take a photo of her at the site of the Sendai tsunami ruins and she wonders…”how could I take a picture of nothing?”

At one point, she is watching TV in Japan and she describes a sleeve of a robe “adorned with the outlines of a lucent brand of delicate plum blossoms whose dark centers were a spattering of minuscule droplets. I closed my eyes as if to join the maiden as the droplets rearranged themselves, forming a pattern resembling …an undisturbed blankness.”

At another point she writes-
“Captain Jack Aubrey reminded me so much of Fred that I watched it twice. Mid-flight I began to weep. Just come back,  I was thinking. You’ve been gone long enough. Just come back. I will stop traveling; I will wash your clothes. Mercifully, I fell asleep, and when I awoke, snow was falling over Tokyo.”

“I will stop traveling. I will wash your clothes.” All of her restlessness seems to be a way to kill time now that Fred is gone, to find a place of “undisturbed blankness.”

One of the saddest fragments, “We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

Perhaps this is why her life is so centered on routine. And why everything is so meticulously kept and curated in her life- curation is sometimes one of the only ways we can control our space and our lives. And maybe this explains her obsession with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, particularly the mysterious property and well which leads to a parallel universe. She likens it to Harry Potter eventually, and thinks of the well as a place you can get to if you think your happiest thoughts. Eventually she finds a well in a store with her daughter, and laments that they are now in the part of their lives that is After Fred. She buys it for her new home, maybe a touchstone, representative of a way back, if she could only figure out how.

And so, in the end, I loved this book. We quietly circle grief with her, touching only briefly the wound which casts the rest of her life in shadow. This is the transcendent life of an undisturbed blankness, of a life more memory than living. Her shattered life shattered me, and most of all, I’m in awe of the sublime love she and Fred shared. A love that is the reason for your living. A love she describes-
“looking back, long after his death, our way of living seems a miracle, one that could only be achieved by the silent synchronization of the jewels and gears of a common mind.”

This book, a meditation on that question…of how to capture an absence, of how to portray a blankness, “how could I take a picture of nothing?”  was a plaintive attempt to show us her now empty life after Fred.
I can’t imagine how it must feel to be this unanchored, a ghostly galleon haunting the seas.

I can’t fathom what it means to have been lucky enough to have been able to lose that,

Ling Ling

it’s our time of month(s)

Today is the first day of Women’s History Month 2017, and I wanted to share some treasures from the amazing women I’ve been reading.

I’ve loved women authors my whole life. My favorite writer of all time is Virginia Woolf. I don’t think another person has clarified the human experience’s unclarity more than she has…her books are, as Rebecca Solnit wrote…”compasses by which to get lost.” I’ve always thought the first paragraph of Woolf’s The Waves is the most succinct, complex, and forgiving definition of what it is to be alive in this world. Marisha Pessl and Donna Tartt have both left me howling in tears, and Zadie Smith has left me howling in laughter. I learned morality, ethics, and the various gradations of them from Ayn Rand, the poetry of Adrienne Rich and Anne Carson feed my soul, Annie Dillard is my (dream) spirit animal, and recently, so many more women have written their way into my heart- Lucia Berlin, Carrie Brownstein, Carol Shields, and Elena Ferrante.

I started the year with Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels, and I drank those books deep into my blood. People would ask me what the books were about, and I’d stammer and say something deep along the lines of…”um? It’s about two friends? The sociopolitical history of Italy in the 20th century? It’s really good!” I felt absurd trying to reduce the experience of these books into a few sentences…because these books changed me in ways I’m only beginning to understand. I started seeing the world around me so differently; for example I started having trouble with men in my life…their very presence. I hadn’t realized before how much even the presence of men changes the alchemy of women, tightens the freedoms of women. It was a bizarre moment in my life. For the first time, I began to notice and question things I’ve taken for granted (why is the majority of music I play composed by males? why are the majority of conductors I’ve worked with males?) All because I followed the very complex relationship between two unabridged women for decades. I read an interview with Elena Ferrante recently, and they’re pretty hard to come by since Elena Ferrante is her pseudonym and no one knows who she is. And I want to share verbatim, quotes she said in the interview (Spring and Summer 2016 issue of the gentlewoman) which are, I think, core ideals of hers which permeate her fiction, and which have permeated my reality.

When asked about the two main characters of the Neopolitan Novels, she says, “The structure of the narrative is such that neither Lila or Elena can ever be definitively locked within a formula that makes one the opposite of the other.”

I think this quote is why the people in the novels are so complex and full-bodied. To reduce anything to duality, to reduce anyone to the opposite of another is exactly that; reduction of human experience and limitation of self. Women have been locked into these “formulas” of opposition, and we now do it to ourselves constantly. We compare ourselves with other women and because of how strong these formulas are, basic insecurities arise. We see a beautiful/smart/whathaveyou woman, or we hear someone talking about a beautiful/smart/whathaveyou woman and because of the sheer fact that we are not them, we decide that we are opposite, and thus must not be beautiful/s/why. Am I alone in this? It took me a long, long time to notice and overcome these insecurities myself and to accept the complexities of myself and others.

The interviewer asks, “Do you aim to speak primarily to women in your writing?”

Elena, “One writes for all human beings. But I am happy that my readers are first and foremost women. We, all of us, need to build a genealogy of our own, one that will embolden us, define us, allow us to see ourselves outside the tradition through which men have viewed, represented, evaluated and catalogued us- for millennia. Theirs is a potent tradition, rich with splendid works, but one that has excluded much, too much, of what is ours.
Even if we think we have left behind the culture and language of patriarchal society once and for all, we just have to look at the world in its entirety to understand that the conflict is far from over and that everything we have gained can still be lost. First of all, we must never forget there are vast areas of the planet where women live in the most terrible conditions. But even in those areas where many of our rights are safe, it’s still hard to be a woman in a way that runs counter to how even the most cultured and forward-thinking men represent us.
We vacillate between rooted adhesion to male expectations and the new ways of being female. Although we are free and combative, we accept that our need for fulfillment in this or that field should be ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us only after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses.
Instead, we must continue fighting to bring about profound change. This will be possibly only if we build a grand female tradition that men are forced to measure themselves against. It’s going to be a long battle, centers on women’s industry in every field, on the excellence of female thought and action. Only when a man publicly recognizes his debt to a woman’s work without the condescending kindliness typical of those who feel themselves superior will things really start to change.”

She explores some of what she mentions above in the novels. Elena, an intellectual is constantly studying and trying to be “good enough” by male standards and she very slowly realizes that she much be “ratified by men in authority, who co-opt us only after having evaluated whether we have sufficiently absorbed the male tradition and are able to become its dignified interpreters, free of female issues and weaknesses.” Reading about Elena’s experiences of never being good enough (because she’s inherently the’lesser’ sex and constantly molding herself after another gender) and reading through her voice of insecurity which slowly grows bolder was an incredible experience. Through her feminist awakening, I had shudders of my own.

“We must continue fighting to bring about profound change.” I think classical music is as guilty of excluding too much of women’s history. We have started to, and must continue to build our own grand female tradition as composers, performers, conductors, etc. We must advocate for our female peers and their works and create opportunities for them. We can no longer view other women as opposition. When I can choose, I will work on the music of women composers. When I can choose, I will collaborate with women. I’ve read 8 books this year, only one was by a male. We have to choose each other because preference is the only way we can even begin to approach equality.

Another book I recently read was the very slim Poetry and Commitment by Adrienne Rich. It is specifically about the arts and activism and the role of the artist in activism. Being a part of the Women’s March and seeing the whole world come together on that day was indescribably moving. I felt a hope that dimmed the loneliness which constantly claws at me. This volume was important to me because there was a time when I was not sure if music was what I wanted to do. I’ve always had a strong inclination to help people and it never felt like music could be enough. I took sociology classes at one point and seriously considered becoming a social worker. In our current time, it can be especially difficult for those in the arts to know what to do, so I wanted to share some quotes I found helpful which clarify the kind of art which Rich thinks is relevant and necessary.

Rich starts the essay with a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid called, “The Kind of Poetry I Want.” Essentially, he wants poetry “founded on difficult knowledge”…”a manifesto of desire for a new and conscious organization” and describes the poet as a nurse during an operation. “Energy quiet and contained and fearfully alert.”
She then takes it all the way back to Shelley in 1821…his quote being ” Poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators in the world.”
Rich says, “He did NOT say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world. What’s at stake here is the recognition of poetry as what James Scully calls “social practice.” He distinguishes between “protest poetry” and “dissident poetry.”
Protest poetry is “conceptually shallow,” “reactive,” predictable in its means, too often a handwringing from the sidelines.
Dissident poetry, however, does not respect boundaries between private and public self and other. In breaking boundaries, it breaks silence, speaking for, or, at best, with, the silenced; opening poetry up, putting it into the middle of life…It is a poetry that talks back, that would act as a part of the world , not simply as a mirror of it.”

I have to say, most of the things I see on social media…these echo chambers we create, feels like the description of protest poetry listed above. Maybe what we needed more of during this horrifyingly divisive election was art that broke boundaries, broke the silences and walls we have invisibly built against those we would call Other. Social media in a sense, doesn’t really participate in the world, it just “mirrors” and more often than not, aggravates pre-existing issues.

I can’t recommend highly enough this little essay by Adrienne Rich.
She discusses so many travesties of the time, which are still issues now, such as the “punitive and cynical anti-immigration bill passed by the House.”
She responds to the accusation of poetry being complicit in the violent realities of power because of its aestheticizing of collective punishment, torture, and rape by saying, “to aestheticize” is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as dramatic occasions for the artist rather than structures of power to be revealed and dismantled. Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. There is a tradition of those who have written against the silences of their time and location. Without it, in poetry as in politics, our world is unintelligible.”
She quotes Muriel Rukeyser’s idea of poetry as”an exchange of energy, which in changing consciousness, can effect change in existing conditions.”

And Mark Doty in his afterword says of Adrienne Rich,
“Her restless empathy for those not in positions of power is the ethical basis of her art.”

May we all have a restless empathy,

Ling Ling

2016: My Year in Books

I love reading and do it whenever I can, though it competes for my time with my other loves- music, movies, and TV. This year in particular, literature saw me and understood me through some weird times I haven’t been able to vocalize fully (and probably shouldn’t online!) so instead of my usual “odds, ends” end of the year post, I thought I would review my year through the books I read, giving only small glimpses of what they carried me through, and hopefully showing literature’s strength and ability to sustain us.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy:

Started the year reading this with Dorothy and while I sincerely enjoyed the book, it mostly meant a lot to share that experience with her since reading is usually a solitary activity for me. I don’t usually read as a way of escaping, but it became so pleasurable to escape into the older language, concerns (so many things go wrong with sheep all the time!?) and time period of this book. I’ve rarely come across something as beautiful as the end of this book; my heart started to pound and slow and it’s a testament to real love’s ability to wear us (and our false ideas of love) down.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen:

This wasn’t my favorite Franzen…for me, it did not even come close to anything else of his I’ve read. I count him among my favorite authors and The Corrections and Farther Away are among my favorite books so this was disappointing. That said, I appreciated the questions it raised of how to be good and/or pure in a world that increasingly makes it more complex to even know where to begin. Purity and goodness are words and concepts that are now extremely convoluted and this novel grappled with that bewilderment. I was impressed with his ability to write extensively from a female perspective, and especially impressed with some of the complex female relationships in the book that I’ve always thought only females could fully understand and thus articulate. The mother-daughter dynamic, the tricky female friendships fraught with jealousy and genuine love, and the erratic behavior and decision making in response to a terrifyingly nonsensical world; all are situations and relationships I resonated with.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler:

I gained so much (more) respect for Amy Poehler after reading this book. What mostly sticks with me from this book is her openness…not just the openness necessitated by her career and the openness to anything that may come her way, but her openness to having been wrong…to learning and taking responsibility for her actions when that very openness led to a naiveté which hurt others. She writes about some very intimate things, making us privy to mistakes and amends that take a lot of bravery to share. I was in a negative headspace and taking myself and other things too seriously and I picked out this book hoping it would help me out of that place…her desire to have a good time and be a decent human being was uplifting and made me think that maybe life should just be that “simple.”

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann:

What a warped ride this was…such a unique and taut tone, a too-tight smile beginning to slide. It was mentally exhausting at certain points because it was often unbearably philosophical and the overly detailed pettiness, tawdriness for 700+ pages often left me grinding my teeth…What amazed me about it was its’ darker presentation of inevitability, of fate…we are all part of some purpose-cogs in a machine, boys in an army, paramecium in some cosmic beast’s stomach…This book was the first to present to me the idea that we may be part of something bigger, but not necessarily better.

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburō Ōe:

One of the most unrelentingly dark novels I’ve ever read. Honestly oppressive and agonizing to read and one of the most unlikable protagonists I’ve ever met. The selfishness, self-destruction, self-pitying Bird represents all that is awful in humanity. Made me really think about what I would do faced with the same situation of having a brain-damaged baby on the way. A thoroughly uncomfortable, depraved, and fascinating experience. My only fear is that if someone can write about someone like this, someone like this may exist.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit:

Everyone should read this. Educational and empowering, I plan to reread often as a reminder of how much work needs to be done. Since reading this, I feel like I have become more conscious of the silencing, ignoring, and distorting of myself and other females I encounter. We don’t realize how much our minds have been conditioned by the patriarchy, this book is a good way to realize more of it. Also, one of the most memorable sentences for me came from this book- on Virginia Woolf’s writing…”a compass by which to get lost.”

The Man who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdös and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman:

One of the most inspiring people and stories I’ve ever encountered! Nicole and I swapped books- she gave me this and I gave her the Solnit above and I don’t think it’s a book I would have ever read had she not introduced it to me. I’m not very good at math and I have a tendency to feel stupid when I’ve tried to read things with a math slant, but the inclusiveness I felt and the enthusiasm with which I breezed through this book is exactly what those who knew and worked with Erdös probably felt. This gentle genius traveled the world to work on math papers with different mathematicians creating a community which defies many of the ideas we have of geniuses having to be lonely or outcast. He didn’t have a home, had only his love of math and a suitcase, depending on the kindnesses and curiosities of other math-lovers. I was left incredibly inspired by the warmth he had and gave, for his ability to bring people together in what could be a lonely or competitive field. This made me feel closer to my fellow musicians and to realize even more the importance of supporting and invigorating them if I can. I wish I felt as passionately for anything as he felt for math and reading about his dedication inspired me to try.

1Q84 by Harris Murakami:

I read this at a really confusing time of my year. Aomame and Tengo, the main characters in 1Q84 are drawn into a parallel world which is only subtly different from the one we are all in. I felt like the same thing was happening to me. Suddenly, people and structures I knew were askew, irrevocably different and I thought I was going crazy. This book is on the longer side…1000+ pages or so, but for me, it almost wasn’t long enough. This book became the only safe place for me- Murakami’s language the only familiar graspable thing in a place where my own world seemed too different from the one I had known a month earlier. The heft of the book, the solidity of being able to return to one story whenever I needed, these things kept me sane. One of my favorite books is Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicles…in it, the main character often descends into a well…I’ve begun to feel that way whenever I read him. Here is an impenetrable place where you can be, where you can confront and experience things on your own terms. A memorable sentence in this book which has alternately made me despair and exult- blood would not lose its way.

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz:

I read this book based on ancient Toltec wisdom on a 3-hour flight to Wyoming an emerged there feeling like a different person. The four “agreements” are simple enough, but often, the simple things are the most powerful, especially when presented so clearly. Just thinking about it makes me realize how much I need to re-read it and how I haven’t been mindful of the agreements for months. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, especially since it’s maybe more spiritual/self-help but during that difficult time in my life, it gave me peace and liberated me from a lot of fear and expectation.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante:

One of the most vivid writers and books I’ve read in recent memory. I’m not sure I should have read it when I did…the desperation, grief, and rage of the protagonist was too close to me. I literally trembled with emotion reading most of this book. It understood me and recognized my feelings in a way I rarely experience with literature…this feeling of recognition is a large part of why I read anything. The visceral quality of her writing flies off the page like a strong stench. I’m not sure if it’s the best or worst thing I could have read at the time, but I know it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard:

Speaking of best things I’ve ever read. This book was wild and lonely, a moving meditation on nature, humanity, and solitude. I read this in the mountains of Wyoming, steeping in the nature around me through her unique vision. I learned so much about nature, its’ beauty and terrors. So many unforgettable moments of turbulence and melancholy, written in such precise language, this book creeps up in your soul and explodes like kudzu, catching in your throat.

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I hoped, though I think almost anything would be disappointing after the Dillard. The writing was startlingly modern and familiar compared to the Dillard; something I usually enjoy, but not so much this time. While the subject matter and journey of the book were intimate, I felt distanced from the speaker and unable to fully experience and empathize with her most of the time. When I did feel fully let in, it was an incredible rush, and part of me wondered if the distancing and subsequent revelatory closeness were some kind of purposeful reenactment of her experience training her hawk. I chose this because I really wanted more female memoir/nature after Dillard and I was intrigued by the story of a girl who deals with the grief of losing her father by training a goshawk. (Also, I’ve never encountered the genre “memoir/falconry” and found it the combination fascinating.) I admired her patience with her companion and learned more than I ever imagined I would know about hawks and the author T.H. White. Overall, an interesting reflection on how grief manifests and how we seek to tame our grief, in this case literally the thing with feathers, and understand death and our relationship with it.

The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki:

I’ve always been fascinated with Ozeki who is an author as well as a Zen Buddhist priest. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel “A Tale for The Time Being” and when I saw this (very slim) memoir, I had to pick it up. I learned so much about different zen rituals in this book which proved to be a great jumping off point for more research in these traditional ceremonies and I felt a kinship to her in her search for relating to both American and Asian parts of herself. The book is full of mini-meditations on her life, culture, and family which she has while conducting an experiment (both Asian and American) inspired by the Zen koan- what does your face look like before your parents are born? (before you know any duality) and the art history/architecture professor Jennifer Roberts’ assignment for her Harvard students of looking at a single work of art for 3 hours. This changed my relationship to my face for awhile after reading, as well as my relationship with my instrument, which I talk about in the video blog of my last post.

The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins:

I tend to try and read books before movies come out because I’m really fascinated with the concept of adaptation. Most of the time though, I end up forgetting to see the movie, which is exactly what happened this time as well. This was a fun, well-paced and fast read that definitely made me more paranoid about males in my life. Reminded me of the importance of trying to see situations and people clearly without any expectations or past ideas about them. In the book, that isn’t only toxic, it’s lethal.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein:

One of the best memoirs I’ve read. I was so struck by how Brownstein writes about herself, past and present. With so much understanding, truth, and not seeking attention, love, or any specific emotion from the reader, just telling how things were and are. Never self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, or self-victimizing, which I imagine, are very difficult things to avoid when writing a memoir if you’ve been a person. She knows herself and doesn’t seek to represent/misrepresent herself and she has the utmost respect for truth, her own and the truths of those she knew or mentioned. I was so inspired by this book I wanted to tattoo whole sections and words onto my body (because yes, the writing as well as the life was incredible) so I wouldn’t forget them. She has a beautiful rib cage tattoo that says “dig me out” and the circumstances of those words meant so much to me in relation to many of the situations in this last semester when I felt helplessly trapped. She gave me the courage to dig myself out of unhappiness. I finished the book ugly crying into a pillow euphoric from having been on such a rewarding journey.

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin:

More like a manual for living authentically. So incredibly and simply rendered, this book of short stories really made me realize the artificiality of my daily life. The frailty and helplessness with which we face all things- our deaths, our addictions, the deaths and addictions of those we love is shown with so much love, we can empathize with characters we wouldn’t be able to empathize with in another hand. She writes the most complex situations in a way that our response can only be love or understanding- never manipulating our emotions, but transforming us into empathetic beings. I never knew how privileged I was…never fully understood (and still don’t) the things I have which are ordinary to me, which would be luxuries to others…like the ability to converse in this language, to even read and search for a job if I needed. This book made me want to go be someone comfortable without the comforts I think I need because I learned how much I don’t need the way others need. This book is written by someone who is an “outsider” and encounters so many people who are impoverished, criminal, on the fringe of what society would be comfortable with. I connected with this voice so strongly, and it made me realize how much I feel like an “other” in most places in my life. I wept for the people in these stories, and yet I also envied them their living. These experiences in fiction felt at many times more potent, and closer to the meaning of life than my real life.



It was an almost windless night, only the moon trembling in the pond gave any indication of life. The grass, unmoved for so long, ached to be stirred, and the trees slowly turned to stone, their leaves gouged lower and lower by gravity’s pressure.
The girl turned in her sleep.
Her stomach whined with a latent hunger and she sighed.
Her breath trailed to the open window. The leaves resting there exhaled, shrugging off the stillness, rippling into each other, igniting the grasses, sweeping the landscape into gentle elation.
The girl turned away.
Without her sighs to emanate their dance, the trees were pressed in with sadness. They tried to sigh. They stood there hanging their leaves in shame, in desperation. A lonely cucco warbled. The moon cowered in its hiding place, embarrassed by its own ostentatiousness.
Her stomach whined again, insistent. Her spine started to shake, notch by notch, Cupid was thrumming her body with his pointer finger, drawing the hunger out. The world waited for her breath, her birth.
Violently, he struck the final chord, intoning her into being. Her body hummed, she became sacred. She gasped and the world continued their dance in response, convulsing with her as she languidly writhed in her bed, her back arching into a half moon, shoulders revolving back. Her limbs stretched, spanning previously unreached lengths. Her breasts dilated, and blood pulsed in waves…red, powerful globules, surging against the vein walls, a siege of desire. The trees and grasses exulted and even the moon throbbed with need.


The club-footed boys leer and wipe their sweaty hands as the girls leap around them like impaired flamingos. Preening and prancing, tittering, guffawing, the room is frothing with feathers and possibility, everyone careening for love. This is innocence, the desire to be older, to experience, to be marked, marred. In every corner, secret maps are being drawn in hearts, secret plans that start to bubble over…extravagant dreams spinning out as the dancers circle closer and closer in this teenage ritual.
The girl turns.
She yawns, and as she raises her hand to cover her mouth, he takes it, asks, Can I? May I? And just like that, her fist of a heart cracks open a little. With careful steps, they circle around each other, each coated in gooseflesh, aware of every hair on the other, of every breath each is withholding. Hardly moving their bodies, just their hearts pounding against each other, a dance of their own, pulling them this way and that, but always closer. The color rises in their cheeks, necks dampen, and with each slow spin, her eyes dare to look a little more into his, the light in them getting brighter and brighter.
Secret plans are being drawn in their hearts. They are in the antechamber of love and it is bubbling over like the champagne in the soft flaps of their membrane, their dreams are volatile as they spin and spin and rush on, whirling past the aisle, launching into a life together as the fist of her heart cracks wide and lets him in. The moon, just a whisper tonight, hides behind the swarming clouds.


Every day is a dull green color. A large moss is growing over their lives, softly at first, overtaking the house, the dog, the children, smothering, sucking with its tentacled tissue and sporophytes all life underneath. Every day is the same liturgy of brushing and braiding hair, soggy bologna sandwiches, lavish amounts of detergent, 100 strokes of the swiffer, the nice dinner, honey! with sadness and a glass of wine or two or three.
The dim metallic air weighs heavy as loneliness prowls around the house with sinewy hips.

And yet, sometimes the lush fog clears, and her eyes dare to look a little into his, and the timid fist gently uncurls.

The moss encroaches, enveloping the timid fist with dense vegetation. The dust motes march down one by one. The laundry, like clockwork starts to give off its peculiar stench. The children’s stomachs growl and the dog stamps impatiently at the door. Each second being sliced away by the Sacraments of living.

The moon peers over the moss but cannot see anything.


The leaves of the mangosteen tree trembled violently as the house shook with the anger of raised voices. Volleying back and forth, tidal waves of irreconcilable words, irreconcilable fears rain down in the yellow kitchen. And with one breath, with two breaths, with three, they say without meaning to, the things they cannot unsay.

Bitter foul taste of bile and acid rising with regret in their stomachs.
She takes his raised hand, “May I? Can I?” She tries to help him remember, their life before the moss, a shared life of everyday comfort, not easy, but theirs.
She uncurls her heart and lays it bare for him. An open peony, each petal still smooth, she uses his hand to trace over it the secret plans and maps she had, no, not the secret plans and maps she had but the real memories and experiences they shared, etched in the grooves of her heart, a favorite record she plays all the time.

Her eyes are bright, they dare to look a little into his, but his eyes, his thoughts are inaccessible to her. The peony trembles, losing a petal, crumbling to paper. He has left this life for another, he had secret plans and maps of his own- plans that grew larger and larger, like a thick moss enveloping him. The moon cannot see him. He is enticed by another, she is left a wound in the yellow kitchen.

She is unable to sustain herself. Irreconcilable fears have become inconsolable fears. She shuffles around the house unclean as her neglected children, now without even one parent watch wide-eyed as she shouts and sobs, someonehelpmesomeonehelpmeplease. Begging barefoot in the streets, bleeding openly without dignity, without care. She is left prostrate, moaning, rocking back and forth in the grass, tormented by her imagination, the shrieking  questions taunting her with images, trying desperately to fill in her lack of knowledge. She makes secret plans and maps, drawing them in the secret chambers of her mind, militantly engraving them. The voices urge her to go find the little half-moons in the medicine cabinet.

She walks to the bathroom and as her fist closes over the knob, she is besieged. Her heart is pounding, her blood is pulsing in waves…red, powerful globules, surging against the vein walls in desire, arresting her. Live, live, live, they say. Even the moon has needs, look!  The moon, full and ablaze outside the window looks at her with no embarrassment, with pride. She lets go of the handle, seeing her own face in the mirror, with the reflection of the moon in it.

She clutches her round cheeks, polished by the moon. She dares to look all the way in her eyes. The blood in her veins sloshing, crashing in joy. Her breasts swell, dilating upward. She walks stridently outside to the moon, breaking to pieces as she goes. An arm left here by the mangosteen tree. Laughter comes out of her without being processed as she peels off her clothes like peony petals. Her eyes grow brighter and brighter, drenched in the moon’s strange light. She unfurls, effulgent with the moon, all the while, parts of her falling, a pinky toe rolling down the sewer, a gash in her thigh wide as a mouth, light filling in the broken parts, great scabs of light, shards from the moon assailing her, she stumbles, falls on her knees, prostrate again, gyrating in mad joy, arms outstretched, groping, searching desperately for the next adventure, ready for this life, the next life, the light of eternal darkness


The Chronology of Water: A Memoir I hope to forget

There is so much hype surrounding Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir The Chronology of Water. Some of the words used to describe the writing are “dazzling, brilliant, raw, lyrical, baptism by fire.” A Huffington Post review started with “Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water is the kind of book that people don’t just read, but become converted to.” Countless reviews online talk of the dazed stupor they’re in after reading the book, how sacred it is, and I guess because of the title, there are a lot of responses that include weeping, or drowning in sorrow while reading, or ending the book in a “flood of tears.” Chuck Palahniuk, who I love, writes on the cover of the book, “I’ve read this book, cover to cover, a dozen times. I am still reading it. And I will, most likely, return to it for inspiration and ideas, and out of sheer admiration, for the rest of my life.
You can see why I was excited to read it. I should tread carefully, I know, in writing about a memoir. This is someone’s life, after all. But this book was such a failure and utter disappointment, I feel I must write about the very different experience I had reading it.

Most people write memoirs at a time when they decide they have a more acceptable perspective about their life as a whole. Lidia Yuknavitch seems to be operating under this generalization, but unfortunately, she does not seem like someone who has gained perspective at all. Incredibly self-aggrandizing and immature, this is not the voice of someone who has grown up. To be sure, there are a few beautiful sentences and ideas, but in a book of about 300 pages, one hopes to gain a little more than (in my opinion) 3 good sentences, and 1 good idea.

The book is mostly an account of the terrible things that happen in her life including the loss of her Olympic swimming dreams, a stillborn, abusive father, passive and suicidal mother, and eventually, the art, life, and love she finds. You would think it would be easy to feel empathy for someone who has gone through so many truly horrific things. However, it is not easy. The reader never has to put Yuknavitch in the place of being a victim. She does it for you, all the time…constantly. When she isn’t victimizing herself, she’s self-destructing and making sure everyone around her will light up in flames too. She loses her Olympic swimming dreams because she parties too hard, losing her college scholarship her second year. She constantly abuses substances, causing irreparable damage to others and alternates her time between graduate writing classes, jails, and rehab centers. I don’t have any qualms with that. Substance abuse, hurting others, hurting myself, victimizing myself…these are all things I have had some experience with- maybe not to the extent she or others do, but I’m familiar with them and I’ve seen plenty of it in the lives of others. The problem I have with her is her inability to be self-aware. To take any responsibility for her actions without having pride in them. She’s so proud of having a messy narrative…a real backstory, that she can’t see herself as anything besides a protagonist. She can’t even see how contrived and cliche the “backstory” or the “life experience” she has cultivated is. She thinks of herself as a kind of prophet for all fuck-ups.
(PS. We already have one, his name is Burroughs.)

She is extremely narcissistic. I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone in my life, real or fiction, more self-centered. The most extreme example of this is the following-
At age 37, after years of reckless self-destructive behavior and drunk driving, which she admits to earlier, she gets a call from an ex-husband and responds by drinking an entire bottle of scotch and then driving onto the six northbound lanes of the freeway in SoCal and she’s “laughing and flooring it” and she lets go of the steering wheel.
She hits a pregnant woman, who speaks no English, and has no airbags.
She doesn’t tell us what happens to the woman….she ends the chapter with, “In my head I thought take me away from this woman. I can’t be near her. I can’t look at her. I can’t even accept that she exists. The image of a grieving mother is one that could kill me.”
It gets even more self-centered in the interview at the back of the book by the publisher:
“I never say in this book what happened to the woman I hit head on with my car. I have deferred that information purposefully. Because I want you to stay with me- me drunk driving across eight lanes of freeway traffic at midnight in my car- stay with me inside my own pain and grief and vodka breath and pee and barf- stay with me as the gunpowder smell from the airbags fill the car.”

Have you read anything more self-centered in your whole life?
So we never find out what happens to the pregnant woman she hits. She’s definitely not asking (nor do I think she needs to, for the record), but do we really need to forgive a woman like her? Who continues to self-destruct in a way that fatally brings harm to so many around her? After decades of it already? Is there a point in time where we should not allow ourselves to be victims of our pasts and families? We are all people not worth loving at certain points of our lives, but is there a grace period for how long we are allowed to be that way? I find the above quotes especially jarring because they are from Yuknavitch unfictionalized. This isn’t just bad writing, this is just her being…a bad person.

But speaking of bad writing- let’s get to that now.

In her interview, she says of language, “But language always falls short of the body when it comes to the intensity of corporeal experience. The best we can do is bring language in relationship to corporeal experience- bring words as close to the body- as as close as possible.”
She follows this with two examples which are pretty terrible-
“Close enough to shatter them. Or close enough to knock a body out.” …
She continues, “To bring language close to the intensity of experiences like love or death or grief or pain is to push on the affect of language.”
I agree that it is difficult to make language have the same kind of intensity as corporeal experience, but if you believe that it is how you are meant to express, and that it is necessary, it is your responsibility to at least try. I generally found her descriptions amateurish, cliche, and repetitive.
“My rage became nuclear. ”
“Do you know how it felt? Like being dead.” (She actually ended a chapter this way! It was supposed to be dramatic in a meaningful way, I think…)
“Here it is. I’m the reason we went busto.” (She also used “thingie” to describe something later. I’ve seen xangas and tumblrs with 1000 times her descriptive ability.)
“I wailed. Epically. ” …
“The things she made me do made my skin hot and prickly.” (This one in particular is repeated so many times. Her head is always getting hot, and different parts of her are always getting itchy or prickly.)
This kind of writing from a woman who proudly proclaims that
she’s “a weird writer. (Experimental’ sounds dumb, and ‘Innovative’ sounds strangely snooty.)”
Don’t worry, no one would think to call you any of those.

Besides the above examples of bad writing, she does so many things to alienate readers.
Example: On her early masturbation: “Yeah? Have you ever tried it? Then shut up.”
She seems unconscious of the ways she is defensive, hypocrital, and egotistical-
On cannibalism, “Gross. I’m no cannibal.” (This reads very judgmental and hypocritical considering some of the other things she does in the book. You can’t proclaim yourself the queen of fuck-ups if you aren’t also going to back up the cannibals!)
Examples of her defensiveness in academia:
The third to last sentence of the memoir, “I’m not talking out of my asshole.” (Super eloquent.)
“Sorry, that’s the goddamn academic in me.” (This, after another random fact she’s spewed to try and show/prove her literary knowledge)
“What I thought was, fuck you, Mingo. How many books have you written, big sexy looking guy?”(Besides the gross assumption that having books written or published has anything to do with our actual worth as human beings, another constant annoyance about the memoir is how shallow Yuknavitch is. I had to remind myself I wasn’t reading Twilight or 50 shades at certain times because she’s just so quick to generalize that good-looking people and messed-up people are worthy and ugly and less messed-up people are unworthy.)

And on that matter, of course you wrote a book that was published, Yuknavitch. Your book is a memoir with all the other words that sell- wild sex, substance abuse, gender, S&M, sexual abuse. Any book with that content will be picked up and disseminated, especially if you parade it as an R-rated Eat, Pray, Love…something cohesive, with depth…something redemptive and epic in nature as is to be assumed with the word chronology. She later talks about the importance of telling her own story about alcohol and drug abuse…not the “right” one that publishers and consumerists want, yet she hypocritically never talks about her incest “directly” because publishers and editors warn her that it isn’t the “right” one and besides, incest is so popular right now “it’s running out of meaning.” So of course, she doesn’t mention it directly, incest is so over…Yuknavitch only wants to write what’s going to shock you. The other reason her book is guaranteed to sell- her tits are on the cover. You know, the huge tits she refers to constantly in the book, so much so that you’re confused because she sexualizes herself as much as everyone else she complains about doing it. It’s fine with me that she has big breasts, and that she refers to them a lot, and that she sexualizes herself. Thinking about her big breasts was an opportunity to take a break from the size of her much-larger ego.

There is a difference between art, brought about somewhat consciously, or even unconsciously, and just smearing a bunch of shit together, believing something comes of the juxtapositions. (An example of such shit-juxtapositions from her first literary journal- “poems interrupted stories and giant photos of tits interrupted the white space and lyric line of poems.”) Though that method shows a beautiful belief in what art is capable of and how much is permissible, I can’t accept that this is Yuknavitch’s method because only people who have led similar lives with her are deemed permissible or worthy of her. Though she runs to everything and everyone that is messy in life with open and accepting arms, she is extremely judgmental towards people who haven’t searched or experimented the way she has. The only way she thinks people can arrive at the culture, art, and life that she thinks so highly of is the wild experimentation, drug use, and sexual experiences she’s gone through. In this way, she doesn’t make art, but limits it. She limits her own capacity to experience art (and everything) by looking down on things or people that come from a place too sanitized for her, and she limits art to certain experiences and the expression of those experiences.

At the end of this book, I felt like I was expected to have witnessed growth. She does that whole trick that starts with…”I’m not wise, but…” which is supposed to be followed by the sage revelations of someone who has gained perspective. But her revelations, like her obsession with counterculture, age her. They are tired. They are all things we have been exposed to, and exposed to better. This didn’t seem like the truth about anything, just all the most shocking parts of a life written in a childish way.

This book is a memoir, but it is hard to believe. One thing Lidia mentions which is wonderful, is how “language can help us narrativize over our fears.” Language can also, however, pander to how we want things to be remembered for the sake of our own perspective-narrative and eventually even alter our memories and ideas of truth. When reading this memoir, you can’t help feeling like everything has been altered; that you are being lied to and every situation is being controlled. It isn’t done very well, however, so it is clear early on that everything is written by someone who has victimized themselves their whole lives and continues to do so.
This book could have been an anti-memoir (and maybe even an impressive one) for readers who see the book as one without redemption because of Yuknavitch’s seeming inability to grow up and to stop being a victim. However, Yuknavitch clearly thinks  she has been saved, no, finally deigned the love and life she has been worthy and deserving of and waiting for her whole life. How is she rescued from her fate? Does this proud and loud-proclaiming feminist finally dig herself out of the prison of victimization and nearsightedness she has kept herself in all these years? No, she meets a wonderful  (albeit married and a decade younger student of hers at the time) man who wants to be husband number 3 and to have a baby with her. That happens in the chapter “conversion.” Because the book isn’t cliche enough…she needs to be rescued, saved by a man.
Not that I don’t believe love can change things, and that I’m not happy for her; I do think we are all worthy of the love and life she seems to have at the end of the book. But for me, the genre of this book is really a tragedy. Because she can’t take responsibility for herself, she can’t move on, or grow up. She can’t narrativize over her victimizing, or at least, isn’t aware enough to know she should try. She loves her past so much, she can’t see a need for change, and most likely wouldn’t be capable of one.

The first sentence of the Acknowledgements is “If you have ever fucked up in your life, or if the great river of sadness that runs through us all has touched you, then this book is for you.” I thought this was a beautiful sentence, and I was excited. I know now that this book is not for me. This book is not for anyone except her. This is not a book that people need to read. Yes, we all mess up and are messed-up to varying degrees, but there are more appropriate responses than blind pride to all the ways you have hurt, hurt yourself, and hurt others. I am completely against unnecessary feelings of shame and guilt, but a little remorse at times (or even just once!) from Yuknavitch would have mitigated the intense dislike I gained for her by the end of the memoir. Speaking of shame, Lidia Yuknavitch made me feel ashamed of being a woman. She embodies all the stereotypes of manipulative, always messing up, self-destructive, emotionally unstable and reckless, selfish, self-complicating, and self-aggrandizing women. This book was less a Chronology of Water and more a Chronology of Pride. Of how pride steeped so deep in the blood veins can be poison keeping you from any kind of truth about yourself, others, and the world.

I don’t mean to diminish everything about this book. She had real hardships in her life and I’m sure she has created things of beauty, this book just isn’t one of them. She did beautiful things for parents she hated (and saw herself as a constant victim of)- she forgave one and housed the other in his old age. She wrote about them, and imagined their stories, which for her was a way to have compassion towards them, and to seek understanding. Unfortunately, the stories she imagined for them were still ones where her own identity and narrative took precedent. I believe in her life and story, but it’s a shame it wasn’t expressed better. I truly believe she could have done it, could have been capable…if she had been capable of remorse. If she had just been honest. Told the truth about things, saw the truth about things. Not pretentious or contrived, this book and her story could have been something. If she could have seen more complexity in her life, instead of reducing herself…

I could have loved her,
Ling Ling

A Very Kerouac Father’s Day

I first read On the Road when I was in my late teens and revisited it again for a Beat lit class a few semesters later. Something of the hugeness in the characters presented and the vastness of the journeys undertaken were so infectious I found myself in a sweet unrest to travel. Some of these feelings have stayed with me. I still think it is a beautifully written book. The lifestyle, the optimism, and the people still fill me with awe. I still think tremendous is one of the greatest words in the English language.
But as I read and reflect on this book more in this next phase of my life, I am realizing more and more the choices presented and ultimately undertaken throughout and at the end of the book.
The novel is largely autobiographical and revolves around the experiencing of one Dean Moriarty from the perspective of the narrator, Sal Paradise. The ever-changing scenery, characters, and excitements distract the reader while Sal’s pedestal for Dean slowly disintegrates. For me, this disenchantment happens so gradually, it is easy to miss. Because of the constant movement, it is hard to realize that what Sal wants is family, and more importantly, a sort of father figure out of Dean. Dean also seems to be a symbol for the America everyone is “mad to know.” His vitality, the sense of promise he exudes, and the eventual decline all mirror America or at least our hopes for/of America. I find that in previous stages of my life, I was, like Sal, similarly plagued with a constant fear or missing out on things; gatherings, good times, the latest incarnation of God. Rereading this novel has been a good indication as to how I’ve changed. I get frustrated now, reading about these people who badly want to attain revelation and reality squander their days and weeks with pursuits which now seem purposeless to me. Sal Paradise even admits at one point, “What was I doing? Where was I going?” Only when Sal settles down with a makeshift family does he become acquainted consciously with his real desires. “I forgot all about the East and all about Dean and Carlo and the bloody road. I was a man of the earth, precisely as I had dreamed I would be, in Paterson.” He realized what he left Paterson for was a different kind of family than he had intended.
On the other hand, Dean has no desire to be domesticated. The only time we see Dean idolizing anyone he says, “That Rollo Greb is the greatest,  most wonderful of all. That’s what I was trying to tell you- that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out..” At another time Dean says, “Oh these dumb dumb dumb Okies, they’ll never change, how completely and how unbelievably dumb, the moment it comes time to act, this paralysis, scared, hysterical, nothing frightens em more than what they want- it’s my father my father my father all over again!” By putting these two quotes together, we understand how Dean’s identity is in a way a paralyzed and hysterical response to his father and his desire to be completely different from him. Dean is concerned only with being unconcerned, not getting hung-up, always changing, and always doing what he wants. Though Dean is uninterested in domestication, everyone misplaces hope in him which has tragic consequences on everyone, including him.
The last sentence of the novel shows that Sal now sees how Dean is like his own father and Sal can now, after Dean’s abandonment, relate to Dean in his experience of being forsaken by a father.

“The last time I saw him it was under sad and strange circumstances. Remi Boncoeur had arrived in new York after having gone around the world several times in ships. I wanted him to meet and know Dean. They did meet, but Dean couldn’t talk any more and said nothing, and Remi turned away.” Remi is earlier described as being “fat and sad now, but still the eager and formal gentleman, and he wanted to do things the right way, as he emphasized.” The meeting of Dean and Remi seem to be the two sides of Sal trying to reconcile. The constantly traveling wayfarer with no capabilities of regret and responsibility meeting the formal gentleman who wants to do things right. These two sides of Sal have no way of resolving and in the end, Sal chooses to go to the concert with Remi despite his desires to do otherwise. By now, he has realized that a life of being with and like Dean is empty so he chooses the “right way.” Dean does not experience this same kind of transformation- turns out you really can’t “teach the old maestro a new tune.”

So now when I read this book, I’m not only filled with the hugeness of heart and adventure, but immense sadness at the closing pages. The irreconcilable Sal and Dean or Sal and other Sal is so uncomfortable. So is the way they split up and one is left thinking, just thinking about the other. And this is just like family to me- people you think about and are tied to, bound to, who are completely and complicatedly different from yourself. And yet, that’s what Sal left to find, and what he found missing in his life. It is hard for me to decide on any few words for family. What I do know is that I am lucky to have a fantastic father. Reading On the Road, I am grateful I don’t feel the need to search or cultivate similar relationships in my life (which I will ultimately destroy with my high expectations) because I have a great dad who loves and supports me. He is the kindest, gentlest, and most inspiring man I know.

Happy Father’s Day,
Ling Ling

Jonathan Franzen’s Farther Away: Book Review

I first encountered Franzen on the cover of one of my favorite books. “Beneath the foam of this exuberant debut is a dark, strong drink.” This one sentence was an impressive arranging of words to be sure, but after reading the book and seeing how the writing style, form, and underlying plot worked together, this sentence blew me away because it so captured the book in its entirety. Another way of saying the above would be that I fell for him.
Almost a year ago, I spotted his newest (2012) Farther Away in one of my favorite bookstores, Explore, in Colorado. I read the jacket and was severely impressed with what he seemed to offer within the book…mainly because it seemed like writing the book had given him much to offer. But it was almost $30. I was not that impressed. (really, I was just poor.)
A close friend, knowing how much I had been jonesing for Franzen bought me a copy of The Corrections which I read over Christmas break this past school year. I was so frustrated by a lot of the things happening in the book that I was a hard person to be around, even for myself. But it was worth it. The complexities he chose to bring out in his characters were beautifully wrought and he constructed beautifully a kind of love that I and, I think, many others have experienced, but which I have never encountered in any literature before.
So this year, I finally remembered to check the Rice library for Farther Away when I was there with my Corrections friend. Since I didn’t have my ID, she ended up checking it out for me. I think it’s safe to say that Dorothy is my official sponsor for Franzen.

Farther Away is the title of the place he goes in the second essay which in the native language is Masafuera. It is also the the place he emotionally needed to go in order to grieve the loss of one of his closest friends, David Foster Wallace.
The title also refers to his need to get Farther Away from promotional tours for his latest novel “substantial swaths of my personal history were going dead from within, from my talking about them too often”, his desire for us as readers and humans to get Farther Away from some of the things we are doing technologically and ecologically and how they can negatively affect the rest of humanity and the animal kingdom, and allows him to refer to his early marriage, subsequent divorce, and works from a now more distant vantage point.
The chronology of essays also gets, you guessed it, Farther Away from the present as you read on.

I found that in every essay though, he is in fact, urging us to get closer.
Even by writing a book of non-fiction which is not his typical arena of expertise (though he has two other volumes) it seems he is trying to get closer to us. I found his messages… the things that drive his writing, plot, and characters unchanged from The Corrections but it almost seemed like– listen to me. I’m passionate about this stuff and it is getting late. I can’t make up a great story about this that you’ll read and dissect because I have and I did and I did but I have to dispense with that stuff now.
I appreciated his voice in this book. One that is frank, earnest, and almost desperate. Knowing Franzen and the control of his prose and feeling something near desperation or underlying anxiety in these essays lends to being almost frightened and really caring for his causes (this isn’t meant to say he has causes with a capital C…just that there are clear purposes to each essay as personal expression.) I wonder if this underlying emotional intensity in the writing is cultivated.
The book starts with a commencement address he wrote for Kenyon College titled “Pain Won’t Kill You.” He invites us to get close to pain and to the reality of other people…especially in a world where “technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object ask for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all-powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer: that (to speak more generally) is the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes– a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance –with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” Franzen wants us to get closer to this world of “hurricanes, hardships”…”When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end up loving some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?”
So he urges us at the start of the book to get closer to pain. Because it won’t kill you.
He shows us he is getting closer to us by taking the risk of writing in non-fiction, of not hiding behind his masterful plots and developed characters, but just presenting himself. He gets even closer to us by telling us how he feels when we ask him certain questions on writing in “On Autobiographical Fiction.” He tells us about his divorce, his marriage, his parents and siblings, their relationships with him. And we see how much of himself he gives in his fiction in the truest sense… “The greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.” He gets angry about what’s happening in China and Greece. He goes there to see firsthand and joins in the fight, sometimes physically endangering himself, against poachers and other threats to birds and wildlife. He urges us to get close to these things by sharing them with us, these terrors in worlds far away we don’t have access to. He urges us to read so many authors underappreciated and shares what he’s gotten out of them. And he shows us what it was like to get close to someone with a mental illness and how to grieve, get close to closure when someone you love commits suicide.
In every page of this book, he gave us himself, a worn man who is feeling, articulate about that feeling and living in a world that is full of moral complexities and fragility. People often hail certain novelists or poets as the voice of our generation. I always think that is so broad…and can that really be a good thing? To represent everything…isn’t that too much like nothing at this point, in this world? But I know that Franzen is the voice for myself in this moment. He is someone concerned with the objective truth in a world tainted with over-cynicism and over-sentimentality. I’m finding in my early 20’s that I jump between the two almost hourly and I can’t say I care for either.

So in closing, as he would say about other authors,

Read this Franzen! Read this Franzen!,

Ling Ling

Words and Resolutions: Tracy K. Smith and a Happy New Year

Because of the documentary poetics class I’m taking, I wanted to share a poem by an amazing woman who uses poetry as witness. This is from her book Life on Mars which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.

Life on Mars


Tina says what if dark matter is like the space between people
When what holds them together isn’t exactly love, and I think
That sounds right—how strong the pull can be, as if something

That knows better won’t let you drift apart so easily, and how

Small and heavy you feel, stuck there spinning in place.
Anita feels it now as a tug toward the phone, though she knows

The ear at the other end isn’t there anymore. She’ll beat her head

Against the rungs of her room till it splits, and the static that seeps out

Will lull her to sleep, where she’ll dream of him walking just ahead

Beside a woman whose mouth spills O after O of operatic laughter.
But Tina isn’t talking about men and women, what starts in our bodies

And then pushes out toward anywhere once the joy of it disappears.

She means families. How two sisters, say, can stop knowing one another,

Stop hearing the same language, scalding themselves on something

Every time they try to touch. What lives beside us passing for air?

Last year, there was a father in the news who kept his daughter

Locked in a cell for decades. She lived right under his feet,

Cooking food, watching TV. The same pipes threading through his life

Led in and out of hers. Every year the footsteps downstairs multiplied.
Babies wailing through the night. Kids screaming to be let outside.

Every day, the man crept down into that room, bringing food,

Lying down with the daughter, who had no choice. Like a god

Moving through a world where every face looked furtively into his,
Then turned away. They cursed him to his back. He didn’t hear.

They begged him for air, and all he saw were bodies on their knees.

How close that room. What heat. And his wife upstairs, hearing

Their clamor underfoot, thinking the house must just be

Settling into itself with age.

Tina says dark matter is just a theory. Something

We know is there, but can’t completely prove.
We move through it, bound, sensing it snatch up

What we mean to say and turn it over in its hands
Like glass sifted from the sea. It walks the shore,

Watching that refracted light dance back and forth
Before tossing whatever it was back to the surf.

How else could we get things so wrong,

Like a story hacked to bits and told in reverse?—

He grabbed my blouse at the neck.

All I thought was This is my very best

And he will ruin it. Wind, dirt, his hands

Hard on me. I heard the others

Jostling to watch as they waited

For their turns.
They were not glad to do it,

But they were eager.

They all wanted to, and fought

About who would go first.
We went to the cart

Where others sat waiting.

They laughed and it sounded

Like the black clouds that explode

Over the desert at night.
I knew which direction to go

From the stench of what still burned.

It was funny to see my house

Like that—as if the roof

Had been lifted up and carried off

By someone playing at dolls.

Who understands the world, and when

Will he make it make sense? Or she?
Maybe there is a pair of them, and they sit

Watching the cream disperse into their coffee
Like the A-bomb. This equals that, one says,

Arranging a swarm of coordinates
On a giant grid. They exchange smiles.

It’s so simple, they’ll be done by lunchtime,
Will have the whole afternoon to spend naming

The spaces between spaces, which their eyes
Have been trained to distinguish. Nothing

Eludes them. And when the nothing that is
Something creeps toward them, wanting

To be felt, they feel it. Then they jot down
Equation after equation, smiling to one another, Lips sealed tight.

The earth beneath us. The earth

Around and above. The earth

Pushing up against our houses,

Complicit with gravity. The earth

Ageless watching us rise and curl.

Our spades, our oxen, the jagged lines

We carve into dirt. The earth

Nicked and sliced into territory.

Hacked and hollowed. Stoppered tight.

Tripwire. The earth ticking with mines,

Patient, biding its time. The earth

Floating in darkness, suspended in spin.

The earth gunning it around the sun.

The earth we ride in disbelief.

The earth we plunder like thieves.

The earth caked to mud in the belly

Of a village with no food. Burying us.

The earth coming off on our shoes.

Animals everywhere, packed into stalls. Their legs

Stiff, pointing whichever way. Eyes fixed,

Unblinking because they know. They’ve seen

Our lives, heard us thinking to ourselves, and so

They wait, always ready. Won’t go quietly

In through the massive doors. Won’t go like pets

Into the big wet room where everything ends.

They nose the pellets meant for food. They eat

Only enough. They sip from the trough. Small sips,

Watching the workers as they pass.

Tina says we do it to one another, every day,

Knowing and not knowing. When it is love,

What happens feels like dumb luck. When it’s not,

We’re riddled with bullets, shot through like ducks.
Every day. To ourselves and one another. And what

If what it is, and what sends it, has nothing to do

With what we can’t see? Nothing whatsoever

To do with a power other than muscle, will, sheer fright?
To me, this poem is not only moving, but so technically impressive. The heavier subjects of dark matter, gods, God could have been too esoteric, especially to start with, but the writing is so conversational it is easy to keep going.
In general, the person narrating is very casual and there is a strange relationship to authority in the poem. So much attention paid to Tina and what she says…as if we know who she is. So much wondering about gods and God and the father who kept his daughter locked up.
Reading this poem top to bottom reminds me a little bit of some babysitting experiences I’ve had. You get these really precocious kids who have the same odd relationships with authority, where they don’t know who’s “in charge” of the universe but they do know their older sibling has it all right. These kids are also often the ones who say the strangest things most offhandedly….the juxtaposition of naivety and subject matter in this poem as well as the scrambled form all contribute to the last question because they cause fear and chaos in the readers mind.
This is actually an earlier version of the poem; later on, she changes 8. to a powerful excerpt quoting Rush Limbaugh on Abu Ghraib. The way she weaves this and the father and daughter story to the poem are so impressive to me because she creates a place where our own universal fears can co-exist with things that have happened in history.
As I kept reading, I kept becoming more scared. Sentences started to pop out like spectres in a haunted house- “spills O after O of operatic laughter”, “He grabbed my blouse at the neck”, “Nothing eludes them..they smile” etc. The poem gets more sinister and more disorienting as it progresses. The fracture of form and chaos it then provides mirrors the narrators distrust in organization, in God.
The one redemptive section is the beautiful part about? or by? the earth. Suddenly, something we can trust. The earth beneath us, around us, surrounding us. Protecting us in the middle of this frightening poem. Spades oxen jagged carved nicked sliced stoppered tight, gunning it around the sun, earth earth earth. These are words of power, heavy and hard words. And the way earth keeps coming back in the section, almost an incantation. But just as we trust and start to live in these comforting hard words, “the earth coming off on our shoes.” It isn’t so strong? Are we more powerful than the thing we trusted? We destruct what protects us? Who knows. But stability is gone. (Similar to how I felt about the 3rd and 2nd movement of Tchaikovsky 5 mentioned in a previous post..) And for awhile we were still thinking from the first line about dark matter holding people together, or is it God holding people together? love? What holds people together? And you forget about this question and suddenly the poem ends asking, is it just that primitive instinct…fear? I confess, I skimmed through the last part of this poem because I was frightened and needed to know how it ended and when I read the last sentence, my eyes stung. All in all a beautiful poem seemingly written by someone young who wants to believe in God or gods but finds it difficult when presented with a world where incestuous fathers lock up their daughters, torture happens in prisons and is joked about lightly, and people stay together out of “not quite love.”
This idea that fear is what holds us together reminded me of another very similar idea in The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I know…what doesn’t remind me of The Waves? But no, really…this does. There is a scene in the book where one of the characters is at a party. A big social affair where she feels out of place.
“Scorn and ridicule pierce me. I, who could beat my breast against the storm and let the hail choke me joyfully, am pinned down here; am exposed. The tiger leaps. Tongues with their whips are upon me. Mobile, incessant, they flicker over me. I must prevaricate and fence them off with lies. What amulet is there against this disaster? What face can I summon to lay cool against this heat?”
I remember relating immensely to this section in the book because I am shy and experience a lot of social agitation. The idea of amulets and how we use people, ideas, things we are comfortable with to ward off other things or guard ourselves from them was a new idea when I read the book. Being at a new school this year, where I have friends I’m extremely comfortable with, I feel like I’ve fallen prey to this way of thinking many a social situation in the last semester. That is not fair to the amazing friends I have.
So here it is…my New Years Resolutions. (You know…just two weeks late) Not a single person in my life deserves to be used as an amulet because I’m feeling uncomfortable, unloved, unnecessary, unhuman, etc. I want to choose to have people in my life because I love and enjoy them, not because I need them selfishly. The same goes for a lot of other decisions I make. Often, I buy clothing or personal possessions because they contribute to the personality I label myself as having. By labeling myself, I create an identity that is tidy and in a way, I use that as an amulet too. “I know who I am and that helps me make other decisions throughout the day” mentality. It’s hard to face the contradictions that exist in any given personality, life, lifestyle. so…I know there is such a thing as healthy fear, but I don’t want unhealthy fear to make any decisions in my identity, personal relationships, and professional relationships anymore. As scary as that is….
Ling Ling