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Favorite Reads in 2011

December 15, 2011

Trying something different this time… I’m going to actually list these in a somewhat loose order of personal significance. Full reviews of all books mentioned can be found on My Goodreads page.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
in which a difficulty is earned not by modernist wordplay, but by tackling mercurial and impossible ideas head on, and not without humor. A novel of ideas that is (among other things) also an argument against ideas (or at least against systematizing or simplifying them).

My Friends by Emmanuel Bove
in which the most simple, self-evident language is contained in a perfect novel of quiet humor, sadness, and crystallized beauty; a criminally underread masterpiece.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk
in which the life of one uncompromising SOB is laid out, showing all the seeming contradictions therein, which in the end turns out to be the perfect vehicle for his ideas (or perhaps the idea itself). A thought provoking book, in which I saw many parallels to Musil’s musings.

Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
in which the trick of hopping around randomly is ultimately trumped by the non-trick of great writing. As one Cronopios put it, this is a very serious game, one that you can put your whole life into.

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
in which a frustrating amount of things keep getting added to the to-do list, though nothing that truly matters is ever addressed; the uneasy feeling produced by this novel rings true for me, and in the end, though nothing is solved, I feel refreshed as if emerging from an ineffably sad dream.

The Atoms of Language by Mark C. Baker
in which a linguist explains the curious logic of all languages, how even the most radically different ones are made up of similar ingredients in different ratios. Also: find out why English is more similar to Indonesian than any other European language.

The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
in which Ms. Kalman charms us with her drawings of dodos and superfluous tassels and ladies with big hair from the back and hats hats couches hats. A year of jottings and journalings by a quirky and interesting woman.

g-point almanac: passyunk lost  &
g-point almanac: id est by Kevin Varrone
in which is found the best contemporary poetry I’ve read in the last 5 years or so.

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
in which time-lapse photography is transfigured into written form, the episodes building one on another like a photograph superimposed, significances becoming apparent that aren’t there for the myopic characters themselves. Surprisingly affecting.

Speaking of the Rose by Robert Walser
in which sentences are like contortionists, able to keep your interest in all ways but what is actually being said (and sometimes in that way too).

A Few “I Must Also Mentions” (in no particular order):

  • How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti
  • Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
  • In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent
  • Winter’s Journal by Emmanuel Bove
  • Illuminations by Walter Benjamin
  • Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
  • Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett
  • The Tanners by Robert Walser
  • Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh



May 3, 2010

Reading 2666 is like trying to appreciate the Sistine Chapel from up close. I wanted constantly to step back in order to get some bigger-picture perspective, and because it is so hard to do this with a work of literature (basically you have to contain the whole thing in your mind and try to imagine it from afar) it makes certain sections (let’s say almost all of it) frustrating, or slightly unsatisfying. But by the end, you start to see some connections, though they are not simple connections. It is more like a feeling of a worldview, than any kind of easy conclusion. If there is any big picture, it is very hard to encapsulate without trying to re-tell the whole thing. Or drawing rather meaningless diagrams, as I have done below:


This makes sense to me, even though I feel like I’m still leaving out a whole bunch, and even though it might not make any sense to anyone else.

I don’t think it is a great novel, although I think its strongest point is creating an internal logic so full that it approaches madness. I think the book lacks some basic things like joy, humor (there was humor, but not the type of humor that sustains one in the act of reading), and characterization. The people in the book seem flat and do not develop; they are almost like chess pieces Bolaño uses to illustrate his points. On the plus side, the book is unlike any other book I’ve read and its strengths are very different from those that I’m used to. I feel that this is a very difficult book to think about in terms of “good” or “bad”. I honestly did not enjoy reading most of it, but I did feel compelled to continue. There is a sense that I am not immersed in the novel’s world, but am only reading a synopsis of ‘what happens’, almost like reading a list of ingredients. There is something enticing about lists to me, perhaps that’s why I kept reading.

2666 Group Read Experience:

I was excited to read 2666 partially because of the Group Read aspect.  I like that there is not one forum for discussion, but rather everyone uses their own modes (whether it be twitter, blogs, forums, GoodReads, etc.).  But while I found a lot of interesting perspectives, the book seems so open-ended that I started to not really get too much out of these perspectives, but instead felt an overwhelming sense of becoming a book-hermit.  This book especially, while going outward, has a spiraling down and inwards feeling to me, akin to becoming slightly insane and illogical.  What I didn’t expect was that I liked not explaining or reading others explanations the more I got into the book, and felt a sense of guardedness towards the experience of reading rather than an expansion outwards.  My gut feeling is that this would have been different with another book.  I can’t explain why.  I remember after finishing The Brothers Karamazov, that I wished to discuss it with people.  But with this book, I didn’t have that feeling at all.  Partly, I think any discussion of this book—which seems to have an infinite number of nodes for making connections—would be at least 80% bullshit, but maybe that’s the cynic in me speaking.


On Usefulness

February 23, 2010


Is 2666 a useful book? I set out to test its usefulness last night when I used one of the recipes provided in the Part About Fate, when Mr. Seaman preaches about usefulness to his congregation. And I quote:

I see lots of fat people in this church, he said. I suspect few of you eat green vegetables. maybe now is the time for a recipe. The name of the recipe is: Brussels Sprouts with Lemon. Take note, please. Four servings calls for: two pounds of brussels sprouts, juice and zest of one lemon, one onion, one sprig of parsley, three tablespoons of butter, black pepper, and salt. You make it like so. One: Clean sprouts well and remove outer leaves. Finely chop onion and parsley. Two: In a pot of salted boiling water, cook sprouts for twenty minutes, or until tender. Then drain well and set aside. Three: Melt butter in frying pan and lightly saute onion, add zest and juice of lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Four: Add brussels sprouts, toss with sauce, reheat for a few minutes, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon wedges on the side. So good you’ll be licking your fingers, said Seaman. No cholesterol, good for the liver, good for the blood pressure, very healthy.

Verdict: Yes, 2666 is indeed a very useful book.  I was able to make the above dish without too much effort.  Although I had some brussel sprouts lately that were much more delicious, it would probably not be fair to compare the usefulness of 2666 with a proper recipe book.   The ones I made last night were also very good, slightly lemony and oniony, although my stomach felt a bit weird after eating way too much of it.

I’m not the first one to do this, I found another blog post and their photos look much more fingerlicking than mine :)

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The Part About Amalfitano

February 15, 2010


There’s a Group Read going on for the book 2666, and I’ve been following along on the forums and stuff, but here is my first blog post about it.  I’ve never read Bolano before and I find it alternating between engaging and frustrating.  Often, I have no idea what he is trying to get at mainly because there is just so much there.  He throws so much at the book (it is 900 pages long) that it seems inevitable to make connections, but are the connections really there?  Or is it just the result of there being so much there?

I kept most of my comments on The Part About the Critics on the forums or to myself, but here are a few things I noticed about the Part About Amalfitano (please excuse the messiness of these notes)

Parallels with Part 1: Right off we start in a similar territory as part 1.  Instead of the critics going from Europe to Latin America to look for Archimboldi, we have Lola going to ??? looking for the poet.  Interesting: Amalfitano says there is no way she really met him since he introduced him to her.  So (knowing this) the long passages where she writes of meeting him and making love to him at a party read to me almost like one of the dream sequences.  Also: parallel with part 1 in that a woman (Lola in part 2, Norton in part 1) is leaving/abandoning a man (or 2 men, in part 1) and writing to him/them from the new location.

What strikes me about these looking-for-a-writer scenes: these people don’t know who they are, and they are invested in this other thing that defines them, because they can’t define themselves.  The critics write ABOUT Archimboldi’s writings.  It seems like a modern condition Bolano is highlighting, wherein people’s identity is so lost and so caught up and dependent on others… but it’s dependent on others not in a close-knit-community kind of way… there is a very ego-centric, selfish neediness in their searches and reliance on some kind of literary hero.

Character notes: we know so little about these characters… who is Lola and what is her background, why did she suddenly leave so mysteriously?  Who is Imma and what is her motivation for going along with Lola?  We know very little about Amalfitano, though this section is about him… it gave him a page or two and then went head first into Lola’s adventures.  Only later in the section do we get more into his head.  Also: Lola is an interesting choice of name… traditionally Lola is a name of a prostitute or a drag queen… just based on many songs with the name Lola in it… I’ve actually thought about this before encountering the name here.  It’s interesting here considering Lola’s relationship with the poet is through sex, and also how she implicitly allowed the guy who hangs out at the cemetery to pay her for sex.

Stylistic notes: why is part 2 suddenly devoid of paragraph breaks? Except in the last page, where Yeltsin speaks in the dream to him, that is the only paragraph break.

“Madness is contagious”

Neighbor’s fort-like walls w/ broken glass on top.  This part compares Amalfitano to a medieval lord.  I found this metaphor kind of curious, and out of nowhere, but Bolano returns to it a few times.

A quote:

Anyway, these ideas or feelings or ramblings had their satisfactions.  They named the pain of others into memories of one’s own.  They turned pain, which is natural, enduring, and eternally triumphant, into personal memory, which is human, breif, and eternally elusive.  They turned a brutal story of injustice and abuse, an incoherent howl with no beginning or end, into a neatly structured story in which suicide was always held out as a possibility.  They turned flight into freedom, even if freedom meant no more than the perpetuation of flight.  They turned chaos into order, even if it was at the cost of what is commonly known as sanity.

p. 189.  If you didn’t know he was talking about Amalfitano’s ideas on jet lag, you’d think he was talking about the role of novels like 2666 here.

Testamento geometrico:

“three books ‘each independent, but functionally correlated by the sweep of the whole'” (sounds like 2666, with its 5 independent parts)

“the friends’ last names had been printed in capitals while the name of the man being honored was in small letters.” (ego?  sounds familiar to the Critics)

Book hanging on line = symbolism too much? i.e. literature meets the elements/real world.  For those of you wondering, yes I did hang 2666 on the clothesline in the photo above.  It seemed a good tribute.

“We’re not animals” Rosa says, about the book hanging on line

“I take it back” p 191, weird rhetorical device here.  Anyone get this?

Random thought:
I think Bolano is trying to say you can look to art and literature for your answers all you like, you can worship art and forget what you were looking there for to begin with, you can become a professor of literature and scrutinize a piece of text for years, you can even follow the writer, the originator of the art, the questions, but there are some things–in the real world–that you can never understand.  (like the murders)

chincuales – 1 flea or bedbug bites 2 a restless scratcher 3 a restless mind

Books It is interesting that in the first part about the critics, we don’t get any sense what Archimboldi’s books are like.  And yet in the second part, we get the nitty gritty of 2 books Amalfitano is reading.  At least more nitty gritty than the ones mentioned in part 1.  The book on Araucanians is described in detail in terms of how Amalfitano is reading it, and I found especially interesting his imagination while reading it, imagining even scenes of the writer trying to publish the book and get a discount (which goes into this region of is-it-imagined or did-it-really-happen-this way).  p224.  The other book of course is the geometry book, which he hangs out in the elements (also a way of reading?).  And which pervades his thoughts in a totally different way, perhaps influencing him to draw geometrical shapes with names of thinkers at different intersections of these diagrams.  Maybe Bolano is highlighting the way Amalfitano is “reading” these books and how it is different and unconventional compared to the way the critics are reading their books (which aren’t even worth mentioning in depth).  Perhaps Amalf. is the active reader as envisioned by Cortazar, and referenced on p. 224.  And then he goes on to imagine Kilipan to have not existed at all, he imagines him as all these other people writing under the name Kilipan.  This person who was just made so real to us a second ago by the same imagination.

Young Guerra:
Not sure what I think of this yet.  Or how he fits in.  He’s a little off his rocker.  But then so is Amalfitano.  Is it just 2 ways of being mad/dealing?  Lola was a little mad too.


A High Wind in Jamaica

June 27, 2009

A great book I read recently was A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. Everyone should read this book. It’s got pirates! And tigers! And kids! Here is a passage that I especially loved:

In short, babies have minds which work in terms and categories of their own which cannot be translated into the terms and categories of the human mind.

It is true they look human–but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, every one recognizes they are animals–why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.

Possibly the case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree–and even if one’s success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.

How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome?

When swimming under water, it is a very sobering thing suddenly to look a large octopus in the face. One never forgets it: one’s respect, yet one’s feeling of the hopelessness of any real intellectual sympathy. One is soon reduced to mere physical admiration, like any silly painter, of the cow-like tenderness of the eye, of the beautiful and infinitesimal mobility of that large and toothless mouth, which accepts as a matter of course that very water against which you, for your life’s sake, must be holding your breath. There he reposes in a fold of rock, apparently weightless in the clear green medium but very large, his long arms, suppler than silk, coiled in repose, or stirring in recognition of your presence. Far above, everything is bounded by the surface of the air, like a bright window of glass. Contact with a small baby can conjure at least an echo of that feeling in those who are not obscured by an uprush of maternity to the brain.

Of course it is not really so cut-and-dried as all this; but often the only way of attempting to express the truth is to build it up, like a card-house, of a pack of lies.