DNF: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart

DNF not quite halfway through. In the beginning I was impressed by the fine line this book walks between annoyance and charm. The word I thought of to best describe it was “rambunctious.” Then I thought, “Will this ‘rambunction’ get old?” And it basically did. Or maybe I’m just not in the mood for satire of life 15+ years ago when the present is even crazier. Like, we’re living a satire right now. I will say I enjoyed the physicality that Shteyngart revels in; that’s rare. On the other hand, I could do without the meta quality, references to an author with a name like Shteyngart’s who published a novel that sounds like his debut novel.

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DNF: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li

Review:

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life - Yiyun Li

Reading Li’s memoir was a unique experience, or perhaps one so rare I can’t remember the last time I had it. It challenged me to think not only about her as a writer and reader, but about myself as a writer and reader. I highlighted tons of passages, brief and long. I read the book slowly because I frequently needed to pause and evaluate Li’s notions of self, writing, and reading, often all essentially the same thing, against what I believe or thought I believed.

Early on, Li notes that she does not like using first person. It is unavoidable in this type of work, but she uses “one” elsewhere, as in, “One hides something for two reasons: either one feels protective of it or one feels ashamed of it. And it is not always the case that the two possibilities can be separated.” I found that it functioned much like second person (“you”) where it assumes the reader’s agreement. Having read the book, I can’t think that was Li’s intention, but it created an at times adversarial stance from which I judged her obviously personal claims. This isn’t a critique, only an observation of the sort I don’t make often. In a way, then, it’s a compliment.

Because Li in part is writing about writing, I put it on a mental list of texts I’d love to assign in a creative writing workshop. Though my genre is poetry (and fiction after that), its insights apply to any genre. “To write,” she says, “betrays one’s instinct to curl up and hide.” Upon that I can easily agree.

 

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Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li

NaPoWriMo Final Update

I have officially completed the National/Global Poetry Writing Month challenge, having drafted my 30th and final poem of the month this morning.

30 POEMS.

I had to type that twice because the first time shocked me. I wrote 30 poems. In a month. That may not seem incredible, but it is for me. I’m notoriously unprolific. Doing this challenge has showed me that, yep, I’ve just been letting myself off the hook and that I can write more and more frequently. It’s also helped me fight my perfectionist tendencies, as I told myself I was drafting poems, to be revised later. Now I can go back, reread, and revise. I fought the impulse to reread during the challenge but admit I skimmed back through once or twice.

I also only sort of cheated once, within the last week, when what I wrote was more like notes towards a draft rather than an actual draft. I don’t feel (too) guilty about it.

Because 30 poems!

As for reading, I’m still slowly making my way through Szymborska’s collected poems (I’m somewhere in the ’70s). Next I will definitely delve into U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s work; I just heard her speak on NPR, and I can see we share similar views on poetry, its role, and how to approach poems. I’m also thinking it would be a good time to get reading poetry craft/theory again.

Wish me luck on my revisions! Hopefully I’ll get sending some of these babies out to journals. I’ll be happy to share links or publication notices if any are accepted.

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NaPoWriMo Final Update

The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry

Review:

The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World - Elaine Scarry

Probably I should officially consider this a DNF, but I did at least skim the last section, so… This was perhaps a case of waiting too long to read a text I became interested in when a graduate student. At that time, I was regularly reading scholarly work either as assigned in class or for projects for those classes. But I graduated in 2012, and my brain as a reader is generally in a different gear.

I read some of Scarry’s other works in my program but was specifically interested in The Body in Pain because I read the opening pages and was drawn in by the discussion of the inexpressibility of pain. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’m a migraineur, so I tend to take note of topics related to pain. Then as a writer I’m naturally also fascinated by works addressing communication and creativity.

Earlier sections on torture, making, and unmaking were worth the tough read, but the second section delves into biblical and Marxist texts, neither of which are in my wheelhouse. I gave myself permission to skim as, let’s face it, I’m not likely to end up writing a scholarly paper on the topic.

I thought it unfair to rate what I essentially DNF. I’ll say that Scarry’s work in general can be unique, surprising, and compelling, but I don’t always buy her premises.

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The Body in Pain, by Elaine Scarry

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson

Review:

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition - Paul Watson

This is the first book I’ve read that focuses on the multitude of searches conducted to find the lost Franklin expedition rather than on the expedition itself, though of course early chapters offer context. As a fellow obsessive, it’s worth asking why this lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage has generated so much interest and so many searches over the years. It certainly wasn’t the only lost voyage.

One answer is Franklin’s wife, Jane, whose tenacity and devotion was the force behind many of the search efforts. What I didn’t know, and this book details, is that Lady Franklin was an explorer and adventuress in her own right. She’d have gone on a voyage to the Arctic herself if she hadn’t been prevented. Her efforts extended to seances and mediums, popular at the time in Britain; a few turned out to be uncannily accurate.

However, one of the clearest explanations why it took so long to find the two ships (both recently discovered at the bottom of the Arctic in 2014 and 2016) is that Inuit witnesses were ignored or misunderstood (in fact, Charles Dickens penned an incredibly racist rant once it was revealed via the Inuit that some men of the expedition resorted to cannibalism). Another strength of this book is that it gives these figures and their culture their due. However, I was put off a few times by Watson’s language, which could go heavy on the “magical native” trope (at one point there’s a “mystical glint” in an Inuit’s eye).

I appreciated that in addition to citing those who traveled to the Arctic or gave information on the expedition’s fate, Watson also highlights those whose inventions and pioneering aided in searches. He also unequivocally connects climate change with the discoveries of the ships; ironically, after many lives lost searching for it in the past, a Northwest Passage is now feasible due to the melting of Arctic ice. Canada, Russia, and the United States, along with Britain, were heavily invested in these expeditions and their recovery because a passage would be so lucrative. So…there’s the bright side?

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Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson

Bleaker Island, by Nell Stevens

Review:

Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World - Nell Stevens

Going to the ends of the earth (in this case, the Falklands) to write a novel in isolation, with no distractions, sounded like the kind of thing I might do (except for the novel part), which is why I was interested in reading Bleaker Island. Despite a charming start and some genuinely laugh out loud moments, I wasn’t consistently invested in Stevens’s account of her writing (and romantic) life. I don’t read many contemporary memoirs because they can feel self-indulgent, and there’s been such a boom in them that it makes me wonder whose lives warrant a whole book. Though Stevens is, in the end, self-aware about her self-indulgence, it doesn’t make the book more appealing to me.

In addition, I didn’t understand why she included a few of her short stories. The novel excerpts made more sense, though I felt they might have been integrated better, perhaps in smaller chunks?

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Bleaker Island, by Nell Stevens

DNF: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Night Film - Marisha Pessl

I’ve recently made a new rule for myself to avoid purchasing or attempting to read a book by a new (to me) author if I’ve already purchased but not read another work by the same author. Pessl has a new book coming out this year, but I own both Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Night Film and had not read either. I decided to read Night Film first, as I remembered being intrigued by its synopsis and the first several pages I read.

I understood it to be literary fiction, but 50 pages in, it felt more like typical genre fiction–not that I never read genre fiction–specifically, noir, which I typically dislike. The protagonist felt like a cross between Sam Spade and Mikael Blomqvist: a disgraced journalist who gets caught up in a mystery involving a reclusive film director. I think I need to stop being seduced by books about filmmakers; this is the second I DNF.

The prose got on my nerves fast, especially the overuse of italics. I wondered if perhaps this book intended to do what Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island does, which is exaggerate genre tropes and style for the purpose of representing a character’s point of view. After skimming some reviews, it didn’t seem so, and i wasn’t willing to continue reading to find out.

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DNF: Night Film, by Marisha Pessl