The first 40 books – 2019

As of 20 May 2019 I have read 40 books for the year.  Let’s take a look at some statistics:

  • 7/40 or 17.5% were written by women
  • 29/40 or 72.5% were translations
  • 4/40 or 10% were by Nobel Prize winning writers
  • 5/40 or 12.5% were fantasy novels

Before we discuss the elephant in the room, I will say that, broadly speaking, I am definitely pleased with the number of translations.  I aim to keep that number high, and really it’s the fantasy novels that tend to drag it down, as they are very often written by people writing in English, very often by men, and very often by Americans.  Not always, but it’s a clear difference to the majority of the literature that I read.

I started the year quite heavily focused on fantasy, which I have put down to wanting to ease into the year with some books that weren’t going to challenge me and which would ensure that I started the year strong in terms of page- and book-count.  And I did, or near enough.  But at the same time, I would like fantasy to challenge me more, to push me.  I recognise that this is largely due to the kind of fantasy I tend to read – the fantasy of my youth, of nostalgia, of memory.  Of my teenage years, when I had no taste whatsoever.  Sometimes I wander down more interesting paths, but so far, not this year.

In terms of translation, I spent a good chunk of March reading Roberto Bolaño, because I love his work and I wanted to celebrate my birthday in some way.  So that was the way.  Curiously, I have not read a single work by W. G. Sebald this year, and only one by Enrique Vila-Matas.  Very often these works dominate my year, and yet here we are, close to halfway, and not much to speak of.

Ok, so the elephant in the room.  17.5% of all books read this year so far being women is just not good enough.  I haven’t put enough effort in here, and that’s really all there is to say.  That number should be much higher, nearer to 50%, but it isn’t.  I could explain it away by saying that I don’t own anywhere near as many books written by women as I do by men, but isn’t that also part of the problem?

(I will note that since writing this I have read one more book, and it was by a woman, but even still).

Consequently I’m going to make a great push over the next month or so to even those numbers out a little more.  I have Rachel Cusk’s wonderful Outline Trilogy at hand, and while I’ve read the first two I haven’t yet read the third, and this is, I think, a fine time to read the full trilogy.

But I do fully recognise that I need to read more widely and regularly, and that I am neglecting a significant part of literature by doing so.  I have the books.  I have them – translated writers, prize-winning writers, big books, small books.  I own them, they are there.

Time to act.

Advertisements

Short Story Review – Empar Moliner – In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More (trans. Novia Pagone)

I work alone, and I don’t keep secrets from myself.

Empar, probable homebody, is on the search for a man who will take her to the Ebro River Delta, a place where ‘boyfriends tend to take their girlfriends’.

By the third sentence of this story she’s off to a dating agency to see what they might be able to do for her.  Why can’t she find someone on her own?  Doesn’t matter, I suppose.

“What don’t you like about your personality?” she ventures. “I like everything,” I tell her. And it’s the truth. When she asks me about my life goals, I declare that I don’t have any. “How important is sex to you in a stable relationship?” she wants to know. If I say five, will that look bad?, I wonder. In the end, I rate it a four, but only because I’m feeling romantic this year.

Empar, or rather, the character in the story named Empar, is an entertaining and funny woman.  Her inner self makes jokes and pokes fun at who she is and what she’s trying to achieve, though outwardly she comes across as a touch awkward and uncertain.

She seems here, at this dating agency, less to find a match, and more to understand the kinds of questions a dating agency would ask in order for her to better know the milieu that is contemporary dating.  It’s all so much to think about, so much to plan for.

The idea that we can boil down a potential partner to a series of questions and answers is absurd, of course, but it is an appealing concept nonetheless.  But how can it possibly be true if we find it difficult to boil ourselves down in such a manner?  We don’t know ourselves well enough to condense our personality on to a single page, and yet here Empar is attempting to recreate a full man from a series of yes/no.

Empar, the character, recognises this absurdity, and she loves it.  And then Empar, the writer, finishes the story with a fine comic twist, and away we go, off to write an email to a fascinating woman.

In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More is a short story by Spanish (Catalan) writer Empar Moliner and was translated by Novia Pagone.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Empar Moliner
Title In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More
Translator Novia Pagone
Nationality Spanish (Catalan)
Publisher World Literature Today

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

The Journal of Failure – Week 21 of 2019

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100p / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 738/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 7 / week
  • Achieved – 8/7 – Success!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 21 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 26 minutes/21 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 28 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 41 minutes/28 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Two (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – One (Eight total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Four total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Well, I gave myself an easy week.

I suppose it is nice to succeed at an easy week, right, friends?

The main ‘win’ here for me this week was to truly benefit from late night writing and reading.  I struggle, it seems daily, with the idea of whether I wake up early or I stay up late.  As my daughter becomes a touch older (she’s seven months now), it is becoming clear that staying up late works best.

So, each night this week I stayed up until about midnight, and very often I would read and write.  It went well!  I certainly wasted quite a bit of time, but I gained some momentum with both reading and writing.

One of the books I wasted 150 – 200 pages on was Murakami’s 1Q84, which is proving itself to be a simply horrendous book.  Murakami is, it seems, something of a slimy old man, one who is devoted to the breasts of women and their propensity to masturbate and/or enjoy sex.  It’s really quite something, because his fixation on genitals and pleasure isn’t written particularly well, or even particularly poorly.  It’s just there on the page – like a lot of his writing.  At least Updike gave his schoolboy fantasies a bit of a vocabulary polish.  At least Roth tried to connect his fondness for sex to cultural and political movements in America.  Murakami?  No, female characters just take off their clothes and look at their naked bodies in the mirror.  Sure, sure, sure.  We’ve all been there I guess – but multiple times when in your late twenties?  I don’t know.

I’ve reconnected somewhat with Hermann Hesse, which has been nice.  He works best in the small realms, the short stories and novellas, though I do have an immense fondness for The Glass Bead Game.  I expect I will be reading quite a bit of his work over the next few weeks.

And Rachel Cusk!  I finally have the third book, Kudos, from her recent trilogy.  She is an author I came to late last year, and I hold her up alongside Karl Ove Knausgaard, which I promise is actually high praise because, well, she’s a woman, and womens’ stories are less told, or at least less read.

In terms of writing, I have been working on a short piece which is intended as a bit of a departure from my ordinary writing in that it involves gambling, violence, and the stink of the underworld.  We’ll see.  I’m enjoying writing it, though I don’t quite know yet if it has any kind of legs.

The ‘long’ writing I am doing is, basically, a complete and total copy of Roberto Bolaño’s Woes of the True Policeman.  I am using the general framework to basically just start moving my pen across the page, and that has been reasonably successful.  The intention is to use it as a guiding mechanism to write and then eventually to jettison all of the copy-work and go out on my on.

Or, more likely, to use it as an exercise to start writing properly.  At the moment I don’t mind much as long as I am writing, which I think is the primary goal at this stage. I’ve gone too long without writing.  I feel it, my muscles ache for it.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Simonetta Olivo – Microverses (trans. Sarah Jane Webb)

Oh now, I do like this.  Let me wear my opinion on my sleeve, hold up my affection right here at the start.  I am very fond of stories such as these – clever, twisted, turning, playful with the structure of a story without being tiresome in its trickery.  Take everything I write with a large grain of salt because I am, it appears, congenitally disposed towards like such fictions as this.

We open with the heading “Panic”, and then:

There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet. It was snowing. Just like in fairy tales, she had thought, slowing her pace, beautiful and sad. And so unlike today’s desolation: everything looks naked, cold, inanimate.

A woman, nature, mountains, snow.  The beauty of nature.  Yes, yes.  Two paragraphs later, the sky explodes and the world ends.

Another section, also opening with mountains, snow, a woman.  It begins calmly and then a sting at the end – a date far in the future, a reference to robots, and to humanity being dead.

Another section, another repeat.  What’s happening here?  On the cusp of this becoming tiresome, the woman is extracted from these scenarios, revealed to have been logged into some kind of virtual reality or Matrix-like environment.

Very good, very good.  Ha ha, quite the twist you put me through there, Simonetta Olivo!  The woman wants to go back into the simulation and her partner (lover?) puts her back in, though he has misgivings.  Is she losing her self to the simulation?  We don’t know, because we don’t spend enough time with her outside of the snowy mountainous world.  That suggests that yes, she’s losing her identity.

Another section, this time titled ‘Making Universes’.  The snow, again, and mountains, again, but this time written in italics.  This is a shift for us, and it’s unclear what it might mean.

The world tilts, and we are taken out of the simulation to arrive not with the disgruntled man who wants his lover back with him and unhooked from the machine, but the writer herself, the creator of the text, a layer placed upon the other layers. She acknowledges that her task is to create universes, and the story ends.

There’s so much here in so few words.  It’s quite astonishing, particularly given how Olivo refrains from succumbing to overblown terminology or the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to create.  Instead it’s simply there, clear on the page.  I become tired, sometimes, of writers who play games with structure and form also overburdening their text with the weight of the thesauruses they have purchased.

So, what does it mean to participate in a created world, and to create a world?  Olivo doesn’t say, but it’s clear that the woman in the story has given up on the world she properly exists in in order to spend time in a doomed place where humanity is extinct and robots have survived.  And isn’t that, in a way, what a writer does every time they sit down at their desk and conjure up people and places that never existed?  Isn’t it, no matter how closely hewn to the essence of humanity, a rejection of living?  Does a writer truly live in the world, or do they instead consciously separate themselves from it in order to dispassionately observe the world created by others?  I would say yes, emphatically so, and would be surprised to find much resistance.  Writers may not create a utopia in which to devote their intellectual and emotional talents, but they certainly attempt to reflect back to the readers their vision and understanding of the world, and in this reflection we are able to better determine who they are, too.

And we don’t need to like what we see, do we?

Microverses is a short story by Italian writer Simonetta Olivo and was translated by Sarah Jane Webb.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Simonetta Olivo
Title Microverses
Translator Sarah Jane Webb
Nationality Italian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

I Remember – #980

I remember the wooden gate at the top of the external staircase at our home which had three rusted nails in it, three nails that liked to loosen and protrude every few days and which made closing the gate challenging.  And on top of that, we put up with this hassle for – three years before fixing it?  All we needed was a few new nails and a hammer.  Our ability to become accustomed to minor irritations is astounding.

-28 May 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #979

I remember the British television show, Coupling, which my father absolutely loved.  It started, I think, quite strong, and then fell into a morass of dirty jokes and innuendo which, instead of coming across as subversive and clever instead felt forced and juvenile.

-27 May 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Short Story Review – Vladimir Poleganov – The Feather (trans. Peter Bachev)

My last few letters–five, to be precise–went unanswered and the sixth one . . . well, it was certainly not the response I’d been hoping for or anticipating

Without becoming too overblown about such things, a work of literature is a written act of inclusion and exclusion.  It must be – all texts are.  The author writes and not y in service of their intention and their art.  Clearly, clearly.  The author may be dead, but words must still be chosen, and here we are.

A clear example of this is Vladimir Poleganov’s The Feather (Trans. Peter Bachev), which is a series of letters written by the protagonist to ‘X’.  We are not privy to the responses, and indeed know nothing about X other than the details provided by the unnamed protagonist.  While X does not respond to all of the letters, its clear they do respond to some, and we don’t properly learn their perspective on events, read their words, know their side.

So what, then, do we make of such a text?  It is clearly an exercise of bias, and absolutely must be one-sided.  The letter-writer is not well, it seems, vacillating between affection and disappointment, admonishments and lectures on birds and on memory.  There is an ill-defined ‘they’ referred to which reads to me as medical staff, or caretakers.

I am sorry for that time I called you up at four in the morning, to complain, to talk to . . . someone, really, about how the unknown . . . the unknowable bird’s dark silhouette tortured and terrified me every time I closed my eyes: its blackness, the Feather itself–a single bright spot bringing the vortex of void around it into even sharper relief. Here, it no longer holds power over me. I still see it, perhaps not quite as clearly, in the corner of my eye from time to time, like a diorama of death or a small shadow, a haze, rather, of suppressed desire, but it doesn’t jump out at me anymore, from the depths of my subconscious, indifferent to my frantic attempts to pull myself out of its invisible, murderous tide.

The letter-writer defers explanation, defers telling, and prefers instead to tangle themselves with words far more grandiose than their subject requires.  Why?  Well, because they are avoiding talking about that which truly matters to them, a history between X and themselves which is alluded to but never entirely elucidated.  And why should it be?  I would not lay out my life story in a letter I am writing, because the person receiving it should know.

What this means, then, is that we shift from obsessive detail about birds to lamentations of guilt and exhortations for X to be kinder, be better, be faster at responding, be clearer with their words.  The letter-writer is not well.

In the mid-point of the story the letters attain a higher sense of clarity, become more formal and less epic in scope.  They assume the character of two professors discussing their specialty, sparring gently with their words, leaving enough of a barb in to sting but not cut.

At night, on the other hand, be it due to phosphorus residues or by magic, the graveyard bathes in a light that some may call ghostly, but to me looks more sub-­marine. Whenever I come here after dark, I feel like I’ve just sunk to the bottom of a crisp mountain lake. I look up at the stars, barely visible through the greenish light haze, and all I see is the eyes of some predator, come to hunt at the watering place. I once met an old woman, an augur, negotiating her way across the overgrown alleyways, looking for small bones suitable for divination. It is an art well­-preserved in Avinia and people really believe in it still. I didn’t dare ask her anything, even mundane things like whether it is hard to collect enough bones for a whole session, or what birds carry the brightest futures under their feathers and flesh. I just watched her for a while, her feet dancing between the fragile skeletons, collecting the white letters of tomorrow’s histories.

And then the tone shifts once more, and we wonder if these letters are being written to anyone at all, and might perhaps instead be for the letter-writer themselves, used as an act of cleansing, to explain yourself to yourself.  They become too internal, too intimate, too closely hewn to the endless inner dialogue of a person’s mind.  Why write this, if not to determine what it is, exactly, that is inside your own brain?  We are thinking creatures, but we don’t always know exactly what it is we are thinking about until we can hear ourselves.

I think the use of birds as a way to tie the letters together works, though for me – and this is purely a personal aside – I do not care for birds, so some parts fell flat.  But conceptually it is quite clever.  At times, Poleganov is able to be quite academic in his writing, almost scientific in his literary coldness; and at other times birds are metaphors for life, for death, for travel.  These shifts are bracing and rather effective, but.  But.  Again.  I don’t like birds.

Which makes me the problem here.  Just a touch.

Though I do like the way the story ends with an ‘I’m sorry’.

The Feather is a short story by Bulgarian writer Vladimir Poleganov and was translated by Peter Bachev.  You can read the story at The Brooklyn Rail.

Author Vladimir Poleganov
Title The Feather
Translator Peter Bachev
Nationality Bulgarian
Publisher The Brooklyn Rail

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.