hello friday! (150403)


a week-in-review then, because i'd still like to post something on fridays and books are the most comfortable (and obvious) choice!

  • i finished reading selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed (picador, 2015) today.  favorite essays were those by sigrid nunez, anna holmes, danielle henderson, jeanne safer, and elliott holt.
    • i would've loved to see an essay or two by people in their late-twenties/early-thirties because i think (or, at least, i like to think) that you can be in your late-twenties and early-thirties and have decided not to have kids -- some of us have known this about ourselves since we were young.  
    • someone (i'm pretty sure it was laura kipnis) on the panel of contributors at the event on tuesday said there seemed to be a preponderance of writers defending that they liked kids, and, having finished the collection, i agree that there is.  i don't doubt that they genuinely love children; sometimes, though, it did feel very defensive; and i admit it was refreshing to come across the writer who baldly said s/he didn't like kids.  (this was mostly personal, though; it's hard in general to come across someone who doesn't like children.)
  • this week, i started doing a buddy read of michel faber's the book of strange new things (hogarth, 2014) with a friend on instagram.  this is one of the reasons i can't dismiss social media; i've had the pleasure of meeting some incredible people via the internet; and i love the fact that this friend (who lives in japan) and i can actively read a book together.
  • speaking of the book of strange new things, faber writes with such ease, and his prose is natural and lovely.  his descriptions are vivid and alive, too -- i dreamt i was on oasis because i'd been reading right before going to sleep, and it felt so real, the humidity, the atmosphere, the colors, that i woke up feeling kind of disoriented, wondering, wait, that wasn't real?
  • books i've been reading off-and-on the last few weeks (yes, weeks):  
    • cheryl strayed's tiny beautiful things (vintage, 2012):  when i was in LA, the illustrator friend and i went flipped through all the columns, and i haven't felt very inspired to go back and give them all a thorough reading.
    • rebecca solnit's men who explain things to me (haymarket books, 2014):  i'm thrilled this was reissued in hardback with new essays! 
    • joan didion's white album (FSG, 2009):  i love lingering over my didion, taking little morsels and letting them melt into me.  (i'm not quite sure how to credit these publication years ... right now, i'm going with when the edition i own was issued.)
    • kazuo ishiguro's an artist of the floating world (penguin, 2013):  there's such a lovely tension and unease simmering through this book that i'm afraid to find out what the narrator did during the war.  this is my book club's next selection, though, so i'll have to grit my teeth and find out!
    • catie disabato's the ghost network (melville house, 2015, forthcoming):  this is a cheat; i found this ARC at housing works on tuesday and was so very excited; so i had to share.

march reading recap will be up by the end of the weekend!  have a great weekend, all!

marie mutsuki mockett with maud newton @ mcnally jackson!


from last thursday (2015 march 5) (when it snowed and the world was magical):  marie mutsuki mockett wrote a book called where the dead pause and the japanese say goodbye (w.w. norton, 2015) (which i really must read) of her time in japan after her father's death, which was also after the 2011 tohoku earthquake.  this is my second time hearing her read (the first was at AAWW with emily st. john mandel; post here).

maud newton is currently writing a book on the superstitions and science of ancestry for random house.

  • mockett wanted to do an event with newton because she (mockett) writes about very ancient rituals and newton is writing a book about ancestry from a modern approach.
  • the question of how we deal with loss/suffering is an ancient one.
  • when she (mockett) was a child, she'd be confused when she went to people's homes in japan and the first thing she ahd to do was go to the family shrine and light a stick of incense, but, now that she's gotten older, she's come to appreciate that ritual, that sense of assuaging the past and, in a sense, befriending it.
  • refers to japan as the "land of exception" -- i.e. owakare is the final parting (of loved ones) ... except for when the dead come home in august (or sometimes july) (again, the land of exception) during obon.
  • on the collective experience of grief in japan:
    • she didn't think she was writing a book about herself but about japan -- a common criticism is that there isn't enough about her.
    • it's very clear, though, that's she is grieving.
    • if you're grieving, there isn't one way of dealing with it -- found that useful about japan's many rituals for grief.
    • the common message of all these rituals acknowledged that they couldn't get rid of your pain or make it easier, but they could help you see the collective and see your pain against the pain of others.  they didn't make her pain smaller but made her feel like she was expanding, which in turn made her pain feel smaller.
    • i.e. a trip she took to see a specific temple in kyoto:  she was pissed because it was so crowded so she couldn't see the temple but had to go through these steps of writing something on a sign/paper, but she had to wait on line to get a pen, then to do this, then that -- and the effect of all that was to make her realize that she was one person among all the people there.
  • newton:  you can't generalize about DNA.
  • newton:  ancestry actually used to be a good thing until christianity intervened and supplanted ancestors with saints.
    • because we're such a rationalistic culture, we tend to look at DNA as a purely scientific endeavor (the idea of scientists as thinking of DNA as a purely technological and scientific endeavor, as something they will be able to decode)
  • mockett:  "if you're grieving and you get a card that says something like, 'don't worry; he's still watching over you,' it makes you angry because it's such a platitude."
    • grief is a very raw emotion.
    • tells a story about a temple with a puppet hag (you stand in front of this box, and a terrifying puppet hag pops out at you -- this is a very simplistic explanation of the ritual; she did a much better job describing it):  the idea is that, when you cross the river styx, the hag jumps out at you.  if you're wearing clothes, she takes them, but, if you aren't wearing clothes (because your family wasn't wealthy enough to afford sending you into the afterlife clothed), she takes your skin.  if you look at this hag face-on, she's terrifying, but, if you look at her from the side, she's sad because she doesn't want to do this but has to because it's part of life.
    • the puppet hag shows how death is terrifying but that death happens, and we have no choice but to be sad.
    • old cultures have ways of explaining things in these indirect ways, but mockett also found comfort in that, to think that, a hundred years ago, people had already been thinking about these things.
  • used to love ishiguro and was obsessed with steinbeck, but she's starting to read a lot of nonfiction nowadays while exploring the idea of "how can we stretch the story?  where do we go with being east asian and/or multicultural?"
  • talked about the duality of being seen as quiet/shy in the west but louder with a lot of questions in japan.
  • the beauty of japan is that there are places to go and grieve publicly.  this doesn't really exist in the west.  the west has a narrative of "you grieve ... and then you move on."  she appreciated that, in japan, there was constantly a place where she could go to grieve, the joke being that, if this temple didn't work for you, then you could go to another temple or another because we have lots of temples!  we have lots of gods you can pray to!
  • "the thing about grief is that it's universal."

meghan daum with glenn kurtz @ mcnally jackson!


meghan daum is such a pleasure to hear.  and this will be long because i took a ridiculous amount of notes because she and glenn kurtz said a lot of great things -- it was an exceptionally good conversation.

this was part of the "conversations on practice" series at mcnally jackson, and daum and kurtz were discussing her essay collection, the unspeakable, which is fabulous if you haven't read it.

  • daum:  "i think there's too much writing about oneself in the world."
    • that said ... found her writing the best when she tapped into her personal voice.
    • kurtz asked why she thought that is, and she said that, one, it's cheaper -- publications don't have to pay for research.  also, aesthetically, it's very natural for a creative person to start with his/her own experience.  also, nowadays, things are generally less taboo -- we can talk openly about more things that wouldn't have been acceptable a few decades ago.
  • had originally conceived the collection as one about sentimentality in american life.
    • we sort of don't have authentic experiences because we're so eager to shoehorn them into a sort of feel-good ending that's prescribed for us.
    • none of the essays has a very neatly sewn-up ending -- a reviewer actually criticized that (like, "there's no moral to them, so what's the point?").
    • wanted to think about journeys where we come out on the other end not changed but the same person -- why is that not considered a huge success?
    • kurtz:  "the whole language of development presumes progress."
  • daum:  "endings are a funny thing." [...] "it's sort of like landing a plane.  you have to land in a very controlled manner."
  • wanted to do a collection of essays that hadn't been published elsewhere to be free from journalistic conventions/structure.
  • didn't like some of the endings in the collection -- i.e. "difference maker."  the ending was re-written for the new yorker, and she likes it better.  (maybe they should change it in the paperback.)
  • kurtz felt ambivalence coming from daum about a lot of the subjects in the essay.
    • daum:  "i guess i see it as intellectual honesty."
    • can't be intellectually honest without a measure of ambivalence; you have to allow for complexity and ambiguity.
    • set out to explore the themes with as much honesty as possible, which could come across as ambivalence.
  • daum:  "there's so much of this diary dump going on ..."
  • daum:  "honesty is not the same as disclosing everything.  honesty and disclosure are not the same, just like confession [...] is not the same as sharing a secret, as confiding."
    • you can be honest, but you can still choose not to disclose.
  • kurtz:  what does it mean to you, then, in an essay to be really honest?
    • to dig into what you're saying and not being preoccupied with making yourself look good.
    • at the same time, it's not about making yourself look bad.
    • daum:  "those electric moments between writers and readers happen when you're being honest."
    • if you're just presenting the facebook version of yourself in a friendship, that friendship isn't going to go anywhere.  writing is similar to that.
  • how do you write about family without hurting them -- a question that comes up all the time, and, "the truth is, i don't know."
  • "matricide" (the first essay in the unspeakable) is the hardest thing she's ever written.
    • wasn't going to publish it (wrote it while telling herself she wasn't going to publish it), but close friends read it and said she should.
    • it was the piece that sold the book.
  • kurtz:  how did "matricide" develop as an essay?
    • was trying to write it at macdowell during basically a perfect storm of woe.
    • daum:  "i will never be coherent when talking about this piece."
    • kurtz:  "but i think it's what makes it so powerful."
  • wanted to write about the expectations regarding the dying, these epiphanies and magical closeness that are expected between the caretaker and the dying.
    • daum:  "there's a whole performance that goes on when someone's dying."
    • daum:  "we just expect the dying person to become this magic person, and that is so unfair."
  • kurtz:  why is it titled "matricide"?
    • daum:  "in the end, it's about me rejecting motherhood."
    • wonders if the piece would be read differently had it had a different title.
  • uses a lot of parentheses in her column because she has no space.
  • daum:  "i see the column as being able to write a little essay every week."
  • kurtz:  what makes an essay an essay?
    • kurtz:  one could so easily read "matricide" as a short story.
    • the difference [between an essay and a short story] has less to do with the product than with the process.
    • thinks more long the lines of ideas, not stories.
  • daum:  "you never include it unless it's absolutely serving the piece."
  • daum:  "nothing is more unknown than death."  (thus the desire to impose something upon it to give structure to it.)
  • daum:  "... this thing that facebook does that makes your version of something a failure ..."

jang jin-sung + marie mutsuki mockett & emily st. john mandel + michael cunningham

it was an unusually packed week of events -- three in a row!  (this is highly unusual.)

jang jin-sung @ the korea society (2015 february 2)

the korea society puts on some really, really great events.  last summer, they held an event with roberta cohen, co-chair of the committee for human rights in north korea, and jo jin-hye, a north korean refugee, and, on monday, they hosted an event with jang jin-sung, former poet laureate of north korea who had to flee because he lent a friend a book from south korea and his friend left his bag (with the book, which was obviously highly confidential) on the subway.

this event was particularly interesting because jang was part of the elite in north korea and, therefore, has a different perspective.  he worked for the united front department, where he created propaganda material that was intended to create sympathy among south koreans for north korea, and was gifted a rolex by kim jong-il at one point.  and, yes, this was a book event because jang wrote a memoir, dear leader, that was published last year.

  • the united front department was created at a time north korea was confident about unifying korea under kim jong-il.  when jang joined, this was no longer considered feasible, so the department started looking into north korea.
  • kim jong-il wasn't picked for succession.  he was placed in the propaganda department, not in a governmental position (if he'd been picked for succession, he would've been given a governmental position), but this turned out to be pivotal for him -- it's where he learned the power of narrative control.
  • was very surprised by jang sung-taek's execution -- north korea is a system that's built on the supreme leader being infallible, and the execution shattered that.
  • after kim jong-il's death, weird political plays began happening, which fractured the monopolization of power.  the execution statement said that jang sung-taek had been trying to become prime minister of north korea, and he had been trying to gain power along economic lines.  it is assumed that kim jong-un ordered the execution, but it was actually the power-holders of the OGD (organization and guidance department), and there have been no power conflicts since the execution.
  • kim jong-il built power through his network of close friends.  kim jong-un's is built on his position as kim jong-il's son.  thus, kim jong-il's was a total apparatus of power, while kim jong-un's is merely a title.  
  • argues that the only solution for north korea is reunification
  • the world needs to change how it views north korea.  if kim il-sung wore full body armor, kim jong-il only wore frontal armor, and kim jong-un is naked save for a tiny little shield.  and yet the world is still so focused on attacking that shield -- basically, north korea has changed, but the world's approach to it has not.
  • north korea has already been conquered by the US dollar.
  • north korea seeks dialogue because it's only through dialogue that they can make threats, extort, etcetera.
  • north korea operates on a two-prong strategy:  to cooperate on land but maintain tension on sea.  you can't see something like the cheonan sinking as solely an act of provocation but as a result of the dynamics of north korean/south korean relations -- because south korea kept giving, north korea had to keep upping the tension/psychological warfare to maintain its leverage.
  • if the cult of kim keeps being attacked, north korea will keep responding.  the system relies on defending the legitimacy and supremacy of the leader no matter what.

also, i think interpreters are so badass.  the ease with which they turn language around in their brains so quickly ... it's incredible!

marie mutsuki mockett & emily st. john mandel @ asian american writers' workshop (2015 february 3)

mockett wrote a book called where the dead pause and the japanese say goodbye.  read an excerpt from it here!  emily st. john mandel wrote the fabulous station eleven.

  • ken chen (director of AAWW)'s pithy summation of cormac mccarthy's the road:  when a disease takes over the world and turns it into boy's life magazine.
  • mandel:  there's something in art that reminds us of our humanity.  as a species, we're kind of hard-wired to find that grace.
  • mandel researched pandemics and was able to find a kind of hope in how it happened again and again.  ("so the apocalypse has already happened.") (i forgot who said that.  it might have been chen posing it as a question.)
  • mockett:  while she was in japan, she went to see a shaman who would supposedly be able to channel her father (mocket's father passed away).  she wasn't really sure what to expect or believe of this shaman, but she realized that it wasn't that the shaman could literally channel her father but that the shaman's aim was to help her, to help people through their suffering and learn essentially to live and be happy.
  • mandel:  the idea of the museum came out of the idea that we already do this.  there's something very human about collecting weird little things.
  • mockett:  in the writing of this book, she wanted to capture the things she found precious and unique about japan because, who knows, it could all disappear.
  • mandel:  donna tartt's the secret history is kind of her model because it's kind of the perfect novel -- it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.
  • mockett:  two secrets for structure in her book:
    • she didn't have a book (model) in mind.  she was definitely influenced by japanese structure, though -- or lack of structure.  she doesn't really like structure because structure is another of those things we can play with, but she came up with the idea to follow the cycle of the soul, starting with death and going from there.
    • she has a handful of jazz musician friends, so she was also thinking of the book like a setlist, like a gig.
  • mandel:  she found herself looking at the fragility of the world in a way she hadn't.  "this whole apparatus of civilization that surrounds us is incredibly fragile."

it's such a pleasure listening to mandel read.  i'd been weirdly hesitant to pick up station eleven until i went to a reading and heard her read the "an incomplete list" passage (pages 31-2) -- it's a haunting, beautiful passage, and she reads it so wonderfully.

michael cunningham @ columbia university (2015 february 4)

michael cunningham!  he's such a gracious, generous soul, and it was a delight to hear him as part of the creative writing lecture series at columbia.  (i also love going to columbia; the campus is beautiful; and i don't ever trek up there so i like the excuse.)  the lecture series doesn't really provide a structure (i don't think), so he used the time to create characters with the audience and show how that led to formation of a plot/narrative.  it was pretty cool.

  • he opines that any fully-imagined character in conjunction with another fully-imagined character can't not form a plot/narrative.  (and he went on to demonstrate this.)
  • after the basic questions (gender, race, job, family, etcetera), the oft-unasked questions:
    • what does s/he most ardently want?
    • what is s/he most afraid of?
    • what's standing in his/her way?
    • what is it s/he most doesn't want you to know?
  • what characters want -- desire drives fiction, even if what they want is invisible to them.
  • there's no such thing as plot; there are only human beings trying to get something they want and the world keeping it from them, whether through external forces or self-sabotage, etcetera.
  • when creating, tends to start with the physical, with the body.
  • sometimes, if possible, tells students to out and pick a person and follow him/her (don't stalk, though) and come back with a list of twenty physical traits.  it's amazing how often a full human being with a soul will come out of that.
  • if you sufficiently imagine the corporeal, you summon someone.
  • "we walk bold and unafraid into the cliche."
  • you set it up (the characters and such) ... and then you wait for the surprise.
  • a sort of measure of success is when the novel doesn't turn out to be the novel you started writing.  if there's no surprise for the author, then how could there be any for the reader?
  • he writes probably twice the length of the published book and likens it to taxes:  i owe the government half my income, so i owe the wastebasket half my pages.
  • writing is a collaborative process.  you should have a team of readers.  three or four is a good number.  twelve is too many, and one is too few.

hello monday! (150126)

it's snowing today.  or that's an understatement because this is a blizzard, not a mere snowstorm, and we're looking at record-breaking amounts of snow.  which isn't something i'm wont to believe because storms tend to be blown out of proportion and inspire hyperbolic freakouts, aka people stocking up on water and bread and trader joe's boxed salads like it's the end of the world -- but, then, i went walking around in the snow today, and we got inches within three hours, so, hey, i believe it.  sorta.  well, more than i did before juno arrived and the MTA announced subway shutdowns and NYC schools decided to close tomorrow.

i love snow.  which is also an understatement because i don't just love snow, i love snow.  i've been alternately bummed out and irritated this winter because of the lack of snow (seriously, ask anyone i know; s/he'll tell you how much i've complained about it), so i'm pleased as punch (and aware that there's a privilege to that), though i'm bummed that tomorrow's launch party for vivian apple at the end of the world at housingworks has been cancelled.

reread never let me go (faber and faber, 2005) this weekend and started taking down notes yesterday so i can write about it and the buried giant (post to arrive by the end of the week).  part of me feels like the buried giant is so markedly different from ishiguro's other work, and another part of me simply derives pure joy from talking about never let me go as often as i can, and yet another part of me just enjoys this process, this analyzing of themes and characters and voice, because it hearkens me back to college and comparative literature and how much fun it all was.

i've seriously got to join a book club.

starting reading the woman upstairs (knopf, 2013) over the weekend, and i'd heard and read so much about how nora is unlikable that i wonder if that didn't predispose me to like her.  because i do.  because i can identify with her rage and anger and also with her disappointments and with how her life was supposed to be different -- she was supposed to be an artist; she was supposed to live in this city and live this life and have this kind of happiness; and i'd argue that it doesn't really matter what the specifics are, simply that things were supposed to be different.

at least, these are my initial thoughts because i'm only ninety pages in.  we'll see if i continue to like her -- and how much messud's short chapters bug me.  other authors and their short, clipped sentences bug me, but messud's short, clipped chapters bug me.  it was one thing that drove me a bit mad with the emperor's children (knopf, 2006), how she kept hopping from character to character, chapter to chapter, so much that i wished i could reach into the book and hold it still in one place before it went bouncing on.  i've had mixed reactions to the short chapters in the woman upstairs thus far, so we shall see how it fares as i continue reading.

which i shall go off to do because, y'know, blizzard = free reading time.  have a good week, all!  and, fellow new yorkers (and bostonians and everyone in the beautiful spaces between), stay home, stay safe, and dig into those TBR piles!