Week in Review 008

A busy week, from meeting Patton Oswalt and swapping reading recommendations to visiting the Bauhaus centennial exhibit at the Boston MFA.

Reading:

  • Broken Stars by Ken Liu, ed.
  • Your Favorite Band Cannot Save You by Scotto Moore.
  • European Identity and Citizenship: between Modernity and postmodernity by Sanja Ivic

Listening…

  • The Magnus Archives

Watching:

Movies:

  • Plaire, Aimer, et Courir Vite (2018)
  • Le Livre D’Image (2018)

TV Shows:

  • AP Bio
  • Russian Doll
  • The Marvelous Ms Maisel
  • Deadly Class

I’m exhausted. I can’t believe it’s been only a week, possibly because the last few days have felt like an entire week just by themselves.


On Saturday, I had the absolutely unparalleled good fortune to meet Patton Oswalt. He was in Providence to perform a comedy show at the Veterans Memorial Theater, and he graciously accepted our invitation to visit the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Council. I cannot thank him enough for taking the time to visit us, and it was such an absolute privilege to make his acquaintance in person.

We swapped reading recommendations. Mr. Oswalt suggested “WET PAIN” by Terence Taylor which can be found Whispers in the Night: Dark Dreams III co-edited by Tananarive Due and Brandon Massey. He said he learned of it from Ms. Due who, in addition to her work as an author and editor, executive produced Horror Noire: a history of Black horror (2019) which can be streamed online through Shudder. We discussed Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” briefly and so I recommended (as ever) Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.


The latter half of my Friday was spent pleasantly with a friend in Boston. We visited the MFA to see the Bauhaus exhibit. There is also an exhibit of Bauhaus works up at the Harvard museum, which we will hopefully have the opportunity visit.

This year is the centennial of the founding of the Bauhaus School (1919). There are times I lament my passion for their particular modernist style, if only because it can seem conventional, bordering on the cliché. Nevertheless, the way Moholy-Nagy creates a sense of a three dimensional interaction and interrelation of objects in his abstract paintings will never cease to delight me. In one of the paintings of his they have on display, the transparency of the paint where two of his shapes overlap makes it seem—as my friend so eloquently phrased it—as if one were a fabric appliqué.

I was also quite taken with the Kandinsky pieces they had on display. It feels as though I shouldn’t have been surprised at how much white space his drawings contained, but I was. I could happily have spent all evening in front of his “Little World” pictures trying to figure out how he achieved such balance in an otherwise random-seeming distribution of elements.

Mostly, what I love about the Bauhaus is the way the work of these artists fills me with a sense of possibility. Every time I have the opportunity to steep myself in their abstract geometries, I can feel the edges of a new language pressing up against me. Movement and essence are made concrete, not something that can be pinned down, but something inherent which can be expressed with lines on a page.

(Other design movements which make me feel this way are Russian Constructivism and Punk/DIY collage.)


This week, I accidentally got into it on Twitter with the MAG fandom. Shockingly, 280 characters is not really enough space to adequately convey nuance and context. I found being accused by strangers on the internet of wanting to censor people or command moral authority to be extremely insulting.

I work in a front-facing position within a dedicated fan space, in a fandom defined by a serious controversy. My personal and professional experiences have lead me to believe that “fandom,” far from being a space insulated from disagreement and political and cultural debate, must be a place where people are able to engage critically with the mores, biases, personal and historical narratives, and other foundations and assumptions which are inherited from the original work or developed within the surrounding community.

I work at an organization dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sometimes the only thing you can say in response to another fan’s interpretation is, “I disagree strongly – possibly to the point of considering your position to be harmful – and this is why.” Because it is only in that moment where we are part of the same community – as fans – that we can have this discussion as people who share in something bigger than ourselves.

But I don’t wish to linger on this topic; it is exhausting, unproductive, and has already claimed too much of my time.


Ideally, I’ll have a little something up this week about Broken Stars, the second collection of contemporary Chinese SF translated and edited by Ken Liu. I adored Invisible Planets, which I cannot recommend strongly enough. (Upon finishing it, I immediately bought two copies to give as gifts, and pre-ordered Broken Stars. I have also leant out my copy of the first collection so that the people in my life can share in its wonders.) Go read both of them!

Isherwood on Writing

Very important advice:

“…thinking about writing and getting excited about the wonderful writing that you are going to do is the most dangerous occupational vice of a writer. The thing to do is to get something down on the paper, and then you have something to work on.”

Isherwood on Writing. p. 135

“On the level of human suffering and struggle the novelist obviously has to be involved, engaged. He has to mind that people suffer, he has to condemn the bad and rejoice in the good. … He has to have a moral code. Every writer who really has any kind of vitality has some sort of moral code. … What matters is the intensity with which this struggle on the human level is realized. […]

“He is also the eternal, who looks down upon everything and enjoys it. Because, of course, in the world of art if something is well done it is enjoyable. One has to face the fact that the most dreadful descriptions of agonizing death are, artistically speaking, just as enjoyable as great love scenes or charming scenes of domestic happiness with children. … This sense of joy, of contact with life, of the vitality of life, can be related to any set of circumstances or characters you choose to name. […]

“He has to have, I suppose one can say, compassion. He has to see the just and the unjust as being all his children.

What is the nerve of interest in the novel?, 66.

If the writer has managed to meld human passion and divine compassion, the result is, as he said of Hemingway’s “The Capital of the World”:

… not in the least depressing. It is in fact full of this strange joy in the experience of all these people. (79)


The theater is a box, a place of imprisonment in which the audience is shut up with the actors. The effects are created by means of claustrophobia: you can’t get out. […]

Remembering that the whole point of the play is that the people are in the theater and cannot leave until they have been dismissed by the working out of the play itself, remembering this, think of Beckett’s extraordinary use of pauses.

A writer and the theater, 91 & 93.

The theater is for speech, and the theater is also for character. … What is the film for? The film is primarily for image and for movement. This thing about image, about the actual, visual effect of something on the screen, can sometimes be very disconcerting.

A writer and the films, 101.

The sound in the film should always be, as it were, balanced against the image and not go with it.

p. 106

In addition, Isherwood outlines the role of the writer as a consumate and socially engaged outsider.

He [the writer] must always hold them [shared beliefs] with the possibility of dissent. Without the freedom to dissent, he is just that much less valuable to the community.
…the truly cooperative and social outsider is one of the most valuable members of the community, and a writer should strive to be such an outsider, sometimes assenting, sometimes dissenting, but always, one hopes, in some way illuminating the problem under discussion.

p. 131 & p. 132

Which reminded me….

Trying to understand other people means destroying the stereotype without denying or ignoring the otherness.

But let us be realistic. These ways of understanding the enemy are the prerogative of poets, saints, or traitors.

Umberto Eco, “Inventing the Enemy.” 2008.

From Isherwood on Writing, 2007.

Finishing 50 Books in a Year (2017)

My reading goal in 2017 started with a desire to finish a number of the books which I had started over the past three years for the purpose of getting them off my “Currently reading” list. On the list, those books which I started before 2017 are marked with an *. I’ve sorted the books into four categories: F (Fiction), NF (Non-fiction), E (Essays), and P (Poetry). Additional notes have been provided for distinctive experiences, or other informational tidbits.

Most interesting was the way the type of book I read evolved. In the last few years, I’ve displayed a propensity for non-fiction, particularly high theory and neo-Marxist economic treatises (lots of things published by Verso and Semiotext(e)). In the name of expediency, I turned to both poetry and fiction. Around the time I picked up Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia (an excellent alternate history where the short-lived Futurist state the Regency of Carnaro, does not fail), with its introduction by Warren Ellis, I determined that I should attempt to read more fiction. That path led me to The Ballad of Black Tom, the genius of Victor LaValle, and a taste of the recent spate of Tor Publications of new Lovecraftian stories focusing on the voices that H.P. himself would have overlooked.

Working with the Lovecraft Arts and Science Council opened up a wealth of opportunities to pick up more Weird fiction (contemporary and otherwise). My time with them began in earnest around October, which is reflected, somewhat, in the wealth of Weird fiction novels that make their way onto the list around that time.

  1. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco [01.09] *F
  2. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams [01.11] – F
  3. Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams [01.17] – F
  4. Governing by Debt by Mauricio Lazzarato [01.19] *NF
  5. Hellboy’s World, Monsters in the Margins by Scott Bukatman [02.11] – NF
  6. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine [????] – P
  7. Six Memos for the New Millenium by Italo Calvino [03.13] – E
  8. Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling [????] – F
  9. Patient by Bettina Judd [04.10] – P
  10. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle [04.17] – F
  11. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle [04.27] – F
  12. The Agony of Eros by Byung Chul-Han [05.06] – NF
  13. Curious Visions of Modernity by David L. Martin [05.20] – NF
  14. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West [05.26] *P
  15. No Accident by Aaron Anstett [????] – P
  16. The Panopticon Writing by Jeremy Bentham [06.03] *E (more @ this post)
  17. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion [06.11] – E
  18. Between Ghosts by Reno Dakota/SJ Lee [06.18] – P
  19. The White Album by Joan Didion [06.23] – E
  20. Books v. Cigarettes by George Orwell [06.24] *E
  21. Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery [06.29] – F (French)
  22. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White [07.05] – NF
  23. Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the End of Heroism by Paul Young [08.06] – NF
  24. Censorship Now!! by I.F. Svenonius [08.14] – NF
  25. A Short Guide to Writing About Film, 3rd Ed. by Timothy Corrigan [08.26] – NF
  26. Girls Omnibus by The Luna Bros. [08.30] – F (Graphic Novel)
  27. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod [09.09] – F
  28. Teatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti [09.10] – F
  29. On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder [09.21] – NF
  30. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance by Franco “Bifo” Berardi [09.22] *NF
  31. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer [10.11] – F
  32. Authority by Jeff Vandermeer [10.13] – F
  33. Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer [10.14] – F
  34. Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling [10.28] – F
  35. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera [11.13] – F
  36. Looming Low Vol. 1 by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan, eds. [11.20?] – F
  37. Songs of Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti [11.25] * – F
  38. King Lear by William Shakespeare [12.01] – F
  39. War of the Foxes by Richard Siken [12.03] – P
  40. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlyn R. KIernan [12.05] – F
  41. Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw [12.05] – F
  42. Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman, ed. [12.08] – F
  43. Parasite Life by Victoria Dalpe [12.09] – F
  44. Beta Decay #1 & 2 by Andrew Jackson King [12.15] – F
  45. The Dream Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson [12.19] – F
  46. A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters by Sam Sax [12.28] *P
  47. Beta Decay #3 & 4 by Andrew Jackson King [12.29] – F
  48. A User’s Guide to the Demanding Impossible by Gavin Grinden and John Jordan [12.30] – NF
  49. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb [12.30] * P
  50. City, rediscovering the center by William Whyte [01.11.18] – NF

Obviously, I extended my deadline of “the end of 2017” by a little, but I needed to motivate myself to finish City by William Whyte, not because it was bad, but because the last few chapters deal almost exclusively with the issues facing zoning boards and their habits. Without underselling my enthusiasm for city planning, descriptions of zoning board decisions don’t even have the excitement of watching them come about as one is able to do in transcripts or in person.

A list of 50 books does pretty much no one any good, however, so instead, I will tease my list of Top 10 Books I recommend after 2017:

  1. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
  2. Failure and I Bury the Body by Sasha West
  3. The Elements of Style by Strunk and Whyte
  4. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  5. Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
  6. Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan
  7. 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by Bracken MacLeod
  8. Beta Decay (whatever Issue you can find) by Andrew Jackson King
  9. Girls Omnibus by the Luna Brothers
  10. Kissing Dead Girls by Daphne Gottlieb

More on those ten books to follow.

The Easiest Way to Travel : five tips to help you read more.

Reading is the cheapest journey you’ll ever be able to take. It’s an opportunity to visit cities you’ve never been to, try foods you’ve never heard of, and meet people you would never be able to meet otherwise. But like all travel, it can be daunting to undertake. It is a harder choice to go somewhere new than it is to stay at home, where things are familiar and easy.

Many of us used to take these trips all the time, as children. Unencumbered by anxiety or responsibilities or knowledge, we would pick up a book and instantly be transported somewhere else. It was easy to go and easy to return to those places again and again until the adventure was over, or until we tired of it.

But adulthood brings with it all sorts of excuses to stay home and avoid these excursions into fantastic worlds, both ordinary and otherworldly. It becomes difficult to reach for a story with all the noise of Real Life clamoring on the edges of our consciousness, threatening us with the spectre of “not enough time”.

Nevertheless, for those who wish to get back to it, I have five tips to make it easier to get back to traveling.

1. Audio books

Everyone is busy. Finding the time to get anything done can be a challenge. From obligations, to desires, to necessities, it can be difficult to fit it all in around the rush of chores and commutes and commitments.

There is an option for people who want to do two things at once; audio books leave your hands free. If you’re able to listen while you fold laundry, cook dinner, or drive to work, you have plenty of time that can be used to find out what happens next in any book of your choice.

For anyone who listens to podcasts, this is a great option. It’s just a matter of switching content, rather than form. This is not to say that you need never listen to a podcast again, but if you’re feeling starved for the experience of reading a book, you don’t have to rearrange your entire life to find a way to fit it in.

Even better, if you’re willing to read something a little bit older, plenty of people make use of works that are out of copyright to make audio books, and upload them for free on YouTube! Rather than signing up for a service like Audible right off the bat, try The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
or an Edgar Allen Poe story first.

2. Ebooks

Others, like me, might find the idea of someone reading to them grating. I grew up with my father reading me The Hobbit and Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, while I had a few Maurice Sendak stories on tape and an audio book of My Father’s Dragon I love my father’s reading voice best. I’m not willing to trade the experience in for anyone else. I’d rather hear the stories in my own head, than aloud in someone else’s voice. But that doesn’t mean I’m out of options.

Despite the fact that ebooks lack much of the tactile experience of book books, that doesn’t mean they must be dismissed entirely out of hand. If you’re trying to read something really thick, like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5000 years which clocks in at a whopping 700-odd pages, you might not want to carry it around in your bag on the off chance you find some time to read a few pages.

Likewise, on a crowded commuter train or bus, you don’t necessarily want to pull out a book of any size, wrestling with your bag, finding a comfortable position to hold it, worrying that you’ll poke someone around you with the corners, or, perhaps worst of all, fearing someone might read the cover of the book and judge you or attempt a conversation with you about it. It’s a minefield. Ebooks provide a clever way around those problems.

I read most of Victor LaValle’s The Devil in Silver on my tablet going to and from campus during my last semester at school. However, I also read bits and piece of it, and Bruce Sterling’s Pirate Utopia on my phone when there wasn’t room to pull my tablet out, or I was running errands that didn’t require me to bring it along. Most ebook services, be they from Google, Amazon, Apple, or someone else, will let you sync your current page across devices, so you can pick up where you left off, regardless of which device you were reading on at the time.

3. Change your habits

Reading ebooks on you phone brings me to my most important point: don’t just change how you read, but what you read.

The average American spends approximately two hours a day on social media.1 That’s a lot of time. Most of the time you’re on social media, you’re reading something whether it is tweets, facebook statuses, or captions for cute cat pictures.

I’m not here to rail against social media. But if you put your ebook app next to Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, whichever app is your vice of choice, you’ll be giving yourself the option to choose whether you want to look at pictures of a vacation you didn’t take, food you haven’t eaten, or people you haven’t spoken to, or whether you want to take a trip somewhere you’ve never been, eat food you’ve never encountered, or meet people you’d never be able to meet.

You don’t have to replace social media with books completely, even if you just spent half as long on social media, you’d be reading seven more hours a week than before. That’s a lot of reading.

4. Start small

Maybe seven hours won’t let you read all of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (600+ pages), you might not even be able to get through all of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency — but you can probably finish three stories from Raymond Carver’s collection, Cathedral.

It can be daunting to face down an entire book or novel when you’ve been out of the reading game for a while. But that’s why we have poetry, short stories, and essays. There are plenty of stories which will transport you which can be read in seven hours. You might try Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities which will take you to a new city with every page turn. Or you could read the short stories of Robert W. Chambers (which are in the public domain), or discover the absolute genius of Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom which is only 100 pages.

Equally you could read the essays of James Baldwin, or enjoy the desolate road trip in Sasha West’s poetry collection Failure and I Bury the Body. The worlds of poetry and short fiction are sterling examples of the adage “Less is more.” They have the added benefit of helping you get used to traveling. It’s a weekend in New York City or New Hampshire, rather than a week long stay in Paris. Once you’ve whet your palate with the more manageable reading lengths, you’ll be ready to launch yourself headfirst back into novels, biographies, and history books.

5. Set goals

Everyone has a bit of a competitive streak in them. Maybe you have a friend you challenge to seemingly impossible tasks (like who can read the longest book), maybe you have a coworker whom you look up to because they seem to be able to do it all — and then some, or maybe you like to push yourself to achieve new markers of success. Not everyone is up for the quantification of their lives, but humans love to watch numbers increase.

With that in mind, maybe you set yourself a goal of how many pages you want to read a day, or how many books you want to read a month, or you have a list of “Great Books” you’d like to read before you die. But give yourself something to work towards, because sometimes, the most satisfying part of a reading experience, is finishing the book. As someone with a tendency to read political and economic theory, there are lots of books I read with the goal of finishing them. The experience is always entertaining and illuminating, but there are stretches where I find myself thinking “just 10 more pages to the next section, just 5 more pages, just 3 more…” and then I put the book down and go do something else, like watch TV or take a walk while the information percolates.

Personally, I set myself a goal of finishing 50 books by the end of the year. I decided to exclude graphic novels, but I’ve allowed myself to include poetry collections. I look at my list and I’m proud to say that with 33 books read I’m over halfway through, although I can still see myself sliding in under the wire on December 31st, to get to that sought after fifty.

What I like about my arbitrary numeric goal is that it leaves me free to read whatever I want. I’ve also let myself include books I started reading years ago, but never finished. At the same time, I’m pushing myself to read more fiction, rather than only theoretical nonfiction.

Your goals don’t have to be immediately clear. You’ll find that the more reading you do, the more motivated you are to do certain types of reading. The loveliest part of coming back to reading is remembering the joy of the process. With every book you read, you learn something new about yourself, and you are reminded of the places you’ve always wanted to go; literary fiction, historical fiction, geopolitical analysis, science fiction, historic essays.

So, take what you will from these little tidbits. Get back to reading, and give yourself the time to get away from Real Life. Go somewhere you’ve never been, eat something you’ve never heard of, meet some people who you’d never be able to meet otherwise.

2016.11.28 : pipe dreams

Thanksgiving is come and gone. 

It has been hard not to think of William S. Burroughs’ Thanksgiving Prayer, especially the last line:

Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal
of the last and greatest
of human dreams.

(Content Warning for the poem: racial slurs, anti-gay slurs. Un-varnished representations of America.) 


I read some good bits of advice for weathering the new political climate, both are making the rounds, but a little extra time spent on them won’t be wasted:

Annalisa Merelli’s piece for Quartz, regarding what the US body politic and the US media can learn from Italy’s experiences with Silvio Berlusconi. Namely, that fighting the man does little good, because as Trump has said: All publicity is good publicity. (And the man is a reality TV star, he surely knows what he’s talking about.) We need to refocus away from a critique of his personal or moral foibles and failures, and re-engage with what matters. That means it’s time to (finally) talk policy. 

The other is from Nic Dawes, appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review and made the rounds, at least in the arenas I’m familiar with (it’s all algorithmic and doubtlessly intended to keep me deep in my comfort zone). Dawes is concerned with preparing American journalists for a level of hostility and restricted access they have never encountered before. The freedom of the Press and, more importantly, the importance of the Press is something that has been taken for granted in this country, and ostensibly enshrined in our founding document. It has weathered difficult times and difficult moments before, but never has it faced the total rejection and defamation that is being put forth by the President-elect and his political entourage. 


On the matter of the press, part of me despairs. The calcification of the federal government was at least periodically tempered by the actions of the Press (though not with anything near the level of effectiveness that was necessary). Without any voices playing even nominally playing the role of dissenting opinion or considered criticism, I fear we face a necrotic rather than a merely ailing infrastructure of governance. 


Most of all, fear is what keeps me up at night. If this shock, this pain, this anger continues as it is, and fear sets in long term, we will be lost. The forces of power need us divided and overwhelmed. We must imagine new ways of being, and living, and speaking that will allow us to push back against those instincts to circle the wagons and protect our own. 

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Supergirl lately, but it seems like this moment––when things are dark and bleak and uncertain––is when we must hold out our hands and try and help each other stand.