I’m not quite sure what to write for a blog that’s mostly about what I am reading when I’m not really reading—or more specifically, I’m not really reading books. I’ve been reading the news a lot. Maybe even more than I should. I did manage to finish one syllabus book during the month of March, I also picked up the second Neapolitan novel. I actively stopped reading Lab Girl by Hope Jahren about 40 pages in.
I did start, read, and complete The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina García, which does count towards the “living Central or South American Author” requirement since García is Cuban-American and alive. I didn’t take any notes while I read, so I’m working largely from memory here, but I want to give you a brief synopsis in place of an actual review. The novel is set at a hotel in the capital of an unnamed Central American country in the middle of an extended political upheaval. García’s narrative moves between the hotel’s residents and staff, including the novel’s titular matador, a Japanese-American woman named Suki, who eats pears before her matches and seems to choose her lovers based on their feet. While her story was interesting and the rest of the novel seems to wind around her story, I was more compelled by Aura, the ex-guerilla who works at the hotel and must serve the visiting military men, including the colonel who murdered her lover and brother. At the beginning of the novel, Aura’s only apparent recourse is to spit in his pork chops but when she is alone, she is visited by the voice of her dead brother who urges her to avenge him and the rest of their village. Elsewhere, the novel is firmly rooted in realism and it’s not enough to say that because García is a Latin-American writer, her work is representative of magical realism*, but she plays with it in these scenes. Aura’s conversations with the brother are never couched in insanity. Neither she nor García questions her mental state when she goes to the roof of the hotel to listen to her dead brother’s voice (we’re never led to believe he appears to her physically) her to kill the colonel. In fact, in that scene, she’s interrupted by a hotel guest who attempts to jump to his death. Aura stops him. Presented with this contrast, the audience can read her as stable and quick-thinking. It’s brilliant, really.
I was supposed to read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren for my book club but had to stop because I kept yelling at my Kindle and you’re not encouraged to do that on the bus. I don’t want to shit on a book when I barely made a dent in it before giving up. I really don’t want to shit on a female scientist’s memoir. But in about 30-50 pages, Jahren said more questionable shit than I could tolerate. Like this:
“I started out studying literature, but soon discovered that science was where I actually belonged. The contrast made it all the clearer: in science classes, we did things instead of just sitting around talking about things.”
She goes on:
“Science lectures dealt with social problems that still could be solved, not defunct political systems for which both the proponents and the opponents had died before my birth. Science didn’t talk about books that had been written to analyze other books that had originally been written as retellings of ancient books; it talked about what was happening now and of a future that might yet be.”
She returns to this riff a little later on:
I was reading a new biography of Jean Genet with whom I had been fascinated…To me, Genet was the perfect representation of an organic writer, one who wrote purely and didn’t labor to communicate, didn’t expect recognition, and when recognition came didn’t take it in. He was also untaught, which meant that his voice was absolutely original and not a subconscious imitation of hundreds of other books he’d read.”
I don’t know what to make of the person who wouldn’t just say this in passing but seems to think it enough that she wrote it down, kept it through (presumably multiple) revisions, and had it published with her name attached to it. I don’t want to dissect it, line-by-line, but fuck it, I’m gonna:
- Making a thing is a worthwhile pursuit, but so is talking to other people. Talking to other people about how they see the world is a way to think outside of your own head.
- Yes, sometimes scientists solve “social problems.” But it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of what we know about how the human body reacts to extreme temperatures we know because of Nazi experiments.
- Sunday morning I read an article in the Post by a political scientist using Thucydides to explain how the tension between the United States and China could end in a war. He was literally using an ancient thinker to explain a very real current problem. It’s not even a terribly unscientific approach, looking for patterns and connections between what has happened to theorize what may.
- Your own birth is a strange dividing line for determining what is and is not of value, regardless of your interests. It’s a bizarrely adolescent point-of-view. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a science lab, but they’re all still in agreement with regards to Darwin and Newton, right? Those men are very dead. I just want to make sure we’re all still cool with the theories of evolution and gravity.
- I am admittedly not that familiar with Genet so I have to speak a little generally here. There are plenty of writers who never attend a workshop or seminar, but that’s not her claim. Her claim is an impossibility. It takes a lot of work to make a line, a passage, or an entire book feel effortless. Toni Morrison has said that she re-writes each line in her novels 15 or so times. That’s the kind of work it takes. Jahren’s version of Genet reads less like a thoughtful writer than a conduit. To suggest otherwise is to pretend writing is not real work.
- There is no one who has read and written who does not imbue the latter with the former, whether consciously or not. I have no patience for someone so lacking in self-awareness that they’d make this claim in one chapter, immediately after deliberating inserting Charles Dickens quotes into the previous one.
In a way, I should thank Jahren for writing something I didn’t agonize over setting down. One unfortunate side effect of this project (really, the only one) is that I find myself straining to finish books that aren’t terribly interesting to me. No one is actually grading me. I’m not going to get in trouble, not even with myself. It was a relief to decide to pick something else up instead and not feel the least bit guilty about it.
Hopefully, I’ll find a STEM book that takes a more charitable view of the humanities**—a view more like that of my next door neighbor growing up. Melissa was a professor in the biology department at the local college. She’d retired to Oregon by the time I was leaving for college, but that didn’t stop her from writing:
“English is a good major. If you change your mind after a year or two, you will have a solid foundation for almost anything else. Of course, if you stay with English you will have an even better foundation. A good liberal arts education can’t be beat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Remember, you only have one mind; the more you enrich it when you are young, the more useful and satisfying life will be.”
In totally unrelated news, I also got a tattoo this month. That brings the grand total to three. It’s still healing and my mother doesn’t care for it, but I’m pretty happy:
2017 Reading Syllabus:
- Elena Ferrante
- Toni Morrison
- Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale
- Virginia Woolf
- Joan Didion
- bell hooks: Feminism is for Everybody
- Blood Meridian
- Sound and the Fury
- One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Feminist Sci-Fi
- Intersectional Feminist Sci-Fi
- Epic Fantasy
- Urban Fantasy
- Living African Author
- Living Central or South American Author: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia
- Living Middle Eastern Author
- Living Asian Author
- Other Criteria
- A book about Whiteness: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg
- A pre-Soviet Russian novel
- A Soviet novel
- A post-Soviet Russian novel
- A book about Reconstruction
- A book about Islam
- A book about the Holocaust: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder
- A short story collection
- A poetry collection
- a STEM book
*Magical realism doesn’t only happen in Latin-America and it’s not just a thing lit students call fantasy novels to be hoity-toity. Ronald Dahl does it in Matilda. Hayao Miyazaki is a master of it. Magical realism differentiates itself from fantasy because magical realism always exists in our world, but it values mystery and the fantastical alongside reality. That’s not a perfect definition because, honestly, it’s a little murky, I’ll be honest.
**I would also settle for not mentioning them at all.