Tuesday 31 July 2018

{Reviews by Thomas}
Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes      $32
“Who knows? Maybe something valuable in these notes.” Does a series of notes on how a work might come to be written itself constitute a work? The day after his mother’s death in 1977, Barthes began writing observations on his mourning for her on small slips of paper. The fact that he isolated this accumulation from his other work (Camera Lucida, also addressing loss and memory, but via consideration of photography, specifically a photograph of his mother, was also written in this period) as well as intimations that making these notes into a book would bring the process of mourning to a close, rather than writing a book for posterity, as, he admits, has been the case for his previous books, suggests that had Barthes not had an unfortunate encounter with a laundry van in 1980, he might have used these notes to write a book. These notes are not that book, but it could be the case that these notes, for all their inconsistencies, vaguenesses and banalities, make a rawer and more compelling book than if they had been made into the book that Barthes had perhaps intended (this might also not be the case, of course), for the notes sketch nebulae from which diamonds might be compressed (if that was Barthes’s creative process) and demonstrate that his more rigorously intellectual works have emotional bases that they are perhaps constructed to conceal. Of his mother’s recent death (he  had shared an apartment with her for 60 years), Barthes writes, “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it, although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.” Instead, he observes himself and his mourning: “In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me.” His loss alters the way he sees both life and literature, emphasising the significance of the seemingly banal and diminishing the importance of the seemingly profound. “Everywhere, I see each individual under the aspect of ineluctably having-to-die. And no less obviously, I see them as not knowing this to be so.” “My suffering is inexpressible but all the same utterable,” he notes. It is the very shortcomings of language, the necessity of labelling his suffering as intolerable, that makes his suffering tolerable. “The indescribableness of my mourning results from my failure to hystericise it. Maman’s death is perhaps the one thing in my life that I have not responded to neurotically. My grief has not been hysterical; doubtless, more hysterically parading my depression, I would have been less unhappy. I see that the non-neurotic is not good.” “Each of us has his own rhythm of suffering,” writes Barthes, and, despite his assurances that this will not happen (“my mourning does not wear away, because it is not continuous” (“I waver between the observation that I’m unhappy only by moments, and the conviction that in actual fact I am continually, all the time, unhappy.”)), his mourning does in fact wear away, “gradually narcissism gives way to a sad egoism.” Narcissism being a literary mode; egoism not, the diary becomes sporadic and less focused as this process advances. Early on, Barthes states, “I live in my suffering, and that makes me happy,” but eventually he has trouble maintaining his identification with his mother (“henceforth and forever I am my own mother,” he had said), and his unhappiness changes its texture: “I left a place where I was unhappy and it did not make me happy to leave it.” Eventually, observing the exhaustion of grief in the maintenance of its referents, he concludes, “we don’t forget, but something vacant settles in.”
In the Dark Room by Brian Dillon     $40
Unless we are wrested by a pervasive trauma from the entire set of circumstances which constitute our identities, which are always contextual rather than intrinsic, our memories are never kept solely within the urns of our minds, so to call them, but are frequently prodded, stimulated and remade by elements beyond ourselves, or, indeed, are outsourced to these elements. Brian Dillon’s In the Dark Room is thoughtful examination of the way in which his memories of his parents, who both died as he was making the transition into adulthood, are enacted through the interplay of interior and exterior elements (the book is divided into sections: ‘House’, ‘Things’, ‘Photographs’, ‘Bodies’, ‘Places’). It is the physical world, rather than time, that is the armature of memory: time, or at least our experience of it, is contained in space, is, for us, an aspect of space, of physical extension, of objects. It is through objects that the past reaches forward and grasps at the present. And it is through the dialogue with objects that we call memory that these objects lose their autonomy and become mementoes, bearers of knowledge on our behalf or in our stead. Memory both provides access to and enacts our exclusion from the spaces of the past to which it is bound. In many ways, when the relationship between the object and the memory seem closest, this relationship is most fraught. Photographs, which Dillon describes as “a membrane between ourselves and the world,” are not so much representations as obscurations of their subjects. The subjects of photographs both inhabit an immediate moment and are secured by them in the “debilitating distance” of an uninhabitable past. When Dillon is looking at a photograph of his mother, “the  feeling that she was manifestly present but just out of reach was distinctly painful. … Photography and the proximity of death tear the face from its home and memory and set it adrift in time.” All photographs (and, indeed, all associative objects) are moments removed from time and so are equivalents, contesting with interior memories to be definitive. Photographs, even more than other objects, but other objects also, are mechanisms of avoidance and substitution as much as they are mechanisms of preservation. Memory, illness, death all distort our experience of time, but so does actual experience, and it is this distortion that generates memory, that imprints the physical with experience “spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina” (in the words of George Eliot). Intense experience, especially traumatic experience, death, illness, loss, violence, occlude the normal functions of memory and push us towards the edges of consciousness, touching oblivion as they also imprison us in the actual. As Dillon found, if experience cannot be experienced all at once, the context of the experience can bear us through, but it must be revisited in memory, repeatedly, until the experience is complete, if this is ever possible. Memory will often co-opt elements of surroundings to complete itself, and, especially if associative objects are not present, it will magnify its trauma upon unfamiliar contexts, increasing the separation and isolation it also seeks to overcome. Must the past be faced as directly as possible so that we may at last turn away from it? 
Patient H.M.: A story of memory, madness and family secrets by Luke Dittrich        $30
In 1953, maverick neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville performed a groundbreaking operation on a 27-year-old epileptic patient named Henry Molaison. The operation failed to eliminate Molaison's intractable seizures, but it did have an unintended effect: Henry was left profoundly amnesic, unable to create long-term memories. In a time when all neurological knowledge was based upon aberration and dysfunction, what was learned from this misadventure about both the neurological and the functional aspects of memory? 
>> More about Moliason
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka       $28
A child exposed to experiences of a kind and scale that cannot be assimilated will create their own mythology to make life liveable. Otto Dov Kulka was a child in Auschwitz, and went on to become a prominent historian of the Holocaust. This book is remarkable as it deals specifically with the internal aspects of surviving in an intolerable situation, young Otto’s ‘Metropolis of Death’. One of the tragedies of the Holocaust was the way in which millions of people, each with their own personal narrative, were subsumed by a single narrative (one which led to the gas chambers and crematoria). It is unfortunate that even many of the most sympathetic portrayals and histories tend to reinforce the single narrative, the erasure, and it is interesting to read Kulka express his feelings of alienation when reading or watching accounts of concentration camp experiences. One of Kulka’s achievements in this deeply thoughtful book is to show how an individual can retain that individuality, and even find a sort of beauty and meaning, even under the irresistible weight of a subsuming narrative such as the ‘immutable law of the Great Death’.

The Years by Annie Ernaux 
“She will go within herself only to retrieve the world,” writes Annie Ernaux in this astounding work of what she terms “impersonal autobiography”. Conspicuously not a memoir, unless it is a memoir of time itself, the book takes the form of a ‘flat’, rigorous and unsentimental serial accumulation of moments that would otherwise be lost from human experience, moments shorn of interpretation or context, impressions that the author has resisted the expectation to turn into a narrative. Thus preserved in the nearest possible state to experience, the memories retain the power of memories without being condensed into fact, they retain the power to resonate in the reader in the way in which the reader's own memories resonate. Although the memories are often very personal and specific, covering every detail of Ernaux’s life from childhood to old age, Ernaux never presents them as belonging to an ‘I’, always to a ‘she’ or a ‘we’. She does not presume a continuity of self other than the self that exists in the moment of experience, a moment that will continue until that memory is extinguished. The distancing of the memory from the ‘I’, the clipping free of the experience from its subject, the creation of a text that is at once impersonal and personal, becomes a machine for the conversion of the particular into the universal, or, rather, for erasing the distinction between the two. “By retrieving the collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” At the moment that Ernaux severs her attachment from the memories that she records, she saves them from plausible extinction, she makes them the memories of others. When such responses are awakened in the reader, the reader becomes the rememberer (the rememberer in this case of living in France between 1941 and 2006). Any emotional response comes from the reader’s experience, not the author’s, or, rather, from the collective human experience that includes both reader and author. There are separate narratives, or separate modes, for what one remembers and what one knows to have happened. What is the relationship between these two kinds of memory? “Between what happens in the world and what happens to her, there is no point of convergence. They are two parallel series: one abstract, all information no sooner received than forgotten, the other all static shots,” she writes. As Ernaux reaches old age, witnessing a series of “burials that foreshadow her own,” she casts back from an imperative somewhere beyond her death, recording the rush of memory towards its ultimate forgetting. “All the images will disappear. They will vanish all at the same time, like the images that lay hidden behind the foreheads of the grandparents, dead for half a century, and of the parents, also dead. Thousands of words will suddenly be deleted the ones that were used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order. Everything will be erased in a second, the dictionary of words amassed between cradle and deathbed, eliminated.” But it is not only death that can extinguish memory: “The future is replaced by a sense of urgency that torments her. She is afraid that her memory will become cloudy and silent. Maybe one day all things and their names will slip out of alignment and she’ll no longer be able to put names to reality. All that will remain is the reality that cannot be spoken. Now’s the time to give form to her future absence through writing.” Her book is an attempt to “save something from the time where we will never be again.” By her method of conjuring and recording the raw material of her life, Ernaux “finds something that the image from her personal memory doesn’t give her on its own: a kind of vast collective sensation that takes her consciousness, her entire being, into itself.” The passage of time is made tangible, subjects are dissolved in their experiences, the intimate is revealed as the universal, moments are, in the act of writing, both held and relinquished.

The Mind of a Mnemonist by A.R. Luria         $60
'S' was a failure in most ways. He could never hold down a job and he found it difficult to communicate  and understand although he could learn vast tables of figures and recall them accurately seventeen years later. The strange processes of memory he evolved and his inability to forget the pains of childhood, made the simplest prose or poetry an impossible frustration, yet he could memorise whole pages of text in a language he didn't know. An almost magical use of his own imaginative powers enabled him to control his pulse and body temperature, but these same powers blurred the line that divides reality from fantasy. Luria's important study shows that a great gift is just as much a great defect, and that forgetting is essential to functioning sanity, something that a person incapable of forgetting can never achieve. Someone incapable of forgetting is perhaps as remote from having a personality as someone incapable of forming memories or someone whose memories are lost. 
Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso          $23

“Even before my body was an instrument for language it was an instrument for memory,” writes Sarah Manguso in this little book of musings on her relationship with time. With language, though, came the ability to record memory, to further the work of memory in replacing experience with a story about experience, with an ersatz 'experience' that relieves us from experience, a replacement that is, in effect, a form of forgetting, the substitution of experience with something more manageable, more assimilable. For much of her life, Manguso kept a diary, amounting eventually to more than 800 000 words, obsessively recording “what [she] could bear to remember and to convince [her]self that that was all there was.” In her diary she “files away the time that passes so I no longer need to think about it. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing.” Life as it was lived was influenced by the writing that might be done about it. Description, or the potential for description, began to cause that which was described. Time was pulled forward by the representation of its contents. Every detail recorded is an editing-out of all other possible details, each story is a deletion of all other possible stories, each path taken is a turning-away from all other possible paths. “I’d study photographs and gradually forget everything that happened between the shutter openings.” But how else may we be relieved of all those details, all those stories, all those paths, that burden us, threaten us, even, with their possibility? Manguso’s diary-keeping also arose from her desperate conception of time, from her addiction to beginnings and endings, from her inability to experience life as ongoing. “Something will happen,” she repeated to herself at a structural level. Manguso’s relationship with time changed following the birth of her son. As a new parent, and while nursing, she experienced “a new nothing, an absence of subjective experience.” Her grip, or stranglehold, on her experiences was loosened, softened, reformulated by her new role in the experiences of another. “I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against.” A reconfiguration of her attachments entailed a reconfiguration of Manguso’s world-view as well: “The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory,” she writes.“I no longer believe in anything other than the middle.” No longer needing her diary to formulate experience (“Forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.”), Manguso has become more aware of the ongoingness of time, the inchoate onward rush of all things for which linear time can never be more than “a summary”. Participation in life requires an acceptance of (even an enthusiasm for) mortality: “The best thing about time is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and over everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing that time will go on without me. A flash - and I’m gone, but look, the churn of bodies through the world of light.”
Stammered Songbook: A mother's Book of Hours by Erwin Mortier        $25
Memory and personality are interdependent and could be seen to be aspects of each other. Both are constructs that enable us to function practically and socially, but both are tentative, fragile and vulnerable to erosion. When Erwin Mortier’s mother developed Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 65, her loss of memory was also a profound loss of personality and Mortier began to find it difficult to associate the memories he had of his once-vivacious mother with the person whose rapid mental and physical diminishment made her more of a lingering absence than a presence. Mortier’s book is beautifully written, intensely sad, unsentimental, unflinching and tender. His ability to use a tiny detail or turn of phrase to evoke a memory of his mother or his childhood or a step in his mother’s loss of memory and language and personality is remarkable. Written while his mother is still alive in an attempt to fix his memories of her lest they get sucked away in the slipstream of her departure, the book expresses the hope that, following her death, these memories will be freed from the mental decline which currently overwhelms them and that, through words, they may come together again to form an idea of the particular person his mother was. Perhaps our individuality, dependent as it is on language and memory, is what is gradually (or rapidly) eroded in Alzheimer’s, and what is left, the whimpering animal full of fear but occasionally responsive to small immediate comforts, is what we all have in common, what is always at our core, but which we obscure with layers of language, personality, belief and knowledge (all relatively recent evolutionary innovations) in order to function, to survive, to bear existence, to comfort ourselves and others.
W, Or, The memory of childhood by Georges Perec          $30
“I write: I write because we lived together, because I was once amongst them, a shadow amongst their shadows, a body close to their bodies. I write because they left in me their indelible mark, whose trace is writing. Their memory is dead in writing; writing is the memory of their death and the assertion of my life.” Both of Perec’s parents were killed in the 1939-1945 war, his father early on as a French soldier, and, soon after, his mother sent to a death camp. Their young son was smuggled out of Paris and spent the war years in a series of children’s homes and safe villages. “My childhood belongs to those things which I know I don’t know much about,” he writes. W alternates two narratives, the first an attempt by Perec to set down the memories of his childhood and to examine these not only for their accuracy but in order to learn the way in which memory works. Often factual footnotes work in counterpoint to the ‘remembered’ narrative, underscoring the limitations of the experiences that formed it. Right from birth the pull of the Holocaust is felt upon Perec’s personal biography, and his story is being shaped by this force, sucking at it, sucking his family and all stability away. Sometimes he attaches to himself experiences of which he was merely a witness, the memories transformed by remembering and by remembering the remembering, and so forth, and by the infection of memories by extraneous imaginative details. “Excess detail is all that is needed to ruin a memory.” The absences around which these memories circulate fill the narrative with suppressed emotion. The other narrative begins as a sort of mystery novel in Part One, telling how one Gaspard Winckler is engaged by a mysterious stranger to track down the fate of the boy whose name he had unknowingly assumed and who had gone missing with his parents in the vicinity of Terra del Fuego where they had gone in search of an experience that would relieve the boy’s mutism. In Part 2, the tone changes to that of an encyclopedia and we begin to learn of the customs, laws and practices of the land of W, isolated in the vicinity of Terra del Fuego, a society organised exclusively around the principles of sport, “a nation of athletes where Sport and life unite in a single magnificent effort.” Perec tells us that ‘W’ was invented by him as a child as a focus for his imagination and mathematical abilities during a time when his actual world and his imaginative world were far apart, his mind filled with “human figures unrelated to the ground which was supposed to support them, disengaged wheels rotating in the void” as he longed for an ordinary life “like in the storybooks”. Life and sport on W are governed by a very complex system of competition, ‘villages’ and Games, “the sole aim to heighten competitiveness or, to put it another way, to glorify victory.” It is not long before we begin to be uncomfortable with some of the laws and customs of W, for instance, just as winners are lauded, so are losers punished, and all individual proper names are banned on W, with athletes being nameless (apart from an alphanumeric serial number) unless their winnings entitle them to bear, for a time, the name of one of the first champions of their event, for “an athlete is no more and no less than his victories.” Perec intimates that there is no dividing line between a rationally organised society valuing competition and fascism, the first eliding into the second as a necessary result of its own values brought to their logical conclusions. “The more the winners are lauded, the more the losers are punished.” The athletes are motivated to peak performance by systematic injustice: “The Law is implacable but the Law is unpredictable.” Mating makes a sport of rape, and aging Veterans who can no longer compete and do not find positions as menial ‘officials’ are cast out and forced to “tear at corpses with their teeth” to stay alive. Perec’s childhood fantasy reveals the horrors his memoir is unable to face directly. We learn that the athletes wear striped uniforms, that some compete tarred and feathered or are forced to jump into manure by “judges with whips and cudgels.” We learn that the athletes are little more than skin and bone, and that their performances are consequently less than impressive. As the two strands of the book come together at the end, Perec tells of reading of the Nazi punishment camps where the torture of the inmates was termed ‘sport’ by their tormentors. The account of W ends with the speculation that at some time in the future someone will come through the walls that isolate the sporting nation and find nothing but “piles of gold teeth, rings and spectacles, thousands and thousands of clothes in heaps, dusty card indexes, and stocks of poor-quality soap.”
The Toy Catalogue by Sandra Petrignani             $30
"More than the game it's meant for, a plaything is usually remembered for its personal, incidental uses." This beautifully written and evocative alphabetical collection of short pieces about various toys, from abacus to baby doll to yo-yo to model zoo demonstrates how intimate objects become repositories of memory: experiences long forgotten gush forth in the most surprising fashion when we make contact with (or even consider) the objects we had unknowingly so loaded with that experience at some time in the past. Toys are remarkable in this regard: often accorded agency and specificity by children, they reward this dedication by delivering through time something of our lost selves. Although toys are often remembered for their "personal, incidental uses" rather than for their ostensible purposes, Petrignani's book is remarkable for showing how these "personal, incidental uses" are in fact common to all children, everywhere: who has not interacted with an abacus or a kaleidoscope in just the way that Petrignani describes? and who would have realised that these ways of interacting were not only personal?
The Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno           $42
“Writing is a way not to remember but to forget,” suggests Kate Zembrano in this book concerning both her grieving for her mother and her struggle to be free of her mother, who in some ways became more dominating after her death than she was when alive. “Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave behind,” continues Zembrano. The past dominates the present, not so much in the way in which the present is disposed as in the disposition of our minds towards it: that which we are foolish enough to think of as ourself is dependent utterly upon memory, upon the power of what is not us in the past. This dominance by the lost and unreachable (we cannot assail its moment of power for it lies against the flow of time) is most oppressive when we are unaware of it. Paradoxically, we need to remember in order to escape the past and exist more freely (if existing freely is our predilection). But merely to open ourselves to the past through memory is insufficient to free ourselves of it. To gain control it is necessary to assume authorship, not to change what we cannot reach against time, but to create a simulacrum that is experienced in the place of the experience of the past, a replacement that alters the grammar of our servitude, simultaneously a remembering and a forgetting. “In order to liberate myself from the past I have to reconstruct it. I have been a prisoner of my memories and my aim is to get rid of them,” said Louise Bourgeois. Since her mother’s death, Zembrano’s thoughts have been increasingly focussed on her loving but dominating mother, to the extent that her mother is taking over her life (“Sometimes my mouth opens up and my mother’s laugh jumps out. A parlour trick”). Very possibly, this influence was operative when her mother was alive, but it was at least concentrated in a person who could be interacted with and reacted against. Now “she is everywhere by being unable to be located.” Zambreno’s perceptive book is a study, through self-scrutiny, of the ambivalences of grief and of memory, and also of a path beyond grief: “If writing is a way of hoarding memories - what does it also mean to write to disown?” Not that either remembering or forgetting does any favours to the departed. Without an actual person upon whom an identity, a history, a character may be postulated, and without the generation of new information, however minor, that is possible only by living, the definition of that person belongs to anyone and no-one. Identity becomes contested in the absence of the arbiter. What remains but the impress, somewhere in the past, the shape of which must henceforth suffice as a stand-in for the departed? For better or for worse the pull is to the past, towards the unalterable occurrences that have what could almost be considered as a will to persist through whatever has received their impress. And the struggle for authorship is complicated by the persistence of objects. Death instantaneously transforms the everyday into an archive. Zembrano’s visits to her parents’ house in the years after the death of her mother brings her into contact with objects that have lost their ordinariness, the possessions of her mother’s that her father wishes to enshrine, objects that have stultified, that have not been permitted to either lose or accrete meaning. Both comfort and trap, the archive preserves the dominance of the past per se, preserves the fact of loss more than that which has been lost. Advances in medical science have meant that more of our lives, and more of the end period of our lives, has come to be defined by illness. Increasingly few of us reach our end without being overwritten by the story of its approach. Zembrano captures well her mother’s struggle with the disease that killed her, not so much over the her survival or otherwise as over how she would be remembered, over whether the idea others had of her would be replaced by the story of a disease. All memory proceeds as a scuffle between selection and denial, between nostalgia and resentment, between freedom and attachment, between the conflicting needs of actuality and representation. Memory is the first requirement of forgetting. 

Saturday 28 July 2018

BOOKS @ VOLUME #85 (28.7.18)

Books new and recommended, events, competitions. 

A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits   {Reviewed by STELLA}
The Essingers are landing en masse in New York. First to arrive are the parents, Bill and Liesel, end-career academics, flying in from Arizona. Paul, their New York son is insistent that his wife Dana collects them from the airport despite the inconvenience to their child’s routine and her discomfort at being the first to greet his parents. Next, Jean, the youngest, flipping from understanding to irritable, arrives from London carrying a secret that she wishes to offload. Then Nathan, the eldest and successful law academic, arrives with his two girls in tow. And finally there's the emotional middle child, Susie, with her eldest son Ben, waiting to be judged and sidelined. The siblings arrive over the weekend, as they have for a least a decade, to watch Paul play tennis in the US Open. He’s a professional, semi-successful, top-100 player but he’s peaked (lower than expected) and is on his way down. He wants out and is planning his retirement at 33, much to the disappoint of Bill, and his plans to move to Texas are a surprise to his wife. Benjamin Markovits takes the Essinger family, Jewish and German, with their migrant, working-class backgrounds (Bill’s uncle founded a grocery chain, which started with humble beginnings in lower New York), their successes - academic, sporting and financial - and exposes them down to the core. In doing so he exposes the granular details of contemporary American society, with its prejudices, intolerances, politics, passions, expectations and hypocrisies. Markovits is never polemic or obvious. He keeps the palette small: a family with all its quibbles and care, stuck together, without space to breathe (just as family gatherings can be), over a short period of time - a weekend in New York. The novel moves from Friday night through to Monday morning in an unrelenting and sometimes affectingly repetitive pattern, culminating in all sitting court-side at the first match. Cleverly written, the detailed scenarios dig deep into minutiae as the family traipse around New York and sit around the table eating, arguing, reliving their childhoods and catching up. The viewpoint segues with ease from one character to the next, giving equal weighting and sympathy to all the family members. All the petty emotions are there, alongside the meaningful ones. Liesel wants to retire and move to New York - they are even looking at apartments (Nathan has organised these) - Bill has no intention of leaving Texas - a place where he feels free of his family past. Nathan is considering a move into political bureaucracy and his usually self-assured confidence is being buffeted by doubt and by Jean’s righteousness - or is she right? Jean is at a loss - unhappy but fooling herself that her life is finally on a grown-up trajectory. Susie, the child who gave up her career for children, is constantly looking for approval. Paul, focused on the match ahead, is increasingly remote. This is a story about family, what holds it together, the common threads and experiences that bind each to the other, the shared histories and the past that defines the generations that follow. Markovits uses the Essingers to explore and expose pre-Trump upper-middle-class America and reveal the cracks that can spread through a ‘happy’ family (or a contented society). A Weekend in New York will make you engage with the finest detail but leave you thinking widely. 

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things.” Always hinting at experience just beyond the reach of language, Bennett's book is impelled by the rigours of noticing. Encounters with persons and with the infraordinary are treated with equivalence: acute, highly acute, overly acute, observations immediately plunge the narrator’s awareness into the depths of her response (“My head is turned by imagined elsewheres and hardly at all by present circumstances.”), far from the surface at which outward contact may be made, or may be being made, a process that is both deeply isolating, terrifying and protective. Bennett’s unsparingly acute observations of the usually unacknowledged or unacknowledgeable motivations, urges and responses that underlie human interaction and quotidian existence seem here induced by an acceptance or a resignation that is enabled by despair, or is indistinguishable from despair, both a resignation and a panic, perhaps, a panic on the edge of self-dissolution which is perhaps our last resistance to self-dissolution and therefore fundamental to individual existence: the anxiety which all human activity is designed to conceal. Bennett’s is a very individual voice (click here to hear her read a sample), resonating at times with other works of irredeemably isolated interiority, such David Markson’s superb  Wittgenstein’s Mistress or the suppressed hysteria of Thomas Bernhard’s narrators, but tracking entirely her own patterns of thought (I have perhaps made an error here of conflating the author with the narrator, but, if this is an error, it is one hard to avoid in the book in which style and content are inseparable) with an immediacy that precludes the artificially patterning, pseudo-assimilable explanation of a ‘story’. In one excellent section, ‘Control Knobs’, the narrator describes the gradual disintegration of the three knobs that control her cooker and speculates a coming time when the last interchangeable knob breaks and the cooker will become unusable. This reminds her of the counted matches in Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (another novel of irredeemably isolated interiority), which mark the time to the point at which that narrator will no longer be able to light a fire to cook and warm herself. Following a discussion of Bennett’s narrator’s reading and misreading of that book, she returns to an account of the ultimate hopelessness of her attempts to procure new knobs for her cooker. “I feel at a loss for about ten minutes and it’s a sensation, I realise, not dissimilar to indifference. So, naturally, I handle it rather well.”

Is love possible in a world in the throes of political and environmental crises? The protagonist of Crudo very much resembles the book's author, Olivia Laing (with some notable intrusions from Kathy Acker), whose 2017 summer and marriage is related in this enjoyable roman-à-clef in ‘real time’ (whatever that means).

>> Read Thomas's review

>> Read an extract from the novel.

>> How to write a novel in seven weeks

>> Which books inspired Crudo?

>> What should we make of Laing's obsession with Kathy Acker?

>> The official Crudo playlist.

>> Why is there a fly on the covers of both the UK (Picador) and US (W.W. Norton) editions of Crudo? What has Laing to say about the UK cover?

>> Other excellent books by Olivia Laing (click through to learn more): 

The Lonely City: Adventures in the art of being alone
When Laing moved to New York in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. 

The Trip to Echo Spring: On writers and drinking
What is the link between alcohol and creativity? Is there a link?

To the River: A journey beneath the surface
Over sixty years after Virginia Woolf drowned in the River Ouse, Olivia Laing set out one midsummer morning to walk its banks, from source to sea. Along the way, she explores the roles that rivers play in human lives, tracing their intricate flow through literature, mythology and folklore.

Friday 27 July 2018


Just out of the carton...

Caroline's Bikini by Kirsty Gunn          $33
"Is it possible for something NOT to happen in a novel?" asks Emily, who has been persuaded by her friend Evan to write the story of his love affair with glamorous former horsewoman Caroline Beresford, an account which becomes Caroline's Bikini (i.e. this book). A playful exploration of the responsibilities of fiction from the author of The Big Music, which was named Book of the Year at the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. 
>> Read an extract
>> Read Thomas's review of The Big Music
>> Kirsty Gunn's top ten books on unrequited love

OK, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea        $28
A concert pianist whose wrists are damaged in a train accident uses his insurance payout to buy a house identical to Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye overlooking False Bay, in Cape Town. When his wife leaves him after only a few weeks in the house, the ex-pianist, lacking a personality of his own, begins to be inhabited by the house itself in unusual ways. "A perfectly poised and mad book about chronic loneliness; enigmatic, often dream-like and brilliantly funny." - Irish Times
>> Read an excerpt.
Lala by Jacek Dehnel       $35
Born in Poland just after the First World War and brought up to be a perfect example of her class and generation - tolerant, selfless and brave - Lala is an independent woman who has survived some of the most turbulent events of her times. As she senses the first signs of dementia, she battles to keep her memories alive through her stories, telling her grandson tales of a life filled with love, faithlessness and extraordinary acts of courage. Sweeping from nineteenth-century Kiev to modern-day Poland, Lala is a novel tracking Polish one Polish family through the twentieth century. 
"The prehensile magic of Lala lies in the art of retelling. Dehnel’s work is drawn from life and enriched with intent, with a kind of aesthetic cohesion that bare facts lack." - The Quarterly Conversation
Winner of the Paszport Polityka Award. 
The Big Questions: What is New Zealand's future?         $38
Whatever concerns face us as a country, the decisions we make now, under urgency, will determine the kind of lives future generations will lead. Anne Salmond, Andrew Becroft, Rod Oram, Jacinta Ruru, Felicity Goodyear-Smith, Tim Watkin, Derek Handley, Jarrod Gilbert, Stuart McNaughton, David Brougham, Jarrod Haar, Yumiko Olliver-Gray, Golriz Ghahraman, Theresa Gattung, Peter O'Connor, and Leonie Freeman.
History of Violence by Édouard Louis       $37
An encounter between two men turns from attraction to violence, revealing the layers of dispossession, racism, misery, desire and trauma in contemporary French society. Another blistering autobiographical novel from the author of The End of Eddy
>> "Macron will lead voters to the far right.
>> "There is a political violence toward the poor, which existed under Thatcherism and that is today in the process of returning."
Wait, Blink by Gunnhild Øyehaug      $40
Sigrid is a young literature student trying to find her voice as a writer when she falls in love with an older, established author, whose lifestyle soon overwhelms her values and once-clear vision. Trine has reluctantly become a mother and struggles to create as a performance artist. The aspiring movie director Linnea scouts locations in Copenhagen for a film she will never make. As these characters' stories collide and intersect, they find that dealing with the pressures of their lives also means coming to grips with a world both frightening and joyously ridiculous. From the author of the outstanding story collection Knots
"Interior psychological monologues play as if a neuroscientist exploring the conscious mind had reset a functional fMRI to fictional. Wait, Blink is a witty and cerebral braid of events both real and fictional, driven by self-talk, undergirded by literary criticism, and sprinkled with factoids." - World Literature Today
View from the South by Owen Marshall      $40
A very presentable collection of poems, many tagged to specific locations in the South Island, with photographs by Graeme Sydney. 
"Marshall's poems are an exquisite marriage of musicality, observation, elegance and economy. Certain words stand out in his lines like the glint of light on wet ground." - Paula Green

The Storm Keeper's Island by Catherine Doyle         $17
When Fionn Boyle sets foot on Arranmore Island, it begins to stir beneath his feet. Once in a generation, Arranmore Island chooses a new Storm Keeper to wield its power and keep its magic safe from enemies. The time has come for Fionn 's grandfather, a secretive and eccentric old man, to step down. Soon, a new Keeper will rise. But, deep underground, someone has been waiting for Fionn. As the battle to become the island 's next champion rages, a more sinister magic is waking up, intent on rekindling an ancient war.

"So magical and wild that it 's like being swept away by the sea." - Katherine Rundell

Zaitoun: Recipes and stories from a Palestinian kitchen by Yasmin Khan        $49
Yasmin Khan harvests black olives from the groves of Burquin in the West Bank, hand-rolls maftool - the plump Palestinian couscous - in home kitchens in Jenin and finds time to enjoy a pint with workers at the Taybeh brewery, which is producing the first Palestinian craft beer. As she feasts and cooks with Palestinians of all ages and backgrounds, she learns about the realities of their everyday lives. Zaitoun includes herb-filled salads, quick pickles, fragrant soups, tender roasted meats and rich desserts, and has a special focus on vegetarian versions of Palestinian classics. 
"A moving, hugely knowledgeable and utterly delicious book." -Anthony Bourdain
Reporter: A memoir by Seymour Hersh         $55
This book gives great insight into the mind of this outstanding journalist, and, through that, further insights into the people and stories he brought to the world's attention, including the Mai Lai massacre and the atrocities at Abu Graib.
"Reporter is just wonderful. Truly a great life, and what shines out of the book, amid the low cunning and tireless legwork, is Hersh's warmth and humanity. This book is essential reading for every journalist and aspiring journalist the world over." - John le Carré

Joining the Dots: A woman in her time by Juliet Gardiner          $25
A fascinating account of the social, political and cultural changes in Britain since World War 2, especially for women, as focused on the life of a particularly keen and involved observer. 
"Refreshingly unconcerned with self-excavation, the beauty of it is in its flow from the particular to the general. The vast consolation and pleasure of this generous book is its conviction that we are all more than one life allows." - Times Literary Supplement

The Archipelago: Italy since 1945 by John Foot        $35
From the silent assimilation of fascists into society after 1945 to the troubling reign of Silvio Berlusconi, and from the artistic peak of neorealist cinema to the celebration of Italy's 150th birthday in 2011, Foot examines both the corrupt and celebrated sides of the country. 

"A lively and meticulously researched account." - Guardian

The Recovering: Intoxication and its aftermath by Leslie Jamison        $45
Who would have thought that account of recovery from addiction could be as fascinating as the account of the train-wreck itself. At the heart of the book is Jamison's ongoing conversation with literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace. From the author of The Empathy Exams.
"Perceptive and generous-hearted. Uncompromising, Jamison is a writer of exacting grace." - Washington Post
Rendezvous with Oblivion by Thomas Frank         $30
Frank takes on on a tour of the US, a country in the late stages of disintegration, and shows us the results of the mechanisms of inequality, empty status and circumstantial anxiety that have, among other things, delivered Trump to office. 
The Little Swedish Kitchen by Rachel Khoo       $55
100 authentic and achievable recipes, with hints on how to enjoy your life in a Swedish way. 
Eye of the Shoal: A fish-watcher's guide to life, the ocean, and everything by Helen Scales      $33
What is it like to be a fish? Their way of life is radically different from our own, in part because they inhabit a buoyant, sticky fluid in which light, heat, gases and sound behave in odd ways. Fish have evolved many tactics to overcome these challenges, and, in doing so, they have become a way in which we can learn to see the ocean, and life in general, in more profound ways. (Her real name, apparently.)

The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown         $17
The inspiring story (first published in 1941) of a group of children who start their own theatre company.

The Immeasurable World: Journeys into desert places by William Atkins        $37
One-third of the earth's surface is classified as desert. Restless, and unhappy in love, William Atkins decided to travel in eight of the world's driest, hottest places: the Empty Quarter of Oman, the Gobi Desert and Taklamakan deserts of northwest China, the Great Victoria Desert of Australia, the man-made desert of the Aral Sea in Kazkahstan, the Black Rock and Sonoran Deserts of the American Southwest, and Egypt's Eastern Desert. What draws humans to deserts?
Slow Down and Grow Something. Cultivate. Cook. Share. by Byron Smith and Tess Robinson        $45
A blueprint for living the good life in the city - how to grow the easiest food plants in small spaces and recipes to make the most of them. 

Wild Sea: A history of the Southern Ocean by Joy McCann        $40
Completely encircling the Earth, the Southern Ocean stretches from Antarctica to the costs of New Zealand, Australia, Africa and South America. It contains a spattering islands, each more remote and wild than the last, and a rich history of explorers, whalers, scientists and settlers, as well as remarkable natural history. The ocean has become an important barometer of climate change and ecological depredation. This book considers this little-known ocean.
 The Finder by Kate Hendrick       $24
When Lindsay meets Elias the signs aren't promising. She's a grungy introvert who doesn't want to talk to anyone. He's a teen fashionista who can't shut up. But since Lindsay tracked down a runaway kid, word has got around that she knows how to find people. And Elias is looking for his birth mother. And he has money. But Lindsay wasn't actually trying to find the runaway. It's just how she looks at the world. That's because someone is missing in Lindsay's life - her identical twin Frankie, who disappeared when they were eight. YA novel. 

Future Days: Krautrock and the building of modern Germany by David Stubbs          $28
The groups that created Krautrock (Faust, Popol Vuh, Neu , Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Amon Düül II, Can, Kraftwerk) considered in the context of a society attempting to come to terms with the atrocities and legacies of World War 2.
>> Popol Vuh, 1971
>> Kraftwerk, 1971
>> Amon Düül II, 1973

Is It Bedtime Yet? Parenting: the hilarious, the hair-raising, the heart-breaking by Emily Writes and friends         $35
There may be no answers, but there are no end of helpful anecdotes. From the NZ author of Rants in the Dark and the blog Emily Writes.
The Spinning Magnet by Alanna Mitchell          $39
Without electromagnetism, life on Earth would not be possible. The quest to understand it began with the idea that the magnet was a physical embodiment of the heavens, possessing as it did its own North and South poles. Is the discovery that, every once in a long while, the Earth 's magnetic poles switch places, significantly weakening the field 's protective power, something we should worry about?
The Biggerers by Amy Lilwall          $33
An unscrupulous scientist is cloning and manipulating embryos to produce miniature humans for a huge and greedy government-backed corporation that tortures them, drugs them with memory suppressants, and sells them as pets—ostensibly to teach 22nd-century children to care lovingly about something other than themselves. What happens when the 'littlers' start to communicate with the 'biggerers' and to develop human capacities? 

Resist! How to be an activist in the Age of Defiance by Michael Segalov        $35
The People Awards by Lily Murray      $25
Celebrate equality with 50 people who changed the world in their own ways.