Category: Reading List 2017

27. Reading: The brief wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz’s The brief wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Faber and Faber, 2008) is an absolutely intriguing work of art. Maybe your first ever novel with footnotes, written in an exquisitely sassy Spanglish and so full of allusions that it made me wonder whether it is actually translatable. (There are, as far as I could see, at least 13 translations, among them Portuguese, German, Turkish, Japanese, Czech and Croatian, so yeah, apparently it is.) It’s a nonchalant ride not only through the “brief wondrous” life of Oscar, The Nerd, but also an introductory course to the history of the Dominican Republic during the 20th century, and easily the densest book I’ve read (at least) this year.

Now I am sure that had I read some more sci-fi novels (or comics, or anything considered part of that genre), I would most likely have understood more of the references to superheroes, villains, and plot lines with which the novel is splattered. There’s also some obvious salutations to magical realism. For reasons (The Nerd), the only thing this book lacks is a real (meaning: successful) romance, but also there really is neither time nor space for it given all the other things that have to be told about Dominican history, the family curse, and life in the diaspora.

How did I come across the book?

I don’t really remember, even though I do remember having heard of it. I do remember, however, that the story didn’t strike me as particularly interesting, and not even having read This is how you lose her last year convinced me. So what did? Maybe the Pulitzer, the fact that I have a thing for Caribbean authors, and that I got the used copy for peanuts, really.

When and where did I read it?

During the first two weeks of fieldwork. Definitely helped with the re-entry, even though I was often tempted to simply keep reading instead of going outside.

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26. Reading: Euphoria

Lily King’s Euphoria (2015, Grove Press) did not exactly leave me euphoric. On the bright side, I could almost feel the humid air of a tropic jungle while reading – at a quite enjoyable safe distance of the book, and not as suffocating as IRL. Also, it’s a page-turner, and sucked me in right from the start. The story is based on a part of the life of Maragret Mead, easily anthropology’s most popular (in the sense of widely-known; otherwise it is safe to say controversial, as well) figure at least in the English-speaking world. It describes a love-triangle between three anthropologists doing fieldwork among what they call “primitive tribes” on an island in New Guinea. In essence, it’s a story about love and ambition, women in science, and fieldwork.

But then, King’s appreciation of fieldwork is flat, with the enthusiastic Nell, who always seems to find joy in work, the ambitious Fen, who’s effortlessly going native, and the shy but smart Bankston, who’s facing an existential crisis in the face of the other. Fieldwork is about collecting facts in far away places and extracting the underlying logic. While this is historically accurate, because questions of representation and a different concept of culture were not yet to be thought of in the between-the-wars-era, it is a little disapppointing in endorsing the stereotypes of hiking-boots-and-khaki-pants-wearing pseudo-explorers.

But what disappointed me most, was that the guiding principle for the book clearly wasn’t “Show, rather than tell.”, because literally everything was told, either through letters, or the retrospective account of Bankston. The story could easily have filled 200 pages more, if it hadn’t been mostly telling what happened in the jungle. But overall, it was a worthwhile read, and possibly a good choice for a vacation in the warmer parts of this world.

How did I come across the book?

In my search for ethnographic novels, I came across Lily King. This is interessting insofar, as it is not a novel by an anthropologist, but about three of them, for a change.

When and where did I read it?

Right before heading to the field, pendeling between my two homes in Zurich and Konstanz.

24. Reading: Madame Bovary

So I am actively tackling my classics aversion, and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was the first victim. I bought a nice second-hand hardcover version with some melancholic picture on it to make me want to pick it up. Fortunately, after getting used to the style, it wasn’t difficult to follow. For me, the one question with every book considered a clssic is, of course: why would I still read it? As I see it, novels – or fiction in general – has the potential to educate sentimentalities. Reading the same books will make us have a common ground from which to explore and explain our worlds, so if I want to talk to people who explain their worldviews in terms of, say, Werther’ian descriptions of nature, I will have to read Goethe’s Werther to be able to do so. In my case, I wanted to follow through an argument made by Eva Illouz in Why love hurts.

But after a few chapter I only rarely went back to that argument, and instead reall wanted to know how Madame would have to confront her life choices. As is well known, the story is about a young women with aspirations in a provincial French setting who, out of boredom and a desire to be moved, has two affairs, even though she is married to a loving husband. Apart from the love story, there will also be medical experiments, economic problems, and the quest of a young women trying to find joy in a life that is not created for her to find joy in much more than homely chores. And this focus on women’s lives at a different moment in time (and of course the tension to see how her affairs will be revealed) made this worth reading for me.

How did I come across the book?

That’s kind of a weird question with a classic, isn’t it? Let’s rephrase it to: “Even though you have heard about it much earlier, what made you decide to read it now?”. In this case, the answer is – as I jusr said – I stumbled across it in reading Eva Illouz’s Why love hurts, and I think she also mentions it in Cold Intimacies. She mentioned it in terms of the construction of the idea of romantic love and based on social understandings of class, so I thought it would be a good combination of word and pleasure.

When and where did I read it?

Mostly before going to bed. The last session was particularly long because I just couldn’t put it down for the last 60 pages.

15. Reading: After Life

Tobias Hecht’s After Life (Duke University Press, 2006) had me thinking. “An ethnographic novel” is the subtitle to this work at the borders of anthropology and fiction. It uses both real and fictional characters to tell the story of an anthropologist struggling with mental illness and investigating the life of street children in a Brasilian city. Her main informant is a transsexual adolescent called Bruna. But instead of outlining the story line, I just want to explore a few issues I had with the lecture.

First, there is the question of genre. An ethnographic novel is a novel based on fieldwork, so it seems. There are several other examples for this, as Laura Bohannon’s Return to Laughter, or Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola. It might even extend to novels about anthropologists, which would most prominently include Lily King’s Euphoria, based on the life of Margaret Mead. I still have to read all of these, and am curious how they will explore the possibilities of the genre, and what other characteristics I can make out in them. The anthropological approaches in Hecht’s novel are that he based his story on his fieldwork, and includes a real character and some of the transcripts of interviews with that person.

Second, there are the characters: I found the female lead seriously lacking authenticity. Why does she have to undress so often? Granted, its hot. Yet, it doesn’t advance the story, it doesn’t help characterizing her or her state of mind, and it certainly doesn’t break with the clichéd objectification of her body. I think I see that making the anthropologist a female helped Hecht to detach his own story from the one he was writing, but it certainly came at the cost of verisimilitude. His rendering of Bruna works much better, but much of what Bruna says is extracted from the ‘real’ Bruna, so I am not sure if this should be credited to Hecht.

Third, I find some of Hecht’s introductory statements quite troublesome. He seems to confuse a few categories, when he says “… struck me as real, as being the absolute truth, the one born of the fiction we want to be.” (p. 8) While I appreciate the idea of a truth born out of the fiction we want to be (speaking of authenticity…), I have troubles with the categories in more general terms. Because the relationship between reality and truth to fiction is not one of opposition. The opposite of fiction is non-fiction, and says something about the character and form of a statement, not its ontological status. That would be the domain of reality. Truth is yet another matter and relates to questions of epistemology more than anything else. But all that of course depends on who you’re reading.

Forth and finally, I really take issue with him being so gutless. In the introduction, he recounts a few incidents of situations that made it difficult for him to believe ‘the real’ Bruna. In one, he lends her a recording device, and she goes around interviewing ‘other’ street children, until in one recording he realizes Bruna is interviewing herself, changing her voice and name and all. In a footnote, he furthermore mentions how he helped her sell some paintings to pay for a house, but she instead decided to spent the money on something else. He starts a paragraph explaining how his research could have been rendered an ethnograpgy, but pointing out all the troubles he went through (“… the constant second-guessing on both our parts, the misfortunes of invented characters who brought forth real tears in Bruna…” p. 6), decides that “The only way to do justice to her life, it seemed to me, was to yield to her inventions.” There would have been other options to handle these problems anthropologically.  What is more, he is invoking outdated standards of what is allowed in ‘science’. What’s worst, he’s victimizing her when he assumes her life needs justice to be done to, and I feel a constant subtle impression of him advocating an ‘only fiction, not real science’ approach to his material. And that left me disturbed and deeply disappointed both in terms of what an ethnographic novel could be, and how it relates to the material behind.

21. Reading: Alto Rendimiento

Someone recently critiqued my closed-mindedness when it comes to different writing styles (I’m not a fan of traditional scientific prose, for example), so I made an effort to expand my exposure to text forms, genres and styles that would not be the easy choice for me. In the case of Carolina Sanín’s Alto Rendimiento (2016, Matera libros) it was both topic and form: a chronicle about the Olympic Summer Games of Rio, taken from her Facebook page. I have to say that it positively surprised me, especially because I didn’t think I was a fan of obviously ficticious fiction. (This might be worth a longer discussion at another point…) For now, suffice it to say that the chronicle is fun, and with the short entries an ideal bedtime treat.

Also, it is beautifully illustrated by Manuel Kalmanovitz (when was the last time you read an adult book with images that where not photographs?), and an interview with Sanín about the project and how it came into being. It gave me accute flashbacks to that writing seminar with her, as she poignantly corrects and reformulates the interviewer’s questions (not in the literal sense, though), so as to make them meaningful and be able to give a truthful answer.

How did I come across the book?

It was part of my book shopping spree for female Colombian authors. So far, none of the works disappointed me!

When and where did I read it?

In Konstanz, before bedtime, during the last weeks of the semester, and before I started A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

23. Reading: A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Rebbeca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2017 [2005], Canongate) is the first ever non-work related nonfiction essay collection I have read. And I have to say, I don’t think I have ever read something like it. I remember essays from my English classes, where we regularly had to hand in essays on course related topics, and I remember how I hated it. My essays, of course, were nothing like those of Solnit, who mastefully combines the natural, the experienced and the whimsical into thought collages that transport and transform. She elaborates on the theme of getting lost, or of losing the way in unexpected, yes: ways, and the paths she choses to go about her topic are the conversion of the very principle of getting lost, without, however, ever being random. They are not hard to follow, but hard to guess in advance, but Solnit takes you through them like the experienced guide on that tour through the Alpes/Andes/whatever your prefered mountain range is called. At the end of each chapter, you’ll be back to the point from where the excursion started, but most likely be transformed, having gained from the view.

How did I come across the book?

In a Verso christmas sale, I stumbled upon Wanderlust and emailed the reference to a friend. That was the first time I heard of Rebecca Solnit. Later, I found her name again when someone explained the origins of the term “mansplain”. I was intrigued about Men explain things to me, but wanted to make sure I wasn’t deceptioned again. (I tend to expect more radical thinking from nonfiction than the authors are willing to expose.) SO I decided to try something unrelated first, and the Field Guide spoke to the anthropologist in me.

When and where did I read it?

The last weeks of the semester seemed endless, and I really needed a tinyplace to go to on my own, so I got lost in this book whenever I needed a minute to focus.

Nonfiction seems to me photographic; it poses the same challenge of finding form and pattern in the stuff already out there and the same ethical obligations to the subject. (p.144)

16. Reading: Lo que no aprendí

Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.

Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.

How did I come across the book?

I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.

When and where did I read it?

I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?

… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)