miranda_july

Reading Fiction: The First Bad Man

My first exposure to Miranda July was her public art project, Learning to Love You More. The project included a number of “assignments” that anyone could complete – things like “Reread your favorite book from the 5th grade” and “Make a child’s outfit in an adult size” and “Photograph a scar and write about it.”

Then came You and Me and Everyone We Know. And No One Belongs Here More than You. And so on, and so on. It has been something of a long-term love affair. So, you can imagine my delight at the publication of her first full-length novel, The First Bad Man.

If you are already a fan of Miranda July, you will love this book. It is as Miranda July as Miranda July gets. And maybe even a little more. It’s bizarre and awkward and uncomfortable and lonely and poignant and sad and laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s all of the things that Miranda July does best, and she does them even best-er here.

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LifeAfterLife

Reading Fiction: Life After Life

Reading Life After Life was the first New Year’s resolution I broke.

It didn’t start out that way. The book was a recommended reading assignment from my Year of Writing workshop. I had to read it. (I totally did NOT have to read it since it wasn’t required reading. But whatever. It sounded interesting.) So, as I was saying, I had to read it (no I didn’t), but I remembered that I had resolved to buy no new books until I finish the ones already stacked next to my bed. Following my own rules, I checked it out from the library instead. Ha! Take THAT, silly resolutions!

Turns out, it’s a really big book. I was no where near finished by the time it was due. And there was a wait list, so I couldn’t renew it. So I bought a copy for my very own. Resolution broken. So it goes.

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Reading Non-Fiction, Book Four: Man’s Search For Meaning

More than one person has held this book in front of my face and demanded that I read it. And so I did. And now I’m holding it in your face and demanding that you read it. And when you’re done, you shall demand that someone you love read it too. And forever it shall be. This is the kind of book that gets passed along, person to person to person, until we are all better for it. It is the kind of book that earns a coveted spot of honor on an overstuffed bookshelf where it can be returned to time and time again until it is dogeared and torn and its binding breaks. It is the kind of book that is discussed in conversations littered with words like “life changing” and “paradigm shifting” and “humbling.” It is both emotionally devastating and tragic, and hopeful and uplifting. It is beautiful.

9780807014295

A bit of background: Viktor Frankl was an psychiatrist in Vienna at the beginning of World War II, until he and his family were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Frankl labored in four different camps (including Auschwitz) until the end of the war. His parents, brother, and pregnant wife all died at the camps. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl uses his experience in the camps as a sort of case study to illustrate his theory that man’s primary drive is not pleasure, but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. He argues that, although we can not escape suffering, we can find meaning it it – and in so doing, we are able to move forward with purpose in our lives.

A few of the bits that especially resonated with me:

“I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”

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“We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

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“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

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“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life…”

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“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation… we are challenged to change ourselves.”

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“There are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”

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“We have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

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“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best. So, let us be alert–alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”

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This post’s song: impossible. Seriously. How does one come up with a song to complement this book. I have no idea. So I asked my fiance, and he suggested The Mystery of Man. Not quite right, but close. And I thought of Firewood, which also isn’t quite right but has some poignant moments that seem fitting. They’ll have to do.

Firewood by Regina Spektor

The piano is not firewood yet
and nothing can stop you from dancing
everyone knows it’s going to hurt, but at least we’ll get hurt trying

The Mystery of Man by Sarah Vaughan

The miracle is the mind asking the questions
Seeking to find itself if it can
Only to see itself endlessly echoed in mirrors

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Reading Fiction: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Housing developments have always creeped me out. I do not like the way they spread their sameness across the land. I find it unnatural, like the forward march of time got snagged and thrown into a loop, skipping like a scratched CD and repeating the same houses over [skip] and over [skip] and over [skip] and over [skip] until someone finally noticed what was happening, pulled the time disc out of its player to blow on it a little, and got it playing smoothly again.

Housing developments make me sad, particularly when viewed from afar where they can be seen in their monstrous entirety. The great forested hills shorn bald feel too much like a plague; the sudden sprouting of identical timber boxes feels too much like an alien invasion.

Housing developments make me nervous. They trigger an instinct that insists something isn’t right; insists that I must flee before I’m noticed, an organic intruder in a machined landscape. Sure, the inhabitants look human, but I expect at any moment they’ll turn empty eyes upon me, point accusing fingers, and emit the screaming war cry of the body snatcher.

And that is why I cheered when I got to this part of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

But I was able to see it.

The way you see a change in a person you’ve been away from for a long time, where somebody who sees him every day, day in, day out, wouldn’t notice because the change is gradual. All up the coast I could see the signs of what the Combine had accomplished since I was last through this country, things like, for example – a train stopping at a station and laying a string of full-grown men in mirrored suits and machined hats, laying them like a hatch of identical insects, half-life things coming pht-pht-pht out of the last car, then hooting its electric whistle and moving on down the spoiled land to deposit another hatch.

Or things like five thousand houses punched out identical by a machine and strung across the hills outside of town, so fresh from the factory they’re still linked together like sausages, a sign saying “NEST IN THE WEST HOMES – NO DWN. PAYMENT FOR VETS,” a playground down the hill from the houses, behind a checker-wire fence and another sign that read, “ST. LUKE’S SCHOOL FOR BOYS” – there were five thousand kids in green corduroy pants and white shirts under green pullover sweaters playing crack-the-whip across an acre of crushed gravel. The line popped and twisted and jerked like a snake, and every crack popped a little kid off the end, sent him rolling up against the fence like a tumbleweed. Every crack. And it was always the same little kid, over and over.

All those five thousand kids lived in those five thousand houses, owned by those guys that got off the train. The houses looked so much alike that, time and time again, the kids went home by mistake to different houses and different families. Nobody ever noticed. They ate and went to bed. The only one they noticed was the little kid at the end of the whip. He’d always be so scuffed and bruised that he’d show up out of place wherever he went.

Perhaps one should not find solace in the fact that one identifies so readily with the thoughts of a mental hospital resident, even a fictional one. But it’s a damn fine book, with a damn fine point, so there.

Also, you should read it if you haven’t.

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This post’s song: Little Boxes by Malvina Reynolds

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Disclaimer: Some links that appear on this page may be affiliate links. That means I will get a very small amount of money if you should happen to click one and buy something.

The Map of Lost Memories Cover

Reading Fiction: The Map of Lost Memories

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an archaeologist. (Also, a teacher, an astronaut, a fireman, and a Solid Gold dancer. I was multi-aspirational.) My archaeologist interests were piqued after my class studied Pompeii, a subject that both horrified and fascinated me. Though I didn’t end up making a career of uncovering lost civilizations, I’ve been intrigued by ruins and abandoned buildings ever since.

The Map of Lost Memories Cover

I kind of feel like The Map of Lost Memories is a story about the person I wanted to be when I grew up, once upon a time. The main character, Irene Blum, is a young woman living in 1920s Seattle who gets passed over for a museum curator position. She sets off on an Indiana Jones style quest to find an ancient Khmer temple in the jungles of Cambodia, where she believes a lost treasure is hidden. Her primary partner in crime is a drug addled communist with a temple robbing past, whom I mention here only so that the song at the end of this post isn’t completely out of nowhere.

I must admit, if I didn’t know the author of this book, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. Adventure books aren’t really my thing, though that could be less about a distaste for adventure and more about generally finding them to be written poorly.* And Ms. Kim Fay? She writes well. This is a literary adventure tale, with lovingly crafted descriptions of both the exotic locales and the time period. Plus, ancient temple ruins to explore!

*Please, reprimand me for making such a broad generalization and point out that I’ve obviously just been reading the wrong adventure books. Follow up with a list of your favorite authors and/or titles in the genre for extra credit. (For real. I’m not being snarky here. I am always looking for more books to add to my reading list, and if you can provide some adventure types that don’t suck, you win.)

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This post’s song: Old Fashioned Morphine by Jolie Holland

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Disclaimer: Some links that appear on this page may be affiliate links. That means I will get a very small amount of money if you should happen to click one and buy something.