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My Life with Folk Tales & Fairy Tales

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I think everyone has a special story of their life alongside fairy tales—particularly bookish people. At one point you realize they’ve either been there all along, or you’ve spent your whole life chasing them. This post is very self-involved and for that I must apologize. If you don’t care about one person’s life in fairy tales (respectively mine) then don’t bother. If you care, read on!

Most of my childhood was spent in two separate locations in Romania, the first five years in absolute poverty in the middle of nowhere, and the second in an idyllic, pastoral village in the Carpathian mountains. For the first five years I have memories of my mother reading some Romanian folk tales to me—most of them were about revenge in a form of another and almost all had either anthropomorphic talking objects, or animals at their center. Images in my head of the first five years involve a goat with three kids (two of which get brutally murdered) who seeks revenge on the big bad wolf, the prince who turns into a pig every night and whose wife skins him alive, the competition between the ‘daughter of the old man’ and ‘daughter of the old lady,’ a rooster who swallows treasures, and a guy named Ivan who has a bag that traps demons while he is bunking with Satan in a jail cell…you know… your typical 5-year-old folk and fairy tales. Easter Europe is so broken. I find it so amusing when Western kids find out a small inappropriate fact about one of their fairy tales or children’s movies and say ‘childhood ruined.’ Really? Have you heard the one about Ivan bunking with Satan? How about the one where the prince comes back home only to find a coffin and be slapped in the face by Death? I am not making these up.

41SQXR8NNWLI did however get a Walkman as a gift from a visiting cousin (keep in mind the ’80s made it to Eastern Europe by the late ’90s) and he gave me alongside it a tape with “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” You best believe I listened to that tape cassette a million times. I also have a vague memory of my kindergarten teacher (who was also the mayor, my next door neighbor, and the principal) doing puppet shows for us where the big bad wolf ate little red and I remember seeing its stomach bulging. The last memory of this place from the first five years was finding in the library (which was made of exactly 20 books and was located beneath the discotheque) a very thick, dusty book with stories. I couldn’t read it, but I remember the pictures and that it was massive and for some reason it stayed in my mind forever. I also remember pretending I’m in a coffin and saying: “Look mom, I’m Snow White!”

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My village

I then moved to the village in the Carpathian mountains with my grandparents. Here life was much much better. While living here “St. Nicholas” once gave me the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen which became my bread and butter. “The Wild Swans” and “The Ugly Duckling” were my favourite but I cherished “The Little Match Girl” every Christmas since. It was so beautiful and sad. Reading these fairy tales while living on a farm in the mountains was so perfect. Each spring we had real ducklings and goslings, and baby bunnies, and sheep. It was merged into my relationship with fairytales and my overall loneliness as an only child. I once visited my cousin in the city and he had gotten a boxed fairy tale collection in which I was introduced for the first time to “The Princess and the Frog,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” The latter stayed in my mind forever and I’ll never forget those illustrations. My cousin was lucky, he had so many fairy tale books and so many Disney movies. When I turned 7 my cousin’s family relocated to Canada which meant that they handed down those tapes to: ME!

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My copy of Andersen’s tales 

These are the tapes I had from age 7-10: Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Aristocats, 101 Dalmatians, and Sleeping Beauty. Most of these were two on the same tape, and sometimes with voice dubbed over with translation or just captions in Romanian. A few years later I got a present of a film of Snow White and The Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile on regular TV I watched only two things: The Adventures of Sinbad (a television series with live-action), and Xena: Princess Warrior.

Meanwhile, my knowledge of Romanian folklore was enriching with Ion Creanga’s memories from childhood series and a popular author-less folktale series containing a comical foolish peasant for whom everything somehow works out anyway named Pacala.

DwarfcottageAll these had a huge impact on my life choices. Having so little for so long made me remember each encounter with a fairy tale, and it stayed with me for very long. One day I was walking through the mountains (we had to go get our cow back) and I was on this walk with a family friend, who was in her 30s. As we were going up the mountain she pointed in a random direction and told me that if you go on a seven day journey in that direction you will come across the house where the seven dwarves lived, and that she’s personally been there. My jaw dropped. I was set on going to find it right then and there. It was the first time someone convincingly told me a lie. I never heard of grown-ups telling lies and I thought she’d have no reason to. Most importantly, I wanted it to be true. Every day I kept asking her to take me there so maybe I too can live with the dwarves. She always said no.

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Rumplestiltskin

Alongside regular fairy tales I was always deep into Eastern Orthodox narratives and hagiographies (which I later realized were taken out of The Golden Legend) and the traditions of the small town were quite morbid—and I was very involved. I’d go to funerals and they would take on days. I’d see the whole process of death from beginning to end. Mix that with the fairy tales and folk tales from earlier….yep.

Skip forward now to ages 10-14. I moved to Canada and had to learn a new language from scratch. I had no friends and my aunt had somehow become over the top religious in this time and took me with her to her church which was very very very different from anything in Europe. No birthdays, no Christmases, NO MAGIC. We weren’t allowed to read or watch anything with magic in it, and that included Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, several other Disney films, and anything relating to Santa Clause. These four years were filled with Bible Stories of another kind and there was a lot of fear. I really missed my fairy tales. At school kids were reading Harry Potter and I always felt like I was missing out on something. I kind of stuck by the kids who were into A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I read the first 5 books and dropped the series after that because I wasn’t too interested anymore. Every time I think of those four years I get really angry.

Luckily I moved out from her house at 14 and never looked back. Slowly I returned to fairy tales and watched every Disney movie I never saw before. By 15 I decided that I would become an artist and work for Disney one day and make magical movies for children. I worked on that portfolio for three years. Unfortunately it had many rigid demands and I wasn’t able to meet the standards or get in to a very competitive program, though I received a letter telling me that the storytelling components and ideas were some of the best they’ve ever seen and ranked highest on their charts, but the art work itself was not up to the standard of allowing me into a program with 10% acceptance rate. Changing course I went into literature because in the end…stories were what I was after. By 18 I discovered new children’s literature that blew me away like Peter Pan: the boy who never grew up, and got quite literally under my skin, and Alice in Wonderland, and Mary from the Secret Garden, and oh so so many more fairy tales. I discovered that the Sinbad I used to watch had been from the Arabian Nights or 1001 Nights and that there’s so much more mythology out there from Greek and Roman myth, to Egyptian legends, to Tolkien’s vast made-up world, and the vast world of Medieval legends. In the year between 18-19 I was just as alone in my parents’ house as I had been in my Carpathian village. I read non-stop that year. I read every Victorian book, Russian Lit book, I went down the lists of “100 books one must read” and got a grasp of the canon. At 19 I got into seven universities for their English programs and chose the University of Toronto. Here I made a chart of everything I wanted to know. I took a course on Greek and Roman Mytholgoy, many many others on every Arthurian and Medieval thing, Celtic Mythology, Children’s Literature, Slavic Folklore, the Finnish Kalevala, and even retellings from the post-colonial world including Maori and other Indigenous forms of writing back to the Canon. My head was booming with so much literature. It got to be overwhelming. The magic started flickering away many times when things got too academic. I was moments away from pursuing this topic further, but each time I had to stop myself because I didn’t want to kill what I loved about my fairy tales and myths.

B0MNwBdCYAAPUPZAt the same time I was introduced to Once Upon a Time, a television series produced by ABC that brings together all the fairy tale characters out there in a very soap-opera way (got me through some of the toughest times). This show became so important to me and every time things were bad I still had Once Upon a Time. Meanwhile, my sister (17 years younger) was starting to discover things for the first time and forced me to keep updated with the new kids movies, shows, and books. My Disney and Fairy Tale side started pulling me in my sister’s direction while my dark morbid side found Gothic Literature, Tim Burton, and LORE. Meanwhile movies like Frozen completely reawakened my memories of reading Hans Christian Andersen. Also the Romanian side of me found a lot of joy in the sort of perception of Romania as the cradle of Vampires and creepiness. Yeah, pretty much. Can’t disagree with you.

md17953497530I met some incredible academics along the way who did pursue this topic on a different trajectory. I spent a day with Maria Tatar, Harvard professor and (author of Enchanted Hunters, and most of the Annotated fairy tale books out the particularly on the Brothers Grimm). I took an independent research course on children’s literature focusing on what is magic really, and what makes it so different from technology, by zooming in on the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. (What a Muggle thing to do?!—from what I recall, my thesis was that communication is magic because there’s a lot of verbal incantations, signs, symbols, and textual preservation). I got very very involved with all sorts of projects involving children’s literature (click here if interested).

By fourth year I decided: I want to be very close to the books. I want to have them in my life. I want to participate in bookish culture and fairy tales will have a place in my life, but I will not become an academic. I will become a librarian!

So now I am a librarian with a library “job,” and Once Upon a Time just had its series finale last weekend….and I don’t know what to do with my life if I’m honest. People don’t interact with the library in the way I used to, or the way I fantasized they would. I feel no engagement with the actual books, and it’s really sad. I feel like subconsciously I chased fairy tales my whole life (but in a secret cool way that got to pass for acceptable in regular society). Somewhere in the last 4 years magic sort of started flickering away and I feel a little lost. I don’t know if this is a result of having read all of these, or actively studying them, or encountering too many retellings told poorly, or watching too many fairy tale spoofs like Shrek, Happily Never After, and short-format parodies…or losing the hope that maybe one day fairy tales will come true (though funny enough the royal wedding which happened alongside the Once Upon a Time finale was announced in the Toronto Star with the headline: “Happily Ever After”). Maybe it was also finding out that they weren’t special only to me. I always had this super-heightened intimate relationship to fairy tales and suddenly I found out that everyone does. I see people roll their eyes at the thoughts of a ‘fairy tale themed’ anything as if it’s something so cliche. I keep hunting for fairy tales. I try to decorate my apartment with fairy tale elements, I went to Disney World, I try to go in secret places…and they all turn out to be attractions. Nothing feels sacred, or special, or magical. I search for paintings, and art, and any semblance of anything that may come remotely close to feeling like it used to. Now I’m really into pirates for some reason. I still look into the distance sometimes and think about what that woman said to me: if you walk seven days in that direction, you will find the dwarves’ house. One day I’ll fucking do it!

50 Book Check-In and Catch-Up

challI haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:

  • Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
  • “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
  • Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451

9902278This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”

  1. The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
  2. The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
  3. Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
  4. Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
  5. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
  6. The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
  7. The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
  8. The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
  9. Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
  10. Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
  11. Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
  12. Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
  13. Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
  14. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.

There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.

WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING 

  • Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
  • Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
  • Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham

 

 

What I plan to Do from Now On:

  • No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count trackerpci
  • No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
  • Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
  • Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.

Wallace | TV and “Fun” | Reflection

51P8MZzESJL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’

What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something.  Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:

“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”

This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:

“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”

The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited  on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.

“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”

This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:

“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “

In assessing these relationships Wallace states:

“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.

We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”

I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:

“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”

The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:

“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”

Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?

Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:

“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”

The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself.  He writes:

“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”

But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:

“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”

By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:

“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”

Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.

0ce66eff0c5eed918876b1830758d617--the-bell-jar-bell-jars

Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.

Reasons to Stay Alive | Matt Haig

25733573I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.IMG_20180412_104121

This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.

He writes:

“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”

Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:

“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”

What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:

“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”

Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:

“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”

A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.

Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.

There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:

“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.

As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”

I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:

“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”

The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:

Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination

Be around trees

we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.

The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.

Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.

You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.

Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.

Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi

“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath

“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson

“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill

“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).

“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle

“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne

“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching

The Freeze-Frame Revolution

36510759Peter Watts’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution is an addition to a longer series including The Island (2009) for which Watts received the Hugo Award for best novelette in 2010, Hotshot (2014), and Giants (2014). The Freeze-Frame Revolution will be published in June of 2018 by Tachyon Publications. These works are certainly part of what would be categorized as “hard sci-fi” for Watts does not spoon-feed his readers, nor spends too much time explaining. He drops his characters in some unusual circumstances, and tries to convey ideas about technology, life, the universe, and the limitations of humanity. It is simultaneously focused on macro scale settings and ideas and on micro details with few characters in a rather condensed space of 185 pages. Given these limitations I think Watts was very successful.

The novel/novella follows Sunday who is part of a large crew (in the tens of thousands) and was trained for this mission, to build a web of wormhole gates through space, making interstellar travel more accessible. Eriophora is their spaceship, and simultaneously used for creating ‘gates’ or wormholes through which they can continue to travel. Of the tens of thousands involved, only a handful of people are awake at a time while everyone else is still suspended in unconsciousness. The gate-building ship is controlled by Artificial Intelligence: the Chimp—who decides who he will wake, and what information it will provide to the awakened ones. The people are awakened only for a few days at a time when they are, which leaves very little room to accomplish anything.

As in most hard sci-fi character development isn’t a priority, and the reader will be left with a lot of questions about the characters, the ‘world,’ and sometimes even the plot. This novella will also leave you with a lot of questions but with the knowledge that there is a certain suspenseful beauty in leaving them unanswered.

The travelling through space and gates has been happening for millions of years, and people have been maybe awake a total of few full conscious years where they have scattered memories here and there from the few times they have been awakened at several time intervals (thousands of years apart). The people grow uneasy about their ‘leader’ and AI: The Chimp and plot against him, which is quite the task when they are only awake one day of every thousand. There are also problems relating to the AI’s relationship to the ship, because they are essentially one and the same. The “consciousness” of the ship is also their home (at least that’s how I read it). We are told for instance:

Eriophora’s riddled with blind spots: shadows in crawlways and corners, in the spaces behind looming machinery where no one had any reason to put a camera. There are even places—near powerlines whose massive currents swamp the milliamp signals that connect artificial brains to natural ones—where Chimp is blind to our cortical links.”

The thought that Chimp can automatically know what happens on every surveilled location on the ship makes the ship itself unreliable which gives the reader a sense of uneasiness at all times.

I really liked the ways in which Watts presents some ‘dilemmas’ or concerns for the characters which resemble our daily struggles with online personas, and simulated experiences, particularly with the ability to “plug in.” I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions. Here’s an example:

 “’I suppose I’m thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every couple thousand years, knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like’– She glanced around—’nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.’

‘Honestly, I don’t understand. Any time you want a—a green forest, just plug in…you can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.’

‘It’s not real.’

‘You can’t tell the difference.’

‘I know the difference.’”

It’s hard to omit these dark philosophical moments from the overall suspense and tension—particularly since the main mission itself: creating a wormhole gate network, has lost meaning for the people involved. I enjoyed very much the dark aspects of this novella. The ways in which Watts has this meaninglessness looming over every one little action of the characters, and the atmospheric tension he creates with the ship, and the crypt, coffin-like places the majority of crew members lie in made this work worthwhile and rewarding.

It’s a work of great talent, and I hope that soon all of his connected works, or “Sunflower Cycle” will be published in a single volume together. Peter Watts has created a sci-fi work of art where every word is refined, and has a purpose. I highly recommend this work to lovers of science fiction.

Trees and Animals | P. Wohlleben

28256439I spent a few days fully immersed in these two books by Peter Wohlleben. They are both books in the “nature” section, obviously, but they are written in the style of Thoreau’s Walden, which I referred to earlier as my ‘comfort classic.’ I absolutely loved being in the company of Wohlleben and I very much look forward to his next book which will be released this year. I believe it’s called The Weather Detective: Rediscovering Nature’s Secret Signs, which will be published in June. It sounds a lot like Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, (a book I also loved) but hopefully it will add a new perspective to the conversation.

The first book written was The Hidden Life of Trees, and it sold quite rapidly. In a way it is rather meaningful because it changed the way we look at trees. He humanizes them by explaining the many ways in which they communicate with each other. I learned so much from this book, and it makes me want to start every conversation with “did you know that trees…” It made me want to learn a lot more about mushrooms and fungi in general. The way he depicted mushrooms as a social network between trees, carrying messages from a tree to another, was absolutely fascinating. The ways trees contain anti-freezing materials by self-lubricating with the essential oils in their branch tips, or the ways they contribute to bee life with their sap and sweet needles, or the function of the roots for a myriad of smaller ecosystems beneath the ground. The fun facts in this book are countless. This book heavily inspired, and informed (and featured Wohlleben in) the documentary Intelligent Trees.

9781784705954The second book, The Secret Life of Animals was published in 2016 and was recently translated into English from the German, in late 2017. In this book Wohlleben observes the life of the animals on his farm and those in the nearby forests and notes his observations. This book made me want to learn more about ravens, as they appear to be rather fascinating creatures. I particularly enjoyed how much of this book focused on squirrels and their behavior. Squirrels carry their young around their neck, they plant hundreds of trees by accidentally forgetting where they buried their acorns, and they adopt the young of another squirrel if that other squirrel didn’t make it. There was a chapter on the fun animals have for fun’s sake, rather than solely completing a behavior for survival purposes.

Again, both books are wonderful, and they have a cozy feeling to them. It honestly feels as if you are sitting by the fireplace with a grandfather-figure and he’s telling you about the forest, the trees, and the animals he has including his shy horses, his bees, and every other woodland creature. There’s something very Disney’s Bambi and Snow White about the atmosphere of these two books. Although these books are not very science-heavy, Wohlleben draws on studies and research conducted on the animals given each topic, but does not heavily rely on scientific evidence. Many times it really feels like we are learning things only about his own personal animal friends, and we are relying on Wohlleben’s observations. If you are looking for scientific books these are not it, but they certainly are reminiscent of something Thoreau would write. They are not preachy (regarding veganism), but they certainly invoke empathy and understanding regarding the fauna and flora around us. These books deepened my observation skills when walking. I see birds and trees differently now on a walk to and from places, and they forced me to pay attention to more than I would have noticed before. These books are very pleasant, accessible to a wide audience, and cozy. Ideal for nature lovers. Here are some pictures of trees I took after taking a walk recently (on my lunch break at work):

The Life of Death | Book Review

“A woman came to the funeral home looking for a job as a funeral director. When I learned that her dog’s name was Rigor Mortis, I hired her.”

36695230The Life of Death is a memoir written by Ralph R. Rossell who is the owner and funeral director of the Rossell Funeral Home in Flushing (a small town near Flint, Michigan with a population of approximately 8,400 people).

In this work Rossell narrates how he got the family business, and explains terminologies in the death industry from embalmment to caskets, and everything in between. This work is autobiographical and part memoir, part-anecdotes, part non-fiction.

First and foremost I appreciated Rossell’s honesty. Knowing he is a funeral home director I expected him to try and emphasize the goodness of purchasing certain caskets or to hide the ways in which the market profits off of people’s grief. For instance, when it comes to purchasing a casket he writes an entire chapter and in it he says:

“Purchasing a casket can be stressful because it enforces the finality of life…In mortuary school, our casket-sales training course lasted about two minutes. Our instructor walked into the classroom and told us that the way to sell a casket is to go to the casket you want to sell and put your hand on it. Supposedly, this would lead the client to purchase that particular unit; that was it. Thus, the task of training a funeral director in the sale of caskets was left to the middle man: the casket salesman.”

For me personally, this way of laying out facts even if they are ‘secrets of the trade’ or ‘gimmicks’ makes me respect the writer, because I can see that he is not trying to hide anything or convince people that certain companies are better than others, or that one should be obliged to embalm etc. I refrained from looking at what his funeral home offers in terms of eco-friendly services, or options, because as a book reviewer I want to look at this work as literature and judge it only as such.

Aside from the above-mentioned, the main contents of the book brings forward something new, and I enjoyed it immensely: the community. This book is about people. Each short chapter/section focuses on a different anecdote from the 45 years Rossell has worked in the industry. He highlights the humour that can be extracted from concentrated time spent with grieving people in a stressful time. Reading this book felt like I was observing different behaviours and takes on grief, and like I was present to many funerals, which was incredibly humbling and pleasant. The ‘pleasant’ part is a personal investment in the topic, and perhaps other readers will have a different experience. I don’t want to say he puts the “fun” in “funeral” but…kind of. To clarify, he is by no means at any point disrespectful. Rossell acknowledges many times how troubling a time it is when someone passes, and how devastating it is to the remaining living people, but each funeral brings its own story. Sometimes the people don’t fit in the coffin, sometimes no one shows up, sometimes there are very strange requests made, by both the living and the dead. Each of these stories is short, and Rossell extracted the main points of what made them memorable, which makes this book a great read. As a reader I was also able to feel the small-town lifestyle, and the spirit of the small Flushing community.

I read many books on death, funerals, and the funeral industry in the last few years, but this is the first one that uses anecdotal evidence to bring forward the experience of being present at a funeral, and how the people in a small community deal with death. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with the humour levels given the heaviness of the topic. I think when you are in this industry, you simply must have a great sense of humour, or at least be able to see it through the darkness in order to make it out yourself. I received an eARC from the publisher on Netgalley, but I am certainly going to get a hard copy of this book. I will leave you with Rossell’s own concluding words:

“And remember I am the last to let you down”