For Earth Day, Read This Beautiful Icelandic Book

When Bjork blurbs a book using fully 8 exclamation points (“A true pioneer!!!!!!!!”), that’s probably all the motivation you need to read it. But I’m going to add my two cents: this Earth Day, you should read Oddny Eir’s slim, inventive feminist-environmentalist hybrid novel/journal/essay collection, Land of Love and Ruins.

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The best books we read in 2016

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Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

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I’ll be honest: I expected to hate Sons and Lovers. I wanted to finally read D.H. Lawrence for the first time, but a 19th century novel about a young man who is emotionally stunted by his overbearing mother sounded far too pseudo-Freudian for my taste. But I was surprised to find that within the first fifty pages, all of the characters were meticulously drawn at a nearly Jamesian level of psychological nuance, and that the “overbearing mother” was the most sympathetic and fascinating character of the piece. Sons and Lovers is, ostensibly, the story of a young man’s coming-of-age, but really, it’s a story about the fallibility of family bonds, in which they are as fragile yet sticky as strands in a spider web.

Acquired: at a flea market in Iceland, where Sons and Lovers was the only Lawrence novel they had. Continue reading →

Rereading Watership Down In the Age of Terrorism and Trump

Someone once asked me, if I could force everyone on earth to read one book in order to make the world a better place, what book it would be. The answer was easy, and it’s only gotten easier with time: Watership Down, Richard Adams’ epic novel about bunny rabbits (seriously), the extravagantly tattered paperback I’ve read over and over since I was nine, following a group of rabbits as they travel to a new home and found a new society. It’s purportedly for children, though Adams makes no perceptible effort to simplify his prose for younger readers; and anyway, lately it seems like Americans could use a grade-school-level lesson in civic values. Suddenly so many of us seem willing to trade away long-standing principles of democracy in exchange for a false sense of security from terrorism, or from the imaginary Mexican rapists supposedly pouring over the border. Those principles are so interwoven in the fabric of our daily life that it’s easy to take them for granted; rereading Watership Down always reminds me what a struggle it is to shape a healthy society out of chaos.

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A Running List of Clichés in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here I Am”

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest, Here I Am, has received decidedly mixed reviews, and with good reason. While there are flashes of insight here and there, the struggles of the central family are fairly trite, and considering that Foer is regarded as one of the foremost literary novelists writing today, the prose is riddled with clichés. Here is the first installment of my running list documenting the most cringeworthy lines, from pretentious pontificating about the fact that “aloneness isn’t loneliness” (duh) to awkwardly sexist characterizations of teenage girls. Continue reading →

“The Ruined Garden” by Charles Baudelaire

My childhood was only a menacing shower,
cut now and then by hours of brilliant heat.
All the top soil was killed by rain and sleet,
my garden hardly bore a standing flower.

From now on, my mind’s autumn! I must take
the field and dress my bed with spade and rake
and restore order to my flooded grounds.
There the rain raised mountains like burial mounds.

(Translation of “L’Ennemi” by Robert Lowell)

A Poetic Society

The wind is blowing, blowing over the grass.
It shakes the willow catkins; the leaves shine silver.
Where are you going, wind? Far, far away
Over the hills, over the edge of the world.
Take me with you, wind, high over the sky.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind.

–Richard Adams, Watership Down

I’m rereading one of my favorite books, Watership Down, in which a group of rabbits travel a great distance to found a new society. In the middle, they encounter a society full of strangely sad, yet remarkably well-fed, rabbits: and they encounter art for the first time. The melancholy poem above is the first poem the heroes have ever heard, and it both mystifies and unsettles them. As, perhaps, any good poem should.

Hannah Arendt on the T-word

And by the T-word I mean totalitarianism, of course.

Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propagandabefore the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary worldlies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world. The only signs which the real world still offers to the understanding of the unintegrated and disintegrating masses whom every new stroke of ill luck makes more gullibleare, so to speak, its lacunae, the questions it does not care to discuss publicly, or the rumors it does not dare to contradict because they hit, although in an exaggerated and deformed way, some sore spot.

–Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

If you have not read this book, this is an excellent time to read it. It has important insights not only on the workings of terror and totalitarianism–as above–but on the horrors of the plight of refugees in the modern world.