Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

Read Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. It is a light, almost stand-uppy commentary on childhood as Iranian-American during the late 1970s and 1980s, and then vignettes from marriage (to a Frenchman). Not quite Thurberesque. People my age will recognize many of the anecdotes, and that is part of the effort, to remind readers that we all share much in common despite our different backgrounds. I wanted more insight about her mother, about her (perhaps non-existent) political engagement or thinking about Iran, and about her cosmopolitanism and what that means for others.

In our discussion I was of course reminded of the amazing Iranian film A Separation.

And then of course Mariam Satrapi’s fantastic graphic novel Persepolis. And lastly, my colleague’s Mary Hegland’s Days of Revolution: Political Culture and Process in an Iranian Village.

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Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer. Unless you really, really, liked Annihilation, I would avoid this novel. It has similar elements: rambling, disjointed narrative, foggy-thinking main character, ambiguous setting, lurking menace, muddy philosophizing, eco-themed naturalism…. But, in my opinion is comes across as pretty hurriedly or lazily written. The prose certainly does not sparkle. If I read one more time that the hero called her purse Shovel Pig, I was ready to scream. I did. Then again. All the fucking way to the end of the novel, she was still talking about “Shovel Pig”? No. Any editor worth their salt would have insisted on changing that. Lots of other instances of bad writing in the novel. A big mess. It read like a tossed off screenplay treatment of a “wouldn’t it be cool” TV show… moody dystopian thriller set in the Pacific Northwest.

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The Overstory by Richard Powers was a great read in the beginning, partly because I was under the impression that it was a somewhat sci-fi novel, and would transition from the human characters to a more complex novel that treated the trees, and our living world, as sentient but on a different time scale.

Instead, the novel became a “tree whisperer” clickbait novel. The human characters evolved fairly predictably (to this reader) and the trees never did anything (they may have, but I missed it?). The tree in the Amazon that grew the trunk into the shape of the woman… was that important? It seems like it was never mentioned again. So still waiting for someone with the writing ability of Powers to write the novel that I want to read. Lots of didacticism, as if he had been browsing forestry and biology articles for random tree facts, and going on long hikes with long-winded naturalists.

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Hitler and I, by Otto Strasser

I saw this mentioned in Marc Bloch, so I got a copy through interlibrary loan. Hitler and I, by Otto Strasser was published in 1940, and is a hurriedly written account (one-sided, if that word applies to people in Hitler’s orbit?) of the German politics and intrigue leading to the rise of the Nazi Party. Strasser and his brother (who was killed by the SS) were early allies of Hitler in the 1920s. Otto Strasser broke early, and formed what was known as the Black Front to oppose Hitler. Anyone who reads this and isn’t terrified by the constant obvious parallels to our current Republican Party being taken over by right-wing fanatics is sleeping through life.

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Martha Wells All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries

Martha Wells short novella All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries is really more like a comic. I cannot be the first to point this out. Lots of action, centered on a trained killer who has “grown” a conscience. And because the killer is partly AI, there is plenty of room for “strange” perspectives and interactions. Enjoyable short read!

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Alexander Todorov’s book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions

Enjoyed reading Alexander Todorov’s book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, and discussing in my Friday morning (early!) book group. Coincidentally, in my class on the economics of gender in developing countries, I had touched on evolutionary psychology of gender differences. A student asked whether that kind of research (evolutionary approaches to the mind, etc) were not discredited. Indeed, most older research certainly has been discredited. Plenty of present research will also be discredited. And Todorov does a great job showing that! Does that mean the no new research should be conducted? I think not. Every responsible academic, though, should acknowledge how fraught the subject matter is. Todorov is an excellent writer, and a careful researcher. So this book is a fine introduction.

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Premier amour by Ivan Tourgueniev

Premier amour by Ivan Tourgueniev is an enjoyable novella. The modern reader finds it a bit overwrought… we can tell that the “other lover” is the young man’s father almost immediately. If the skill of the novel is portraying how the boy might not be aware of that, and might be incapable of apprehending that, then indeed a feat. But I think that at the time the skill was in portraying a young woman who was frankly coquettish, and frankly a mistress, and the social reality of that situation. Why not have told the story from the young woman’s point of view, then? Beyond the writing skill of anyone, I suppose, in 1860. Maybe George Eliot? So amazing that the novel, as a sustained literary ecosystem (with novelists reading other novelists and adapting their writing accordingly), was really less than 100 years old at the time.

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The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wish that The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin had been a better novel, but unfortunately it is juvenile and humdrum. I love her later work, and the Earthsea novels. My cover calls this novel “an astonishing tale of one man’s search for utopia” and indeed it reads as if Le Guin had read Ayn Rand and wanted to riff off of that and earn some money and fame? But I don’t know whether in early 1970s that was the case? So I would recommend reading something else. And I followed my own recommendation, skimming extensively after about 200 pages.

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Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

My neighborhood book club read and discussed Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. We’re an odd mix, and it is always interesting to see who “likes” and who doesn’t. Leaving the Atocha Station is about as high literary-meta as you can get: a bored precocious poet is writing, and the novel is about how he’s not writing, and how he’s not even sure what writing, and communicating in general, means, especially not in Spanish in Spain. It is very short, and not much happens. The narrator can be deliberately annoying. But everyone agreed it was an interesting deconstruction of the idea of writing. Everyone liked it!

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Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. le Guin in French translation by Philippe Hupp

I really enjoyed reading Earthsea by Ursula K. le Guin in French translation by Philippe Hupp. I had previously only read the first volume in English. Maybe reading in translation lends gravity to what might be, in native language, an ordinary young adult fantasy novel? I found the themes of the second two novels to be far more adult. This was an adventure into the mind, and discovering the country of who we are and what gives life meaning. The occasional action sequence is definitely secondary to long scenes of sitting. First, Ged and Tenar in the treasure caves, and second, Ged and Arren on the sailboat. Sometimes the sitting is accompanied by talking, but very often the sitting is a chance for characters to think. They think a lot, and their thinking changes over the course of the novels. Highly recommended!

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Katie Mack, The End of Everything

Very enjoyable, very readable, Katie Mack’s The End of Everything is good cosmology overview of where the field is at on the question of what happens when the universe winds down. Obviously the math is way beyond me, but Mack does a good job helping you think you understand a little bit more than you did before.

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Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

Finished Eifelheim by Michael Flynn… a bit exhausting, but the “everyone is going to die” reader anticipation of plague novels is pretty compelling nevertheless. The frame story doesn’t work very well, but the Krenken-Dietrich-Manfred main story is very moving. I’d read a good novella told from Manfred’s point of view.

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Blushes, by Graham Swift, in The New Yorker, January 18 2021

I thought this short story, “Blushes,” by Graham Swift, in The New Yorker, January 18 2021, was tremendous as a statement of quiet competence in writing, on a well-trodden theme: towards the end of life, looking back and having a childhood memory stick. (Rosebud?) Every human, one imagines, over a certain age is familiar with this sentiment, and one can imagine more clearly, when confronted with writing like this, what it would mean to not have these kinds of memory flashes. The sense of continuity constructed by the brain: “that self was myself, even as it was a different self,” is arguably one of our most mysterious human traits. Some commentary over at Mookse.

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“Good-Looking” by Souvankham Thammavongsa

The story “Good-Looking” by Souvankham Thammavongsa in the March 1, 2021 issue of The New Yorker. Quite enjoyable read, for the craft. About as concise as possible as a portrayal of how the child remembers something, knows a bit of the backstory, can fill in many gaps, and sits there 30 years later, as an adult, and wonders about the gap between “knowing” someone like your own father, and your father’s knowing of himself. I found it interesting that she chose to use “air bubbles” at the end…? Carbon dioxide is not usually thought of as air. Deliberate? Mistake? Everything else is so precise, why that? Anyway, one cannot really complain about two pages written so lucidly and insightfully.

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A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Reading this sci-fi “empire” novel A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (the new labeling for what used to be called space opera, I guess) was enjoyable. Very good characterization of the two central characters. A decent science-fi idea, though in the end perhaps underdeveloped. A good editor I think could have taken this one step further – there were numerous small grammar issues and repetitions (the main character was “on the verge of a hysterical laugh” enough times that I started noticing the construction). I will admit that I skimmed the last third: denouement is such a hard problem in novel writing. I’m becoming more of a fan of “circular” writing where the ending turns around to go right back to the beginning (influence of reading Pnin, I suppose).

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Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

A fine moody, noir-ish, crime novel where the crime is really quite tangential and left for the very end. The focus is on a washed-out ex-punk photographer. Lots of interesting discussion of photography, landscape (desolate parts of Maine, that I know only vicariously and from one trip during the summer), gender, and purpose. Crisp writing. It isn’t for everyone, I think. But I found it quite rewarding.

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Should you be in favor of really big spending bill now, or not?

I think the answer is pretty simple: if you care that inequality in the United States has risen and that many, many people are being “left behind” then you should be in favor. The pundits, including many prominent economists who are associated with the Democratic Party, and many reactionary economists associated with Republican party and libertarian-y types, will say this is “irresponsible” because the large transfer will be inflationary. The solution to the inflation possibility is very simple: raise taxes on the wealthy and reduce military spending and stop the giveaways to the corporate farm sector to ensure interest rates do not rise dramatically and that the increase in spending by the bottom half of the income distribution is not putting pressure on prices. Maybe while you are at it reform housing regulations (allow fourplexes in every single family zoned neighborhood) so that the bottom half of the income distribution in expensive urban areas is more likely to invest/consume better housing stock.

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“The Wind” by Lauren Groff

“The Wind” by Lauren Groff, in The New Yorker, was a straightforward, powerful story of domestic violence. I confess it is a genre that no reader, let alone me, enjoys, told, as it is, from the eyes of a child. But sometimes you have to, you should, go out of your way, grit your teeth, and read. You need the constant reminder of the world. She is a beautiful, lyrical writer.

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New Yorker fiction: “A Wrinkle in the Realm” by Ben Okri

A very short allegory, “A Wrinkle in the Realm” by Ben Okri. Okri had a whole volume of short allegories some time ago, that I found difficult to read. Here the idea is straightforward, but it is a wrinkle. I think maybe a wrinkle on Recitatif, by Toni Morrison? The fiction works because the reader is constantly aware of all that they are bringing to the story: an immense cultural and literary understanding through which the simple story is filtered. Like Recitatif, it feels like an exercise, and the allegory’s subject matter is so serious that maybe we humans do need regular exercise in this realm? I listened to Okri, with his quiet straightforward delivery, and I think that might be better than reading it?

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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

I really enjoyed Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. It is a short novel, an allegory, really. But she deftly works in the “real” world, and the writing is extremely satisfying: I lingered over her choices of words and sentences, and definitely want to read again. Oddly, something in common with The Traitor Baru Cormorant was the concept of a palimpsest, which in our current multiverse understanding of reality is perhaps becoming an organizing principle for cultural production.

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