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Baz Ozturk | Melbourne  'You think that would have changed things? The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.'

Reading The Secret Goldfish by David Means, my third collection from my favourite living male short story writer. (The pizza was terrible.)

Finished: The Immoralist by André Gide. Rating: 3.5/5. Michel, the immoralist of this fascinating novella and its unreliable narrator, tells his story to a group of intimate friends he has called to his rescue. Young, quiet, successful, mostly joyless, a scholar living his ordinary life, Michel is provoked into an awakening, sexual and moral – one linked closely to the other – that leads him to a repudiation of his bourgeois existence, where no one can act out, be weird without being weird, submit to “immoral” desires, follow instincts without consideration for what’s acceptable and unacceptable. Michel grows quickly to hate conventional society and its limitations, the restrictions it puts on people; its boring predictability. He says, “Every day the feeling grew in me that there were untapped riches to be found hidden under the suffocating layers of culture, decency and morality.” He pursues his new sense of freedom, doing what comes naturally and not what is deemed moral, and then he starts living it... “Knowing how to free oneself is nothing; the difficult thing is knowing how to live with that freedom.” What does it cost? How is it lived? What kind of person does it take to live it? This is a novel that poses moral questions, ethical dilemmas, and challenges notions of how we all live our lives... A gem of a read, and deliciously thought-provoking.

Reading The Immoralist by André Gide. I’m buddy reading this with the sweet @georgireads.

Finished: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Rating: 4/5. I need to get something out: if you didn’t like this novel because it didn’t do anything for you, that’s understandable and natural. But readers who like to think of themselves as young Nabokovs and Harold Blooms who called this novel crap or mediocre need to pull their heads out of their asses. People have so much fun slamming books that they forget to take them for what they are as opposed to what they want and expect from them. Books are infinitely diverse. Don’t judge a piece of work for something its author never set out to do. It’s good to keep in mind a personal rule Updike had for his job as a critic: ‘Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.’ Exit West is an objectively fine, sharply executed novel, and if you didn’t like it, that’s because it wasn’t to your taste.

Anyway, pardon me for that! I think Exit West is a gem, almost too neatly made, an interesting and interested novel of civil conflict, globalization and mass migration, as well as a maturely observed love story. The writing is superb; Hamid is an excellent shaper of sentences and paragraphs. Just so crystalline. Its style is slightly distancing and has an almost parable-like quality to it. No one except the two main characters have names and their country is not named either. Funnily enough I don’t usually dig this kind of storytelling, I feel like I can’t get as close as I want to the characters, but Hamid managed to write in a style both detached and immediate, intimate. The device of the magic black doors was artfully conceived and handled, and I loved the way people’s emergence from the doors was described, and what their passages through them represented. They don’t know where they’ll end up when they pass through, and it’s not unlike the arbitrary nature of real refugee experiences, where tragically people often don’t know where they’ll end up, how they’ll get there, or what will happen to them. Overall I think my favourite thing about the novel is its aesthetic quality.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid.

Reading Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, my March buddy read with @sophia_stories. Acclaimed by critics but a mixed reaction from readers – is the disappointment due to a high expectation caused by hype? Or did they judge the book on its own terms and it’s just a good and not great read? A mixed reaction is often a good sign. I look forward to finding out where I stand and having a chat with Sophia.

Finished: Anything is Possible by Lucy Barton. Rating: 3/5. I really thought this was a safe 4 star read – having LOVED My Name is Lucy Barton – and I wonder whether the stress of being back at uni and getting stuck into studies and reading this book slowly and patchily affected my experience with it. Quite possibly it did. Nevertheless I think it was the right book for me to have read at this point. Strout’s soothing voice helped calm me down at the end of a stressful and tiring day. The linked stories contain her characteristic focus on the experiences of everyday life, and the small epiphanies that occur in middle and older age. One of the (pleasantly) surprising things about this book was the shifting tones from story to story. Each focuses on different residents of a small town in the Midwest, and each character’s life has a distinctive quality to it; they live in close proximity to each other but in different atmospheres, similar and yet different. That comes from Strout’s strong sense of who her characters are as individuals, and getting it down on the page in subtle ways. Some stories were more humorous or sinister or tragic than others. Anything is Possible is about the same length as Lucy Barton, however that book focused on two people, whereas this book has many characters, and I didn’t feel like I got to spend enough time with any of them. It was a glimpse and not a diving in – a pleasant and sometimes moving read, absorbing during the reading, though probably not super memorable. But Strout is a lovely writer who cares about getting at the truth, and it always shows in the care put into her sentences and the reflective nature of her characters. This book reminded me a little of Winesburg, Ohio, and the calm authority of Kent Haruf.

Reading Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, with a bit of water (or oil?) splashed on it ffs, and I only bought it today! My Name is Lucy Barton was one of my best reads last year, so if this is anything like that, it’s a sure hit.

Finished: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. Rating: 5/5. This was a reread, and I was as dazzled by it as I was the first time, surprise surprise. Basically writing is all voice, and reading a favourite writer always reminds me of that. Moore, in her beautifully melodious style, articulates so well the gulf that exists between people in relationships who bounce from love to jealousy to affection to aloofness to passion to weariness to annoyance to disdain to doubt. Love is hard fucking work! At times these women feel at home in their boyfriends or husbands, while at other times these boyfriends and husbands feel like aliens, unknowable, taking up too much space. This often leads them to wander off in their minds, to someplace else – in several of the stories they’re asked, mid-conversation, “Where are you?” – trying to make sense of where they are in their lives, to figure out what they want, what they’re missing, feeling disbelief in the lives they find themselves occupying. They lose themselves in love and then are set adrift, in no-mans-land, wondering how the fuck they got to where they are, seemingly no where. They grasp at humour like a life preserver to cope with the absurdity of it all. Jokes thinly mask discontent and bitterness. I’m so glad I read this again, it was a treat. These stories are delightful and generous with pleasure-bombs, dropped sentence after sentence, ceaselessly pricking the head and the heart with their charm and compassion and wisecracking melancholy. That’s the compression of the short story form mastered. There’s one story, the widely anthologized People Like That Are the Only People Here, about a mother whose baby is diagnosed with cancer that’s particularly heart-wrenching.

Watching I, Tonya by Craig Gillespie.

Rereading Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. The only book I ever reread was Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone as an adolescent, and that was because I was overseas and didn’t have more books with me. But I’ve reached a point where the books I’ve read excite me more than anything the bookshops in my city have to offer.
The thought of reading Birds of America again aroused me in a way that many of the books I’ve decided to read in recent months haven’t. I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve insisted on choosing from the selections available in bookshops, not only to support them but also for the enjoyment of browsing/buying in store.
I did wonder for a time, when I’d go shopping for something to read, why it was that instead of being overwhelmed by choice and not being able to decide between so many books, I was stuck, having to choose something because no contemporary book on the shelf had me urgently wanting to read it. It seems obvious now. I so wanted to get lost in the bookshop and find my next read that way, knowing the right book for me was there somewhere, waiting to be discovered and slid out from the shelf.
But unfortunately that hasn’t often been the case lately, and so my desire for that experience has got to give way if I want to read the right books for me, books I’m actually hungry for; so many of the books and writers I really want and sense strongly that I will love, are online and sadly not in the bookshops of Melbourne. My shopping experience will be more boring as a result, but I’ll get the books I want and that matters most. The fact is bookshops need to pander to the mass market if they want to stay financially viable, so I don’t judge them. I want them to stay alive.

Finished: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. Rating: 3/5. Okay, I’m sold on Atwood. Surfacing is an aesthetic treat, thick with mood and atmosphere and longing, meaning coming from between the words as much as the words themselves – the words saying more than what they’re saying. It’s all ambience. It gave me Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson vibes. It kinda lost me towards the end though, when it veered away from realism into something else.

Watching Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig.

Reading Surfacing, my first Atwood.

Finished: Continental Drift by Russell Banks. Rating: 3.5/5. Bob Dubois is a middle class white man in America stuck in a rut and looking for a better life. Vanise Dorsinville, a poor woman from Haiti, in danger and with a baby to care for, with her eye on America is looking for a better life. This is the story of their disparate lives and of their connected and separate tragedies, one caused by a culture that relentlessly feeds its people dissatisfaction, emptily and self-servingly telling those who have little means they deserve more and not to settle for less; the other by the hopeless circumstance of real, cruel poverty. It’s a bleak, deeply troubled look at what American idealism does to people. Success and failure, chance and fate, racism and white entitlement, power and powerlessness, envy and greed, hope and dreams and delusion and brutal reality. This novel is a slow read that takes its time, but it’s all here, with not a semblance of optimism in sight. An ambitious, empathic, urgently felt Great American Novel-type book.

The novel ends uniquely by declaring its intention, a Steinbeckian mission, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to share it: ‘Books get written—novels, stories and poems stuffed with particulars that try to tell us what the world is, as if our knowledge of people like Bob Dubois and Vanise and Claude Dorsinville will set people like them free. It will not. Knowledge of the facts of Bob’s life and death changes nothing in the world. Our celebrating his life and grieving over his death, however, will. Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives—no, especially wholly invented lives—deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book’s objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.’

Watching Black Panther by Ryan Coogler.

Watching Phantom Thread by Paul Thomas Anderson.

‘In these years, the early 1980s, most events and processes that have been occurring for millennia continue to occur, some of them silently, slowly, taking place an inch at a time miles below the surface of the earth, others noisily, with smoke and fire, revolution, war and invasion, taking place on the surface. We measure the geological change in millimeters per annum, feel nothing move beneath our feet and conclude, therefore, that nothing has happened. By the same token, when we read newspapers and hear from the evening news broadcasts that there is revolution in Iran, war in Iraq, foreign soldiers and tanks in Afghanistan, because each new day brings a surfeit of such news, blotting out the news of the day before, news of Israelis in Lebanon replacing accounts of Russians in Afghanistan, Americans in Grenada replacing Israelis in Lebanon, we conclude here, too, nothing has happened.
The metabolic rate of history is too fast for us to observe it. It’s as if, attending to the day-long life cycle of a single mayfly, we lose sight of the species and its fate. At the same time, the metabolic rate of geology is too slow for us to perceive it, so that, from birth to death, it seems to us who are caught in the beat of our own individual human hearts that everything happening on this planet is what happens to us, personally, privately, secretly. We can stand at night on a high, cold plain and look outward toward the scrabbled, snow-covered mountains in the west, the same in a suburb of Denver as outside a village in Baluchistan in Pakistan, and even though beneath our feet continent-sized chunks of earth grind inexorably against one another, go on driving one or the other continent down so as to rise up and over it, as if desiring to replace it on the map, we poke with our tongue for a piece of meat caught between two back teeth and think of sarcastic remarks we should have made to our brother-in-law at dinner.’
#ContinentalDrift #RussellBanks

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