Book Reviews for September 2020
So! In September I read a really nice group of books that were all miraculously enjoyable. I've been doing a lot of reading this year and thought, after reading these, that I should start doing some monthly book reviews. There's plenty of books I've read earlier this year that I want to get around to writing about, but I'll probably end up doing those individually. There's always the chance that I might decide I don't want to do a monthly thing but for now I'm going to go along with it.
This month's books:
Humanimal by Bhanu Kapil
The Activist by Renee Gladman
Psycho Nymph Exile by Porpentine Charity Heartscape
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru (audiobook)
Humanimal - Bhanu Kapil
Adi had a migraine and was feeling pretty bad, so after soakin a towel in hot tea and turning off the lights and tuckin em in, I decided to read Humanimal aloud to them. I ended up reading the entire thing aloud, even after they had already fallen asleep. It must've taken around 3 hours or so... maybe 2.
I didn't even know who Bhanu Kapil was before reading this book. I saw it recommended while searching for a different book on twitter to see if anyone had talked about it (said book is Sade LaNay's Dream Machine). I looked up lots of videos of her on YouTube and found one in particular where she pours "urine" (I honestly don't like putting it in quotations but I'm doing it I guess) into a glass, then pours the urine out into another glass and pours milk into the glass with urine residue. That simple act had me on the Bhanu train. I already knew. But I kept digging anyway because digging is a great feeling.
The way she speaks and the way she writes seem very connected, which was what I was hoping for in reading this book. I listened to her speak in whirlwinded shapes and drawn out circles and steps. I saw an interview of hers that really pushed me over the edge into picking up the book--I'm pretty sure I linked it in an earlier blog post here. She's a weaver. I mean, every piece of tiny hesitant-but-also-fast-flowing string woven into this textile thing that was just one measly paragraph in an interview. Yeeeeeeeeesh!!!!!
This fact is what makes me so grateful (to what I'm not sure--to Bhanu? to myself?) that I decided to read it aloud on a whim. I feel like that was luck in some way. I wrote in my tiny notebook guy, "It was like reading a spell, inhabiting a consciousness rather than outsourcing it to my brain". To explain, I think I meant that it was like I was performing the novel, inhabiting it in more than just my imagination. Inhabiting the story, the words, in my body/voice/etc etc. etc.
Often experimental lit can feel like someone is just plucking their arm hair--which can be good, but not really take you to a place. I'm tryna be taken. I like a full body bye-bye in the brain or whatever. So this definitely did that for me. I won't tell you what it's about as I'm sure you could look that up yourself. I'm just here to tell you it's great and different and aside from the subject matter, to me its like a drawn out inner spill-out of ideas, thoughts, images, all sorts of crumbs from what I imagine was her inner world at the time of doing research for this project. They bounce back and forth between whether the meaning-making is generated, or is connecting to the real people she speaks to or encounters, or is connected to her, or the past, etc. I enjoy that sort of layering that gets lost in itself. Another talk I saw her give, for a particular professor.. I forgot the name but will come back and edit it when I find it... took on that sort of framework, too.
Side note: I can admit I had the slightest cringe upon knowing the title and the subject matter, only because I had no idea who the author was and was cautious of some possibility of exoticizing or romanticizing or just not touching the subject matter with a kind enough or sensitive enough eye... but I'm telling you here, she has a very sensitive and self-aware voice that's also honest enough to not be saccharine or contrived.
The Activist - Renee Gladman:
I found this book the same way I found out about Bhanu Kapil, actually. On the twitter thread I happened to find. I think I found some interview or... some text somewhere online that had some words of Renee Gladman's talking about why or what this book even is, and I was so excited to read it and had to stop myself from finishing this blurb about it because I didn't want to go into it knowing too much, or expecting it to give me a particular thing. I was interested especially because I've been feeling Some Kind Of Way about 'political action' on and off and had been on an 'off' period for way too long. turns out I wasn't, I was just letting myself mirror people I was around and brushing aside my own thoughts about things for years. It's fine. I'm on the other other side of it now. But being on the other side of it has mostly been a little sad and lonely and sometimes I get to thinking "is it just me?!?" but then I read books like these and can take a deep sigh of relief knowing it's not. Sorry, I'm talking about specific things and trying to avoid naming them. I know. But on a more broad note outside of my own personal experience--I'm sure a lot of us imagine plenty of political action doesn't ever actually do what anyone really hopes it does. Helping people is one thing-- everything else is some other thing that I'm not going to get into here. blah blah surveillance state... blah blah cointelpro... blah blah social media... etc
ANYWAY I think this book came out of similar questions/frustrations/thoughts about political action. Here here. There's a link to a book blurb. I hope I'm using the word blurb correctly.
I read this book in spurts and finished it the same day I finished two other books in this grouping. It roped me in immediately, moreso than the others. For a lot of the book I felt like I was just letting it take me even though I felt like I was missing something, maybe I forgot something that would help it feel more clear or it's just flying over my head, but looking back I'm sure it wouldn't be uncommon for anyone to feel that way while reading it. It can be really absurd, not in a thickly cynical or sarcastic way, but in that kind of way that's just serious enough to make you question yourself instead of what's being presented. Which of course, is perfect considering what the book is pulling from. I don't imagine I'm a very gullible person and a device like that being used without much care would probably be annoying to me but it felt intentional and also intuitive and not rigid. So--great. (to me). I swear I was mid-book when I realized where exactly I was, what this book-place was. Not that there was an exact answer--but it definitely created a weird alternate but also not alternate world with so much realism in the interactions and actions and internal thoughts written out plainly and directly. But also not real. I feel like I'm going in a circle. Just read the book!!!!!
Psycho Nymph Exile - Porpentine Charity Heartscape:
I have to preface this by saying I'm a stupid big porp fan. Ok that aside>>>>>>
I read this book maybe... half in one sitting, let a month or probably more pass, and then finished the rest. I haven't gone through and looked into the special keyword extras, which I will do eventually. I started reading it at a time where I was rekindling my cute relationship with the reminder that I'm a nuerowhatever. I read a much more polished and Buzz Word-ed memoir/book/thing which I still enjoyed a lot despite my caution and it made me cry and I was like damn. Guess I gotta go ham and top this with the cherry that is PNE. Full force into oopsy daisy land. Remember how I mentioned in the review for The Activist that I had been mirroring people and got a little wonky about my relationship to being a person existing around people after realizing that? PNE is the indulgent come-down book I needed, to be like 'yeah, fuck. Yeah... fuck. yeeaaahh................ well shit." and then cry it out.
It starts of strong with the big thing piloted by teen girl thing which in a vacuum I feel vaguely positive about (I'm referring to the whole neon genesis theme as a thing that exists in general). There's lots of things that mean things, as explained by lots of very fun footnotes that I kept being worried I was reading in the wrong order (Should I just read the whole page then look at the footnotes? Do I like it better if I just read the corresponding footnote as its number appears in the writing? But does it matter? Probably not... sigh!!!). I think I ultimately put off reading it after the first time around because it was feeling harder to read because of my own internal dilemma about the footnote thing, which I would say is more a fault of my brain than the writing. The beginning seems more geared to giving glimpses of the world and some Things In It and Why They're There but if I am remembering right, it felt a little removed from that towards the middle/end. When I went back to it, I felt time passing in the book and was really drawn by the life-stuff happening, the vignettes, etc. But having all the backstory about the mech pilot stuff was what placed all that came after it, so I'm not at all saying it was 'bad' or 'better' or 'worse', just different, and had a different effect on me. Hope this made sense, I'm being a little loose with my writing since I've got to go to work in half an hour and want to finish up this blog post.
Anyway, TLDR? I really enjoyed it and it had me feeling some sort of... not nostalgia... I wish there were more words to describe various relationships with remembering, or different feelings of remembering...uhh...Sigh. I'll just end with saying that picturing that last page in my mind makes me emotional. And that there were lots of pieces of life but also lots of pieces of otherworld and they were all relatively short and small but crafted with a loving swipe of a hand. It felt like they rolled out like images or memories and not just words or tiny ideas, tying together this bigger patchwork of warped recollections of some alternate past or future or both. Really makes a stone somewhere in you, down to the coldness, but you just wanna hug it.
Gods Without Men - Hari Kunzru
So I listened to this book as an audiobook across the span of a week or two, playing it in my earbuds while at work (hoopla is sick, thank u hoopla). I came across the CCRU after doing some digging on neocities (lol) and I haven't looked too much into any of the corner of the internet/thought these ppl come from but a friend of mine had mentioned accelerationism/etc to me before and I've done several cursory excursions into some of the writing and blahblah connected to Sadie Plant and Co in the past. Hari Kunzru was someone I had only heard of as an author who wrote Transmission, and not much else. But after passing thru the CCRU and then wanting to check back at the wiki page for it, I saw that Hari Kunzru was a part of that collective and I was kind of surprised about it. Surprised enough that I decided I had to read one of his books and see if I could absorb any info or ideation vaguely connected through some fiction-reading osmosis. I felt a lot more keen on doing that instead of probably inducing psychosis digging through the CCRU shit.
I didn't have many expectations of the book, nor did I know what to expect from the author. The beginning caught my attention because of the whole austere folkloric tale being told and then you hear "bags of ramen" and "crystal meth" and "trailer out in the desert". I was a little -eyeroll- at first because, ok, you've ~juxtaposed~ something that invokes a particular seriousness/mysticalness in connection with particular cultures (Indigenous american ones) but also you're explaining a guy making meth who keeps getting reborn after making dumb mistakes and exploding himself... I need more evidence that this isn't gonna rely on that sort of thing for the whole book...
There's also just a thing I hate where people do things that rely on 'opposites' or 'opposing ideas' to make a point or build an atmosphere, and to a tiny extent I can deal and understand where that works, but to a greater extent I get annoyed when people place things in direct and Total opposition to eachother in ways that say more about how single-minded they are than how ~subversive~ they're trying to be... And a lot of the beginning of this book had me trying to figure out if that was the case or not. But to my relief, my 14 hours spent listening to this book were not a waste and I had a good time.
I can't help but wonder if different parts of the stories refer to his involvement with the CCRU (which I have zero reference for so I could also be totally off). But ultimately I liked that the different points of view did not suddenly converge at one single moment or in an equally present way as most stories with this kind of device do. I read some reviews and people seem to be upset about not getting everyone's voice in total 360 degree action, and having loose ends in character plotlines, but I didn't mind that at all. I think I've already made a textile metaphor twice in this blog post but I've gotta bring another out of my pocket and say this was definitely a story that was woven and not just told. After reading I finally let myself try to piece together things (sometimes I don't like to exert myself trying to figure out a book and would prefer to let it point me where it's trying to take me) and even a week or so afterward I'm wondering what all he put into this book. This probably was not that covert to other people who wanted to piece things together before they were handed, but I really didn't connect the Coyote thing to any characters until after I finished the book (which is funny considering there's literally a character named Coyote... but also As Coyote he doesn't come up too too much and the drama of the "main" storyline begins to overshadow the other story tendrils... definitely worked to distract me!!)
I wouldn't say it was my fave book ever or particularly amazing or insightful but I appreciate its grey-area-ness which was a pleasant surprise, its plain language but with some really good on-the-nose moments when comparing or describing human interactions or feelings...I think I mean the characters were very real-feeling. and when i say plain language i just mean that the wordage wasn't in itself very inventive or experimental but I still was able to grasp a really vivid image with it.
OK IM LATE FOR WORK oops bye thanks