Week 38, concise and just the right amount of critical
This morning, I zipped over to the lab on my bicycle to retrieve a book. Turning a corner, I disturbed a hawk who had been poking around underneath a car parked along the side of the street. Only mildly startled, it lofted up to perch on a power line. I stopped to look: a young hawk, I think, a little bit scrawny, with beautiful white-flecked feathers. As I was standing there, a squirrel appeared further up the power line, making its morning commute. The squirrel proceeded blithely for about half the street’s length, and then it must have noticed the hawk, because it froze. The hawk had noticed the squirrel, too.
The squirrel looked. The hawk looked.
The squirrel looked. The hawk looked.
The squirrel turned around and went back the way it came :)
This edition is all about books. I have a bunch of rapid-fire recommendations to share, but first, a long-ish one. You can feel free to skip down if this doesn’t grab you.
There’s a book from way back in 2002 called Feed by M. T. Anderson that was, and remains, prescient and insightful about the internet in an almost unique way.
It begins with one of my all-time favorite YA opening lines:
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
From there, Feed introduces a near-ish future in which a coruscating (yeah I just used the word “coruscating”) media stream is piped into everyone’s brain; think of a wild hybrid of Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok flashing behind your eyes.
But this book was published in 2002, very comfortably before the emergence of Twitter or YouTube or TikTok. Now, granted: cyberpunk writers had been conjuring this kind of super-saturated media feed for at least a decade prior. But the way Anderson imagines the feed’s intersection with youth culture in particular, and the way he renders the FEELING of it, are, I think, sui generis. It’s possible no one got it more right than him.
There’s one scene in particular that has never left my mind.
After a run-in with the moon police, the novel’s young protagonists have their feeds shut down, the chips in their brains zapped. They spend a few chapters in a hospital room, disconnected from everything. For the first time in a long time, their thoughts aren’t in each other’s heads. They invent games to play.
But now, the doctors have fixed the chips. Of course, reading the book, you think you know where this is going. We decided to leave them off. Or, we didn’t realize how bad the feed was until it was gone. Something like that.
You might have heard me say before that I think a novel succeeds if it leaves just one durable image imprinted on your brain. There are tons of books I love whose plots I cannot recount, but their images, their primes, I will carry forever. For me, the passage above is Feed’s great prime: the children reconnected to the feed, dancing in its spring rain.
If the feed felt bad—our real feed, that is; 2019’s coruscating media stream—it would be easier to deal with. It doesn’t feel bad. It feels like this!
As I searched the Google Books scan of Feed for this passage, I was reminded just how well-written it is—how totally literary. There is no shortage of esteemed 55-year-old novelists trying to wrap their arms around 21st-century media, the internet, This Mess We’re In; but M. T. Anderson, writing a slim novel nominally for young readers, outdid—still outdoes—them all.
This is a reminder: the really good stuff is everywhere, in every genre, every grade-level bracket. Go searching for it. Check those other shelves.
A few recent favorites!
This book feels like… I don’t know, a tiny miracle? It is a slim compendium of many translations of one single poem written by Wang Wei about 1200 years ago. It begins with a literal, character-by-character translation:
Then continues into early translations into English:
And keeps going into more interpretive territory:
There are also translations of the poem into languages other than English, with translations of those translations BACK into English. Whoa.
All of this material is framed by the author and compiler Eliot Weinberger’s commentary, which is concise and just the right amount of critical. Really, it’s wonderful: homage to the creative work of translation; exploration of the possibilities and limitations of language; silver thread connecting you, the reader, to all these other hearts and minds, including those belonging to the poet who hiked around a lonely mountain more than a thousand years ago—all in just 88 pages.
I found this magazine at Fog City News, the treasured newsstand (and chocolate shop!) on Market Street in San Francisco. Even after reading a couple of the interviews, I still don’t know what it’s supposed to be about, and… I don’t really mind the feeling? What I do know is that I love magazines that look and feel like this:
…printed on approximately forty-six different kinds of paper.
I cannot say that I am generally a fan of museum exhibition catalogues as a genre, but this one is much more than an exhibition catalogue. Although the book is linked to, and derived from, the recent manga exhibition at the British Museum, it’s clear to me its creators took the opportunity and ran with it. The book is lushly designed, packed with illustrations as well as interviews with manga artists, editors, and publishers. (A sweet pattern: almost all of them conclude their interview by reiterating what an honor it is to have their work included in an exhibition at the British Museum.)
I include this one as a reminder that you don’t have to finish a book to get a lot out of it! My interest in Strange Tools was solidly logarithmic, with a steep rise in the beginning that flattened out around a third of the way through. I decided to abandon the book at that point, but I did so with no hard feelings! I feel like I might even, before long, return to some of the material at the beginning; it was that good, that chewy.
It’s a huge mistake to imagine—or insist—that every book has be experienced linearly and totally. There are so many other ways to read.
This one was a total surprise and a real treat. It presents a series of wonderful what-ifs, imagining strange new kinds of books, fantastical new kinds of bookstores and libraries. For example:
It’s basically a collection of fascinations: Italo Calvino on a trip to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore accompanied by a pokemon. If you know any book-loving children… they are going to want this one.
CURVEBALL! Didn’t expect a cookbook, did you?
This one has become, for me, probably a top-five cookbook of all time, and the source of almost all my home cooking this year. The recipes are vegetarian, and they produce exactly the kind of food you want to be eating most days: healthy and filling, somehow both simple and complex, easy to prepare, great to reheat, etc., etc.
The dal recipes are in particular are really special: just a few key ingredients and a few simple steps, but/and the results are nourishing in every possible sense.
I had to take the photo at an angle to show off the pretty gilt lettering :)
I do love books. They’re just such good machines.
P.S. I haven’t started Tegan and Sara’s High School yet, but whew, those folks at MCD know how to make a cover, don’t they?
September 2019, Oakland