Tournament of Books 2020: Optic Nerve

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María Gainza’s “Optic Nerve” is a pleasant piece of what I now know to be termed “autofiction,” which is to say that it’s “fiction” based on the author’s life. It’s a nice way to while a way a few short hours, especially if you enjoy art history (or to be honest, art gossip). “Optic Nerve” is readable, inoffensive, largely forgettable, like most trivia-based works of its kind. There’s nothing to hate here, but there’s also not much to really love: the book remains on surface level with itself and its reader.
There are interesting and complex “characters” here, but the narrator is too self involved to get to know them, or too busy keeping herself at opaque for us to see them well. They are marks on the paper, nothing more, nothing less. You know nothing more about them, the artists or the narrator than you did at the book’s start. It’s a little disappointing, since it’s clear that Gainza knows how to write and is well aware of the dangers of judging an artist by the anecdotes we know of their lives.

I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against Caleb Crain’s “Overthrow” in the 5th round of the tournament.

Tournament of Books 2020: Optic Nerve

Tournament of Books 2020: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is more of a memoir in poetry than it is a novel. Even as you read it it’s clear that this book is so autobiographical that practically only the language use in it is fiction. It’s a sharp, painful and beautiful memoir, and I’m glad that it exists, but it’s just not a novel, so it’s impossible to judge as one. The characterization is brilliant, but it’s clear that these characters are very real, and their complex relationships and behaviours are recorded from life. There’s no plot except the protagonist’s life, Vuong’s life. The writing is wonderful, although it’s not an easy read. It’s poetry from start to finish, and it expects the reader to work for their reading.
There are more and more “fictionalized non-fiction” books that are being published as fiction, and some of them are excellent. It’s just makes the task of judging them against “fiction fiction” much harder.
So a recommended read (it does require a strong stomach. There are some very disturbing images and scenes that appear again and again in the narrative), but one that also calls into question the definition of fiction.

I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against “Nothing to See Here” in round four of the contest. It’s so hard to compare these two books, even though they both deal with childhood trauma, loss and being impoverished outsiders in a world that values wealth and conformity. “Nothing to See Here” is entirely a work of fiction, while “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is so very clearly not. Vuong’s work is more culturally significant, but I enjoyed “Nothing to See Here” so much more, and it’s such a risky and clever piece. I wouldn’t argue with anyone picking “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as the winner of this round, but my pick is Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here”.

Tournament of Books 2020: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Tournament of Books 2020: Nothing to See Here

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Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here” is a sharp, fresh, unputdownable gem of a novel. A heartwarming story about finding your tribe and embracing your weirdness in a world that’s all about conformity. Larger than life gorgeous characters that aren’t caricatures, a page-turning plot that still leaves them room to breath and grow, and an interesting take on family, love, opportunity and class.
Plus, it’s a funny, fun and original read.
I highly recommend it, and I definitely will reread this book again.

I read “Nothing to See Here” as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up against “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” in round 4 of the competition.

Tournament of Books 2020: Nothing to See Here

Tournament of Books 2020: Normal People

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It feels like a waste of time to write a review of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People“. It’s a boring novel with the basic “Ross and Rachel” love story plot, but with zero charm or meaning added. The characters are unlovely. They are surrounded by a cast of unlikable caricatures. The whole thing is immersed in lengthy paragraphs of descriptions of people opening wine bottles and making tea.
Was there potential for a story here about breaking the cycle of abuse, about finding redemption with the help of other people? Yes. All of it was squandered in the most infuriating way possible.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020 contest and it was an utter waste of time. It’s up against the fascinating and brilliant “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” which is head and shoulders above it.

Tournament of Books 2020: Normal People

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)

Near the end of one year and the beginning of another various articles and podcasts about New Year resolutions start popping up. They either give tips on how to make resolutions, debunk resolutions in favour of something else, and almost all of them try to sell you something.

This post is about how I create yearly goals (i.e. resolutions), using things that I already have, in a way that has worked for me since 2015.

I wrote about the way I do “New Years Resolutions” in the past. I call them that because I like the non-business ring of “resolution” over the “business-jargon” sounding goal. My “resolutions” are, however, S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I manage them using the least used notebook that I had lying around (a Baron Fig Confidant), and whichever pen I have at hand. They aren’t made for instagram, rather I use my plain ugly handwriting, and what marking are on the page are there because they’re useful. Over the past five years I’ve attained about 90% of what I set out to achieve, with even an annus horribilis like 2018 not putting me too much off track. My goals are tiered, much like Kickstarter stretch goals, with most goals having a fairly easily attainable first tier, just in case life decides to kick me in a tender place.

I’m going to go over this year’s goals, and last year’s goals (apart from a few that I’ve censored for privacy’s sake). I know that February is usually the month when people give up on their resolutions. I hope that this post will help and inspire people to give yearly goals or resolutions a chance.

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My 2020 resolutions

Above you can see my 2020 resolutions. A lot of them are things that appear in almost every year. The professional goals are all new (I didn’t manage my professional goals with my personal goals until this year, and even now only a small part of my professional goals are here). 

Every goal at this point only has the basic, first tier goals set beside it. The first three goals for example, all reading related, will eventually have stretch goals. They’re interesting to note here because back in 2016 I only had one reading goal: read 24 books. Once I got back into the habit of reading, I started to challenge myself with longer and more challenging books. These are all my base reading goals. I usually stretch them to around 50 books a year.

Why don’t I start with 50 books then? Because the point of these goals is to build myself up for success. The basic goals are the “even if I have a horrible year I should be able to reach these” goals. They are there to remind me that there’s a tomorrow, and something I can and should do about that tomorrow, even if a family member is hospitalized (or worse). The stretch goals are then built in small increments, reaching to my my final goal for the year.

Why don’t I write my stretch goals down from the start? Because the point is to keep myself focused on the next small step. That’s why things are broken down to the smallest increment that makes sense: one book, 10k, one month.

There’s a reason for each goal on this spread. I won’t go into each one specifically, but they all fall into the following general categories:

  • Read more.
  • Write more (my writing goals are censored, because if I publish them, I won’t do them. I know myself well enough by now).
  • Use the stuff I own.
  • Challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone.
  • Social goals (partly censored).
  • Health goals (running, cross-training, bloodwork, dentist visits).
  • Professional goals (partial list).

Everything has to fit in on a two page spread, or I lose track of things. That’s why I spill over to other pages in the same notebook to track some of the details of my goals:

Tracking page for fountain pens, ink, tea and pencils.

Here are my 2019 resolutions. A pink check mark means that the basic goal is finished. You can see the increments things grow by (my stretch goals):

2019 resolutions

You may have noticed that the “fill triggers” goal isn’t filled up at all. This is the “relevant” part of the S.M.A.R.T. goals. I used the trigger system from Marshal Goldsmith’s “Triggers” book for a few months in 2018, and I decided at the beginning of 2019 to not continue with it. It was a conscious decision, and so I just ignored that goal. 

Here are my 2019 “spill” pages, just to get an idea of how the whole thing works together:

10 different fountain pen inks. Can you see where the stretch goal is marked?

Here are pencils, fountain pens, notebooks and races tracking:

And my largest tracking list, books:

The Baron Fig Confidant that holds this list has a bright cover and sits right in front of me, on my desk, at all times. I set up my goals that at every day or two I crack the notebook open and update the lists. Once there, I scan everything and check if there’s something that I can do to get it done. The point is to have this list on the top of my mind as much as possible, or else I’ll just forget about it, or it becomes something that I avoid checking out.

This is a system that supports me every day, giving my goals and aspirations much needed structure. I hope that this will help you build a personal system of this kind for yourself.  

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)

Tournament of Books 2020: Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

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A very surprising book. I was expecting a grotesque horror story, and I got nothing of the sort.
In “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” Dexter Palmer takes a historical event and greatly expounds upon it to create a clever and subtle work of fiction which is at times breathtaking in its endeavours. This is a bildungsroman, it’s a tale of mastery and apprenticeship, it’s a love story, and most of all its a story about truth, fiction, and the complexity and variety of what lies between the two, and what defines them. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, yet, Palmer says, look how dark and fragile that enlightenment was, and look and tremble at how dark and fragile our current age is. For the tale of Mary Toft in the 18th century is also the tale of flat-earthers, anti-vaccers, “Fake News” current West civilization, and it’s also the same tale of women who’s voices aren’t heard, who are abused, ignored, deemed “cow-like” and only good enough for breeding, who cry in pain in a room full of doctors that not once ask her how she’s feeling.
So why 4 stars and not 5? Because there’s a tremendously cruel and grotesque bit in the London part of the novel that I understand why Palmer brought in, yet I still wish he hadn’t. After a line or two I skipped the part, and my reading wasn’t spoiled for it. So: 1. Once the bull shows up in the arena, skip to the end of the chapter. 2. If I could skip the horror and not miss a bit, then Palmer could have done without it.
A very interesting, clever and subtle tale, worth reading and contemplating upon.
I read this novel as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, which is fortunate, because otherwise I wouldn’t have even heard about it. It’s going up against Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”.

Tournament of Books 2020: Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen

Tournament of Books 2020: Lost Children Archive

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Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” could have been a great novel. All the ingredients are there. And I mean ALL of the ingredients are there. There’s a solid and enticing plot. There are potentially interesting an unique characters. There’s an obviously intelligent and accomplished author behind the scenes. There’s a hauntingly beautiful (and at times chilling) setting.
And it all falls flat.
Like an artist that doesn’t know when to stop painting, or a baker that doesn’t know when to stop embellishing, or a designer that has to add “just one more frill”, “Lost Children Archive” is extremely overworked. The result is at times barely readable, and at all times airless, stodgy, bloated. There are too many references layered onto a plot that would have been excellent if it had only been given a chance to flow freely. The characters, potentially excellent, become so iconic they are no longer relatable, realistic, living human beings.
This is such a tremendous shame, because all the ingredients are there, and with a little bit of tweaking and pruning this could have been a powerful novel about migrant children, families falling apart, genocide, memory, loss. As it is, it’s reads like an overly worked “New Yorker” piece – so cerebral it’s lost all its heart and momentum.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020contest, where it’s up against the phenomenal “Girl, Woman, Other,” and I will be stunned if Evaristo’s book will not trounce it. Read this only for the potential.

Tournament of Books 2020: Lost Children Archive

Tournament of Books 2020: Girl, Woman, Other

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After reading Bernadine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other“, I have to say that Atwood’s “The Testaments” better be a flawless novel to justify giving it the joint Booker prize with this masterpiece.
“Girl, Woman, Other” is a perfect gem. She manages to pull off one of the most daring tightrope acts in modern literature:

  • Create a unique narrative in a unique narrative voice that oftentimes flows into poetry, yet still remains very readable.
  • Give voice to those who are rarely, if ever, heard, yet not turn them into iconic stand-ins, but let them be individuals. And oh what an ensemble of glorious individuals they are.
  • Render a plot that is packed full of fascinating, realistic action, and yet that is non-linear, tying disparate characters from widely varying backgrounds and generations in a web of past-present-future reality. A plot that brings the historic and iconic with the present and personal, the petty with the epic, and brings them all together under the title of “life”.
  • Bring slices of everyday London, the UK, Africa and the US to life in a way that makes each character grounded in their background and yet also universally relatable. A school is this particular school, but it’s also all high-schools everywhere.
  • Talk about the darkest parts of the human experience, the worst deeds, the worst mindsets, and yet retain a measure of hope, empathy, understanding for those who experienced the worst and those that inflicted it.

“Girl, Woman, Other” is an absolute must read book, and I’m thankful that I “had” to read it as part of the2020 Tournament of Books challenge.

Tournament of Books 2020: Girl, Woman, Other

Tournament of Books 2020: We Cast a Shadow

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Writing a satire that is also “good high fiction” (i.e. not trite, full of one dimensional characters, in a world lacking verisimilitude) verges on the impossible, partially because of the demands of the genre.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin comes damn close to achieving the impossible in “We Cast a Shadow“. The nameless main character, a black father obsessed with demelanating his son in an extremely racist “post-racial” American South, is a stand-in for desperate black parents tormented by the responsibility of raising a child in a world so hostile to them. Yet he’s also a fully realized character, in inadvertent “monster” created out of good intentions, love, trauma, despair, and an attempt to navigate that which can’t be navigated. If you don’t understand his fears, acknowledge your privilege and read the news. If you think demelanization isn’t a thing, listen to Tan France speak up against it.
The plot is where “We Cast a Shadow” shows its rough edges. Most of it is excellent, some of it gets carried away in the need to find literary legitimacy by pulling in references. There’s a noticeable amount of literary callback in the writing as well. Some of it is called for, some of it just pulls you out of the narrative. “We Cast a Shadow” lacks the polish and flow of “The Sellout” (and it’s not nearly as funny), which is why I think it got less attention from the public and the press. It’s still an accomplished, good book, well worth the read.
Unlike “The Sellout”, in “We Cast a Shadow” Ruffin doesn’t set a clownish character in motion in a contemporary setting. His is a dystopian near future, one that may very well be realized. For the sake of the Nigels and Pennys of the world, let’s hope it doesn’t.
I read “We Cast a Shadow” as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s in the play-in round against “Golden State” and “Oval“, two other 2019 dystopian novels. While “We Cast a Shadow” is the least speculative of the three, it’s my opinion that it’s the best.

Tournament of Books 2020: We Cast a Shadow

Tournament of Books 2020: Oval

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Dystopias are rarely boring. Dystopias rarely make you think, “meh”, when the characters meet the horrors of their world. Dystopias rarely lack plot, drive, an every calling telos. The world of dystopia may be hedonistic but the characters rarely are: after all, what’s the point of creating that kind of world if your character are too nihilistic, hedonistic and selfish to care what is going on around them?
Elvia Wilk’s “Oval” manages to be all that: a boring, bland, myopic, pointless dystopia full of nihilistic and selfish characters that don the mantle of social awareness and environmentalism as nothing more than a status symbol. I hesitate to call “Oval” a speculative novel, since so little speculation happens in it. Corporations are going to be ever more powerful at the expense of governments? That’s a known truth in 2020. The housing crisis is a thing worldwide? No kidding. Economic disparity, young people despairing from the political system, partying your way to the end – it’s not just that there’s nothing new here, it’s also that Wilk didn’t even try to dress it differently, give it an interesting or thought provoking spin. After reading “Oval” to the end I felt like I felt after watching “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”: was this all that it’s for?
I don’t like feeling cheated as a reader, and “Oval” wears the mantle of a high brow novel while providing less satisfaction, interest and down to earth character moments than works like Corey Doctorow’s wonderful “Radicalized”. Go read that instead.

I read “Oval” as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up in the play-in round against “Golden State” and “We Cast a Shadow”.

Tournament of Books 2020: Oval