History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Usually, I like reading books quickly. I like immersing myself in the world, a quick dive to the bottom of the pool and then back up again for a deep breath and the return of the pull of gravity on my limbs. If I take a long time reading a book, it’s because it’s difficult to read somehow, wordy in a nineteenth-century way or full of page-long sentences like those written by the literary Wunderkinder of the early twenty-first century or populated with a cast of thousands that I need notecards to keep track of.

This novel I read slowly for none of these reasons. History of Wolves drew me into the depths, past the hovering walleye, to a murky, beautiful place full of muffled sounds and a stinging cold from which I was in no rush to return.

Every word of this novel reaches deep. Fridlund wastes nothing. Linda’s memories of belonging and joy are so closely tied to memories of betrayal and pain that she can’t look at either directly. As we read, she circles around and around, getting close to the story and then drawing back, touching back on memories that take on one meaning in the first telling and another in the next. Fridlund puts the reader directly into Linda’s mind, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s painfully real. This novel demands a slow read to savor each morsel, to roll each word over the tongue like a pebble.

A friend and I were talking about the difference between a novel about a young adult and a YA novel, and while there are perhaps some generalizations to be made about purpose and literary merit, at the root the difference seems to be one of subtlety. Most YA novels I’ve read at one point or another explain the conflicts of the characters directly, telling the reader explicitly that the main character feels alienated because despite some specific difference—poverty or learning disability or supernatural ability—she’s trying to be accepted by her peer group while remaining an individual. Linda feels the loneliness of a teenager trying to determine her place in the world, trying to feel accepted without blending in, but Fridlund shows all of this indirectly and more clearly and honestly than if she’d just written it outright.

I love this novel. I love the flawed, horrible, beautiful people. I love following Linda through the lakes and the woods, the slush and the mud, and the smell of pine sap and wet dog. I love seeing her poor decisions and her good decisions and the blurred dividing line between the two.

I’ve been reading novels lately with an eye for how they might help me improve my own character, and I can see two lessons that this book offers me on this front.

First is the reminder to experience everything. Hear each bird, smell each pinecone, taste each tropical Skittle, and note our relationship to these things because the same thing can seem different depending on the circumstances.

The second is to question my assumptions. Are the conclusions I’m drawing about the way the world works or about how the people around me act based on a sound premise? Am I leaving something out or missing a piece of the story that would allow me to understand a situation better? Are my assumptions blinding me to situations or evidence that might challenge my understanding of the world and of myself?

I have no memory of how this novel ended up on my to-read list, but I am so glad it was there and that it was on the shelves at my local library when I was looking for something to read.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

There’s an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain” about counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are basically a reimagining of past events, an answer to “what if?” and all of the events that cascade from a different choice or circumstance.

The episode is specifically about counterfactual thinking in the wake of tragedy. The woman whose story they share talks about how just before she and her husband ascended the mountain on which he would be killed in an avalanche, he told her that he had a bad feeling about the day. Together they’d decided to continue with their plans. If nothing had happened, she might not even have remembered that conversation. But because something did happen, something very bad, she reviews that instant and imagines what would have happened if she had suggested that they just skip the trip.

The Third Hotel is essentially an account of Clare’s counterfactual. What if Richard hadn’t died? What if she’d acted on the signs she’d been noticing in him for months? What if they’d both been more open with each other from the beginning of their relationship? She takes the trip to Cuba they’d planned to take together, and she replays their relationship, digging into details she and he had never addressed during their life together, trying to put the pieces together into a narrative that makes sense, and trying to come to grips with the unknowable.

The woman in the podcast was seeking some locus of control, something she could have done to change the outcome, and she focused in on that moment before their trip that seemed like a crossroads. This led, to one degree or another, to a sense of responsibility for her husband’s death. Clare feels a similar sense of responsibility and blame but without a single moment to look at, she sees her husband’s death as an accumulation of poor choices and in some ways even a result of a flaw in her own character. She imagines not just that she could have stopped his death, but that she was the one who killed him, and neither she nor the reader can be certain that this isn’t the case.

In her blurb on the back cover, Lauren Groff writes that “you read [Laura van den Berg’s] work always a bit perturbed.” This was definitely my experience. The novel is dizzying, the line between reality and Clare’s imagination blurred. I oscillated between “I love this book!” and “Do I love this book?”

In addition to the main story, the novel addresses the three-way relationship between the author/artist/filmmaker, the story itself, and the audience. One character talks about the tacit agreement between the filmmaker and the audience of a horror film, a genre of which Clare’s husband was a scholar. “The screaming was only pleasurable because the audience knew the terror had an end,” he asserts.

Throughout the book, Clare is trying to place her life with Richard and his death into a narrative, a story with boundaries to comfort her with the knowledge that “the terror has an end.” As she traces her marriage back to its beginnings, Clare sees that the decision to marry someone in the first place carries with it the knowledge that, either through death or divorce, that relationship will end. A beginning implies an ending.

I’ve been reading everything lately with an eye for how I can use it to develop character in myself. In applying that filter to The Third Hotel, I’ve identified a primary idea with character-building potential: We can’t run from ourselves.

Like in a horror film where the victim is running frantically from a killer who walks steadily, methodically behind, no matter how fast we move whatever truth or pain or past we’re trying to evade will eventually catch up with us. It’s difficult to escape our patterns of behavior, difficult to stop running, but it happens whether we do it by choice or let it happen on its own. Sometimes (most times?) it boils down to being there in our relationships, with those we love and who love us, holding their hand, looking them in the eye, making physical contact while they cry, and allowing them to do these things for us. Our culture doesn’t encourage this simple but profound connection. It promotes independence and transactional relationships and solving problems by buying things rather than through the cultivation of family and community relationships. When it appears that our corporatocracy is encouraging us in these directions, take a closer look and you’ll generally find it’s actually an ad for a car or a credit card, an eyeliner or an app. It might look an awful lot like personal connection but peel back the veneer and it’s a ploy to get us to give away some aspect of ourselves—our thoughts, our preferences, our photos—that can be sold for someone else’s profit. And along the way we become convinced that we’re the mere sum of our parts, a collection of likes, dislikes and moments curated for public consumption.

So my takeaway is to maintain constant vigilance, to be aware always of who’s offering a solution to my particular problem and of who’s defining the problem in the first place. What are they selling and who stands to profit if I buy it? Does it bring me closer to people I love, closer to people in my community, closer to myself, or does it just offer the illusion of closeness? If all it costs me is money, it’s guaranteed to be the latter.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Reading this novel, I asked myself, why would the Nazis ban this book?

Because at first, it’s just a story of young men going to war narrated by Paul Bäumer. Boredom, irritation at rules, pulling pranks. What’s dangerous about this?

Soon it got more real, bodies and exhaustion and terror and blood. So, maybe this is what the Nazis, gearing up for a war and hoping to stir up young men enough that they’re willing to kill not only foreigners but their own countrymen. But don’t young men know what war is about? Killing and being afraid and dying? This reason seemed inadequate.

Later, though, came the passages that I think must have been the biggest reason this book was banned.

“It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces.” (140)

Remarque threatens the propaganda machine necessary to bring young men into service.

In Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of growing up in Germany between the two World Wars, Haffner describes how the government promoted in schools the glorification of World War I, getting young boys to focus on maneuvers and strategy (something in which my own son is very interested) rather than on whether Germany should have been fighting the war in the first place. By hooking them with strategy and numbers and warcraft, the government got these children fired up about war so that, in a few years, they would enthusiastically enlist. The government at the time needed these young men to see World War I in terms of strategy with a motive so black-and-white it didn’t even warrant considering. Remarque’s novel does the opposite. It questions the reasons for war and the things those making the war say about it.

The men, during a moment of quiet, are discussing the relationship between “home-country” and “State.”

“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home-country.”

“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it’s merely the rulers.” […]

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

All Quiet on the Western Front, pp 205-206, Ballantine Books Trade Edition, 1996

In order for these young men to kill, they have to see those in front of their bayonets and hand grenades as not human, or at least as not worthy of life. They must not reflect on similarities between those in front of their rifle and those behind because the necessary conclusion would either be that none of them deserves to be killed or that none of them is worthy of life.

“We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” (113) If they don’t believe their own lives are worth defending, there’s no need to keep moving forward against the enemy. But there’s a safeguard against that: If one man finds it difficult to see the value in his own life, there’s the comrade next to him to defend.

Upon hearing his friends’ voices when he was lost in the dark, Bäumer says, “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;—I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.” (163)


If the bonds of country and the instinct for self-preservation are insufficient to keep a person fighting, there are the bonds of friendship to fall back on.

Remarque’s Bäumer is stuck. He sees the human in those in front of him, but he also sees himself and his friends as human. To believe both and still fight is incompatible with sanity. And yet he has to keep fighting because that common man over there is trying to kill him and the only way out is to kill the other man first. His choices at this point are severely limited.

This is how war is set up. Those in power put into motion something that is self-perpetuating. They exploit the instinct for survival to get people with no real reason to kill each other to do just that.

This, I suspect, is why the Nazis banned this novel. Not because it describes the horrors of war, but because it lays bare the reasons the war is happening in the first place.

I’ve been trying to focus, when I read anything, on how the lessons in each book/article/poem can help me develop my own character. What in that piece of writing can I use to become morally and ethically stronger?

If I apply this question to All Quiet on the Western Front, there are a couple of takeaways, neither of which is particularly new to me.

One is that the way you get one person to kill another is either to make that other person seem not human or not worthy of life or get the other person to attack first, reducing the first person’s choices to “kill or be killed.” This applies to situations outside of war. It applies to Stand Your Ground laws. It applies to police killings, both those in which police do the killing and in which police are the ones killed. It also applies, I think, to domestic violence and sexual assault and human trafficking and other crimes that don’t necessarily end in the taking of life. It applies to border security and how to respond to a refugee crisis.

Related to this is the knowledge that seeing another person as human or not, as worthy of life or not, isn’t usually, or perhaps isn’t ever, simply a matter of the perspective of an individual. This dehumanizing is systemic, and it’s centuries, millennia old. Someone finds this structure useful to maintain. While there are those few whose benefit is obvious, we all share to one extent or another in the benefits of a system that dehumanizes other people. Because those benefits are so diffuse, it doesn’t work just to identify and remove from power those who obviously benefit, although this is a start. To reform the structure, we need to remove or neutralize the benefits themselves.

Having identified these points, I don’t really know what’s actionable in either of them. The development of character isn’t necessarily about action; it’s about readying oneself to make the most moral and ethical choices possible when the opportunity for action arises. But still, writing a book review or a blog post feels entirely inadequate, like maybe doing nothing is better.

“How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies or of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands.” (263)

Does the fact that this appears in his novel mean that Remarque is arguing that his novel itself is senseless or “of no account”? If this is true, where does this leave us? I suppose it leaves us—or me, at least—with an existential crisis, as usual.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics challenge.

24in48 January 2019 Wrap-up

Well. I’m done.

Working breakfast on Sunday

Actually, I’ve been done since 9:00 last night when I finished All Quiet on the Western Front just before my alarm went off signalling the end of the readathon, but I decided to sleep before posting my wrap-up.

I estimate that I got in about sixteen hours of reading, which is well short of 24 hours, but not bad overall.

I finished a total of three books.

Two of these—Winter by Ali Smith and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque—I started before the readathon.

The third—Sleep No More by Aprilynne Pike—I read start to finish on Saturday.

I’ve participated in enough readathons now to have developed some guidelines for making them work for me:

Unwritten rule: schedule in breaks to play board games with my family to distract them from the fact that I’m not cooking all weekend.
  1. Choose a TBR that’s smaller than I’d like. This is not the time to be super-ambitious. Pick three or four books that really interest me and maybe one or two alternates.
  2. Include at least one YA or graphic novel in my TBR. YA and graphic novels go quick and give a sense of satisfaction when I see the whole book lying there in my “finished” pile.
  3. Include at least one audiobook. This rule is more important for me during 24-hour readathons. During the 24in48, I have enough leeway to get up and move that I don’t have to be reading the entire time. For example, this time, I went with my family on Sunday morning to play some basketball, but during Dewey’s, I choose to go for a long, long walk and listen to audiobooks to get my reading in while I move around.
  4. Scope out a reading nook or three. This is has been a problem for me in our new house. It’s got an open floorplan and not only is there literally nowhere to go that isn’t noisy when my family are home, I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out a good place to put the furniture for a solid reading spot. It’s not perfect, but I have a little nook in our front room that works okay. I need to scope out a place away from the house, though.
  5. Be prudent about social media. It’s easy for me to get sucked into social media for an hour or more, so I need to be careful to limit myself. I only post on Instagram every six hours or so and on my blog for kickoff, half-time, and wrap-up. I miss out on some of the “community” aspects of the readathon, but it keeps me reading for more of the time.

And that’s pretty much it. I would love to develop some guidelines around snacks—like not buying a huge bag of salt and vinegar kettle chips at Costco at the beginning of the readathon—but that will have to wait for the next readathon, which might not be until October. The next 24in48 is July 20-21, and the next Dewey’s is April 6, but I’ve got family responsibilities during both of those. *sigh*

24in48 Halftime Report

Twenty-four hours into the January 2019 24in48 readathon, and I’m still in the game.

A hand holding a book in front of a bookshelf. The cover of the book has a black-and-white image of a woman's face overlaid with the title Sleep No More and the words Forget the Past, Change the Present, Fight the Future. Aprilynne Pike is printed across the bottom of the book cover.

I finished Ali Smith’s Winter (which I was already halfway through at the start of the event) and read all of Sleep No More by Aprilynne Pike.

That was a very strange sequence of books, but it seems to have worked alright.

Snack-wise, I made some similarly incongruous choices. Half-caff coffee then fruit-infused water. Three bowls of salt and vinegar chips and three bowls of bell pepper slices. Popcorn with homemade vegan nacho seasoning and an apple. Scrambled eggs and dark chocolate (consecutively, not mixed together).

Apple slices on a wooden cutting board.

The chips were probably the snack I most enjoyed and the snack that I most regret.

I estimate that I read for roughly 10 of those first 24 hours. A decent showing. With several things on my schedule for tomorrow, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make the full 24, but I can give it a try.

For now, though: bedtime.

Feet clad in gray slippers crossed and propped on a brown chair on a sunny patio. The legs are in blue jeans and a Kindle Paperwhite is resting on them..
One of my reading spaces today. I couldn’t be bothered to fill the fountain.

Cautious Optimism: Preparing for the 24in48 Readathon, January 2019

January 2018’s 24in48 readathon came when we were deep in moving mode. I made some half-hearted plans to participate, but reading took a backseat to finding lodging and figuring out where to buy food.

After a year here, I’m slowly reclaiming my reading game, and after my bit of success managing Dewey’s this past October, I’m giving 24in48 a try again.

I’ve got a small stack set aside—a Classic to finish (All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque), a book of short stories (Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado), and a YA book my teenager recommended (Sleep No More by Aprilynne Pike, whose middle name I hope for symmetry’s sake is Maria). Plus Ali Smith’s Winter, which I’m reading on my Kindle.

TBR flanked by local limes, meyer lemons, pink lemons, and grapefruit.

Start time is 12am/9pm Eastern/Pacific, but I’m heading to bed shortly and plan to be up and reading bright and early, with a few breaks to shop for groceries, shoot hoops, slice lemons to put in my ice water, and play Harry Potter Hogwart’s Battle Cooperative Deck Building Game.

With any luck, I can do all of that and still get in roughly 24 hours of reading during the 48 hours of the readathon. I plan to post a half-time report here and interim reports on Instagram (@imperfecthappiness).

Let the reading begin!

(Or rather, let the sleeping begin and then let me begin reading in the morning when I’m refreshed, rested, and have had a couple of samples of Trader Joe’s coffee while shopping!)*

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

525

Perhaps as a mother I could read this as a story of children abandoned on an island and left to survive in any way they can.

I could read it as a story illustrating that children, unsupervised by adults, revert to a state of nature, which, because of the inherent violence of humanity, ignores all logic and reason for the allure of superstition, tribalism, and destruction.

I could read it as a story of how a crowd of children can be influenced to follow a despotic ruler, who offers chants and fun, and who jeers at those over whom the crowd would like to feel powerful rather than following the boring logic of democracy and the drudge of working toward a common, rational goal, while the majority, unnamed, unnumbered, and unconsidered, sit by without using their voices outside of mindlessly echoing the words of those in power, without action besides the basics of human existence.

I could read this story and think how tragic it is that children left to their own devices might act in a way contrary to their own self preservation.

I could wish that someone from a rational civilization that’s above the squabbles of a handful of boys on an island would come and save them.

I could wish that there were anything left to be saved.

I could wish that I believed in salvation.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics, Round Two.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

A bit of background: The Epic of Gilgamesh is old. It’s very, very old. So old, it’s more than a little amazing that any of it has survived, let alone enough to put together a cohesive narrative.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is also bizarre. A bizarre, old story. It’s got elements common to familiar creation myths—a flood, a descent from a state of nature precipitated by a wily female—and a really close friendship that seems to be based on the fact that both guys are the biggest and strongest guys around and on their shared interest in gratuitous deforestation.

Perhaps my favorite part is Gilgamesh’s journey after Enkidu’s death. After all of the wanton violence, I appreciate the self-doubt Gilgamesh shows and the wisdom of Uta-Napishti, which the sage delivers with just a little smugness.

I’ve not read any other translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, but this one by Andrew George worked for me.

I read this as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This book was incredible. I listened to it on audio, and there were so many points at which I exclaimed audibly about an insight Baldwin had shared.

I’m not sure why The Fire Next Time struck me more deeply than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which I also “read” on audiobook), but I do see a couple of big differences between the two.

One difference is the quality of the writing. Coates’s writing is fine and powerful at times, but Baldwin’s writing is something else entirely. It feels smooth and adept. Baldwin knows language, and he crafts it and wields it with a skill that I savor (and covet just a little). I haven’t read any of Baldwin’s fiction, but after my experience with The Fire Next Time, I’m inclined to move some of his other writing towards the top of my to-read list.

Another difference between The Fire Next Time and Coates’s memoir which it inspired is the focus. Like Coates, Baldwin writes about his personal experiences, but he doesn’t place them at the center of the work as they are in the chronological recounting in Coates’s book. I have a fairly high bar for memoir; I like it to do something more than just tell about one person’s life. In his book (or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a long-form essay), Baldwin uses his personal experiences to illustrate a larger point about American culture and its racial history. This was more powerful to me than reading the story of one life.

This should in no way give the impression that it was only the quality of the writing and the structure of the book that I enjoyed. The content was extremely powerful. Baldwin comes across as conflicted, angry, vulnerable, skeptical, wary, and, in some ways, weary. I was especially struck by what seems like Baldwin’s near-despair about how to proceed as a culture, racially segregated or not, without leaving behind the good with the bad. His reflections after his visit with Elijah Muhammad—juxtaposing the supportive community, the young women and their babies, with the rhetoric of violent segregation—present his internal conflict powerfully.

One thing I’m still seeking—and which I realized at the end of the book that I was unconsciously and unfairly hoping Baldwin would provide—is a picture of how a post-racial world might look. What does an integrated society, one in which there is a universally accepted assumption of the inherent worth of all individuals, look like? What is the right path forward knowing that we can’t make right the past? Can we make a reality something we can’t envision?

This isn’t something Baldwin or anyone can answer, but I still hoped for it. 

I read this book as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

Bookends: October 2018

October brought cooler weather and a much-needed readathon, which helped me make a good dent in my Cavalcade of Classics list. My goal was to read at least one title from my list each month, and this month I read four. Starting strong and hopefully not burning myself out too quickly.

Regular TBR reads (including those that weren’t on my TBR until I picked them up):

New Boy by Tracey Chevalier (audio)

The Traveling Bag by Susan Hill

The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín (audio)

Maggie’s Door by Patricia Reilly Giff (read-aloud)

Ghostland by Colin Dickey

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

From my Cavalcade of Classics:

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (audio)

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (audio)

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (on audio)

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Currently Reading:

Gilgamesh Among Us by Theodore Ziolkowski

The Ramayana by Vālmīki ( I’m working on the shortened modern prose version by R. K. Narayan. I can’t tell if it seems weird because it’s just weird or because it’s from a mythology that’s unfamiliar to me or if it’s just the version I’m reading. I might try another version to find out.)

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (audio)

To-Read in November:

November is going to be a challenge. I decided at about 2:00 pm on October 31, to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo. I reached the 50,000-word goal in 2010, attempted but didn’t reach it in 2011, and haven’t tried since. A friend is participating this year, and I figured this would be a chance to show her some support and to try to get something down from a novel idea I’ve been poking around at for a few years.

I figure it could go one of three ways:

  1. I write a lot and meet my daily word count goals and don’t have time to read, or
  2. I read a lot to distract myself from the fact that I’m not meeting my daily word count goals because I’m reading, or
  3. I really nail time management, make the most of the extra hour the end of Daylight Saving gives me, and meet both my reading and my writing goals.

Anything’s possible, but there’s precedent for only two of those possibilities.

Reading goals for November, in addition to completing the books I’m currently reading:

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation)

Circe by Madeline Miller

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What books have your read recently that speak to you? What books are you excited to read in November?