24 April 2020

What I’m currently reading


Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

This is how the world ends, I think, everything crazy yet people doing normal things.
I only discovered the novels of Louise Erdrich in 2019, having previously read some of her poetry and short stories in lit journals and anthologies. Which is either ridiculous or wonderful—I feel as though I am a teenager again, discovering a new author who speaks directly to me, that special buzz that passionate readers will understand. A part of me wishes I had found her novels when I was a culturally confused teenager, but another part of me delights in that rare thrill of discovery as a middle-aged woman. I want to read her words aloud to anyone who phones me.

I am also an insecure Ojibwe, a fledgling Catholic, an over-striving brain cooking up conflicting dramas. I can’t help myself, I over-collect trivial ideas and can’t distinguish them from the big ones—yet the Incarnation, that’s big.
The strange thing about reading Future Home of the Living God right now, in the midst of the social lockdown in Ireland since the week before Paddy’s Day thanks to the novel coronavirus covid-19, is how relatable sections of it are. How relevant and strangely prescient, though it covers completely different pandemic-style territory. What makes it even stranger is that I hadn't bothered to check what the novel was about before I started reading it. Surprise!

Future Home of the Living God had lingered on my bookshelf since last year, when I’d gone on one of my book-buying binges, and I hadn’t even checked then to see what story it told. The book was discounted, it was by my new author crush, it was mine. So imagine my surprise as I sank into the first few pages when the protagonist mentions a mysterious virus, and the unknown impact it might have on her life and the world.

I am sure somebody will come up with a name for what is happening, but I cannot imagine how everything around us and everything within us can be fixed. What is happening involves the invisible, the quanta of which we are created. Whatever is actually occurring, there is constant breaking news about how it will be handled—speculation, really, concerning what comes next—which is why I am writing an account.
And then a few pages later, the protagonist’s mother says:

‘Well, we don’t know. This could be a new kind of virus. Maybe bacteria. From the permafrost. Use hand sanitiser, okay?’
Given the (necessary) obsession with hand cleansing at the moment, it seemed to jump out of the text in a way it wouldn’t have, had I read the novel this time last year. The story highlights the fact that we have no control over the natural world, and that the environment we live in, our habitat, is in fact unfolding in ways we are unable to fully predict, or at least fully comprehend. In a similar way to how the novel coronavirus is changing the operations of our lives in ways that are difficult to fathom. But we have adapted quickly, and the main character adapts too, as she must. This is not a dystopian novel in the traditional sense, nor is the novel railing against our environmental damage in any typical way. It is its own thing, if that makes sense.

Later in the novel, the main character, Cedar, ends up quarantined inside her house, hiding from the new ruling government. Again, the description of her new routine struck me.

Finally, when my exercises are finished, I clean one room of the house besides the kitchen, which I always clean. I just clean one room because I need to rotate them, I need them to actually get dirty. When that’s done, I go to my desk.
The story starts out as a story about a woman confronting her biological origins (she was adopted out from an Ojibwe family to a non-native couple of European/British ancestry). Which is exactly what the story in fact turns out to be about—confronting biological origins—just not in the whole adoptee-finds-her-birth-mother way. Although that is contained in it, too. It expands into an exploration of one woman’s religious identity and beliefs, her experience of pregnancy, and the political fallout of a mysterious natural disaster/event.

What is so interesting is how she depicts a natural-based unsettling of society that devolves rapidly into a faceless, abstract dictatorship, with unknown organisations at the helm of the country. Reading about a woman trapped in her own home—due to the danger of being pregnant in her world—is strange, given the similarity of the experience with our covid-19 lockdown, regardless of the circumstances. It’s strange to be able to relate.

Her writing is surprising and funny and complex and intelligent and beautiful and so lacking in bullshit, it’s a joy to read. Slowly. Well, slowly until the page-turning elements kick off in Part Two. Now I’m racing through the novel, for me. (I'm now a slow reader, for reasons.)

As a writer, what I’m enjoying about Erdrich’s book is:
  • How quickly she introduces the main character and makes you both curious about her and care about her.
  • The obvious intelligence thrumming along the text, always questioning, thinking about how things are and the bigger implications of the narrative.
  • The way there’s always something happening, or two things happening at once. Engaging and consuming.
  • The simplicity, the joy, the sense of humour.
  • The points of connection between the characters, the way these are fully explored.
  • The regular surprises. And the drawn-out mystery. (Took about fifty pages for me to fully comprehend what the global crisis was. Although that could have just been me.)
  • The full, deep examination of a scenario and all its characters.

I’m just over halfway through the novel, and it will be interesting to see where Erdrich’s dystopian vision ends up bringing me.

What I’m also currently reading

New and Selected Poems Volume Two, by Mary Oliver

A few weeks ago, I pulled out my copy of Mary Oliver’s second collection of new and selected poems. I needed something that didn’t require extended concentration when my brain got fried during stage one of our covid-19 social distancing, which involved schools and colleges closing, therefore my house becoming a full house, full time. My concentration stopped after about two pages of words, and I couldn’t necessarily remember what I had read. Getting through a novel in the early days of lockdown was a struggle. So I turned to poetry. Mary Oliver jumped out for two reasons: first, I hadn’t finished reading this collection and second, I craved a bit of simplicity and depth to fit my mood and attention span, the kind of poetry that cuts to the core of things. The way that the quick changes covid-19 had brought about were cutting life down to the core of things.

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
This is what I wanted, words—from the poem ‘Yes! No!’—that would remind me of what I could do, productively, right now. Perfect for slow reading, to savour and contemplate.

The poem ‘Stars’ meant something different for me when I read it (at the start of The Strangeness, as I’ve been calling this coronavirus shutdown) because all of a sudden, I couldn’t write. Back to my attention span, and the unsettledness of this new way of socially distant living.

What can we do
but keep on breathing in and out,
modest and willing, and in our places?
And she continues, and I follow.

Listen, listen, I’m forever saying,
listen to the river, the hawk, the hoof
To the mockingbird, to the jack-in-the-pulpit—
Then I come up with a few words, like a gift.
Obviously I’m back to writing now, but it’s thanks to writers like Mary Oliver, guiding me back to what matters. Which is not always language.

What I’m also also currently reading

Growing Gills, by Jessica Abel

Subtitle: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.

Okay, so I enjoy having a few books on the go at the same time, as long as they’re from different domains: non-fiction with fiction, poetry with how-to manual. It makes for an interesting fizz in my brain. The three-book habit has only recently returned after more than a few years of dense brain fog (thanks to minor health complaints, mostly resolved now). And this book is one I’ve been working my way through for the last few months, going back and forth through it.

It’s not easy to build your creative work into a real life full of complicated obligations to yourself and others.

We all have work to do on understanding how we work best, and where our weaknesses lie. The way other people work simply can’t be a model for our own work while we live in denial of who we are creatively, and of the other people and demands in our own lives.
This is a how-to manual (plus workbook) of project management and life integration for people working in the arts, written by a comics artist and writer, but relevant to anyone working in any area of the arts. It basically teaches you how to manage artistic and arts-related projects, how to use your creative energy sensibly, how to create useful habits for your artsy work, and how to structure your time so that you use it productively. It’s geared towards artistic types, so although she has taken much of her very practical techniques and structures from the corporate world, her language is devoid of the usual corporate BS and acronyms. Jessica Abel also recognises the specific difficulties experienced by people working in the arts (from gig-work to imagination overload to staking out the space and attention needed to make the work happen) and addresses them with sensible suggestions.

Here’s the difference: You have self-directed creative work you care deeply about, work you want to be doing, that no one is telling you to do. Nothing will happen on this work if you don’t do it. Basically, no one will care if it exists, until it already exists. And possibly no one will care even then. At least, that’s what you fear.

Not everything in this book is useful to me right now, and a certain amount of it is stuff about creative project/life management I have learnt already but either forgotten, unlearned, or didn’t apply methodically. Jessica Abel’s creative focus book will serve as a good touchstone to return to during those times when I get bogged down in my work/should-be-artsy-life, forget how to integrate my writing and life-demands, and wonder what’s wrong with me.