The Ilonka Reader

Notes on the Books I Have Read

The Unwinding

By George Packer.

The Unwinding was an undertaking. I requested it from the library shortly after Trump won on Nov 8th; it was recommended reading by some left-wing news site for understanding what is going on in this country. Then it sat on my desk for a week or two while I finished up Future Sex. I didn’t really know what to expect. It was one of those books I requested on a whim, by some random recommendation, and generally it’s 50/50 whether or not I actually like it. I knew it was nonfiction and about the United States.

When I got to it I was immediately struck by how literary it was. The Unwinding is really a series of stories of people. Some of the people are regular people who we keep going back to, starting with their family history from before WWI and following them through childhood in the mid-1900s and seeing them grow up and into 2015. Some of the people are famous, they get these one chapter character sketches that try to set them in time and cultural trends. The book is chronological, sections representing years, but it does not feel like a history book or even a political book. It feels like a postmodern novel.

Packer follows a woman growing up in ruined old industrial towns and a man from an old farming family, a southern man who goes on to work for Biden in the White House and then a lobbying firm and then back to Congress, many more people from various parts of the country and livelihoods, Packer looks at towns where the steel mills closed, at the housing bubble developing in Tampa, at Occupy Wall Street. It’s a harrowing look at the country — it’s called ‘The Unwinding’ after all — but it’s also incredibly personal and real.

Almost every chapter I came out angry, aware, uncertain: I didn’t really understand the housing bubble, I didn’t really understand Obama, I didn’t really understand steel mills or farming but I got a little bit closer. It struck me that very few people seemed like bad people (perhaps the only exception is Newt Gringrich!) and yet the country unraveled anyway. Still I found glimmers of optimism: the community organizer from Youngstown, Ohio trying to make the city right again after the steel mills left, the rural south entrepreneur championing biofuel, the Washington aide trying to put bankers in jail. There are so many people in the country trying to be the best they can be and do the best they can do. I have to believe we have what it takes.

Future Sex

By Emily Witt.

I enjoyed this book, though it stopped short of what I had hoped. It didn’t feel quite personal enough. Though I was not looking for a memoir, I was looking for something that would resonate experientially and Witt sometimes felt too detached to pull me into her experience of casual sex in her thirties, the sight of marriage and children recessing away into the distance. Maybe when I say this it comes off as depressing: when she says it it comes off as depressing, though I don’t think it need be. (What do I know?) I wanted her to be more happy but generally I wanted her to be more close. Intimate.

Still, I enjoyed the retrospective on Free Love and her experiments with porn and internet sex and live shows. I think we need more books like this.

Listen, Liberal

By Thomas Frank.

The 2016 USA presidential election has made me much more interested in politics. I moved to the US in 2006 at the age of 15. I was apolitical and the election of Obama made that an easy stance to keep. However, with the election of Trump I suddenly feel like politics are something I need to pay attention to. So I’ve been reading.

I don’t think Listen, Liberal is an amazing book, (it’s been rightly called polemic, as opposed to informative,) but for someone with a poor grasp on recent US history I found it helpful. Frank’s basic tenant is that the Democrats have lost their interest in the working class and replaced it with an interest in the professional class. This means their policy decisions tend to be bad for the working class. There are a couple of interesting ideas within this framework: Professionals, especially those coming from a working class background, think that the best way to improve the plight of the working class is to give them more education, i.e. that way they can become professionals. Wall Street is filled with professionals, so courting professionals is essentially courting Wall Street.

It was a great reminder of all the shit Bill Clinton did which I would not consider liberal or progressive at all: repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, enacting ‘three strikes’ prison laws, repealing welfare programs.

What frustrated me about this book is that Frank complains and complains about the policy and ideology of the Democrats but never gives much sense of what would be better. When he complains that the Democrats haven’t brought jobs back to the working class, my immediate question is ‘How can we do that?’ and he doesn’t even bother to try. I don’t think he ever intended it to be a book that dialogued with policy. He just wants to point out flaws in the Democrats, which he does well. Definitely not the end of my edification.

Catching the Big Fish

By David Lynch.

My friend Sean lent me this book after I visited him in Brooklyn, NY shortly after the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. I thought it would be primarily about Transcendental Meditation. I knew of David Lynch’s films but I had never seen anyway. Shortly after starting the book it became clear that it was mostly about David Lynch as a person, for people who love his movies and want to understand their creator. Having never seen him movies, this made the book feel little sparse. I didn’t particularly enjoy the writing style and his commentary felt empty to me.

I also didn’t like how he tried to justify his experiences with meditation by saying physicists had discovered the Unified Theory and therefore science was catching up to meditation. This just makes no sense to me. A unified theory is just a theory of fundamental forces in the universe, plus we have yet to agree on one, and a theory is just a posit of how the world might work, so I don’t understand what that has to do with humans being able to control their mental state.

Given all this it wasn’t a bad read. I like the metaphor of having to go into deep waters to catch big fish (in which the fish are your artist ideas). Shortly after finishing it I watched Blue Velvet, one of Lynch’s movies, which I found incredibly disturbing, though also very good.

Invisible Cities

By Italo Calvino.

I bought this book a long time ago at a used book store but only just got around to reading it years later. Each chapter is a series of short vignettes about cities, bookended with a description of the scenes between emperor Kublai Khan and explorer Marco Polo. The cities are all conceptual, like a city that is built in the air, hanging between two mountain peaks, or a city which is designed based on the experience of chasing someone through a city but never catching them. They’re little ideas about life: a city that decrepit and disgusting but has momentary shines of beauty, or a city that attempts to exterminate all the bugs only to make room for imaginary creatures.

In the conversations between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, some of which are imagined conversations, it becomes apparent that Marco Polo is describing the same city over and over again, picking out a piece of it to explore each time.

I read the book shortly after Trump won the 2016 USA presidential election. I found it calming and peaceful, almost meditative. The story doesn’t go anywhere, it’s more like a painting with a gestalt that becomes stronger and stronger as you read more.

Weight

By Jeanette Winterson

Weight is the retelling of the myth of Atlas, who holds up the world, though it also heavily features Heracules. The last Jeanette Winterson book I read (probably about a year ago) was Sexing the Cherry, and comparatively Weight is an easy and straightforward book. Weight is one of those books that feels like the language is so simple that it cannot be special, though as the story continues it becomes clear the amount of control Winterson has over her language and what felt simple was actually just sparse — it’s all she needs.

My favorite part is towards the end when Atlas becomes friends with Laike, the Russian dog sent into space. It is a tender, absurd moment, because all the other Greek gods have become forgotten and disappeared, but Atlas continues to hold up the earth and learn of people’s troubles.

Another part that struck me was the scene of Atlas, having given the world to Heracules to hold while he does Heracules a favor, walks onto (into?) earth from his place of holding up the entire universe. How he just almost waltzes down from the clouds and then becomes somewhat human sized on earth. Again, the control of language here for the moment to feel natural is amazing.

Of course the story is about weight: the weight of the stories of our lives, of our anxieties and truths and directions and decisions and ultimately about how that weight is both something we must shoulder and can also let go, that those are things that don’t necessarily require carrying.

Consider the Lobster

By David Foster Wallace.

I’m on a David Foster Wallace kick since loving Infinite Jest so much over the summer. In these essays I’m starting to notice his neurotics more — which maybe you’d think would be impossible to ignore in Infinite Jest but the novel generally was in the perspective of the character, so separating out whose neuroses were whose is trickier.

Which isn’t to say I liked these essays. I did.

I like his candid questioning of the reader of animal rights in ‘Consider the Lobster’.

I like his distraction, almost to a fault, in ‘Up, Simba’ (about the 2000 McCain primaries campaign.)

I had already read ‘Authority and American Usage’ and again liked his obsession with fiddling out why a dictionary could be great.

I liked the strange disappointment in professional athletes in ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’.

I disliked the way the footnotes were arranged in ‘Host’ and wasn’t sure I really understood much more about right-wing talk shows at the end, though it was classically entertaining to read him intellectually futzing around with some theories about their success.

‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’ was a touchingly hilarious account of 9/11.

(Essays I didn’t mention: ‘Big Red Son’ about the porn industry Oscar equivalent, ‘Certainly the End of Something or Other’ about Updike’s book that Wallace didn’t like, ‘Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness’ of which the topic is obvious, and ‘Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky’ which is about Joseph Frank’s books about Dostoevsky.)

I will say I ended the book with less unadulterated love of David Foster Wallace, not because it’s bad but because it demonstrated in several places his humanity and ability to write silly thoughts and be neurotic to the point where it isn’t helping anyone. I think what draws me to him is his amazing portrayal of similar neurotic and cynical thoughts to those that I have — it’s like someone saying “oh, yeah, I do this crazy thing in my head all the time” and I respond with “holy shit me too.”

Managing Oneself

By Peter Drucker

This is actually just an essay, but it comes in small-book form. It’s a simple but clear essay on… well, it’s partly on how to be, with a focus on how to be in the work-place. Here are my notes:

feedback analysis:

  • what do you expect to happen?
  • revisit in 9-12 months
  • what are your strengths? (we are bad at knowing this about ourselves)

reader or listener?

how do you learn?

work well with people or loner?

decision maker or advisor?

stress or highly structured?

big org or small?

In addition he talks about why we want second careers and how not everyone is going to be amazingly successful in life, which is why family and hobbies are important.

The Argonauts

By Maggie Nelson.

I have read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, I picked it up in the poetry section of the Harvard Bookstore, though I have elsewhere seen it described as prose. The Argonauts followed a similar style of brief paragraphs though there was more of a narrative than Bluets, or at least more of a narrative I understood. Which is not to say there was much narrative. The Argonauts also read as poetic.

Maggie talks about her relationship to Harry Dodge, the child they have together, and generally muses on feminism, pregnancy, child-rearing, queerness. It’s a beautiful books with these side notes that attribute her quotes. I picked up The Argonauts after reading an article admonishing many female tell-all memoirs (often sexually explicit) as sensational; the writer noted The Argonauts among a set of memoirs that were sexually explicit yet not sensational (along with Le Batarde by Violette Leduc.)

I loved it.

Infinite Jest

By David Foster Wallace

This is my second time reading Infinite Jest. The first time after I finished I immediately searched ‘What’s the ending of Infinite Jest’ on the internet out of mad frustration that it ended in what seemed to be the middle of an otherwise unimportant scene and a deadly important plot. But this second time around I basked in the ending which felt just right, just as Wallace said he wanted it to be: a perfect pitch. … And then I searched ‘What’s the ending of Infinite Jest’ again and read some people’s ideas and realized that I didn’t care too much about the plot ending, the various parallel lines that are meant to converge just past the frame. What I really cared about was the plot that did exist, the parts inside the frame, which themselves are so tightly wound and intricate that I had plenty to chew on without bothering about the speculation.

The book is amazing, much better the second time around though both times I got to a point in which it engulfed me. I struggle to be engulfed in long books in the same way a normal-sized novel can really pull me in, the length is so daunting that the writing has to really show up to make me get over the fact that I realistically cannot rush-read the whole thing. Wallace does this, with only a few sections that tired me out and a single section that I’ll admit I skipped. Despite this the book still requires work, which Wallace wanted, and the work elevates the return. It’s worth it. Read it.