My summer vacation. 4 weeks. 11 books. 8 countries (all imagined, one invented).
The most remarkable thing I read this year was the one I started before lockdown began, Györgi Buzsáki´s The Brain from Inside Out. In this often highly complex but compulsively readable book, Buzsáki argues for replacing the pervasive conception of the brain as a receptive organ (generating output reactions from sensory input striking it from external reality) with a radical rethinking of it as a proactive one: an obsessive poker and prodder of reality, actively seeking to latch on to and resonate with the outside world. He supports this reconception with evidence from his long experience as a neuroscientist and shows how it utterly reconfigures they way we ask questions about cognition. Specifically, the internal physical properties of the brain and its neural architecture form the framing structure for cognitive experience, it is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled with statistically regular patterns from the world. I am not exaggerating when I say that reading this book rocked my world and I have spent the rest of the year so far turning over old and new facts from linguistic processing from this perspective. Of course, we all as humans have a sense of `the internal world´, our internal lives that construct an internal narrative and emotional landscape through which we face the world of social interactions. It is important to understand that this is not directly what Buzsáki is talking about. His revolutionary thought is about the level of neuronal signalling itself, a microneuronal analogue of an internal language syntax looking for a semantics. The brain is born singing and breathing, and bounces itself off the world in order to know itself and its place within that world.
The rest of my summer reading was about feeding my inner world at the more macro level, the way the idea is more commonly understood. In the first weeks of lockdown way up in the far north, I picked up Ron Jacobsen´s Unseen, translated from the Norwegian, a tough and elegaeic novel about a family unit eking out an existence in an unforgiving Norwegian island landscape. In the face of the unrelenting hardness of life, little is actually said, but the inner lives of the protagonists twist and roil under the surface. The young female growing up in this bleak and choice-less environment grows into her role and accepts it; it felt to me like how it might feel to train your feet to be small through years of binding, or gradually growing into the cliff face you are strapped to over the course of time, but who is to say it is not in its own way a kind of freedom? The young female of Unseen enacts no permanent rebellions, but the young female protagonist of Educated by Tara Westover does. Her growing environment in rural Utah is presided over by a genuine psychotic father and completely paranoid and insane world view. She is actively prevented from learning or knowing anything about the outside world and this autobiographical tale is the story of how she escapes. If you don´t know that you don´t know, how do you learn to know that, so that you can seek genuine outside knowledge? How do you break out of the cycle when your upbringing has made it impossible to know or trust what is Real? A quick and compelling read (not great writing, but curiosity propels one through to the end). The fascination in watching this journey is made more relevant by the dark fear I have that there is a whole swathe of Trump supporters living under similar conditions of constructed reality, and for whom there is probably no redemption story possible. It is hard to escape the loops of disinformation if your whole belief system is predicated on Faith in the Unreliability of Other Voices.
Other Voices! In the huge hurt and upheaval around 2020s Black Lives Matter movement, I threw myself into Colson Whitehead´s The Underground Railway, a visceral and moving tale of a woman born a slave in the deep south, and her efforts to flee through the underground railway linking secret station locations across the South, built by slaves for helping other slaves escape. I will not tell you if she escapes because you should read it. In some ways, no, there is still no escape. Black lives in today´s America still bear the scars and systemic effects of this history. The details of this history should be taught unvarnished in schools, but also This, this beautifully written novel will clutch at your heart.
N.K. Jemisin author of The Obelisk Gate is the first black female writer to win the Hugo Award for Science Fiction fantasy and this is the third book of the trilogy (I read the first two last year). I don´t normally read much fantasy (I usually lose patience with the writing). But this is a great, richly constructed reality with lots of prickly and violent and difficult female characters. And in this world, the very earth is unreliable, it seethes and boils with danger to the planet, and there are some of the human race who can tap into and control its heavings. They are needed for the rest of the human race to survive, but they also inspire fear and disgust. So Yes, there´s race politics woven in here too, if you are willing to look for it, imaginatively transformed within this fantasy world.
Next, I read Ingrid Persaud´s Love After Love which is set in Trinidad and written by one of my contemporaries (yes, and friend! ) so I was curious to see how she would represent our shared experienced world of Trinidad in literary form. The challenge she pulls off here is in capturing the music and rhythms of Trinidadian speech, while still making it accessible to a non Trinidadian audience. One of the central characters is a Difficult Woman too, something that was turning out to be a bit of a theme for me this summer. But unlike the central male character of the book who came off the pages very vividly (a moving portrayal of a gay man in a profoundly homophobic culture), I was a bit disappointed in my central female here—– it seemed to me she teetered on the verge of self actuation throughout the book but never quite got there.
We watched Mrs America in the evenings while on summer vacation (brilliant!), and I was inspired to read Helen Lewis´ s Difficult Women. In 11 Fights next, which is however more focused on the UK than the US. This was a great window into a lot of history that I had sometimes heard of but knew very little about. Lewis doesn´t judge, or woke-wash, and these women come alive in all their idiosyncrasy and ornery-ness. Rereading about the fight for female suffrage in Britain and the shocking misbehaviour of those early women revolutionaries, I am reminded that change in power structures doesn´t come about from asking nicely……
That led me to the next ornery woman on my journey, served up by Olga Tokarczuk , who won the Nobel prize for literature for 2018. I had already read Flights, which I loved, so I treated myself to Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The protagonist is definitely a Difficult Woman. I loved being transported into her reality and watching the murder mystery evolve. The men in the hunters club in a remote Polish village near the Czech border start being killed off mysteriously and our old lady is convinced it is the animals who have turned on them and are subtly orchestrating their demise. The writing here is a joy!
I moved from here to an older classic, which I had somehow never read: Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter written, astoundingly, when she was only 23. This had everything—- race, socialism, gender, sexuality and a quirky authorial voice always straining to get at the heart of things. The young female character, Mick, talks at one point about the Inside Room and the Outside Room of her own consciousness in a way that resonated, and took me back full circle to Buzsáki. Towards the end of the novel, Mick takes a job in a store to help her family make ends meet and has to wear a skirt and stockings. Her life becomes so busy that the Outside Room begins to elbow out the Inside Room (where her Beethoven symphony and conversations with Mr Singer reside). I realized too that even for privileged middle aged academics, sometimes things get so hectic that the Inside Room starts to gather dust. Fortunately, lockdown and the derailing of routines can I the best case lead to release from small tyrannies. Still, it has not been so easy to retreat: The Outside world has been staging its own can´t-look-away spectacle, raging around us in 2020 in the form of pandemia, BLM protests, and Free Speech Wars. Binge reading with no external purpose for 2 weeks in July has been my way of getting back into my own Inner Room, that sustaining and reinvigorating place, like the intellectual equivalent of nightly sleeping and dreaming after the requirements of the day. My pile of books was cobbled together through accidents and serendipities—- I have no idea why McCullers got on the list but boy that book kicked ass. I won´t give away any more of the plot by explaining why.
But oh no, it´s nearly over! Work was set to begin again, so I took one final plunge, journeying imaginatively to the far East to read Min Jin Lee´s Pachinko, a tale of Korean immigrants in Japan spanning the 20th century (continuing my themes of racism and otherness and difficult women). Finally, Cixin Liu´s Three Body Problem, a science fiction tour de force translated from Chinese. Like N.K. Jemisin, this is all Difficult Woman Gets Pissed Off and Decides to Destroy the World, but now that plotline is woven together with particle physics, online gaming, philosophical abysses exploring the relationship between data, theory building, prediction and faith in science. Set this all against a background of the Cultural Revolution and you have enough food for the journey right back into the Outside room of doing science and coping with dystopian reality that is our post truth era.
Sigh. Time to wake up.