I always want to like short story collections and rarely actually do, but I loved this one. Most of the stories are slightly fantasy or sci fi, but subtly so, and in a way that makes their world and our own world seem strange and beautiful and tangible, and humans and other kinds of creatures seem wild and sad and real. Many of the characters long to be in other places or to be other kinds of beings, a feeling I'm familiar with. My favorite story, "Ogres of East Africa," is sort of about that, but here it feels like a great delight, not a sorrow but a victory.
ALIF THE UNSEEN
This is over 400 pages long but I stayed up very late to read it and finished it in I think only two nights. Love and friendship and computers and djinn and the Arab Spring. The last third or quarter of the book was not quite as satisfying as the earlier parts, but I still really enjoyed it. The story itself is fun, and there are some good lines and ideas about metaphors and the overlapping of the invisible spiritual world and the invisible digital world. Early in the book a djinn tells a human "Most of my people disagree with me, but I believe that with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized. It doesn't mean the Alf Yeom will make any more sense to you, but it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information."
Later, when the main character is complaining about his country's religiosity, a different djinn says "Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out. To most of your people the djinn are paranoid fantasies who run around causing epilepsy and mental illness. Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Books. You'll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent. And that, cousin, is why I can't help you."
And there's a kind and grumpy old imam who I would like to hang out with: "I have had much experience with the unclean and uncivilized in the recent past. Shall I tell you what I discovered? I am not the state of my feet. I am not the dirt on my hands or the hygiene of my private parts. If I were these things, I would not have been at liberty to pray at any time since my arrest. But I did pray, because I am not these things. In the end, I am not even myself. I am a string of bones speaking the word God."
ONE MORE YEAR
Funny and sad and disgusting sitcom-style comix about a witch and a talking cat and long-legged owl who are roommates and their asshole werewolf friend. I kept imagining some like Concerned Parent discovering that this is available on the shelf at the public library and flying into hysterics.
STRIVING TOWARDS BEING
I went to the library to get Merton's CONJECTURES OF A GUILTY BYSTANDER, but then this was on the shelf next to it looking much newer and shorter and more optimistic. On December 6 1958, Thomas Merton (an American monk) wrote an earnest and admiring letter to Czeslaw Milosz (a Polish poet) after reading a book of his, and they wrote to each other back and forth for ten years. I read their letters in bed before sleeping, and for several nights it was a great comfort to be reminded that humans are capable of being thoughtful, capable of wanting to be wise, of trying to learn how to live. In their examinations and critiques of their own and each others views on Catholicism, philosophy, politics, writing, and activism, it occurred to me that although they clearly like and are curious about each other, their relationship seemed to be more about mutual respect than mutual affection. I operate almost entirely on affection; I can think of two people who I sometimes see in real life who I could admit that I respect, and maybe a few, like, writers. But my affection feels infinitely deeper and wider and stronger. Merton and Milosz met each other twice, and I think I wish they hadn't. Their letters continued after the first meeting, but less and less consistently, until years go by with no correspondence and all they can give by then is information, updates, stilted attempts at the former connection. Their early correspondence helped me remember that I want to be wise and calm and strong and brave, and that it is possible to be those things, but the last few letters left me feeling me sad and fragile; I hate when friendships fade, but I know that almost all of them do.
other books I read this month: