March 2021 Reading Recommendations

Best of what I've been reading, from essays to short stories to interviews.


Choose a weekend, find a novel – it must be in a physical book form, read it in a single day. This is my currently most-beloved form of acclimatizing my brain to a different wavelength, alternating thoughts from the quotidian busy-ness to an analysis of the surrounding ambiance and psycho-anthropologic analysis. The latest Purple Magazine appeared on the stands of niche bookstores, and I’ve been shifting between three books: Annie Ernaux’ thoughts on writing in L’écriture comme un couteau, Françoise Sagan’s suite to her memoirs Et toute ma sympathie and Rachel Cusk’s Saving Agnes – the book I read in a Friday night + a Saturday morning, becoming enmeshed in its twists and turns and sensibilities.

I also read Jenny Erpenbeck’s collection of autobiographical essays, or rather leafed through it, finding the subject boring and writing dull.

#essay | An Island of One’s Own by Emanuele Coccia via Purple Magazine

Having enjoyed another of Coccia’s essays for Purple, Plants Know, I followed this other one on moving and domesticating one’s changing homes with great care. As always, Coccia proposed plenty of quote-worthy ideas.

“Moving is the profane and daily equivalent of what, in myths, is the universal judgement: the damned are separated from the elect, a border is drawn between the past and the present, and everything is done to coincide with the border between pain and happiness. These are rites of passage and metamorphosis.”

“This faculty of transforming ourselves into something connatural to what surrounds us and vice versa, of transforming the different into something that is inseparable from us, is perhaps the most secret and most fundamental of the powers that characterize our lives. It’s not something that comes to us from being human: all living things have it, and perhaps it’s simply the most basic force in what we call life. It begins with the first breath: compared with our mother’s womb, the world seems like a new home, and we have to gradually get used to it, to appropriate it, starting with our body, which changes consistency with childbirth.”

“Ancient Stoic philosophy came up with the term oikeiôsis: a beautiful word that means appropriation (in the double sense of making one’s own and making oneself appropriate to something), habituation (in the double sense of making oneself similar to oneself or making oneself similar to another), and domestication. The first impulse of the living, they wrote, is to take care of their bodies and their consciousness, until they become something intimate.”

#essay #artreview | Hypothetical Islands, a discussion around the work of land-art artist Robert Smithson via Purple Magazine

#art #review | Young and in Love by Sanford Schwartz via The New York Review of Books

A review of contemporary artist Salman Toor’s haunting cartoonish paintings.


#book | Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk never surprises. At least in a certain sense for her books are full of unexpected artful use of language. From the first pages of any of her books, one will recognize the familiar self-deprecating wit under a rich lather of metaphors. Saving Agnes is Cusk’s fisr novel, written in 1993 so more than 20 years prior to her essay collection Coventry. Yet the two books, as everything else I’ve read by Cusk (there’s plenty and I’m verging on the acolyte status), have a lot in common.

The protagonist of Saving Agnes is Agnes Day, a sub-editor, suburbanite, failure extraordinary – to use her (Agnes’? Cusk’s?) words. Agnes Day is having trouble coping with the modern world and its demands. She thinks she should have been born in another era where, paraphrasing, all that was expected from women was to look pretty and marry rich. Worth noting that she is also a feminist at heart, the paradox illustrating her ongoing confusion and bipolarity-bordering fluctuations of mind. Or should it all be written off as a young middle-class whitegirl’s quotidian ennuy?

Rachel Cusk never surprises, and that’s a good thing. A suspense, a premonition of doom flows through the novel like a dark stream of thick sticky oil, ready to blow up everything in a single haphazard flicker of match. The burden of being Agnes Day is acutely felt, the embarrassment uncannily present. However, the trepidation seems to be felt more presently by the goodhearted and magically patient people surrounding Agnes rather than herself. After all the disappointments that life has laid ahead her, she’s no longer astounded by the atrocity of life. By some fantom thread, she is holding on to the moving boat and sailing through the harrowing day-to-day existence. There is no happy ending although at the very last page of the novel, there is a prince in sight. By that time, the reader knows too much to sign this off as a story with a happy ending.

Saving Agnes is my favorite novel by Cusk this far. This being her young adult novel, a pragmatic and illusionless one at that, might have something to do with my age, all things considered. It is witty, fun, and leaves one excited to exist.


A weekend getaway to a château in the North of France took its toll on reading time, and I spent most of the preceding evenings reading Françoise Sagan’s memoirs. I also went through the much-acclaimed book Weather by Jenny Offill, the raving reviews apparently having made the book a disservice by heightening the expectations on what turned out to be a disappointment.

#book | Avec Mon Meilleur Souvenir by Françoise Sagan

Of nights spent gambling in casinos, gaining and losing, discovering oneself in the midst of a game having accumulated a grave debt that would take years to recover, gambling away two years of one’s life, then recovering the game in a series of faithful chances. Of literary influences and amiable correspondences, of dinners with near-blind yet charming Sartre on the eve of his life. Of theatre, literature, and les vacances. Of making art out of one’s life.

The memoirs of the French literary daughter-mother-friend-lover figure Françoise Sagan carry the reader away into dreamy yet exacting encounters of people and places, the insatiably curious author guiding the subservient reader through the epicurean labyrinth, into the Babylon of joy that is life. 

All literature is best read in original language, and some of the best sentences in Sagan’s memoirs do not support a translation to English, one exception being here: “Once past the childhood, the years piled up as happy or unhappy, and I became incapable of keeping the count.” I always enjoy reading authors describing what literature means to them. While Joan Didion’s oft-quoted statement claims that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the closing of Sagan’s book proposes the second half of the equation: “we read in order to make amends with one’s own existence.”

#book | Weather by Jenny Offill

Offill’s book made me laugh several times, but each of those laughs felt like a shallow guilty pleasure, the kind of laugh that you reminds you how basely uncultivated one’s sense of humor is. Written in a post-modern (or tech-modern) collection of brief paragraphs, The Weather tells a story of a middle-aged woman questioningly commenting on her everyday existence in the midst of an ordinary family home-work life.

After its publication in 2019, Offill’s book was positively reviewed in all the top literary magazines. I do not second the reviewers’ opinions. What was considered an “unsparing reflection of our times” and other praises in a similar vein read as a whining attempt to crack some self-mocking yet serious jokes that one can find in the feed of a feminist Instagram meme account. I remain hopeful that the book doesn’t reflect anything but a specific hyper-online subgroup’s self-deprecating sentimentality.


The spring is taking its toll on reading time, and I have been balancing between two books: There Is Too Much to Think About, the collection of Saul Bellow’s nonfiction writing; and The Copenhagen Trilogy, a haunting memoir of the 20th-century Dutch writer Tove Ditlevsen. Both books induce a longing – the first for calmness to think and the second for life, whatever it might mean deep down. A pile of unread magazines keeps piling up on the coffee table, under a bouquet of dried flowers.

Reading a review on Martin Amis, Downhill Racing by Nathaniel Rich via The New York Review of Books, I highlighted a conscience-screeching quote by Amis: “It’s natural for us to identify with the planet now, because the planet seems to be aging at the same rate we are.” Morbid yet true.

#bookreview #essay | Splash by Marina Warner via The New York Review of Books

In 1819 the French inventor Cagniard de La Tour gave the name sirène to the alarm he had devised to help evacuate factories and mines in case of accident—in those days all too frequent. The siren, or mermaid, came to his mind as a portent, a signal of danger, although it might seem a contradiction, since the sirens’ song was fatal to mortals. Exploring literature and anthologies on mermaids, Warner dives into the world of sirens, nymphs, and other mythologic seductresses to explore their place in history and ancient to modern literature.

A historic fun fact that remained to haunt me: a letter from Linnaeus, written to the Swedish Academy of Science in 1749, “urging a hunt in which to ‘catch this animal alive or preserved in spirits.’… Perhaps these creatures could reveal humankind’s origins?”

#bookreview #essay | The People We Know Best, Evan Kindley on fictional characters via The New York Review of Books

#bookreview #essay | Awful But Joyful, Deborah Eisenberg on Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs via The New York Review of Books

#book #memoir | The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

It rarely happens that a Scandinavian author’s works, revered in her motherland yet completely neglected in the Anglo-American literary world, be translated to English posthumously. It is even more phenomenal for the book to receive a positively raving review in every single one of the leading literary publications from The New Yorker to The New York Review of Books to The New York Times. The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen has been hyped to the extent that preconditions the reader to open the book full of expectations and ready to have been misled.

Tove Ditlevsen was born in 1917 in a working-class neighborhood in Copenhagen. Through a succession of lucky encounters and chances taken, she become one of the best-known Dutch writers in her lifetime. Ditlevsen’s memoir, which opens up in her childhood home where she shadows her disturbed and desolate mother moves on to the young adult life’s wrestle into the literary society and independence. Just as Ditlevsen has achieved her hard-won literary celebrity and financial independence, a new dependence looms over her life, annexing her body and mind in an addiction for Demerol and methadone, draining her of will of life.

The story is moving as much as it is repelling in its open confession of Ditlevsen’s disloyalty to people in her life and her all-encompassing ambition and self-absorption. While the memoir ends on a hopeful note – she has found a man that she loves and that loves her back just as much, she is through with her rehabilitation and learning to keep her addiction at bay – the knowledge that she ended her life with a suicide twenty something years later impends like a dark cloud after finishing the book.

At times, reading the book, I found myself wondering if the occasionally flat prose and prosaic scenes were amplified by its English translation. Then another Scandinavian writer surfaced in my mind, also named Tove (Jansson), whose memoirs published in a series of works – The Sculptor’s Daughter, The Summer Book, and The Winter Book – are written in analogous clean-cut ice-cold prose at times fantastical but not. Ditlevsen and Jansson both drew material from their own life, laid it out for the potential vultures for each to take their cut, and emerged as beloved authors, characters between tangible and fictional. Would one not lose themself to a fictional persona when writing autofiction that cuts clean to the bone? Or maybe, as Ditlevsen’s depiction of her happiest periods being the ones when she was working on a novel suggests, writing is sustenance, essential to calibrating and sustaining one’s persona.

End of my review on the book, but here’s Deborah Eisenberg reviewing Ditlevsen’s memoirs on the pages of The New York Review of Books:

“For a time, life with Ebbe, Helle, and her writing is good. One evening, when she’s at loose ends, having just turned in a collection of short stories to her publisher, Tove goes off to a party, leaving Ebbe at home to take care of Helle. The party is even more than usually drunken and unbuttoned, and Tove nonchalantly goes to bed with somebody named Carl—a young scientist who’s recently gotten a medical degree. In the morning she wakes up hungover, notes without much interest that she finds Carl hideous and peculiar, bicycles home, lies to Ebbe, and realizes she’d forgotten her diaphragm, though she’s been very careful since the abortion.

“You get pregnant just walking through a draft,” her friend and confidante Lise says some weeks later. It’s unclear whether the child is Ebbe’s or Carl’s, and Tove definitely does not want a child with Carl! But at least Carl is a doctor, so he’ll be able to terminate the pregnancy.

As it happens, Carl calls her even before she gets in touch with him; he’s been reading everything she’s written and he wants to marry her. He can help out with her problem, he says, but they’d make a fine child—a scientist and a poet! “I already have a very suitable husband,” she says, “and a lovely daughter.” Oh, well, he tells her, it might not be a great idea for her to marry him anyhow. There’s a lot of mental illness on his father’s side, and his mother’s not very bright.

Up until this point, the author’s talents have made the fairly banal disorders of her life riveting, but now things take a turn, and no horror movie I’ve ever seen—however potent its imagery or metaphor—has come near the rest of the book for sheer terror.

She has asked if Carl can give her a painkiller for the procedure. The following day, having told Ebbe she’s going to visit Lise, she arrives at Carl’s room for their appointment and sees that he

“has obtained a high table…and there’s a white sheet over it…. He’s wearing a white lab coat, and he washes his hands and scrubs his nails, while he pleasantly asks me to make myself comfortable. There are some shiny instruments on the bookshelf next to the table.”

He fills a syringe with a clear liquid. “You have good veins,” he says. He gives her the injection,

“and a bliss I have never before felt spreads through my entire body. The room expands to a radiant hall….

When I wake up…I still have the blissful feeling, and I have the sense that it will disappear if I move.”

What was it he gave her? she wants to know. Demerol, he tells her.

“I take his hand and put it up to my cheek. I’m in love with you…. I wish I could marry you, I say, stroking his soft, thin hair…. While I ride home in the streetcar, the effects of the shot wear off slowly, and it feels as if a gray, slimy veil covers whatever my eyes see.”

She tells Ebbe there’s someone else — though that’s hardly accurate — and she and two-year-old Helle leave, moving into an inferno with Carl that is to last five years.”


This week, my reading pattern reminded me of Lydia Davis’ essay As I Was Reading where the author gets carried away in an ever-expanding labyrinth of research into new subjects and words, driving further and further away from her initial subject. One of such articles was Phantasms of the Opera by Larry Wolff for The New York Review of Books. After reading it, I needed to look up the plot of Verdi’s Aida and ended up reading the history of The MET Opera’s chandeliers, ending up watching a YouTube video of the cosmic effect as the sputnik-shaped illuminators rise up to the MET’s dome-shaped heights. Pairing the Russian short story masters’ works with essays on the ethereal symbolism, I ended up with a strange soup of thoughts.

#bookreview #essay | Phantasms of the Opera by Larry Wolff for The New York Review of Books

I just added Grand Illusion: Phantasmagoria in Nineteenth-Century Opera by Gabriela Cruz to my notebook’s list of books to read next. The book review by Larry Wolff amounts gives an intriguing glimpse into the use of gaslighting in the 19th-century opera houses, also hinting at the intrigues between the composers of the time and their metamorphosis into part-time stage artists. During the age of the gaslit opera house, from the 1820s to the 1880s, operagoers were offered a new experience of light-and-shadow plays that reshaped the musical and dramatic dimensions of operatic composition and performance.

In the early 19th century opera, the lightning on the stage played an equally important role with the voice, opera, and stage setting. In fact, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman was heavily influenced by the available methods of lightning. As Wolff explains: “… the supreme spectral apparition was the phantom ship of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, with its ghostly captain and crew, which first touched shore in 1843 on the stage of the Semperoper in Dresden. This fully modern opera house, designed by Gottfried Semper, had opened in 1841, and its gas lighting would in 1869 cause a fire that destroyed the building. It served, however, for the premiere of The Flying Dutchman in 1843 and then Tannhäuser in 1845, before both Wagner and Semper had to flee Dresden as political revolutionaries at the end of the decade. When Marx wrote afterward about the short-lived political gains of the revolutions of 1848, he declared that “everything has disappeared like a phantasmagoria.”

“Kreuzer writes about Wagner’s musical timing for the rise and fall of the curtain, about his incorporation of the gong (the tam-tam that signals the appearance of the Dutchman’s phantom ship) into the orchestra, and especially the deployment of the modern technology of steam to create, in coordination with lighting, fogs and mists onstage. Just as the steam engine powered the railroad revolution of the nineteenth century and transformed shipping, so it also became essential to theatrical production—even today fog and mist remain staples for the staging of theater and opera. When Wagner’s theater at Bayreuth opened in 1876, with gas lighting, there were also two steam engines concealed in a wooden shed outside to provide steam onstage.”

I looked up the book. The introduction of Grand Illusion: Phantasmagoria in Nineteenth-Century Opera by Gabriela Cruz offers the story behind The MET Opera’s chandeliers which is noteworthy in its own right. According to The Space-Age Story Behind the Metropolitan Opera’s Chandeliers by Alexandria Symonds via The New York Times, the Met’s chandeliers were a gift to the United States from the Republic of Austria, as a gesture of thanks for the Marshall Plan’s help in resuscitating the European economy after World War II. They were designed by Hans Harald Rath (left) for the historic glassware company Lobmeyr. Rath worked closely with Harrison, the architect of the opera house, on the design for the chandeliers. For inspiration, Harrison sent Rath a copy of “Le Ciel,” a text on cosmology by the French astrophysicist Jean-Claude Pecker. Harrison specifically cited this “Le Ciel” illustration as a suggestion for Rath’s design of the Met chandeliers. As the story goes, Rath came upon the new cosmic form by a lucky accident: he spilled a blot of ink on one of his early drawings. 

#literature #art #essay | How Leonora Carrington Used Tarot to Reach Self-Enlightenment by Gabriel Weisz Carrington for Lithub

Leonora Carrington, a surrealist painter, writer, and proponent of women’s rights had a life full of twists and turns. Interested in iconography and mysticism, Carrington took on the project of illustrating her of Major Arcana of Tarot cards – the most recognizable and impactful 22 cards of the deck.

As her son, Gabriel Weisz Carrington writes in the introduction to the recent book of her Tarot illustrations, “During the next months she prepares the 22 cards, carefully cutting to size each one of them, after which each card was given a coat of ‘Blanco de España.’ While working, Leonora explains, ‘This white paint will even out any porosity of the paper, I want a smooth surface, so we will just let these dry out, then I will be ready to paint each one.’ ” And later on, “This was how she trod between her conscious inquiry that encompassed multiple tarot books, and the releasing of her unconscious creative persona. She contacted what Breton might once have called “convulsive beauty”—a means to dwell in the veiled life of each character associated to that explosivity of creative forces. For Leonora, all this meant a quest toward a personal Surrealist object with a similar profile to a subliminal object, one loosely associated to the symbolic manifestations behind the tarot.”

“Leonora’s approach to the tarot was an imaginal affair. The game reached a realm of inner images that took a life of their own. It brought a liberation of subjectivity, often entrapped by our own lifelong training in a repressive objectification. The game opened a subjective territory or playing ground where the keys to the individual’s psychic forces are made to work. Since each card engages emotions that connect to the images, these may become emotional personifications. “

#bookreview #essay | Spirited Away by Anne Enright for The New York Review of Books

Anne Enright’s review explores the recent nonfiction on the Christian religion, most notably encyclopedic publications on angels. How are angels counted, described, and felt in religious scriptures? According to the Talmud, there is an angel for every blade of grass. The idea of the guardian angel comes from the Psalms. In his book Angels and Saints, Eliot Weinberger supplies a list of ninety or so angels that appear in a litany of texts and manuscripts, from the ancient to modern. The last angel in his list is Azrael “who is forever writing in a huge book and forever erasing what he wrote: the names of the born and the names of the dead.” The review and the books involved read as a scheme to demystify religion in the service of down-to-earth readers.

#bookreview #art | A Vermeer for the IRA by Ruth Bernard Yeazell for The New York Review of Books

#Cinema #Film #Art | All the Vermeers in New York by Jon Jost

#bookreview #cartography | The Reader of Rocks by Jenny Uglow for The New York Review of Books

Best short stories read this week:

  1. Lady Neptune by Ann Beattie
  2. The Nose by Nikolai Gogol
  3. The Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov