Summer 2023 | Read & Reviewed

Best of what I've been reading, seeing, (re)thinking.

Spring 2023 | Read & Reviewed
2022 Favorite Books & Other Writing

summer 2023 reading recommendations karola karlson

If we consist, to some extent, of the landscape surrounding us, by now I’m made of the lush forests of Southern France, lavender and poppy fields and thunderstorms, and a sweltering library terrace in smoking hot Florence; I embody the cold-hued morning-bright streets of 3:45 am Tallinn and the dry juniper fields of the island of Saaremaa.

I’ve been surrounded by a pile of past Granta editions and Looming magazines; and plenty of non-fiction throughout these summer months. They, too, have left their marks and scars on the brain tissue. I have not allowed myself to pick up – to become – nearly any book of fiction as they might sneak their way into the book I’ve been writing. I’ve been writing my first novel for the past few months and even though I doubt I will ever publish it I have had moments of liking what it says.

But this is a post about what I’ve been reading. And seeing. And, perhaps, feeling.

The week after next we’ll depart for London. I’ll be doing a Creative Writing MA in New Prose Narratives at the Royal Holloway, University of London. They already sent over the reading lists: we’ll be reading four books (at least) per week, complemented by seminars and writing tasks. Work and life – and nearly all other reading – will go on hold.

I expect nothing less than a complete transition: from reading up on climate change theory and linguistic animism to being reinstated to our dear old Anthropocentric world.

Makes me think of Latour: “One of the great enigmas of Western history is not that ‘there are still people naïve enough to believe in ‘animism’, but that many people still hold the rather naïve belief in a supposedly deanimated ‘material world’.”

Books read in summer 2023:

P.S. Recently, I’ve been using Perlego – a platform for reading academic non-fiction (and some fiction) for a monthly subscription fee. Incl. offline reading and highlighting and so on. Saves money but, above all else, saves bookshelf space.

Best of stories, essays + poetry read lately

Want to read

A wishful list of new books & magazines & & & that I’d totally read if I were you. But I’m me and me is struggling to make time for reading these days.

#fiction | The Fraud by Zadie Smith

Does a new Zadie necessitate further explanation? Perhaps this one, her first historical novel. However, Smith’s reimagining of the Tichborne fraud case that convulsed Victorian England in the 1870s is also a commentary on late 2010s’ populism, when “heroes” such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson entered the popular imagination. Check this review of The Fraud in Harper’s that explores its Gen X roots.

#magazine | Bookforum, Summer 2023 issue

Bookforum Magazine is back w/ the Summer 2023 issue after going silent for 6 months. Featuring essays and reviews on some of the most awaited and discussed books of 2023, incl. Brian Dillon, Annie Ernaux, Lorrie Moore, Emma Cline, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Kafka’s diaries.

#fiction | Divorcing by Susan Taubes

Susan Taubes, the bestie of Susan Sontag, came from a psychotic childhood, moved to the US together w/ her Hungarian psychoanalyst father, and went on to get a PhD from Harvard. Her thesis? – The Absent God. A Study of Simone Weil. Then, she married Jacob Taubes, a religious thinker and philosopher too charismatic to attend to anyone else’s needs but his own.

Divorcing is a novel about Sophie, a woman w/ children and lovers and a husband escaping her marriage in New York. Soon after her arrival in Paris, she’s killed in an accident. In death, Sophie’s severed head is free to roam across time and space, across memories and grievances. This is a novel about reality and fantasies of the psyche; a woman’s estrangement from the false selfhood imposed on her. The NYRB has also printed, for the first time, Taubes’ Lament for Julia: And Other Stories, another addition to my most coveted to-reads. Read Merve Emre’s essay on Taubes in the New Yorker.

More books I’m planning hoping to read:

+ More writing by: Simone Weil, André Aciman, Annie Dillard, Hélène Cixous, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida.

Book reviews

Radical Animism by Jemma Deer

The most interesting book I read this summer. Not for everyone but relevant for everyone.

radical animism by jemma deer

Jemma Deer’s Radical Animism is an expansive thought experiment that pushes the limits on what we consider human and animal, and the relationship between the two. No, not exactly… There are no limits or rules to define those words and the two worlds. Because the universe is one. The animals as us and we are them. This relationship and its connecting threads are plenty more nuanced than that, of course, as Deer’s book will enable you to think.

Jemma Deer comes from an English Literature background and also has a degree in Ecology. At some point, she realized she wanted to do something to help resist the climate change. So she made the switch. The two subject matters combine and intermingle across a wide array of subjects and authors, from religion to anthropology to etymology; from Freud to Derrida.

Listen to an interview w/ the author in this podcast.

I’ll let a few quotes speak for the book. (I took pages of notes while reading this one.)

“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy, as Freud was so fond of reminding us.”

“Animal: It comes from the Latin root anima, meaning air, breath, life, soul, spirit – which is also, of course, the basis of the words ‘animal’, ‘animate’ and their derivatives.
These ties are not exclusive to Latin-derived languages but can be found all over the world: the Sanskrit atman (‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, ‘sun’, ‘fire’); the Mohawk atouritz (‘soul’) and atourion (‘to breathe’); the Chinese ch’i (‘breath’, the vital universal energy in the air); the Romani dūk (‘breath’, ‘spirit’, ‘ghost’); the Aztec ehekatl (‘wind’, ‘shadow’, ‘soul’); the Tibetan lung (‘wind’, ‘animating principle’); the Javanese ñawa (‘breath’, ‘life’, ‘soul’); the Hebrew nephesh (‘breath’, ‘life’, ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘animal’); the Cree orenda (‘wind’, ‘animating principle’); the Netela piuts (‘life’, ‘breath’, ‘soul’); the Greek psyche (‘breath’, ‘soul’); the Arabic ruh (‘breath’, ‘spirit’); the Inuit silla (‘air’, ‘wind’, ‘world’, ‘mind’); and the West Australian waug (‘breath’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul’).”

“Early in the twentieth century, Freud described three blows or wounds (Kränkungen) to the ‘naïve self-love of men’, three scientific revelations that worked to decentre and destabilize the concept of ‘Man’. These are as follows:
1. the Copernican revolution, which revealed the earth to be ‘only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness’, thereby exploding the belief that Man is the centre of the universe;
2. the work of Charles Darwin, which, according to Freud, revealed humankind’s ‘ineradicable animal nature’, thereby undermining any notion that Man is distinct from and superior to other animals; and finally,
3. the work of psychoanalysis itself – the ‘most wounding’ blow – which revealed that there are unconscious forces at work in the mind, thereby destroying the long-held conviction that humans are agents of an entirely conscious will. As Freud writes, the ego ‘is not even master [Herr] in its own house’.”

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

“Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.” Thus opens Holy the Firm, a prose poem by Annie Dillard. It is a slim book that searches for beauty in human thinking, religion, and the nature surrounding us that transcends what can be expressed in words.

Dillard’s god is akin to Simone Weil’s God, the enthusiastic love for life growing out of a euphoric appreciation of (nature’s) beauty. Weil writes: “Beauty always promises, but never gives anything; it stimulates hunger but has no nourishment for the part of the soul which looks in this world for sustenance. It feeds only the part of the soul that gazes.”

Dillard, like Weil, writes about desire, a desire that “makes clear that there is nothing in it to be desired, because the one thing we want is that it should not change.” This desire is “gradually transformed into love; and one begins to acquire the faculty of pure and disinterested attention.” (Quotes x Weil)

Dillard’s writing rejects the Anthropocene and opens the attentive reader’s eyes to what lies beyond our sight, right before our eyes.

“The day is real; the sky clicks securely in place over the mountains, locks round the islands, snaps slap on the bay. Air fits flush on farm roofs; it rises inside the doors of barns and rubs at yellow barn windows. Air clicks up my hand cloven into fingers and wells in my ears’ holes, whole and entire. I call it simplicity, the way matter is smooth and alone. I toss the cat. I stand and smooth the quilt. “Oh,” I cry, “Oh!””

“Läbi su silmaterade musta kuru” exhibition catalogue

labi su silmaterade musta kuru

Recommending this exposition catalogue to nudge people to go and see the real thing. The Estonian female graphic artists’ retrospective at KUMU this summer was lit, not least for the gilded, intricately built exhibition space designed by Edith Karlson.

The artists include Concordia Klar (1938–2004), Silvi Liiva (1941), Marju Mutsu (1941–1980), Naima Neidre (1943), Kaisa Puustak (1945), Marje Taska (1955), Vive Tolli (1928–2020), Aili Vint (1941), Mare Vint (1942–2020) ja Marje Üksis.

My favorites were Klar and Liiva. The expo is on until November 5th, 2023.

In other news: Tallinn Linnahall is open to visitors as a newly-opened exhibition space. Worth seeing.

Who Will Build the Ark? by various authors, ed. by Lola Seaton

This collection of articles & essays is a second coming for the discussions around climate change and ecological crisis published in The New Left Review in the past 15 years.

Essentially, the essays constitute a dispute between the Green New Deal, Steady State, and Degrowth proponents. Same goal, different means. There is no disputing that the issue is real: runaway global heating, capitalist crisis, and wider environmental breakdown are ravaging the planet while nothing meaningful is done to stop it. Quite the contrary: the CO2 emissions keep growing.

It was refreshing to read long-form, thoroughly argumented articles on climate crisis, instead of the short snippets in mainstream media. The authors base their argumentation on facts, and all the facts are linked to scientific and academic references. The book is a painful, depressing reading, for sure. But it also offers solutions and a dark glimmer of hope.

Read my fave essay from the book, by Troy Vettese, here: To Freeze the Thames – Natural Geo-Engineering and Biodiversity

Below are some stats n’ facts from the articles:

“The planet has now warmed by 1.1 to 1.3°C above pre-industrial levels, and the chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C and ‘well below’ 2°C – the contentious thresholds enshrined in the 2015 Paris accords – is now, most admit, extremely slim.”

“The scale of the world economy exceeds the earth’s biological and physical capacity to absorb the impacts and restore the resources used. The Global Footprint Network currently estimates human-kind’s collective material footprint at 1.7 times the available biocapacity. “

“Nearly half the world’s non-mountainous land is already dedicated to agriculture. Of these 5 billion hectares, 3.5 billion are pasture, which vegans would not require at all, while of the remaining 1.5 billion dedicated to crops, 400 million are used to grow animal feed and 300 million for industrial purposes such as biofuels and bioplastics. Only 800 million hectares of land are devoted to growing food directly for people. “

“The average omnivore requires 1.08 hectares to grow enough food for herself, but a vegan needs only 0.13 hectares. Vegetarianism is a half-measure, as egg and cheese-eaters still need about 0.4 hectares per head.”

“The world’s biggest cap-and-trade programme for CO2 emissions, the European Emissions Trading System (ETS), has largely functioned to forestall meaningful action against climate change since its creation in 2005. At its nadir, in 2013, a tonne of carbon fetched less than €3, and even at the moment of writing (early May 2018) the price is only €10 per tonne. This is a far cry from an effective price for carbon – ExxonMobil estimates that the price would need to be $2,000 per tonne for global warming to be limited to 1.6 degrees centigrade.14 Even carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects need $80 to 150 per tonne to break even, which is why CCS has proven to be such an unimpressive technology.15 The problem originated from the European Union’s decision to placate industry by setting the number of permits too high, so ensuring prices would remain low.”