Monthly Archives: June 2020

Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter and Drifts

Book of Mutter coverAfter falling in love with Drifts by Kate Zambreno, I picked up her 2017 Book of Mutter, a nonfiction book about many things but especially the death of her mother. It’s a gorgeous book as an object as well as a piece of writing. She worked on it over the course of 13 years, struggling with it until finally she found a way forward (she describes trying to find a publisher for it in Drifts). I kept thinking about genre as I read; Book of Mutter and Drifts feel similar to me in a lot of ways because even though one is a novel and one is nonfiction, many of the details overlap and the voice and consciousness described feel similar.

But Drifts is longer, wordier, more detailed, while Book of Mutter is suggestive and about silence as much as speaking. Drifts is about dailiness, getting through time, what the narrator does with her days. Book of Mutter works more through juxtaposing ideas and putting original writing up against quotation and letting readers make connections. There’s lots of white space in Book of Mutter; it can be a quick read, except that you will want to pause after each page to reread and think.

Page from Book of MutterI’m not sure that genre matters much here, at least not in the way we usually think about fiction vs. nonfiction. Drifts feels more novelistic in its attention to daily life and its narrator who is more present and perhaps more coherent as a character than the speaker in Book of Mutter. Book of Mutter is more poetic in its suggestiveness and in the way the text is arranged on the page where what is on the page is a matter of the writer’s choice rather than font and margins. But these things aside, the “truth” of each book doesn’t feel important. Is the nonfiction book more true to life than the novel? As a reader, I don’t care. Both are an attempt to capture consciousness on the page and whose consciousness it is and whether it reflects a person who exists in the world doesn’t matter, at least not to me. What matters is that the mind on the page is one I want to spend time with.

Both books are about time and memory. Both wander and repeat, taking up one subject, moving to another and another, coming back to the first and adding to it. They are about ideas, not events. In both, the speaker/narrator makes sense of her life through artists and philosophers. In Book of Mutter, artists Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois and writers Roland Barthes and Virginia Woolf are especially important. Both books are about family relationships, the narrator in both trying to understand her parents and how they shaped her. In Book of Mutter the mother figure is mysterious, aloof, complicated, and Zambreno uses photographs, family stories, and memories to try to see her as a person and to sort out the love and anger she feels towards her. She’s haunted by a half-sister the family never fully acknowledged and negotiating a changing relationship with her father now that her mother is gone.

Both are beautiful, haunting books, ones I will happily read again. I’ve now read three Zambreno books this year (these two plus Screen Tests), which means I’ve read five of her books total (including Green Girl and Heroines). That leaves The Appendix Project and O Fallen Angel if I want to read all of them, which I do. I would kind of like to read them in order of publication to see how they develop and compare, especially since it’s been a while since I read Green Girl and Heroines. We’ll see. I do know that Zambreno has become one of my favorite contemporary writers.

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Pandemic Cycling

I’m still riding! In fact, this year is turning out to be a good one for cycling, even if the reasons for that are bad. The pandemic has given me more riding time. I would happily take less riding time in exchange for no pandemic, but since that’s not an option, I’m very, very grateful for every ride. In the beginning of the COVID lock down, I would cry my way through rides. They were an excellent way of processing emotion and letting out anger. I could be by myself, talk to myself, and even yell at the world if I felt like it. As I’ve gotten more used to the new state of things, my rides are less about emotional release and more about getting out of the house, seeing something besides my yard, and, of course, staying in shape.

The downside of pandemic cycling is that every ride is solo. I’d gotten used to riding with Rick while Cormac was in school and once a week riding with a group of friends from the local bike shop. Now, riding with a group feels too dangerous (although I see plenty of groups out on the road — and I don’t approve), and with Cormac home all the time, Rick and I have to take turns. I miss my riding friends and I miss having someone to draft on and push me to ride harder, but still, solo riding is much, much better than no riding.

This week I rode 200 miles! I know that some people can do that in a day, but for many cyclists, that’s a lot of miles, and it sure left me exhausted. My typical weekly number is maybe 50-120 depending on the time of year, so this was a stretch. And my legs hurt. I’ve ridden something like 2,550 miles so far this year and have a goal of 5,000. Who knows what this fall will look like, but right now I’m on track to surpass that goal by a lot.

People have talked about trying new things during their pandemic stuck-at-home time, but my response has been to rely more heavily on the things I was already doing. This includes jigsaw puzzles (an excellent pastime when one needs to hang out with a very chatty child), piano playing (Cormac is taking lessons and I’m working on remembering everything I learned from my lessons decades ago), and, obviously, reading and cycling. Add childcare and work into the mix and I’ve been able to keep myself busy. This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped fretfully reading Twitter for the latest news, but these things have helped keep anxiety at bay, and I’m grateful.


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Scheduled Reading

As I wrote a couple weeks ago (I think? Time has no meaning), I’m reading just as much as ever, and more or less the same things I used to. I have a harder time dragging myself away from my Twitter news feed because so much is happening, but I have a little more time in general, so it evens out to as much reading as usual.

I do feel, though, that I want to cut back on the planned/scheduled reading I’ve been doing over the last year so I have more time to read at whim. I’ve been doing a round-up of independent press books for Book Riot for over a year now, which has meant once a month I post about 5-6 newly-released books that I liked from small and independent presses. I’ve loved researching forthcoming books from small presses (Edelweiss is a weirdly-organized website that probably makes more sense to bookstore and library people but I spend a ton of time there and find it invaluable). I’ve discovered so many great presses and wonderful books this way. Last year almost 75% of the books I read were from small presses and so far this year 65% are. I don’t want this to change! A big part of my small-press reading is books in translation, and I don’t want that to change either. I think putting the work in to find lesser-known books (lesser-known because they don’t have huge marketing budgets behind them) is well worth it.

But as someone who reads around 6-8 books a month, this schedule hasn’t left a lot of room for other reading — books from major presses and older books in particular. I don’t want to stop doing these round-ups entirely, but I’m planning on posting them less regularly, probably whenever I just happen to have enough new books read for a column. I do like reading structure and there can be something soothing about knowing exactly what I need to read next and why. But it can also be suffocating and that’s what I’ve been feeling lately. We’ll see how this new plan works!


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