Jan 15, 2017

Sunday Links: “A succession of brief, amazing movements”

Me petting a cat
Good morning, friends. I thought I’d open with an entirely gratuitous cat photo, because why not? (In case you’re wondering, that’s a farm cat I petted during my Hope Valley hike — she was very friendly.)

Last time I said I’d be back soon to talk about my reading, but I’m afraid that in the past week I only made progress in the sense that I’m now in the middle of even more books. Still, I wanted to share the first lines of the year to stop me in my tracks: they’re the closing verses of Adrienne Rich’s “From a Survivor”, from Diving Into the Wreck:
Next year it would have been 20 years
and you are wastefully dead
who might have made the leap
we talked, too late, of making
which I live now
not as a leap
but a succession of brief, amazing movements
each one making possible the next
This idea of moving forward incrementally, of being patient, of closing the gap between the life you have and the life you long for step by step, is of course not new to me. Still, reading these verses had the force of revelation. This is what good writing does: it can tell you something new, but it can also reconfigure what you already know in a way that deepens your understanding of it. I needed this the day I read “From a Survivor”, without really knowing it was what I needed. I’ll need this patience, I think, both when it comes to my own life and to the world at large — which is of course still the stuff of my life.

I nearly forgot I had promised to show you the books I got for Christmas and my birthday. This year’s theme was, in part, “get nice editions of books I already love but don’t own”, which at least meant I wasn’t adding to my TBR pile as much:

Earthsea: The First Four Books omnibus edition, Sorrow's Know and Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Jem and the Holograms volumes 2 and 3Unstoppable Octabia May by Sharon Flake, The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, Diving Into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich, Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

Links:

  • As I said, I’ve been reading slowly, but at least I’m also listening to a lot of music. I don’t seem to fall for new-to-me artists quite as often as I did when I was younger, probably for no reason other than that I haven’t been making the time for it. But when I read this Julia Byrne interview last year, I knew she was someone I wanted to invest time in. Her new album, “Not Even Happiness”, has just come out; I’ve only just started listening to it, but it strikes me as something I could really grow to love:
    For so much of my adult life, in great secrecy, I’ve felt a deep concern that part of me would always feel alone, misinterpreted, or unreachable. That feeling of aloneness was more familiar and constant to me than any romance had ever been, so much that I drew strength from it. The fear we experience, when despite all we try to give in love, we still emerge feeling that we may never truly be seen — this can have a bewildering effect that causes us to act in ways that aren’t true to who we are. In this case, to remain territorial even after the relationship ran its course, to assert our positions and entitlements, to find fault, the refusal to wish someone well when they no longer meet your personal needs. The song is an expression of faith in complete, unmotivated responsiveness in love and that our own capacity to love extends so far beyond the boundaries of what we’ve been told and lead to believe.
    It matters to me too, this idea.

  • Speaking of new-to-me artists I fell for hard, here’s a new Julien Baker song.

  • Two book lists, because presumably I won’t read this slowly forever: The Best Human Rights Books of 2016 and The Stop Trump Reading List from Haymarket Books.

  • Get Ready to Fight for What Matters: on libraries and resistance.

  • Here’s Dawn Foster on Labour pandering to anti-immigration sentiment. I’m honestly too upset about this to discuss it at length — it fills me with despair in a way that the right being the right no longer can — but Foster’s piece is good:
    But the argument that politicians have no choice but to submit to vague notions of public opinion ignores one crucial fact. Public opinion isn’t formed independently, but driven by narratives from the political class and the media. Decades of anti-migrant rhetoric in parliament and the press has resulted in few voters having realistic ideas of the genuine level of migration, on both a national level and in their local community.
    Be kind to yourselves and each other this coming week. I think we’re all going to need it.
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    Jan 8, 2017

    Hope Valley

    Good morning, friends. My 2017 reading is off to a slow start, though the one book I did finish — Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck — was important to me. I normally read a lot in January, especially during the first few days when I’m still on holiday. Part of the reason why that didn’t happen this year is that I went to the Peak District with M and a friend of ours, for New Year’s day and my birthday. On the second day of the year we went on a pre-dawn hike up the mountains, so we could watch the sun rise over a place called (I promise I’m not making this up) Hope Valley. I’d been to the area before, but I loved visiting again at a different time of year, when it looks completely different. I always forget how much I enjoy being outdoors in winter — or at least the relatively mild version of it we get here — especially when it’s sunny and cold.

    As I said a few days ago, I’m under no illusion that the year ahead will be anything but challenging, but I think remembering this trip is going to sustain me. A few photos:
































    The weather wasn’t as nice the following day, but walking the hills in the mist was still beautiful:













    I’ll be back soon with reading news, I hope. Also, I need to show you the books I go for Christmas and my birthday. How’s 2017 treating you so far? I hope you’re all well and taking good care of yourselves.

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    Dec 31, 2016

    Happy New Year

    kitten on a Christmas tree
    Friends, my main wish for 2017 is a simple one: I hope we make it through, all of us. I hope it will be a year of successful resisting and surviving, but also a year with the kind of moments of joy that keep us all going.

    I’m simultaneously more afraid of the future than I’ve ever been in my life and more prepared than ever to risk hope. This is a clumsy articulation, but here’s what I mean: I know we’re not the first people in history to experience this feeling of being at the end of time. I also know that the feeling is justified — the fact that it’s not new doesn’t mean it’s not a perfectly rational response to the very real political horrors we’re facing. What I’m trying to do is remember that for better or worse, we don’t really know what’s going to happen. There are vast expanses of time ahead of us full of unknowns and looming possibilities — the only thing that seems certain is that our lives seem unlikely to simply go on as before. I want to try to sit with that uncertainty, rather than to attempt to resolve it by slipping into either complete despair or facile optimism.

    It’s hard. I share the ambivalence of today’s xkcd, but I’m trying to cling to the thought that “if we’re wrong about which bad things can happen, it’s got to make us at least a little less sure about which good things can’t”. And yet for now there’s a lot that’s keeping me going. I don’t know what things will look like midway through January; right now I don’t believe for a second that everything is going to be just fine, but I still hope we’ll somehow make it through and find whatever we need to carry on fighting. I suspect I’ll be constantly revising this feeling as the new year unfolds.

    The other day I came across a quote on Maureen’s blog that perfectly articulates how I’ve been feeling about my life for some time now. It’s from a James Tiptree Jr letter, and it comes from Julie Phillips’ Tiptree biography (which I really need to read):
    Certainly my inner world will never be a peaceful place of bloom; it will have some peace, and occasional riots of bloom, but always a little fight going on too. There is no way I can be peacefully happy in this society and in this skin. I am committed to Uneasy Street. I like it; it is my idea that this street leads to the future, and that I am being true to a way of life which is not here yet, but is more real than what is here.
    I like it too. And of course there’s no such thing as a strict binary with “peacefully happy” and “miserable” as its two polar opposites. There’s joy in resistance. May 2017 be a year of renewed commitment to Uneasy Street.

    I wish you all the very best for the New Year. Tomorrow I’m off to climb a mountain — see you in January.

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    Dec 30, 2016

    2016: The Year in Review

    When I first started thinking about writing this post, I soon realised I’d have to approach it differently than I did in previous years — if nothing else, because I have no reviews to link to. 2016 was the first year in nearly a decade when I didn’t make an effort to write about the majority of the books I was reading. There are things I miss about my previous way of blogging — how the process of writing makes my reading more memorable, and most of all how it allows me to figure out what I think when it’s not immediately obvious to me — but to be honest I lost less than I was expecting when I decided to shift gears.

    2016 was an important reading year for me. My reading felt more vital than it had in a long time, and more deeply connected with the business of becoming. In some ways I was less adventurous, but in others I feel that I delved deeper. When I found someone who was saying something that felt essential to me, I made an effort to stick with them. I allowed books to lead me to other books, and followed threads of thought across time and space. I had a non-fiction heavy year, for no other reason other than that it turned out that way; I read more poetry than I had in ages; I made more time for rereading (though still not enough time); I continued to love comics and find joy in them. I read fewer new-to-me authors, especially when it comes to fiction, but the ones I did discover quickly became essential to me. When I think back on my favourite books, they feel like the building blocks of my current self: they enlarged me by expanding the range of thoughts and possibilities that were available to me, and I can no longer imagine myself without them. This has always been the case with the books I love deeply, of course, but I was lucky enough to have it happen numerous times this year. This was a year of transformation, much of which was only possible because of these books.

    I don’t think I’d be able to do a list type post, but I’d better tell you what my favourite books I read this year were before I say more about the experience of reading them. Here they are, in no particular order:

    Favourite reads of 2016: Upheavals of Thought, The Argonauts, The Dream of a Common Language, The Raven King, Troubling a Star
  • Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum
  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
  • Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
  • The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
  • Tehanu by Ursula Le Guin
  • Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis
  • The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman
  • The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • How To Live by Sarah Bakewell
  • American Hunger by Richard Wright
  • Labor of Love by Moira Weigel
  • Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson

    Reading Upheavals of Thought on my Easter break was genuinely one of the most important things I did this year. As I said at the time, Nussbaum’s work helped me articulate ideas that had become increasingly important to me over the past few years. If they seem obvious now, it’s because books like this one allowed me to reach my current level of clarity. Upheavals of Thought is a philosophy book about the role of emotions in our private and public lives, about trying to withstand need and be comfortable with interdependence without giving in to shame, and about the consequences and implications of our various struggles for dominance and control. It addresses the myth that it’s possible or desirable for human beings to ever be entirely self-sufficient, and it explores its many ramifications in our lives. To quote from my April post, “if we accept the insurmountable fact of human need in ourselves and in others, we can hopefully lead lives that are based on reciprocity, compassion, and full respect for the individuality and will of those we love or live in community with.” Learning to live by this truth is always a work in progress, but if I’ve become a little better at it, it’s partially thanks to Nussbaum.

    Reading Maggie Nelson this year was just as momentous. I listed The Argonauts as my favourite, which it was, but The Art of Cruelty also mattered a lot to me. My favourite thing about Nelson is that no matter what she’s writing about — gender, sexuality, queer families, art, criticism, what have you — she opens up possibilities instead of closing them down. She writes about wanting to do this explicitly in The Art of Cruelty, but it’s there in the rest of her work, too: she makes it possible to inhabit nuance, to resist false binaries, to avoid being corned into positions that we feel sacrifice the complexity of our lives, our feelings, our thoughts. She makes me braver, and she helps me reach further. Nelson was one of the authors I fell for so hard I had to read everything of theirs I could get my hands on. The Red Parts made me think, in ways that were both useful and complicated, about the potential pitfalls of narrative; Bluets about the intricacies of desire. I’m grateful that I read them.

    2016 was also the year I binged on Adrienne Rich: I started by picking up On Lies, Secrets and Silences (because I came across a quote from one of its essays exactly when I needed it) and there was no looking back after that. I loved The Dream of a Common Language, of course, but also What Is Found There and Blood, Bread and Poetry. Naturally I love Rich’s unapologetic feminism, which I found far more spacious and nuanced than I was expecting (I don’t know why; she’s not a household name for nothing). But most of all it was her voice, her use of language, that allowed her particular take on familiar subjects to resonate with me as much as I did. There’s a profound emotional and intellectual seriousness to Rich’s essays; a willingness to go as far as it takes, to peel back layer after layer of assumptions and prejudices. She’s willing to be tentative, to be wrong; to think things through and then to think again. She’s also deeply concerned with articulating what once seemed beyond the reach of language: her struggles to render into words her experiences as a woman and as a lesbian, and her generosity in making them visible to us, made speech seem a little more possible for me, too. Then there’s her poetry: these lines from “Splittings” — “I believe I am choosing something new / not to suffer uselessly / yet still to feel” — are a beacon I hope I can continue to move towards. As if all of this wasn’t enough, reading Rich led me to so much else — Michelle Cliff, Karen Brodine, rereading Audre Lorde, Three Guineas. My year would have been very different if I hadn’t discovered her.

    Favourite reads of 2016: Tehanu, Women, Race and Class, The Faraway Nearby, The Gentrification of the Mind, Citizen
    When it comes to fiction, I found no greater pleasure this year than in rereading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea. It was a partial reread (I still have to go back to A Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore), but it was enough to find out that although I love these books more than ever, my favourite has changed: it’s now Tehanu rather than The Tombs of Atuan. Tehanu left me in awe of Le Guin’s skill; she excels in capturing the delicate balance between accepting our inevitable vulnerability as human beings in a world we don’t control and fighting political disempowerment at every opportunity. It’s also a thoughtful, beautiful novel about gender roles, surviving abuse, and creating the sort of space where love and trust can flourish. I’ve actually just finished another Le Guin, The Dispossessed — much as with The Left Hand of Darkness, it took me a few attempts over the years to finally read this book from start to finish, but the time and effort were more than worthwhile. I might write more about it in January, if I find the time and my mood is right. I found it thoughtful and moving and very much worth chewing on.

    The other SFF author I spent a lot of time with this year was Madeleine L’Engle: I read The Small Rain, which was equal parts troubling, moving, and beautiful; carried on with the Time Quintet, of which A Wind in the Door is the stand-out so far; and, most memorably of all, I read the extraordinary Troubling a Star. I don’t always love L’Engle unreservedly, but at her best I really do adore her. Her best writing is so full of light, so generous, so thoughtful. She has the same gravity to her as Adrienne Rich, though it manifests itself very differently. Troubling a Star comes after A Ring of Endless Light, one of my favourite books from last year (and indeed by now a forever favourite). It follows Vicky Austin as she journeys to Antarctica, and it is, it seems to me, very much a novel about trust. Vicky survives the volatile situation she finds herself in partially because of her deliberate choice not to see human relationships only in adversarial terms. There’s more to this than a facile “see the best in others and you’ll make it so”. Perhaps a quote from Le Guin’s The Dispossessed will allow me to illustrate what I mean:
    We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we don’t reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is.
    I don’t know whether this makes sense to anyone else, but it does to me.

    I was drawn to Marilynne Robinson’s Lila for similar reasons, even though it’s a very different novel. It explores trust too — in this case a fragile sort of trust that becomes possible in the context of a small number of relationships, but with implications that extend beyond them. Robinson, too, is a writer of immense generosity. Lila was my favourite, but I was also impressed with Housekeeping; I hope to read more of her fiction in 2017.

    Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King, the long-anticipated end to her Raven Cycle, made my heart soar. As I said when I read it back in April, it’s a story about not being done, about continuing to find liminal places and unexpected magic and people to love. It reminded me that the world can feel “huge and unlimited and surprising”; I did my best to let this feeling guide me.

    Favourite Reads of 2016: How to Live, American Hunger, Labor of Love, Lila

    This year I read Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and The Faraway Nearby. I loved the former for a paragraph that starts “we treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and sensation of desire”; for the final chapter, with its unexpected, brief and moving glimpse into what it’s like to grow up in a house of horrors; and most of all for its celebration of uncertainly — of, once again, inhabiting nuance. As for The Faraway Nearby, it’s about Solnit’s fraught relationship with her mother, about caring for her during the years when she has dementia, about memory, and about how we attempt to organise the world and our lives through the stories we tell ourselves. As I said a few months ago, Solnit acknowledges narrative’s potential to lull us into betraying complexity for the sake of a story with a neat shape; nevertheless, she believes that through writing we can articulate the kind of nuanced, subtle truths we can’t really do justice to without a lot of context and of explaining. I think I believe that too.

    The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman is a book I really wish I had written about at length — I can only think of a few other books that feel this close to my heart politically. It’s a memoir of Schulman’s AIDS activism in the 80s and early 90s, a brilliant work of cultural, social and political analysis, and a tribute to the politics of radical structural transformation that drove queer activist in the period Schulman writes about, and which have been gradually eroded with the encroachment of neoliberalism. The Gentrification of the Mind is beautiful, moving, profoundly intelligent, kind, humane. There’s a lot I could highlight, but I’ll pick one thing: I was struck by Schulman’s description of hegemony thinking, her phrase for the sort of logic that encourages people to only acknowledge the humanity of others when they can be socially or professionally useful to them. She mentions it in the context of the New York theatre world, but I’ve encountered it in many context. It’s perhaps the one thing all the environments I felt deeply uncomfortable in have in common. It put me in mind of Granny Weatherwax: Evil is when you treat people as things.

    Depression: A Public Feeling by Ann Cvetkovich got at things that feel true to my experience. It does a brilliant job of exploring the relationship between the circumstances of Cvetkovich’s life — including the political climate she finds herself in, and the brutal reality of life under neoliberal capitalism — and how she feels on a day to day basis. As I said, I find much of what she describes to be true of me, too. Much of what I learned this year about articulating the links between public life and my private feelings was thanks to Cvetkovich. Plus this was another book that sent me in a hundred different directions: Depression is informed by the work of various artists, feminist writers and queer theorists, most of which I now desperately want to read.

    American Hunger by Richard Wright is the follow-up to Black Boy. I loved them both, but American Hunger moved me in ways I didn’t expect. I’d never come across a book that did such a good job of articulating isolation and yearning for belonging, for a community of equals, in terms that are both personal and political. Wright’s profound isolation is a direct result of growing up as a black man. When he moves to Chicago and becomes involved in left-wing politics, he experiences a lot of disappointment and heartache — but also movements of enormous hope and love, which he describes beautifully.

    I can’t believe how much I haven’t touched on yet: there’s Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, which was an unexpected delight and a perfect match for many of my preoccupations this year. Bakewell’s articulation of Montaingne’s “philosophy of unassumingness” is important to me. Labor of Love by Moira Weigel is a nuanced look at the intersection between love, work and money, and at how our very specific social and historical circumstances shape private arrangements we see as inevitable and freely chosen. Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class was brilliant from start to finish. As the titles indicates, it explores the relationship between sexism, racism and classism from a historical perspective, and it taught me a lot about the history of feminism in America. I’m permanently in awe of Angela Davis’ insight into how structural injustice works and how it perpetuates itself, and so grateful that she shares it with the world. And I also loved Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a beautiful amalgamation of poetry, essays and artwork that looks at racism from a perspective that is simultaneously structural and deeply personal.

    I want to finish by mentioning a book that didn’t quite make this list, but which has stayed with me: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. On the one hand, it includes a disappointing, knee-jerky, exhausting chapter full of clich├ęs about how technology is isolating people; on the other hand, its best sections are absolutely brilliant. The final three or four pages are among the best things I read all year. It’s hard not to call a book that has paragraphs like this a favourite:
    I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted. Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.
    The following were also meaningful and memorable reads, even if I didn’t manage to fit them into this recap: On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole, Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, Communion by bell hooks, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde, Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julia Scheele, Binny Bewitched by Hilary McKay, Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking by Karen Brodine, Necessity by Jo Walton, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution by Shiri Eisner, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, That’s Revolting! edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.

    I’ll stick to tradition in one small regard and finish with my reading statistics. I’ve been writing the same disclaimer for the better part of a decade, so here’s the abbreviated version: I’m interested in numbers not so I can compete with myself or with others, but because I find it interesting to trace patterns in my reading across the years and link them to what’s going on in my life and in the world at large. Lastly, and as I’ve also explained before, the following categories don’t add up to 100% because several of them overlap:

    Total books read: 144 (4% down from last year)
    From my TBR pile: 28 (19%)
    E-books: 26 (18%)
    Library Books: 47 (33%)
    New Releases: 36 (25%)
    Rereads: 6 (4%)

    Here I had to pause and wonder where on earth the majority of the books I read this year had come from, as none of these categories seems to dominate. I knew I’d read fewer new releases, but not that library books had gone up and that books from my TBR pile had gone down so dramatically. I was convinced that I’d bought fewer books than in previous years, but I think that what happened was that I did a better job of reading whatever I’d brought straight away (I only include books in the “From my TBR pile category” if I’ve owned them for longer than two months at the time when I read them). I suppose that’s an improvement of sorts. Anyway—

    Novels: 38 (26%)
    Short Story Collections and Anthologies: 0
    Comics/Graphic Novels: 30 (21%)
    Non-Fiction: 70 (49%)
    Poetry: 12 (8%)
    By Women: 110 (76%)
    By Men: 18 (12.5%)
    By Men and Women: 11 (8%)
    By Non-Binary authors: 6 (4%)
    By People of Colour: 37 (26%)
    By lgbtq authors: 48 (33%)
    By new to me authors (fiction only): 6 (8%)
    Favourite writers discovered this year: Maggie Nelson, Adrienne Rich, Martha Nussbaum.
    Best reading month: January (21 books)
    Worst reading month: July (5 books)

    Do tell me about your reading in 2016, friends — I would love to hear all about it.
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    Dec 24, 2016

    Happy Holidays

    Cat reaching for Christmas bauble
    I wanted to wish those of you who celebrate it a very lovely Christmas, and a wonderful weekend anyway even if you don’t. I know this can be a rough time of year even at the best of times; my love to anyone who’s struggling.

    As for me, I feel especially ambivalent about the holiday season this year, but I’m also acutely aware that I have a tremendous amount to be grateful for. All the same, I found our good old friend Chaucer’s reminder this morning very useful:
    This year I’m at my parents’ for the holidays, where I get to watch a battle fought since times immemorial: Kitten vs Christmas Tree. Guess who’s winning so far?

    All the best to you, friends. Thank you so much for reading and being here.

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