Aug 23, 2016

New York

I knew from the start this was not going to be the trip to see New York. I only spent one day and a half in the city, but I was at a music festival for my one full day; while there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather have been doing, this did mean decisions had to be made. So, in my one morning in New York City I had breakfast with the amazing Clare, and then we went to the Strand.

The Strand was an easy pick. If I’d had a little longer I’d have gone to the main branch of the New York Public Library too; but that, along with everything else I’d like to see and do in New York, will have to wait until next time. After NYC I went Upstate to Rochester, to spend time with Debi, Chris and Eva, some of my oldest blogging friends. The quiet and the lovely trees and the relatively cooler weather were a welcome change after an intense and exhausting week. I couldn’t have asked for a better end to my trip.

One last batch of photos:

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Aug 21, 2016

Sunday Reading Update

Red Rosa by Kate Evans, Mauda Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, Labor of Love by Moira Weigel, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
My reading has slowed down considerably over the past month or so, both because I was travelling and because since I came back I’ve been dwelling on my travels, in ways I don’t necessarily want to distract myself from. Still, I read some amazing books, and I do miss writing about my reading, so the timing seemed right for a quick update.

As I told you the other week, on the flight to Chicago I read Gwendolyn Brooks’ beautiful Maud Martha, which tells the story of a black woman in Chicago during the first half of the twentieth century through a series of vignettes. I adored the writing, and I’m planning to get one of Brooks’ poetry collections as soon as I can buy books again (alas, my library is no help).

My other airplane book was Richard Wright’s American Hunger, which is also set in Chicago. American Hunger is a sequel to Wright’s memoir Black Boy, though calling it that is actually a bit inaccurate — Wright intended for them to be published as a single volume, and they were restored to that format in the Library of America edition after his death. Anyway, I loved them both; there’s a lot I could say about them, but what struck me the most about American Hunger is how well it captures something I’ve experienced in the past few years of my life but have struggled to articulate: Wright’s description of his involvement with left-wing politics once he moved to Chicago gets to the heart of the relationship between public and emotional life (obviously in Wright’s case the sense of isolation he experienced previously was profoundly shaped by race). He writes about how the sense of belonging he longs for and finally encounters is every bit as personal as it is political; about how the feeling grabs hold of you emotionally and helps everything else falls into place; about finally coming close to “a life in which there was a constant oneness of feeling with others, in which the basic emotions of life were shared, in which common memory formed a common past, in which collective hope reflected a national future”. Sadly it’s not long until things begin to go very wrong indeed for Wright, and that, too, has its parallels with so much of what we see in the world today. There’s a lot of sorrow in American Hunger, but there are also moments that shine brightly.

While I was away I read Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language — I read it twice, once in fits and starts in Virginia and then again through long delays at the airport in New York. I don’t feel quite done with it yet, so there might be another read coming in the near future. I was, for many reasons, only giving it half my attention when I first read it in Virginia, but even then there were lines that made me tear up. I was struck by this, from “A Woman Dead in her Forties”:
Most of our love took the form
of mute loyalty

we never spoke at your deathbed of your death

but from here on
I want more crazy mourning, more howling, more keening

We stayed mute and disloyal
because we were afraid

I would have touched my fingers
to where your breasts had been
but we never did such things
The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich

There’s a lot here that’s important to me; a lot about love and fear and how to live in the world that I want to come back to. And it’s only now, as I sit down to write this, that it becomes obvious to me that much of what Rich’s book is about is the same feeling of personal and political commonality, the same longing, that Wright captures so well in American Hunger.

Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel was another travel acquisition. I knew I wanted to read it the moment I read this conversation between Weigel and Laurie Penny, in which Penny described the book as “a radical Marxist feminist tract disguised as a salmon-pink self-help book”. I loved it: Weigel writes perceptively about love, work, money and the multiple and not always obvious ways these things are intertwined. She also writes about how the private arrangements we think of as inevitable are in fact the result of very specific social and historical circumstances. Lest this sound cynical, rest assured that it’s not. Another thing Weigel is concerned with is exploring the possibility of genuine, reciprocal, sustaining connections between people: how we can experience them once we stop avoiding discussing how interpersonal ties are profoundly shaped by social inequalities, and once we define love as encompassingly as it deserves to be defined. I was very moved by these two paragraphs from the afterword:
The point of recognising the labor of love is not to reject it but to reclaim it, to insist that it be distributed equally and directed towards ends that we in fact desire. In dating or a relationship, seeing the labor of love for what it is allows us to conduct a simple test: Is what you’re doing worth it? How much do you want, and how much is too much to give? There is a difference between putting off something that is bothering you until a time you are confident you and your partner can discuss it productively and burying it because you fear that admitting anger will make you undesirable. There is a difference between making constant demands on a partner and admitting when you feel vulnerable. The difference is exploitation. Love demands that we recognize and refrain from it.
When we have the freedom to direct the way we perform it, labor is not a liability. It is a source of strength. Once we have clarity, we benefit from acknowledging the ways in which love itself is work. It is a productive force. In order to harness it, we must be vulnerable. To feel incomplete, to thus yearn for others, always means being able to be hurt. It is through the fearful process of recognizing our needs and showing them to others that we grow.
Last week I finished Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, which I picked up because it caught my eye at the library. Kalanithi, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with lung cancer when he was close to completing his training; he wrote this memoir, which is deeply preoccupied with how to live meaningfully, during the final two years of his life. My feelings about it were in many ways similar to Rohan Maitzen’s, and you should definitely read her thoughtful review if you’re interested in the book. The other thing I want to say feels somewhat ungenerous, especially considering that When Breath Becomes Air is a dying man’s memoir, undoubtedly hastier than it would have been in different circumstances — and moreover, considering how it is itself written with such generosity. Having said that, getting bogged down by these considerations to such an extent that I don’t say anything at all is probably not the most useful way to approach literature. So I’ll proceed, with the obvious disclaimer that I’m aware of the constraints that shaped the kind of book Kalanithi was able to write. Being the reader and the person that I am, though, I had a series of questions constantly running through my head about Kalanithi’s relationship with work, and about how so much of his sense of meaning is tied up with it. For him, neurosurgery is a vocation, and he feels strongly about not allowing “considerations of lifestyle” (his term for concerns about work/life balance) to drive him away from his path. The thing is, some of the colleagues he tells us he saw quit for less demanding areas of medicine are women, and I couldn’t help but think about how gendered expectations and social inequalities play into that.

Also, as much as my own relationship with work is different from a neurosurgeon’s, in many ways and for many reasons, it seems to me that 18-hour-long workdays seven days a week are less the inevitable result of following a vocation and more the result of the specific way we’ve chosen to organise the world, healthcare provision included. Kalanithi says at one point that anyone who is distracted by such concerns is after a job rather than a calling, which seems to me too dismissive; too simplistic an explanation. It doesn’t have to be this way. Again, I’m not saying it’s fair to have expected him to write about that, especially when he was racing against time, but this was the elephant in the room a reader with my particular sensibilities couldn’t help but be aware of, and which unfortunately prevented me from engaging with Kalanithi’s genuinely moving search for meaning in quite the way I would have liked.

After that I finally read Kate Evans’ Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, which had been tempting me ever since it was shortlisted for the Bread & Roses award. It was amazing and heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time; I especially loved the final two panels, which put me in mind of this passage from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark:
Cause and effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes a person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty
Final two pages of Red Rosa, juxtaposing Rosa Luxemburg's grave with modern day social protests

Right now I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, partially because I’ve always wanted to and partially because of something Adrienne Rich wrote — that it was Woolf’s most radical book, and that the way it talks about family and community still felt relevant to the concerns of 1970s feminists (and no doubt to today’s). I’m also about a third of the way into Kij Johnson’s new novella, The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe; I adore her work, and so far this one lives up to all my expectations. After that I think I’ll probably go back to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which I put aside last month because it’s not really a book to read while travelling and I very much want to do it justice. I also have a few other books out from the library that I should probably get around to — Sharon Marcus’ Between Women, because I live in constant fear that someone will weed it when my back is turned; Naomi Novik’s final Temeraire book, League of Dragons, which I’m very much looking forward to when the time is right; and Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, which I requested ages ago and has finally arrived. I also recently returned Emma Cline’s The Girls unread: I expect I’ll read it at some point, but it really didn’t feel like the kind of thing I’m in the mood for at the moment.

Oh, and I may or may not have gone on a mini book buying spree in London the other day, to make up for all the months of restraint while I saved for my trip. In my defence, they’re all books I’m desperate to read (in fact, I finished one already).

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, Selected Diaries by Virginia Woolf, Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki, At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell, The Red Virgin and the Visions of Utopia by Mary and Bryan Talbot and Red Rosa by Kate Evans
They’re all currently piled up on my living room floor, along with the books I got at the Strand (more on which next week), quietly demanding my attention.

Have a lovely Sunday, everyone, and please do tell me about your reading if you’re so inclined.

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Aug 17, 2016

Virginia and DC (Or: that time I found Cabeswater and went to the Library of Congress)

Virginia was my third US destination, with a brief detour into DC along the way. I spent less than a full day in the city, which is nowhere near enough for everything I’d have liked to see and do: I didn’t get to go to any of the many museums, or do a tour of the monuments, or catch up with blogging friends in the area, all of which really make me want to go back. Having said that, my day in DC was still perfect. After considering my options carefully, I picked two very bookish places — the Library of Congress and Politics & Prose — and had a wonderful time at both. Also, my friend and I listened to Hamilton on the drive there, and I timed it so “The Room Where it Happened” was playing as we reached the city, and needless to say that’s one of my very favourite memories of the whole trip.

A few photos:

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Aug 14, 2016


It was only a very specific set of circumstances that took me to Colorado: I didn’t think I’d ever visit, let alone on my first trip to the US. The circumstances proved serendipitous, though, because I fell in love with Denver and the surrounding area. I loved the wide open skies and tones of red, yellow and orange; the striking mountain vistas; the wildlife; the inexhaustible Denver Art Museum; and even the unpredictable and dramatic weather. On my first night in Denver I stood in the backyard of the house where I was staying with friends and we watched a lightning storm in the distance: the clouds were far away enough that we couldn’t even hear the thunder, but we watched the lightning light up the clouds from behind for ages. I also loved the quick, intense late afternoon summer storms I witnessed every day I was there, and the beautiful light that followed them. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back one day, and catch up with the blogging friends I managed to miss this time around.

A few photos:

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Aug 11, 2016


Chicago was the first stopping point of my two week trip to the US, and the city where I spent the longest. While there was plenty I would have loved to see but couldn’t fit in (like, say, the Newberry Library), I feel that I used my time there very well. I managed to fit in most of my priorities, and divide my time between a range of activities which gave me a good feel for the city. Chicago was absolutely beautiful, in a way that was completely different from but no less impressive than my favourite European cities. I’m sure it also helps that I had the amazing Aarti to show me around on one of the days — not only for her insider knowledge, but because getting to spend time with lovely people I’ve known online for ages made this trip infinitely better.

Although I didn’t visit any bookshops until I reached my third destination (I know; I’m as shocked as you are), there were still plenty of bookish connections in my Chicago adventures, which hopefully some of you will enjoy reading about and looking at. Here goes:

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