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.

22 comments:

  1. Some really fascinating books there. I haven't read any of them, but I did come across When Breath Becomes Air and thought it looked really interesting. And I totally understand your point. It is easy (the wrong word, simplistic maybe) to say that one's dedication to a job is a calling and people who cannot devote all their waking hours to it don't have that calling when you do not know what other pressures they are under.
    Like saying someone should have spent more time studying when they also had to hold down a job in order to pay the rent and buy food.

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    1. Yeah, it's difficult and it doesn't happen in a vacuum. Anyway, despite my complicated feelings about this one aspect of it the book definitely is worth reading!

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  2. It's not that I didn't love the amazing, insightful long book reviews you used to write, because you know damn well how very much I did. But Ana, these posts you write about your reading experiences, I love them every bit as much. Even more, I think. I just love hearing about how people *experience* a book, and you do that better than anyone I know. You have always had this way of making strive to be a better reader and a better person. And somehow these posts make that desire all the stronger. They make me want to go deeper and feel more and somehow ultimately be more. If none of that makes sense outside my head, feel free to just pat me on the head and say, "That's nice, Debi." :P

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    1. You know I'd never say that, right? :P Thank you for letting me know you enjoy them - that's lovely to hear.

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  3. I'm making note of a lot of these books and reminding myself that I need to read more poetry. I have not read much by Adrienne Rich but I love the snippet you posted.

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    1. She's incredible - I'm so glad I finally made time for her this year.

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  4. Looks like some great reads there! I am reading The Underground Railroad, the buzz book of the moment, and really enjoying it so far!

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    1. I haven't read that yet, but I'm glad to hear it's as good as it sounds!

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  5. Your words about Black Boy/American Hunger brought my reading of it all back to me. It was a big, important book for me. And I agree on the job vs calling thing in regards to the Kalanithi book as you wrote about it. I don't think it is a fair judgement or that it is a helpful distinction. Rather it is an individual choice.

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    1. Yes, which for so many of us is made in less than ideal circumstances. It makes me sad not to see that acknowledged.

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  6. You read a lot on your trip! I can never read on airplanes; too much stuff going on, and I get too stressed.

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    1. I'm fine on planes and trains, but buses or long car rides are impossible for me.

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  7. I, too, find it hard to read when I'm travelling (which I do rarely anyhow): there are so many other things to think about and look at instead. I'm glad to hear you treated yourself to some new volumes upon your return, as a reward for past restraint: that restores a semblance of balance, doesn't it!

    Have you read anything by Michelle Cliff, Adrienne Rich's longtime partner? I just read her Free Enterprise last year, which tells another side of the better-known Harper's Ferry event, and was quite struck by her tale-telling. You might like it too.

    I just finished the second volume of N.K. Jemison's Inheritance trilogy (The Broken Kingdoms" and am now reading David Chariandy's Soucouyant and Alice Mattison's latest, The Kite and the String, about the writing process and balancing the need for freedom with the need to control the story and make it a good one for readers.

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    1. I haven't, but I actually got If I Could Write This In Fire just the other day! I'm really looking forward to reading it.

      Your reading all sounds excellent. I so need more Jemison in my life.

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  8. I put Labor of Love on hold immediately, because it sounds like it might fit in well with a conversation I was having with a couple of friends recently.

    Currently reading Julie Phillips' biography of James Tiptree Jr/Alice B. Sheldon which is punching me right in all my feels, so I highly recommend it. (Heh.)

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    1. I actually own that already! Now I just have to make the time for it.

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  9. Labor of Love sounds intriguing. And I totally am with you on having misgivings about the whole "calling" = willing to work incredibly long hours and sacrifice the rest of your life idea.

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    1. Right? It's worrying how prevalent that idea is, though.

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  10. Okay, I have been underselling Labor of Love in my own mind! I saw it at the library yesterday and slightly turned up my nose at it, but next time I am there, I will not do so. :p

    Not having read the Kalanithi book, I will say that I have real problems with the idea that asking for a reasonable work/life balance means you aren't committed or in love with a given job. If you perpetually explain away high attrition by locating the fault in the person, when the common denominator is the job, then you're setting the job free of any obligation to evolve and improve. Which: troubling. Certainly there are a hell of lot of terrific -- to take one example -- social workers who've been put off the field forever because of impossible hours, burned-out coworkers, and insanely low pay. It's not a dichotomy of devoted to the work vs not devoted to the work, and pretending that it IS is a severe disservice TO the work.

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    1. yay! Let me know what you think :D Weigel is really smart and perceptive and makes so many good points.

      And yes, exactly - as always, you put it perfectly ♥ ♥ ♥ I read a really good book about this last year (Do What You Love by Miya Tokumitsu) which I think you'd enjoy.

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  11. I have a lot of different (positive) feelings reading your post. I followed your trip on Instagram (trip. of. a. lifetime!). I love that you were reading about Chicago while travelling around the US for some reason.

    The quote at the bottom of your post about a few passionate people being able to change the world made me think of the BLM movement and watching it unfold until it became a solidified entity, rather than another hashtag that passed the world by. Something about the way it became more really made me stop and think about how this time, these years, would be considered by future generations.

    I'm rambling. I'll shut it. This was beautiful to read - you have always had a wonderful way with words.

    (formerly lena)

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    1. Lena! Thank you so much - your comment made me really happy. And yes, BLM is a very good example. It has been important to me these past few years to believe in the importance of individual action, while at the same time acknowledging that real change happens when all those actions come together to form something huge.

      Also, when I was with Chris and Eva we were all talking about how lovely you are and how much we miss your blog. Just so you know ♥

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.