My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An easy-to-read, enjoyable story that left in me with resounding empathy for the immigrant experience. Jende and Neni are Cameroonian immigrants living and working in New York City during the advent of the recent economic crisis. Mbue is not writing a fairytale and her characters are flawed and human – often painfully so. Cameroon’s male-dominant culture nods at us through the seams of this tapestry. Jende, who we spend the whole book getting to know and love, hits his wife. Neni, his wife, blackmails a former employer with unexpected and devastating consequences. Throughout the book I was at once rooting for them to stay, despite all the setbacks, and wondering at the fierceness of their determination. Many times I caught myself thinking they should just do this or do that, and then realizing that they can’t because these privileges are not available to people without American citizenship. This is a snapshot of a world I could never occupy, and as such, occupies the league good literature. I would like this to be on Trump’s required reading list.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a fierce and captivating book; I couldn’t put it down. The underground airlines are not airlines, just as the Underground Railroad was not a railroad; rather it is a symbolic term for a collection of independent cells working to free enslaved people in the ‘four’ – AKA the four states in which slavery is still legal. Winters does a marvelous job at imagining what America would look like if slavery had not been abolished. Not ‘how shitty the world would be if barbarians ran it still’, but really: what would modern-day human enslavement look like? How would it be justified? How would it be seen by the rest of the world? And he keeps these contextual details on the sidelines, giving just enough to construct a very believable world. The real heart of this book, though, is the main character, Victor, who is layers and layers of human: flawed, lovable, and immensely talented. Victor who painfully dishonest. Victor who, throughout the story, is shedding the lies he tells himself in order to survive. Winters’ prose is sound and his imagination is magnificent and, more importantly, he is a keen observer of human nature in all its intricacy.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Did you know trees communicate? Neither did I. The content of this book is fascinating and pretty easy to understand for a lay person. I found the science a little tedious so unless you enjoy science reading, I recommend you skip the book and read Maria Popova’s delightful breakdown, The Secret Life of Trees: The Astonishing Science of What Trees Feel and How They Communicate in which she quotes the most important bits, the bits that will give wings to your heart and open your eyes to the magnificent community of forest-dwelling, living-being trees.
I listened to this podcast, but since it has been made into a book, I thought I’d give it a review. Becoming Wise takes the best snippets if wisdom from Krista Tippett’s On Being conversations and squishes them together into twenty, bite-sized parts. It’s a great way to wade into On Being if you, like me, feel somewhat intimidated by the sheer volume of episodes and don’t know where to start. My favorites were Maria Popova, Matthew Sanford, Bessel van der Kolk, and John O’Donohue – but there were none that I didn’t enjoy. If you’re looking for something to remind you of what is important in the most fundamental way, and if that something needs to be accessible to you while you wash dishes or take a dump, this is your jam. Follow it up with more On Being, possibly the best podcast in the world.
It took me a long time to start this book, and once I did, a long time to finish it. First of all, the subject sounded boring. Second: the size of this tome and its sequel are frankly intimidating. Then I cracked it and it was amazing. It begins with Thomas Cromwell being beat within an inch of his life by his father, staring at the lacings on his boot as he lays on the cobblestones in a pool of his own blood. And then Cromwell does what all survivors of abuse do: he survives. He runs away from England and learns a three-card trick and makes friends and becomes a soldier and eventually finds his way back to England where he marries and becomes lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (fancy!) and then adviser to the king. What kept him alive on the cobblestones, the resourcefulness that he learned surviving on his own as a young man on the continent, alone and without familial support, make him a source of intrigue to those who know him – able to speak confidently with a king but with no title or claim to power, other than the knowledge of his own heart. Mantel’s rendering of him is masterful and intimate. I feel close to the man, I feel I know him, I feel some how that he is me.
NOTE: I have not finished all 531 glorious pages of this book yet, but I feel like it is time to put it down for a while as I explore other rich narratives.
This is easily my favorite book of 2016; I can’t wait for it to be old so that I can afford to buy it and underline everything. Olivia Laing is a genre-bending beast of artistry. Her own journey of post-breakup loneliness evolves into an exploration of the subject itself, its taboo a source of intrigue, a gravity she organizes herself around. She compassionately explores the lives of a handful of visual artists who have been deeply touched – perhaps even scarred – by loneliness. These biographies serve to illuminate the social factors that create isolation; they are platforms from which to leap into discussion about how marginalized people survive, what isolates populations, and how important connection is. This is a work of deep celebration of human resourcefulness and resiliency, grounded in the struggles of real people who made in order to survive. You do not need to have an interest in visual art or art history in order to be moved deeply by these portraits.
This is a weird and wonderful little book of experimental fiction that reads like poetry. In it, Marco Polo is telling Kaublai Khan, an emperor, about the cities he has visited. At some point it becomes clear to Kublai that he is, in fact, describing the same city over and over again. the book consists of tiny, poetic “chapters” that are the descriptions of this city. The context seems a fairly obvious literary device, similar to the walls of a home: it allows life to be contained within. Each chapter is delightful adventure of the senses. This line, above all, encapsulates the enchanting quality of this book: “There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain, and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres”.
May Sarton’s journals should be consumed as a series meditations on the inner life of an artist – and by artists, I mean any human in relentless pursuit of their own authentic life. I could have done without the detailed descriptions of flowers, but then again, they seemed to be sources of awe and inspiration for Sarton. Not so much for me. More than anything else, what I got from this book was validation that my own deep desire for solitude is wholesome and that I am not alone in that need. My favorite quote:
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange- that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations’.”
I tend to indulge my celebrity crushes (usually writers) heartily, nursing a few at a time, often the authors the books I’m currently reading. My ferocious inquiry into how these humans tick informs a lot of the listening I do. Podcast Addict has a function that allows the user to add a search based podcast to the list of podcast subscriptions, so at the top of my podcast list are the names and faces of whomever has most recently captured my curiosity.
Right now I am voraciously consuming all the interviews I can find with Anthony Doerr, one of my favorite authors – a writer whose skill at the craft is a marvel of otherworldly dimension. Here is one of my favorites:
Hilary Mantel, an author who was brought to my attention by Mr. Doer in an interview with The NY Times about what he likes to read, is the prize-winning author of Wolf Hall, which I am currently reading (and Bring Up The Bodies, its sequel). These historical novels revolve around Thomas Cromwell, a weathered and worldly man of low birth who becomes adviser to King Henry VIII.
Admittedly, this sounds boring; and Tudor England is a notoriously thorny subject, which is why Mantel’s rendering of Cromwell’s life, rich with internal landscape and personal growth, is especially masterful. I quite like the main character and identify with him deeply: his brutal past, his sensitivity, the space he occupies between these polarized selves. The passage below is a touching demonstration of how he cloaks his empathy in the masculine roughness demanded by the time.
Marginalia – those terribly valuable observations you jot in the margins of books – is something I re-learned from Maria Popova, the author and curator of Brainpickings, a wildly successful blog, and one of few that I read religiously.
Popova writes about the meaning she derives from whatever she is currently reading, often the out-of-print diaries and letters of long-dead writers and artists. Sometimes she also reads and reports on newer explorations of timeless wisdom, like The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, a captivating work that “thrives between genres” about the relationship between loneliness and art [source]. You can listen to a short reading from the book about loneliness and technology on the Guardian Long Read.
What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time, these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.” -Olivia Laing, The Lonely City
While Doerr and Mantel are, to me, exalted giants of literature whose feet I am unfit to wash, Popova and Laing are flesh-and-blood role-models, closer to my own age and writing in that nebulous personal-essay-meets-memoir-meets-non-fiction genre that feels like home to me. What do they do all day? How do they support themselves? When do they work out*, what do they love to eat, how did they find the courage to pursue these writing dreams? These are the things I ache to know.
*Turns out Maria Popova, a native Bulgarian, was previously a competitive body builder and runs sprints at the gym while she reads.