Marginalia: On Tending One’s Own Garden.

Well, what an extraordinary time we are living through. Please believe me when I write that I hope – and so sincerely – that this finds you and your loved ones well, safe, and healthy. Life feels very hectic in our home, where we’ve been in total lockdown for over a month. Never have I found it more difficult to tend to my own garden whilst holding the reality that what lies outside of it is in total, tragic collapse. I know I am not alone in expressing how difficult it is to verbalise what is going through my mind and heart at the moment; the incessant news updates, interrupted by panicked meltdowns (and not just from my children), have made thinking clearly a distant memory. Recently, however, after a conversation with a dear friend, I sat down for a few hours, and tried – so arduously –  to get something other than garbled panic out of my mind. The result is both below and published as a part of The Navigator, a new series of writing The Point People is creating throughout this crisis. I hope you can feel some of these sentiments, too.   

Below my thoughts, you will find the latest issue of Marginalia, which will now be a more frequent occurrence. The newsletters will be shorter, but I will be sending them more often; I am finding that nothing calms me more than the perfect poem, melody, or work of art. 

I would love to hear what is helping you get through this time. Please hit reply and let me know; I am always excited to hear from you, and would especially love to during this time. 

Sending you much love, 

Kyra 


Medieval monks, I heard recently, believed that the world was a book, and that moments of transcendence – what I imagine Virginia Woolf would have called “moments of being”  – are those rare, wholly ecstatic, and sublime flashes of light that allow us to read a few lines before it all goes dark once again.  

It is often said now that the world – our book, if we continue with this monastic train of thought – has indeed gone dark (“I hope you are well during these dark and uncertain times,” reads one e-mail; “The lights have come off,” offers a headline). It is as if humanity is experiencing a prolonged total eclipse – “the sun,” as Annie Dillard wrote in her stunning 1982 account of an eclipse, “was going, and the world was wrong.” 

The world being wrong is a sentiment I am, at the best of times, completely overwhelmed by. The irresolvable tension between the sublime  and the everyday gnaws away at my soul, often leading to tortured admonishments that tell me how little I know of how to live a good life, or how impossible it is to derive meaning from daily existence. These extraordinary moments, when you can read those few, sacred lines, when the world comes alive and you can feel the life quivering inside it, are – so much of the time –  inaccessible to me. The words of Lily Briscoe, from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, often circle around in my mind:

“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!” 

I am aware of how easy, or clichéd, it is to say that I will now hold dear all that this radical suspension of normal life has exposed as meaningful, but that before was veiled by the numbing effects of habit. But this, precisely, is what I am now holding in my heart: some of the most melancholy moments of this tragic time happen when, like in a vivid dream, what has been lost appears (it is right there!) and yet you cannot reach for it. Our friends are in front of us, two metres away, perhaps, while they drop off a batch of homemade pasta, or a loaf of freshly baked bread, or, even, a glorious pile of books, and yet we are unable to touch them. 

The impossibility of fulfilling our deeply held longing for those tiny, ordinary, daily intimacies – even, perhaps especially, with strangers – is one of the many losses that illuminates the inseparability of dailiness from the ecstatic. They are not, as I was utterly convinced they were, opposing forces. There is always, it feels right now, a quality of the sublime – that longed for “moment of being,” when the world is a book you can read – in the everyday. 

Yes, the world is a different, and in so many desperately tragic ways, a darker place than it was only a couple of months ago. But as with everything, there is a crack – and through it, the light gets in, enough of it, even, so that we can read what this moment might be trying to tell us.   


1. Because I mentioned both Virginia Woolf and a total eclipse of the sun, it is only fitting that I include a magnificent letter she wrote recounting her experience of witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. How fitting these words are to our current moment:

“We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.”

“We had seen the world dead.” Does that not just punch you in the gut? 

I also recommend highly that you listen to the wonderful writer and academic, Katherine Angel, reading the letter in its entirety. 

2. To continue with Virginia Woolf, I cannot stop reading Hermione Lee’s gargantuan biography of her life. I am about a third of the way through, and even more deeply in love with how brilliant, complex, and utterly extraordinary Woolf was. She so lucidly captured the shocks, horrors, and joys of simply existing as part of the human race. 

3. I am feeling every line of this poem right now, particularly: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like wild geese.” And remember, during this time of people showing just how productive they’re being during lockdown: “You do not have to be good.”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver. 

4. My sons and I are addicted to making tiny zines (they’re so easy!). Every morning, we write a story based on a letter from the alphabet (for my youngest son). Often, I will make some on my own for them to go through, usually about something I’ve read or watched, or what we did that day – so far, we’ve made some on The Beatles, Virginia Woolf, and Picasso. I’m sharing them on Instagram

5. Nick Cave delivered the most perfect response to one of his fans, who asked him what he plans to work on during this time of enforced isolation. The man is a treasure: 

“For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is — what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together — throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all — so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.”

6. I’m staunchly secular, but recently I have found myself praying. It felt crazy, until this, from Nick Cave (again) came through my Inbox: 

“A prayer provides us with a moment in time where we can contemplate the things that are important to us, and this watchful application of our attention can manifest these essential needs. The act of prayer asks of us something and by doing so delivers much in return — it asks us to present ourselves to the unknown as we are, devoid of pretence and affectation, and to contemplate exactly what it is we love or cherish. Through this conversation with our inner self we confront the nature of our own existence.”

7. Before the severity of the virus hit, I was on a good run of reading. I adored Jenny Oddell’s “How to Do Nothing,” a gorgeous, urgent, and timely critique of the insidious forces that compete for our attention. Drawing on art, critical theory, and ecological thinking, she beautifully redefines what we think of as productivity, and offers us a new way to connect with the world. There is no better moment to read this book.

8. I practically inhaled Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, a truly riveting and extraordinarily crafted book on The Troubles in Northern Ireland. While the book centres around the unsolved murder of a mother of ten, Keefe has this unbelievable power to seamlessly zoom in and out of the conflict, illuminating both the large and small of a long and bloody war. 

9. Soho Theatre has made the first iteration of Fleabag – the one woman act with Phoebe Waller-Bridge – available for streaming. You can can rent it for a small donation, the proceeds of which will go to charities dedicated to supporting those most affected by Covid-19. 

10. And, as always, a quote from my commonplace book. I keep thinking about this one. In the midst of World War II, Virginia Woolf urges her husband, Leonard, to listen to one of Hitler’s speeches. He refuses to, continuing to work on his garden, the irises from which will flower, he says, long after Hitler is dead: 

“I will end … with a little scene that took place in the last months of peace. They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler — the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers. … Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: ‘Hitler is making a speech.’ I shouted back, ‘I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.’ Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.”

Marginalia: On Longing.

Hello lovely people,

Marginalia is, once again, back. There is an explanation for my recent – and long – silence: in May 2019, I began my studies to retrain as a High School English and History teacher. While I have for many years known that this is the path I want to travel, the decision to finally embark on it was difficult, riddled with anxiety at the unknown of it all: the discomfort of learning something new; the real possibility of not being very good at it; and the highly likely risk that I’d become that annoying mature student – relishing a second chance at university – who wants to learn as much as it is humanly possible. The first half of my studies, however, were heavenly. There is such surprising comfort in being an amateur at this juncture in your life: in becoming that much more aware of what you don’t know, you begin to notice all of those aspects of your existence that the deadening effects of habit have dulled. While it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a perfect year, it felt like a privilege to spend weeks reading about a book, and then sitting down to write about it.

I do hope you all had a wonderful year. What did you love last year? Please let me know!

With love,

Kyra


1. Because I was so knackered at the end of the day, I did watch quite a bit of television last year. After the obligatory ten year gap, I re-watched The Wire, which is even better than I remembered. I had to press pause countless of times to yell out: “Every word! Every word on this show is poetry!” The fourth season, like the last time I watched it, blew me apart.  I thoroughly enjoyed and was very moved by the second season of Fleabag, which, in my opinion, beautifully shows us how the world can open up when you let people see you. While I know Ricky Gervais is controversial, I loved his most recent show, After Life. It is a gorgeous, and much needed, retort against the cynicism that so many of us struggle not get caught up with. Finally, I adored Nick Hornby’s new show, State of the Union; it’s a funny and witty exploration of marriage and the compromises it requires.

2. On the podcast front: I crushed hard on Radiolab’s new  spin-off podcast about Dolly Parton, “Dolly Parton’s America“; The New York Times’ three-chapter story on the fascinating royal family of Oudh, based on this excellent piece; and “The History of Philosophy without Any Gaps,” which does exactly what it says on the tin.

3. Early this year, our family suffered a great loss, and I have been finding comfort in the writing of others: Jill Lepore made me cry with her piece on the loss of her best friend; Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” always comforts with its moving yet surgical approach to grief; and Denise Riley, who lost her son, wields language to create something stunning out of such horror in “Time Lived, Without Its Flow” (which was just re-issued by Picador, with a gorgeous introduction by Max Porter).

4. While I read fewer novels this year, I was forced – because of my studies – to read very deeply. I read and wrote about Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” which I think is – next to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” – my favourite ever book. There is something about Virginia Woolf, and this book, that just transforms. It is about the melancholy of unfulfilled longing; of the epistemological impossibility of truly knowing another; of the impermanence of it all. Even its form evokes melancholy; in its transitions from one centre of consciousness to another, the reader is left always suspended, always longing for more, always wanting and not having.

“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

5. Along with “To the Lighthouse,” I also wrote about Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which deserves a read at least once every year. What a genius book, one which uses language to unearth those wilfully forgotten aspects of history that must be honoured. And oh, is a Toni Morrison rabbit hole glorious: her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture; her short, yet awesome piece on work in The New Yorker; and the whole of “Playing in the Dark,” her brilliant collection of literary criticism.

6. Because I spent loads of time writing at home, I became obsessed with finding good “study music.” Nina Simone, interspersed with Lizzo, really worked for me.

7. I read three of Jane Austen’s novels: “Northanger Abbey”; “Sense and Sensibility”; and “Pride and Prejudice,” and each felt so brilliantly current in its critique of the costs of constantly needing to socialise. On this note, I loved this piece: Is Jane Austen the Antidote to Social Media Overload?” Yes, yes she is.

8. Kathryn Schultz makes a great case for not seeing book-buying as a luxury. It’s an absolute and total necessity.

9. Late last year, I had the complete privilege to hear Zadie Smith speak (I later hyperventilated in front of her as she signed my enormous pile of books). Her piece on the value of reading fiction, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,” is probably the best thing I read all year.

10. As always, a random quote from my Commonplace Book, in a letter to his son, Ted Hughes meditates on our inner child:

When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. . . . But in many other ways obviously you are still childish — how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making ‘no contact’. But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.

Marginalia: On Loneliness.

Hello lovely people,

Happy March. This one is coming a little later than planned, but, at least, it arrives! In true keeping with the dilemma I was whining about in the last Marginalia — how difficult it is to take your time to consume things in a deeper way  — I’ve read, watched and listened to much less this month, and instead spent loads of time writing notes and thinking about the ideas that I’ve recently come across. Some of these ideas – the good ones, at least – are below.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. And, as always, please hit me back with your own recommendations.

With much love,

Kyra


1. I broke my seemingly unbreakable non-fiction streak of 2019 with a few very good novels. I must start with a gorgeous, understated and very wise book that has – and quite rightly — been taking the book world by storm: “The Friend” by Sigrid Nunez. The narrator, an unnamed novelist of great acerbic wit, poignancy and emotional insight has just lost a friend – a fellow writer – to suicide. What follows is a darkly comic, unflinching and poignant exploration of the status-obsessed literary world (“If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing also takes some away.”), love (“Once again I come upon his famous definition of love: two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other.”)
friendship, loss (“What we miss – what we lose and what we mourn – isn’t it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are. To say nothing of what we wanted in life but never got to have.”), art and literature.

2. I continued with a book I’ve been desperate to read for a while after having seen it – and not recognised the author – as a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist: “Into The Distance” by Hernan Diaz. The only way I can describe this book – and I didn’t make this description up – is as a Western version of Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Håkan, the book’s central character, is a boy from Sweden who takes off for New York with his older brother, Linus. Almost immediately, he loses Linus in Portsmouth, England, and boards the wrong ship, ending up on the opposite side of the country: San Francisco. Broken, and resolved to find his brother, he begins a journey Eastward across the continent. The language is vigorously beautiful; as Håkan travels from enclave to enclave, Hernan Diaz turns you into the dislocated immigrant, with a loneliness and emptiness so evocative, so visceral that you cannot help but look into the same voids that Håkan faces himself.

3. I was so taken by Hernan Diaz’s evocation of loneliness that I moved Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City” to the top of my pile. I read it in two feverish sittings at the reading room of the State Library of New South Wales, surrounded by books and other bookworms longing, perhaps, for a bit of shared loneliness. This gorgeous book, which merges memoir, philosophy and biography, lifts the lid on the universal struggle of being lonely in cities teeming with people. Laing, who arrives in New York in a deep state of loneliness, explores how several artists – most movingly Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and David Wojnarowicz – can help her out of her own despair, while also embracing the possibility that loneliness could take her into “an otherwise unreachable experience of reality.” I thought this was quite a moving and enlightening book; Laing, through her own internal investigation, exposes the pain, but also the value, of loneliness:

“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 another. 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.” 

4. I went down the Olivia Laing rabbit hole, of course (I still have her most recent novel, “Crudo,” on my shelf, waiting eagerly to be read). I loved her in this interview, where she speaks very eloquently – echoing “The Lonely City” —  about what our duties, as citizens, are in a time of crisis, and the role that art can play in leading us out of dark times.

5. I picked up a book at my local library that I’ve been wanting to read for some time: “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Here, two Harvard political scientists describe what leads to the scorched earth politics taking place in many democracies today. Their proposition is that the erosion of unwritten norms is the greatest threat to contemporary democracy, even in countries with strong constitutions (like the US, or the UK, where, even if unwritten, has still held power over the country’s politicians). The two norms Levitsky and Ziblatt believe are important, and are now under increased threat, are: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. The first, mutual toleration, is the idea that, while the opposing party holds opinions you don’t like, they don’t represent an existential threat to your beliefs and ideals. It only takes a cursory glance at the American political and media landscape to see how little the two dominant political parties tolerate the other. The second norm, institutional forbearance, is using your discretion; not using your institutional prerogative whenever you get the chance, even if it’s legal to do so. To illustrate this, and to demarcate when American politicians abandoned their discretion, they recall the time Obama, when in his final year in office, nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Republicans refused to even grant Garland a hearing, a move that, while legal, hadn’t been made in 150 years. In a democracy, then, there are ways  to stay within the letter of the law but still severely undermine it. This whole book was interesting and relevant, though what I was most struck by is the authors’ assertion that the mutual toleration that reigned in the United States after Reconstruction was based on the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South. Republicans, in order to gain support from a wider range of the electorate, abandoned their commitment to equal rights, thus calming the Democrats and paving the way for a less polarised political landscape. So mutual toleration, but at what cost? Now, I wonder whether the Democrats – and other left-leaning parties all over the world —  will relinquish their commitments to the protection of immigrants in order to return towards a less vitriolic political environment. This is, obviously, a scary thought. The book ends with a question I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since 2016: is it possible to build a truly diverse anddemocratic society? I guess this is the great experiment.

6. I moved from democracy to capitalism with Yanis Varoufakis’s short primer on the basics of economics: “Talking to My Daughter About the Economy.” This short book – he wrote it in nine days! – is a very entertaining and accessible history of the birth of capitalism. Varoufakis starts with a question directed at his young daughter: why does inequality exist? He then goes on to provide her — and the reader — with the tools to be able to answer this question. Stripped down to its essence, though, this book holds one strong assertion: for democracy to thrive, every citizen needs to be able to speak in an authoritative manner about the economy. Everyone needs, in some way, to be an economist.

7. Enough of books now. I was mesmerised by — and am further in love with — Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I adored RBG, the excellent documentary about her life and meteoric rise. What a legend. I’m thinking an RBG tattoo is in my future.

8. In severe anticipation of Season 2, I am re-watching Season 1 of Fleabag. What an extraordinary, funny, tragic and powerful show about our complete inability to truly see each other. I cannot wait to see how it continues.

9. My eldest son, like me, has taken to marking on the margins of his books. The five year old version of Marginalia. It might be my proudest moment as a parent:

10. And here, as always, a random quote from my Commonplace Book. This is from the magnificent Lorrie Moore:

“A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither.”

Marginalia: On Choice.

Hi all,

I hope you’re faring well. Surely you are all already very well into your year of reading (and watching, and listening, and observing…). I sort of am, though not without its bumps. Recently, I have been obsessing over this deep issue of contemporary life: the paradox of choice. What to read? What to watch? What to listen to? In an effort to simplify, I began the year by Marie-Kondoing (is that a term?) my digital life: I unsubscribed from newsletters I never open; podcasts I stopped listening to; and passed on books I will never read. Although it brought some temporary relief, the process of choosing something to read, watch or listen to still made me tremendously anxious. It feels to me, sometimes, like post-industrial capitalism has turned everything into a commodity: we consume to serve a final purpose other than the joy or pleasure of the activity itself; as in, we have an end in mind. Whether it is to become smarter, or more efficient, or kinder, or more cultured, it is there, and its presence, I think, can sometimes overwhelm the pure pleasure of partaking in cultural pursuits. This affects me not only with what to choose, but also how quickly I consume what I choose when I finally – and agonisingly – make the choice. I am a slow reader and a slow thinker, and I love spending a considerable amount of time writing about what I have just experienced. When I am simply reading and moving on to the next thing, I find myself worrying about not having taken in the true meaning of something, and, most importantly, not being unable to unearth it for a later time. I find, too, that quick consumption jumbles all the information in my mind. Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, expressed the downfall of constant consumption without reflection best:

Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it. And just as one spoils the stomach by overfeeding and thereby impairs the whole body, so can one overload and choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment. For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.

While I am intellectually aware of this, and still practice slow reading and reflection, I do often find myself succumbing to the pressure of reading for quantity rather than quality of understanding. If I observe my behaviour, I notice that it comes as a result of the comparison game that social media makes so easy to play. Photos of long stacks of books with a declaration of how many were read (“I read 80 books this year!”) pushes me to read faster. I usually catch myself, but still I fall into throes of the pathological impatience that plagues our time. To get out, I usually choose a long ass book to read; a history book or a classic. This is a good way to just stick to something and resist the urge to read for the purposes of just ticking another book off the list. It seems a radical act, these days, to take on a slow pursuit.

Anyway, I’ll stop ranting. Below is what I’ve managed to finally choose to take and enjoy.

As always, please hit me back with your own recommendations!

Still indecisively yours,

Kyra


1. I must start this newsletter with a book that is very much in keeping with this dilemma of choice: The Tyranny of Choice by Renata Salecl. Here, sociologist and philosopher Renata Salecl exposes how the capitalist idea of limitless choice is making us anxious, miserable and, most crucially, highly individualistic. I’ve always been skeptical about this dominant idea that we — and only we – get to be the authors of our own lives. This message is everywhere, but rarely does it feel true. How much choice, really, do we have over the way our lives unfold? Sure, I can see that it is empowering to believe that we get to choose, in some ways, the direction our lives take. The other side of the coin, though, is less pretty: when that choice doesn’t pan out the way we thought it would, we blame ourselves and only ourselves; life going in some way wrong is always our own fault. I also believe that this line of thinking — that it is all down to us — demonises poverty, addiction and mental health, as if suffering were a choice we make, ignoring the almost inescapable constraints many people are held down by. If you really think about it, this idea that we get to choose it all shapes almost every aspect of our society. Think, for example, of the way some cultures see the role of the state in people’s lives; some nation states understand that failure is not entirely your fault, and are there to support you when you fail. Other, more intensely neoliberal and capitalist societies, run on the idea that  if you make it, then good for you. You owe no one anything. But if you fail, well, that’s down to you, too, and good luck with that. I think the health of a society depends largely on where it stands on this question of choice and the extent to which we wield control over it. What do you think?

2. Now for a book I was surprised to have chosen to read: Small Fry, by Steve Jobs’s first born, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. I was actually quite reluctant to pick this one up. Cynically, I thought it would be easy for the daughter of a celebrity to write a terrible book about how difficult it is to have a famous father. But then I heard it reviewed on the New York Times Book Review podcast and moved it to the very tippity-top of my reading pile. How wrong I was in my initial, cynical judgement. Lisa Brennan-Jobs is a writer with a capital W and this book, her first, is no small literary feat; it is a gorgeous, precise, restrained and artfully sculpted coming-of-age story about what it is like to love and be loved by complex, imperfect people. Coming-of-age memoirs, I feel, often struggle with the unsentimental portrayal of that central yearning that runs through all life stories: the longing to be wanted, to have a place. Even though this book is extraordinary in every way, it is here, in the description of our desperation to belong, that it most movingly excels.

3. RIP Mary Oliver. I love her words in this conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett. And I fell in love with this poem, The Journey, many years ago while travelling around Ireland:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

4. So much of this piece on millennial burn out rang true. And the book she mentions, “Kids These Days” by Malcom Harris, looks like an excellent read.

5. My efforts to minimise my digital life and spend less time in front of my smartphone are a result of coming across Cal Newport’s compelling arguments for taking yourself off social media. I have, without much trauma, closed my Facebook account, removed all news apps from my phone, and installed a content blocker that dumbs down your phone for up to twenty-four hours at a time. Newport first made his argument in this controversial op-ed in The New York Times (Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It.) and his book, “Deep Work,” is an irresistible, highly informative and convincing argument to go without social media: your attention should be directed only towards things that are rare and valuable. The information and propaganda you get from Instagram or Facebook is low-value, and constantly engaging with it leaves you on the shallow end of an issue, keeping you from doing the “deep work” that our capitalist economy considers valuable. In his new book, Digital Minimalism, Newport takes his argument further and asks the reader to pare back on all things digital, and then slowly re-introduce only the digital pursuits that help you live in in line with your values. Newport’s two interviews with the wonderful Ezra Klein are both excellent and very clearly explain his outlook (click here for the one on “Deep Work,” and here for the one on “Digital Minimalism.”) Oh, and, his recent piece on why Steve Jobs would disapprove of the way we use our iPhones is pretty good.

6. Because we are on the topic of choice and attention, I thought this piece on how to pay better attention was wonderful. I might spot all things the colour red on my next walk to work.

7. February is the month when we all give up our new year’s resolutions, right? I certainly have. Apparently, that’s fine: acceptance of your own mediocrity is the way forward. Personally, I love Freud’s approach: our goal in self-development should not be happiness, but rather the replacement of hysterical misery with “ordinary unhappiness.” All I want is ordinary unhappiness from now on.

8. In the spring of 1986, a disastrous fire ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library; the flames reached 2,000 degrees, burned for over seven hours, and devoured four hundred thousand books (damaging seven hundred thousand more). In “The Library Book,” New Yorker writer and novelist Susan Orlean chronicles the fire and its aftermath to prove the essential role that libraries play in society; how they provide much more than books, and, in some ways, are barometers for the civic health of a society. I was taken with this book from beginning to end, less for its true crime element and more for its grace in its descriptions of how a good library can live and give life:

“In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.”

9. Derry Girls, on Netflix, is bloody fantastic. And, I dare say, an excellent companion for anyone in the midst of reading the extraordinary but exhausting 2018 Man Booker Prize Winner, Milkman.

10. To finish (I might make this a thing), a quote I randomly picked out of my “commonplace book”:

Someone has given my daughter a doctor’s kit. Carefully, she takes her own temperature, places the pressure cuff around her arm. Then she takes the cuff off and examines it. ‘Would you like to be a doctor when you grow up?’ I ask her. She looks at me oddly. ‘I’m already a doctor.'”

– from the extraordinary novel “Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Marginalia: Ongoingess.

Hi friends,

Happy new year! I bet you’re surprised to hear from me so soon. As a new year begins, I am, like most, attempting to kickstart and sustain good habits. Marginalia is a good habit; without this tiny little missive, I feel like all I do is consume without the follow up contemplation that I find so essential.

In between complaining about the horrendous heat (upwards of 35; I’m melting) and managing my children during an eight week summer break, I have been reading, watching and listening to some fantastic stuff. It’s all below. In a couple of weeks, I’ll send out a list of my ten favourite books of 2018; I haven’t been able to choose that final tenth book yet.

What’s the best thing you’ve consumed this year? Please hit reply and let me know!

With much love to you all,

Kyra


1. While browsing a wonderful bookshop in London Bridge last year, I picked up a copy of Sarah Manguso’s “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.” I read it with rapture — twice —  on my flight back to Sydney. Manguso, an American novelist and essayist, kept a diary for over twenty five years — it’s 800,000 words long. While she refuses (for quite clever reasons) to publish any of it, “Ongoingness” is a furiously brilliant, totally absorbing and breath-stopping exploration of her — and our — obsessive need to record. Why do we write? Do we write to remember? To forget? Both? Manguso writes of her need to control time, to rebuff her mortality. It makes sense to me: writing in a diary gives us a false sense of control — you feel, for a brief moment, as if you’ve paused your life, as if time has somehow frozen. Diary keeping, then, is a neurosis; a way to ward off the inevitable reality that life is ongoing, and that as it goes, our losses accrue. Just read this, on time:

“Living in a dream of the future is considered a character flaw. Living in the past, bathed in nostalgia, is also considered a character flaw. Living in the present moment is hailed as spiritually admirable, but truly ignoring the lessons of history or failing to plan for tomorrow are considered character flaws … I wanted to know how to inhabit time in a way that wasn’t a character flaw.” 

2. On the podcast front, I feel like I can’t STFU about Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight. The premise is nothing short of brilliant: people approach the witty, warm-hearted, hilarious and wise Goldstein with an unresolved element of their past — a regret, a misunderstanding, a broken relationship, etc. — and ask him to serve as the interlocutor between them and the person/people on the other side. He goes from being extremely moving, to hilarious, to existential. I love it.  Some of my favourite episodes: JeremyDinaJuliaMarchel and Alex.

3. Dumplin’, now on Netflix, is so delightful. It’s the dose of Dolly Parton whole-heartedness I needed during a time when I just can’t keep myself away from the news.

4. Speaking of the news, I’ve been on a bit of a Brexit binge; trying to understand, really, what on earth is going on and how the UK will emerge from this spectacular fuck up. I don’t miss an episode of Remainiacs, a clever, funny and insightful podcast on all things Brexit (I am always very impressed by their ability to keep up with the constant developments). In terms of reading material, I think this Economist piece on what a no deal Brexit looks like is excellent (though it should have been written much longer ago, to be honest); and this, from the Guardian, is a great all-round guide.

5. I adored — and can’t stop fawning over — the second instalment in Deborah Levy’s “working autobiography.” “The Cost of Living” is magnificent; with oblique and elliptical prose, Levy explores the cost a woman must pay when she chooses not to live by a story determined by societal norms. Deftly — and with a hint of incandescent rage — she writes of motherhood, love, work and marriage.

6. I was infatuated with Maira Kalman’s gorgeously written and illustrated memoir, “The Principles of Uncertainty.” I read it in one peaceful sitting as my son napped behind me in the car, drinking in her simple yet profound view of the world. How gorgeous is this?

“Soon enough it will be me struggling (valiantly?) to walk – lugging my stuff around. How are we all so brave as to take step after step? Day after day? How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip and yet do trip, and then get up and say O.K. Why do I feel so sorry for everyone and so proud?” 

7. I love nature writing, so I couldn’t resist Helen Jukes’ beautiful and affecting memoir, “A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings.” (I was lucky enough to interview her for the Simon & Schuster books podcast.). This restrained and beautiful memoir relays Jukes’ year of keeping bees in the garden of her small Cambridge home. From her hive, we learn not just about the fascinating and sophisticated creatures, but are presented with lessons in how to live.

8. Dissect, an all around great podcast, has just finished off a wonderful eight episode series on Lauryn Hill’s extraordinary album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Every song in the album is dissected, exposing the sheer brilliance of Hill’s lyrical prowess. It’s so fantastic.

9. A few years ago, I started a commonplace book. (I stole the idea from my hero, Michel de Montaigne). Now that I have my own, I am completely obsessed with finding those of others. Here, Dwight Garner (the wonderful book critic at The New York Times) shares snippets of his. Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s me writing a bit about why keeping a commonplace is a wonderful idea. 

10. And to finish, a quote from my aforementioned commonplace book. This is from Joan Didion:

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”  

Marginalia: Forever 44.

Hello dear friends,

I should start every one of these newsletters with an “I know it’s been a while” because, well, it seems it has always been a while. So, here it goes:

I know it’s been a while. There have been some major changes on my side of the (Australian) tracks. We moved to a new neighbourhood, which, with two small and very energetic boys, is only slightly easier than moving to a different country. No matter: I now have my dream rooftop and chimney views, and it seems we have found a tiny, London(ish) pocket in Sydney. Look!

My children, like all children, are only getting more demanding as the days pass by. So by the time the evening claims the day, the only thing I feel like doing is passing out to the millionth read of Goodnight Moon.

Somehow, though, I’ve read, listened to and watched some pretty fantastic things — below is a selection of it all. I crushed on these pretty hard.

As always, if you have any recommendations, please send them my way!

Love,

Kyra


1. At the very top of my mind is the extraordinary Michelle Obama, whose memoir, “Becoming,” I just devoured in two feverish reading stints (much to the neglect of my children. Sorry, children!). I enjoyed every bit of this book, though I was moved to tears by her descriptions of those crucial moments in life when you must overcome that universal challenge of “squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go.” Oh, and if you want more Obama: I loved this video of her and Ellen DeGeneres at Costco, and her two-part interview with Oprah is wonderful. #forever44.

2. Because I have a tendency to go down the odd rabbit hole, I dug deeper into the Obamas and binged on an excellent podcast from WBEZ Chicago, Making Obama. Over six episodes, the podcast takes you back to Obama’s early Chicago years, from his time as a community organiser to his three political campaigns. The podcast ends with his decision to run for President. Like Michelle Obama’s book, this series reveals a phenomenal, principled man who truly believed in his ability to do good. Again, #forever44.

3. And now deeper into the rabbit hole (it’s such a good rabbit hole!). Whilst in the midst of the aforementioned podcast, I recalled a fantastic essay Zadie Smith published very shortly after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Speaking in Tongues. In this essay, Smith stunningly defends people who can comfortably operate “in the middle.” People, like former President Barack Obama, who, as a result of having had to navigate disparate worlds (his: a Kenyan father, a white Kansan mother, a childhood split between Hawaii and Indonesia) can “speak in tongues”:

“Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers, and even a British man called Mr. Wilkerson, who on a starry night on safari says credibly British things like: “I believe that’s the Milky Way.” This new president doesn’t just speak for his people. He can speak them.”

4. I stayed with Zadie for a little while longer, as I tend to do whenever existential dread strikes (often!). I went back and reread a few of my old favourites: Dead Man Laughing, a beautiful essay on death and her father’s love of comedy (“The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us.”);  Northwest London Blues, a melancholy polemic against the closing of libraries across Britain; and Fences: A Brexit Diary, the most poignant and clear-eyed commentary on Brexit I have come across.

5. Ok, only one more rabbit hole to go: In “Becoming,” Michelle Obama writes very movingly about the shootings that plague her hometown of Chicago. I wanted to better understand the issue, so I listened to a two-part This American Life programme from 2012. Here, reporters spend an entire semester inside and around Harper High School, a school in the South Side Chicago neighbourhood of Englewood. In 2012, 29 current and recent students were shot. 29. The descriptions of how far children have to go to avoid the violence, and how it affects both them and the adults trying to protect them are almost unbearable to hear.

6. I may be late to this party, as I nearly always am when it comes to television, but I thought it worth mentioning, for my fellow Netflix slackers, that I am enormously enjoying The Good Place. It’s hilarious, smart and profoundly existential. I think it may be my favourite comedy since The Office (US). Oh, and: this piece in The New York Timeson how Michael Schur created the show is well worth a read. He geeked out on a ton of philosophical works and met with scholars and academics (and even hired a philosopher for the show!) to create a work that probes deeply into the moral and ethical questions we grapple with on a daily basis. And he makes it completely, hysterically funny.

7. I’ve been thinking about this a lot:

“Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”—David Foster Wallace

8. I miss London all the time; the place is always on my mind and in my heart. The former is spinning and the latter is hurting every time I read the news and see that dreaded word: Brexit. Loads of people both in Sydney (where I now live) and London ask me whether it’s easier to cope with bad news when you’re far away from home. It isn’t. As Zadie Smith wrote: no one could be more infuriated by events in Rome than the Italian kid serving your cappuccino on Broadway. I wasn’t able to put my finger on why it’s so difficult until recently – over three years since the Brexit vote: when you don’t have the benefit of everyday life in the place, all you have to go by is the news, and the news is, generally, always relaying the worst. Engaging with your home through the news is an imbalanced, painful way to connect with where you come from. So to fill my London-shaped hole, I read (and devoured) a book a very dear friend pressed into my hands during my last trip back home a couple of months ago: “Londoners” by Craig Taylor. It is a sublime, addictive, moving collection of testimonies on what it’s like to live in the most diverse city on earth – infuriating, invigorating, lonely, exciting, and, well, everything. My copy is so underlined it looks like an over-edited manuscript. This nearly broke me; I remember, still, the sense of wonder that comes over you every time you cross the Thames:

“Live your life in any way, London says. It encourages defiance. I loved what it gave me, who it allowed me to be. On the nights I could afford a minicab home, I rolled down the window while crossing the river and watched the lights on the water, knowing most late-night minicabbers were reaffirming their love of London with the same view. I loved its messiness, its attempts at order. I loved the anonymity it afforded.” 

9. At the behest of a very bright friend, I picked up Deborah Levy’s mini-memoir, “Things I Don’t Want To Know.” This rich, gorgeous response to George Orwell’s “Why I Write” is the first instalment in Levy’s three-part “working autobiography.” The book moves between Mallorca (where she arrives to reflect on her life), South Africa (where she grew up) and England (where she emigrated to). Both within and in between, Levy gives us indispensable reflections on the writing life, all filled to the brim with deep psychological insight. I was breathless as I read its first line: “That spring when life was hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where there was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations.”  

10. I’ve been terribly slack with my New Yorkers lately, but I managed to start and finish one piece recently, and it was a good one: the great Janet Malcom on photography and memory.

Marginalia: We are internally plural.

Hello dear friends,

It’s been a while (again). Here I resurface with another irreverent issue of Marginalia, surely the Internet’s most unreliable newsletter. I always kid myself into thinking that I can regularly sit down and cleverly synthesise what I consume, but, the truth is, my kids are kids, my job is a job, and, well, I am exhausted when not exhausting.

No matter, here is a list of ten or so things I have been loving over the last month.

I hope you love them, too.

And if you have any recommendations, just hit reply and let me know.

See you soon.

Kyra x


1. Sabrina, the first graphic novel ever to make the Man Booker longlist, chillingly relays the story of a missing woman and the poisonous web of conjecture, conspiracy theories and utter lies that surrounds her disappearance. This book – which Zadie Smith called a masterpiece (and her words are sacred) – is truly masterful and haunting commentary on our cultural moment, specifically on the nature of trust, truth and how the erosion of both leads to crippling and dangerous emotional absence.

2. Propelled by the horrendous news of child separation in the US, I read two astonishing books: ex-border patrol Francisco Cantú’s memoir “A Line Becomes A River,” and novelist Valeria Luiselli’s gorgeously angry essay, “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions.” Both books are very smart, informative and deeply moving accounts of the heartbreaking migrant crisis at the US border. I am also delighted to read that Valeria Luiselli has a new novel coming out next year. It sounds extraordinary.

3. If you haven’t been, you must visit – in my humble opinion – the best bookstore on earth: Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street. Part bookstore, part publisher, Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by (mostly) women. While I’ve read a whole bunch of their titles, one stand out is Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s “The Home Maker.” Published in the 1920s, this book relays the story of a miserable stay at home mum who trades places with her equally miserable working husband: she goes off to work a full-time job (and nails it) and he stays home to mind their three children (and loves it). What follows is brilliant commentary on tradition, gender roles and how subverting both can create the balance that eludes most families.

4. Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday is perhaps the most structurally interesting work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Told in three distinct sections, this perfectly crafted novel probes into the power imbalances that plague society. The first story, “Folly,” follows the relationship between a young American editor and a much older writer; and the second, “Madness,” is narrated by Amar, an Iraqi-American economics Ph.D. who reflects on his country, memory and true empathy while detained at Heathrow Airport. The literal connection between the two stories is made, very cleverly, in a brief epilogue written in the style of a Desert Island Discs interview. Similar themes, however, are present across the whole book, deftly exploring, I think, “the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.”

5. Grief Cast is a wonderful and life-affirming podcast in which very funny people are interviewed about grief and death.

6. Caliphate, a compelling podcast by The New York Times, goes a long way in explaining ISIS; how it rose, how it recruits, and, most importantly, how it operates. A book club I go to recently paired it with Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire,” which was an interesting combination that enriched both the sound and prose.

7. I enjoyed this NYT piece on motherhood and fear.

“I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.”

8. This bit, from an all-around incredible speech by Zadie Smith, has been ringing in my ears for quite a long time:

“If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world—and most recently in America—the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

9. I think Kathryn Schultz of The New Yorker is one of the best non-fiction writers alive; I’ll always read anything she writes. This piece on stinkbugs is perfectly emblematic of her insane talents as a storyteller; she takes a small and innocuous subject (stinkbugs) and manages devise smart and unforgettable commentary on the world we inhabit.

10. I cried a little bit during James Corden’s carpool karaoke with Paul McCartney.

My Favourite Books of 2017

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

“Promise in deepest snow from Siss to Unn:

I promise to think about no one but you.”

This book was recommended to me by a cab driver who, with an enthusiasm that was a pleasure to witness, remarked that it should be the most famous novel in the world. And it is indeed a small masterpiece worthy of far more fame than it currently enjoys. Written in luminous, lyrical prose, this story relays the tale of two girls, Siss and Unn, who together spend an evening so profound that when Unn suddenly and inexplicably disappears, Siss’s universe collapses. The writing is eerie in its beauty — Versaas, with a stunning economy of language, places you in the cold, raw scenery of a Norwegian late autumn. His vivid descriptions of place, which run throughout the entirety of the novel, expose the loneliness of knowing just how indifferent our landscape is to the incursions and sufferings of human life.

The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes

“A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”

Emma Reyes was abandoned by her mother; left, as a six or seven year old, in the Colombian countryside. She grew up in a Bogota convent, where she worked long, arduous days under the cruel oversight of Catholic nuns. After her escape from the convent in her late teens, Emma made her way to Argentina. From there, she travelled to Paraguay, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Italy, and Israel. She won a scholarship to study painting in Paris; she paid her way to the French capital by offering to paint the ship as it sailed. In Paris, she became part of the cultural elite, befriending Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. When a friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas, suggested to her that she write her remarkable life story, she refused; instead, she wrote him letters. He was so impressed with them, the story goes, that he shared them with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Emma, encouraging her to keep writing. This breach of confidence infuriated Emma, who didn’t write him another letter for more than two decades. This book is a collection of Emma’s letters – 23 of them – in which she describes her childhood (a childhood that would have broken most) with a childlike and poetically dispassionate tone that is simply astonishing. It’s the unlikelihood of this book that truly moves me; without any formal education – Emma only learned how to read and write in her late teens – she managed to give us a stunning work of art. If only she had written more.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

“…the greatest source of misery in the world, the greatest cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death, was neither disease nor race nor religion. It was hope.”

Outrageously funny, this is the story of Solomon Kugel, an ordinary man who brings his wife, young son, and mother to the nondescript town of Stockton, in upstate New York. Hoping to start afresh, his plans for a new beginning are quickly derailed by a fusion of factors: first, his dementia-suffering mother is convinced — even though she was born and raised in New York — of having experienced the Holocaust; second, Kugel discovers that an intruder has taken up residence in his attic — a rude, fowl woman who might just be one of history’s most famous victims of the Holocaust; and third, an arsonist is running wild, on a mission to burn every house in the town. The title of this book (“Hope: A Tragedy”) is, you’ll learn as soon as you start reading, a reference to the philosophy of Professor Jove, psychologist to Solomon Kugel. It isn’t the capricious nature of life or misfortune or cruelty that is at the root of all human suffering, Professor Jove extolls to his patient. The genesis of human misery is, he says, hope. The natural human instinct to believe that a better life is out there, ready for the taking. Abandon all hope of being better, or making the world a more tolerable place to live in, and you’ll rest blissfully in mediocrity for the rest of your life. According to this view, then, someone like Hitler becomes an optimist (“hope is irrational…when someone rises up and promises that things are going to be better, run. Hide. Pessimists don’t build gas chambers.”). So yes, while this is perhaps one of the darkest, most cynical stories out there, underneath it all is a moving tale of an ordinary man trying to get through an unremarkable life reasonably unscathed. And: I am convinced that Shalom Auslander is the illegitimate love child of Franz Kafka and Philip Roth.  

Suddenly, A Knock On The Door by Etgar Keret

“Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck.”

Etgar Keret is one of my favourite discoveries of 2017. It’s extraordinary how he manages to create such fantastical, moving stories with the use of simple and straight language. In this collection of stories, Keret presents daily life as a dangeous, complicated production that is full of longing. I was spell-bound by nearly every story in the book, though a couple moved me to tears: in one, Keret takes on the third person voice to describe a woman whose every partner has committed suicide. The last line of this story, in which Keret suddenly switches the narrative voice, totally slayed me; in another, Keret introduces us to a talking fish whose desperately lonely owner will stop at nothing to keep his company. Every single story in this collection, stripped down to its essence, is an exploration into the chaos of our inner lives (Keret is particularly extraordinary when describing the anxieties of childhood). I truly loved this book; it is a tremendous illumination of the darkness, and fear, that shadows every human existence.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated…”

The long awaited first novel by George Saunders, the master of the short story, didn’t leave my mind for months on end. I still talk about it to anyone who will listen. In fact, this book engenders such strong feelings in its readers that a woman, upon seeing the book clutched in my hand, hung up her phone – mid conversation – and shouted at me across the street: “Did you LOVE it?!”. At the time the book is set – 1862, the first year of the American Civil War – papers reported that Abraham Lincoln, upon losing his eleven-year-old son to typhoid, entered the Georgetown Cemetery crypt and held his body. From this seed of historical truth, Saunders builds an extraordinarily moving story narrated by a chorus of voices. The tale unfolds in a graveyard over the course of one night – the night that Willie Lincoln dies. As young Lincoln enters the graveyard, we are introduced to a host of characters, all recently dead, but who have not yet accepted the sad fact, hence why they’re in a “bardo” — the Tibetan version of purgatory. In their back and forth conversations, Saunders’s cast of characters reminisce about their lives and the loved ones that filled them. In nearly every interaction there is a sense of longing for what was lost and regret for how it was all left behind. Every character, it seems to me, feels like he or she could have done it all a little bit better (don’t well all?). And it is this longing for a different legacy – the gap between what they achieved and what they would have liked to achieve – that forever keeps them in the “bardo,” that space between death and the afterlife. In the end, though, you are left with the belief that we all do the best we can with what we have at the time — a simple message, teeming with empathy, which George Saunders stunningly delivers. This is a book I will reread for years to come, and probably never stop talking about.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” 

This was a reread for me this year — my third time reading this book, each time in one sitting. “Dept. of Speculation” is a stunning and very clever portrait of a marriage. Structurally reminiscent of “Speedboat,” Renata Adler’s immense novel on a woman’s coming of age in New York City, “Dept. of Speculation,” in a similar vein, introduces us to a woman’s insanely smart, profound and funny meditations on intimacy, trust, belief and, more broadly, the friction between domestic life and the demands of art. (“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”). This is a beguiling, mesmerising book – a truly remarkable achievement from beginning to end. Every reading of it has unearthed new meaning and deep emotional insight. 

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

“The writer is neither saint nor tzaddik nor prophet standing at the gate; he’s just another sinner who has a somewhat sharper awareness and uses slightly more precise language to describe the inconceivable reality of our world.” 

Another Keret masterpiece. The “seven good years” refers to the seven years between the birth of Keret’s son, Lev, and the death of his father – a precious time during which he was both a son and a father. Every little essay in this memoir is totally brilliant, each teeming with Keret’s characteristic combination of the fantastical and the ordinary. Full of irrepressible humour, Keret writes beautifully about love, through a moving essay on how his parents met; perspective, in the beautiful story of how his father approaches a death-sentence type of cancer; and grief, in his telling of how the three Keret siblings – all extremely different – come together to grieve for their recently departed father. This is Keret’s only non-fiction book, written in English (not Hebrew), and apparently not published in his home country (Israel). I tore through this book in one evening, not able to sleep until I turned over its final page. A wonderful, life-affirming read. 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” 

While it took me about eight months to finish, I enjoyed every stage of this gargantuan novel of all novels (even Tolstoy’s ruminations on nineteenth century Russian agricultural policy). I found Tolstoy’s ability to get inside anyone’s head quite extraordinary (even, for a good twenty pages, that of a dog), and a real practice of the now well-known benefit of reading literary fiction: the enhancement of empathy – that prized ability to fully embody another being’s experience. I approached “Anna Karenina” as a book about love, though it becomes obvious very quickly that it is about so much more: chance, fate, and human powerlessness in the face of the capricious nature of life. While it was tempting to get sucked into the love between Anna and Vronsky, I was actually most drawn to Dolly and Stiva’s relationship – Anna and Vronsky are so suffocated by their love for each other that it eventually destroys them, and Kitty and Levin are sickly sweet and traditional. But Dolly and Stiva are a true portrait of coupledom: imperfect, often drowned by the obligations of domestic life, yet ultimately accepting of the chaos that inheres a family unit.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” 

There is an extraordinary moment in My Name Is Lucy Barton when a famous writer tells the eponymous heroine: “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You will have only one.” This powerful and deeply affecting novel takes place in a hospital room over five days in the 1980s. In the hospital room is Lucy Barton, who is visited by her estranged mother after she suffers complications from what should have been a straight forward surgery. The two begin gossiping about people from Lucy’s childhood in the town of Amgash, Illinois, though this harmless gossip then turns to memories of Lucy’s troubled and deprived upbringing. What follows is Lucy’s attempt to write her own story, despite the unreliability of memory and the overwhelming force of collective denial. I love Strout’s lack of sentimentality and her outright acceptance of the idea that memory, and therefore identity, is unsteady, because what do we really know? And who are we but only a story we write from fleeting — almost destructible — recollections?

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

“What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person.” 

It’s a very pleasing thing to read a novel before it is released into the world; not much is more satisfying to a book lover than getting dibs on something not very many people have yet read. So I’m quite greedy when it comes to scoring reading copies: I will take as many as I can. Very few, however, are as magical as “Goodbye, Vitamin,” Rachel Khong’s exceptional debut novel. Ruth’s life is falling apart: Joel, her ex-fiance, broke it off to be with another woman; her career as a sonographer is unsatisfying (she dropped out of medical school to be with aforementioned ex-fiance); and, once she arrives home for Christmas, her mother asks her to stay and help care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken father. What follows is a magical, darkly comic, and truly heartfelt diary-like novel that chronicles Ruth’s life throughout her time at home with her family. Particularly moving are the passages where Ruth reads from a diary her father kept while she was growing up: “Today was my birthday, and you asked me how old I was. When I told you 35 you seemed stunned. You asked me if I started at 1. Then you asked: When do we die?” I will reread this book until Rachel’s next gem comes out.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

“Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” 

I have a habit of reading this book at least once a year. Though for reasons I struggle to understand, no reading of it has had such a deep impact as this year’s. “The Emigrants,” Sebald’s most famous novel, documents the lives of four twentieth century Jewish emigres — Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. With precise and dreamlike prose, Sebald creates a framework for thinking about memory; questioning, I think, the extent to which it is possible for a human being to live with the memory of tremendous pain and suffering. This book seeps into your skin; it lingers far past its last page and, while in bits darkly comic, it is enormously sad.

Cory Taylor on dying with honesty

My second child was born last May, so 2016 was not particularly bookish. I did, however, read many short novels and memoirs, many of which have been the most extraordinary books I’ve come across. One that stands out is “Dying,” by Cory Taylor. Just before her 50th birthday, the Australian novelist was diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma. Her memoir, short but dense, is a human, matter-of-fact and haunting piece of writing. With clear and direct prose, Taylor provides tremendous lessons for the living. Her insight on our unhealthy obsession with the “unlived” life, for example, is slaying:

“The problem with reverie is that you always assume you know how the unlived life turns out. And it is always a better version of the life you’ve actually lived. The other life is more significant and more purposeful. It is impossibly free of setbacks and mishaps.”

This book is a phenomenal, bracing meditation on terminal illness; Taylor’s electrifying and dispassionate prose lingers in the body and mind, gifting us a salve against the dread of our own impermanence.

You can pair this book with “Staring at the Sun,” Irvin Yalom’s extraordinary and uplifting philosophical exploration of our relationship to our feared mortality; and this heart-expanding and honest conversation between Cory herself and Richard Fidler.

One Last Thing Before I Go

Sometimes, words are ineffective. We want to tell people how much we love them, how sorry we are, or how much we need them, but language, together with the discomfort that vulnerability brings, fails to lift the veil off our true emotions. It’s this barrier – the barricade that so often gets in the way of building relationships in which we are truly seen – that this episode of This American Life so beautifully explores. In the first act, Miki Meek tells the story of a disconnected phone booth in Japan where thousands of people who lost loved ones in the 2011 tsunami and earthquake speak to their dead. In these extraordinary one-way conversations, the survivors voice the indelible pain of their loss. It’s profoundly moving. In the second act, Jonathan Goldstein (of Gimlet’s Heavyweight) serves as interlocutor between his uncle and his father, who have not spoken in decades. It is a touching, hilarious, and sad conversation that explores one particularly painful childhood misunderstanding, clearing the way for a new beginning. When people say (and they say it often) that “it’s never too late” to heal old wounds and rebuild a destroyed relationship, the scenario they usually have in mind is one with two sentient people — individuals, like Goldstein’s father and uncle, who are able to speak to each other. But there’s another story here: it’s never too late –even after death — when what you say is met with stillness and silence.