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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.

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.

Tangled Up In Blue

About eighteen months ago, I moved from the UK to Australia. After spending almost the entirety of my 20s in London, I felt lost as soon as I left the place. Our 20s are typically the years we spend looking for ourselves. London is where I went through that process. Along the way, my identity super-glued itself to where I lived; by the time I turned 30, I lost all flexibility: London became the only place I could feel uniquely myself. It was no surprise that my departure triggered a crisis of the self; suddenly, I felt porous, as if I could either morph into a different, unrecognisable person, or even disappear completely. During the early months, I did walk around as though I had actually evaporated–melted into air. To will myself back, I turned to my favourite works of art; books, records, paintings, and photographs. They became the most potent ways to connect with who I am.

“Tangled Up In Blue,” by Bob Dylan, is possibly my favourite ever song (it’s neck and neck with another; “The Golden Age of Aviation,” by The Lucksmiths). It’s a genius abstract narrative of a decaying relationship told with a blend of first and third person. From verse to verse, Dylan’s leaps of perspective–from his to his wife’s–remind me how important it is to nurture my elasticity; to stay in touch with who I am, but not to hold on to a fixed, unmovable idea of the self.

Reading ourselves awake

Image via Unsplash/Karim Ghantous

 

When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Venezuela to the United States, where I was immediately thrown into the American school system. I started my sophomore year in high school with passable English, spent a few months as an ESOL student, and struggled through the Harry Potter series. In the middle of the 10th grade, my English teacher assigned the most important task of the course: an analytical paper on a classic novel of our choice. Not knowing what constituted a “classic,” I Googled it. The first result was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I had all my winter break to read it.

Armed with an English-to-Spanish dictionary, I started reading. The endeavour lasted two months, but I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Jane. And while my rather limited command of the English language slowed my progress, and surely left much meaning in the novel uncovered, I could deeply relate to the novel’s namesake: her childhood, her love for Edward Rochester, and above all her struggle to develop both her moral and spiritual sensibilities. I found the inconsistency in Jane’s ideas and observations—her constant back and forth—strangely comforting. I was insecure, perennially unsure what to make of the world and my place within it. Suddenly, I was understood.

It was through this imposed reading of Jane Eyre that I began to see how literature can both live and give life. Books were not a form of escape, but rather a way through which I could plunge deeper into a human experience I was struggling to participate in and understand. I needed reading to do something of consequence to my soul.

Franz Kafka expressed a similar sentiment in a moving letter to a childhood friend:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

It’s in this way—books as axes that pick at our unconscious ways of being—that I think reading can be most powerful. Stepping into worlds of make-believe can awaken us from the deadening effects of habit. Reading can help us notice aspects of our internal and external experiences that the humdrum routine of life has silenced or numbed, like melancholy, frustration or disappointment in love. When we see these dimensions in somebody else, we awaken to them within ourselves.

Marcel Proust, known to have been a gluttonous reader, wrote:

“Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it. What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.”

My own hope is that through reading we can enkindle both curiosity and compassion for the inner workings of our being, as Proust suggests. As humans, we are wired to feel utterly alone in our experiences of inner turmoil. I suppose it is because of this loneliness that we often attempt to elude inner pain and discomfort. A book though, acting as a mirror to our inner workings, can foil our caper. I often find myself bewildered when another mind stirs me into awareness, sharpening into focus what I am thinking and feeling with such accuracy that it shrinks my common experience of loneliness and freakishness. Writers simultaneously connect us with our own uniqueness and help us feel like normal human beings trying, and often floundering, to capture meaning when it is most elusive.

A few years ago, I began to keep a “commonplace book,” a vault of the observations and ideas that you collect throughout your life of reading, thinking and listening. Michel de Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, HL Mencken and many others kept one. There are several versions of this practice today—mine is notecard based. Soon after I finish a book, I copy, on a notecard, whichever bits I want to revisit in the future. I then file the notecard thematically (love, loss, grief, friendship etc.) in a massive box.

The point of the exercise is to retrieve the notecards at appropriate times later in life, like when you lose someone you love, split up, lose your job or any of the other countless human travails we experience. It’s an emotional toolbox that serves as a lifeline for the times that test us, and as a never-ending, unbreakable connection to the wondrous and immortal life of books.

When I became a mother, I began to obsess about sudden personal catastrophe. The frighteningly labile, fragile nature of life. As soon as my son was born, I nursed the painful idea of losing him. And I felt the loss as if it was real: during my first few months as a mother, I was blown apart. This imagined loss arrived imbued with an unendurable story: that if anything was to ever happen to my child, it would be personal. That it would happen to him because he was mine. Because it was me. Somewhere along the way, I’d held onto the story that tragedy is individualised, not random, and that it is dictated by an intangible force over which I wielded no control. This story altered the nature of the imagined experience, transforming it from an uncomfortable ‘could be’ to an overpowering tale that left me frozen on my own planet of imagined grief while the universe continued in ceaseless motion.

I turned to my commonplace book. While leafing through the notecards, I found a phrase I had read, re-written and filed:

“No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.”

I came across this phrase within the pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir recounting the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In the bit of the book where this quotation comes from, Didion rejects the famous hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which extolls that a higher being is closely observing each and every living thing on the planet, even a bird as tiny as a sparrow.

Her form of belief is geological, not religious: human beings, she proposes, are as vulnerable to tragedy as the blue orb we live on. “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying,” she writes, “abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.” Natural disasters attest to the randomness of tragedy. Misfortune is not about you, it is not preordained because you felt yourself not good enough. It is indiscriminate in the way a devastating earthquake is. The pain is therefore transformed, if not in degree then in kind: the terrifying possibility of losing your child would not be your fault. This story, I feel, is one I can better live with.

We can connect with books on a spiritual, scholarly, moral and emotional level. Some books never become irrelevant because they change as we change. They have this magical ability to metamorphose into what we need at just about every stage of our lives. In some way or another, they are always us and we are always them.


I originally wrote this piece for Dumbo Feather Magazine