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: 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.