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.