I think I knew I was going to love this book from Macfarlane’s description of it in his author’s note, in which he says the book is about “people and place” and the “relationship between paths, walking and the imagination” and “the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.” The book is divided into four parts—two set in England, one set in Scotland, and one set in other places “abroad”; within each part, the book is divided into chapters, each of which (mostly) talks about a particular journey Macfarlane took, by foot or by boat. The book is also a way for Macfarlane to think through the work and life of the writer Edward Thomas, who died in 1917 at the Battle of Arras: Macfarlane quotes from and talks about Thomas throughout, and there’s a chapter devoted to him that imagines his time in France, and his death.

Macfarlane’s writing is really great: very observant, very graceful, playful (at the end of the book he talks about “rights of way and rites of way”) and full of detail and lists, both of which I love. Whether Macfarlane is talking about a snowy night-time walk near his home in Cambridge, England or a walk in the West Bank with his friend Raja Shehadeh, in a place with “jasmine, lemon and bougainvillea lining the streets, scenting the air,” I’m so there for all of his descriptions. And the book is often a blend of the personal and the historical, which is a thing I enjoy in general, and that I think Macfarlane does really well. So for example in a chapter about the chalk formations of southeast England he talks about Neolithic times, and how “dense forest” would have meant “the chalk ridges would have offered the obvious routes of travel,” and how that means that “over time, along their crests, the first real footpaths emerged,” and he also talks about his experience of that same landscape now—light, flowers, lichen, skylarks, deer.

Early in The Book of Form and Emptiness. we learn about the sudden accidental death of Kenji Oh, a jazz clarinetist who was born in Japan and had been living in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Annabelle, and their kid, Benny. The book is mostly Benny’s story—it’s about how he starts hearing voices after his dad’s death, and about how he finds his own voice, by listening to the voice of a Book that narrates his life. But it’s also the story of Annabelle and her loneliness and hoarding, and of other people whose paths intersect with theirs: there’s a teenage runaway artist who calls herself the Aleph, and a guy named Slavoj who Benny thinks of as a scary/crazy wheelchair-bound homeless guy, but who is also a famous Slovenian poet. And mixed in with their stories, we get excerpts of a fictional Marie-Kondo-ish book called Tidy Magic, by a Buddhist nun who writes about what she’s learned about “the impermanence of form, and the empty nature of all things.”

It’s a lot, but in a good way; as Benny goes from home to school to the public library to a psych ward, those pieces of other stories enrich the narrative and tie things together. “Things are needy,” the Book says, early on. “They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.” Later, the Aleph tells Benny that its “capitalism that’s crazy”, not him or her or Slavoj. Aikon, the author of Tidy Magic, notes that there’s a solution: “people just had to stop buying so much stuff.” But the producers of the TV show she’s making tell her not to talk about “consumerism, capitalism, materialism, commodity fetishism, online shopping, and credit card debt.” Meanwhile, threads intersect: Annabelle keeps buying snow globes on eBay; the Aleph has an art project where she makes snow globes, but of scenes of disaster (a snow globe of 9/11, a snow globe of Hurricane Katrina, a snow globe of Fukushima). And through it all there’s also a lot about books and reading: I like how the library is a place of refuge and learning and connection and possibility for Benny and the Aleph and Slavoj, and I like how the Book has a lot of good bookish insights, like: “one book, when read by different readers, becomes different books, becomes an ever-changing array of books that flows through human consciousness like a wave.”

Isolarion by James Attlee

December 21st, 2021

I read and really liked James Attlee’s book on moonlight, Nocturne, back in 2010, and I think it was after that when I spotted this book in a secondhand shop in either Cambridge or London and decided I needed to buy it. I’ve never been to Oxford, but I nevertheless thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of Cowley Road, the multicultural commercial center of East Oxford, where Attlee lives. The book is an engaging mix of the historical and the personal and the reportorial, as Attlee visits various places on Cowley Road and talks to various locals about a number of topics, while also talking about the history of the area and about other aspects of history more broadly. At the start, Attlee talks about the idea of making a pilgrimage, and then talks about making a pilgrimage in many pieces, and close to home. He wants to undertake “an urban, post-modern, fragmentary pilgrimage that could be dipped in and out of” rather than a pilgrimage that’s a journey far away that takes you wholly out of your normal routines.

So: this book is a Cowley Road pilgrimage, but we get glimpses of other pilgrimages for contrast: Attlee talks to a friend who has written about French priests making pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the 16th century, and to a Muslim neighbor who has undertaken the hajj; he also talks about St. Edmund’s Well in Oxford, which was itself a pilgrimage site in the 13th century. Attlee’s associative style really works for me; I like the way he jumps between places and times. And I like all the local details of Cowley Road that Attlee captures, all the places he visits (some of which have of course closed/changed/moved between when this book came out and now): he goes to pubs and cafes, talks to a jeweller, tries out a float tank, learns about the Chabad movement from a rabbi after reading about the opening of a mikvah, visits a car factory, and more. He quotes Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Peter Ackroyd (“The city itself is a form of literature in which the streets are the lines of a book that can never be completed”) and takes part in various planning exercises to do with the future of Cowley Road/possible aesthetic and safety improvements to it. He goes to a reggae show and to Carnival, and talks to an artist named Jo Thomas who led a walk on the summer solstice “visiting places mentioned in ancient records as being the locations of wells and springs.” I like the way Attlee writes about the built environment and the natural world and the moods of certain moments: like this description of a graveyard: “In certain weather conditions in winter, the ground emits a mist that hangs in ribbons between the gravestones, taking on a sulphuric tint under the street lights.” Or this, from when he has dinner in a neighbor’s yard: “the wheeling, screaming swifts are replaced by bats that flutter silently above our heads, the intricate calligraphy of their flight paths indecipherable as daylight fades and night pours into the gardens of East Oxford.”

I’m sure I’d read at least parts of A Room of One’s Own before, but I’m not sure if I’d read the whole thing. Having just read Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms, which quotes repeatedly from this and exists in part in relation to it, I figured I should read it in its entirety. So, right: asked to talk about “women and fiction” Woolf wonders whether she should talk about “women and what they are like” or “women and the fiction that they write” (or don’t write) or “women and the fiction that is written about them” (or the non-fiction that is written about them, which may I guess be fiction too, in the sense of it being lies/untrue). She ends up talking about all of those things and more, with the thesis that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”: she argues that historically, the fact that women have lacked those things explains why they didn’t, generally, become writers of fiction earlier.

If you’ve heard one thing about this book you’ve probably heard about the part where Woolf imagines the depressing life that Shakespeare’s sister would have had, if he had had a sister who was as gifted and as driven to write and/or act as he was. If you’ve heard another thing about this book, you’ve probably heard about how Woolf talks about the “androgynous” mind, borrowing an expression from Coleridge. I remembered those parts, but had forgotten the parts about Lady Winchilsea and Margaret Cavendish and Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen, or maybe I hadn’t read those parts before: Woolf argues that if a woman’s indignation at the position of women in society comes through in her poetry or fiction, it suffers for it. (She thinks that men’s writing can suffer for being overly male, too, whatever that means. She says “it is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex.” She also says that “the weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind” are different from a woman’s.)

What I love, and hadn’t really remembered, are the excellent bits of description in various moments of the book. In the first section, Woolf imagines a woman writer comparing a men’s college and a women’s college—noticing the comforts of the former compared to the latter, and thinking of the money and history of the former—and how its spaces exclude women—and I love the descriptions of the lawns, the dining rooms, a campus at “the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat of an excitable heart.” Also this, later, about the bustle of the city: “London was like a workshop. London was like a machine. We were all being shot backwards and forwards on this plain foundation to make some pattern.”

August, the narrator of Another Brooklyn, is an anthropologist in her mid-thirties; she studies death rituals/observances in cultures across the world. When the book opens she’s back in Bushwick, where she grew up, clearing out her father’s apartment after his death. But the book is mostly about August’s childhood and her teen years, and particularly about her close friendship with three other girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi. August remembers moving to Brooklyn from South Carolina with her dad and her brother in 1973, when she was eight and her brother was four; she remembers her mother, how she “started hearing voices from her dead brother Clyde” and how she “said women weren’t to be trusted.” She remembers “the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn” and how she and her friends shared secrets and laughter and pain. She remembers her own early solitude, how she watched Angela and Sylvia and Gigi doing Double Dutch before she was friends with them, how she watched the interactions between her dad and her brother and would “see their fluid connection, a something I was on the outside of.”

There’s darkness and difficulty in August’s story, and in her friends’ stories, and in their neighborhood’s stories—there’s mental illness and violence and poverty and drug use; August’s uncle is one of many who died in Vietnam, and many of those who came back are struggling: at one point August remembers how “the damage of the war staggered, strung-out and bleary-eyed along our block.” A downstairs neighbor is a sex worker who’s reunited with her kids, then parted from them again; a woman across the street had a son who died. But there are also moments of tenderness and connection and joy: kids opening hydrants along the street, or summertime parties that August went to with her friends and remembers like this: “At night, when the DJs plugged extension cords into the streetlights, the four of us followed the line of brown and white cords to the music in the park.” Or, when she was younger, trips to Coney Island with her father and brother, which August remembers like this: “On Saturdays, my father took us to Coney Island, the three of us riding the double L train to the F train to the last stop. My brother and I watched from the first car window as the Wonder Wheel came into view, then the long-closed Parachute ride, then the Cyclone, and finally, the ocean.”

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya

November 24th, 2021

As Jo Hamya says in her Author’s Note, “Three Rooms is a novel about the danger of withholding capital, principally domestic and financial.” It quotes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and exists partly in relation to Woolf’s ideas around how “intellectual freedom depends on material things.” It follows the unnamed narrator as she moves from one living situation to another, as she goes from a shared house in Oxford (where she works as a postdoc assistant) to a friend of a friend’s sofa in London (where she works as a copy editor at a society magazine) to her parents’ home (which we don’t actually see, but which the narrator describes as having “architecture and interior design opposite of everything I would have chosen for myself,” and where her set of keys is now the spare set that her parents leave with neighbors when they go on holiday). Throughout, the novel looks at different facets of the idea of “home” and the stability and safety that idea implies—or how that stability and safety can be lacking. There are the literally unhoused people the narrator sees living in tents near her office in London; there are the people who died or were displaced in the Grenfell Tower fire; there’s the idea of England itself as home, which is complicated by racism (and by acrimonious conversations around Brexit).

While the novel looks at the big themes of “home” and “space” and what that means for the narrator in particular and people in general, it’s also excellent slice-of-life fiction about the narrator’s daily existence, with lots of sharply-observed details about life in the late 2010s, online and off. At Oxford, the narrator does a deep dive into the Instagram of someone she meets, and then runs into that person taking a selfie outside of the house where the narrator lives: when she then sees that selfie on Instagram, the narrator thinks of the house itself, the reality of it, as “less spectacular” than it looks in the (cropped and filtered) photo. She talks about spending hours looking at other people’s posts on Oxford Facebook groups, and about a dating app (which she dislikes). She talks about texting with her mom, and the generation gap in texting etiquette, complaining about the fact that her mom doesn’t “know that the thumbs-up emoji constitute[s] the end of a conversation in text.” But there are also beautifully-described passages about the physical world the narrator is moving through, like London on a rainy day with a red bus and orange leaves providing “bursts of color in covert gleams, here and there between the city’s uniformity, its color of chalky stone, of colleges, of embassies; towards the Thames, the color of glass, silver high-rises over silver water.”

The Governesses is short and strange: fable-like, dream-like, with three governesses like maenads and/or like The Three Graces (to whom they are explicitly compared, I think more than once). There is a house and a garden, and another house across the road in which lives an elderly gentleman who likes to watch the governesses through his telescope; in the house with the governesses are a married couple and an unspecified number of small boys and “little maids”. There are woods nearby, and wild animals; the governesses are themselves more than a little wild. There is a party planned but postponed; there is a lot of undressing. I’m sure this book is saying things about female desire and the male gaze and motherhood and coupledom but what sticks with me is the house and the woods, branches and meadows. I think somehow of Joseph Cornell, of Bébé Marie or Pink Palace.

Early in the book there’s this, about the way the governesses’ pasts are somehow consumed/subsumed when they arrive at the house:

“all the trees they had ever known—the ones in the school playground, for example, and the ones outside grandma’s house and along the road to the beach—came rushing into Monsieur and Madame Austeur’s garden, lining up side by side with the elms and oaks, and then disappearing inside them. The same thing happened with houses, barns, châteaux, and whole towns. They all came storming through the wide-open gates the morning of the governesses’ arrival, then on into the house, so that by the time the first night had fallen Monsieur and Madame Austeur’s house had swallowed up a considerable quantity of roofbeams, tiles, chimney stacks, and still-ticking grandfather clocks.”

I love that, and also the part a bit later where Monsieur Austeur is described as “watching over the heart of the house like a grandfather clock”:

“Ensconced in his armchair at the center of the room he receives all these cries, these chirrups and yelps from the women and children of the house, and, shuffling them together in his heart, sends them back transformed, slow and steady like the signals from a lighthouse.”

In Beautiful World, Where Are You we meet two of the characters, Alice (who’s a novelist) and Felix (who works in a warehouse) as they’re meeting each other, on their first date after having messaged each other on Tinder. Later, we’re introduced to the novel’s two other main characters, Eileen (Alice’s best friend) and Simon (Eileen’s close friend/sometimes-lover) as the novel switches focus among them, with chapters of third-person narration about one or two of them alternating with the long emails that Alice and Eileen write to each other, which are partly about their personal lives and partly about art and beauty and capitalism and worries about the future of civilization.

All of which is to say that this is a very Sally Rooney book, and while I wasn’t entirely into it at first, I ended up really enjoying it and feeling emotionally invested in the characters and their choices and their happiness or unhappiness. I like how Rooney writes about friendships and partnerships, the way people converse and relate to one another, the way people move toward or away from one another. (Also, how Rooney writes about sex.) Rooney is great at dialogue, but there’s lots of really wonderful description too—especially in a section where Eileen is at her sister’s wedding and there’s all this great stuff about her past, and her family’s past, and her shared past with Simon, but also elsewhere, like when Alice invites Felix to go to Rome with her, and we get to read about the photos Felix takes as he explores the city on his own while Alice is at literary/press events. (Also from the Rome section, Alice writing to Eileen about the “dark fragrant orange trees, little white cups of coffee, blue afternoons, golden evenings.”) I also am so here for all the passages involving Felix’s dog, and also this, from an email when Eileen is telling Alice about a diary she kept for a while, in which she would write “one short entry each day, just a line or two, describing something good”: “Dry upturned sycamore leaves scuttling like claws along the South Circular Road. The artificial buttered taste of popcorn in the cinema. Pale-yellow sky in the evening, Thomas Street draped in mist. Things like that.”

Happy spooky season! I somehow had never read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving and now seemed like the right time to rectify that. Before reading the story I think I could have told you that it included “Ichabod Crane” and a “Headless Horseman” but I think that’s all I knew about it. Turns out, the story is more funny than scary, but it does have a lush autumn mood, with plenty of Hudson Valley scenery and a detailed description of “the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table” covered in cakes, pies, and more. So, right: Ichabod Crane (originally from Connecticut) is a schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow in the Hudson Valley, near Tarrytown. He doesn’t earn a lot of money, but he gets fed and housed by the families of the kids he teaches, so it’s not too bad a gig. But he thinks he could do better. Specifically, he thinks if he marries one Katrina Van Tassel, whose father has a very productive farm, he’d be much better off. So Crane courts Katrina, but so do various other people, including a prankster known as Brom Bones. In addition to his fondness for good food (which Katrina’s father’s farm would surely provide), Crane has a fondness for Cotton Mather’s book about witchcraft in New England, and for scary stories in general, which makes Sleepy Hollow an interesting place for him to be, since the town is said to be haunted by multiple ghosts, the most famous of which is a headless horseman said to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head in battle. These various elements of the story converge in a pretty great way, and I’m glad I finally read it. I especially liked the moments of wry humor, like when the narrator speculates that maybe old Dutch settlements in New York are the most haunted because people stay put there, as opposed to other places, where the ghosts find that when they “turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon.”

Meanwhile: today we walked to Economy Candy on Rivington Street, and I’m very pleased with our haul:

(That’s a five-pound chocolate mix, gummy bears, imported Haribo cherry cola bottles, chocolate covered raisins, a Lion bar, a Lion coconut bar, a Double Decker bar, and sour mango straws.)

White Magic by Elissa Washuta

October 30th, 2021

I like the three-act structure of White Magic a lot—how Washuta plays with dramatic structure, the idea of beginning/middle/end, the idea of the three parts of a magic trick as described in the movie The Prestige (the pledge, the turn, the prestige). As far as the individual essays, there are some I love, and some I just admire: like, I appreciate what Washuta is doing with multiple/overlapping/circling time lines in the long piece near the end called “The Spirit Cabinet,” but also, I’ve never seen Twin Peaks so the way she’s using it as a point of reference is sort of lost on me. (I’ve also never played Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Oregon Trail, but I love Washuta’s essay about playing the latter as a Native American, her Native female self playing the game as a white male settler character, seeing the landscapes of the game while thinking about her real Native ancestors—the differences between a white person’s imagining of past Native people, general or specific, and her own imagining of them.)

I like the way Washuta writes about landscape and place alongside her personal history and broader histories in essays like “The Spirit Corridor” (which talks about the underground fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, and how her dad’s family worked in coal mines, and about remembering some good moments in a bad relationship) and in “Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and Shades of Death” (which talks about the landscape of the part of New Jersey where Washuta grew up—the lakes, the bears, how European settlers renamed Native places in what Washuta imagines as “a kind of white magic, an incantation against the wickedness they believed was striated into the bedrock”). Elsewhere, in “White City” and “Centerless Universe”, Washuta talks about the Seattle landscape—where she lived for a time, where her Cowlitz ancestors were from, where she had an artist’s residency in the tower of a bridge. (I love that this piece includes Seattle history—including how the land was literally reshaped on a massive scale in earth-moving/”regrading” exercises to make the city more level—and also the experience of playing Pokémon Go as a distraction from a relationship that’s on the verge of ending/has just ended.)