Collect, overbalance, and fall

Camden and Regent's Park area

So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking. 

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Camden and Regent's Park area

On wearing clothes

Wardrobe essentials

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” — Virginia Woolf, Orlando

At the turn of each new year, I apparently expend a good deal of mental space thinking about clothes. What can I discard and donate now? What did I not wear in the past year? What, in Kondo’s life-changing phrase, sparks joy?

If anything, the simple act of tidying my wardrobe sparks joy for me. (I unashamedly admit that I love folding my underwear.) Last night, I edited my closet and came up with armful of things, once more, that I ought not hold onto. It thrilled me. I am so much happier with less.

Wardrobe essentials

But. I am struggling with a new desire. I do not want a pile of new things, but I want but fewer, far more expensive, and well-made things. Gobs of cheap garments from Target and Old Navy no longer appeal to me, as they did when I was younger. I just want one ludicrously expensive pair of jeans. Or a luxurious, sustainably made handbag. Which is a different (fiscal) problem altogether.

My style aspirations haven’t changed at all since I last wrote about them. I still want to dress like a Parisienne, however that is within my power in Central Virginia. I have successfully edited out most colors and prints, except for stripes. I wear rather plain things now, and I love it.

Simply put, people who say they “don’t care about clothes” are not truthful. Everyone cares about clothes. Everyone makes deliberate choices about what they buy and how they wear it. Our wardrobes are not happy accidents.

What people mean when they say this is that they don’t care about fashion or trends. Which is fine. But everyone cares about clothes.

And that is why I like thinking about clothes and observing what people wear and why. What we say to the world through what we wear. Is the image that I think I’m projecting through my clothes what the world actually receives? It is something to ponder.

Next: Perhaps some thoughts on uniforms and minimalism.

Best fiction I read in 2015

I read a tremendous amount of five-star fiction this year, and it was a year notable for the number of authors I read for the first time. Without further ado, here are the 10* best books of fiction I read in 2015 (*with a bit of fudging).

1. The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

[Insert sturdy expletive!] Maybe Cheever is all I have ever wanted in a story. I do not think I will ever be able to get over this. The pitch-perfect prose, wrapped around a bunch of sad, rich, white New Englanders, left me breathless. Yeah, it’s a narrow subject matter, on the whole, but I am incapable of denying his clear genius. Six stars.

2. The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)

Cheating, but I blazed through all four of the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) this year, and I feel like they can all count as one formidable work. As I have said to many friends, I am at a loss for words when I try to explain the draw of Elena Ferrante’s power and brilliance. I can’t say what she does that is so affecting, but these novels are not to be missed. They appeal to everyone. (Yes, even men. If you can get over yourself/the intentionally bad cover art, you will not regret it.)

3. My Struggle (Books 1 and 2), Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

Another cheat, but I was also seduced by Karl Ove Knausgaard and his sprawling Proustian novel My Struggle this year. It lives up to all the hype. I read books one through three this year, but the first and second were the ones that genuinely moved me.

4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

As a rule, I am not someone who cries when reading, but I sobbed (I think actually sobbed) a few times while reading this novel. Good grief, Hanya Yanagihara; have mercy on us. This is an extremely dark and extremely moving novel. The characters are rich, complex, and heartbreaking. A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all who have suffered, for all who have received (and yet wanted to reject) unconditional love. It’s a beautiful portrait of the love and grace that broken people can to extend to each other despite the horrors of life. Whew. I read all 720 pages in about two days, and upon finishing, I felt like I needed to recover from the death of friends. What a tremendous literary accomplishment.

5. Independent People, Halldór Laxness

Independent People

Where has this book been all my life? Never have I read a novel so beautifully, darkly comic and moving, all at once. Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, has determined that he will be an independent man, and rely on no one for anything. His singleness of purpose and pride bear out the action of this gorgeously written novel, as his desire for independence drives his family and his farm into despair, starvation, heartbreak, and death. Sounds fun, right? And somehow it is.

The humor is especially surprising. There are these moments of complete absurdity (everyone is talking about worms in the dogs and livestock; ghosts on the heath; the high-minded poetess who pretends to be a friend to the common farmer; trying to tell the neighbors that he found his wife dead, frozen in a pool of blood, after having given birth to a daughter, who is found barely alive under the dog, who is keeping her warm, and instead tells them stories about his sheep and asks them about the weather), and extremely dark humor, and then there’s this lyrical vein that runs through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to say what the quality is, but it’s beautiful. (It also was the perfect literary prelude to our visit to Iceland this past summer.)

6. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Upon my third reading of this novel, I am happy to say that the pleasures of revisiting Woolf are manifold. Years later, I still feel like I never left this novel. I read it twice in 2009 in preparation for my undergraduate thesis, and then, in 2015, I was happily astonished that it felt so fresh and memorable to me. Rereading Between the Acts felt like visiting an old friend in her garden. My undergrad marginalia in my copy was often embarrassing to reread, but I think these copious, juvenile annotations served to cement a strong recall of the themes and overall emotions of this novel. Mainly, I’ve come away with this impression: Snob as she was, Woolf noticed everybody. And here we notice ourselves in these characters, as at the end of the play, when the (literal) mirrors are held up to the audience, casting a chilling democracy over the crowd. “So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.”

On a summer evening in the English countryside, a family and their neighborhood friends gather to put on an annual pageant that spans the history of noble Britain. As to be expected with Woolf, a multiplicity of psychological distress simmers under the social surface. Isa is the quiet center of this novel, and we live in her sad, observant mind. As with most Woolf heroines, she is a secretive poet and an unhappy wife and mother, imprisoned by the luxuries of her domestic situation. And yet she is still sympathetic and very human.

This is not her strongest novel, and it’s not the one I’d recommend to newcomers, but it has all the trappings of Woolf’s timeless appeal as a novelist: the incisive characterization, the lush prose, the beautiful meditations, the moments of playfulness.

7. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower

If 2014 was the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Lydia Davis, I’m going to declare 2015 the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Penelope Fitzgerald. This is only the second novel I’ve read by her, but I am perpetually enchanted by her effortless style, wit, and perfect characterizations. (She also writes children very well, in a very clever, realistic manner. “The Bernhard,” the protagonist’s little brother, was a consistently hilarious character to me. Everything about him is delightful.) I am eagerly looking forward to reading everything else from her (and remain perplexed that she seems to get consistently low numbers of Goodreads stars).

In the lush and dramatic time of Goethe, we meet a young Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, later known as the German Romantic philosopher/poet Novalis. In the middle of his university education, he meets and falls desperately in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn, despite the fact that she seems to have not much to recommend herself (except, according to him, being the spitting image of a woodcut of the painter Raphael). His family and friends are appalled. The young genius is so taken in by this very normal kid, who is 10 years his junior, and no one can understand the deep attraction he has for her. Fitzgerald is hilarious to me, throughout her depiction of the sincere and yet puzzling romance. A lovely little novel. It is funny and light and strangely, whimsically profound.

8. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders

In Persuasion Nation

Brilliant and weird and funny and meticulously executed. This is such a delightful collection. Not as beloved, in my mind, as The Tenth of December, but here we have all of the characteristic blend of quasi-sci-fi American-life criticism, poignant family dramas shown from odd angles, and that biting and somehow wise wit.

9. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Masterful. Claudia Hampton, a brilliant and unorthodox historian, looks back over her life and loves as she dies. I was a touch skeptical at first, by the jumpy perspectives and narration, but Penelope Lively’s unerring control won me over. I was thoroughly charmed by this short, beautiful novel and didn’t want it to end. Easily the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read.

10. Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar

Coup de Grâce

I typically find war novels extremely dull, but in Marguerite Yourcenar’s capable hands, not even a war novel can be tedious. (And, besides, Coup de Grâce is not really a battlefield narrative but rather psychological tension in the midst of wartime.) I think I might love Yourcenar; I don’t think she can do anything wrong. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read, and all three have been flawless.

Erick, the narrator, is a young, emotionally cold Prussian who becomes entangled with Sophie, a beautiful, serious, and tragic young woman. Sophie loves him despite his detached and even unkind nature, which gives the misogynistic Erick plenty to brood and philosophize about while the bombs are falling around them. And, oh, the ending! I won’t say a word about it, but the fact that Yourcenar says this was based on a true story makes it all the more romantically tragic and perfect.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  2. The Sweet Cheat Gone, Marcel Proust
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
  5. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  6. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
  7. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton
  8. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  9. Mating, Norman Rush
  10. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  11. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  12. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  14. Mislaid, Nell Zink
  15. As We Are Now, May Sarton
  16. Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  17. Victory over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist
  18. Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino
  19. We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
  20. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  21. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  22. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  23. The Life and Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  24. Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

What fiction did you read and enjoy in 2015?

Favorite books from April

A list of the best things I read in April.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. It is as good as everyone says it is.

On Immunity: An Inoculation

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Beautifully written meditation on the history and language of vaccines.

The Blue Flower

The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is my latest lady novelist obsession.

The Diary, Vol. 3: 1925-1930

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. III (1925–1930). Her happiest, most productive years.

The Writer in the Garden

The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey. Charming collection of essays, poems, and thoughts about gardening from talented writers.

Life and Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee. Darkly moving.

What did you read and enjoy in April?

Favorite books from March

I read a lot of very enjoyable things in March. Particular favorites from the past month:

A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West. Utterly charming in every way! A delight for literature-loving gardeners.

Offshore

Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald. My first introduction to Penelope Fitzgerald, and I found myself totally smitten by her. Continuing my newfound obsession, I am currently reading The Blue Flower, which I stumbled on at the library book sale.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion

The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum. I might just share a brain with her, for better or worse.

Electric Light: Poems

Electric Light, Seamus Heaney. The most delightful neologisms.

Between the Acts

Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf. This was the third time I’ve read this novel, Woolf’s last, and I was so pleased to discover that I enjoyed it just as much now as I did as an undergrad. I like how loose and playful it is. It is not her best, but Woolf’s “not best” is far superior to the majority of fiction. So. There’s that.

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast. Funny and heartrending in all the right ways.

All the King's Men

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren. This was on my to-read list for many years; it’s stirring and interesting, in ways that I didn’t expect.

Selected Poems

Selected Poems, Rita Dove. I also finally got around to the work of Rita Dove, one of my town’s resident famous poets. Deeply enjoyable. She has such an enchanting musicality to her work.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison. Borrowed from Celeste, my personal purveyor of good things to read. A well-written account of the author’s life with manic-depressive illness and its juxtaposition to her career as a psychologist.

Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino. Some people may find this plot-less collection of observations frustrating, but it is just the sort of thing that I love.

What did you read and enjoy in March?

Woolf, more on street harassment, and simple things

How Virginia Woolf did not age well (or, rather, she aged very rapidly) and yet she maintained this essential quality of light elegance, quiet composure. In contrast to her brilliant, racing mind? I feel somewhat obsessed with that photograph of her, from 1938, just three years before she died; her limpid expression, the angle of the camera, the light behind her.

In the grim state of affairs regarding women’s public safety, my conclusion is thus: You simply cannot trust men you do not know. This sounds dark and cynical, but I feel dark and cynical about the state of women’s freedom and the outrageous lack of respect for women as human beings. A close friend worked at the same hospital as Hannah Graham’s alleged murderer and rapist and said he was the nicest, gentlest guy; so did many of his friends. “So, now knowing all of this, and knowing how I found him to be such a trustworthy person,” my friend said, “how can you trust anyone?” We let the question fall and didn’t answer, because what could we say? Who can you trust? But “anyone,” to me, is the limiting factor. I’d answer that you just can’t trust unfamiliar men with your physical safety, ever. Because Lord knows a woman isn’t going to rape you and then throw your body in a stream.

We were talking about this case again with friends around a bonfire and the daily reality of street harassment came up. Except that the men around us — thinking, respectful, generous men — seemed somewhat shocked that this was a daily reality for us women. We women all agreed that we were always on alert, everywhere, even in daylight, even in familiar places. Stories about harassment that had happened just a few hours prior bubbled up. The men were silent. But none of it was unusual to the women. Constantly checking our surroundings, whether day or night, watching for suspicious characters, cringing when walking past a construction site: these are not behaviors that men commonly concern themselves with.

Someone said, “Well, they’re just yelling at you; they don’t have any real power over you.” But men who harass you on the street do, unfortunately, wield a form of power over you. Because they make you afraid. They make you feel unsafe. They make you frightened of your surroundings, mistrustful of society at large. They make you feel exposed and vulnerable. This is how a patriarchal society works.

I have to quote Rebecca Solnit again, because I feel like I just can’t get over this:

Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Please, look me in the eye and tell me that we don’t need feminism. That women have enough rights already. Say it to my face.

We talked about ways to respond to street harassment and didn’t come up with any workable solutions. Responding, to me, is giving such a man what he wants (recognition that his words have affected you), even if that response is a middle finger (or a thumbs down, as someone cutely suggested). I’ve always chosen to ignore, to steel myself to wear an unfeeling mask. But I don’t know if that does anything to resolve this ongoing issue.

Every time something as horrific as Hannah Graham’s murder crops up in the news, every time a man shouts an obscenity at a woman in the street, the only refrain I can recall is you are not free, you are not free, you are not free…

As a corollary to this conversation about street harassment, my friend Tara made an interesting side note. “No one hollers at you when you have a bunch of babies strapped to you,” she said, with a wry smile. That interested me. I wonder if other mothers would report the same? Street harassment is negated if you are accompanied by small children?

A woman will also never experience catcalling if she is accompanied by a man. Presumably, that woman is owned by her male companion and she is therefore protected, as his property, from verbal abuse. So there’s that. (Which also enrages me in a different way. That even the basest men somehow respect this misogynistic code of behavior toward one another — if a man has “his” woman with him, “his” woman is therefore ineligible to receive harassment. But a woman daring to walk alone? Open season!)

Virginia Woolf, June 1926. (c) National Portrait Gallery. #virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf, June 1926. National Portrait Gallery.

This devolved rather quickly. I had intended to write about simple, pretty things.

Like how my rosemary has flourished in the front yard. Like the way Eden leans against my chair while I am reading and looks directly into my eyes with an unblinking, expectant stare. Like the fact that I am savoring Lila and reading it with worshipful patience. Like having lunch with Guion on the deck on a weekday, with the dogs sunbathing, with the leaves fluttering to the ground, with the yellow jacket persistently hovering over your raised spoon.

Books for people who believe that women and men are equal

I’m feeling weighed down lately by how deeply and fervently this country of mine hates women. So. Here are some important books I’ve enjoyed, which you should read if you think that women are human and should be treated accordingly.

The Second Sex

  • The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
  • My Life, a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Politics, Paula Bennett
  • Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine
  • The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
  • Half the Sky, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn
  • On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, Adrienne Rich
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
  • A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

A Room of One's Own

Books for cloudy days

Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories

10 books:

  • Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  • Dog Years, Mark Doty
  • Middlemarch, George Eliot
  • What the Living Do, Marie Howe
  • Runaway, Alice Munro
  • The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk
  • The Shipping News, Annie Proulx
  • Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit
  • Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan
  • Orlando, Virginia Woolf

Orlando

Books for lounging in the sun

Henderson the Rain King

10 books:

  • Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
  • On Love, Alain de Botton
  • Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard
  • Light in August, William Faulkner
  • The Essential Haiku, ed. Robert Hass
  • Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams
  • The Waves, Virginia Woolf

The Waves

Women walking

A Shaker woman with her dog, from the LIFE Magazine Archives.
A Shaker woman and her dog. Source: LIFE Magazine Archives.

Women have routinely been punished and intimidated for attempting that most simple of freedoms, taking a walk, because their walking and indeed their very beings have been construed as inevitably, continually sexual in those societies concerned with controlling women’s sexuality.

— Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Since finishing Rebecca Solnit’s lovely book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, I have continued to reflect on the pleasures of a good, long walk.

Specifically, I feel breathless when I consider the large number of barriers that still exist to women who dare to walk alone.

(1) In history, any woman who was on the street alone was a prostitute (a street-walker). Even today, any woman who exists on a street unaccompanied by a man could be accused or suspected of prostitution. In some countries ruled by fundamentalist religion, it is still unlawful for a woman to exist in public without being accompanied by a man. (I recall Malala Yousafzai laughing about the absurdity of this rule in her memoir; by law, she had to be accompanied by a man on her errands in her Afghan village. But that “man” was her 4-year-old brother, who she was just baby-sitting on the way to the market. But by Taliban order, he fulfilled the law and was “protecting” her.)

(2) Furthermore, women are daily subjected to sexual harassment if they deign to exist on a public street alone. Regardless of attire, women come to expect some form of verbal or even physical harassment on the street. A woman alone on a street? Surely she deserves to be ridiculed and disgraced for her existence, for her outrageous boldness to possess a body! So men may yell at her, shout obscenities at her, do whatever possible to make her feel belittled, ashamed, and used.

(3) Women’s clothing has also been a barrier to free movement. And even though women no longer have to wear corsets and yards and yards of fabric to pass the muster of common decency, we are still hobbled by high heels and mini-skirts. Woolf puts the sartorial tension between the sexes perfectly in Orlando:

Thus, there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking. So, having now worn skirts for a considerable time, a certain change was visible in Orlando, which is to be found even in her face. If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that of Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are certain changes. The man has his hand free to seize his sword; the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same too.

— Virginia Woolf, Orlando

(4) Accordingly, violence against women is commonplace, and so a woman alone is constantly thinking about being mugged, assaulted, or raped. And yet this threat of violence is also used to keep women continually living in a state of fear; to live under the constant reminder that you are never safe, you are never whole unless you have a male protector from male violence.

It is simple, societal examples like this the mere consideration of something as mundane as walking that makes me ASTOUNDED when people say that we have no need for feminism, that our feminist work here is done. Or when supposedly intelligent women eschew the term “feminist” as if it were an epithet; it really and truly blows my mind.

Solnit writes in Wanderlust that she had been followed by a man who was yelling vile sexual proposals to her. When she finally turned around and told him off, he was livid and told her she had no right to speak to him that way and threatened to kill her. She writes:

It was the most devastating discovery of my life that I had no real right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness out-of-doors, that the world was full of strangers who seemed to hate me and wish to harm me for no reason other than my gender, that sex so readily became violence, and that hardly anyone else considered it a public issue rather than a private problem. I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me—all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils, all asserting it was my responsibility to control my own and men’s behavior rather than society’s to ensure my freedom.

So, what is a modern woman to do if she wants to take a walk?

Simply, I think, keep walking.

I have also found that having a pair of German shepherds is a benefit. For better or worse, I never feel my typical whispers of fear when I am walking solo if I have Pyrrha and Eden at my side. In general, people don’t try to eff with German shepherds. (Even though the worst my dogs would do to you is jump on you and maybe bark in your face.) But they are my constant walking companions. Scary or no, they improve my mental state. There is nothing quite so enjoyable as a good, long walk with a dog at one’s side.

My feminism posts always end with this note of grim reality, a recognition that women are still not free. It drags me down, but I am resolved to keep thinking and walking, regardless of cultural mores, and take the dogs with me.