A love story that winds across many years, through Nigeria, England, the US, finally returning to Nigeria. High school sweethearts separated when she (Ifemelu) flees to the US to try studying at a college where teacher strikes and electricity shortages won’t keep her out of class. They have a plan to reunite, but Ifemelu finds it so difficult, so treacherous, so costly to immigrate that she stoops to providing “relaxation” for a suburban tennis coach, just once but enough for her to fall into a deep depression. She stops contact with everyone, and freezes him out. Her life tumbles on, finally finding a babysitting job that can support her while she goes to school in Philadelphia. She deliberates avoids acquiring an American accent. She is befuddled by the lack of hair braiding options (and exorbitant cost – $160). To cinch the job interview her wealthy white boyfriend (Curt) has lined up for her, she yields to the advice of a counselor and takes out her braids, relaxes her hair into the approved straight look. The chemical burns her scalp but she perseveres for months before giving in and going natural with an Afro. She begins a blog called Raceteeth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black, providing straight talk about race/racism in America. The blog enables her to quit her day job, accepting advertisement revenue and speaking fees. After her first fiasco of a talk, she realizes she’s being booked not to speak the truth about racism but to provide encouragement that white America is on the right track. She meets Blaine, an American Black, on the train, exchanging numbers but he does not call her back; fast-forward many years and she runs into him at a conference “Blogging while Brown” and they begin to date, eventually she shutters her Baltimore condo and moves to New Haven where he professes at Yale. Minor disturbances chafe them, culturally different. (And his sister Shan provides an evil villain for Ifemelu to hate). She declares that she is moving back to Nigeria, ending their relationship, keeping to herself that she was unable to feel as much for Blaire as she did for Obinze, her original love.
Meanwhile, Obinze attempted to immigrate to London, his mother sneaking him in on a six month visa and then his desperation to find a job and secure citizenship. On the brink of marrying an Eastern European for citizenship, he is deported. In Nigeria he’s given a break by one of the important men who run the country, beginning his real estate empire and amassing wealth. He marries, has a daughter, settles into a life that he doesn’t quite like. I was struck by the variation yet similarity in their immigration experiences (few friends will help him and she gets the babysitting gig through a friend, they both end up back in Nigeria). The story unfolding in the hair braiding salon as she’s on the brink of return, so much drama packed into that tight hot space in Trenton, NJ, her reckless text to Obinze after years of silence to let him know she is coming back, her persistent attempts to call her cousin Dike who we find out has attempted suicide by Tylenol, spinning her off into a frenzied state of nursing him back to psychic health and delaying her return (and preventing her from contacting the Igbo cab driver her hair braider insists she tell him that she can marry her).
A whirlwind of a book, delightful, delicious.

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

Brilliant expansion on watching Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, replete with literary references from DeLillo, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, Coleridge, Kundera, Rilke and film references from Wenders, Jarmusch, Goddard, Tarantino, von Trier (calling his film daft and stupid, much to my delight). The film itself is about a journey to the Room, a place where your innermost desires are fulfilled, a Room inside the forbidden Zone, which requires a guide (the Stalker) to get you there. He brings along with him Writer and Professor, who loses his knapsack and then once regained, produces a bomb which he intends to blow up the Room, later changing his mind. I’ve never seen Stalker (but it’s on the queue now), nor ever been as affected by a film as to devote this much energy into recreating it and picking it apart, layering it with philosophical, literary, and personal observations. The book was marred by the juvenile admission that the author’s greatest regret is not having had sex with 2 women at once (which he claims he shares with the majority of men), but with a deep sigh I persevered and enjoyed every other bit.

‘If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer, a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention.’ This is Tarkovsky’s aesthetic in a nutshell. At first there can be a friction between our expectations of time and Tarkovsky-time and this friction is increasing in the twenty-first century as we move further and further away from Tarkovsky-time towards moron-time in which nothing can last- and no one can concentrate on anything- for longer than about two seconds.

Or perhaps one of the novelties of our era is the possibility of instant boredom – like instant coffee – as opposed to a feeling that has to unfold gradually, suffocatingly, over time.

This wind that springs from nowhere, suddenly appearing with a force capable of carrying it across the steppes of Russia: genealogically it springs from the opening sequence of Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent Soviet classic, Earth (Zemlya), a film Tarkovsky watched ‘over and over again’ without ever being able to explain why it touched him ‘so deeply.’

Quoting from Berger and Bielski’s play A Question of Geography:
‘Each one of us comes into the world with her or his unique possibility – which is like an aim, or, if you wish, almost like a law.’ ‘The job of our lives is to become – day by day, year by year, more conscious of this aim so that it can at last be realized.’

When you’re happy, hope, like all the other big questions, becomes meaningless. It is possible, in parts of California particularly, to live a life devoid of hope (in what’s to come) and brim full of happiness (for what is here now). Elsewhere, hope has persistence and endurance on its side, is happy to stand around and wait – for things to get bad again, for happiness to pass.

Also reco’d by the fine staff of Spoonbill and Sugartown!

The Summer Book

Written and illustrated by the Swedish-speaking Finn who was the first born daughter of a tight-knit Helsinki family, only leaving home at age 28, and who lived with her companion for years except during the coldest of winter on an island at the edge of the Pellinge archipelago, on an island smaller than that described in the book. Jansson wrote this when she was 60, after the death of her mother, which is alluded to in the book when Sophia realizes she has a bed to herself because her mother just died. A cantankerous Sophia bosses and demands and cozies up to her grandmother, who has lived on the island for nearly 50 years, the father a slim shadowy figure alluded to rarely. Sophia and grandmother slide on bellies through the woods, dip into caves, Sophia watches as her grandmother sneaks cigarettes hidden from her father, grandmother frantically rebuilds the model of Venice that got swept away in the storm so that Sophia doesn’t have to deal with another loss. The friend of Sophia with hair that delights Sophia, who is afraid of everything, and who once her hair is wet and ugly, is banished from the island. Sophia finds a cat that refuses her affection, trades it for one that’s too affectionate and yearns for the original one. The midsummer adventures with Erikkson, a silent friend who sweeps into their life and stashes firecrackers with them, promising to come back to set them off at midsummer eve, but instead who scoops them up in his boat and they help him salvage bottles from a shipwreck, alongside other frantic boaters (and the coast guard, who turned a blind eye). Sophia’s attempt to sleep in a tent on the ravine awakens grandmother’s memories of leading a scout troop. Grandmother and Sophia’s breaking into the new neighbor’s house and getting caught, grandmother warning the businessman that around there it’s best to leave buildings open, or at least with the key somewhere. Wonderfully translated by Thomas Teal, recommended by a brilliant staff member of Spoonbill and Sugartown in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The Golden Notebook

The genius of Doris Lessing is a combination of her fearless, aggressive swipe at unravelling the world and her pure writing talent. The structure of the book was a bit disconcerting at first, à la Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, but I eased into it. A novel in itself, Free Women, is broken into five parts, providing cover for the contents of the notebooks themselves, black, red, yellow, blue, and at the end, gold. Anna Freeman, the hero, must structure the record of her life into separate vessels, not a chronological diary but a compartmentalized one:
* black contains details of the pecuniary situation of her book (Frontiers of War) sales, she struggles with writers’ block from the very beginning of this notebook “Every time I sit down to write, and let my mind go easy, the words, It is so dark, or something to do with darkness. Terror.” She then lines the book into two sections, Source & Money, the source side detailing all the producers who try to buy the film rights to Frontiers, the money side detailing funds coming in from the translation of the work, business interviews, etc. “I have only one, and the least important of the qualities necessary to write at all, and that is curiosity.” Source goes on to detail life in the colony (South Africa?), reliving the source that created Frontiers of War, the tight group of Communists working to spread their doctrine. She rails against Frontiers being seen as a book about the race wars. Hence her choice of black for the color?
*red details life in the Communist Party in 1950s England, as she dances into and out of the party.
* yellow is the beginnings of a novel, about Ella and her son Michael (the name of Anna’s old lover from Africa), Ella falls in love with Paul (married, no intention of leaving his wife). At the end of the story, Anna questions how she’s presented the story, “Literature is analysis after the event.”
* blue is the more personal events, perhaps colored for the depression that overtakes her after her five year affair with Michael is over
* golden notebook preserves the descent into madness and complete abandonment of senses Anna experiences with Saul Green, the loss of sense of time, the buckling of the floor, the sleepiness, her ache when he leaves to walk the streets until he exhausts himself.
I just noticed that the typeface for the notebooks is different than that for the Free Women installments. Free Women is the story of Anna, her pal Molly, Molly’s son Tommy (who is blinded when he shoots himself), Molly’s ex Richard, Richard’s current wife Marion (who then moves in with Tommy), and Janet, Anna’s daughter. The title is tongue in cheek, Anna is “free” because she is not mated, but she does not feel particularly good about it.

It is fatal to art. I am interested only in stretching myself, in living as fully as I can. When I said that to Mother Sugar she replied with the small nod of satisfaction people use for these resounding truths, that the artist writes out of an incapacity to live. I remember the nausea I felt when she said it; I feel the reluctance of disgust now when I write it: it is because this business about art and the artist has become so debased, the property of every sloppy-minded amateur that any person with a real connection with the arts wants to run a hundred miles at the sight of the small satisfied nod, the complacent smile. (from the black notebook)

In her 1972 preface, ten years after the original publication, Lessing eviscerates critics and gives valuable advice on reading:

There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag – and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that they book which bores you when you are 20 or 30 will open doors for you when you are 40 or 50 – and vice versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.

She is uncomfortable with the book being labeled as about gender politics, and in Frontiers, she’s uncomfortable with it being labeled as just about race. Lessing wants you to see the whole, not pick it apart at the seams.

Top Picks of 2013

It seems like I barely read anything over the last year, and yet I have an oversized list of favorites.
1. Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
This one takes top place because I have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. Master of the Senate by Robert Caro
Caro’s epic achievement of an in-depth profile of LBJ marches on.
3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Historical fiction at its finest
4. Pavilion of Women by Pearl Buck
A woman on her 40th birthday hires a concubine for her husband? Yes, please.
5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’m dumb for never having read this before.
6. Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value by Irving Singer
Nibbled at this one for months, great great stuff.
7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
8. Tenth of December by George Saunders
9. Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles
10. Eight Decades: Essays and Episodes by Agnes Replier
11. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
12. Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis
13. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
14. Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell by Auguste Rodin
15. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
A perfect complement to living in NYC at the beginning of 2013.
Best in Kids’ Literature I read in 2013:
16. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
17. The Fault in our Stars by John Green