Sunsets and sunrises of 2015

The best thing I started doing last year was documenting beautiful sunsets and sunrises. I didn’t do it nearly enough, I realise now, because it brings me such joy to look at these again.

There is something magical about sunsets, and about being outside when the sun sets – and I miss it. But sunsets are beautiful from windows or in the fresh air.

The joy I feel from them is a continuous line from my West Texas childhood, where the skies are so large – my first photography project in junior high was of a person looking into a sunset.

This joy continues through my college days, and evenings of working late on the student newspaper, in wrong-temperatured rooms with scraps of pizza ground into chairs and couches.

It bittersweet when it reminds me of Ben, who loved sunsets and who I always think of and miss when I look at these – but who reminds me to love and value these fleeting moments.

I feel privileged to live in England now, where these magical moments come at radically different times over the course of the year: 8 a.m. (or later) sunrises and 3 p.m. sunsets in winter, compared to 4 a.m. sunrises and 10 p.m. sunsets in summer.

I remember each of these moments: many of the sunset pictures were taken with a smirk or a sigh about the day (last year was rough), and many of the sunrises inspired hope or new resolutions.

I also remember the guilt and awe I had when I took the pictures. Many times, I thought: “Am I destroying this moment by capturing it? Does this reduce my present joy?” But, looking back on them, they are such a comfort to me – like a little reminder that the sun sets and rises and each of the emotions I was feeling when I took the picture has passed, and come back and passed again, and however overwhelmed or joyful I felt then, things have moved on.

So, here they are, with minimal annotations (NB – these are not good photographs, but I haven’t used filters either – colors are original):

01 2015 sunrise

January – sunrise (barely) – London

 

01 2015 sunset

January – sunset – London

 

02 2015 sunset Louisiana 2

February – sunset – Louisiana

 

02 2015 sunset Louisiana 3

February – sunset – Louisiana

 

02 2015 sunset Louisiana

February – sunset – Louisiana

 

02 2015 sunset Savannah

February – sunset – Savannah, Georgia

 

03 2015 sunrise 2

March – sunrise – London

 

03 2015 sunrise 3March – sunrise – London

 

03 2015 sunriseMarch – sunrise – London

 

03 2015 sunrset

March – sunset – train from London to Exeter

 

03 2015 sunset

March – sunset – London (Canary Wharf)

 

04 2015 sunrset Kosovo

April – sunset – Kosovo

 

04 2015 sunset

April – sunset – London

 

05 2015 sunrise VA

May – sunrise – Virginia

 

06 2015 sunset

June – sunset – London (Canary Wharf)

 

08 2015 sunset

August – sunset – London

 

09 2015 sunset

September – sunset – Exeter

 

10 2015 sunset

October – sunset – London

 

11 2015 sunset Ukraine

November – sunset – Kyiv, Ukraine

 

11 2015 sunrise

November – sunrise – London

 

12 2015 sunrise Manchester

December – sunrise – Manchester

My 2015 music year in review

I am still doing 2015 in review. I think that’s okay because the year is long, and it takes some time to go through everything. You don’t want to do these things too quickly.

I tend to keep songs I like on a playlist and then start a new one every few months over the course of the year. This year, I’ve pulled my favorites from these together to make a playlist from all of my seasonal playlists. It has been fun to listen to these again, and so I hope you enjoy these – it is an eclectic mix, and I’ve kept the things that are embarrassing on there, even:

spotify:user:romyolivia:playlist:2o2uzeUINNCWs500AAXlW1

My favorite song is easily either Sjowgren’s “Seventeen” or the Trishas’ “Drive” or Kacey Musgraves’ “Dime Store Cowgirl”. But most of these songs on this playlist have been on the top 5 list at some point in the year, so it’s a bit unfair to rank them. To put this in perspective, these are songs that I listened to for entire weeks at a time on repeat, sometimes on repeat for entire 45-minute commutes.

My favorite albums – the ones that I’ve come back to over and over – are probably the following:

  • Sturgill Simpson,
  • Kacey Musgraves,
  • Courtney Barnett,
  • Erin Rae and the Meanwhiles,
  • Patrick Watson,
  • Sufjan Stevens, and
  • Sylvan Esso.

But my weirdest favourite is probably Land Lines, whose album The Natural World immediately sounded like my feelings or the soothing I needed. Does anyone else know this band? I can’t explain why I liked it so much.

And, finally, I went to a lot of gigs – most of which were with my friend C., with whom I now I have a great gig tradition that I really love. We saw tons of music – I have talked about this elsewhere, but gigs are perfect if you work too much because they start really late, and they’re fun without being exhausting (you don’t have to drink) and you can tag food onto it easily.

Anyway, favourite gigs:

  • The funnest crowd was at Sons of Bill – lots of really nice middle-aged men who really love this band in an infectious way;
  • Patrick Watson with C., but also with N. & S. He puts on a very good show;
  • the entire Marlborough Jazz Festival, where I discovered Ma Polaine’s Great Decline and Lil Jimmy Reed; and
  • Dar Williams – I still totally love her with my whole heart.

There were quite a few more (but, it turns out, not as many as 2014 – this year was brutal at work), including Sharon van Etten and Cat Power, but they don’t make favorites list.

Would love to hear more from you on your year in music!

The answer is “no”.

Today, I was going through various news reads and wondering what I’d write on my blog, and I came across this question:

Is James Joyce’s Ulysses the hardest novel to finish?

(Link here.)

The answer, in my opinion, is “no”. So far, in my life, the hardest-to-finish book is László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below. To be fair to him, he might have books that are even more difficult to read, but I have not attempted them.

I think maybe my favourite thing about this book is that they somehow re-released it in 2015, calling it a new book, as if that whole 2013 release didn’t happen. Like they could trick us into trying again. I felt smug every time I saw it in the book shop, and thought, “Fool me once…”

Seiobo There Below does not have a discernible plot, it has immensely long sentences, no chapters, etc. Joyce is a breeze, comparatively.

So, question: What’s the hardest book you’ve attempted to finish. It’s best, in my opinion, if it remains unfinished, but of course feel free to brag about having finished it. 

I have lived out my conflicts not my fantasies…

… and so has New York.

So goes a line in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, published last year, which I kept seeing on various “Best of” lists for 2015. From everything I’ve read, it was exactly the sort of book I like: witty and about being female and about being a female in a city, and about friendships and the 20th century.

Vivian Gornick - Odd Woman and the City

And it is all those things, and so I enjoyed reading it. I’ve always wanted to be an odd woman, and feared it, the way you do if you’re a girl from a mid-sized town/city in West Texas.

(I had a moment of panic in college, when I thought I might turn out to be “normal”, but then I realized that I had been trying my whole life to be normal, unsuccessfully, so it was unlikely that it would happen inadvertently. This is both prescient and likely to lure a person into a false sense of comfort, but that’s all something to discuss another time.)

I have read this book quickly, and I have also folded down a lot of pages. (I am a person who likes to write in the margins, but after opprobrium from other readers, I have started turning down the corners of pages where I liked the quotes, and then trying to find them later. It’s not the same. I need to start travelling with pencils, which is a better compromise.) All of that supports the idea that I enjoyed reading the book.

It is, for starters, a wonderful description of friendships:

“We are one,” I decided shortly after we met. … It took years for me to realize this sentiment was off the mark. What we are, in fact, is a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer limit to give each other border reports.

Yes, a bit melancholy. But she asks great questions, and has similar insights throughout. I liked this one too:

In both friendship and love, the expectation that one’s expressive (if not best) self will flower in the presence of the beloved over is key. Upon that flowering all is posited. But what if the restless, the fluid, the mercurial, within each of us is steadily undermining the very thing we think we most want? What, in fact, if the assumptions of a self in need of expressiveness is an illusion? What if the urge toward stable intimacy is perpetually threatened by an equally great, if not greater, urge toward destabilization? What then?

She made me add a lot of things to my Goodreads list, which is not really a to-read list but is basically a list of all the books I might want to look at and peruse if I had infinite time: Seymour Krim, George Gissing (see below). I need to watch Gypsy, it turns out. This was a helpfully curated guide to somewhat obscure references to strange women and loneliness and urban life. I’m always grateful for a book that gives me more writers and books to read.

There were some things about it that were grating, though. She writes about New York in a kind of devoted way that seems to me to be almost redundant and exclusive, in a slightly annoying way. She mentions in a parenthetical at some point in a story about riding a bus at midnight, for example, that there is traffic at midnight because there is always traffic in New York. It seems like you’d know that about New York, or that you wouldn’t even be reading her book if you didn’t know that about New York. There are other examples.

On the other hand, what’s wrong with the personal and specific, and so what if you have to use frustrating parenthetical asides to widen your audience? When I was stewing over what to write here, I thought that maybe I would write that it wasn’t universal enough, but surely the particular can be universal as well?

And right when I was thinking all of that, and feeling a bit frustrated because it’s a very middle-class/white-lady book, full of righteous indignation and a certain slight lack of kindness, she calls herself out on it in the last dozen pages, and totally redeems herself. There is the explanation of “odd women”, from the novel by George Gissing, and this amazing line about what it is like to live in the gap between cold idealism of feminism of the 1970s and the human reality and need for love and community, and the repercussions of that schism:

Sometimes I think that for me the gap has become a deep divide at the bottom of which I wander, as though on a pilgrim’s progress, still hoping to climb its side to level ground before I die.

And there is the following passage:

When I think back on it, I realize that we, the feminists of the seventies and eighties, had become primitive anarchists. We didn’t want reform, we didn’t even want reparations; what we wanted was to bring down the system, destroy the social arrangement, no matter the consequence. …
Here we were, women of the law-abiding middle class sounding, at this crucial moment of unmediated revolt, like professional insurrectionists, when in reality we were just Rose [in Gypsy], demanding our turn. (160)

Then there is an amazing story about a famous actor who has had a stroke and gives a private reading of Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, alternating between his own struggle with his voice and an earlier tape of his 4-year-old self playing the same part in a perfect style. The scene here is vividly recorded, and I feel that I can touch the actor. There is so much dignity in that scene.

There is also a scene in a park, which lauds the changes in a park from a white, middle-class park to a mixed-race park with guitar players and junkies. And some lines about the spirit of New York (not about jobs but about lifestyles), comparing it to more “manageable” cities, which almost crosses the border of my tolerance for New York hagiography. And then, she brings it back, talking about the voices of New York that keep her here.

Sure, she’s writing about New York, but she is also writing about cities. Those of us who love cities understand what she means.

“What’s wrong with Maybe?” (Mary Oliver’s Felicity)

Mary Oliver - Felicity

I often read poetry. I listen to poetry podcasts, and I buy poetry books. I have many beloved poets, but poetry is strange. For me, a beautiful poem is a piece of writing in which the meaning is beyond your grasp, and the different poets I love write things that are further and closer from my grasp. John Ashbery and Lucy Brock-Broido are further away from my grasp.

Mary Oliver seems closer to me. That is not to say that she writes bad poems, but there is a simplicity in her language that is so beautiful and wise. And it represents, to me, a view of what is necessary for a life.

(All of this feeling has increased the more I know about her as a person. You can listen to her on a podcast here, which I feel like I need to listen to at least once a year, to keep me grounded.)

Mary Oliver’s new poetry collection is mostly about love, but as always it is about our place in the universe and in nature. Reading this book, as with many others, feels like coming home, to a wise older relative – an uncle or aunt, who makes me feel safe and brave, but also makes me question what I am doing.

There are so many beautiful lines that represent this. Here are a few:

From “The World I Live In”:

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs;
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway.
what’s wrong with Maybe?

The final line of “Whistling Swans”, which is a beautiful poem anyway, is something I’d like to make a motto:

Take from it what you can.

Here is the entirety of “No, I’d Never Been to This Country”:

No, I’d never been to this country
before. No, I didn’t know where the roads
would lead me. No, I didn’t intend to
turn back.

These are lines that have gone onto my homemade collages this winter, and which have bounced around in my head, from “Everything That Was Broken”:

… Every day has something in
it whose name is Forever.

And, I will leave you with these beautiful lines, from “The Gift”:

Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.
That the gift has been given.

But I’d like to reiterate that the whole collection is worth buying (or borrowing) and reading.

Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment

My Goodreads review starts like this:

This book is amazing because Ferrante is amazing. I love the way she gets into the characters’ heads and tells these gripping stories that are basically just psychological. The action in the story is relational – it is about a woman whose husband leaves her, and the aftermath. I had the feeling that I was actually suffering with her – that I was getting woozy when she was losing it. And yet, at the end, there is a redeeming compassion that I also love.

This is a short review, just to mark that I have finished it, because it is from my 2015 to-do list.

That’s probably enough, although going forward I will hopefully write more insightful or literary book reviews (or not – either is fine, I suppose).

On to the quotes, which are basically my favorite part of reading. I love collecting quotes and sentences. These in particular will show you the depth of feeling in the book.

I like this sentence, which shows the conversational tone the narration takes:

“I don’t know exactly what he said. If I have to be honest, I think that he mentioned only the fact that, when you live with someone, sleep in the same bed, the body of the other becomes like a clock, ‘a meter,’ he said — he used just that expression – ‘a meter of life, which runs along leaving a wake of anguish.'” (40)

In this quote, she is using deliberately maternal language to describe how she supported her husband through his studies and into his professional life:

“I had taken away my own time and added it to his to make him more powerful. … I had disappeared into his minutes, into his hours, so that he could concentrate. … And now, now he had left me, carrying off, abruptly, all that time, all that energy, all that effort I had given him, to enjoy its fruits with someone else, a stranger who had not lifted a finger to bear him and rear him and make him become what he had become.” (63)

One of my favourite things about this book is the way that the narrator begins to understand that her relationship with her husband was juvenile, in essence, and required her to be girl-like. She has an epiphany about what it means to be adult:

“For Mario I — I shuddered — had never been Olga. The meanings, the meaning of her life — I suddenly understood — were only a dazzlement of late adolescence, my illusion of stability. starting now, if I wanted to make it, I had to trust myself to those two profiles, to their strangeness rather than to their familiarity, and moving on from there very slowly restore confidence in myself, make myself adult.” (124)

And here’s a great couple of sentences from the near-end, which doesn’t really contain a spoiler, but of course feel free to skip this if you want to read the book for yourself:

“I wanted to be me. If that formulation even made sense. Or at least I wanted to see what remained of me, once he was removed.” (183)

Observations from a year of reading (2015), or a return to blogging?

This blog has been inactive, but I still keep coming back to it.

Last year I did a TinyLetter, which made it possible to write something that went to a lot of people, but was not permanently on the internet, so I could be a bit more personal.

I didn’t do as much reading of books last year; I read a lot of documents for work, and millions of emails (okay, thousands). I didn’t even read on my long holiday in the summer because it was a writing holiday instead. So my list of books read this year is short, and I loved them all:

  • Elena Ferrante (whatever parts of the series I hadn’t read last year at this time, plus Days of Abandonment),
  • H is for Hawk,
  • The Notebook (Agota Kristof, not Nicholas Sparks),
  • Speedboat by Renata Adler (immensely quotable and beautiful but doesn’t have a plot),
  • A huge book of short stories by Grace Paley that I devoured in a gulp in March,
  • Mary Oliver’s new poetry collection Felicity

I think that there will be more, perhaps even books written by men, but I don’t remember.

Oh yes – also:

  • A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is an amazing piece of writing and I can totally support the recognition it has gotten. It’s sort of tough going, though, although it gets amazingly suspenseful at the end.
  • Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which is diaries/manuscripts/letters of Bulgakov – useful for my novel – and also really enchanting.
  • White Guard by Bulgakov, which echoed in my mind when I visited Kyiv in November.
  • Murakami’s The Strange Library, which is like having an elaborate dream during a nap.

I have started and not finished dozens of books, however. Although this is more embarrassing, I think it is a more interesting list:

  • Lots of books about tunnels. I’m sure you know that I would like to write a book about tunnels, and so I have been acquiring and reading parts of them. In fact, a book that belongs on that list above is probably Ernesto Sabato’s book The Tunnel, which is about murder and not really about tunnels, but still pretty good. The other books on this sublist are two books by David L. Pike, who writes about the undergrounds of cities and I think might be my tunnel soulmate.
  • The biography of Tennessee Williams that everyone wrote about in 2014 (by “everyone”, I mean book reviewers in niche publications that I subscribe to).
  • SPQR, which I still believe I will read at some point because Mary Beard is awesome.
  • The Familiar, Vol. 1, by Mark Z. Danielewski. I might be too conservative to read this book, but I will try again sometime. Also it’s really heavy.
  • Multiple – and I mean multiple – books about writing.
  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, which I think I can dip in an out of over my life.
  • Slippery Noodles, a history of Chinese food by Hsiang Ju Lin, which is wonderful. I need to read more histories of food. Any suggestions?
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck – didn’t really get into it.
  • Martin Buber’s Between Man and Man – I am always sort of reading this book.
  • Civilizing the Machine, which I have been sort of reading as part of a course syllabus a friend and I are slowly reading through this decade/couple of decades.
  • The Prophets by Heschel.
  • Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit – plan to read this in 2016.
  • The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean Pierre De Caussade, which I heard about on Writer’s Almanac.
  • Shelley’s Frankenstein.
  • Alan W. Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity.

So, no surprise there – this list is a lot longer. I like it that way.

Do you have any observations on reading from your 2015?