I read this post about 6 influential but unknown women writers and, sadly, didn’t know any. What about you?
I think I will break this down into a few strands of things that have been floating around my head: movement and progress, and why I like doing these international adventures.
I On movement and progress
I actually moved to Moscow a few weeks ago (six!) but I was back and forth at first. Russia has a lot of holidays in May, so it meant that I was here for two weeks, living a somewhat surreal but pampered life in a hotel, where I could eat anything I want for breakfast, but I had to be dressed and sitting in a gaudy dining room to do it. It was good. It was frustrating. I was looking for an apartment, but the apartments here are crazy (more on that later, maybe).
By the end of the 2 weeks, I was hopping back on a plane to go back to England, and I felt like I had started a huge new adventure, and it was not getting off the ground. Or it was starting, and I was going back, and I was just going back and forth with no purpose.
I wrote to someone at the time that it felt that I had mistaken movement for progress and growth.
I took this picture at the Moscow airport; the marketing slogan was on lots of billboards there. It says: “Movement is life.” I wondered if it is.
II Why I like these adventures
I set off this morning to buy things for my kitchen (and maybe my bed, but that appears to be too ambitious), and then to the market to buy groceries. Here are some scenes from the market:
I didn’t really go anywhere more than a mile from my house, which was nice, and I spent the rest of the day reading and cleaning and moving furniture around.
What I like about these international adventures is the freedom you have: to want and not get, to make do. Making do is not, maybe, what most people think of as freedom. I assume that, if you thought about it, the most freedom you could have is to be able to afford anything, and to not care about any of it.
I don’t think it is. When I am in London, and when I am in my normal life (whatever that is, and whenever I have had it…), when I think of something I need – say, a new duvet or a mattress topper or a pitcher for lemonade – it becomes a thing that I am lacking in my life. In many cases, it might be a symbol of why I am not a good grown-up – for example when I let all my lightbulbs burn out or forget to get toilet paper.
When I’m in a foreign country – and I mean, like, Russia here, not somewhere like England – I notice a lot of things I want or need: I needed a mattress topper, and a duvet, and kitchen things (including basic kitchen supplies), and I store them up in my head. Today I took this little list, composed over the previous 12 hours as I settled into my apartment, and I walked across the bridge to a mall. I took this list into the shops, and looked at what they offered.
As the day went on, I released things from the list – not because I was not adult enough to own them or find them, but because they just weren’t at those shops, and I can make do without them.
Do I really need a mattress topper? I thought.
On one hand, I do. The mattress is sort of crap.
On the other hand, I will be fine. I slept last night, and I will sleep other nights, and I am not in pain. Ditto for the duvet.
I bought the things I need, which ultimately I got at a cheap shop for about $30-40: cutting boards, some tumblers for water/wine, a French press for coffee, a weird jug for putting things in the fridge, some bowls. It was great. I felt free to buy things later (I do actually need a mattress topper), but I don’t blame myself if I don’t.
The same went for the market. Probably I got ripped off, and probably I could have bought more things. But I am here long enough to figure it out, to go back, to find favourite stalls, and to try all the homemade cheeses (it is amazing how many different cheeses get labeled here as “Gouda”).
Basically, being in these places and living these weird chopped up, re-edited versions of life makes me feel like it will be fine. Like I have time. Like I am free.
I like it.
Twice in two days I was offered coffee with great pride. These offers set in motion a whole set of standard responses that were required of us – those being offered the coffee – that I did not recognise, or only came to recognise a bit late.
On Friday, I was in a government office in Russia for a meeting. The official we met began the meeting by launching into a long discussion of US and UK cooperation treaties with Russia, where he spoke quickly in Russian. It took me to catch up to the meeting. (Nothing in this paragraph is relevant for the story.)
About an hour into the meeting, a coffee machine perching on a small table against a wall began to do its cleaning operation, flushing water through the espresso-making apparatus, and making me wonder where the water was coming from. I was staring at the cords for some sign of a water-input device, when the official said, “Oh, actually, I didn’t offer you a coffee. Would you like one?”
M., a lawyer in the meeting joked, “Looks like we missed it!”, referring to the stream of water, which had ended by that time. It still makes me smile to myself to think of a coffee machine that makes coffee whenever it wants, rather than when you want to have coffee. And if you want coffee, you have to run up with a little cup. I like the image.
I didn’t really feel like having coffee, and the other woman refused. M. said, “I wouldn’t refuse” and was handed a cup of coffee from the espresso machine, which he drank quickly. We continued with the meeting.
After the meeting, the Russians were led out one exit, and I was led out a few moments later via another exit. As we walked through the halls, the official said, “A lot of people don’t like to be in this corridor.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“They say this is where people were shot.”
“Is it true?” I asked.
“I don’t really believe it.”
He showed me out, and I thanked him for his time. The lawyer and M. were waiting outside my exit, and we stood outside on the Moscow streets, laughing about how proud he must be of the coffee machine – how no one else has this machine, and M. had saved us by saying he wanted coffee.
Saturday morning, D. and I went to a mortgage adviser in London to talk about getting a mortgage – what deposit we needed, what information he needed, etc. He is a quite old man in a small office near my house, and as we sat down he asked his assistant to bring in the milk – but didn’t notice when it was all brought in. When he queried where the coffee was, we pointed it out, and he spoke at length about how “the one thing we pride ourselves on is good coffee”. It was good coffee, made from a cafetière, and I had mine with sugar.
I thought about the books I read as a child that accompanied my American Girl doll, Felicity. The drama of the Boston Tea Party had led everyone to drink coffee instead of tea at the time of her (mythical) life, and I had grown up with coffee everywhere all the time. Not particularly good coffee – coffee like water, even when it was strong. Coffee that stood in for alcohol as the social lubricant in a part of Texas where booze is mostly banned. Coffee that was ubiquitous, and would therefore never be a source of pride – even if you did have good coffee.
That stands in stark contrast to both Britain and Russia. In the former, coffee is now very trendy, and you get good coffee trends from far afield – including flat whites. When I first visited Russia, there were multiple types of Nescafe on the menu, and waitresses took the difference between Nescafe Gold and normal Nescafe seriously. So it’s good to see a coffee Renaissance in both. But it launches coffee into a status symbol – a symbol I am not adept at reading.
There’s a book called When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams, and I really need to read it.
I base that mostly on this blog post, but also on all the reviews on Goodreads…
“… and so, though we did not know it, wandering was our real work anyway” – Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby
I got Rebecca Solnit’s new book, The Faraway Nearby, from the publisher, and I don’t really know what made me request it (although I request a lot of books…). I almost didn’t even read it, despite being approved for the book, because the cover is a little bit dull – or there is something about the dots I don’t like (I think I like the UK cover more). Of course, there’s a saying about the mistaken-ness of choosing books by what they look like.
This book is beautiful and amazing, and I think it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve gotten for free too review (the other contender being Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, which is also lovely). It is, in brief, a memoir of a year in her life when her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease deteriorated and she herself had some health problems, but before you groan and move away from this blog, this is not a grief memoir. Those are just the “plot” or life developments that prompted this book, or perhaps that led her down the path of writing this book.
I liked several things about this book, so I am breaking this review into three sections: its coverage of stories and art, its discussion of personal themes, and the apricot motif.
Stories and art
What the book really is is a meditation, or a series of essays that reflect on through myth and stories, heat and cold, terror and comfort, family and being far away. These reflections are not meandering personal essays – although sometimes they are personal, and they are crafted as essays. Instead, each chapter tells a story that leads you down a beautiful literary and historical path (she is a historian, having written such books as Wanderlust: A History of Walking and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West), and each chapter has a point. Some of the chapters are about – or draw on – fairy tales, but they don’t explain the plots; they draw out carefully built lessons and stories in themselves. About who we are as humans, and what we tell ourselves and others:
We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them. (29)
[Quoting the Snow Queen story:] “‘I can’t give her any greater power than she already has. Don’t you see how great it is? Don’t you see how people and animals want to serve her, how she has come so far in the world in her bare feet?'” (169)
She even managed to make me interested in – or contemplate being interested in – still life paintings. I am an easily influenced person, particularly about, where I don’t know as much as I should. I have long said that if someone could explain why still life painting is interesting, I would probably like it. Congrats to Ms Solnit because she has done that by explaining the underlying message about time passing, and the elements that painters put into these works that contrast with the stillness – things that represent the stillness of life (clocks, watches, soap bubbles).
Their [the soap bubbles’] presence makes the time in the picture not the years the painter might have looked that way or the hours or days such an arrangement of roses and inanimate objects might have lasted, but brief moments, instants even. (89)
I might hit up a still life exhibition next. In any case, I’ll pay more attention next time I see the paintings (rather than rolling my eyes and muttering something uneducated, as I often do).
And then there are her thoughts on books, writing, creation and the human life:
Books are solitudes in which we meet. (54)
I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away. (64)
On the firm wet sand at low tide your footprints register clearly before the waves come and devour all trace of passage. I like to see the long line we leave behind, and I sometimes imagine my whole life that way, as though each step was a stitch, as though I was a needle leaving a trail of thread that sewed together the world as I went by, crisscrossing others’ paths, quilting it all together in some way that matters even though it can hardly be traced. A meandering line sutures together the world in some new way, as though walking was sewing and sewing was telling a story and that story was your life. (130)
We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are. (246)
I had a period of time where I was trying to figure out the mother-daughter relationship (in general), and bought a lot of books on this. They are mostly on my self, mostly unread – a souvenir from a part of that journey, which I may return to. This book is a lot about the mother-daughter relationship, but it does not make that relationship either too personal (there aren’t a lot of details about her own relationship with her mother – just particular vignettes) or too general (about all mothers and daughters). I think I will return to this book over time. I liked these quotes on those:
Instead she was buffeted between principles and fears. She took the ought-to-be for the actual and adhered to what she should like and how things should be. It was though she traveled by a map of the wrong place, hitting walls, driving into ditches, missing her destination, but never stopping or throwing out the map. (26)
The book is also not a book about Alzheimer’s disease, although that also has a role. She has some beautiful lyrical descriptions, which are also horrifying, such as this:
I thought of my mother as a book, coming apart, pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off, the paper returning to pure white… (11)
She is lyrical on pain and depression – not in a way that diminishes either, but in a way that recognises the human element of these things, and gives it a dignified description:
The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. (30-31)
The moment when mortality, ephemerality, uncertainty, suffering, or the possibility of change arrives can split a life in two. Facts and ideas we might have heard a thousand times assume a vivid, urgent, felt reality. We knew them then, but they matter now. … We answer them, when we answer, with how we lead our lives. (152)
And several of her quotes could be things I would want to write on a card, remember for my life, make my life mission:
Mostly we tell the story of our lives, or mostly we’re taught to tell it, as a quest to avoid suffering, though if your goal is a search for meaning, honor, experience, the same events may be victories or necessary steps. (148)
And then Malcolm asked what each of us is still outrunning and whether we can tell when our predator has been extinct for ten thousand years. (231)
Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. (248) [love how this riffs on and reflects the Whitman quote, although without mentioning it: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”]
What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea? … The quest is the holy grail, the ocean itself is the mysterious elixir, and if you’re lucky you realize it before you dock at the cup in the chapel. (249)
One of the main motifs is the pile of apricots that starts to rot on her floor, and which she turns into preserves and other things – for gifts, for herself – and which represent in a very literal sense the stoppage of time, and the preservation of that time in her life. It is a lovely metaphor, and she develops it from the pile of the fruit:
This abundance of unstable apricots seemed to be not only a task set for me, but my birthright, my fairy-tale inheritance from my mother who had given me almost nothing since my childhood. It was a last harvest, a heap of fruit from a family tree, like the enigmatic gifts of fairy tale: a magic seed, a key to an unknown door, a summoning incantation. Bottling, canning, composting, freezing, eating, and distilling them was the least of the tasks they posed. The apricots were a riddle I had to decipher, a tale whose meaning I had to make over the course of the next twelve months as almost everything went wrong. (13)
… to its metaphor for her book, as a capsule of that time. It could have been cheesy, but it avoids that.
To sum up
If I were looking to be critical, I would note that she uses similes a lot, but I found them to be expressive and only noticed that as I was typing these quotes. Mostly, I loved this book, and I want to read more of her books – I want to live my life with them, and think about them. My main regret is that I only have this on my eReader, and that my copy will expire. I will buy a real copy of this (paper) and will buy her other books.
Definitely 5 stars.