Beirut

I loaded up my Goodreads to-read list. Here’s one of my favourites from that exercise, called The Mehlis Report, as reviewed on NYRB.

On being and being away

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.

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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:

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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.

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Review: Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Said Sayrafiezadeh

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I got this book free through NetGalley, and I am sort of struggling with what to write here. I enjoyed reading the stories – they have a bit of Wells Tower and George Saunders in them – but I didn’t think that they had anything really special to them.

He writes on three themes repeatedly in this collection: war (and people who fight in them), people who are sort of failures after high school, and people who fill in spreadsheets in boring jobs. But he seems to write about these somewhat flatly, and it made me think he has no experience in any of these key themes. Specifically, while I was reading, I thought to myself, “This is a person who has not been to war and who has not spent much time with spreadsheets”, which of course is fine… unless you want to write about war and spreadsheets. I haven’t been to war either, but I wonder what people who have think of this book.

That said, some of the writing is good and most of the stories flow well. Some of the characters are done really well, particularly the foreign ones (an illegal immigrant, for example, in “Paranoia”). The women are not as strong of characters – mostly nonexistent but otherwise relegated to supporting roles.

In general, I felt that these stories are somewhat mundane examples of the short story genre, and not really excellent. But I will check out more stories when I see them, in case I change my mind.

(Reveiw) For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting…

… But now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else.

I will start this blog the way I start emails to my dearest friend – with a quote from a book, and the citation of that book. The book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.

This book is warm and intelligent, and meticulously researched. When I say that it is warm, though, I don’t mean that it is heart-warming, or that it will make you feel very much that is positive about the world. But it is written from a place of humanity – from a caring about the people who are behind the story – and from a careful, methodical attention to detail.

To sum up the plot, this is a story of three Indian families in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai: Asha’s family, the Hussains and Fatima’s (the One Leg) family. Asha is a local female power broker – eventually a sort of ‘slumlord’, while the Hussains are cast as the ‘normal’ family – or at least the central characters. Fatima is a one-legged woman. Every character is developed strongly, and there is a strong narrative arc, allowing a real plot to unfold – uncommon for non-fiction of its type (even creative non-fiction).

At times, it feels like the book is written too much like a novel, and there are a few places where the colloquial terminology is a bit forced. But overall, the writing is smooth, and the narrative flow allows Boo to put a lot of information in the book without making it feel heavy or weighed down. The effect of this, for me, was that I wanted to find out more – more facts, more stories, maybe read something drier – but not in a way that made me think that this book wasn’t enough. It just made me realise that these are real humans, real lives, and that they deserve attention.

I bought this book before the holidays, in a mass book-buying splurge that will probably fuel much of this blog through the winter. I did not buy it after the rape and murder of a young woman in India, and to tell the truth I didn’t realise that this book would be as topical as it is for reading and thinking about that tragedy. The plot of the book unfolds across the lives of poor people, but the world of BTBF is large: it contains the police, the judiciary, teachers, the airport, local transport… So when I read about that story, and about the five men in custody, I think of the torture scenes. When I hear about their hearings, I think of the courtroom scenes. I’m sure all of India is not exactly like this book, and neither the victim of that rape nor the alleged perpetrators neatly align with anyone in this book. Still, it is a testament to the reality constructed by Boo’s writing that I find it echoing in my head.

It is a strong contender for the best book of this year, or at least that’s how it seems now, week 1 of 2013.

(Incidentally, I’m just following in many others’ footsteps in recommending this book, including the New York Times, Guardian, Slate and many others (less so this WSJ blog).)