Thoughts and a meme

I’ve been meaning to post here every day for the past week, but a couple of things distract me every time:

  • WordPress keeps informing me when I log in that I can blog in Hindi, Marathi and presumably Tamil, judging from the script, if I want to, but they’ve managed to spell Hindi wrong — it says ‘Hanidi’ in an overly-elaborate font. How is that an incentive??
  • I thought I’d found a clever hack to put the password protected posts announcement at the top of the page, with the rest of my posts updating as usual below, but it doesn’t seem to be working, and I keep wasting my time trying to tinker with it.
  • I’ve been distracted pleasantly by more of Khadi’s photography, and by this quirky site all about maps, which are another one of my obsessions. Together, they’ve been giving me ideas for things to make….

I actually have a more serious post in the works, but it’s just not coming out right, no matter how I wrestle with it, so have a meme found on MLC’s blog instead.

1. Name one book that changed your life.

My first semester of grad school went quite relentlessly from bad to worse, and by the end of it, I was seriously questioning whether I was in the right university, the right field, even the right life. By the time it was time to start the next semester, I’d spent most of break either in self-pity or a black rage, and for the first time, could seriously think of killing myself. Then I found myself stuck overnight in a creepy hotel room in Baltimore. I was too scared to leave the hotel, and not able to sleep in the room, which was dingy white from floor to ceiling, with tall, narrow mirrors that sliced the whiteness into jagged angles, so I bought a book from the lobby’s collection of pot-boilers and gardening magazines, locked myself in the bathroom, tuned out all the sketchy sounds from the other rooms, and read all night. The book was Reading Lolita in Tehran, and reading it was like being plunged bodily into another world: I completely forgot who I was or where I was, what I planned to do, where I was going, and just inhaled the whole thing. By the time it was morning, I had finished the book, and covered every bit of blank paper on the flyleaf and endpapers with tiny notes about what I was going to write, what projects I was going to research, goals, dreams, hopes, bits of poetry. I remember the experience as an awakening, alive, passionate, eager, hungry, after the dull grey stupor of the last six months. Up till then I was planning to try to transfer, maybe start all over again in another field, maybe just quit, but reading that book made me stick on in my programme — which was not an entirely wise decision as some of the things that were upsetting me were large enough red flags not to ignore. But at that moment, it somehow reminded me, under the surface of the story and the writing, neither of which were that impressive, of exactly why I wanted to go to grad school in the first place, why I write, why literature matters to me, and that has definitely changed the entire course of my life, for better or for worse.

2. One book you have read more than once.

Just one? I tend to think that if a book is good and worth reading through once, it’s worth reading again and again, so there are a lot of books I visit frequently. (Not Reading Lolita in Tehran though; I still have it, but don’t intend to reread it for a good long while). But one book I go back to very often, for comfort and for hope and to wrap myself in, like a comfortable shawl, is Mary Renault’s The Charioteer. I read it for the first time about a year ago, but my copy is already battered and held together with tape. I find it endlessly easy to get lost in: the small self-contained worlds in school and in the army hospital; the intensity and significance of everyday events; the unbearable poignancy of the relationships that have to remain always just barely trembling on the verge of being acknowledged fully; teasing out everything that is not explicitly mentioned but still comes pressing eagerly through the silences in the pages. It should be completely alien but I find myself in this gay WWII British soldier’s story each time.

3. One book you would want on a desert island.

I think, masochistic though this is, I would like a big, glossy all-colour, picture-crammed book about food. Maybe a recipe book, but more likely something that muses about different foods in different cultures: ways of preparing things, and seasoning them with different spices; how the way foods are eaten at certain times of the year or in certain ways influences the way we think about them. I don’t have a particular book in mind, but something that’s a cross between a coffee-table type recipe book, and a culinary anthropological ‘thick description,’ written by somebody like Jhumpa Lahiri while she wrote her short story about the man who could tell, just from one sniff, all the improbable ingredients in a dish, down to the last delicate spicing of a night in the moonlight. After all, if I’m going to be stuck alone eating crabs and coconuts, I might as well nourish my imagination, seeing and thinking about all that food means, not just to the body but to a civilisation.

4. Two books that made you laugh.

i) Anything by P. G. Wodehouse generally will have me chuckling throughout, but I particularly like his Jeeves and Wooster books — dry humour, a little slapstick and a lot of sly little allusions to other books.

ii) Trying to Grow by Firdaus Kanga also had me in stitches. It was so unabashedly irreverent and so cheerfully making light of his situation; you knew that if he weren’t laughing about it, he’d be crying, and that somehow only made it even funnier. I love the language in that book and the ease with which he talks about the strange mixture of science and astrology, faith and finances, quarrels and community and over-the-top characters that make up Indian society.

5. One book that made you cry.

I just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go a couple of days ago. I’ve been hearing about it ever since it came out, and there were no surprises left for me, and anyway, the writing style, after reading The Remains of the Day was enough of a clue to me that I should look out for something unexpected and nasty, but after reading through the whole thing stoically unmoved, I put it down and 10 minutes later, found myself in floods of tears. I think it was because of the sheer fatalism with which Kathy and Tommy accepted their role at the end. There was a brief line somewhere about being in a river and the current being too strong and the two people having to let go which kept echoing in my mind when I put the book down; it seemed like the most terrible waste, the most hopeless thing I’ve ever heard.

6. One book you wish you’d written.

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I’m in awe of her ability to take in so much, to pay such attention, and then write about it in such beautiful poetic prose. I used to imagine, dimly, that I would write something like this, and then I read her and it was one of those times when you have two simultaneous but opposite reactions tearing you in two: I wanted to cheer with every page because the writing was so good, so exactly right; I wanted to sink into the ground and die because it wasn’t me who was writing it.

7. One book you wish had never been written.

I don’t know how to answer this one. There are lots of books I wish, at a sort of academic, detached level, hadn’t been published (Eragorn), or weren’t read so widely (anything anti-feminist/misogynist/violently homophobic), or read in particular ways (the Bible springs to mind), but I can’t honestly say about any book that I’ve read myself that I wish it hadn’t been written in the first place.

8. Two books you are currently reading.

i) Creating a Life Worth Living, at least I’m attempting to read it, for the second time, and hoping it clicks this time; so many people I love and respect have recommended it to me over the years, and I do want to change the pattern of my current life and need all the help I can get. It’s slow going though, and I can’t quite believe in it fully; my general scepticism towards anything that seems like a self-help book is getting in the way.

ii) Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, which I’ve just begun, and can’t finish reading till I go back to the library and check it out. I read the first three chapters and am hooked on this strange man roaming from Canada to Dutch remnants in Sri Lanka, imagining families of acrobats walking from room to room in giant pyramids, searching the stray dogs and ghosts of mosquito-netted skeletal beds for his story.

9. One book you have been meaning to read.

Again, just one? I generally have a running list, and a precariously balanced To Be Read pile at the side of my bed. OK, at random, I’ve been meaning to read Stone Butch Blues ever since college, and never got around to it. I had a college roommate at one point who had almost a shrine to it, and that is the image that flashes up every time I think I am going to finally get a copy, and I wind up buying something else. I think I’m still a little unsure about the whole butch-femme dynamic — I completely stand by the people for whom it works, and who find it freeing up space for themselves, and there is a lot that is attractive about the dynamic, but every once in a while, that same feeling of obsessive cultishness that my roommate had around her butch identity creeps up when I think about it and I shy away. Which to me is a pretty strong sign that I should be reading the damn book already.

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~ by mortarandpestle on April 3, 2008.

2 Responses to “Thoughts and a meme”

  1. I haven’t visited in awhile. I like the new look. Also enjoyed reading about the books in your life. I’m kind of in a creative rut right now and “Creating a Life Worth Living” is appealing for that reason. I get what you are saying about self-help books. I’d love to hear if it helps you in any way. And, your reaction to “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” I want to lose myself in a book right now. I’ve been on an essay reading kick, Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, Joan Didion,… and can enjoy but cannot lose myself in their writing. And about L. Feinburg, I haven’t read “Stone Butch Blues” but I have heard Leslie (sp?) speak. It was my first exposure to trans issues and she opened my mind. About butch/femme issues: I saw “If These Walls Could Talk” a few weeks ago and was struck by the second story. It took place in the 70’s and was about a bunch of lesbian college student feminists. One of the women fell for a butch and her friends were giving her a hard time. I had forgotten that feminism can categorize and label just as much as other isms. Another eye-opener.

  2. How nice to hear from you! I will definitely write more about “Creating a Life Worth Living,” but I’m reading it slowly, one chapter a week, so it might take some time. Also, thank you for reminding me about “If These Walls Could Talk” — I have an unwatched copy that I forgot about, and I’m excited about seeing it.

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