Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

This confirms my sense that I have been allowed to use my life well, in work that was worth the time spent on it. Many people might see my two principal occupations as incompatible: being a middle-class American intellectual/wife/housewife/mother of three children, and being a writer. I won’t say that doing both jobs at once was easy, but I can report, from very late in the life in question, that I found some inevitable conflict but no incompatibility between the two. Little abnegation was demanded, and no sacrifice of life for art or art for life. On the contrary, each nourished and supported the other so deeply that, looking back, they all seem one thing to me.

Sad to hear of Ursula Le Guin’s passing – for my money the best contemporary American novelist around. The above is from her introduction to the essay collection, Words are my Matter.

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When Breath Becomes Air

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

The message is simple:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

 

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The quote above is the conclusion of this tremendously powerful book. For a variety of biographical reasons I found it hit me particularly hard. That it was written under the duress of an advancing terminal cancer is astonishing. The risk with this sort of book is a descent into sentimentality, or a sort of “here are 7 life lessons” reduction (… let me guess … lesson 7: seize the day?). This is not that sort of book. Here is Kalanithi at one point in his treatment:

The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d write a book. Give me ten years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day?

It is not that there is nothing to learn here (Kalanithi’s oncologist encourages him repeatedly as treatment progresses “to find his values” and part of what makes the book interesting and moving is his wrestling with this mission) but it is complex, thorny, multi-layered. This is one that will stick with me – and perhaps I’ll have more to write about it later.

Give me the same chance you would an olive

I merely say ‘Think it over.’ It is nothing to cause you mental distress. Other men love you. Freddie Threepwood loves you. Just add me to that list. That is all I ask. Muse on me from time to time. Reflect that I may be an acquired taste. You probably did not like olives the first time you tasted them. Now you probably do. Give me the same chance you would an olive.

Psmith, proposing, in P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith

Strangeness and Familiarity

At the beginning of Mark Noll’s America’s God, which I recently started, he states the following:

… my hope for [America’s God] is that it might approach the ideal expressed by Caroline Walker Bynum in her remarkable study of the meaning of food for religious women in the Middle Ages. Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast is, she wrote, “about then, not about now…. My commitment, vision, and method are historical; I intend to reveal the past in its strangeness as well as its familiarity. My point is to argue that women’s behavior and women’s writing must be understood in the context of social, economic, and ecclesiastical structures, theological and devotional traditions, very different from our own. If readers leave this book simply condemning the past as peculiar, I shall have failed. But I shall have failed just as profoundly if readers draw direct answers to modern problems from the lives I chronicle.”

I think threading this needle – of avoiding the temptation of “simply condemning the past as peculiar” or alternatively “drawing direct answers to modern problems” – is the key to good historical writing (whether it is straight history, or biography of historical figures, or historical fiction or whatever). My complaint with Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is that he drew too direct of a line between Leonardo and the white collar worker (me) listening to the audiobook on my commute to my cubicle. Alternatively, a large part of my appreciation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novels is that she achieves this balance with such economy and grace. The two temptations Bynum mentions often work in tandem: to draw a direct lesson to our current moment frequently requires that anything that doesn’t “fit” gets condemned as impossibly peculiar (or ignored as irrelevant). It’s hard to hold the whole in mind. Of course, maintaining an alertness to both strangeness and familiarity is the key not just to good historical writing, but to being a good reader of history as well. Although really, a certain attentiveness to others, an attempt to keep the whole in mind,  is just good life advice, irrespective of its importance for writing and reading.

F

The lights in the subway shrink, become a single patch, then disappear. Beauty has no need of art, it has no need of us, either, it has no need of witnesses, quite the opposite. Gaping observers detract from it, it blazes most brightly where no one can see it: broad landscapes devoid of houses, the changing shapes of clouds in the early evening, the washed-out grayish red of old brick walls, bare trees in winter mists, cathedrals, the reflection of the sun in a puddle of oil, the mirrored skyscrapers of Manhattan, the view out an airplane window right after it’s climbed through the layer of clouds, old people’s hands, the sea at any time of day, and empty subway stations like this one—the yellow light, the haphazard pattern of cigarette butts on the ground, the peeling advertisements, still fluttering in the slipstream of the train, although the train itself has just disappeared.

From Daniel Kehlmann’s fragmented, clever, challenging F. In a book stocked with Karamazov-ian echoes (distorted and playful as they are), Kehlmann makes Ivan Friedland his “Alyosha” (i.e. an attempt to write a fundamentally good character) – and in the process gives his Rubik’s cube of a novel a beating heart.

Some Favorites from My Year in Books (2017)

A collection of short, brilliant, tragi-comic novels, written by a grandmother who started publishing fiction in her 60s, were the books that I enjoyed most over the past year. Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald felt like being inducted into a secret literary club I didn’t know existed. Fitzgerald isn’t exactly an unknown author – she won and was a finalist for major literary  prizes, and she was the subject of a big biography by Hermione Lee a couple of years ago (its rave reviews being how I first heard of Fitzgerald, I think – I also read the biography this year, and it deserves all the praise it received). But, she isn’t necessarily the first name that springs to mind when making a list of the best post-war English novelists (although perhaps she should be). Part of the reason for this gap is that she may be something of an acquired taste. As Lee says in her biography: “Her writing is unsettling, and elusive; her style is plain, compact and subtle. She never shows off. She leaves much unsaid. There is often a sense of something withheld in her novels. She did not like to explain too much: she felt it insulted her readers. She likes to exercise her wit, and she likes her readers to have their wits about them.” Her books are short, understated, demanding – thematically they return again and again to questions of failure and the ways in which “life will not conform.”  If I had encountered her novels say, five years ago, I don’t think I would have taken to them the way I did this year. Perhaps one needs a little seasoning in failure and frustration to appreciate Fitzgerald’s art. She also, I think, offers a model for “Christian fiction” (whatever that term is supposed to refer to) that contrasts helpfully with Flannery O’Connor’s “shouting to the deaf” (to paraphrase O’Connor’s famous line regarding the duties of a “novelist with Christian concerns”). Fitzgerald, when describing her work in an interview said, “I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?” If funny, challenging, enigmatic novels about lost causes sound like they might be what the doctor ordered, I highly recommend her work. My favorite of her books is The Beginning of Spring, although The Blue Flower may be the most accomplished (and Offshore may cut closest to the bone).

Some other highlights from my reading year (with apologies to all the other very fine books I’ve forgotten entirely, despite the hours I spent turning their pages – I’ve posted notes/reviews of some others elsewhere on the blog):

The Pickwick Papers – The best debut I read this year. Comic Dickens is always the best Dickens – such a lively, energetic, enjoyable book.

The Wild Places – Macfarlane was one of my favorite new discoveries this year. I read this while trapped in the house with a cranky infant, so the appeal of some vicarious wandering and wildness was, perhaps, obvious.

The Essex Serpent – Appealing, clever – a book about friendship and its complications (and also, just how complicated everything can be). Its plot stumbles, but some great characters and characterization of the late Victorian period.

The Karamazov Brothers (reread) – I only reread a couple of books this year, but the one book I did reread was this personal ur-text, which maybe explains why I didn’t feel the need (or possess the necessary energy) to revisit other past literary haunts.

The Crucifixion, Theology as Discipleship, The Myths We Live By – In a year when I struggled to get through much formal (i.e. academic) theology and philosophy these three books stood out.

Seveneves – If you sometimes just want pages and pages describing the technical details of orbital mechanics and spacesuits … then this is book you have been waiting for (not usually me, I confess, but I liked it when I read it).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog -Sometimes philosophical novels about the meaning of life are massive international bestsellers for a reason.

Although of Course you End up Becoming Yourself and Lost in the Cosmos – Read them together, like I did. Some enterprising graduate student somewhere is surely at work on a comparative study of David Foster Wallace and Walker Percy.

The Tech-Wise Family and How to Think – The books I have recommended and given most frequently to others over the past few months. Both feel essential for the current moment in their clarity, charity, and wisdom.

Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo

I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci as an audiobook (I knew little of Leonardo outside of the sort of standard popular culture stuff that everyone seems to know, so caveat lector for what follows). In many ways it is an ideal audiobook: packed full of interesting facts, an interesting subject (but one that’s not a person or area of particular interest for me), written in a clear “journalistic” style, well narrated by Alfred Molina, accompanied by a detailed .pdf document, etc.

I felt like I received a good introduction to Leonardo, and a list of additional sources I could explore if I wanted to pursue his work and life further, but there was something in Isaacson’s presentation that I found irritating at times. Especially in the introduction and conclusion of the book, there was a certain “You too, can be like Leonardo” emphasis. Not that Isaacson is saying Leonardo wasn’t a genius, and that anyone with a certain set of techniques is able to paint the Mona Lisa. But, he emphasizes a number of times that Leonardo’s genius isn’t due some sort of off-the-charts intellectual horsepower (à la Isaac Newton), but grounded in things a regular person can imitate in her own small way (i.e. curiosity, a child-like sense of wonder, indulging in fantasy etc.).

It’s not that the lessons for creativity that Isaacson draws from Leonardo’s life are bad – in fact, they’re all pretty good advice – everyone could do with a little more wonder. And I don’t think it’s even the sort of “self-helpy”  tone that bothers me (after all, “Every book is self-help”) – it wouldn’t be the route I’d go, but whatever. I think my complaint is more that in his attempts to make Leonardo accessible, Isaacson misses or downplays some of the strangeness of Leonardo. While much of Leondardo’s life and personality remains mysterious (and Isaacson admirably resists the urge to speculate), what we do know makes him seem (to me) deeply strange and eccentric. In the desire to avoid perpetuating the Romantic myths of the “tortured genius” Isaacson perhaps downplays Leonardo’s “otherness” (and perhaps also the “otherness” of Leonardo’s context) too much.

I think many of Isaacson’s readers will think this is a feature rather than a bug. When reading about a historical figure and period, many readers want them to be made accessible, and want to know how the people of the past are “just like us.” Whereas, I’m always suspicious of this sort of equation – I’m always more curious about all the things I don’t (and maybe can’t) understand about a historical figure or time period: an emphasis on the differences rather than the similarities.