Thursday, January 28, 2016

journey to the bottom of the tbr pile: Rebecca Solnit/The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

I first discovered Rebecca Solnit through her book Men Explain Things To Me, the title essay being the piece that introduced the term 'mansplaining' into the lexicon and gave voice to an experience that countless women could identify with, an experience I could identify with. I loved Men Explain Things To Me, a distinctly feminist work, it focuses on issues that were, are and continue to be, important to women.   

From there, I sought out Solnit's work online and in print. I read A Book of Migrations last year while travelling between England, Scotland and Ireland and it felt especially visceral given my personal connection to Ireland, one that mirrors Solnit's own. I remember marking multiple passages and making notes to follow up on something she'd mentioned or discussed. I find that's a regular occurrence when reading Solnit's work. She manages to seamlessly knit together ideas and information, producing essays that are alive and engaging, even with, or perhaps despite, the sometimes detailed information. 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is a large book - both in subject and number of pages. Its twenty-nine essays cover topics as diverse as the environmental and humanitarian disasters of Fukushima, New Orleans and Haiti to the political upheaval in the Middle East and Iceland to the impact of Silicon Valley on San Francisco to the laundry habits of Thoreau - I did say it was diverse. 

Throughout the collection Solnit brings together moments in and of history (particularly poignant are the stories of the California gold rush, the impact it had on the Native American population and the devastation it wrought on the environment) with present day political, social and environmental issues in a manner that I have come to recognise as indubitably Rebecca Solnit.  

Highlights include the somewhat experimental Cyclopedia of an Arctic Expedition, an alphabetical discovery of the Arctic, the short and sharp Climate Change is Violence, its title fairly self-explanatory, One Nation Under Elvis, which cleverly links stereotypes about country music and its fans to the often fraught relationship between farmers and environmentalists and Winged Mercury and the Golden Calf which delves into the history of the Californian gold rush.

Notable also is In Haiti, Words Can Kill which discusses the role of the media in covering disasters and how the language they use often neglects to take into account the reality of the situations. It's a subject Solnit touches on again in Reconstructing the Story of the Storm where she discusses some of what wasn't covered by the mainstream media in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Finally, The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami rounds out the disaster trio, exploring the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

Some of the pieces in this collection illustrate Solnit's willingness to experiment with the form, moving the essay beyond the expected, the previously mentioned alphabetical discovery of the Artic and essay as letter among them, and that's something I can wholeheartedly support. Plus, in a collection of this size, the break from the traditional essay is certainly welcome.

Despite their wide-ranging geography and subject matter, the essays are overwhelmingly American at their core. Something that, at times, felt limiting in a way, as if their scope was streamlined, their ideas shrunk. However, given Solnit is American and the essays, which were not written especially for the book but collated from previous works, were originally intended for American audiences, I can certainly cut her some slack here. 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness is an interesting collection, optimistic despite its often depressing subject matter. With its publication, Solnit adds to an already impressive oeuvre. She is a writer with a particular talent for a style of non-fiction that I find especially enticing, a style that weaves together ideas and subjects convincingly, that isn't afraid to twist the personal and impersonal together, that isn't afraid to be provocative or passionate or angry. I think they're valuable attributes in a writer.

In On The Dirtiness of Laundry and the Strength of Sisters, one of the final essays in The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Solnit writes about Thoreau, about his relationships with his sisters and their involvement in the anti-slavery movement. She meanders, pulling various strands together, moving around the subject and looking at it from various angles.
Towards the end of the piece, she pulls a personal strand:

'Though I am the writer, he (David, Solnit's brother) taught me a word when we were building the home that was mine for a while. The word is sister, which is a verb in the construction industry, as in to "sister a beam." This means to set another plank alongside a beam and fasten the two together to create a stronger structure. It is the most fundamental image of the kind of relationship Thoreau had with his sisters and I with my brother: we reinforce each other.'

As I read that a few weeks ago, as I read that now, I feel a sense of knowing and understanding and connection that I know is impossible without the personal. Maybe it's because I am a sister or maybe it's because I have brothers or maybe it's because of both of these things that I so intensely understand the point Solnit was trying to make. The act of reinforcement, the way we make each other stronger; it's a sentiment that feels profoundly personal to me. And yet I know it's incredibly universal, as well.

It's an example of what makes Solnit's work so great: those strands of the personal and the way she draws them together with larger ideas, with moments in history, with comment and commentary on a vast range of political, social and environmental issues. Because it's the personal that so often is the only way we can really see an idea or understand a point that otherwise feels too large or too overwhelming in its complexity and depth. Solnit did it masterfully in Men Explain Things To Me and she continues it with The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. 

_ _ _ _

Thursday, January 21, 2016

and so it begins: journey to the bottom of the tbr pile

Last year I made a whole list of resolutions. Inspired by the ending of one year and the beginning of another, I compiled a list of things I wanted to do, things that meant something, that I felt would serve some purpose, would serve me. 

I called them goals because that felt more achievable; resolutions are abstract where goals are concrete. Or so I imagined. I didn’t manage to achieve many of those goals/resolutions. In fact, if I’m honest, barely one was properly and completely crossed off the list. 

So was my 2015 a failure? 

I guess that depends on your definition of failure. And conversely, of success. I’m still working out what those things mean to me. So I’m ill-equipped, currently at least, to know if 2015 was a failure. Or a success. 

What I do know is I only made one resolution this year. Start small and all that. 

There are currently around fifty books in my tbr pile. I say around fifty because I only counted the books that haven’t managed to find their way onto a bookshelf. I suspect my real tbr pile is a little higher, but my ability to buy books at a faster rate than I can read them is really a story for another day. So let’s stick with the piles of books beside my bed.

I've long harboured an appreciation for/small obsession with/insatiable desire to understand what our personal tbr piles mean, what they say about us and who we are and who we want to be. Perhaps that's why I've built such a large pile. Maybe the construction of such a pile is a way to decipher something of who and what I am, to try to find a definition for failure and success that I can use as a measuring stick for my life. Perhaps, once again, I'm attempting to make the tbr pile more than what it is. Maybe it really is just a pile of books. 

My preoccupation with the tbr pile aside, this years single resolution/goal is to not buy another book until I’ve read all the books stacked beside my bed. I’m calling it my journey to bottom of the tbr pile. Which makes it sound like a much more physical adventure than it will actually be. Though I do resolve to get up at semi-regular intervals to make a fresh pot of tea. 

As a way of attempting to keep myself accountable, I’ve decided that I will post a review of each of these books after reading. And as a way of attempting to keep myself accountable to the reviews, I’m posting a list of my tbr pile here:

Chris Kraus - I Love Dick
EB White - Essays of EB White
Fury: Women Write About Sex, Power and Violence
Nakkiah Kui - Kill The Messenger
Grace Paley - The Collected Stories
Sofie Laguna - The Eye of the Sheep
Ariel Levy - The Best American Essays 2015
Rebecca Solnit - A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Meghan Daum - The Unspeakable
Janet Malcolm - Forty-One False Starts
Michel de Montaigne - On Friendship
Annie Proulx - Bird Cloud
Gerald Durrell - My Family and Other Animals 
The Best Australian Science Writing 2015
Noel Pearson - The War of the Worlds
Laurie Penny - Unspeakable Things
E.M. Forster - Aspects of the Novel
Meghan Daum - My Misspent Youth
John Steinbeck - The Harvest Gypsies
Goodbye to all that: Writers on loving and leaving New York
Dorothy Parker - The Collected Dorothy Parker
The Paris Review Presents The Art of the Short Story
Ian Moffitt - The U-Jack Society
E.M. Forster - Collected Short Stories
Los Angeles Review of Books - Summer 2015 Edition
Sapphire - Push
William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying
Judith Wright - We Call For A Treaty
Kate Grenville - Lilian’s Story
Australian Writing Today
Bill Bryson - Down Under
William Golding - Lord of the Flies
Richard Wrangham - How Cooking Made us Human
Rosemary Sutcliffe - Beowulf
Alice Pung - Unpolished Gem
Joyce: A Collection of Critical Essays
Roddy Doyle - The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
Alice Munro - Too Much Happiness
Marjorie Barnard - Miles Franklin
Douglas Hyde - A Literary History of Ireland
Flannery O’Connor - The Complete Stories
Ernest Hemingway - By-Line
Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar
The Persephone Book of Short Stories

Running down that list is equal parts intimidating and exhilarating. I best get reading. 

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

dust and cobwebs

It’s been so long since I’ve been here I can almost smell the dust, see the cobwebs forming in the corners of the screen. 

Despite my absence this space has been on my mind. A dull ache sitting at the base of my skull, travelling down my spine and then moving into my belly where it sat like a stone. I could feel its weight as I moved. Constantly reminding me that this space sat waiting for me, empty, devoid of words. Words I’d moved to London to write. 

I’ve been confused of late. About my place in the world. About what I want and how I can go about getting it. Confused about how something I always thought I wanted could become everything I don’t. 

That confusion kept me from this space. Kept me from writing the words I so desperately wanted to. London was supposed to be the answer, was supposed to give me what I craved, or thought I craved. And while London has given me much much more than I can ever give back - it has given me distance from what I needed distance from, it has given me sharp focus where before was only fuzziness, it has provided much needed perspective, it has allowed me to find answers to questions I didn't even know needed asking and to scratch beneath the surface of the person I thought I was, the person I saw in the mirror - it has also muddied the waters in other ways that I could never have anticipated. 

- - - 

For the past five months I’ve been writing almost daily in a journal. I’ve been transcribing thoughts as they formed in my mind, scrawling memories and moments and trying to write myself out of the sadness and fear and the kind of thinking that feels like a heavy weight on my chest. Some days it works, others it does not. 

I had envisioned what these months would be like, what being here would be like. I had told myself it would be hard, there would be moments when I questioned myself, my sanity, my ability to push through the shitty to find the gold. I just hadn’t anticipated how much of the shitty there would be.

My reality is nothing like my dreams. This is not unusual. This is life. But here it feels so much more than just life. This city has me questioning everything I thought I knew about myself and it feels like a reality I’m not sure how to traverse.

But amongst the angst and the heightened emotional state of being, there are moments, usually the late evening or early morning when I find myself walking along somewhat empty streets, when I feel like London is filling me up, forcing my ribs out and making my spine straighten and I feel the smile like it's coming from deep within my belly. I feel free and independent and anonymous, alone but not lonely. In these moments the city lets me in, lets me see what there is to see here, lets me feel what there is to feel. These moments are pure happiness, they are joy, they are perfect, they are rare.

- - - -

I wrote the words above last year, in the days before I boarded a plane home. Months ago now, many days and nights have passed since then. It’s much dustier here now. There are more cobwebs. But the space has still been on my mind. Especially as the new year approached and rolled over. What is it about a new year that forces reflection? 

This year will be an important one for me. And while there is still confusion (I’ve come to the realisation that confusion is not necessarily a bad thing and having it along as a companion, albeit a smaller one than it used to be, is something I’m ok with) there is now greater knowledge and understanding, there is now acceptance and a level of self-respect that before had not been. I feel more confident in traversing my reality now, in grasping what is real, what is important and what is worth my time. 

I owe much of this to London, to the emotional trauma I experienced while there, to the insight that being there bought, that leaving there allowed. To the questions it posed, to the answers it demanded.

I feel as if these words have blown out the dust, have knocked down the cobwebs. Maybe it’s not shiny around here (really, when has it ever been?) but I’m ok with that.