She will not be simple and sweet. She will not be what people tell her to be.
To be in any form, what is that?
If nothing lay more developed the quahaug and its callous shell were enough.
Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (27)
One of the perks of being a book addict with a sudden injury is that people buy you books to make you feel better. And when the people in question are your siblings, they choose them well (at least in my case, but my siblings are quite frankly awesome, and I’m aware I say that at a time when none of them has woken me up too early in the last 8 years or so, easier to love them when you don’t bump into them constantly!)
None of the elements of either of those short novels are surprising. What is surprising, maybe, is that precise fact: they don’t feel like a first attempt at a style or at building a universe, it is already Murakami as we know it, it has the same style, the same ambiance, the same cuts through the story telling, the same slightly odd coincidences or elements of magical realism, it features a male character taking about the strange women he has met, and musing about jazz, literature, life. It is, in short, like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in a while and feeling like everything is the same.
“Why do you read books?” he asked. “Why do you drink beer?” I replied without glancing in his direction”
I think you can have a fairly good idea of the extent of your addiction to something by the distance you’re prepared to go on crutches to get it.
By this test, I am very addicted to books. I just crossed my city to go to one of the public libraries (not the closest one, but the biggest, of course, because… more books!), and came back with a few of them. So this is my version of a book hall – because if I were to buy all those books I’ll be ruined in a few weeks, even if there are a few additional I’ve ordered online, and who happened to have been delivered today as well, so let’s mix it all:
The ones I bought:
- I Call Myself a Feminist, the view from twenty-five women under thirty (Victoria Pepe and all.) Bought it because I recently joined a Feminist book club on Goodreads, to discover new books about feminism and to participate in the discussion around them, so I’m very excited to start this one, since I do call myself a feminist, after all
- Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman, the Penguin Drop Caps Edition, because those are really too beautiful to pass by, and I’ve wanted a copy of Leaves of Grass for a long time. This is basically my “feel good purchase” post-knee injury.
The ones I borrowed:
- Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. I don’t know why I’ve never read it, frankly. Every one says it’s amazing, I’ve read Virgin Suicides and loved it, and just never picked anything else by him ever since. I am weird. Well, that’s mended at least.
- Bodily Harm, by Margaret Atwood. I don’t know much about this book, apart from what the blurb says, but it is by Margaret Atwood, and that is enough. I think I’m trying to read everything by her. Everything I’ve read so far I’ve loved, so again, a safe bet.
- The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante (I giorni dell’abbandono). They had a “special italian authors shelf” at the library, and they always feature great reads, so I’ve picked this one up, having in mind that I would like to join in on the “around the world in 80 books challenge (#AW80BOOKS) set by Sarah and Lucy over at Hard Book Habit. It is apparently about a woman abandoned who progressively falls into madness. I’ve heard a lot about her other Neapolitan novels but haven’t read any of them, so I’ll report back once I’ve read it.
- The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey: which I’ll be honest, I picked because of it’s cover. I mean, I’m only human. But it is apparently based on a Russian fairy tale, and seems like it contains a mysterious forest and elements of magical realism, so it is definitely for me.
- The Blindfold, by Siri Hustvedt:Much like Atwood, Hustvedt is an author I’ve loved and trusted for a long time. Every novel is a masterpiece, and so is her non fiction. That is simply one of the ones I haven’t read before. It is about a young woman coming to New York to work for different artists, it is about identity and fragmentation and art, I would be very surprised if I didn’t like it:)
- N-W, by Zadie Smith: Again – there seems to be an emerging theme throughout this hall: books by female writers I love – But this one comes with an additional dose of melancholy since it is the last of Smith’s novels I haven’t read, and once I’ve finished it, I will have to wait for her to write a new one. I know that will be painful. But still, couldn’t resist.
- La biblipthèque des coeurs Cabossés, by Katarina Bivald (Läsarna i Broken Wheel rekommenderar). This is the first book of a Swedish Author I know nothing about, except it says on the back that it is about a young Swedish woman working in a library corresponding with an elderly American woman, and deciding to go and meet her. Picked it at random because it is about books – the extend of the addiction even dictates my choice of books – and because I like to pick books at random. And on top of that, this might be part of #AW80BOOKS 🙂
Here is for the book hall, then, hooray for public libraries and their treasures, I’ll report back on those books, maybe not systematically so tell me if there is any particular one you want to hear my thoughts about, and tell me if you’ve read or plan to read any of those, would love to hear your thoughts!
Have a nice reading weekend!
About two weeks ago, I went for a small bicycle tour in the countryside around Geneva, enjoying a warm sunny Sunday afternoon in February, something so impossible it sounds wrong even as I am writing it. I passed by a road I’ve passed by many times, by an old and respectable graveyard, in one of the most respectable communes of Geneva – and by respectable, here, I mean more than well of, you only have to look at its golf course. I knew that in this quiet and well polished graveyard lies one of my favourite authors, if not my absolute favourite author, Nicolas Bouvier. It is ten minutes away from my house (though my neighbourhood is far less fancy) – yet I had never been there. I don’t know why, probably I was intimidated. Or not prone to sentimentalism, after all, graveyards and tombs are much less important to me than books, the real legacy.
In any case, this time, I entered. And went to say thank you.
Because I don’t think there is one author (and writer, and photographer, and iconographer, and…) that shaped my life as much as Nicolas Bouvier.
He was born in Geneva on March 6 (which incidentally is also the date I’m writing this), 1929, in a respectable family. He studied there but was – since childhood – obsessed by the idea of travel, of far of places and discoveries. Only this turned out into more than a few meanderings over an atlas in an attic. And, after a first escapade to Istanbul, he left Geneva in 1953 with his friend Thierry Vernet, a painter, on an old and quiet frankly temperamental Fiat to go to Belgrade, and from there, all the way to India.
From this 2 year long journey through Asia, he wrote a book called “l’usage du monde”, “the ways of the world” as it is translated, which also contains the ink drawings from Thierry Vernet.
This is the book that always comes to mind when I have to reply to “what is your favourite book”, “what book would you take with you on a desert Island” and other horrible questions.
Because it is everything: First, it is a fascinating story about two young men of 25 going into a journey almost nobody had done before and that you couldn’t do any more nowadays (they crossed Irak, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, amongst other, making this book also a testimony of an era of relative peace and stability in the middle east, a sad reminder of a lot of things destroyed since that time). They have a glorious amount of travel misadventures, like car problems in the middle of the deserts, getting stuck for a whole winter by the snow in Tabriz, Iran, trying to earn a minimal living by writing and painting in Yougoslavia, Istanbul and everywhere else. They had a number of great encounters, from gypsies and truck drivers to painters and famished intellectuals of the communist Balkans, and so much more.
It is marvellously well written, it is one of the truest books I’ve ever encountered, because it stems from a conscious desire of Bouvier to “become transparent”, to stand as little as possible in the way of the reality of the experiences lived. He is lyrical, but never romanticises the reality he is faced with. He manages to translate the feelings, the lights, the smells, the noise of countless atmospheres crossed, from summer in Yougoslavia to winter in Iran.
It is so much more than a travel-book, even if Bouvier would say it is mostly that. He was happy to be a travel-writer. It is a book about the experience of beauty, the search of self in a changing world, the quest for artistic validity and honesty, and at the same time a wonderful story.
It has shaped my views of travel, as a way of undoing, an exercise of subtraction: “Travelling provides occasions for shaking oneself up but not, as people believe, freedom. Indeed it involves a kind of reduction: deprived of one’s usual setting, the customary routine stripped away like so much wrapping paper, the traveller finds himself reduced to more modest proportions – but also more open to curiosity, to intuition, to love at first sight.” As a necessity, as well, for I don’t know if I would have had the same drive to actually go out into the world, to travel as much, had I not fallen in love with it in Bouvier’s books before. And a necessary reminder of what it would teach me, and what it has indeed taught me.
So I owe a lot of the most striking moments of my life, at the top of public buses in rural India or even just at home reading, to this man of the world, buried a few kilometres away from where I live now. And I felt like saying thanks, two weeks ago but indeed any other day, for what he has brought to the world.
To quote him, for a change – though I have not been able to find the translation for that paragraph – but it is about the moments of intense beauty that you sometimes experience and their importance as the foundation of existence:
“Finalement, ce qui constitue l’ossature de l’existence, ce n’est ni la famille, ni la carrière, ni ce que d’autres diront ou penseront de vous, mais quelques instants de cette nature, soulevés par une lévitation plus sereine encore que celle de l’amour, et que la vie nous distribue avec une parcimonie à la mesure de notre faible cœur”
Amongst the number of things I can do while sitting, there is a lot of boring housekeeping stuff. Like transferring files into my external hard drive. Like taxes. So many fascinating things, really, I wonder how I can resent my stupid knee injury.
But in any case, it has its advantages. Like coercing your roommates into making coffee for you (yes, I live for those small privileges, they are simply too nice to notice I might just get up and use my crutches. If you can’t have pity-coffee, after all, what’s the point of existence?)
Anyway, to stray from those philosophical questions – and from coffee – I was sorting out the pictures I took in the last few months. And those offer quite a startling contrast: you have 3 months of the impressive, dry intensity of the Himalayas, interwoven with a few jungle shots (sounds like an awesome drink, but let’s come back to the point) when I actually bothered to come back to a normal altitude, crowds dressed in colorfull clothes and jewellery at a wedding, 7000 meter high peaks, and then a few pictures of a 5 days excursion I did with my sister, in the Netherlands.
(Now how do I always manage to get a song stuck in my head just by trying to find a title for my daily ramblings)
Anyway, I wanted to talk about Mrs K.
She is just one of the people I’ve come across in the last months, working in an outpatient psychiatric consult aimed partly at the migrant and asylum seekers population. And yet that is as unfair as any introduction can be, she is a lot more than that. She is about 8 years older than me, a small, always elegant woman with expressive eyes. She has come from Turkey, with her husband and two children, and has arrived in Switzerland a few years ago after spending about a decade in Germany, and in the end being deported back to Turkey. So now they are trying to find a place in Switzerland, and are, even after so many years, still waiting for a final decision, a permit. Which means they don’t have the right to work, don’t have the right to leave the country, don’t have the right to much.
She was engaged at 14, married – that is, culturally married, but that is the only one that really has an impact – at the age of 15, and had her first born at 16. By that time, she had had to go to Germany to join her husband – it is an arranged marriage, in case you were wondering, who is a lot older than she is, and gave birth in a foreign country, not understanding anything the doctors and nurses said. She says those first years of marriage were the most unhappy of her life. But she isn’t one to let things go without a fight. She learned German – despite her husband not wanting it, fearing it would make her – and rightly – too independent. She raised her first than second child.
And now that they are in Switzerland, she is learning French, and is so good and motivated at it that she managed to secure a place in a private and expensive course, that her teachers pay for her because they thought it would be such a waste if she couldn’t continue to learn. She doesn’t see it as an accomplishment. Rather, she sees it as yet another source of stress (other that the conflicts with her husband, her fear of her sons not being integrated at school, the constant threat of receiving the news that they are expelled from this country, and a few others), because she absolutely doesn’t want to disappoint the people at her class that allowed her to pursue her education. She values education more than anything. She has a clear view of what makes a strong, real woman: it is a woman who works, doesn’t depend on any man, and until she has found work – no matter what her husband thinks or allows her to do – she won’t consider herself strong, independent.
Yet she has lived trough much more than I have ever lived through, and is probably a dozen times stronger than I am. But she says she admires me: the fact that I work, that I studied – she was pulled out of school by her parents at 14 to go marry her husband.
She is probably more intelligent than any of us. She is determined, yet has touching ideals – she told me, the second time we met, that she would like to feel, just once, what it is to feel love for a man, a real passion, even though she knows divorce is not an option, and she is unlikely to ever leave her husband. She is a woman in every strong sense of the word. She doesn’t even resent her life, her circumstances, she isn’t bitter. And she thanks me for my support. That is what I struggle most with: I feel I am the one who has learned a lot more, I am the one who was given support by our meeting. Because I will remember Mrs K. all my life: her tears, her smiles, and what she believes so strongly she isn’t afraid to go against her husband and her whole community to get it: Education. Independence. Freedom. Even love.
Heroes of our days are to be met in refugees camps. Heroes of our days don’t even consider themselves strong, but they are stronger than ever.
I may not read very diversely.
I know I absolutely don’t read “diversely” (in any sense of the word) despite the fact I would like to believe I do, and often try to push my own boundaries. Often, that means, when I’m not picking a book by its’ cover, forgetting that most covers are now designed to resemble another book of the same genre you just bought, or books I know I will like, for comfort, or books by authors I’ve already read,… So, not so often then. And I used to be better at this: I would go to the library and pick at least 5 of the authorized 10 books you could borrow that would be books I knew nothing about, picked at random in shelves, because I read a few pages in the middle, liked the sound of the title, anything. Now I do it less frequently, probably because the number of authors and books I’ve discovered through this medium means there are so many books I want to read – that I already know of – that I don’t have the willpower to discover entirely new ones. Anyway, that is one of my 99 book related problems, you would say, and absolutely not related to this book in particular.
But it is a predictable choice, is what I should have said were I to use fewer words than this first paragraph ever needed: I’m a doctor (still sounds weird!), I’ve worked in palliative care, I’m interested in questions about end of life and the worth of living, and how to help those who face death at the best of my abilities. So I picked this book. See, not diverse at all.
And it is a very good book. First, it’s well written (If I were to be sarcastic I would add “…for a surgeon”, but that would be classical inter-medical-species bickering, and in any case one would argue that Gawande is now about as much an author as a surgeon.), and it is about an important subject matter, for “anyone about to age and die”, so a lot of us. It makes a great case for the importance of palliative care training of health care professionals in an ageing world, it studies the effects of the ageing population and what it means for the end of our lives, it gives individual histories of what people value at the end of their lives – underlining the vast array of what might be considered “a life worth living”, by people living them, which I’ve always felt should be the first thing you say when trying to discuss subjects going from whether or not people should grow old in hospices to whether assisted suicide should be allowed: What an individual might consider a life worth living depends almost entirely on that individual.
So it is everything I expected, and in that, it is a marvellous book, read it. (See, I can be direct when I want to).
I have no problems with it, only with myself, for, as comforting as it may be to read a book that is a mirror of your own certainties, it didn’t teach me anything, it didn’t bring me out of my comfort zone, it didn’t surprise me – it could have, had Gawande taken a firm stand concerning for example therapeutic measures to shorten the suffering of people dying, which he didn’t, and it is comprehensible that he did so, after all it is perhaps the trickiest subject you could talk about, and it wasn’t his purpose. So what I was saying before still holds: It is a great book and I would love for people to read it, I’m happy to have it in my bookshelf to pass it around, but I, myself, have only learned what I already knew.
Perhaps it is time to go back to the library and pick books at random. A lot of those were disappointments, of course, but as Gavande says: “the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?” The important questions, at any time in your life, are indeed those. And one of my many fears is precisely not to learn enough, to build a fortress of certainties that doesn’t allow me to be unsettled any more, and, as Thoreau puts it “and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived“. So perhaps this book has thought me something in the end: go for what unsettles you, a little more frequently.
One more quote to convince you, if need be:
“Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.”
This is a book my father gave me as a graduation gift for finishing my medical studies. If I knew him less, and he me, I might have taken offence in being given a book called “plague and cholera”, as a light-readable treat after 6 years of medical studies, but as it is I was right to suspect it would be a great read.
This is a novelization of a biography, or I suppose you could call it so, of Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss microbiologist, but also an explorer, a doctor, a part time cartographer and sometimes cultivator, a humanist of the turn of the 20th century, who is famous for discovering, and giving his name, to the bacteria that causes the plague, Yersinius Pestis. Continue reading
I am stuck. Litterally (even though I hate the term). I have been mostly sitting for five days, now, and this is a very rare occurrence, especially in this gap year that was supposed to be a constant movement.
The facts, shortly, are: I had a few days between the end of my contract at the hospital, where I worked to earn money to travel more, and the next travel, to Senegal, where I should have gone to a pediatrics hospital, worked a bit, met with friends and then left for a month of exploring and trekking in Cabo Verde.
As it happens, those few days were the only possibility to go skying with my family, which we did, despite the lack of snow (we are swiss, afterall, such petty considerations as the absence of snow won’t stop us from skying), and after barely a day up there, I had a stupid fall – I know, has anyone ever heard
of an intelligent fall? – and I tore two of the ligaments in my left knee.