Monday, February 08, 2016

BOOKS | H is for Hawk

I've just finished reading Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk. My reading journal tells me that I started the book May of last year, and I finished it in February of this year. It took me a while, through no fault of the book itself. Life, and my short attention span made it so.

The book isn't always an easy read - partly because it's a few narrative threads running through, and because it is essentially a book on grief, on memories. Helen Macdonald tells of her experience trying to raise a hunting goshawk, even as she narrates the story of author T.H. White's (the author of The Once and Future King, the re-telling of the young Arthur's training under Merlyn) own neurotic attempt to raise a goshawk. For T.H. White, the desire to raise a goshawk comes from some self-seated self-loathing and anxieties over his own repressed homosexuality, for Helen Macdonald, it came soon after the death of her beloved father.

The two narratives run side by side in a somewhat lopsided fashion. T.H. White's narrative makes him seem like an odd, silly little man, throwing himself towards danger his entire life to prove his own masculinity to himself. That is sad, really, because he never could master the goshawk, and in the end lost it, by sheer negligence. Meanwhile, Helen Macdonald's grief was palpable through out the book, and her goshawk feels feral, alien and emotionally unavailable (I can't believe I am using this term for a bird of prey). The human trying to master the goshawk, and both learning that they would never quite tame the creature that is violence and murder, and both wondering if perhaps there is something within themselves that has been found wanting by their goshawk.

In the end, grief resolves itself. Nothing changed. Macdonald's hands are full of scars from the goshawk, and then there are the other scars, unseen. Yet time does heal, and she moved on, as she ends the book with her passing the goshawk to a friend for a few month; the goshawk would be moulting soon, and the next time she sees the goshawk, it shall be with a new set of feathers, and she will be different. Perhaps, that is Macdonald's own process of moulting, of shedding old grief, and growing new ones.

PS: Mid-way through the book last night, I came across a mention of Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring in H is for Hawk. It was an odd sort of synchronicity, because I had just picked up Olivia Laing's To the River earlier from the library. Soon after I finished H is for Hawk, I picked up and read To the River, and there in the page listing the Illustrations, was this credit: Map of the River Ouse, by Helen Macdonald.

Sometimes, it seems like my books are talking to one another, and they lead us to their friends by whispering to us through the pages.

BOOKS | 100 Books To Read 2016

I'm still working on my reading list for this year. I was thinking of streamlining it down to just 40 books, but what the hell - why break tradition? So, list in progress for my readings in 2016.
  1. To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface • Olivia Laing
    [ 08/02/2016 ~
  2. Dune • Frank Herbert
    [ 13/02/2016 ~
  3. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome • Mary Beard
    [ 04/01/2016 ~
  4. Girl Waits with Gun • Amy Stewart
    [ 01/02/2016 ~
  5. Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  6. If the Oceans Were Ink • Carla Power
    [ 15/08/2015 ~
  7. Go Tell It On the Mountain • James Baldwin
    [ 11/12/2015 ~
  8. Baghdad Sketches (1932) • Freya Stark
  9. The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934) [On Mazandaran, Iran]• Freya Stark
  10. The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut (1936)• 
  11. A Winter in Arabia (1940) [On Hadhramaut] • 
  12. Perseus in the Wind (1948). [Essays on philosophy and literature] • 
  13. Ionia, A Quest (1954) • Freya Stark
  14. The Lycian Shore (1956) [On Turkey] • Freya Stark
  15. Alexander's Path: From Caria to Cilicia (1958) [On Turkey] • Freya Stark
  16. The Zodiac Arch (1968) [Miscellaneous essays] • Freya Stark
  17. The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan (1970) • Freya Stark
  18. Where the Stress Falls • Susan Sontag
  19. On Photography • Susan Sontag
  20. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 • Susan Sontag
  21. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays • Susan Sontag
  22. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 • Susan Sontag
  23. The Book of Disquiet • Fernando Pessoa
  24. Jane Eyre • Charlotte Bronte
  25. Venice • Jan Morris
  26. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals • Michael Pollan
  27. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto • Michael Pollan
  28. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation • Michael Pollan
  29. Bleak House • Charles Dickens
  30. The Age of Innocence • Edith Wharton
  31. A Time of Gifts (1977) • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  32. Between the Woods and the Water • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  33. The Broken Road • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  34. The Magician • W. Somerset Maugham
  35. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West • Rebecca Solnit
  36. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books • Azar Nafisi
    [ 27/09/2015 ~
  37. I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen • Sylvie Simmons
    [ 25/04/2015 ~
  38. Orlando • Virginia Woolf
  39. The Heart of the Matter • Graham Greene
  40. The Power and the Glory • Graham Greene
  41. Of Human Bondage • W. Somerset Maugham
  42. No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva •  Pema Chodron
  43. Quiet: The Power of Introverts • Susan Cain
  44. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot • Robert MacFarlane
  45. Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark • Janet Fletcher Geniesse
  46. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks • Rebecca Skloot
  47. Felicity: Poems • Mary Oliver
  48. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek • Annie Dillard
  49. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  50. Real Happiness: The Power of • Sharon Salzberg
  51. The Seven Storey Mountain • Thomas Merton
  52. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind • Shunryu Suzuki
  53. The Pirate King • Laurie R. King
    [ 23/12/2015 ~ 09/01/2016 ]
  54. Garment of Shadows • Laurie R. King
    [ 09/01/2016 ~ 10/01/2016 ]
  55. My Life on the Road • Gloria Steinem
    [ 09/01/2016 ~ 23/01/2016 ]
  56. Dreaming Spies • Laurie R. King
    [ 11/01/1016 ~ 26/01/2016 ]
  57. The Argonauts • Maggie Nelson
    [ 28/05/2015 ~ 29/01/2016 ]
  58. When Breath Becomes Air • Paul Kalanithi
    [ 23/01/2016 ~ 30/01/2016 ]
  59. H is for Hawk • Helen Macdonald
    [ 18/05/2015 ~ 08/02/2016 ]

Sunday, January 31, 2016

BOOKS | "The bad news is that I haven't written anything"

I finished reading Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air this afternoon. Before this, some of my ex-colleagues were talking about the book, and I was curious when they seem to think they would cry buckets reading it, even before they had even started on the book. Why do they assume that? I wondered.

The author was a neurosurgeon who discovered he had lung cancer when he was in the 30s. Faced with the prospect of death, he began writing this book. He passed away before he could finish the book, and his wife, Lucy, ended it with an afterword.

It was a contemplative read. Kalanithi was a man of the arts and the sciences. I admired his insights, his questions, and how he truly believed in making meaning of his life's work.
I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. 
Paul Kalanithi was truly an amazing man. A brilliant neurosurgeon, a kind man, and someone who could recite the poems of T.S. Eliot from memory. It should not have to take a medical emergency to force us to examine the meaning of our lives, yet most of the time, that's what is necessary. While reading the book, it does in a way lead me to consider how I am using the time in my own life, and those important questions. It was beautifully summed up in Lucy's afterword:
When Paul emailed his best friend in May 2013 to inform him that he had terminal cancer, he wrote, "The good news is I've already outlived two Brontes, Keats, and Stephen Crane. The bad news is that I haven't written anything." 
It is not just about how long you have lived - but what have you done. Time to start writing.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Jan Morris, on her writing

Jan Morris, in an interview:

I believe you aren’t fond of the term “travel writer” - what do you prefer? Are you more of a historian of place in books like Venice?
Yes, I hate being called a travel writer. I have written only one book about travel, concerning a journey across the Oman desert. I have written many books about place, which are nothing to do with movement, but many more about people and about history. In fact, though, they are one and all about the effects of everything upon me – my books amount to one enormously self-centred autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply – a writer …

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Story of the Sistine Chapel

I have to admit my experience at the Sistine Chapel so many years ago wasn't the most profound. I was there with a friend, in a crowded chapel, the buzz of speeches in various languages all around me. It was tight, uncomfortable, and the Vatican security with their barrel-chest and tight suits kept growling, "No photo!" every time a flash went off.

I found this talk by art historian Elizabeth Lev, and she tells a wonderful tale of the stories in the murals, something that I wished I had a chance to experience when I was there so many years ago. In the setting that I viewed the Sistine Chapel, the story was underwhelming, which was a shame. I did come back from Rome later that year and read Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, which tells the story in novel form of Michelangelo's creative life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

David Bowie, The Man Who Loved Books

Bowie took 400 books with him to Mexico to the shoot of 1976 film The Man Who To Earth. He told Mr Showbiz in 1997: "I was dead scared of leaving them in New York, because I was knocking around with some dodgy people and I didn't want them nicking any of my books."

That set a pattern of taking a travelling library on tour and Bowie said: "I had these cabinets – it was a travelling library – and they were rather like the boxes that amplifiers get packed up in. . . because of that period, I have an extraordinarily good collection of books."

{full article}

Bowie as Swinton, Swinton as Bowie

Friday, January 08, 2016

Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf Bookclub

Like I mentioned a while back - since I first started blogging, social media has expanded beyond blogs to so many other platforms. It's hard to keep track of who's posting what, where, out there. I'm usually on Facebook more than Instagram, and only occasionally on Twitter.

I was on Twitter last night when I heard about Emma Watston's new feminist book club. (You go, girl). Our Shared Shelf (I love how Watson crowdsourced the naming of her bookclub on Twitter) is happening right now  on Goodreads (yet another social media platform. Thankfully I am more active on Goodreads than Twitter)

I was curious about Gloria Steinem's My Life on the Road. I can't recall who recommended it - but it was from a list of recommended titles that I came across, which make me take notice, and make a mental note to check it out. One day. So it wasn't that difficult to bump it higher up on To Be Read list (I'm still between Laurie R. King's The Pirate King, and Mary Beard's SPQR - both compelling reads.) So, I will try to get Gloria Steinem as soon as I can, so that I might be able to participate in Watson's book club discussion. (I am such a geek)

 2016 looks like a good year for books!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

2016 | Living this year with greater awareness and intention

First blog post for 2016. Yay, me. I've noticed the past year or so that I've been less inclined to blog. Not that this means my internet posting has ceased. Merely that I have switched platform - I am a daily Facebook poster, sometimes verging on Facebook spammer. I'm not sure how many of my Facebook friends actually care that I really, truly, deeply adore Sleater-Kinney. Thanks to Facebook though, they know.

It seems to me that it takes a lot more thought to actually have something sensible and intelligent - or readable to say on blogs. It used to be that blogs were the main channel for people to share. Then the last few years we have tumblr, Facebook, twitter, Instagram (fill in the blanks on all other social media platforms) With the different platforms available, it just seems easier to post a picture, say something witty (or not) in less than 150 characters, and feel like I've shared something with the world. Even if that's just a picture of my lunch.

Since this is the new year, I am supposed to set an intention to guide my way forward.

It is my intention to live more intentionally, and with greater awareness of how I spend my time. This means more meaningful interaction, even on Facebook or other social media. I would like to blog more this year, and spend more time and thought on what I post - be a true content creator, rather than just content curator.

I am also in the middle of cleaning out my wardrobe - spring cleaning if you want to call it that. It's an endeavour that makes me marvel how much money I spent buying things. How did I end up with so many CDs, clothes and books? Oh, the books. And how so many of them unfortunately, are not yet read.

I'm culling the collection gradually. It really reminds me of the proverbial bird that is trying to wear down a mountain by brushing the mountain with a piece of silk every year. But, one must start, and keep going.

So, to continue with the theme of greater intention and awareness, I have started a record of my daily expenditure. If anything, this record of daily expenditure makes me realise just how much I spend on food and grocery every day. This probably explains why it's so hard to save money these days.

Most of all, I am watching my expenditure. There will be less buying of stuff this year, if I can help it. Less clothes, less books - as I try to get rid of the clutter. I feel weighted down in life lately. Perhaps it would do me good to let go more.

Books afterall, are available through the library.