Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:

things-i-dont-want-to-know-deborah-levy1. just open it and start reading taking in what is actually shared at face value, a woman on the cusp of a life change, whose suppressed emotions will no longer stay down, who leaves town to try and figure them out, looks back at her childhood and adolescence for inspiration, then decides to look forward instead and begins to write (on the last page);

or,

2. consider the framework within which she writes; a response to the essay ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, who claimed 4 chief motivations, in this order:
i. sheer egoism
ii. aesthetic enthusiasm
iii. historical impulse
iv. political purpose

which Levy moves around, addressing but not – in the following rearranged order.

i. political purpose – her feminist awakening opening, as she ponders her role and her desire, supported by poignant quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Margurite Duras and others, culminating in a brief getaway, escape to Palma, Mallorca, reading her journal ‘Poland 1988‘ in which she witnesses a soldier’s farewell to his mother, sister, girlfriend.

What interests me (in my sheriff’s notebook) is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.

ii. historical impulse – her white South African childhood in which her father is imprisoned and her mother sends her to stay with relatives whose political leanings are opposite to her father’s. Everywhere there are signs, reminding them of their privilege.

There was something I was beginning to understand at seven years old. It was to do with not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

iii. sheer egoism – the sadness of exile, adolescence and separation in London, England, writing on paper serviettes in a greasy spoon cafe, avoiding home life. The first tentative steps towards becoming a writer.

I was born in one country and grew up in another, but I was not sure which one I belonged to. And another thing. I did not want to know this thing, but I did know all the same.

iv. aesthetic enthusiasm – in which she has dinner with the Chinese shopkeeper, a continuation of the story  begun in the opening section – and there it is, the reflection of that kiss in the middle of a catastrophe.  I skipped forward after i. to read this section second, it being clear from the beginning that this was a framing device, I was immediately drawn to read it whole, not in parts. It’s not like other books, it doesn’t spoil the story to read the end before the middle.

At first I found it annoying, that the framework of Orwell had been used and quoted on the back of the book, while the contributions from the feminist writer’s in her opening section had so much more to contribute to her reasoning. I asked, Why not create your own framework? Then later, thought, perhaps she does, disguised as it is, within the infamous outline of the other. Making the reader try and read between the lines.

Levy places the life of a woman writer (herself) into this construct created by a male writer, his opinion on  the motives of writing – already an act of rebellion, and though it doesn’t work entirely, perhaps it was never intended to, though it may have lured some otherwise reluctant readers in.

Joan Didion Writer Essayist

Joan Didion, Author

Joan Didion also wrote an essay Why I Write in 1976, prompted by the same source. Ignoring Orwell’s framework she delved immediately into sharing her flaws and inability to conform, out of which grew her own singular way of seeing, observing and recording answers to her own curious questions, the flexing of imagination.

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Joan Didion

When Levy writes, there is an absence, a reluctance. It is admitted in the title, it stems from a childhood, continues into an adolescence and confronts her in middle age as she rides the escalator and can no longer keep it down. It threatens to overflow and engulf her.  Those things she does not want to know. That she laughs off.

It occurred to me that both Maria and I were on the run in the twenty-first century, just like George Sand whose name was also Amantine was on the run in the nineteenth century, and Maria whose name was also Zama was looking for somewhere to recover and rest in the twentieth. We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off.

She is left with her question. What do we do with the things we do not want to know?
She realises she can not accept her own question. She will continue to write and perhaps find the answer in the next book. I will read it and find out whether she has the courage.

In the meantime Didion persevered with hers:

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Joan Didion

Further Reading

NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner

Guardian Review: Kate KellawayDeborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy On Writing and Living

Deborah Levy, Author

Deborah Levy is the author of seven novels: including Swimming Home, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything and a short story collection Black Vodka. She has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has also written for The Royal Shakespeare Company and her pioneering theatre writing is collected in Levy: Plays 1.  She has written a trilogy of memoirs, referred to as a living autobiography on writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020. The final volume, Real Estate, was  published in 2021.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Delighted to pick this up at a book sale in the small French village of Ansouis recently, it contains two pieces previously published in other formats, brought together in this slim but powerful book, originally published in 1963, a period of time when he had returned from eight years living in Paris and before he returned to live in the south of France for the last 17 years of his life.

I have read one of Baldwin’s novels If Beale Street Could Talk (also made into a film in 2018) and listened to his 1965 impassioned speech in the historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?“.

Letter to My Nephew

The Fire Next Time James BaldwinThe first ‘Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation’ entitled My Dungeon Shook originally appeared in the Progressive Madison, Wisconsin – a magazine known for its strong pacifism, championing grassroots progressive politics, civil liberties, human rights, economic justice, a healthy environment, and a reinvigorated democracy, is a letter to his 15 year old nephew James (who appears in a photo with his author Uncle on the cover of the book I read).

He shares with him what and who he sees in him, that comes from within the family, qualities that endear and those to be careful of, all from a place of deep love.

He writes to him too of his country and what it means to be of this country, to be black, to be at home in it despite all, to retain dignity and remember, to take inspiration from the long line of poets he comes from and remember one of them who said:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

A Letter to Me and You

The second is an essay Down at the Cross first appeared in the New Yorker as Letter from a Region of My Mind and is a wonderful talking through of his own development of self-awareness as he entered adolescence, describing how he and his peers came into a change that transformed girls and boys into something other and the refuges they seemed destined for, given how much beyond childhood wasn’t available to them.

He dissects his own choice to simultaneously seek refuge and revenge by going into the Church and the clarification it gave him, having seen beneath the veneer of that institution, while equally learning to use the tools it flexed to bring about an objective.

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church  merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher – a Young Minister – and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons – for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy.”

He also speaks of his meeting and audience with Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, and analyses what he perceives of this man and their intentions, beyond the religious element.

america ancient architecture art

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is noteworthy to consider this organisation that brought together religion and a population suffering from racism, when one thinks about the fact that most wars come about over religious difference, what terrible outcome might have occurred should they have been successful in the aim of their conversion, to make Islam the religion of Black American people, thus turning an issue of race into one of ideology.

“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

Ultimately Baldwin’s message is one of love, for standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. His words seem as relevant today as they were at the time he wrote them.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.”  James Baldwin

Highly Recommended.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James_Baldwin_in_his_house_in_Saint-Paul_de_Vence

Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence

James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright, novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement. His essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in the society of the United States during the mid twentieth-century. 

An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film, the visual essay currently showing on Netflix (in France) I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Other notable works include Go Tell It On The Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Further Reading

Interview: Paris Review – The Art of Fiction James Baldwin talking with  Jordan Elgrably

New York Times: James Baldwin – His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language by Toni Morrison

LA Times: 30 Years After His Death James Baldwin Has Another Pop Culture Moment by Scott Timberg

 

Breath by James Nestor

The New Science of a Lost Art

I stumbled across this book almost by accident, in a conversation with a client about the importance of the breath to regulate health. I’d been practicing a version of the Lion’s Breath to balance a throat chakra (energy centre) issue and I had become aware of the power of the breath and mantra combined.

Another client had shared after being able to resume swimming training, “Do you know what the best thing about getting back in the pool and training is? The deep breath.” Upon hearing this anecdote, the first client returned with this book.

science of breathing nasal breathing pranayamaThe book is written by the American journalist and author James Nestor, who also wrote the nonfiction science and adventure book, DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves (2014) exploring the abilities of those who have trained themselves to be able to stay underwater for 4 or 5 minutes without oxygen.

Breath takes that research even further and is a book he researched and wrote over a period of ten years, as he explored the hypotheses that the human species had lost the ability to breath properly, causing not only changes in the structure of the face and respiratory apparatus, but hastening health problems.

Over the millenia, these cultures developed hundreds – thousands – of methods to maintain a steady  flow of prana. They created acupuncture to open up prana channels and yoga postures to awaken and distribute the energy.

But the most powerful technique was to inhale prana: to breathe.

sportive woman with bicycle resting on countryside road in sunlight

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

His obsession with the breath took him from the Himalayas to Brazil, into the homes and offices of people equally dedicated to pursuing the art of the breath for improving health and discovered miraculous findings that western science seemed to have ignored until very recently.

Pranayama. Buteyko. Coherent Breathing. Hypoventilation. Breathing Coordination. Holotropic Breathwork. Adhama. Madhyama. Uttama. Kevala. Embryonic Breath. Harmonising Breath. The Breath by the Master Great Nothing. Tummo. Sudarshan Kriya.

I’ve been reading it over the past two weeks and I certainly agree that upon reading this, you’ll never breathe the same again, to have one’s awareness raised in this way about the health promoting effects of certain types of breathing and the detriment to the health of the other.

As a result of some of the experiments James Nestor and Anders Olsson put themselves through, another two-year study was being put together with 500 subjects to research the effects of sleep tape on snoring and sleep apnea.

man doing hand stand on mountain

Photo by Sam Kolder on Pexels.com

The overall summary of helpful breathing techniques and resources at the end of the book is excellent and the journey to get there is interesting and entertaining, if occasionally somewhat tiresome, as the level of eccentricity of the author in pursuing so many of these guru-types begins to make what should be a simple technique, into something akin to scaling a mountain.

Thankfully, the reader doesn’t need to go to any of the lengths the author did, from the summary of techniques (see the NY Times link below), it’s enough to find the one that resonates and try it out, or if it’s snoring that ails you, try out the mouth tape!

Breathing is a missing pillar of health.

Further Reading

James Nestor Responds: How is it possible for humans to have evolved this way? 

New York Times: Breathe Better With These Nine Exercises by James Nestor

The Observer: How One Hour of Breathing Changed My Life, 26 July 2020, by James Nestor

“You can’t be truly healthy unless you’re breathing correctly.”

Worth by Bharti Dhir

An Inspiring true story of abandonment, exile, inner strength and belonging

Diverse Wisdom Initiative

This book came into being due to the Diverse Wisdom Initiative at Hay House, a proactive measure inspired by the work of Jessica Huie to find writers from outside the typical mould of who their published authors have tended to be. It doesn’t require me to describe what that looked like, being a well-known universal problem in many publishing houses.

Authors like Kyle GrayRebecca Campbell and others were given a group of potential authors to mentor from those who applied to the initiative.

Perseverance

Inspirational memoir of belongingBharti Dhir was a late applicant, encouraged by her niece to submit, she resisted until the last minute of the last day, one finger typing her submission. Tentatively accepted she became a mentee of Kyle Gray, however when all the draft manuscripts were submitted, and they were told which had been accepted, hers wasn’t there. Kyle Gray sent a one word reply. Devastated. And then did what an empowered, loyal supporter he is, would do, not give up until they’d changed their mind!

And what a wonderful book she has co-written as a result.

Review

As a baby, Bharti Dhir was abandoned in a fruit box on the side of the road in the Uganda countryside. To this day she doesn’t know who her birth mother was, though rumours created a version of the story, and the imagination of the author and reader contribute to what might have happened. Fortunately, she was found safe and taken to a nearby hospital.

Bharti Dhir Worth Hay House Diverse WisdomMeanwhile, her future adoptive mother, seven months pregnant with her first child had a kind of vision or strong premonition, in association with the Hindu Goddess Lakshimi, that there a baby girl coming to her, and insisted it wasn’t the baby she was carrying.

Suffice to say, there is a wonderful narrative built around how she came to be the first daughter of this family and how they overcome a lot of negative feeling, prejudice and racism about their decision as a Punjabi-Sikh family to adopt an Asian-African baby of unknown heritage.

At times she begged family members for details about what they knew of her background, however everyone was tight-lipped, those that knew anything having promised never to speak of it.

Left with no other choice, given no one would speak to me, I resolved to live with my imagination.

Overcoming Adversity

Throughout her childhood there are numerous events, situations, heath problems and challenges that Bharti and her family live through, address and overcome, some of which contribute (at the time) to diminishing her sense of self-worth. With each situation, she shares how she is able to look back with compassion and forgiveness and describe how she was able to turn all that around.

It was these daydreams that helped to build my sense of worth, making me believe that I’d get there one day.

Memoir Worth Adoption Abandonment Exile Belonging

Author Bharti Dhir

The situations are often tense and frightening, the heath problems she endures and the witch doctor remedies they seek out, having exhausted all conventional options are alarming and torturous to read of.

However, this is no misery memoir, here is an empowered woman, writing her early life story for her own daughter, acknowledging that there will be times in one’s life when all seems to be against you, that every situation is temporary, that finding and nurturing that core of self belief will carry you through even the worst situations.

Curses and witchcraft were the given explanation for so many ills in Uganda – from businesses failing to sickness, and from childlessness to death. In Uganda, you couldn’t pretend that the belief in magic didn’t exist. It was soaked into the fabric of our lives. To survive in society, you needed to both fear and respect it.

Her father both took her to witch doctors and tried to take a stand against superstition by promoting education, including paying for the education of many who came to work in his garage and ensuring that all his daughters received an education.

Empowering Girls

Understanding why for example girls were treated as ‘less than’ boys, and how a society judges those of mixed race, or different religions, or a multitude of differences, enabled her to either become a victim, turn to anger, resentment, bitterness, self-hatred, or to choose another way.

Girls were given lectures on many occasions as to how they could and couldn’t behave and I felt a real sense of injustice about these rules as a child. This was my sense of worth rising to the surface. It comes with anger, and it comes from injustice. As girls, that was another thing we weren’t supposed to show, either: anger. But I felt it nonetheless and came to recognise it as my worth letting me know when a situation wasn’t right. That feeling of worth always began with an emotion, not a thought. I’d feel it first in the pit of my stomach and then it would rise into my heart.

A New Beginning

When the Ugandan President Idi Amin in 1972 decreed that all Asians must leave Uganda, everyone in their town had already had their cars confiscated, sue to their proximity to the border. Escaping, wasn’t easy, finding a car to take them and getting through roadblocks, where any small reason could result in trigger happy soldiers punishing defiance. One of the most tense moments in the books happens when Bharti’s mother is confronted over her mixed race daughter.

In England, they would encounter fresh challenges, in school, in the neighbourhood, another country where they were perceived as unwelcome foreigners. At 15, Bharti announced she intended to change her name, having had enough of the teasing. Her mother explained the cultural significance of her name and she earned another truth.

I realise now, it was because I felt the need to project a certain image, or to say or do things, just to fit in or not lose friends. But when we do that, we’re accepting others’ definition of our value, rather than our own.
People who know your worth accept you just as you are. If you have to change anything about yourself to get others to love you, then you’re denying your sense of worth, thereby crushing the strength that comes from self-belief and self-love.

Her reflections on compassion and empathy are enlightening and model a nurturing way to embrace our humanity and practice them as acts of self-care.

Being able to see from the forgiveness perspective creates distance between you – you become the observer rather than the victim. When you’re stuck in a place of anger, hatred and rejection, I believe your self-esteem cannot grow.

By the end of the book, her life will have come full circle as she too becomes a mother and a protector of children in her role as a social worker and shares 15 affirmation to boost self-worth.

It’s so refreshing to begin to read uplifting books like this coming from cross cultural life experiences and being shared through the more traditional publishing platforms. Highly Recommended.

Further Reading

The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi – excellent novel by another Ugandan author now living in the UK

Raise Your Vibration by Kyle Gray

More Spiritual Well Being Reads I’ve Reviewed

The Soul of a Woman by Isabelle Allende

This was a short read and as the author herself says, it’s more of “an informal chat” than any other label one might put against it.

A Conversation With Isabelle Allende

The Soul of A Woman memoir feminism reviewIsabelle Allende looks back over her life from the viewpoint of her gender, as a woman and looks at how the family she was born into, and their circumstances contributed to her own growth and development and attitudes.

Her mother Panchita was abandoned by her husband in Peru with two toddlers and newborn (Isabel), forcing her to return to her family in Chile. It is this circumstance she ascribes her rebellion against male authority to.

A fear and darkness in childhood, a pre-verbal trauma and conscious frustration as she aged, that ensured she would do everything in her power not to inhabit that vulnerable space women so easily fall into.

An Epiphany in India

An Epiphany in India Isabel Allende Foundation

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Thwarted by her own passion(s) she marries a number of times, becomes obsessed with justice, develops a visceral reaction to male chauvinism and is so shocked by an experience she had in India, a random roadside breakdown event, that she creates a foundation for vulnerable girls, today run by her daughter in law.

At times the commentary seemed superficial, almost as if written too quickly, there were gaps, assertions without the facts, anecdotes, generalisations etc about women, men, feminism, the patriarchy, but then there were the silver linings, the moments of truth when she’d strike a chord that vibrated and made one pause.

On Ageing, Life in Later Years

Isabel Allende The Soul of A Woman MemoirBeing in the later years of her life, she also reflects on that era, on the post retirement years and her attitude towards them, how she sees that she has changed, what she is and isn’t prepared to compromise on.

It’s provocative, insightful and an invitation to join the conversation and the action, to continue the work towards empowerment of women on their own terms and not as defined by the other. An optimist who drives a hard bargain, she also is one who says yes to life, prepared to take risks and then manage the consequences.

Though it was a galley e-book and I shouldn’t quote from it, I end with thoughts inspired by her reading of Jampolsky on forgiveness, which she appears to follow as guidance in her own life to satisfy the soul of a woman.

More energy is needed to sustain ill feelings than to forgive. The key to contentment is forgiveness of others and ourselves.

After which she asks “What kind of world do we want?”

Further Reading

Geographic Expeditions: An Epiphany In India, February 8, 2013 by Isabel Allende

Best Reads of 2020

In 2020 I read more books than usual, as a result of the diminished social and leisure life we’ve all had to rein in. That extra home time I gifted to my reading and writing activities and was aptly rewarded.

Books That Soothe the Soul

It was a slow start as the year began, still in the terrible lull that followed the death of my teenage daughter in August 2019. I couldn’t read and when I tried it wasn’t easy to find the right match. The few books that soothed me were more of a spiritual nature, Julie Ryan’s Angelic Attendants Felicity Warner’s Sacred Oils, and The Grief Recovery Handbook; though I wasn’t able to express here how they sustained me, they just did.

Confinement in France

Then in March we were ordered to stay home. In France, it is known as le confinement. For two months I wasn’t able to work and we were only allowed to leave home for an hour a day for exercise within a 1 kilometre radius of home and to carry a printed attestation each time we left home. Ironically, while this was the beginning of a difficult period for many, it was the beginning of a return to a new reality and routine for me. The daily walk, the immense gratitude, the arrival of spring, noticed and appreciated in a new way. I was finding a way back to balance, re-centering.

I wrote a series of blog posts entitled Reading Lists for Total Confinement, which included my:

Alberto Villoldo How Shamans Dream the World into BeingTop Five Spiritual Well Being Reads, Top Five Nature Inspired Reads, Top Five Uplifting Reads,

Top Five Translated FictionTop Five Memoirs and the Top Five books I was intending to read next.

It was a tipping point and re-entry back into reading, and one title that I slow-read and drip-fed myself, no more than a chapter a day, during those two months, that was like an uplifting, therapeutic intervention was Cuban-American Alberto Villoldo’s Courageous Dreaming.

Our situation may be a difficult one, but it’s only a nightmare if we choose to make that our reality. By taking the facts and writing a new story with them, we can script a different experience of reality.

He reminds us that we are all living within our own stories, that they can either stay stuck in the past and put on repeat, or we can rewrite them and courageously imagine or dream a better version of ourselves and of our future. Never was there a better time to refresh this knowledge and to recall the benefit of expressing one’s creativity.

“Curing is the elimination of symptoms. Healing is a journey on which you discover the cause of your ailment and make fundamental life changes from diet to belief systems that will create health.”

Travelling the World From Home

And so my reading mojo returned and from the comfort of home, I rested in the present, resisted the pull of other media and travelled the world through literature, reading a little over a book a week, by authors from 34 countries, a third of them in translation.

Continuing to favour the imagination in storytelling, 70% of the books I read were fiction, however I read more non-fiction this year than ever and some of my favourite reads came from this genre.

Here are my Top Fiction and Non-Fiction Reads, as well as my annual ‘One Outstanding Read of the Year’.

Outstanding Read of the Year

Best Non Fiction Read of 2020A Ghost in the Throat, Doireann Ní Ghríofa (Ireland) – I read so many deserving, excellent works of fiction that were also outstanding, so I revisited this book to remind me why it deserves to be elevated above the rest.

It may be due to my own journey, perhaps there is something about this book that validates my desire to write something fragmented and unconventional, something that isn’t easily categorised.

This work of creative nonfiction is as personal as it is universal, it uses a poem and the author’s passion for it, to bring together various threads of her own life, both before having a family, while on the threshold of birth, being in proximity to death, experiencing love and daring to author a work that bursts beyond genre, challenges academia and waves the flag for women in all her multifaceted complexity.  Language, poetry, babies, dark nights of the soul, creativity, writing, Irish life, the burying and rise of women authors working in partnership.

Much of this book was written sitting inside her car, parked up after dropping her children at school. Forget excuses about finding time to write, or a room of one’s own, Ni Ghriofa deserves a prize for perseverance, achievement, breaking all convention and writing an utterly engaging 21st century kick-ass, feminist oeuvre. Just brilliant. Read it people!

Top Fiction Reads of 2020

Here, in no particular order is the best of the fiction I read in 2020, reading experiences that have stayed with me, that I continue to highly recommend to you all, just click on a title to read my original review:

Fresh Water for Flowers, Valérie Perrin (France) tr. Hildegarde Serle – this was the last book I read in 2020 and a fitting way to end the year, it is a beautiful translation of what was a bestseller in France in 2018, about a young woman who becomes a train level-crossing keeper, then cemetery-keeper. It a story of love, loss and redemption told through an extensive cast of characters, both living and not, demonstrating the interconnectivity of lives, viewed through a compassionate lens. Evocative, lyrical, character lead and quintessentially French.

The Book of Harlan, Bernice McFadden (US) – this work of historical fiction, in part inspired by the author’s own family was hugely memorable and one of the first in 2020 that really stood out for me. It was also the book that lead me into a bit of Harlem Renaissance period of reading which uncovered some excellent older reads that I adored. It follows the life of Harlan from his early years with his grandparents to Harlem and the music scene, to Paris and Germany, and while reading I was accompanied by the music of that era which McFadden incorporates brilliantly into the narrative and had me pausing, listening, watching and learning all the way through. Absolutely brilliant.

Quicksand, Nella Larsen (US) (semi-autobiographical) – while the reading world in 2020 was devouring Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, a contemporary exploration of the American history of passing, I opted to read Nella Larsen’s classic novellas Passing (1929) and Quicksand (1928). I enjoyed Passing, however the semi-autobiographical Quicksand was equally brilliant. It follows the life of a young woman, a third culture kid of mixed race parentage with a white mother from Denmark and a black father from the Danish West Indies (as were Nella’s parents), foreigners, immigrants, a child growing up with little connection to either culture, who has trouble settling in to the society she is born into. Brilliantly written and observed, I highly recommend it.

Crossing the Mangrove, Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox (French) – I love reading Condé and managed another two this year including I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem however Crossing the Mangrove was a stand out and had me shaking my head in admiration of her talent. Here she returns to a Caribbean setting, where the death and subsequent funeral of an outsider brings together a number of characters, each of whom narrate a chapter, revealing the multilayered diversity of island society. Though the man’s death is a mystery, it is is more of a ‘noir‘ novel, no tidy resolution, rather an insightful, penetrative look at the folly of life. Brilliant, one I want to reread.

Circe, Madeline Miller (US) – I’d wanted to read this for a while and finally did so earlier in the year and loved it. With Circe, Miller brings a refreshing, feminist perspective to an ancient Greek myth, that reconsiders the motivations of the jealous nymph, allowing her to evolve and grow into the fully fledged, capable, learned, wise woman self that she becomes while living in exile. Rather than the evil sorceress men have historically depicted her as, here we meet a more nuanced, balanced and complex character. Brilliant.

The Adventures of China Iron, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina), tr. Fiona Mackintosh, Iona Macintyre (Spanish) – short listed for the International Booker Prize 2020 this was one of the most humorous books I’ve read in a while, a contemporary retelling of a well-known Argentinian gaucho poem Martin Fierro by José Hernández; that title a lament for a disappearing way of life, whereas this is an elegy to what could have been, told from the perspective of his little mentioned wife, a tale of adventure, emancipation, sexual freedom and liberation. It didn’t win, but it remains a firm favourite of the year for me.

A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio (Italy), tr. Ann Goldstein – this novella was an unexpected surprise, I read four books translated from Italian this year, Elena Ferrante’s latest The Lying Life of Adults and her debut Troubling Love, both of which were excellent, but it was this novella that has stayed in my mind. A thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she was born to without being told why. Determined to unravel the cause of abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and now by her adoptive family, the book explores the changes that happen as she detaches from one and becomes entwined in the other. It’s brilliantly depicted, thought provoking and insightful.

Auē, Becky Manawatu (NZ) – last year I read the winner of the NZ Book Award This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman and this year when Auē took the prize, I bought a copy immediately. Very different books, both explore a darker aspect of New Zealand life. Aue has you on the edge of the seat, following the lives of an eight year old boy, his older brother and a couple they are connected to. The characters are unforgettable, portrayed with empathy without indulging sentimentality. The proximity of vulnerability to brutality is intense and unforgettable. You won’t read anything else like this in 2020. Extraordinary literary fiction from elsewhere. Go on. Read it.

Top Non-Fiction Reads of 2020

Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao (Taiwan) tr. Mike Fu (Chinese) – incredible that it has taken 40 years for this title to come to our attention and be translated. This was definitely the funniest, sometimes scariest and surprising read of the year. Sanmao wasn’t exactly a hippy, she was one of a kind, a woman way ahead of her time and outside of her culture, travelling with her Spanish boyfriend in the 70’s with the intention to live in the Spanish Sahara like a local, thanks to a deep passion for the landscape and curiosity for its people. The situations she finds herself in, the people she meets and the tender love affair with the man who indulges her whims, was a close runner up for outstanding read of the year.

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty, Carlo & Renzo Piano (Italy), tr. Will Schutt – another from Italy, this is a father and son adventure, a journalist and an architect who take an eight month trip by boat around the world, visiting the various sites of Renzo Piano’s architectural constructions. I requested it on a whim and found it both educational, entertaining, philosophical and surprisingly riveting. This now 80 year old father is an inspiration and his son an engaging, provocative narrator. It left me wishing that more familial partnerships could come together to capture these kind of conversations, that have such universal appeal.

Handiwork, Sara Baume (Ireland) – an author whose name I was familiar with, I read Handiwork after finding it was published by Tramp Press, who published A Ghost in the Throat. I couldn’t believe my luck to have come across another title that blurs the boundaries of genre. Handiwork is an artwork, a lyrical account of a year spent sculpting and painting small birds for an installation. Her morning she spends writing, her afternoons making stuff with her hands, just her Dad and Grandad did before her. An eclectic collage of thoughts, observations, memories and quotes from various masters, it was a total pleasure to read.

A Spell in the Wild, A Year & Six Centuries of Magic, Alice Tarbuck (Scotland) – after reading two novels about Tituba, the black slave woman accused of witchcraft, I decided to read a book with a contemporary view of witchcraft, now that we are safely beyond the era when admitting to being partial to the practice of ritual outside of acceptable religion could get you hanged. And I stumbled across the incredibly knowledgeable author Dr Alice Tarbuck, who puts the formality of her PhD aside to share her monthly rituals, spells and historical anecdotes from a vast canon of literature that portrayed women as something wicked and powerful that needed to be suppressed if not put down. Her six centuries of magic is quite the opposite, unputdownable.

The Warmth of Other Suns, Irene Wilkerson (US) – the product of years of research, and an intimate relationship with three people, from three different states and decades through whom Wilkerson recounts history, this is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow Southern states of America, beginning just after WW1 in 1915, continuing until the 1970’s. It’s a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old and a fascinating insight into black American history told in a compelling way.

* * * * * * *

And there it is, a summary of the most memorable books I read in 2020, thank you for your patience if you managed to read this far! Do you have a few absolute favourite reads of the year to share? Did you read any of those I mention here? Let me know in the comments below.

 

A Spell In the Wild, A Year and Six Centuries of Magic by Alice Tarbuck

I came across this book in a newsletter I read by the founders of Tramp Press, who published two nonfiction books I recently read and loved, Doireann Ni Ghriofa’s A Ghost In The Throat and Sara Baume’s Handiwork.

Laura Waddell mentioned hibernation season approaching and the desire to curl up and zone out, which she’d been doing with A Spell in the Wild, describing it as “a witch’s year broken down month by month, full of foraging, feminism, magic, and making meaning” expounding further in this column she wrote for The Scotsman.

At the time I was reading two novels about a woman accused of being a witch, Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and I thought it would be interesting to follow those up with a contemporary view of witchcraft, so the timing of this book, from a Scottish/British perspective, with rich historical references was perfect. 

Review

Dr Alice Tarbuck is a woman at the intersection of many interests and influences, a poet, an academic, a keen forager with a practical and intellectual interest in witchcraft. Being such a loaded word, her book is a wonderful celebration of ritual and magic as well as a demystification of things witch-related, from someone who appreciates the natural world, pulling various practices together into her version of ‘witchcraft’, a blend of the practical, spiritual, academic, magical and intuitive.

Magic happens in all those moments when the world and you aren’t separated any longer by any sort of barrier; be it the brain or the body. It is a stepping into awareness of connection, a tuning into that feeling. Witchcraft is, among other things, a good container for trying to communicate these difficult-to-talk about experiences. We aren’t sure how else to articulate them, so we use metaphor, metaphysics, magic.

She records a year living in accordance with this way of being in the world, sharing it from both a practical perspective and through the vast canon of literature that has gone before.

A Spell For Every Season

Dr Alice Tarbuck, Author

The book is structured into twelve chapters, months of the year, mapping seasonal occurrences, discovering magic in the ordinary, sharing rituals, spells, making suggestions and backing up her pondering with a wealth of literature, indexed at the end. I read the book straight through, but it can be dipped into month by month.

Reigning in the academic somewhat, makes it an extremely accessible and compelling read, blending in personal experience, musing on and striking back at the snobbery, judgement and the often patronising attitudes of those who diminish the occult as some dark, fanciful indulgence, while applying critical academic rigour and vigour to her subject.

An urban dweller, she seeks to demonstrate and share the possibilities inherent in a city, the sacred spaces, the possibility of urban foraging, making use of what is around, rather than dwelling on what it is not.

Debunking the myths, she makes a case for creating one’s own practices, and takes us along as she enters what might be a more traditional sacred space, a forest near Moniack Mhor, and sits and waits. And gauges everything with a sense of humour and realism.

The ground is soft with the decaying remnants of falling trees, velveted with moss. It’s damp. Unmistakeably, so am I. There is nothing less transcendent than a damp arse. It’s time to go back I think.

A Spell in the Wild Alice Tarbuck December magic

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

Reading this in December, the month entitled Midwinter and Magic in the Dark holds particular resonance. Solstice means ‘sun-stop,’ in Neolithic times, sacrifices were made to entreat the sun to return. We in turn become sorcerers of light, following traditions that illuminate, with candles, hanging lights to create a warm ambiance indoors.

It isn’t surprising that humans quickly turn to introspection as the light fails. We light candles against the darkness, and talk long into the night, turning thoughts inward, using the little light left to illuminate our darkest places. Winter can be seen as a time of healing, regrouping, of doing work on ourselves rather than work in the world.

Witches Confessions and Popular Medieval Literature

Tarbuck gives a fascinating short talk, an extension of her April chapter Witches Becoming Animals referring to the trials and subsequent writings that exist around a cotter’s wife Isobel Gowdie’s confession in 1662. She has a wonderful storytelling voice and gives an informative, riveting account, questioning many of the assumptions various writer’s have made about her.

History and reference to the North Berwick witch trials, King James Daeomonologie text, Isobel Gowdie’s confession and Latin treaties on witchcraft make for mesmerising reading.

Referring to a popular Latin text that likely influenced King James text, Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) produced in 1487 in Germany, was so popular that by 1669, thirty editions had been published.

It contained among other things why women were particularly prone to satanic seduction, the answer – their weak character and voracious sexual appetite – a misogynistic, church-sanctioned sentiment which echoed throughout medieval witch panics.

Listening to her speak so knowledgeably on her subject in the two talks below, especially the historical context, makes me realise how much Tarbuck has held back, each chapter could easily have been a book. Her ability to narrow it down into something digestible to the everyday reader is exceptional.

Totally down to earth, yet open to the magic of being the silent observer, Alice Tarbuck introduces an enchanting perspective on connecting with nature, creating one’s own simple remedies from urban foraging, keeping and displaying little things one collects on nature walks, inventing spell-poems, (which could as easily be affirmations or prayers) and a little bit of ritual and divination to see one through various difficulties.

Witchcraft is, I believe, the practice of entering into relation with the world, of exerting your will in it and among it, and learning how to work with it in ways that are fruitful for yourself and the world.

The casual, engaging style is a pleasure to read and I couldn’t help but think what a privilege of the 21st century it is, to nonchalantly be able to refer to one’s passion and pastime as witchcraft, without threat of dire consequence. As Tarbuck reminds us, now that witchcraft and research into it is legal, those with an interest are able to reclaim the nuances that were lost during that terrible period of history that condemned women for their ways, opening ourselves up to the more than human environment that surrounds us.

“magic is the superpowerfulness of everything, just as it is” Sabrina Scott

Further Reading/Listening

Human Animal Transformation in Early Witchcraft – a video/talk by Dr Alice Tarbuck, Nov 2020
 
What the Witch Trials & Herecy was All About – Alice Tarbuck talks to Hannah Trevarthen at the Wigtown Book Festival
 
Witchcraft Workshops – for those with an interest in the history, ethics and practice of witchcraft, whether from a personal or a research-based point of view.
 

Purchase a Copy via UK Independent Bookshop

Atlantis, A Journey in Search of Beauty by Carlo & Renzo Piano tr. Will Schutt

Art Architecture Nonfiction

What an unexpected pleasure this was. I spent a week reading it, always looked forward to picking it up and loved the shared narrative between father and son as they travelled around the world on an Italian Navy Research ship, during 8 months.

They revisit the sites of Renzo’s architectural designs, awakening his memory of the creative process, the people he met with to understand their needs and that of the community his structures would serve.

A lifetime of work he was passionate about and given him a unique perspective and wisdom, not to mention the deep cultural immersion all those projects provided this now 80-year-old architect and father.

A Sea-Lover’s Journey

Renzo and Carlo set sail from Genoa one late summer day, and from the blurb, would have us believe they are :

guided by the ancestral desire felt by many explorers before them to find Atlantis, the perfect city, built to harbour a perfect society.

It is as much a conversation as a travelogue and one that takes place when 80 year old Renzo is still contemplating retirement, this revisiting of his projects and the reflection they invite, of inspiration and ideas, of listening and understanding, a quiet dissatisfaction his son will probe, and that scandal his early work (Beaubourg – the Centre Pompidou in Paris) provoked.

Sins of Youth
After the Paris adventure he spent years defending himself against people who feared they would put pipes up everywhere. Rogers suffered the same fate, a fate reserved for heretics in the Middle Ages.

“I see Beaubourg as a joyful urban machine, which inspires more than a few questions.”

design inspiration italy Renzo Piano colour water boats

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As Carlo questions and muses, he creates a narrative structure within which his father responds and reflects and by the end I can’t even say whose narrative I prefer, there is such a wonderful synergy and relation between the two, a rhythmic flow of thoughts and words.

Perhaps Carlo is able to dig deeper and pick up on certain gestures, more so than another interviewer might, because it is his father he knows so well, referring to him by many names throughout, the Explorer, the Constructor, the Measurer, the Old Man.

Does he call him the Philosopher or the Artist? I’m not sure, but it is clear to me that he is both, his subjects creativity, beauty and place.

A lover of words and speaker of three languages, he educates us in how the word beauty differs in Italian, French and  other languages, something that means good and beautiful, intrinsic in the essence of something. He reminisces with his staff on their collective purpose in a letter he writes them onboard, the day of his 80th birthday.

“The pursuit of beauty. The word is hard to articulate. As soon as you open your mouth, it flies off, like a bird of paradise. Beauty can not be caught, but we are obliged to reach for it. Beauty is not neutral; pursuing it is a political act. Building is a grand act, a gesture toward peace, the opposite of destruction.”

Shard Renzo Piano Architect Atlantis

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I found the entire book totally engaging, from start to finish; their journey and revisiting the building projects along the Thames and the Seine, in New Caledonia and New York, San Francisco and Osaka Bay and finally to Athens, providing just enough information and context to keep the narrative interesting and intriguing, with the addition of that element of humanity that only two people who know each other as well as these two could bring.

A light touch allows you, even at your most determined, to listen to others and seek to understand them. A heavy tread you’re better off without.
Lightness is key to understanding places, and, in that sense, an architect must inhabit the places where he works. I have been a Parisian, a Berliner, a New Yorker, a Londoner, a Kanak.

All the while remaining who I am.

I think an architect who does not recognize himself in the place he is building cannot capture its soul.

Further Reading

Renzo Piano Video : On the Shoulders of Giants – a wonderful, biographical interview with the Pritzker prizewinning Italian architect

Article (with photos): Les 10 projets les plus célèbres de l’architecte Renzo Piano by Marina Hemonet, AD Magazine – including one here in Aix-en-Provence (Le pavillon de photographie du Château La Coste)

Berlin Unorthodox Renzo Piano Architecture Potsdamer Platz

Photo by Esther on Pexels.com

Anecdote/Coincidence : Upon finishing the four part series Unorthodox this week, I watched the short film ‘The Making of Unorthodox’ intrigued by the storytelling, sense of place and adept characterisation it had evoked. It is filmed in Berlin and Williamsburg, but mostly in Berlin, where the Production Designer Silke Fischer, looking for a specific architectural look and feel to extend the metaphor of freedom, found a great location at Potsdamer Platz next to the Philharmonic.

Unbeknown to me, while I was reading Atlantis, I was also immersed in a series shot on location in one of his architecturally designed buildings.

N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.

You Don’t Look Adopted by Anne Heffron

Adoptee birth trauma adoptionAnne Heffron tells us it took her 93 days to write her book, but really it took a lifetime and she is to be commended for being able to complete it.

Being an adoptee and trying to write about the experience and the double edged sword of searching, is like choosing solitary confinement as a self help therapy. You go in thinking it would be a good idea and it can’t be all that hard just to recount your story, and then that being confronted with yourself, that isn’t your self, or is it, thing happens.

Writing is hard. Writing when you are adopted is even harder. If you think your voice is dangerous in its ability to hurt the ones you love, you learn to keep it quiet.

And then the real trouble starts.

It’s therapy without the therapist, so most will abandon it, that’s something adoptees know a lot about, abandonment, often without even realising it.

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

Heffron’s book is a narrative of threads woven together over those 93 days, but it is also a collection of anecdotes and reflections, she allows herself to digress and share experiences that have given her insights, that might disarm the reader who is looking for a chronological tale, unlikely if you are an adoptee.

Every adoptee’s experience is different, but there are common elements and sharing the experience and making it available like this is an important resource for other adoptees.

Adopted people aren’t much different from people who weren’t adopted, they just live with more questions. They are the human experience intensified.

Much of the book is about the relationship with her adoptive mother, the strong bond they shared and the utter frustration and anger she often felt towards her, the shock of realising that though she was her only daughter, she was a mother to her brothers as well.

MY HERO

prince charming white horse fantasy

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

A few years earlier my half-brother, whom I had never met, got in his car and drove down from his temporary work site in San Francisco to come meet me.

He may as well have come cantering up on a white horse. Having someone claim you is the bomb.

Thoughts on adoption arrive unbidden, so it is understandable that this is a narrative of fragments, and yet put together as they are here, they provide a sense of the whole, not only an incredible achievement, but proof of existence.

Further Reading/Listening

Seven Reasons I Love Anne Heffron by Claire at How To Be Adopted

Adoptees On Podcast – adoptees discuss the adoption experience

My Reviews

A Girl Returned by Donnatella di Pietrantonio (fiction)

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cuming (memoir) – a daughter (art historian) researches her mother’s disappearance

Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson (memoir) – raised in Sweden, a Brazilian adoptee returns home

An Affair With My Mother by Caitriona Palmer (memoir) – born in Ireland, an adoptee searches for her birth mother and looks into the Irish treatment of young unwed mothers

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley (memoir) – an Indian boy lost on a train, adopted to Australia, retraces his journey to find his family

Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton (nonfiction) –  adoptee, counselor and adoption-reform advocate

Blue Nights by Joan Didion (memoir) – an adoptive mother reflects

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson (creative nonfiction/memoir)

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (memoir) – poet, adoptee of English/Nigerian parentage, raised by Scottish communists

Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith

2020 Perspective Zadie SmithShort vignettes as Zadie Smith observes this particular moment in history passing, as she prepares to become one of those who returns, fleeing, always listening and observing others, sometimes in accordance with their uttered thoughts, at other times thinking she was, only to encounter her own subconscious bias.

Meditations by a Stoic

They open with the foreword in which she reveals she has been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for practical assistance and admits that she is no more a Stoic for having read it. Rather, she leaves that experience with two valuable intimations:

Talking to yourself can be useful.
And writing means being overheard.

I was intrigued to see what Smith had been talking to herself about and what she wished others to overhear, she is a mistress of eavesdropping and she is a Londoner and rider of the No.98, living/now leaving a country that turns many towards needing the benefits of meditation, though I can’t help but wonder if she would have gained more by listening to 21st century meditators such as Deepak Chopra, David Ji and Sharon Salzburg than Aurelius.

Writer’s and Their Reality

In Peonies, she dismisses writing as being creative, alleging that planting tulips is creative; inferring writing is control.

Peonies by Zadie Smith Tulips Intimations

Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com

Experience – mystifying, overwhelming, conscious, subconscious – rolls over everybody. We try to adapt, to learn, to accommodate, sometimes resisting, other times submitting to, whatever confronts us. But writers go further: they take this largely shapeless bewilderment and pour it into a mould of their own devising. Writing is all resistance. Which can be a handsome and even a useful, activity – on the page. But, in my experience, turns out to be a pretty hopeless practice for real life. In real life, submission and resistance have no real shape.

It was observing tulips that brought about this reflection, a few days before the global humbling began, providing a preview into the now common feeling of everyday, one she describes as a ‘complex and ambivalent nature of submission‘.

She saw tulips and imposed peonies, like the fiction writer she is.

Thoughts On Flowers and Self Care

As ever, Zadie Smith creates a space for the reader to think and affirm their own views, even if she does fill it with her own words and worries.

I was a little concerned by her reading habit in A Man With Strong Hands, though an avid reader myself, there are some times and places when it might be better to put the book down and allow the mind to rest, for this self-care activity she indulges, is one the few that allows one’s existential angst to cease, if only momentarily, for that weekly half hour she regularly gifts herself.

I am reminded that we have as much to learn, if not more in the act of mindful contemplation of flowers as we do in observing that less well understood creature of Nature, humanity.

Further Reading

New York Times: Zadie Smith Applies Her Even Temper to Tumultuous Times