The best books I read in September, in no particular order.
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. Good grief. I almost hesitate to recommend it, because of how intense it is, but wow, what a novel. It eats you alive. And it’s fully deserving of all of the accolades and nominations it has been raking in lately.
Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters. A gripping, unusual biography and a riveting portrait of homelessness in England.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut. This is the sort of thing I should have read in high school, but I am glad I finally got around to it; so surprisingly funny in all of its bleakness.
I am really taken with this poem, by Rilke, translated by David Ferry:
Now is the right time, Lord. Summer is over.
Let the autumn shadows drift upon the sundials,
And let the wind stray loose over the fields.
Summer was abundant. May the last fruits be full
Of its promise. Give them a last few summer days.
Bring everything into its completion, Lord,
The last sweetness final in the heavy wine.
Who has no house will never have one now;
Who is alone will spend his days alone;
Will wake to read some pages of a book;
Will write long letters; wander unpeacefully
In the late streets, while the leaves stray down.
— Rilke, translation by David Ferry
I am sad to see summer go, because it was full and lovely, but I was a little bit excited to come home yesterday and feel cold and feel the urgent need for a sweater. Just a little bit excited.
Today is my parents’ 31st wedding anniversary. They are funny and weird and delightful and totally crazy about each other. Until I was married myself, I do not think I realized what a profound blessing and relational boon it is to have had (and to still have) happily married parents. We are given domestic gifts we neither deserve nor anticipate.
It turns out that I am simultaneously (a) full of ambition and (b) fabulously lazy.
We have a very busy season ahead of us (e.g., every weekend in October is currently booked with either small travel plans or house guests), and that makes the large portion of my personality that is introverted feel extremely anxious, but I have to keep telling myself that it’s always fine, or more than fine, in the end, because it turns out that I actually like people, despite what I am inclined to believe.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston. This was my second time with this novel (read it again for my church book club), and it was just as dazzling and powerful the second time around. Notably, I felt struck by what an important feminist novel it is.
The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Soetsu Yanagi. This book, a series of philosophical essays on Korean and Japanese folk art, so perfectly captures all that I adore about Japanese aesthetics. I am dying to go back to Japan and fill up an entire suitcase with ceramics.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West. This tome is so deeply worth it. Rebecca West travels throughout the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans on the brink of World War II and writes about the region and its history with such beauty, wit, and strength. Highly, highly recommended.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton. I knew from the first sentence that I’d love this novel, and I was right. The dialogue flags in places, but it’s beautifully composed, and the characters are extremely memorable and strong. This is the first book of Sarton’s that I’ve read, and I’m looking forward to reading many more.
White Girls, Hilton Als. Bold and occasionally inscrutable essays by a powerful writer. I particularly enjoyed his perspective on Flannery O’Connor, and the essay about André Leon Talley was pitch-perfect and heartbreaking by turns.
A Life in Letters, Anton Chekhov. Collected correspondence from Chekhov’s life, which shines a light on his humor and very human genius.
If you love home—and even if you don’t—there is nothing quite as cozy, as comfortable, as delightful, as that first week back. That week, even the things that would irritate you—the alarm waahing from some car at three in the morning; the pigeons who come to clutter and cluck on the windowsill behind your bed when you’re trying to sleep in—seem instead reminders of your own permanence, of how life, your life, will always graciously allow you to step back inside of it, no matter how far you have gone away from it or how long you have left it. — A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
We spent a delightful weekend in DC with Kelsey and Alex, who are splendid hosts. We saw lots of old friends and spent time with new ones, and we didn’t want to leave their pristine urban paradise. But we have a Kelsey-and-Alex-filled fall, so that assuages us.
After leaving DC, I grew pensive and even a bit sad as I thought about my professional life. Alex just started a graduate program at Georgetown; Cristina is about to become a lawyer; Russ is starting a graduate program in California; Kelsey is seriously considering an MBA from New York University. And me? What am I doing? Reading lots of books and still schlepping around in the same job I’ve had for five years. I enjoy my work, and I am really grateful for my job, which provides me with a genuinely superb work/life balance. I am extremely happy on a day-to-day basis. But I would love nothing more than to go back to school. My graduate-degree ambitions are hindered by three major factors: (1) lack of sensible degree (I really just want a PhD in English, as deeply, heartbreakingly foolish as that is); (2) lack of money; and (3) lack of desire to move to another city. I feel stuck. I don’t have any answers, but I felt like confessing that to the void. I feel that I am getting old, and I don’t want my career to atrophy.
In brighter news, I am finally reading John Cheever for the first time, and I am IN LOVE. The Chekhov of the American suburbs!
Are the dogs happy? I wonder this frequently. It’s a question that is more applicable to Pyrrha, because Eden—as you can see from the photo above—is always ready for action, which gives off the appearance of constant verve and joy. The corollary to Eden’s constant need for play, however, is that I believe she is often mentally and physically frustrated, because we cannot keep up with her and her playful demands. Very often, if denied her request to play, she will fix you with a look that says, in no uncertain terms, Screw you, old lady. I’ll make my own fun. And then she tries to destroy something in the vicinity (the door, a forgotten shoe, a pillow, et hoc genus omne).
Pyrrha, on the other hand, is happy about 50% of the time, by my best estimate. Owing to her deep-seated anxiety and psychosis, her qualifications for happiness are strict and precise. Pyrrha is happy when she is eating food, begging for food, or sitting in close proximity to food. She is happy when she is playing with Eden or with other dogs. She is happy when I come home and when she can see me at all times. She is happy when Alex is petting her. That’s about it.
Fumiko and Mayumi are recovering after their sister’s murder. For about a week after Chiye’s death, they refused to peck around in the open and instead would spend the entire day in cramped darkness underneath the shed. I don’t blame them for feeling this way. Once you know that death can swoop down from the blue sky, you start treading a little more carefully outdoors (I daresay our hens understand what a bit of what it must be like to live in a country terrorized by US drone strikes). But as of this week, they have resumed parts of their normal routine, and it brings me joy to see them puttering around the garden again. Our illusion of farm peace is shattered, however, and we wait with bated breath every day for the next assassination.
If you ask me about my family, be prepared for an earful that borders on excessive, gleeful boasting. I love them all so much. I want to talk about them for days.
It’s time to take the calligraphy business a bit more seriously. By way of a small step in that direction, I now have an Instagram account dedicated solely to my work: @bluestockingcalligraphy. Follow along.
“Do you ever feel lonely in your particular brand of Christianity?” I asked Guion last night, as we ate dinner on the back deck. The evening was mild, with scant humidity. The mosquitoes were out but I daresay as a reduced horde. We took our time with our food. We had been talking about the meteoric (terrifying, seemingly unflappable) rise of Donald Trump and then we took a turn toward religion. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I sometimes feel like I have more in common intellectually with agnostics or atheists than with mainstream Christians,” I said, with a fretting tone. “And what worries me more is, What if the mainstream version of Christianity really is true Christianity and I’m just clinging to this specific, progressive, grace-filled Christianity that I—and our church and Mockingbird—believe in, which isn’t real Christianity at all? Is that a problem? Do you ever worry about that?” He paused, took a sip of (weird, juicy) red wine, and said, “No. I don’t worry about that.” And so maybe I shouldn’t either.
Semi-related humbling observation/note to self: Abby, when you are eager to write off an entire swath of people, based around some media-generated stereotypes or some fervent book you just read, go meet a person from this group. Learn his name. Ask her what led her to be a part of this group. Imagine her at home, alone, with her thoughts, or him interacting with his dog in a tender way, or taking care of his mother. And let go of the judgment.
I love inscrutable, lyrical blog titles, if you can’t tell. There is usually no rhyme or reason to them; most often, they are plucked at random from the brain, frequently related to some musical phrase I have been privately enjoying.
“All I really want to do with my life is sit on the couch and eat Sabor de Soledad,” Jonathan told me recently. That about sums it up for me too.
On Friday afternoon at lunch, I went to check on our chickens. I could only find one in the fenced garden area, which was strange. All three of them are usually happily pecking around or hiding under the woodpile, especially during the heat of the summer. But I could only spot one, and she was hiding near the shed, curled up underneath the sprawling mint. This seemed odd, but I thought nothing of it. Sometimes they like to wander and do inscrutable chicken things.
An hour later, I went to check on them again, and once more, I could only find one. This time, she had migrated outside the fence to the shade of the neighbor’s boxwood. Still curious. Still couldn’t find the other two, but I couldn’t detect anything awry.
Two hours later. I opened the back door to let the dogs out, and I heard the horrible sound of avian screaming. Serious distress noises. I started cursing under my breath and booked it to the back of the yard.
Breathless, I rushed into the garden fence, looked left, toward the sound of the shrieking. There, to my horror, was an enormous, gorgeous red-tailed hawk on the ground a few yards from our fence. Eating one of our hens.
(Insert many more defeated, sad-sounding curse words from me. Like, really sad, morose f-bombs.)
I lacerated my hand trying to open the gate. I scared the hawk away, but it was far too late for the hen. But her screaming sister, who was less than a foot away from the dining hawk, hidden in some brambles, was unscathed. I’m sure the hawk was just eyeing her casually under the foliage and saying, You’re next, my pretty.
Guion mercifully came home right at this moment and retrieved the traumatized but unscathed hen from the brush. I was convinced at this point that we had only had one chicken left. But when we brought her back into the coop, her sister crawled out from under the shed, where she had apparently (intelligently) been hiding during the entire bloody ordeal.
So, now we have two, Fumiko and Mayumi. (We have decided that it was Chiye who died. We really can’t tell any of them apart.)
In all honesty, I am impressed that they lasted this long. Backyard chickens in this town seem to have a lifespan just slightly longer than goldfish. I expected a fox to get them first, because I’ve seen a few in the neighborhood. I didn’t anticipate a hawk. I was lulled into a sense of security by the hens’ constant access to the woodpile, the shed, and the coop, which all keeps them out of sight. (They free range during the day and then we lock them up in the coop at night.) Alas. Hawks also apparently like to target bantams because of how small they are. They are much easier to take down. In some ways, it was gratifying to see their beautiful killer. So many have lost chickens to unknown predators.
We are weighing options. I know murder is just part of the backyard chicken gambit, but I am still sad. You get attached, when you feed a creature every day and concern yourself with its livelihood on a daily basis. Should we let them free range again and risk it? A flock of two isn’t ideal; three is apparently the smallest recommended flock. Should we rehome them to a larger, more protected flock? Should we totally redesign the coop and build a giant wire structure so they can range in safety? Not really sure what tactic we’ll take at this point. We are somber, but we knew this day would eventually come.
“In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.”
One sign of people growing on each other: Once we get in the car and start driving home after a dinner or a party or some social function, we say some pat, predictable things about the event (“That was nice,” “the food was good,” etc.) and then we suddenly, almost simultaneously, say the exact same, small, specific observation to each other. “Wasn’t it strange the way that cat was nibbling on the ends of the rug?” “Absolutely!” “Didn’t you think his opinion about Mumford & Sons was surprisingly nuanced?” “Why, yes, I did; I thought the exact same thing.” This is perhaps, I think, one of the tiny reasons that people stay married, to have that comforting confirmation of one’s own observational debris.
Thanks to the recommendations of our friends Zaynah and Forrest, we have been watching “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” and taking notes on all of the important, beautiful films we haven’t seen and then lining them up on our queues. The melodramatic narrator drives me a bit crazy at times, but it’s been an excellent overview of the history and development of cinema as an art form. Along with Jonathan, I am feeling especially wild about Yasujiro Ozu. The fact that his complete oeuvre is on Hulu makes the subscription totally worth it. I want to steep myself in All Things Ozu.
I am interested in and appreciative of selfies. I think it’s only a matter of time before a book-length thesis on the Millennial mindset regarding self-preservation and self-documentation is published (if it hasn’t been already). But I won’t be writing it, because I am not especially adept at explaining why I like selfies, especially other people’s. I, for one, have never taken a good photograph of myself.
But I sincerely like other people’s selfies, especially people I love. I don’t even mind the ones with poorly disguised motives. Here is a photo of myself looking my most luminous, my most attractive, etc. Those are most common. But I am especially interested in self-deprecating selfies. Here I am with my natural blue–black bags under my eyes. Here I am with baby vomit in my hair.
I don’t know. I know I am making limited sense, but there is something cheerful to me about people posting selfies. Because the people who do are saying Here is my face. This is my body. I am happy with it. I suspend judgment. I applaud them quietly.
August! So blissful. This month, we have no travel and no house guests and thus time just to BE at home. We’re finishing little projects around the house and yard, planning some perfunctory hikes, and spending our free time reading, dining with friends, preventing the hens from brooding, and walking the dogs.
Primary emotions lately:
Compulsion for domestic order is high. I’ve realized that sweeping the entire main floor after I get home from work every day really helps me calm down and feel like my world is safe and good. Today, for instance, I am sincerely looking forward to cleaning and reorganizing my calligraphy studio. I have a supplies situation that looks and feels like it is spiraling out of control.
Related to that sensation, the desire to keep paring down my possessions, namely clothes and beauty products.
Heaviness of heart when I think about the obdurate brand of American racism; have been thinking a lot about Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I think should be mandatory reading for all white Americans. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my very racially segregated community.
Desire to read more books. Desire to read all of the books that I own but haven’t read yet (rough estimate of 30 unread titles languishing on shelves). Desire to read all the books in the public library, more or less.
Tenderness for my husband. Tenderness for the psychologically damaged Pyrrha. Marginal tenderness for the crazy Eden.
I am not ready to be cold all the time. Can’t summer stay a little bit longer?
Eager fear and excitement when I realize that our European summer is less than a year away now. (We will be living in London for three months next year. I’ll be working out of my company’s branch there, and Guion will get to come with me, because he can work from anywhere. Whee!)