nonrequired reading: how Connie Willis saved my life

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Dive in, or the post will grow and grow like an unwanted giant in a half-baked fantasy story, I tell myself.

You could say that Liza’s IG post mentioning po-mo pink from Connie Willis’ Bellwether was a fateful sign that made me check in with the unwanted giant after several months of hiding him in the draft box. I was in the middle of Bellwether when Liza posted about po-mo pink, so I decided I’d call it fate and here we are…

So how did Connie Willis save my life? First, by writing with a sense of humor, though not always writing books that could be called funny. Secondly, by doing research, enjoying the process, and infusing her books with that enjoyment. And that’s easier said than done. There’s something very classic about that approach to storytelling but it’s always been a challenge for storytellers. How do you turn your reader into a fellow victim of folie a deux?… Connie Willis knows how.

Last winter I couldn’t help feeling that parts of reality were dissolving. The whole concept of people researching something to test how the thing in question held up to scrutiny… well, it felt like that was under intense questioning (but not scrutiny) all of a sudden. You’d turn on the news and hear a person talking very loudly about how, in their opinion, feelings are more important than facts… Nothing new in the world, you might say. But the volume got suddenly cranked up to 11 and my head hurt.

Willis’ writing brings you the comfort of familiar plot ideas. We start out with time-travelers stumbling into trouble in the past, well-worn details of near-death experiences that we’ve all read somewhere, telepathy a lot like what you’ve seen on Star Trek… and then the narrator takes you by the hand and you land somewhere completely new. None of those familiar popular ideas hold. “Isn’t it silly how many things we take for granted? Isn’t it silly how solid some of our baseless convictions become?”, asks the narrator and the cogs in your brain box start turning. And you’re on an adventure. Scary or funny, you’re not going into it alone, and that, I think, is a wonderful quality of Connie Willis’ prose.

I first heard of To Say Nothing of the Dog years ago but it kept being that book you want to read but somehow don’t get to it. Years passed, Willis published several other books, and finally last year, Cross Talk. And I listened to this interview and knew that I needed to get my hands on it immediately.

After Cross Talk I read Passage, which was haunting but still had that comforting aspect of having someone think through the dilemmas — and the fears — it threw your way with you, allowing you to both be scared and trust you’ll make it through to the last page. I don’t know about you, but it’s something I cherish in scary novels. Maybe because so few of them attempt it.

Willis, I imagine, would have some smart and sarcastic things to say about my claim that “fate” was at work when Liza’s mention of Bellwether coincided with my reading of it. And I hope she puts it in a novel. I’ll definitely pick it up.

Right now I’m reading To Say Nothing of the Dog. And there’s Doomsday Book waiting on my nightstand.

What are you reading?

 

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nonrequired reading: the master herself

… And now for something somewhat different. Yesterday was World Book Day, today is the beginning of Fashion Revolution Week, and I found myself at a crossroads. Reading is one of the crucial ways we have available for thinking and feeling our way into the lives of others. The Rana Plaza disaster from April 24, 2013 did not get adequate coverage in the news (that’s one thing) and outside of online sewing circles I don’t hear it mentioned, to be honest. What we can do is keep remembering it and letting others know that it happened and trying to make sense of what it means not just in terms of global economic ties but also in terms of human life, labor, and what we think of as the right to happiness — or the right to a decent life.

I’m still trying to understand the impact of the Rana Plaza collapse — the impact of how we consume fashion in general — and the consequences of our responses to it all. So this post is not about that.

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You don’t know this, but I have several overgrown unpublished posts sitting in my blog’s draft box. They are all about books. I’m better at pumping the writing brakes with sewing, and each one of those posts kept growing, making me less confident in my ability to shrink them down to size — and into a usable shape.

I could let it go, but I really like reading about reading, and I really appreciate any mention or review of a book that crops up on the blogs I follow. I don’t think writing about books belongs solely on book blogs. I think books belong anywhere they want to wander in. I have one sitting on top of the blouse I just finished.

It’s a copy of Wislawa Szymborska’s book reviews New Nonrequired Reading. I’ve had this particular copy since I was a teenager. It’s been on trains and planes with me. At home, at work, and on vacation. It’s moved with me between several countries and many apartments and houses.  You don’t have to read Polish to enjoy it, now you can read it also in English. The cover of the American edition, I’m happy to say, looks very inviting.

The book that’s moved with me so much is the second volume. I did read the first one (Nonrequired Reading) at some point but, somehow, I only have this second one. I’ve read the witty reviews in it numerous times. Some of them are at this point like a lullaby for when I struggle to fall asleep.

Out of the books reviewed by the poet I’ve maybe read a couple. In a way they don’t even matter that much. The anecdotes about her reading them is what really makes this volume worth throwing into your suitcase to take it wherever you go. It’s the experience of reading more than what was read, and it’s how it was read, and how that is shared that makes it cool and delightful years later. You read it for the image of Szymborska, slight lady that she was, trying to run out of a burning museum with one of Klimt’s Birch paintings (a hypothetical she closes with when talking about a biography of Klimt — written by whom? I don’t remember), for her heartfelt defense of smoking (even when you don’t buy it, like I don’t), her long ironic look at new linguistic developments (I wonder what her take would be on the word “selfie” and its really nasty but poignant Polish some-time equivalent…). You read it because it’s like a great conversation in which you don’t need to say a thing. I’d say it’s a lot like Before Sunrise without needing to bother with a romance plot.

I discovered the English edition via Brain Pickings. Here, Maria Popova writes about her experience of reading one of Szymborska’s essays. And to top it off, there are also links to Amanda Palmer’s reading of two of Szymborska’s poems (“Possibilities,” “Life While-You-Wait“).

My one tiny but serious reservation about the recording of “Possibilities” is how Palmer pronounces the name of the river Warta. The “w” is not the “w” in “water” — it’s pronounced like “v” in “vat.” These days, it’s really easy to look that up. Wikipedia has the pronunciation right. That said, I’d want nothing more than for English textbooks that include Szymborska’s poems to get the pronunciation of her name right. I’ve seen some monstrous nonsense out there… Maybe it’s just confusion with Hungarian, but “sz” is never a “z” in Polish. It’s like “sh” in “shine,” and it’s never silent.

Okay, quagmire spotted, rant over.

Please tell me what you’re reading right now.