Reading in a time of isolation

When we’re all feeling too overloaded by reality at the moment there’s nothing like a Lord of the Rings marathon to escape for a few hours from a world of hand-washing. There’s even a relevant parallel – Frodo went to Mordor to destroy something that was causing people to die, we have to stay isolated to stop something that is killing people, and it is something that we have the power to stop. Be like Frodo, do what has to be done, stay self-isolated – you’re saving someone’s life, maybe lots of someones. Enough rant, maybe. At least for now. But even I can only rewatch LoR so many times in a week, so last night I started watching Hanna – excellent, love it. Only one series (so far) so the binge won’t go too long and I’ll be back to reading!

Mmm reading, actual books, mmmm… when your brain starts to recover enough from the shock of adjusting to this world we’re currently working out how to live in, y’all are going to need to progress from the electronic box and read. And like I can’t always rewatch LoR, I can’t always read work stuff, love it though I do (I could write a post of all the anthropology stuff I plan on reading, now that would be speculative fiction). But back to published fiction written by others for my/our enjoyment. I recently asked my FB friends for recommendations, I was looking for something light or fun or mindlessly violent. I didn’t want to think too much, at the moment I’m being paid to think and sometimes we all just need a little gratuitous…. imagination to get us through. I offered bonus points for female authors since that’s still a penchant of mine. I’ll include their list below, or I might just weave them in, but for now I need to repay their generosity with a list of my own.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club Book 1) by [Goss, Theodora]In a previous post I recommended Theodora Goss’s now complete trilogy The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, and The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl. Love them all, totally what I’d love to be reading more of at the moment, but I’ve finished the series and so has Goss. Sniff. If you want some fantasy whimsy you can’t go past Laini Taylor and her trilogy that starts with Daughter of Smoke and Bone

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.
It did not end well”

my heart aches… luscious indulgence, blue hair and chocolate cake… I mentioned one of her books Night of Cake and Puppets once before. Just divine. When I want something divine I’m with my FB beloveds who are always happy to recommend any Kerry Greenwood, do yourself a favour, read them… Corrina Chapman, Miss Fisher… read them all. I also agree with my recommenders that Kate Atkinson is awesome and I can’t wait to read Big Sky. Wonderful Chicago based crime and flawed heroine VI Warshawski is always reliable at the hands of Sara Paretsky, wonderful local crime stuff.

Bad Memory (Jessica Shaw Book 2) by [Gray, Lisa]Also in crime, yes I’m realising that I’ve spent a lot of time in crime and mindless violence lately for some reason… anyway, also in crime is Lisa Gray who started a Jessica Shaw series that’s in a style similar to Sara Gran. These are both young women writers, very definitely writing for an anti-heroine millennial audience – these are raw, broken protagonists and totally awesome. Not for the reader who doesn’t accept that their young protagonists may do drugs and go off the rails from time to time. Speaking of millennials, an awesome young friend recommended Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and while I’m only two chapters in, I’m really enjoying it. Unique writing style that takes you way inside the characters, really great. Thanks Rohan.

My number one recommendation follows that trajectory of flawed life and crime: Alexandra Sokolov has just finished her 6 part series that I’m prepared to call as being the current Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’ve been reading these as published, and you must read them in order. OMFG. Violent. Inside America today. Just absolutely brilliant if you like your FBI agents conflicted, your vigilante’s hot and feminist, and the world a bit better without some toxic masculinity. Justice. Do yourself a favour, lock the door, claim the couch and read the Huntress FBI Thrillers.

Another writer I adore who has flawed incredibly powerful female protagonists is Nicola Griffith. Aud (rhyme’s with shroud) Torvingen is everything you want in an angry empowered woman breaking things for justice. The first book is The Blue Place, followed by Stay and Always. I am inviting you to pain however as not all of those are available in e-format everywhere. Griffith also writes SciFi that for mine is up there with Ursula Le Guin in terms of it’s creativity and depth: Ammonite is a mistress-piece. Also in the most amazing sci-fi tradition of Le Guin is NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy (finished). Just breathtakingly awesome, fabulous. Can’t believe I hadn’t read them earlier. I see that there are more Jemisin books for me to read, so yay for that!! If you were a fan of Iain M Banks, who I forgive for being a man, you’ll love Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series. Wow. I’ve only read the first but wow. Really complex so I would say I’m going to re-read the first one and then keep going in order, just because it’s hard to keep straight in your head and to be honest I just don’t remember the characters well enough at this point.

Back to Nicola Griffith’s though, proving the enormity of her talent is Hild, her historical reimagining of the life of Hildegard the Abbess of Whitby, long before her conversion. Just brilliant historical fictionalization, luscious and rich and womanly.

I stThe Ides of April: A Flavia Albia Mystery (Flavia Albia Mystery Series Book 1) by [Davis, Lindsey]ill mourn the passing of Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman), I loved her Mistress of the Art of Death series, must read some of the books she published as Diana Norman. Of course I also enjoy Cassandra Clark’s Hildegard of Meaux books AND in writing this I’ve just discovered there are two I haven’t read yet!! YAY, happy Wendy. Staying in historical fiction, Lindsey Davis has a new book coming and I do totally love her Flavia Alba novels set in Ancient Rome and focusing on of course Flavia Alba, a private eye and hysterically funny young wife. Awesome fun. Very dry.

I have some Indigenous Australian and American women on my kindle sample list – looking forward to those, but there are some days when risking a new author feels like a gamble I’m not up for at the moment. One I read a while back is Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby and it was great if you’re looking for Australian Indigenous writing about life being an Indigenous woman today. And I see she has another Too much Lip, that I must look at.

I MUST get myself into Toni Morrison, unforgivable to be hesitating, I have the Song of Solomon waiting. If you’re looking for Black American heartache of the most contemporary kind I recommend Jesmyn Ward’s Men we Reaped. It is such an important book, Black Lives Matter y’all, and those young men were killed by the violence of the American system… it’s a compulsory read now that I pause and reflect. Read more Black women folks!

While I’m on my soapbox about race and equity and justice I’m also getting picky as I get older, not only do I prefer reading women writers, but if I’m going to read a book set in Africa about African people I want it written by an African woman writer… so sorry I’ve gone right off Alexander McCall Smith… sad because I did love those books, but these day’s I see it as cultural appropriation and I’m not comfortable with that. I’d rather go looking for the awesome African women writers like Chimaamanda Ngozi Adichie. I find Olivia Butler’s writing not to my taste, but for African Sci-Fi I believe you can’t go past Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series – loved that to bits. I like the look of Elif Shafak’s work too although I’m yet to read those. If you’re looking for Palestine I recommend Consuelo Saah Baehr’s Three Daughters, it’s really special. Of course the Title image for this post is from a book by the late Marsha Mehran, an Iranian refugee who wrote two of the world’s most beautiful books Pomegranate Soup and Rosewater and Soda Bread, they’re about being a woman from Iran adjusting to life in Ireland. A struggle that Mehran herself was tragically unable to make.

For those of you in Asia and in need of a laugh I strongly recommend Ovidia Yu – just so much fun. She has two crime investigation series set in Singapore: Aunty Lee is set in current times and is full of wonderful cooking, I swear you can taste the page. Su Lin instead inhabits pre-WWII Singapore and the first book is The Frangipani Tree: it is a total delight. I’m currently listening to The Tensorate Series which is brilliant sci-fantasy from Singaporean queer non-binary author JY Yang. Totally fabulous to inhabit a gender fluid, sci-fi universe that has no white colonising cowboys (we all know I love Firefly, but you also all know exactly what I mean by this comment). French/Vietnamese American author Aliette de Bodard has three really enjoyable Asian sci fi books in The Universe of Xuya series. Now that I’ve looked at her webpage there are recipes and more books to try. I especially like the ideas of her Vietnamese inspired retelling of Beauty and the Beast where they’re both women and the Beast is a dragon… curious!

And while we are in Asia but returning to America, do read The Healer’s War by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. It’s a fictionalised fantasy autobiography that is really worth taking the time to explore.

That should be enough to keep you occupied for now, do let me know if you have other ideas to add to my pile of potentials. There are so many worlds in our imaginations just waiting for a text to unlock their potential…

So if you’re thinking about going and socialising, remember grab a book instead. There will be a day for meeting up with friends,

Image result for this is not that day

 

Some words you just have to stare down

When I wrote the title of this blog post I was in a bad place, that morning I’d used the M word for the first time. I’d wondered out loud if moving to Chicago had been a Mistake. I stared at the word in the text I’d written. I came over faint, wobbly. I had to go and lie down. I clearly still looked shattered later in the day as two colleagues, now friends took me to sit and drink tea and be quiet. That was Monday last week and Tuesday wasn’t much better.

img_2757Wednesday I flew to Vancouver wondering what the… I was doing. Thinking back to Vancouver I have to laugh. I arrived and remembered that I do love Canada. Before boarding I’d chatted to a woman in line about the man in a plaid shirt who was determined to be first on the plane. As we exited immigration together she asked, “Are you here for the food conference?” I was stumped, “How did you know that?” I asked. “Well, female academic, I guessed you’re here for the food conference.” “How did you know I’m an academic?” I kind of gasped. So there we were, arriving in Vancouver, identifying each other and then working out how to catch a train into the city. Once downtown we parted agreeing to meet up again later, I found my hotel, connected to wifi, and discovered that my paper was not on the conference program. I have to confess I contemplated just staying quietly in my hotel room and studying for the two days. It felt good, two quiet days to catch up on volumes of reading, away from the downward spiral Chicago had become. Pretend I wasn’t even there. I went and had a coffee, of course the barista was from Melbourne. I thought more about having two days alone, no pressure, no people, just me and Marx and a do not disturb sign on the hotel room door.

img_2761But instead I contacted the conference organisers and got back onto the program. I finished up my presentation and notes for my talk, had a way too expensive, not so nice dinner and slept. I really slept.

So Thursday the conference went well, my presentation was well accepted and prompted a lot of discussion. I shopped afterwards: if you’re going to spend most of the week reading Marx then indulging in a little capitalist expenditure is good for the soul. I bought fleecy lined jeans that were not only 50% off but it’s the first time I’ve bought jeans that are size 14 since, well last century. I got PJs too. Magnificent dinner of salmon pasta, salad, gin & tonic, white wine, coffee and a chocolate tart, all for half the price of the previous night’s extortion. Friday morning I met up with a friend and exchanging feminist research jargon and ideas, well I started to feel refreshed and not alone in a sea of conservative thinking, economics and dead white men. I read more Marx on the plane. The person sitting next to me moved away.

img_2799I landed back in Chicago feeling reinvigorated and since then I’ve been powering on with work, making great leaps forward if I dare continue the Marxist theme. I’ve been enjoying the leaves on my walks to uni and running late because I keep stopping to photograph them for all of you. Choir is definitely my Chicago happy-place. My contents insurance automatically gives me $2500 of coverage for my firearms. I’ve been to the gym today, things are being crossed off my to-do list and my apartment is starting to feel welcoming. Tomorrow the rental agency people are coming for a first inspection so we’ll see if they agree, sigh. Tomorrow we also get our mid-quarter paper to write so it may not be the happy day of yesterday or today. Have to confess several of us are “rooting” for it to be a Marxist analysis. But it will be what it will be, I’m not expecting the other M word to come back but who knows. Who knows other than that all will be well, and all will be well.

Oh and tomorrow’s Halloween, so hey I could turn into a vampire. This is the US after all.

There have seriously been gremlins messing with this post while I’ve been writing it, maybe I shouldn’t be so flippant about ghostly hauntings and Halloween…

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A more Classy type of Tourist

Soundtrack: The Sound of White
Missy Higgins

IMG_2112Today was a really good day. Starting with a walk to a Farmer’s Market, finding a Compost Club, sharing a warm drink and ideas in a stimulating space, before heading off to the Art Institute of Chicago where I became a member. So happy. On the bus on the way in I heard a somewhat pretentious man declaring his love for John Singer Sargent, the feature artist of the exhibition I was going to see. The thing this gentlemen declared as breathtaking about Sargent’s work is his use of white. I therefore made a mental note to attend to the use of white in the exhibition.

Those of you who’ve seen my posts about other exhibitions know that rather than reproducing each painting in full I mostly tend to post images of fragments of the works that speak to me. On the way in, my first taste of white was a marble where Zeus turned himself into a goose (swan, but goose works for me) to seduce this Queen of Sparta.

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Anyway goose neck distractions resisted, when I eventually entered the Sargent exhibition I aimed to capture what to me is The Sound and smell and taste of White in Sargent’s work, the richness of his palette, the fullness and emptiness of White which must be the hardest tone to paint.

 

Oh, and before we go to Sargent, one of his influences was a gentleman who should always be indulged for his atmospheric use of white and light, Merci Claude.

Monet Train

 

Like a freeze-dried rose, you will never be, 
What you were, what you were to me in memory.

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I deliberately photographed this Street in Venice from the side, adopting a position of leaning on the wall, and like the men allowing this determined young woman to walk on, her thoughts uninterrupted.

I love the strength about these women that Sargent manages to embrace.

If things get real for me down here…

This lovely child was described as an Italian or Spanish beggar girl in Paris. So exposed and real for her down there, begging dressed like a virgin, a world apart from the high class portraits he went on to complete.

And if I listen to, the sound of white, 
Sometimes I hear your smile, and breath your light. 

That clear white skin, and the incredible detail, all accentuated with tones of white. Sadly the only woman of colour in the exhibition was also the only nude: in coloniality white is pure, black skin is always licentious.

But if I listen to the dark, 
You’ll embrace me like a star
Envelope me, envelope me

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This incredibly self-possessed woman is not a Sargent, this work is by Giovanni Boldini. Love Miss Clark, Actress.

Sargent did have an en plein air phase which for my taste could be skipped over with one exception.

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And of course Claude was an influence on this phase of Sargent’s career too. Love Claude.

Thankfully Sargent returned to portraits and for a while also painted some men, where the detail in the White on White is exquisite.

At that time he also painted this stunning watercolour in Florida.

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Of course as I wandered out from Sargent’s White I discovered my favourite elephant god looking on the reflected white of the Chicago skyline, and thought my day complete.

But a trip to any excellent gallery can include an unexpected twist, and in this case I embraced the fact that no one does White like a Japanese artist.

And so coming complete circle with Missy Higgins, I found this incredible work by Japanese artist Mineo Mizuno, whose father died in WWII before the artist was born. Called Water Drop, the gouged empty centre speaks physically to the silent sound of the characters repeated over the surface that mean “null”, “void” or “nothingness”.

My silence solidifies, 
Until that hollow void erases you, 
Erases you so I can’t feel at all. 
But if I never feel again, at least that nothingness 
Will end the painful dream, of you and me. 
If things get real for me down here, promise to take me to 
Before you went away, if only for a day. 
If things get real for me down here, promise to take me back to 
The tune we played before you went away.

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And if I listen to, the sound of white,
Sometimes I hear your smile, and breath your light.
Yeah if I listen to, the sound of white
You’re my mystery. One mystery. My mystery. One mystery..

Being a Tourist

IMG_2027 edWednesday we walked and walked and eventually we went to Shedd Aquarium. Aquariums (Aquaria?) have a tough gig when Australians and Kenyans who’ve dived The Reef turn up, and yep, we were a tough audience in the Shedd. The place was crowded with otherwise happy folk, which possibly shows that we don’t know what we’re talking about. But there we were, and somewhat sullen (academic concentration V said), we will have featured in the background of many people’s holiday snaps. We all know I’m not good around hoards of children. In front of some particularly horrid looking eels I had a desire for Harry Potter to arrive and make the glass disappear so they could slide to freedom (and certain death out of the water I know, but I wanted them to be FREE). And I know that Beluga whales are endangered in the wild, but I really felt sad for the female who had been there for 27 years. The less said the better about how we felt when we saw a Dolphin staring over the edge of the infinity pool at the lake so close but so far away.

There was however an art exhibition on around the aquarium that excited our environmental sensibilities. The See Art to Save the Sea exhibition featured marine life made from items that have been salvaged from the sea. I’m often a cynic and I did wonder how the colors could be so clear and the pieces so pristine when they’d been flotsam with someone’s jetsam for so long, but I’m ready to believe the website that says that over 20 tons of trash have been collected from Oregon beaches and made into 70 works of art. Brilliant premise – force people to see an immediate connection between sea creatures and trash (sorry, rubbish). Love it: create art that evokes ocean creatures using the medium of the very rubbish that is making the marine environment uninhabitable for such creatures. Inspired concept and it’s cleaning beaches. Anyway, we walked the full aquarium looking for the art, (wishing it had been better curated so that the purple fish above wasn’t hidden behind a bar selling wine in plastic cups) and otherwise trying to avoid children and the entrapped animal life.

The exhibits just stood there, signage understated. You could assume they had no voice and thoughtlessly disregard them as untidy decorations, but there they stood nonetheless, wordlessly declaring the reckless abuse of this planet by human thoughtlessness. They were the most important things in the building.

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I love the idea of making jellyfish that stick and cling and scare and sting humans, out of the plastics that humans recklessly discard and which then strangle so much marine life.

Grumpy Nemo is very angry about plastic water bottles – be Grumpy Nemo and don’t buy plastic bottles.

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Binti, a woman of earth and stars

Binti and Binti: Home, by  Nnedi Okorafor
The above incredible image was sourced from DestinAsian 

I really want to write you a review of the novellas Binti, and Binti: Home, it’s a long time since I read such real science fiction. But I find I’m not sure where to begin. Instead of finding words or images to share with you, a story line to attract you, instead my brain is still and I can feel earth, coarse damp earth, rough wet clay on my skin. I want to smear it, rub it onto myself. This is unusual for me, I am a woman of water. But the scent of living soil is in my nostrils, minerals seeping into my blood. Enervating. I feel grounded. Real. Growing, alive, but still and stopped. I want to go outside and bury my hands in the soil, feel its pulsing life. To stand on rock and earth. I don’t want to appropriate her culture, to claim for myself otjize, the culture of the Himba women of Namibia. I just want to inhale that grounded life. Maybe I want to reach out and touch that warm supple skin. To taste transcendence in immanent earth. That is the gift of Binti.

Binti is a young woman of colour, the first of her people to be accepted into university on a far planet. She leaves alone in the early morning. By leaving she is exiled. She is the sole survivor of a massacre. She is a harmoniser, a woman who weaves mathematical patterns of meaning and peace. She is powerful. Transcendent and deliberately immanent. Woman.

I don’t think Binti asked me any profound questions, other than why she should be the first woman of colour to have a science fiction series of her own. I love that this is a book written by a woman, about a woman. A book about a woman who dared to defy social strictures that would have held her at home, told her who to be, how to be a good woman. Instead she journeyed away, redefined the meaning of being a good woman. Took the earth from which she came and healed others. Created earth with the power of womanhood and healing and home, although the distances of space ached between. Returned to find change for all life is change. To find something new of herself and her people and her universe. To find echoes of time.

Not since my earliest readings of Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World some thirty years ago have I felt so connected to a science fiction culture, a science fiction character. And I love science fiction. So that is the highest praise I can offer. Neither Binti or Binti: Home are long, they leave you aching for more. And to be honest, I don’t think I liked the end of Binti: Home. But I desire, long for the next instalment Binti: The Night Masquerade. I’m holding a deep hope that Okorafor doesn’t fly Binti away into unreality, when she has been so grounded, so real to date. And so sniffing earth, tasting ground, smelling stardust with our toes, we wait.

 

 

Last stop before home

I said earlier today that it feels like I’ve been travelling since June when I headed off for Montreal. And I know I was home in November, and a bit of December, but wow what an 8 months. No wonder I looked tired when I reached Thailand. This afternoon in Singapore I’m glad to be on my way home. In Inhaling colour, tasting light I promised you some more of Melaka outside the home of Tham Siew Inn so here’s my final post before home.

On Saturday we drove from KL to Melaka and found ourselves in the midst of celebrations of the end of Chinese New Year. Oh what fun. We passed the procession on the way into town and as they circled and wove their way toward their temple goal, we seemed to keep crossing each other’s paths, twisting and twirling. So much colour and vibrant life, energy. It was the celebration of the Emperor that falls at the end of Chinese New Year and brings prosperity and life. Lucky us.

In between bits of march passing us we managed to fit in one of many fabulous and huge feasts, this one in a large old home, building, warehouse that has been renovated. I was to discover a few of those over the weekend. Continue reading “Last stop before home”

Inhaling colour, tasting light

Soundtrack: Beethoven: Piano Sonata#14 in C Sharp Minor Op. 27/2
Moonlight, First Movement

Tham Siew Inn

I have been so privileged this trip to stay with families, to be welcomed into people’s homes, invited to share food, to sit. One of the truly great privileges of this trip was being taken by a dear friend and her family to Melaka, and then invited into the home of artist Tham Siew Inn. Such an honour to quietly spend time inhaling the atmosphere of the artist’s residence, imbibing the green of their gardens. Drinking tea. Sitting us women, peeling pomelo. Talking with family members, two sons creative artists themselves and the oh so real, material, tangible woman-wife-foundation, herself a teacher and creative floral artist. There were times sitting with the art, wandering the rooms, up and down the stairs, when I caught myself almost wondering what we were doing next, but not following the thought as time had slowed, the lime infused walls cooled the heat of stress and haste, and I wanted to just be, to be breathing, to just be. The colour breathed calm into the empty places in my soul. And of course sharing together much much wonderful local food breathed companionship into the empty places in all our bellies.

When you look out from the first floor gallery through the open windows, the old green glass with its patina of the ripples of time, you see into Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, one of the oldest streets in UNESCO listed Melaka. That’s the street where you find the artist’s gallery, and it’s a street of contrasts. From the most hip art coffee house The Baboon House, to a museum with original shoes for Chinese women’s bound feet, to a UNESCO restored house showing original architecture and building styles. The atmosphere of creativity, grounded in history, twisting and tasting and reinventing identity and vision and place. Continue reading “Inhaling colour, tasting light”