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,

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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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First of (it had better not be too) many

Yesterday I seriously felt like giving up.

Not some trivial I don’t want to do this. A deeper brokenness. Just too hard to keep going. I can’t do this any more.

I’ve learned that I cannot neglect self-care, eating right and daily exercise. That takes time, real worthwhile time. There’s a cauliflower in my fridge that has wanted to go into a veg curry for three weeks. It used to look at me in hope when I opened its container for a carrot to dip in hummus, now it turns its face away. The carrot, beautiful heirloom carrot, cringes on its way into store-bought hummus. But there’s only so much time and fresh roast beetroot hummus is still in the future.

Yesterday I wrote my first submission of my degree here. It took way too long. It was polished beyond practical need. It was polished to my own personal need to give care and credence to my work: respect. Close to finished at 9pm I realised my curry was again unmade, I’d not eaten dinner and I was still cold. Cold from my lunchtime walk to the farmer’s market where I bought more veg than one woman can seriously cook and eat, but for which I’d not worn enough layers and so I was still cold.

Today I have more reading that can possibly be done. I MUST make my veg curry. I also MUST cook the piece of cod I bought yesterday. I need to drink more fluids as my new scales show I’m dehydrated, something I didn’t really need the scales to tell me. I MUST go outside and get my blood circulating, but today I’ll wear more layers.

Weather’s gone from Steamer to Fridge, & I’m stocking my Freezer

 

img_2584-1.jpgThis is not a food blog, but food’s part of my way of coping with the unfamiliar so you get to see some of what I cook. It also explains why the one “homesick” thing that brought me to tears was the absence of rice bran straws from American stores. I’m committed to my cereal recipe! Cereal is my comfort food. Anyway I’ve made minestrone, smoked ham & chickpeas (pictured) and pumpkin soup for the freezer. Cauliflower curry is next. I’ve bought two coats – one feels like I’m a walking around in a down sleeping bag! I’ve procured lined gloves and bought two pairs of boots, one for wet and one for when the snow’s more than 2″ deep Mam. Near the coat and boot shops I was distracted by Dr Seuss and the Lego store. I’ve been dehydrated because I’m not drinking enough.

img_2529-1.jpgApart from distracted shopping for boots and coats this week I’ve been about getting into (and resisting) routines, maybe me and the weather too. One day was a steamy 27, the next maxed out at 9C and I thought I was living in a fridge. Apparently 10C max (<50F) is the new routine for weather until it gets actually cold. Even with boots and coats I know the weather’s changed, but the locals don’t think this is cold yet. Today the modem man (don’t ask, but yes, again) said this is his perfect temperature, loves it. This is a man in a tshirt and shorts… I’m getting into a gym routine. Have done a full week of settled uni classes and felt prepared. I’ve paid bills, cleaned my apartment, found where to get my trousers taken up so they don’t drape in the puddles. Eaten a ruben with sour kraut that stung my lips in a cafe that reminded me of Scheherazade, felt lonely a bit, you know, life.

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img_2543I’ve been working on my study-life balance, although there’s been some procrasti-life balance for sure. Choir rehearsals started this week and I nearly cried I had so much fun, couldn’t stop smiling. I got turned inside out trying to find the rehearsal space and saw this room – have you noticed a theme in many of my Chicago photographs yet? No not ivy, although maybe that too. Montreal was street art, Chicago is…. Anyway we started learning a Bruckner motet and a South African hymn in Xhosa and I was just in seventh heaven. Our first concert is with Sweet Honey in the Rock. You politically radical, post-colonial feminist types, get listening! And the rest of you, well, if you don’t know them have a listen, ethical, gospel and good fun singing – yay. Oh and an Alto Lady who lives near me has offered to drive me home after rehearsal so I won’t have to walk in dark and snow. Nice.

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img_2518I’ve almost come off the back of the treadmill because of course the speed is in mph and one doesn’t walk at 5.5-6 mph. I then climbed the 11 floors to my apartment after gym because the power was out. That was the day after I bought a flashlight despite the man in the hardware store telling me that the power never goes off in Chicago. We had quite a chat because I went in to buy a torch, I asked for a “big torch”. The hardware gentleman looked at me quizzically and took me to the back of the store, to a rack of 6′ stakes topped with kerosene wick contraption things! “No”, I said, “a torch”. “Yes”, he said holding his stake ready to enter The Temple of Doom (I’d say the Mines of Moria but Gandalf’s staff was smaller). “It’s like a cylinder, with a globe, batteries”, I said desperately trying to describe a torch in non-phallic terminology and sign language. “It’s like a flashlight!!” The light turned on, we laughed, I got a flashlight and batteries and the next day (at midday) the power went off. The power never goes off in Chicago, it must be me.

While walking everywhere I’m enjoying looking at leaves starting to change colour, jumping puddles, watching squirrels rush about collecting their foods. Still enjoying the architecture and smiling at summer’s last enduring flowers. Love the hydrangeas. I’ve walked past a group of Chinese ladies doing tai chi in the park a few times. Not sure why but they make me smile. Some sitting with the children in the playground, the rest moving slow and deliberate. There’s a lot to be said for slow and deliberate.

 

 

Life is a minestrone

 

Soundtrack: 10CC, but who knew that?
I thought it was Weird Al… most odd

Some members of the audience will understand the title… for the rest of you, well google is key to your age. I promised you a blog a week while I’m here, and already I’m behind. Sorry about that. I’m also already behind on my class work so this is going to be brief tonight. Chicago is amazing. The temperature has gone up and down a lot – hot, cold, cold, cold, hot and back to cold. Apparently the hots have to disappear before they turn the heating boilers on in my apartment building. However, despite the chill my apartment is sorted and somewhere in the next couple of weeks my Australian possessions will arrive and create familiar chaos.

When I’m not in general panic or overcome by loneliness I’m really happy. Routine is starting to arrive: my class schedule is settled (albeit having changed more times than my underwear this week). Tuesday after class is apartment cleaning time, Thursday is washing and cooking day (hence my clean underwear and the minestrone). I will catch up on my reading, although Durkheim and his fascination with Suicide as a major first week’s reading would never have been a therapist’s recommendation for intelligent people, mostly single and without spawn, who’ve just had a major life change. Anyone who’s read it will know the only additional “risk” factor Emile describes is being Catholic. Small mercies I’m spared.

Monday night is choir rehearsal (not in the Chapel) and so next week I’m joining the “Lady Tenors” in the University Choir. Not fully sure I can be a Lady, should be a hoot. My online shopping this week’s been similarly edifying: 5 performances at the Lyric Opera, 7 performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Tallis Scholars. Loving this cultured life, meant to be here to study. Sigh.

And the seat of learning
And the flush of success
Relieves a constipated mind
I’m like a gourmet in a skid row diner
A fitting menu for a dilettante

Who knew 10CC wrote stuff like that? So anyway, tonight I made me some minestrone, topped it with parmesan cheese that wasn’t, it was something else from Wisconsin but hey it was magnificent, and so was the soup. Here’s hoping it’s a portent. (The blue mugs have lids, and go in the freezer for microwaving on future nights of chill that are not Thursdays). Love, W xox

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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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Thai eyes should be smiling

I’m not surprised, not naive or stupid. The sex industry is real, I know that. I’ve seen that. Sex tourism, thousands of years old. I know there are different ways people get caught in the industry, some choose, some don’t. I know that huge numbers of men, women and children are trafficked each year. It’s everywhere. It’s complex. I know all that. But here it’s on a scale and so in your face and so dehumanising that I just want to scream: “Stop! These sex-workers are people, they’re worthy of some respect and dignity and deserve some joy.” And I am really sad because no one would hear. We’ve stopped even joking about pretty young women (and men) taking their old grandfathers out for the night. Who knew there were so many old white men in the world. Oh and really who told them, that shaving their head made them virile and hot?  I’m totally struggling with South East Asian tourism’s acceptance of commodification of the human body.

It’s their dead eyes that haunt you.

Young men and women, held in the vice like grip of old white men, being walked like dogs on a leash. Mostly around here they’re attractive very young men. The women are a bit older, somehow more desperate. Some fake a smile at their owners, but most forgo even a mask of pretended affection. All of their eyes just look dead.

It’s that it’s everywhere. 

Every bar, cafe, took took, street. Day and night, though it’s worse after dark. Although by day I guess there’s also those young ones that sit like fruit on display outside massage joints. How green do you like your bananas? Young men and women, no hope, so forlorn. Their eyes look dead. Vacant. Blank. No happy ending to that viagra charged massage, not for them.

On the beach, a group of young Thai children were playing in the water. One Thai adult supervising. Later one boy appears left behind, alone with an old Slavic man. Surely not?

It’s that it seems so contrary. So wrong: these are people not objects!

The Thai people are beautiful, happy, gentle. Their smiles so wide and welcoming, so generous. We try and say Hello and Thank you in Thai. They smile wider and giggle, remember us when we return. Wave and call Hello. We smile at the “special massage” girls and boys sitting on the street, although they know we’ll say no. We buy fresh juice, coffee, snacks. We walk along and wave and smile, we try to chat with the street food vendors. These people are so generous.The waitresses at the Dutch coffee shop and the vendors alongside, so busy but still pausing to smile. The juice lady waves every time with the widest infectious smile, tells me I chose the wrong bananas and swaps them out for her best. Two juices and a bunch of bananas and she wants to give me change from $2. Our security lady hugs us and laughs, holds tight to my hand. I have to remember these happier faces.

I walked one night after dinner, just up the main street, along the foreshore. Not risking far off the tracks. I felt safe, I’m the wrong demographic. Walked around a hand job happening on the pavement, the man’s walking stick offering no privacy. Dodged a negotiation to go find a room. So many mismatched “couples” call it neo-liberal market dynamics, supply and demand, exploitation. The worst is the young Thai eyes, the dead eyes. No hope, no future, not even a mask of pretence. Do these ridiculous old men really believe these kids love them? Desire them? Or don’t they care as long as they come?

Thai people are not junk, not objects, not receptacles for white men’s stale cum. Their eyes should not be dead.

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