Sitting with a book: Reading Note 32

Reading Note 32: Sitting with a book. I finished reading Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman in the City (Reading Notes 28-31) five days ago. Since then, I have sat in front of my computer every day trying to write a post about this book. It was so meaningful to me that I went online and bought a copy – this is something that I rarely do. However, I can’t find the words to articulate the way it made me feel. I might just need it to rest in my head for a few weeks. And then, when I receive my own copy, I can reread it and mark it up* and take the time to sit with the book to try to understand why so much of it – the stories and its structure – has made me happy that it has come my way. For now, I’ll continue to shallowread and be like Alison Bechdel who in Funhome: a family tragicomic writes “I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just read the books without forcing contorted interpretations on them”.

*I certainly could never write in the library copy I have – ’cause if I do, the library police will come and get me and if they don’t, they will torture me in my library nightmares.

Urban Bliss, Odd and a Response: Observation Notes 71-72 and Reading Note 31.

Observation Note 71: Response. Keira Soleore from Cogitations and Meditations poses the question (on Reading Note 29) “Don’t you find having to constantly dodge pedestrians and wait for traffic lights a nuisance on city walks as opposed to nature or along the harbor/bay/ocean?”

I actually get a thrill from walking amongst pedestrians. There is a sense of collective human movement that occurs as you walk through city streets, where people seem to fall into a rhythm with each other. There are so many stories around you when you are in a city. From the buskers, the office workers, the retailers, the customers and the tourists. It is no longer discernible who is a local and who is the traveller. The cameras and bumbags have disappeared as the ubiquitous telephone carries all your travellers needs.

Reading Note 31: Odd. Vivian Gornick in The Odd Woman and the City writes “My mind flashes on all who crossed my path today. I hear their voices, I see their gestures, I start filling in lives for them. Soon they are company, great company. I think to myself, I’d rather be here with you tonight than with anyone else I know.” This is how I feel about the people I walk amongst. I imagine their lives, their reasons for being in my path, their ideas and their circumstances. They aren’t as much in my way as I am part of their day.

Observation Note 72: Urban bliss. Sydney is a highly walkable city. It has been designed in such a way that if you know your streets, malls and tunnels well enough, you can avoid traffic lights. For instance, on Sunday, we walked for over four hours yet we probably encountered only 5 sets of lights. The city is an open air museum so I really don’t mind having to move around people who are looking up, admiring the urban space, those wonderful details on old and new buildings. 

Occasionally, there will be dawdlers, or people who lack the understanding of the time of day – this is invariably a tourist or someone that rarely ventures into the city. Fran Lebowitz shouts “Pretend it’s a City” in her eponymously titled series, she is agitated and wants people to move out of her way. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the series, and at times can concur with the frustration of a dawdler when I am trying to get somewhere, I relish the feeling of being amongst many people, feeling safer amongst the hundreds than I do when I am alone on a street, or even just with two or three of us on a bush walk where I mentally am keeping track of how far I am from civilisation, how far I am from emergency assistance, how long it would take to raise an alarm from the moment that a brown snake bites me to the moment that the paramedics find my flailing twitching-in-its-death-throes body evident in the scattered twigs, dirt and leaves left strewn about like a demented dirt angel, my head landing in a green-head ant nest eliciting their ire as they bite bite bite me, leaving welts rising upon my face and completing the work of the snake that has slithered away, and my screaming agony will be unheard as it will be at one with the screeching dinosaur birds that circle overhead in that final moment.

I’ll take my chances in the city.

Best laid plans and Nature: Observation Note 68 and Reading Note 28

Observation note 68: The best laid plans of mice and men. Today, I ended up returning three books to the library that I had borrowed twice, each time for a three month period (this is inclusive of two automatic renewals). I managed to read Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business (see Reading Notes 17-21), however I returned Gornick’s Fierce Attachments as well as Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking without even starting them. I still have an overdue book – I am half way through Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman in the City and I am going to try to finish it tonight and return it tomorrow. Thankfully, my library system doesn’t have overdue fines and to allay any worry warts, if the book had been recalled for a reservation I would return it unfinished. However, it is overdue only because time has run out. It is just going to sit on the shelf until I feel a decent amount of time has passed and I can reborrow it. Though I am enjoying Vivian Gornick’s writing so much that I might even go out and buy a copy instead. As for Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, I kept it on hold as I was trying to finish all three Gornick books before I started it. I had seen Solnit’s name pop up here and there over the years – from Twitter mentions to mansplaining stories to Goodreads listing as well as references in other books.

Reading Note 28: Nature. I have very little interest in going walking/trekking/rambling through the bush/countryside/forest/[insert here your environmental Nirvana]. I embrace my love for city walking and the urban environment. I’m of the opinion that for the environment to stay intact, we should keep far far far away from it. I don’t need to experience nature myself to value it and my endeavour to preserve it is by not setting foot int it. Treading lightly by not treading at all. That said, I do love reading about environmental adventures. Perhaps it is born out of my childhood reading of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I happily read about other people’s travels through nature’s best which is what makes Kathryn Aalto’s collection of women in nature biographies so great. Kathryn Aalto includes Rebecca Solnit in her book Writing Wild: Women poets, ramblers, and mavericks who shape how we see the natural world. This is an excellent book of essays focusing on women who have written about nature over the past couple of centuries and their unique perspectives. 25 essays of about 6-8 pages focusing on each woman’s oeuvre was written in such an engaging way that I found myself going down rabbit holes to search online maps and animal and flower names, further researching each author, either finding the 19th century author’s work either on Project Gutenberg, the Poetry Foundation, or simply reserving library copies of the contemporary authors’ works (hello Rebecca Solnit!!!!). This book serves as a gateway to further explorations of the body of women scientists, novelists, conservationists, poets and more all writing about nature, the changes that have occurred over the centuries, the ecological impact of the industrial and modern ages, and the engagement with the urban and rural landscape. I just loved this book.Though I borrowed this book from the library, I will definitely be buying my own copy. It is a keeper.

Suffrage, Loneliness and a Touch of Irony: Reading Note 21 and Observation Note 56

Reading Note 21: Alone. As memoirs on reading are wont to do, Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business is sending me down many rabbit holes, seeking her references so I can read deeper, to understand her with more context*. Gornick in her discussion of the trajectory of women’s rights comes across Elizabeth Cady Stanton who had been the President for the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association in the late 19th century. I took a moment tonight to listen to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s non-fiction essay The Solitude of Self, this essay was her last public speech before standing down from her position. Gornick writes that Stanton had become incredibly lonely because the “fight for suffrage had grown steadily more conservative”. This loneliness though gave Stanton clarity and understanding about the human condition and what it means to be alone even if you are in a deep relationship. Alone giving birth, alone in the world, alone when you die. She says that “the solitude of the King on his throne and the prisoner in his cell differs in character and degree but it is solitude nevertheless” and she stresses how necessary it is for women to have the tools and skills and knowledge to manage their lives and not to lean into their husbands so much that if they are alone they cannot move forward. 

Observation Note 56: Suffrage. I take a moment to think about both Gornick and Stanton. Their feminist ideology was echoed to me from a young age by my father who insisted that we (his four daughters) study and work and be completely independent. I remember how he would always size up our male friends and ask them cringe-worthy questions about their life plans (despite our insistence to him that they were friends and not love-interests). One of our friends was training to be a doctor and dad spent a good hour talking to him (whereas we had left the room as we got rather bored by their conversation). The moment our friend left, Dad turned to us and said (I’m paraphrasing) “I certainly hope none of you are interested in that young man. He told me that he wants a university educated wife but once they marry he doesn’t want her to work, she will need to stay at home and clean and cook for him. Keep away from such men”.

Great vetting skills from my dad. I feel like he may have read Elizabeth Cady Stanton in his own reading journeys.

*I am well aware of the irony of seeking depth in light of my Shallowreader moniker. But hey – I grew up singing along to snowy, cold Christmas songs in the midst of stinking hot summers. I embrace my contradictions. 

There is a copy of The Solitude of Self available on Project Gutenberg, however I cheated and listened to the LibriVox Youtube recording while I washed the dishes. Even the staunchest feminist needs to clean up at the end of the night.

Names, Influence and Missed Moments: Observation notes 54 – 55 and Reading notes 19-20

Observation note 54: Ire. This is post is a vent.

Reading note 19: Names. In Unfinished Business: Notes of a re-reader, Vivian Gornick discusses her feelings on being a couple and that she “flinched when addressed as Mrs”. This is something that I keenly understood as I have never used the title despite being married now for 25 years. Even before I married, I was ticking the Ms. box as it just annoyed me that men got the standard Mr. and women had three choices, all of which sent quite clear messages to whoever was collecting your information (as trivial or disinterested as they may be by the selection). What surprises me is that I am the outlier here.

Reading note 20: Wait! This is influence?! A couple of days ago I wrote about Lauren Layne’s Marriage on Madison Avenue and that the main character was a social media influencer. I wrote that I have little interest in such a person let alone a fake such a person but what the book did for me was have a narrative against which I could compare the many years of watching a variety of people I knew posting their planning for their nuptials to the point of tedium. Reading about a character doing this added another level of tedium which may have contributed to my lethargic two week reading of the novel. I had to remind myself that the circus of wedding planning brings out the crazy in people who I used to like.

Self-flagellating note to state that it brought out the crazy in me too…mostly because I hated the whole process.

Observation note 55: Missed moment. A few months ago, someone I know, someone who I used to think was lovely and sweet and beautifully friendly, posted on their social media that she was “Miss to Mrs” and “rebranding in process”. I cringed and I felt saddened that despite decades and decades of women rallying to not be objectified, here was someone who willingly was choosing to be “rebranded”. However, this is not what made me angry. Disappointed – sure but people can do whatever they like in their life. But feeling angry – I left that for the wedding reception, upon looking at the list of guests so I can find the table I was seated at, I found that “Miss to Mrs Rebranded” chose to change my name from the e-RSVP database and bestowed upon me my husband’s surname. A name I have never used. A name that I don’t identify with at all. The rage I felt in that moment was red, it was hot, it made me want to flip tables. If this is what “influencers” think they can bestow upon people, changing their name and their title at will, then rage I will. A few years ago, another lovely young woman who married a family friend whispered to me “I desperately wanted to keep my name but [name redacted] wouldn’t let me. It offended him”. I am offended for her. I am angry beyond comprehension, to the point of my vision blurring.  Perhaps this is why I am struggling in my reading of romance fiction especially. All I can think is of young obsequious women going from Miss to Mrs and forcing everyone else to do it too.

Vivian Gornick can cringe with me. 

Readers and Languishing: Reading notes: 17 and 18

Earlier today, I saw long-time Twitter friend Flexnib post that she is going to try to do BlogJune just like in the olden blog days. I have decided to try to post every June day too and I thought I would start simply, resurrecting my Reading and Observation notes, a style of writing which I have previously used and I find particularly enjoyable.

Reading Note 17: Other readers. I’ve just finished reading Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business: Notes of a chronic rereader. I first heard about Gornick pre-pandemic, 18 months ago on Miss Bates Reads Romance where Kay reviewed Fierce Attachments, a book that continues to sit unopened on my bedside bookshelf. I managed to borrow three of Gornick’s books from the library and I wanted to start with her book on rereading so that I can get an insight into who she was and what her book choices mean to her. I enjoyed Unfinished Business, this collection of essays has her rereading and reconnecting to books that she has loved many years ago. Her revisiting of each text finds her either loving or rejecting the book as she delves deeply into the characters driving each novel. Gornick is not writing an analysis of these books, but instead, she is relating her own life through her reflections of her rereads. Each essay was detailed and interesting but I was increasingly annoyed that her choices were all tragedies – stories where everyone grapples with life’s difficulties and love is attained and lost. I kept wanting Gornick to choose something more edifying, something with happier outcomes, something that could mix up her reading choices rather the the predictable stalwart classics. Right at the end though, she has a short essay on about a “cheap 1970s paperback” that falls apart when she takes it into her hand. Gornick relishes in her material experience of the pages falling out one-by-one and how she salvages this unnamed book by slowly reading through it again, marking the pages as she ordered them, and bounding the book with a rubber-band. Gornick doesn’t name the books and I am so curious. I would love to know the name of the one book that she doesn’t name. My guess is that it is something along the line of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower.

Reading Note 18: Languishing. Vivian Gornick discusses being “unreceptive” to a book, just not in the right mood to read it; not “in a a state of readiness”. Well that is how I have been feeling lately about all fiction reading. I pick up a novel and I either give up just a few chapters in, turned off the book for something as trivial as the name of a character, the description of a sofa, or an internal thought that I am just not interested in reading. This sense of fiction ennui is not what I want to be feeling and I hope it doesn’t last for too much longer. Meanwhile, I will continue reading memoirs and I will post about my thoughts on them here.

Vivian Gornick’s Unfinished Business, Fierce Attachments and The Odd Woman and the City have all been borrowed from a NSW public library.