Monday, April 7, 2014

Reading and the Cosmos

I'm almost always in the process of reading a book; often I'm reading two. It's not unusual for me to be reading three. (There's also a scattering of a half-dozen books that I read at the pace of a snail across years, but I'm not counting those here – I'm talking about books I'm actively reading now with the intention of finishing them soonish.) That's usually my limit, and when I'm reading three books, two of them will almost certainly be either nonfiction or short stories; I rarely read more than one novel at the same time.

Right now, however, I'm in a few days of taking a break from all writing, which means I have more time to read. I am also preparing, in invisible ways, for the next bunch of writing – which means I'm finding myself drawn to more nonfiction than is usual for me. Putting together the pleasure reading, the reading that is obligated for various reasons, and the reading specifically directed toward informing my writing, I'm currently reading:

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin. Such a wonderful book to soak up slowly (I'm also alternately listening to the audiobook, which is a delight), and I'm noticing the way Le Guin manages to describe a landscape or a room with one simple, searing sentence which leaves me with a clear vision and does not numb my mind with boredom (as so much descriptive language tends to do). In Urras: "They came into the reading room of the library. Aisles of old books, under delicate double arches of marble, stood in dim serenity; the lamps on the long reading tables were plain spheres of alabaster." Done; no more description of the reading room needed. In Anarres: "The wide streets of Abbenay were quiet in the winter night. At each crossing the dim streetlight made a pool of silver, across which dry snow flurried like shoals of tiny fish, chasing their shadows." Obviously there are grander things to talk about in a book like this, but I'm also loving the little things.

Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, by bell hooks. This is a collection of essays, published in 2013 by Routledge, in which hooks talks about systems of domination and how we can challenge them. A dominator culture hurts everyone in that culture; hooks has a way of presenting things clearly, helping me see the bigger picture. A couple of excerpts: "Accountability is a more expansive concept because it opens a field of possibility wherein we are all compelled to move beyond blame to see wherein our responsibility lies. Seeing clearly that we live within a dominator culture of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I am compelled to locate where my responsibility lies. In some circumstances I am more likely to be victimized by an aspect of that system, in other circumstances I am in a position to be a victimizer. If I only lay claim to those aspects of the system where I define myself as the oppressed and someone else as my oppressor, then I continually fail to see the larger picture. After more than thirty years of talking to folks about domination, I can testify that masses of folks in our society – both black and white – resist seeing the larger picture." (30-31) Also: "As we move away from dominator culture towards a liberatory culture where partnership and mutuality are valued we create a culture wherein we can all learn to love. There can be no love where there is domination. And any time we do the work of love we are doing the work of ending domination." (37)

Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas, by Eva Saulitis. From the cover copy: "Ever since Eva Saulitis began her whale research in Alaska in the 1980s, she has been drawn deeply into the lives of a single extended family of endangered orcas struggling to survive in Prince William Sound. Over the course of a decades-long career spent observing and studying these whales, and eventually coming to know them as individuals, she has, sadly, witnessed the devastation wrought by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 – after which not a single calf has been born to the group. With the intellectual rigor of a scientist and the heart of a poet, Saulitis gives voice to these vital yet vanishing survivors and the place they are so loyal to. Both an elegy for one orca family and a celebration of the entire species, Into Great Silence is a moving portrait of the interconnectedness of humans with animals and place – and of the responsibility we have to protect them." Here are a few random but beautiful excerpts: "It felt like a dream, as if I'd asked, before sleep: Show me how to be part of this place." (Page 4 – though I'm reading the e-book, so I'm not certain how the page numbers translate to the paper book.) "Most of all, I agonized over stories of the roundups of the 1960s and '70s, live captures of wild orcas for aquariums, juveniles torn away from mothers. Normally residents stay with their mothers for life. Some of those orcas, having been herded with powerboats and seal bombs, surrounded by seines, culled from their pods, isolated in net pens, and shipped all over the world, still circled tanks, day after day." (7) "I fingered my sweater's hem. My mother had knitted it to keep me warm in a wilderness utterly foreign to her." (22)

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes. This book is largely about paranoia, treachery, and heartbreak at the family level during Stalin's regime and I'm honestly not ready to formulate any personal reactions yet, beyond that it's a difficult read for a lot of reasons. Here's a link to the Kirkus (starred) review and an excerpt from the PW review: "One in eight people in the Soviet Union were victims of Stalin's terror—virtually no family was untouched by purges, the gulag, forced collectivization and resettlement, says Figes in this nuanced, highly textured look at personal life under Soviet rule. Relying heavily on oral history, Figes, winner of an L.A. Times Book Prize for A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924, highlights how individuals attempted to maintain a sense of self even in the worst years of the Stalinist purges. More often than not, they learned to stay silent and conform, even after Khrushchev's thaw lifted the veil on some of Stalin's crimes. Figes shows how, beginning with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet experience radically changed personal and family life. People denied their experiences, roots and their condemned relatives in order to survive and, in some cases, thrive. At the same time, Soviet residents achieved great things, including the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, that Russians remember with pride. By seamlessly integrating the political, cultural and social with the stories of particular people and families, Figes retells all of Soviet history and enlarges our understanding of it."

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I have never read this book, have only just begun, and am already delighted to be adding it to the mix (though I may need to finish The Dispossessed before I can really get into this other big novel).

When I'm reading this many books on so many different topics, you'd think I'd have this sense of great learning and accomplishment. What actually happens is that I become more and more overwhelmed by how little I know about anything. Oh my goodness, I know nothing about science fiction, philosophy, political structures or sociological revolutions, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, orcas or Alaska, and I know doubly nothing about Russia. Seriously, I feel like the more I try to understand the political history of Russia, the more confused I get, none of which is creating any insight into that nation's current bizarre behavior. I AM IGNORANT!!!

But then I watched the most recent episode of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey and found that host Neil deGrasse Tyson has a knack for pulling everything together so that suddenly everything fits. Of course, this isn't the first time I've noticed that backing yourself up so you're looking at the entire universe is a great way to get perspective and make everything fit :) – I've even blogged about this, more than once – but this wonderful TV show reminded me, just when I needed it, that there is room for everything and that it's valuable for me to remember, always, how much I don't know. Then Tyson made some remark about how every time a genius astrophysicist makes some new discovery, it comes hand-in-hand with an appreciation of how much he or she doesn't know yet (I am paraphrasing) and I was very happy. I may be confused, but I belong here. :o)

This blog post is kind of dense and all over the place, but I'm going to go ahead and publish it, because I need to clean my bathroom and go buy a pie. These are my important responsibilities to the universe today.