City of Girls

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My first encounter with Liz Gilbert left me unimpressed. I remember hearing all the buzz around this new movie called ‘Eat Pray Love’ a couple of years ago. Apparently it was based on some bestselling book by a lady who rediscovers herself. How unoriginal I thought. I was of course, in my teen years at the time. Still quite some way from any discovery, let alone any re-discovery. At a time in my life where everything felt achievable and the lives of most people older than me felt like stale bread, full of mistakes I was never going to make (you can laugh) and completely unglamorous, the idea of reading a book about a middle aged something who takes a trip just to, what…find herself again? Ew.

Skip to a couple of years later, I finally saw the movie in my twenties. By this time my worldview had become slightly more balanced, and I was also going through one of the first (though certainly not the last) heartbreaks in my life. And so naturally, I didn’t want to surround myself with people who were having a better time then I was. I wanted to unite with my fellow failures. This is how my second meeting with Liz was on better footing. She had one failed marriage behind her and I was newly jaded. She wanted to get back out into the world and eat to her heart’s content, and I had newfound appetite for donuts. Specifically, eaten in my bed. She was feeling spiritual, and I was…ok well, I was lighting incense sticks in my room to battle the donut smell. That counts for something. She wanted to find new love. I was completely uninterested for myself, but curious to see how it turned out for others before I even thought of venturing out again. I can tell you, I really enjoyed the movie. I think I even cried in it. I never managed to read the book though.

Skip to now. I received two of her books as a birthday gift form a favorite cousin. City of Girls and Big Magic. I won’t talk about Big Magic here, because it deserves a post of its own. But I will take some time to talk about City of Girls. I have to say, my appreciation for Liz has only gone up. Much like ‘Eat Pray Love’, I feel like City of Girls found me at the right time. As things often do. On the cover of the book sit says this is a book about celebrating female friendships. But it is a lot more than that too.

Honestly, it didn’t even feel like I was reading a book. The tone of the book is so conversational, you almost feel like you are being narrated the story by a close friend of yours. A friend, who, though you like very much, you cannot get behind every single decision of hers. And this is often the truth. Things are so much more fun when they aren’t clear cut. Because which one of us doesn’t have a friend we simply cannot support in all areas of their lives? We like them, yes, but we like them enough to admit they can be a pit of a pain sometimes. And would we live our lives like they live theirs? Absolutely not.

It also talks about friendships that you have to let go of. Some because you grew apart and some because you messed up. Both are equally hard to accept as I am finding out. Let me tell you about a friend of mine. Back in the day (not too far back though, I am not as old as I pretend to be sometimes) I was friends with a girl who was dating a man I could not stand. And I wasn’t overreacting or being imposing. None of my other girlfriends could stand him either. He had that quality about him, as some people do. But in all my youthful arrogance I thought I naturally had a say in the matter (a mistake I have since repeated many, many times). So, I went up to my friend and told her she should break up with the man. Simple as that. I won’t keep you in suspense as to what happened next. She didn’t break up with him. Not only that, she broke up with me! The audacity. She was kind enough to do it gradually though. To an outsider, it would almost look like we naturally grew apart. But I knew what the reason for this newfound distance was and I wasn’t happy about it. I absolutely refused to see how I could have been, maybe, wrong in this situation. And so, for many years after that, I could not get over this. How could someone I was so close to choose not to keep the friendship alive? With me?! But after a while it stopped being a why question. It stopped being an anything question, it just was. And the book put into words something I have felt for a long time now. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, it just gives you some perspective. Am I still hurt over that friend? Probably. But I also get it now. Some things you just cannot control.

Another thing I loved about the book was when the protagonist talks about all the fun she has as a youngster about town. I love how unapologetic she is about it. I think that for a lot of us, especially women, fun is treated as a finite quantity. In some cultures, certainly in mine, it is also treated as something that will inevitably have bad consequences. I don’t know how to put it into words. But there is this idea that was drilled into us from a young age where I’m from, “don’t have too much fun, you’ll regret it later on.” Or, “if you laugh now, you’ll cry later”. Or, “don’t look so happy, someone might jinx it.” And to that I say, um, why not? Sure, you need to understand that there are consequences to everything you do. If you drink too much, you will have a hangover. If you drink too much over a long period of time, you might run the risk of becoming an alcoholic. But surely not all fun needs to be so severely monitored and quantified? What about harmless gossiping with friends over coffee, or laughing at stupid things, or taking spontaneous trips, or healthy flirting? I like how Liz talks about all the fun her protagonist has. There is a part in the book, where our heroine talks about how she and her friends would head out every night to look for trouble, and hit the city “full throttle”. I loved it. You have all your life to be serious, but only right now to have fun. So, for those of you who are looking to spend a couple of days in the company of friends who know how to have fun unabashedly, I highly recommend the City of Girls.

Happy Birthday to me

I celebrated my birthday this last week. And as I completed another year around the sun, I tried to reflect on the year gone by. What had I done this last year that I was most proud of? That I was most grateful for? The idea came from something I had been reading up on sometime before. Keeping a gratitude journal. So, this is a thing a lot of people do nowadays (or at least, they make YouTube videos talking about how they do it). The idea is to get a little more niche with your journaling. Instead of writing down whatever you want in your journal; you keep a separate diary only to record things you are grateful for. You are not allowed to recount the details of your mundane existence in these hallowed pages, or worse, crib about it. Absolutely not. If, and when, something makes you feel happy to be alive you write it down. The hope, one can only presume, is to look back at the things you have written about, and realize that life is, after everything is said and done, beautiful.

Now, I am a big fan of journaling. It lets me talk without disturbing anyone else. It lets me analyze all my thoughts (especially the meanest ones) in an imagined setting full of understanding friends (my other thoughts). I don’t have to rush through conversations, and I get to decide what is important. Most importantly, I can talk about the things that are bothering me for as long as I want, and go into as many morbid details as take my fancy, without having to feel like I am being a burden to those around me. And through it all – through 4 years of extensive journal keeping – I have started untangling my thoughts a little, and just generally slowing down whenever I want to. However, as you can tell, my journaling is more the record-the-details-of-your-life-and-crib-about-it variety. Very few entries record happy events or happy times in my life. Because when that is going on, I usually don’t find either the time or the inclination to write in my diary.

But back to what I was saying. On this day, in an attempt to fight off the birthday blues, I gave some serious thought to the things I am grateful for. Although there are quite a few (and I feel very lucky to be able to say that) here are a few of my favorite things:

A large family

I mean large when I say large. I have relatives and more relatives and cousins and more cousins. But some of these I am close to. I have in the last year, especially enjoyed the company of a few of my closest sisters and aunts. Relatives are usually a prickly topic, and no one likes them in large doses. But I do. I love spending time with my family even when I hate them. There is so much comfort in having spent years, and possibly my least glamorous years, around these people. A sense of peace that comes from the fact that these people are blood and have seen me grow up. I say blood yes, but I also want to include a few really close friends in this list, those who have transcended the boundaries marked by blood. Even when I have fought with these people, judged them, been judged by them in turn, or straight up ignored them for their offenses against me (both real and imagined) I have remained very grateful for their existence in my life.

Good Food (and coffee)

The last year (and the year before that for that matter) has been spent in my house, not stepping out of it, for the most part. I cribbed a lot initially about the loss of my youth (yeah cringe, but true) but then I started appreciating some things. The thing I appreciated the most was all the good home-cooked food I got. I even developed a bit of a mini-chef attitude. I can’t in all honesty say I have become any sort of expert, but I did have the time to try out some fun things. Like making pasta from scratch. Do you know how much effort it takes to make pasta from scratch? I believe, I truly do, that if I had kept it up, I wouldn’t need to have a separate work-out regime (that I never follow anyway). It was blood, sweat and tears (just sweat, I’m being dramatic) but it came out so well! I also discovered how much harder it is to come up with a fun vegetarian dish. If you’re a meat-eater like me, then most meals are fairly standard. The vegetarians (like my younger sister) have it much harder. In my quest to make dishes all of us to enjoy, I discovered what a wide selection of vegetarian dishes some cuisines have. Like the Israeli cuisine. Seriously, if you’re a vegetarian you should definitely check it out. And then of course, there is coffee. Where would we be without coffee. I read somewhere (probably one of those unreliable pages on Instagram) that in the olden times, Turkish women were allowed to divorce their husbands if they couldn’t give them the amount of coffee they required. Seems reasonable to me.

Books, books and more books

Starting a physical library was one of the nicest things I did in the last year for sure. Hands down. No question. I have always been a reader, but seeing my shelves get full of books also satisfied my aesthetic sensibilities. I’ve already spoken about this a ton of times, so I won’t repeat it here, but you already know how I feel. I can however, talk about the books I liked best from the ones I read last year. If I had to pick my top three they would be Before the Coffee gets Cold, Anxious People and At the Existentialist Café.

The last thing I am grateful for is that I could, at times at least, get out of my head and do some of the things I have wanted to do for so long. Like start this blog. I didn’t think it would go anywhere when I started it, and I still don’t think it is going places, but it has helped me in imperceptible ways.

Women who run wild

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As you know sometimes, when I have no particular agenda, I talk about or present to you excerpts from books I am currently working my way through. The one I am in the middle of right now is called ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. The purpose of the book, if self-proclaimed, it to help us in “contacting the power of the wild woman.” As you can probably tell from the title, the target audience of this book is, well, women. But that shouldn’t stop you from picking this book up, no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum. The author talks mostly to women, about women-centric issues, but honestly, I can see how reading this would benefit everyone. I usually make my way through books quite quickly but I have been spending some time on this, and I’ll tell you why.

The Author says we should

Yup. That is correct. How often does it happen that you pick up a book and the author has told you, in very exact terms, how the book should be read? Maybe it does happen a lot and I am just new to the space, but I have never felt such literary intimacy with the creator of a work. And I really liked it. Before you start reading this book, make sure you skip to the end. There, Estes talks about what led her to write this book, what inspired her, why she chose the format she did, and how we should read her book. She says the book is a product of many years of hard labour. It took many attempts to get to the end of the book, and there were a lot of gaps, of varying sizes, in the middle of it. And so, in the spirit in which it was written, the author recommends that we keep coming back to the book to discover different parts of it. It wasn’t completed in one go, and we shouldn’t attempt to make our way through it in one go either. There are different parts of the book that talk to different parts of our psyche, and are addressed to us in different parts of our lives, and so there really isn’t any need for continuity in the ways in which we are accustomed to it.

The Format

I used to be a purist when it came to books. In my younger days, I didn’t really like reading books that didn’t follow the already set rules of prose writing. But I have since tried to expand my horizons. I have made my way through books that don’t have any punctuation, books that have inconstant margins, books that have been written in a single sentence and what not. So much so that now I almost look out for these unusual formats when I buy books. Like a book I read sometime ago. It is called ‘Minor Detail‘. I want to try and explain to you what the format of Minor Detail was but I know I won’t do a good job so I’m just going to ask all of you to check it out if you have the time. But anyway, back to the wolves. In this book, every chapter starts off with an introduction which tells us about the particular culture we will be borrowing a folk tale from for the purposes of that chapter. Then the folk tale. This, I have to say, is my favorite part of the entire book. The stories that have been brought to me. And after every story, the author breaks it down in parts and walks us through these parts, all the time giving us invaluable and free therapy for our souls.

Let me give you an example

By therapy I mean of course the absolutely heart warming things she writes. The kind of things that you wouldn’t miss in your life at all till someone said it, and then you’d wonder how you made your way through life without having come across this thought before. I’m not saying this is all chapters, but some of them definitely make you look twice. Here is something I liked:

Although I caution you, the exact placement of the aperture to home changes from time to time, so its location may be different this month than last. Rereading passages of books and single poems that have touched the,. Spending even a few minutes near a river, a stream, a creek. Lying on the ground in dappled light. Being with a loved one without kids around. Sitting on the porch shelling something, knitting something, peeling something. Walking or driving for an hour, any direction, then returning. Boarding any bus, destination unknown. Making drums while listening to music. Greeting sunrise. Driving out to where the city lights do not interfere with the night sky. Praying. A special friend. Sitting on a bridge with legs dangling over. Holding an infant. Sitting by a window in a café and writing. Sitting in a circle of trees. Drying hair in the sun. Putting hands in a rain barrel. Plotting plants, being sure to get hands very muddy. Beholding beauty, grace, the touching frailty of human beings.”

Now read through that again and tell me it doesn’t feel like the home we all want to get to but find difficult to describe.

The Blind Artist

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Olivia Laing has opened up a whole new world for me. I thought I knew something about the art world. Not a lot I’ll admit. But a little something. Enough for me to know I didn’t know enough, and that I wanted to know more. The first book of Laing’s I read was The Lonely City. I can’t describe fully how I felt once I finished the book. It was like being in the living room of all the artists she spoke about, watching them create. She doesn’t just talk about the art they make – she somehow knows how to talk about what they must have been thinking when they make art. Side note, if you have some time, check out this video of her home. It is truly one of the best things I have seen in a while.

I find that so fascinating. I paint sometimes. I’m not any sort of a great artist, but I can talk about the things I think about when I make a painting. It isn’t much to be honest. Most of the times I repeat dialogues from movies I’ve seen recently. Or I talk to myself in third person. Sometimes I describe the scene as a narrator would. This last thing is a little bit like an out of body experience. I talk about how I think I would look like if I was in a movie. The introductory scene of a movie. I probably don’t have enough meat in my painting sittings for it to be an integral part of the movie. It would definitely only be a light hearted opening sequence. Nothing more than that. Sometimes I will describe the painting to myself as I am making it. It is like an ongoing commentary on the painting, most of it criticism. In all these actions, I put myself at the centre of it all. I’ve always felt a little silly doing it, but I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling till I heard Laing talking about it. She says art is selfish. It is a wholly singular experience and you have to be sure of yourself, to be able to defend your art against against not only other people, but also against yourself. Things like self-doubt. Or in my case, complacency. I think it is selfish too.

I just finished another one of her books. It is called ‘Funny Weather‘. It talks about why we need art in these times of emergency. Unlike the only other book of hers I have read, this one isn’t just about visual artists. It has many forms of prose (essays, interviews and diary entries) about many different kinds of artists – authors, poets, filmmakers and every one in between.

One of the artists she talks about is Sargy Mann. And the most fascinating thing about this artist is that his best works (arguably) came after he lost his vision. Before he went blind, he was constrained by what he knew to be the true representation of things. After he could no longer see, this ceased to be a consideration. That is when he really started painting.

I think it is a great metaphor for life too. One encounters it a lot if you think about it. Being limited by what we know to be true or think we know to be true. Like when you try and manifest things, you’re always told to get rid of your “limiting beliefs”. The reason many of us can’t get to what we want in life or out of life is because we simply don’t think it is possible. If you have already experienced something, you know it is possible and so you have no limiting beliefs about it. For many young lawyers out there, for example, working in a big law firm might not seem possible because they have never worked in one, so they don’t know what it is like, so it never settles into their psyche. For someone who has worked in one, they know it can be done, so they don’t have limiting beliefs about it. They may have it for something else though. They may never be able to fathom how a happy relationship is possible because they may never have seen one. And as long as you operate within the bounds of these limiting beliefs, you will never really know what you are capable of.

Sargy Mann didn’t know it either. Till he went blind. And then, all his limitations were forcefully taken away from him.

How not to die alone

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There is a book by this title. How not to die alone by Logan Ury. As the name suggests it is a self-help book for improving romantic relationships. Whenever I say romantic relationships I feel like replacing the word ‘relationship’ with ‘entanglement’ but I refrain because it makes me chuckle and reminds me of the many red table talks Will and Jada Smith have had on this. Just to be clear, I think what they are doing is great. Whenever you look at a celebrity couple you see only happy pictures of ridiculously good looking people surrounded by wealth and privilege. Given how little they have in common with most of us, it is almost like looking at an alien species. I like that Will and Jada manage to discuss the many ups and downs of their relationship with such honestly (too much at times, but I guess that is an occupational hazard). I’m a big fan of self-help books, even when I don’t manage to incorporate much of their advice into my life. I figure if I keep reading good things it will eventually have some impact on the way I live.

Here is what I learnt from this book. According to this book, there are three kinds of people when it comes to romantic relationships.

There are the ‘romanticisers’; people who believe in ideas such as finding the ‘one’ or a ‘soulmate’. Such people have very idealistic notions about what it means to fall in love. As a consequence, they judge all their partners against a very high standard – if you have an idea of who you think your soulmate might be, then that idea is in your head, and naturally no living person can hold a candle to whatever perfect version you’ve created for yourself – and so tend to not commit in a long term manner to anyone.

Then we have the ‘hesitaters’. Such people, while their standards in love might not be that high, have very set ideas of how their life is supposed to turn out. The usually have a set timetable in their head, and think that they need to start worrying about love only after they have achieved a certain number of things. So say, such a person might want to find a partner, but only after she has completed school, completed university, landed a great job and established herself in her field. Then she will turn her attention to the task of finding someone. They’re called hesitaters because they will hesitate to commit to anyone till whatever aspects of their lives they want to sort out have been sorted out.

The last kind of people are the ‘maximisers’. For this I want you to think of a someone you know who is absolutely unable to decide on where to eat till he / she has researched all possible options, seen ratings on at least two apps, shortlisted options, gone through all the customer reviews and memorised the menu by heart. By the time you land on a place to eat it is either too late or you’ve already cooked yourself a little meal at home and forgotten all about going out. This is what a maximiser does when it comes to dating. Now, I’m not suggesting that finding a partner is similar to picking a restaurant. But the thought process is the same. Such people find it damn near impossible to commit to a person till they have done their full research, and even then, there is no guarantee that they won’t constantly be dealing with a nagging sense of ‘I could have done better / what if there is someone out there who is better than this.’

I know one of each category from amongst my friends. If I had to talk about myself, I would say I’m definitely a romanticiser. I judge people too harshly against an arbitrary ideal I have. If you take the time to scroll through Bookstagram someday (i.e., the section of Instagram dedicated to books) you’ll inevitably land up on a page dedicated to YA books or a page dedicated to recommending books that contain an enemies to lovers / soulmate trope. Full disclosure I’ve read a lot of these books and I find them immensely entertaining. But I also feel like this idea of believing in a soulmate is an escapist tendency. In essence, at the core of your belief, is an idea that someone will like all your flaws and deficiencies and that you won’t need to work on yourself, compromise or adjust in any way shape or form. That they’re going to be perfect for loving you and change themselves whenever you want without expecting even a shred of effort on your part – because to them you’re perfect. All of this is a little unreasonable to say the least.

But back to the book. The idea the author puts forth is that instead of being one of these three things, we should aim to be a ‘satisfier’. It doesn’t mean we have to settle. But once we have found a person with whom we have base compatibility and some attraction and the moment we think to ourselves, “this could be it” we should try and commit to that person. I’m sure we’ve all come across some version of a study showing us how too much choice incapacitates us. Choice is good, but too much of it becomes meaningless at times. The same thing happens with our relationships. If we get stuck in the mindset of ‘oh there could be someone out there who is better for me’ we are unlikely to find any sort of long-lasting peace in our relationships. Obviously this does not apply to relationships that make you unhappy or are toxic or abusive in any way. You should definitely not tolerate those. Instead I’m talking about the relationships we like – the ones we like a lot – but let go off because we are under the misconception that relentlessly exercising the limitless choice we have in selecting partners will eventually land us on someone who is *perfect*. Since no such perfect person exists, you might want to consider sticking around that one person who already makes you happier than you thought you could be.

The book also talks about how most of the times we look for, and confuse, short term romance traits with traits that will make a long term romance successful. Short term traits include qualities like good looks (whatever that means to you), charm, confidence, intelligence etc. Long term qualities on the other hand are more innate. These include things like being compassionate, being emotionally stable or even having a similar mindset (do both of you have similar ideas about what it means to lead a successful life?).

I enjoyed the book a whole lot and it is definitely worth a read. Especially, if like me, you hope not to die alone.

Romanticise your life

I’ve been in a rut for the last two days. I have been irritated with my friends. I haven’t touched my paintings. I haven’t done much work. I’ve just stayed in bed the whole time. My entire existence in these last couple of days could be summed up by the introduction to Ibrahim Kamit’s video on why social media is bad – you know the one where he wakes up late, stares at his phone til its lunch time, barely gets out of bed for food, and then stares at his phone till it is time to sleep.

We all know social media is bad in some ways. We have heard so many people say this – explain why it is bad, and how its affecting our health (mental and physical) and what not – that now, to say these words, feels very clichéd.

I think it is bad too (shocker). I feel really awful after spending the whole day on Instagram or YouTube. But what else am I supposed to do with my time? To my mind, this is just the societal evil we have been given to deal with – just as our parents had to deal with industrial smoke, and their parents had to deal with feudal overlords or something (I don’t think I have the timelines right here – but you get my point). I know I am never going to get off social media (at least not in the foreseeable future) but sometimes I like to remind myself of why and how it is bad. Salem Tovar has a great video essay on this in case you’re interested.

She talks about how comparing our real lives to the constructed lives of others online, or even the constructed online version of our own life, can make us feel bad about our existence. No surprise there. You can see a variation of this phenomenon everywhere. Take Snapchat dysmorphia for example. You become so used to see a filtered version of yourself that it makes you cringe to look at your actual face. But more than your physical appearance, looking at other people live out their lives online makes you question, and be unhappy with yours. I know all of this firsthand because I am guilty of it too. I took a trip recently (I’ve spoken about it before) and while the sights were beautiful it was a very difficult journey. For the most part, I was cold and uncomfortable. I got motion sick frequently because we had to travel by car and our driver really wasn’t interested in how many of his passengers made it back alive, including himself. But my god, if you check out the pictures I posted of the trip, you would think I was in heaven. And the captions! What a bile inducing mix of happy and inspirational quotes. Really, if I was someone else looking at my profile, I would call me some not-so-polite names. And then wish I was on that trip. Only to find out the trip mostly consists of nausea and shivering, and very little heaven.

Right at the end of the video though Tovar says that while it isn’t feasible to expect people to go off social media entirely, you should definitely take breaks from it. Another thing you should do is romanticise your life.

The best example of what romanticising your life looks like are Studio Ghibli films. If you haven’t seen any yet, do yourself a favour and watch one. The absolute joy of watching those characters do their everyday mundane tasks in the most beautiful way possible almost makes me cry. Making food, drying clothes, cleaning your house – everything is done with such love and care. Plus there is always the best lo-fi music in the background. So, taking inspiration from these movies, and Salem Tovar, here is how I have been romanticising my life recently.

House Plants

House plants are like little low maintenance buddies you can have in your room. I never understood the appeal of being a plant mom till I visited a cousin of mine who is absolutely crazy about gardening. Her entire room is filled with all sorts of plants – it takes her half an hour at least (from what I saw) to finish watering all of them. Her room looks magical. And my quality of sleep in that room was unlike anything I have experienced in a long time. So, I decided to get some of my own. I have about five right now. They give me something to do every morning, and they also give me company the entire day. I didn’t think it was possible, but having plants around me also makes me feel less lonely.

Scented candles

This is something I have loved for a long time. I love good smells. You know how they used to say that being told you smell good is an ‘elite’ compliment? I totally agree with that statement. Nothing makes me happier than to be told I smell good, or that my room smells good. Earlier though, when I wasn’t making my own money, I wouldn’t buy these candles. I grew up in a household where buying scented candles would be regarded as ‘wasteful’ expenditure. Not to mention frivolous. But ever since I have come into my own money, I’ve decided to spend it on things that make me happy. I’m not some whiz kid with money, but I know buying one or two scented candles a month isn’t going to be the reason for my debt crisis. I light one every evening, and it does wonders for my mood.

Bookshelves

I don’t mean that I buy bookshelves on the regular to romanticise my life. I just like arranging them differently once in a while. I like setting my books according to size, according to colour, and sometimes even according to authors. I have started putting little decorations on my bookshelf. It isn’t much, but it makes me very happy to look at it whenever I cross it.

Coffee

I think I have mentioned if before. Earlier I would drink coffee just to stay awake – as a sustenance thing in office. Now, I’ve started getting into the different kinds of coffee beans there are, new recipes, the whole lot. Also, interesting fact, I read somewhere that in Turkey (in the middle ages) it was perfectly alright for women to divorce their husbands if they couldn’t provide their ladies with coffee. Honestly, given where I am in life, this seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition.

Little girls, big monsters

I recently started watching ‘Foundation‘ – a series based on a set of books by the same name by Isaac Asimov. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi movies and novels, but I’m really feeling this new one. I like the premise of it – the prediction of the ultimate demise of a civilisation. I haven’t read the novels yet, but after having seen the series (at least the first two episodes) I think I know my next book purchase. I’ll admit, the fact that Lee Pace plays Brother Day (the emperor) is a big reason why I’m enjoying the show so much.

I still haven’t gotten over my obsessive need to research books and find out what everyone else thinks about them before I buy them – and so I’ve been on forums discussing this series too. While going down the rabbit hole, I landed on a book club discussion with Margaret Atwood on her book Cat’s Eye. A bit of a jump from science fiction I know.

Now Atwood is a favourite of mine, and I finished reading Cat’s Eye very recently (I think I mentioned it on this blog as well). On the fact of it, the novel is about friendships and bullying, and how often the two coincide in the same person. More than anything though, the book is about time, and specifically what it does to our memory. The things we remember. This is how Atwood describes it, and honestly, now that I’ve heard her say it, it makes a lot of sense. It is a book about the ravages of time. What seem like huge crises when they are happening are barely remembered later on. Especially the childhood stuff.

I don’t like how a lot of people insist on talking about childhood as the happiest time of our lives. I don’t know about the rest of you, but the only reason I look back on my childhood with any fondness is because I have forgotten most of it. This is not to say that I had a bad childhood – on the contrary, my parents did everything they could to make sure I have a good one. But, I also think that experiences are a lot scarier as a child because everything is happening to you for the first time. You have no precedent for any of the stuff that happens to you, and while this makes your enjoyment in the new more pronounced, it also makes the bad things really bad. And the thing is, as a child, not many of your concerns will get taken seriously. Everyone else is a giant, and they seem (or at least seemed to me) to be very unconcerned with things that go on in a child’s life for the most part. I speak for myself here, but I think I have only become happier as I have grown older.

When asked to talk about what the book is primarily about, Atwood responds by saying it is a book that shows that little girls are not “sugar, spice and everything nice.” There is a great line in the book which sums this sentiment up, “little girls are only cute and small to outsiders, to each other they are life sized.”

A question Atwood gets asked quite often is how she reconciles the character of Cordelia (the antagonist and childhood bully) with the feminist aspects of her writing. The response – what does feminist aspect even mean? If you think about it, for the longest time, women have been allowed to inhabit one of two characters according to Atwood – the whore or the angel. All the grey area in the middle is usually reserved for men. Male characters are allowed to have layers because they are treated as human beings. Atwood says her characters are simply human beings, and so it is more than natural that some of the women might be grey. I’ve heard this sentiment before too, when a lot of people were asking George R.R. Martin how he manages to write female characters so well and give them so much depth. His reply was similar – he said he treats them like human beings. And thank god he did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the absolute joy of a character that is Cersei Lannister.

But I don’t think this discussion on the kind of spaces females are allowed to habit are limited to fiction. Even in the treatment of real women, I’ve seen mainstream media try to fit them into one of these two moulds often. Like the discussion on Elisabeth Holmes (of the Theranos fame). I remember how the discourse on this woman went from all positive (a genius) to all negative (the worst kind of scam artist, someone who would intentionally get pregnant in the middle of a court case to delay the proceedings). But if you contrast this with the treatment of men who have had a similar fall from grace you’ll see what I mean. Take Dominic Strauss-Khan for example. I saw the documentary on his case (available on Netflix I think) a while back. Throughout the documentary, numerous people, whenever they mentioned his predatory behaviour (let’s be polite for a minute) would almost always mention how he was a great economist, or how save for this one fault he was a great man. You see what I mean? Layers and complexities of character that are so readily accepted in a man seem unfathomable in women. When in fact, it should be the opposite if anything. In the words of Granny from Downton Abbey, “I am allowed to be contrary precisely because I am a woman.”

Fitzgerald in a bookstore

In the book I am reading right now, the best friend, or at least one of the friends, comments that all authors should write books as if they were going to be beheaded the day they finished writing. Extreme, yes. But what a thought. The book is called ‘This Side of Paradise’ by G. Scott Fitzgerald. It is quite famous, so I’m sure this is not the first time you’re hearing of it. It is one of those books everyone knows about, and that adds just the right amount of sophistication and distinction to your conversation if you ever mention it in polite company – regardless of whether or not you’ve actually read it. I’ve known about it for sometime. But having read the book Fitzgerald is best known for (The Great Gatsby), I never really felt any real need to check out his other books in a hurry.

I picked out this book by chance. I was away from home on a family holiday where I visited a small and fairly unknown bookstore that sells old used books. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve wanted to get into the habit of buying second-hand books and buying books without knowing much about the book or the author (if you’ve been around for some time you know I like to do a lot of research before committing to a literary purchase). Visiting this bookstore seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out my new shopping resolution. I failed, quite miserably. I saw a lot of old books, books without names, books where the name of the author was faded or scratched out, and most importantly, books that did not have a summary. I picked them up and read through them, and some of them seemed quite interesting too. But I just couldn’t get myself to buy any of those titles. Maybe in some time. So, anyway, after spending about two hours searching for books to buy, I landed up on the modern classics section and I ended up picking up authors I had heard of but not necessarily read before. Like, did you know that there was a third Bronte sister? Anne. She wrote a book too, though her achievements (clearly) almost always get overshadowed by those of her more famous sisters. Apart from the fact that I find such concentration of talent in one family mildly upsetting, this was news to me (I picked up her book too – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall).

Now unlike Anne, Fitzgerald is a a literary giant. I’ve read his work before, and I enjoyed it. Plus I was getting out of a Gossip Girl re-watch phase so I decided to give his book (his first novel) a shot. Don’t get thrown off by the Gossip Girl reference. It isn’t as random as it seems. The character Dan Humphrey is a loose retelling of the character of Fitzgerald himself, and the world Gossip Girl creates is also reminiscent of the worlds our author is obsessed with, and describes in all his books (some variation of, at least). Now I will be honest with you, I probably came across this theory somewhere a while back, but I can’t remember the source, so I’m just telling you what I remember. Please feel free to discuss and analyse this comparison as much as you want, and let me know if you disagree with me. Dan is Fitzgerald in that he is obsessed with the lives of the super-wealthy, and is constantly insecure because he has no access to it, to them. So, he does the only thing he can think of, and writes himself into this world of obnoxious privilege. Suddenly makes Gossip Girl look intelligent does it not?

Apart from the fact that I wanted to sound exciting in drawing room conversations and the Gossip Girl comparison, I was also interested in this book because a lot of people say it is semi-autobiographical. Amory (the main character) is supposed to be Fitzgerald. He wrote the novel in a rush too, because his marriage to Zelda (an extremely fascinating character in her own right – and the author of some of Fitzgerald’s better works according to some conspiracy theories) depended on his publishing this book. Plus the book celebrated a 100 years last year I think. With all this background, I am determined to get as much enjoyment as I possibly can from this book.

I’m halfway through right now. The first reaction I have to this book is one of alienation. I knew what I was getting into – the frivolous lives of the elite full of their imagined difficulties made worse by their inconstant temperaments. Even with that in mind, something about the book just isn’t sitting right with me. I love superficial characters. I love characters that are so fundamentally flawed they have to spend the entire novel justifying themselves. But even I find it difficult to like Amory. It isn’t just that he is conceited. He is also vapid in a lot of ways. Plus I think the pandemic has something to do with it. If I had read this novel when all the clubs were open I might have enjoyed it more. I might have even tried to relate to it, and tried to be as superficially condescending as our protagonist is. But because I am stuck at home, and because there has been a massive shift in my perspective, I just don’t find the book enjoyable. The dialogues all seem like a bunch of close friends are discussing issues you have no business, and moreover, no interest in listening to. The whole affair seems like a dull party that you only ended up attending because you had nothing better on your social calendar. There is some voyeuristic pleasure in looking into their lives yes, but I don’t know why everyone hails this as one of the best novels in modern literature. At best, it is just okay. Maybe I will change my mind when I finish the book.

Other books I bought –

  1. Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  2. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Beautiful and the Damned
  3. Margaret Atwood – Cat’s Eye
  4. V. S. Naipaul – A Turn in the South
  5. A.S. Byatt – Possession

Stories for days

I read a book recently. The Lonely City. I don’t think any book I have read this year captures my mood for the year better than this book. The book talks about loneliness – no shocker there. But it talks about that specific, anonymous, discoloured loneliness you can only get in cities, made even more incongruous because you are constantly surrounded.

The author, Olivia Laing, talks about some of the best contemporary art and how so much of it was born from persons who were intensely, and always, lonely. Edward Hopper for example. I hadn’t seen his paintings before 2020. And then I saw a post online talking about how the entire year in lockdown has felt like being in a Hopper painting. If you look at his paintings, it usually shows a single subject sitting in a cold, isolated, dispassionate city scape. He used a lot of greens and blues in his paintings. Laing calls this the ‘Hopper Green’ in her novel. It reminds me of that depressing green you’ll often find in abandoned diners or public washrooms. If I had to put a feeling to the colour, I would say it reminds me of when you’re walking around in the rain but the water has already seeped into your shoes, so you just walk around in silent, wet, misery.

There are a bunch of other artists she talks about (including one who worked as a janitor and made art his whole life, never told anyone about it, and died alone in a room, where they discovered all his art only because his neighbours complained about the stink coming from his home), but towards the end she talks about a man named Josh Harris. The man made a bunch of money in the dot com boom. But he became disgruntled with what was happening around him quite quickly. He predicted that the internet would take on a much less benign form in a couple of years, it’ll become a space where every single person will compete for visibility for the most mundane things, and showcase their lives to the fullest, dystopian degree just because they can. And well, he wasn’t wrong. To prove that he was right about the ways in which human nature will interact with constant access and visibility, he held a social experiment (there is a movie on this too). He invited strangers (anyone and everyone was welcome, it was on a first come first serve basis) to live in a house for a period of time. All the amenities they could want would be provided to them. They would be denied only two things – privacy, and the option of exiting the house before the experiment was over. Every single part of the house was covered with cameras that streamed the happenings of the house to the outside world constantly.

The result? People started behaving in bizarre ways. They started acting out for attention. They became hostile towards their housemates for no reason. And almost all of them became depressed beyond measure. They were simultaneously fighting to be the most visible in the house, while feeling increasingly disconnected with reality the more air time they got. The experiment had to be shut down (for obvious reasons). Harris wasn’t happy though. He wanted to take this live streaming, this shit show of total visibility to its logical conclusion. So, he set up cameras in his own house. The idea was to record himself and his partner for 30 days (I think, could have been longer) no matter what. Every bit of their lives (and I mean every single bit – including washroom breaks) was made available to a voyeuristic public. This time though, the people watching could also give live feedback. And they did. Harris and his partner started behaving in the same way the participants of the first experiment had – they became more aggressive, less sensitive, more radical, and more depressed. They started fighting more, because as it turns out, that was what got people going. And as they fought, they noticed that the public opinion was usually with Harris’ partner and not him. When the experiment ended, the couple broke up, and Harris moved to an unknown location – became a recluse for the next couple of years.

Now, as shocking as this was at the time, it is much more uncomfortable to read now. Not only did the man predict (with uncanny precision) how the internet would change all of us, but the effects most of us feel (at least I know I do) are the same. I can’t stop putting stuff out there. And most of the times it doesn’t even make me happy. I want to post even though I feel deep revulsion for my online persona as soon as I am done posting, but I still can’t stop doing it. The worst of it is the Instagram stories. I don’t know what it is about them. Maybe because they are temporary, I don’t feel like I need to put in effort and can post whatever I want. But it isn’t that effortless either. I always think about it. I keep going back to the app, and whenever I do, the first thing I check is my story. How many people viewed it? How many people reacted? What does the story look like from someone else’s account? I’m not even as bothered about comparing myself to others on social media as I am to comparing myself to what I put up online. Anyway, I could keep going on about this. Go check out the book if you have time, I promise it is worth it.

The Midnight Library

Every time I get done with a major item on my list, my entire routine goes for a toss. Take my recently completed GRE for example. I hadn’t been studying for it too hard, but ever since I’ve gotten done with it, I have been feeling listless. I don’t have a routine anymore – no list of youtube videos on GRE preparation to get me through my day. I hated preparing for it, but now that I am done with it, I kind of miss it. I wish I had studied a bit harder. Given the chance to do it again, I know I would act in exactly the same way I did the first time round. That still doesn’t stop me from harbouring teeny-tiny regrets in my chest. Not just about the GRE though, about almost everything in my life.

But at least, until now that is, I don’t have any major regrets in life. I wonder what would count as a major regret in life. I’ve started thinking along these lines after I read ‘The Midnight Library‘. It is a book about a library the protagonist visits after she tries to kill herself as she hangs in an in-between state of limbo. The library is full of never ending shelves, all stocked to the brim with innumerable books. Every book contains one of the infinite lives the protagonist could have had if she had taken different decisions. It isn’t just about the bigger decisions, but about every day decisions. In any day, you will have a number of small decisions and every time you decide to act in one way instead of another, you will change the direction of your life. It is kind of like what that motivational speaker said – you are one decision away from the kind of life you want.

But the book wasn’t about building a dream life alone. It was a little bit about that, but not entirely. The book talks about how all of our other lives are happening simultaneously. I think they tried to incorporate concepts from quantum physics and talk about stuff like the multiverse – but the author doesn’t spend too much time on it. The main idea, from what I could tell, was that you harbour all these regrets in your heart, when in fact, regardless of the outcome you would probably have turned out to be the same kind of person. Like, I could go through life thinking it turned out to be so trashy because I went to law school instead of medical school, and then live my entire life in misery under the weight of this one mega incorrect decision (or so I think), when the reality is that I would probably have been unsatisfied in a life where I went to medical school too. Your outcomes may differ, but a desired outcome may not necessarily make you as happy as you think it will. The appeal of each option then, is that it remains untested.

I liked this way of looking at things. I didn’t enjoy the book too much on the whole. I thought it felt a little forced in parts. But I liked the idea that you shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about all the different regrets you have or how differently you could have lived life if one random thing had gone a certain way…in the end it might all amount to the same thing. A little fatalistic, but just the kind of vibe I was looking for this week.