Saturday, March 28, 2020

My First E-Book

I read my first e-book, The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, for my book club. I had recently read/re-read The Handmaid’s Tale, in hard copy, borrowed from the library, in preparation. It was high time I tried checking out an e-book, and now it’s the only way to check out a book, but I did it with some fumbling and trepidation. For the past couple of weeks, there are so many new sign-ins and passwords. I had to change my Facebook password, due to a recent surge of hacking. While some kinds of phone calls have stopped, I’m now being notified, in the voice of A.I., of lots of cash prizes I’ve won. The hackers and scammers have already discovered new opportunities and pounced on new vulnerable prey. That potential for doing harm and being harmed constant in humans is part of the plot of Testaments.

It was fascinating to re-encounter certain characters from The Handmaid’s Tale and meet the new ones. I appreciated the connections in structure between the two novels—testimony, academic lecture. And I heard the feminism, in waves, the sad wisdom, and both the awareness and lack of awareness in the young:

The Founders and the older Aunts had edges to them. They’d been moulded in an age before Gilead, they’d had struggles we had been spared, and these struggles had ground off the softness that might once have been there. But we hadn’t been forced to undergo such ordeals. We’d been protected, we hadn’t needed to deal with the harshness of the world at large. We were the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by the forbears. We were constantly reminded of this and told to be grateful for the absence of an unknown quantity. I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness abut them that we lacked.

I appreciated the complexity of some of the characters, the gray areas in the thinking. Like the “grey market” (not black market) for desired commodities. While this novel lays out a parallel history to our own, and an alternate present and presumed future, it could not have anticipated the current coronavirus crisis. Yet there is fever, there is fake news. And the ending made me cry.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sleeping in Place

As we shelter in place, I see that many of my friends and online acquaintances are having trouble sleeping. And some are dealing with surges of depression and anxiety. My heart goes out to everyone in this. I go through periods of change in my sleep patterns, and, yes, I am in one now. My usual solution when I find myself awake in bed, and sense I am unlikely to go back to sleep, is to accept this and get up and go downstairs to read on the couch, where I fall asleep reading.

The new twist is that I may doze while reading on the couch, well before bedtime, and 1) just stay there or 2) go up to bed, find myself awake, and come back. This morning my husband greeted me with a kiss (ack! too close! social distancing! but we know we've already been too close and can't do anything about it now!) and the comment, "You are becoming one with that couch."

I arrange myself in various ways to 1) avoid a crick in the neck in the morning 2) have the bookmark fall into the right spot when I fall asleep and the book closes. Today I finished Rebecca Solnit's Recollections of My Nonexistence, which I wrote about yesterday. (Was it yesterday? I know I am not alone these days in losing track of what day it is.) I'm sure I'll share more about it, but this seemed particularly pertinent this morning:

So much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control, and when the work shows up like that your job is to get out of the way.

She describes my own experience of writing, and this also relates in a weird, funny way to my work-at-home situation. Generally, I worked in the morning at my library job and worked in the afternoon at home and on into the evening with my freelance writing and editing. There were clear distinctions in my day. Now it all folds together, alternating with physical tasks. I've structured things so I can keep track of actual hours for my "job job," and yesterday I worked too many hours, so today my "job is to get out of the way" for a bit!

Solnit was talking about the kind of writing that comes out quickly after a long time percolating:

The essay poured out with ease or rather tumbled out seemingly of its own accord. When this happens it means that the thoughts have long been gestating and writing is only a birth of what was already taking form out of sight.

OK, she used a birth metaphor, and I used an old-fashioned way of making coffee, but we understand each other, yes? This is a more rambling blog entry, I see. I have probably gotten way too far out of the way. Time to wake up and....

A big thank you to Bill Kemp, librarian at the McLean County Museum of History, for the photo of Abe Lincoln social distancing on a bench in front of the phrase "In this together." And a big thank you to the sidewalk chalkers!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Recollections of Reading

I am in the middle of Recollections of My Nonexistence, by Rebecca Solnit, a memoir. Recently I got myself paperback versions of her Hope in the Dark, to uplift me, and Men Explain Things To Me, to update myself on all that. I am staying calm, so far, in Recollections of My Nonexistence, despite the bad behavior of some men over time, in her life, in my life, and in history. Sigh…

I’m reading the hard copy, sheltered in place at home, and now I realize my library has an e-version, so go for it! Right now I am enjoying her reflections on reading in general—how it is not so much escape as immersion in other lives and a way to develop empathy. 

Here is her description of reading as an experience, a kind of transformation:

There is something astonishing about reading, about that suspension of your own time and place to travel into others’. It’s a way of disappearing from where you are—not quite entering the author’s mind but engaging with it so that something arises between your mind and hers. You translate words into your own images, faces, places, light and shade and sound and emotion. A world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own.

So if you feel absent from your own (former) life now, you might choose a book to be present in for a time. Solnit has made me want to read Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather, “in which the ambitious, amorous, extraordinarily talented heroine is not punished” as women are so often in books by men, or by women overly influenced by patriarchy. 

Fortunately, Song of the Lark is available in e-book form at my library, too!

Monday, March 23, 2020


What a haunting and mysterious novel this is, Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. I read a hard copy with this cover—foggy and mysterious—and you can find the ebook with the blue cover below. I love how sometimes it is OK to judge a book by its cover!

Warlight is set right after World War II, in 1945, with war’s effects all around. Two children—Nathaniel and Rachel—are left behind by their parents with very interesting guardians, caretakers, visitors…but why? What are their parents doing? What does it mean when their mother, Rose, returns? Why has her life changed so dramatically at times? How will the children cope—and survive? At the start, Nathaniel, the son, is the 14-year-old narrator, putting together the puzzle pieces as best he can. At times, the point of view switches to third-person limited omniscient, to move us gently into another perspective, in a kind of, well, warlight atmosphere. Or is it still Nathaniel, once removed, as he does grow up in the novel…?

This is one of those books of great beauty. On the one hand, it can have a simple narrative style, suited to the point-of-view character; on the other hand, it’s the quiet, poetic mastery of Michael Ondaatje. I connected to it in a strangely personal way, despite it being historical fiction, and that reinforced my sense that good literature is so often the perfect blend of personal and universal. Here’s my example. I connected to this description of Rose, remembered through Marsh Felon, a man in her past who knew her as a child and now yearns for her as a woman:

He wants her in his world. He knows nothing about her adult life, that she was, for instance, hesitant and shy longer than was perhaps usual, till she stepped towards what she desired with a determination from which none could prise her away—a habit she will always have, that pattern of hesitancy at first and then complete involvement—just as later on, in the coming years, nothing will draw her away from Felon, no logic of her husband, not even the responsibility of her two children.

I connect particularly with “hesitant and shy longer than was perhaps usual” and then with the determination, and “that pattern of hesitancy at first and then complete involvement,” though I couldn’t give up my responsibility to my own two children, as she did. Or did she? And look at how that voice sort of hovers in the fog and warlight. Who exactly is seeing this, interpreting Rose? Felon doesn’t know about her adult life, it says, yet he’s the one wanting her, remembering her, seeing her again. That’s the foggy thing about the point of view.

And here’s the great universal question that stuck out for me: “Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?” I have asked that question many times.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Hunker at Home

Relatives and friends of mine live in areas with official “shelter in place” status, so I am worried about them—and about us all!—and respectful of their strictures. Here in central Illinois, it is more of a “hunker at home” situation, for now, though the first local case of Covid-19 was announced this afternoon, so it is among us. Governor J.B. Pritzker just held a press conference to update everyone, and said he is considering the “shelter in place” option every day. 

I was so impressed with him and with Dr. Ngoke Ezike, Director of the Illinois Department of Health, for their earnest concern, their sharing of info, and their willingness to answer questions from reporters—in a virtual format. The only disconcerting part was watching what looked like more than ten people then exit the room, much closer than 3-6 feet apart, none of them in gloves, all touching the same door/door handle. Sigh….

For now, I am working at home on various things—writing and/or library related—and alternating these tasks with household tasks and reading, all to keep the body moving and the worry away. But Worry is not so good at “social distancing.” It sometimes gets in my face and my brain and my chest, a little pinch there when I try to sleep at night, so I get up and read myself back to sleep. It’s hard to stay focused, I lose track of the time and what day it is, and I feel so cold in the house—which always happens at this time of year, the transition to spring, before it truly warms up.

My local friends and my online friends are stressed, anxious, scared, worried about jobs as well as health, worried about kids and parents. We are all going through this together, and I see so much kindness. Sadly, I see judgmental comments, too, and hear about mean comments. Goodness, we need to be patient with each other as well as the situation! And I also appreciate the humor—dark humor, gentle humor, wacky humor. And the wine. I didn’t hoard it. So it will run out. Maybe before I do!

But I did go out walking, on the last sunny day we had. It was Election Day, and I voted. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and I didn’t do anything particularly Irish. I did wear green gloves at the polling place. I walked the local rails-to-trails hiking/biking path, and was pleased to see so many people out. We kept our distance, but most of us greeted each other with a nod or a smile. (Except that guy coughing in the shelter. We all stayed away from him. A young man, fiddling with his phone.) And I walked the labyrinth behind the cancer center, no one else there. I let my mind go where it would, and it went everywhere, and back. Just like the labyrinth.

Hang in there, everybody! Hunker at home. My heart goes out to you!