It had been hot from the beginning, from mid-April, that is, when I had gone south in Howard to see the place he thought of as home; and had been surprised by the colors of the Carolina spring, the new green of trees, the purple flowers of the roadside grass, the yellow-white dogwood blossoms; and had been further surprised by the beauty -- in rust, wood-gray, faded green, and Indian red -- of abandoned tobacco barns and derelict farmhouses and barns with peaked and spreading corrugated-iron roofs.
I picked up V.S. Naipaul's travelogue of the American South in a used bookstore in Charlottesville for a few bucks. It looked interesting, especially in the context of my recent binge of listening to the Bitter Southerner podcast and the associated thinking about the past and changing identity of the South.
I loved it.
The writing is beautifully descriptive of the people, landscapes, and buildings that grace the South, yet manages to keep the prose clean and economical as well. Naipaul is clear-eyed about a history steeped in slavery, segregation, and multi-laterial racial resentment; yet while the racial past permeates the lived present, he never lets it detract from or overshadow the beautiful things either. He also doesn't run from examining ideas and identities for which great care is required to preserve the essential truth, in whole range from nuance to outright contradiction.
A fine piece of writing. It had made me want to not only read the Naipaul's other works (I had never heard of him before this book), but also to start planning my own road trip around the region, to which I'm a recent transplant and have relatively little exposure.
Reading Li's memoir was a unique experience, or perhaps one so rare I can't remember the last time I had it. It challenged me to think not only about her as a writer and reader, but about myself as a writer and reader. I highlighted tons of passages, brief and long. I read the book slowly because I frequently needed to pause and evaluate Li's notions of self, writing, and reading, often all essentially the same thing, against what I believe or thought I believed.
Early on, Li notes that she does not like using first person. It is unavoidable in this type of work, but she uses "one" elsewhere, as in, "One hides something for two reasons: either one feels protective of it or one feels ashamed of it. And it is not always the case that the two possibilities can be separated." I found that it functioned much like second person ("you") where it assumes the reader's agreement. Having read the book, I can't think that was Li's intention, but it created an at times adversarial stance from which I judged her obviously personal claims. This isn't a critique, only an observation of the sort I don't make often. In a way, then, it's a compliment.
Because Li in part is writing about writing, I put it on a mental list of texts I'd love to assign in a creative writing workshop. Though my genre is poetry (and fiction after that), its insights apply to any genre. "To write," she says, "betrays one’s instinct to curl up and hide." Upon that I can easily agree.
Going to the ends of the earth (in this case, the Falklands) to write a novel in isolation, with no distractions, sounded like the kind of thing I might do (except for the novel part), which is why I was interested in reading Bleaker Island. Despite a charming start and some genuinely laugh out loud moments, I wasn't consistently invested in Stevens's account of her writing (and romantic) life. I don't read many contemporary memoirs because they can feel self-indulgent, and there's been such a boom in them that it makes me wonder whose lives warrant a whole book. Though Stevens is, in the end, self-aware about her self-indulgence, it doesn't make the book more appealing to me.
In addition, I didn't understand why she included a few of her short stories. The novel excerpts made more sense, though I felt they might have been integrated better, perhaps in smaller chunks?
I became interested in this book because as a migraine sufferer who hasn't always had my headaches under control or been able to reliably treat them, I would be shut up in my apartment, in the dark (or as dark as possible when I lived in Arizona), for up to 24 hours. I couldn't read or watch television or go online. I'd sleep but couldn't do so all day. I was bored and felt alone. The next day, when the pain was gone, it was like a first day out of prison or after a long illness. I'd be almost euphoric but also feel vulnerable, as sometimes I'd get rebound headaches. Thankfully, I now have medications both to reduce my headache days and to stop them before they become agonizing.
"Anna" has an extreme sensitivity to light that keeps her inside, in a light-tight room, not for a day but months (even years) at a time. Certain wavelengths affect her more than others, but she can't read, watch television, or use a computer. She listens to audio books, talks on the phone with others who share debilitating chronic conditions, plays mental logic games alone or with her partner or other loved ones. She understandably feels depressed and experiences suicidal ideation.
Yet the book itself is not depressing. There is a humor to her writing, and her strength in dealing with this condition is impressive, encouraging, and inspiring without being maudlin. She's candid about her frustrations, as when she talks with others with chronic conditions that don't limit them in all the ways she is limited and finds herself angry.
She's also a terrific writer; the book feels literary in its prose and structure, which includes shorter chapters ordered thematically and achronologically (in one chapter she goes through the alphabet--one of her mental games--to list all the therapies she's tried and their results). At the end of the book she explains her decisions about how to structure it and even includes a chart indicating periods when she could not leave her home at all and periods of remission when she could go out around dawn and dusk.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Girl in the Dark to read about is the fact that doctors refused to come to her when she could not leave her home. She corresponded with some, but knowing that house calls have been part of the medical profession in the past (and still are in some places--or for the right price) demonstrates their reluctance--not inability--to engage with patients with rare conditions like Anna's. To me, that's inexcusable and shameful.