Friday, May 30, 2008

South Africa, and the benefits of reading *before* travel 

I was fortunate as a kid, to have parents eager to travel with their children. It was an incredible gift. Every summer since I was 8, we used the miles my dad had accumulated and flew between 7 and 14 hours to some new country that I'd never seen before.

This meant seeing many countries before I could locate them on a map, let alone know the history or socioeconomic circumstances that shaped the lives of the people that lived there.

I heard the word "Holocaust" for the first time at the gates of Dachau.

For a girl whose idea of travel was simply, "If I smile pretty standing next to this statue for a picture, maybe my parents will let us eat at the McDonald's where weird because the words on the place mat are strange," it was a bit...earth-shattering.

I never let it happen again. I began to prepare for our trips. I was always a reader, so I only had to divert my eyes to history and geography instead or whatever else I would have been reading. I began to see more as we traveled. I saw deeper. I saw the history of things, the story of things, instead of just the things themselves. My parents noticed, and they let me feel smart by letting me point out things like a tour guide would as we walked places. Eventually, I took point in suggesting countries and hotels.

Then I moved away, married, and went on trips of my own.

My parents are going on vacation this year to South Africa. My husband and I can go with them, if I promise to produce National Geographic quality photographs while on safari.

I could probably fill a broadsheet with what I know about South Africa, with space remaining at the bottom. And the libraries are too vast to tackle alone. But I know people. I asked Kim du Toit to give me a few titles to orient myself. These books are going to the top of the "to read" pile.

I'll be prepared.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Shame 

I see these pictures, and I feel so sad, and so confused. The pictures, in case you don't follow the link, show a former Soviet library. It has not been maintained. Looters have found it, and they weren't kind.

What was taken, and what was left behind? And more importantly, why?

All the books are dumped on the floor. The books are maybe a foot or two or three deep. Maybe a couple books were taken, but the books were not the target. People didn't take the books, whether for augmenting their own libraries or to burn for heat. What is missing is the shelves. The few shelves that remain seem to be missing cross beams. And since books burn as well as wood, it would make no sense to take the sparse wood from shelving and leave he books, so I doubt the shelves were wood. I imagine, then, that the shelves were metal, and people took the metal for scrap. They left the books behind as useless, and these libraries, bereft of shelving, are simply rooms brimming waist-deep with books.

I feel a sense of loss, which is silly. They aren't mine. I can't even read them. But it feels like such a waste.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cut, by Patricia McCormick 

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.
- Ernest Hemingway

I rediscovered a favorite book of mine. It's not a pleasant book to read. But it's powerful, and it's true. Even though it's fiction, it's true.

Cassie's voice has been scared away. She doesn't speak. She cuts. She can express her pain through cutting. That's all she can say. Not knowing what else to do, her parents send her to an in-patient psych hospital.
I checked to make sure no one was around. Sure, I wanted to say. Sure. I willed myself to speak, but nothing happened. I sent commands from my brain to my mouth. Nothing. I wondered in a person's voice muscles can forget how to work if they're not used for a long time.
I feel bad giving the silent treatment to someone who weighs only 92 pounds and has to wear a baseball cap to cover up a bald spot.
"Do you really want us to ignore you?" There's nothing mean about the way Tara says this; there's nothing in her voice expect curiosity.
The book it so true it hurts. That's why it isn't a pleasant read. It's not each reading. It's a short book - a fast reader could get though it in a single day, if she read cover to cover and didn't need to give her psyche a break. It isn't gory. Sure, blood is mentioned, but it's minimal. What's difficult is the raw pain of a girl who resorts to self injury. And it's worse if you can identify, even though friends who have self-injured.

I lent my copy to a fried who needed it. Maybe I'll buy another copy. There are inexpensive used ones on Amazon.

Since I'm on the subject, if anyone wants to read more about SI, specifically cutting, try:
This one's on my list to "books to read": Sharp Objects: a Novel, by Gillian Flynn. I don't usually like mysteries, but the main character is a recovered cutter, and I'm really interested in how the author will play that. I've never seen a book in which the protagonist is a cutter that wasn't directly about his / her cutting.


Some people buy clothes when they feel sad. I buy books.If I had to justify it, I'd say I like the distance and intimacy of words. I like carrying a stack of books, the weights against my chest like a hug from a friend, the glad anticipation of escaping and learning, and the familiar sounds and smells of the store itself.

But I don't have to justify it.

Some women buy bags and bags of clothes. Some by shoes. Some throw themselves into cooking, and some binge on ice cream.

I buy books.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sewing Books 

A bleg:

Anna, Melissa, and anyone else with the masochistic desire to sew their own clothes:

What books have you relied on for your Medieval and aristocratic gowns?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Travel III 

Books are heavy. Traveling with many books makes my bags heavier than they look, and during past solo travels, more than a few chivalrous men have offered to stash my bags in the racks overhead on trains or planes only to wonder if being a gentleman was really worth it. And to wonder how this little girl could carry these bags in the first place. (the answer? Stubbornness)

The father of an ex-boyfriend solved the problem of the weight of books while traveling by tearing out the pages he'd read and throwing them away.

That solves the weight problem, or at least keeps the weight of the bags constant as you accumulate souvenirs and gifts for friends back home. But it prevents rereading.

I have a trip approaching that has a strict weight limit. Strict as in, if the bags are too heavy, the plane will crash.

So may Thoth, Clio, and St. John of God forgive me: I am thinking to buying a Kindle.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Travel II 

This isn't the first time I've been homesick for books. The feeling is probably not that simple, because homesickness is so broad, an awareness (longing for?) all that is missing. The right kind of food in the fridge. The chair you always sit in. A full dresser of clothes. And if I don't know the people I'm with too well, an awkwardness and social anxiety that culminates in a desire to be alone and a fear of seeming a bad guest.

The first time I realized I was homesick for books was at a farm and a family reunion for my husband's extended family. I knew very few, and there were people everywhere who knew my name but I didn't know theirs. We had to sleep in tents, because the house was so small. The tent was great for sleeping, but it left a bit to be desired as a room of my own during the day.

So I stayed with the people. There was no Internet. The people were good, though, and understanding of how overwhelming the whole experience could be, even for them. I could sit in a room full of people and read and offend no one by doing so and then talk when I felt like it.

And I could wander the hundreds of acres of woods and farm. There was little around, the only town was such a drive, and since I wasn't 25, I couldn't drive our rented car there. I borrowed a camera. That camera was the only modern technology there, besides basic lighting, a single indoor toilet (there was an out house), and running water (and an outdoor shower) with a washing machine that leaked. Any necessary heat came from a woodburning stove.

Everytime I lifted the camera to my eyes I say the ghostly UFO - a light smudge on the lens. I took pictures of the barn with the UFO hovering in the distance. I watched the kids play Frisbee until the rain started - and then only the adults played.

I looked over at the tent - how were my books? I'd never camped in the rain before. Would the inside of the tent feel damp? Muggy? Bone dry? What color bugs were crawling over my journal and history of the war of 1812? I kept most books in the car, but I couldn't see them there.

The barn wood was getting water-logged, and the wet water line seeped downward, toward the hay and the window ledge with the beer bottles lining the sill like a still life.

The rain made the wood smell like decay, and I missed civilization for this first time in my life. I missed feeling warm. I missed food, what I wanted, when I wanted it. I missed my library. I missed being alone. Is that what civilization means to me - being alone when I want to be?

If I lived there, the house would be different: lined with my books and my papers. I'd feel safer and a more comfortable distance from civilization. I think books define civilization to me.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Traveling is lonely sometimes. I usually end up wanting the comfort of a book I don't have with me. Then I dissociate from the people I'm with and try to recreate sentences or rhymes in my head.

But I'm in a place with the Internet. So now, craving Kipling, I can find him. It isn't the books I have with the spines creased, that open to my favorite poems immediately from long use. But it's enough.

From The Ballad of East and West
Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet.
"No talk shall be of dogs," said he, "when wolf and gray wolf meet.
May I eat dirt if thou hast hurt of me in deed or breath;
What dam of lances brought thee forth to jest at the dawn with Death?"

From The Vampire
Oh the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand,
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand.
From Boots
Try—try—try—try—to think o’ something different—
Oh—my—God—keep—me from goin’ lunatic!
(Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again!)
There’s no discharge in the war!
Raped And Revenged
One used and butchered me: another spied
Me broken - for which thing an hundred died.
So it was learned among the heathen hosts
How much a freeborn woman's favour costs.
From The Sea and the Hills
Who hath desired the Sea?—the sight of salt water unbounded—
The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded?
The sleek-barrelled swell before storm, grey, foamless, enormous, and growing—
Stark calm on the lap of the Line or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing—
His Sea in no showing the same—his Sea and the same ’neath each showing:
His Sea as she slackens or thrills?
So and no otherwise—so and no otherwise—hillmen desire their Hills!

and of course

From The Female of the Species
She is wedded to convictions—in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies!—
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

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