The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Summary from Goodreads:

What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Does technology draw us closer together or trap us behind screens? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives — from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to the depredations of the AIDS crisis — Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

It is impossible to walk for long through any large city without passing someone who looks sad and alone and somewhat shrunken. Some days, you might suspect that you are that person. If this thought has ever run through your head, then this book is for you.

In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing explores the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Like her previous works, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring, The Lonely City eludes neat categorisation. A fusion of scholarship and memoir, Laing weaves together elements of travel writing, philosophy, biography and art criticism with great tenderness and insight. The result is an elegantly crafted and truly compelling meditation on urban isolation, art, and technology.

In this book, loneliness is both Laing’s subject and emotional state. After a new relationship abruptly dissolved, Laing found herself lost and alone in New York City, “possessed by a desire to find correlates, physical evidence that other people had inhabited [her] state”. And so she turned to art as a way of grappling with her own loneliness. In The Lonely City, Laing dedicates her time to examining the lives and work of four very different American artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger. A wide cast of secondary subjects (including Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo and Zoe Leonard, among others) also feature in this book and Laing paints an entralling portrait of each and every one of them. Her speculations are sensitive and empathetic, and it is clear that her relationship with the work of each artist is genuine and intimate. In the final chapters (my favourite part of the book), Laing spends a considerable amount of time discussing the AIDS epidemic which swept through the city in the ’80s, as well as the contradictory role the internet plays in our lives, simultaneously connecting and isolating us.

Humane, provocative, and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality, and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, “adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive”. This book is so beautiful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can find an extract from it here if you’re interested.

Have you read The Lonely City? What did you think of it? I would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

The Complete Maus – Art Spiegelman

Summary from Goodreads:

Combined for the first time here are Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II – the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get around to this book. It has been recommended to me so many times by so many different people, but for some reason I kept putting it off. To be honest, I have always been a little bit apprehensive (and very ignorant) about graphic novels. I know there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but there is also a lot of not-so-good stuff out there and I guess I never really knew where to start. Anyway, I finally got around to reading this book and it totally shattered all of my previous misconceptions and prejudices about graphic novels. Seriously, if you (like me) have never really gotten into graphic novels, give this one a shot. Please. You won’t regret it.

In many ways, this book stands squarely in the comics tradition, observing many of the conventions of the form. At face value, it is a story about anthropomorphically depicted animals, told sequentially in a series of square panels six to a page, containing speech balloons and voice-over captions in which all the lettering is in capitals, with onomatopoeic sound-effects to represent rifle-fire, and so on. So it looks very like a comic.

But it is so much more than that. This is a book has a profound and unfailing strangeness, which makes it difficult to classify as a belonging to any one particular genre. Part of this is due to the depiction of Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and so forth. This is a very a risky artistic strategy, as it implies a form of essentialism that many readers will find suspect. Cats kill mice because they are cats, and that’s what cats do. But is it in the nature of Germans, as Germans, to kill Jews?

This question hangs over the whole work, and is never answered directly. Instead we are reminded by the plot itself that this classification into different species was precisely how the human race was then regarded by those who had the power to order things; and the question is finally dispelled by the gradual gentle insistence that these characters might look like mice, or cats, or pigs, but what they are is people. They have the complexity and the surprisingness of human beings, and human beings are capable of anything.

As for the writing style, it is deceptively simple. When putting together this work, Spiegelman experimented with many different approaches and each page underwent multiple re-writes as he strove for clarity and fluidity. He tells the story dispassionately and honestly without any knowing winks to comics-literate readers. There is no glorification of war or survival. There is no glamorising of his father’s story. Rather, what emerges is a truthful and unsentimental portrait of how one man – one resourceful, irritating, cantankerous, and very human man – managed to survive one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century.

What I found most surprising about this book is that it has several genuinely funny moments. One wouldn’t expect humour given the subject matter, but it is there, often wry and situational. This book will make you laugh out loud, and the next minute you’ll find yourself sickened by the terrifying cruelty that humans are capable of and wanting to bawl your eyes out. And then the next minute you’ll be reminded of the extraordinary kindness that humans are capable of. And then you’ll giggle again, and you’ll think to yourself “is it wrong that I’m laughing at a Holocaust survivor?”. And then you’ll assume a very serious expression. And then you’ll finish this book with your heart both broken and whole. And then you will recommend this book to everyone you come across, whether they’re a fan of comics or not.

Have you ever read The Complete Maus? What did you think of it? Are you a fan of graphic novels? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Summary from Goodreads:

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.

Oh my goodness, THIS BOOK!! I made the horrible, horrible mistake of finishing this book right before starting a shift at work, where I spent the next eight hours in a sort of daze, wandering around the bookshop like a zombie and struggling to process my feelings. I couldn’t bawl my eyes out (although I really wanted to). I couldn’t escape and just be alone with my thoughts. I couldn’t just go upstairs and eat away the sadness that this book made me feel. It was only later, when I came back to my apartment after work, that I fully digested what I had read.

When Breath Becomes Air is one of the most beautifully-written, honest, heartbreaking, and affecting memoirs I have ever read. I knew it was going to be an emotional investment before I even started it (come on, it’s a book written by someone who knows they are going to die soon) and it did indeed break my heart to read, but it is also incredibly life-affirming. Kalanithi’s prose is gorgeous (oh yeah, he also had an MA in English Literature btw) – it’s poetic without being pretentious, simple without being too simplistic, and there is not a trace of self-pity to be found anywhere.

I do not think you should read this book because the story of an incredibly gifted man who had his life taken away at such a young age might give you the motivation to live your life more fully. Read this book because that talented, inspiring man has some very important things to say that need to be listened to. Read this book with the knowledge that you might not always be able to understand everything someone goes through, but you can set aside the time to listen to their story and hopefully give them the dignity and respect they deserve as a human being, in life or in death.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air? What did you think? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mothertongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realise that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” 

– Jhumpa Lahiri/Ann Goldstein, In Other Words

As someone with three passports but no true homeland, three languages yet no true mothertongue, and a very fragmented cultural identity, these words from Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful and intimate non-fiction debut resonate strongly with me and I often find myself thinking about them.

Born in London to Bengali immigrants and raised in the USA, Lahiri spent most of her childhood trying to reconcile her parents’ Bengali heritage and language with the pervasive influence of American culture and the English language. At the age of twenty-five, while working on a PhD in Renaissance Studies, Lahiri decided to learn a language that had captivated her for many years – Italian. For close to twenty years, she attended private lessons in New York, did her grammar exercises dutifully, and caught brief snippets of conversation on the subway and on her few trips to Italy, yet true mastery of the language eluded her. Finally, seeking full immersion, she moved to Rome with her family for a “trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world.

In Rome, Lahiri began to read, and then to write solely in Italian. This book is a polished and edited version of what Lahiri wrote in her journals – a raw and intimate account of learning to express oneself in another language and the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, it is a book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with honesty, clarity and most importantly, a powerful awareness of its own imperfection. Interestingly and quite controversially in fact, Lahiri did not attempt to translate her own writing from Italian into English, stating that she needed to sever all ties to the English language in order to fully immerse herself in the Italian language. Rather, she hired the magnificent Ann Goldstein (who I cannot praise highly enough for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) to do this for her. Unfortunately, as I cannot read Italian, this meant that I was, in a sense, exiled linguistically from Lahiri’s words. Ironically fitting, I think (although I really wish that I could read Italian).

As someone who has spent a great deal of time learning languages, I could identify with the frustration and excitement of learning to express oneself in another language that Lahiri describes. Her writing is clumsy and repetitive at times, but Lahiri is so painfully aware of this that you can forgive her for it. I for one believe that writing in a second or third language makes one feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed, and I applaud Lahiri for her courage in publishing this book. I greatly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in language, particularly the relationship between identity and language.

Have you read this book? Or any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other books? What did you think? I would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna