Autumn

by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

“Autumn” is set in the Autumn of 2016 as the United Kingdom is in pieces about to decide on the Brexit vote. The novel is centred on two characters, Elisabeth, a 32 year old university student and tutor, and Daniel, her great friend and mentor who is nearing 100 and in a coma, near death in a nursing home.

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Above: Ali Smith

This book was published in October 2016, following the Brexit vote, and it’s a deeply original and philosophical work, meditating on the fluidity of time, history and art. It constantly flits between past and present, and nothing much actually happens in it, except life which in fact is everything. Much of the drama happens in people’s minds, and some of it is actually quite funny, as is the bureaucracy involved when Elisabeth goes to the post office to renew her passport.

The friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel  is beautiful and very moving. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 years old, a precocious misfit, and Daniel is already an old man, the queer arty neighbour.

“The lifelong friends, he said, sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”

Even though the England portrayed appears grim and devoid of hope, the close friendship of these two disparate people is a hopeful thing.

“We have to hope that the people who love us and know us a little bit, in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters.”

The narrative changes back and forth between Elisabeth’s concerns for herself and her country and Daniel’s flashbacks to the past and all he has endured, being a refugee and seeing the horrors of World War II.

In the midst of her post Brexit anxieties, Elisabeth is confronted with the prospect of Daniel’s death. She comes to talk to him every day, regardless of his unconscious state.

“I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

There are many subtle references to great literature of the past, Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and the importance of ‘reading’ both at a literal and figurative level is highlighted.

“Hello, he said. What are you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”

Smith writes in a very dense manner, and part of the book is in a stream of consciousness style, but it very quickly starts to make sense. Her language is so inventive as when Daniel talks about words:
“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth up around them, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting come up.”  
 

Parts of this novel filled me with great sadness. It was both funny and very sad, and it was about our crazy world and its borders which are growing ever more exclusive and anti-other.

But it’s also about the power of art and stories. And the seasons go on, despite what humans do. Loved this book. 5 ⭐️

 

Listening to My Soul

 

“I have been a seeker and still am

but I stopped asking the books and the stars.

I started listening to the teaching of my soul.”

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Apologies for being absent on the blog this week. I am going through a lot of changes in my life at the moment.

My partner is in Europe on a cycling tour for five weeks (not the Tour de France, ha ha), so my days are even busier with the children, being totally on my own to look after them. I am also undertaking an online course which runs all year called “Year of You: Creative Rehab”.

Having been a stay at home mum for some years I am trying to work out what I should do next, i.e: what do I really deeply desire to do?

For a year or so I regularly posted on Instagram about books and art, but started to find that very restrictive, as my photography skills aren’t that brilliant, and to me the caption was always more important.  ‘Bookstagram’, as that niche of Instagram is known, after a while just became boring really, everyone congratulating each other’s choice of book, with posts mainly all about beautiful images of books staged with flowers, coffee or on location such as the seaside. Don’t get me wrong, I played the game too for a while and enjoyed it, but as my life got ever busier, I started asking why am I doing this? I realised it wasn’t working for me, so disabled my account.

For the moment, the blog and my on-line course is enough for me. I love writing about books and art still, but I want to try more creative writing too, so I will start doing some on the blog soon.

The on-line course I am doing is very confronting and intense, but in a good way. It asks basic questions that are  quite fundamental like:

What do you want?

What do you need?

What is keeping you suspended over the void of what you no longer are, and what you need to become?

If you knew you would die tonight, what would you regret the most?

These are questions I am on my way to answering this year. I am considering doing a course on visual arts next year. I have read widely about all sorts of artists, and am constantly amazed at how many women artists there have been throughout history, yet  totally underrated or unknown. I would like to highlight some of these in my blog over the coming months.

A genre that has always helped me as a form of bibliotherapy is poetry. One poet that is still immensely relevant today is Rumi, a Persian mystic born in the 13th century. But even though the word mystic might imply “weirdo” these days, his work is strongly grounded in the here and now: it’s direct, powerful and abundant in tolerance and compassion.

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“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian,

stone, ground, mountain, river,

each has a secret way of being with the mystery,

unique and not to be judged” 

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He had so much to say, on everything from love, to religion, to life and death, and everything in between, and he sounds startlingly modern.

“Forget safety

Live where you fear to live

Destroy your reputation

Be notorious”

~

“Don’t be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others,

Unfold your own myth.”

He speaks to us unhindered by time and cultural difference, and his words have an elemental force that remains undiminished across centuries. He certainly speaks to me as I journey through a year of great change.

⭐️

All quotations from “Rumi, Selected Poems” published by Penguin, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne.

 

 

 

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir

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“Prologue: 18 May 1152

In the Romanesque cathedral of Poitiers, a man and a woman stood before the high altar, exchanging wedding vows. It was a simple ceremony. the young man, aged nineteen, was stocky, with red hair, and restless with pent-up energy, knowing he was doing a daring thing. The woman, eleven years his senior and with long auburn locks, was exceptionally beautiful, very sophisticated and a willing accomplice in this furtive ceremony.

Few would have guessed, from the lack of pomp and splendour, that the marriage of this couple was to change the face of Europe.”

I really enjoyed re-reading this biography, which I pulled off my shelf while taking a break from my TBR.

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, was born in a court where troubadours flourished and courtly love was all the rage. She was not a meek wallflower by any means. She was first married to Louis VII of France, that union later being conveniently annulled. While married to the French king, she was shocked and appalled by the cold winters of Paris, having come from the warm South, and introduced what were then innovations at court: wooden shutters to keep out draughts, and fireplaces! Her second marriage to Henry, Duke of Anjou and later King of England was one of love, rare for medieval times. Henry was a forceful personality, intelligent and hyperactive, but Eleanor was more than a match for him with her sophistication and learning.

Opinions about her were divided: One chronicler noted that “by reason of her excessive beauty, she destroyed or injured nations”, while another stated that she “surpassed all the queens of the world”. I think it could certainly be argued  that the family of Eleanor and Henry was amongst the most dysfunctional in British history. While originally in love, the couple’s happiness was not lasting, and both spent the later part of their lives undermining each other, with Eleanor eventually backing one of her sons in treason. Her sons are well known to history: Richard the Lionheart and John who said of his mother that she was an “unhappy and shameless woman”.

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Above: Tombs of Eleanor and Henry, Fontevrault Abbey, Anjou, France

Eleanor was an extraordinary if controversial personality, and held considerable influence if not actual power, given the constraints on women of that time. This was a fascinating read, for anyone interested in history and one woman’s role in it. I would give it 4 ⭐️.

 

 

Book & Exhibition Review – 1.Vincent Van Gogh & The Seasons: Exhibition at NGV Melbourne 2. Van Gogh: The Life (Naifeh & Smith)

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Above: Olive grove with  two olive pickers, 1889, Saint-Remy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum, Otterlo.

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“Art is to console those who are broken by life” Van Gogh 

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I think it is fair to say that most people have heard of Vincent Van Gogh, even ones that don’t know much about art, and most people have an idea of him as the archetype of the tortured artist genius, which he was, but there is so much more to him than that. Everyone knows of course that he cut off part of his ear, and he definitely had a mental illness, the likelihood being manic depression.

I have been delving into his life and work recently by reading the brilliant biography shown above, and seeing a groundbreaking exhibition of his work.

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L: The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889, Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

R: Self Portrait, 1887, Paris, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo.

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The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) Melbourne has done a brilliant job at staging “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.  It is a beautifully curated exhibition, the chief curator being Sjraar van Heugten from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, showing in great detail the relationship that Van Gogh had with each of the seasons.

Van Gogh came from a religious Dutch Protestant family, and his father was a minister, but their religion was sober and practical. Poor Vincent was always the odd one among his siblings, preferring to read and be alone in nature. His father frequently accused him of being too serious, too intense and too sensitive; he was always too much of everything really. It was this sensitivity and intensity to both nature and human suffering, that ultimately contributed to the making of his greatest art.

“Today it was a real Spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance are so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere” Van Gogh in a letter to his mother, February 1890.

Vincent tried widely different professions, and was initially apprenticed to an art dealer uncle, which is deeply ironic, as he was able to only sell one or two paintings in his lifetime. This did not suit him, he was a loner and unable to form lasting social connections. Then he worked as a bookstore clerk, which was short-lived. He actually lived in a number of cities during his attempts at making meaning of his life: Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Brussels, and lastly Paris. When working for his uncle failed, he decided to become a preacher. As with everything he did, he threw himself fully into the venture, but it wasn’t to be. Incredibly he was sacked from his position for being too zealous. In everything he did, he was obsessive to the point of destroying his health, both physical and mental. He ultimately found that art was his way to God and the eternal.

Vincent had been very religious in a traditional matter when young, but as his life and art progressed, his relationship with nature became pantheistic. As an artist, I think he was unique in how much and how deeply he read, prior to doing any painting, only taking up painting seriously at the age of 27. He read the Bible, philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Goethe. He was intensely drawn to the suffering of others, to his own detriment. He also wrote a lot – reams of letters, specially to his brother Theo. In these letters he passionately articulates how much his art meant to him, and how important it was to his literal salvation.

As he took up painting seriously, he only had ten years left to live, but what he did in that time was remarkable. Of the ten years up to his death in 1890, only the last four were spent in France, and it was there that he created nearly all of the paintings for which he is famous. “Wheatfield” below is a great example of his late style, where the painting is thickly encrusted, when you see it up close it’s almost 3-D, and you can feel the heat of summer in the thick impasto yellow.

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Wheatfield, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam

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The Green Vineyard, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

Similarly, in “The Green Vineyard” above, the vines with huge grapes almost leap out of the picture, and the sky is again thickly layered, like frosting on a cake. In these works, we can see the beginning of modern painting, as exact depiction of reality is no longer important, but the critical thing becomes the vision and feeling of the artist.

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For anyone interested in Van Gogh, the biography by Naifeh and Smith is the definitive work. It reads almost like a novel, with Vincent as the tragic troubled character, and it sheds new light on his romantic life, his mental anguish  and his early death at 37.

Below are a few more examples of Van Gogh’s work . All photos of Van Gogh’s paintings were taken by me on iPhone SE, at the NGV exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.

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Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Orchard bordered by cypresses, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

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A wheat field, with cypresses, 1889, Saint Rémy, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

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Further information on this exhibition: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/van-gogh-and-the-seasons/

Further Reading: Van Gogh’s Letters are wide-ranging, and hugely recommended. He writes very well and with great fervour about all sorts of subjects. This Penguin edition is the one I have been reading.

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The last word should go to Vincent, who definitely showed the world by his art, what he had in his heart, and that is what draws so many people to his work to this day:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

 

 

 

 

 

Dracula

by Bram Stoker

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“Alone with the dead! I dare not go out, for I can hear the low howl of the wolf through the broken window.”

” My very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out  around him like great wings” 

This novel is the prototype for all subsequent vampire fiction, but for me the main interest was its preoccupation with women’s morality or lack of it, their perceived weakness, and their need to have male rescuers to save them from their inherent or potential wayward natures.

I think this book tells us a lot about Bram Stoker, and the 19th century ‘fin de secle’ obsession with sex, its relationship to morality and death, and Victorian male anxiety about the “New Woman”. I lost track of how many times the word “voluptuous” was used, and not in a positive way.

“The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness.”

“There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped thr white sharp teeth.”

There is fascination with the erotic and desire of it here, but fear of where that desire might take you.

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Stoker was born in Dublin in 1847, the son of a civil servant.  Following study at Trinity College, he married, and later became business manager to Henry Irving, the famous Skakesperian actor and enterpreneur. He wrote Dracula at the age of 50 in 1897, while employed by Irving.

Underneath a conventional life as the epitome of Victorian rectitude, Stoker must have had unfulfilled desires and uneasy thoughts gnawing at him, because he wrote in his diary of a strange dream: ” Young man goes out, sees girls one tries to kiss him not on lips but throat. Old Count interferes – rage and fury diabolical this man belongs to me I want him” This bad dream, with its homo-erotic undertones must have been frightening to a man like Stoker. This was the germ of the novel, and Stoker transforms these lines into part of Jonathan Harker’s experience in Dracula’s castle.

The novel opens with Harker, a young solicitor and engaged to be married, travelling to Transylvania to finalise the purchase of  a London house for a count. The horrors he encounters there almost get him killed, and then almost make him lose his sanity. For me they are the best part of the novel. Dramatic and frightening, they show Harker and Dracula in a deadly fight for supremacy of one, and survival of the other.

” This was the being I was helping to transfer to London, where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood… the very thought drove me mad. A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.”

After Harker’s escape from the castle, strange and disturbing events begin to unfold in England: a young girl awakes with bite marks on her neck, a ship is wrecked and its crew mysteriously lost at sea, a lunatic at an asylum starts raving about the arrival of his “Master”.

The rest of the novel becomes a pursuit of Dracula by a group of young men, who are presented as the cream of Victorian manliness, but in reality come across as very irrational and emotional, qualities that are frowned upon in the women. Helping them in their quest is a so-called vampire expert, Professor Van Helsing, who indulges in long diatribes about the vampire’s powers and the peril he embodies.

The entire novel is a mixture of letters, diary entries and newspaper extracts, which makes it at times very dull and long winded. Many parts of it seem scarcely credible, such as Lucy, the young girl having been bitten by Dracula, then being given a transfusion a day over four days by four different men.

After the initial section where Harker is prisoner, we hardly see or hear from Dracula again. It all becomes a race against time, to stop the terror he has unleashed, but to be honest it all gets very turgid and boring. The only interesting character is Minna, at first engaged, then married to Harker, and definitely the brains of the entire outfit. She is very practical, getting the timetables for the trains to Transylvania, whereas the men come across as  emotional and fragile.

“He grew quite hysterical…he stood up and then sat down again, and the tears ran down his cheeks. I felt an infinite pity for him…he laid his head on my shoulder, and cried like a wearied child, while he shook with emotion.” from Minna’s journal

Even Van Helsing, who considers himself the expert, bows down to Minna’s logic:       “Ah, that wonderful Minna! She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and woman’s heart.”

“Our dear Madam Minna is once more our teacher. Her eyes have seen where we were blinded. Now we are on the right track once again, and this time we may succeed.”

There is a thread of fear of women’s sexuality running through the entire book. Lucy and Minna are the two female characters showing the possibilities in women’s character. Lucy is portrayed as very beautiful and dangerously wayward, hence her susceptibility to the Count, whereas Minna has a man’s logic, yet a tender moral heart that keeps her one step ahead of being enthralled to Dracula.

This isn’t a great novel by any means. It is interesting for its exploration of Victorian fears, and says more about Stoker’s obsessions than anything else.  When you compare it for example to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with its weighty philosophical themes of the ethics and responsibilities of  science, and the duty owed by a father to his child, it comes up short. It is still a fascinating story though, as can be seen by the influence it has had on the vampire fiction still popular today.  3⭐️

If anyone has read this book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

The Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector and Selected Stories

by Nikolay Gogol

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Nikolay Gogol was a Russian writer, of Ukrainian and Polish parents. He was born in 1809 and with Aleksander Pushkin the poet, was responsible for starting the great Russian literary awakening of the 19th century.

The short stories I have read from this collection are among his most famous: The Diary of a Madman, The Overcoat and The Nose. 

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Themes of a society dominated by bureaucracy and corruption, and of tragic and submissive heroes who live out sad, impoverished lives are evident in all these stories, and Gogol oscillates in all of them between comedy, bitter satire and tragedy.

“The Nose” is a strangely surreal story of a low ranking bureaucrat who literally loses his nose.

Kovalyov is obsessed with his ranking in the civil service, and losing his nose is an affront to his fragile image of himself in the societal system. He is further enraged when reports emerge of his nose becoming a ‘person’, obtaining a higher rank than his owner and lording it about town in a superior coach and clothing. He won’t rest until his nose is returned, and is suspicious of a number of people he thinks are responsible, because they are out to get him in his mind. The nose’s abscondment becomes a parody of the nonsensical bureaucracy that existed in Tsarist Russia. In St Petersburg there was  later even a statue erected of the nose, who has become a much loved ‘character’ in Russian culture. A fun satire about the absurdity of rank.

“My nose is driving at this very moment all over town, calling itself a state counsellor. That’s why I’m asking you to print this advertisement announcing the first person who catches it should return the nose to its rightful owner as soon as possible. imagine what’s it’s like being without such a conspicuous part of your anatomy! if it were just a small toe, then could put on my shoe and no one would be any the wiser. “

“The Overcoat” is a sad story of a lowly clerk, a copyist in a government office who is overlooked by everyone. He is barely surviving on a meagre income, and yet  is totally obedient to the system that enslaves and dehumanises him. His old overcoat is in tatters, and of course in the Russian winter, a good overcoat is essential to survival. He goes to a tailor, who tells him there is no point trying to repair the coat, he needs a new one. The poor man can’t afford it, but by literally almost starving he is able to eventually buy the most basic of overcoats, just as winter sets in.

When he receives the new coat, he feels for the first time in his life on top of the world and is invited to a party by another clerk. Here the tale takes a darker turn. A gang  of thieves robs him of his overcoat and leaves him defenceless in the snow. The police are totally uninterested in helping him recover his coat, and Akaky dies of a fever brought on by extreme cold.

In a final surreal element, Akaky comes to haunt the city as a ghost. His target is men with overcoats, that he forces to shed, a punishment for those that belittled him and brought about his death. This is a sad, haunting tale and hugely influential in later 19th century Russian literature: it was Dostoyevsky who famously wrote ” We have all come out from Gogol’s overcoat”.

“Akaky Akakievich was carted away and buried. And St Petersburg carried on …just as though he had never even existed… But who would have imagined that this was not the last of [him], and that he was destined to create quite a stir several days after his death, as though he were trying to make up for a life spent being ignored by everybody?” 

‘Diary of a Madman’ is I think one of Gogol’s best stories. It’s the only one written in the first person, and is a devastating critique on the Russian bureaucratic system and its effects on human happiness.

Arksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, is a minor civil servant, who is constantly lambasted and criticised by his superiors. He falls in love with his boss’s daughter, becoming obsessed with trying to gain her attention and approval.

The diary records his gradual slide into insanity, as in madness he finds the confidence he yearns for, and comes to believe he is the heir to the Spanish throne. Gogol’s portrayal of this slide is very realistic, as Poprishchin reads about the Spanish War of Succession in the newspapers, and to him it makes perfect sense he may be the heir.

” Today is a day of great triumph. There is a king of Spain. He has been found at last. That king is me. I only discovered this today. The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight… The first thing I did was tell Mavra who I was. When she heard that the King of Spain was standing before her, she wrung her hands and nearly died of fright. The stupid woman had obviously  never set eyes on the King of Spain before.”  

The last diary entries are poignantly tragic as Poprishchin is taken to an asylum and becomes subject to great cruelty and corporal punishment, yet sees this as a trial to be endured to establish his right to the throne.

All three stories are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe in their use of the grotesque and the absurd, but Gogol was himself a master at veering between comedy and tragedy, and it was a great loss that his last novel, “Dead Souls” was incomplete at his death, and moreover that he burnt great parts of it. But these stories are testament to his great talent in laying bare the great inequalities  of Tsarist Russia, and for his skill in simultaneously portraying human banality and suffering.

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My Life on the Road – by Gloria Steinem

“Imagine we are linked, not ranked” – heading on Gloria Steinem’s website.

“More reliably than anything else on earth, the road will force you to live in the present.”

from: My Life on the Road

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It’s hard to believe that Gloria Steinem is now 83. She seems ageless, and is as uncompromising in her feminism as ever. This book is not a conventional autobiography,  but a collection of anecdotes from Steinem’s travelling life.

She poignantly writes of her father’s nomadic life, travelling all over America looking for a lucky break, and how in a sense she has imitated him, even though having a very different life. She also refers to her mother’s unhappy life, unable to have the freedoms enjoyed by women today and suffering from depression.

The stories of the people she has met along the way, in her life of activism and organising, are very engaging. They range from students, to countless women, to politicians including Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama. Most people know her as a feminist activist, but she has also done a lot of work in the area of native people’s rights and fights for improvements.

One chapter focuses on ‘talking circles’, a Native American solution to solving problems. It emphasises everyone being heard and respected. This is something Steinem has adopted and deeply believes in: “the revolutionary act of listening to others”.

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There is a moving chapter on Steinem’s friendship with Wilma Mankiller, a Cherokee woman who became the first female Native American Chief. I learned a lot from this chapter. Apparently Benjamin Franklin cited the Iroquois tribe model as a model for the American Constitution,as that model brought together different Native tribes for mutual decisions, and yet allowed autonomy in local areas. He even invited two Iroquois men to Philadelphia as advisers. Who knew? Their first question: “Where are the women?” , as in Native culture women were part of the decision making process.

Some people may think Steinem is radical, but you don’t have to accept every idea of hers to see what a difference she has made, and the integrity with which she has lived her life. Deeply principled people like her are needed now more than ever. I recently saw a placard that read “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Amen.

This was a fascinating, if slightly jumbled insight into the life and work of an extraordinary woman. 4⭐️

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