Book Review: Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I’ve been living in this new reality for about a week now, perhaps two. It’s hard to know because the days and nights blend together, though not intolerably (yet). I leave the apartment once every day to walk or run along the river. Sometimes it’s a bit crowded, and I have to maneuver to stay six feet away from the other joggers, walkers, and bikers. I am thankful for my roommate, who is one of my best friends and a hugely calming presence in the apartment. I am thankful for the technology that allows me to see my family’s faces when I cannot be with them. I am thankful for the mourning doves that coo softly outside my window, and the sunshine that filters into my bedroom.

The world has turned upside down. There are many more weeks like this sure to come.

To look on the bright side, which I think is always important in times like these: the planet is getting a chance to catch its breath, I’ve been in much more contact with my far-flung friends and family these past few days than usual, and I’ve got ample time to read and knit with few other obligations (that’s quickly changing though, now that my classes have started up again online and I still have to turn in a thesis in April).

Since I have all this extra time, I thought I’d write a more in-depth review for a wonderful book I just finished—Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. No, it is not science fiction, which the conclusion everyone jumps to straight away. It’s actually nonfiction, and the way I like to describe it to people is as if someone made one of those adventuresome science or history channel TV shows, where the host visits a couple of noteworthy sites and speaks with various experts, except they did it in the form of beautifully poetic prose, with a healthy dose of nature writing and a few black and white photographs.

Underland was reminiscent of travelogues I’ve read from the 19th and 20th century, with charismatic narrators who fear little and rely on the kindness and hospitality of friends and acquaintances around the world. The book absolutely transported me; it reminded me of my childhood in the suburbs, where I lived on a cul-de-sac and had free reign of the street and our sizable backyard. I would spend afternoons and evenings in the mild California climate traipsing through trees and digging around in the dirt. I have a strong memory of discovering a kind of very brightly colored snail that I’d never seen before, and being convinced that I’d stumbled upon a brand new species.

Reading Underland reminded me what it felt like to know (or at least think) that the world was at my fingertips, that I could go anywhere, wasn’t afraid of anything, felt at home outside. Whereas now, after having lived in the city for a few years, I am afraid of nature—of ticks and leeches and other bugs that do harm—I do not feel comfortable taking directly from Mother Nature, as Macfarlane does when he drinks from “starless” rivers—how do you know the water is clean?! my brain screams at the page—and clambers through woods and streams and sewers—what of leeches?! Mosquitoes carrying malaria?! Once I was not so afraid. I love New York but I hate that it does this to me. Reading Underland reminded me of the whole beautiful world that exists outside of this city, in the suburbs, in the small towns, out in the wilds, that you can’t see from behind the closed window of a speeding car, that you can only see when you stop and get out and explore on foot, as Macfarlane does so thoroughly and engagingly.

When we all emerge from this pandemic, pale and blinking and most definitely wounded, I hope that I will be able to return to the natural world to find solace. I still plan to stay in New York, for I feel strongly that this is my home, now more than ever—but when I am finally able to go back to California for a visit, or when I have the means (free time and access to a car) to explore some of the nature outside of NYC, or when my cousins and I finally do the national park trip we’ve been dreaming about, I hope that I will remember Macfarlane’s comfort in the natural world, and the trust and abandon I felt when I was a kid scrambling around outside.

Now, the ever-present question: what to read next?

Reading recap: May 2019-February 2020

This is a particularly half-hearted list because I’ve been too busy working, traveling, studying and writing my thesis (AAH) to update the blog in a timely manner. But now that my graduation is looming, and I’ve given myself over to procrastination on said thesis, I’ve come back to the blog. Please bear with me as I speed through last year’s reads without descriptions; my head has been filled with thoughts on knitting, craft, material culture and sustainability (the topics of my thesis) for so long that I can barely remember whether or not I liked the books I read for pleasure last year. So, here is a boring old list for you:

The Revolt of the Cockroach People by Oscar Zeta Acosta

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

The Aleppo Codex: The True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the International Pursuit of an Ancient Bible by Matti Friedman

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

Educated by Tara Westover

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun

Sphere by Michael Crichton

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

In 2020, I’ve been endeavoring to finish all of the books that I’ve begun and then tragically abandoned after getting lured to the display tables and outdoor discount carts at The Strand (or rather, after leaving for work an extra fifteen minutes early so as to allow browsing time as I amble down 12th St). It’s been going well, except for one slip-up with a new book I received for my birthday that I simply could not resist diving into at once. But I made a specific effort not to abandon it mid-read, so does that make it better?

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

An incredible novel; so strange, written in an enchanting style I’ve never come across before. It took me a few tries to get through; I originally bought my copy at Shakespeare & Co. in the summer of 2017, when I was in Paris for a creative writing workshop. I’m not exactly sure why it took me so long to finish it, but the moment I did, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, and I wanted to go for a run around the block to clear my head and I also wanted to scream into a pillow because it was such an ordeal, and I knew that I would spend the next few days reminiscing about the experience of reading the book and sorely missing the characters that I’d become so invested in.

Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption by Daniel Jones

This is one of the six books I received for my birthday. It was lovely, it made me cry of happiness and sadness, and I enjoyed reading particularly astounding or moving stories to my roommate so we could sit together afterwards and just repeat the word “wow” in a whisper to each other and shake our heads at the world. I’ve yet to watch the Amazon series.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager is the third book in the Outlander series, which I’d been trying to get through before watching the television show. However, I’m now abandoning that pursuit on account of the racism in this book. I was really surprised by it because it seemed to come out of nowhere. I don’t think the fact that much of the book takes place in the 18th century is an excuse for the kind of language Gabaldon uses or the highly stereotypical and racist depictions of certain characters.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz

A parting gift from the incredible people I worked with at the Deborah Harris Agency in Jerusalem. Just absolutely beautiful. A work of art, of memory, and touching in a way that only a few novels have touched me in my life. I wish I could have had the pleasure of meeting Amos Oz before he passed away. I’m looking forward to reading more of his writing (I think highest on my list right now is My Michael), but I will forever be in awe of this specific work of genius. Perhaps, when I’ve had a bit of time to process (I just finished this one last night), I will write more extensively, but right now I feel as if I’ve just been taken on a great journey on a magnificent ship, and now that I’m back on land I’m stumbling and my legs are shaking.

The next abandoned books that I plan on rescuing: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys, Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Edward Rutherfurd’s New York, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Italo Calvino’s The Complete Cosmicomics.

Late November, 3pm, 52 degrees

This is my third year living in New York City. One of the (many) reasons I love it here is that I have to walk everywhere, and I love walking. I walk to the laundromat, the subway, the pharmacy, the grocery store. I walk to class, I walk to my friends’ apartments, to the bar… I can go months without stepping foot in a car. Most of the time, when I’m walking, I’m not exactly enjoying myself. I may be listening to an interesting podcast or a song that perfectly matches my mood, but ultimately I’m on my way to some destination, and usually it’s too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too crowded, too dark, too sunny—or I’m hungry, or thirsty, or running late, or have to go to the bathroom, or my feet hurt, or my bag is too heavy… That’s just life here, and you get used to it. I still love walking, because I love being outside and moving my body, but it’s not always an entirely pleasant experience.

But sometimes, you get a gem of a day. Like today. And all of a sudden there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing than standing on the corner of 10th and Avenue A, watching the guys digging up the road whistle at the pigeons perched atop a building on Tompkins Square, watching the birds take flight all at once, their squawking drowning out the shouts from the skateboarders and basketball players and the wind rustling the leaves that have managed to hang on this far into November.

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(I took these photos on my iPhone camera, which, after two years of inexplicable blurriness, suddenly decided to start working properly again!)

Brooklyn Museum

We’ve had gorgeous weather in NYC—it started yesterday and has blessedly persisted today. I’m hoping it’ll hang around for a while longer. It feels like late spring, reminiscent of California. Sunny, 75 degrees, a fresh breeze and puffy white clouds. Perfect jeans and t-shirt days. Perfect for laying out in the park and reading, which is what I plan to do after I finish this post. I’ve been eager for autumn to arrive, especially since I missed out on it last year, but it’s so beautiful today that I almost wish it would stay like this forever. Almost. If I truly wanted that, I guess I’d have to move back to California.

Classes begin in a little over a week, after Labor Day. I have a feeling these are my last few days of freedom before being consumed by thoughts of my impending thesis. It still hasn’t hit me yet. That this is my senior year, that I spent all of last year abroad and now New York is my home again, that in a few short months I’ll have to figure out some way to occupy myself and also make money. I have faith it’ll work out, but I know I might be in for a big struggle until then.

Yesterday a friend and I visited the Brooklyn Museum, which is one of my favorites in New York. Here are some photographic highlights:

 

That’s all for now, folks!

Gallery

Alaska

Denali from afar

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The mountains, and the clouds above them, look as if they should be in constant motion. They look frozen, like a snapped photograph of some busy marketplace, the peaks hustling and bustling about, the clouds skittering above them. A blur of movement, each one conducting its business and hurrying along.

The mountains erupt from land that appears flat and green, and a misty blue color hovers at their base. The immense kinetic energy of the earth is evident here. You can almost see the peaks being jostled up to meet the ceiling of grey cloud, if you stare hard enough and long enough. Bush planes criss-cross the sky like pigeons, like seagulls. And presiding over the chaos: queen Denali, forever shrouded in her cloak of cloud.

Notes from the air

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Nothing so beautiful as the fog-shrouded hills of San Francisco seen against the backdrop of a bright white pre-dusk, where the fog drifts over the steely blue grey brown green water of the bay, and the hills are dark outlines rising out of it like the backs of huge animals, and the shiny little city bristling out of it all, nestled, reflected white with the late sunshine.

Everything misty with that sunlight, distinct but happily hazy, dazed, ready to slip easily into the arms of a soft night. The edge of the world, surrendering itself gently to the sea.

It’s easy to imagine life from this angle, 7pm in early June. It looks like what heaven looks like, where everything could take flight in half a moment. But all is drowsy, just so. Comfortable and content.

The West 4th Street Review

Each year that I’ve attended NYU, I’ve left my mark in the form of the West 4th Street Review literary magazine: reading and voting on submissions, editing, designing, laying out, and contributing photographs, poems and short stories.

I’m especially proud of this year’s edition because I designed it while studying abroad, which I’ve been told is a first in the magazine’s history.

Also a first for the magazine: we have a website now! Please use the link below to peruse the past two editions, as well as exclusive online content, including photographs and a short story by yours truly:

https://wp.nyu.edu/w4thstreetreviewonline/

Three days in southern Jordan

Bands of granite like God’s brushstrokes scarring the sandstone mountains. Improbable towns, scatterings of buildings set along the road. In the hills, towns full of buildings half-finished, bricks waiting to be laid, cement supports with wires sticking out the tops like the wavering legs of insects turned on their backs.

Dry riverbeds, mountains that look as if they’re crumbling down. Camels, donkeys and goats dotting the scrubby hills like cows do in California. Wadi Rum like mars, like another planet. So bright you need sunglasses just to look out the window. Everywhere a dusty, dry wind that sucks the moisture out of you.

In Petra, temples with ceilings that look like mosaic masterpieces, that look like galaxies. In Wadi Rum, the sand red and fine. In Aqaba, pale buildings like castles. And the Red Sea glistening, biblical blue, turquoise along the edges, a great ship upon it, and across the way Eilat and Egypt, and ahead Saudi Arabia. Along the shore so many shipping containers stacked like legos, primary colors. And every room smelling of the cigarettes people still smoke inside.

Reading recap: January-April 2019

Here is a list of everything I’ve read the past four months, with reviews as well as personal musings and mutterings. In the past I only did this once a year, but I’m feeling motivated; I’ve been reading more than usual these days. I also realized that I received a bunch of these books as gifts, and I want to encourage anyone reading this who knows me to continue gifting me books! I love it!

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

As good as everyone else says it is. Though not what I expected; for some reason I had the impression that the novel was about a slave who had traveled forward in time to the present day, sort of like a reverse Kindred (by Octavia E. Butler). A powerful novel, nonetheless.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Also as good as everyone else says it is.

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten

This one was a birthday gift from my friend Sean, from high school. For whatever reason, I don’t really like the Scandinavian writing I’ve come across so far. It just seems, I don’t know, unlikely to me. I can’t understand why the characters feel or act the way they do. Can’t connect, can’t empathize. The stories were entertaining, but they just weren’t up to par with others that I’ve read.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

This novel was on my list for years and I hunted for it every chance I got. I came across an English copy in Tel Aviv last semester, but it was much too expensive. Luckily, I found another copy over winter break at Green Apple Books in San Francisco that was much more reasonably priced. I have to say I was a tiny bit disappointed; it didn’t blow me away like I was expecting it to. I think I had anticipated it for much too long, so I didn’t give it any chance to surprise me. I still enjoyed reading it, though.

Patterns of Change by Terri DuLong

My boyfriend gave this to me for my birthday because it combines two of my favorite things: reading and knitting. Even though it sounded like it was written by someone in high school (sorry, I had to say it), I enjoyed the story. Ian did his research; Terri DuLong is a well-loved, New York Times best-seller writer. But when a book is on the New York Times best-seller list, that does not always indicate top-quality literature. I liked it nonetheless, mostly because Ian gave it to me and it was an extremely thoughtful gift, but also because I wanted to know what happened next.

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez

A birthday gift from my friend Mimi. I love every word I’ve ever read of Gabriel García Márquez’s, even if this novel is about a pedophiliac priest. I feel gross and terrible saying that, but it really is a beautiful novel. Not nearly as disturbing as Lolita, which I could never get through.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya

Another birthday gift from Sean. Lovely collection of eclectic stories. Right up my alley. Especially loved “The Women” and “Q&A.”

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

This book really got to me. It’s about a woman who leaves her life on a whim, gets in someone’s car with just the bathing suit on her back (and a beach bag) and allows herself to be driven away. She builds herself a whole new life elsewhere, and then returns to where she started. That’s kind of how I feel now, on my year abroad: as if I’ve put my real life on hold. Perhaps I needed to; I do think there are people who need to do it sometimes, like Delia Grinstead, the protagonist.

There were things she needed to learn about herself, and things that her family needed to learn about her. It’s comforting to feel like we don’t rely on anyone, even the people we really love; that we are capable of just up and moving and starting over, that we are entirely self-sufficient and perfectly fine doing it. It’s something we feel we need to prove to ourselves and to others—our independence. We take pride in it, but ultimately it isn’t what we really want for ourselves. I’ve done this twice now; but this time I have more of a life to return to, not just the anticipation of one, which is how it was during my gap year. I think I’ll read this book again, later in life, perhaps when (if) I’m married. I wonder if I’ll relate to it in the same way.