50/2015 #4: The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

WHAT IT IS: The Thing Around Your Neck, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a collection of short stories that deal with feminism, female autonomy, and the struggles for identity people face in a country that is rapidly changing around them as well as when moving to a new country. The majority of the main characters of the stories are young females, and although the situations they deal with vary – in one, a woman moves to America for a better future, but is abused by an uncle and forced to make her own way in the world; in another, a young woman is married to a man and moves with him to Brooklyn, where she finds out he is not what she thought he was, and also that he wants to squash her Nigerian identity out of her – through each of these stories, Adichie very clearly articulates hardships many women (particularly immigrant women) face.

 WHAT I THINK ABOUT IT: First of all, Adichie’s writing is simply beautiful. The novel reads like tributaries flowing into a larger river; it’s graceful and purposeful, with each word exactly the right weight for the story. Aside from being beautifully told, these stories all feature strong women. Even if Adichie doesn’t leave us with concrete solutions for these women’s problems, we are left with the idea that, using their inner strength, they will be able to overcome them. Even when feeling lost, abandoned, beaten, and scared, Adichie’s women show strength, grace, and determination; they are feathers quills of steel.

 WHY I READ IT: Like many people, I first became aquainted with Adichie’s work from being exposed to the sampling of her TED talk in Beyonce’s song “Flawless.” I watched that talk and several more, and upon learning she was a writer, I became interested in reading her work.

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Girl on (Plastic) Rocks

I’ve never been a very athletic person. Much of my childhood was spent either in bed or a comfy chair, curled up with a novel. In middle and high school, my whole goals were just to make it through P.E. classes without somehow embarrassing or injuring myself (I am, without a doubt, one of the clumsiest humans alive). I’ve tried kickboxing, I’ve tried jogging, and for a few months two years ago I was old-lady power walking on a fairly regular basis – but nothing really stuck.

Until now. My sig other introduced me to the wonder that is rock climbing (specifically bouldering), and I think I might be addicted.

Sports never were my thing. For one, I never “naturally” took to sports, so I never practiced, so I always sucked at them. I also was a nerdy kid who frantically excused my physical inabilities by believing and maintaining all the media B.S. that athletic people are idiots (on behalf of nerd-dom, sorry athletes, but let’s be fair, you got a few good ones in there too). I’m a perfectionist, holding myself and everyone around me to basically impossible standards. I hate when I make mistakes, and I hate when others make mistakes, because deep down I’m convinced that if I had the chance, I could do it better.

This doesn’t bother me in climbing. Climbing teaches me that not only is it o.k. to fall, it’s the only way to ever get better, and that’s a life lesson I still sorely need.

Climbing isn’t a group sport. It isn’t a competition (I mean, there are professionals and competitions out there, but I’m talking about the low-key essence of climbing). The only person I’m trying to beat is my past self. The only person who controls the outcome of a climb is myself. I get what I put into it – if I train, if I exercise, I can improve, do harder climbs, and accomplish cooler moves. And this has inspired me to practice not only climbing, but other areas of fitness as well – I’m now doing yoga, pilates, and resistance training, and I’ve changed my diet drastically in the last few months. My body feels good, healthy in a way it’s never felt before. My body feels attractive in a way it’s never felt before, even if the feeling is just in my head.

And that goodness transcends my time spent in the gym. That goodness makes me not only more confident in myself, but also more forgiving of my mistakes. It makes me more forgiving of others’ mistakes, as I climb alongside other beginners and we see each other’s weaknesses and work together to make them strengths. All in all, I feel like a kinder, more helpful person, and that’s a good thing.

So let’s hope this is one hobby that will stick.

50/2015 #2 – If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

WHAT IT IS: If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, is a novel that presents itself as a collection of short stories. Or a collection of short stories that presents itself as a novel. Or a novella connected by a series of short stories; I haven’t quite decided which. The chapters of the novel are divided into two parts: the first part describes the adventures of “you,” an avid reader who goes in search of the missing parts of a recently purchased novel, and the second part is the beginning of each novel “you” find.

The beginnings have two things in common: they leave off at the climax, and they are never continued in the rest of the book. Indeed, that is the quest of “you” – to find the rest of the novels to which these introductions are part of.

HOW I FEEL ABOUT IT: If on a winter’s night a traveler has been one of the most difficult books I’ve read in the last year. It mainly seems to be dealing with questions of authority, authenticity, and trustworthiness. Can I believe what an author says in his books? Is what the author describes a true belief or a contradiction meant to point out an inconsistency? Like the mirrors described in one of the novel beginnings, this story acts as a kaleidoscope, infinitely expanding and reflecting and collapsing back upon itself.

To be honest, I’m still not sure what I think of this book. Was this a true meditation on the purpose of readers, writers, and novels in general? Or was it meant to point out the futility of such questions? I don’t know, I don’t know! But it’s definitely on my list of must re-reads.

WHY I READ IT: My partner gave me this book as part of my Christmas present. He got me “Cosmicomics,” also by Italo Calvino, for my birthday, and since I enjoyed that one he figured he’d might as well get me another. Plus one to him for deductive reasoning.