Women We Read This Week

Ali Smith’s “The Human Claim” at Liberty

I love the way Ali Smith writes, so I was happy to find this piece amidst 80 author responses to the theme of “liberty.” Here she draws a line from the ashes of D.H. Lawrence to credit card fraud to Google Streetview to Harmondsworth to Lawrence again, capturing a certain universal ridiculousness in life through moments of banality beautifully rendered. And it’s, well, fun – but also weightier than it at first appears. As she writes, “Meanwhile, a little less than a hundred years later, I was sitting at my desk on the one hand pondering hopeless fury and in the other literally holding my latest letter from Barclaycard.”


Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Hot Tub Time Machine” on OnEarth

I’ve been listening to Kolbert’s latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, each morning on my drive to work. The book combines historical narrative with scientific reporting to document the mass extinction that humans are currently living through, and how we have driven ourselves from the geologic era of the Holocene into the Anthropocene–how scientists are referring to the current geologic era we live in–because of our own altering of the earth’s landscape and atomosphere. Kolbert is a master storyteller–detailing outings with quirky scientists across the globe and illustrating the history of cantankerous scientists making discoveries in a pre-Darwin era. I often use her as an reference when I’m working on my own projects because of the way she’s able to tell a good story about, say, looking for frogs in Panama and connect it to 19th-century French scientists trying to identify the fossil remains of a mastodon to how these stories connect to the larger geologic history–and future–of our planet. In this excerpt of the book recently published on OnEarth, Kolbert travels to Castello Aragonese–“a tiny island that rises straight out of the Tyrrhenian Sea, like a turret, eighteen miles west of Naples, Italy,” where sea vents spew CO2  into the ocean. This increase in CO2 represents what’s happening on a global scale–increased CO2 in the atmosphere means increased CO2 in the oceans, which means an acidification of the water…which means the extinction of numerous species which rely on a specific pH balance in the water, such as limpets, snails, and mussels . This excerpt is a perfect example of how Kolbert focuses in on the nitty-gritty science to tell a much larger, epic story.

Mal Ahern’s “Body Mass Index” on The New Inquiry

In this essay, Ahern presents a fantastic analysis of how Sandra Bullock’s body is represented in the recent 3-D movie Gravity. At times Ahern pulls on some pretty dense theory, but she also presents us with simple observations about how Bullock’s body is presented (“Bullock appears to have beaten age. But it’s hard to find her body sexy, because one can’t imagine touching her: She doesn’t look pliable, or even tangible.”). She then compares Bullock’s representation to Sigourney Weaver’s in Alien (the two films have already widely compared to one another), examining the two unscientifically sound representations of what these women would wear under their space suits/diving suits (i.e., not underwear and skimpy tank tops), yet contrasting Weaver’s “Exhausted, sweaty, probably wet with alien guts” look in Alien with Bullock’s “disinfected” appearance in Gravity:

Bullock’s body thus offers a different problem than does Weaver’s in Alien. We no longer wonder whether the heroine is an object of lust or a subject of identification: She is neither. Nor is her movement through space occasion for the aesthetic free-play we see in 2001. Instead, Bullock is a device, custom-built to accomplish various goals. Even the film’s transparent attempt to humanize her character (using a hastily tacked-on backstory about a dead child) serves a clear purpose: It allows Bullock to meet the minimum conditions for an Oscar nomination.


Alice Quinn’s The Art of Losing: Elizabeth Bishop’s letters in The New Yorker

“The most interesting thing I’ve been doing lately is taking Marianne Moore to the circus.”

This is just one of many understated, quirky, lovely revelations in this series of excerpts from the letters of Elizabeth Bishop, published in The New Yorker in 1994. During a week of writing tedium, completing applications and poring over revisions, I needed to go on a vicarious journey to the “lofty vagueness” of Brazil, with clouds drifting through the windows of country houses and a pet toucan named Uncle Sam.

Bishop’s life was wrought with tragedies – the death of her father and lover, the institutionalization of her mother – and yet these letters possess a wry softness incongruous with the hard heartbreak of her life. They are a reminder that art is in the noticing, in the everyday:

The nicest thing I saw on a drive yesterday was a man trying to sell papayas by the side of the road. He had them hung up by strings, like a little clothesline, and was seated beside them on the ground and as each car approached he raised an old bugle to his mouth, blew a bugle call and pointed majestically at the line of big sagging yellow fruits.

There is something intensely comforting in the letters of renowned writers: the humility, intimacy, and small revelations found there are reminders that beyond the grandeur of their oeuvres they lived complicated human lives, and ones punctuated by an awareness of beauty and absurdity that are the writer’s gift.

“Think I’ll write you a note before I go out & eat some mackerel,” Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell, and somehow I find in that line a balm. I want to get up from my desk, walk out the door, and pay attention. –Sarah


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