Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book #43: Reading Yourself Into a New Life

"She knew she was going to have trouble believing in herself, in the room of her house, and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked atop the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation."
                                                                                -Michael Cunningham, The Hours
What a week.  I have been run off my feet at my day job.  And at night, I have been stressed - exhilaratingly stressed - finishing off the edits to my book in time for my agent to take it to the London Book Fair.  Now that my book is finished (or finished at least until my friend, Diane, another writer, finishes giving it her final read through, for tweaking), I don't know what to do with myself.  Last night, I indulged in my first cigarette in months and also began reading The Hourswhich I've been meaning to read ever since I saw the movie years ago. 

While watching the film, I recall identifying most closely with Clarissa (Meryl Streep), but upon reading the novel, it's a different character, Laura Brown, who pulls at my sympathies most urgently.  The avid reader, the repressed housewife.  She's the one whose story beckons to my imagination and lets me see shades of my own former miserable self and uplifts me in surprising ways.  Laura Brown literally reads her way into another life - gradually, at first, as the simple tasks of caring for her son and baking a cake for her husband's birthday compete with the illicit pleasure of reading Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that she strangely, exquisitely, identifies with, even as it illuminates her own stifled condition.  Although it first seems she's simply reading for escape, just the opposite ends up being true.  Reading Mrs. Dalloway pushes Laura to change her life in frightening, unthinkable ways.  And as I'm reading, I find myself remembering the moment in my own life when reading so transformed me.

It was six years ago, the year I'd moved to Berlin.  I was in the second to last year of my Ph.D., and I was supposed to be immersed in my dissertation, writing five to ten pages at Staatsbibliothek every day.  But the temptation of being a flaneuse in Berlin's graffiti-filled streets - touring the makeshift galleries and experimental music venues and clandestine bookstores - was simply too great.  The grand theoretical intervention that my dissertation was supposed to be making melted away, and I remember the illicit rush of thinking, Screw it, I'm just reading for fun today.  The first book I picked up was Accidents in the House by Tessa Hadley.  I remember its black cover very clearly.  It's a collection of linked short stories about a group of people, primarily women, and by the end of the book their fates have reversed in ironic, inspiring ways.  The story stayed with me and my desire to read for pure pleasure, too.  A dangerous drug.

Although I did eventually plough through my dissertation, I could never truly envision myself as a professor after I'd read that book, after I'd allowed myself that momentary freedom.  And a few years later, I walked away from my life in a small university town, heading for some unforeseeable future. 

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

I really enjoyed "Accidents in the House" and just bought Hadley's book, "The London Train." Stay away from those cigarettes! Try dark chocolate or champagne instead. Hope your agent has good luck with your memoir in London!

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Can't wait to read The London Train - I have put it on my to read list. And you are right about dark chocolate and champagne.... a better mood boost and far better for my health!

B.H. said...

Thank you so much for describing yourself as a flaneuse. That is one of my favorite words, and concepts, of all time. I'm a big fan of street photography, especially from fifty years ago, and Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson's photos let you be the flaneur. That's why I love them. I spent a summer in Paris photographing the streets and visiting the American Library in Paris. If only, if only, I had 500 pounds a year. Some people live that way, you know? Unbelievable.

Also, Mrs. Dalloway is my favorite book, bar none. If I were 1/100th the writer Woolf was I would actually try to make a go of being a writer. I was having an awful time a few weeks ago and thought too often of this picture and her sad end (

What is your day job?

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks so much for a moving picture and for reminding me of Robert Frank and Cartier-Bresson. I recall seeing my first exhibit of their work at Martin-Gropius-Bau museum that year in Berlin.... I hope that looking at their work now would bring back everything I felt at time, that feeling of seeing the world afresh....


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.