Open City Wanderings

Open CityI couldn’t remember what life was like before I started walking.
—Teju Cole,
 Open City

I read Teju Cole’s Open City while traveling through India. It was a bizarre yet wonderful experience, because Cole’s book starts off all about New York City, which is strikingly different from the environment I found myself in at the time. But it’s also a book about exploration and connection. The magic of Open City is not in what happens, but rather in how the main character experiences life. And those fictional wanderings called up memories of my own experiences walking without a clear destination.

Open City follows a Nigerian American doctor who is in the midst of his residency at a Manhattan hospital. The doctor finds himself with lots of unstructured time in his odd periods of respite from his demanding work schedule, and so he walks. He walks all throughout NYC, and eventually his wanderings take him to Brussels and beyond. He encounters all manner of people —rich, poor, white, of color, young, old. And throughout his adventuring he maintains a persistent and alluring internal monologue that shows an uncanny self-awareness and depth of mind.

Back while I lived in Washington, DC, a close friend of mine was located in NYC. So, when I had free weekends, I would sometimes take a bus up to the Big Apple to hang out. I had a great experience in DC — it’s an interesting city and it fit my lifestyle at that point. But New York was even more intriguing to me, because it isn’t just interesting, it’s an endlessly interesting place.

One of the first times I visited NYC my friend had to work all day. I wanted to see what the city had to offer, so in the morning I left the apartment and took the subway from Queens to Columbia University in north Manhattan. I admired the campus for a little while and then wandered to a deli and then a park nearby to eat lunch. From there, I figured I might as well see some of Harlem and so I wandered over to 5th Avenue and started to make my way down alongside Central Park. And after that for lack of much else to do, I simply… kept walking.

Columbia’s manicured haven had opened into the grittier streets of Harlem, where I experienced the feeling of being both at home and on edge at the same time. I saw Central Park change, as I walked from its more vacant end toward museums, the ritzy area, and then the hubbub of the central city. I ended up at Wall Street and the former site of the World Trade Center, absorbing that end-of-the city feeling as evening blew across the water and into the grid of streets.

The approximate route I took, minus a few meanderings

The approximate route I took, minus a few meanderings

I’ll never forget the tender sense of accomplishment I had at the end of that day. It was just like the closing of a book, the sense that I had fully opened myself up to the city and what it had to offer. I had seen so much, felt so much, encountered so many different people and blocks in one day. I may never experience New York in that same way again — it was a lot of walking after all — but I’m grateful for the memory.

I have some confusion about Cole’s choices for the very ending of Open City that I can’t really get into without spoiling. But otherwise, the writing is truly graceful, and I’m glad Cole reminded me what it feels like to give in to the beautiful sensation that is wanderlust.

The Kolkata Flyover and Sustainability Politics

Trafficjamdelhi

I returned last Thursday from a three-month trip in and around India. The first thing I did was sleep. A lot. And then the next day I turned on my computer to see that a flyover collapse in Kolkata had just killed more than 25 people.

I’m sometimes guilty of reading quickly past international tragedies. They can seem so far away and unconnected to my everyday world. But I spent a week in Kolkata during the month of February. Having been in that exact city just over a month ago makes the pain palpable. In one image I saw the yellow and green backs of two autorickshaws buried in the rubble, and I thought about how much time I spent getting around the city in that type of vehicle. I could have been there when it happened.

The collapse makes me think of China, which for many years now has been on a rapid infrastructure expansion and construction boom. While China may now be slowing down its rate of construction. It’s also not unheard of for similar collapses to occur at building sites within the country.

Both countries get mentioned a lot when it comes to conversations of global development. And talk isn’t always flattering. For instance, the media is all over the serious pollution issues in parts of India and China. And it is a real concern. My introduction to India was Bangalore, a city now renowned for its bad air. Careening through oppressively crowded streets in a rickshaw, I often saw heavy black soot coming out the exhaust pipes of trucks or other vehicles ahead. I felt the visceral relief of spending time at tree-filled Lalbagh Park to get away from the crush of traffic.

In many ways, so-called developing nations struggle to keep up with the sheer size of their populations (as of 2013 India was at nearly 1.3 billion and China had almost 1.4 billion residents). The rapid pace of their urbanization means that planners, engineers, and builders are racing to redesign Asian cities under this huge pressure of people.

It does seem like a tremendous task to keep up with the rapidly urbanizing parts of India, as well as the roads, trains, electricity, broadband, and other infrastructure to connect them. Environmental concerns might often be getting shoved under the rug. But we’re missing some things also, aspects that are less sexy to report on, in declaiming “Oh, poor India,” and thinking of it only as an environmentally-challenged place. We miss the reality that there are also ways in which Indian culture is radically ahead of the game when it comes to sustainability.

I’m thinking of how ridesharing is nothing new to India for instance. Whole families often commute through cities on motorbikes, and rickshaws taken by locals are frequently stuffed to the brim. Uber advertises all over India (where it takes cash to adjust to infrequent use of credit cards), along with similar services already based in India. But their model seems much less innovative or necessary in a place where it’s already quite common to be riding in a vehicle with several other people.

Another example is the strict use of resources. From what I could see during my travels, hardly anyone seemed to own water- and electricity-guzzling appliances such as clothes washer/dryer sets or dishwashers. Most people bathe using buckets of water (not always heated either) rather than employing the use of water-guzzling showers. It’s something that a lot of travelers coming from the Western world have to get used to, given that we are so used to having these comforts.

Not too long ago, however, Western countries didn’t look so different. And while I’m not going to be the first to replace my shower in California with a bucket bath, I do have to wonder if it’s possible for India to grow and change differently than other industrialized countries have? Could it hold on to some of its more sustainable ways of living and at the same time embrace the things that would help increase environmental health, life expectancy, gender equity, and all the other markers that some places are arguably closer to? At the very least, it’s clear that sustainability isn’t always a clear cut issue.


Image by NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee

JuventudIf I know one thing in my life, it’s that your father is a good man. But I also know a few other things.
from Juventud by Vanessa Blakeslee

I love when a publisher reaches out to me with a book that is right up my alley, which is exactly what happened with Vanessa Blakeslee’s Juventud. I could tell when I first read the description that this was going to be a layered novel that expanded my understanding of Colombia and what it means to have grown up there during a particularly turbulent period of history.

I want to give a completely-unsolicited shoutout to Curbside Splendor, the company that published Juventud. As someone who reviews books by/about people of color and with an interest in the changing nature of cities, it’s a rare pleasure to find a publisher that puts out several books from those interests. I’d seriously recommend sifting through their catalog for works that pique your interest.

But back to the book. In my writings and work in urban planning so far I’ve been mostly focused on issues like gentrification, economic revitalization, and the intersection of race and poverty through a U.S. lens. So it’s a treat to read something that takes me to a completely different context with some of these same issues.

Juventud takes place in the complex political landscape of Colombia after the fall of Pablo Escobar, renowned cocaine-trafficker. The main character, Mercedes, is “the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Santiago de Cali, Colombia.” She’s a teenager who falls in love with a radical activist that voices out against militarized groups, terrorism, and corruption in the government. But Mercedes also has a complicated family history that she’s seeking to unravel, involving an American mother who she has never known and the dark secrets of her father’s maybe not-so-clean past.

The care and depth of Blakeslee’s research into Mercedes’ world is really evident from the beginning. From the geography to the food and the social structure of the time, Blakeslee paints a world that’s mysterious but also realistic. I really appreciated that she took equal care with the setting of the novel as she did with her character development.

In reading the book I found myself reflecting on how the children and teenagers who grow up in conflict areas or turbulent homes are often so much more mature than those who grow up in relative safety. You can see that even though Mercedes is a teenager, she acts in many ways as an adult. She quickly grows very wise about love, sex, what she wants, and her role in her society’s social structure.

In a painstaking way, Juventud blurs the categories of good and bad when it comes to family, politics, and searching for oneself. And it was an adventure I enjoyed following.

See a full list of my book reviews here, and my book review policy here.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifeThings get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.
from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So I’m gonna admit right now that I picked up A Little Life mostly because people kept talking about how sad it was. It was kind of like a jalapeño pepper eating contest to me. I wanted to see if it was really as sad as people said it was and if I could take it. I know. It was a bit of a strange impulse. Maybe I thought it would make me a stronger person.

Short story: yep, it’s a pretty sad book. The saddest book I’ve ever read? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s pretty high up there. I think what really brings it up to the top of that list is the level of hopelessness that just sort of hangs over the whole thing and over the main character Jude.

Jude is a messed up person. Pitted against other troubled protagonists of literary fiction he would win prizes for Worst Childhood, Worst PTSD, and Worst Self-Esteem with absolutely zero question. So where’s the story? Well, Yanagihara is really skilled at creating the world of Jude’s friends around him. She develops out his best friends Willem, JB, and Malcom, as well as several other characters who basically spend their lives trying to save Jude from the ghosts of his horrific past.

One of the reasons that this book spoke to me despite being incredibly heavy was that I do know Jude. It’s real that some people have turned inward on themselves with such violent self-hatred and a fear of being close to others that simply getting through a day is near-impossible at times. Having an author really illustrate this character in such a relentless way I think actually helped me better understand the people in my life who struggle with similar demons, even if those demons come from different places.

I don’t want to say too much more, because a lot of this book is about how much information Yanagihara lets you have access to and when. You don’t get to learn about Jude’s past until she says you can, and even then you only get parts of the story until nearly the end of the book. But I will say that I appreciated the fullness of this book, that it truly tried to capture a life in all of its torturous complexities, pains, and simple joys.

I’m very curious to read her other novel, The People in the Trees, which I’ve heard is actually pretty different from A Little Life, but I’ll definitely need to take a long breather first.

4Stars24/5 stars

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.

October Roundup: Podcasts, Community, and Habit-building

Bats

Boo!

I’ve loved BookRiot for long time, but this month I finally got around to listening to exploring not just their website but their world of podcasts. It really is a world, because they have five and counting as far as I can see. Having just finished reading Everything I Never Told You, I was really excited to check out the interview with her on their Reading Lives podcast. BookRiot’s original podcast is another great show with general news from the world of books and publishing.

Another bookish highlight of this month was getting to participate in Aarti’s #Diversiverse book challenge, where bloggers posted reviews of books by authors of color. I’m still looking forward to browsing through the full list of books that got reviewed and picking out new things for my to-read list. In between these heavy reads I picked up Hyperbole and a Half, a hilarious comic about life that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a while.

In other news, this has been a month of reflection for me on the importance of WOC (women of color) spaces. I started off this year knowing that I wanted to cultivate those spaces in my life and so far I have, with a WOC book club, a writing circle, and a social group. The ripple effects of having these communities in my life isn’t something I can readily explain, but I can say that I’m having a sense of pieces clicking and fitting together in a way that hasn’t happened for me in a few years. It’s like a lattice network going up, and I’m so thankful to be feeling it this month.

Being in a space of building community, getting ready to travel, and in general laying down some new routines and habits in my life, I was super interested when someone in my writing group recommended that I check out Habitica, a computer and mobile tool to help you get done what you want to get done.

Habitica Avatar

Isn’t my avatar cute?

What Habitica does is basically turn your life into a role-playing game. You have an avatar that you get to customize and various types of to-do lists and habits that give you virtual money and accessories when you check off a task. The beauty is that you also lose health points for not completing the tasks you set out to do, or  for indulging in the negative habits you’re trying to get away from. You can use your money to buy equipment and pets for your character, and the game also has a social element of being able to take on challenges in conjunction with other players or join groups.

I was someone who already loved the satisfaction of checking an item off a to-do list, so Habitica has been super useful for me in solidifying my gym-going, my creative writing hour each day, and my getting down to work time. People seem to use Habitica for everything from school and work to creative projects and quitting smoking. We’ll see how it continues to work for me moving forward!

P.S. Adele’s back! Who isn’t excited about that?