I had that feeling on Tuesday while reading a description of the new “shelter in place” rules that have already gone into effect in San Francisco and are being considered for other cities around the country. My first thought was, Oh, that’s not so bad. You still are allowed to leave your house for exercise and to buy essentials. But wait. The ability to walk down the street without having to justify my presence or state my business to an officer of the law is a significant thing to give up. (The San Francisco police assure the public they will take a “compassionate, commonsense approach” to enforcement.)
If you had told me just 10 days earlier—when despite growing concern about the virus I had thought nothing of taking Amtrak to attend a friend’s wedding—that this many things and people would disappear from my daily life in less than two weeks, it would have been hard to believe. The feeling of disappearance feels somewhat familiar, thanks to a book I read shortly before this crisis that I now can’t stop thinking about: the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police.
Nanu addressed me, his first grandchild, as “young lady.” And around Nanu, I behaved like a lady too. The day my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my brother, my grandparents, who lived in New Delhi, took me out to dinner at the five-star Taj hotel. I was three, and Nanu told me I sat quietly in my high chair, poised as I nibbled on my food.
Growing up, I felt as though Nanu and I were alike in many ways. Even though much of our relationship was built on silence, we shared a mutual sense of calm and composure.
But of course, I wasn’t calm and composed at all, not internally. And it was only after he died that I found out just how similar Nanu and I truly were.
It is 11 August 1999 and I am gazing up at the Sun, my eyes protected by a flimsy cardboard solar filter. I am completely unprepared for what is to come. In a few moments, my life will turn upside down as I experience my first total solar eclipse.
In The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has created a luminous, complex family narrative that spans nearly a century of Vietnamese history, from the French colonial period through the communist Viet Minh's rise to power, the separation between North and South Vietnam, the Vietnam War, all the way to the present day. Told alternately by Diệu Lan, born in 1920, and her granddaughter Hương, born in 1960, the novel resembles a choral performance with multiple voices.
A History of Solitude calls for a “quiet history of British society”, or “a history of doing nothing at all”. It is a remarkably versatile study, ranging from the poetry of John Clare to the “networked solitude” of the internet and the cult of mindfulness. There is a fascinating section on solitary walking, which the 19th-century middle classes indulged in for spiritual recreation (Wordsworth is reckoned to have walked some 180,000 miles during his lifetime), and the labouring classes undertook in order to find work. Constant perambulation was what united peasant and patrician.
In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.