Danielle and her dog Cobaka, fresh from their walk, meet me just inside her building Saturday morning. Cobaka scrambles up the stairs the stairs ahead of us to her sun streaked apartment. Danielle offers me tea, lights some incense and we chat about books as I photograph her place.
I first met Danielle in the early days of our English degrees at the University of Winnipeg. I admired her passion and intelligence, but we never became close. Since then, she's pursued a masters and PhD work in literature, living in different parts of the country. Our paths crossed again when I began attending classes at Moksha, where she now works as an instructor. That launched a friendship filled with conversation about the books we love, old relationships, our Mennonite upbringings. Danielle is simultaneously intuitive and challenging. I vividly remember a yoga class where I came in filled with stress and confusion. During the final savasana, she gently massaged my arms and hands, and suddenly the world felt brighter again. But Danielle's also someone who won't let me off the hook. If she disagrees with me, she'll let me know and explain why. Conversation with her brings opportunities for careful consideration of my own opinions and perspectives. It's one of her greatest gifts.
Here are a few of Danielle's favourite books.
Vagina by Naomi Wolf
On one of my too-frequent trips to a local bookseller, Naomi Wolf's autobiographical-literary-scientific Vagina beamed at me with a glossy white cover in the non-fiction section. A woman's hand demurely holding a six-sided leaf over her pelvis just beckoned me to take a peek. Within, Wolf divvied the topic up into four parallel approaches to the vagina: scientifically, as an intrinsic part within a whole neuro-biological system; historically, as a site of control and domination; symbolically, in its role within cultural imagination; and finally erotically, as a potential vehicle for female pleasure, spirituality, and creative awakening. Reading it was like getting a manual to my own varied sexual experiences — the best and worst — and it empowered me to seize control over what I had already realized experientially. Her inclusion of scientific evidence to explain just how unloving words or actions by any man, but especially a partner, can physiologically destroy a women's ability to become sexually aroused, never mind satiated, helped me discard residual guilt over rejecting physical advances by a cruel former partner. On the positive side, Wolf also offers plenty of ways to cultivate an environment and lifestyle within which to feel safer and more cared for—which, she argues, is key to being sexual satisfied as a woman and by extension connected and creative.
The Journal of Anais Nin, Vol II by Anais Nin
Anais Nin first came to my attention in Jewel's “Morning Song” when I was 16 years old. I tucked her name away in a corner marked “legendary love affairs” and intended to check up on her later. Instead my honours degree in English happened, followed by a masters and a PhD, and my reading time was rarely my own. Then I read Wolf, who compared the way Henry Miller, Anais' lover, and Anais herself described sexual experience, and I knew I had to seek this woman out. I first read Nin's Delta of Venus (which I found at different times surprising, mesmerizing, and disturbing) but I fell in love when I read the second volume of her Journal. Nin is remarkably self-aware and vividly articulate about her habitual thoughts and behaviour patterns. She watches herself and her loved ones with a clarity, compassion, and curiosity to which I intimately relate. I can't say I've ever had such a vivid yet surreal experience as though turning a corner in a strange house and coming face-to-face with myself portrayed in a picture painted 80 years prior. I'm not sure what is more disturbing: the fact she is so clearly brilliant yet constantly under-appreciated (though adored) by the men around her; how she sees their sexism yet is in no way upset by it; or how easily her experience could be transposed into 2016 without substantial changes.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Last night a girlfriend and artist was over drinking wine and painting in water colours, and she was railing against people who ask her what her favourite colour is. She said she likes all of them because they are all needed to do different things. That's basically how I feel about books, but for the sake of conversational conventions, I decided a few years ago that I would tout The Unbearable Lightness as my favourite, because it's the book I've gone back to most often in the varied circumstances of my life to find deeper insight and more robust feeling. It's also arguably The Book that catapulted me into spending 11 years tirelessly studying literature. Kundera begins by musing over the much un-loved Nietzsche and that philosopher's provocative ponderings around the idea of Eternal Recurrence, and the impact that believing in immortality has on the human experience of life. Much like Nietzsche, Kundera's books are essentially musical in composition; he introduces a theme that returns, again and again, in various guises. This musicality means that his books often bounce with seeming whimsy between characters, images, and topics, but the meaning takes shape within the harmonies and clashes created between each “note”. The secret to enjoying Kundera is reading at the right tempo. The payoff is neither a “dark” nor “light” story, but one of those raw looks at humanity that I can only compare to prolonged, earth-tilting eye-contact with a stranger that momentarily wrinkles the smooth surface of everyday life.
This is the third instalment of Reading with Friends. You can read others' recommendations here.