hand holding crystal ball

In the eye of the beholder

Notes from the October Literati Meeting

Despite the ubiquitous nature of the theme (beauty is all around us, isn’t it?) most of us stumbled selecting suitable resources. After searching our shelves (physical and virtual), we wound up with a great list of things to read, watch, and listen to that touch on beauty. (I’m impressed no one jumped at the obvious Zadie Smith option!)

Beaux arts

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Described by Jennifer Egan as “a relevant and electrifying classic for our times,” this classic novel shows beauty as a commodity, demonstrating how it’s often the only leverage women have in a patriarchy. It’s also a 2000 film starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd. 

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Throughout this epic historical fiction about four generations of a Korean family in Japan, Lee carefully describes the appearance of the main characters through the lens of beauty. Pachinko may not explicitly be about the theme, but it certainly highlights the physical beauty of people and places. 

Dune (2021), directed by Denis Villeneuve
The film is visually stunning, with gorgeous scenery and outstanding asthetics (although Roxane Gay calls it out for being too damn dark). The soundscape is also beautiful and the audio/visual spectacle is worthy of going to the cinema.

Lyrical and lovely

Not all poetry is pleasing to the senses. Some, like Maxine Kumin’s Pantoum, With Swan (content warning: sexual assault) have brutality underneath a strict form and deliberate meter. And not all aesthetically pleasant writing is poetic. These works bring harmony in prose and verse. 

Not one of these poems is about you by Teva Harrison
Heart-breakingly beautiful poetry written after Harrison was diagnosed with breast cancer and published after she died. Harrison also wrote In-Between Days, a graphic memoir that addresses many aspects of life with cancer that aren’t often talked about. 

I want to breathe myself into you, 
curve my body around your heart. 
If I could, I know I could keep you safe, 
safe from the inevitable end of my body, 
my being. 

Except from ‘When I Become You’ by Teva Harrison

A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Based on his travel diaries from walking the length of Europe (from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople) in the early 1930s, Fermor wrote these memoirs describing a Europe that no longer exists. With a wonderful aesthetic sensitivity and beautiful writing, these three volumes are a soothing read. 

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight
Heavily influenced by Japanese anime, this beautiful film follows Kubo, an adventurous boy who joins forces with Monkey and Beetle on a quest. The animation captures nature in a gloriously idealized form and the absorbing story keeps viewers interested.

Sonnet‘ by Wendy Cope
Contemporary British poets re-interpreted Shakespearean sonnets in The Guardian for Valentine’s Day 2016, with Cope contributing her take on Sonnet 22. 

My glass can’t quite persuade me I am old –
In that respect my ageing eyes are kind –
But when I see a photograph, I’m told
The dismal truth: I’ve left my youth behind.
And when I try to get up from a chair
My knees remind me they are past their best.
The burden they have carried everywhere
Is heavier now. No wonder they protest.
Arthritic fingers, problematic neck,
Sometimes causing mild to moderate pain,
Could well persuade me I’m an ancient wreck
But here’s what helps me to feel young again:
My love, who fell for me so long ago,
Still loves me just as much, and tells me so.

Wendy Cope

True definition of science

French philosopher Simone Weil said the true definition of science is the study of beauty, and these science-related works let their inner beauty shine. 

Bewilderment by Richard Powers
The author of The Overstory (mentioned in our resource list on ‘Nature’) writes beautifully about an astrobiologist and his neurodivergent son. It explores the concept of an ‘empathy machine,’ tying this climate-change-centric story to a blog post about The Importance of Empathy from one of our attendees.

The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by Joseph Henrich
The title sounds self-help-y, but the content is about how people only thrive because of our collective intelligence. Henrich explains that shared knowledge and cumulative social learning over millions of years is our remarkably human superpower. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK Jemisin
Also referenced in the notes from our March 2020 meeting, Jemisin builds backstory over millennia, creates a vivid world, and features strong female protagonists. 

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Classic dystopian novel that envisioned the World Wide Web back in the mid-1980s, launched the cyberpunk movement in sci fic, and won a heap of awards. 

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi 
Languages and traditions from the African diaspora, trans pride, and biblical imagery are masterfully mixed in this YA novel set in a post-revolution utopia. 

Atomic Pantoum’ by Peter Meinke 
Employing a form of poetry that reuses lines to create a paper-chain-like structure, this 36-line pantoum (which slightly confusingly spans two pages) expresses cold war horrors.

The wonder right in front of us

Perhaps our collective problem finding books, films, and other wordy works on the topic of ‘Beauty’ is that it’s omnipresent. There’s so much magnificence around us, we can’t see the forest for the trees. Using the argument that every work of art is filled with beauty, we’re gonna shoehorn this selections into the theme.

  • Who Is the Bad Art Friend?’ by Robert Kolker in The New York Times
    What is a ‘bad art friend?’ Why did this spawn such a cultural phenomenon? We have no answers, but don’t advise reading the almost 10,000 word article in its entirety. 
  • Dan Savage Revolutionized Sex. Then the Revolution Came for Him.‘ by L.V. Anderson in Slate
    A detailed interview (this piece is loooong) about America’s most popular — and sometimes divisive — sex advice columnist. 
  • Dwayne Johnson Lets Down His Guard‘ by Chris Heath in Vanity Fair
    If you’re not already a fan of The Rock, you will be after reading this! 
  • The French Dispatch (2021), directed by Wes Anderson
    Anderson’s whimsical humor and some of his favourite actors (Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton) in a newspaper-inspired collection of stories.
  • Netflix Book Club with Uzo Aduba
    A new series diving into the original literary works behind some of the streaming giant’s adaptations. First up is Passing by Nella Larsen. 

On the horizon

The last gathering of The Literati in 2021 will be on Thursday, December 2 where we’ll talk about ‘Quiet/silence’ in the glittering world of literature. The location is yet to be determined, with an in-person meeting in Zurich most likely. 

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Header image based on a photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash.

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