April 12, 2014

Production continues into the alienated night.
The first movement of a message

bodiless as light.
I mean, produce, distribute, then recoup

your losses.

Are you worth your place in space
is all the day-boss wants to know.
Emotional time is what is irrecoverable.

Fanny Howe, from the poem sequence “O’Clock,” in her Selected Poems.

February 25, 2014
My 20th Century

Alice Munro

Fanny Howe

Toni Morrison

Joan Didion

Renata Adler

Julio Cortazar

Adrienne Rich

Grace Paley

Susan Sontag

Ralph Ellison

Simone de Beauvoir

Clarice Lispector

Marguerite Duras

Elizabeth Hardwicke

Elizabeth Bishop

Sylvia Plath

Marianne Moore

Borges

Virginia Woolfe

Dorothy Parker

January 27, 2014

I tried to flatter myself into extinction; tried to bury alive in a landslide of disparagement ego and subjectivity and the first person singular pronoun. I ran identity to ground with the dogs of irony; I tried to kill, bury, burn, embalm, and erase the outlines of me, mummify myself in the damp wrappings of surrealism, sever and rearrange me with Stein’s cubisms, break, buy, bribe, drive a stake through me; tried to whip to death the whole frumpish horse-and-buggy, essentialist, runs-in-the-blood notion I had of who “I” was; like Stein I tried to bleed the bloody paragraph to death, killed the semicolon with the machete of my wit, tried to censor and edit, rewrite and emend me, my belief in lifeblood, marrow, core, and fiber; tried to swap my DNA at the DNA supermarket I read about in Philip K. Dick. So what is I still doing here? Why is I having to keep its eyes peeled? Its eye on the ball? Trying to steer by some dim star, that small, raw planet of self-loathing hammered into the night ahead? Why is I hauled forth over this choppy terrain like a tug on the rough boulevards of a black river? And by whom?

Lynn Emanuel, from Noose and Hook

January 9, 2014
echoseeker:

Happy Birthday, Simone de Beauvoir!
INTERVIEWER
In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.
DE BEAUVOIR
Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.
theparisreview:

“One should aim at inventing without fabricating.” —Simone de Beauvoir, who was born on this day in 1908.

echoseeker:

Happy Birthday, Simone de Beauvoir!

INTERVIEWER

In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.

DE BEAUVOIR

Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.

theparisreview:

“One should aim at inventing without fabricating.” —Simone de Beauvoir, who was born on this day in 1908.

January 6, 2014
The 2013 Book List, Part III

The stirring conclusion to my 2013 round-up.  I read 21 books, here are Nos. 1-7 ranked not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or made me feel something, or all of the above.

***

image

1. Speedboat (1976) - Renata Adler (NYRB Classics, 2013 reprint edition. Purchased at Spoonbill & Sugartown. On the Permanent Keeper shelf, signed by R. Adler.)

New York in the 1970s, a peek into the insomniac consciousness of a journalist, a woman. Fragmented into perfect paragraphs. Paranoia, travels, anecdotes, affairs, drinking, childhood, politics, seen through sharp eyes and vulnerable soul. Brilliant.

image

2. How Should a Person Be? (2012) - Sheila Heti (Picador, 2013 reprint edition. Purchased at a bookstore. Loaned to a friend.)

Ballsy. I admired Heti’s lack of fear in writing about art & wanting to make art, about sex, about obsession, about being petty, even. Very funny, sometimes. Sometimes annoying, when it aimed for grandiosity, but it annoyed me in the ways I annoy myself. It had the feeling of a graphic novel, maybe because so much of it was written in dialogue.

image

3. Just Kids (2010) - Patti Smith (Ecco. Purchased at a bookstore. On the Permanent Keeper shelf.)

Second time I read this. A comforting book for the winter. She makes me want to draw, write, make collages, dream, with unabashed enthusiasm. A gentle book, gentle handling of Mapplethorpe’s hustling, episodes of lice, freezing winters, getting jeered on stage, etc., seen through the burnish of nostalgia. She recognizes this aspect, though, that the book is an act of love and therefore gentle about the difficult times. This time around, I noticed many more allusions to rock lyrics hidden in her text, and I admired the writing style - spare & elegant.

image

4. Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (2001)  - David Bayles and Ted Orland (Image Continuum Press. Passed on to me by a friend, who found it in a book box on the street in Brooklyn. In the art book shelf.)

A second read. Like a voice of common sense in your head, a good talk with a friend: focus on the process, not the final criticism or adulation, keep making stuff, if that’s what makes you tick.

image

5. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries and Curiosities (2009) - Alberto Angela, trans. Gregory Conti (Europa Editions.  Purchased at B&N, USQ. Kept on the “will possibly re-read or loan to someone” shelf.)

The author worked in documentary TV, and the book gives this feeling, in a good way. Cinematic in its descriptions, a friendly narrative voice takes you on a tour of Ancient Rome from dawn until midnight, taking you through the homes of people of various social classes, the markets, the Senate, the Coliseum, the communal bathrooms… A social history I’ve always wanted to read: instead of focusing on battles and emperors, it brings the daily details of existence to life. A charming translation that retains the feel of Italian.

image

6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) - Michael Pollan 

Wow was this book good. A lasting contribution. It felt so fresh, even 7 years after its initial publication and all of the hype surrounding it. I like that he went beyond taking an activist, awareness-raising perspective regarding American production, consumption and attitudes towards food (although there are shades of this) and assumed a bigger point view, which includes human evolution, philosophy, ethics and his own personal perspective, which was so open and touching. 

image

7. Tender Is the Night (1934) - F. Scott Fitzgerald 

Glamorous, escapist stuff… The French Riviera, Switzerland, Paris. A golden couple with a secret.  Americans must have been so obnoxious, actually, taking over struggling post-WWI France. It was the first time I thought this reading Fitzgerald. Laughed at his digs at the British, they are always duds in this book.

January 5, 2014
The 2013 Book List, Part II

Better late than never, my round-up of 2013 reading. I read 21 books. Here are Nos. 8-14, ranked in order of my preference. Not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or made me feel something, or all of the above.

***

image

8. 2500 Random Things About Me Too (2012) - Mathias Viegener (Les Figues Press. Purchased as a result of submitting work to this press, via their website. Kept in the poetry shelf.)

I think this was born out of Viegener’s commitment to a conceptual art aesthetic: find out what will happen via repetition; the most important part is the commitment to that repetition. I’m often skeptical of the products of conceptual art (which only make you think about the process), but the repetition works in this case. This is a book based on that Facebook meme from 2011 or so, where people posted 25 random things about themselves. Viegener wrote 100 of those lists. 

There is something so compelling about a list (as the Internet has proven). Because there is a clear beginning and ending? Because the whole comes in digestible parts? Because it gives us a mini-puzzle to order (put together the things that look alike, separate the things that are not like the others)?

But Viegener is not just working randomly, he even admits to this in some of the later lists… The lists become a slow revelation of his life, with the death of his mother and his friend, the writer Kathy Acker, as the emotional threads. He sprinkles it liberally with funny and lurid stories about sexual encounters, conclusions and questions about art, his fascination with plants and fruit…

It would be interesting to write an essay comparing it to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is similar in form and substance in some ways. I enjoyed this book so much more, maybe because he has a more generous sense of humor… Great bedtime reading - read a list & turn the light off.

image

9. Blood, Bones and Butter (2011) - Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House. Purchased at B&N, USQ. Passed on to a friend.)

I enjoyed Hamilton’s voice: tough, honest about her own vulnerabilities and failings, sometimes sarcastic, not afraid to be a bitch. I liked being in her head. Particularly appreciated her account of her complicated relationship with her mother. Gorgeous descriptions of cooking and of food (to be expected in a celebrated chef’s memoir), rekindles the romance of Italy. 

image

10. Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life (2011) - Lisa Chaney (Purchased at Posman Books, Grand Central. On the “will possibly re-read or loan to someone” shelf.)

I liked this book best for the historical and cultural context it provides on Chanel’s life. Most fascinating was the description of the socially codified role of courtesans in France as well as prostitution generally, all the way down to the shop girl or seamstress who would occasionally have sex for money to make ends meet. 

The view of Chanel is an external one. It’s hard to get a sense of her personality, her relations with the people closest to her, though, admittedly she sounds like a difficult subject as she didn’t like to write (allegedly because was embarrassed by her writing style and lack of formal education), and because she told so many different versions of her life, herself.

Chaney devotes a bit too much time to defending the ways her positions and opinions about her subject diverge from other biographies, as if the reader had some knowledge of them all. She is also perhaps sympathetic to a fault with Chanel, including her Nazi sympathies, though I prefer this to a biographer who is judgmental of his/her subject.

image

11. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007) - Janet Malcolm (Purchased at St. Mark’s Bookstore. On the keeper shelf.)

Reading this is like sitting down and having a long talk with a really smart and entertaining literature professor about her research. More thoughts on this book here.

image

12. Pitch Dark (1983) - Renata Adler 

Reissued by NYRB books in 2013. A slow read about heartbreak. Wordplay is at its core. Certain sentences weave throughout like a variations on a melancholy melody . I saw Adler read and she said this was her favorite of her books. That’s why I wanted to like this better than Speedboat, but its scope is narrower.

image

13. Wild (2013) - Cheryl Strayed

What remains of the academic snob in me wants to take an academic snob position on this memoir, but the truth is that it made me cry twice on a long plane ride across the country, and it’s not often a book makes me more than tear up,. “Honest” seems to be my favorite word to commend books I read in 2013; that’s especially the case here. Refreshing to read a Great Adventure sort of story from a female perspective.

image

14. The Voyeurs (2012) - Gabrielle Bell 

Comics. Honest and depressing memoir-like graphic novellas. I liked the art.

January 4, 2014
The 2013 Book List, Part I

Better late than never, my round-up of 2013 reading. I read 21 books, here are Nos. 15-21 (plus scattered other reading and 4 abandoned books), ranked in order of preference. Not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or made me feel something, or all of the above.

****

image

15. LIT: A Memoir (2009) - Mary Karr

Absorbing account of her trajectory as a writer and recovery from alcoholism. Tough & funny. Maybe too coy about her friendships with literary heavyweights (for example, she had a relationship with David Foster Wallace, but only ever refers to him as David & glosses quickly over the affair), though it must be hard to decide what to include if you’re writing about your whole life. An unflinching account of her spiritual/religious development, a touchy subject if there ever was one.

image

16. Bluets (2009) - Maggie Nelson

This is labelled a memoir, but is its own made-up genre of numbered sections, which made this compulsively readable and added to the detached, cold quality. I liked how it was philosophical and wandering. A person dissecting her own pain. But maybe, ultimately, the coldness is what kept me from loving it? We get the sex with the beloved, the depression following the loss of the beloved, lots of blue, but never the beloved himself - why he was beloved. I also was averse to the voice’s awareness of the book itself, didn’t seem necessary (i.e., “I had all of these scraps I’ve been working on, I ordered them randomly, here they are”).

image

17. Self Help (1985) - Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore’s first story collection, not really fair to judge it against her later collections (all of which I read before this) because she just gets better. “What Is Seized” was my favorite in this collection. Didn’t like “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce”, & I couldn’t read the one about the woman with breast cancer, because the first paragraph made my heart stop.

image

18. Anywhere But Here (1992) - Mona Simpson 

Novel. This seemed to me a keen portrait of mother-daughter emotional abuse, though I didn’t see that addressed in any of the reviews I read. It was raw & disturbing in that sense.

image

19. Diary of a Teenage Girl (2002) - Phoebe Gloeckner

Graphic novel. Intense, intimate, difficult. Especially enjoyed the dark view of San Francisco in the 1970s, when the 60s grooviness gave way to something more frivolous and destructive.

image

20. Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women - Nora Ephron (1975)

Essay collection. More involved in the specifics of 1970s politics and perspectives than I had hoped, though her view of Gloria Steinem, the women’s movement as it was happening was pretty fascinating.

image

21. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980) - Milan Kundera 

Crankypants Kundera in full force here, particularly the second half, in which he performs a Lars von Trier-esque extended torture of his heroine. I wouldn’t call it magical realism…. Though I did enjoy the scene among the Russian poets. Good quote here.

PIECEMEAL READING

Short stories, but not entire books by Grace Paley and Clarice Lispector

Susan Sontag essays from Against Interpretation

POETRY

Didn’t read much poetry this year, a bit of an exile year. I don’t count these as “books read” as I dipped in and out of volumes of: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rilke, Adrienne Rich, Sandra Simonds’ Warsaw Bikini, and David Lehman’s New and Selected.

ABANDONED READING

The Idiot (1869) - Dostoevsky 

I spent two months reading this novel and made it over halfway through. I will return to it!! Need more uninterrupted time.

No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood (2013)

The writers are mostly comedians, so a lot of the essays started sounding the same. I read maybe half of them.

Black Paths (2013) - David B.

Just couldn’t get into this graphic novel, even though I bought a beautiful full-color hardback edition. Oh well.

Heroines (2012) - Kate Zambreno 

In theory, I’m the ideal reader of this book, which is, ostensibly, about the women of modernism, in particular those relegated to the wifey role (Zelda Fitzgerald, Viv Eliot) or struggling with mental illness (Virginia Woolf). But I couldn’t stand the humorless narcissism of the narrator and her conflating of her 21st-century life with those trapped in much more narrow historical circumstances. Muddled arguments and muddled thinking under cover of l’écriture féminine. I actually returned this to the bookstore, which I don’t think I’ve ever done.

November 25, 2013
"A great mind must be androgynous"

— Samuel Coleridge, Table Talk

November 12, 2013
theparisreview:

“It’s our predicament, at this time and at our age, to avoid saying the grand thing—to be scared of it, or to say it and then, in the very next moment, undercut ourselves, want to take it all back, dial it down, turn it into a big joke. This habit of mind started from a good place. You can trace it back to what we’re taught in college: be skeptical of capital-T Truth, look suspiciously at all-encompassing explanations. But it’s gotten out of hand. You hear it in conversation. Someone risks something, some idea they have, something they’re struggling to give words to, and how do they follow it up? They disassociate themselves from it. They say, But what do I know, right? Even about stupid stuff, like an opinion of a new movie. You can see it, too, in the profusion of phrases like sort of and kind of. People take shelter under words like maybe and probably when they could, by rights, insist and declare. On sitcoms, the most earnest character will always, immediately, be cut down in the next moment. It’s the dance move of our time, that little two-step. I struggle with it myself, all the time.” —Paul Maliszewski

theparisreview:

“It’s our predicament, at this time and at our age, to avoid saying the grand thing—to be scared of it, or to say it and then, in the very next moment, undercut ourselves, want to take it all back, dial it down, turn it into a big joke. This habit of mind started from a good place. You can trace it back to what we’re taught in college: be skeptical of capital-T Truth, look suspiciously at all-encompassing explanations. But it’s gotten out of hand. You hear it in conversation. Someone risks something, some idea they have, something they’re struggling to give words to, and how do they follow it up? They disassociate themselves from it. They say, But what do I know, right? Even about stupid stuff, like an opinion of a new movie. You can see it, too, in the profusion of phrases like sort of and kind of. People take shelter under words like maybe and probably when they could, by rights, insist and declare. On sitcoms, the most earnest character will always, immediately, be cut down in the next moment. It’s the dance move of our time, that little two-step. I struggle with it myself, all the time.” —Paul Maliszewski

November 11, 2013
Fashion = planned spontaneity

image

As a collective visual statement, fashion is about the appearance of the individual and of the group. It is at once about self-presentation and conformity. Like music, it is improvisation within a structure. As the human condition doesn’t appear to respond well to too much repetition, fashion could be described as one of our antidotes to boredom. It must be new, but not too new; novel rather than radically different. A kind of planned spontaneity, it is applied art, making use of potentiality. Clothes can change more rapidly than other artifacts; although they are functional, they are statements too. Fashion could be described as the cultural genome of clothes.

—Lisa Chaney, Coco Chanel: an Intimate Life