Book pile

Hi! I’ve just read a few books from the pile beside my chair. Wanna hear about them?

SMILE, BY RODDY DOYLE

This one was a doozy. All of Doyle’s novels are doozies, and I love them. I love him.  I didn’t want to love this one the way I did as I was reading it, though, because I knew it was about childhood sexual abuse, and even though it is so, so easy to be pulled in by the ease and naturalness of his storytelling, the whole brief thing (it’s only 200 pages long, and has the taut shape of a novella) is tight with the tension of something huge and bad lurking, a shipwreck under a black ocean that we know is there but can’t see.

It’s not possible to talk about many details of this story without ruining its impact for someone who hasn’t read it, but I can tell you that if you love Doyle’s writing, as I do, for its economy of language and vivid dialogue—as bright and honest as a conversation you catch going past you on the street—then you will not be unsatisfied by this book. It’s also true that most of his stories, not just this one, deal with the heartbreak of—what should I call it? Fatalism? (In his review of Smile for the Washington Post, Ron Charles called it “crumpled hope.”) It’s a characteristic of a lot of Irish fiction, actually. Have you read Doyle’s Barrytown books, The SnapperThe Van, and The Commitments? I read them years ago and later reread them, and was surprised by how sad they were, when what I’d remembered was their good humor and charm. That stuff is in there too, though. And the thing that’s really killer about Doyle’s writing is the way he has of making everything that happens to his characters feel … inevitable. That’s a better word than fatalism. In Smile he deals with those kinds of ideas—those kinds of lives—once again, but in a way that is new and frankly horrifying.

I read an interview with Doyle yesterday, about a week after I’d finished the book. (Though, apparently, it hadn’t finished with me.) He told his interviewer, the writer Catherine Dunne, that he wrote the novel the way he did to shock readers, particularly Irish readers who may have thought they’d already heard it all regarding the Catholic Church and sex abuse. Shock. The word is so overused, it’s tempting to dismiss his comment as insignificant, but a few hours after I read the interview the penny dropped for me and I felt, with embarrassment, that I understood the novel completely for the first time since I’d finished it. The truth is that the ending is open to interpretation and more than a little confusing, which is why I was left hanging for a good few days. Sorting it all out may not be the point, though—I think I see that now. It’s the attempt to sort it out that informs a true understanding of this novel, the going over of details and memories that don’t line up, the sickly sense that some information is missing and that you know what happened but don’t know at the same time. Those are effects of shock, aren’t they: that fug of confusion, the delayed reaction. It’s often the effect of abuse, too. I think it’s possible that Doyle has done something extraordinary with this novel, something I haven’t quite experienced before in my lifetime of reading. He’s given us a painful story that hurts worse later than it does in the moment of reading it, because it’s our memories of the character’s life that get wrecked upon reflection. In a real way, the loss is ours, and the story functions like real grief in our minds. We experience the horror of having to remember again and again, as if for the first time, that something terrible has happened.

BLACK WAVE, BY MICHELLE TEA

I recently read this article in The Guardian about a study, released by the Living Planet Index toward the end of 2016, which reports that two-thirds of all wild animals on Earth will be gone by the year 2020. It sounded dire, which chimed with my mood, I must admit. I feel cheerful enough at the moment, actually, but it just seems end-timey out there, don’t you think? We’ve been post-everything for a while now, for starters, and although I am aware that people, whenever in time they find themselves, are always standing on the edge of history, that cliff seems extra steep right now. When I finally got off my ass and read Michelle Tea’s new novel, which came out last year from Feminist Press (what took me so long?), I was primed for it to be about the end of the world, as I’d read that it was. I was READY for the end of the world. BRING IT.

To my deep pleasure, the book is for-real about the apocalypse, and this end starts out ordinarily enough, with a ruined Earth—stinking oceans, dry patches of dirt where trees and plants once grew, undrinkable water—that people have gotten used to ignoring. (!) Then the whole thing ramps up and starts cycling faster, and it becomes clear that the human race only has about another year to go. Our scrappy protagonist, Michelle—drinking and drugging too hard, even after she wants to stop—ignores even this for as long as she can until finally she faces the truth and decides to wait out the end of everything in a used bookstore in L.A. Tea makes this part feel deliciously cozy, like a dreamy dust-mote-filled opium den, even as the streets outside get more violent and chaotic by the day. This book is about the end of the world, yes, and it is also about the way you have to kind of die in order to change.

I have loved Michelle Tea’s writing for a long time now. Her evocation of a certain “scene”—her own punky, dirty, resilient young queer community of 90s San Francisco—is one of the things to love the most about it (but if you thought it was the thing, you’d be forgetting how just plain good she is, how bright and surprising her use of language and metaphor). This loving wallowing around in that familiar world shapes the first part of the book, but about halfway through, after she’s told us a short novel’s worth of a very engaging story about a young woman’s life in decline, the book itself starts to disintegrate and “get meta,” in the words of a funny bookseller I talked to about the novel after I’d finished it. “I didn’t need it to get meta,” is what she said, and I took some offense at her glibness—this is MICHELLE TEA we’re talking about, lady—but it forced me to admit that I too had worried as I read it that the rest of the novel would keep referring to itself and shifting from one reality to another, and I didn’t want to lose my footing. I was glad when it righted itself and went back to being a good old-fashioned story. A science fiction story about the end of the world, no less, which made me appreciate why Tea had to tear the whole thing down and start again.

This is the most developed piece of Tea’s writing that I’ve read; like Roddy Doyle did with Smile, she did some things with form that I’ve never seen in her writing before. Black Waveis—in a really interesting way—a story about the way cities change over time, leaving us feeling like the lives we’ve lived in them are disappearing, too. More than that, it’s about addiction and survival, and beginnings as much as endings. It’s entertaining, incisive, and wonderfully hopeful. I think you should read it.

LEARNING TO DRIVE, BY KATHA POLLITT

Everyone (every woman?) in the English-speaking world with half the interest has already read this book, it seems like, except for me. It came out ten years ago, and a well-thought-of film was made from the title essay starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. (I haven’t seen that either.) And to look at the many reviews quoted inside the book, everyone seems to love it and its author, from Barbara Ehrenreich to Bust. After reading this collection of her essays, I can understand why.

Pollitt is a feminist who admits to having human weaknesses where romantic love is concerned, which is only an unpopular stance with people who refuse to tell their inner teenager to get a grip, and she’s great company, astute and funny and also surprising in the way that very smart people will continue to surprise you with their opinions even once you feel you’ve gotten the hang of the way they think. Mostly, she says exactly what she’s thinking, and nine times out of ten it’s what you’re thinking too. Pollitt, who has written for The Nation since the 90s, is probably best known for her cultural criticism, but these are personal essays of the best kind—they’re about her life and ideas, but they encompass bigger ideas too, and are likely to spark an interest in you on any number of topics—the Rubaiyat, council Communism, Danish painting. Her use of metaphor is poetic; well, she’s a poet too. Here’s how she describes the Internet: “It was like something a medieval rabbi might conjure up out of the Kabbalah: a magical set of propositions that acted as a mirror of reality and perhaps even allowed you to control it and change it.”

“Learning to Drive” is the most famous piece in the book and is about the lifelong New Yorker’s attempt to learn to drive a car after her cruddy little philandering “boyfriend” dumps her for one of his other ladies. (It always sounds so weird to me when grown adults use the words boyfriend and girlfriend.) Her disdain for men, on display throughout the book, might make you smile with pleasure or it might make you cringe a little, and I don’t think those two reactions break down all that neatly between the sexes. I winced a few times myself and found I didn’t even want to finish the essay “After the Men Are Dead,” but there were plenty of other times that I really enjoyed her cogent put-downs of men of the stupid, bullying variety, as well as her ability to pin-point precisely the ways that women’s lives are diminished by their behavior. She describes these things so confidently, she’s like Zorro: zip zip zip!

Pollitt’s opinions are only very occasionally strident, in my view, though your take on that may vary depending on how much you agree with what she’s saying. I almost always agree, but talk about wincing: When I read that “even the thought of rap makes [her] heart surge with sorrow and fury” because it makes her think about “the end of melody, the end of tender and delicate feelings, the end of any sort of verbal cleverness that requires a vocabulary of more than 300 words,” let me tell you, my heart surged with sorrow and fury. Because … what? How can someone so sensitive to nuance, and so knowledgable about art, hold such a doofy opinion? Verbal cleverness and vocabulary: Ever heard of Del the Funky Homosapien, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Aesop Rock, Outkast? How about Biggie Smalls? (I’m trying to be fair here and only mention people who were around back in 2007, when this book was published.) As for tender feelings, come ON. Killer Mike is so full of tender feeling and righteous rage he’s about to spark a revolution with his music. I don’t want to say that no older white person should write about hip-hop because that’s silly too, but maybe people should think twice before doing it. Or maybe I just need to think twice before I bother to read it.

Still, I only had to go a few pages further, in the same essay (“End Of”), and bam, Pollitt is making me cry on the train, talking about how the old things, and sometimes the really good things, slip away with the passage of time and there’s nothing you can do about it. “The truth is, by the time you find out what’s happening, it’s usually too late. … It’s like the turquoise frogs—by the time scientists figured out what was wrong with them, they were gone.” And all of her jabs at men aside, “Good-bye, Lenin” is an interesting and warm portrait of her father written shortly after he died. A lover of poetry, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (his FBI file makes the Bureau look almost lovably inept), and a lawyer who remained devoted to not “selling out” for his entire life, he comes across as a sincerely lovely human being.

Eat a Hot Dog Really Fast

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of divination. Actually, I’ve always given this idea a fair amount of thought, since I tend to see symbols everywhere, not just in books but in real life, and then I try to plumb them for some meaning I can use. Recently, though, I’ve started ASKING for symbols. I’ve been learning about the colorful characters of the tarot—The High Priestess! The Hermit! The Sun!—and I’ve taken to doing a simple one-card reading for myself every morning. It’s a nice practice, a piece of quiet, thoughtful time that twinkles with a bit of magic, somewhere between the wisdom of a therapy session and the sudden secret bolt of truth that hits you in the moment you make a wish on your birthday candles.

On Friday I read that the comics artist Lynda Barry, whose work I sincerely love, has started writing an advice column for The Paris Review. The second question, and answer, are frankly bizarre (though the answer is also generous and funny, as all of Barry’s writing is) but the first one is Lynda Barry at her latter-day best, if you ask me. Though the letter writer is seeking advice in dealing with boredom, Barry’s answer is really about writing; writing via tricking yourself into writing, by doing oddball experiments and fun stunts that aren’t writing first.

Barry, if you don’t know, has put out three big beautiful books about writing over the last 10 years—What It IsPicture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor— that are almost mystical in the ways that they advise the reader on how to begin this often difficult task. Every page is covered completely by a painting or a collage, and in this swirling, heady atmosphere, Barry tells us how she finds her way into creating, and gets herself out of a rut when she’s stuck. In response to the question about boredom, Barry recommends an elaborate project that involves chucking your cell phone out of sight, belting down a couple of stiff drinks, and going for a long and epic walk, during which you will undertake to answer some question in your mind by making symbols of three things: (i) something you see above eye level, (ii) something you find discarded or forgotten on the ground, and (iii) a person.

My husband and I went away this weekend, for a wedding in the countryside of northeast Pennsylvania near the New York state border, and we had nothing to do but loaf the day after the event. I figured this expanse of quiet Sunday would be a good time for me to try Barry’s experiment. The only changes I made were to do it throughout the course of the day, rather than on one lengthy walk, and I didn’t get drunk first. The question I asked the universe-slash-myself was: How should I focus my time and attention this fall? Let’s see what the universe, aka me, came up with.

i. On Sunday morning Joe and I drove up the road from where we were staying to the nearest small town, which is where my friend who got married lives. I’ve tried to imagine this town many times because my friend is also my pen-pal, and I think about the place where she lives every time I write her address on an envelope. I’ve always pictured an autumnal sort of place because of how much my friend loves Halloween, and I wasn’t totally wrong. The town turned out to be a very pretty and sturdily functional place in the manner of many towns, small and large, in this part of the state, with painted brick Victorian-era storefronts and lots of old shade trees. We walked all the way up and back its long main street, and my eyes were drawn to the spires of several churches. The one I liked the most was nestled on the top of a hill a few streets back, a big stone and stained-glass Catholic jawn that was built during the first few years of the 19th century. We followed a narrow walkway and bridge to get closer to it and just look. I haven’t considered myself Catholic, or indeed Christian, since I was released from my parents’ house 20-ish years ago, but I must say, I’ve become more interested spirituality in recent years. Or—if not spirituality exactly, then connectedness. That’s why I’m always looking for symbols; they remind me that nothing is disconnected from anything else, even if I don’t understand why. I’m okay with not knowing why.

ii. Lynda Barry’s guidelines were pretty obviously written for a city dweller like me, but I wasn’t in Philly yesterday; I was in this small town, where very few people throw crap on the ground, or else someone is quick to clean it up if they do. I didn’t find anything meaningful to me discarded on the sidewalk during our walk, but later in the day, Joe and I got permission from the owner of the hotel where we were staying to borrow one of the rowboats to take out on the small lake. As we picked our way along the lake’s sandy shoreline near the dock, I felt dreamy with the heat and my experiment, and I saw a face in the arrangement of a few stones and a piece of wood under the water. I see faces in things pretty often, usually when I’m very tired or about to get a migraine. Seeing a pattern in something random is called pareidolia; it is commonplace and not abnormal (and apparently it’s most common for people to see faces in particular), but I experience it as slightly disturbing and maybe meaningful when it happens to me. This time, I saw the face not because I was getting a headache (thank god) but because my mind was relaxed and open and searching. I think the lake-face is trying to tell me that I should try to be in this state more often.

iii. In the evening we went back into town in search of some dinner. Only a few restaurants were open past 4:00 or 5:00 on a Sunday, and one of them was a little bar that we chose because it looked comfortable. When we walked in, I thought of the Lobo from Roseanne because of the place’s laid-back, rural vibe and prominent pool table. We took a tall table next to the bar, and sitting at the bar by himself was an old man I couldn’t take my eyes off of. He was skinny and wiry, and was wearing a black button-down shirt tucked into dark, belted dungarees, both of which were oversized on him. The jeans could properly be described as hitched up. He had a huge hawk nose and stooped shoulders, was probably in his 60s but seemed somehow ancient, and had a full head of dark hair, neatly parted. He sat at one end of the bar, facing forward, not morose or hunched over but content and bright eyed over his mug of beer. I hope someone paints his portrait in oils before he dies.

At first I felt awkward in the bar since we were from out of town and looked it, but the music playing in there was good, and after we ordered beers and I had a few sips I relaxed into being there. It only takes one drink for me to be convinced of the romance of the barroom all over again. I’m a huge cheeseball that way. “Sara” by Fleetwood Mac came on the jukebox and I crooned it to Joe. Then “Ashes to Ashes” came on and we both tapped our feet and sang along. At one point the old guy walked past us to his spot at the bar and settled back down, and Joe gestured toward him with his head and said, “He’s the one starting the music back up every time it gets quiet in here,” and I died. My favorite person at the bar liked Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie, too! Obviously he was the person I’d been looking for all day. But what should he symbolize to me? I guess the reason I lit up with delight when I saw him was because he was so completely himself, right? That’s the message I’ll let him give me, then, to be myself completely, and to remember how much fun it is to be yourself in a world that, for some reason, would like you to be something else instead. It’s the only way to live, really. At the very least, it’s a reliably good way to pass a pleasant Sunday evening at the bar.

p.s. If you’re looking for recommendations, I’ve been reading an excellent book about tarot by one of my all-time favorite writers, Michelle Tea, who just put this one out a few months ago. The book is called Modern Tarot and it’s thick, thorough, and easy to engage with.

p.p.s. The title of this post is another piece of advice I got from Lynda Barry, sort of. I saw her speak at the Free Library a few years ago, where she told a very funny story about getting her makeup done at a department store makeup counter, and how before she did this, she did what she always does when she’s nervous, which is “eat a hot dog really fast.” I laughed hard at this, and so did a man sitting near me, and his voice is what I remember when I think of that story. A stranger sounding happy.

I saw these pretty painted symbols on my walk through town, too.

I saw these pretty painted symbols on my walk through town, too.

The Scream

I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve been hearing it everywhere: It’s really hard to concentrate these days.

“It has been hard to concentrate on reading books and seeing movies since the election,” author A.S. Hamrah writes simply in this excellent essay about Trump and B movies for n+1. Yes, yes it has. In her sweet, intimate email newsletter last month, journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote, “I haven’t had it in me to write lately, dears, and I apologize for it. Democratic inaction on the ACA repeal, the multiply broken heart, and extreme frustration over the fact that MY CORN IS NOT COMING IN has all conspired against our delightful communications.”

I’ve been troubled by this sort of stuff myself for several months now — since, oh, about November. I haven’t written much that I’ve enjoyed writing for a while, I’ve been intermittently depressed—I haven’t been able to find the kind of psychological stillness that you need to GO THERE, to get to that place. That in itself isn’t so unusual; writing is hard, and there are lots of things that, as Moore puts it, conspire against it. The strangest thing, to me, is how hard I’ve found it to read.

Reading is easier than writing—usually, anyway. Someone else has done the work; you just need to show up, and if the story or the language is good enough, unusual enough, and if you stick with it for long enough, you’ll get carried away on that current. It’s a powerful form of escapism, to be inside your mind but not really, to get a break from your own thoughts not merely by being distracted, but by actually inhabiting another person’s mind. It’s magic, when you think of it that way. Some people have compared it to time travel, but I think it’s more like leaving your body and moving along the astral plane, the closest you’ll ever get to being someone else.

For months, as I’ve been unable somehow to access this magic, I’ve felt the loss of it acutely. Sure, I actually “read” plenty: I read online news articles and everything the wonderful Masha Gessen has written for the New York Review of Books about the Trump presidency, and even the occasional personal essay, like this beautiful piece by Laura Maw that was published a few days ago in Catapult, about the film The Shining and the ways it talks about violence in the home, within families. I read the newsletter and essay that I quoted from above, too, obviously. But that experience of picking up a book and disappearing into it for a while? Looking up from the page now and then to think about one of its ideas, and an hour or two later, emerging wholly, refreshed and a little bit changed by the experience? I couldn’t do it. For a while after the election I had no interest, and for a longer while after that I missed the experience but still couldn’t do it. It’s become a problem, the way a bad or nonexistent sex life becomes a problem. You think about it all the time, but as simple as the supposed fix would be, should be, you just can’t make it work.

I remember that for months after my father died, almost 20 years ago now, my mother was plagued with the reading problem. She’s a huge reader who always has at least a couple of books going, but when she was in the depths of her grieving, she couldn’t do it. It was a kind of forgetting—not how to read, but how to want to. The desire just wasn’t there. It came back to her in bits and pieces, enough to haunt her for a while before she was able to fix it, and as I recall it was the sweet, clever Precious Ramotswe novels by Alexander McCall Smith that finally broke through and brought her back to the Land of the Reading. Grief is weird that way: It resets everything. You’re still alive but, for a time, you lose your life. If you’re lucky you eventually find your way back, though not everyone does.

My life is still in progress, I’m happy to report, and I’m writing this now because I’ve started to find my way back to it. (I’m also writing this now because writing has always been the thing that saved me, like throwing an ice axe out in front of me and using it to drag myself forward along that slippery mountain’s edge. You gotta hang on, but you gotta keep moving, too.) The book that’s finally helped me remember how to live/read again (they’re the same thing) is called Scream, and it’s Tama Janowitz’s first book-length memoir, published last year by HarperCollins. I got it at the library a few days ago and have nearly finished it, and am totally confident that this time, after reading the first 10 or 20 pages of a lot of other books, I actually will. This small/ huge victory (they’re the same thing) is the result of some combination of wanting my life back and finally finding the right book, though I’m not sure I know what makes this book the right one, beyond the fact that I already knew I loved Tama Janowitz’s essays and memoir-style writing. In fact, she once wrote one of the best and most life-affirming things I’ve ever read about writing, in her 2002 collection of essays, Area Code 212: New York Days, New York Nights:

“But there is one thing I have, no matter if I can’t ever get published, or sell a book, or get an award or money or praise—I CANNOT BE STOPPED FROM WRITING.” Emphasis hers, baby. The emphasis is always hers. (She then goes on to say, “As for advice, I offer only this: Mamas, don’t let your daughters grow up to be writers.” Which I take as the feminism-edged joke that it is, and choose to ignore as actual advice.)

This new book is as deadpan-weird and hilarious as all her best writing, like a conversation with—if not a friend, a person you’d LIKE to befriend. With her stories about her friendship with Andy Warhol and the time she heard the Sex Pistols play their second-ever show at some guy’s house party in London, knowing her seems aspirational, even though she makes it clear that all of this stuff feels accidental to her. At one point she writes something to the effect that everything that’s ever happened to her seems equally weird, surprising, absurd—even the nothing-things. (She writes about those too, complaining lustily, for instance, about the stupid organization of her local supermarket. She’s always pissed off, always on the verge of giving up, but never doing so.) I loved reading this because it’s a way I’ve felt many times in my life. And if everything’s equally weird, everything’s equally likely, too. Looking at the world like this has a way of making it open up to you.

I’d have to call Janowitz’s writing voice utterly unique because she is seemingly being herself COMPLETELY, all the time, in a way that most people can’t or won’t try to be. It puts me to mind of something I once read in an essay by Dorothy Allison, “Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories,” which was published in an anthology called An Angle of Vision: Women Writers and Their Working Class Roots. In it, she talks about treasuring the early “review” that her partner and the mother of her son gave her after reading one of her first books: ‘“It’s not bad,” she said. “You are the real thing.”’

The real thing. I think about this often. There can be no higher compliment, no worthier goal. That’s what Tama Janowitz is, and it’s what I am too, when I don’t forget it. I guess that’s why this book is the one that pulled me back onto land, exhausted and coughing up seawater. It has that fighting spirit. If you read between the lines, all that’s there is a will to live.

“…the blade struck against a waterfall, which was rushing down near them from a lofty crag, and with a splash, which sounded almost like a burst of laughter, it poured over them and drenched them to the skin. Whereat the priest of a sudden woke from his dream…” From Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué

“…the blade struck against a waterfall, which was rushing down near them from a lofty crag, and with a splash, which sounded almost like a burst of laughter, it poured over them and drenched them to the skin. Whereat the priest of a sudden woke from his dream…” From Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué

Kedi

The other day at a reading, I bumped into and talked to a sweet pen-pal friend of mine (who is also sometimes a face-to-face friend), a person who lives here in Philadelphia now but used to live in Istanbul. This friend told me about a new movie called Kedi, which is the Turkish word for cat. Kedi is a beautiful documentary about a few of the apparently thousands of cats who live in Istanbul—”free, without a master,” as director Ceyda Torun puts it. In the film’s description, Torun writes that cats have lived this way, in this place, for thousands of years. My friend told me about the movie because I wrote a book about cats, and then I told my mother about it because she once lived in Istanbul too, many years ago now. I asked her if she remembered seeing lots of street cats when she was there, and she said, “I don’t, particularly, but there was a lot going on in those streets.”

And that sure does seem to be the case. My mom and my husband and I went to see the film together, and all three of us found its images of Istanbul to be truly vibrant, in the mellowest and warmest of ways. Busy, ancient, twisting streets, all alive with people and trees, fruit stands and conversation, tea and food and CATS. Cats with their kittens in old cardboard boxes, cats sitting up high on the window ledges of apartment buildings, cats slipping under broken doorways to visit with one of their many human friends. If Kedi is a good measure of the city, it looks like any cat’s dream, with a hundred hiding places on every block and plenty of chances to beg for fish from the port and table scraps from sidewalk cafes.

In the film, the camera often gives us a cat’s-eye view, so we can follow the trotting cats along the streets to see where they go and what they do. But just as often we’re looking Torun’s human subjects in the eye, as they describe the way they met a cat who they now consider a friend. We hear people talk about the cats’ personalities, and how they’ve benefitted from meeting them. We see them feed kittens from bottles, throw scraps of cooked chicken on the sidewalk for them to eat, or smoke cigarettes as they talk softly to their chosen cat friend—even as they’re addressing the filmmaker and her camera. Their stories are reminders that, even when domesticated cats are “strays,” they do depend on human beings for survival—just as we depend on them to make our homes and cities more sanitary (as in, free from mice) and for the unique and almost psychic sort of friendship they can provide.

At the reading where I bumped into my pen-pal, I also met a woman who’s in a band that often writes songs about cats. !! It’s really got me thinking, all this talk (and art) about cats. Just as the rise of the internet has been a sort of validation for the introverts among us, it’s also the reason that cat-love is now at the forefront of the popular culture, I think. Everywhere you look, there are famous catswildly popular cartoon cats, and adorable, catchy songs about cats. (And this isn’t even the same band I just told you about!) The idea of the crazy cat lady, as an insult, doesn’t have much sting anymore. Cats are cool. They’re independently-minded, funny, elegant, and wise—and if I dare say it, this film offers proof that the people who love cats are in touch with something a little more sacred, and a lot bigger, than themselves.

I couldn’t help but notice, as I watched this pretty movie, that the production company behind it is called Termite Films. I don’t know the story behind the name, but I choose to interpret it as a reference to the idea of “termite art,” which was coined by the critic Manny Farber in the 1960s. According to Farber, there’s White Elephant Art, which likes to call flashy attention to itself, “filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity,” and then there’s Termite Art, which is small and easily overlooked but powerful because it works in secret, eroding boundaries. Termite Art is where it’s at, if you ask me. Just watch Kedi and see. The universality of the love between people and animals is a powerful message, even when it’s delivered on small, silent feet.

The pathos of the "pinned Tweet"

I’m sorry to say it, but Twitter gives me the blues. Lots of behavior on social media in general makes me feel sort of sad, particularly the way we use these venues to show “the world” what we’re “all about.” There’s nothing like following someone you know in real life on Tumblr or Instagram to find out that you don’t like that person as much as you thought you did.

Lest you think that I think I’m immune to any of this, I don’t, and I’m not. I do, however, have a hearty fear of making an ass of myself, and since I’m not much for socializing to begin with I have avoided becoming deeply involved with most social networking websites. I am not now and never was on Facebook, for instance. For years that shit creeped me out, and now it just looks boring. I was also very late to the party on Twitter, tried it for half a year, then quickly became irritated and embarrassed by the puffed-up egos on that website—including my own—and deleted the account.

But there are a lot of useful resources on Twitter, at least for someone like me. I recently signed up for and started taking what looks to be an excellent certificate course on editing offered jointly by the American Copy Editors Society and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit that provides educational resources to journalists. The first class has directed me to a number of useful resources, including reliable ways to keep abreast of updates to style guides, such as following them on Twitter. The Associated Press style guide even hosts live Q&A sessions via hashtag chats. Merriam-Webster does a word of the day on Twitter, and regularly interacts with people by answering their questions and appreciating their nerdy puns.

Earlier this week I decided that since I’d like to make use of these resources, I should start a new Twitter account and use it only to access information like this. I’ll maintain a purely professional persona on the website, and not show off how clever or cool I am or get pulled into posting strident, smug commentary on political and social issues. I figured it would be easy for me to carve out an isolated space on there, since I’d only be following dictionaries, style guides, and other copy editors who tweet primarily about industry news and proofreading tips.

But I was wrong. At about 6:00 pm EST on Super Bowl Sunday, Merriam-Webster retweeted a post from one of its staff members, lexicographer Peter Sokolowski:

Two days ago, the dictionary tweeted that lookups of the word “impugn” were spiking, then posted this article about Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell accusing Senator Elizabeth Warren of “impugn[ing] the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” Jeff Sessions, in the talk she gave to express her opposition to Sessions’ nomination to Attorney General. People understandably wanted to be sure they understood the meaning of impugn, which is, according to its entry in Merriam-Webster, “to oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity <impugned the defendant’s character>.” But the Senate rule that McConnell invoked to stop Warren from continuing to read from Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about Sessions does not use that word; it uses the etymologically unrelated word “impute,” which means “to lay the responsibility or blame for, often falsely or unjustly.” I found this information useful, pertinent, and timely (and I couldn’t help but feel pleased that the person I view as being on the wrong side of this conversation, McConnell, had used the wrong word, like a fool). Later in the week, more light-heartedly and with an attitude of celebration, the dictionary tweeted about the new words it added this year, which include side-eyeface-palm, and the slang usage of the word shade—all fun, trendy things that got people talking and joking and sharing Paris is Burning memes.

I read all this, enjoyed it, and got caught up in thinking about which, if any of these, I would retweet (to find out you can have a look at my Twitter account, and please feel free to “follow” me on there). And then I had to scold myself. Of course I couldn’t use language, or even grammar and usage, as some sort of hideout from the real world. Language isn’t divorced from reality; it’s a reflection of it, a description of the world and everything in it—politics and ego included.

Merry Whatever!

Happy happy, everybody! My dear friend, the artist Nicholas Beckett, and I have been working on a zine about Christmas. It’s a bunch of my terrible recollections about the holiday, accompanied by his incredibly charming drawings. Here’s one for you now. Consider it a gift. I’ll let you know when the zine is available. Until then, best wishes for getting through whatever you have to get through today—and maybe even enjoying it.

I find that there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the right time to take down one’s Christmas tree, including the idea that there is a right time. I see people’s frizzled trees lying on the curb as late as February, which gives me the willies. I have inherited my mother’s fussy, snobbish belief that the only acceptable time to take down the tree is on the Epiphany, the 12th day of Christmas. I can’t believe I care about this, but I do.

Get on Yer Soapbox

Almost a month ago now, my colleague Mary Tasillo and I had a lovely experience at The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library, where we ran a workshop for a class of writing students at a local university. They’ve spent the semester creating collections of their own prose and poetry, and with Mary’s assistance they each arranged them into pages for a book they’ll self-publish. Together, she and I helped them design and print book covers on a letterpress machine, then taught them to bind the books by hand using binder’s thread and a needle. At the binding station I set up, I first showed them how to use a bone folding tool to crease their pages in half, and to my surprise the mere act of folding the pages made their faces light up with pleasure, as the size and shape of the finished product became suddenly apparent. It’s a book! 

Mary Tasillo and Charlene Kwon started The Soapbox in a Philadelphia row house five years ago because they wanted to create a place where people from diverse backgrounds could enjoy their large collection of zines, chapbooks, and artists’ books for free, and have inexpensive access to printing equipment and materials that you ordinarily need to be in art school to use. The founders’ belief in the power of sharing and community is part and parcel of zine publishing. In fact, we like to say that zines are an inherently democratic medium, because they’re so inexpensive and easy to make: Anyone can publish one, whether that person thinks of themselves as a writer or an artist or not. Everyone has a story, after all. Everyone has a right to tell it.

Independent publishing is democratic in another sense, too: It’s a time-honored and ideal method for disseminating information, whether it’s political or personal in nature (or both). It doesn’t matter who you are—how young or inexperienced, how old or ignored, how marginalized or unimportant you’ve been made to feel. Zines are there for you, alongside blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and all the other new digital media. They’re all ways to become your own publisher and create your own audience, which is incredibly gratifying and empowering—really, it’s power-giving—for someone with something to say.

Our workshop took place on election day, in the afternoon. I’d voted that morning, and Mary went to the local polling place to vote after the workshop ended. I don’t know if all the students we worked with that day were old enough to vote, but while we were working together they looked at Facebook and Instagram on their phones and were excited to see pictures of their friends wearing “I voted” badges. There was a buzz in the studio that day, with this huge thing pending and the powerfully positive energy of creation in the air. It happened that all of the students, as well as their professor, and Mary and I too—everyone working together in that room, talking and sharing and wondering how things would turn out—were women. You can make of that fact what you will, but it feels worth mentioning.

In the days since the election results came in, things in this country have felt a lot different than they did that afternoon in our studio. Tensions are high, and many Americans are scared, hurt, and discouraged—though not, seemingly, those who have felt emboldened to act on their bias and hatred with intimidation and abuse. It feels impossible to know what will happen next, and what we’ll be called upon to do about it. But I do know that I’ll be using my first amendment right to express myself and to stand up to hateful words and actions, and I strongly encourage others to do the same. So go ahead and get on your soapbox. The time to speak up is now.

Fake it Till You Make it

My review of Elizabeth Greenwood’s nonfiction book, Playing Dead: Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. My editor shortened it a bit, so for your reading pleasure I offer you the full-length version here:

We’ve all felt it, the desire to run away from the tedium of our own lives. Some days you can’t help but notice that the train you ride to work could just as easily take you someplace else. When I was a kid my dad would, on occasion, get a faraway look and claim he’d always intended to join the merchant marines.

As Playing Dead author Elizabeth Greenwood speculates, we may be even more inclined to dream of disappearing now, in the age of trackable smartphones and constant surveillance. “We are burdened with our search histories and purchase histories and data sets that constitute our profile, to then be lumped and farmed out and sold to the highest bidder,” she writes, and she has a point.

But what about leaving for real? Faking your own death – the closest thing to suicide without actually dying? It’s a funny thought, but who would try it?

Greenwood, that’s who. In her introduction, the young journalist explains the reason she first got fixated on the subject: She was drowning in some $100,000 worth of student loans. She had no hope of paying off her debt in this lifetime – so why not “die”? The idea came up in a jokey conversation with a similarly stretched-thin friend, who one imagines forgot the conversation moments later. Greenwood, who began researching death fraud that evening at home, did not.

She sets out to learn how she might fake her own death by seeing how others have done it. Or rather, how they’ve tried and failed, since as she points out, it’s impossible to prove a negative – anyone who has successfully faked their death is not available for an interview because, well, we think they’re dead.

She meets the folks who get paid to investigate insurance fraud, which remains one of the most popular reasons for pulling a fakey: simple greed. Steve Rambam is a no-nonsense, classically hard-boiled detective who maintains that simply disappearing is easier to do than faking your death, and vastly preferable. Pretending to die is not strictly illegal, but fraudulently claiming a life insurance policy certainly is, as is using a fake identity, which is the only way you could do anything after you “died.”

By the book’s end, Greenwood makes her way to the Philippines, where corrupt government agencies make faking your death easy and fairly commonplace, on a quest for her very own death certificate. For those familiar with gonzo journalist Jon Ronson, this is a Ronsonesque stunt, and though Greenwood is an entertaining writer she doesn’t quite have his genius for dry understatement. She knows how to tell a good story—and there are lots of them here—but when she writes about herself, her prose can be a bit overcooked. “In the crepuscular light of early winter, I was bemoaning my self-imposed financial plight…” she tells us.( Translation: Girl was broke.)

Still though, the stories. We meet John Darwin, the U.K. man and his wife who lied to everyone, including their grown sons, by pretending he had died in a boating accident when he was actually living in his own rental property next door, in disguise, for nearly six years. His motive was a mortgage insurance policy, and he eventually turned himself in. But the suffering he caused his family was, in Greenwood’s words, the “collateral damage” that he doesn’t ever quite own up to.

She also introduces us to the Believers, the utterly devoted contingent of people within the Michael Jackson fandom who believe that the King of Pop faked his death and is sending them messages from beyond the fake grave via lyrics in his posthumously-released songs. Greenwood doesn’t share their beliefs, but she doesn’t make fun of them either. That would be “…taking a cheap and dreadfully obvious shot. … It takes a lot more courage to believe doggedly in something so outlandish and weird. The believing itself is the point more than the outcome. It’s faith.”

In the end, it’s this largeness of imagination that makes Greenwood’s book a success. Whether these death fraudsters strike you as clever schemers or fascinating in a fringe-weirdo sort of way, Greenwood makes them human, which has a lovely way of showing us how expansive life is—even in death.

Paint this!

A few days ago I looked lovingly at my big round cat where she was sitting sort of hunched over on the floor, and I thought, She looks like one of those striped cartoon cats from the 70s. What were those?

Turns out the cat I was thinking of was drawn by a cartoonist named Bernard Kliban, whose book Cat was such a hit in 1975 that it launched a zillion mugs and t-shirts (which explains my old and murky memories of it from the 80s, when I was still small). A bit of awkward Google research told me this much ("fat striped cartoon cat 70s" ... no, not Garfield ... ), and I poked around a bit longer and found some of his other cartoons too. Most of them are single-panel gags, many of which have titles that function as the punchline. And they are funny as hell.

From the book Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings (Workman, 1982). 

From the book Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings (Workman, 1982). 

The cat merchandise is still around, but I found precious little information on the man or his work. He died in 1990, before the internet as we know it; the few scans I found online were enough to whet my appetite, but most of his books are out of print. I could have bought one secondhand, of course, but opted instead for the appropriately dark absurdity of trying to do much of anything in Philadelphia, by taking one of the few functioning trains in our currently striking transit system to our beautiful but down-at-heel library downtown, and borrowing them. (I feel disloyal even typing this because I love our library and they really do have wonderful programming, an excellent collection, and truly wild holdings in their rare books archive, but please believe me that the state of things in this city can sometimes be disheartening. Also, after the library, I went to the DMV. Hahahahaha!)

The library's main branch owns four of Kliban's books but only two circulate—Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings and Luminous Animals and Other Drawings—I guess because the others are out of print and hard to replace. When I found the books I'd traveled there for, I flipped Luminous Animals open and immediately found this panel, which made me almost cry with laughter. Right there in the library, standing by myself. Look at the waiter's FACE.

From the book Luminous Animals and Other Drawings (Penguin, 1983).

From the book Luminous Animals and Other Drawings (Penguin, 1983).

There is a lot to enjoy in both of the books I found. I was especially excited by a few cartoons that explicitly address what it's like to be an ottist in a culture that does not give a shit about ott—like the one of a dog watching a handyman screw a lightbulb into a ceiling and thinking "I could do that!", and another one of a cow peddling a newspaper called the Cow News to a bunch of indifferent walruses and penguins. Kliban was a successful working cartoonist in his lifetime, but he isn't much remembered or talked about now. It seems he was original enough to have inspired a number of artists, some of whom went on to become better known than he was. As I read through these books I was strongly reminded of Gary Larson's The Far Side, one of my teenage favorites for its black yet ridiculous humor. I did run across this piece Rob Clough wrote for The Comics Journal, in which he looked at Cat 35 years after its publication. He talks about the influence Kliban had on other cartoonists, including Larson, and points out that even "the landscape, paperback format of the book would be aped by hundreds of cartoon collections for years to come," which naturally put me to mind of the Garfield books I so loved as a kid.

The cats that made Kliban famous have an essential sweetness to them, mainly because they're so apt, catness-wise; I take it the more mordant and bizarre ones didn't get put onto mugs. Because of this, I have had the pleasure of surprise at how much of his other work is rude, dark, and righteously pissed-off. There is a healthy number of boobs and dicks in these books, for one thing. (Kliban made cartoons for Playboy for many years.) At the same time, as Clough wrote in his essay, a lot of his work is both droll and strange enough to have fit in with the sensibility of The New Yorkerthough they only ever published one drawing of his, in 1963an observation I totally agree with as I vaguely thought that's where I remembered having seen the cats when I began this little quest of mine. They are also sometimes political, in my favorite way for things to be political: nihilistic and adolescent and correct; angry and broad, accusatory of everybody but reserving the realest contempt for those who would be in charge of the rest of us. Let me just share one more with you, since it really RESONATES—to use a word everyone seems to love nowadays—in this moment before the 2016 presidential election. It's as true as an arrow through the heart, and of all the Kliban cartoons I've read recently, it's the only one that made me feel sadder than anything else.

Sunday

I am not a very sociable person. I mean, I'm interested in people, I love to have good conversations, and I'll dance in public pretty much anytime - I'm really not what you'd call shy. But somehow, the particular combination of skills you need for keeping up with social plans every night of the week, going to parties where you have to make noncommittal, chitty-chatty small talk with strangers for hours without accidentally saying something that makes one of them feel weird (oops), absorbing the huge amount of emotional information that goes pinging around a room full of people - whatever those skills are, I don't have 'em. The effort exhausts me, and if I've had to "go out" too often in too short a period of time, it drains my life force and makes me pissy and mean, depressed and restless and resentful toward the poor other people involved, who are most likely just doing their best to get along and are probably suffering to varying degrees along with me. I mean, they might be suffering. I guess it's possible some of them are actually enjoying the party. :-/

Anyway, after a couple weeks of too much of this kind of socializing, today was magnificently quiet. I finally got a decent night's sleep last night, and I woke up feeling worn-out and battered in that gorgeous way, when you're so rested your body almost aches from it. I went for a long, long walk through residential city neighborhoods, which is my favorite way to spend time with myself, and then I read some of an old issue of Parabola magazine that I found at a thrift store for 29 cents on my birthday last week (thrift store shopping being my favorite way to celebrate my birthday). Parabola is smart and gentle and nuanced, like a person you'd feel lucky to know. In this issue (Spring 2005), I found a poem by a Greek poet named C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) called "As Much As You Can." I think it's okay to post it here because it's also available to read on this official website of the Cavafy Archive. The website has a few different translations of it (Cavafy mostly wrote in his native Greek), but here's the one that was published in the magazine, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

As Much As You Can

Even if you can't shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Reading this poem, I felt a rush of comfort come over me. I saw and was seen. It was like getting an extra week of days like today, all the time I needed to heal and rest and become whole again.

The Hidden Life of Trees

In 2015, a forester from Germany wrote a book about trees.

Peter Wohlleben’s small, quirky science book was published in his native country, where (to the publisher’s surprise, one can’t help but think) it stayed at or near the top of nonfiction bestseller lists for months. Since that time, The Hidden Life of Trees has been optioned for translation in several languages – including, this fall, in English, from Greystone Books in Canada.

Reading the book now, in a translation by master gardener and writer Jane Billinghurst, it seems that the secret to its popularity lies in its unusual approach. Using simple verbiage, succinct chapters, and a sensitive narrative style, Wohlleben takes a tender view of the trees he understands so well, sweetly anthropomorphizing them and the forests they comprise. He discusses the ways trees communicate with and protect each other by using the language of friendship, family, and community. He describes photosynthesis as a constant source of food for a tree, “like a baker who always has enough bread.” He makes frequent reference to the pain trees experience when they get injured or die a slow death, and compares their roots to our human brains. The chapter on tree reproduction is called, simply, “Love.”

Though his turn of phrase is sometimes fanciful, Wohlleben’s ideas were formed after decades of studying tree growth and behavior and are backed up by both cutting-edge and time-tested studies. The forester-turned-ecologist is an interesting study himself. He worked for the German forestry commission for twenty years, assessing trees for their value in the lumber trade according to accepted industry practice. Gradually, though, he developed a deep appreciation for the trees’ true nature, and came to understand that they behave very differently in undisturbed forests than they do in manipulated environments. For example, while gardeners and commercial foresters take care not to plant trees “too close” together out of fear that one will overshadow and kill the others, Wohlleben tells us that left to their own devices, trees of the same species prefer to huddle together. This way, they can share nutrients and water, balancing out any differences between them at root-level so that they can photosynthesize at the same rate and be equally successful. They prefer to work together.

Wohlleben’s book is filled with these kinds of surprises, bits of science fact that amateur naturalists will thrill to. For instance, we learn that a beech tree, if it lives to be 400 years old, will fruit at least 60 times and produce around 1.8 million beechnuts. Of those nuts only one will become a full-grown tree, which in forest terms is considered a high rate of success, like “winning the lottery.”

There’s something so stirring about the sheer size and longevity of trees, something almost magical. Wohlleben’s love for these magnificent beings and the lessons they can teach us is evident – and he’s as excited by the questions as he is by the answers. As he writes when discussing different ideas about how trees store and transport water to their leaves: “Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery. But aren’t both possibilities equally intriguing?”

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone (288 pp.)

Photo by Scott Wiley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Photo by Scott Wiley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0