Put Your Hands in the Air

When I found out Moby had put out a memoir, I had to read it. I’ve read a number of “rock biographies” over the years and I always enjoy them, even when they’re badly or oddly written, like Touching From a Distance or Nikki Sixx’s garishly illustrated The Heroin Diaries. (Quite frankly I loved Nikki Sixx’s book; it felt raw and direct, like reading someone’s diary, because apparently that’s just what he did, he published his actual diary entries from his Mötley Crüe days.) (DON’T FORGET THE UMLAUTS!) Touching From a Distance is the incredible story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis as told by his widow Deborah, and despite the fact that she is not really a writer—or perhaps because of it—that book is very stirring, too, and memorable. As you read, it becomes clear that she’s not going for poetry in her writing (that title though!) so you get the feeling that you really have access to her true, untempered feelings and memories. It’s extraordinary.

But Moby, he’s a writer. His new book, Porcelain, is well structured and properly paced, and his turn of phrase is nice. He’s smart and his insights are useful. He’s lived an unusual and very colorful life that he seems to have learned a lot from, and he’s self-aware, appropriately self-deprecating, and funny. It’s a good book. (I reviewed it more thoughtfully than this for the Philadelphia Inquirer this week, if you’d like to have a look.)

Moby—looking a bit goth, eh?

Moby—looking a bit goth, eh?

Still, as I say, even if it wasn’t a good book I would have been pretty happy to read it. I loved Moby’s music in the 90s, and since my way of loving things is to REALLY LOVE THEM (and then to study them like a school nerd), I also became engrossed in my idea of the ruined-New York milieu that helped to produce it. A lot of what he writes about in the book is exactly that—not just himself as an individual, or his own music, but the way he and his friends came together and related to the culture, the city, and the scene they were a part of in the late 80s and early 90s.

This stuff gets me so excited. Music and the subcultures that form around it, I mean. Since I was about 11 and old enough to have my own little radio (it was a pink boombox and it was extremely cool), I have had a deep and involved relationship with popular music. First there was metal and “hard rock,” which led me to discover the midnight-airing “Headbangers Ball” on MTV and Metal Edge and Circus, the ridiculous magazines I waited for all month. When my parents weren’t home or I thought they wouldn’t mind, I played their old records on their turntable, which is how I discovered the humor of the Beatles and Joe Cocker and the chillness of jazz. (“Ladies and gentlemen, live from the Village Gate, it’s Herbie Mann!”) I loved Yo! MTV Raps and the Top 40 hip-hop and R&B on Philly’s radio stations; I used to listen to The System’s “Don’t Disturb this Groove” and write in my diary and cryyyyyy! and 25 years later I put that song on the playlist for my wedding. The first CD I ever owned was Ramones Mania, a best-of album that I begged my mom to buy me because I had somehow absorbed through osmosis the understanding that the Ramones were cool. I had to play the CD on my parents’ stereo and listen with headphones because I didn’t have my own CD player. A few years after the pink boombox era, grunge happened, which brought me the bands I was most obsessed with in high school: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Hole. Somewhere in there came industrial (NIN forever), more punk, and the chilly post-punk dance grooves that I still can’t quit. The reason I can read all those rock biographies with equal enthusiasm is because I loved Mötley Crüe when I was 12 with as much devotion as I loved Moby at 22, and still love Joy Division to this day. My name is Katie, and I am a fan.

Fandom gets a bad rap, but in my experience it’s very often uplifting and participatory rather than obsessive and passive. My fandom is about the music and the way it makes me feel, of course. But discovering new music means more than that, as any fan knows: It’s like a door opening to a new way of seeing things—and if you’re lucky, it’s also a club you can join.

I was reminded of this in the loveliest way earlier this month, when I talked Joe into joining me for a dance party at a club that I’ve been interested in for a while but have felt too shy to check out. This year he and I have gone out to a huge number of live shows, so even though he doesn’t care about goth and industrial music the way I do, he was game. It’s been part of a personal quest of sorts. In the face of all the fear and grief and anger that’s everywhere these days, that has started to settle into my bones, we’ve been doing the things that make us feel most alive, and on this particular occasion I hoped that the cure for my case of the sads would be, well, the Cure. And Siouxsie, and Dead Can Dance, and maybe a little Pink Turns Blue. I made sure every item of clothing I had on was black, and we caught the bus to this grody little club to see what it was like.

What was it like? It was like finding my folks. Everyone was cool but they were dorky too. They smiled at strangers and hugged old friends. Their clothes and hair and piercings looked great. I ordered a very un-chic mixed drink and I did not give a shit, and then I danced. For those few hours my nerves weren’t shot; I wasn’t jumpy or tearful or exhausted. That awful brittle tension that’s taken up residence in my shoulders and jaw melted away. When the cute DJ played a song I knew and loved I felt as blissed out as I did when I was 13 years old and the video for “Nothing Compares 2U” came on and I could sing every word. I’ve been part of a few “scenes” in my time, and this wasn’t the first night I’ve felt this way. But MAN did I need it right then. And to my deep satisfaction, the feeling of belonging has stayed with me, like a secret knowledge.

In his book, Moby writes eloquently about belonging and community and the way music brings people together, so you should read it. If you’re feeling confused or down or lonely you should go out dancing, too. And that’s about all the advice I’ve got, I’m afraid. It’s been a tough week.

God himself could not sink this ship

So as I've been bloviating about, I had a surgery three weeks ago. I'm almost totally recovered from it now, but since it's taken most of this time to get over the discomfort and fatigue I have spent a LOT of time around the house, watching movies and TV. The show that saw me through the bulk of my recuperation was RuPaul's Drag Race. I've been an ardent fan of RuPaul's for many years, but I haven't always kept up with that silly show, so I made a small effort to get my husband hooked on it, and then the two of us enjoyed three whole seasons of it, back to back. We're finally caught up to the current episode of the current season, which is now down to just three queens: Kim Chi (incredible costumery), Naomi Smalls (modelesque) and Bob the Drag Queen. I love Bob the Drag Queen.

Bob is a comedian before she is anything else, I think, though she makes a compelling queen. She was criticized early on in the show for relying too heavily on her sense of humor and not being up to snuff in the glamour department (they love their gowns on that show), but like all the best Drag Race contestants, she implemented the judges' suggestions and stepped up her beauty game (though that contouring was a liiiiiiiittle chunky last week, girl). Several weeks into the season, she is now more well rounded as a performer than she was at the start, but truthfully, she was already close to the top of her game. Bob has been doing solo shows in clubs for a while now, and they are glorious. Funny, unusual, and thought-provoking, they are comprised of the usual drag show routine of lip syncing a pop song, but Bob does remixes of her own design, cutting and pasting together a pastiche of pop culture references that, strung together, create a new narrative.

In "Crazy," Bob lip syncs the Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy" but has remixed it with audio from TV shows and movies, which she also lip syncs. The first is a miniature screaming fit by Tyra Banks from HER ridiculous reality show, America's Next Top Model (I didn't recognize this and had to look it up), and the moment Tyra's tirade ends the song picks back up on, "Does that make me craaaazay?" The crowd goes wild. Later, the song is interrupted by another spooky speech from a woman who has clearly gone off the deep end. ("Did you know the germs can come through the wires?" she says dementedly. I didn't know what this was either; turns out it's from a 1973 Brian DePalma film called Sisters. Perfect.)  There's also a monologue by Orange is the New Black's Crazy Eyes (that one I knew), and a little Patsy Cline thrown in for good measure. (If you don't know that reference, I don't think I can help you.) Clearly, a lot of work went into creating this show, but the effect is one of effortlessness, even helplessness, like that stream-of-conscious flow of associations we make when we remember one funny thing and it reminds us of something else.

And the joke of the piece is, of course, that the speakers are all "crazy," and they are also all women, because this is a drag show. Crazy women: They are bona fide A Thing. I find it really interesting and not a little heartening to see a man who strongly relates to women addressing this subject with humor and nuance and zero malice (at least of the woman-hating variety). Bob addresses race in a really thrilling way, too, in other mash-ups she's concocted, like the one that combines the song "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Mis with Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Chills!

I have to say, I love thinking of someone practicing these at home—not the songs so much, since we all commit those to memory without even trying to, but the speeches. It's like an old-fashioned education, the way they used to make schoolkids memorize poems and the Gettysburg Address. Memorization is an underrated method of teaching, in my opinion; when you read or listen to something over and over again, or when you perform it yourself, you learn it in a new way.

But yadda yadda yadda, what I'm most interested in right now is this idea of pop culture references and imitations, and how these can serve as the building blocks of a new culture—a kind of shared language, forged out of anger and fear, friendship and community. (Groups of people with shared ideals and a shared way of communicating about them are known as DISCOURSE COMMUNITIES, Katie said pompously; but for real, they are.) When you watch RuPaul's show, you see this being done constantly and so seamlessly, you may not realize that someone is being quoted if you're not familiar with the references yourself. When RuPaul announces the next challenge, she might stitch in quotations from Grey Gardens ("the most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America") or Paris is Burning ("you own EVERYTHING!") and everybody laughs. Everybody who gets it, that is. Inside jokes are powerful—it's how you know you belong.

Thanks to all this Drag Race and Youtube, I've really been pondering what it means to create a subculture out of pieces of the detritus of the dominant culture, particularly because I relate to this impulse so strongly myself. I think a lot of us do. Growing up, my sister and I could quote every piece of dialogue from Pee-wee's Big Adventure, back and forth, and we also enjoyed screaming lines from Mommie Dearest at each other. Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, a PSA Perry Farrell did on protecting the world's oceans from pollution in which he talks about taking a dump in a bathtub, shit Oprah said that came out weird and was unintentionally humorous—anything we found deeply funny or was useful to us, we snipped out and kept. I think our parents couldn't understand what we were saying half the time, which of course was the point. A woman's heart ... is a deep ocean of secrets. 

secrets.jpg

Like all the best drag performers and many stand-up comics, Bob is a talented mimic. He can do a hilarious impression of Carol Channing, but also seemingly of any ordinary woman he's ever observed, and it's this everyday kind of lady who peeks out at us when Bob picks his teeth or smiles around a cigarette or sneers in comic distaste. This sort of observation is the key to understanding all this, I think: You have to be paying pretty close attention to how other people behave to be able to reproduce it like that, and the more outside of the norm you are, the closer attention you're likely to pay. It's a survival thing, I think, like studying for a test, the test of your daily fucking life. How am I supposed to walk, talk, look, live? How Should a Person Be? I'm not a sexual minority, but I've always been something of a public weirdo in a way I couldn't help; as a kid, it showed in the funny way my skinny body was put together, my uncomfortably high energy level, my age-inappropriate behavior, my inability to seem "like a girl." Unlike some folks, I didn't have to learn to blend in to avoid being completely ostracized or even killed—that was just my dumb luck. But I sure did have to make some adjustments if I wanted to be considered halfway acceptable by the people who populated my childhood, namely my idiotic church community, and even a member or two of my family. (And actually, I should amend this. I didn't have much luck in altering my behavior, nor did I try very hard to do so. Instead I was fascinated by other people's behavior because I was always studying it, trying to measure the distance between myself and them.) I needed models for how to be—I mean, we all do—as well as fictional characters who could act out the feelings I had within me but wasn't yet mature enough to identify and understand. Thank goodness, then, for books and movies and TV. I would have been a hell of a lot lonelier without them.

Since Joe and I are all caught up on Drag Race we had to find something else to watch last night, so I ordered a documentary I'd read about on Godammit, I'm Mad!, a blog I love, called The Wolfpack. Woo boy was that something. It's about a family of six boys, all close in age, who were raised by two religious nuts in a Lower East Side high rise. Now all teenagers and young adults, the boys were homeschooled and locked into their apartment for nearly their whole lives and were only brought out, as a family, a handful of times a year. Some years, they didn't go out at all. They never had access to the internet, either, so the only people they ever interacted with were their parents and each other. Their father had some religious reasoning for not wanting them to get haircuts, so all the boys are striking in waist-length black hair. They look like a metal band or, yeah, a wolfpack, little pups tumbling over each other.

Obviously this is all very strange, but perhaps the strangest thing about the situation is the boys' obsession with movies. They were seemingly not restricted by religious practice in what they were allowed to watch, so they've seen over 5,000 of them (!), and are so deeply involved with their favorites that they make elaborate costumes out of household materials and act them out. Their prop guns, made of cardboard and aluminum foil, were so realistic looking that someone, who must have seen them through a window, called the cops, who raided the apartment and handcuffed everyone, including their mother. Now that's what I call Reservoir Dogs realness!

In their interviews, the brothers are eloquent and self-aware about how movies were a lifeline, a way to connect with the rest of the world. In general, they are intelligent, sensitive, and emotionally sophisticated. Listening to them talk, it struck me that they have an understanding of the world that they by rights shouldn't have. At one point one of them talks about a very adult kind of loneliness, saying that some people live alone and like it, while others want to find a partner but never do; that's just the way it is. Could he have come to an understanding like this just by watching movies? Can you fashion an entire civilization out of the bits and pieces of other people's fictional ideas? Dammit, I think maybe you can.

I didn't mean for this books blog to turn into a drag appreciation blog, I really didn't. But I'm not sorry about the temporary, er, costume change. More than anything I'm interested in ideas, which sometimes come from books and sometimes come from movies or schlocky TV shows; I'm interested in NARRATIVES, she said pompously. You can find them in the most surprising places. And barring that, you can write your own.

 

 

What a Book Is

Hey gang! I've been meaning to get on here and write something smart about books for a while now, but I haven't been able to. Ya wanna know why? Cuz I got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery! And wow did it hurt. I've spent the last week or so unable to do pretty much anything, but today I seem to have gotten back a bit of my old vim and zest, not to mention the INTELLECTUAL RIGOR you come here for. And since an interesting new title has recently been donated to the East Falls Zine Reading Room, I think I'll take a moment to tell you about it. A few weeks ago I attended the Philadelphia Art Book Fair as an exhibitor. We had a table—we being The Soapbox, the DIY print- and book-making center I belong to—and were selling prints, zines, and artists' books made by our members and giving out information about our upcoming events. We sat next to the folks from Ulises, which is a bookshop and curatorial project that brings out publications, exhibits, and lectures on a different theme each season. They were lovely guys, and I made a trade with them: a few of my zines for a copy of their publication of Ulises Carrión's The New Art of Making Books. (You can read the full text here.) Carrión, a Mexican conceptual artist, is their project's namesake.

By this point you may be asking, What is an artist's book, Katie? My short answer is, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ! My longer answer is that an artist's book is a book, but not in the usual way. It's a piece of art in the form of a book. The artist may make just one of these books, or she may make multiple copies or versions. And sometimes the artist's book won't look much like a book at all.

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The Ulises edition of The New Art of Making Books does not have a spine and is not otherwise constructed like a book in any way except that it is comprised of text that has been printed onto paper. These prints are stacked up and stapled together at the top. This not-a-book structure helps guide us toward an understanding of Carrión's definition of a book, which he delineates by differentiating between books of the "old art" and the new.

"In the old art the meanings of the words are the bearers of the author's intentions. ... The words in a new book are not the bearers of the message, nor the mouthpieces of the soul, not the currency of communications. ... The words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name 'book.'"

About those "old" books, Carrión goes on to say,

"A book of 500 pages, or of 100 pages, or even of 25, wherein all the pages are similar, is a boring book considered as a book, no matter how thrilling the content of the words of the text printed on the pages might be. ... A novel with no capital letters, or with different letter types, or with chemical formulae interspersed here and there etc., is still a novel, that is to say, a boring book pretending not to be such." Haha! No tea no shade!

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Because The New Art of Making Books is not really a book, we had to get creative about the way we added it to our collection. Storing unusual publications like these is continually challenging, since we need to protect them but also want to store and display them for ease of use and reading. This hinge clip contraption from the thrift store does the job nicely, and serves to highlight selections from the library.

zinelibrary

In Carrión's manifesto / essay / theory / art piece, he reminds us that in the first place, writers don't write books, they write texts. Though The New Art of Making Books was first published in 1975, it's even more relevant now, as I prepare this text you are reading to be "published" not as a book, but on a blog, where it can be accessed for free by anyone connected to the worldwide network known as the Internet. But that's a conversation—about reading, literature, and the changing nature of literacy—for another day.

Sprezzatura

Last week I finished the book manuscript I've spent the last few months writing. To celebrate, I spent a day doing one of my very favorite things: shopping in thrift stores with my husband. (I will never use the word "thrift" as a verb. This is my pledge to you.) For this particular trip, we left our large city with its arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty and drove out to the small towns of Pennsylvania's Lehigh County, where we enjoyed different but equally arresting moments of post-industrial ruin-beauty. We also visited three of our favorite thrift stores out that way, and at one of them—no, I will not tell you what it's called; it's mine!—I found a real treasure. For $4 I bought a bright red wool coat with large patch pockets, an extravagant lapel, and a wonderful cocoon shape. I saw it and thought: Bonnie Cashin! The coat is no designer label, of course, but it strongly suggests the colors and shapes Cashin favored, so I bought it to wear to the book's launch event next week in New York, where clothing and other objects from the designer's archive will be on display. My jacket is from the 60s, I think, and in very good shape, but I would like to freshen it up a bit and am unsure how to do this because it's made of wool. So I consulted my expert on everything, Youtube. I've now spent the last hour watching videos of people washing their clothing—it makes for weirdly fascinating viewing—and it was worth it because (a) I now have a good idea how to launder my coat (in a machine, on a delicate cycle, using any old type of laundry soap and cold water) and (b) I have learned a wonderful new word. Some of the videos I watched were made by these two handsome young tailors from London, Morts and More. They have one on brushing wool suits using a special suit brush, which I watched just cuz I felt like it. They also made a video about folding pocket squares. In that one, they give a few tips on how to style the handkerchief, but they say the key is to practice sprezzatura—a "studied carelessness"—when arranging your look.

!!! Sprezzatura! How have I never heard this word before? I took to the rest of the internet and found this wonderful short piece on sprezzatura by Roger Angell, who writes that his friend, the writer John McPhee, was bewildered when a student used the word during his writing class at Princeton. He'd never heard it before, and neither had any of his other students, one of whom was from Italy. Apparently the word originates from Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, which was published in 1528. Wikipedia quotes from the text:

I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.[1]

Well I'll be. It is singularly satisfying to find a word for something you already know and care about a great deal, but didn't exactly know how to talk about. Angell called it—simply—cool, which is what I call it too. And it is an attitude I have been cultivating for years.

The article on Wikipedia explains that hiding one's ambition was especially useful for courtiers of Renaissance Italy, which of course was a role totally defined by ambition and self-interest. Again, I totally relate to this. I have always, at least in contexts outside of the classroom and in job interviews, found it necessary to pretend to feel less ambitious than I do. Is that a woman thing? Or an anyone-who-isn't-supposed-to-be-ambitious-but-is-anyway thing? Maybe concealing your desire to get ahead is universally useful in getting ahead, though, I dunno.

At any rate, I've always relied upon the ol' sprezzatura, especially where my appearance is concerned. You have to baffle the eye somehow. Look pretty, for GOD'S SAKE look pretty if you can possibly manage it, but not too pretty. I mean, ew, WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS. When I get dressed, I'll get the whole outfit looking just right, and then I undo one thing. Untuck the blouse, put on sneakers instead of shoes with a heel. Lose the attention-getting jewelry and work on getting my hair perfect instead. I'm not saying my system is flawless—sometimes I look too disheveled, or I make an odd choice—but it works pretty well. I don't ever want to be the person clomping around in too-tall shoes, however cute the shoes may be.

Tonight I'm going out to hear some live music, denizen of the night that I am. (LOL.) It's a darkwave show in a little basement club and I have an all-black outfit that's sort of my go-to for things like this. All-black is always cool, in my opinion: It's the embodiment of sprezzatura, since it makes you look chic and sleek but allows you to be sort of self-effacing at the same time; you practically disappear.

But next week, when I go to Rizzoli's to meet Stephanie Lake, the lovely woman who wrote the Bonnie Cashin book, I will violate my usual rules of cool and show her my jacket, and tell her how I bought it with Cashin in mind. Something about the designer, her California-born freshness and the vibrant colors of her designs, makes that sort of posturing seem unnecessary, embarrassing even. In the whole of Lake's book, there is hardly a single picture of Cashin that doesn't show her smiling hugely or laughing with friends. Her clothing is impeccable of course, but her sprezzatura comes from the fact that she looks unusual, like no one but herself. Her look isn't careless—studied or otherwise—but you might call it carefree. Which is a WHOLE NOTHER way of being cool.

In their videos, Mort and More—despite being upscale clothiers in London—have bright spirits and a youthful energy, and they often get the giggles. Still, that coolness. It's there. One of the two men shows the folded and rumpled handkerchief in his suit pocket and says, "All right, now, you're gonna ask me how did I do it. The answer to that is, I don't know."

Orgiastic

Reading Tessa Hadley's new novel, The Past, which I bought THE DAY IT CAME OUT on January 5th but couldn't start until I'd finished the Barbara Pym novel I was deep into. (Excellent Women; more on that later.) I think I'm not as enamored of this novel as I expected to be, but I'm only a third of the way through it so, too soon to make a total judgment, and anyway my mild disappointment might have more to do with the way I acquired the book than anything to do with the writing itself. It was a pre-ordered hardcover purchase—la di da— when truthfully, so much of the pleasure I get from reading is in the discovery of the book (or zine or blog), the accident of finding a wonderful writer while browsing the library shelves (or distro catalog or internet), and realizing they've got 8 more novels (or whatever) to enjoy before I move on: An orgy of reading. (Which, incidentally, is what I've decided 2016 will be for me. An orgy of reading. For whatever reason I've recently been devouring reading material even more lustily than usual, and I've used the word orgy to describe this feeling several times now to my husband, who finds it disgusting. But you get the point.)

The Past is about an annual family retreat to the beautiful (if mold-mottled) country home of the grandparents, who are no longer living. The house itself doesn't have much longer to go, either, and this may be the last time all the children and grandchildren come together here. Siblings Alice, Harriet, Fran, and Roland and their various partners and / or children are there for three weeks one summer, and we are given (at least occasional) knowledge of all of their thoughts. I find myself connecting to parts of Alice's flamboyant personality: She hates the thought of getting older, and dresses in an elegant, quirky style; she applies her aesthetic to every room she spends time in, too. But I also relate to Roland's need for his work (he's an academic as well as a [sorta] popular writer) to give him a sense of identity and pride. At times I've felt like Harriet, who is solitary and stern, and seems to hide some essential part of herself from herself. And though this is something of a throwaway moment about Kasim, the twenty-something son of Alice's ex, I found myself agreeing heartily:

"...his room [that] was too tidy and too empty: austere as a cell, with only a thin rug on bare floorboards, the walls painted a horrible ice pale blue. This decor seemed to stand for a certain kind of middle-class Englishness he loathed, chilly and superior and withholding, despising material comfort."

I'm American and can't really speak to the Englishness of this, but there is most certainly a type of person in this country who keeps a house like this, and I know a few of them, and they make me weary too, with their spartan lifestyles and unassailable life choices—organic, classic, plastic-free. I like traditional, even rustic decor, I do; I favor hardwood floors and good furniture in a simple style, and those are in fact what I have in my own house. But I also like to bring home piles of secondhand sweaters and dresses from the thrift store, and hang funny 80s album covers on the wall, and eat a cheeseburger in front of the TV. I have a tape dispenser on my desk that looks like a high-heeled lady's pump, and a growing collection of temporary tattoos. It's the superior and withholding part of the description that resonates with me. It's so apt. When I'm in a home like that I feel the reproach of the wan color schemes, the art-directed perfectness of the single good overcoat hanging from a wrought-iron hook. I often feel pulled between this kind of serene simplicity and the abundance and diversity I crave, but in the end I think I'll keep my jumble of six thrift-shop coats, so I'll always be able to choose one that matches the mood I'm in.

A Good Year for Reading

long2I live and die by my datebook. In fact, since I haven't marked down a date for my death, it's likely it'll never happen. I use my book to make a note of every event I hear about and want to remember, and I draw up daily lists of tasks I need to do, which I happily cross off as I accomplish each one. Every September I buy myself a new book, since I favor the student ones. Don't ask me why. I think it may be that I first developed a need for a daily calendar when I was in college, and all these years later I still think in terms of getting a fresh start in the fall.

This year I chose a brand of datebook I'd never used before called Bloom. It's a really nice book, sprinkled throughout with stirring quotations and "reflections" that are lovely but don't beat you over the head with their positivity. I've just come to a page at the end of the year that prompts you to list new things you tried and places you visited, etc., in 2015, with similar categories to fill in with plans for the coming year. One of the sections is called Best Books I Read in 2015, so I gave that a little thought and came up with these seven. More than half of them were written by men, which surprised me since I don't tend to be very interested in fiction by or about men. But now that I look at it, two of these four men are gay, and the only fiction writer among them—Colm Tóibín—very often writes about the interiority of women. So there you go. I've already said something about most of these books or writers on this blog, so here are just a few brief thoughts on each:

  1. A Long Way From Verona, by Jane Gardam. This may be the best book I've ever read, actually. It's up there with The Secret Garden and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, two other children's books that I first read as an adult, loved deeply, and understood what makes them "classics." (A Long Way From Verona was considered a children's book when it was published in 1971, but like those others the ideas and humor are sophisticated and subtle and make substantive reading for any adult.)
  2. The London Train, by Tessa Hadley. Clever Girl is still my favorite of Tessa Hadley's novels, but The London Train had the same wonderful affect on me, casting a kind of spell that made the real world drop away as I read. Her characters live in my memory as though they're real people I once knew. Her new novel, The Past, comes out in the U.S. on January 5th, which will be an excellent way to begin a new year of reading. I plan to finish it in time to see Hadley speak at the main branch of the Free Library at the end of the month. If I work up the nerve I may even stay afterward to speak with her, which is something I never do because I consider it humiliating to wait in line for the privilege of telling someone I admire them. That attitude might belong in the category of "hangups" though, so it's probably not a bad idea to fight it.
  3. I'd never heard of Helen Garner before I bought a used copy of her novel The Spare Room (which is apparently really a memoir, and quite frankly reads like one too). Fine, vivid writing from a strong and unusual personality brought this sad story to life. I'll plan to look for more of her stuff in the new year.
  4. I freaking love Jon Ronson. I even concocted a reason to interview him once, years ago, just because I loved one of his books so much (Them: Adventures With Extremists) that I developed a silly crush on him after reading it. In 2015 he's still at the top of his game, in control of his powers to amaze and amuse. In So You've Been Publicly Shamed, he asks us to take a hard look at ourselves and the way we all participate in "shaming" people who have had a fall from grace. It makes for crawlingly distressing reading. I even lost a little sleep for a few days there.
  5. The Blackwater Lightship, by Colm Tóibín. I keep reading Tóibín's fiction and trying to understand how he does what he does, short of witchcraft. I still don't get it. It really is magic, the way he transports you. I especially love his women protagonists, like the main lady in Nora Webster, Nancy in the short story "The Name of the Game" from the collection Mothers and Sons, and Helen in Blackwater Lightship. All three of them have a certain canniness to the way they approach their lives; a solitary, dignified stoicism; and a wonderful dry sense of humor. They're some of the realest women I've ever read, and their Irishness is both foreign and intimately familiar to me. Blackwater Lightship is about a young gay man who is dying from AIDS, and the family that gathers around him during his final days. It would be heartbreaking except that Tóibín doesn't seen to want to break your heart. The whole novel is infused with the sadness of the impending loss, but there's a gritty hopefulness at the heart of the book that bolsters you in the end. Wonderful novel.
  6. Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner. Because I used to review them for the Philly Inquirer, I have read dozens of so-called young adult books, probably more than 100 by now. And I don't mind telling you that on the whole, these books do not make very interesting reading for adults. Occasionally, though, I'll come across a YA novel that is more nuanced, surprising, and challenging than the majority. This crime thriller was one of them. It's gorgeously written, in the vernacular of a poor Southern country boy, and it is scary AS HELL. I got the book a week or so after I moved into the house I live in now, and reading it in a place where I wasn't yet totally comfortable was enough to keep me awake at night, staring at the ceiling with huge eyes. I hope this guy gets the attention he deserves for this beautiful book.
  7. Gary Indiana is one of a kind. He's fucking funny and bitter and so smart it's scary. Read his memoir, I Can Give You Anything But Love, if you're interested in descriptions of modern-day Havana or San Francisco's underground art-freak scene of the '60s and'70s, book recommendations from a huge reader, gossipy accounts of the personal lives of well-known American intellectuals, or in Gary Indiana himself. He's reason enough on his own, trust me. (Incidentally, I wrote about this book for the Utne Reader, and they're giving away a copy of it as part of a year-end grab bag contest. I see they've also got cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan's I Was a Child up for grabs, which reminds me that I loved that book too.)

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Here are a few more books I read this year and want to tell you about:

  1. How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer's Secrets for Making Your Clothes Look, Fit, and Feel Amazing, by Alison Freer. Charmingly written and incredibly useful. I recommend this book to anyone who cares about their clothing even one iota more than the average person. If it bothers you that store-bought clothes almost always have a slightly imperfect fit, for instance, consult this book for tips on how to alter them yourself—or make better purchasing decisions in the first place. I discovered Alison's writing on xoJane, a guilty-pleasure website I spend way too much time reading and commenting on. She's one of the site's best writers, largely because she hits the right note: she's unfailingly upbeat without seeming smarmy or fake.
  2. Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno. I have a real relationship with Kate Zambreno's writing. Every time I see she has an essay somewhere, I read it and take it in—she always packs a lot into her writing that takes time to chew and digest ... sorry for the disgusting eating metaphors—and I feel oddly proud of her too, as though I'm rooting for her career advancement. Reading her name triggers the same sort of complicated blossoming of associations and feelings that happens when you hear the name of someone you know. I guess that's a testament to her talent for so-called personal writing; she lets you in, but not all the way, and half of what she says about herself is actually a swirling, heady list of references to books she's read and films she loves. ANYWAY, I haven't actually finished this book. I keep it in the bedroom, where I've been picking away at it piece by piece. I feel as if the girl in the story is me, when I was in my twenties and confused and pissed off at all the men who stared at me every time I went anywhere. I felt like an empty vessel and I needed their attention as much as I hated it; I mistreated myself and felt afraid all the time, too. I don't think these are uncommon things for young women to feel, and Green Girl captures that mess of contradictions so well it makes me a little queasy—and, weirdly, wistful—to read it.
  3. Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg. Stone cold classic.
  4. Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, by Peter Hook. Still working on this one too. I had to return it to the library before I was finished. I'm a little obsessive in my love for Joy Division, so this book is one of many documentaries I've read / watched on the band. I've read a lot of "rock biographies" over the years, now that I think about it, from Richard Hell's pretentious autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (great title though) to Nikki Sixx's trashy, vivid (and illustrated!!!) book about his celebrity and drug addiction, The Heroin Diaries. My favorites tend to be poorly written, "real" seeming ones like this, come to think of it. Touching From a Distance was written by Ian Curtis' widow, who is not a writer and was not in the band with him, either: It's a family story, really, and one that succeeds in telegraphing a certain rawness of emotion and bleakness of personal circumstance precisely because it is so plainly rendered. See also: And I Don't Want to Live this Life, by Nancy Spungen's flipping MOM. Holy shit was that a good read. Super scandalous. (And look at the cover! I must have spent hours staring at Nancy's face in that photo. Mesmerizing.) The mother is so carping and unkind, and her book is so tediously detailed, I find it amazing that it even got published. spungenAnd yet this is the type of junk I most like to read when I'm feeling nostalgic or morbidly curious about one of my music heroes. In contrast, Unknown Pleasures is, well, a true pleasure, mainly because Peter Hook comes across as such a lovely human being. He chose to write his account of the band in a chummy, conversational style (which I can tell you is much harder to do than it looks), and he makes liberal use of funny Northern English slang. He's hilarious, and unlike some famous scenesters who have commented on other musicians they've known and worked with (I'm looking at you, Debbie Harry), he's able to call someone a complete asshole without sounding bitter or even unkind. If he says it, you can trust that the person acted like a complete asshole. And I mean, sometimes it needs to be said.

To Stand and Deliver

I wrote about a nonfiction book called The Battle for Room 314 for the winter issue of Utne, which has just come out. (The book will be published in early February.) I don't know if the magazine will post my review on its website, so I've decided to share it with you here:

When his work raising money for an education nonprofit left him feeling only somewhat fulfilled, Ed Boland quit his job mid-career, got a teaching degree, and went into the trenches as a ninth grade history teacher at a struggling public high school in New York City. After a year, he wrote this book about it. There are so many stories of big-dreaming middle class teachers (who are usually white) toughing it out in poor, underserved, and sometimes violent city schools (whose students are overwhelmingly black and brown) that it has almost become a genre unto itself—and one that could easily be unpalatable if handled poorly.

Happily, Boland is modest, likable, and realistic about, well, reality. He knows that “Being a whitey with a savior complex isn’t going to help [my students].” Problem is, it’s hard to know what will. Boland devotes whole weekends to making creative lesson plans, and he has diverse educational experience to draw from, as both a former Catholic school kid and a Yale admissions officer. But in a chaotic environment where most students are performing way below their grade level, he finds it hard to tell whether he’s making a difference.

A gay man in his forties with clear memories of the way feminine-seeming boys were bullied in his own high school, Boland also harbors dreams of helping his gay students who are being tormented by their classmates. But he soon finds that connecting with them—indeed, with most of the students, most of the time—is a tricky proposition, and his attempts to do so are often met with anger and rejection.

As an author, Boland has a charming way with words that makes the book entertaining to read, even laugh-out-loud funny—as when he shamefacedly admits to understanding only “Sesame Street Spanish.” As his story unfolds, it becomes clear that his snappy approach isn’t just stylistic, but actually goes a long way in making the dire situations he describes easier to read about. The plain facts, when presented in stark language, are shocking: The public schools of New York are more racially segregated than in any other system in the United States, Boland reports. In his “worst” class, the one he focuses on in the book, he teaches a girl who worked on the street as a prostitute in the seventh grade; another girl whose homeless mother had pulled her out of a worse school in order to tutor her on the subway for a year; and a few students who are already members of drug rings and notorious gangs. Getting kids with problems like these to sit still and pay attention to a lesson on the Silk Road is a tall order.

Boland describes his students vividly—so vividly, in fact, that one wonders with a wince if any of them will read the book—and he concludes his story with an update on all of them some years down the line. The results of his experiment in teaching are dispiriting and absolutely beautiful, in turn.

Worn Out, Worn In

I've had my eye on this beautiful book, Worn Stories, since I first saw it in my friend's shop last year. Well, I had my eye on it at the time, I guess, so I added it to my goodreads list, then kind of forgot about it. But yesterday I realized to my horror that CHRISTMAS was upon us, and I knew I'd need some books to comfort and protect me. If I have a good book I can get through anything. I consulted my list, looked up some of the books in the Philly Free Library catalog, and walked to the corner to catch the bus there. I started Worn Stories today and it has not disappointed me. In fact, it's surprised me by being much better than I expected. I spend a lot of time musing about clothing in an intellectual sort of way, and I have no objection to fruity, thinky, noodly pieces of writing on the subject. That's more or less what I thought these pieces—contributed mainly by well-known artists and designers—would be like. But these stories have drama! People are talking about grandmothers emigrating from Sicily, and construction workers fighting off robbers, and Hurricane Sandy. They're writing about silk ties and leather coats, yeah, but also about new babies and race horses and criminal court appearances. There's a lot of life in this book. I'm finding it cheering and more than a little inspiring.

Now, when I was just about to move out of the first apartment I shared with my husband into the house we live in together now, I came across a pair of hair combs I've had for many years. I considered giving them away, but I didn't do that; instead I just considered them. I wrote about them at the time, and I'd like to share that piece of writing with you now, in the spirit of Emily Spivack's engaging, thought-provoking book.

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The Hair Combs

Well, it’s that time again. Time to clear out the clutter, sort through old memories, and decide what should stay and what should go. We’re about to move to a new neighborhood, and all this old stuff can’t come with me. With us. For such a long time it was just me living someplace, just me packing up my stuff to move to some new apartment or new life, but now it’s us. Things have changed and I guess they’ll continue to.

I’ve had a small pair of emerald green hair combs in my bathroom since I was 20 years old—for 18 years now. They’re art deco ones, made of celluloid or lucite in the 1920s in the “Oriental” style that was popular then, with cranes etched into the front. I bought them while I was still in college and exploring the city on my own, which was something I have continued to do in all the years since. Wandering silently, observing the life on the streets around me, then ducking occasionally into some cramped, dim little shop to dig through the old things there and drink in the mysterious energy that always fills those places. Sometimes I’d say hello to the person behind the counter, other times they’d never even see me there as I looked around and they worked, head down as they read or wrote something, their face hidden behind a stack of dusty books or some other fabulous junk.

I hardly ever bought anything for myself back then because I didn’t have much money, and I hadn’t yet grown into the, um, much more developed relationship I now have with the objects I own. I didn’t collect much, didn’t yet hoard things, hadn’t learned the way you can love and relate to an object almost as though it’s a person, with its own life force and set of memories. But one day, in one of those little shops in downtown Philadelphia, I saw these combs and they seemed to glow with the life they’d once seen. Right there in Philly, maybe, tucked into the hair of some beautiful girl who was still young and single and out having fun. The man at the shop was gentle and sweet and he liked that I appreciated what was special about the combs. He told me about their age and what they were made of. I bought them knowing I probably wouldn’t be able to wear them in my fine, slippery hair, and I haven’t. That never bothered me, either. The point of owning the combs wasn’t to wear them, but to begin building a grown-up life for myself, to become that beautiful young girl who was out living it up while her pretty things, her treasures, stayed at home, scattered around the bedroom and on the vanity as though they were half-forgotten, but not actually neglected at all. They were essential, and they played their role seriously and with great dignity, lying around pretending to be unimportant and waiting for me to come back home each night. You can’t be the character without the props. I needed the combs—and the funny wide-legged pants, and the old-fashioned handbags, and all the other stuff I’d eventually acquire that would help to transform me, on the outside, into the person I already knew I was.

The combs have stayed with me all this time, moving back home with me to my mother’s house after my father died, then into an apartment that was just mine—well, mine and Trixie’s, Trixie being the illustrious, glossy black cat who was my closest friend for years—and then here with Joe, where we moved to start a life together. When we were first settling into this place and I was decorating our bathroom, I placed them in the bone china teacup where I keep my earrings, and where I could see them every morning while I did my makeup and hair. It’s never occurred to me before now that I could not have the combs. Like, they don’t even really belong to me, but to the movie set of my life. Could I get rid of them? They’re a symbol of the kind of woman I wanted to become—independent (solitary, even), funny, smart, unflappable—which is an identity I’ve clung to because I’m so afraid to lose it. If I’ve invested all these pretty things with the hopes and dreams I’ve had for myself, would I be giving up on the dreams themselves? Do I need the things and the strength they give me, or could I manage without them?

Right now our hallway is filled with things we’re ready to part with—scarves and gloves and duffel bags, cookbooks and ceramic planters and a wonky little Hibachi grill that tips over every time you pour charcoal into it. Some of them are things Joe and I got together, and some are things we each brought to this new arrangement but don’t need anymore. I took the combs out of their teacup earlier, with the idea to give them away or try to sell them, but now I don’t know what to do. They deserved this little tribute and having written it, I might not need to hold onto them anymore. But here they sit, looking back up at me, almost a part of me now. I can’t decide. I’m a different person now than I was at 20, but that girl still lives inside of me, looks through my eyes, can’t quite believe what she sees in the mirror nowadays. I don’t know if I’m ready to stop being her for good, or to let go of my longing for a future that’s still unfolding.

Show and Tell

So much stuff I've collected and written about such a lot of stuff over the years, it's hard to choose just one object to talk about on Thursday. That's when I'll be participating in this Show & Tale event in Brooklyn, which should be interesting. We'll each take a few minutes to show and describe an object that has affected our creative practice, and I plan to bring something that I wrote about in my book White Elephants, which is basically entirely about the weird old things I find and fall in love with at yard sales and then buy and bring home and hoard. I'll have some copies of the book for sale as well. If you'll be in the area, come on out!

Grow up!

nieman I reviewed philosopher Susan Neiman's fine nonfiction book Why Grow Up? for the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer. Have a look here. (Susan was kind enough to comment on the review on this blog, under the post "Go Forth," to which I have responded.) Neiman's book is a kind of critique of our youth-obsessed culture, with several of the main ideas of the Enlightenment explained in plain English and illustrated with personal and contemporary examples. Highly recommended, especially to anyone who sometimes suspects that growing up is synonymous with giving up.