Enough! we're tired, my heart and I.

Early in January, I declared 2016 an Orgy of Reading. For me personally, I mean. I don't care what the rest of you jokers do. For years I have worked as a freelance book reviewer, which is a kind of writing I find useful and enjoyable to do, but it meant that at any given time I was reading a book for work, which had a way of interfering with my "personal" reading, as I call it. It was a bit like being in school that way. Last year I stepped back from reviewing books quite so regularly, and I felt a resurgence of my old passion for reading that was so pleasurable, it was almost sensual. Hence the word orgy. I was choosing books with titles that felt good to say, or ones that had beautiful covers. And even though I get most of the books I want to read from the library—cuz I'm cheap, and because I love it there—for a little while I treated myself to books that I had to buy because they were harder to find. For starters, I indulged the morbid curiosity I've always had about the artist Tracey Emin by buying a collection of the columns she wrote for The Independent newspaper, and found I dislike it, and her, more than I expected to. I've been devoted to the artist/writer/poet/musician Billy Childish for a long time, which is how I learned about Emin, who's a much more successful and better known artist than he is. After they broke up, she mocked him for staying in the small town he grew up in and revisiting the same subjects over and over in his paintings and writing. Childish wrote a poem that quoted Emin telling him, "Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck. — Stuck! stuck! stuck!" and a movement, called Stuckism, was born. Basically, the Stuckists were about upholding the value of painting and were down on conceptual, modern, and postmodern art, which is a view I don't entirely share. I find lots of conceptual art interesting and worthwhile. (And I understand that Childish himself dissociated himself from the movement early on, and may never have been too seriously invested in it.)

REGARDLESS, I deeply admire the kind of work Childish does. Reading his novel Notebooks of a Naked Youth broke me open in a way I hadn't been since I was a teenager and everything was new. His writing, paintings, and woodcuts are stripped-down, honest, and tough, but intellectually muscular at the same time—and he's done it himself all these years, without much in the way of institutional support. Not to play THIS game, but he strikes me as a real punk. I ... I kind of love him. Still, I thought Emin's columns might interest me, since I also enjoy short-form memoir, especially when it's written by women. But nah. I couldn't stomach those essays at all. They're just braggy chronicles of all the cool famous people she finds herself at parties with. Next!

(Well, next I might have to try her memoir, Strangeland. It seems like she might get pretty real in that one. I've enjoyed some of her artwork, and I want to like her. I've had a picture of her with Billy Childish on my desk for years. In it, she's wearing an old-fashioned bathing suit and heels, and she's laughing her gap-toothed laugh. Billy has on baggy trousers and is smoking a cigarette, and he's smiling too, which—google it—he's rarely shown doing. It's the 80s and they're in someone's kitchen. I could look at this picture every day for the rest of my life and never get tired of seeing it.)

Anyways. A couple weeks ago I paid a visit to my new favorite Philly library, the Joseph E. Coleman Northwest Regional branch. It's a bright, bustling, modern library, with a good collection and a dragon. I nosed around in there for a while until I found a few books that interested me, including Morvern Callar. Do you remember that one? I saw the film adaptation when it came out a million (fourteen) years ago and remember liking it, and its quintessentially 90s bleakness. I've read a few stories by Alan Warner—he's a Scottish writer who writes in local vernacular, which is a style choice I really enjoy—but somehow I hadn't gotten around to this novel, which was very well received when it came out. So I brought it home, and let me tell you, it's good. It's so strange. Morvern Callar is the name of the young woman whose story it is, and she's an unusually compelling character. Every synopsis of the book tells you this much, so it's not spoiling anything to let you know that when the novel opens, Morvern's live-in boyfriend has committed suicide (in a really gross way, too). Her response to the tragedy is fucking weird. Though she tells us her every thought as she proceeds to do strange and dark, yet strangely life-affirming things, I'm drawn forward by trying to understand her motivations, because she doesn't seem to have any. She's totally self-contained and, in her secretiveness, very powerful, and I refuse to believe she's empty-headed and nihilistic, which is what seems to be the consensus on what this book is about: The nothing generation that came of age in the 90s.

But I have to be honest, my orgy of reading is on hiatus this week. I have hit a wall of mental exhaustion, and all I can think about doing in my down time is, like, bodily stuff. I want to go for walks, drink coffee, and slather myself with the patchouli hand cream I got for Christmas. I want to help Joe dig up our garden out back and try starting beans and corn from seeds and, like, listen to the radio. I do NOT want to go to your party or meet you for drinks. Don't take it personally, I'm just so wiped out. I think it's from writing. For the last two months I've spent part of every day writing a new book, and though it hasn't been an especially difficult or frustrating process this time around, I think it's drained me. Rummaging around in my memories, dredging stuff up—both sweet and sad stuff—and laying it to rest—that's hard work. Even though I'm not quite finished writing the manuscript, I need to take a break from it. And as far as reading goes, I think I'll keep up with Morvern and maybe see what else Alan Warner has written recently. But for today, tomorrow, the next day—I don't think I'll feel all that hungry for a good book.

What do you do when you need a mental rest? Or a mental kick-start? I've gotten pretty good at taking care of my body when I'm tired or sick or sad, but I'm not as sure how to replenish a tired mind. Your suggestions are welcomed.

Love, Katie

dragon

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.)

lt3 garner shamed tiobin Ask-the-Dark-cover-e1422388041251 i-can-give-you-anything-but-love

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.

Like walking through clear water in a pool painted black

Have I written about Colm Tóibín on this blog before? I don't think I have. Just a year ago I read his most recent book, Nora Webster, and felt a little crushed inside by how beautiful it was. I reviewed it for the Philadelphia Inquirer and I remember writing that, when I read most novels, I flatter myself that I can see, for the most part, how they were made. That's not to say that I could WRITE one, mind you. But I read a hell of a lot and I'm a pretty good reader, and of course I'm a writer myself and I have a feeling for how language is used. I can usually see the underpinnings of even very sophisticated pieces of fiction, understand what makes them successful or unsuccessful; I can picture the writer at work. But I really can't figure out how Colm Tóibín does what he does. I read The Blackwater Lightship this summer, after Nora Webster. Though it deals with a much sadder and more sensitive subject—the painful death of a young man from AIDS—it doesn't try to break your heart any more than Nora Webster does. (Her story, in fact, is quietly, gloriously hopeful, the story of a person coming back to life.) Both books are weighty and serious without being solemn, somehow; both exist within the same kind of silence that Tóibín creates with his language, though I can't see how he creates it. It's a kind of magic. I mean, each word is perfectly used, and there is never a word to spare. But I don't think that's the most important thing. The important, the necessary thing is the way he seems to make the language disappear. It has almost no style, if you will. Tóibín does let a sly, wry wit shine through sometimes (he's Irish; you get the feeling he can't help it) but basically he is not interested in making you laugh, or making you cry, or making you anything. He isn't even an especially visual writer. He just tells us how things are in such an unadorned way that we believe him, trust him, completely. He's god, and he's hanging the moon in the sky and putting down a few mountains over here, and then there's Dublin over there. What he describes becomes real.

There's another writer I can think of who does this: Edward P. Jones, the American fiction writer. They're both so good it's almost scary, though I find I have a very warm feeling for Colm Toibin, while I remember feeling a bit awed and frightened by the skill Jones employs. And as good as, say, Ray Carver was—and he was one of the best—you could imitate his style. It's distinctive. That's true of most of the great writers, come to think of it. Think of Flannery O'Connor, for fuck's sake. She never doesn't sound like Flannery O'Connor. But I'm not sure you could write a paragraph in the "style" of Colm Tóibín's prose. You'd have to remake yourself into the best writer who ever lived first, and then I guess you could give it a try.

I started a book of his short stories today, Mothers and Sons. I'm in his world now and I want the feeling to last. I can feel myself moving a little more slowly than usual, noticing more. That's what it's for, isn't it? Fiction, art of any kind—it's supposed to open your eyes, give you a new way of seeing. When it works it's incredible, the best kind of gift.

Tell it like it tis

An update, for those of you who were waiting with bated breath: That bookstore in the Poconos did not let me down. I'll stop being coy about it now and tell you, the shop is called Sellers Books & Fine Art and it's located on the main street (one of only two streets) of Jim Thorpe, PA, a tiny, unusual town of gothic Victorian buildings cut into the side of a mountain. There's nothing much else around there, just woods and lakes and guys in trucks, though the town itself was an important hub 170 years ago, with lots of money flying around thanks to the lucrative coal mines there, a railroad where switchback technology was invented, and a major opera house where Mae West, Al Jolson, and performers on the Vaudeville circuit once graced the stage. Over this past weekend the rollicking little town—with a handful of very good restaurants and a few lively bars, it's still a hub—had an added carnival atmosphere because the Pennsylvania Burlesque Festival took place there both nights, and we kept spotting tough, tattooed ladies with awesome hair strolling around the sidewalks, eating ice cream. But the bookstore, well that alone was worth the trip. Two cats live there, and one of them (named Zoe) followed me everywhere I went and let me stroke her head while I read. I found the biography section first and almost immediately spotted a book I've never seen anywhere else: A Radiant Life, which is a collection of Nuala O'Faolain's journalism. Score! Nuala O'Faolain wrote two of the most beautiful memoirs I have ever read, and I had the great privilege of hearing her speak at the Philadelphia Free Library a few years before she died. She was so smart, and stayed pissed off and truthful until the very end. (The last line of her obituary in the New York Times is a quotation from an interview she'd recently given: “I thought there would be me and the world, but the world turned its back on me,” she said. “The world said to me, ‘That’s enough of you now, and what’s more, we’re not going to give you any little treats at the end.’ ”) So I've got that book and have been enjoying reading bits here and there. This kind of short-form journalism never really holds up in book form; what seems impressive for its ability to get across complex ideas and feelings in short piece when you read it in an overstuffed newspaper seems a little superficial and lacking when you're holding a book in your hand. But it feels like a rare treat to have this book, and more of her writing to read for the first time.

The other find was a pretty-looking novel by Helen Garner, an Australian writer I'd never heard of before. Apparently she's very well known and successful in Australia but to my knowledge has not gotten much attention here (though actually a quick search shows me that my city's library system has a number of her books, so maybe it's just me). The book is called The Spare Room and it looked like just the sort of thing I most like to read: A contemporary story, written by a woman about relationships. I understood when I bought the book that it was about a long-standing friendship between two women, one of whom comes to stay with the other for a few weeks' visit. Nothing in the book's back matter gave away what the story was really about, which is that the visitor is terribly ill with cancer and close to the end of her life. I think it's understood that this book is some version of a story that really happened to the author. It read that way to me, and when I looked into it I saw that Garner is indeed known for her journalism, and that some of her detractors have criticized her for publishing "novels" that are not really fiction. I don't consider "writing from life" to be a failing in any sense, though I do think it can be a problem—or at least a distraction—when something in the writing stands out to the reader as being different than it's meant to be. I've always been vaguely confused by roman à clefs, for example; why not call it what it is? I wish that we could open up what is considered acceptable in the form of memoir (some necessary collapsing of details, tricks of memory, and poetic license) so that we could name these things more accurately. That way a memoir that reads like fiction could still be called a memoir, and those critics who get all butt-hurt about their need for fiction to be this incredible invention would be mollified.

Anyway, it's a beautiful book and I plowed straight through it. Very sad; I did a lot of crying in this kitchen as I finished reading it yesterday. I plan to dig up more of Garner's books in the hopes that her eye for detail and compassionate truth-telling will keep me good company for the rest of the summer.

Broken glass like stars

photo by Casey Holford I went to sleep last night clutching Ann Beattie's new book of short stories (The State We're In), with the sound of fireworks popping loudly outside the window behind my bed. When I woke up I finished the first story, "What Magical Realism Would Be." It wasn't bad. On the surface, it's about a "troubled" teenager who's trying to write a story for a summer school program, and the girl has to include elements of magical realism, which she thinks is stupid. (I've never especially cared for magical realism myself.) What the story is really about is how strange life can be, even without any added fictional weirdness. I reflected on the story over my morning coffee and realized that this, actually, is what I like best about short fiction, as opposed to novels, which so often seem to me to be weighed down with unnecessary detail and "story." With a shorter piece, every descriptive word matters. Something about providing just a few vivid details--like a loud storm of broken glass that rains down after some teenagers throw tons of beer bottles out the window of their moving car, which is the scene that ends this particular story--and necessarily leaving out a lot of the more mundane stuff due to the form's shorter length, serves to highlight how eerie, surprising, or odd life can seem. And as a way of looking at things, this makes sense to me. I enjoy the quieter domestic details of a Tessa Hadley novel too, but sometimes what I want is a piece of fiction that really crackles with life, and wastes no time in getting to the good stuff--the broken glass glittering like stars in an upside-down night sky--the beauty that's everywhere around us, if you let yourself look at it the right way.